Sunday, October 10, 2010

Plain, Blank, and Lovely

Plain, Blank, and Lovely

by Patrick Shand

He felt as if he were walking across a blank white sheet of paper.

The snow covered everything, there was no traffic, and most stores were closed. It was that strange mix of beautiful and terribly dangerous. He walked past an old man shoveling snow in front of his house while a wiry haired woman yelled for him to stop, that it was useless, that it was just going to keep on coming down.

Soon the old man and his wife were in the distance, and the only sound that the walker heard was the muffled whistle of the wind. He kept walking.

He’d been crunching through the thick whiteness for an hour, and he was halfway there. His nose was red, made raw by the wind, and his socks were soaked through from snow that had crept over the top of his boots.

He didn’t mind much. He let the fat flakes collect on his shoulders as he carved a path down the winding street. Normally, there would be cars zipping up and down, eight lanes of traffic. Everyone else was home.

He was going somewhere.

Normally, it wasn’t that bad of a journey, but his car was back at the apartment where he kept his few possessions. Everything he owned was squeezed into a little box of a space, but he didn’t mind. He had something else, somewhere else, and he’d be there soon.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, but he didn’t want to stop walking. His teeth were chattering, and it was colder when he paused. The text, which he’d forget about until hours later, was from a friend who he’d made plans with that afternoon. He’d forgotten. The friend, a lovely girl named Sarah, was at his empty apartment, wondering why he’d left. It wasn’t safe.

He concentrated on the road in front of him. It was getting harder to tell the difference between the sky and the ground, but he knew he’d get there in time if he kept his face forward and his eyes focused.

He didn’t want to stop, but his arms were starting to lose feeling. He came across a fast food restaurant, where a plain woman stood behind the counter, bored, playing on her phone. It was the only place he’d seen open. He wondered how she was getting home. If she’d be staying there overnight.

“Can I help you?” she asked, but the question she seemed to be asking was more along the lines of “Are you insane?”

“I’d like a medium fries.” In truth, what he really would have liked was a large fries, but he only had two dollar bills in his wallet.

She gave him the fries on a tray, but he plucked them off and made his way to the door.

“Sir?” she called after him.

He paused, looking back. He was too young to be called “sir” by this woman, who couldn’t have been much younger than him, but he realized that to her, he was just a jacket, a scarf, and an exceptionally red nose. He looked at the woman, deciding that she was plain in a very good, very nice way.

“Stay here awhile,” she said. “Please. Just sit out here. We have a radio in the back, I could, like, bring it out here. Just… it’s kind of not safe out there.” She pulled nervously at her collar.

He smiled at her, but all she could see was a slight shift under his scarf. “I’m okay,” he said, and then he left.

He unzipped his jacket and put the hot box of fries in his shirt before zipping it back up. Warmth beat into his chest for two blocks before the greasy potatoes, like his feet and hands and arms and legs before, succumbed to the cold.

But it was okay.

He was almost there.

He closed his eyes and walked the rest of the way. He knew the route by heart, and there wasn’t any danger of him being hit by a car.

His feet tingling, as if anticipating the warmth inside, he climbed the steps to the doorway. The doorbell glowed orange when he pressed it.

Hardly daring to open his eyes, he waited, his chapped, white lips parted, fog coming out of his mouth in thick clouds. The door opened and she looked at him.

He opened his eyes. Blond hair framed a too skinny face, in which two dark, surprised eyes were held. She was wearing a thing, long sleeved shirt with pajama bottoms and bright green socks. She always had interesting socks. She stared at him blankly.

“Hey,” he said, but his voice sounded nothing it usually did.

“Um. Hi. How’d you get… you walked here?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I told you I would.”

“What? When?” She tapped her finger against the door. She shivered. A breeze was coming into the house.

“Last night,” he said. “On the phone. You said that if it snows as bad as they were saying, we’d have our own personal snow day. I said I’d love that.”

She looked at him, her confused expression breaking into something else.

“Your phone wasn’t on, so I figured—”

“I forgot to charge it after you called,” she said. “It died.”

“I figured I’d just come. I didn’t want you to think I forgot.”

Her mouth moved, but no words came out. She was reaching for something to say, but her mind was as blank as the white canvas outside that stretched in all directions.

He felt the cold box of fries scratch against his chest when he took a step back. He remembered the girl who offered him a place to sit, and he wished he’d taken it. He wished he was the kind of guy who would have thought to take it.

“I can’t really…” she said. “I… ah. The people across the street are coming over for dinner. I’d invite you, but—”

“No, I understand,” he said. He didn’t.

“—but they, you know,” she said. He didn’t.

“Okay,” he said, turning around, walking back. His footsteps were now just tiny dimples in the snow. He did his best to match every one.

She took a step out of the house, hugging herself, shivering. She was freezing. He turned around and looked at her.

The wind hurled flakes at them sideways, the snow tossing and turning in the air.

“Can I call you after?” she said. “I think we need to talk.”

He nodded, but the movement was lost in his hood, scarf, and jacket. He left.

He walked back across the blank white sheet of paper, this time with less purpose. Slower. He checked his phone and saw the text from lovely Sarah, his good friend. She was already back in her apartment, two floors over his. He stuffed the phone in his pocket and kept walking.

When he came to the fast food restaurant, he peered in through the fogged windows and saw the plain, nice girl inside sitting on top of the counter, crumpling up napkins and throwing them across the room at the garbage can. He watched her miss three times and score once.

He thought about going inside and sitting with the plain, nice girl. Maybe even seeing if he could get a balled up napkin into the trash. But he couldn’t. He had somewhere to be.

He had to be home in time for her call.

He kept on walking across the blank, white, nothing.

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