By: Stephen Faulkner
A man and a woman sit on opposite ends of a park bench from one another. Both are solitarily heedless of all that goes on around them, even of each other. Each is lost in his and her own private contemplations in the sparse shade afforded by a gangling old elm tree that grows behind the bench which they occupy.
The man is in his mid twenties, a smiling charmer for the ladies at the late night establishments he frequents, a sour-dour expression in all other situations. He carries a book of poetry and an empty paper bag that had once contained blanched pistachios, now only rattling shells. His hair is longish but presentably neat, his clothes are casual but with a dressy, tailored look to them.
The woman carries her considerable weight and parcels with the slouched dignity of an out-classed, well pounded boxer. The parcels, obtained at a variety of “better” department stores in the area now lay scattered at her feet and on the seat beside her; the beginnings of a fortress. No one, she believes, will attempt anything against anyone so well guarded. She has heard the word “crone” used in describing her present stature but she will not believe it, though the young man seated at so close proximity to her surely might. In a fit of pique that morning the word had swelled forth in the mouth of her daughter and sounded more a complaint against age than against any certain person, least of all her mother. No, daughters don’t mean such ill-chosen words for too long. Apologies came quickly and the memory was blacked over, if not completely forgotten.
Crone. To look at her the word would seem aptly applied: a thick set of circuitous wrinkles lay over her face like a descending, undulating plane that might, at one time or other, have been the map of a battlefield replete with trenches, mortar holes and the lines of advancement of the contending forces. In contrast the young man at the other end of the bench seemed barely in need of a shave and it was already coming on to five o’clock in the afternoon.
The old lady’s glance veered and she caught sight of his crumpled bag and thought – Nice boy; feeding the pigeons, probably. People like that are always nice. Solitary but kind. She returned her gaze to the packages at her feet past which lay one of the many snaking cracks in the asphalt pathway towards which the park bench was situated. A scattering of coarse gravel brushed the shoulders of the path giving the pedestrianway a lopsided, uneven feel as one traversed its constantly turning, rising, dipping length.
Both pairs of eyes, young man’s and old woman’s, rose to the garden on the other side of the path. The towering old tree behind them, its missing, severed limbs forming holes for the late afternoon sunlight to pass through, cast strange shadows, darkening the bright flowers to a deeper purple than those still bathed in the brightness thrown from the clouded blue. The sun shone, cheerful and hot and the flowers’ colors faded and blanched intermittently as the wind shifted the cloud shadows here and there, nudging the dying tree to allow light for some, early dusk for the rest.
Lilacs. The twittering of birds; the hum of a distant wind, much greater than the one that rustled the leaves above the heads of these two lone souls. And inside each of them, the stillness had halted, a movement begun.
If I could see my way clear, thought the young man as he draped his left arm over the back of the slat bench. To do it all my own way…. That little garden over there would be larger, much larger, would fill out the entire space in which it rests.
So pretty, thought the old woman appreciatively.
And it had begun.
Fill out all the sides to the very edges where the trees begin and not so much with the lilacs – they make the scene seem so somber. Daisies would be what is called for – and chrysanthemums and marigolds and perhaps it would be good to keep the lilacs all spread around the inner circle – but no, lilacs are too…. Too funereal I guess the word would be, like I’ve read before:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
So pretty the way they have them, their little violet heads in neat rows, one just peeking over the other like little girls posing for a school class photograph, all smiling so brightly like they had just been shown one of their most favorite things — but what would a little girl smile at so sweetly? It’s been so long, so long since I was so young that I can’t even hazard a guess. There was a song I heard once not so very long ago that used those very two words –I would like to sing but, well… if only in my mind, where no one will hear. Let’s see – how does it go?
But that is my own subjective stance about lilacs. Most people see lilies as the death harbinger, strewn all over caskets going into the grave and, besides, the daisies will do to supply the white. The rest must be all color, all reds and blues and yellows. Tulips, perhaps. In a variety of colors all with that one, cupped shape – a smattering of lilacs to tone it down and the daisies for white, yes, and the tulips for color and a hardness of line – oh yes, those Dutch knew what they were about – yes, to the very edge where the trees begin and maybe even further, winding through the trees like a colorful path of glory – but no. Flowers need the sun like a father. That is the purpose of the cup of the tulip, to catch Papa sun’s rays and Mama nature’s rain and hold them for the sake of life – so much like the B and D cups of women’s bras, holding life. Little girls, oh, in high school, they ran bouncing through the halls until the rules had to be changed about
fourteen and fifteen year olds not having to
“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright
I can’t believe your song is gone
I barely learned the tune
So soon, so soon.”
Deadly in its way, the what and who it was sung about, like a sad goodbye – but dainty in its melody, colorful even. Pastels come to mind, light and airy like a watercolor. Not so morose like the old Dutch masters used to do with all those dark browns, grays and chiaroscuro old men getting ready to go off to war to maim and kill like it just had to be in those days. War! What a damned nuisance, always with the catcalls and marching in the streets to get everyone to believe it was the thing to do to send the boys off to get shot up so bad in the Big One that they’d just have to leave them bleeding in the trenches toward the end of it. What a mess! My Halton, luckily, didn’t have to go but by then it was Number Two – they’d already gotten another one worked up in less
to wear the damned things but, up until then,
I was a watcher, only that, delighting in their giggly glances as they caught my waiting leer at the hall intersections, pushing out their pigeon chests to the limit until a button popped open and then they ran away, baiting me with their sorry eyes cast like marbles never touching the ground as they went but that was all I got: a glance, sorry it couldn’t go any further than the childish flirtations but Mommy would soon find out so,,,, I was glad for the respite from those misplaced angers when college began its toll-taking and that was what it was…. A penalty to pay in order to “make it” as a student, no time till Saturday for trying to be a man she was older than I wanting to take more than she could even think to give through any length of time. My love diminished rapidly deteriorating to take take take off the last vestiges of decency of mind and ordered soul until her mouth filled mine with tangy wine, flavored with a cigarette bite and her
Than thirty years but I had Hal, dear sweet –
Always by my side never a stray glance to any of the other “fillies” he called them, always the gentleman. Never a stray word or eye, yes. My man. I didn’t have to worry with him around – not like some other women I’ve known their husbands shaking after every piece of skirt that came by like they do today, their flies half open, eyes bugging out whistling on the street corners at every young wench that shows off a bit of knee or tummy the way they dress nowadays nobody cares but to look and gawk out in the open with about as much discretion as a dog lifting its leg on a tree root, and when the wind blows a little lewd odor they can smell it a mile away the whoremongers about as old as my new skin like the doctors say, all the body replenishes itself completely except for the bones in about seven years…. Ah! Those kids…. My Hal would never, no, never until the marriage day and that night he was so gentle and
body only wanted to charge forward at a slow and even pace till I could do no more than hold back, slide deep, hold back, not even warming her layers of thick, viscous scales of a she-dragon until my eyes ached letting loose the final bursts into her first moanings of don’t stop don’t stop I think I’m coming closer to a realization of something like a pain in my groin but not sharp, not dull and aching but insistent to that strange thought that she was – my love, once. For a long time, long ago and I couldn’t stand the sight of her now but she exuded a lusty exuberance when we fucked, a life not to be coincidental with my own when I hated her later with a passion that surprised me, with a sadness, a thought of the waste of feeling, what I had done, who I had been, what I had done and not done—not done…. The one thing from that relationship that I am truly sorry for: that I didn’t give her one single gift of flowers in all that time….
patronizing to me it almost made me sick like he was planning to rob the 1st National the next morning he was so skittish but the time came when we both became oblivious to the volume of my low groans and he never held back like I asked him to, pleaded with him not to for so stupid was I then to believe what Mamma, my sisters and even my friends said about doing it being a man’s thing and was only for the woman to lay back and stifle the cries of pain like fire but that – which was his odd joy, thinking he hurt me – the fire soon fled and I felt his heat more than his yearnings to push harder, try to hurt me deeper than any gnarled fingered doctor checking me for whatever there was down there I can’t say – never will – but for Hal, sweet, sweating like a drenched flower cast away on a calm sea— with only a sigh, a muffled sorrow…. And I gave, yes, I gave…. But I took from you, too – and it was, so, so much more, my Sweet, than you will ever, ever know that I did.
The mind mutterings flitted, played out, died in unconsummated, unheard exhaustion. Others took their place but, for the bench across from that formally laid out expanse of night-closing flower in the midst of a green field of well trodden weeds, grass and patchy earth surrounded by the stunted, tired park trees, there seemed to be an end, for this man unbound to this woman, save for the occasionally concurrent, random thought – a fleeting yet clear memory – sometimes just a vague idea.
The young man rose, clutching his book of poetry like a shield, smiled kindly at the old woman in a mute gesture of farewell. The woman nodded solemnly, resolute yet friendly and began to gather her possessions together into a manageable pile on the bench.
What a waste, thought the young man. I’ve accomplished nothing here this afternoon. I didn’t even get half a chance to read, the light was so poor. Ah, well, maybe some other time. Tomorrow or the day after, perhaps – but soon.
And tomorrow, thought the woman. The weatherman says the temperature will be in the low seventies – quite pleasant. I only hope that I will be allowed, by His grace, to come again, to be able to browse back through my time once again over the little things, those sweet minor incidentals.
And the sun burst the clouds’ lower seams and continued on its daily journeying way over to the other side of the world, leaving these people and more to their coming night, to the stars and moon, the pitiful, sundry dreams or to lie awake, fitfully dozing until he, warm Father of the sky, would reappear in the wee hours in the East to smile down his gift of heat and light so they can fret through yet another day.