Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
3rd Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds

Grease Line

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 Miriam’s 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.

"Urmph."

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, liver-spotted head.

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 man’s short, labored strides.

He goes back to the hair. It shifts around Miriam as she runs a new customer’s 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.

"Hello."

She says it not with irritation, but with a plumply affable tone. John’s 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 Miriam’s hair.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
At noon, John’s 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. It’s 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 journal’s 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 Honda’s 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 road purpose.

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 face.

"Hi Miriam."

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.

Miriam’s 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." He’d 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.
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