He went to the park, early, to be alone while availing himself of the company of others; they trickled in as time passed. There was a bench he’d long ago chosen and managed to hold onto in winter–there were fewer grabs for seating then. His bulk settled into the generous curves of wood–newly replaced and varnished last summer–and thin light wrapped coolness about the cliffs of his shoulders. The warmth would come later as long as precipitation didn’t, or a wild wind. A woolen fedora covered his head, the large head his parents thought meant bad things but, in fact, meant nothing other than intimate his body type and stature. He kept it covered since he no longer sported luxurious waves of black. Pride is a thing quite useless and thus disposable, he told himself as he glanced in the morning mirror. His balding pate winked at him in the flourescent light.
It happened that he could be more at ease with himself at the park and occasionally cheery. Much more so than at his building on Northwest 32nd. Having less corwded conditions gave way to more comfort. Even when the days and nights warmed, groups came and went like human murmurations across grassy expanses. He could walk or not walk and without commentary; his clumsy leg jimmied with nuts and bolts made no difference to strangers. At Mistral Manor, occupants seemed beside themselves with eagerness to include him. Or cast looks his way that were questioning. Or questionable. He understood they were intimidated by 6 feet 5 inches coupled with significant girth. Some were unsettled by his misunderstood silences, the off-kilter gait. He preferred his charcoal grey tweed overcoat, the effect courtly perhaps when topped by his hat, a foreign garb to those who wore seatshirts, sneakers and, often, shorts even in the drenching winter. He was not from around here. And when he opened his mouth to answer, what a shock. It appeared difficult for people to be civil, or politely ignore him and go on their way.
How could it be so different from Chicago? He ought to know better; he had travelled extensively, even other countries. But now he lived somewhere new, a far cry from visiting.
Ah, but the park. He pulled out his newspaper and began to read, squinting in winter’s skimpy sunlight. Beside him was a thermos of black coffee, strong, almost bitter, and steaming hot. In his pocket was a napkin-wrapped hard biscuit just in case he got hungry or, if not, the birds came begging as was likely. He was an easy mark. An hour or so on the bench and he might walk the park some, though the four block distance from the Manor was enough of a work out these days.
He considered himself a man visited by enough good fortune that the other times were significantly improved in his memory. And that would have to do. Sitting on a park bench like the old man he would before long become did satisfy something. He was relieved to be among collective humanity and not be daily affronted by confounding life matters. He’d grown less fond of the future during the last couple years, it was true. Living with a challenged body after havinbg been plucked from disaster, he’d had to make choices and deal with people in whole new ways. Especially those who barely knew him.
When the seagulls circled ’round him, he shared his biscuit. It was the right thing to do; he had more at the apartment.
It went on for him that way for a few months, as he’d hoped, though now and then there might be someone else sitting at his spot and he’d move on to another. He wasn’t proprietary about the bench; that is, he wished to be civilized about it. But when he spotted a red hat atop a young woman who wore two yellow rain boots, he halted on the sidewalk, the handsome walking stick rising then falling with a staccato thunk on the cement.
He had not seen her there before. First impulse was to leave the area. He was not without other choices at seven-thirty in the morning. He liked to savor the park in solitude as long as he could. Then she pulled up her legs and crossed them like a yogi with each foot at a hip so the boots soiled her baggy sweatpants, and leaned her head back and closed eyes, arms dangling at sides like a rag doll’s. Another warning sign that it best to move on. Still. She was took up little space, and his leg had been gripped with pain all night and into morning. He continued a slow pace to the bench and sat as far as he could from her at the other end. He didn’t look at her but if he did he’d have noted her eyes fluttered but remained closed. As he unscrewed the thermos bottle’s top that was a cup for his coffee, fragrant stem reached her nostrils. Eyes opened in a flash and she looked right at him. He blew on the cup to cool it a bit, then sipped. He glimpsed the yellow boots: half muddy. As if she had been tromping about in sludgy puddles.
“Heavenly,” she said, gesturing at the coffee thermos.
He was forced to look up and quickly took in a small face with pointed chin, almond eyes. The handmade red knit hat snugged over hair and ears. She smiled but he looked at his own large, well-heeled feet.
“I hope you don’t mind me sitting here. I’m waiting for a friend–she’ll come this way.” When he didn’t respond, she added hopefully, “It won’t be too long. She’s at a dental appointment right down there–” she pointed east–“and hopefully she’ll be able to eat breakfast with me.” She sat up and stretched, legs and feet loosening; next she twisted her torso side to side, shook out her hands.
He hoped she wasn’t unhinged–to talk to a stranger so easily. Then he wondered if she was a gymnast or a yoga fanatic, but that was alright. The idea intrigued if also disconcerted him. She was quite young, that was it. He’d once had full control of his own body, rather superbly so.
“How nice to be meeting a friend,” he said.
She gawked at him, then appeared embrarrassed by her startled response. It was his voice, of course, the unexpected basso sounds rumbling and rising and released from his cavernous chest. It always startled, one of a few reasons he tended to quietness around unknown people. He was the subject aof taunts as a young man–his size and voice, kids saying he was one weird monster, calling him names u ntil they knew better.
Surely she would move on to another spot, he hoped, so he could sit in peace. But she half-turned to him, legs up and crossing partly once more.
“I’ve actually seen you here a long time. I used to catch the 73 bus on the way to work and since there is a stoplight near it, we’d wait and I’d notice you here, under the ancient oaks. You always come to this bench if you can, am I right?”
“Well,” he began, affronted by the fact that she had seen, even watched him for such a time and unbeknownst to him. He’d not given thought to the possibility that others might watch him as he watched them. Not seriously. And not from a passing bus each morning. “Odd…but as you say, it is my established habit. You go to work; I come to the park.”
“Makes sense to me,” she said and uncrossed her legs, dangling them over the bench edge. Her booted toes just touched the ground. “Anyway, when I saw you today I thought I’d wait here by you. I don’t care to be in the park alone for long or so early with few others around.”
He found this extraordinary. A little flattering in an odd way. She didn’t even know him, after all. Or perhaps she did a bit since she’d observed him awhile and yet. “How long have you been watching me?”
She let go a big laugh that belied the smallness from which it erupted. “Oh, not watching you as in stalking or something! I’d briefly observe that you come here, read your paper or drink coffee for about…” she put a finger to chin–“six months. For maybe five minutes at a time each morning when on the bus. You’re kind of hard to miss.” Her smile dimmed. “But not the last month; I haven’t been on that bus much.” She saw him looking her way calmly, and sighed. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be coming.”
Now he felt himself drawn in despite his natural resistance to unplanned dialogues. Should he ask what changed? If she lost her job? No, far too personal. They were unknown quantitites sitting in the park.
“I often wondered what sort of work you did,” she continued, “what your life is like. You know, ordinary curioisity. People see each other all the time, taking the same routes, but never ask what’s going on with someone else. I guess I might not have, either, before a few things changed.” Her hands were fidgety and reddened by the cold as she glanced down the street. Wishing her friend would come soon.
He was suddenly compelled to answer so any concerns she had were allayed. She clearly took a chance and sat there in purpose, quite a surprise.
“Three years ago I retired from…the music industry. But I remained in Chicago where I had friends and colleagues for thirty-five years. But then I was in a bad train accident accident right before retirement.” She might have heard of it, let it please be enough that he just stated the fact. He gently tapped his leg with the walking stick to indicate it was injured. “When my son, an only child, asked me to see how I liked it here, I reluctantly agreed. I came last spring. Only temporarily.”
That ought to cover it, he thought, shocked by all he’d revealed. But why not? They’d part ways soon.
“Oh, I see.” She stared at traffic beyond a row of trees, noting the old bus stop, thinking of old times. “We never know, right? I’m a dancer. But I have lupus. It took over my life finally so I can’t dance with my old modern dance company. It affects many aspects of my health. At least for now.”
He said nothing, not certain what was reasonable. The pigeons and seagulls were crowding up to them both. He took out a biscuit–he baked a dozen once a week–and crumbled it up, gave a chunk to the young woman, and then they tossed bits to the ravenous birds.
She said softly, “You sing, I imagine.”
His heart contracted hard; it trembled. His chest almost heaved as he struggled to gain control of himself. How could she know that? Why should she dare speak what she imagined? Hadn’t he said enough to occupy her attention while she waited?
And then he barked out a laugh.”Well, that’s so much nicer to hear you say that a radio DJ or news announcer or a powerful lawyer, even!”
“Why, I can imagine those, too!”
“But, yes, I sing. Sang. Opera. Classical art songs.”
“You are a singer, that doesn’t change. Like I’m a dancer forever.”
And with that they said little more, and rain started to fall frm the thickening clouds, then pelt them with darts of wetness. No umbrellas. The day had started partly cloudy and dry, milder than usual; he’d left his behind.
“Do you want to duck into the coffee shop across the street?” she asked. She pulled a rain jacket out of her large carryall, yanked the hood up.
He might. But would that be rather peculiar, a man in his mid-sixties and a woman in her–perhaps–early thirties hunkering down in a coffee shop within a half hour of meeting?
Who would know but themselves and why should he fuss over it? he thought as his face dampened, his fedora dumping rivulets.
“I get it if you can’t. My friend must be delayed, she’s 20 minutes late already so I’ll wait it out there, text her my location. I’m getting hungry and need a hot latte.”
“I could use a scone, perhaps,” he said.
They stood up with some difficulty, neither of them seeking aid nor offering it, then went to the corner where her bus had stopped for so long, where she had gazed out a window and noted his existence, constant and curious.
The burst of air as they entered was warm, redolent of pungence and sweetness. They found two stools facing the big front window after ordering. She texted her friend of her whereabouts.
The brightness that had teased at the park seemed suddenly swept away by a gusty wind. People hurried down sidewalks, embarked and disembarked from buses, taxis, cars. Few had umbrellas; this was the Northwest, and umbrellas were for tourists and those unused to rainy weather. He usually carried one since he was that visitor, unsure if this place might become home, uncomfortable with sudden downpours that marked winter months. He missed snow. Felt at such a loss being so far from his friends, that other lifestyle. Music with the stages, the pressures and rewards–the applause. The singular fulfillment his passion enabled him to experience.
“How did you become a dancer” he asked, nibbling his almond scone as he waited for the drenching rain to let up. Then he’d go to his one bedroom apartment for the rest of the day. Not a house like he’d shared with his wife until the divorce, not the townhouse he’d bought fifteen years ago on a coveted stretch of shoreline along wild, majestic Lake Michigan.
“I leanred the traditional way–from an early age study, study, practice, perform, audition over and over, then finally joining a few companies. I came to the Myra Duvall Dance Project seven years ago and I love it.” She sipped coffee, chewed on a portion of pumpkin bread. “I knew something was wrong off and on, but it took awhile to figure it out. It has been mostly affecting my joints and, just a bit, my kidneys. Not helpful when you’re a dancer. In fact it stinks.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. I do know someone who has it. She’s had flare ups, then periods that are much better so then she goes forward with her life. She’s been doing well for some time. I was told it’s different for each person.”
“It is. But every day I’m so miserable I can’t dance…My joints are too inflamed, there’s pain. I might have to resign, even.” She looked up at him sitting several feet above on a stool which seemed barely able to hold him. But he looked secure and steady. “By the way, I’m Maya. Maya Kwan.”
He swivelled a little, held out a hand and shook hers; it was engulfed in his warm grasp. “Anthony Keating.”
“Say, Anthony or Mr. Keating– I remember that catastrophic train wreck in Chicago…. I assume that was it. You lived through that! Then you chose to retire…?”
“Certainly it is next to impossible to turn up and rehearse much less perform when you have multiple surgeries on a leg and additional injuries to heal….as you might understand. But I retired after the crucial healing occurred. I simply felt it best to let things end at a good peak. I had a fine career, it was a joy.” He put hand to heart, lit up with that truth.
“I hope you still sing, you really must.”
“We shall see how things develop,” he said, touched that she’d suggest he might keep on with it, at all. If only his dignity was not at stake, if only he could embrace other possibilities. Time, more recouperation in every way. And practice, practice, practice–for goodness’ sake, it was critical to any movement forward musically. Particularly at his age. And one had to build a way of living by an envisioned design, and trial and error. The rest was up to chance. He leaned toward her a bit. “And perhaps there is still dancing in your future. Somehow you might make things work, if just differently.”
Their eyes–her wide dark ones, his pale crinkly ones–searched and connected for a moment. And in that span they recognized and understood one another: a giant of an aging, usually reserved white man with the sonorous voice of a seasoned opera singer; and a strong and graceful Chinese-American woman deeply yearning to keep dancing despite the hurdles. Artists, creators, seekers. Human beings trying to do what they could with what they were given.
They were thrown off a bit by the realization that they had even met much less talked in this way and made a connection. Nothing more was said.
Outside the big coffee shop window a woman slowed, pushing sodden hair from her eyes, peering into the shop.
“Oh, there’s Janelle!”
Maya stood and went to greet the woman; Anthony stood, as well.
“This is where I say good-bye to you, Maya Kwan. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, despite not being thrilled with a bus passenger keeping an eye on me!”
“Oh, let’s not say good-bye, let’s say until next time,” she said. She raised her hand above customers to gesture to her friend. “I’m so glad I finally got to meet you, the man I saw day in, day out. It meant something to me that you were always there. A steady occurence, a man in a fedora feeding the birds and reading his paper. Now it is something better.”
“I’m glad,” he said, as they pushed past the coffee line.
As a drenched Janelle came closer she stopped, mouth open.
Maya looked at her, then him. “What–you know each other?”
“Ah, yes, number 46, second floor, Ms. D’Angelo. A small world, indeed…” He touched the brim of his hat, nodded at them, and hurried out the door. Too small, he thought, then chuckled. At least she hadn’t gawked then made stupid jokes about his size or surprising voice.
“You know Antony Keating?” Janelle asked, incredulous.
“A chance meeting. Or serendipity, I’d say.”
“Well, give me the story. He’s such a quiet, rather sullen man, no one can figure him out. You may bump into him again at Mistral Manor when you visit.”
“Yes, I’m suspect I might,” Maya agreed.