Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
3rd Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds
by Adam Breckenridge
John steps into the air. Cold rolls over lightly stubbled cheeks,
and he lets a sigh escape into the gray. He watches the steam unravel,
writhe outwards, and mingle with frosted roofs close in hazy morning
perception. He turns, slides his key into the doorknob, and twists.
The tips of his knuckles brush the tarnished brass, and it saps
the warmth from their raw, stretched skin. He feels it.
He turns from his apartment door and makes his way for the car;
chin tucked tight to his chest, hands shoved in his sweatshirt pocket.
The engine of the Honda Civic mimics the crunching turn of the key,
and he starts for work. John watches the road through crystals of
frost that had sprouted at the corners of the windshield over night,
and he marvels at how crisp the pavement looks through their jagged
lens. The car rolls up to Safeway at seven-o-five, and he pauses
before opening the car door. He eyes his knuckles, white around
the wheel and rimmed with a meaty pink from the chill -- beautiful.
He opens the door.
His sneakers scratch against the parking lot and over bits of glass,
and he is at the doors. They part and breathe a wave of warm air
through his body as he nears. His green apron sits neatly folded
in its spot beneath the cash register, and he fingers the rough
lines of cloth string before looping them around his waist.
He lifts his head for the first time since entering the store and
finds that there is already a customer perusing the store; an elderly
man buried beneath drab, lint-speckled clothes. Then he looks over
to Miriams counter. There are no other customers, and she
is reading a cheap tabloid; her hair sways slightly to the sides
of the flimsy pages. That hair. He always thought of it as honey;
smooth and loose, dark brooding amber and then suddenly glowing
when under light. Fixed upon it, it warms him like nothing else.
John looks down to see two giant, indignant eyes glaring at him
through thick glasses; a carton of buttermilk stands stiffly on
the counter next to four quarters and a dime. He squints an apology
to the shrewish man, and lifts the buttermilk from the counter.
It chills his hand as he sweeps it across the price-checker. He
reaches to the left, and tugs a plastic bag from the rack.
"No bag," The man grumbles, the sunken folds in his face
growing harder with frustration.
John rings up the receipt and tears it from the machine.
"Nah." The man wheezes, shaking his head. He produces
a brown hat from beneath the counter and tugs it onto his bald,
John nods, scoops the coins from the plastic counter, and watches
the withered bundle of brown shuffle out the doors with his buttermilk.
He can see the pain of arthritis and cold in the mans short,
He goes back to the hair. It shifts around Miriam as she runs a
new customers tortilla chips across the checker; it accents
but is utterly separate from the dull pain of boredom that sits
on her face.
A bulky woman approaches the counter, and piles some Hostess cakes,
a liter of Coca-Cola, and a large ham on the counter. She props
a thick fist on the bulge of her hip.
She says it not with irritation, but with a plumply affable tone.
Johns eyes shift to her face and she bunches her bulbous cheeks
into a smile. He nods. Taking a paper bag from the rack, he thrusts
his hand in to spread it open, and methodically stuffs the items
in. When done, he crumples the top closed, and punches the necessary
keys on the cash register. The total shows on the display, and she
digs into her purse for the money.
"Thank you." She smiles, and John sees the lines crawling
from her eyes, tired and fat fat fat, and they spoil the rich stoutness
of her voice.
She hands him a twenty and change, and he sees the painted deep
red of her fingernails.
She says goodbye in that cracked, warmly obese tone, and he dwells
on the vastness of the red, staring blankly down the breads aisle
for a while, before returning to the gold of Miriams hair.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
At noon, Johns day is over. He undoes his apron, folds it
in half, and half again, and tucks it beneath the register. He makes
his way for the doors, and takes one last glance to his right before
they sweep him to the gray pavement. Its afire, and at this
angle a halo glares dazzlingly from the hair, fed by the droning
halogen lights. Between the dangling strands, her lips peel into
a tight and awkward smile. He nods. The doors shut behind him, and
he is in the Honda and staring at the road.
John feels the warmth of the doorknob soak into his palm, and looking
down, the brass is almost gold. Warm, but not gold; it twists, and
he enters. Inside, he slips his shoes from his feet, peels off his
socks, and feels the curls of the rug between his toes as he walks
to his bed. He reaches for his journal.
He lies there in bed for a moment, and combs through the webbed-lines
running through the leather binding with his eyes, runs his fingers
along the smooth spine. He thumbs it open, plucks his yellow number-two
pencil from the dresser, and begins to write down the red, the brown,
and as with every night, the gold. He flips to the next page after
filling the last lead-gray, and flips and scribbles his words in
the company of a faintly whining lamp. He finishes, shuts the journal,
and sets it on the bedside dresser. John glares at the sickly gray
grease line smudged across the sides of the journals pages,
stained by thumbing over the same tattered spot night after night.
He sees it sitting on the dresser, inanimate, indifferent, unfeeling
and gray. A wave of kindred pain, and then envy fills him, and he
shuts his eyes and sleeps.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
John wakes tangled in ratty sheets. He rises, and snatches a shirt,
pants, and underwear from the floor. They fall on his body, and
he steps into his shoes and leaves. He listens to the rattling of
the Hondas old engine, and the road seems not so sharp this
morning. It is cold, and the frost clings familiarly to the windshield,
but this morning he stares at the divider-lines, and they give the
He arrives at seven-o- three, and steps from the car. He cuts through
the parking lot in long, brave strides, and he sees the store as
he approaches. The doors open, and he sees Miriam. He sees her sad
He smiles, and sees her through those clear blue eyes, and they
pour into him like ice water. Icy pain, shocking, and he feels it,
more sharply than he thought he could. And the blue fades and there
is only the pain trickling down his throat even as it clenches,
it soaks into his chest and mingles with his own. It saturates the
colors, red, gray, and brown, and John feels them run, and John
is standing next to Miriam.
"Hi Miriam," he whispers now, and he sees the hair. It
sinks to the sides of her confused face.
Miriams eyes still wide and startled, John reaches and brushes
a hand through the gold, and is warmed by a smile, small and honest,
crawling up from beneath the fear in her face. He plucks a single
hair from her head.
"Hi John." Hed never heard her voice before, and
it was smooth, thick, and sweet.
He nods, smiles back, and goes back through the doors like air.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
John sits on his bed. Smiling, he twirls the strand between two
pale fingers, and watches the dim, yellow light of the lamp fall
through the dust, and ignite, brilliantly through the frayed hair.
Slowly, he plants the blazing line between two grease-sheathed pages,
and snaps the journal shut. He stands, and walks to the door, not
looking back to the vibrant slice of gold amongst the gray. A promise.