Cold Hands


It was the coldest day of the year. It was so cold that Ivan wasn’t quite sure if time was still moving forward. He almost wished it wasn’t, since he was about to visit the dentist, and he already knew he wasn’t going to get off easy. One of his upper molars was being assaulted by a tiny jackhammer – it felt very much like it.
The dentist’s office was on the fourth floor of a nondescript office building – nondescript except for an elaborate garden surrounded by metal benches on the plaza in front. This being January, the garden was almost empty. There was just a clump of brown ornamental grass, about two feet tall, swaying in the icy wind.
The plaza was deserted, except for a man who was kneeling down next to the grass. Ivan thought he must be a caretaker or gardener, though it seemed like an odd time of year to be weeding or planting.
As he got closer, Ivan saw that he was a thin, elderly man who hadn’t shaved in a while and was dressed in faded jeans, rotting sneakers and a ripped parka. A homeless person, he thought.
The man’s eyes were closed and his bare hands were clasped, and Ivan thought he might be praying. But then something surprising happened that made Ivan stop walking and forget about the pain in his tooth. The man opened his eyes, took out a book of matches, struck one, and set the grass on fire.
Despite the cold, the dry grass quickly turned into a bonfire. The old man stood up and calmly began warming his hands over it, as if he was doing something perfectly ordinary.
“Are you okay?” Ivan asked. The man turned and smiled at him, but said nothing. He had a sad smile, like someone resigned to a tragic fate.
“Here,” Ivan said. He pulled off his gloves – they were fairly expensive leather gloves – and handed them to the man. “You need them more than I do,” he said.
The old man nodded gratefully and put the gloves on, still saying nothing. He stood watching Ivan as he went through the revolving doors of the office building, and then turned back to his fire.
Ivan sat in the dentist’s waiting room trying to read a magazine, but his tooth pain and the mental image of the man and his makeshift fire kept him from concentrating. After a few minutes, he heard sirens outside. He went to the window and looked down at the plaza, four stories below. Firemen were putting out the blaze and laughing, and cops were putting the old man into a squad car.
As he left the building later that afternoon, tooth pain gone but still feeling distracted, Ivan stopped by the blackened garden and looked down. He was surprised to see his gloves lying on the edge, one atop the other. But they didn’t seem like his gloves anymore. They looked like clasped hands, and that made him shiver. He picked them up and threw them into the frozen ashes. – Michael Gates
Do you want to write an essay or short story like Gates did? E-mail it to and we’ll use it in the Midweek! Keep it to 500-800 words.


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