Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Conversation

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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 sweatshirts, sneakers and often shorts, even in the drenching winter. He was not from around there. And when he opened his mouth to respond politely, what a shock. It appeared difficult for people to be civil or perhaps kindly dismiss 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 having been plucked from disaster, he’d had to make choices and deal with society in whole new ways. Especially with those who barely knew him.

When the seagulls circled ’round he shared his biscuit. It was the right thing to do; he had more at the apartment. He could accomodate amiable, even bold birds.

******

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 as it was a public park. But when he spotted a red hat atop a young woman who wore two yellow rain boots, he halted on the sidewalk, his handsome walking stick rising then falling with a staccato double 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 feasible. She pulled up her legs and crossed them like a yogi with each foot at a hip so the marred 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 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 at the other end. He didn’t look at her but if he did he’d have noted her eyes fluttered though closed. As he unscrewed the thermos bottle’s top– a cup for his coffee–fragrant steam reached her nostrils. Eyes opened in a flash and she looked right at him. He blew across the cup, then sipped. He glimpsed the boots: a good half muddy. As if she had been tromping about in sludgy puddles on the way to the bench.

“Heavenly,” she said, gesturing at the coffee thermos.

He was forced to look up and quickly took in a narrow face with pointed chin, almond eyes. The handmade red knit hat snugged over hair and ears. An easy smile was offered but he looked at his large, well-heeled feet, the leather thoroughly-oiled against Oregon winter.

“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 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 as he imagined her in a pretzel shape. 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, then unfolded his paper.

She gawked at him, then was embarrassed by that startled response. It was his voice, of course, he surmised…the unexpected basso sounds rumbling and rising and released from 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 some weird monster, calling him names until they learned better. Until they admitted his talents.

Surely she would move on to another spot, he hoped, so he could sit in peace. But she half-turned to him, legs now relaxed.

“I’ve actually seen you here a long time. I used to catch the 73 bus on the way to work and since there’s a stoplight by it–” and she pointed to the very bus stop–“we’d wait and I’d notice you here, under the big oaks. You always come to this bench if you can, am I right?”

“Well.” He felt 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. “How odd…as you say, it is my established habit. You go to work; I come to the park.” he scowled at that truth.

“Makes sense to me,” she said and stretched out her legs, dangling them over the bench edge. Her booted toes, which she pointed the best she could, 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, strangely. 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 compactness from which it erupted. “Oh, not watching you as in stalking or something! Just casually, you know? 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 each morning on the bus.” She blinked at him. “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. Much has changed lately.”

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. he rustled his paper as if to end the conversation.

“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, sitting by each other, pausing on the same routes, but never ask what’s going on with someone else. I guess I might not have, either, before my life becasme interrupted.” Her hands were fidgety and reddened by the cold as she glanced down the street. Wishing her friend would come soon. Wondering if this was wise to continue.

He was suddenly compelled to answer so any concerns she had were allayed. She clearly took a chance and sat there in purpose, quite the surprise.

“Three years ago I retired from…the music industry. I remained in Chicago where I had friends and colleagues for thirty-five years. I was, to be frank, in a bad train accident accident right during an initial semi-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 emphasize its injury. “When my son, an only child, asked me to come and see if I liked it here, I reluctantly agreed. I came last spring. Only temporarily. I am not convinced it’s for me.”

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 to say. He was not one to display emotions except on stage. She sat very still.

The pigeons and seagulls were crowding up to them. 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 might sing, or 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 out barked a laugh.”Well, that’s so much nicer to hear you say that a radio DJ or news announcer or a power-driven lawyer!”

“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 no more as rain started to fall from 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 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? His face dampened, his fedora dumping rivulets.

“I get it if you can’t. My friend is 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 nice hot latte.”

“I might eat a scone.”

They stood up with some difficulty, neither of them seeking aid nor offering it. They went to the corner–his heavy stumping along, her graceful movements hiding her pain– where her bus had stopped for so long, where she had gazed out a window. Noted the big man’s 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. He missed snow. Felt at such a loss being so far from his friends, his old invigorating lifestyle. Music with the stages, pressures and rewards–the applause. The singular fulfillment his passion enabled him to experience.

“How did you become a dancer” he asked, nibbling his maple 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. His books and music. 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. No lake views to be lost in–only the city’s business, its madness.

“I learned the usual way–from an early age: study, study, practice, perform, audition over and over, then finally joining three different 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 have a dear friend who has it. She has flare ups then periods that are much better, so then she goes forward with her life. She’s been doing well for a couple of years. I understand it’s different for each person.”

“Yes..but every day I’m miserable since I can’t dance. My joints are too inflamed, the pain. I might have to resign.” She looked up at him a foot and a half above on a stool which seemed barely able to hold him. But he looked secure and steady. “And by the way, I’m Maya. Maya Kwan.”

He swivelled a little, held out a squared palm and shook hers. “Anthony Keating.”

“Okay, Anthony! Or Mr. Keating. Oh, yeah, I remember that catastrophic train wreck in Chicago…. I assume that was it? You lived through that! And so you didn’t sing after that?”

“Certainly it is next to impossible to practice, rehearse– much less hope to perform when you have multiple surgeries on a leg and internal injuries to heal….as you might, perhaps, understand. But I fully retired after 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. But the pleasure went out of it.” He put hand to heart, heavy with that truth.

“I still hope you will 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. One had to build a way of living based on an envisioned design, didn’t one, and then trial and error. The rest was up to sheer 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–connected a moment. And in that breif span of time they recognized and understood one another: a giant of an aging, introspective white man with sonorous voice of a seasoned opera singer in transition; and a strong, graceful Chinese-American woman deeply yearning to keep dancing despite hurdles. Artists, creators, seekers. Human beings trying to do what they could with what they were given. It seemd so small a thing. And so daunting.

They were thrown off suddenly by the realization they’d barely met, then talked in this way, spoke truth. They retreated into thoughtful silence.

Outside the big coffee shop window a woman slowed, pushing sodden hair from eyes while peering inside.

“Oh, there’s Janelle!”

Maya stood to go 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 that a bus passenger kept 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 beckon her friend. “I’m glad I finally got to meet you–a man I saw day in, day out. It meant something to me that you were always there–the man in a fedora feeding birds and reading his paper. Now it seems something better.”

“I’m glad,” he said, as they pushed past the coffee line.

As a harried Janelle came closer she stopped, mouth open.

“No…Mr. Keating?”

Maya looked at her, then him. “Wait, 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. They’d exchanged niceities in the elevator a few times.

“You know Antony Keating?” Janelle asked, incredulous.

“A chance meeting. Or serendipity.”

“Well, give me the story. He’s 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 suspect I might,” Maya agreed.

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Conversation

  1. What a wonderful story! And, as it is with so many of your incredibly well wrought narratives, this story possesses an amazing array of subtexts that give it such meaningful depth. First the title: The Conversation. We have the intriguing conversation between Maya and Antony revealing positives and negatives, but as Derrick said, the story spoke to his past days as a performer or as you put it: a younger more active person (I can definitely relate to that.) And so the story speaks to all of those performance artists who for whatever reason can no longer move as they once did.

    And that brings up another engaging idea: the writer as performer. In a manner of speaking I think writers are performance artists, but our skill is not of the moment before a collective audience–no, our words reach one reader at a time– one here, one there, maybe tens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands–over space and time. And through writing we hold conversations with others and make friends and feel–even if it’s virtual–a friendly hug.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

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