The Encounter

Ken Poyner

The girl at the counter counts change as though it clear-edges her. Her long black hair falls across breasts that no doubt I would find cool to the taste and would be waiting: waiting always as though she were only counting change one distant coin at a time. As the summoning cold filled my mouth she would be thinking, why, these coins are not even currency in this country. To spend these, you would have to travel or go to a bank that has a foreign currency exchange, and then you would have to pay a premium. I could lie next to her with a plan for each moment, and she would think, how many coins must I count and, look, each coin is different, and it does not matter what the man is doing, what simple probes his fingers are mastering: I am responsible for the proper number and proper size of coins.

The rain is dark stilettos ripping into the street. Puddles are everywhere, with not enough wind to stretch them out. The age and careless wear of the pavement has it buckled and knotted, and while there are drains drinking what they can, there are eddies that will not flow downhill, that are trapped in sinks and rises and against uneven curbs. People flash by, heads down, raincoats of many colors held up against the points of their heads where an arc up becomes an arc down, leaving just a fold of plastic jutting out over the last of their unreasonably proud hair.

Her long black hair falls.

It has been raining for three days, each day a bit less full of anything remarkable than what lingered in the day before. No one attempts to deploy umbrellas any longer. What will it be like in a week? Rain staggering to the foot of fire escapes, the drains awash and draining no more? Outside of town, the reservoir is full and the fish are gasping from the petrochemicals that should be in our food but have slurried from the field and in rivulets of clutter polluted the water. The old banks are now awash, and the roadway atop the dam is beginning to feel ripples from the vast lake behind the unthinking concrete barrier: in legions they scorch across the pavement, and all traffic has been stopped. There was once an old environmental advertising slogan. What was it? Maybe: we all live downstream. Downstream is the alluvial plain, the land of wealth and periodic destruction, the bastard child of the dam’s concrete.

She twists to take more coins from the register. It is a deliberate act, one it seems she has to gleefully summon each muscle for, one in which each fiber has knowledge and engages of its own free will. There is a frost to it, a call to the air for ice.

Outside, a small paper boat moves down the gutter. It is pushed more by the rain behind it than by the draw of water falling off the collected rain’s shoulders in front of it. The water in front has nowhere to go, but it is being bullied by the water behind. Yesterday, the boat would have moved faster, with not so much water crowding into, then, more available space. Who would put so much effort into the creation of a paper boat that will slowly suck up the ambient moisture and fall into pieces long before it can get anywhere: all to have it sputter its few short lengths, perhaps less than a block, and selflessly unravel?

I am thinking of the cool. Of what might be frozen. Of how she and I might be the water at the edge of the dam, crisping into a rim of ice that holds back the flood: this competing two of us becoming two things important by merely being contrasted against one another, and most meaningful when we reach out to constrain. Or to destroy, as in denying the liberation of yet more water. I can be destructive. She can be the crystal that demands growth or decline. If a being cannot define itself with creation, destruction is its next best thing. If it cannot win, it can take. My right to the cold exists in my outstretched hand, in the change she counts, sliding metal to metal.

The dam is beginning to crack. I am sure of it.

With an icy collusion of the last coin against thumb and three fingers, her chronicle of the coins is over. I wait there a moment, not wanting to be out in the rain, not wanting to be out in the street if the surge liberating itself over the fractured dam is coming. There are no other customers, and she turns to the counter behind her, where drafts of coffee and tea reside, constrained in a rack made for that purpose alone. Her hair slides along her shoulders like the rudder that in other times would have broken on the ice flow, slamming the whole of her into the freezing water, collapsing her like an ice hollow in the heart of a glacier.

I step outside. The rain taps on the plastic top of my coffee cup. Through the shop glass I can see she is stacking loose filters, that she is doing what someone with nothing better to do would be doing: that she is disengaging, a broad unfettered being of moisture. She is warming. As I walk, the glaze on the sidewalk follows me, and the rain comes down in soft, white flakes to melt on my tongue as the filtered water of tight tropical seas and the life that sharpens within its shallow depths. I make fingers of ice, and she is the memory of tundra: a whip of dry, killing winds across a land of brittle, still water, now behind me.

Ken Poyner often serves as unlikely eye-candy at his wife’s power-lifting meets. His latest collection of brief fictions, Constant Animals, can be located through links on his website and on Amazon. He has had recent work out in Corium, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Poet Lore, Sein und Werden, Cream City Review, Menacing Hedge and a few dozen other places. When power-lifting season is in recovery, he spends his time acting as a comfortable place for any number of his four cats to crash and dream.