Greg Ames lives in Brooklyn and teaches in the English department at Brooklyn College. His short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and websites, including McSweeney's, Open City, The Sun, Fiction International, Literal Latté, and Other Voices. He received a special mention in the 2003 Pushcart Prize anthology and in the Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2004.

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The Snowing Loneliness of Buffalo

posted Jun 2, 2005


"It's weird," she said, "but I feel an immense tenderness for bank tellers-in-training. Do you know what I mean, Jeff?"

"Yes," I lied.

Angela reached across the coffee table for an ashtray. "The bank was packed today, and the kid, the teller, was trying really hard, you could see that, but he just wasn't getting it. And his was the only window open." She gnawed her thumbnail, thinking about it. "I mean, he was probably new and it's only natural that he'd be so slow, but I was already in a bad mood. I just wanted to kill the little jerk."

She changed her position on the futon. Now her left leg was almost touching mine. I wanted her leg to be touching mine. I moved closer, trying to calculate the circumference of her nearest thigh in her loose black corduroys.

"But at one point the kid looked up at me, his face sweating behind the glass, and it was sad, like he was trapped under ice or something."

I thought about this. "Maybe you should get direct deposit," I said, thinking that she actually wanted my input.

"Anyway. It was just one of those days." She folded her leg beneath her. The gap between our thighs widened to a foot. "Forget it," she said.

Disappointed by this retreat, I inched closer on the futon, leaning slightly toward her, casual, casual.

"I don't even have a bank account," I said with a smile.

Angela lit a cigarette, balanced the glass ashtray on her knee. "That's not the point," she said finally.

Near the painted orange door to her apartment, my Timberlands stood in a pool of slushy water slowly spreading across her hardwood floor. I adored my boots and enjoyed looking at them from many different angles. They were sort of noble in their way, like a couple of tired soldiers on night-watch duty—one standing, the other resting peacefully on its side.

"Did you grow up here in Buffalo?" I asked, trying to distract her from the frozen water deaths of bank tellers. "Are you from here originally?"

"My dad was a bank teller downtown, on Seneca Street. A long time ago. He worked in the same bank for forty years. It devoured him."

"Oh," I said, looking over at my boots again. It was almost time for new laces, even though I'd replaced the last pair only a month ago. Nylon laces frayed so quickly in the eyelets, rubbing against the saw-toothed metal grommets until they snapped when you tugged on them. Someday there would be a more durable bootlace, maybe some synthetic fiber or filament developed by the good folks at NASA, and I would celebrate the occasion.

Angela flicked a long gray ash into the tray. "I kept thinking about him today. I felt like I was... I don't know. Bank tellers always make me think of him." She dragged deeply on her cigarette. "They just make me tired."

I gulped my wine and tried to look contemplative. "Yeah," I said, fingering my earring, "it's emotional. For everybody." I nodded here for emphasis. "But especially for you, I bet. Banks, they're like . . . Oh, those fucking banks." Now I didn't know what I was talking about.

I recognized that it was my responsibility—and mine alone—to redirect the course of the evening. We needed to laugh and bump each other's knees by mistake. We needed to nod our heads vigorously in agreement on important political matters and huddle closer together, conspiring.

Her piece-of-junk futon was working against me, though. I couldn't get comfortable. Every two minutes I had to shift my position. I tried crossing my legs, ankle to knee, but I was slumped so low that my entire thigh was above my head, and my foot fell asleep. I had to stretch my leg out and rotate my ankle until the pins and needles went away. Then I crossed my leg European style, thigh over thigh. That was even worse. My tattered and droopy gym sock, still wet from the snow, waved in the air like the gray flag of some untidy country. Finally, I exiled my feet beneath the coffee table.

Angela didn't seem to notice my wet smelly sock. She had one leg tucked cozily beneath her, her left arm flung over the back of the futon. "And when I left the bank today, I thought, Man, that's what my father must've been like forty years ago—just starting out, his whole life ahead of him. A confused kid imprisoned in a glass cage. I felt so bad for him. I felt bad for all of us."

I coughed and cleared my throat. It was getting tricky. What was she talking about?

"I know what you mean," I said. "My old man lives here in town now." I hunched forward, resting my elbows on the faded thighs of my jeans. I lit a match for no reason and shook it out. I glanced at Angela's thighs again. She definitely had some solid meat on her. I appreciated that. Buffalo winters were so brutally cold and depressing, you wanted some flesh under the covers with you at night. Not a mountain of flesh.

A minute passed in silence. Angela smoked and stubbed out her cigarette. She lit another one immediately. I stared at the burnt match in my hand. I was eighteen years old, a virgin, ready for anything, anything, and she was twenty-six, a woman of the world. I had to work some real magic here. No more throat-clearing; it was time to woo.

"Do you get to see him often?" she said. "Your dad."

I shook my head. "Nah, he moved back to Buffalo last summer, in June or July. Every time he moves to a new apartment he sends me a postcard with his address and phone number. Denver. Tucson. Los Angeles. He's lonely, I guess. I don't think he's married." I flipped the spent match into the ashtray. I didn't want to talk about my father. Jesus. "I don't really know much about the guy actually. We haven't talked in years. He's kind of a prick actually."

"At least he's alive," she said kindly. "You still have a chance."

"Fathers are death," I said.

"When was the last time you saw him?"

I looked down at my hand. My fingers felt thick and too big, gigantic, like uncooked sausages. They were leaving big greasy stains on the delicate wineglass.

I was trying not to glug.

"I was twelve, maybe. Eleven. Too small to kick the shit out of him." I grinned at this hardboiled reply, but Angela didn't even crack a smile. "Hey, it's good to see you again," I said, back on the offensive. I leaned closer. "More wine?"

Angela shook her head. "I'm just saying . . . I don't have a choice anymore. And sometimes I wish I did. My dad's dead."

"Yeah, well," I said and downed my wine. "We all are."


I met Angela on a raucous Saturday at Wallbangers on Niagara Falls Boulevard, where I worked as a climbing instructor. We had thirty-six different climbing walls inside the facility. She walked in with like five or six cute girls. They loitered at the front counter for a while, shaking their heads and frowning at each other. I didn't blame them. The place was a total zoo. Children dangling umbilically from the walls and bawling their eyes out. Laughing fat-assed adults ordering Molsons at the minibar, occasionally calling out encouragement to their terrified progeny.

I introduced myself to the ladies. For once I lucked out with this party, which I learned was some kind of a wedding thing. The tall, nervous redhead was the bride, the rest were bridesmaids. Usually I got stuck with a gang of drunken frat guys. I could tell these young women were uneasy, so I opened with the big sportsman smile. Then I gave them a brief introductory overview—the history of rock and mountain climbing, etc. I liked to put the whole experience into context. I invoked the sacred names of Mallory and Irvine. I simulated the sounds of ferocious, bone-piercing winds gusting across "the roof of the world." I narrated riveting tales of K2 and "the Death Zone" and threw in spicy anecdotes about my own personal experiences in the Adirondacks and Lake Placid.

When I said, "Okay, who wants to be first?" they all looked down at their feet, mumbling, until finally Angela stepped forward and said, "What the hell. I'll go."

I showed her the basics: how to belay and rappel, and so on. She laughed easily and smiled a lot, and that makes a big difference with a climbing party. It loosens everybody up, including the instructor. By the end of the day Angela and I were screwing around together like old friends, telling stupid jokes and laughing. Before they all left, I asked her if she would give me her phone number. Normally I wouldn't even have tried with somebody like her. She was older than me, and pretty. She said, "Got a pen?"

Angela searched the minibar for a paper scrap or a matchbook cover while I dug ferociously in my pockets for a ballpoint pen. I didn't have one. Eventually she jotted her phone number on a napkin that had a perfect brown coffee ring in the center of it. Her name, written carefully in cursive, curled around the outside of the brown circle; her number was floating inside, a promise.

The following Saturday I picked her up at six o'clock and took her out to dinner at a Thai restaurant that I liked. Afterwards we went to a hot, crowded Cuban nightclub on Niagara Street. The bouncer peered at my fake ID for an unbearable minute, before handing it back to me with a smirk. "Go ahead," he sighed.

One thing could be said about me: I was a pretty good dancer. Women responded to me differently after I'd danced with them. I was not a good talker. Angela and I drank a lot of rum that night. She liked dancing. She worked up a pretty good sweat. I mean she had big wet rings under the arms and everything, and a skunk stripe down the back. Around one in the morning I drove her home. And before she got out of my truck we kissed good night.

And now here I was on her futon, holding my wine and smelling my own socks. I didn't know what to talk about. We had nothing in common. She was like thirty years older than me.

With two fingers, she lifted the slats of her venetian blinds. She peered out her apartment window. The glass was opaque, black, veined with frost. Winter is death, I thought.

Angela yawned and stretched like a cat on the futon. I was blowing it. I was sitting there thinking, I'm blowing this and felt powerless to stop it. She turned her head and smiled sadly at me. Then she looked down into her wine glass.

The halogen torch next to us was dimmed, blurring the edges of everything in the room. The walls and moldings were painted interesting colors: blood-orange, lemon yellow, lavender. Periodically Angela got up to change the CD in her tiny black boombox on a tile-inlaid end table. All the music sounded the same to me—acoustic guitar, female singer—and I was embarrassed to ask: Who are we listening to? Joni Mitchell? Joan Baez? I had no idea, but I wagged my head to the string plucking and sipped. The volume was too low to hear much, anyway. Folk music is death.

Didn't our first date count for anything—the Thai restaurant, Cienfuegos? I put on a first date clinic that night. Potential suitors all across the globe were studying the transcripts. We'd kissed outside her apartment in my truck for a solid four minutes, but now it seemed like an act that two other people had committed, something that had come and passed. That night, as I drove away tasting her kiwi lip balm on my mouth, I'd felt vaguely heroic, like a climber preparing to scale Everest. But now I was speechless, my expedition stalled at base camp.

She was staring out the window. "I hate this time of year. Everybody is just so fragile. Last Christmas I volunteered at Loaves & Fishes. I mean, I knew I was sheltered, but... fuck. Jeff. All those people with nothing. Nothing but what they were wearing. It broke my heart."

"It's tragic," I agreed. I shook my head. A solid four minutes. World class kissing. "Terrible," I murmured, pressing my thigh gently against hers. "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?"

"They're out on the streets," she said, motioning to the venetian blinds. "Dying. Right now."

"Yeah." I nodded. "So fragile," I said, "breaks the heart, because we're sheltered."

She exhaled smoke through her nostrils. "And if my biggest worry is that some kid at the bank isn't working fast enough—"

"Well, okay," I said, frustrated, and reached for the matchbook on the coffee table. "I hear you. But—come on."

"It's so sad, though. On our lunch break, a few of us hurry out of the building, laughing, and there's this woman . . . she's always there . . . and we all just sort of turn our heads away. It inconveniences us to think about her. Well fine but she's still there, like it or not, with her blankets and her baby."

I reached over and grabbed Angela's hand. It was time to pretend that I was a man. "Everybody's got demons," I said. "Financial. Spiritual. Mental. Some people even imagine that bank tellers are looking at them through the glass." She frowned at this. Whoops. Okay. Time to tone it down a little maybe, I thought.

And then I thought, Wait—No. Fuck that. The timid man always toned it down, the weakling always shifted to the soft voice, and became her trusted friend who she would never get naked with. Mr. Sensitivity. And I had been that man before. I was tired of being such a pussy. Where had it ever gotten me? I was a virgin. Whenever I did work up the gumption to approach a pretty girl in a public place, I sounded like a foreigner asking for directions in a second language. "Is not this what you—Okay! Ha, ha. What do I saying in this crazy heat?" It was time to change my style. The man's man, the bad boy, muscled his way through to the other side.

"Cut it out," I said. "Lighten up, Angela. You're harshing my mellow."

"I know." Angela closed her eyes and let her head fall back. Smoke trickled out of the corners of her mouth. "Merry fucking Christmas, everyone," she said.


"When I was at the bank today," she said, "I kept thinking about the gold standard."

I couldn't believe she was still talking about this. It was a nightmare date from start to finish. And I suppose you had to lay the blame at my stinky feet. What was I bringing to the conversation?

"You know what that is, right?" she said, stubbing another cigarette in the ashtray.

"The gold standard?" I looked across the room at my boots. They were really good boots. "I think so. Maybe." I shrugged. "Sure. Probably."

Folding both legs underneath her, Angela rested the full wine glass on her knee. "When my dad died, I had to go through all his stuff to decide what to keep. My mom was in Florida, she wanted nothing to do with it. 'Burn that shit up,' she told me. But I needed to know some things first. Who was he? How could somebody be passionate about supply-side economics, but not seem to care for his wife and daughter, you know?"

I couldn't help but wonder: did Angela think they were cool boots? Maybe they would have been cooler with green laces. No, I decided, firmly. That was just a trend.

I held my wine glass in my enormous giant's hand and waited, nodding at her whenever she glanced up at me. I was getting a little sleepy. My thumbs were smudging the wineglass. All the great British climbers had small, strong hands. Sometimes, when things were slow at Wallbangers, I squeezed a tennis ball for a few hours to increase my grip strength. I glanced around Angela's apartment. There was nothing I could squeeze without drawing attention to myself.

"My dad was one of those fathers who abandoned us but didn't have the decency to leave the house, you know?" Cigarette smoke swirled into her hair. "And that was even harder, I think, because we saw him every night. Like a ghost passing through." She smiled at me. I smiled back. Her breasts were snuggled warmly inside that purple wool sweater. I smiled at them, too. "He just retreated into himself and his attitude was fuck everybody else in the house. He used to go up into his attic-office and work. Who knows what he was working on. We were not allowed to bother him. That was his time." Her eyelids fluttered as she looked down into her glass. "I barely knew him."

I didn't like where this was heading. I would've refilled her wine glass, but she was taking her sweet time, really nursing it. Her glass was still full. I wanted to pound mine down and pour another one, but I matched her glacial pace. We always drank beer at my apartment, lots of it, so all this sipping was making me uneasy. Even though I'd had five or six courage beers before I'd even arrived at Angela's, I felt obligated to finish this bottle of wine.

"So, anyway, when he died it messed me up, and I stayed up late every night for months reading his books, going through his papers. I couldn't sleep." She flicked a purple lint ball off her corduroys. "I was reading John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, everybody. I was obsessed. Like a detective looking for clues. It was a long cold winter, let me tell you. Boring as hell. I didn't understand half the crap I was reading, but I kept plowing through it."

I needed to tighten the slack between us. "Angela, what were you saying about the gold standard?" This was an attempt to save her from a freefall into a deadly Daddy crevasse, which would have killed the night. "Can we review that?"

"Oh, well, it's—Once upon a time, banks kept gold reserves in their vaults. And they printed up the equivalent amount in paper money and sent it out into the economy." She swirled the wine in her glass. "And I started thinking that, in some ways, it's kind of like love."

"Interesting," I said, and I meant it. Angela was thoughtful, like me, and it was rare to find two people on the exact same wavelength. I eased my arm behind her on the futon. "Like love," I said. "Right."

"Well, yeah, because you have all this emotion stored up. Love. Infatuation. Lust. Whatever it is. And you let it out in equivalent amounts, you hope, to the people who come into your life. You give them some, they give you some."

"It's reciprocal," I said.

"And you've got this backup system in place. A defense. But if you continually give more than you get, you start to worry about a loss of reserves. The other person starts draining your—you know, squandering your gold. So as time progresses you become more careful. You have to. You protect your gold, because only you know how much or little there is. It's pretty simplistic, I know, but I was a lot younger when I first starting thinking about it."

"Love is gold," I said, leaning back and shutting my eyes. "That's so true."

"No, what I mean is . . . Okay, think of it this way: When the economy falters, paper currency's circulation is drastically reduced. People stop spending so freely." She was looking at me. "Are you following me, Jeff?"

"Yes," I said.

"For a few years I had a bunch of meaningless relationships with men. When I was nineteen it was like I had a wad of cash in my pocket that would never run out. I had huge stacks of gold to back it up. But I can't do that anymore. I understand the market now. There's barely any gold left in the vault and I'm not printing any more paper currency."

I stared at her beautiful face. She was not wearing make-up. In my book, that was a mark in her favor. She didn't need to paint her face. And her looks would probably improve with age: sexy crow's-feet crinkling from her eyes when she smiled. Long streaks of gray in her dark hair. I imagined her standing in a vegetable garden outside a rundown farmhouse, her head wrapped in a sun-faded blue bandana. Mud-coated brown boots. Dirt-crusted garden gloves.

"I think you're beautiful," I said and dropped a charred match on the rug. I sat up straight, spilling red wine in my lap. Moment of truth! My cheeks were burning. "I'm serious. After work, yesterday, I checked out this 700-fill sleeping bag at Tent City? And I thought maybe we could . . . You know, camping, it's perfect. . . . There was an incredible two-for-one sale going on, and sometimes I imagine pushing you out of the way of a bus, or beating guys up in front of you. And I love you, maybe, but this is something in my head. Fuck! I don't know how to say it right."

Angela nodded. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.

"Well, I'm flattered," she began.

"No, what I mean is—"

Angela stood up, left the room. "Be right back," she said, heading towards the bathroom. I stared at the backside of her corduroys, calculating. It was hard to know what was in there. While she was gone, I mocked myself for blurting out something so stupid. I love you. Jesus.

In the bathroom the toilet flushed. The faucet skreeked and water splashed in the sink. Slipping out the door, she turned immediately into the kitchen. "Are you hungry, Jeff?" she called out.

I was pretty hungry, but still. Wasn't that a non-sequitur?

"I guess," I replied.

A minute later she returned to the living room carrying a plate of brownies. "I'm not much of a baker, but . . ." She held out the plate. "Here. Take one. I made these last night." She stood over me. I picked one off the plate and started munching. Crumbs fell inside my collar.

Angela sat down next to me. We ate without speaking. Brownies! Who didn't like a good brownie? But it was time to act. I could feel it. The climb to the summit had finally begun. I put down my brownie and slid closer to her. Time to woo!

"Hey," I said, low.

"Well, it's getting late. I'm really tired, Jeff." Angela stood up, brushed invisible lint off her thighs, and strolled to the door. "I had a nice time tonight."

I lit another match and shook it out. I stayed where I was on the couch. "Me too," I said glumly. "A good time. A nice time. A really stellar time."

"Thanks for coming over," she said.

"Did it start snowing again?" I peered out the window, parting the slats with my thumb and forefinger. "Man, it's really coming down out there now. Driving will be dangerous. Only psychopaths will be on the road in this blizzard."

She didn't look at the window. "I hope you make it home okay," she said, nodding, already holding my coat in her hands.

I stood up uneasily, like a man afflicted with hypoxia, and staggered forward. We hugged at the door. It was not a crotch-to-crotch hug. It was an A-frame hug: chests sloped towards each other but crotches and thighs set safely back, unattached.


Outside, the wind howled. I spent over twenty minutes, without gloves, digging under the front tires of my truck. I brushed my coat sleeve across all the windows. Another two inches had fallen, wet-packed and hard, blanketing the crusted snow beneath. Piles of fresh snow glittered under the streetlights, on the hoods of cars.

When I was a kid, my mother worked in a restaurant called The Blizzard House on Sheridan Drive. She was a hostess. Because he was often unemployed, Dad became my full-time babysitter. We used to drive around in his truck on nights like this. On weekends we spent entire afternoons in Tomasello's Tavern, a dive on Grant Street. Once, I drank six or seven Cokes while he sucked down plastic cups of draft beer with two ancient drunks at the bar.

At one point we ended up in the sticky-floored men's room together. He said, "Are you having a good time?" and there was something like hope or joy in his voice, he was smiling at me, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings, so I said yes. I finished pissing long before he did. Over his shoulder he said to me, "Now don't forget to wash your hands, amigo." He was playing the role of the father. This was about a month before he moved out of our house for good. After he zipped up, we stood together at the sink rubbing paper towels on our hands. This ritual seemed weirdly important to him. He told me to dry my hands thoroughly before leaving the men's room, because you never knew if you might have to shake hands unexpectedly upon exiting. He said nobody wanted to shake a man's dripping wet hand if he just came out of the toilet.

While my truck wheezed and sputtered in neutral—the heater cranked up full blast—I sat in the driver seat, my mouth steaming cold, and thought about Angela. All that talk about money and death and her father! Who was she kidding? She was trapped under ice herself.

The wipers slapped back and forth. The windshield was framed with thick white snow. Out of pure blackness snow splattered on the glass before being swept away again.

I pulled away from the curb carefully. Driving home, I couldn't stop thinking about Angela. She was attached by a cord to the corpse of her father. Every time she advanced a foot, he tugged on the line below. She carried his dead bulk up every peak. At some point you had to cut yourself loose and start climbing alone. I never sat around thinking about my old man. What good would that have done? I didn't even know how old the guy was. He was born in the late 1930s, so that would have made him... what? How old was he? I could barely see a thing ahead of me. I rolled through a red light, bald tires skiing on ice. My rear-end fishtailed between the tall snowbanks on either side of the street. Luckily nobody else was on the road. I hunched over the wheel, doing ten.

Angela had poisoned me with all her talk. I started wondering if my dad had remarried. Probably. Women always liked him. He was a big-voiced, muscular guy who convinced everybody that he was in control. But the truth is he was terrified of what people thought of him. He tried to live up to an ideal that he had set for himself: his code of manhood, I guess, and all the intricate rules that went with it. Ford trucks. Michelin tires. Cragar rims on muscle cars. At the time, when I was a boy, it seemed important to learn all that trivia, to fit his conception of what a real man was. To mock the boys who didn't understand why a crossbow was a more pure hunting weapon than a shotgun. But who gave a shit really?

My father was a dandy who just happened to prefer denim and flannel to silk. In his eyes your clothes said everything about you—about whose team you were on. Twenty years passed before I understood that what a man wore and drove did not say anything about the quality of his heart. But I'd been taught to know which boots were best for a Buffalo winter. If I ever became homeless, I'd be wearing the right boots.

How hilarious would it be, I thought, if I burst into my father's apartment with a twelve-pack under my arm? "Merry Christmas, you bastard. We've got a lot to talk about."

I thought maybe my dad would be cozy under the covers with some woman. Or maybe he'd be sitting alone in a lumpy chair, sick and diseased. Either way, he wouldn't believe his eyes. It seemed just crazy enough to try. And I was drunk enough to do it.

My highbeams sliced Buffalo right through its beer-fat gut. I drove my Ford onto the dark, narrow street where I thought my father lived. It was snowing so hard by then—thick, heavy, and wet—that I imagined I was gliding on the inside walls of a coconut. Still buzzed, I was seeing a few of everything. All the parked cars on the right side of the street were buried under mounds of glittering snow. The city plows would come by later and pack them in even deeper.

No cars or trucks came in either direction. I parked right in the center of the road. My boots sinking with each step, I trudged up my father's snowy driveway—what I thought was his driveway—and looked up at the dark window that I imagined was his. One thing could be said for the snow that night: good packing. All you had to do was reach in your hand and you had a fully formed snowball. I shaped a good one, hurled it, and missed the window. Snow slapped against the weathered wood. Then I tried again. A direct hit! The snowball rattled the window.

The storm door opened. A bearded guy in a black bathrobe shoved his angry face out. Hairy chest, huge belly. He wasn't thrilled to be awake. His wife stood behind him in the carpeted pink and yellow living room. Tightening the knot on his bathrobe, the man said: "The hell are you doing out there?"

"Looking for somebody."

I noticed he was wearing only one sock. Behind him, his wife peered out doubtfully. In her hand she held a pair of orange-handled scissors.

I was a bad character standing in her driveway, a wine-breathed fool in gorgeous leather boots. It looked warm inside.

"Who you looking for?" the man asked.

"Guy I know," I said, looking up at the dark window again. No sign of life.

"Yeah? What's his name?" he asked, but I had already turned away.

I jogged down his driveway. I tried to step in my earlier foot impressions—a game of skill from childhood—but I was too unsteady.

"Merry Christmas," I shouted at him. I climbed into my truck and attempted to get myself home safely. I succeeded.