By Eric Stevens
The frozen wood of the bench on 7th Street was brittle and burned Steve’s thighs while he leaned to one side, watching the cars drive slowly through the icy slush. It was a cloudy night, as always. Steve didn’t mind. When it was clear the city lights held the natural wonder of the stars at bay, anyway.
“So, John was it?” Asked the man sitting next to him, in tattered clothes. He didn’t look at Steve, but kept his hazel eyes centered in front of him. “You hungry boy?” His pale white hair and beard flowed in the wind, this way and that. The man twiddled a small diamond ring in his right hand, feeling the grooves and silver with his index finger. Steve reached next to him, grabbed another blanket beside the bench and handed it over.
“I’m good Dave. Put this on before you freeze to death.” Dave slipped the blanket over his shoulders, edges of brown wool yarn slapping the side of his face while he struggled get it loose.
“Sure could go for a slice,” The man said, lifting a liver-spotted hand and pointing to the pizzeria across the street. The interior glowed warmly with white light, the glass doors covered with dirt and character.
“What’ll it be tonight?”
“You should know by now John. The works, as always.”
“Sure thing Dave.” He stood up, stretching, and reached between his thighs in an effort to spread the denim of his Levis apart, mashed together by the icy bench. He approached the crosswalk and waited for the neon sign on the metal beam to give him the all-clear.
“How’s he doing tonight?” Asked the cook behind the counter of the pizzeria. He was a big man, bald, with tattoos sleeved on his right arm. He took a ball of dough and started flattening it out while he conversed. “Cold as balls out. Think he’ll go in?”
Steve shook his head. “Doubt it.”
“What’ll it be this time?”
“And for you?”
“I’m alright, thanks Brett.” Steve stepped back and leaned against the dirty glass window of the pizzeria, glancing out. The night was relatively quiet, no movement except for the flickering yellow streetlight above the bench and the slow-moving sedans of day job workers cruising their way home in the slush. In a way he was grateful for the ice, it kept the traffic calm so he could hear his thoughts better. He pulled out his phone, scrolled numbly through his Facebook feed and checked his email. Meeting at 8 tomorrow? Fuck me, He thought, and sighed.
“Here you go man,” Brett said, handing him a paper plate with a grease-slathered slice, covered in toppings. “You stay safe.”
Steve walked back, and saw the man shivering. “Dave it’s gettin’ pretty cold out tonight. Sure you wanna stay out here?”
“Did I ever tell you about the fairy, John?” The man said.
“Nope. But before you do, take this.” He stooped and grabbed another blanket lying next to the bench and handed it over. I should’ve brought more, Steve thought. “Put it on and you can eat.”
The man slipped the blanket over his current one. His shaking subsided, and Steve handed him the slice. “Thanks John. This is my favorite, did you know that?”
“Sure did Dave. Eat up.” The man grinned and pulled a large chunk of the greasy pie away with his teeth and chewed. It was a harsh and sloppy sound. Hearing it gave Steve a warm, tingling sensation that moved across his arms and neck. He smiled.
“Anyways, the fairy.”
“This was about five years ago I think. I was roofing that old townhouse I used to own, you remember that place?”
“Oh right, yeah.”
“The place in Cincinnati? Well anyways, I was on the roof, and fell straight on my ass–slid off the roof and fell two stories!” He waved his arms, a drop of grease fell from the wax paper plate onto the blanket. “After I fell, I looked up, and there she was.” His eyes went to the sky, still overcast. “She leaned over and said, ‘It’s alright, everything’s ok now.’ And she smiled. My god she was beautiful,” He exhaled loudly, wheezing a little. “I wonder whatever happened to her.”
“That’s a pretty nice story Dave.” He hasn’t told me that one in a while, Steve thought to himself. “Look it’s getting late. I gotta go, got work in the morning. Wanna come up? It’s gonna be a rough night out here.”
“Oh that’s ok John, I’ll be alright.” The man’s smile faded and he gazed at the brake lights of the passing cars, palming the diamond ring.
Steve made his way down three blocks to the apartment complex on 13th and Carter, rubbing his hands together. His heart sank while the elevator rose. The old pulley system hoisted the rusting aluminum cage slowly towards the fifth floor. Steve pulled out his phone again, browsing nothing.
Night turned to day, day to evening. Steve walked towards the bench once more, cars buzzing along the two-lane road with haste. The ice was gone, the cold remained. He held two warm Styrofoam cups, spilling several drops of hot coffee on his open hand as he walked across the grey asphalt towards the man. “Hey Dave!”
The man turned. “Oh Phillip! Good to see you again!” He smiled. One of the blankets lay next to him, crumpled and damp. The setting sun glowed dimly over 7th Street, casting a hint of orange and red on his white hair.
“Of course Dave, I had to see you.” He sat next to the man on the bench. It wasn’t icy anymore, and Steve’s Levis were grateful for that. So was his ass. “Here, I brought you your favorite.” He held out his left hand.
“Oh? Black, no cream?” Steve retracted his left hand, and held out his right instead.
“Of course. So,” Steve sipped from the other cup. The sugary brew burned his tongue, but he didn’t mind. “See anything new today?”
“A bunny in the clouds. An alligator, too. It looked like it was after the bunny.”
“How do you know it wasn’t a crocodile?”
“Aren’t alligators smaller? Hell I don’t know,” He sipped the dark roast. “Sure was pretty, though. That too,” He pointed towards the sunset. “Always my favorite time of day.”
“Yep. Me too Dave. Want some dinner?”
Steve stood up and nodded towards the pizzeria. “The works?”
The man looked at him curiously. “Nah Phillip. Pepperoni, remember?”
“Right. I remember.”
Brett wasn’t there today. A cute girl he didn’t recognize stood behind the register. He leaned against the glass once again, waiting. He checked Facebook, saw a message from someone he hadn’t spoken to in twelve years. Hey man, it’s been a while! How’ve you been? I was wondering if… Yadda yadda, life insurance. No thanks Adam. Deleted.
He walked back to the bench with the pizza. “Here you go Dave. You need another blanket?”
“Nah I’m not too cold. Thanks,” He grabbed the slice, dug in. Steve felt warm again, and relaxed. “The stars are gonna be out tonight, Phil.”
“Yep, sure will. Be hard to see them with all this pollution, though.”
The man finished his slice. “Yeah, probably. Know anywhere we can see them Phillip? Sorry,” He scratched his head. “Steve?”
Steve smiled, looking up. It was faint, but he could make out Orion overhead. “Yeah Dad, I know a place. If you come stay with me tonight I can show you.”
“That sounds nice. It’s getting pretty cold out here, anyway.”
“Sure is.” Steve led the man down the three winding blocks to his apartment complex.
“Say Steve,” The man said. “I ever tell you the story about the siren?”
“Don’t think so, Dad.”
“Well I think this was a few years ago. Maybe ten. I was fishing at Lake Michigan, and it was cold–fucking freezing! Anyways, I was sitting at on a stool with my pole in that frozen lake. Freezing my balls off. Had a six pack of Yuengling though, that warmed me up.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the diamond ring, moving it between his fingers. “Anyways, I was just about to call it quits when there she was! Jumped right out of my fishing hole. She just smiled and told me everything would be fine, warmed me right up.”
“That’s quite the story dad. You remember what she looked like?”
“She had blue eyes, and brown hair. No, no wait,” He looked at the ground, grimacing. “Red hair. Definitely red hair. And she was beautiful.” He grinned.
“She sure was, dad.” Steve’s phone buzzed lightly, and he ignored it.
About the Author:
Eric Stevens is a fiction writer from Alabama. He is the author of Tennessee Honey and enjoys writing short fiction as a hobby. He currently lives in Orlando, Florida, where he is working on a new novella. To read more of his work, visit markandrosfiction.wordpress.com.