The Winter Tourist

Written by Christina Elliott

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Image: New Growth by Steve Zimmerman

     It might just have been another typical December morning. Frozen beads of condensation clung to the evergreens, and encased bare oak branches in transparent tombs.  The wind dusted the snow over the ground and through the air like slow dancing spirits. This was part of Clarence’s morning routine now. More than breakfast or the bathroom, it came first. From the window he would watch her standing just outside the gate surrounding his house, a lumpy pair of shoulders covered by a grey shawl that hung down her back like Spanish moss. He stared at her, pressing his forehead against the smudged glass, his breath casting a spectral haze over her still form. Although he couldn’t see her face from the window, he knew it well. The unmoving expression. The sculpturesque features carved into skin with the color and shine of white veinless marble, but not beautiful at all. Clarence was grateful that today she only watched him from the corners of his mind.

     Bitter coffee sitting heavy, and undigested in a stomach that hung like an old wine skin inside of him, that was breakfast, and on this morning it was taken alone. Most days when Betty arrived she’d sit and talk with him before she began her work. Clarence’s late mother, Julie, hadn’t liked Betty. In her defense, it was when she fell ill that Betty had started working for them, and so the association was never a happy one. As Julie’s condition worsened so did her treatment of Betty. She stopped calling her by her name and instead referred to her simply as “that yappy prattle-box”. But Clarence enjoyed Betty’s optimism. She had a way of making even the most mundane task seem worth her time. Washing dishes was good for her cuticles. Cleaning the floors helped to strengthen her back and legs. Cooking healthy meals for him served to remind her that she needed to eat better. Besides, Clarence found that disdain was a luxury he could no longer afford.

     Earlier in the year when the sun wore out its welcome each day, and life wasn’t suspended in ice, Clarence had enjoyed resting on a bench in his courtyard feeding the squirrels peanuts and tossing sunflower seeds to the birds. It was there that he’d first seen the woman. She’d stood outside the iron gate still and silent. She might just have remained part of the forest beyond if not for the antics of one ill-fated squirrel whose body fell limp to the ground the moment its tail grazed her side. Clarence’s eyes had stayed on the squirrel’s body in confusion for only a second before wandering up to meet hers. Two unblinking dark voids, and a mouth that hung slightly agape. He may have attempted a misguided exchange if not for what had happened next. The shrill shrieking of a train whistle, or a woman’s scream. Her expression had remained unchanged, but he knew it was her. The bowl of peanuts and seeds fell from his hands as he took refuge inside.

     Mackinaw city had been home to Clarence his whole life. He lived in the same house that had belonged to his father’s parents, and with it, all of their belongings; dishes, furniture, clocks, and jewelry. Clarence never had a need to sell any of it, and so he hadn’t. Even his bed with the peculiar looking lion’s head bed posts had belonged to his grandfather. Because, as it were, Clarence had been the only grandchild to Rose and Herbert Washington, the only child of his parents, Julie and Vic, and now, the only Washington left. The Washington house, as he liked to call it, sat on a quiet street nestled among mature trees, and other houses all built in the late 1800s. The outside was painted a deep blue, flawless, and thick as if it had been poured onto the siding from a giant can in the sky. A crisp lawn with straight cut edges, and dark green grass that kept its lavish texture even throughout the hottest months bordered the house, and was framed in by a painted silver gate. He’d grown accustomed to tourists slowly driving by, hanging out of their car windows snapping pictures, or getting out and standing just outside the fence, craning their necks in curiosity. Sometimes, he’d stand in front of the second story picture window, partially concealed behind the sheer white curtains, his dark silhouette beautifully framed by the buttercup yellow shutters outside. He often wondered how many family photo albums he’d been inducted into over the years. Somehow, the thought made him feel less alone.

     Mornings always arrived too quickly. He’d remarked to Betty many times that he preferred the mornings, knowing each time he said it just how untrue it was. He may have felt guilty if he wasn’t attempting to defy the worn out cliché, casting old men as codgers. Now, each morning when Betty arrived, sometimes as early as 6:00 am, he’d reanimate his stiff frame, and pretend to be wide awake. “I hope it’s not too early” Betty would say. “No such thing” he’d reply with a wink, pouring them both a steaming cup of coffee, wiping sleep from his eyes, and stifling yawns whenever she’d look away.

     On days like this one, when Betty couldn’t stay and talk, Clarence was reminded of how disorienting loneliness could be. He’d check the clock obsessively, like a compass guiding him through each minute. When night finally fell it brought with it seven inches of powdery snow. It was three in morning when it finally stopped, although Clarence would have sat watching it until the sun came up. A full moon poured golden light onto the still, crystal surface, illuminating the courtyard and trees beyond even brighter than in the day. A thought entered Clarence’s mind, and as some thoughts do, refused to leave. So after a few minutes he shoved his boney feet into oversized snow boots, and layered on a sweater, scarf, jacket, a second scarf, and lastly a red stocking cap, like the cherry on a sundae. He put a pair of gloves in his pocket along with a half empty pack of Dunhills, and walked out into the snow. After he smoked one, he lit another with the end of the first, and closed his eyes. The smell of the smoke reminded him of his father, who’d smoked them when Clarence had been a boy. He remembered playing on the other side of the gate, and for just that moment he allowed himself to feel the pleasure of youth. He pulled out a third cigarette, soaking in a warm nostalgia that helped him forget the bitter cold. He rolled the cigarette back and forth between chapped finger tips before lighting it. The combination of cold air and nicotine felt invigorating in his old lungs. Plumes of smoke left his mouth, and drifted away as Clarence watched them jealously. When he’d finished, he slid the glowing ember into the snow, and it sizzled like hot oil in a frying pan. Then, without hesitation, he fixed his gaze on the chair to his right, knowing somehow, with absolute certainty as he did, that she was there, no longer outside the gate. No longer a tourist.

     Betty arrived at 5:45 am that next morning, setting a new record. She stirred her coffee and tapped the silver demitasse spoon on the rim of the cup. It was from a silverware set that had belonged to Clarence’s grandmother and probably her grandmother before her. Betty sipped her coffee with the grace and etiquette of a french aristocrat, only spoiling the illusion when she began to speak with a thick north inland accent. He had considered telling her about the woman. He’d imagined doing so throughout the night, but each time he visualized the scene, no matter how graciously she listened, there he sat opposite her, babbling, a decrepit old man riddled with senility. So, he thought better of it, and instead they talked about the weather, and he laughed with her as she shared lively stories of her grandchildren.

     It had been nearly five months now since Clarence had left his house, and a defense for such behavior would have been hard to rationalize if not for his age and the season. Such a convenient excuse seemed a shame to waste, but he’d run out of a medicine that required the Doctor’s approval to refill. Betty looked at her watch which she wore on her right hand despite being right handed, and opened her eyes wide in exaggerated shock. “Mr. Washington! We better scoot!” Clarence took another sip of his coffee, and gathered himself up, layering on his winter wear.  Betty helped him, then grabbed his shoulder presumably for his stability, but nearly pulling him down in the process. They gathered their bearings and shuffled arm in arm out onto the walk with the grace of two arthritic penguins.

     The Doctor’s office smelled like disinfectant, latex and sour morning breath. Clarence watched an older gentleman sitting across from him dozing off over and over, each time waking himself when he began to snore. The man wore red suspenders stretched tight over his firm, round belly, no doubt chosen for utility, and not aesthetics. Tight yellow socks peered out from grey orthopedic shoes and cut into swollen legs with the color and consistency of room temperature butter.  Red and purple spider veins shot across his skin like tiny fireworks. Clarence felt good about himself for a minute, then bad that he’d felt good. The man startled himself awake again, and this time noticed Clarence. He mumbled an obscenity under his breath, and struggled to force his inadequate pant legs down over his ankles, while the thin metal legs of the chair groaned under his weight. Clarence looked away ashamed, but regrettably amused, and scanned the room for a distraction. There was a young boy sitting with his mother, fidgeting in nervous anticipation, but Clarence had learned from another more boisterous young boy at the Thrifty Trip months earlier, that some children are scared of older people. He scanned a disorganized pile of old magazines, and was weighing the odds he’d get sick from handling one when he noticed her sitting just six seats to his left. The artificial lighting of the waiting room did nothing to alter her features. Her face held the same stone-like expression, her shoulders wrapped in the long grey shawl. After a moment he became certain that he was the only one who could see her, a fact that gave him an odd sense of comfort. He soon found himself gently patting the seat next to his, inviting her to come sit by him. Clarence had never seen her walk before and he found it curious that there was nothing demoniac in her movements. He realized that he’d been expecting her to float. But her stride was authentic, human, almost clumsy, and her bare feet squeaked as they shifted on the ceramic tile. Sitting next to her now he could smell her. She was earthy. Like moist dirt from a garden, but also something else. A smell he couldn’t place, one he wasn’t sure he’d ever smelled before.

     When Betty came back for Clarence later that afternoon, he wasn’t in the waiting room. She tapped her puffy fingers on the receptionist’s counter like a telegrapher, chewing the inside of her cheek with urgency. The receptionist shuffled through the register, then after a confused pause, told Betty that he’d signed in, but there was no record of his appointment having actually occurred. Thirty minutes later Betty found Clarence back at his house sitting in his old recliner, still layered in his scarf, two sweaters, a jacket, and his cherry red stocking cap. He was watching the television with the sound off. Betty picked up the remote and turned the sound up so they could hear the weather forecast, “…we’re in for fifteen inches of snowfall tonight!” the woman declared. It was slated to be the coldest night of the year.

     Betty made Clarence a dinner plate, and sat with him for a minute before leaving to get ahead of the weather. After she left, Clarence pulled himself up from his old wingback, switching the tv off on his way out. The silver lights that lined the trim of the old house rattled in the wind, and the furnace shuttered in the other room as it worked overtime. He scaled the staircase carefully, his knees grinding like worn gears. Once he reached the top he stopped to catch his breath, briefly recalling the days when he’d climbed the same staircase two, sometimes three steps at a time. The memory made him smile. He stopped at the picture window just outside his room, and pulled back the sheer white curtains, gazing down onto the once clear street, now burnished, and white. In the distance a pair of headlights cut through the thick sheets of falling snow. They recoiled into the front of an old blue Oldsmobile as it pulled to a stop just outside the gate. The car was familiar to him, but he didn’t know why. A young woman climbed out holding a small black camera in her red gloved hand, she leaned back into the car for a moment, and said something to the young man driving, then raised her other hand up toward Clarence, as if offering a blessing. Clarence reached his hand over to draw the curtains as he usually would, but stopped, and instead, he stood as tall as his crooked back would allow, and smiled. A moment later the flash lit his face, and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they were gone.

     Clarence stood in the doorway of his bedroom. It was the same room he’d had as a child, a fact that used to cause him embarrassment, but now was a source of great comfort. From where he stood his bed appeared smaller than ever. The woman’s lumpy form filled it almost completely. The image of her lying there reminded him of the last time he’d laid next to another person, and he thought of the night his mother had died fifteen years earlier. He recalled how quickly her body had lost its warmth once her heart stopped beating, and how strange it was to speak to her, and not be heard. It had been winter then, too. He walked into his room and sat on the edge of the bed, not wanting to touch the woman, not knowing if he could, but needing to rest.  He sat on the edge of the bed and lifted each of his thin legs onto the mattress, until he managed to fit his frail frame next to hers. Slowly the rattling of the lights outside faded, and the wind went silent. He stared at the ceiling, and the spaces where model airplanes had once hung, now home to cobwebs and dust. The smell of damp earth surrounded him, growing so strong it became hard for him to breathe. Then there came the shrill scream that flooded the room, a cerebral flash-bang vacating a lifetime from his mind. Clarence’s body went limp as it wilted into hers, like submerging into fifteen inches of snow on the coldest night of the year.

The End

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