Snow was coming on again when Michael stepped out from the Port O’Call Safeway with a bag of groceries, thinking about holding up at the Old Kettle on Ross for a warmer before he leaned into the long hike back up the hill into Westpark. He needed something inside, a couple shots, maybe doubles, to face the cold trek, the empty house and the rest of the long, empty…But hold up. Here was something.
Out on the parking lot in front of the store a young man struggled to open the hatch at the back of his car. Michael watched him as he walked. The man was not thinking, and he was in a hurry, fussing with keys, hoisting an overfilled bag of groceries into the crook of his arm while trying to prevent the shopping cart from rolling away. He should stop, Michael thought, chilly as it was, and put the bag back in the cart. That would be the smart move.
Steam rolled from exhaust pipes at the intersection beside the Safeway lot, unfolding from the sooty tips of the smokestacks atop the hospital across the street. Michael stopped at the edge of the fire lane while a gangly boy in a red parka, wearing a Santa hat and floppy rubber overboots with the cuffs of his pants tucked in, passed in front of him driving a long train of clinking carts, blinking against the bite of the cold snap (which had been settled over the city, the frozen river, the surrounding prairie, for several days). His eyes were completely closed at times.
The key was not going into the slot was the problem, plugged with ice probably, and the young man was getting frustrated, poking and jabbing, his increasingly frantic breath obscuring what he was trying to do. Fresh from the car-wash possibly, though the vehicle, a dilapidated hatchback, didn’t look particularly clean, with crusty slush splattered along the door sills and salt grime on the windows. More likely, Michael concluded, the jalopy had been sitting in a garage overnight and snow had melted off the roof, dribbled into the locks and then, back outside, refrozen. Michael wondered if there was someone waiting at home. That would explain the hurry. Possibly home for the holidays and helping his mom with errands? A young wife? He was wearing a blue hoodie under a wind cheater and cargo pants with hiking boots. Hardly a suitable attire if you were planning to be outside for any length of time in this sort of weather. When at last the key went into the lock Michael stopped again. The young man shifted his weight and leaned backward to heave at the hatch with one hand.
The parking lot, as it remained all through the long winter months, was treacherous with glassy sheets of black ice concealed beneath flimsy skiffs of powder snow. The guy’s boots slipped and he fell almost completely under the car, clinging to the chromework as though executing an elaborate gymnast’s dismount onto a mechanic’s trolley. The bag of groceries in his arm tipped and fell and split. The contents tumbled out across the frozen ground. Michael went across to help him up, then backed away while he took a moment to gather himself, holding unsteadily onto the back of the car.
“Good grief, thanks!”
Michael crouched and set about retrieving blocks of butter, packets of crackers and boxes of cereal, cup-a-soups which rattled like baby toys, redistributed everything into the other bags still in the cart.
“Whew! Yeah, I’m fine. I think I banged my knee, but I’m ok. Thanks!”
He twisted this way and that, leaning over Michael to brush dirty snow from his back, before he squatted to help gather up the rest of his things. Their heads almost touched. The plumes of their breath enshrouded them both.
Ignoring the hatch, Michael opened one of the rear doors and together they transferred the bags from the cart into the back seat. When they finished the guy held up his keys and thanked him again. His hair fell over his face. He combed it away with his fingers. He smiled at Michael. Nudged by the wind, the torn bag at their feet began to drift away, the first of them to leave.
The house was winter quiet, the kitchen cold and still, the narrow yard, through the window over the sink, deep, wind feathered snow clear back to the ragged fence. Ice crystals drifted, glittering through the pink wash from the low afternoon sun. Michael set the bag of groceries on the counter and started a pot of coffee. He could hear the scrape and tap of a snow shovel from somewhere along the block. He reached up to the metal cupboard over the counter for two mugs, took milk from the refrigerator, set the carton beside the mugs and then turned.
“Coffee won’t take long.”
The guy (whose name was Robert), stood inside the door to the yard.
“You warming up?”
Robert smiled and nodded his head, unzipped his jacket. He had brown eyes. He pushed his hair back again, behind his ear.
Michael took a deep breath and opened his arms a little.
“Come on then.”
Robert, barely nodding, stepped across the kitchen. Michael put his hands to the young man’s waist, felt the heat of him through his shirt, and pulled him in.