She was in the middle of the park, for goodness’ sake, sitting there with that odd little horse, cuddled up close like a pet she had taken out for a good walk. She was otherwise alone, it was clear there was no one accompanying her. Is that what parents still ordinarily do these days or not?–accompany their charges? I had a nanny; Magdala never let me out of her sight and if I tried to make a getaway she managed to nab me before I could shout “freedom at last!” But it was the way it was. This child was perhaps twelve or so, but she also ought to have had someone there, hadn’t she? When I saw her sitting as with purpose after fifteen minutes, I also stayed put. My bench was kitty corner from hers and I had nothing better to do. My days are endless pages unscrolling at their leisure as if meant to be tarried over, full of illuminated wonders as in the Book of Kells. But they do not, anymore. Not since Paul David’s decision.
And so she sat on, as well. She didn’t seem abandoned, exactly. After about fifteen minutes she looked about, as if searching the entire block but not with urgency, not with any alarm. I can’t say if she looked right at me then; I had my book and after noting her sweeping gaze, looked down until I thought it acceptable to look toward her again. She was holding the brown, plush-coated horse up to her, its nose bumping her own, and she kissed its head twice. I did wonder how many times she did that. It appeared to be beloved in that way children adore an inert yet companionable creature, transferring their secrets and powerful fondness to it. Yes, it almost seemed that they were visiting the park together. So I was not that concerned but interested in a sidelong way. My book was worth reading, a collection of poems and essays by someone no one knows of, anymore. It gets taken out once every year for a glad once-over, then is set back among neighbors with their shredded spines and fading covers. The library could use a thorough clean-up, even renovation, I admit, but it isn’t truly worth expense or bother. I’m not going to live forever. Not many borrow from it anymore, either.
This girl, this young lady, I would prefer to say but cannot quite manage, seemed to own that bench. She sat sideways for a bit, legs stretched out and head leaned against the back, horse on her lap. Eyes closed until I imagined she was asleep and I thought, how peaceful a picture that makes when in a flash she sat straight up and looked out over the pond, eyeing it carefully. I casually glanced that way, as well, and saw two couples and a third unattached young man making their separate ways around the park, towards us. The girl–might I call her Miss Emma? I always liked that name but had no use of it since I did not have the pleasure or grief of my own children–sat up in attention. I wondered which of the five she might be waiting for as they moved closer. But they all passed us by, busy talking, the single male intent on deciphering his cell phone content.
No, she leaned toward an invisible thing, peered at–what? I leaned forward, too, then caught myself, sat back with book up once more. I observed her watchfulness from over the top, how could I not? It was an odd puzzle, what she was doing on a park bench on a late fall day, no coat or satchel, no adult, no little friends.
A clump of bushes about twenty feet away shook and out sprang an urchin. It was a he of uncertain provenance. Not that the young man was utterly frayed or unconscionably dirty, but his hair was roughed up and his pants too short and his tennis shoes were wrecked beyond wearability. Alright, not that being disheveled or even dirty is a crime, of course, or even avoidable at times. But still I felt uncertain of his intentions. He moved quickly and with confidence toward her, as if he, too, claimed a seat at that bench, as if it was theirs to occupy and no others.
He punched Emma’s shoulder upon sitting down; she grabbed her horse and whacked him on the head. It took imagination to consider them friends. It seemed they knew each other, though, as their heads came together then apart. I began to read off and on, deciding the girl had been waiting to see this one, a boy perhaps two or so years her elder. But there was a manner about him that suggested he was more far worldly than she. He had perhaps been out and about on his own more, or had the wiles and underhanded ways for a common pickpocket. Or worse. It began to creep into my mind in a Dickensian way that this was not a laudable association.
I was correct, at least to some degree.
She nudged him as they laughed and he then pulled out from his too-large Army surplus jacket pocket a misshapen half-empty package of cigarettes. He put two of them between his lips and lit them with a lighter with a sort of élan, as if this were a debonair moment to share with his young love. I winced and put my book down. He then removed one and placed it oh so carefully between her own and she, rather than toss it in laughter or disgust, left it. Inhaled enough that I expected a cough; she frowned. It could not have been something she relished. Or perhaps I was wrong, as the second inhalation then the third seemed easier, perhaps faintly enjoyable to the intrigued and intriguing Miss Emma. Or at least the idea of it.
I could note the promise of greater femininity on the verge of coming forward. An onset of redefinition, a hidden refinement of face, hand and limb that one day would be grown into and then it would be owned. I do have nieces and they surprised me, too. I know this is not how Miss Emma realistically would be described these days, that an insistent boyishness and even an obscured gender seem in vogue for many youth. That is fine but I imagined it that way, nonetheless. I saw her with the artist’s eyes I possess. A kind of forecasting. A wistfulness that became attached to her visage, perhaps.
But I did possess an acute vision, I must state that at least. I have had success with it. Before all that came and went regarding Paul David, and now is in tandem.
That boy had other things to do, I could see it in his abrupt ways, restlessness after they smoked their smokes. He stood, bent toward her for some exchange and walked away, then looked back and tossed her another cigarette. Ran off. She didn’t appear to be disturbed, although she watched him a bit longingly, perhaps wanting to join him as he made the next stops–where? To what ends did he roam? Perhaps–I half-hoped–they had been school mates, though what sort of school I didn’t hazard to guess. We were in a place, a neighborhood, that generally saw children less wayward in appearance and behavior. They were more worn about the edges yet also seemed in possession of themselves. I never displayed that at such an age. Which may have been a blessing if it meant I had to smoke and seek out other unknowns.
I knew what Paul David would have done at once: marched up to that boy, given him a dressing down that he would then take issue with. But Paul David would not be deterred; he would run him off with his overbearing manner and height–he is only a bit taller than I am but it is the way he stands, as if he never bends his back or lowers his shoulders. He yet is an attorney and aspiring politician of sorts so used to swaying juries and other groupings.
Certainly commanding the home front. We often did not have a meeting of minds, I must be honest, as I am not one, either, to consider my own ideas and thoughts of any lesser report. It was what he first loved about me thirty years ago. What he said drove him to the estate gates and on to Mrs. Derrien, a widow generally well liked if a too-sweet mouse. I must forgive but I suspect her more copious socioeconomic virtues also held magnetic pull.
I said good-bye to my painting studio. It lost its allure. The studio I have rarely entered now that I have more time and lack of invasions from my husband. Ex-husband. Perhaps I also painted to annoy him or remind him of his own lacks. In any case, it has been too long and I felt the need sharply, though it came and went.
That is what I was thinking as I sat and tried to not so obviously watch Miss Emma: that it was time to take up canvas and oils again. I hadn’t had a show in over two years. I needed to get the feel of it again, and find the happiness that had so long eluded me.
And then she rose. Miss Emma’s horse rose with her and they made their way toward me. I felt a tremulous blush coming on so hid my face in my book.
“You’re watching me. You sure are, so don’t deny it.”
I couldn’t fathom such a rude way to approach an older woman so looked up, then at my book. “So you say.”
“I not only say, I declare it, there. And think you must’ve had quite a show. It’s sort of odd to have a stranger keep tabs on a person. But you seem harmless.”
I rearranged my loops of scarf to do something with increasing nervousness. A bold and unmannerly child can nearly do me in.
“I beg your pardon, dear. I was reading by myself awhile when you arrived, then became distracted by your activities and his.”
She glanced at the book page “Poems.” Looked at me again. “Well, okay.” Her horse, snug in her arms, bobbed a bit at me.
“You enjoy them, too?” I managed to smile a little.
“We like to read fantasy, right, Roan?” The horse emphatically nodded then he lay down beside her on my bench. “Do you come here a lot? I saw you three times before.”
This was more than surprising since I had not noticed her before. To be seen and not know it, unnerving.
“Last summer, this fall. Maybe more, can’t remember now. I see a lot of people when I pop over.”
“Why are you here often?”
“I just live right there.” She pointed up and across the boulevard.”I like the p ark and it’s the one place my father allows me to come alone. Sometimes.”
“Ah. Madrone Place. Lovely historical building. I know it well. My best friend lived there for years, then moved to the country.”
A shadow passed over her face. “We live at the top.” She put a hand at an angle to her brow as sunshine flared again. “You can see almost the entire city from there.” She picked up her horse and held it close. “You live nearby, too–Miss…?”
I held out my hand. “I’m Ms. Leonora Addington. And you are?”
The girl hesitated, then took my hand briefly. “Cassie Gershen. My father is George Gershwin.”
I was taken aback. “Whatever do you mean?”
She snorted, giggled a high giggle and then of course I saw the joke. “George Gershen, I see, many must hear it as Gershwin, how funny!”
“Well, he’s a composer, too, but he goes by GT Gershen and the T is for Thomas. So just ‘GT’, usually, George Thomas would be too much, he says.”
It came to mind that Paul David insisted on using his middle name. How it now irked me. The breeze swept about us and her bangs fluttered in the gust. Her eyes fairly sparkled as she smiled. Then she slumped back.
“He wouldn’t be happy if he knew I smoked so now you know his name, just forget it, please. He might even know. He’s at the piano all afternoon if he can be and also likes to look out the window. He spies on me, like you did, only from farther away. I try to stay out of sight; then he complains. I thought you might be a friend of his for a while. I mean, you live near here and seem like the sort he likes– you read a lot, for one thing.”
I tuned to better see her whole affect. It was sincere, perhaps, such disarming eyes and pleasing face composed, yet relaxed. “I do think it unhealthy and risky behavior that you have even tried smoking–at barely twelve? I was well into my twenties when I tried it. Awful taste and choked me.”
“He says just the same, see what I mean? But I’m thirteen–and older than you think.” She squeezed the horse’s puffy middle quite hard, then released it.
“You know where I live, did you say that?”
“I followed you once. Your house is quite large, made of stone and there is a gate at the drive that required a key or something before you went in. I liked it but I liked our nice place much more. Well, I might like our apartment alright.”
I suddenly questioned if this child was at all who she said she was, if her story was anywhere near the truth, and if she came to the park to learn how to steal with her street sidekicks. Her charm was considerable. But she carried about a stuffed horse, for goodness’ sake, and she kept an eye on me and knew my address, she talked too much to strangers. And there was that suspicious looking older boy. Cassie Gershen, as she’d announced herself, seemed perhaps less than a reliable historian. Muddled in one way while teeming with intelligent observations in another.
“Well, now we both know where the other lives. Information that may or may not be useful.” I picked up my book, considered leaving.
“I’d better go.” She hopped off the bench and looked up at her apartment building. “He’ll worry.” She craned her neck to the left, to see around a stand of evergreens. Sighed. “There he is. See? On the balcony?” She pointed. Waved wildly.
I stood, too, and sought the spot. There was indeed a long balcony protected with wrought iron and there was a man now scanning the boulevard, perhaps the park. He could be her father, in vest and light shirt, with darker hair, glasses. He must have seen her then, as he waved back and slipped indoors, satisfied. I wondered what he actually knew of her comings and goings. Not my business, of course, yet I was nearly moved to speak with him that moment.
“You don’t have some sort of dog?” she asked. We started to the street, weaving in between cyclists and joggers.
“A dog? No, I never have had one. I had two calico cats and before those, a beautiful canary. Now I have nothing but several flourishing plants and my own company, and occasional visitors, of course. You?”
“I do have a dog but he’s way too old to play much. My mom left us; we’ve lived in this place a few months.”
“I see. I’m sorry, Cassie.” We walked in an uneven rhythm; she about kept up with me. “Did she also enjoy horses?”
“Oh, yes, of course and…”
Her voice had grown softer; I leaned down to hear her better.
“We all did. I mean we do but…we did own three.”
“Must have been wonderful, dear.”
After we exited the park, she turned right. I turned left.
“Hey, um, thanks for being around. Nearby. I don’t really like Black Jack that much.”
“That shifty young man?”
She studied the little horse’s face, smoothed his coat.” He just hangs out. Hides places. I think he’s homeless, he doesn’t say. I’m not really a smoker. I mean, maybe some day but I just–I said ‘yes’ once… so now…he’s okay but I don’t know. Maybe not.”
I started to lift my hand to her–to what? smooth her flyaway hair? pat her shoulder?–then, confused by my disregard of polite remove, quickly dropped it. Stood taller with book before my chest.
“Good, you can quit before you get habituated to it. Right now, perhaps. Then your father might never know and you won’t have to pretend you like it. Next time, just tell that slippery Black Jack you aren’t available for more antics. Go home if necessary. Call your father. Or come to where I am, if I’m about. You must stay safe, my dear.”
She narrowed her eyes at me but not angrily or worriedly. Pondering things as she shifted from one foot to the other and held Roan in position atop her shoulder. I waited. Her features softened in relief. She gave me a real smile and then I could see her as a young woman, strong, vibrant and true. Fearless again.
“See you around, Ms. Addington.”
“Good day to you, too, Miss Cassie.”
When I got to the next corner and waited to cross, I looked up and over, where the Gershen balcony was. She was there alone, and reached out over the fancy ironwork as she caught sight of me. I waved both hands at her and she gave a fast flap back at me. I hurried off to my house, feeling lighter. To my studio, which longed for me I was certain, and I, it.