by Ladee Caid
Whinny learns to view the world differently.
The Old Man on the Bench
Whinny hurried down the edge of the park's shaded, asphalt path. Not many people hung to the side, and she wanted to be at church before the bells struck 10:00. She couldn't keep track of the time, for her faded wristwatch didn't belong with the new yellow chiffon dress that accentuated her youthful figure. The delicate material fluttered behind her as she hustled in heals with her bible nestled in the crook of her arm.
In the distance, her churches' bells pealed to let the congregation know service would soon begin. She hated walking in after the preacher had already started speaking. So her tardiness would go unnoticed, she'd slip into the pew closest to the door where the divorced men and widowers collected. Whinny felt old sitting in the back. She was desperate to be closer to the podium with the younger girls and families so that God could see that she had attended. Arriving before the last bells' chime meant she needed to be swift. Whinny quickened her pace.
The city park bustled with activity as was typical for a Sunday. Cyclists zipped past her while children giggled and screeched with delight on the lawn. The sun reflected off of the pond's ripples as if diamonds coated the surface. A warm spring breeze showered Whinny with dogwood peddles. She gawked at a couple laying on a blanket under an elm. The pair stared into each other's eyes. The boy caressed the girl's cheek with a slow stroking knuckle then kissed her on the forehead. Whinny sighed as a pang of envy pushed at her chest. She looked away.
Just as Whinny faced her path, a wall of runners rushed toward her. Even though the group moved around Whinny, their sudden appearance startled her. She stepped back, and her heel plunged into the soft earth just over the edge of the asphalt throwing her off balance. Whinny fell onto her rump in the grass. A retreating runner's voice yelled. "Sorry." However, none jogging away returned to help her.
When Whinny tried to stand, she found the heel of her shoe had broken, her ankle throbbed, and grass-stained her brand new dress.
I'm never going to make it to church.
She examined her soiled dress.
Besides, I can't go looking like this. My dress is ruined, and my shoes aren't worth keeping.
Tears welled on her lids and blurred her vision. She just wanted to sit and cry, but people stared at her as they walked by. She tried again to raise herself. She winced from her screaming ankle.
As she brushed a clod of dirt off of her dress, an open hand appeared in front of her. She looked up to see its source, but the sun flashed between trembling leaves blinding her. She allowed the hand to help her stand. It was a strong, soft hand that made her feel calm at its touch. As she stood, the sources arm supported the small of her back and directed her to the nearby bench.
A gentle voice spoke. "You're welcome."
The figure shuffled around her to sit beside a brown paper lunch sack. Pigeons pecked at tiny granules beneath.
Whinny had felt calm and safe while being helped, but now that she saw her rescuer, she felt grimy. Her savior had wrinkles, a long, unkempt grey beard, and old, mismatched clothes. She pressed her elbow into her side to wipe away whatever germs the old man may have transferred. Whinny watched the man as he reached in the bag. He pulled out a fist full of seed and tossed in on the ground. Pigeons nibbled and fought over the morsels.
"Don't worry little ones; there is plenty for all." The old man cooed at the birds and they responded in kind.
Whinny wondered if he lived in a house or slept outside. Maybe he curled up on this very bench each night. The thought of his body splaying where she sat made her squirm. She scooted to the edge. In the distance, church bells chimed.
Whinny looked at the trees in the direction of her church. That was it. The tolling was the last she'd hear. She wasn't going to make it. Would God see that she wasn't among the parishioners? Would he know why she wasn't there? She tried to go to worship; she really did, but those dumb runners couldn't stay in the middle of the path like everyone else. Whinny slumped and began to cry.
"Does your ankle hurt that bad, or are you just frustrated at your situation?" the old man said.
Whinny stopped crying and looked at the old man. She rubbed her wet cheeks then wiped her palms on her already fouled dress. "I'm not crying because of my ankle." She shook her head.
The old man watched as if waiting for her to continue, but Whinny didn't elaborate. How could the derelict who'd probably never stepped foot in the house of God understand the importance of going to church?
"Then, you are frustrated?"
Whinny searched the man's face.
If he must know....
"I'm upset about my brand new dress and my broken shoes, but more importantly, I'm distressed that I didn't make it to church."
"Oh what? Obviously, you don't go to church. You sit here with your birds all day never paying attention to God, and because you don't, you'll have to sleep on this bench for the rest of your life. You'll go throughout your days begging for money and hobbling over to the soup kitchen for beans and rice."
"That is a very ugly statement, young lady."
Whinny knew what she'd said wasn't nice. She should have kept her thoughts to herself.
"You don't know me. You know nothing about me. You don't know what I've been through, how much money I have, what I do when I'm not here, or how I believe." What's more, you don't deserve to know." However, I will tell you what I think about God because I think it'll do you good."
"God is in your church because you are in it. He cares nothing for buildings except those within it. Look around you. Look at the beauty. Look at all of the people. God is everywhere. God is in each of us. God is in you. The decisions you make reflects whether you choose to honor God or throw the love he bestows away without a care, and right now, you aren't being very Godly.
What the old man said made sense but....... "How do you know you're right?"
"Because I look at the Catholics, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Evangelicals, and even the Buddhists. Each of them is convinced they are right in their beliefs. Each one is different. Each one is strong and passionate in the certainty that their way shines true. Which one is right? Are all of them right? Are all of them wrong? Nah, they are all right. It's just their own flavor of Kool-Aid. I don't need to call myself anything to be a good person: to honor God. All I need to do is be mindful of how I treat others. That includes people who sleep on benches, eat at soup kitchens, and young girls in pretty, yellow dresses needing a hand up off of the ground."
Whinny's cheeks flushed. She clasped her hands in front of her and stared at the ground. She looked at the pigeons, at the majestic trees standing tall on the other side of the path, and at a cyclist cruising by on a rickety, orange bicycle. Whinny used the old man's logic to see each of these things as if they were a part of God, and the vision made her smile. She felt calm and happy and a part of everything. The old man was right. She had been horrible in her assessment of him and used her hateful words to hurt. She needed to tell him she was sorry and ask his forgiveness.
Whinny looked up in the direction she'd come to see her cute, new neighbor walking toward her. She didn't know his name, but she'd watched him move in through a slit in her curtain.
"You're the neighbor that lives above me, right? Whinny?"
'Uh, yeah." Oh my god, he knows my name
. Her heart pounded, and she smiled.
He smiled back and held out his hand. "I'm Mark." Butterflies take flight in her stomach.
Mark's smile turned into a scowl when he looked at Whinny's feet. "What happened?"
She waved at her shoe as if its condition weren't important. "I fell, twisted my foot, and broke my heel at the same time." She giggled. "I'm just kind of sitting her until my ankle stops being so tender."
"Luckily you aren't far from your apartment. Would you like walking back?"
The thought of being next to him made her whole body tingle. "I don't want to bother you."
"It's no bother. I was tired of unpacking boxes, so I decided to just enjoy myself for a bit. Having company would make the day that much better."
"Well, if you don't mind..." Whinny shrugged. As Mark helped her to stand, she turned to the old man to tell him she was sorry for being ugly and that she had enjoyed the conversation, but the man was gone. The birds were gone too. Not a grain remained on the asphalt. It was as if the old man and his pigeons hadn't existed.
"What's wrong?" Mark said. "Have you lost something?"
Had the old man been a figment of her imagination? Was he an angel sent to give her a long overdue message? Would this gorgeous man holding her arm think she was crazy if she told him about what had happened? "My Bible."
"Here it is." Mark plucked it from the bench and tucked it under his arm. "Are you hungry? I make a great delicious grilled cheese...if I can locate my skillet."
"As a matter of fact, I'm famished."