Julie Lyles Carr: The Yellow Umbrella

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Yellow Umbrella

** Okay, folks...I'm being brave. This is me being brave...

Scribbit (Michelle Mitchell) is holding her monthly writing contest, the theme of this month's contest being 'Ghosts'. She likes to keep the topic fairly open-ended to allow for a wide breadth of creativity. When I saw the topic for October, I thought, "Well, I'll wait for a different month to write something." I've not entered the Write Away contest before and figured that since I don't watch scary movies, don't like scary stories and in general don't do scary, I wouldn't come up with anything on her topic.

But then a little idea started to germinate and late one night, I sat and wrote. I will tell you that I'm more comfortable writing personal reflection and humor. But this fiction piece was what came through the creative conduits and so here it is...my submission to the Write Away contest, a little different turn on the topic 'Ghosts'.**

The Yellow Umbrella

It was the yellow umbrella. He could see it bob on the tides of pedestrians, a canary inverted cup, bouncing with the step of its carrier. The rain spotted his fourth floor office window, refracting his view into a multi-faceted mosaic, each drop capturing that dapple of yellow framed by gray sidewalk, gray building walls, gray overcoats.

And he could see the point of her nose, the jaunt of her chin.

The line of her face was just visible inside the curve of her marigold shelter. And from the slope of her nose, he could imagine wide green eyes set on either side. And from the firm chin, he could picture a full mouth, a wide smile. And then he knew.

It was her. It had to be her. He knew.

It was the yellow umbrella.

He pushed away from his scarred desk, chair legs scuffing the wood floor, grabbing for his old overcoat hanging on the rickety hall tree. He half shuffled, half ran for the door, paperclips scattering under his hurrying feet. A staccato of earnest steps, pounding down the service staircase, taking him to the wet street below. He paused outside the door, pulse singing, breath smoking the cold air. He looked up the soggy avenue, the weak light of an early evening wafting down the valley of edifices, his head snapping to the side to look north up the street.

The yellow umbrella rounded the corner.

He took off in a run, the tide of pedestrians parting as his scruffy loafers slapped against the sidewalk, the soles of his shoes kicking up small splashes of water. His overcoat flapped behind him, a great dun bird. The rain fell harder and the cold spray penetrated the thin cotton of his office-required white button-down shirt. And he ran harder still.

He zigzagged into the street, skirting car bumpers, braving irritated horns. He ran the diagonal to the corner and curved west, scanning the thinning crowd.

No umbrella. Nowhere. Only a sea of black parasols and the occasional soaked newspaper, held atop the head of an unprepared commuter. People were scrambling to get off the streets now, the dark skies emptying a torrent of dark tears. He stood, scanning both sides of the lane. He stood, trying to peer in the shop windows lining the road, squinting to bring silhouettes to recognition, the forms of people sheltered inside. It was futile.

The rain continued its cadence.

He ducked inside a small coffee shop, water draining from his hair, his coat, the crease of his slacks. The coffee shop server looked at him in dismay, a lagoon of deluge collecting along the baseboards.

“May I help you?” the server intoned.

“Uh, um, yes, ah, one hot cocoa.” He shifted quickly to a table closest to the door, making a barren foray at sopping up his effluvia with a thin paper napkin. The mothball scent of his overcoat blended with the aromatics of the roast coffee beans, with the slightly metallic odor of the floor heater, a mix of cold and comfort. And he found himself stretched against the back of the small bistro chair, a tiredness seeping into the chill of his wet clothes, winding its way up his limbs, swirling to his head. Tired. So very tired.

Because how long can one chase a spector without succumbing to lethargy?

He remembered the day they bought the yellow umbrella. The steamy afternoon in Rome had finally found fruition in sprinkling a light mist, the sun still smiling in between laden clouds. It seemed prudent to pick up an umbrella at a corner shop, insurance against a dousing as they made their way to Piazza Navona along the frenetic Roman streets. He had grabbed a small collapsible one, but she had spotted a full umbrella, a polished cane-like handle grasped in her hand. She haggled with the shop owner in her singing Italian, the roll of her consonants and the shine of her smile taking liras off the sticker price. She emerged from the shop triumphant, popping open her treasure, a canopy of yellow vaulting over their heads.

“It's awful,” he complained. “You look like you're carrying an egg yolk over our heads. Really, did you have to have the yellow?”

“Of course,” she giggled, spinning and dancing a little step. “Now I have sunshine even on a rainy day. Now I can see gold even when the sky is grey. And now I'll look like I'm carrying the sun on my shoulder.”

He groaned a bit at the outrageous crayon of a thing, giving a half grin to her outstanding joy, her force of life, her sunshine in the rain.

His mother felt awful about it later. She had thought it would help her son to remove a few things from the apartment in those dark days after the accident. He seemed so stunned and locked, surrounded by her clothes, her dishes, her scent. His mother bundled up a few things to donate, bags of little things, nothing that seemed too sentimental. A pile of books, a blow dryer. A yellow umbrella.

He bolted from his perch on the couch when he saw through the window the bags set out for the donation truck. Already a congregation of street people were pilfering through the bags' contents, treasure hunting in the cast-offs. He ran at them, scattering them in his wake, an incoherent stream of words spewing. He snatched up the books, grabbed at the handles of a bag. And saw the collapsed umbrella, the polished handle of the cane grasped in a gnarled hand. An old woman had claimed it as her prize, scampering down the street. He howled in some pained sigh and she turned. Turned wide green eyes to him, rimmed in wrinkles. Jutted her chin, a smile breaking through the field of creases. She turned and scurried on, jauntily swinging the closed umbrella as a cane.

He hadn't chased her at the time. He didn't know why.

But now, the steam of his wet clothes enveloping him, the brown cream of the hot cocoa warming his mouth, his eyes continued to scan the streets, ready to dash, ready to run. The rain was subsiding a bit and people began to make tentative forays back in to the sodden thoroughfares. He contemplated the slight island of cream floating in the chocolate of his mug. He glanced at the chalkboard above the cash register, coffee concoctions penned in chalk, crowing with flavorful adjectives. He listened to the whine of a small child near the back of the shop, the hiss of the floor radiator, the quiet chatter of fellow customers.

And then he saw a movement of maize.

Across the street, exiting the sheltering awning of the dry cleaner's. A bolt of bright yellow, a smooth half-sphere.

The yellow umbrella.

And he sat. He didn't run. He watched the yellow umbrella dip and rise, a skip of sunshine in the grey. He sat, captivated. The filter of the rain-washed window softened his view. And his heart cradled a thought, a thought that eased the ache. Because if he allowed that sunny ghost of an umbrella to float free, to wind its way through the streets of the city, to shine above the more temperate palettes of parapluie, then perhaps, on rainy days, he would see it still. And if he looked through the forgiving filter of rain, then perhaps he could replace the profile of its thief with the profile of its owner. And if he could look with his heart at its saffron crescent, then it would mean that he could believe she still walked the streets of this city, skipping in rain, laughing at her outrageous ocher umbrella, a spot of sunbeam, a slice of starlight in a slate world.

He would rather share the streets with her happy chimera than reclaim an item he could never bear to use.

And so sometimes, when the skies darkened with clouds, when a cloudburst would pounce, every now and then, he would see it, framed in the borders of his fourth floor office window.

Open. Moving.

It was the yellow umbrella.

And it brought a bit of sunshine to the rain.

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