Story: The Culprit Was Winter

By: Timothy Naslund

snow-on-christmas-pine-tree

Late December chills persuaded our ears further into our coat collars. Our extremities screamed inward with frozen numbness cries to our legs to pedal us into a direction of some place warm and well equipped to inebriate the senses to comfortably ignore such bodily warnings. We succeeded in finding a refuge from winter’s beckoning, a second-floor bar overlooking the unknown named street. A bar of this degree: one where flocks of bundled up adolescent souls, wrapped in middle aged bodies fighting the cold with their chesterfields and parkas, buttoned up to their wool knitted scarves, battle the wind whistling between the maze of buildings enticing their indecisive minds to decide on a haven to pass the time in social interaction while passing their crumbled bills and worn credit cards across an epoxy resin, wooden counter top, decorated with festive, seasonal green and red coasters and half emptied, watered down cocktails (their ice melted away and forgotten). Despite the bar’s atmosphere akin to its tepid temperature, it seemed a better alternative than winding through roads with illegible signs, written in Korean, hoping to find a more energized bar – if we were fortunate enough to stumble on another bar at all.
The necessity for a vacation was upon us both – a retreat from the mundane normality of our patterned days, gridded neatly in a page of the calendar not yet flipped to. A red, circled date where we ritualistically prayed to until our words were heard and eventually announced it was upon us with its ephemeral moments of relaxation and adulterated liberation, only to end carelessly, swift with the despair of having to fight through the weeks and months once again in order to reach the next chance to indulge in more fleeting days of reprieve. We found ourselves vacationing in a city that I was sure to butcher the name if I tried to repeat it, in my rushed and mumbled tone, saving my tongue the embarrassment of its phonetic shortcomings and overall lack of confidence of the Korean language. We hung our coats on the back rests of our bar stools (a comfortable luxury I cherished whenever I was ever at a bar where eventually, half way through the night I always find it a battle to keep from slouching as I’m turned, listening to whomever has captured my attention or who held the best conversation – usually, I admit, my wife) and once seated, proceeded to give the bartender who greeted us our drink orders as we staked our claim at his bar.
Amelia, she always ordered a gin and tonic, a drink I wasn’t sure how she could stomach, much less enjoy, and I, being more of a bore in my preference of man’s liquid burden ordered a German named beer they had on draft.
The bar was dimly lit, but even still without the aid of any shining, fluorescent light overhead, Amelia was radiant, as she always was, smiling through sips of her lime accompanied drink, strands of her sun-kissed streaked hair sneaking over her shoulders as she leaned forward, her nails grasping the glass painted a midnight crimson, contrasting her soft, marble white hands, delicately sculpted with enough subtle imperfections to invoke intrinsic beauty in even the most objective eyes. Her nose permanently turned upward, influenced by her elevated cheekbones, gave off the initial impression that she was perpetually in a state of constant delight, yet the apathetic posture of her rested, half-pursed lips played the role of her facial antithesis, balancing her countenance to a more content and neutral pose (she was, and always is, a delight to behold. Even from the slight utterance of her name enamored everything within me: my tongue suspended in awe to chase a hungered touch of the teeth, only to part after a singing, lolling syllable, leaving the mouth open, rows of white separated, anxiously awaiting a response, left in the wake of her will and eventual anticipated retort). Her eyes were her only giveaway to how she felt, and I, in the four years of knowing her, from time to time still was uncertain what those malachite jewels foretold. My face, however, contrast to her complexion, constantly reflected my current state of affairs in transparent fashion, and in this moment, a gracious smile encumbered my visage as I stole a glance from my left, taking a sip from my white foamed, ambered ale.
Although few tables were unoccupied and almost every stool at the bar had someone hovering over a drink, the bar didn’t seem too crowded. Music was drowning out a lot of the conversations around us, yet it was not too overbearing where it interfered with our own shared intimacy. Amelia and I talked for some time with one another, mostly about what are plans were for the following day and any peculiar sight we saw earlier today that caught our interest and prompted such reflection. We were having a pleasant time as the bar grew warmer, our bones thawing out the night air’s chill, now on our second drink, our bodies being heated up internally by the sensation of alcohol mixing with our blood, giving the tongue an absurd amount of confidence and slowly overcoming the extremities with careless movement, unabashed by any possible transgressions, when our conversation was abruptly derailed by an older gentleman sitting to my right.
“You want to know how I can tell you’re American?” he said to me, his top lip covered by a bristly, salt and peppered moustache.
“Excuse me?” I responded.
“You’re American,” he said in smug fashion, “I can tell.” He looked to be in his late fifties, perhaps even his sixties – double our age. He was a burly man. His protruding gut pressed against the bar as he leaned forward, facing towards me and Amelia. I wasn’t sure how drunk the man was, if he was drunk at all. His face seemed to keep a naturally red hue around his cheeks and forehead, and his speech didn’t seem altered in the least bit – his booming voice not once slurring or hesitant on what his mind wanted to say.
“How can you tell?” Amelia asked, leaning her way towards me and the inquisitive man.
“You’re damn loud, that’s how. Only Americans talk that loud, especially in another country, like you need to let the whole damn world know you’re here.” He said. “I know because I’m also American and loud.” He chuckled; lifting his glass of scotch up, toasting the seemingly obnoxious similarity we shared. “But you–” he said, pointing his glass towards Amelia, “you are not American, though you certainly play the part well.”
He was right; Amelia was not American in the traditional sense, although she lived there currently and for the later part of her childhood. She was born in Dresdan, Germany, where her parents raised her until she was nine, and then, due to an employment opportunity for her father, she was unearthed from her native soil and had to replant her roots into the foreign dirt of the cavalier state of Virginia. Her father and mother spoke enough English to not harbor fear for such a diasporic decision, but they neglected to teach Amelia much English, mainly in part of this choice of emigration being spontaneous and absent of much planning. Coupled with her basic knowledge of English grafted from her parents and primary schooling in Dresdan, daily English lessons with a language tutor re-forged her tongue, hammering away at any German accent and tendencies that lingered through the process, turning her into a proper English speaking immigrant in a few years time.
“Well if I’m not American, what am I?” She asked, looking up at the man as she sipped her gin.
“European.” Was all the man said.
“But where in Europe?” She continued to ask. “You can’t just guess Europe.”
“The hell I can. Doesn’t matter, all the same as far as I’m concerned;” He sipped his scotch once more. “Bunch of recreants, the lot.” The man slapped the table and let out a loud laugh, as if it were intended not only for our ears, but any other pairs that could have been eavesdropping on our conversation. “I’m only kidding. Besides, I’m no mind reader, dear. I can just spot an American when I see, or in this case, hear one.” He chuckled again, this time at a more intimate tone, and tipped the rest of the brown liquid in his glass into his mouth, exhaling loudly as he firmly placed the glass down onto the bar. “More drinks,” He said, “shall we? The night is still young, and it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to chat with a couple of folks who speak half-decent English.”
Before we had a chance to interject, he motioned for the bartender and ordered our drinks, knowing what we had either by sight or by overhearing what we ordered before. Nevertheless, seeing how both of our glasses were almost empty, we didn’t decline the man’s offer. We too were lustful for interaction with a common tongue, fatigued from choppy speech, slowed down and spoken at a pace and pitch we feel helps make the language seem somehow more palpable. It was exhausting hearing a language not your own all day; your mind processing unfamiliar sounds that stick to nothing as the walls in your mind crave for some adhesive comprehension to form.
He sat in silence waiting for the drinks, watching the bartender prepare each one until our respective glasses appeared in front of us, ready to be absorbed. His stare wasn’t an intimidating, or an intruding one toward the bar, but more as simply a spectator, in regal stoicism, watching any craftsmen execute his work to a tee. He didn’t seem to marvel at the practice, yet showed his admiration for the bartender’s labor in his idle attentiveness. Once we received our finished products, the man nodded to the bartender in approval and Amelia and I were instructed to lift our glasses and to toast.
“To what are we toasting?” I asked.
“The only thing worth toasting for – that what we’re holding onto won’t be your last.” He said as he collided with our glasses and took a long sip from his iced scotch. We followed suit, Amelia giving me a playful look as she brought the drink to her mouth, indicating she was up for our guest and wasn’t the least put off by what I perceived as a mutually charming yet intrusive manner. Like most couples who have allowed enough time to pass while in one another’s endearing presence, we grew accustomed to reading into such subtle motions, depicting a hidden, malleable language we spoke in moments like the one we found ourselves in now, letting the other know if we were tuned to the same frequency of the current state of affair occurring.
“How rude of me,” the man continued as he placed his drink back on the bar, wiping his palms down the front of his shirt “My name is Nathaniel, pleasure to meet the two of you.”
He reached out his hand in my direction.
“Nathaniel.” Amelia repeated. “Such a traditional name.”
Nathaniel scoffed at Amelia’s remark, “It’s a shit name.” He said with such deliberation, I didn’t feel a need to argue him off the point and instead simply laughed.
“My name is John, and this is my wife, Amelia.” I said, gesturing toward my heart’s proprietor.
“What are the two of you doing over in Korea? Don’t tell me it’s your honeymoon; what an appalling destination if it indeed is.”
“Why would here be so appalling for a honeymoon?” Amelia inquired. “I find it quite a charming country.”
“You don’t come to Korea for a honeymoon. Two young souls, enamored in the way you two are, you both should be in a place that matches your inhibited and sweaty fervor. Like Paris or Dubai, or some other ostentatious city. Believe me; I was young like you once and a much smarter and better looking lad too, so I should know a thing or two about these things.”
We sat there as the night grew in its pale darkness, each one of us listening with supposed earnest to whoever was speaking. We told him we were on vacation and chose to come to Korea out of spontaneity and on a whim from a recommendation from one of Amelia’s colleagues, whom had taught English there, which persuaded us to book the trip during our window of overlapping vacation from our occupations.
Nathaniel told us that he was in Korea until a little after the end of the year – as his plane for Thailand left on the seventeenth of January. He was, as he so eloquently put it, trying to see how many countries he could get piss drunk in before it was his turn to die. Nathaniel came across a remarkable man. Brash in most instances, but genuine enough to perceive this trait as endearing rather than unappealing. We found ourselves laughing at his crude jokes we would have otherwise never uttered ourselves, but found each one wickedly amusing, like some harmless transgression, done in muted shadow that felt more satisfactory the more it is prohibited. He was a military man, spending over a decade with the Marines, fighting in the tail end of the Vietnam War and spending some time in Grenada.
“Awful time there, humid as all hell under that entire military garb.” He proclaimed. Amelia had a look on her face that supposed she wanted to ask Nathaniel a question, but she opted instead for silence, turning her attention rather to the drink in her hand. Nathaniel, noticing her silent caprice, looked her way and said, “What, you want to know if I’ve ever killed a man, isn’t it? Well, go on then, ask away.”
“Have you?” She asked.
“Yes,” He said, “but what of it. Men shot at me and I shot at other men.” He opened his mouth to say more but stopped and stared down at his glass, looking as if he was contemplating taking another sip while mulling over the paused thought stuck in his throat. The scotch was announced the victor as he downed the remaining liquor in his glass. He spoke, this time without any hesitation. “War simply happened.”
Never participating in any wartime myself, I remained silent, as did Amelia. When speaking to anyone, such as Nathaniel, someone who has witnessed war firsthand, my own opinion always felt inconsequential to the intricacies of such a brutish, yet seemingly inescapable occurrence.
Breaking the short spell of silence, Amelia excused herself as she made her way towards the bathroom, leaving me alone with Nathaniel.
I offered to buy the next round, to which Nathaniel happily obliged.
Nathaniel watched (again in the same concentrated fashion) the bartender prepare the drink order. It seemed something in his eyes elicited pain for a moment: the moist glisten that occurs around one’s pupil, the veins in the eye glowing red with blood, anticipating the moment when the locked door holding in the emotional outburst is rammed open with the first shed of tears. This fleeting glimpse of pain, however, dissipated with a blink of his eyes and even further as he cleared his throat, the despair perhaps drowning in the copious amount of alcohol that was accumulating in his stomach, as it was in mine as well. I wanted to follow Amelia and get up and go to the bathroom too, but felt rude leaving our newly acquired acquaintance alone with three drinks, so I briefly ignored my bladder’s pleads and remained in my seat.
Nathaniel thanked the bartender as he placed each drink in front of its corresponding stool. “I have to know,” He began, “how did such a lovely woman get stuck with the likes of you?”
“Two things,” I said, holding up my index and middle finger, “fortune and persistence.”
“Bahh” Nathaniel blurted out. “Pure dumb luck is more like it.”
I began telling Nathaniel how Amelia and I met. How we both were invited, through a mutual friend of ours, to a Halloween party during Amelia’s first and my third year in University. I told him how while I was getting ready, a friend of mine begged me to switch my costume of a methamphetamine dealer from a popular television show at the time with his police officer uniform that was too tight on him, but he insisted would fit perfectly on me (it was a little tight on me too, but by the time we got into each other’s costumes, our ride was honking his car horn at the end of the driveway, so I was stuck with a police costume that left little to the imagination). After I reluctantly said I would swap with him, wouldn’t you know, once we got to the party and started mingling about I saw Amelia, leaning against the island in the kitchen over a bowl of chips, dressed in convict’s clothes and her face made up grotesquely to look like a zombie. I told him how she was the first to say anything between us cursing at me from across the room, saying I had left her in the back of my patrol car and that’s why she was now a zombie. I told him how we talked the entire night, migrating from the kitchen, to the outside patio, and then eventually the living room couch, our eyes never too eager to leave the each other’s unattended until the host kicked everyone out and we were left to say goodbye and drive home, anxiously anticipating when we could speak and see each other again.
“She said I looked ridiculous in that police uniform, too. I even told her it wasn’t my costume and when I introduced her to my friend, she told me she had no clue what he was dressed up as. I called her the next day asking her to meet me for lunch which she agreed to, and now four years later here we are.”
Chuckling as he took a sip. He tipped the glass gently up to his lips so the ice wouldn’t move as he closed his eyes to enjoy the first sip of his freshly poured scotch. “You’re alright, kid. Here’s to you and your wife.” Nathaniel lifted his drink, indicating for yet another toast.
I responded by knocking into his drink and tipping my head back, showing my appreciation for his gracious gesture, as the beer began to taste smoother as the night waned on. Holding out his glass, he said, “This is what it’s all about, remember that.” And I was a little unsure of what he was referring to. Just then, Amelia returned from the bathroom and asked what we were toasting about now.
“Good fortune.” Nathaniel said, not missing a beat, before I had a chance to respond.
Amelia took her seat and the conversation moved on to more trivial things as the shorter hand of the clocked past both its apex in height and numerals and started its drowsy descent down into the fainter hours of the night.
After a couple more successions of drink orders, Amelia tapped out and substituted her gin and tonic for plain soda. There were now some empty seats at the bar, but the tables remained crowded with empty glasses and talkative Koreans, now more boisterous then when we first came, but not overbearing loud. The bar was filled with warm energy from the energized souls that surrounded us. The three of us were commenting on how it was remarkable how some of the young couples in Korea seemed to match outfits when they were out in public and not afraid to publicly display their affections in ways I considered a bit excessive.
“Well, I think it’s cute.” Amelia concluded.
“All I know is that, when I was young and dating, if my fellows back home ever caught me matching like that bloke with my wife, I wouldn’t hear the end of it.” Nathaniel said, looking over at the couple, shaking his head with a smile.
“So you had a wife,” I asked, “or are you speaking in general?”
The smile evaporated from Nathaniel’s face as he met my eyes with his. He seemed to ty to feign its return while saying, “No, no generalities here.”
“You had a wife?” Amelia asked, her attentiveness being projected in her now perked posture in her bar seat, leaning towards both me and Nathaniel.
“Yes, I had a wife.” He said taking a sip. Before bringing the rim of his glass to his lips once more, he added, “She’s gone now.”
The air grew stale between the three of us. Our conversation – taking a turn into unchartered waters, where neither we nor presumably Nathaniel wanted to venture – had lost its sense of direction, and we didn’t know where to turn our course now, unable to find the preserving winds of banter. Instead we sat undulating in place as we averted meeting eyes: Nathaniel busy with his drink, Amelia looking over the shoulder, back toward the matching couple, and I, ripping away at the damp coaster that housed my previous beers, rolling up the wet paper between my thumb and index – an excruciating couple of seconds it was. I noticed my beer and Nathaniel’s glass needed refilled; a saving grace, I thought. “I’ll get the next round.” I said, managing to catch the bartender’s attention.
“I’ll be damned, have you no manners?” Nathaniel asked, and for a moment – similar to his very first words to me – I was unsure of what he entailed.
Reading the confusion on my face, Nathaniel clarified by saying, “Has the beer filled you up so much that the overflow is spilling into your skull? I’m no floozy you met at the bar; it’s my turn to get the drinks, you had the last round.” His belly vibrated the residual water that melted from the ice in his last glass of scotch as he sat chuckling, contagious in not only eliciting laughter from the two of us, but fortunately also clearing away the fogged air of tactlessness that was surmised by Amelia’s and my own lack of sensibility in prodding at matters we shouldn’t meddle in. Nathaniel, however, steering the conversation’s course back to those obscured waters once the bartender arrived with a new beer and scotch, said, “She was a lovely woman, my wife. You two remind me of her and me: young and itinerant. I mean, look at you too, fully enchanted with one another. How I wish to be there again, to have this weight of age off my porous bones, to be flooded with the spirit of youth with my love next to me talking to some old bastard about nothing all goddamn night. Although we tend to never remember the bad days as much, I assure you there weren’t too many for us.”
We thanked him for the compliment, but I was unsure what to say next. Luckily, Amelia came to the rescue, always being the more tactful one in situations where such a quality was imperative.
“What was her name?”
“Shelia.” His eyes glistened at the utterance of her name, the same glisten that appeared during each preceding drink order – the alcohol slowly impairing my perception of the passing time, which I only could conclude as soaring steadfast toward daylight, as we would eventually look behind us out the window and see the once shadowy streets ablaze in the orange glow of sunrise, wondering how we managed to converse and drink ourselves through the night (alas I recalled the bar closing at a rational four in the morning, leaving no chance for us to be on these upright barstools witnessing such a serene scene). “Sheila, Sheila, Sheila! Ah, how could I forget the day we met,” he started, an act of clairvoyance, knowing (or perhaps just fresh on his mind from our earlier conversation) the next question he guessed Amelia was to ask, “I could forget all the countries I’ve ever stepped foot in a thousand times over, but that night – and any moment where I witnessed the faintest of her breath – is forever engrained into my memory.” His tone shifted from its natural deep pitch to a weaker, more mawkish level, breaking through the integument of his enigmatic character he seemed encased in all night, simply revealing a drunk, heartbroken man finding solace in good scotch and company willing to lean into the night with him.
He told us how she was a waitress at her family’s restaurant by day, a bartender at night. He told us how he would come to her bar every night, watching her pour drinks for him and others. How he would beg for her time outside of work, “Just one date, that’s all it’ll take, I promise.” Nathaniel would say to her near the end of the night when most of the other customers staggered off to their homes. How he would eat lunch every week at her family’s restaurant, eventually befriending her father in his jovial nature and always showing the upmost respect to her mother whenever he thanked her for such angelic cooking, as he put it, practicing his German as much as he could in an effort to impress them. After some time, Shelia finally conceded and went out on a date with Nathaniel and he was right, shortly afterward they were planning a wedding. “She was playing hard to get, I knew that.” Nathaniel explained, “She adored seeing me grovel, come back time after time after each gut wrenching rejection, her eyes inviting me back to the same bar stool the following night, or the following afternoon to the table closest to the kitchen, always the table closest to the kitchen. We got to know each other very well in that time, her and I, and even though during the whole song and dance I was driven mad by her consistent rejections, I admit, the chase was damn fun and well worth it.”
He went on and on, and we listened diligently, Amelia’s fingers grabbing at my thumb, pressing against my knuckle in moments when Nathaniel’s recollection invoked empathy and a quick smile from me to her whenever I caught her stare out the corner of my peripheral. How remarkable one’s own mawkish memories can be selfishly absorbed by its audience. He told us how she died from a case of walking pneumonia going untreated, during a hiking excursion they were having through Switzerland in early January. “She never liked to show frailty, she was a strong girl. She thought it was only a bug, something she would get over soon enough and not something that would affect the three night hike we had ahead of us that week. By the time we finished, her cough had gotten worse and she was deathly sick, but still, she wouldn’t let me lay a finger on her as we were coming down that mountain, never once complaining about the cold.” Nathaniel drank the remainder of his scotch in one, long sip. “Hard-headed girl. Too damn stubborn. Too damn stubborn.”
We ordered two more drinks.
“If my memory would so happen to betray me,” Nathaniel started, swirling around the contents of his newly poured scotch, the booming echo in his voice diminished to an intimate murmur, “leaving me a blank slate whenever I thought of my Shelly, then that would surely be the end of me, friends.” He cleared his throat, managing to get his intonation back to its voluptuous tone, “But, until that day–”
“To Shelia.”
We rose our glasses and the still image of the wet smile on Amelia’s face, the reddened cheeks of Nathaniel, and whatever facet of my emotional state my face was outwardly portraying is the last memory I have of that night. Although I know something had to follow, the final scenes of that act too frivolous to hold onto: them being perhaps a few more exchanges between us, the inevitable departure and journey back to our hotel which Amelia made certain, and the obvious curtain-call undressing and collapse into the white sheets of the unfamiliar sheets of the hotel bed, was all lost know. These moments were sacrificed to the keepers of time, leaving me with the proper ending of the story of how I needed to remember that night, as inimitable as it was.

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