The beauty of writing is that you can be anywhere you wish as soon you put pen to paper. Here’s a trio of stories from SWC members all looking outside, while we’re all staying inside.

View From My Window

by Connie Phlipot

@markheybo Flickr

The clickety tap of cutlery against the china plates embarrasses me.  It’s too intimate.  More so than the voices of diners on the sidewalk beneath my window.  Conversations are as easy to ignore as the rustle of leaves.  But the sounds of eating — I feel like an unwanted guest, a passer-by on the street who whimsically plops down on at a stranger’s table and helps himself to the bread basket.

I prefer the scene while the windows are still shut and before the tables and chairs are arranged along the street when I can watch anonymously.  I’m not yet one of those elderly ladies who rests her forearms on a pillow propped up on the windowsill to surveil her neighbors’ activities.  I’m a less consistent and conspicuous observer.  The window is a distraction from work, rather than an occupation.  An emergency vehicle’s siren will draw me from my computer to the window.  It’s on an adjoining street, and I can’t see around the corner to find out what is going on.  But I spot  a child care giver leading a group of toddlers clinging to a rope.  Except the smallest child is holding the adult’s hand, apparently too young or insecure to keep a grasp on the rope.  They zig-zag down the sidewalk until the second smallest drops the line and huddles in a doorway.  They re-group.  The smallest is on the line and the caretaker takes the recalcitrant one’s hand.  I don’t think children were attended this way when I was small.  How do they feel?  Like dogs on a leash?  I can see some of them treat it as a game, skipping, trotting, pulling on the rope to taunt the next-in-line.  Other are serious, holding the rope firmly, looking straight ahead.  I suppose that would have been me, responsible at age four.

The children troop out of site.  The slender necks of two black birds preening on a bagle are silhouettes against an unusually clear blue sky.  They are more elegant than magpies or pigeons.  Cormorants? Taking a break from frolicking or fishing in the canal to survey their sojourn in the temperate Viennese winter.  Binoculars would be useful to identify these non-urban birds, but that would push me a step towards becoming a voyeur.  Too easy to move the focus from the birds to the open window a floor below. 

Back on the street, a man in dark beret and woolen coat cut full at the bottom in a traditional style has replaced the children.  He hobbles along, stopping to read the restaurant menu and look into the hair dresser’s window next door.  He pauses at the hair dressers, then moves toward the door, his hand outstretched to the knob.  Then he drops his hand and shuffles along.  Did he realized the ‘friseur” is only for female clientele?  Or did something else make him change his mind?  Whenever I make an abrupt change in my direction on the sidewalk, I feel exposed, worried someone is thinking I am a crazy or addled woman.  And here I am trying to attribute strange motives for what is undoubtedly an innocent mistake, like me going back into the apartment for forgotten gloves. 

A window is open across the street at about the same level as my window.  A woman lays bedding on the sill to air.  I open my window just a bit as the winter air is unusually mild.  The rollicking of wheeled suitcases funnels up to my window and I see a young woman pulling a small navy blue bag along the street.  Like my carry-on suitcase, the wheels have come out of round, adding a uneven beat to the rolling.  In the summer, the sound is as pervasive as the outdoor eating noises, reminding me that I live only a few blocks from the train station and that the city is a constant swirl of people traveling to and fro.

On the other corner, a young man with a dog paces in front of the Chinese restaurant.  The dog sniffs the door and the man pulls out his cell phone.  A couple his age hail him as they cross the street.  They hug, then enter, the dog in tow.  That restaurant is housed in an extravagantly decorated late 19th century building.  When there are no pedestrians on the street, such buildings command my attention.  I’m lucky that the ugliest building on the street is the one I live in.  A grim, flat-faced, grey structure from the uninspired, practical 1970s.  What was in its place before amidst these grand buildings of late 19th, early 20th century? I’ve searched the web, but can’t find anything.  I understand that brutalism is now recognized as a legitimate architectural form.  Fine for U.S. government buildings, but not for an apartment building in a residential block.  But at least I don’t have to look at it.  Instead I gaze at the alluring bas relief of semi-nude mythical creatures romping on the side of the Chinese restaurant.  Additionally, the Chinese restaurant boasts a bowling alley.  I’ve no evidence that it exists, though as a native of Cleveland, Ohio it does behoove me to find out if my city’s much ridiculed pastime is available next door.

Flat splotches of rain on the windowsill remind me that the window is also my weather gauge.  While my phone app say there will be no precipitation for 120 minutes, my window tells a different story.  No umbrellas up yet, but pedestrians are scurrying, their heads turtle-like inside their hoods.  Someone holds a copy of the free tabloid over his head.  The Viennese don’t seem to be in the habit of carrying umbrellas.   Wind velocity is harder to ascertain, especially before the side walk cafes are adorned with potted trees that wave in the wind.  I squint at the bushes on the penthouse garden across the street, or at the banners advertising the language school further away.  A crude measurement.  I go outside, dressed for rain and wind.  Just in case.

Postscript:  It’s March 16, 2020 in the Time of Corona and the recently installed sidewalk seating is lying vacant, visited only by pigeons and magpies.  However, Sunday night, strains of the Pink Panther boomed from a nearby building.  Popular music more faintly in the distance.  Neighbors I’d never seen before opened their windows — a young woman above the Chinese restaurant, a young man naked to at least the window frame.  Not the musical explosion of Roman balconies, but a sign that street life can come back to life.

About Connie Phlipot

Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus.  She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe. 

Dead Zone

by Jennifer Cornick

James Schultz Unsplash

Dead zones still exist.  Small pockets where car radios play only static and cell phones stop reading directions in Siri’s eerie, unaccented voice.  Whole towns exist in these small places where no cellular tower signals intersect.  This was new information for Fin and his girlfriend Sawyer as they came to an intersection four separate highways, eight roads.  And had no idea which one to take. 

“I have never seen this before,” Fin said, looking at the seven other roads.  “It reminds me of embroidery my grandma used to do, like a cross stitch with extra stitches.”

“How do you even know what a cross stitch is?” Sawyer asked, tapping at the google map app with speed and urgency, hoping to get the directions to reload. 

“My sister was in the girl guides. There is, apparently, still an embroidery badge and a homemaking badge,” he said.

“Weren’t you in the boy scouts?  Don’t they have a pathfinding badge?” 

“Yes, but for that you need a map.  Which we do not have,” he said. 

“No one has maps anymore.  If you met a person with a map in their car you would probably think they were part of a historical re-enactment group,” Sawyer snatched Fin’s phone from the cupholder and started frantically tapping on the screen.  

“Ah yes, the re-enactment of the great family cross country road trip in which dad turned around in Winterpeg to head back to Scarberia,” he said, waiting for a horn to sound behind them, letting them know they had tarried too long. 

“Certainly, one for the history books,” she said.  “Wait didn’t your dad actually do that?”

“Yes.  Still haven’t been to the Rockies.  On my bucket list.  Why don’t we just keep going? Surely, there is a truck stop or a gas station with maps, or at least someone we can ask for directions,” Fin said.  There was no point in panicking.  They would either find a small town with a gas station selling Indian food or the phone would pick up a signal. 

“Safer than sitting here in this intersection,” she said, looking out the window at the closeness of the forest as they drove on. 

Dead zones have three types of towns.  One is the kind which is filled with retirees who have no problems having wired internet and landlines, so long as they aren’t using the same line, which means some of them have two different phone numbers for the same house.  They all have maps in all their minivans.  The second is a ghost town.  Haunted places, where the windows on the abandoned houses are not smashed because there is no one left to throw the stones.  Curtains still hang in the windows and people swear they could see them twitch, as they drive down the road.  Drivers expect a ball to come bouncing out into the middle of the road followed by no child, meaning they are about to become part of the ghost stories people tell.  The third kind of town is the hipster community.  The kind with a third wave coffee shop, a nineteen-year-old mayor with an improbable beard, and selling home-made aquafaba meringue cakes from the by-product of the hyper local chickpea farm and processing plant.  Where people moved on purpose to not use cell phones.  To “disconnect”. 

Obviously, Fin and Sawyer would have wanted the first kind of town, had they known about these types of places.  And there were two in this dead zone, had they turned directly right or taken the hairpin left turn from their intersection.  A turn which, was surprisingly, legal. 

They passed through the second type of town.  “Why did they leave their curtains?” Fin asked.  “Abandoned homes make no sense financially but people wouldn’t leave behind things they paid good money for and were transportable.”  In Fin’s mind, this was the oddest part. “It makes you wonder if they just up and left, en masse, during dinner,” he said, slowing the car down, fully expecting the red ball on a weed-filled lawn to roll off and bounce into the road. 

“You mean like that one town in the southern states?  In their defence, those curtains were ugly, all furbelows and frills,” Sawyer said. 

At one time those curtains had been the height of fashion and had cost a significant sum to have them made and then delivered to the out of the way place.  However, the person who loved the curtains had passed on and no one removed them when they left.  They had become part of the house.  The family replaced them, in their new home, with inexpensive blinds from IKEA, ones without the string which strangled small children. 

Fin pressed the gas pedal down, hard, and they sped away from the town as soon as they passed by the red rubber ball left to moulder on the lawn.  It was forgotten by a child as all their other possessions were loaded into a trailer to start again in a place where their family could use cell phones.

The third kind of town was not far away.  Only a few minutes past this one when pressing the gas pedal almost directly to the floor.  Fifteen minutes max at one hundred and seventy kilometres an hour.

Fin had to not quite but almost slam on the breaks as they came to a police station with a speed limit sign posted outside.  The kind which told drivers their speed and asked “do you know your speed?”.  A yellow light flashed every time a driver went by it, which was every time someone passed it, given the order of the towns along this road. 

“Civilization,” Sawyer said, her slight smile and sigh were enough to convince Fin she felt as relieved as he.  Sawyer pulled out her phone and attempted to reload the map app, “Still no signal,” she said, dropping the phone back into the cupholder. 

“There are people in that coffee shop over there and there is a gas station.  Serving avocado toast?”  Fin said, pointing through the windshield, the slight note of anxiety caused his voice to go up slightly at the end of the sentence turning the statement into a question.  In actuality, it was an answer.  It told Fin exactly what type of person lived in this community. 

Fin manoeuvred the car into the one space left for hybrid electric cars, everything else having been marked for bicycles, unicycles, or scooters.  Fin unbuckled his seat belt and turned to open the car door, “who rides a penny farthing?” he asked, eyes narrowing at the anachronistic object. 

“Where do you even get one?  Is there a factory?  Or did they have to refurbish it themselves?  Or worse, do they make them and sell those things themselves?  I am literally made of questions right now,” Sawyer said, looking at it. “Why is it at a gas station?  Actually, where are the cars?”

Sawyer circled the car to come stand next to him and stare at the variety of wheeled transport options the townsfolk used.  “Well, this will certainly be an experience,” Sawyer said, turning to head into the gas station. 

The hand carved wooden chime, picked up during a gap year in Costa Rica, hollowly banged against itself as they entered. Everyone turned to look at them.  Fin had never been so self-conscious about his clean-shaven face as he was when confronted with so many beards.  If he had had the wherewithal to notice, he would have seen Sawyer found herself in a similar situation, assaulted by slouchy sweaters, artistically arranged beanies over perfectly messy hair, and fingerless gloves. 

“You here for the avo special?”  One of the bearded men manning the counter asked. 

“Umm, I think we are lost,” Fin said.

“You are in luck today.  We just got maps in, hot off the hand cranked printing press at Joe’s house.  He drew, carved, and inked the linocut himself.  It is a high-quality map of the area.  An art piece really,” the other bearded man behind the counter said, holding up a map with no scale or compass rose on what was clearly cheap, low weight printer paper.

“Sure, we’ll take it,” Sawyer said, pulling her wallet from her purse. 

“That’ll be one hundred and fifty dollars, please.  And we don’t take plastic; it’s bad for the environment,” the first bearded man said, his lips pursed behind his full beard. 

“There is no cell phone signal here.  I can’t use apple pay,” Sawyer said, her head slightly forward and her shoulders raised. 

Fin pulled out his wallet.  “Okay, I have seventy-five in cash, she has twenty, and I have a twenty-five-dollar iTunes gift card my niece gave me for my birthday.  Otherwise, you will just have to tell us how to get to Gravenhurst,” Fin said, choking slightly on the absurd levels of hipster this town had achieved. 

“Sure,” said bearded man number one.  “We’ll take the gift card and stuff.” 

“Thank you,” Fin said as he gently took the map from bearded man number two, being careful not to rip their only way out.

As they reached the car, Sawyer grabbed Fin’s hand and said, “I think I like the ghost town more.” 

All About Rain

by Maria Foldeaki

“An adventure is something that while it’s happening you wish it wasn’t,” said Mark Twain, and how right he was.  On this late May camping trip to the White Mountains I wished and wished it would be just a less adventurous good-weather hike.  Where only the distance and the altitude difference presents a challenge.  

It was the Victoria Day long weekend.  We were about 10, travelling in a small bus for a professionally organized hike in the White Mountains.  The weather forecasts were bad, but we hoped they were mistaken, like so very often.  But they weren’t.  The sky was covered as we mounted the bus and it started to rain by the time we reached the highway.  It was a light rain.  “It might stop,” said the guide.  It was wishful thinking. 

We set up camp in the rain.  There is one thing worse than picking up the tent in rain: taking it down in rain.  At least, we could leave the backpack in the bus while working with the tent.  This way the sleeping bags and the spare clothing didn’t get wet.  Yet. 

After lunch we went on a training hike.  It was meant to train for the rocky terrain, but it became a training for wet terrain. Slippery rocks, mud.  In the evening, the guides set up a kitchen tent.  It was a full board trip.  They cooked.  Normally in open-air, now in the “kitchen.”  It needed a goodwill to call it a “tent” as it had no sides , only a sheet of canvas stretched out high and fixed to the branches of the trees.  It was Ok until the rain stayed strictly vertical. 

We had dinner still in optimistic mood, then went to sleep in our wet tents.  I was better off than the rest:  I had a Fjallraven double-decker tent.  Less chance for the rain to get through.  Plus it was a 2-person tent, thus I could keep the wet gear away from the momentarily still dry sleeping bag.

By the next morning, the rain intensified, instead of stopping.  We went to hike, regardless.  For a while, I tried to get around the poodles.  But the water dripping down from my rain pants entered the boots anyways, thus after a while it didn’t matter.  For this day the guides selected an easier trail, less rocks, more mud.  On the way back we drove to the village.  Maybe we can sit in McDonalds until dinnertime.  But it was a small village, with just a convenience store.  Regardless, we crammed in and bought a bad American coffee.  Small price for a short stay in a warm, dry place.  The weekend edition of the Boston Globe was piled up on the counter.  “Un petit Boston Globe…” said a fellow hiker and lifted one off.  We all followed suite, although I was the only allophone who could’ve actually read it.  Soon we bought up the entire stock.  The clerk was visibly shocked.  A francophone group, Quebec licence plate, why so many copies of the Globe??  But he was too polite or too shy to ask or didn’t speak French.  If he only knew.  We didn’t want to read them, it was for the boots.  To the horror of hygiene-obsessed non-hikers, wet footwear dry the best when stuffed with newspapers.  The language doesn’t matter.

Dinner was a complicated affair, just like breakfast the following day.  The kitchen tent’s “ceiling” caved in, and started to drip.  We crowded into the few dry spots. 

After we treated our boots with the Boston Globe, we went to sleep in the wet tents.  Mine didn’t give in yet, but the sleeping bag wasn’t dry anymore.  Humidity seeped in from the bottom.  I used the rest of the Boston Globe to isolate the sleeping mat from the wet bottom.  I dreamed about Death Valley in the wet sleeping bag.  That’s a desert, with less than 1 mm precipitation.  What a wonderful place.  Antonioni filmed there the movie Zabriskie point.  Maybe he wanted a location where he didn’t have to deal with rain and the Atacama desert (even less rain) was too far. 

The last day we woke up to rain as well.  It was already boring.  I know, there is no life without water.  I know, agriculture needs the rain.  But wouldn’t they be just as well off if it rained only at night?  Why does it have to rain around the clock?

After breakfast the guides dismounted the kitchen tent, and we all took down our personal tents and put them into the bus, thinking ahead about drying them in the bathtub later on.

Then we went to hike.  As I listened the water slosh around in my boots, I day-dreamed about dry trails and sunshine.  There must be cities close to Death Valley with direct flights from Montreal.  As soon as I get home, I will look for a ticket and reserve a rental car, I decided.  Off to the sunshine, out of the rain.

At the end of the trail we had to cross a creek.  It was swollen into an angry river.  Very wide.  We were all reluctant to cross and wandered upstream and downstream to find a more user-friendly spot.  Just to be scolded by the guides.  “Where it’s wide, it’s less deep,” they said.  They dropped rocks into the water to serve as stepping stones.  Then one of them crossed, the other stayed, and they helped us through, one by one.  We were all very slow and worried.  At the end the remaining guide jumped, like a fearless mountaineer should, to present an example for all of us.  The stepping stone he intended to use, that stood fest and carried safely all our slow steps, was overwhelmed by the impulse.  It flipped, and the next moment the guide was lying on his belly in the water, in his full length, from head to toe.  The other guide fished him out.  I gave him my spare dry shirt.  He never gave it back.  Maybe he kept it as a souvenir for the adventure he would’ve preferred not to happen.

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