Sunday, July 21, 2013
Fiction: Sunset and Shadow
Sunset and Shadow
copyright 2013 by Harold Jenkins
We met on the internet. Well, I met her on the internet by way of her personal ad, though it was some time before I found her blog and we began chatting online. We hit it off, as far as I could tell, but it took a few weeks of getting-to-know-you conversations before she agreed to meet face to face.
We got together early on a Saturday afternoon in a bookstore in Wilkes-Barre. Seeing Lori in person was something of a shock, finally realizing just how far apart we were in age. She was small and pixie-ish, with bleached white hair and eyes so dark they might have been black. Her skin was pale and her face was alive and shining. She dressed in a sort of Salvation Army chic, in a green prairie skirt and frilly cream blouse that hid her tiny figure, wrapped in a black wool jacket with shoulder pads that would have looked preposterous on anyone else. A black beret and a scarf that might have been a keffiyeh rounded out the ensemble, and she wore chunky black boots that weren't just for show - they could easily hold up to the snow and ice outside. I knew she was a brilliant writer even from what she had put in her ad, and the stories I found on her blog confirmed this. She had the appearance of a giddy little girl, but her writing displayed a darkness and maturity that said there was much more to her.
I wondered how I looked to her: A man in his early forties, stocky but not quite fat, hair and beard and moustache all showing traces of gray. Blue-gray eyes behind lenses that, if you looked at them just right, revealed themselves as multifocals. Looking almost like a college professor, although I hadn't been involved in academia since a brief stint in grad school more than twenty years ago. I thought I looked close enough to the photos I had posted on my site, as she did to hers. But I really don't know what she saw with those big, dark eyes.
We drank hot chai and talked about writing, and our favorite authors, and our biggest influences. I asked her about school but she didn't want to talk about it much. She pried a few stories from me about my days in college, a quarter of a century earlier.
We had been talking for well over an hour and hadn't made any plans for the rest of the day. When she excused herself to use the bathroom I ordered a strawberry parfait, something that looked like one of the things she had posted to her blog. After Lori returned to our table one of the staff brought it over in a tall glass with two long spoons. Lori was surprised and delighted by the dessert. After that we wandered the bookstore for a while, pointing out books and authors to each other. I found an annotated edition of one of her favorite books and offered to buy it for her, but she took it from me and insisted she would pay for it herself. Fine, I said, taking the other copy from the shelf, laughing. Now we would both have one.
We exited the bookstore holding our identical purchases and stepped into the icy late-afternoon air. I suggested we could drive around and continue our conversation. A glance at the clouds smeared across the western sky gave me an idea. The sun would be setting in an hour or so, and I knew a spot where it would put on a beautiful display. For a moment I thought she might not want to go, or might want to take her own car, wherever her car was. But she agreed and we both got into mine.
The sun was dipping behind the clouds as we drove. We were heading west, so the sun was mostly in front of us. Even through my sunglasses I could see the sun-dogs forming, mock suns positioned on either side of the real one, produced by the sort of ice crystals present in certain clouds. I pointed them out to Lori, and she pulled out her phone - wrapped in a Hello Kitty case - and took a picture. Her thumbs flew as she typed something on to the screen in a way I can't even begin to emulate. And then she did something else - posted the picture online, to her blog or Facebook or somewhere. I felt the generation gap yawning between us.
I had to maneuver a bit to get where I wanted us to be, but finally we got there. It was a steel truss bridge, more than seventy years old but still safe and sturdy enough to bear the traffic that crossed it. I had made it collapse once, in one of my stories, plunging dozens of cars and their drivers into the river below. We writers wield such power.
"Here?" she asked, as we parked in a dirt lot at one end of the bridge. Her tone said she wasn't afraid, just curious.
"Not here," I replied. "On the bridge. About halfway across we'll have a great view of the sunset."
She got out of the car, pushing her beret down on her head with one hand and clutching her book with the other. The bag crackled like it was threatening to shatter. I was glad we were both dressed for the weather. It got cold on the bridge in winter. Cold, and windy.
As we stepped onto the walkway Lori looked up, then around. "You've taken pictures here," she said. She was clutching her newly-purchased book in its bag and held her Hello Kitty phone in the other hand. "The ice on the river, and the shadows on the ice."
"Yep," I said. I had posted those photos half a year before I met her online. She had been doing her homework, reading my old blogs.
We walked out two hundred and fifty feet, or so - I've always been bad at estimating distances. Cars passed us once in a while, clattering and banging over the deck plates of the bridge, but the drivers didn't even notice us.
The sun hadn't started its show yet.
"Here is good," I said. Across the deck and through the girders and cables we could see downriver . The Susquehanna flowed from east to west along this stretch, so we had a relatively clear view of the sunset. The sun was sinking behind an old, disused railroad bridge and over the trees and rolling hills that edged one bank. The scene was reflected in the river below, where water flowed between great broken sheets of ice.
But none of that was what I wanted to show her.
"There," I said, looking but not pointing. "Above the sun. Do you see that patch of light pointing straight up, almost like a candle flame? Unless I'm reading the clouds wrong, that's going to stretch out into a sun pillar."
She looked at the bright white blur on the western horizon. The sun moved lower and lower behind the clouds. As the minutes passed the column of light above the sun stretched up, and up, looking like a biblical pillar of fire. It gradually deepened to orange and then red as the sun sank lower on the horizon.
Lori slid the handle of the bag from the bookstore over her wrist, raised her Hello Kitty camera and snapped a few more pictures. "I've never seen that before," she said.
"Most people haven't," I replied, and immediately realized I had relegated her to the realm of "most people." "Sun pillars aren't that common, so they don't happen with every sunset. And we're all so busy, how often do you get to watch a sunset?" I said, trying to recover.
"'How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?'" she said, quoting The Sheltering Sky. "'Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.'" Or maybe she was quoting Brandon Lee's quote of The Sheltering Sky. He was dead shortly after that interview.
"There's something else," I said. "Turn around. Look east."
A beautiful soft pink glow stretched across the eastern sky, just above the horizon. Above it, the sky was only a little darker than it had been a few minutes ago. Below it, the sky was a dark blue-gray above the cold Susquehanna.
"What is that?" Lori asked, raising her phone to take another picture.
"It's called the Belt of Venus," I told her. "The pink glow is the light of every sunset that's happening just beyond the horizon. The sunlight reddens as it passes through the thickest part of the atmosphere. We're seeing that red sunlight reflected back at us."
"And the dark part?"
"That's the shadow of the Earth. The Earth is casting a shadow through its own atmosphere. It'll rise, higher and higher, and become night."
She tapped some more information into her phone. I found that habit almost annoying. I wanted her to be here now, but she was busy sharing each moment with the world.
I'd been standing beside her, on her left as we watched the sunset, on her right when we turned to watch the light show in the east. But as we watched and talked, I had moved behind her.
Lori was short, nearly a foot shorter than me. I placed my hands on her shoulders, on those ridiculous shoulder pads, Then I gradually slid them across so I was hugging her from behind, each hand on her opposite shoulder.
We stood like that in silence for a few minutes. A car drove past. I barely noticed it. The wind blew a bit from behind us, but I shielded Lori from the chill. We watched the colors in the eastern sky rise and begin to darken and fade.
"So what would you like to do next?" I asked.
She turned to face me, breaking my hold. She put her phone back in her coat pocket, but the book in its crinkly green bag still hung from her wrist. She looked up at me, her nearly-black eyes looking into mine.
Lori reached up and clutched the lapels of my black longcoat. She tugged me down gently, stood on the toes of her boots, and kissed me on the cheek.
"You're very sweet," she said. Continuing to stare at me, she said "Thank you for the sunset, and the shadow. But I have to go now."
I was dumbstruck. Crestfallen. And a million other words that only apply in such a situation. Finally I spoke. "I'll drive you back to the bookstore, if that's what you want."
She smiled and shook her head. "I have a ride."
The car that had driven past us was stopped at the end of the bridge, next to mine.
"Goodbye," she said. She released her grip on my coat and slid her hands slowly down my chest, stopping briefly to take my hands in hers. Then she let go, turned, and walked briskly to the waiting vehicle.
Lori got to the end of the bridge, opened the door to the waiting car, and got in. I couldn't tell if she looked back at me. Maybe she waved.
The car drove off and I was left alone on the bridge, as the last traces of sunset faded from the sky.
This is at least version eight of this story. The original was scribbled out in a little blue notebook as I waited to meet some friends for dinner.
The characters are based on real people, though the narrator is considerably prettied up from his real-life counterpart. The female character is a composite of many women I have known. It wasn't until after I had written the second draft with its detailed description of her appearance that I realized whose face I was seeing as I described her. (Someone I knew briefly in college, many years ago.)
All the locations and phenomena described in this story are real. In a previous draft I had detailed location information, but even now there's enough that you could probably get to the right spot on the right bridge from what I've said.
Sun dogs: I don't have any pictures of sun dogs that I've posted to my blog, partly because getting the whole effect requires a wide-angle lens. Here are some good images online:
Sun pillar: http://anothermonkey.blogspot.com/2006/04/untold-tales-sun-pillar.html
(this is a sun pillar at sunrise, so the sequence would be reversed for sunset)
The Belt of Venus: http://anothermonkey.blogspot.com/2009/02/susquehanna-at-sunset-february-13-2009.html
(taken from the location referenced in the story)
Ice on the river, shadows on the ice, and the railroad bridge:
(also from the locations referenced in the story)
Some shots of the river and the bridge itself, including some junked antique cars mentioned in an earlier draft: