They meet on an autumn morning when the leaves are beginning to crisp and the spicy musk on the wind tantalizes. Sunlight drips thickly like warm honey over the horizon, filling the convenience store with a golden glow that belies the ashen weather. A man, who stands beside the freezers, wears a thin brown jacket and an olive scarf that each complement his pale complexion and draw out his yellow hues. If this stranger were to spend more time outdoors, he would be deeply tanned, but he must be a homebody or a workaholic; the purplish bruises beneath his eyes suggest a long night, but his slacks are perfectly creased, his shoes leather and shined, and while his hair is thinning and gray, it is arranged neatly with a stylish part. He is tall and slim and catches Saoirse's eyes; Saoirse has lived in this small town his entire life, and it is so rare to encounter—
"Excuse me?" The man's voice wades through silence, and Saoirse is pleased to find it suits him: meek yet defined, each word flawlessly pronounced beneath a murmur. "I know there isn't any out, but do you have the unsweetened Lipton black tea? There is a place marked for it..."
"Uh, there might be some in the back, I'll check for you. S'gonna be warm."
"That's all right... How do you pronounce your name?"
The question baffles him until he remembers he has a badge stuck to his chest; the script is burgundy to match the collared shirt he was provided when he started working at Quik-N-Go, but his jeans are from home and tattered. His shoes are similarly conditioned, and he is conscious of both. "Uh, seer-shuh. It's—"
"It fits you like a glove."
"Thank you..." Saiorse scurries into the stockroom and returns with the glass-bottled drink. He rings it up, along with a pack of gum that was placed on the counter during his absence. "I'm curious, are you on the road or visiting or...?"
"I recently moved here... within the last couple weeks, actually. I am renting an apartment nearby, but I have not had the time to...stop in here." He smiles. "I'm glad I did."
"Oh, the apartments on Belmont, then?" He waits for a nod then continues, "I live in the complex around the bend from there, in Normal. Willow Springs." Another pause. "What's your name?"
Saoirse places his tea and gum in a cellophane bag printed with the store's burgundy logo. "Well, it's nice to meet you, Thomas. Where are you from?"
"Chicago, near Bridgeport."
"Wow. This must be a huge change. Bloomington's tiny."
"I prefer it. It's quiet, the park is beautiful, and the zoo is... quaint. I have gone thrice now, and I admire the aviary. It seems—" Saoirse can see him picking a word; his brow furrows, he purses his lips, and finally says with gentle satisfaction, "—kinder than others I have been to. The birds are happier and friendly, and the flora is lush. I sat on the bench adjacent to the macaw's enclosure, and a yellow finch perched beside me for a half hour."
He must lean forward to catch everything said, and Saoirse has forgotten the bag; it is only when its weight strains his palm that he hands it to Thomas. "I haven't gone since I was a kid. I've been too busy with school, I guess."
"Do you go to the university?"
"The community college," Saoirse corrects with a sheepish smile. "I didn't take high school seriously enough."
"Ah. Common mistake; not incurable." Thomas takes the tea and gum from the bag, pockets the gum and cracks open the tea. He takes a sip and returns the crumpled plastic to Saoirse. "I won't be needing this. I'm sorry I didn't say that earlier. I hardly noticed you bagging."
"It's cool." Saoirse stuffs the bag beneath the counter. "Uh, well. It was really nice to meet you. You should stop in again. I'm always here at this time."
"Are you? I would like that. I will see you another morning."
"Cool." He waves to Thomas's retreating back and drowns out the rest of his shift, favoring the aroma of coffee against the backdrop of cool air that drifts in every time the door opens and closes. It is a reminder his walk home will not be dreadfully emerald.
He thinks of him the next day and the next, but certainty of Thomas's return wanes on the third day; riddled with a doubt that has him counting everyone's change twice, Saoirse does not look up when he hears the bell above the door ring. He listens to steady footfalls with his gazed affixed to the countertop, tracing the marbled pattern with his left pointer. The primary color is mottled beige, but the veins are orange and red, gaudy and unrealistic. He hums when he is sure the customer is out of earshot.
"You have a beautiful voice. Melodious. I could tell when we spoke the other day."
His stomach comes alive, and he darts to attention, grinning. "Oh, hey. I thought you forgot about me."
"I did not forget. I am afraid I... don't get out much. I should, seeing as I have someone to talk to. I have not... met anyone else around here, and I am at the age where most public gatherings are not fashioned for me."
Saoirse laughs— "I dunno, this town is all old people." —proceeded by a grimace. "Not that you're old."
"No, no. I'm old." His smile broadens and crinkles the corners of his eyes; Saoirse cannot tell if they are green or blue or hazel or some combination thereof. "There is no shame in stating a truth. I'm afraid I am approaching my twilight years."
"You can't be that old. I'd put you at like, forty."
"That's flattering, but I have to inform you, compliments will get you nowhere." He says it curtly but leans against the counter; Thomas has not shaved, and Saoirse curls his fingers— he imagines that silver stubble would be coarse like sandpaper. "I'm being facetious, of course."
Thomas's posture is wrought with dignity, and Saoirse's attention is upon the width of his shoulders, how broad a chest they allude to and how his waist must taper beneath it. "All right. No compliments. How old are you, then?"
"I cannot say, but how old are you?"
"I'm not going to tell you if you don't tell me."
"Then I guess I will never know." Thomas straightens to his full height, pulling his jacket free of folds and adjusting his scarf. They are the same jacket and scarf he wore to their first encounter, but today they are accompanied by faded khakis and suede penny loafers. "I would guess you at around... twenty-three? Maybe younger."
"I told you, I'm not telling you unless you tell me first."
"I was not trying to pry an answer from you. I was simply venturing a guess. I think I was close." Saoirse shifts his weight from one foot to the other, and Thomas chuckles. "I was close, was I not?"
"Was twenty-three correct?"
"I was correct." It is with the satisfaction of finding the perfect word, and Thomas holds himself a little stiffer when he meets Saoirse's eyes. "Perhaps... we should meet elsewhere? I would like to speak to you at length, but I am on my way to work. and you are at work."
Where would someone like him work? He nods. "Uh, I would like that. My weekends are free—"
"My weekends are free, as well. I... do you have something I can write on?"
"Here." Saoirse produces his phone —placed in the drawer to prevent the temptation of texting— and pulls up his contacts. He types as Thomas lists his number blandly. "Sorry, I'd just lose paper."
"Modern conveniences, yes. Do not forget to call, Saoirse." He walks away, collects an unsweetened tea and a pack of minty gum, returns to purchase both, and then exits sipping and stuffing the gum into his breast pocket—
Were it not so foolish, so unfathomable, he would have guessed Thomas is older than the four seasons; Saoirse walks home and watches the leaves fall with the slightest encouragement, kicking through red and brown and orange and yellow that mar the sidewalk in a vivid collage.
Understanding the phone call is expected does not equate a lack of rubbed-raw nerves when he musters the will to dial Thomas's number; it has been two days because Saoirse does not want to seem too eager, but he also does not want to seem disinterested, and there is only so much time Saoirse can spend pondering before he talks himself out of dialing and sets the phone aside again—
"Hello... uh, this is Saoirse." He swallows, hopes it isn't audible, and sinks onto his couch. The upholstery is worn and sun-stained, tattering at the seams; he tugs a string, absently unraveling. "Is this a good time?"
"Yes, yes. I apologize, I was setting aside my work."
"What do you do?" Centimeter by centimeter, a hole the size of his thumb is bared, and the stuffing meets the fresher air, smelling faintly of mildew.
"I'm a writer." A pause, rustling. "Well, a journalist." A pause, the sound of bare feet padding. "A columnist, to be accurate. I'm not afforded many creative leaps."
"That stills sounds interesting." Saoirse looks at his hand and realizes what it is doing and imagines Thomas lives in a nice home, full of antiques and manuscripts and Amish furniture. "Do you write other stuff? I mean, just for yourself?"
"Less and less. I am afraid I don't have much to write about anymore." There's a sucking breath, and Saoirse realizes he's smoking.
He imagines a pipe, handcrafted from cherrywood, chamber filled to the brim with scented tobacco— a musky flavor, something reminiscent of spiced rum, and each time Thomas inhales, the orange glow intoxicates like poetry. "Do you write poetry?"
"I wrote poetry. I never had the hand for it. It's more... subtle than I can manage."
"I still have work from my youth, if you'd be interested in reading it. Literature from the young mind has always captivated me... Perhaps technique improves with age, but there is something lost. Passion, maybe." A sharp inhalation, tapping. "I'm rambling. Do you have free time, Saoirse? Not today— I have an article that I need to finish, but any other time—"
"This Saturday. Uhm, there's a nice restaurant. The Mexican one, by the tattoo place. It looks... kind of shoddy, but the food's great."
"I like Mexican food. Dinner or lunch?"
"Lunch," but he regrets it and wonders if dinner is more intimate or too intimate, and each time Thomas takes another drag, Saoirse holds his breath. "Maybe around... three?"
"Perfect. I will meet you there at three. Now, I need to finish what I am working on... I'll speak with you another time, Saoirse. Do not be shy to call. You make me more nervous than I could ever make you."
Thomas disconnects before Saoirse can say anything; through the window, he sees a robin land on a bare branch and preen her brown feathers, watching Saoirse with little black eyes that seem privy to what everyone else is not.
Murals make the restaurant a sunset blur, soft orange skies brought to life by absinthe greens; to Saoirse's left, a realistic parrot perches upon a branch detailed with rough bark and twining vines, and an acoustic guitar purrs over the murmur of other patrons, a lulling symphony. He sits at a booth beside the window that stretches the length of the front wall, and from his vantage point, he can see everyone who's only given glimpses of him when he leans forward to address the waitress. "I'm waiting for someone, can you come back in a minute?"
She agrees with a practiced nod and sets two sweating glasses on the table, along with a white dish of sliced limes and lemons. Saoirse selects one of each, tossing the spent skins back onto the plate once his water tastes of citrus. He sips and wishes to become the atmosphere— relaxed, but he bundles tension until he is little more than a rope hung from the ceiling and drawn taut with too many weights, fraying and touching the salt shaker and folding his napkin and growing thinner and unfolding his napkin and gravity wins inevitably—
He stands to leave when fifteen minutes pass, flushed, but the door opens with the chime of a greeting, and he scrambles back to the booth; he's seated in time to hear Thomas conversing with the hostess, her accented chatter directing him to the booth where Saoirse stirs another lime into his water. He prefers the bitter kick and looks up, as if surprised. "Hey."
"I know I'm late, and I have no proper excuse. The time slipped through my fingers." Thomas seats himself and slips off his jacket and scarf. Beneath, he wears a beige sweater that looks to be cashmere, but Saoirse knows it isn't cashmere when Thomas rests his forearms on the table. His cheeks are reddened, his lips painted with chapped color and a bated gloss of vaseline. "I should have called ahead."
"It's fine. She left for water for you."
"Ah. Can you pass me the lemons?" Saoirse complies, and Thomas selects two wedges, squeezing both dry and dropping the yellow skins into his water, stirring until they sink beneath the ice. "Any suggestions as to what's good here? It's a lovely place... the woman at the front told me it used to be some sort of market, and they expanded into a restaurant after their precooked items had sold so well..."
She'd said no such thing; Saoirse heard their conversation, and it hadn't extended beyond anything one might normally say to a hostess when seeking his date— but he supposes Thomas could mean another woman, one he hadn't seen. "Uh, I dunno what you like, but that's interesting. I know they still run the store..."
"Yes. I— apologize, for hanging up on you. I got..." He looks down at the menu, underlining descriptions with his right pointer. "Flustered."
Thomas nods and recedes to silence, even their breaths hushed; the waitress comes around to take their orders, and Thomas selects a beer with a name that Saoirse cannot pronounce and a taco tray. Saoirse picks some sloppy combination and a margarita that looks crayon-bright when the waitress brings it to him. The beer is pale amber in a clear glass bottle.
"You go to the community college, correct?"
"Yeah, uh. I kind of started late. I had to work for a couple years. My stepdad had me paying rent as soon as I graduated, and y'know, he wasn't exactly asking a small sum. He likes my sister, but I guess that's his daughter, and we always clashed, so he's not uh... I dunno, he's not a bad guy."
"You just do not get along?"
"Pretty much. He's good for my mom and everything."
The waitress sets three salsas and a bowl of tortilla chips between them, and Thomas nods while he tries each; he speaks between mouthfuls. "When did your parents divorce?"
"They didn't. They were never married."
"Ah. Neither were mine, and that was... far more shocking, in their day and age. But my mother managed on her own, and I managed on my own." He slides the salsa verde closer to Saoirse. "Try this one, it's wonderful."
"Mm, yeah, s'good. I like it." He covers his mouth and swallows. "But uh, did you just know your dad, then? I know my dad, but I talk to him more now than I did when I was a kid. He was busy with his family, and my stepmom's kind of a huge bitch about him talking to me, because they only have daughters together, and I guess he wanted a son..."
"Envy. Uneasiness... It's all very human, you cannot hold it against her, but that must have hurt when you were... too young to understand."
"I mean, I got uh... presents from him, but there'd be—" The waitress leaves their plates at the table and warns them that everything is very hot; her heels clickclickclick on the stone floor, and Saoirse inhales such heat it makes his eyes burn, pleasant. "—I dunno, times that I went without seeing him. Like, just weeks where he wouldn't take me when he was supposed to, and Mom would have made a big deal out of it, because she wanted to sever his rights, but I guess she knew it would probably have hurt me more than him. I dunno if he'd even—" He piled sour cream and salsa verde onto an enchilada. "—No, that's dumb. He wanted to see me, he just had another family. It makes sense... I'm talking too much."
"You're not. I like listening."
"I kind of wanted to know more about you. I mean, all I know is you're a columnist and lived in Chicago, and you won't tell me how old you are..."
Saoirse earns a chuckle. "If you must know, I'm forty-nine. Is there anything else you want to know, while you're interrogating me?"
"I dunno, just... anything."
"Really, anything?" Thomas carefully doles out the ground beef and fixings provided, making each taco before he begins to eat his first. "Well, I lived in Chicago my entire life... I never went to university. There wasn't money for it, and I had to work. I only recently acquired this job writing, and I moved to Bloomington because it's closer to the publication's headquarters."
"Do you write for the newspaper?"
"A literary magazine but I don't write any of the interesting pieces. Just a column answering questions about syntax and diction and that sort of thing."
"I still think that's interesting..."
"You don't have to flatter me, but I did pull together a folder of my creative writing for you. Most of it was written years ago, but it's held to the test of time well enough."
"I can't wait to read it—"
"What are you doing tonight?"
Saoirse startles, eyebrows raised and fork stuck at his lips; Thomas slurred his syllables, stunning inelegance, tipping forward with the sun's glare caught over the color of his eyes. He composes himself before Saoirse can say, "Nothing."
"I... sorry, that was sudden. I just wanted to know if you would... like to come by for a drink. I'll show you the poetry, and I would like to know you. You're fascinating, Saoirse."
"I— yeah, of course. I'd love to."
They finish their meals to the soundtrack of clattering silverware, acoustic guitar, and the occasional rhythm of their waitress's walk; outside, Saoirse counts bare trees and sympathizes with the lonely evergreens, few and far between— but more so with deciduous that cling to their last dead leaves.
Thomas's apartment is small: one bedroom, a living room and kitchenette, and a bathroom that Saoirse acquaints himself with when they rush inside, neither having bundled for the chilling evening. Thomas calls from the living room, "Is there anything you'd like to drink?"
"Whatever you have is fine, as long as it isn't fizzy!" Saoirse takes a piss, washes his hands twice, fixes his hair, and keeps looking back at his reflection: his cheeks are pink and his skin is translucent-pale and his hair is auburn and his eyes are a boring shade of brown and freckles have taken him like disease, festering with each passing year. He sighs and flicks off the bathroom light.
In the living room, Thomas has poured two glasses of red wine, and Saoirse selects the fuller of the two. He settles on the couch and waits for Thomas, whom he hears rustling in the bedroom. He passes time noting detail; the furniture is as classic as he imagined, though appears factory flawless, and almost every surface is an organized clutter of paper and miscellaneous junk. The coffee table is clear, but he suspects that is the work of today—
"Sorry, this was buried beneath so much. I told you, I have not gotten any personal writing done in a long time, and I haven't... bothered much with it. I used to go back and fondle the syntax, change a word here and there... but I have not touched these, not in many years. I scarcely remember what they're about." He sets the notebook on the table and takes his wine. "You can look, or I can read them, but I'll have to be drunker."
"I guess we're going to need more wine, then." They share a laugh, and Saoirse realizes there is music playing— some soft instrumental that dances around the wooden furniture and caresses the upholstery, dropping to the carpet like a tame cat. "I like your place. It's really like... I dunno, serene. It seems like a good place to work."
"I try to keep it that way. I'm easily distracted as is. Working in a chaotic environment would only make it worse... but I usually work in my bedroom, to be honest. My desk is in there, and it's a very stark room."
"Oh, can I see?" Alcohol sputtered, and he knows how it sounds.
Thomas is talented at talking;he fills the room, weaving tales about walks through the park and around his neighborhood, around his old neighborhood, speaking of encounters and happenings that offer no culmination. Saoirse listens, enraptured, but he finds each story to only have a middle, and after a fifth glass of wine, he asks, "Is that just life? I mean, no ending?"
"Excuse me?" Thomas tops off his glass, breaking into a second bottle. "I'm not sure I understand your question."
"There's just no... I dunno. You don't even try to put up the illusion of... I think I'm just drunk." He smiles and sidles closer to Thomas. Their thighs touch, and he sets aside his glass, resting a hand on his wrist. "But like... stories, real stories, don't really have plots, do they?"
"I suppose not. You know, if you are this drunk... I believe I may be drunk enough to read some of this aloud."
"Please do." Saoirse places his head on Thomas's shoulder and finds him comfortable but unyielding; he does not move to accommodate Saoirse, even if he does not push him away. Muddled, Saoirse squirms until his legs are beneath him, and his mouth is stuck to Thomas's shirt. "M'curious t'hear."
"Well..." Thomas picks up the notebook and turns each yellowed page with care, reading to himself until he settles upon one. He clears his throat and begins, "These Winters... No, no. Actually. No. Not this one." He flips through a few more pages, tearing a delicate corner he ignores, and finally, he's decided with a moot nod. "Do not expect much, as I have never had much to give; we met when I was weeping leaves that scattered our walks, and the lake reflected the sky's warm glow— It was you who said that autumn gifts the most beautiful sunsets, and it was you who insisted that my glory—that of transition, of twilight, of thoughts swept under rugs brought in to ward off the cold creeping—was something to be had, and I cannot be blamed for my absence; I never had much to give."
"Why're you so... I mean, shy about that? S'beautiful." Saoirse turns to look at the page, but Thomas's handwriting is illegible scrawl. "A little self-deprecating, I guess, but s'really beautiful. Can you read more?"
"I'd feel narcissistic."
"I really liked it..."
"I am glad." Thomas rests a hand on Saoirse's side, and it falls to the dip of his waist. "I thought to write something for you, but I've lost the touch."
"You talk like you can write."
"I'm not sure I understand what that means."
Saoirse rubs his palm against Thomas's cheek, but he's shaved— his skin is almost smooth, and Saoirse waits until he has his eyes to kiss him, and it's briefer than he intended. Thomas parts and brushes his fingers through Saoirse's hair, and it is then Saoirse decides his irises are hazel-gold. "You should at least, put pen to paper or... or something. I'd read it."
"I know you would." Thomas accepts a second kiss, but once more, he breaks it. "Would you really like to see my room, Saoirse?"
The wind whips around the trees and through the labyrinth of apartment buildings, rattling loose windows and howling its impending song; the stars are hidden beneath a bed of blueblack clouds, and Saoirse knows the dew will freeze like a diamond glaze on well-kept lawns. Piled leaves will run the streets, and behind the curtained glass door to his left, the porch groans of its weight.
It is in the doorway of a plain bedroom that Saoirse remembers he nodded and remembers he was bid to stay where he stands. Thomas lies on the bed and watches him, propped against a stack of pillows. They look expensive, and Saoirse asks, "Are you too drunk?"
"Then what's wrong?" Saoirse leans against the doorframe and watches Thomas orient himself closer to the center of the bed. He's removed his shoes, at least, but he's otherwise clothed. His legs are stuck together, and his hands are twisting past each other. "Something's wrong."
"I will just leave."
"Please, give me a minute. I'll explain... You're beautiful, and I want to. I've thought about it since I first saw you, and no matter what you believe, I find you interesting. Far more interesting than you could find me... I've tried to impress you—"
"...Succeeded in impressing you, but I have not— I don't have anything else to offer."
"Then why would you invite me here? And what do you mean, even? I'm too drunk for this."
"I don't know... I wanted you closer to me, and I did want to read to you, and I... I admitted I was trying to impress you, and I still want to see you. I— please, I'm not lying. Don't— Saoirse— I haven't had sex."
He stops and turns back; there's a quiver in Thomas's voice, and he cannot meet his eyes, instead affixed to a spot on the ceiling that cannot be so riveting. Saoirse frowns. "I... what? I mean, you're a little weird, but you're not bad looking or anything—"
"It was a conscious choice. It's too much to explain."
"You can leave now, if you want. I still want to see you."
He considers taking the offer, going to the living room and collecting his shoes and maybe stealing that brown jacket and olive scarf, but Saoirse pulls off his shirt, and the rustle of material is deafening. The sound of him unbuttoning and unzipping his jeans is comparable to a gunshot. Loosened, they fall to the floor, and he drops his shirt atop them. Thomas looks, and Saoirse looks down, thumbs hooked in the waistband of his briefs, a soft tug— Thomas's breaths stutter staccato, and Saoirse steps away from the pile and climbs onto the bed.
They never speak again, and while Saoirse dresses to leave, Thomas smokes a cigarette that reeks of fevered nausea.
The next morning, it snows.