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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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WINTER LIGHT

 

by David Gauly

 

 

 

“It’s something like nineteen or twenty degrees,” Marion said.

 

“Which, nineteen or twenty?”

 

Marion laughed. I liked when she laughed. It had a chiming quality to it. “If it’s cold, it’s cold,” she said said, drawing on her cigarette the cool way twenty-year-old girls do. My brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls. I couldn’t stop thinking about touching my tongue to a metal pole.

 

“I don’t usually go to these things,” Marion said. “Don’t you think they’re so, I don’t know, morbid?” She was wearing black server’s pants and a dark gray sweater, a yellow scarf wrapped around her throat, which was a nice touch. Dramatic. Marion had a flair for that sort of thing. She was five years younger than me.

 

“Morbid isn’t the word I’d use,” I said. We were standing in my parents’ driveway, smoking. The funeral was at eleven. We had history, Marion and I, but it was just that, history. The whole town was no bigger than a napkin: everybody knew everybody. Marion had shown up with her mother last year, all the way from upstate New York. She was new, until we had this thing that fell apart last month, and then she wasn’t.

 

She had called me up out of the blue last night to ask if I wanted to see her. It was the first time I’d heard from her in weeks. I had envisioned her in a white t-shirt and purple underwear, drifting around her mother’s house, not dancing exactly, but shifting her feet to some sort of internal beat while I sat on the other line, blowing chain-smoke out the bedroom window of my parents’ house, telling her yes, yes, yes. In truth, she’d probably been painting her fingernails, which were the same garish shade of yellow as her scarf.

 

“You can’t make a snowman with this stuff,” I said, eying the light layer of snow that had drifted down the previous night.

 

Marion flicked her cigarette into the dusting of snow on the driveway. She squinted at me like she was going to say something. Instead, she scooped at the snow, the cottony stuff melting in the pink of her hand. It wasn’t anything, but the way Marion squinted made me feel like maybe it was.

 

“There should be some gray in the sky,” Marion said, wiping the melted snow on the side of her server’s pants. There were a few dark stains on them here and there, probably from the fry-o-lator spattering grease at the truck stop where she waitressed. She was going back to New York, soon, very soon, she always told me, although she never set on a date. “I don’t see how this snow could last with that sun.”

 

“It could last,” I said, “if the temperature doesn’t rise too much.” I didn’t care if the snow melted or stayed. You couldn’t build anything with it. It did look nice in the sun though, the winter light blinking off it in every direction, like the world was trapped in shattered glass. Maybe it only looked that way because it wouldn’t last. I hadn’t known Mrs. Bracken all that well, just enough to feel guilty if I didn’t go. There had been something with her ear. Marion traced her foot over the snow, clearing a gray rainbow of driveway.

 

“Maybe we should go for coffee after,” I said. I was thinking of a little diner called Meet Me at the Tracks where I washed dishes through high school. It was set off a dead part of railroad that ran through the south end of town. The owners filled the diner with train memorabilia— toy train tracks on the tables, black and white pictures of old locomotives on the walls, even a dummy dressed up like a conductor. The dummy conductor sat in a rocking chair in the corner of the restaurant. His eyes followed you wherever you went, which I found unnerving, but also, they let people smoke in the diner, even though a city ordinance forbid it.

 

Marion and I used to go there on Sundays around church time, when the diner stood close to empty. She’d tell me about how she was leaving soon, and I’d nod and sip the diner’s coffee, which tasted slightly metallic, letting her words and her chiming laugh roll right through me. She never asked me if I’d go with her when she left, and I never asked.

 

Marion slipped her hands into her coat pocket without answering me about coffee. She cocked her head up and away while I stood shivering in the driveway. She was looking at the sky. It wasn’t gray at all, but a cool, pale blue. The air was bright with the cold. I imagined car doors slamming all across town. Funerals were always a big draw. Everyone knew everyone. Maybe I wanted to kiss her. I moved a few feet closer.

 

“Hey now,” Marion said, her eyes slipping onto mine. They were blue, not the color of the sky, but more of a liquid blue, alive with something I didn’t altogether trust. “Don’t get any ideas, Mister.” She smiled, her teeth showing. “What’s done is done.” Mrs. Bracken had been in a wheelchair for years before the thing with her ear. Some genetic condition whose name I couldn’t remember.

 

“I’m not getting any ideas,” I said, jamming my hands into the pockets my jacket. There had never been any definitive end between Marion and me. It was like trying to trace the boundaries of fog. I hadn’t been able to find a single pair of socks when she rang the doorbell. The air felt slick against my ankles, a band of liquid cold. “I just thought we could catch up,” I said.

 

“We should,” Marion said, fishing for her cigarettes in her coat pocket. “We definitely should. I’ve got so much to tell you.” I knew the brand of cigarettes even before she pulled the pack out. Camel Wides. That was something about our history. I couldn’t think about Marion without seeing those stubby cigarettes, the way she smoked them right down to the filter.

 

“So where should we start?” I asked.

 

Marion fiddled with her coat pocket as she searched for a lighter, her hands slow with the cold. “Oh, I don’t know. I guess I should start by telling you that this will probably be the last time you see me. Like, ever, you know?”

 

“You’re leaving?” I had my doubts.

 

“Don’t act surprised,” Marion said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

 

I looked Marion square in her twenty-year-old face. She was squinting again. Sometimes you can tell exactly what a person will look like when they get to be old: how the face with fill out, the chin drooping, the flesh softening, the eyes going a little faded, a little softer. There wasn’t any of that in Marion. Her whole body had gone stiff and still, as if she were dead. Mrs. Bracken. It was like staring at a photograph.

 

“But what do you think I should wear?” I asked.

 

The scrape of the lighter’s spark wheel was terrific in the cold air. Marion drew on her cigarette from the side of her mouth. I could almost hear her brain clicking. “That’s all you’ve got to say?” she asked.

 

“It’s just a question,” I said.

 

Marion worked hard on her cigarette before answering, the ember flaring and dying. “This is exactly what I mean about the morbidity,” she said. “Here we’re supposed to be contemplating a person’s life or whatever, but it’s all about showing up in the right clothes. And that’s part of the reason I’m leaving, this small town shit. It’s really morbid and gross, when you stop and think about it.”

“I don’t think it’s exactly like that,” I said. I wasn’t prepared to explain why. A sycamore tree stood to the left of Marion and me, in the small square of my parents’ front yard. Sycamores were the only tree I could identify by the leaves—the three points—but now there weren’t any leaves, just the here and there spots of snow which Marion was sure wouldn’t last.

 

“Don’t kid yourself,” Marion said, flicking her hair to the side. “It’s all for show.” She wanted to be a poet. She’d shown me some of her stuff last fall, before winter had slammed home and sucked all the green out of everything. We never had sex, but it came close a few times. Her poetry had to do with sword fins slicing the ocean open, magnetic shields hovering over the earth, eyes floating in jelly. I guess it was poetry. I liked the spicy perfume she wore, how her hair was a slicked up shade of copper. She did misspell shields though. I before e I told her. She stopped showing me her poems after that.

 

“I’m not kidding myself,” I said. I knew it didn’t matter what I wore as much as it didn’t matter that there was snow on the ground. Mr. Bracken taught eighth grade science. He had thick glasses and wore button down shirts that looked like they’d been freshly ironed every morning, the way the creases stood out on the sleeves and collar. It didn’t matter, but those shirts didn’t iron themselves.

 

Marion gave me a look that told me she wasn’t convinced.

 

“The world has to go on,” I said. Above us, a few clouds roamed the sky, little wisps of white, no snow in them.

 

Marion’s eyebrows arched. “What does that even mean?”

 

“Well,” I began. Mr. Bracken didn’t believe in God. He’d told us once in class, then apologized the next day, his index finger pushing his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose. Someone ratted him out to the principal. Mr. Bracken also kept two snakes in the back of the classroom that he fed live mice to once a week. It was just something he said. Words. That was all. The mice made hump shapes in the snakes as they passed through them. If nobody bothered about the snakes, I didn’t see what the big deal was about some words.

 

“I’m waiting,” Marion said.

 

I looked to the ground for help. There was just the snow. “I don’t really know,” I admitted.

 

“That’s what I thought,” Marion said, pinching down on her cigarette with her middle finger and thumb like she was smashing a bug. “Look, I came by here because I thought it would be nice to see you. Maybe for the last time. No. Definitely for the last time. It’s like this whole thing was a sign.”

 

I didn’t answer. There wasn’t any point. I could tell Marion the snow would melt, or that shield was spelled with an e first or that I missed her terribly sometimes, and it wouldn’t matter one bit. It was just one of those things that happens. Mr. Bracken had taught us that black holes were just collapsed stars, light and time and space bent to what he excitedly referred to as gravity’s will. I wondered if there would be a sermon and hymn at his wife’s funeral. I didn’t know if I believed in God, but I did like the singing, nobody in tune, but nobody quite out of tune either. I had a black sweater that wasn’t too dingy looking. People would notice if I didn’t go. These things mattered. Everybody knew everybody. I couldn’t remember Mrs. Bracken’s first name.

 

“How did you know her?” I asked. There had been something with Mrs. Bracken’s ear, an infection. She was dead three days later.

 

“Who?”

 

A truck rolled by on the street in front of us, its steel bed jangling the way metal does in winter.

 

“Who? Who do you think?”

 

“I’m sorry,” Marion said, bouncing her legs in the driveway. “These things are just so sad.”


The truck and its jangle disappeared down the street. “It’s okay,” I said. I wanted to kiss her.


Marion went still again, like a photograph. “I didn’t actually know her.”


There was the tree in the yard, and me and Marion in the driveway, but that was it. When I was nine or ten, I’d taken a saw to the sycamore’s trunk. I had an idea about cutting it clean across, to see how many rings were inside. I wanted to know something about life, but then my father grabbed me by the shoulder mid-saw and asked me what the hell I was doing cutting down the only tree in our yard. I only left a little gouge, but that was enough. Now, I couldn’t see the mark I’d left, but only because of the snow that would probably melt.

 

“Marion?”

 

“Yes?” Her voice was clear, nothing in it.

 

“Why are going if you didn’t even know her?”

 

Marion sucked hard on her cigarette, blowing the smoke upward, toward the sky that was not gray. I couldn’t tell where the smoke in her lungs stopped and the cold air began.

 

“Why are you going?” she asked.

 

I shifted my feet in the driveway. It was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said. “I had her husband in eighth grade. For science. I liked him.”

 

“Well I’m going because I want to,” Marion said. “It’s not like there are rules about who can and can’t go to something like this. It’s not like you have to wear black. It’s not like anyone is going to kick me out for not knowing her.”

 

“That’s true,” I said. “But maybe they should.” I figured Mrs. Bracken wouldn’t care, but what would Mr. Bracken think about Marion with her red hair and her black server’s pants and her yellow scarf and fingernails? I didn’t want to kiss her. I didn’t want to not kiss her either. It was cold, nineteen or twenty degrees, one or the other, but not both.

 

“You should get dressed,” Marion said, smiling, her big white teeth showing. “It’s already ten-thirty.”

 

I wanted to scream, but she was right. I couldn’t go in jeans and shoes with no socks. There were rules. The Bracken’s house sat right next to the post office, near the center of town. Everyone knew it was theirs because of the wheelchair ramp that zigzagged up to the front porch. It was part of the town, a landmark. As a kid, I’d ridden my skateboard down the ramp on a dare, the wheels chattering along on the wooden boards so loudly that I almost wrecked worrying about Mr. Bracken catching me. I wondered if he would take it down, rip the wood out piece by piece until there was nothing left.

 

“I’m sorry,” I told Marion, “about saying they should kick you out. Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe you’re right.”

 

Marion turned to her car without answering, her red hair like a gunshot in the February morning. “Hey,” I called after her.

 

She turned halfway toward me, her eyebrows raised.

 

“Will you wait for me?”

 

“Can’t,” Marion said.

 

“Maybe I’ll go with you,” I said. “When you leave.” Last summer, we’d found a creek a little ways out of town. The creek rested just off a gravel road. Nobody else was around. Marion took her shoes off and got in. The sunlight played tag with the water. She smiled and I liked her smile, but I didn’t get in. The creeks were all polluted with fertilizer run-off. I tried to tell Marion, but she didn’t care.

 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Marion said, kicking at the dusting of snow with the toe of her black sneaker. “You’ll never leave. I know that much. Why do you think I stopped calling?”

 

“Marion,” I said, but her back was already to me, her arms swinging side to side as she made her way down the driveway. She was right. Why did she have to be right? I pinched my eyelids closed, tried to black out the snow-white world, but all that got me was a blob of colors swirling against my eyeballs.

 

Mr. Bracken had told us that the universe didn’t have a center, which meant that every spot was its center. I pictured him in his thick glasses and a dark suit that maybe wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, his wife in a box of polished wood. I imagined Marion in the front pew, her hand dancing to something that wasn’t quite music. Then I tried to insert my own life into the equation. It didn’t equal out to anything. The dead were dead.

 

When I opened my eyes, Marion was in her car, a gray Ford Taurus with rust on the bottom. The engine kicked and whined in the cold as she tried the key. It finally caught. A plume of exhaust added its vapor to the morning. The whole town would be there, and I didn’t even know her first name. “Good bye,” I said to the air.

 

I started to walk up to the house, to find something to wear. I couldn’t stand the thought of not being with all those people, the same faces I’d known my whole life. We’d sing and sway in the dead center of the universe, our voices impossibly bent in on themselves by the sheer density of it. I put one foot in front of the other. The snow wasn’t thick enough to make a crunching sound. It silently dissolved beneath my feet.