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                                                                                                Adelaide B. Shaw

   

Old Man on a Bench

Henry paused in his slow shuffle along the hot, sun-splashed path leading to the park bench. With each step short jabs of pain emanated from his little toe, as if someone were sticking it with an ice pick. He squinted and shaded his eyes against the glare. Two people were sitting on his bench, a man and a woman. Young and skinny, they fell all over each other with shrieks and laughter.

A sound came from the young woman. It was familiar and unmistakable. A deep and throaty laugh, full of innuendo and dirty promises. Mabel’s laugh.

Henry scowled at the couple, then at his feet. Useless appendages they were. In his youth he had been proud of his feet. They were small for a man, and he could wear any style then. When he worked in the better shoe stores, he had worn the top of the line. He bent down and extended the slit in his canvas shoes to ease the painful toe. There was nothing to do except share the bench. It was in a public park, but they didn’t seem to realize that. With their sprawling there wasn’t much room for anyone else.

He smoothed back his thin, dark hair, brushing it away from his collar and sniffed the air. Pine resin and auto exhaust and the stale heat of mid-August. He dismissed the familiar laughter coming from up ahead as an aberration, a distortion caused by the heat.

Upon reaching the bench, Henry plucked a crumpled piece of paper from the vacant end and looked toward the tree where a trash can had been chained until a couple of months ago. Finding it still missing, he folded the paper and put it in his pocket. “Should stop. Public place,” Henry mumbled and tried to assess if the couple were to blame for the other litter on the ground. Tomorrow he would bring a large sack.

He sat at the shaded end and studied his companions, beginning at their feet. They weren’t wearing proper shoes at all, but heavy, bulky athletic shoes with no style. He blew his nose, honked into his wrinkled handkerchief, cleared his throat and spat.

“That’s disgusting!” the girl said, removing her dark glasses and looking squarely at Henry. “What a dirty old man.”

“And I’m a dirty young man,” the boy said with a smirk as he slid his hand under the front of her blouse.

There was that laugh again! Louder, deeper, right next to him now, channeling through his ear, deep into his memory.

“I don’t think he approves,” the girl said.

“Who cares? Screw him.”

“If I did, I’d probably kill him.”

Resting his hands on his knees, Henry twisted his body toward the couple, the bread for the pigeons and squirrels forgotten in his jacket pocket. He continued his scrutiny, trying to see in the girl a likeness to Mabel. Her image, after fifty years, had faded from his memory and was as dim as her photograph. It was her laughter, like the bubbles in an underground hot spring, which kept rising to the surface. She was always laughing and had not taken anything seriously, although it had been a very serious time. It had been the middle of the Depression, and Henry had taken everything seriously.

Don’t you understand? We can’t afford to get married. We can’t live on love alone.

We’ll manage, Henry. We’ll manage.

Mabel ran her fingers through his hair and down his back, moving her body closer, always laughing, ignoring Henry’s nervous side-step and head shake.

“Come on, Lover Boy. Why don’t we go back to my place?”

“What? What did you say?” Henry muttered, looking up.

“I wasn’t talking to you, Old Man,” the girl said. “Mind your own business.”

Henry shivered in spite of the heat and retreated into his jacket, buttoning all the buttons. After years of wear, the black jacket, all that remained of his once best suit, had acquired the iridescent sheen of a crow’s feathers. He examined the couple’s attire, skimpy shorts and even skimpier tops, and shivered again. All that bare flesh. The bare arms. The bare legs. Nothing hidden. Nothing secret.

Don’t you like my dress, Henry? All the movie stars wear their dresses cut low. I’m your girl, aren’t I? Don’t you want to show me off?

Henry remembered the bread in his pockets and tossed out a few pieces to the pigeons and squirrels.

“So, do you want to come back to my apartment?” the girl asked again. Come back to my place, Henry. We can be alone. Mabel, winking and filling the hallway with her throaty laugh. My roommates are away. Mabel, purring like a lazy half-tamed wildcat, her cropped blond hair shining even in the dull light. Nobody’s home yet, Henry. Stay awhile. Mabel, whispering because of the neighbors, her lips near his ear, her warm breath, tickling and smelling faintly of sen-sen. Henry had fought off the urgent sensations traveling through his body, always feeling as if hidden eyes were in the darkened hallway watching them.

“There’s a hot dog vendor over there,” the boy said, pointing behind the bench to an overgrown dirt path.

Henry turned away from the pigeons and squirrels, his eyes following the boy’s pointing hand.

“Nothing for me,” the girl said.

Nothing for me, Henry. See, how easy it’ll be. We can afford to marry.

Not if we have a baby. A baby won’t be easy.

* * * * *

With the return of silence after the boy’s departure Henry sat back to enjoy the warmth of the sun. He kept an eye on the girl who had taken over the space the boy had occupied as well as her own. They would push him out altogether, if he weren’t careful. The boy’s noisy return and the odor of hot dogs and French fries woke him. Now they had more than half of the bench, the food spread between them.

Henry slid down an inch. He knew if he stood up they would swallow the entire bench. His stomach grumbled at the smell of the food. The couple bounced around and gobbled up another inch of space. Henry continued sliding over to the end until he was on his feet. The girl’s laugh followed him as he moved into the shadows down the path. It wasn’t the same anymore with them on the bench. They had changed things. Like Mabel had changed things. Always wanting to get married.

I’m tired of waiting, Henry.

The door had slammed in his face.

* * * * *

Henry’s landlord arrived within seconds of Henry opening his door. He lived in a two room back apartment on the ground floor of a six story building. The space behind the building was filled with pots of flowers and tubs of tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers.

“I’ve told you before, Henry,” the landlord said. “You’ve got to move these plants. The meter man was here. He can’t read the meters. It’s like a jungle here. This isn’t your private terrace.”

Henry righted two fallen tomato plants, saying nothing.

“Make a path, a wide path or I’ll throw them all out.”

Henry nodded, rearranging the plants as he did every time his landlord came, pushing them closer and taking some inside. He moved automatically, his thoughts still on Mabel. Why hadn’t that door stayed closed?

He saw her once again, years later. In the shoe store, buying shoes for her sons. Six and four years old. Handsome boys they were, and Mabel still looking beautiful.

Oh, I’m just wonderful, Henry. My Fred is in sales, too. Vacuum cleaners and doing very well, I might add. He’s district manager now. Are you married?

I’m still not married. I haven’t found another girl like you.

Why couldn’t Mabel have waited? He had had no money to marry, and it would have been wrong to fool around. The church said so. Each week the preacher had preached his sermon, shouting his warnings against sin, fornication, lust, desire. Henry had sat next to his fellow parishioners in pews as worn as they were. He had seen the hard times etched in their brows, crisscrossed on their hands. He had heard them shout Amen and Hallelujah and had shouted with them. He had believed in the preacher’s words. Words to live by in those difficult times. Words to remember.

* * * * *

“Hey, Henry! How’s it going?”

Henry nodded to Larry who stood at the register in the convenience store. “Fine, fine,” he mumbled as he maneuvered through the narrow isles, placing his items in the wire basket. Somewhere in the store a baby cried. Henry heard Larry’s voice, speaking in soft soothing tones, then singing.

“What do you think, Henry? About my Jimmy? He likes my singing. See, I put him to sleep.”

Henry peered over the counter at the sleeping Jimmy snuggled into his infant seat. “He’s a nice boy, Larry. I didn’t know you were married.”

“Me and Deb ain’t married. We just live together. I’ve been thinking about it, with the kid and all. But then I ask myself, why? We’re doing O.K. this way. So who needs marriage?”

Henry elbowed his way back through the crowded streets, aware of the sights and sounds. A woman’s laugh came from an open doorway. Not Mabel’s this time. Too high and squealing. He tried to pull up Mabel’s face again, but all he saw was an undefined blur of his lost youth and her worn photograph. Only the laugh remained. Hadn’t it been wrong, all that touching and fooling around? Why hadn’t anyone else listened? Had the preachers been wrong?

The motion of walking distracted him. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to concentrate and find an answer to the questions. If he and Mabel had fooled around, wouldn’t the wrath of God have fallen upon them? He had thought so then. Now, couples strolled arm in arm, hugged and kissed in public and had babies without getting married, like Larry. Henry didn’t think God noticed, or, if He noticed, thought it of sufficient magnitude to send down His full wrath. Perhaps God was less strict now. It was all very puzzling. Henry shifted his bundle of groceries from the right arm to his left and resumed his slow shuffle home. Maybe Larry knew the answer. Maybe he could explain it tomorrow.

   

                                                                                                © Adelaide B. Shaw

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Loch Raven Review Fall 2005 — Vol. I, No. 1
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