Faces

Looking out his window, Mahhi sees a cherry tree that is losing its delicate white and pink blossoms. Breezes knock a flutter of them free. They float reluctantly to the carpet of browning blossoms around the tree.

“They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”

The building beyond the tree is another condominium. Painted pale blue with a beige-yellow trim, the skin hides an old structure that was the first one on the block. The ancient cherry tree in its entrance rotunda is the sole reminder of a vast orchard that used to feed thousands with its plump apples, pears, peaches, and, of course, cherries. Where a farmhouse had once encircled an industrious family, time caught up to the children of the children until, finally, the last son decided it was too much trouble to keep bringing in workers from Central America to replace his dwindling family’s labour. The farm became a mall surrounded not by an orchard, but by condos.

Mahhi learned this after he sat one day in the mall, on a bench beside an elderly lady. He had been careful to keep his distance.

He was polite. “Do you mind if I sit here, ma’am? My leg is giving me trouble…”

She had cocked her head to better hear down the length of the bench. “What?”

Directing his face toward her, Mahhi repeated a little louder to get through his mask, “I said, do you mind if I sit here, ma’am?  The other benches are occupied and my leg is giving me trouble. It’s an… old wound.”

With an aggravated wave of her cane, “Of course you can, young man! There’s enough room for another three people…” The beginning of her rant trailed off as she looked around for someone who was going to reprimand her. Quietly grumbling, “Damned social distancing. Anti-social distancing! We’re all going crazy. Becoming robots.”

She had glanced over at Mahhi as he reluctantly let out a groan while sitting down. His mask was slipping off his nose and he had absently pulled it down to his throat. His salt-and-pepper beard had caught her attention. “My grandfather had a beard like yours… So long ago… Better times.” She had nodded off into a daydream.

Mahhi needed to shift a few times to get comfortable. He stretched his left leg out.

The old lady did an uncomfortable double-take as she realized his left leg was a metal rod holding a shoe. She had quickly looked away and fiddled with her cane.

Amused but still annoyed by that century-old attitude, Mahhi had pointedly readjusted the pant sleeve then massaged the end of his flesh leg just below his knee. “Haven’t been able to get a comfortable replacement ‘thesis since, well, since this pandemic started.” He had turned to the old lady to see if she shivered at his handling of what some of the older generation still thought of as a taboo subject. He was pleased to see the old lady gather her inner strength to look down at his leg.

“Does it hurt?” Then she had shivered.

Empathy. I will reciprocate. “Thank you for asking, ma’am. No, it doesn’t hurt, as it did when it was blown off by a mine. I will admit to that having been painful.” Careful with the gallows humour. It may be too much for her.

The old lady surprised Mahhi. “I’m so sorry, young man. You brought forth so many memories…” Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse…

The old lady flashed a grin at her bench companion, “My name is Lucy. I was born nearby. My family owned the farm and orchard that covered over two hundred acres of this area… Long ago…” She looked at his well-trimmed beard, then into his eyes. “Very sorry. My name is Lucy. You remind me so much of Gramps. Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse… Sorry. The memories are too fresh.” She had been playing with her cane as she spoke then finished by placing it between her legs and leaning both hands on the handle. Her pose, the colourful sweater and her cane had reminded Mahhi of the old folks who used to sit in front of the coffee-houses back home, arguing endlessly and passionately about the trivialities of life. He was certain they had been buried under the rubble of their blown-up buildings.

Mahhi had nodded in sympathy. “That’s a solid-looking cane. I was supposed to be sent one, but I expect my request is down the list.”

Lucy had twigged to his slight English accent. “Did you… were you wounded in a war? Your accent… Sorry to be so nosy.”

He had waved his hand. “Not at all, my dear. Attended Oxford.” He had nodded at his leg. “The war was, elsewhere…” He thought it may be time to change the subject. “These days, during the few times we are permitted to socially interact, older conventions must be flung out the window. Wouldn’t you say?”

Nodding, Lucy had been eager to keep talking – to anyone. And this person’s face appears so kind. “You have a kind face, young man.” Then her old pixie had made an appearance with, “Don’t know if I’d have let you sit down if you’d been clean-shaven.”

They had both shared a grin.

He thought, Who am ‘I’. I don’t stare at my ‘face’ so I don’t really know it. Is this a beard? He had run his fingers through the beard. “So, a year ago, you would have waved your cane at me to ward me off the bench?” Is she quick enough, still, for repartee?

She was. “Yes. But I would have used as an excuse this horrible virus thing.”

Then the Virus Chill had descended over them. Briefly.

“Young man, you know my name…”

“Of course! Sorry. Please call me Mahhi. My manners have become very rusty recently. Mahhi,“ he repeated, as he had seen her struggle with the name. Then he decided to open up a bit. “My leg was a casualty of the recent fighting in my home city, Aleppo. I was, had been, an archaeologist and assistant curator of one of the museums on the Euphrates River. Aleppo is the oldest city in the world and has, did have, so much history to uncover.” With the painful memories, his whole body had shrunk into the bench turning him into such a forlorn-looking man that Lucy had instinctively slid over to hold Mahhi’s hand. The shattering of social distancing protocols could almost be heard echoing off the walls of the shuttered mall stores. A person who had been shuffling her walker toward the bench had stopped, mouth open in astonishment at the scene.

Mahhi smiled at the shuffler, “My mother. She is trying to support me in these difficult times.”

The shuffler had nodded to Lucy, “Good for you, girl. These poor kids need all the help they can get.” She had carried on past them, no longer worried about making a wide arc around the bench.

Lucy had grinned and patted Mahhi’s hand again.

They decided that they might each come to the mall every other day and perhaps find a bench. To talk.

That had been how Mahhi had found out the story about the orchard, Lucy’s family, and the buildings all built up on their former farm. In turn, Mahhi had told Lucy about his people who used to live on the hill overlooking the Euphrates.

One day, in a particularly sombre mood, Mahhi had mused, “My dear, I can see so many similarities between the history of your family farm, and what my city became… with what happened to the ten thousand years of my own people living through their many plagues and invasions and family squabbles in Aleppo. It makes me wonder if things ever change for humanity in significant ways. Or, are we merely reliving the same things in an endless series of different universes?”

She had thoughtfully considered his assessment. Lucy had grown found of her sometimes morose new “son”. She had made a point of asking him to help her pronounce his name correctly. “So, Mahhi. You are asking a question that a farmer does not bother with. Why is left to those who mope around the cold quadrangles of stony institutions. A farmer plants, and grows things, and places food the table. Today and tomorrow. Here in our Farmhouse.” She had waved around at what had become their secret name for the mall, where her family farmhouse had once proudly stood.

By then, over the weeks after their first meeting, several of the regular shufflers had decided to take up positions in front of the bench. Seated on their walkers, they were more or less far enough away from each other. When one of the mall security people had come by to pass on the objections of the administration, who had received a complaint from a fast-walker who had been forced to find a wider route through the area, he was met with a chorus of “Fiddlesticks!” Or words to that effect. Later, the security guard made a point of placing tape lines the floor to mark out 2-metre sections. The next day he had stayed to listen. Then he became a regular member of what they called themselves: The Farm Family.

Some of the others added their comments or rants. Mostly, they had listened, as if watching a television show.

The devastating blow came about three months after their first meeting. For Mahhi, it was infinitely worse than having his leg blown off by the mine. Lucy had been found by a neighbour in her little room in the older condo, behind the cherry tree. She passed away next day.

It took a week before Mahhi could make himself visit the Farmhouse. By then, The Farm Family had made the bench into a flower-filled memorial. Tears flowed down into Mahhi’s beard as he stood there. He had stood unsteadily for he knew not how long until the security guard took his arm to lead him to one of the chairs that had been allowed by mall administration to be left against a shuttered window in front of the bench.

Now, a month later, he contemplated the blossoming cherry tree. “They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”

He sees his reflection in the window. “Lucy, you saw my beard. I do not see my beard from my side of the eyes. I remember the mirror image of my face as it was for so many years before the beard. Before the pandemic. Every morning I scraped off the offending hair. But if it wasn’t for my beard, if it wasn’t for the virus, I would not have known you.”

He focuses back onto the cherry tree. “You blossomed, pink and white, shining in the sun. Until you become wrinkled and dried into the dust that will nourish another tree.” A car drives under the cherry and kicks up the blossoms. He adds sadly, “If you are not paved over, or covered in the detritus of civilization.”

Mahhi turns his head up to the clouds. “My face, her face, the faces of all those I knew, why?”

She will answer: Say not Why? Lucy will say: Plant, grow, put food on the table…

I still must ask, Lucy: Why?

When The Heart Is Never Open

THAT’S HOW EVERY EMPIRE FALLS

John Prine

October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020


Caught a train from Alexandria

Just a broken man in flight

Running scared with his devils

Saying prayers all through the night

Oh but mercy can’t find him

Not in the shadows where he calls

Forsaking all his better angels

That’s how every empire falls.

The bells ring out on Sunday morning

Like echoes from another time

All our innocence and yearning

and sense of wonder left behind

Oh gentle hearts remember

What was that story? Is it lost?

For when religion loses vision

That’s how every empire falls.

He toasts his wife and all his family

The providence he brought to bear

They raise their glasses in his honor

Although this union they don’t share

A man who lives among them

Was still a stranger to them all

For when the heart is never open

That’s how every empire falls.

Padlock the door and board the windows

Put the people in the street

“It’s just my job,” he says “I’m sorry.”

And draws a check, goes home to eat

But at night he tells his woman

“I know I hide behind the laws.”

She says, “You’re only taking orders.”

That’s how every empire falls.

A bitter wind blows through the country

A hard rain falls on the sea

If terror comes without a warning

There must be something we don’t see

What fire begets this fire?

Like torches thrown into the straw

If no one asks, then no one answers

That’s how every empire falls.

Tediousness

Direct from the 21st floor of his elegant lockup in White Rock, overlooking Boundary Bay, here is our favourite troubadour Ben Nuttall-Smith, with Life Gets Tedious, Don’t It:

Here’s Us

covid-19

This is a lovely picture from a science site (? Science) of the covid-19 virus.

I put together a rather rough video on how the virus thinks of our bodies, and how to keep it from becoming as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu.

After we come up with a vaccine and we can escape from our fearful isolation, what are we as a world population going to do? Are we going to party as crazily as we did in the 1920s? Remember October 1929?

The Soft Shoe and the Whole Damn Thing

Twenty-six union business managers are squeezed together along a row of doubled white linen-covered tables. Across from them are twenty-seven business-suited contractors. With the width of two tables separating both sides, the echoey room has to be large. This room’s expansive windows, unlike others in the smaller meeting rooms, are covered with adjustable blinds that come from the bottom. They are set at half way up, strategically allowing the sun to shine directly into the eyes of the people occupying the far side of the tables. The faces of those near the windows, union representatives from across the province, are obscured by the bright light behind them.

The central union figure, Sandy, is a large-faced, large-bodied man dressed in his severe dark blue “negotiations suit”, red patterned tie included. He is working himself up to a rousing crescendo. His angry words are hurled, along with occasional theatrical spit, toward the smaller man opposite. Even as his face is darkened by the shadow, his redden features and neck can be seen to be bulging with emotion.

The recipient of the barrage, Clay, is wearing a sober face, though his tightly shaved mustache twitches occasionally. His mostly bald head is bracketed by a herringbone suit, which manages to have the appearance of both a newly-stiff collar and worn elbow-pads. Under the verbal onslaught, Clay slowly sinks lower into his suit in an attempt to use the lapels as earmuffs.

Sandy’s body rises with his crescendo and he suddenly pulls off a shoe and bangs it on the table, Khrushchev-like, yelling. “And we WON’T BE PUSHED AROUND ANYMORE!”

Most of his own side support the outburst. They all mumble or grunt various levels of approval as Sandy plops back down, satisfied with his performance. Sandy pulls a hanky across his face to wipe the sweat away.

On the other side, all but two of the twenty-seven contractor-representatives are startled. They quietly exchange worried looks. Clay glances to his left, checking on Henry, his “Co-Chair” and newly appointed Director of Labour Relations.

With the shoe banging, Henry is thinking, May we have a translation of that please? as he remembers the 1960s story of Khrushchev’s UN shoe-banging incident and Harold Macmillan’s dry English comment.

Henry is younger than all but one at the table. He is taller, with a thick black mustache and full head of black hair. Henry’s light, striped suit is calculated to blend in to most backgrounds. With this sun shining directly on it, the suit glares in the face of the union reps who look at him. So they don’t. Within, Henry is as concerned as the others in his group. Outwardly, he has learned to strictly control his facial muscles. They remain perfectly relaxed, because he has willed them so.

Allowing the reverberations to die down for a minute, Clay’s head rises fully above his collar. Seeing him out of the corner of his eye, Henry is reminded of a groundhog poking up in a field on his farm. Thinking, He’s more like the grizzly playfully scratching his back on a tree then suddenly taking off after you with a big mouthful of grinning teeth.

“Thank you, Sandy, for expressing your views about this clause. And, of course, we will take it under advisement.”

Sandy and Clay exchange neutral nods.

“And now, I would like to suggest that we adjourn talks for this first day. Over the afternoon we have been able to exchange our positions frankly. We have a lot to consider in caucus. Before we commit to the dates for further talks, are we agreed to reconvene tomorrow at eight?”

The young union rep from London has to get in with, “That’s a.m., right?”

Sandy’s head snaps angrily toward the newbie, who shrinks back into his seat, away from the glare of the Toronto union boss.

Ignoring the newbie’s comment, Clay looks across at Sandy and receives a nod when Sandy turns his head back to him, then both look up and down their sides of the table. No dissent.

“Fine, then. A productive day.” Clay turns to Henry, “Caucus for half an hour for our side, then freshen up and for those who want, we can meet in the bar at seven?” Clay is directing that to his people but glances at Sandy, whose nod comes at the same time as Henry’s.

Entering the bright, noisy hotel bar, Henry stands before the maître d’.

“Would you like a table, sir, or do you prefer the bar?”

Henry is new at this, freshly hired out of university with a degree in labour relations. He did very well in class and as a graduate student. Now in the real world, he fully understands that there are many different things to learn. Henry prides himself on being a sponge for knowledge. His attitude is, I am here to learn.

To the maître d’, “Not sure… I’m handling the union negotiations?…”

“Of course, sir. We have a quiet table in the back corner. How many would there be?”

“Make it a table for four, but it is likely to be just two of us. I think the others are going to be at the bar.”

He notices groups of his people and theirs, and a joint group happily and sometimes roughly partaking of the libations. Their main concentration appears to be on the hockey game being shown on two televisions above the bar.

As Henry steps to follow the maître d’, Clay arrives. He gets the maître d’s attention with a raised hand, “Hold the table for us, please, but we’ll sit at the bar for a few minutes.”

“Fine, sir.”

Clay heads right for Sandy, who has been alone at the bar for at least one drink so far. His tie is missing and the top two buttons on his shirt are open. Henry can’t help but notice the chest hair spilling out. Seating himself next to Sandy, Clay smiles, “Nice display.”

Sandy grins wryly, “Thanks. Needed that for… you know who.” He nods at Henry, who seats himself beside Clay. “This is new for you?”

Glancing at Clay, “Ah, yes. Very interesting.” Henry is not sure why they are speaking so openly to “the opposition”.

Clay grins.

The bartender arrives, “What can I get you gents?”

“Whiskey. Neat.”

“Ah, a screwdriver, please.”

The bartender quickly serves Clay his whiskey then prepares the screwdriver.

Henry takes his tall glass, “Thanks. Ah, please put the whiskey and my drink on my room tab? 401.’

“Of course, sir.”

The hockey game takes their attention for a minute.

Sandy then turns to Clay, patting his arm, “How’s Shirley doing?”

Shaking his head, “As well as can be expected. You know how it is. The chemo is really tough. I try to keep her spirits up, but… you know.”

Sympathetically, “Yeah. Tough. Took my Mary three months of torture… Thank you for coming to the memorial, Clay.” He pats Clay’s arm again.

Henry didn’t know about Clay’s wife. Nor Sandy’s. Much to learn.

Sandy changes the subject. “Have you filled in your new boy?”

A wry grin, “He’s a university student, Sandy. Give him time.”

“Teach him how to dance… Got to go.” As Sandy rises he leans toward Henry, “That Khrushchev was for my Ottawa guy.” He winks. “Claude still thinks he can get another two bucks plus the bump to 15 minutes break. Oh. Clay, keep away, stay away from Popovich from Sudbury. He’s spoiling for a fight.” Sandy half-nods, looking for a positive response.

“We’ll see.” Clay flashes a pixy smile on then off. “Might need to shake things up some time… Talk later.”

Sandy will not be dismissed. He puts his face close to Clay’s ear, “Fuck off. Don’t use him, for both our asses. He’s a time bomb.” Clay nods and pats Sandy’s arm encouragingly as he and Henry drop off their seats as well.

Making their way to the table, Clay lowers his voice to Henry. “The secret to construction negotiations is, it’s a dance.” He winks at Henry as they seat themselves at their table.

“A dance.” Henry takes in this next morsel of information.

Clay settles in, then leans toward Henry across the table. “It’s a dance. We all know the moves. The key is not to step on someone’s toes… Even the small fry – they can squeal every bit as loud as the others. The dance moves are already known. Everybody follows the steps. It has to be predictable, Henry. If someone screws up, there’s millions of dollars worth of projects at risk. When it comes down to it, who cares a rat’s ass about Billy’s Plumbing in Tillsonburg. But if the nuclear plant is delayed by a week, all hell’s going to break loose.”

Clay relaxes back into his seat. He looks around, satisfied that nobody is within hearing distance. “It’s not just the money on the line. If we put a crimp in the government’s pet projects, or if the public starts yelling at them, the government’ll throw some mediator at us and then cook up some artsy-fartsy legislation to threaten us and, as likely as not, the mediator’ll be clueless about what’s really going on. That would not be good for either the business managers or our major owners. Nobody wants that… Except for a couple of the old-time rabble-rousers from the bad old days who don’t know any better just ‘cause they got a commy burr up their ass. So Sandy had to make like a commy to feed them their shit… Anyway… You did well. Just follow my lead. Don’t say anything unless I ask for it… Hah! Sandy’s still fuming about the idiot from London who opened his trap. NObody speaks at the table but the two friggen speakers. If I ever ask you a question, just tell me exactly what I want to hear and then shut up…” Clay softens his tone, “Sorry. That’s one of the dance no-nos. His London guy’s your age. Still learning…” He is about to reach for papers in his coat pocket. “Here, Brian from Windsor gave me his psych notes.” Clay smiles. “Oh. You notice they’re sitting with their backs to the window?”

Henry nods.

“Old trick. It’s like who’s going to grab the baseball bat handle first. If you know how many hands it takes to get to the top… You ever play ball?”

Nodding, “Yeah. Figured that one out fast. If the bat got tossed to me, I’d take a hit on the head just to grab it at the right spot.” They both smile.

“So with the sun behind them, we can’t see their faces, their expressions. Brian is sitting off to the side and he’s really good with body language. Read his stuff.”

Clay finishes reaching into his coat pocket to pull out a small pack of sheets folded into three. He hands the papers to Henry. “Look it over. Brian also figures Claude and Poppy are the loose canons. Think about how that can be used if we ever need it. Oh, and give me your thoughts on Alexander. His company’s in trouble – lost that big pulp mill job two days ago to Fox. Don’t want him screwing us up with some behind-the-scenes deal, right? Don’t do anything yet, but give me some options. Ok?”

“Right.” Henry remembers to pull out a scrap of paper to write down his notes. “Do we use electronics –  I mean, like, hire surveillance pros?”

Clay shakes his head, “Naw. Leave that shit to the unions.”

The server arrives at their table. “Have you gentlemen decided?”

Clay is amused, “Huh! With what? Didn’t bring us the menus.”

“Oh! I’m very sorry, sir! I’ll be right back…”

Clay waves a hand. “No no. I know the menu by heart. Henry?”

“Well, I have an allergy to onions. Can you recommend something?”

During their wait for the meal and over the meal itself, Clay continues passing tidbits of information about how the real world of bargaining goes, interspersed with gossip about the characters on both sides.

Henry sponges it up. “What about Sandy. You two must have crossed swords for a lot of years?”

“We don’t cross swords. We’re the medics. MASH. When anything goes wrong at our table, everyone suffers. You remember four years ago? The whole construction industry went out. Know why?”

Henry had been in third year at university. The topic had been discussed in a poly-sci class. He recites to Clay that the prof’s conclusion was that the strike had been inevitable because of the provincial political battles at the time and the black-knight attempted takeover of the major engineering firm which was bidding on the huge nuclear power station contract.

“Naw. It was mosquitoes and hunting.”

Henry is about to let a laugh escape. He turns it into a smile. “Ok. I’ll bite. What happened?”

“Ha. Ha. Bite. Ok, there was that large food plant being built in London. And the SOB business manager for the UA, the previous one. And, there was the nice sunny weather that summer. The whole f..” Clay looks around for any raging grannies, “the whole friggen industry – from the managers down – everybody’d booked their two weeks hunting vacation for the open season. So when some kid apprentice goes running to the union about there being too many mosquitoes when he was climbing the building’s outside ladders, the business manager says, Down tools! Even then, Sandy and I could have stopped it, but the boss of the project firm, who wasn’t even in London, picks up his phone, yells at both the government and the media, and we couldn’t do a damn thing. Hands tied. Two weeks later, everybody hauls back from camp with their empties and a moose or two, and we’re back to work. Millions lost. Government hopping mad. Legislation changed… ‘Course, it was that legislation that got you your job. So, good-news/bad-news, eh?”

“Mosquitoes, huh?”

Clay rubs his hands. “All right. I’m ready for dessert!” He waves for the attention of the server.

Time passes a bit longer than Clay wants. He is not in the happiest mood when the server saunters by.

“What pies you got?”

“Thank you, sir. Here is the dessert menu.”

Clay takes it and quickly settles on, “Pecan. Pecan pie. And not a little sliver, mind!”

It is Henry’s turn. “The apple, please.”

“Excellent choices, gentlemen. I’ll be back shortly.”

Several minutes later, the server returns and, with a flourish, deposits two large plates before them. Each plate has an elegant, almost visible circle of caramel drizzled around the perimeter. A hint of frosting has been introduced over the feature contents, which are each an engineering marvel of the thinnest slices, still standing vertically, of what must have been apple on one plate and pecan on the other.

Clay is not pleased.

“I said pie. Not a tiny sliver of pie. Mine isn’t even thick enough to have half a pecan in it sitting sideways!”

The server starts a chuckle, thinking Clay is joking, but Clay’s facial expression of anger stops him from digging a deeper hole.

“Sir. I am very sorry that our dessert chef has prepared these so, ah, thin. I will be back immediately with more substantial pieces.”

He is about to whisk the plates away when Clay catches his hand. “You didn’t understand me. When I said pie, I meant PIE! The whole damn PIE!”

“Ah…”

Henry jumps in. “The whole pie, please.”

Well, the server does return with two whole pies. They are big ones.

Henry has to ask for a doggy box for the rest of his. Clay finishes his pie off in record time. The whole damn thing.

On his way back to his room, Henry’s stomach is not comfortable. At all. Walking into his bathroom, he mumbles, ”He may dance the soft shoe but lord help anyone this guy wants to kick in the face.”

And I’ll Go Outside

Beaver Lake, Stanley Park

A middle-aged man is lying on a cardboard and newspaper nest. Several papers have been opened up across the length of a green bench in the lightly manicured park. The afternoon sun dapples its way through magnificent oak trees. Butterflies move gracefully and aimlessly amongst the flower beds between some of the oaks. The bouquet rising from the flowers wafts delicately over the homeless man.

His bouquet is not so fetching. Clothing of indiscriminate style, with plaids and stripes clashing, fit loosely around his gaunt body.

He groans and shifts on his nest. “Owww.”

A passing park attendant, with the name badge “Mitch”, notices the groans. “Willie. You ok?”

“Bugger off, Mitch.”

“Listen, man. I told you we’re here to help. That bed at the Gospel Mission…”

“Leave me alone, dammit. Don’t want no holy-rollers nattering at me all fucken day.”

Willie rolls sideways carefully to get at least one ear away from Mitch.

“Ahwww.”

“You can go through all the vowels you want, Willie. If you don’t want our help…”

Quietly, “Just bugger off.”

Mitch shrugs and saunters away toward Artists Circle, muttering, “Not sure they’d take the old grouch, anyway.”

From the bench, a muffled, “Heard that.”

Coming down the path from the Artists Circle, Willie hears the distinctive nattering of his arch enemies. He growls to himself, “If those damn holy-roller do-goodies stop here, I swear I’m gonna jump in the drink. I am. No fucken doubt about it…”

Three ladies come up to Willie’s bench to contemplate his back. As he tries to tighten into a fetal position, his back goes out entirely. “OOWWWW!”

He attempts to straighten his legs but spasms, and falls awkwardly off the bench. Willie’s head bounces hard against the edge of the bench.

The lead lady grimaces, “Ow, I felt that.”

Without his bidding – as he is apparently unconscious – Willie is taken in an ambulance to a clinic; he is prodded; tut-tutted over; shot up with an experimental depression drug, to which he has a bad reaction; spends the night in delirium; then, next day he is dumped surreptitiously back into the park onto a bench.

Later that day, Willie wakes up to find himself lying on a new cardboard-and-blanket nest on a different bench. His back is still sore and he now has a splitting headache; his clothes are all different and he is cold. Very cold.

Mitch comes by, holding two coffee cups, and sees someone who he thinks is Willie. His face is more drawn and grizzled than before. His body is shivering.

“Willie? Are you alright, Willie?”

With a quarter turn, Willie covers part of his exposed back. He roughly spits out, “Goddamn holy-rollers took me away again. Shot me up with something again. TELL ’EM TO LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!… Splitting headache…”

Mitch sees/smells that Willie has been cleaned up. He steps forward to pull Willie’s fresh blanket up onto his back. “Wouldn’t want the crows to peck away at your hindside, Willie.”

Showing his unappreciation for the uninvited help, Willie shifts so that the blanket falls away to uncover his back once more. As Mitch stands there for a minute, Willie begins to shiver again. He rolls ever so slowly to partially cover his back.

“What are we going to do with you, Willie? You know how I hate to load my quad with cold bodies.”

“B-b-bugger off! LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE! Don’t want your help!”

Mitch shakes his head in resignation. “I’ll just leave this extra coffee here below your head, Willie. Still hot.”

As Mitch walks away, Willie turns to peek with one eye to see if he is gone. Satisfied with his triumph of opposition, Willie turns to find the coffee. He captures the cup, wrapping his hand tightly around the warm sleeve. He slowly, carefully, puts one foot, then the other foot down onto the grass. The freshly cleaned blanket smells like chemicals.

“Damn holy-rollers. DON’T LIKE CHEMICALS. Kill you. KILL you, dammit! Want my own blanket.” He pulls the offending blanket off with his free hand and tosses it onto the bench-back.

He wraps both hands around the warm coffee cup. Fumbling and mumbling at the “stupid lid thing,” he pries it open enough to suck out a mouthful of hot liquid. “Too much cream. Makes it cold.”

After a while, Willie starts to shiver again. He absently reaches for the blanket and wraps it around his shoulders, then he shakes it down against his lower back, still holding the cup like a candle in his lap.

He slowly slips into a lean over his legs, then jerks back. Touching the cold bench slats, he jerks away. Willie shifts to find the right equilibrium, then slowly oscillates between the cold bench slats and leaning too far forward.

He dreams. The beach sand is sun-warmed hot. The bright blue sky stretches across the prairies forever. A hazy speck of darkness is away off on the horizon. Horses graze peacefully in a nearby meadow. Now a dark someone is racing through the grass, over the grass, scattering the horses in terror. The darkness flies right at Willie into his head and sticks inside, smashing around inside his mushy red head, smashing out all light, smashing…

“DADDY?”

Willie is shouting running between the oaks, past the dark pines, through the flowers, pounding, sweating… until he falls into a panting disorientation onto a bench.

No cardboard. No blanket.

He shivers in the shade of a dark hemlock.

Willie curls up like a withering fern into a tight fetal position.

Some time later, as the evening stars can almost be seen in the pastel sky, one of Mitch’s co-workers waves at Mitch from across the meadow. “Mitch!”

As Mitch nears, the co-worker points to a cold body curled up on the bench. “Know him?”

Mitch walks behind the bench to better see the heavily grizzled face. “Willie. Poor old Willie… Sad case.”

“Which one isn’t?… You wanna bring the quad?”


“Soon this place

Will be too small,

And I’ll go outside”

: Lhasa – 2003 – The Living Road