The crusty green paint on the bench revealed a delicate web of black cracks. An intricate pattern which resembled the lace of shadowy wrinkles on the old man’s face, as though the both of them had been resting there, in that park, for a little too long. His suit, old-fashioned and a little worn here and there, but perfectly tidy, was brown with thin white lines. The same tastefully clean contrast was mirrored at the edge of the hat pressed on top of his head of silver hair.
The sun was starting to shine quite brightly now, as he wondered at how warm it had already become this early in the month of February. Dirty snow still covered the grass around the bench, but the green showing through the melted patches was a lot livelier than he would have expected for this time of the year. It seemed like the tiny leaves of grass were in fact merciless blades cutting through enemy walls. For a moment he dreamt of how nice it would be if the snowy, foreign appearance he was now wearing himself could still be hiding within it the fresh, sharp young man that he used to be.
Every now and then he would look down the alley. His eyes sliding by the little ballerina, waltzing in her pink roller blades around the bronze statues; briefly pausing on the popcorn vendor, who was tucking a bill inside her shirt, close to her bosom, and then filling up a box of those caramel-coated atrocities they now called popcorn; away, past the groups of cackling teenagers and far too conspicuous lovers and stuck-up ladies walking their miniature dogs, towards the park gate, looking for a familiar figure.
They had been meeting in the park every morning, for years now. They had found themselves here one day, both stopped to rest on the same bench, recognizing that bit of disappointment in each other’s eyes: for this park that was not their park, this city that was not theirs. It turned out they shared memories of the same hometown, of similar times, even similar jobs. So they ended up turning their morning meetings into that one last familiar, immutable thing: just like people go to work every day, they went to the park.
They were both widowed men, brought over by overcaring children who had bribed them with their momentary love and their talk of little grandchildren in need of a nanny, like you’d try to attract a fly on a crumb of cake, just so you can then squash it with your finger.
He felt squashed every single day of his life.
“Hey, pops, how hard it would be for you to eat a bit more carefully, huh?”, his daughter frowned at him over every little stain on her tablecloth, while his son-in-law smirked. “How’s about you go out for a walk, now, grandpa?”, his grandchildren would dismiss him, like an old, boring video game. None of them quite understood the meaning of moving an old man from his home of a lifetime. Not yet, anyhow.
Any minute now, his friend would appear, like a large, white puddle of oily light spilled by a playful sun through the foliage; wearing his training pants and white T-shirt, as always, with those sunglasses resembling something out of an ‘80s women’s magazine and that already yellowish cap with its visor as straight as a board, his curvy stomach proudly wobbling in front of him and his arms behind his back. The old fuck was ugly as a bat and had the fashion sense of an equally blind animal, but he was now his best mate. The only one he had left.
But, seriously, the old man would ask himself every day, while he waited for his friend to join him: why that perky attitude? Why that dumb old pride bouncing off his gargantuan stomach as he strutted about? Wasn’t he aware of the not-so-gracious condition he was in? Where was the dignity in acting like a man with no care in the world, displaying himself in those horrendous clothes and with that audacious smile widened all over his face, like the world was his and like nothing was wrong. The old man could never understand. He sometimes found himself chuckling maliciously when some stray mutt would throw a sudden bark at the man, scaring him half the way to the moon: then he’d realize it, then he’d remember how weak, and … well, old, he had become. And maybe he’d finally stop acting like a damned fool. It wasn’t dignified.
He took a peek at his watch. I mean look at that, he wasn’t even able to make it here in time anymore. If that’s not decrepitude, than what is it?
Like this very park. He looked around, with a contemptuous smile: the state it was in, how low it had sunken. Rust flowers were grinning at him from the trash cans and the handrails and pretty much every little piece of metalwork in sight. The earth had bitten hard on the alleys, cracking them with its teeth of dirt, and the stairways seemed like a cascade of rocks hurrying downwards, to have a bath in the lake. Exactly like me, he thought. Me and my crumbling bones, and the flesh that’s melting away, like a mere joke of an obstacle to all these new plagues the doctors seem to have invented.
See, that was the thing. That old buffoon had to be ill, too. He just had to be, with the shape he was in and that careless way about him. But he never talked about it. Not once had he complained, not once had he admitted to his friend that he was in pain, or that his strength was no longer as it used to be, not once had he even given the smallest of hints that he was scared.
Or perhaps he was one of those lucky bastards who never got ill, he thought. He had once heard a story about an old lady living in a village, who had never seen a doctor in her whole life. When at last she was close to her death, at ninety something years of age, her relatives had gone crazy looking for a doctor willing to declare her dead when the time came. No one had seen her alive and well, so no one wanted to assume that responsibility now that she was going to die. Whether she liked it or not, she was stuck in the realm of the living.
The sun was now hiding behind a patch of translucent clouds. It was right above his head, yet so well concealed that it seemed to gleam coldness instead of heat. Midday and still very much February after all. Exhausted grandmothers all but pulled their grandchildren towards the exit, back home to their warm soup and their afternoon nap. The roller-bladed ballerina had swirled her last swirl around the lake. The popcorn vendor was gone, and so were her customers. Gone were the old ladies and their toy-sized pets. Only the lovers continued on in their forgetfulness of time and space.
An old park, sunken in silence, and a solitary man on a bench.
Where was he?