God’s Extras: Bench Man

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Six million people live in Toronto, and yet I see the same people all the time. Not in the same place, you understand. I see the woman with the giant beehive hairdo striding down Yonge street one day and then a week later lying in the sand on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Three months go by, and then she’s on the subway heading north to the suburbs. (Here there be dragons.)

God’s extras. The non-player characters who drift in and out of your life, and you never talk to them and they never talk to you, but when you’re wandering around the city and you see one of them – reading a book, or singing to themselves, the world feels… a little less lonely.

Dufferin Grove Park. Brisk wind careening across the grass, everyone wrapped in scarves and hats and gloves and their noses are pink and they are squinting.

A man sits on a park bench. I can’t see who he’s talking to, because there’s a tree trunk in the way, but he’s laughing and gesturing and as I walk closer he stops and just gazes at the other person. One of those small silences that feel so comforting when you’re with someone you love, and this is when I am close enough to see that there’s no one there at all.

What was he talking about? Maybe he was saying something like this:

Erica, hey. Glad you came.

No, I – I just wasn’t sure after last week. The thing on Friday. Anyway, um… Anyway. Sit down! I saved you a spot. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll get a bag of potato chips on my way back to work or something. I AM eating. No! I am, honest. Um… a cucumber. But usually I make myself something, you know, substantial.

Okay. Yeah. That was a lie. I just don’t fele like cooking much. Wait! Don’t – don’t go. We can talk about something else. I promise. So… what have you been doing? While you’re away? Okay… um, well, I could tell you about what happened to me on Monday.

Um, let’s see. It was about two in the morning. I’d had this call to the Singapore office. I could see it was snowing outside but, you know, I didn’t think much of it. By the time I got out to the car the snow was pretty deep but I figured it was just a short drive home, no problem, and I’m a pretty good –

Hey! [laughing] Yes I AM. Anyway. So I got about ten minutes out and I could see coming up on Queen that the traffic was just at a standstill so I thought I’d try my luck with the side streets, except that’s where the other half of the city already was and after moving eight feet in forty give minutes I didn’t see any choice. I had to walk home.

No, it didn’t seem that scary. Not while I was in the car all toasty warm. I got my laptop, found one old glove in the trunk, made sure the doors were locked and headed –

Heh. Um, my dressy wool coat. And that scarf made of, I don’t know, linen or something. I know. So I started walking. There were other people walking too, but nobody talked to anybody else.

Well, I mean, it was a little after three in the morning by then, and the snow kept coming down and who knew if the other people were also stranded or, like, muggers or whatever. You couldn’t be sure! I was about half an hour from my car when I realised my hand, the one without the glove, was pretty messed up. It was numb and this kind of blueish colour. I was in this residential neighbourhood, no stores or anything, and all the lights were off because people were asleep and I started to fantasize about breaking a car window to get in and hotwire it to see if I could get the heat going and –

They do it on tv all the time! [laughing] I was going to figure it out as I went along. I was so fucking cold, Erica. Anything seemed possible.

No, they were still all around me, walking too. Everyone was going slower and slower. I don’t think I was the only one in trouble. And then – this door opened up ahead. There should have been this little chorus of angels and we all started shambling through the snow for the pool of golden light like a hoard of zombies and this couple – this young couple – they started shouting, “Come in!” the woman was kind of laughing and we were shambling faster, “You idiots! You’ll freeze to death, hurry up, hurry up!” so we all were standing on their porch and the guy was like, “I’m really sorry guys, some of you will have to sleep on the floor,” and then another door opened across the street and a bunch of college boys in sweatpants were blinking sleepily at us and then an old woman, she opened her door too and everybody got shuffled around. Two people went with the college kids and two with the young couple.

The college kid was saying they had some pizza left over and the couple, the guy was saying that he’d seen us coming and had started some tea and the woman was singing a happy song about being a cockeyed optimist and – I don’t know, I was thinking about you.

Um… so. Where was I. Oh. The old lady. So she was standing there in the doorway and there was just darkness behind her – I mean I’m not ungrateful, you know, but she was kind of terrifying hunched over with that kind of face that has frown lines in it instead of laugh lines and I felt like Hansel except instead of cookies her house smelled like mildew and stale Marlboros. She shook my hand and told me her name was Mrs. Walker and I could sleep in the basement.

Which, by the way, had concrete floors and a smelly little spaniel who was about as old as she was. But it was WARM. So warm it was almost stuffy. She threw a bunch of blankets and a frilly pink throw pillow on the floor and went upstairs and I’m pretty sure she locked me and the spaniel in but I didn’t even care. I burrowed between the blankets and the feeling in my hand started coming back, all pins and needles. The spaniel sat and whined next to my head until I let him get under the covers with me.

And I lay there in the dark with just the glow of the furnace in the corner and – I felt kind of happy.

The spaniel was right up against my side, kind of wheezing as he fell asleep. It had been three days of waiting for you at the bench, jumping at every sound, but in that basement – just before I drifted off – there was this moment.

And I didn’t care if you ever came back at all.

And I wondered why I kept waiting for you because you’re already –

Do you… do you remember the first time we ever sat on this bench? And you gave me half your tomato sandwich? It was that first couple of weeks, when you said you’d been working up the courage to –

What?

I don’t understand what you –

You want to talk about something more recent? Really?

Fine. Fine. Perfect. Do you remember when we sat here last Friday in the pouring rain and I started to talk about that day – that day, hearing the phone ring, and “are you Erica Miller’s husband” and what it was like to know you’d never – and you got up and you didn’t want to hear and I begged you to stay, I BEGGED you –

I’m so tired, Erica.

I’m so tired of trying to say the right things so that when I walk up to this bench tomorrow you’ll be here.

I wish you were still out there. Somewhere.

I wish you were still out there making someone else laugh so hard their stomach hurts. I miss you.

I fucking miss you.

Maybe that’s what he was saying. As I passed him, gazing into her eyes, I felt like if I could just look hard enough I’d see her. Outlined in the empty air, smiling back at him.

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