'Clear Midnight' a new story by Michael Caleb Tasker

That winter it was bad and he often woke a little before midnight with his teeth aching and he would dress quickly and walk through the snow for an hour or so and later, when he came home, he saw the lights burning softly at her window. She didn’t seem to sleep much. Sometimes he stopped in the hallway and listened at her door but there was little to hear. Once he heard the squeak of a cork but there weren’t any voices and he liked the thought of her having a late night drink, alone, while the building slept.

He saw her several times in the elevator and always nodded and looked away, quickly, afraid to hold her eye. She was young and kept odd hours but there was something about her that made him think she was recently divorced and happy with it. When they got off at the same floor she smiled that wonderful, wary smile pretty women develop and he wanted to introduce himself, wanted to hear her speak, maybe even hear her laugh, but instead he gave his own wary smile and walked quickly to his apartment.

There was a snowstorm after Christmas. A bad one. It took the city two days to clear his street and when he woke at night he looked out the window, looked at the hushed, buried streets and went out walking anyway, his feet falling, sinking deep down into the snow. He walked all the way to Front Street, down to Dusty’s, but they were closed and he stood in the snow a while, thinking hard in that cold air. Ghostly blue light from the café’s sign drifted over the snow, danced with the small wind that played in the air.

When he got home it was late and her lights were out. He looked up at the building and a man came and stood next to him.

‘You got a cigarette?’ The man asked.

‘No.’

‘Hell.’

‘I quit last year.’

‘Take it up again.’

Hugo smelled the nicotine coming off the stranger, and the raw, wind-blown scent of worn out leather that made him think of being a boy, of waiting for his father to come home again.

They looked at each other.

‘Maybe you could spare a few coins?’

‘Yes,’ Hugo said. He held up two large silver coins, grinned, and when he put them in the stranger’s hand he coughed, like his father had taught him. The man held up a five-dollar bill and blinked at it.

‘Good trick.’ He put the money in his pocket.

Hugo looked at the man. He was enormous. His beard and hair were thick and matted and he nodded up at the darkened building.

‘She pretty?’ The man asked.

‘Who?’

‘Whoever lives in those windows you were looking at.’

‘In her way,’ he said. The wind blew. A long, thin wind that stung Hugo’s cheek and he looked at the man. ‘Okay.’

‘Okay.’

Hugo nodded to himself and walked up the steps, kicked snow from his boots, shook the snow from his hair but it had melted already. He wanted a scotch but it was too cold. Behind him he heard feet falling into snow, but when he turned around the man was still standing there, looking up at the building.

‘There’s a laundry room in the basement,’ Hugo said.

‘Oh yeah?’

‘You can stay there if you want.’

He took the man down in the elevator and let him into the laundry room. It was warm in there.

‘Look. A lot of old people live here. I don’t want any of them to come in to do their washing and have a stroke or something when they find you. You’ll scare the hell out of them. You’re too big. Over there, that door, it leads to the alley out back. Just let yourself out in the morning.’

‘You got it.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Eugene.’

‘Good name. It was my father’s name.’

‘He’s dead?’

‘Yes.’

‘Recently?’

‘No. Ages ago. I was in my thirties.’

‘Still got your mother?’

‘Oh yeah. Death can’t kill her.’

It got a laugh. A small one.

When he came home from work she was stepping out her door and he nodded to her, taxes and sour voices running through his head so that he knew his smile was off, weak and wandering and nothing she would want to look at, and when he got into his apartment he went to the window and watched her out in the street, holding her coat closed at the neck. She hailed a taxi with a sharp hand. The wind pulled playfully at her hair.

He was home the next two nights and not long after dark he saw her down on the street again, dashing into taxis, looking like she was running late. At least the city had cleared the snow. She would get wherever it was quickly. He ate his dinner at the card table so he could watch the street, watch the snow drift off the piles the snowploughs made, watch the cars thin out until there was something aimless and longing to the occasional headlights that lit up the streets. He had a drink and went to bed early but he woke a little before midnight, opened a window for the cold air and dressed. In the hallway he stood a minute at her door.

Outside he crossed the street, turned south, toward Dusty’s, and he saw her windows were lit. After a minute someone moved, rolled their shadow over the ceiling and he remembered waiting for his father to come home one night, watching from his bedroom window as the moon grew larger until he noticed his father’s small figure standing in the street, smoking a cigarette, watching the house.

Up on the eighth floor another light came on and someone stood at the window so Hugo walked away, quickly. He didn’t know anyone on the eighth floor.

It was cold in Dusty’s and he ordered a slice of apple pie and cheddar cheese and when Edna brought it to him he grinned up at her.

‘I was feeling off, but you turned me on.’

‘You’ve used that one before.’

‘It’s good enough to use twice.’

‘If you say so.’ She sat down and lit a cigarette. ‘I’m freezing. Even with the heat on, I’m freezing.’ She looked him over. ‘You walk down here? Subway doesn’t run this late.’

‘I walked. I like it.’

‘You’re turning into your dad.’

‘Next up, my vanishing pie act.’

‘His jokes were better.’

‘Sim sala bim.’

It was almost dawn when he left. The wind was sharp enough to draw blood and the streets were empty, quiet, so that those thoughts were loud in his head, and they tapped heavily at his brow and he wondered if that was what his father had felt like, if that was why his father would stand down the block smoking, watching his house when he had already been away so long.

His cheeks were numb when he got home and he liked it. The sky was a pale, northern blue and the clouds were dark, almost black like they were still holding on to the night, trying to pull it back over the city and when he walked into his apartment it was freezing and he remembered he had left all the windows open. He made coffee with his coat on and drank it by the window, looking down at the street and in the dim, dubious light of daybreak he saw someone across the street, standing in a doorway, smoking a cigarette, watching the street and watching his building with the same nervous posture his father had. Hugo finished his coffee and realised that the man was almost as big as the doorway and he thought it must be Eugene, back, hoping for another night in the laundry room. He wondered what brand of cigarettes Eugene smoked.

She smiled at him and held the elevator door. She looked pretty, subtle, and pretty like a woman who is meeting her father for dinner, but she wasn’t going out. They rode up together and Hugo smelled her perfume, that warm, expensive smell of a damp overcoat, and he was sure she had cold cream on as well and he wondered if that was to keep her skin soft against the windburn. He grinned at her and wanted to say something, better still do a trick for her, but too many ran through his mind until he thought of a few of the more morbid ones his father had come up with at the end and when he thought of these he found himself laughing in a quiet, private way that he worried she might find inappropriate. But she didn’t hear him, didn’t notice him and she seemed surprised when the elevator stopped at their floor and he waited for her to leave.

‘Oh. Sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t know where I was.’

She stepped out and Hugo gave her a soft smile and saw her eyes were red and held that sparkling clarity of held back tears. He followed behind her and when she came to her door she turned back, looked at him in a way so he knew she was nervous as hell.

‘You have a good night,’ he said.

‘Likewise.’

He went quickly to his door, went into his apartment and locked the door behind him. He hoped she heard the bolt snap.

That night he didn’t bother with sleep. Thoughts rattled and his jaws ached and when he thought of the woman down the hall he worried in a different way so that finally he got out his father’s old notebooks and a deck of cards and practised a few of the harder tricks, something to impress people at the store. His hands shook and he couldn’t move the cards right, couldn’t slide them or hide them, and he wondered how his father had always been able to. Cold air crawled slowly up his back and he looked around, quickly, nervously, but he was still alone. Later, he made coffee and drank it by the window, half expecting to see his father out there, in the street, alone, watching something in his mind.

Wind fell heavily through the streets, rattled the windows, and the snow tore through the night, danced through the air like a wicked horse, struggled to catch the sad and pale light of a hidden moon. Later, well past midnight, Hugo dressed and went out, stopped in the hallway, outside her door and listened, heard the tender, teasing sound of ice falling into itself inside a cocktail glass and he wondered what she drank. Vodka maybe. He couldn’t imagine her drinking that scotch he liked.

In the morning, when he left for work, he stopped in front of her door. She was laughing. It was a good laugh, full, deep and real and beautiful without trying to be. He touched the doorknob.

After work he walked through the rush-hour streets, the sidewalks filled with red-cheeked shoppers and weary office workers. Tired school children followed their parents, happily lost, their thoughts a thousand miles away, somewhere free of those parents they followed so blindly, until he turned down toward Front Street, toward Dusty’s where the streets were a little quieter and the people a little shabbier, a little colder. Edna brought him meatloaf and he remembered when his father started bringing him to the city, where they ate, and, when Hugo was old enough, where they drank. It didn’t take much to get his father going. Two old-fashioneds and he was flushed, talking too fast, thinking of new towns, new shows, and new faces and wondering how to give them more and give them better.

While he ate he watched Edna take down the Christmas lights and he thought it was too soon, that they should stay up until March, brighten things up a little. Make the world a little warmer.

He went to Babylon after dinner, treated himself to a Balvenie with two ice cubes and watched them melt while he listened to the piano run riot, chasing those awkward sounds, and he thought that the smooth-looking man sitting on the stage was trying to come up with something different but throwing beauty out the window. Different will only get you so far, he thought, and never far enough. He finished his drink in a swallow and walked out, back into the night and he walked fast and when he got to his building he looked up, saw her windows were dark and he kept going, kept walking, trying to chase something that was burning in the back of his mind. Edna was right; he was turning into his father. It started to snow heavily so that he couldn’t see more than thirty feet ahead and the whole city was a quiet, humming blur of gliding headlights that got caught in the bustle of swiftly twisting snow.

It was late when he got back to his building and he looked up, tried to see her windows, tried to see her, but with the weather he couldn’t make out anything. Behind him, someone lit a cigarette, coughed softly and then there was the smell of nicotine.

‘Remember me?’

‘Eugene,’ Hugo said.

‘That’s right.’ Eugene offered Hugo a cigarette.

‘I don’t smoke anymore.’

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘You quit last year. What brings you home so late?’

‘I went for a walk.’

‘In this?’

‘I have trouble sleeping.’

‘That so?’

‘Well, I can sleep alright. I mean I can go to sleep just fine. Early even. It’s the staying asleep that’s hard. I get three hours, four if I’m lucky and then I’m up, wondering what’s going on. Just once I’d like to clear midnight.’

‘I get that.’

‘But you sleep in doorways.’

‘Not every night.’

Hugo tried to smile up at him. Up on his floor he could make out the warm golden glow at a window. He counted along from the corner of the building.

‘I’m leaving lights on,’ he said. ‘I don’t usually do that.’

‘That you on the fourth floor?’

‘I think so.’ He watched the windows. The light seemed to move, slowly, from window to window, wandering like a lost ghost until it went out and the two of them stood in the street looking at the dark building.

‘Guess you’re gonna have to buy new bulbs.’

‘My father used to do this trick, late at night, when we were alone in the house and it was dark. If he went to the bathroom or kitchen or something, he’d unscrew the bulb from the lamp and walk with it, still burning, through the house, using it like some witch’s lantern. He thought it was funny but it scared the hell out of me.’

‘But he’s gone now, right?’

‘He’s gone now.’

‘I used to know a trick.’

‘What kind?’ Hugo asked.

‘An escape trick.’

‘What did you escape from?’

‘Everything, I guess.’

‘You want to stay the night in the building again?’

‘Downstairs?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Yeah. Okay. That’s probably a good idea.’

Hugo waited while Eugene finished his cigarette. The slow, almost wary way he smoked made Hugo think of his father, of the way he watched his family in the days before he was taken away, and Hugo wondered if Eugene knew how to escape from handcuffs too.

Come Saturday he took the day off and went to the museum. It was warm inside and the calm sound of whispered voices echoed off all the marble and he found the mammoth his father used to sit in front of for hours, thinking, sketching out his ideas, his acts. Hugo watched the old animal and wondered what his father saw. After an hour he found he was frowning and chasing those pulling voices in his mind and he got up, left the museum, and walked down the block to the Clover Grill.

She sat at a booth, alone, looking at him as though she expected him. When he walked over her eyes grew wide and he wished he had gone somewhere else.

‘Hello,’ he said.

‘You live in my building.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Do the pipes rattle all winter long?’

‘Yes. It’s the heating system. Old buildings.’ He shrugged and looked at her hands. They were well manicured but had that raw look of hard work. He remembered a trick his father did and thought they might not be her hands. The thought made him smile.

‘It’s cold in my apartment. No matter what I do. I think the wind must come in from somewhere. And someone on our floor leaves his windows open. I can smell the cold air in the hallway.’

‘Yeah.’ He thought a minute.

‘Are you meeting someone for lunch?’ she asked.

‘No. I was just going to get some coffee.’

‘Have some fries with me. They always bring too much. But I hope you like vinegar.’

Hugo sat down and nodded.

‘You always dress so dapper,’ she said. ‘Tell me what you do. Unless it’s something boring.’

‘I sell magic tricks,’ he said. ‘I have a store.’

‘Oh! Well. I can’t decide, now. Sales is boring, but magic ...’ She gave him a teasing look through half-closed eyes. Her lashes were thick and reminded him of a horse. An incredibly pretty horse. ‘Can you show me a trick?’

‘I’m not very good.’

‘Just a little one.’

‘You look cold,’ he said.

‘I am.’

A waitress brought the French fries and he asked for a coffee while she doused them in vinegar. The waitress winked at him and walked away.

He reached inside his coat and brought out a wool scarf. It was neatly folded.

‘That’s mine!’ she squealed.

‘Thank god.’

She laughed again and he wondered at what that laugh had got her over the years, wondered how carefully she worked it at, made it just lost enough, just naïve enough, made it just right for a man to try to protect her. She took her scarf and put it on, giving him a look.

‘I’m Mary, by the way.’

‘Hugo.’

‘It’s good to meet you. Properly. We see each other enough.’

She ate slowly, holding the fries delicately, as though they were rich and rare chocolates, and she watched him with a small smile tugging at her lips. When the front door opened she shivered before the wind got to them.

‘Oh, this cold is something else. And when have you ever seen so much snow?’

‘Last winter?’

She laughed again and he wanted to get another one out of her. Keep them coming until he had heard them all. He tried to remember some of the lines his father used, the good ones, the ones that worked on the people that didn’t want to be there. When she took a deep breath, sitting up suddenly, he wondered at how soft her lips looked.

‘My time is up,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I have to meet a friend for lunch. Someone who doesn’t ever eat. And it’s all the way across town so I have to catch a cab now.’

‘Okay.’

‘Let me give you something for the fries. You barely touched them.’

‘It’s okay. I’ll settle it with my coffee.’

She smiled and walked quickly out of the diner. She moved lightly and he watched her, out in the street, her small, rough hand in the air, squinting against the wind and the cold silver sun, and he wondered why she looked frightened.

The faint, hugging smell of her perfume stayed with him, stayed on him, for most of the day and later, when he was alone in his apartment he didn’t want to cook anything for dinner, fearing that the great bashful scent of whatever she wore would be overpowered. He made a drink and sat by the window and watched as the street darkened, watched as the world and the night grew quiet and dark and the buildings around him switched off their lights so that the snow on the streets took on an eerie and sad silver shine from the moonlight and when he saw Mary step out of a taxi, her overcoat gone and her hair tied back in a sharp ponytail, he turned off the lamp beside him and watched from his darkened room as she stepped through the snow, her legs far too thin, her face far too tight that he thought she must wake with screaming teeth as well. When her breath showed in the air he thought it would be cold and smell too sweetly of old gin.

He slept for an hour and woke suddenly. It was quiet and his apartment was too warm, but he left the windows closed, dressed and left. The elevator smelled of cigarettes and when he got to the lobby he stopped and looked at the front door, looked at the way it was propped open with the new telephone books. Wind blew snowdrift into the foyer, wind that smelled of an empty world, and he buttoned his coat, started to leave, but instead he went back to the elevator and down to the basement. He left the light off and walked toward the laundry room. The door was open several inches and he could hear the man snoring. Hugo thought for a minute and went back upstairs, back out into the streets and walked down to Dusty’s. He hoped Edna had some blueberry pie. He felt like blueberry.

It was one of those nights that bit lovingly at the skin; cold glass kisses of wind, of snow and dancing moonlight came at Hugo as he walked home from work. Carter had come into the shop before closing and stayed a while, talking, remembering, smiling for something that wasn’t there anymore and Hugo locked the front door, turned out the lights at the window case and sat in the back of the shop with Carter and let him talk. He listened to the stories about his father and laughed quietly where they had changed a little until Carter’s blue and bleary eyes softened and Hugo called him a cab and they stood outside in the snow, waiting, the golden lamplight humming above them.

The front door was open again and the lobby smelled of perfume, of cocktails and soap and freshly scrubbed skin. He waited for the elevator, heard the bright laughter falling down the shaft and when the doors opened a pair of handsome men and a well-made woman looked at him and suddenly laughed again like he had finally come up with a good punch line. The woman had very green eyes.

When he passed her apartment the door was open. She was on the sofa, a tall drink in her hand, her fingers delicately dancing over the glass while a man stood over her, talked to her, talked softly with a deep, hard voice. Hugo smiled at her but when she looked at him she just kept on looking. He walked away quickly, nervously and let himself into his apartment and made a whiskey. Outside, snow fell against the black sky and he opened a window, looked down at the doorway across the street but it was too dark and there was too much snow to see all the way. He made another drink and thought about going out to Babylon for a Balvenie but he didn’t want to hear the music, not like that.

He fell asleep briefly. He woke before midnight and went to the window. The snow had picked up and the wind dashed it across the sky and he put coffee on and ran coins while he waited for it to brew. He was getting slower, he thought. He kept dropping the coins. He shut the window and turned on his heating and when the pipes started beating he remembered Mary, sitting in her apartment, looking like a little girl getting in trouble. She had been wearing a dress that was too thin for the weather.

After the coffee he put on his coat and went out. He stopped at her door and listened, hard, wondered if the soft movement from inside was just the wind. He put his hand on the door and it was warm.

Outside there was too much snow, too much wind and he couldn’t see, could barely walk and he crossed the street and looked up. Her lights were on, dimly. He stood there a minute, thought about Eugene, and went back across the street, back into his building and up to his place.

In the morning he left for work early. The superintendent and a cop were standing in front of Mary’s door, laughing quietly about something. They stopped when they saw him but the super still smiled.

‘Hey Hugo,’ he said.

‘Hi Barry.’ Hugo looked at the door, saw the splintered wood around the lock. ‘What happened?’

‘Someone pried the girl’s door open,’ Barry said. ‘You hear anything last night.’

‘Just the wind.’

‘Yeah. Some storm. Still bad out there.’

‘She okay? Mary, I mean.’

‘She wasn’t home. Freyberg in 406 saw it this morning. Woke me up.’

‘Oh.’ Hugo looked at the door and thought a minute. The cop rubbed his hands like he was cold even though the heating had kicked in overnight.

‘I heard the storm is going to last at least two more days,’ Barry said. ‘Do snowstorms have category levels, like hurricanes?’

The cop shrugged and looked around, trying, Hugo thought, to see where the smell of coffee was coming from.

He took the elevator to the basement, switched on the lights, listened to the hum of the building. It smelled of steam and detergent and, faintly, cigarettes. Eugene wasn’t down there. Nobody was. Hugo stood in the laundry room a minute and thought about Eugene until his thoughts wandered on to his father. He remembered the last routine he watched his father work on, remembered that odd laughing, proud smile on his face because he knew he had come up with something great.

When he left the building he closed the door, made sure the lock caught, and looked across the street, looked into the doorways, but there was nobody there. It was too damn cold, he thought.

It took a long time to walk to work and the snow came down hard all day.

When he walked to Dusty’s the snow had stopped falling but he thought the air might turn to ice. The streets were empty though it was still early enough for dinner, for excitement, for cocktails with new people, for the soft hand-touching he always saw when he went to Babylon. He tried to think of a joke, an old one, a good one, something that Edna might not have heard in a while, not since his father was around. He turned onto Front Street. When he got to Dusty’s he saw Edna standing at the window, watching the empty streets, drinking coffee that still steamed. He waved to her but she didn’t see him.

She brought him coffee and waited while he looked up and down the menu. He kept reading it, turning it over, waiting for her to say something.

‘You know you’re gonna get the meatloaf,’ she said.

‘Hrm.’

‘Take your time.’ She looked at him, waiting.

‘I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.’

‘Oh god.’

‘How do you make anti-freeze?’

‘Steal her jacket. Come on Hugo, you’re gonna have to do better than that.’

‘I’ll keep trying.’

‘I know.’

After dinner he wanted to hear music but it was too cold to walk that far even for him and the taxi would be too expensive. He walked to the corner of Lexington and bought a bottle of single malt, then turned for home. When he got to his building he looked up at her windows but they were dark, most of the building was dark, and going up in the elevator he thought he could smell her perfume.

He made a drink and noticed that he bought the same brand his father often got, when things were good, when he wasn’t worried, and he lay down on the sofa and fell asleep after his second scotch.

He woke a little past midnight, dreamtime voices echoing in his mind, in his apartment and he went to the door and listened. The voices still murmured. He opened the door but the hallway was empty and he walked down to Mary’s and stood outside, listening. He touched the door, listened hard, but it was quiet, the whole night was quiet and he went back to his living room and stood at the window.

There was an ambulance parked down there. Two paramedics were talking to Barry, all of them next to a stretcher with the biggest body he had ever seen lying on it. He stared for a minute, then sat down on the edge of the sofa. He suddenly felt like sleeping. Down below, Barry kept nodding his head in that prodding way he had. Hugo stood up and went quickly to the elevator but by the time he got to the lobby the ambulance was gone. He saw Barry standing outside, looking down the street but he didn’t want to talk to him, not now.

That night he slept on the sofa, waking often throughout the night, listening to the wind cry down from the north. A little before dawn he made coffee and sat at the card table and tried to deal cards from the middle of the deck, but he couldn’t get it right.

On Thursday he worked late, kept the shop open longer, half hoping Carter would come by, have a drink, tell those stories. A young father came in with a little girl and he showed them the linking rings and the girl’s black eyes danced, happy, excited and he saw the way her father kept squeezing her hand softly. By ten Carter didn’t show so Hugo closed up and walked home, happy with the quiet starlight that flashed over the snow.

Lights were on in her apartment and, when he went upstairs, her front door was open but there was a young man inside painting the whole place white. The apartment was empty and looked very cold and later, when he woke not long before midnight, he opened his windows for the fresh air and saw a man, across the street, smoking in a doorway, thin, nervous shoulders turned against the wind in that familiar way, and he wondered if Edna had any apple pie.

Published in ABR Fiction

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