This story won third place in the 37th annual University of North Florida writing contest, in 2007. It was actually a paying gig for fiction.
by Steven Stam
When you’re six, you think the cloud of your breath can be caught and the mist of your exhale harnessed and placed in a jar. At sixty-eight, I still think this. I wait for the first night of winter, the very first night of clear sky and bitter air, and I run outside in a shirtless rage—mouth open, lungs screaming a noiseless scream of white vapor. There I am, forever chasing my dream, grasping with aging, curving digits. Can I tell this story to my grandchildren? Will they understand or will they laugh and balk?
I want to ask my wife, but I don’t. I am just too embarrassed—I know such a question will bring on one of Melinda’s smiles, a smile saying you are such a little boy, I married a child and he hasn’t changed a bit. Not that I don’t love her smiles, because I do, but all my life I have been trying to grow up, and when she looks at me with girlish glee, I understand where I am now, how I can never go back.
So I stare at her, watch her sitting alone on our tan recliner with her book. I examine the grooves of her round face and think of how I like her hair in white, not as much as when it was young brown, but somehow, for Melinda, white works. White is so elegant for her. I should tell her, but opt not to, observing her is too pleasant to interrupt. Maybe she would love me more if I had told her more. Maybe she already loves me just enough.
Melinda either doesn’t see me staring or chooses not to, and I am glad. Sometimes a man needs freedom to admire his wife and I do so for a haze of minutes. I go over each bristle of hair, across the glimmering indentations of her face, around the limp flesh of her lips. Then my mind flinches; my attention returns to our son and his wife and their two boys and the presents waiting for them under our three-foot plastic tree. I begin to wonder how much longer I have to think, to worry about where the children are, to guess what stories I will I be asked to tell.
“When are they coming again?” I say.
“Soon,” she replies.
“Well, Jerry said five, six at the latest.”
“It’s already quarter of six.”
“Not long then,” she says.
“Should we call them?”
“No, they’ll get here.”
“Do they have directions?”
“George, the boy grew up here.”
“I know. Just wanted to be sure.”
She turns a page of her book and tosses me that Melinda smile. For a moment shame hits me, a tinge of foolishness even, but then I ignore my emotions in favor of her gaze. Her face almost moves me to tell her I love her, but I stop at that door before it opens. I know she discerns the door, the emotion, and that she must know what is behind the painted wood, but she doesn’t try and open me or break me down, she merely transforms wood into glass as only she can and then window-shops my mind. And like all window-shoppers who tire of just looking, Melinda puts down her book, crosses the room with her red and green afghan tight, and places her lips on my rough, shaved cheek.
This year, when I ran into the cold night, she followed me laughing and giggling like the first night we met. Forty years and nothing has changed. Yes, she now wears a coat and sweater, now locks her arms tight for heat, but little else. When I go out she stands there, never wishing for summer or spring, just for the one night, the first winter night where the old man goes out to play in fresh, cold weather. My wife, the woman who wants one night, the same night, always. I can tell the grandkids that, I think. I can tell them about their grandmother and how she is the queen, how she runs the show, how her eyes and her smile save me.
With such knowledge I pull her in, and hug her tight as she slides onto the couch. Her arms find my back and return my embrace. I hold on—we hold on—eyes shut, mouths blowing air into the cold night of our minds.