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A Time to Fly

by Ron Van Sweringen

She stood staring out, watching the yellow buses below, following their route down Michigan Avenue, then crossing over to 44th Street. How many times had she stood on that corner over the last thirty years, at that bus stop, waiting, waiting, waiting, in the freezing cold of January, or the burning furnace of August? But it was all the same now, in the past.

The roof was deserted, as usual in winter, except for the pigeons. They were always there, walking in circles and talking to each other, the way they did in the park at lunchtime where she fed them every day without fail.

It would be wonderful to know what they were saying. Were they kind to each other? Surely so. They were too small and vulnerable not to be kind. She knew that lesson from life: the bigger a thing was, the less likely it was to be kind, at least to her.

Light snow drifted down, the dry crunchy kind like granules of sugar. It dusted the metal roof, blowing in waves from the cutting wind, like a billowing sea. The shoulders of her red coat were turning white, along with the small black hat pulled down tightly over her greying auburn hair.

She opened her bag and considered a cigarette, taking out a half-empty pack. After a minute of blankly looking at it, she let it go and it fell, tumbling away, driven by the wind. It was a bad habit, and she was glad to be rid of it. Better late than never.

Her feet were cold. The black leather shoes she wore were sturdy, with rather thick two-inch heels. They gave her needed height, but the open toes afforded little protection against the cold. She shivered slightly, feeling the goose bumps work their way down her spine and then explode, making her body quiver.

With a slight hesitation, she stepped up onto the concrete grid at the edge of the building where the roof began. The wind was stronger there, and colder. She braced herself by locking an arm around the old-fashioned iron fire escape that curled up over the edge of the building.

Snow was catching on her eyelashes, and she felt as though she were disappearing into the grey landscape. White rooftops with their dark chimneys belching up ribbons of smoke surrounded her.

She looked down again at the street, eight stories below, now a black and white abstraction from tire tracks and footprints in the accumulating snow. Dozens of scurrying ants with tiny umbrellas, making their way around each other in wavy lines, completed the painting.

A fire engine, now wailing in the distance. The mournful sound of death and dying or the welcoming announcement of help and hope arriving. She had known them both and dreaded the sound. She was now past the point of help and hope arriving.

She loosened her hold on the fire escape, then looking up into the grey and white polka-dot sky, the way a high diver does before going off the board, she took a deep breath.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” came a voice from behind her. “I’ll miss you at lunchtime.”

The shock of the unexpected sound caused her to teeter as she turned on the concrete grid at the edge of the building, now icy and snow-covered under her feet.

The roof behind her was empty, grey and white and empty. The only door from inside the building, closed as she left it, with no footprints in the fresh snow.

The only thing in view, a pigeon walking slowly in circles. She watched the lone bird, as if transfixed, then she stepped down from the grid onto the roof. Opening her bag, she brought out a crumpled box of Cracker Jacks and a partial handful of the caramel popcorn.

The hungry bird landed in a flutter on her arm and upon seeing the rich offering she held, quickly began feasting.

Tears welled up in the woman’s eyes as she fed the bird. “You’re right,” she whispered to the trusting creature, “it’s not time for me to fly yet.”

Copyright © 2009 by Ron Van Sweringen

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