This Side of a Freeze
By Deb Fenwick
You have one last stop to make. The holidays are approaching, and you have one final card to mail. A quick stop at the post office, and you can tick the box and check that task right off the list just before dark hits at 4:30 on a December day.
Parking strategies are key here, and when you find a second-tier one across the street, you grab it. You’ve got layers. Layers of fleece and GORE-TEX, even a new hat, to insulate you from temperatures that are just this side of a freeze.
You cross Lake Street when you first see him. He’s just a little older than your daughter. He’s standing outside the main entrance near the flagpole as you approach the mailbox box with your stamped envelope—with your contents safely sealed inside.
You see him approaching. He’s tall, and he looks like he could be one of your daughter’s friends. But, no, on second thought, no. They’re all off at college in dorm rooms, counting down for winter break. He’s shifting his gaze back and forth but walking directly toward you on the snowy sidewalk. Although young, you note that he doesn’t have the same posture you recognize in your daughter’s friends. All the times she brought them home for parties and fire pits. Even in their teens, her friends stood tall.They made eye contact and small talk.They perfected handshakes and polite niceties as they moved through rooms with all the confidence that a promise of a bright future bestows.
The wind from the North makes the flag dance with a violent whip. When he’s close enough to speak, you notice that his hand shakes as he says, “Excuse me.” He says it twice. He asks if you have any food. Then he apologizes.
Caught off-guard at his youth and the request for food—not money, food. You look down at your envelope holding a card that is wishing a friend who lives two cities away glad tidings. You feel utterly unprepared for this moment. Food? you rhetorically ask him. Like it’s the first time you’ve ever heard the word. Now it’s your turn to apologize. Your cashless approach to life means your debit card is woefully underwhelming in this situation. You can’t even buy your way out of the discomfort you feel by offering him money for food.
When you can’t look him in the eye any longer, you shift your attention back to his hands. No gloves of fleece or GORE-TEX. He has hands red from the cold with long fingers that shake. These hands were once as tiny as your child’s sweet baby hands. You imagine his childhood fingers learning to tie shoes, practicing the writing of letters and numbers. His hands must have been held by the hand of a parent, a grandparent, some adult that loved him.
Love. It echoes in your head and sounds hollow in the frosty air. You remember the spare set of gloves that you have in the car. You ask him to wait there while you dash across the street and rummage through the vehicle for the gloves and granola bars or any spare food you carelessly tossed aside in favor of better options.
When you return, you give him the gloves and a smashed Nutrigrain bar. You apologize again and forget to mail the card as the winter wind continues its assault on the flag overhead.
Deb Fenwick is a Chicago-born writer who currently lives in Oak Park, Illinois. After spending nearly thirty years working as an arts educator, school program specialist, youth advocate, and public school administrator, she now finds herself with ample time to read books by her heroes and write every story that was patiently waiting to be told. When she’s not traveling with her heartthrob of a husband or dreaming up wildly impractical adventures with her intrepid, college-age daughter, you’ll find her out in the garden getting muddy with two little pups.