Surface Temperature, Part 2 of 4Posted: September 19, 2008
>Many years ago, I wrote this short story, “Surface Temperature” — I think I was 18 or 19, or something like that. It’s mostly bad, but there’s something charming about it, sort of, maybe. It’s a bit heavy-handed. Lately, I’ve felt the need to go back and read things I wrote long ago–maybe it has something to do with turning 30. Or maybe not. So, for what it’s worth, part 2 of 4:
Slowly people began to realize that the very air was tainted and some began to cover their mouths. They looked like they were halfway between hypochondria and sheer disbelief. I began my way through the cars towards the road and stepped off the curb. I even remembered to look both ways before crossing the street. I looked up. I didn’t really know what to look for. Would there be another one? I let the wind blow across my face and my hair fell into my eyes. My skin was tingling and pink. It was the same feeling you have right after really good sex, and I was breathing the same hard slow breaths. I burrowed my eyes into my palms, expecting the skin on my face to rub right off. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?
“We have to move out of here!” A man in a long black trench coat was tiring the stunned masses ever more. He was trying to fix us, and most didn’t yet know they were broken. He had smooth cheeks that faded into curious black hair that lined the curve of his ear. It was pulled into a braid that slid down his back and pointed to his hips. “Listen to me! If we don’t get to a shelter fast the air is going to kill us. You feel hot because your skin is burned. Listen you people; there isn’t much time! Five more minutes and you’re sure to die. If you made it through the blast get your asses off the pavement and get inside!”
Several of us peered into the store. We saw faces that mirrored ours, only they weren’t us. They were the faces of strangers, fear flooding silently from every opening.
“It won’t help,” I said. All the glass is broken and the walls aren’t thick enough to do any good.” I could hardly hear my own words. My hair began to blow into my mouth and it tasted like red wine, a charred finish and a suburban bouquet.
“Quit arguing and get inside. If we get inside the freezer case, we’ll be safe from the radiation.” He stirred once again.
Lots of the women who had gathered their children were obeying and most of the men too. There were a few of us left out in the parking lot. I could do nothing to stop them. At least the tourist moms could die with their children huddled tightly against their stomachs.
“I’m telling you, it won’t help. The wind is blowing through just as much in there as it is out here.” I heard myself contesting, even though I didn’t really care. There was no way I was going to get cramped up in a tiny broken freezer case in the basement of the Save-A-Lot. I began walking towards the beach.
“Look, stay with us. When the police come we will all be together. I won’t come looking for you.” The man in trench coat was sincere. I didn’t turn around for another twenty feet and when I looked, he was gone, just as quickly as he had appeared.
The road was hot. When I was a child I would stand on the black paved streets without shoes because I liked to feel the bottoms of my feet burn. I thought that the heat would make my skin stronger and tougher. I thought I would be able to run faster through the mowed fields, through the musty pinewoods. Tough feet were equal to limitless character.
After three or four minutes standing on the burning streets, your mind begins to play games with your body. You can’t tell whether your feet are burning or freezing. It’s the same feeling when you put your fingers into scalding water. First it feels terribly cold, then hot. As I was standing alone in the parking lot, when the bomb actually detonated, there was unbelievable heat. It was like all of America’s suburban ovens were thrust open at the same time and everyone’s glasses became foggy. The concrete heated up so fast that my heels began to burn. I stood there and savored the heat, knowing that I was becoming stronger, knowing that I was on my way to limitless character.
But if you want to know the whole of what I was feeling – the heat was closing in on me from the outside, and the cold was exploding from my insides. I felt with such lucid clarity my own isolation. The cold began to emerge and wrap itself around me. I was alone. In this way what I felt was the opposite of what I normally feel. It wasn’t the stinging cold of hot water, but the caustic heat of solitude.