Outside the enormous IKEA café window the sky was gray, gray like Europe. The window stretched from the floor to the ceiling and from wall to wall. The sky through the window seemed to hold in its clouds tables and chairs a certain distance apart. Quiet silhouettes of people sat in low conversation or walked across clean glossy floors in a drifty, institutional way, only not without hope, not beat down or weary, but still kind of like they were dead and in heaven. Sharon sat next to the window and sipped coffee from a real coffee cup. She swung her foot under the table.
Through the glass at the side of her head the Swedish flag dangled and blew out flat on occasion. Dark birds flew together then apart. Sharon breathed heavily into the cup at her lips and smiled at her breath flowing right back at her face. Down in the parking lot a woman pushed a cart between cars, elbows out, the Tin Man in Reeboks on a quest of containment. She had a cart full of plastic bins, underneath, a stack of colorful lids. This year will be different! Sharon imagined the woman huffing to herself. Everything in its place, labeled and stacked. The containers so large she could crawl inside. She only needed the one, Sharon wanted to tell her as she cut into a meatball.
Three tables in front of her the couple sat together and carefully turned pages of the catalog. All of the tables in between them were empty. When Sharon looked up there they were again, making progress. Chubby, beige, glasses, both of them matched, turning those pages. Sharon swiped part of a meatball through a clump of jelly and bit. Silver flatware, hard round plates. IKEA was like an airport without any of the things airports have. It was like an airport for people with nowhere to go but home. She pulled at her collar, pulled the two sides together to warm her neck. It was one of her habits. It warmed her neck for a minute.
There wasn’t a plane but Sharon imagined a plane and old jet lag and sweet almonds and Albert pulling the handle up from her suitcase trailing behind as they had walked coat to coat together towards the car in the airport parking lot. The Cologne sky was like gray water they were under all of the time moving through the mist without needing to hold their breath (but she did without thinking, held herself in). The airport looked like a giant cruise ship to the future, Sharon had remarked, as they had merged swiftly into the red taillight stream of exiting cars.
Albert shook his head with his silent laugh as he looked from the windshield to the rearview and back.
“What?” Sharon looked at the women in other cars. Brown hair. Blond. She wondered if she looked American.
“Things always look like something else with you still.”
“The airport? It does.”
Albert had flipped on the heater, rubbed her knee. “Yep,” he said.
He drove with one arm loped across the wheel, the other hand busy with her knee, her braid, the backs of his fingernails under her scarf. She had rolled her head down like a kitten toward his soft wrist and kissed. Sharon was woozy from the flight; an interior haze moved through her body.
“The key is don’t sleep,” Albert had told her, cupping her chin. He turned down the heat. His curls looped out of his knit cap, parts of his face pink from cold German wind. His eyebrows lifted high above his glasses. “Body clock, babe.”
“Mmm hmm.” She may have mumbled. “Let me hear your body clock, your body clock.”
Albert looked at her sideways and laughed a little through his nose. The sun was nowhere. He never got her jokes. Wipers wiped. Cars then hills. Wipers wiping. Albert finally. Cramps from the almonds. Dying of thirst. GPS voice speaking in German. GPS? Doesn’t he know where he’s going?
“Don’t you know your way around?”
“Sure,” Albert shrugged.
“What’s with the thing?” Sharon flung her hand toward the dash briefly then dropped her hand back into her lap.
Albert rocked his head from side to side a little. “I like it. I like her to tell me.”
The navigator said something about groischztanhiemen or something. Sharon stared at the glove compartment for a while then looked at Albert. He turned on the blinker while looking back over at Sharon then pointed to the word on the upcoming sign. “Ta da,” he said, all smiles.
Out of the car and walking Sharon had tried to shake off the flight and accept the time of day without comparing it to her watch. Albert walked leaning into her side, his hand on her shoulder; the weight was a rescue, a destination. They moved through the parking lot behind buildings toward music.
“Here, turn,” he said, positioning her shoulders. People passed them up in a hurry. Dark coats, a red cap, skinny boots up to the knees. Two little girls jump-walked like hopscotch and flapped their arms behind a couple swinging white shopping bags from gloved hands. A couple of men wearing fat jackets, their arms half in deep pockets, walked toward them, their chins sunk into their scarves and eyes blinking in the afternoon mist. An elderly man in a beige coat and tinted glasses stopped and looked up, then back at where he had been before. The crowd moved around him.
Sharon watched her feet and the black asphalt. She could only absorb the people in parts of clothing and quick glances without stumbling again. Albert found her neck under her hair and rubbed his thumb against her skin, kissed her temple. “Here we go,” he said.
The lot led to an open square filled with Christmas. Sharon wrapped her arms around Albert’s waist and they worked their way down the rows of market booths under strings of white lights bridged over their heads. The smell of the air mixed with cinnamon and the occasional beer carried by in the hands of other shoppers. Booths were decorated like chalets and featured wooden nutcrackers and marionettes and pralines. A woman tried out a xylophone with hesitant taps of a mallet. They maneuvered through a group gathered to watch a man in a sailor’s cap demonstrate an incense burner shaped like a lumberjack. The man waved Sharon and Albert closer to the booth as he placed the miniature wooden lumberjack on the counter, the tiny o-shaped mouth aimed at Sharon.
The merchant’s hands were chapped and curved as though he would have a difficult time straightening out his fingers. He must have discussed the details of the apparatus as he pulled the entire top half of the lumberjack clean off at the waist.
“Oh my,” Sharon said.
A boy in a striped sweater stood on tip-toe and held on to the counter, looking up.
Albert adjusted his glasses and smiled down at Sharon. “It’s a smoke man,” he grinned. “I’ve got one somewhere.” He waved his hand “somewhere.” Albert was still fully occupying his body at the Christmas Market, she remembered, the energy in his arms so easy around her and the half-turn of his lip lifted with every curiosity and his face flushed with his presence, his specificity. She tried to explain the loss to herself, to help her understand when later Albert’s body seemed to empty himself out, his face a no one with the details dissolved into the air, his expressions vanished into the slack and smooth as if all of who Albert was could only be seen in the creases.
Clinging couples yanked apart by tornados must know how she felt, to watch him go. The coils he imagined inside his chest wrapped up tight. She lost the ability to get them untangled. It was confusing. She wasn’t a psychologist. She would hold her hands flat against his chest above her and say there they go baby there they go and he would brace his arms on either side of her body and shake his hair and try to breath, his eyes full of fright, creases disappearing, and she would lift her head from the pillow.
The merchant held the incense between his finger and thumb like a diamond. He inserted the cone into the holder attached to the bottom half of the smoke man and lit it on fire for a second before the flame disappeared. The smoke smelled of pine. The boy dropped his hands from the counter and looked up at his father. Albert pointed to the top half of the lumberjack being placed over the smoking cone and the lumberjack stood with the smoke flowing out of his round wooden mouth. He held in one hand a hatchet; on his back he carried a bundle of sticks. The smoke twisted out of his mouth. Everyone clapped and breathed in the pine-scented aroma with noses tilted up high and inhales that were slightly dramatic.
Sharon didn’t know if she would go on with the memory this afternoon to the cathedral – The Dom – with the stone spiral stairs and crowded hustle up and around and up and around in her new orange scarf to wave at Albert when she arrived at the roof. She had been sitting for a while and her food was getting cold. Plus she would wonder again why she had the orange scarf to wave when he was the one in the blur at the bottom. They should have both waved something bright at each other. She had stood with the city below lighting up against the dark river. Two teenaged girls handed her a camera to take their picture together and she remembered their faces well. “You?” The one in tights had asked. Sharon gave her back the camera and stood holding her hands straight at her sides, smiling without teeth, waiting against the wall for the white flash.
Parking spaces with black cars: forty-one. Beyond the parking lot were cars driving now with lights on the service-road and one after another along the complicated highway above. She appreciated her relaxed advantage, her sweet meat and breath in a warm cup.
Now the couple was kissing. Making out. Mouth to mouth. Short arms wrapped. Sharon tilted her head. Where were their lips? She wondered if they knew what they were doing. The arms didn’t move. The mouths didn’t move. They were attached without lips. They were ghosts tugging at each other’s souls. That’s what it looked like. A horror movie. Warm neck.
A man walked toward her table with his tray out like jr. high school and looked straight at her. Sharon squinted. Some kind of camping hat and long scraggly hair gray and blond. International. Was he international? Probably from Dallas. Short beard. Blue eyes. Skinny. He went on to the table behind her. A clatter behind and over her shoulder and the back of the man as he placed his tray down on the table with a black-haired woman buttering a roll. Her hands have the right amount of grip without appearing to struggle, Sharon thought.
No birds now. The flag hung in a drape of blue and yellow. Hundreds of cars moved like glittering liquid through a straw across Texas. The couple no longer embraced and the catalog was closed. They sat side by side with their heads bent down, forearms angled on the edge of the table as they flicked short pale thumbs over the tops of their phones.
Peggy Price studies creative writing at The University of Southern Mississippi, where she works as a librarian. Her short fiction has appeared in elimae, Smokelong Quarterly, Pindeldyboz, and Opium Magazine. She lives in Hattiesburg, MS.