On that Sunday afternoon, Ashley and Sam strolled along the riverside walkway. It was he first day above freezing in a week and the Hudson stretched like a white highway of ice from Cohoes to Poughkeepsie.
“I bet you could skate all the way downriver for maybe a hundred miles on this stuff. It’s gotta be at least a foot or more thick,” Ashley said.
“Yeah, that’d be pretty cool. If you knew how to skate. You’d either punk out by Rensselaer or break your ankle in the first hundred yards,” Sam said.
“I was just thinking out loud, Sam. That’s all.”
“Why do you do that?” Sam asked.
“Think out loud. Do you believe people really want to hear what another person thinks?”
“I…I don’t know. I was just talking to myself, I guess. Sorry if it disturbs you so much,” Ashley said, as looked out toward the river and saw nothing, but heard the voices again.
“It doesn’t disturb me, it’s just annoying sometimes. ‘Oh, Sam, wouldn’t it be great if we could skate downriver? Oh, Sam, it’d be wonderful to go back in time and see what it was like here three hundred years ago. Oh, Sam, I hope our grandchildren will have a safer world to live in then we do now.’ You’re always dreaming, Ashley. Time to wake up and see the world for what it is, cold and heartless and only too willing to stomp you into dust. Can’t you see that no one cares what anybody else thinks in this world? That’s real life, Ashley. Not your little dream world,” Sam said.
“You believe that? That the world is such a dark place? That we’re all our own little islands, all alone against everything else conspiring against us?”
“I’d say that’s pretty damn close to how it is. At least they one I see every day,” Sam said.
“Not everyone is a cop and sees people at their most vulnerable, most desperate, most…”
“Violent? Animalistic? Evil? I’m out there every day protecting the sheep from the wolves and the wolves from the sheep, Ash. That’s the real world. Not the bubbles and seashells and angels you think it is.”
“Why do you do that?” Ashley said.
“Do what? Clue you in to the truth of the way of the world? How it really is survival of the fittest and we should keep our own counsel or have it thrown back in our faces?”
“That and always put down anything I have to say as being naive or stupid. I have a right to speak my mind same as you do. And you always do,” Ashley said, her voicing rising and beginning to quiver.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sam said.
“I guess it means that you think you always know more than anyone else and that their opinions, their feelings, don’t matter to you.”
“Are you gonna start this again? Look Ashley, all I mean to say is that you’ve lived a sheltered life, girls’ school, private college, teacher working in your old grammar school. You’ve practically never left the womb. I can respect your decisions. That’s just who you are, a quiet, gentle, kinda naive angel who I love and want to protect from this jungle. But you’ve gotta open your eyes and poke your head out the cloister sometimes. It’s mean out here and you need to get a thicker skin, like that river ice,” Sam said as he put his ands on her shoulders.
“Cold and hard, eh? You don’t think I’ve got a tough shell?” Ashley said, pulling away.
“Now don’t be getting all emotional. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,”
Ashley turned and started walking back upriver toward the parking lot of the river walk.
“C’mon, Ash, its been a tough week for me. I had to go into too many dark places full of dark beasts. Eddie Barnes got shot and I got my ass chewed by my watch commander because I was doing my job two blocks away when it happened. Like I’m supposed to be everywhere, maybe even to take a bullet for someone else. I should’ve kept my mouth shut,” Sam said.
“You mean be hard like that river ice?”
“Not tell me that you’re hurting so I can understand and not just think you’re angry at me because I become the target of your anger?”
“Aw, c’mon, you know I’d never…”
“I think we need some time off, Sam. Maybe it’s time you sat back and thought about what’s going on inside of you and how it affects everyone else you come in contact with, especially me,” Ashley said over her shoulder.
“Have I hurt you? No. I just…I don’t know maybe blow off steam and you’re close to me when I do it.”
“Then I won’t be so close maybe,” she said, picking up her pace.
Sam rushed to her side and took her shoulder, spinning her to face him.
“Are you breaking up with me?” he said.
“Break up? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting harder, like that ice, a thicker skin. Isn’t that what you said I needed?”
“I was just…”
“Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt me, that I don’t feel or I’m not moved to anger or tears, or the joy I feel when you’re merely nice to me. If I’m quiet on the outside it doesn’t mean I can’t be a tiger or a landslide or a bomb on the inside. Some things are best kept on the inside, just so they don’t hurt others, even if they might hurt me. And sometimes, just like your angry pronouncements, they find their way out of me.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean, Ashley?” Sam said.
“It means, just like that river out there, underneath this gentle shell that you’ve calloused and scarred, I’m moving, thinking, loving, hating, understanding, confused, but always moving. Not standing there like some frozen little statue for you to curse or cuddle at your whim. Underneath, I’m moving. All the time.”
She pulled away and dialed her girlfriend, Jen.
“I’m ready now,” she said, as Sue’s car pulled from a parking slot in the lot ahead and pulled up by the beginning of the river walk.
“Ashley, c’mon. Don’t be like this. I’m sorry. I just didn’t understand. Not if you don’t tell me,” Sam half-shouted at her back as she reached for Jen’s car door.
“I did, Sam. But all you ever think to see of me and everyone else is the outside shell and never think that there’s a river running all the time just beneath it,” Ashley said to the cold wind blowing off the ice. The ice she would always dream of skating on for a hundred miles as the river ran with her.
For Day 12 of my May Story-a-Day challenge I responded to a prompt from writer and editor Elise Howard, who asked me to select a poem that resonates with me, and let it inspire me as you write my next short story! If you’ve read my work for any length of time, you’ll remember how my favorite poet is William Stafford and how among my favorites of his is “Ask Me.” With little time and no energy, I sat down and rapped out this piece with that subtle yet more-beneath-the-surface poem in mind. Here’s, that poem:
Ask Me by William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.