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Winter Morning | Brick Phillips

The path led from the woods by his house down to the edge of the marshes and then wrapped around the perimeter to the football field and the high school. It was the path David used to take when he went to the high school. He and his friend Walter, who’d lived three houses down, used to walk to school together, smoking cigarettes. The walk was exactly three cigarettes long – the first butt went in a hollow at the base of an old tree at the edge of the marsh, the second went in the red trashcan by the first end zone, and the third went in the ashtray by the front door. They never said much or saw each other any other time, but David felt close to Walter because of the cigarettes and the fact that they were both going somewhere reluctantly together. When they did talk, they would talk about cars they wanted to buy and how they’d fix them up and paint them and how fast they’d drive them and which roads they’d drive them the fastest on and which girls they’d screw in the backs of them. One time, he remembered, they’d joked about how they’d probably die going too fast in their cars. While getting a blowjob. They’d just drive right off the road, off a bridge and into the water or smack into a tree. David remembered it so well because it was so realistic the way they’d talked about it. He saw it so clearly he was sure he was seeing into his future, seeing what would actually happen. In a way he almost wanted it to happen because it would mean he’d be getting a blowjob. But it never did happen and now he was much older and didn’t drive so fast anymore. It was also the first time he’d joked about death, his own death, or really talked about it with anyone, and he could still remember the exact feeling, how weird and off-limits it felt. He only ever got a similar feeling the one time he’d cheated on Beth, the way the woman kept touching his cock under the table at the bar and he kept smiling and looking at the liquor bottles lit up warm and half-slurring “no.”

The summer after they graduated Walter did die in a car crash. There was a girl in the car, too. David had always wondered if it had happened the way Walter had pictured it.

David finished his first cigarette but the tree was gone so he just flicked it into the marsh. He stopped and looked out across the marshes, the yellow grasses matted down with snow, the pools of water half-frozen and sludgy-looking. Across the marsh was the cemetery where his parents were buried. The iced headstones looked like dirty windows, frosty, ashy panels that nobody could ever see through, opaque and unwashable. Next to the cemetery, separated by a lattice of white, twisted branches, was the high school. It looked the same – a big brick rectangle with a couple smaller brick boxes stuck on either end. The only new thing was the scoreboard behind the cold metal bleachers that was now running a hypnotic spiral program.

Walter had gone straight from the high school to the cemetery. A lot of people had. The summer after graduation had felt a little like the end of the world, and it sort of was. People did crazy things – drove too fast, climbed too high, drank too much, got in too many fights.

David could see a man walking around the marsh toward him. He wondered who it was. He lit another cigarette and kept walking. Behind the big brick rectangle, the sky was turning a light smoky color. The man was walking quickly, his head lowered. After a minute, David could see the man clearly, though he still had his head down. He had thick, poofy black hair that stuck up and out and a narrow, sloped face with a black stubble beard. His hands were jammed into his coat pockets, arms straight, as if he wanted to get his hands as far into the pockets as possible. He never looked up or anywhere other than straight down at the ground in front of him. David couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not. When he was about to bump into David, he stopped abruptly, looked at David and said “Do you have another cigarette?”

“Sure,” said David and pretended to fumble around several different pockets looking for his pack, even though he knew it was in his inner coat pocket. “Here you go,” he said, handing him the cigarette and lighting it for him. The man dragged and blew out a long, slow funnel of smoke that curled back around his cheek and disappeared over his right shoulder. He didn’t keep walking. David took a long drag, looked out over the marshes and blew it out with a little sigh. The man turned to look out over the frozen marshes, though not in quite the same direction.

David spat on the ground. It was a greeting. The man blew out some more smoke and looked back down at David’s spitting, freezing and curdling in the ice-caked mud.

“Couldn’t sleep anymore,” the man said. “Tried to watch TV and cook bacon, but the house felt bad so I took a walk.” David looked at him but he was still looking down.

“Really?” he asked. The guy looked up then, right at David.

“Yeah,” he said. His ears and nose were pinked by the cold and his eyeballs looked like they were shivering, just quivering the slightest bit like they were dreaming. He looks like a mechanic, he thought. He must work at one of the ones I don’t go to, Amoco or the one by the bank. The man was picking at something on his chin, a scab or a pimple or something. David was getting cold just standing there and he was getting kind of sick of the awkwardness. The man looked at David’s eyes and licked his lips. They looked red and solid like candies.

“I have to do this at least once a week.” He paused. “Got another cigarette?” David did the fumbling thing again out of habit. “They’re still in your coat pocket,” said the man. David pulled out two cigarettes. This time the man pulled out a lighter and lit them both. “They make you feel not as cold.” David nodded that he agreed.

Brick Phillips lives in a virtually windowless studio apartment in Fairhaven.  He is currently experiencing a quarter-life crisis, and at the rate he’s going it will probably be his mid-life crisis as well.

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