It had been raining all day. The city lights were reflected on the wet pavement, making it glisten crimson, yellow and blue. Kathryn stepped into the street, breathing in the scent of freshly fallen rain. It had been a long day and she was tired, but she could not help being struck by the shimmer that the rain had cast over everything. Stopping, she adjusted her bright green scarf and gazed upwards, past the lit skyscrapers into the velvety blackness above. Impatient pedestrians brushed past her on the narrow sidewalk, but Kathryn remained still. Cold droplets hit her cheeks, making them tingle, and somewhere out of sight she heard a street busker strike up his guitar. A surge of joy swept through Kathryn. For the first time in years, she felt truly alive. She shuddered, remembering her colourless existence just a few months ago. What had changed?
* * *
The bakery was stiflingly hot. Kathryn brushed the hair off her forehead and sighed as Stacey, her fellow colleague, emerged from the kitchen.
“Only one more month and I’ll be back at culinary school,” Stacey announced triumphantly.
She was a petite, pretty college girl in her early twenties. Just the sort of self-assured person Kathryn always thought she’d be: pursuing her dreams, her life all figured out. Stacey was graduating this spring. She had a job lined up at a high-end restaurant. She was engaged. Stacey had everything that Kathryn couldn’t afford; everything she couldn’t find. Sometimes the thought made her feel wildly jealous. Other times she just felt sick.
Stacey glanced over her list of deliveries. “Thanks for taking on those extra orders tonight. It’s lucky you’re always free to work overtime. My fiancée would kill me if I worked as much as you do.”
My fiancée. Kathryn clenched her fists involuntarily, but Stacey rattled on.
“How have you survived working here for six years? I’d have quit after a month if I didn’t need this placement to graduate.”
Kathryn brushed past her. “I have to lock up,” she said icily.
Stacey pouted. “Don’t you ever feel like you are wasting your life here?”
“I like baking,” Kathryn responded defensively.
Several hours later she trudged up the three flights of stairs to her tiny apartment. She switched on a light. Her rooms were colourless: the walls were a pale ivory-grey, the carpet was a muted grey, the furniture was black and the kitchen was silver. Even her duvet cover was a dark charcoal. Kathryn only had one piece of artwork in the entire place: a black and white photograph of a solitary leaf silhouetted against the sky.
The picture seemed like an appropriate illustration of her present life. Her parents had split up when she was young. Her dad was a down-and-outer and her mom had moved away, severing all contact. Kathryn forced herself to stop staring at the photograph. Dwelling on her past only led to insomnia.
The following morning she buttoned up her black blouse and slipped into a matching skirt. She always wore black now. It was easier to be invisible that way. Late as usual, she downed her coffee and raced to the bus stop. Another long day of drudgery stretched ahead of her, with nothing but minimum wage to show for it.
But that day was harder than usual. As Kathryn rode home she fought to control her tattered nerves. When she reached her regular stop she stumbled off the bus, bracing herself against the icy wind. Just then somebody bumped into her, making her drop her purse. Bakery receipts flew everywhere, and she bent to pick them up off the garbage littered pavement. Ducking into the bus stop shelter, Kathryn tried to smooth out the crumpled papers. She lent her forehead on the smudged glass for a moment, taking long shaky breaths.
“You alright, miss?” a voice inquired kindly. Kathryn jumped. She hadn’t seen the old man huddled in the corner.
“I’m fine,” she muttered, staring at him. He was wrapped in a blanket that had clearly been rescued from a garbage heap. He smelled of nicotine.
“Why are you asking me? Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” She demanded petulantly.
The old man smiled. “So many people walk by here everyday, thinking I’m the one who needs help. They don’t understand that sometimes I can help them.”
Kathryn shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, do you have somewhere to live?”
“No miss. But I don’t need a home t’ be happy.”
“What do you mean?”
The old man coughed. “I call it seein’ the world in colour.”
Kathryn frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not like I’m blind!”
“There’s different ways of being blind, miss. I know you haven’t seen me ‘afore, but I been watching you. You’re always in a hurry, you never once look up, you never smile, an’ you always wear black. It seems to me as if you wouldn’t notice if the sun t’were shining or not. You see the bad in things, but ain’t you missing the beauty? Cuz it’s everywhere, miss. Even in Detroit.”
“Beauty?” Kathryn asked bitterly. “Here, in these filthy streets? And the sun isn’t shining; it’s cold and grey.”
“There you’re wrong, miss. Look up.”
Kathryn did. To her surprise, she realized that despite the biting wind the sky was a brilliant blue with a pale white sun. How could she not have noticed?
“Well I, I must have known, forgotten…” Kathryn trailed off. After a moment she burst out, “But so what? What does it matter if the sun is shining?”
“It doesn’t,” the old man smiled. “The rain is pretty too.”
“I don’t understand!” Kathryn snapped.
“It takes time, miss.”
“But, but how?”
“The key is jest watchin,’ observin’. Try it. See them pigeons over there on the street corner? Take pleasure in ‘em, notice their markings, the way they bob their heads. See those two children racing? Listen to their laughter and laugh too. See that man takin’ roses home for his gal? What colour are they?”
Kathryn stared after the businessman her companion had indicated. “They were yellow, I think,” she responded slowly.
“Good,” the old man nodded encouragingly. “I don’t know, maybe somebody’s hurt you, maybe your dreams ain’t come true, or your heart’s been broke, but those things don’t have t’ make your life miserable. You can still take joy in the little things; ‘cause it’s them things that give the days their sparkle, so to speak. I don’t have anywhere’s to sleep, or a penny to my name, but I do know the sun is shining, and that’s something right there. That’s what makes me glad to be where I am, ‘stead of like some folks who ‘ave so much of everything that they don’t got no time for nothing.”
“But how can it be so simple? How can I just look for roses and expect my problems to be solved?” Kathryn demanded.
“You can’t. But you can try and ‘preciate your surroundings a little more. Try it miss. It won’t do no harm.”
“I don’t see how it’ll help,” Kathryn murmured meeting the old man’s eyes for the first time. They were unexpectedly blue, and he had about a thousand wrinkles bitten deep into his face. His blanket was green. But she couldn’t find anything beautiful in the frayed piece of fabric. It didn’t make sense. How could noticing the colour of something possibly change anything?
“Here,” Katherine held out a twenty to the old man, but he waved it away.
“No, let me help you today. So few people stop t’ listen, and I’m right grateful that you did.”
Two days later Kathryn found herself tearing her closet apart, not sure what she was searching for until she found a cream coloured t-shirt balled at the back of a drawer. It was too tight, but she put it on anyways. She made French toast for breakfast – the familiar flavours of cinnamon and butter making her feel warm inside. Kathryn glanced out the window, but she only saw drab office buildings. There was a thick fog so she couldn’t see much anyway.
Kathryn was late for the bus again. She was relieved that the old man wasn’t there as she frantically fought with her zipper and tried to find her wallet. The bus was crowded and she had to stand. Kathryn could hear a couple arguing behind her, their voices getting louder and louder. She closed her eyes, shutting out their angry words. Just then she heard the soft noises of a baby. She looked up and saw a woman cradling a tiny infant in her arms. The baby started drooling, and Kathryn hid a smile.
Half an hour later she was hanging up her coat at work as Stacey walked in.
“Ooh, that colour suits you. But isn’t cream a bit risqué?” she teased.
Kathryn shrugged. “I’m tired of black,” was all she said.
~ Ilana Reimer