That Winter - A Short Story by Jeremy Lane
A Short Story by Jeremy Lane, My Oldest Son
My son loves to write, in between working full time, going to school, writing sermons and raising a family. I had asked him a while back for one of his stories that I could borrow to share on Hubpages, so I was delighted when he emailed this one to me just a few days ago.This particular story has been featured recently on another website for creative writing.
I really enjoyed this one, and told him I would put it on and see if he got any feedback on it. I had been thinking about putting some of my own creative writing and poetry on here, I just hadn't gotten around to it, since art has taken over a good portion of my life, and I don't multi-task as well as he seems to! Anyway, here it is and I hope you enjoy it. I told him I would let him know about any comments left, so be honest!
I’ve often found it interesting the way the weather can affect one’s mood. I speak mainly of myself, as winter has always given me the worst of the blues. The trees, gray, naked, encircled by the crunchy yellow remnants of spring’s beautiful green grass stand sadly below a dreary gray sky. In Texas, where the sun seems to burn hotter and brighter than any place in the world, the chill comes fast and hard. Every year since I was a young child the first cold snap of winter has created in me a foreboding that increases each day until the sun reappears in late February. There was one winter-that of my twenty-second year-that did not have such an impact. That year, in fact, I barely noticed the cold at all.
It started at the little diner in downtown Bluff Dale. ‘Downtown’ being a loosely used term, of course, as I noticed quickly that Bluff Dale barely had enough town to be down in. There is only a road, nicely paved, from which several unpaved roads snake to the north and south, a deer processing plant that stills stands only by the grace of God, and a small, white house, completely gutted, that now serves as the only eatery around.
It was late November and I sat alone with two bites of a large, greasy hamburger, the rest of which sat in my gut like a brick. The bell on the door jingled when she walked in. There was nothing fancy about her that day, or any day for that matter. She wore an over-sized cotton sweater, black wind pants, and her sandy brown hair was pulled into a messy ponytail. She was beautiful in a way I had never seen. I wondered if she had just woken up. I assumed the woman with her was her mother as they both passed my table and sat down two rows to my left. It was then that I noticed; her lips, thin and a pale pink, stunned me. I must have stared too long, and she gave her mother an awkward grin. I glanced away quickly, only to return my gaze a few seconds later. Again she spotted me. Thankful that I already had my check, I took a last sip of water and headed for the counter.
“Hi,” she said after my first two steps. “Do we know each other?”
“Sorry,” I replied in a low voice. “You looked familiar. I didn’t mean to stare.”
That she didn’t believe me was all too evident. She introduced me to her mother, Lillian, and then revealed her own name: Lucy Tanner.
“Gabriel Alexander,” I replied, and shook their hands. “Gabe.”
“You from around here, Gabe?” she asked. Her voice was heavy without being masculine.
“Dallas. Student at SMU.”
“Major?” her mother asked.
“Journalism. I’m actually headed to Stephenville to interview some landowners for a school assignment. Apparently runoff from neighboring dairies is ruinin’ the land.”
I understood how uninteresting it was as soon as it escaped my mouth, and I couldn’t help but smile. “Big news,” I said, and we all laughed.
“Enjoy your lunch, ma’am,” I said to her mother. “Lucy.”
She grinned a bit before I walked away, and again I was looking at her lips. They were a perfect shade.
The interviews I conducted that afternoon were taxing. They were hard, aging people who either had no interest in being interviewed, or were so ecstatic to voice their complaints that I rarely got to ask a question. I finished up as the sun was going down, jumped into my car, and headed for the city. There was something about this part of Texas, I thought to myself. The homes were small, old, and most in need of repair. I wondered about the people inside. Were they happier here? Life is just life, I told myself. No matter where you are.
Two hours later I was re-entering my dorm. I never did get used to the smell. It wasn’t our fault; my roommate and I were uncommonly tidy for single, college age males. It was the building, or perhaps the dark red carpet covering the floor, worn and long past it’s useful age, that emitted a permanent odor. The message machine was blinking. One new message.
“Gabe, hi. Uh, I hope it’s ok. I called the school and got your number.” I knew the voice right away. It was the girl from the diner. Lucy Tanner.
“Anyway, uh, I didn’t know if you might be back in the area anytime soon. I’m staying with my parents for a while. So, I guess, call me if you want.” I heard rustling as she went to hang up the phone. “Oh, it’s Lucy. From today.”
It was an inconvenience that she had forgotten to leave her number. It angered me; I desperately wanted to talk with her again. I sat on the edge of my twin bed, phone in hand, and thought of what to do next. It was a small town. Surely the number of people with her last name would amount to a manageable call list. I grabbed paper and a pen from the desk in the corner of the room, returned to the bed, and dialed information. The third number given to me produced a familiar voice. It was Lucy’s mother.
“Is Lucy available?” I asked.
“May I tell her who’s calling?”
“It’s Gabriel. From lunch today?” I responded with some embarrassment.
“Ah, the reporter. How’d the interviews go?” she asked.
“Thrilling,” I said with heavy sarcasm. She laughed, told me to hold on, and soon Lucy’s voice came through.
“Hi there,” she said softly. My arms shook.
“You made it hard on me,” I said.
“You didn’t leave your number.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s interesting that you found me.”
“I think it is. Tell me something about you,” she demanded.
“Hmm. Pizza is my favorite food,” I said after a moment. It sounded ridiculous.
The awkward, meaningless conversation we were having would initiate the most amazing period of my life to that point. I would soon care about someone in a way I hadn’t known existed; a way that opens a person to a full breadth of joy, pain, and torment. I was already feeling, well, strange. It was strange, in fact, to be feeling anything at all. The girls I had dated before produced no such feeling. I found them mindless, and completely uninteresting.
Once I became aware of my indifference to the female population, at least the portion I had encountered, I told myself that the problem lied with me. I vowed to have more patience; to give the next one a chance. The endeavor succeeded only in turning a two day relationship into two months of misery with a wealthy blonde from Galveston. All of this had led me to Lucy.
We made plans for the following day. I would drive down and meet her father-the thought of which unnerved me-then we would see a movie. After hanging up the phone I sat still for several minutes trying to figure out what was happening to me. Was I getting sick? It felt as if the blood flowing through my body had been replaced with some foreign substance. I was edgy, nervous, and unable to think clearly. I glanced at the clock. Nine-thirty. Close enough, I told myself. All I wanted was tomorrow.
The drive down Highway 377 was now slightly familiar. I enjoyed the stretches of fence and pasture, broken intermittently by a small town, reappearing as the road heads south until finally curving into Bluff Dale. I pulled up to an average size frame house with two cars parked out front. The address matched what Lucy had given me, so I turned off the car, checked myself in the rearview, and made my way to the door. I wasn’t sure if I preferred Lucy or her parents to answer. Both thoughts made me nervous. I knocked lightly, and was greeted by her mother.
“Hello again,” she said with a smile. “C’mon in.”
The house was older, well kept, and it had a nice smell. Lucy stood in the kitchen next to a tall, thin man. They were both watching me; Lucy with a grin and he without. She looked much as she had the day before, but with a tight knit sweater and faded jeans. The shape of her body was perfect, as I saw it, and I did my best not to stare. She motioned me in with a slight nod. I felt stiff and uncomfortable in my walk, and shaky as I reached my hand out to her father.
“Gabriel,” he said in a low voice.
My response, “Sir”, sounded like a ten year old in contrast.
“So, where you kids headed this evenin’?” he asked in a slightly louder tone.
“Uh, to the movies, I think. If that’s alright.” Lucy let out a snort of laughter and looked down.
“Alright by me,” he said. Ya’ll be safe.”
We laughed about that moment when we got in the car, and several times after that. We spent the evening together, and I returned her home quicker than I wanted to. We said goodbye, I kissed her on the cheek, and the phone was ringing the second I stepped back into my dorm two hours later.
So began three weeks of complete attachment to another person. We saw each other every day but two, and when we weren’t together we were on the phone. We laughed, and talked, then laughed some more. But mostly we drove. We drove what must have been every back road within one hundred miles of Bluff Dale. Sometimes we would stop, kiss without breathing, then drive some more. I was so completely enamored with Lucy Tanner that I all but forgot about my classes, and I received a rather firm lecture from my mother after not calling home for a week.
I was in love with her. I hadn’t considered the idea until an afternoon in late December. I was getting ready to drive to see her, as usual, when the phone rang. I snatched it up after one ring and said hello. “Gabe, hey,” she said. Her voice was different, low and raspy, and her words came slowly.
“Hi. You ok?”
“Yeah. Listen, just meet me at the diner instead of coming to my house.” Her words melted together like she was talking to me in her sleep.
“Alright. I can do that. You sure you’re ok?”
“Yeah. See in you a bit.”
Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Was she going to end it? The thought made my stomach turn; I felt the urge to vomit. I got ready in a rush and headed for Bluff Dale as I had done nearly every day of the last three weeks. Only this time I drove faster, and without admiring the countryside. I didn’t notice how tightly I was gripping the wheel until I pulled info the cafe parking lot. My hand ached.
She was sitting with her arms crossed. She looked cold. Her face was different, I thought to myself. Not the face itself, but the person behind it. “Hi,” she said while looking at me with glassy eyes. I felt like I was meeting a stranger.
“Hi,” I responded. I wasn’t sure what was scaring me, yet the fear was more intense that I had ever experienced.
“I’m a drug addict, Gabe,” she said suddenly. “Since I was thirteen. The day you saw me, here, was my second day home from rehab.” Her words, and the way she spoke them, felt like razor blades. I could only look at her. “Not my first try, by the way,” she added with a forced smile.
“What kind?” I asked.
“Pain pills. Sleeping pills. Muscle relaxers.” She was twisting a napkin. I leaned back in my chair.
The cafe was silent except for the faint sound of Merle Haggard coming from a radio in the kitchen. “Can I assume you’ve taken something? You’re not yourself.”
She leaned forward and brought her face to mine. “That’s just it, sweet boy. I am myself. Right now.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
“Yes. Yes. This is me. This is me, and I won’t be good for you.”
“Stop talking like that,” I snapped. Anger was pulsing through me.
“I will ruin your life. I swear it. I’ve done it many times. I promise you.”
She quickly rose from her chair, placed both hands on my face, and kissed my forehead. Her lips were so cold. “You made me want to do the right thing so bad,” she said. “You made me not myself. It was so nice. Thank you.” And she was gone.
I’ve thought about that moment nearly every day since. I should have followed her. I should have told her that I loved her. She already knew it, and that knowledge was what made her end it. I believe she loved me too. I called her house several times in the weeks that followed, and she never called me back. I feel, in my heart, that she wouldn’t call because she loved me.
I didn’t hear about her death until after the funeral. A letter arrived in late January with no return address, and when I opened it, I found two small pieces of paper. The first was a newspaper clipping; it was Lucy’s obituary. Her lips were beautiful even in black and white. The second was a note:
Thank you for making her smile again. Her father and I had nearly forgotten how beautiful it was. I hope you do great things.
I never once noticed the cold that December. The sun refused to shine, but it didn’t matter. Everything felt just as it should have been. Sitting here, on a cold metal bench, a shiver runs through me and I bury deeper into my coat. A passing cloud allows a hint of light to touch Lucy’s headstone, and a thought comes to mind: I never got to see her face in the sunshine. It’s a shame. I bet it would have been amazing.
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