All the Live Long Day

Shades of gray colored the steps as he walked. He was never very good at discerning closely shaded colors, not even in his youth, and his eyes were tired from squinting at the setting sun, the wrinkled edges of his eyelids burning from the strain. It all blended together, blurring the lines between steps so that as he climbed, he tripped, his toes banging into the polished concrete. After the fifth time doing this, he stopped, beads of sweat hanging just above the ledge of his eyebrows on his forehead, precariously on the verge of falling over and in and stinging his eyes.

The white dress shirt he wore was soaked in streaks, care and attention still evident in the few remaining unwrinkled spots. The flab of his gut bulged grotesquely above the tucked in waist, stretching uncomfortably against his black leather belt. He could feel the metal buckle kneading into his flesh; imagined the darkened, angular inset that would be against his stomach. He had loosened his tie many steps ago, but didn’t take it off, and he had refused to loosen his pants as a matter of pride. He thought, as foolish as he must look already, he wouldn’t add to it, not now.

He raised his wrinkled hands and rubbed deeply against his eyes. He could feel the veins on his knuckles moving under the skin against his eye, against the bones in his hand, an insistent pulsing rushing through them with each pulse of his heart. He could feel his wedding ring, a cool, rough band that made spots shine in his closed eyes. His hands shook from the exertion.

He had never understood those spots. Sometimes they’d look like stars, but painted ones, lacking depth and realism like some child’s first crayon drawing. Other times, it would be as if he was traveling through a long, dark tunnel, flying, an eddy of shimmering light rushing by him. The tunnel would end and open up into a vast cavern dominated by a dark planet floating in the center, drawing him to it, and even if he’d open his eyes, he’d still see this looming shape in front of his eyes every way he looked. He felt heavy whenever he saw this image, these lights and spots, like a massive weight was pressing down on the back of his tongue, filling his mouth, so that he couldn’t breathe.

He squinted up at the sky once again, looking up, trying to see the end of the stairs. The joint in his knees cried like school age boys as he lifted one tired leg after the other, and resumed his climb. He took the steps even slower now, timing them with his ever-shallowing breaths.

His wife had always told him he needed to exercise more. She said it would be good for his heart. He always smiled at her, told her he would get to it one of these days, and she’d always say “you’d better get to it soon before you’re really dead.” They’d laugh. It was one of their running jokes. It’s what old people do they thought: laugh at death.

All around him he saw a fading landscape. It was snowing just beyond the sides of the stairs, a consistent down pour of large, fluffy flakes. They’d hit the ground and pile up in neat stacks on the dark green grass, forming tall rectangles that fell against each other to form a perfectly smooth layer of white. The snow didn’t touch the concrete stairs though, didn’t hit him, and didn’t wet the gray of the stone. He was thankful that he didn’t have to worry about slipping.

His wife had always loved the grass and the snow. They used to go out in the winters when everyone else had bundled up inside and take long walks as it fell. She’d fix her eyes on the small blades of grass desperately poking up through the white blanket, rebounding against each fallen flake. She thought it was very heroic the way they persevered and struggled on. She’d hold on to his arm through their woolen coats, a reassuring weight against his body, completely entranced by the scene in front of her, oblivious whenever he spoke.

They’d always walk to the corner coffee shop where all the staff knew them by their names and always had their order ready. They knew that even though it was pouring snow out, even though everyone else was inside, he would still be there, with his wife on his arm, and be expecting his decaf coffee and poppy seed muffin, at the same time, every day. The wife never ate anything but sat with a bright smile on her face, dimpling bright pink wrinkled cheeks. He even had a favorite mug; it was the one with the sunflowers all around the side set against a bright blue sky.

She remembers when he first picked out that mug. He had found it in the Lost and Found of the coffee shop while looking for an umbrella he had misplaced earlier in the week. The snows were falling hard that week, with a real sense of purpose as if goaded along by the town people’s efforts to clear the walk, and though they preferred to walk with the full force of nature upon them, to feel the light sting of each melting snow flake on their face, down their backs, a lingering cough from a lingering cold had insisted that they be less cavalier about their daily constitutionals and employ at least a tiny bit of sense.

This meant the use of a battered old umbrella he had unwillingly dug out from a box in the attic. They got a couple of day’s worth of use out of it, and then it was gone. And though he checked in every place they’d been that week, she was convinced that he had lost it intentionally and that they would never see it again.

As he rummaged through the contents of the coffee shop’s Lost and Found that day, a small smile on her face as she gently patted him on the back, tossing aside gloves without mates, moth chewed scarves, a heavily wrinkled and ultimately short looking deck of cards, the bright colors of Spring hit his eyes for the first time.

The staff wasn’t sure what they were supposed to do when he first approached them and asked for his coffee served in the dusty and chipped mug, but a quick run through the disinfectant and three minutes to perk later, the tradition was set. The mug even had a special place among all the other cups in the shop, a bright point of green and blue discernible against a sea of beige from all the way on the other side.

The staff was young teenagers for the most part, working to make some pocket money for the afternoons and weekends outside of school, spending their earnings at the second run movie theater or at the same coffee shop where they worked. There were a few who looked to be the same age the man and his wife, trying to stay busy in their retirement years, not really needing the money but wanting to feel useful still. Seeing this old couple together put romantic thoughts into their collective heads, thoughts of true love and forever, of a possible future to come or one that’s passed. But he never thought his marriage would last that long. If asked, he would say that patience is what made it all possible.

He must be at least a quarter of the way up by now he thought. “How long could this thing possibly go?” He was feeling more energetic; the crying in his knees had lessened to more of a whimper and he no longer cringed when he took a step at the reverberating sound of bone against bone making its way up his spine. His thighs puffed happily with each exertion like big fat creatures, beading out bright drops of sweat that soaked his pants in spots like smiling faces stamped against the fabric.

He rearranged his clothes a little, tried to straighten out his tuck against his stomach and back. He managed a somewhat straight and wrinkle-less look through his efforts. He tightened his tie, taking a guess at how straight it was without a mirror. He took his hand and in one quick motion slicked back his hair with the accumulated sweat, tossing it to one side, taking a deep sigh that seemed to let go of all the steps he’s taken so far. His wedding ring slipped off his slender finger in the movement and bounced down the steps with an echoing clang into nothingness behind him. Without notice, he moved upward with renewed vigor.

The snow had lightened and what had accumulated was beginning to melt against the warm earth. He could see small streams trickling, making its way through the grass and parting this miniature forest, the soft sound of running water growing ever louder as it ran. He imagined that soon it would become an overpowering rush, and that maybe it’ll even be strong enough to wash him away. The clouds above softened in their hue, turning a far less menacing gray as the dropping flakes of white imperceptibly melted and turned to rain.

He thought of the love of his life, of a particular one he had met while on a week long business trip to the Midwest. They had sat next to each other on the plane in Business class, and first noticed the other after a charmingly embarrassing mishap involving the wrong scone, bound for the same out of the way destination whose most notable reputation was that it always rained. As a child he had always despised salesmen and had promised himself that he would never become one, yet fate had made him talented in his trade, mean in his instincts, almost cruel in how he closes his sales.

It meant many lonely trips across the country to trade shows, conventions, and product demonstrations. His wife had always been forgiving whenever he left her at home, even going so far as to joke about all the men she could now sleep with while he’s gone. It’s what long married couples do, they thought, before they’re old that is, joke about their possible infidelities; God bless her he thought.

She was a much younger woman than he, with powerful looking legs, the kind that demanded attention. He first noticed her knees, symmetrical and understated, then her smooth but muscular calves leading to red patent leather heels, flexing involuntarily as she moved her feet in small circles. She wore full-length leggings and though they felt smooth beneath his palm, as he tore them an even smoother skin underneath rewarded him. Heat rose from those pale white thighs in waves, heat that he could see, rippling the air around them, washing over his palms and up his arms as he caressed them, gently at first, then rough and firm, with intent.

He could smell the sex from her, see it in the corners of her eyes in how they curled, and taste it in the air between them. It was metallic, like sucking on a rusty penny; it was salt and sweat; it was electrical and numbed his tongue like sucking on a battery. She had grey eyes that had looked empty and pale from a distance, but now sucked him in as he looked down at her through her delicate eyebrows.

Their small talk on the plane had been pleasant. Trading business cards they talked shop, swapping industry gossip. “Did you hear that Fairfield was just sued for sexual harassment? I hear it’s all a setup, but he’s paying out the settlement anyway to hush it up. Too bad it’s all along the grapevine already. I don’t think his wife will be too happy with that�”

They spent every night together that week, and each time he felt on the verge of suffocating from her scent. It overwhelmed him. He tried to justify to himself what he was doing, that it was because he needed something to do to escape from the constant rain, that without it he’d just be running from the convention to the hotel bar to the hotel, that he’d go stir crazy. They made love like two strangers who will never meet again, taking comfort in small things like not kissing on the lips, not trying to hide the wedding ring on his finger. He can still see those gray eyes looking up at him. He screamed like a virgin teenager every time he came.

They met up throughout the convention as well, being introduced to each other by business associates as if it were the first time. They’d both smile at the other, making pleasant remarks, shaking hands and swapping business cards. By the end of the week he had a small stack of hers tucked away safely in a corner of his briefcase. And each night he’d use her, like he never could his wife, like in his fantasies, roughly, painfully pleasurable.

In their passion they literally pulled at each other, leaving fingernail marks, red welts, small indiscreet bruises, sucking each other dry. Every morning he would pull on his shirt collar like a nervous first year salesman at his first convention, afraid that his infidelities could be seen.

Halfway there, he thought.

He was feeling aroused. An erection bulged against his pants uncomfortably as he climbed. On either side of him the snow had melted completely off the ground and the rain had stopped, the clouds melting away to a glaringly bright blue sky, revealing bare trees with white branches that reminded him of every woman he’s slept with, like nymphs calling him to them, standing naked on small patches of grass. He slapped his cheeks with the smooth of his palms, shaking of the rainwater slicking his skin and started running the steps in twos. He ran until the sweat dropped off his chin like the rain onto the white steps below.

He was hot now with the strong sun beating down on him with its full force, the rainwater and sweat evaporating off of him forming a thin layer of mist and steam against his masculine form. His broad chest rose with each heaving breath as he recovered from his running climb. He stood there leaning forward against the top of his thighs, his head dropped from exhaustion. He looked up at the sky, his mouth open from the dry heat, raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, casting hand prints kaleidoscopically in shadows on the ground around him.

He took off his tie with finality, like someone taking off their tie for the last time. He took off his tie without bothering to untie it, pulling at it with his large hands until it loosened, small tears appearing along the frayed edges, letting it fall next to his feet in a knotted heap. He took off his shirt and used it to wipe the remaining sweat from his face and chin, then ran it against his muscular torso, drying himself.

He liked feeling the definition of his muscles against his hand, the curvature in his flesh. It had taken a lot of work to develop, and even more to maintain, and he was proud of it. He let the sweat soaked shirt, yellowed now, fall on top of his tie and began climbing again with firm, decided steps, his shoes resonating loudly every time they fell.

The women along the side of the steps came toward him, only a few at a time at first, then in waves. They reached out and caressed his broad chest with soft hands and soft skin, with sharp, well-manicured bright red painted nails, and with the light brush of bleached blond, peach fuzz body hair. He moved through them, parting his way with sinewy arms.

She looked like the love of his life, the second one he thought;she, his wife. There’s the one from his best friend’s New Year’s party, his best friend’s wedding, his best friend’s wife, all when he had drunk too much. All minor infidelities and for each he said a quiet prayer for patience.

His wife’s face kept resurfacing from beneath the wave, a soft smile that sparkled clear green eyes and dimpled smooth cheeks, then all he could see was her, her perfect, slender body, small hands modestly hiding her breasts.

They had first met when he was twenty-seven. He had been floating aimlessly around the country since graduating from college and had never found anything that interested him for longer than a year. And he enjoyed being mobile. He felt that he had an entire lifetime left to settle down, so for now, it was best to keep moving.

She was just finishing college at the same place he went, when he happened to be in town looking up old professors just for kicks. He was talking with his old literature professor, or more specifically talking at him, a cigarette hanging in his half open mouth as he spoke, rings of smoke circling about his sunglasses that had fallen down his nose, in the middle of a long winded pseudo-Academic conversation about J. D. Salinger when she knocked on the door and let herself in. In the silence that ensued some cigarette ash fell onto his hand.

He clumsily introduced himself, then excused himself while she spoke with her professor about a paper she was writing for him then left. He shook his hand in exasperated pain, said a hasty goodbye to his professor, and ran after her.

It was summer and the grass of the college quad was lush and green. Other students were gathered in small circles, deep in conversation with one another, laughing. He had chased her part ways across the lawn before he finally caught up to her, and not knowing her name, tapped her lightly on the right shoulder. She turned around, a summer breeze picking up her long brown hair. He stopped smoking after this.

He rubbed the small scar that was still on the top of his right hand as he looked at her. Green leaves were falling against red brick buildings on the side of the steps where she stood. He knew he missed her. He could hear her saying, joking “Stop! How can you miss me? You just saw me silly!” She was laughing at him, like all young couples do.

He went up to her and held her in his arms. She whispered “I could stay in these arms all day” and squeezed herself against him, her soft breasts pressing against his chest. He had never kissed any of the other women, never he assured himself, and now he kissed her.

He was embarrassed. He ran up the stairs as quickly as his little legs could carry him to get away. He still felt like he wasn’t fully in control of them yet, that at any moment they would just stop or trip or get completely tangled. But just a little father and he’d be safe in his room. He could see the door he was so close. He’d be able to crawl into his bed and curl up under his covers. He had a flashlight there and every night he’d pitch himself a tent with his blankets when he was supposed to be sleeping and watch the dust reflect the light around him. He’d try to catch the dust with his hands, watching them glow against his palm.

Sometimes he’d stay up so late that the first birds of morning had begun to sing outside his bedroom window, flying between the flowering tree branches, and the first glimpse of sunlight was shining in his eyes. On days like these he didn’t want to go to school; he would rather lie in bed listening to the birds and sounds of his parents downstairs.

He didn’t like crying, especially not in front of them; he thought he was past that age. But whenever his father left with his good suit and tie on and his briefcase all packed, a small stack of business cards in his shirt pocket, he just couldn’t help it. Before he could make it up the steps on his own he had clung to his mother’s leg , hiding behind her knees as his father walked out the door. He was still young enough then to think that he would never come back, and he cried.

But he was older now, and old enough to get away. Old enough to not need his mother to carry him home.

He remembers his mother carrying him all the way to the top of the stairs, holding him in her arms, rocking him. She used to tell him simple stories, short fairy tales about a man who lived to be a hundred and died smiling, surrounded by memories of the people he loved and patience for his trials. She used to sing to him “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live long day.”

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