Short Story No. 2
Warm Hands, Cold Heart
n.b. Welcome to all those new individuals that have tuned into White Noise since last week! If you’re reading this, but haven’t subscribed, join hundreds of fellow thoughtful, curious folks by subscribing below. As a reminder, you can always find the full archive of my writing on my website: tomwhitenoise.com.
n.n.b. Thanks to all who responded to last week’s brief survey. If you missed it, in response to Verbal Portrait No. 3, some readers have asked me to write custom verbal portraits of loved ones, idyllic scenes, cherished pets, et cetera. To learn more about these inquiries, I ask that you please take 45 seconds to complete this brief survey.
As such, please find the story in its entirety below. Short Story (Introduction) No. 2 ends with “A line from a novel he was reading interrupted his reverie: ‘Sadness was part of the hard work of manhood…’”
What follows this sentence is brand new.
Above: Soft white snow covering the hard, mean, concrete jungle.
New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
—E.B. White, Here is New York
Jack blithely strolled down Park Avenue. In his gloved hand, he fondly fooled with the big suede ribbon that bundled the gift-wrapped Macy's present. Adjusting his scarf and fiddling with his cufflinks, he walked with a quick, relaxed gait across the side street amid the splendor of the season.
The sky was a hard sheet of blue, the air tasted like ice water. It was Christmastime, his favorite time in the city.
His city, New York.
Sidestepping the snow and salt now accumulating on the cracked sidewalk, he muttered a "Thank God," thinking how fortunate he was to have worn his rubbers. He had a habit of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things.
In the winter, his rubbers were a necessary companion, they always fit snugly over his shoes, protecting them from the unsavory elements and unwelcome debris that inevitably dirtied the white city snow.
Now on 69th Street, Jack continued to amble up the Avenue, absorbing the beauty of radiant Christmas trees that greeted him at every corner. These trees, a common fixture on his walks uptown to work, reminded him of the import of this holiday. It was a holiday that salvaged him from his ruined state, a state of exhaustion, a state of stress, a state of depressive rumination about everything around him. In the midst of this depression came Christmas, similar to a glowing beacon warning of the rocky shoreline, it rescued him from crashing, truly crashing into the emotions winter in New York stirred up inside of him.
Hitting 74th Street, Jack made a wide turn East, towards Lexington. He traveled to and from work in a specified manner, working his way easterly at intervals of five blocks.
He was not exactly sure why he did it; perhaps it brought him comfort, perhaps it reminded him of that day when he met Marcy in the Starbucks between Park and Lex. It wasn't a habit as much as an obsession. He was finicky in that way.
Oh well, he thought, another story for another day.
Loosening his scarf and turning his cufflinks, Jack briefly stopped in the Starbucks. He offered a warm, toothy smile to the barista that came across more like a wince. Nevertheless, it was an earnest, transparent stab at warmth.
He languidly said, "Large coffee, please, four sugars and a drop of milk, no more, no less."
He ordered with the ethereal detachment of one who knew his worth, of one who measured it in dollars and cents instead of love and contentment. He fiddled with his wallet to access these same crisp dollars and polished cents; the coffee had cost more than he anticipated. Things always seemed to in New York. It was as though the city demanded more from its cramped inhabitants—emotionally, physically, financially…
Grasping for his coffee, he quickly took a long, satisfying sip, sluuurp, and lapped up the creamy froth from his lips.
God that's good, he blissfully thought.
Eager for another, he quickly returned the cup to his cold, waiting lips. There was no better time in his day. Warmth pervaded a body made cold by unfeeling indifference. He could almost taste the halcyon days of yesteryear.
As he sipped, he became immersed in the warm sensation that seemed to thaw his cold vessels. He drank, and drank, and...
"Damn!" he exclaimed, as he furiously dabbed his now stained scarf. Frustrated, he hastily unfurled his scarf from around his neck. Jamming it into his lined pocket, he crumpled it, forming creases in the newly cleaned and pressed bit of cashmere.
Reeling and dropping the already watered-down coffee, Jack stormed out the door, knocking into the metallic chair—clang—as he darted from the counter. With a whirl of his overcoat and a sharp, bothered glint in his eyes, he stomped out the door and down the stairs to the street.
How quickly things can turn upside down, he thought. In a day, in a life.
Immediately the frigid winter wind brushed over his now bare neck—glacial needles being shoved slowly, deliberately into his trachea. Fighting this new foe, ten fingers and two cufflinks shoved into his lined pockets, Jack stormed down 74th toward Lexington. He dodged the oncoming bursts of pedestrians, making his way towards the hustle and bustle, the rank steam of Lexington. At the corner, he saw the insignia of the Salvation Army overlooking the chaotic frenzy of the Avenue.
Even before he heard it, he anticipated the Salvation Army's accursed, godforsaken bell ringing. Fucking charity. Eyes peeled for the idiot in the Santa suit, Jack, claustrophobic in the now oppressively close crowd, toyed with his cufflinks and dashed out of the horde...right next to the bell-ringing Santa.
"How much they payin' you to stand like a fool out in the cold?" dared Jack.
"I...I...I do it for free...It's for charity, mister," replied the shabby Santa, bedecked in the threadbare suit.
"Some charity," said Jack, extending his gloved hand as if to drop a coin or two in the basket. Unfortunately, he did not see the boy running for his family, carrying a hot dog drenched in blood-red ketchup.
Then—wham—the boy's hand, and hot dog along with it, collided with Jack's very own gloved hand. Recoiling from the awaiting basin, as if bitten by a snake, Jack saw the damage done to his gloves.
"S-Sorry M-Mister," stammered the boy, "Me-Merry Christmas!" as he offered an uncertain smile.
Jack looked carefully at the boy — stained shirt, a dirty red patch over his right kneecap, a lopsided smile.
It's not worth it, he thought.
"Get the hell away from me kid," Jack retorted.
No good deed goes unpunished.
He watched the boy scurry down the bustling street toward his mother and father, a youngish couple, the type whose eyes did not retain that glint over the years. He knew the type well; he and Marcy both knew it. That was them a few short winters ago. Before everything had changed.
A line from a novel he was reading interrupted his reverie: “Sadness was part of the hard work of manhood…”
It resembled most literary flourishes: it sounded good, but lacked relevance. He found only deterioration in his profound anguish, not growth. His woe clung to him like a bad habit; he couldn’t shake it no matter how hard he laughed or wide he smiled.
A gust of frigid wind brought his mind back to the corner. The city buzzed around him, so full of happening and activity and wants and desires and dreams and warmth.
But not for Jack. He was a cold man on the cold street of a cold city.
And they call this time the "most wonderful of the year." What a farce, he thought.
He looked up to escape the frenzy and saw the pale blue sky. He made note of how beautiful it was and, in a sick sort of way, it reminded him of the weather on that fateful day.
Why did it seem that the worst events happened on the most beautiful days? This question haunted him; a man angry at himself, his city, his world.
All wasn’t bad, just broken, right?
Skirting this philosophical black hole, he set off walking.
At 79th Street, Jack turned right. Once on the side street, the skyscrapers sheltered him from the wind. As he continued to walk, the shadows of the brownstones and townhouses enveloped him. Like the gloom that chokes life out of withered plants, the shadows permeated his coat, chilling him. Eager to escape this new, visceral cold, Jack trudged toward the soft neon glow on the corner of 3rd Avenue. Hoping to regain some warmth in the place labeled Ed's Deli, he grasped the steel bar with white knuckles and pushed.
Immediately, he felt and heard the metallic buzz of the heater. Gasping with relief, Jack basked in the heat. He hunched over and sighed.
"Hey, buddy, you okay?" asked a man behind the counter.
"Yeah, yeah, I just need some air," replied Jack.
"Plenty of that outside, huh?"
"And warmth," that obnoxious piece of—
"Well if you're just gonna crouch there and not buy anything, you better get back outside,"
Calmly, Jack strolled to the counter and threw down some spare change, the coins dancing on the hardened plastic.
Bending down, he removed his rubbers from his spotless loafers, accidentally ripping a tassel from them in the process. Jack then heaved the rubbers onto the counter, grinning maniacally as he did so.
Looking into the man's soft, bewildered eyes, Jack muttered, "Merry effing' Christmas, Ed."
Storming out of the deli, he left his rubbers, his heat, and his last bit of change. He felt that old familiar sinking feeling.
He knew just where to head.
He would journey to that refuge of the destitute, that place whose open doors beckoned the profligate, the whore, the miser, the broken: The Bar.
As he walked up 3rd Avenue, he craved the lacquered wood, the wispy clouds of smoke, the dust of smiles and laughs of years past. In this place, a man could avoid the most daunting foe of all: himself. What he was, what he is, and what he could have been. He could avert his eyes from his own reflection and pretend that his failure wasn’t his fate. For, mirrors tell no lies. Thankfully the bar’s were too mired in grease, graffiti, and grime to show any reflection.
Jack took solace in the fact that everyone lied, especially to themselves. The bar merely aided and abetted this natural predisposition.
As he approached the watering hole, Jack looked up at the peeling wooden sign over the door. It read The Pugilist.
Above: Safe harbor in the tempestuous city.
The bar was aptly named. Its inhabitants drank to fight feeling and combat misery. Indeed, every bar has some affinity for boxing. After all, drinkers and boxers sit on stools and feel woozy and measure time in rounds.
Jack was losing his bout tonight. That much was certain.
As he lumbered in, he caught sight of Klaus mixing a drink at the far end of the polished wood.
Klaus was a mainstay of this place; the pastor to a wretched congregation. Equal parts therapist, confessor, and alchemist, he tended to his dirty, downtrodden flock.
Into his sanctuary they walked, laid low by the weight of their troubles. When they left, they floated for a blissful, fleeting while, like the foam atop their golden pints.
Klaus had the most open and friendly face in the bar, with bushy eyebrows and a bright bit of red on each cheek, like a toy soldier. He was immediately likable, lovable even.
When he surveyed the dim room, he saw his people, his clan and kin. Fellow travelers, they had all been hurt by something, or somebody, and so they would all flock to his church, because misery loves company, but what it really craves is a crowd.
Normally, Jack would engage in idle banter with a regular congregant or two before sidling into Truer Topics.
Today, he would empty glasses to fill his thoughts. He would sit with that long solitude taught by tenacious example. That unhurried withdrawal so foreign to ordinary life which seemed to bid him haste, to put him in touch with all that he lacked.
Ordering his usual, he roughly mounted an old barstool and clocked in. Tracing his tumbler’s chipped rim, his surroundings and environs slowly faded away.
He went back to the night he had first seen her along the bar. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way that fireworks were beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, not up close. If he wasn’t careful, he would get hurt.
Marcy was lovely and simple and moved with such a suave decorum. He had never seen a woman quite like her. Her perfume was more intoxicating than the double in front of him; her sidelong glance, a more potent drug than any cocktail that Klaus could whip up.
She had a grace like a Bolshoi ballerina, a verve like a mischievous child.
For many weeks, he sat with the happiness of the idea of them as a couple. Though great, this happiness was small beside the fear of approaching her. He preferred loneliness to the horrors of love.
One day, when talking with Klaus, Jack had said, I wish for just a little of your power, your ease with women.
Without missing a beat, Klaus had replied, The power is realizing that we’re all powerless against them, asshole.
And so it had begun. Like Icarus, he had flown too close to the sun that she was.
Marcy was a woman in whom life lingered and dwelt more immediately more fruitfully and more confidently than all others who had come before or after her. Jack and she could have whole conversations with a glance or an upturned smirk.
However, their time together was a whirlwind, ephemeral like her perfume. A feeble candle, it had been quickly snuffed out by the accident. With it, all the light and warmth in his world had gone.
Life after her resembled sipping a beer and only tasting the empty, vapid foam. Without her, he had given up on sustained happiness and was trying only for short bursts of joy.
Coming to from his daydream, he sat with the clarity that deep intoxication could beget. He approached alcohol like he did life, like he did love: he went all in. A dab of the three would obfuscate, a draught would clarify.
Klaus sauntered over and stood in front of him.
Klaus looked deeply into Jack’s eyes, into his soul and said, Jack, you know. Every man has a Marcy.
The bar produced many such truisms. In this way, it was a fountainhead. A source of refreshment and joy for men dedicated to treating symptoms instead of causes.
But that was then and this was now. He had long ago rejected the profundity and truth of that simple phrase. He was alone.
For some reason, Dickens ran through his mind: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
He wanted to be Darnay. He wanted to give of himself and sacrifice.
He knew what he had to do.
He stood straight up, kicked the stool out from under him, slammed his empty glass tumbler on the worn, pockmarked wood, and stormed out.
It was night now. Another day lost to The Pugilist’s sad confines.
The wind chilled his bare neck and bare hands. This time, Jack did not instinctively reach for his gloves, his scarf, his lined pockets. He fought, or rather, accepted, the wind, his foe, and let his veins feel its frigidity. He liked it in a masochistic sort of way—like the trials of ancestors long past, not some old St. Nick garbage, but something of real substance. It chapped him and he relished it; this was not the cozy, happy-go-lucky feeling of Christmas, this was winter. This was the true essence of the season. Going so far as to unbutton his coat’s fasteners, Jack enjoyed his march up the Avenue. The cold without and within froze his tired features, nipped his crooked nose.
He walked with his friend, winter, through the haze, the fog, that was the non-existent Christmas season.
Reaching 3rd and 84th, Jack rounded the corner. He stopped under one of the dull awnings of a nondescript apartment building. Entering the dimly lit lobby, he was greeted by the doorman, Fred.
"Hallo Jack," he said in a cheery voice.
"Oh, hey Fred," he replied.
"A very nice parcel ya got yourself there."
Jack stopped, thinking of the ruined gloves and scarf, of Marcy, he felt the rough suede of the ribbon, the waxy cardboard that let out an eeeek whenever you dragged your finger across it. He didn’t know why he continued to buy her Christmas gifts year after year.
Turning to his left, he saw the words, "Garbage Chute” stenciled over a peeling metal cover. Grasping the handle with a chapped, bleeding, blue hand, he wrenched the cover open. Greeted with a freezing gust of air, he hoisted the package to the entrance of the chute and released it down the slide, listening until he heard the soft pat of its landing.
The pat signified it was in its proper place amongst garbage. The present and all it represented was home, just like Jack.
He proceeded to the opening elevator doors. Turning around, Jack met Fred's baffled look and winked. The doors then closed, severing the gaze, and up he went.
They found him the next day.
His neighbors had complained that the floor had become drafty.
Rumor has it that his splayed body was nearly frozen. All the cavernous apartment’s windows were open and empty bottles of whiskey littered the floor. Jack had chambered rounds of drink, put the bottle to his head, and pulled the trigger.
It was of no use.
No vice or sin could make him feel again. No amount of alcohol could warm a man that cold. A heart that empty and broken.
It would have been nice to report that a check written out to the Salvation Army lay by his side, that he had given before he had taken his life. It didn’t.
Reality always tells meaner, crueler stories than fiction. He was cold through and through.
A marked up book was open by his side. The following passage was furiously highlighted:
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
Jack had crossed out each mention of “two” in the text.
Now there were none.
Marcy’s Ghost of Christmas Past no longer stalked him.
The paramedics pulled the cold, stiff body onto the waiting gurney. As they slowly wheeled it out of the apartment, they caught a glimpse of the ramshackle bronze nameplate on the door. One word—“Mrs.”—was crudely, partially scratched off. It read:
Mr. and Mrs. Jack Frost
Apt. N 2B
The Best of the Rest
Another year, another read of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
A mere 120 pages long, this collection of letters packs a prodigious amount of wisdom for so slender a text. It is the kind of book that you read and reread; of which you keep the same, marked up copy to revisit until it yellows and brittles with age. Nearly every page provides profound insight into the what, the why, and the how of that which truly matters in life. Some favorite quotes read:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation...Love is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world for himself for another's sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.
I mention all this because Rilke puts to words emotions, feelings, and inklings that are nearly inexpressible. He accesses those things we feel but cannot say; things that lose their way when traveling between the soul and the brain. Things pass between Rilke and the poet that have no word in the English language. Understanding, acceptance, camaraderie, self-awareness, sorrow all tangentially strike at it but they are largely insufficient.
As Rilke himself says, “Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.”
The below list of words capture some of the magic commonplace in Rilke’s extensive poetry and prose:
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email.
With sincere gratitude,