I guess you could say I lived off of charity. Just a few dollars in my hat and I got a solid meal. That’s all it takes really, if you don’t move around too much, one meal.
My bench outside the library was a memorial for Margaret Swath. I didn’t believe in God then, but I prayed to Margaret Swath. Dear Margaret Swath, I’d say with my hands pressed together – and I’d go on to say thank you for the bench, and that I hoped she didn’t mind an old man occupying it every night.
It was my bench, and anyone who went to the library regularly knew it. Every few days I checked out a new book and read it by daylight on my bench. I heard the jokes and snickers of passers by; ‘Poor old man – thinks he can read’ they’d say, but the truth is I’ve read more in one month than they have their entire lives. And I understood it too – most of it, and what I didn’t, I read again until I did. I didn’t just sound out words phonetically like they all presumed. I disappeared into the text and bask in it’s melody – follow the author blindly deep, deep into his art, chasing after secrets and truth. But I didn’t need them to understand – really I didn’t mind being laughed at, pitied and misunderstood.
I watched people a lot. From my bench it was hard not to. Families, couples, groups of young people that appeared to be friends, but you wouldn’t know it by the way they talked to each other. They were always so busy, but I’ve supposed that to be because they couldn’t find anything better to do. They had homes, all of them, probably fireplaces and cats, but they left every chance they got. Didn’t make a whole lot of sense from where I sat on my bench, but I enjoyed watching them nonetheless in the silvery-purple hours of the night when it became too dark to read.
Teenage girls and boys strutted idly side by side with unimpressed expressions on their faces. They peered into windows to look at themselves and then lit cigarettes they’d stolen from their parents and older brothers and sisters. The smoke trailed behind them, a smoldering stink that made them feel old and important. I suppose it’s as close to Hollywood as they could afford, and in their cloud of smoke and ego they imagined that’s all there was. Of course one day fortune and fame would find them, they thought, and they would become sex icons and the made up details of their life would be published in magazines. Perhaps their only potential existed in their store window reflections.
The women fluttered about, clutching small children and smaller purses in their greedy fists, racing in and out of shops with no particular agenda. They accumulated packages and bags with each new shop, no doubt full of new and better clothing and accessories that they had never been seen in before, and none of them had the faintest idea what is was to need because they had learned so well how to want.
But in the sea of groups and couples, one woman stood out. Solitaire and confined, she wore a long, dark coat that just barely shielded her small, naked ankles from the cold. I saw her weekly, without fail, because something in her presence made me look up. She tip-toed, almost floated down the grey and littered cobble-stone streets of the old downtown, and she carried a large bag made of wool and mohair with stray fibers that made it look more like a feral cat than a bag, and she always, always walked alone. There was nothing ordinary about her, and I became enamored with her mystery.
She came by night, always from the north, worn black slippers carrying her weightless figure over the icy, uneven sidewalks. I followed her shadow with intense and perhaps love-struck eyes as she disappeared into alleyways and parking garages – returning each time in a hushed hurry as if barely escaping the jaws of the darkness behind her.
It was weeks before she turned to come my way. Suddenly a coward, I retreated behind the library and sat until her perfume passed, although she left the scent of lavender behind her long after she had gone. It was then I began to fantasize about her. She became the heroine and the goddess in my books and found her way into my dreams at night. I imagined a dark and incredible woman with still lips and dark, smiling eyes with deep creases extending from the corners.
Only for her was I too proud to sit at my bench. I hid from her like a school boy and watched her pass by my bench in her dark and soundless way, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of her face through the shadow of her hood, but all I could ever see were her bare ankles and tiny porcelain hands that cupped like eggshells and hung freely by her side.
How could I ever meet such a woman? What circumstances could ever allow me to see her, to hear her speak – what would she say? But it mattered little as her secretive silence left no want in my heart.
I was infatuated with her, and I couldn’t even say why. I have always been a sensible man, simple and sober. Except when it came to her. She made me afraid and excited merely by existing on my street. The anxiety kept me warm and occupied, two life-saving sensations for an old man without a home in late November.
Dear Margaret Swath, I began, thank you for Diana – I had named her Diana after the nighttime Roman goddess – and please let me see her face, amen.
One night I’ll never forget. She was headed towards me, and I watched from behind the library walls and proclaimed my undying love in pitiful, stuttering whispers. My breath became a fog, a transient, mysteriously shifting silhouette against the midnight air.
Jacob Dunhart lived a block away under the awning of a coffee shop that had been for sale or lease since last Christmas. I could see him from my bench. Didn’t know much about him except for what I saw, and I never saw much. He never went to the library – I knew that much, and I assumed the worst. Blind maybe. Or sick. He wasn’t half my age – a lot of life left in that sad man. Anyways, my angel, my love, my Diana stopped there at Jacob’s side. She reached far into her bag – a real life Mary Poppins. She pulled out a knit cap and gloves and lay them on his lap as he appeared to be sleeping. I knew she was smiling, and she reached into that giant bag again. Then it happened. In one jolting movement, Jacob grabbed my angel. He grabbed her wrists, her tiny wrists, and pulled her down to the ground. I fell, too, onto all fours and puffed fog into the night like a madman. Jacob twisted her arm and growled into her face, a different kind of madman.
Help, I heard, and then there was crying. A deeply buried instinct of rage pushed through the numbness and carried me towards Jacob and my angel. The hero impulse had been disengaged since I was in my twenties. But there I was, pulling Jacob off of her and shouting fluent obscenities. I got her away, and Jacob didn’t pursue it any further – in fact I think he may have fallen back into a drunken sleep. But I couldn’t think of him – I had her under my arm, and I was guiding her to my bench without even thinking. She sat by me and began to take off her gloves. She flinched. I asked her if it hurt, and she said a little. Let me help you, I said, and I very carefully slipped the glove off of her tiny hand, and then proceeded to observe it as if I were qualified to diagnose the wound. Her nails were unpolished, resilient and pure, but her knuckles were swollen and each of her fingers looked just a little bit off. He had broken her hand. It will be okay, she said, any inflection of anger or fear gone from her voice, thank you for your help. She untied the hood of her jacket with her good hand, and it fell to her shoulders. I must have looked like a statue, a madman, a brain-dead old fool with foggy eyes, and she – she looked like a goddess. Not the goddess I had imagined though, not any kind of goddess I could have imagined because you can only really dream up what you believe to be conceivable. She couldn’t have been more than twenty. A child. Two generations between us, and the beauty I had assigned her in my mind was unremembered as I stood before her in the flesh. She radiated light from the pores of her skin. There was not a crease or blemish anywhere to mark her humanity. A marvelous creature with ashen hair that fell to her shoulders and deep green eyes that shimmered like the bottom of the sea. Her features were so fine, so acutely sculpted that she looked like a painting, the kind of perfection that can only exist on a canvas. I was humbled, to say the least. And disappointed.
I hated myself for being disappointed. But I couldn’t have her. I couldn’t even dream about having her now. She was unattainable, sitting there next to me with broken fingers – and still she was as far away as God himself.
Everything I had preconceived was obsolete. I tried to recover, but time passed me and then lapped me and then gave up on me altogether. She stood up and said thank you again for saving her life and then walked away just as calmly as she came, quietly fearless, and I was left there alone on my bench.
The days that followed were long and grossly uneventful. I was too ashamed to feel anxious for her return and too detached to even begin to dream of how to reconcile such a meeting.
Opportunity came as I knew it would – from the north, breathing life and curiosity into me once again. This time I did not imagine – I watched her for what she was, which was quite, quite enough.
She passed by the shops and never looked into the dark windows to see her reflection like other girls her age; she never even turned her head at cars or passers by in fearful paranoia of another madman assault. Could have been fearlessness. Could have been trust – or some combination of the two. As I watched her weave in and out of shadows, a peculiar feeling came over me. I think it was love – or something like love. Not chemical or romantic – just a sort of adoration for something great and beautiful – maybe sacred. I couldn’t help it, and I didn’t want to. Right then I let reason go. Anything keeping me steady, sober, sensible or rational was only holding me back, so I released myself entirely.
I saw her pass my bench from behind the library, and I followed one hundred steps behind. Walking into the north there was a wind that pushed me away, but I was undeterred, as unafraid as she. I looked back only once to say a quick word to Margaret Swath. Dear Margaret Swath, I’m out of my mind, I said.
The night grew clearer as we emerged from the cloud of smog that was the city, so I dropped back a bit. Miles and minutes passed without her looking back, and I began to trust that. I did not expect it to be a short walk as such a creature had to be far away if not from an entirely different world. So I trudged on like the love-struck soldier I was, marching farther and farther away from the library, my bench and everything that made sense.
The moon had left me long ago, perhaps to assist me in my disguise, or maybe to abandon me and my cause. So then, only by starlight I saw her turn off the road and into nothingness, a patch of prairie outside the city. I think it used to be a mall – now it’s wilderness. I followed her, although a little less silently over the thistles and dead grass. I was blind now, following my nose and trusting my instincts to my feet.
There she was, a figure against the frozen, breathy fog rising from the earth. I couldn’t tell if she was ascending or descending. But she was moving – of that I was sure.
Then she was gone. Consumed by the fog, the night, the earth.
I choked on my breath, gasping stupidly in astonishment. Then I ran forward to catch her, to follow her again, but just as I entered the fog where my Diana had vanished, the moon appeared again from behind black ghosts and shed white light over the patch of prairie. Just a few strides before me, the earth ended, dropped off at such an angle that the ground did not appear to continue. I looked over the edge, thinking my eyes had tricked me, logic and sobriety resuming their duties. But there was no trick, no illusion that night. Twenty or more feet below was a manmade canyon, their machines everywhere like prehistoric steel dinosaurs.
I breathed down at sunken worksite in tired disbelief. For hours I did this, or so the hours passed in my mind, and then I began my journey back. I walked into the city, the wind graciously in my favor this time, pushing me forward and sparing my face. Finally, my street. My library. My bench. I let the wind carry me there like a fallen leaf.
Upon my bench was something strange, a dark bulk that looked something like an animal. I approached it with sensible caution, but it was not an animal, so I picked it up and shook it out. It was a coat, long and heavy, and made entirely out of wool and mohair. But that was not all. There was a tall cup steaming on my bench. I picked it up and inhaled the fumes. Cider. Still hot. Written on the plastic lid in perfect cursive were the words, You must be tired and cold. Merry Christmas.
Christmas. I had forgotten Christmas. I put the wool and mohair coat over my flannel, sipped the hot cider and cried. It filled me head to toe with warmth. Dear Margaret Swath, I said into the steam, thank you.