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Coffee at Ruby's / Lakes and Mountains

A light breeze rolled across the river, bringing with it the sounds of a city that couldn't settle gearing up for another sweltering evening. A sudden heat wave hadn't been kind to the small plants that had tried their luck in the cracks and grates of the broad streets and wide paths that lined the borough where Oliver was walking. He stopped when a graffitied wall he had been admiring suddenly drove away. He watched it crawl down the road, lazy in the heat. Turning back to the new wall, he stood for a moment blinking hard in the bright sun. He had resigned himself to arriving late and now he was glad of the detour. Blocks passed as Oliver made his way steadily into the city, eyes up taking in a strange part of town in a city he knew so well. 'Why wasn't I here before?' he thought, 'Out of the way yes but this was my city and shouldn't I have known it?' Looking up he could see the edges of low rooftops. Sunlight glinted on the crude metal ladders that hung out above the street. Oliver knew the noise they would make, heard in his head the stuttering clang as the rungs extended down and his own grunt as he pulled himself up onto the flat roof. There was a party above the grocery store on the corner where Oliver turned north heading deeper into the city. He loved and hated the sound of glass on glass. It reminded him of the parties where at first he had told funny and embarrassing stories, done impressions of politicians and mutual friends and felt light but after a while he had stood talking to nobody, listening instead and nodding on cue, leaving early to write a line or two on the last bus home. When the river came into sight he stooped into the shade of Ruby's and shivered slightly under the air-con, blinking up at the price board. He wanted a coffee but he needed money for the train, besides the cool air was refreshing after the long walk under the afternoon sun. Soft voices offered and ordered and made light conversation, a voice sang out clear across the room, the specials. Ruby's was new but he knew it already, the long counter stacked with cookies and cakes, large bare bulbs hanging low over the washed blue wood tables, the hiss of the hot milk for coffee, a Southern band playing jazz coming from somewhere. A girl laughed, took a long deep drink from an iced water and suddenly turned to look where Oliver stood, still blinking and shivering in the doorway. He had known her before she turned, her ringing laugh launching a memory bank untouched since before he moved to the city. Small rooms in hotels out West overlooking lakes then forests then mountains. Dinners of fresh fish and local beer. The promise of good fishing and hunting, views from the peaks of the Tetons, moose and bears out in the Park. Last night Laura had appeared suddenly in the hotel reception. He heard her laughter before he'd turned down the corridor. Last night it was long, long drives as states slid by and the landscape shifted and the blasted dull browns of miles and miles of potato crop gave way to the pale plants, the rich turquoise, and the deep green of the pine giants that clung high and precarious on the great Western range that stretched North. The bell at the door rang and someone was behind him. Who was that she was with? The newcomer was standing in the doorway. Why was she laughing? A hand touched him on the shoulder lightly. 'Excuse me?' How long had she been laughing? He wanted to go over now, hear the joke. See if he would enjoy it. Another tap on the shoulder, harder this time. He knew he wouldn't laugh. He would stand dumbly by the table like an apron-less waiter. He would pull out a notepad and take the desserts looking to the side so she wouldn't see his face as he began to cry. Tears for lakes and mountains, his red eyes not seeing the room, the bulbs, the steam. Standing on the last tile of the broad concrete road that ended in hard brush then a broad stretch of sand and the sea. The sun was nearly down and for a moment they were blinded standing side by side at the edge of the water, which earlier that day, when they'd arrived at the coast, had been far too cold for swimming. Of course, it wasn't her. 'Excuse me, are you in the line?' He blinked. Out on the street the sun was lower again, Oliver turned down another broad road that looked the same and was by the river now. Light glinted on the water which ran up to a stone beach below the low wall beside him. He leant over, stretching his head out above the water looking deep into the heavy green swells that rose and fell against the concrete. Twenty feet below he was looking back in surprise at how clearly his face was painted in quiet ripples. His hair had grown. It had been short on the West Coast and he'd worn a thick hat for the long grey winter. He'd lost that to the snow the year before along with the glove from his right hand and for a moment he felt nostalgic when he remembered the single left hand glove at the bottom of a pile of boots and winter coats at home. He'd kept it because it had been a gift from Laura's grandmother when he'd first stayed in the cabin behind the Tetons. 'Seventeen years old and not a decent pair of gloves?' He had lost it to the snow a week before they were to go home and had spent the last few days making a point of putting on the remaining glove as he left the cabin, returning the smile of the elderly woman helping Laura into her jacket before quickly stepping out into the cold, his smile dying as he thrust his bare right hand deep into his jacket pocket. He thought about the fall. It was a soft crunch as he tumbled through the snow but it had sounded close, like a hurricane. The south end of the bridge cast a long shadow over the park tucked between the river and the bank of the main road into the city. Two benches faced each other across grass burnt brown from the long hot summer. Already on the bench facing away from the lowering sun a figure lay beside an old supermarket trolley stacked high with worn clothes and folded cardboard packing boxes. Oliver sat opposite, head resting on his hand, elbow on the back of the stout bench. He looked for a moment taking in the bubble-writing on a t-shirt, something for tourists. Birds had gathered at the end of the bench where breadcrumbs were scattered under a small tired maple. The leaves were pale green and Oliver wished he had been a month, maybe even a week, later when this small park under the bridge would burst with the sugar reds of fall. The sleeping man shifted and the birds flew as far as the lowest branches of the maple, muttering to each other before one by one dropping back down to feed. They made no sound as they hit the earth bellow the tree. No sound at all. He could feel the lack of sleep wearing him down now as he climbed the heavy stone steps that led to the footpath of the bridge. His feet were tired and his legs strained as sweat beaded and was wiped away. Coming out onto the level he was breathing heavily and stood for a moment leaning back against a thick pillar. He turned his face into the breeze that curled cool off the water and he was hot and cold looking towards the skyline that rose outlined above the curve of the bridge. The silhouettes were black for the setting sun but as he watched the first lights flickered on and shone across the waves that were beginning to whip up in the wind. Over the river, the long broad streets sloped deep into the endless city, lights growing brighter as the sky blued then purpled. His footsteps were washed out by the traffic on the bridge and the distant humble rush of the river below. He didn't look down yet, only straight ahead towards the city lights and up at the heavy strings and pillars of the bridge. He turned down into the first station on the other side. Oliver stood staring at the map on the back wall of the small ticket desk. A train had just pulled out and the platform was empty. Behind the ticket desk a woman was staring at a monitor and mumbling. 'Well, how far then?' Another car screeched as it pulled in. 'Well,' she was looking behind him at the queue that was growing behind the red-eyed, shabby man in a suit, 'how far?' The tannoy voice, drab and tired, heralded the Number One from an electronic tin can. 'Not far.' Oliver was transfixed. 'Past the Port?' Another announcement rang out, no delays tonight, just watch out for the heat, carry water, take deep breaths, think about a cool place. Oliver blinked, still fixed on the map behind her. 'Sure.' 'You're short.' 'I got nothing.' 'You're short for the Port you can go as far as F____.' He fumbled with his jacket pocket, took his ticket and stepped to the side. The woman behind the ticket desk was apologising for the delay, his delay. 'Thanks,' muttered Oliver as he turned to see the next Port train slide away with a whine. The noise of the city swept down the narrow steps that led up to street level. The sun had set now and the streets in the busy part of town were breathless. The nearest buildings were electric, take-away food and bars just warming up. Further up was the high-rise. Oliver stood on a busy corner looking across at the monolith of glass opposite. He tracked its slight tilting curve as the floors extended higher and higher, stretching past its neighbours that crowded and jostled for space. His neck tightened and he let his jaw hang open, eyes wide, breathing heavily. The reception was cool and brightly lit, the large marbled floor echoing with Oliver's footsteps as he made his way towards the rank of lifts that would take him skywards. The doors slid shut and the display ticked up as he was carried steadily to the seventieth floor where he walked down a softly carpeted corridor towards a set of stairs that led to the roof. Oliver stood at the top of the metal stairs, blinded by the brightness around him. He closed his eyes and heard the city thumping below him, generators humming softly, water flowing in pipes somewhere nearby, traffic, people, sirens, music. He opened his eyes and looked out across the city where hundreds of lights were shining up into the night sky. He walked towards the edge of the rooftop, the wind pulling at his jacket, the noise growing louder until he was standing at the edge. The streets below were alive, shouting up at him, the waves under the bridge, the glass in the sun, soft earth under the maple. He thought about the birds in the park and the snow and the mountains. He took a step back from the edge. He looked at his watch. 'Late. Doesn't matter.' He hadn't meant to speak out loud and the words sounded strange as they bounced across the empty roof to nobody. The fan units hummed back gently as he picked his way between them, the fire escape door banging loudly behind him as he made his way down the stairs and out into the heavy, bright night.

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