What goes on inside his head? What is he thinking? Who is he...
|The Old Man and the Bench
The park bench was worn and wooden, much like the man who sat atop it. He was old, weathered by time and hardened by experience. His skin bunched in wickedly deep wrinkles across his small face. Dark brown spots, like stars, lined along his thin forehead and down his cheeks. His eyes were piercingly green and prominent, yet they said nothing; lost down a lonely road, ceasing to observe reality. His mouth was dry and thin, opening only to exhale.
His clothes suited him well. A dark gray shirt and tattered overalls covered his crooked body. His feet were adorned with nicely polished black shoes that were completely out of place. He wore a hat, one folded over his weakening forehead and leaking out strands of vividly white hair. His hands were folded delicately across his lap and he spent his time staring at the ground, letting reality push away. His mind wandered through thoughts, memories, and old possessions now lost. There he sat, alone yet alive, every day of every week from seven thirty in the morning to nine at night.
Even in winter he sat underneath the dormant trees on the little wooden bench. He had a nice brown coat that he threw over his back like a blanket and somehow, he kept warm. Rain was nothing; the trees above him sieved it into tiny droplets of water that would periodically plop on his lap. He showed no hesitance to be outside in the weather and many people were drawn to the conclusion that he was insane.
People often pointed, stared at the poor old man without a life. Some passersby sat next to the man and read their morning paper as he gazed at the grass, completely oblivious to their presence. Although, in time that person would leave and the man would be alone once more.
There were people who saw the man every morning on their daily jog; others would stroll through the park after going to the local grocery market and sure enough, he was there staring at the grass. In time the entire community came to know him, if knowing is just realizing someone’s presence. None of them actual knew, none of them wanted to know, and the old man didn’t want to talk with anyone.
His family, wife, kids had passed on without him, leaving his shell of life wandering forever in uncertainty. Through all his years of thinking, he never once found a logical conclusion to why he was left alive. Of course, the average person walking through the park did not know this. As far as anyone was concerned, he didn’t even have a name. No one knew him, and no one wanted to. He was a nobody, a loner; he didn’t want anything to do with anybody so no one wanted to have anything to do with him. This was the vicious cycle that continued around him in reality. He ignored it.
* * *
Never once did he read a book as he sat on the bench. Never once did he walk around the square. He sat directly under the tree three hundred sixty-five days a year, every year since anyone can remember.
When he finally left the bench at the end of the day, at nine at night, he straightened his ancient body upward, unfolded his hands, and departed to the east, leaving the bench alone in the darkening park. As he walked (an uneven walk) he often stopped, seemingly realizing something, but always began walking again soon after. It was as if he was making a difficult choice in leaving the bench.
Throughout his walk home he never once looked up from the sidewalk. He kept his head low and his feet moving ever so slowly across the rough pavement; this was routine. However, on one odd day in late October a few years back, a nicely dressed gentleman saw the lonely man begin his walk and willingly took his hand to guide him home. The old man dealt no words during this act of kindness, not even a simple “thank you” as he unlocked the door to his quiet home. The gentleman smiled, tipped his hat, and wished the old man a good night.
Upon entering the dull nothingness of a house, the old man took off his clothes, dressed in ragged plaid pajamas, and went directly to bed on a mattress that was neither soft nor comfortable.
The next morning his routine began again with no hesitance. He awoke at exactly six thirty with no alarm. He took off his pajamas, showered, dressed, ate a routine breakfast of eggs and bacon, and headed directly to the park. There were days when he’d wake up earlier to head to the grocery store first. The clerks knew enough about him to leave him alone as he wandered the vacant aisles. He usually made a bulk purchase of bacon and eggs and possibly, on very rare occasions, a single peppermint patty. He stored these goods in a gray refrigerator that was kept too cold. The patties he saved for Christmas and Easter.
He never ate while he was on the bench, for hungry never proved to be stronger than reason. Lunch was nonexistent for him and dinner consisted of leftover bacon from breakfast. He always cooked two slices extra and wrapped them delicately in paper towel to save for when he returned home.
He had lived like this for as long as anyone in town could remember and no matter how many years pass, the routine was still cement. That is, until one summer day in mid July.
The man was asleep in his bed, shaking from a bad dream. He suddenly jolted his head up, immediately awake. His alarm clock blinked 11:38 PM in big red numbers. He got out of bed surprised; he had never woke up that late before. Struggling to understand why his internal clock had failed him, he became dazed. His routine had been severed. His entire being felt out place. Before he could think any further, he convinced himself to go about his morning like he usually would.
He used the bathroom, showered, and put on his shirt and ragged overalls. After carefully tying his black dress shoes, he got up off his kitchen chair and opened the top cupboard near the sink. The man, aged far too long for simple tasks, struggled to pull out a large frying pan that looked like it was three decades old. He lit the stove and placed the pan over the flame. Within minutes the sound of bacon crackling and eggs sizzling filled the room. The man was sitting on the kitchen chair again, staring at the yellow-tiled floor.
A number of scratches and cuts blanketed the antique chair that he sat upon. Behind the chair there sat a small circular table. It was beautifully carved down the legs and adorned with a brilliant vase. It would have been a stunning centerpiece had the flowers not been dead. In fact, they were crumbling to dust, shriveled and blackened through the countless years they’d sat there. It was eerie to see such apparent death in the man’s lovely little home.
The food was finished soon enough and the man turned off the gas on the stove. The fire died as he grabbed a plate. After flopping the bacon and eggs onto it, he opened a drawer, grabbed a fork, and sat down at the little circular table. He didn’t seem to notice the dead flowers as he ate his breakfast.
The man took care of his plate and cleaned the pan. He walked slowly to the door upon finishing and twisted the knob. The wooden slab creaked open and the sunlight poured into his small home. The vase sparkled in the light and the flowers shriveled even more. The table sat in-between two chairs, one of which the man never used. Looking at all this, and then realizing he was breaking his schedule even more, he shut the door and began walking towards the park.
The sun stared down from the afternoon sky, halfway through its journey, and the man could feel its warmth on his shoulders. More people were out on the sidewalks than usual, the old man figured it was because he was used to walking so early.
He knew the way to the park without having to think, his legs moved ahead of his mind, eager to get to the bench. It was upon seeing the park that the man realized that something wasn’t right. He didn’t know what, in fact he thought it was just his botched schedule throwing him off.
The trees in the park stared down at the old man as he walked through the soft, green grass. He continued through the maze of trees until one came into his view. It was a fantastic weeping willow, hidden behind a few trunks of trees the man had yet to pass. It was that tree that he sat next to on the bench; it was that tree that hung down over him in the storms. He couldn’t help but smile as he rounded the final tree in his way.
It took mere seconds for his smile to fade away. He stared at the vine-like structures hanging down from the willow and followed their path to the grass. The wooden bench that he had so looked forward to sitting on that particular morning was gone.
For a moment the old man thought it was a dream, a nightmare. He walked over the exact spot where the bench had been. There were patches of dirt in the area that the feet had laid for so many years and looking beyond that, a path through the woods of pressed down grass, as if someone had dragged the bench away.
Without thinking, the man followed the path. His entire body was filling with doubt, with anger. The path wound through the trees and towards the road, his heart was beating faster than it had in years. When he finally reached the end of the park he saw the path left by the bench lead right onto the sidewalk and into the road, where it disappeared. The man knelt down and looked at the sidewalk. There were wood chippings against the cement, as if someone really had dragged it.
The old man straightened his crooked back and stood up, tears welling in his eyes. He was so angry and dazed that he couldn’t even keep himself up. He felt his body spinning around and then suddenly he saw them. A group of kids, none of them any older than eight, who were staring at the old man and laughing.
He marched over the kids with a look of rage in his eyes and they immediately stopped laughing. A few of them ran away while the others remained frozen.
“Where is my bench?” the old man yelled. His voice was hoarse, broken, and yet prominent. The kids stared at the man, for even a gruesome reality could not bring the amount of fear that they felt at that moment.
“Where is my bench?” the man yelled again. His face turned a fuming red.
One of the boys, small with blonde hair, took a step forward and said in a high voice, “I don’t know sir. We was only laughin’ ‘cause you was spinning ‘round like a looney.”
The old man scrunched his face and stared at the boy. “Did you see anyone drag a bench out this morning?” he asked, trying to calm his voice.
Another boy leaped forward, eager to tell his story. “I seen a bunch a men in green coats haul that thing into a truck ‘bout an hour ago.”
“What truck?” the old man asked keenly.
“I dunno,” the boy said. “It was green and had a picture of a tree on the side of it. There were letters but I couldn’t read ‘em.”
The old man thought for a moment but couldn’t figure out what truck the kid was talking about. As he was thinking, a young woman, apparently a mother of one of the boys, came around a tree and looked at the kids.
“Let’s get going Charles, you have to get to the barber before-” she stopped mid sentence as she saw the old man standing in the middle of the park, scratching his head. The woman looked to her boy who told her that the man was looking for his bench.
“Sir?” she shouted. The old man looked up. “The Recreational Division of the township came this morning and took that bench.”
The old man cocked his head to the side and asked very hesitantly, “How do I get it back?”
The woman thought for a minute, still surprised at whom she was talking to, and said, “I suppose you could go to the Township Hall and ask for help there.”
The man nodded at the woman and then headed off towards town.
It was a small but well-kept city. Most of the buildings were brick, some older than others. The man had particular difficulty in navigating the streets. Most of the people knew who he was and stared in disbelief as he walked briskly past them. He never asked for directions, but wondered for nearly an hour before stumbling upon the building that read “Township Hall” along the front, above a series of grand white pillars. It was probably the nicest building he’d seen so far.
The inside of the building was all gray, all dull. There were a few plants in the corners of the room to try and spice it up, but ultimately they just looked out of place.
There was a long counter across one part of the room and behind it sat three receptionists at different stations. There were at least two people waiting in line for each of the receptionists and it took the man a moment before he joined the nearest one.
The patience it took to wait for the men in front of him was immense. He kept twiddling his fingers, trying to contain his anger. Finally, when it was his turn, the receptionist asked, “How can I help you sir?” She was young, with red hair and thick makeup. Not only did she sound like she didn’t care, she was chewing a piece of gum quite noisily as the man stepped up to the counter.
“I want my bench,” he said slowly.
“Sir, you’re going to have to be more specific. How can I-”
“I want my bench!” the old man yelled. Every head in the hall turned towards him and subsequently the receptionist sat up straight and suddenly tried to look professional.
“Sir if you could please calm down I can see what I can do,” she said quietly as the people in the hall turned away.
The old man inhaled and exhaled, trying to calm himself. He managed a nod.
“Good,” the receptionist said. She quickly got on her computer and began typing. “It was a park bench that went missing?” she asked as she looked at the computer screen.
“Yes,” the old man said.
The reception looked at the man, she knew who he was. “The bench was taken away by our recreational division, it’s being replaced. The new bench will be there in a few-”
“Who ordered that?” the man interrupted her, angry once again.
“Umm.” She looked back at the screen. “Eugene Stevens, the head of the division,” she said.
“I’d like to talk to him,” the old man said, trying to remain patient with the women.
“We’ll have to schedule an app-”
“Now!” the old man said loudly. The woman looked at him for a long moment. Then she was getting up from her desk and walking to the end of the counter.
“Follow me,” she said. The old man walked around the back of the counter and followed the woman through a door and into a hallway. There was a plaque on one of the doors to the left that read ‘Stevens, Recreational Division’. She opened the door and gestured for the old man to enter.
Eugene Stevens, who was sitting with his feet propped up on the desk, stared at the receptionist who had just entered. The old man followed her inside the quaint room. Eugene was younger, probably mid-twenties, and yet his face hadn’t aged since he was little. He had round cheeks, jagged hair, and brilliantly blue eyes. His phone was resting in his right hand. “Hold on Sarah.” He covered the mouthpiece and said, “What is it Helen?”
The receptionist with red hair gestured to the old man. “It’s important,” she said.
Eugene looked at the man and took his hand away from the mouthpiece. “I’m going to have to call you back later Sarah, I’ve got someone here to speak to me. Yup. You too, bye.” He hung up the phone and put his feet back on the ground. “Hello,” he said to the old man, who remained completely silent.
As Helen, the receptionist, was leaving, Eugene gestured for her to shut the door. She pulled it closed quietly as she walked out.
“Take a seat,” Eugene said. “I’m forgetting my manners.”
The old man took a seat in one of the large leather chairs in front of Mr. Stevens’ desk.
“My bench is gone,” the man said without introducing himself.
Eugene stared for a moment and then said, “Yes, we’re replacing it with a new bench, a better one.”
“I don’t want a better one,” the old man said. “I want mine.”
“Well,” Eugene said as he folded his hands. “It was never really yours and it really needed to be replaced, the wood was practically falling apart. There’ll be a new bench in the park by tomorrow morning, I promise.”
The old man got unexpectedly professional sounding. His voice changed from hoarse and broken to young and vibrant. “Mr. Stevens is it? That bench cannot be gone. I want it back.”
“I’m sorry but I’ve already had it taken to a chipper, there’ll be new one tomorrow,” Eugene said, suddenly feeling a bit low.
The old man remained entirely still, devastated by the certainty in Eugene’s voice. Suddenly, with a great attempt to hold back his emotions, the man said, “Do you know who I am?” His green eyes glowed brightly in the light coming from the window.
Eugene averted the man’s gaze and said, “Not really.”
“Do you know my name?” the old man asked.
“No,” Eugene said.
“Do you know why I sit on that bench every day?”
“No, but I promise you that the new bench will be just as good,” Eugene replied.
“Mr. Stevens, please try to understand that no bench will replace the one that was there!” The man got abruptly irate and even stood up from his chair in fury. The legs squeaked against the wooden floor. Eugene immediately straightened in his chair and backed away from the front of the desk. He kept quiet as the old man looked towards the floor. “I have no life anymore, I have no hope. You took her away from me.”
Eugene looked at the man with a concerned face. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“My wife!” the old man shouted. Tears were welling up in his eyes and before long the cold droplets fell down his ancient face and plopped onto the wooden floor.
Eugene was shocked. He had no idea what was going on. “What are talking about?”
“The bench,” the old man said through his sobs. His elderly body was shaking from the grief. “You took her away, she sat there with me every day! Every day she would come down and sit with me! She won’t sit on a new bench, she won’t see me anymore!” the man cried.
“Sir, please, try to understand,” Eugene said as he got up from his desk, worried about the man.
“No!” he yelled, shaking his hands violently at Eugene. “I can’t talk to her anymore, I can’t see her anymore all because of you!” The old man got up, took one last look at the poor gentleman in front of him, and bolted out of the room. He walked through the reception area as he wiped tears from his eyes and all the people stared. They had no idea.
It was a long walk home and an even longer time to get to sleep that night. It seemed that his entire existence had just been taken away, that his entire being had been torn.
* * *
Eugene Stevens was never an emotional man. He didn’t cry at movies and it took a lot to get him to show even the slightest fear. But somehow the old man that had stumbled into his office had given him more emotions than he ever wanted to feel. Guilt beyond belief, and yet anger, anger because he didn’t know. How could he have known that the man was so connected to the park bench? How could he have guessed that the man would react so violently?
Mr. Stevens sat at his desk with his head in his heads as he pondered all this. He felt terrible, miserable even. This was all broken when the phone rang, louder than usual. Eugene quickly grabbed the device and said, “Hello?”
“It’s me,” the voice on the other end replied.
“Sarah!” Eugene said happily. “I have to talk to you, I can’t believe how terrible I feel right now.”
“What?” Sarah asked concerned. “What happened?”
“Nothing happened, I just…” he paused. “I’ll tell you when I get home.”
“Don’t you work late today?” she asked.
“No, I’m going to leave early,” he replied.
“All right,” she said, still a bit confused. “I’ll see you when you get home. Love you.”
“Bye,” he said as he hung up the phone. The seat where the old man had been nearly five hours earlier stared back at him. Trying to ignore his emotions, he grabbed his coat and headed out of the office.
His car was parked behind the building and it took longer than usual to start it up. He flicked on his headlights and pulled out of the parking lot and into the darkening streets. The sun was setting and the last light blinked behind the earth in minutes of his leaving.
There were few cars on the street, which allowed Eugene to think rather than pay attention to the road. He kept wondering if the old man was truly that mad at him. He wondered if maybe he deserved it, maybe it was a stupid decision to replace the bench.
It took nearly twenty minutes before he pulled into his driveway. The lights on the porch were on; Sarah was waiting. He parked, took the keys out of the ignition, and headed towards the front door. Before he put the keys in the lock on the knob, the door opened. A beautiful women with dark brown hair down to her shoulders appeared against the light from the house. Eugene smiled and hugged her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you when we get in,” Eugene replied.
They both entered the house and Sarah went into the living room to shut the television off. Eugene left his coat on a hanger by the door and walked into the kitchen. He grabbed the coffee pot from the morning, which still had coffee in it, and poured the cold liquid into a cup. After putting it in the microwave, he pressed ‘one minute’.
“I could’ve made you a fresh pot,” Sarah said as she leaned against the entrance to the kitchen. Eugene took a seat in one of the kitchen chairs.
“Do you know the old man that sits in the park?” he asked suddenly.
Sarah looked surprised. “Not personally. Why?”
“He came into my office today,” Eugene replied. Sarah took a seat across from him at the table.
“What’d he want?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, still feeling guilty; and as if the timing couldn’t be better, the microwave beeped. Eugene got up to get it but Sarah beat him to it.
“I’ll get it for you,” she said as she got up and headed towards the microwave.
“You see,” Eugene said, “we decided to replace the bench he sits on with a newer one, a metal one.”
Sarah handed him the cup of warm coffee. “Why?” she asked. This made him feel even guiltier.
“It was old,” Eugene said defending himself. “I mean, I thought it would be nice to get a better one.”
“So you knew it was the one that he sat on?” Sarah asked.
“Yes, but I didn’t know he’d get so mad.”
“What’d he say?” Sarah asked.
“He said that-” Eugene paused. Could he really tell her what he said? “He said that it meant a lot to him, that he wanted it back.”
“So give it back,” Sarah said simply.
“I can’t,” her husband replied, “I had it destroyed already. I didn’t think it would matter.”
Sarah looked a Eugene and put her hand on his shoulder. “You didn’t know,” she said. “The only thing you can do is apologize to the man.”
Eugene thought for a moment. “You know Sarah, I think I will. His house is just down the road from the park, I’ll go there tomorrow morning.”
Sarah smiled. “That’s a great idea,” she said softly.
* * *
The next morning Eugene awoke early. He dressed in a nice suit and ate a hearty breakfast. Before leaving, he went back into his bed and kissed his sleeping wife goodbye.
The roads were empty that morning, allowing for an easy drive to the flower shop. Eugene went in with twenty dollars and came out with a dozen assorted roses in a beautiful arrangement. He wasn’t sure what else to get the man, so it seemed fair enough to give him a few flowers along with his apology.
Eugene walked back out into the parking lot and placed the flowers on the passenger side of his car. He then got in and started it up. It only took a few minutes to round the corner and head down the lonely street to the old man’s house. It was a small home, placed delicately at the end of the road. Pale, yellow paint decorated the outside paneling and dark brown shutters completed the form. The house seemed to be just as old as the man living there.
Eugene pulled into the gravel driveway and looked in through the side window. He could see the green wallpaper and wooden cupboards of the kitchen against the morning light. Getting out of his car and grabbing the flowers, he looked around realizing that the old man didn’t own a car.
Ignoring that, he shut his car door with his foot and headed to the front of the house. The door was perched above a few small steps. He walked up them and took a deep breath. As he exhaled he knocked quietly on the wooden door. To his surprise, the door moved inward. Looking to knob, he realized that it had never shut completely. The wooden slab was just resting in the door jam.
“Is anyone home?” Eugene shouted. He didn’t want to knock again because the door might open completely. “Hello?”
There was no answer. Suddenly, a gust of wind pushed Eugene forward and he felt himself putting his hand against the door for support. The slab budged from the jam and opened into the old man’s home. Eugene steadied himself so as to not fall flat on his face. He recovered and looked inside. “Sir? Are you home?” he asked. Without thinking, he walked into the house and shut the door behind him.
There was a dust in the air, visible only because of the light from the window above the sink. Eugene was in the kitchen and he looked around for any sign of the man. There were no dirty dishes, no plates on the small circular table, and everything looked clean. It was quiet in the home, almost to Eugene’s liking, but something was not right. Something did not feel ordinary about the home.
Eugene took a few more steps in and the centerpiece on the circular table caught his attention. The beautiful vase was holding the most putrid looking flowers. Instinctively, Eugene took out the dead, dry flowers and replaced them with the new roses he had bought the man. After locating the trash can and throwing out the dried flowers, Eugene looked back at the table. The two chairs were facing each other on either end of the circle and the arrangement of flowers shown wonderfully against the dark wooden spirals. Smiling to himself, Eugene suddenly realized that he had been in the man’s home without him knowing for much too long.
“Is anyone home?” he shouted again. No answer.
Something was telling him to leave. He shouldn’t have come in the first place. Yet something else was telling him too look around, to see if the man was in the house.
He ignored the first something and began looking around the small home for any more signs of where the man could be. Eugene thought that he might’ve gone to the park and at that moment he would’ve turned around and left had it not been for a single black dress shoe. It was lying on its side through another doorway. Eugene guessed it was the man’s room. He stepped closer and said through the open doorway, “Are you there?” Again, silence.
After a quick decision Eugene walked into the room. There was a small bed against the back wall. The light was pouring in from the window behind it and Eugene had to squint his eyes to see through the brightness. There, lying upon the bed, was the old man. He on his side, unmoving, his head towards the wall.
“Sir?” Eugene asked louder than before. “Are you awake?” He walked over to the man and once he got closer he realized that it was no sleep that the man was in. He looked into the man’s eyes and desperately tried to wake him, but it was no use; there was no pulse and no breathing. Eugene stood back and stared for a moment, bewildered. He inhaled deeply and tried to calm himself. Emotions rushed through him and he desperately tried to silence them.
After regaining his composure, he walked over to the old man and closed his eyes. Eugene got down on his knees in the blinding light and started praying. He prayed for the man and apologized for his own actions. He knelt there as time floated by like the dust in the air. Tears began falling from his face yet he kept his prayer strong. The light from the window eventually faded away, the sun had moved further across the sky. Eugene stood up, looked at the old man, and left.
He walked through the kitchen, looking towards the beautiful roses. There, with a new wondrous connection, the two chairs sat happily across from each other. Eugene managed a thoughtful smile.