2nd place, 2015 Short Fiction Contest
I’m cold. My thumbs, my eyebrows, my tendons are cold. The loose, puckered skin at my elbows is cold. The tires are so swollen and hard where they meet the asphalt, there is almost no compression from the weight of the car. The asphalt is cold.
My radiator, though. That is as hot as can be. It’s alive with heat. Immune to the Arctic assault, erupting molten green fluid on to the 4.6 liter engine block of my Lexus IS300. That would be the radiator they said was rated for 40 below zero.
Laura had wanted me to get a Subaru with my bonus. It was also equipped with heated leather seats but with higher safety metrics. And a radiator good to 80 below. Practical-luxury is how she had described it, not realizing she was also describing herself. Practical-luxury, humble-grandeur, a hippie-hauteur. It would make perfect sense if you knew her. But the Subaru was too efficient and tightly designed for my arms and legs, which need something more free flowing and rangy. The Lexus had given me status. Eight months ago when status still mattered.
I kick a tire reflexively, wave a glove at the plume of steam, check the translucent Coolant Overflow Tank just to postpone looking around me. I look around me. I get in the car and then get back out. I look at the last text from Laura on my phone. “A shortcut?!” I look around again.
73rd and Racine. You might imagine a wintery slum from a Dickens novel but you would be too charitable. Your picture too painterly. Windows with a frost matting, a boy’s thumb sticking impishly through a hole in his mitten, broken old-world street lanterns but old-world street lanterns none the less. No. This place is all grey, cracked concrete, tar patches, fire-stained brick, glass where it shouldn’t be and no glass where it should be. Cement, and then suddenly a lack of cement that can remove the entire under-chassis from your Lexus. Somehow I understand that, in this place, abandoned is not the same as deserted. Another text arrives. “I have your phone charger.”
Right before a man in a hood materializes on the other side of the radiator steam, I’m aware of thinking that the grey all around me does not feel like a Gothic grey. That would be too architecturally relevant. This is meaningless grey matter, a grey in which everything becomes nothing. A man in a hood materializes on the other side of the radiator steam. White eyes like headlights in a dark tunnel, getting closer.
I shuffle backward a step. The hooded man, who is also an immeasurably large hooded man, responds with two steps forward placing him between me and the Lexus. Inequitably, arbitrarily, unreasonably large. From where he’s standing, it looks like the radiator steam is entering through the back of his head before being exhaled through his mouth, filling him with heat like a demon. Nothing is exhaled through my mouth because I’m not breathing.
I become aware that I’m walking quickly through packed, grey snow away from the Lexus. I don’t remember making the decision to evacuate but it seems correct to me now. Jettison anything that slows you down and live to fight, or flee, another day. I pass abandoned 6-flats with burnt timbers jutting down into empty window frames. I notice that the window frames that aren’t empty have sheets hanging in them instead of curtains. Laura had said something about curtains. She was packing them? I hear a crunching noise and my pace quickens. No, “abandoned” definitely does not mean “alone.”
These things don’t happen to me. Or you, I presume. We watch the news, we’re not in the news. Tomorrow at six o’clock there will be the body of a Lexus photographed with yellow tape around it. There will be a photo of me from the DMV where I look vacant and mechanical. My best friend will remark on camera that I look “slightly troubled and lost,” without mentioning that no one has ever looked untroubled in a DMV photo. A shot of my sister, Jen, in a bedroom standing in front of my soccer trophies. “He had friends but he didn’t really let people in.” A soundbite from a local woman, shaking her head, “Dude tried to take a shortcut, broke down. Comin’ up in here walkin’ away from his car.” The segment will wrap up with a candlelight vigil in Evanston. A blow-up of the same, vacant DMV photo propped against a basket of flowers next to one of my soccer trophies. My sister and the best friend holding candles and a blonde reporter just staring at the camera, not realizing it’s on.
Laura believes I use sarcasm to deflect what’s really going on around me, or with us, and maybe my account here reflects some of that. But at this moment, in this new reality, I’ve run completely out of it. I see the man in the hood appear around a pile of snow, flanked now by a second man in a hood and I’m just really scared. Un-sarcastically, I turn left and walk under a viaduct quickening my steps past partially lit graffiti and strange symbols. My heart beats un-sarcastically faster. I’m sweating even though it’s several shades colder and darker under here. As I use the flashlight on my phone to see what I’m stepping on, a magnified “beeping” echoes through the viaduct. Phone’s dead.
My breathing is ragged when I come out the other side, and it’s all grey again instead of black. I don’t see my pursuers behind me or ahead of me so I sink back, leaning against a stone pillar, exhausted and un-sarcastic.
There’s a lighted area a few hundred yards ahead. As I walk toward it, the tops of the two hoods appear gliding along on the other side of a snowbank. Then the burning eyes raking me, scathing me. Victimology would suggest here that I march manly down the middle of the street, with strides slightly longer than my height would indicate.
I had read somewhere that a perpetrator can sense whether you’re in conflict with yourself by your walk. They notice a person whose walk lacks organized movement and flowing motion and is, thus, less self-confident. The exact quote was, “a walking style that lacks ‘interactional synchrony’ and ‘wholeness.’” Clearly, the men in the hoods can sense I lack those things. They detected an absence of interactional synchrony and wholeness the moment I stepped out of the car. Can they also sense the total absence of any disrespect that I’ve incorporated into my walk? The absence of sarcasm?
There are also examples cited of nonverbal cues in the animal kingdom. I try to raise my chest and flare my shoulders back like a Puffer Fish giving a school of Piranhas pause. Are they committed enough to want to deal with this broad-shouldered, thick-skinned specimen? This barrel-chested long- strider? The problem is, I have precisely the backbone of a Puffer Fish and I sag inward again.
The light I saw was coming from a gas station that is closed, chained, barred and gated when I get to it. Far as I can go. I lean against something metal and cold, catching my breath, looking around for options – a camera with a flashing light, a janitor cleaning a bathroom. I catch sight of the two hooded guys approaching from down the block. Their pace is steady, never changing, like the unwavering pursuit of a posse tracking a cattle poacher. Anger sparks through my terror. I didn’t poach anything, I didn’t do anything. I don’t know your laws, your codes, your neighborhood customs are alien to me, I don’t want any part of this turf.
The two men in hoods stop now, bracketing me, looking like reapers. We’re here for you. Anchored by Nikes, all the rest of them swaying, hands in their pockets. I have a vision of Laura screeching around the corner in a Subaru, stopping on the ice with infallible anti-lock brakes and whisking me away to safety. But it’s not her move, her mess. I can just make out the faces in front of me now, smooth as oil slicks waiting for a match. The larger man is close enough to see my whole body shivering. His forehead creases and his mouth opens slightly.
“Global Warming’s a crock, isn’t it?”
I stare at the glittering brown eyes under the black hood. Am I freezing to death, mishearing things, already a ghost? I imagine I must look like the snow all around me.
“You look like snow,” he said.
My God, he has the ability to read my mind.
“Well? Does Global Warming seem viable to you right now, Snow?” the big man says.
“Uh, there could be a, this could be a phase where it’s, it’s not as warm,” I stutter.
“A geological backslide?”
“Well we’re sure in one now.” His voice is measured and precise, his statements full of self-assurance. At the same time inviting you, almost egging you on, to disagree. “They say the arctic glaciers are melting but you wouldn’t know it from the conditions here.”
The other man steps closer. He’s wiry and twitchy. He gives me an edgy glance and looks over at the big man.
“Case in point, though, the Mendenhall Glacier is only 20% of it’s original size at the moment,” he says followed a self-satisfied pause.
The big man replies, “C’mon Darryl, Mendenhall’s an icecap not a glacier.”
“It’s a glacier. Fleischmann is an icecap.”
“No, Fleischmann is a glacier. It’s confusing because it’s in the same parallel as the Mendenhall Cap.
“Okay yeah, you’re right Reggie.”
The big man looks sternly at the other one and then turns to me. Reggie and Darryl.
I decide it’s better to join the conversation than remain quiet and give them the space to remember why they’re really here. “Those could also be ice sheets, maybe. There’s a lot of ice sheets up there, right?”
Reggie and Darryl look at me like I just spit at them. But they seem compelled to consider the suggestion.
“Nah, an ice sheet has got to cover least 50,000 kilometers to be an ice sheet, although the Patagonian Sheet might be a little less than that now,” says Darryl.
“And an Ice sheet is warmer at its base than a glacier because of geothermal heat,” Reggie says. “So it can never reach the same mass.”
The animation, now, seems to drain from Reggie’s face and he appears to grow cold and tired. They look at me for a long time, trying to follow my darting, dominated eyes. The silence stretches longer than a period of time where we might still be considering the glacier conversation. Behind their heads, inside the convenience store, there is an enormous number of salty snacks, aisles and aisles of brightly colored potato chip bags. I can’t say why this makes me feel better. Comfort food. But still, I look back at the faces under the hoods, waiting for sudden movement. Waiting for dreadful things to happen. When they don’t, I get a little bolder.
“So, do I want to know why you’re following me? You followed me for 12 blocks under two viaducts to tell me about glaciers?”
Reggie lets out a complicated, staccato laugh. “Why do you think we followed you, Snow?”
I lower my eyes again and consider all the possible reasons. Reasons pertaining to hate and misunderstanding. Reasons with painful, dreadful outcomes. When I don’t say anything, Darryl speaks up.
“We followed you, Man, because it looked pretty clear you were about to head into a bad neighborhood.”
A bad neighborhood?
“That street right there is Ashland,” says Reggie gesturing with a hand the size of a catfish. “You don’t want to go over on the other side of that.”
It becomes a bad neighborhood over there? The cold must be doing something to my mind. I see smoke-stained brick, empty window frames, sheets again in the windows that aren’t empty and dirt grey snow. I see this on both sides of Ashland, exactly the same to me. A bruised, aching hunger behind the walls sealed in by the cold.
“The pizza delivery guys won’t even go over there,” Darryl says almost reverentially, letting the implications of that sink in. The full import of a pizza-less society.
I notice that Reggie is looking all around him, studying the street. But with the eyes of, not so much a captor, but a scout who feels responsible for a weaker member of an excursion into the Amazon.
A relief starts to wash over me like I’ve never felt before. Something thaws in the space between me and the big man, a small piece of common turf is revealed. Some vague warning about identifying with your captors, ‘captive-bonding,’ flashes through my mind but, none the less, wary walls come down.
“My wife is leaving me.”
Reggie studies my face in a way that makes me think he already knew this. Like there’s no human experience he hasn’t endured or at least prepared himself to endure. The rims of his eyes fill up. He closes them for a moment and then smiles.
“Smart woman. You’re standing on 73rd and Ashland arguing about glacial dynamics with two men in hoods.”
“Not only that, you were about to head into a bad neighborhood,” Darryl adds.
“She thinks my decisions are simultaneously self-centered and self-defeating.”
“Your decisions are ludicrous.” Reggie claps his huge hands together. “Let’s go.”
I can see the Lexus now. As we walk back the way we came, Reggie and Darryl each hold on to one of my arms. Apparently, after investing the effort of rescuing me from the precipice of a terrible neighborhood, they don’t want to risk me slipping and scraping my knees. We look like a misshapen penguin lumbering across the ice shelf, black wings and a snow-white belly.
“They’re calling this a Polar Vortex, but it’s really more of a maelstrom,” Darryl says, too fidgety to endure silence for long. “Vortex implies a predictable, concentric swirling as opposed to a chaotic, unrelenting barrage.” He glances tentatively at Reggie. “They should be more precise.”
I must have snorted with surprise because Darryl glares at me from under his hood, the only sign of insecurity I’ve seen. Reggie appears to buckle a little from a gust of wind before answering, “I hear you, Man.”
Whatever the relationship between these two – teacher-pupil, brother-little brother – I can feel that Reggie would be there for Darryl in any, and every, way necessary. Would never cease to have his back. This includes not leaving a semantic premise dangling out there in the wind. He won’t leave Darryl in linguistic limbo any more than he would leave him inside a burning building.
“It’s a good thought, D.”
We walk under the same viaduct where my phone died earlier. As I look closer at the flamboyant graffiti plastered all over the walls, I wonder what it looks like through Reggie’s eyes. I’m imagining he might see them as frescoes reminiscent of artists, like Titian, like Tintoretto, from the Venetian School. I imagine he’s acutely aware of the significance of the architecture down here. But it’s probably the cold distorting this man in my mind. Building him into an unbreakable, if unrealistic, idol.
“A viaduct is the most colossal feat of all Roman engineering,” Reggie’s voice echoes.
We’ve had to stop to let our eyes adjust to the darkness. Reggie abruptly reaches into his pocket and I recoil instinctively. He pulls out a lighter and flicks it on, holds it up near one of the arches.
“You see this, Snow?” The flame glistens in his eyes. “The semicircle distributes compression through its entire form. It diverts the weight onto these two abutments here, so the tension on the underside of the arch is small because it all radiates outward. Of course, if you try to make the arch too big, it will eventually collapse on itself.” He smiles in the flickering light. “Hubris. That’s another Roman invention.”
“That’s Greek,” Darryl says from somewhere in the darkness.
“Oh, you’re right, D. You’re right.”
I’m serious now, is the cold getting to me? One minute Reggie is a large man in a hoodie, a grim reaper, the next minute he’s a learned, hooded monk steeped in the classics. Lending a whole new meaning to “street smart.” Discerning, curious, unsatisfied and stuck – all at once. But above all, I realize that Reggie has pride in the place around him. The place, the things and the people in it. The way a Roman might be proud of a ruined coliseum in a decayed city.
We’re back where we started. But the steam is gone and the radiator is as cold as everything else. We all gaze at the car and stamp our feet on the ground. No idea what the next step is. Reggie-the-monk snaps back into the present moment. He looks from the car to me, his eyes burning brighter.
“You decided to cut across from Stoney Island to the expressway using 73rd street, didn’t you?” Reggie says. “Nice little shortcut, huh? Do a little inner city sightseeing, get your heart rate up for a few minutes?” He’s seen this before and now there’s an unforgiving tone in his voice. “Give me the keys.”
My mouth opens and the back of my neck tingles.
“Give me the keys, Snow.”
When I hesitate, an impatient sneer plays across Reggie’s mouth and Darryl looks at me with disgust. Okay, I was dead wrong. Misread this whole thing. “Stockholm Syndrome!” When the hostage embraces the quest of the hostage taker, yup. I remember something else suddenly, a text from last week, “you are so naive it’s almost manipulative.” Is this what Laura meant? Diving into situations so murky and misguided that I need help getting out of them? And then making them worse with false hope?
She was right about so many things, strong and perceptive. But right now all that’s important to me from our entire history together, the only thing that reaches across the divide, is the memory of the heat from her body. It’s everything that matters.
I look at the hard faces under the hoods and move a step back. They’re going to take the Lexus, strip it down and use the money for contraband. a viscous warmth spreads across my scalp and down my neck like turpentine. The shame of feeling an unreciprocated link, a misperceived alliance, is actually hot.
Reggie’s staccato laugh startles me.
“What, you think we’re going to take the Lexus, strip it down and sell the parts to buy contraband?
He shakes his head. “Get in the car, Snow.”
I can hardly move my mouth from the cold. “Listen, Man…”
“You listen, Man,” Reggie replies. “You need coolant, nothing opens until seven am, and your phone is dead.”
“And you got the trim package that doesn’t include ‘On Star,’” Darryl says with a touch of sarcasm. “Or you’d be up there in a chopper right now riding above the maelstrom.”
Reggie lays a huge hand on my shoulder that feels surprisingly light.
“We’re going to wait with you,” he reveals.
The last pockets of doubt and resistance melt and drip from my body. I look between the two of them and suppress a laugh.
“The thing is, fellas, we’re all going to have to sit in the back seat right next to each other or the extra body heat won’t do any good,” Reggie says. “I won’t go into the physics of that right now.”
I’m settled in the seat now, cradled between Reggie and Darryl. A dusty, canvas tarp from the trunk is draped over us. A light, gentle snoring from Darryl, a slight pine scent from the air freshener mixed with a smokey, old-hoodie smell. fogged up windows diffusing the street lights to a warm glow. There are no desperadoes or soldiers fighting for street corners or Piranhas stalking Puffer Fish to be seen here. Just simple ferrymen, taxiing a passenger between two shores.
“I’ve lost some things, Snow.” I see Reggie is rubbing his thumb over an old, creased picture of another large man that he’d taken from his pocket. “Some things I never even had. I wish I had some wise words for you, I don’t. Just go to sleep for a little while.”
He lays his head on the back of the seat and closes his eyes. The wrinkles of unease smooth across his forehead. A steady steam, a warm purified vapor, curls out from between our teeth, mingles together and rises up.