He walked with purpose, his eyes fixed on the sidewalk, counting each step as he neared the corner. There were forty-seven paces from the bus stop to the landing of the apartment building. Each evening he walked and counted, his eyes fastened on the pavement, moving neither too quickly nor too slowly. A bitter wind cut through the threadbare wool of his jacket and he thought of the warm tea that he would share with Leila upon his arrival. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven. Snowflakes drifted onto the sidewalk and he planted his feet more firmly with each step. It would not do to slide on a patch of ice. It would not do at all. Forty-one. Forty-two. Honey. He would sweeten their tea with honey this evening. He and Leila would celebrate this first snow of the season with warm honeyed tea.
Even with his head down he could see the red-gray brick of the building in his periphery but he already knew he was near the landing. Forty-five. Forty-six. Forty-seven. Extending a plastic card that he had gripped firmly in his right hand since exiting the bus, he swiped it across the surface of a metal device attached to the doorframe of the apartment house. An automated voice announced “Accepted”, releasing the locking mechanism and allowing him to enter.
His rooms were on the fourth floor. The elevator had long since succumbed to disrepair, so he made his way up the stairs, one flight after another. There was no need to count these steps although he knew how many there were. And no need as well to fix his eyes downward. There was relative safety in the building; even more once he crossed the threshold to his flat.
The fourth landing approached and he imagined the fragrant, meaty scent of lamb roasting on a bed of potatoes and carrots emanating from the apartment. He knew there was no roast tonight but the thought brought a smile to his weathered face. It was his habit to think of something especially nice as he neared the apartment door. It was important that Leila see him smile. She worried too much already and it would serve no good purpose to burden her with a frown. The thought of roasted lamb always made him smile.
Stopping at the third door from the stairwell, he swiped the same plastic card across a locking device identical to the one at the front entrance. A clicking sound signaled its release and he entered the apartment.
There was no coat closet, the entrance giving way immediately to a small common room that served as the living and kitchen space. Instead he had fastened a nice wooden rack on the wall to the right of the door where hung an umbrella, a pair of knitted mittens and a polyester rain jacket. Removing his winter coat, he collared it on one of the rack hooks and stood facing the wall. For a moment he stood silently, listening. Looking to his left, then his right, he faced the wall again and lifted his gaze above the coat rack. He could almost see the crucifix hanging there. Closing his eyes he made the sign of the cross, finishing by pressing his fingers to his lips. He gazed upward again at the faint outline barely visible against the fading paint of the wall. The crucifix had been removed long ago but that mattered little. It would serve no good purpose to ruminate about the past.
A porcelain kettle rested on the kitchen hot plate and he was pleased to see whiffs of steam escaping from its spout. He had rigged a timer to the electrical extension that turned on the hot plate at precisely the time the bus dropped him at his stop. The little analog device ticked away for twenty minutes before disconnecting the circuit. Two cups resting on saucers were already placed on the table in the center of the room, each one holding a day-old teabag. He lifted the kettle and poured boiling water into both cups. Returning the kettle to the hot plate, he retrieved the small bottle of honey from the cabinet above the sink and deposited a small stream of golden sweetness into each of the teacups. As he returned the honey to the cupboard, a shadow crossed his field of vision.
Leila appeared from the bedroom.
He smiled broadly as she entered the room and with exaggerated fanfare gestured her to the table.
“Your tea awaits, my lady.” Bowing, he circled his arm in a broad arc and cocked his head to the side as if sharing a secret. “A special treat. We have honeyed tea today. In honor of the season’s first snow.”
He pulled the chair out for Leila and made his way round the other side of the table. “I hope you like it,” he said, settling into his chair. “It’s Earl Grey. Only the best, of course.” He knew it was not Earl Grey but a generic and quite bland pekoe blend, the only tea available. But lighthearted banter made the evenings so much more attractive.
Leila looked radiant, her skin the color of ripened peaches, with a glow about her as if she had spent the day frolicking in a meadow kissed by the summer sun. Auburn waves of hair framed her heart-shaped face and cascaded down her shoulders. She was as beautiful as the day he had first met her sitting in the park, near the bank of the river.
He sipped his tea as he admired her, thinking of their time together, of the moments they had laughed and loved and cried together. “I love you, my darling,” he whispered.
Leila smiled but it was her eyes that he saw and it saddened him. She worries too much, he thought, but knew that there was reason for her anxiety. He had told her that it would be okay, that everything would work out. He disbelieved it, as did she. But as time passed he became hopeful, then encouraged, and even, at moments, sanguine - if such a disposition were possible.
Leila was more pragmatic. Her eyes told him so.
Her tea was getting cold as was the room and he rose to light the space heater situated on the far wall.
When he returned, Leila had retreated to the bedroom.
Sighing, he fetched the cups from the table and placed them in the sink. He was hungry but the thought of food sounded foul. He knew he should eat. He had lost too much weight already. Perhaps later.
He dragged a chair to the single window and pulled back the drapes. The snow was falling heavily now, billowing white sheets playing against the deep red of a dying sunset. He sat quietly and watched the flakes as they mounded on the windowsill. Tomorrow morning everything would be blanketed in thick, soft layers of white and for a few hours the world would be pure, unblemished, the sharp edges and tarnished surfaces transformed into a pristine beauty.
He whispered to himself a verse from the Bible, one that he remembered each year as the first snow descended. He didn’t know its context and bibles had been removed long ago, but it offered him a sense of serenity as he sat at the window and watched everything slowly, silently become pure. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be as wool.
For a time in the morning the snow will offer an illusion; the appearance of a sinless day.
After a long while, he rose from the chair and prepared the apartment for tomorrow. Turning out the lights, he entered the bedroom and undressed in the dark. Leila was already asleep as he slipped under the covers and tucked the blanket around him. Turning to Leila’s side, he held her closely as sleep slowly overtook him. He knew it was only her pillow that he embraced, Leila having been taken away many months ago. He had no idea where she was or if she was still alive. He didn’t have nearly enough money to ask. But the fabric retained her scent, a fragrant smell as of lilacs on a spring day. It was almost as if she were still here.
A single tear streamed down his cheek as he began to dream, drifting into a world covered with snow.