by Alan Hlad
Her eyes are the color of cinnamon, or sage. One or the other.
I finish my glass of whiskey, light a cigarette, and rest my palm on the pile of dried petals. Squeezing crisp buds with my fingers, bent like twigs in water, I extract any remaining oils and hold them to my nose. Behind the taste of malt whiskey and burnt tobacco, I notice the faint smell of her favorite flower, Casablanca Oriental Lilies. And I remember what she looked like, if only for a moment, before her porcelain skin disappears along with the floral scent in my nostrils.
I adjust my dark glasses that conceal my opaque eyes, hardened from the habit of obeying the rules of social acceptability. I notice it’s snowing as the sounds of passing cars are muted by the blanketed road. I reach for the bottle. It feels lighter, considering I started before dinner while listening to Madame Butterfly, which is still playing softly on the stereo we purchased over forty years ago. A penny is taped to the stylus to keep the needle from skipping.
The music stops. Deafening silence sucks at the air, broken by the splash of whiskey hitting the bottom of my glass. With the click of a spring, the needle rests on the album with a static sizzle. The singer’s angelic voice floats to my ears, carrying me away to another time, another place.
I met Katherine fifty years ago on the train to Portland, the one we both took each day to work. She managed a boutique dress shop and I was employed as a CPA with an accounting firm. Katherine was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, even though I struggle to remember her face now, her exquisite features scrubbed from my memory with the passing of years. I do remember, very distinctly I may add, that it took me three weeks to get up the nerve to say hello, especially when just about every young man in the greater Portland area was jockeying for the seat next to her, only to be politely rejected when they abruptly asked her for a date which usually involved a drink down at Sully’s, a dive bar in the Old Port.
I took a different approach.
It happened on Good Friday. The train was practically empty, and, as luck would have it, we were the only two people in the car. I took a seat in the row across the aisle from her, wearing my best suit, and the wing-tipped shoes I’d spit-shined the night before. My heart raced.
“Hi,” I had said with my stomach in knots.
Her voice was so lovely, so captivating, I forgot the lines I’d rehearsed all morning. My mouth went dry. She returned to reading her book. And I sat there, watching telephone poles pass by my window, hypnotized by her beauty through the corner of my eye. When I finally remembered my lines, the train stopped and she got off. I wanted to kick myself.
The following week, I had gathered enough courage to sit beside her, and noticed the book she was reading, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Fortunately, I was also an Ernest Hemingway fan.
“How do you like your book?” I asked, my voice cracking like a boy in puberty.
“It’s good.” She smiled, as if I had said something funny.
My face became warm. I tried to think of something intelligent to say, but nothing came. I had suddenly forgotten everything I knew about Hemingway, and would likely have forgotten my name had she asked.
She returned to reading. I stared at my shoes, breathing in the botanic fragrance of her perfume, tracing with my eyes her sculpted calves polished in nylon. Despite my embarrassment, I spent the rest of the day with a grin carved into my face.
A couple days later, I sat by her again. But this time, I properly introduced myself.
“My name is Cal,” I had said, relieved to hear my normal voice.
I felt my heart rate quicken as we shook hands, but kept my composure. “Tell me about your book.”
She crossed her legs, placed the book on her lap, and turned to me.
And that’s how our relationship started. Nothing more than a simple conversation about Hemingway until the train squealed to a stop. We politely said our goodbyes. She gracefully walked away, heels clicking on the sidewalk. And I left in the opposite direction, hoping she didn’t notice me glancing back.
For the next few days, we sat side by side, to and from work. With my confidence building, we strayed from the boundaries of literature.
“What do you like to do when you’re not on a train?” I noticed our feet were almost touching.
“Do you mean when I’m not working?”
“I volunteer at the Portland Autism Center.”
“What do you do?”
“I help children with language therapy.”
“I’m impressed.” I shifted in my seat.
“My twin sister, Celia, was born with autism. She communicates with gestures more than words, so she still lives with my parents.” She smoothed her dress over her knees. “She’s a sweetheart. You’d love her if you met her.”
“I’d like that.”
Alan Hlad’s work has appeared in The National Underwriter, Larks Fiction Magazine, Claims Magazine, and Property Casualty 360. He is an executive search consultant in Akron, Ohio, a frequent conference speaker, and a member of the Akron Writers’ Group. He is currently working on a novel.