Sunday, July 15, 2007

I cut my volunteer hours in half a few months ago, so most of my Saturdays pass without seeing the old man. Still, each time he's not there, I find myself gazing at the empty bench with a hitch in my breath. Perhaps I should be less attached to this stranger, but his imprint has become important. In these days of drowning he's like the last life raft at the bottom of the box--better than nothing, certainly, and fitting given the situation. I don't know how to drown as efficiently as you'd like.

He wasn't there when I stepped off the bus yesterday, and I looked at the bench for a moment, short of breath. But he had just crossed at the light and he shuffled up and smiled, and the gremlin with its fingers in my lungs relaxed its grip.
I sat, but he stood in the sun, his jeans too long and bunched at the ankles, the shoulder seams of his button down shirt resting a few inches down his biceps. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he shook his head slightly, making a slicing motion with his hand. "My bones are cold. I'm like a plant, trying to store up the heat for the winter. Winter seems to come earlier and earlier these days."

Sleeping still hasn't been going well for me lately; I've been haunted by dreams and heat and trying not to remember the nights of sleeping that were different. So I leaned against the bus shelter, eyes half closed, ignoring the heat from a shaft of sunlight falling between the trees and across my lap. He hummed under his breath, holding a plastic bag in his left hand. His right hand passed sporadically in front of his eyes, a familiar tick. "You doing ok over there, Red? You look mighty worn out." I opened my eyes the rest of the way and shrugged. "I'm fine, I guess. Just tired." "Those fellows giving you a tough time, huh?" "Always." "You tell them that I said to take care of my girl, or I'll haunt them when I'm dead."

I winced at that, which he must have seen because he sat down next to me and took me by the shoulders. I think he enjoys our moments as much as I do, likes being able to play the sage, because his cloudy eyes shone and his hands were steady, folded over my thin bones. "You don't ever stop giving people the chance to hurt you, Red, because if you close yourself all up you'll miss the ones that are trying to love you, too. And I'm allowed to die whenever I want--I've earned the right. But I don't plan on it any time soon, so don't you worry your pretty little head." He studied each of my eyes individually and nodded.

And I smiled at him and shook my head softly, but it was with that same hitch in my breath, remembering how empty that bench had looked when I stepped off the bus and found him absent.

(#1, #2, #3, #4)

No comments: