The Tenth Annual "Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest Results

Third Place: The Warmth of Snow

by Margaret Burns

She lives on Central Park South, and I like to visit her to put my life into perspective. Unfortunately, every time we get together I drink so much that I end up sick. We'll eat a little lunch in the hotel dining room overlooking the Park and then get extra-strong drinks from the hotel's Irish bartender. He talks our ears off about Yeats and Maude Gonne and Irish cinema and relights our cigarettes. Then we fall into the elevators, laughing, and spin up to the 32nd floor. Katrina climbs into bed and I look out the window, pressing my body against the glass, and stare down at the passing cars and the people ice-skating below. Then I wish for snow.

Katrina's husband, Jordan, is away on business, as usual, so I'm the one watching her sleep. When she wakes up I will tell her we're getting -- I'm getting -- too old to drink. She will wake up with alabaster skin, looking refreshed and ready to begin again. I will find lines between my eyebrows and bitch. Then we will walk her lithe little dog, a whippet, and it will wear a sweater, like all rich New Yorker dogs. And I will fly back home without having seen snow.

I've never seen snow because I've lived in south Florida my whole life, and whenever I visit New York, it's unseasonably warm. But I've dreamed about snow. I've dreamed about making snow angels and catching flakes on my tongue, head back, world-stopped. I've dreamed about snowmen, about my boots sinking in a drift, and my favorite -- about sledding down a hill fast as Mercury.

When my brother Bobby calls me back home in West Palm, he will taunt me about the weather. "Hey, Polly, hot enough for you?" he will say.

"The Snowbirds sure like it here this time of year," I will say.

I work in real estate, and I know a thing or two about property. There's the Snowbird sort of property, the Florida waterfront sort of property, and then there's New York, which is its very own sort of property. I can't pass a piece of land while I'm in New York without estimating its value. I contemplate this when Jordan drives us over the 59th Street Bridge from LaGuardia. There is a city of dead people below us. They're spaced an inch apart, as if they're all in the same family plot. For the first time I don't fear death because they don't look like they're alone. That, I think, is what I want when I die.

***

Katrina's given me a key to her apartment so that I can come and go as I please. My brother asks for a key, too, because he's trying to make his big break in show business, and he wants to pretend he lives in Manhattan. He studies acting at Yale, and he thinks he has The Look. He just auditioned for a Sprite commercial, which he didn't get, but his girlfriend did. She used to live in L.A. and she's been an extra on One Life to Live. Bobby calls her an ex-extra.

Bobby's girlfriend is this big family scandal because she's black. Her name is Rhonda, and my brother likes to sing, "Help me, Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda." This is her first winter in the north, and she, too, wants to see snow. I notice how next to my brother she looks more vibrant, with her flawless skin, bejeweled, almost. She has a button nose that scrunches up when she laughs. I think, I want a button nose.

"Polly, I don't understand your friend," Rhonda says.

When Rhonda and Bobby visit, Katrina's sobering up in her gigantic bed, holding a glass of water. We are supposed to go to the city together, but it looks like Katrina isn't going anywhere. Jordan has come home and ordered everyone coffee and some French Onion soup for Katrina, who says she won't eat it. Rhonda reaches for the bowl instead.

"Hell, I'll have some," she says, and proceeds to talk about how good every bite tastes. Bobby kicks the whippet away from his feet and Rhonda rescues it in her arms without spilling a drop of soup. Rhonda is so much hipper than I am, and she has a perfect body so she can wear a tight skirt and no bra, and she looks good in fuschia make-up, too. The cold simply makes her more stunning. Everything we tried on today at the boutiques came to life on her -- electric blue scarves, expensive orange hats, grape purple jackets. Bobby's skin appears ashy and colorless when their cheeks touch.

One thing I hate about Katrina and Jordan's place, it has too many mirrors. I don't like accidentally catching a glimpse of myself unawares. I see the wrinkles between my eyes. They're just above the bridge of my nose. I see Katrina in the corner of my eye. She has fallen asleep sitting up.

***

"Polly, what's wrong with your friend?" Rhonda asks.

The three of us have gone to the bar, leaving Jordan to watch after Katrina.

"She's an alcoholic," I say.

"What about you, Polly?" she asks.

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"You're always frowning or something," she says.

"Pol's had a hard life," Bobby says.

"Very funny," I say.

"Do you like living in West Palm?" Rhonda asks. She is definitely the most polite girl my brother has ever dated.

"What's the weather like there?" she asks.

"It's always warm," I say.

"Maybe you need some diversity in your life," she says.

Since she happens to be black, I think, what does she mean by that? But I don't get a chance to ask because she heads for the bar to get more beer.

"I'm gonna leave her," Bobby says, when she is safely out of earshot.

"Why?" I ask. Then I say, "Is everyone going crazy?"

"Who's everyone?" He is defensive.

"Bobby, she's perfect. Is it the racial thing?" I ask.

"No, no, I'm just not in the mood to have a relationship," he says, all matter-of-fact.

"Not in the mood?" I am incredulous. "Everyone around me is so busy getting what they want, they're ruining a perfectly good thing."

"Maybe you should try to get what you want," he says. "Just because you're 30 and still single doesn't mean you're doomed."

"Gee, thanks," I say.

"Well, you've got a nice apartment, a good job -- you live on the beach, for Christ's sake."

"I've been avoiding the sun for like five years now because I'm getting wrinkles."

"If you're not going to take advantage of the warm weather, you should move somewhere else," he says.

"You know Katrina cheats on Jordan? He's beautiful, he adores her, gives her everything she wants, and she does it with the 50-year-old bartender."

"Polly, take your snow and go back to Florida and be miserable."

I picture myself going back to Florida with some snow, then watching it melt before my eyes, evaporating right in front of me. I think, that would make me cry. I take a big swig of Heineken. Rhonda slides back into the booth next to Bobby.

"Come on, didn't you have fun in college?" Bobby asks. He will not let this conversation go. "Hell, if I remember correctly, you and Katrina parties like crazy. You always had lots of boyfriends."

"And look where all the partying got us -- Katrina's a drunk, and none of those relationships amounted to anything. Now I'm getting old," I say.

"Your problem is that you deal in extremes. You're tired of the hot weather, so you want snow. You're tired of being alone, so you fall in love with a married guy."

"I've always wanted to see snow, and I'm not in love with anyone," I say, and make a dramatic exit to the bathroom.

In the bathroom I attempt to ignore the mirror. When I pull down my tights I notice the flabby whiteness of my thighs. They have little light hairs on them. I'm swearing under my breath about how unfair life is, how my brother was blessed with naturally olive skin and very little leg hair, and then it hits me. Bobby is so wrong about me. I'm not in love with Jordan.

Back at the table, I finish the pitcher of beer by myself, and Bobby si worried. He is worried that Katrina is rubbing off on me. Rhonda has chosen to play Groovy Kind of Love on the jukebox. It is the Phil Collins version that I hate so much. I sing along anyway.

***

I have awakened in the newly fallen snow. I feel it cold and wet on my lips. I can't believe it snowed. I rub snow over my face and roll around in what little there is on the ground.

***

The clock on the dash reads 2:30 a.m. We are on our way to Rhonda's studio apartment in Brooklyn. I look out the cab window to see if the snow is falling, but it isn't. I ask the driver if it is going to snow tomorrow. He says he doesn't know. I can tell he's not putting a lot of thought into my question. I touch my face to feel where the snow has been. One of my cheeks is cold and numb. I look at my gloves to see if there are any snowflakes on them. If there were any, they've melted now.

"Well, glad you saw snow?" Bobby asks.

My head is freezing and I'm shaking uncontrollably. I want to reply but I don't know what to say.

***

The next morning, I am back in a cab again, this time to Katrina's. I am going to tell Jordan that Katrina is sleeping with The Irishman. I don't feel like using the key, so I knock instead, and it takes Jordan a long time to answer. He opens the door and tightens the belt on his robe.

"Hi, Polly," Jordan says. He hugs me hard and I can feel the muscles in his back move.

"Jordan, I have to talk to you," I say.

"Pol!" Katrina shouts. "Come give me a hug!"

I step into her room, and she pulls me down on the bed with her. I can tell she's naked underneath the covers.

"What's wrong, Polly?" Jordan asks. "You look sick. I'll make you some tea."

"I saw snow," I say.

"That's great, Pol," Jordan says.

"Yeah, Polly, that's great," Katrina says, hugging me.

I involuntarily pet her hair, which smells of vomit. I watch Jordan as he walks to the kitchen to put the kettle on, then as he opens the curtains. I watch him in his white bathrobe, the way his body moves. I want to tell him but I can't. Pale light pours in on us and Katrina squints her eyes.

"Bobby's leaving Rhonda," I say.

"You're kidding," Jordan says. "Why?"

"Why?" Katrina echoes. "She seems like such a nice girl."

"I don't know," I say. "Who knows why people do what they do."

Jordan is being busy and Katrina has snuggled up onto my shoulder.

"I wouldn't give that up," I say. "You know, all I wanted was to see snow. My brother sees snow and he complains that it's too cold outside. Since I was a little girl, I wanted to see snow. I wanted to know what it felt like. I wanted my cheeks to blush and my toes to tingle."

"It's just snow, Pol," Jordan says. He hands me a mug. Katrina snores quietly.

I look out the window. When the snow begins to fall, it is eerily dark and quiet, and the sky is a shade darker. I am amazed by the silence of it all. I think, I am small.

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