By Tim Brumbaugh
Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that you can hear the snow fall. It’s true. It’s not one of those auditory hallucinations, when your mind convinces you that it heard something that isn’t really there. And it’s not something only I can hear. I’m not special. Anyone can hear it. The thing is, you can’t hear it in the city. There’s too much background noise. Snowfall is soft, a whisper. Go far out into the country. Turn your car off. Wait, and listen. When your ears stop ringing and roaring from the lingering sounds of people and cars and radios, then you’ll hear it. It’s the sound of a thousand leaves falling breathlessly to the ground. Like the murmur of soft feet pattering across stone.
The first time I remember hearing the snow fall was the winter you died. I had only been working at the La Paloma Cantina for a few months, and you were the only waitress who didn’t think she was too good to talk to me. I was sort of between jobs. Between cities, really. I wanted to start my life all over again somewhere new. I told you all of this once, but you had so many people in your life coming and going, I don’t know if you’d remember. I told you that I was dying to get out of Kansas, but I discovered I just couldn’t leave. I couldn’t even leave Wichita, let alone the whole state. This city holds onto you. It’s like a singularity that pulls in anyone who ventures too close. Like an unholy god, it’s a void of palpable wickedness. You know that better than anyone, I guess.
“I’ve been smoking a lot of crack lately,” you said one night. It was late December. My birthday. No one knew. We sat out back by the dumpsters, our cigarette smoke masked the stench of grease and decay. I stared down at my shoes and your eyes studied me, bored straight into my mind.
I didn’t say anything. What can you say to a confession like that? I wanted to leave, I wanted to be anywhere but next to you and the tangible silence between us.
I knew you had a drug problem; all the staff knew about it. But then again, all the staff also had a drug problem. Vicodin, mostly. You would brag that you could down seventeen tens in a single shift—an obscene number of opioids.
Your eyes continued their tunneling. You waited for my response, but I still said nothing. I just sat there with my heart sunk into my cold, wet shoes. You took another drag.
“Good talk,” you said. You threw your Marlboro on the ground. I watched you leave, your brown curls bobbed like loose springs.
I sat alone. Dishwater soaked through my clothes and stung my skin. This is how I handle difficult conversations. Disengage. Preclude any possibility of eye contact. Say nothing.
But I should have said something. Later that night, after countless drinks and Vicodin, you forgot about our conversation and came back to the kitchen with shots. One for me, one for you. I told you no thanks, I didn’t feel like drinking. Two for you, then. I told you it was my birthday.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” You drew your head back and your face contorted in an expression of shock and disgust. I shrugged. I told you I had no one to celebrate with, and turning thirty and still being a dishwasher was nothing to celebrate anyways. You told me at twenty-five you weren’t doing much better. You left and came back with four shots. This time it was two for me and two for you. I didn’t turn them down. You offered me a handful of Vicodin. What the hell, it’s my birthday. I took one and told you that was enough. You laughed at me and downed four pills with a shot of Southern Comfort. You asked me why I was still in Wichita.
“You’re too nice for a place like this. Sooner or later you’re gonna end up like the rest of us. These bitches around here are always stabbing each other in the back and for what?”
It sounded like a rhetorical question, so I didn’t answer. You were right about the women waiting tables. They hate each other, but they all pretend to be friends. What you didn’t realize, is the men in the kitchen were just as bad.
I took a shot. Bacardi 151.
“I’m actually moving to Vegas,” I said. “I have some friends down there. I’m just kinda stuck here. Temporarily.”
“Uh huh.” You leaned over and strummed your fingernails on the stainless-steel counter. “And how long has it been since you decided you were gonna move away to Vegas?” you asked after a breath.
I had to think about it. “Three years?” It came out as a question, but it was the truth.
“And you’re still here?”
“What’s keeping you?”
“I don’t know. Every time I save up enough money for the trip, something happens. Car broke down once, another time my money got stolen.”
“That’s why you use a bank, dummy,” You slapped my chest and laughed.
“I don’t’ trust banks. Been fucked over by them before. Bounce a check and they hit you with a ton of fees. You already were in the negative, otherwise the check wouldn’t have bounced, now you’re in it even deeper. Anyways, something always happens to keep me here.” I shrugged. I had crossed Wichita’s event horizon. There was no escape now.
You bounced up, put your arms around me and kissed me. We stumbled in the embrace, our feet slipping on the grease covered floor, but when we connected, I found your mouth soft, your lips delicate like overripe fruit. Your tongue was light and honeyed. Aggressive. For just a moment I couldn’t smell the oil, the dishwater, or the counterfeit Mexican food. Only the scent of your breath and that apricot tang of Southern Comfort.
You pulled away slow, your smile wide.
I wish I knew what you wanted me to do at that moment. Anything? Instead, I stood there, immobile. Like the sculptures of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ, eyes downcast, face expressionless.
“Breathe,” you said.
I closed my eyes and exhaled all at once. I shuddered.
“Gotta get back to it.” You slapped me on the chest again. “Happy birthday,” you sang over your shoulder.
Then you walked out.
A week later you were dead. When I came to work, the news of your death was on everyone’s lips.
Did you know that Heather died of a crack overdose?
The wait staff gossiped about your excesses. Every man in the kitchen said you had tried to sleep with him. They all laughed. Crackheads. They rolled their eyes and shrugged. The loudest were the ones that smoked crack with you. Dustin the busboy and Marcus the line cook would both sit in your car in the parking lot to hit the pipe with you. Now they laughed at your overdose.
Your mother called that very morning to ask if she could have your final paycheck. Wichita really is the city that eats its own.
After work, I drove out to Cheney Park. It was snowing. It came down quick and in large formless clumps and before long the snow was a shroud that buried the city, as if the Earth itself tried to hide its shame and guilt. I turned off my car and laid on the hood. I listened to the ticking of the engine cooling. I heard the dying rush of a restless world. Then, when the world was finally silent, I heard the snowfall. It was like ten thousand galloping horses heard across an ocean.
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