The cold bites and the wind blows hard and he pulls his gray wool coat together at the front and his eyes water and the sidewalk is a moving blur and the city is alive, as it always is, with people, now just huddling masses, their faces down and wrapped in scarves, silently pulsing along on the wet concrete, and the only sound he hears is rush of air past his ears.
Two more blocks.
Snow is pushed up against the buildings and mounded at the curbs making the path he shares narrow, and though no one in the city walks slowly, on days without snow there are those with the energy of youth, and dreams unsullied and they walk with intent and dart and dodge and walk the curb for a few steps like a walker on a tightrope with no fear or hesitation because they can and tomorrow is for losers. But on this day, it isn’t so.
He’s on the wrong side, next to the street, and he begins to angle toward the buildings, stutter-stepping behind a man in a dark coat, though he’s not really sure if it’s a man. Another moving bundle sidesteps around him and he imagines it is a woman with no real reason to think that other than instinct. Not that it matters. The sidewalk is anonymous.
There are three steps up to the door, a grandfathered anachronism in a world where all are equal and everything is for everybody. One day the owners of Brewsters will be sued and because there is no practical means of providing a ramp, they’ll go out of business and move to Jersey and start all over again. He grabs the wet rail with his gloved hand, thinking for a moment that he’s wearing his dress gloves, and pulls himself up to the first step, then the second, before pushing open the door at the top.
He blinks, clearing the tears from his eyes, and he inhales deeply, relieved to have escaped the outdoors. He takes off his gloves and stuffs them in the pocket of his coat. He runs his fingers over his hair, tamping down the strands that he knows are wandering, as they have started to do as of late, even after he has adopted a more conservative style more suited to a man his age. Not that he is old. Far from it. But his rakish twenties are far behind him and middle age is on a distant horizon because it’s not really a function of life span divided by two, but closer to a traditional retirement age, which is at least twenty years off.
The line is short. In fact, there is only one person in front of him, hidden under a polyester parka, and as he/she moves to the left, the barista confirms his order without even asking and two minutes later he is putting on his gloves and pulling open the door. The wind again assaults him and he is walking, trying to keep his coat closed as coffee sloshes out of the drinking slot and onto his calfskin gloves. He takes the coffee in his other hand and slings the coffee from his glove and then wipes it on his coat.
He turns left at the next block and crosses the street and the buildings block the wind, at least most of it, and it’s no longer strafing his face but now seems to come from random directions as it’s buffeted in the man-made canyons of office towers and condominiums. Another block and he reaches his building.
He takes off his gloves while juggling his coffee, which he has yet to even sip. Gloves in the pocket, he reaches inside his coat for his proximity card. Inside the elevator, he touches the reader with his card and pushes the button for the fortieth floor. The elevator is crowded, shoulder to shoulder, but it might as well be empty.
The meeting will start in twenty minutes, just enough time to hang his coat in his closet and check his emails, then on to the conference room. He’s the first one there.
“Good morning, Breece.”
Anthony, his assistant. He returns the greeting. Anthony places a copy of the summary documents at every place at the table.
Anthony stops, points to Breece’s feet.
“You’ve got a little mud on your shoes.” Anthony goes to the sink at the bar and wets a paper napkin and hands it to Breece.
It’s not much, just a dark brown smear, but it stands out against the burgundy leather of his Edward Greens.
Where would he have tracked through mud?
Not really mud, of course. City mud. Just ordinary grime. Dirt. Grit washed down from the buildings. Decomposed crumbs from the food carts. Spilled coffee. Pigeon droppings. Rat feces. A disgusting layer of dregs that wash away with every heavy rain, but when it snows, there is no cleansing, and then a sprinkling of salt, and the dirt turns to a chocolate batter and sticks to everything it touches, even a thousand dollar pair of shoes.
Boots. That’s what he ought to be wearing. Not polished leather with brass eyelets and buckles. Boots like his grandfather’s. Scratched and worn, mismatched laces. They were always covered with a thin dusting of light brown soil, but in the spring, when his grandfather would walk behind the Gravely and till the garden for the first time, moist earth would gather in clumps on the soles. Young Breece would follow behind, breathing in the rich aroma of life in the ground that had been buried under the long, cold winter months. Earthworms wiggled and squirmed, not at all pleased that their slumber had been disturbed. Breece would look for the biggest ones, pull them from the newly formed clods and drop them into the soil-filled coffee can where they would later be sacrificed to the small-mouth in the Coal River.
He wore sneakers back then and didn’t care about dirt or mud or anything else on his shoes or under his fingernails or the ever-present dark stain on the knees of his jeans. He was always digging through the earth or building a dam across the creek at the bottom of the holler and breaking apart the claystone in search of fossils or playing games of full-contact tackle football in the vacant lot behind the junior high school.
It was best when it was muddy, as it usually was in late October, just after the leaves had changed. And it was cool but not cold and they had played on the field so much that the grass was worn and the least little bit of rain made puddles, and a good tackle was when you brought down the kid with the ball and you slid another five yards after hitting the ground. You weren’t really playing tackle football if you were clean, and it was understood that you had to let the mud dry in thick cakes and then knock it off only after your parents yelled at you and then sprayed you off in the back yard with a garden hose.
Mud. Beautiful, glorious, thick, West Virginia mud.
And then the explosion at the plant. Five men were killed, including his father.
Shortly after, he and his mother moved to Connecticut. She remarried. He went to prep school. His grandfather died of cancer. They went back for the funeral, but didn’t even spend the night. There was no family left.
After prep school, it was on to Princeton for his undergraduate degree, then Harvard Business School. Then New York City.
He wipes the smear from his shoe and looks at the brown stain on the napkin. Anthony has left the room. He raises the napkin to his nose and breathes in, hoping to get a sniff, a hint, of what he has forgotten, what he remembers, what his sterile, well-kept life has sheltered him from all these years.
He looks at his manicured hands, the clean, crisp fingernails so short that he couldn’t get mud underneath if he tried.
Anthony has re-entered the room, along with a gaggle of similar well-bred elites ready to negotiate the deal that will ultimately enable them to buy expensive shoes and live in upscale apartments and summer on the island and hire a gardener to mow the lawn and trim the trees and dig the soil and plant the shrubs and let the gardener’s fingernails be the ones marred by years of honest toil and the richness of all that is basic and good and pure.
Breece looks out the window. Glass towers as far as he can see. Somewhere beyond are mountains and valleys and rich, fertile soil. Real dirt. Real mud. Real life.
He folds the napkin and puts it in the inside pocket of his suit.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird