The Park Bench and the Photograph
S. P. Cloward
Beside me, the bed is empty. I lay listening to a slow drip from the bathtub faucet echo out from the tiled walls, the door fully open. One drip then a pause. Two drips and a longer pause. A dog barks outside. A car on a distant roadway. It’s noisy this morning.
I take my arm and slide it up along my side and then across the opposite side of the bed. Empty. Is the bed half half-empty or half-full if I’m still in it? My arm continues to feel the vacancy left on the other side of the bed. There’s no longer any warmth hidden beneath the quilt where she was only an hour earlier. No surprise. That’s our routine.
I should pull myself up, I guess. I can’t be here all day, regardless of how much I’d like to be. Slowly though. My leg. It hurts more today. Nothing new. It’s the same pain you’ve been dealing with for a few years now. I manage. If the doctor says I can move it, I’ll move it until I can’t. Pain is just a distraction.
Slowly to the bathroom. Slowly to get dressed. Slowly to the kitchen. It happens. It always does. Slowly, yes, but it happens. The joints will warm up and I’ll be able to fake it today. Fake the pain away. Focus on something else. That’s what we do. That’s what I do.
Out the door, down the stairs, and to the corner. I check the bus app to see how long I have. It’s never too long, these buses are on the hour and half-hour schedule. A few moments pass while I wait for the bus. A passing breeze shuffles a few dried leaves at my feet, still there from the previous fall. I take a deep breath to capture some of the new spring air and instead get a dose of exhaust as a large box truck passes by.
Off the bus and a pass through the park. There’s the guy. I see an elderly man sitting as he watches commuters on their way to work. He has a photo in his hand, placed face down on his knee. That man is always there, on the bench. He’s there all the time. What does he do there? What does he think about? When I’m older, that’s gonna be me - dressed in my plaid shirt and short khaki pants, hemmed so high they show off my white socks. I can’t wait for the twilight of life. I approach the man as I continue down the pathway to the crosswalk on the other side of the park. I feel old enough now, or at least my shell does. How old is he? Eighties maybe. Don’t know if I need to live THAT long.
My eyes meet the man’s eyes for a brief second and we exchange smiles. One day I’ll stop and say hello.
Finally at the office. Another morning meeting and more work to do. There’s always more to do. The desk is a blur. The computer screen is a blur. The last ten minutes of work, endless. The man on the bench comes to mind as I wait to wrap up my day. What’s his story? I ponder and get lost in my thoughts. What’s up with the photo he’s always holding? Lost love? It’s a pocket photo, so someone he loved. That’s for sure. Such a smile when he looks at it. Just watching the world go by as he smiles. How fond are his memories that he still cherishes the person in that old photograph he holds? Is it a lost wife? Or maybe another family member?
I pull my mobile phone from my pocket and look at the photo of my wife and me, mindfully set as the wallpaper for its locked screen. Will I cherish this photo when I’m as old as the man on the bench? The image beams up at me from the illuminated screen. Two people. Two smiles. We’re happy, right? Maybe a little disconnected, but we’re happy. I notice the time on the phone and slide it back into my pocket. It’s past time to go home. That last ten minutes turned into thirteen minutes. Too long for me to be here. The wife awaits.
I cross the street from my office building to pass back through the park to the bus stop. The elderly man has returned to his bench, a prime spot to people-watch the afternoon passersby. I avoid looking his way.
What day is it today? Oh, another Wednesday. I knew that. I’ll make it home in time. I step on a small rock. My ankle rolls to the side to compensate sending pain up my leg. My knee locks up. Muscle spasm. Right at the knee. Of course, at the knee. Ouch! Now pain in my hip? I need to sit.
Hunching over, I rub where my quadricep meets the knee. The ligament is tender. I look around for a bench. Not a good sign for today. All this pain from one misstep. I need to sit. One bench nearby. Only one. I sigh. Looks like I’m talking to the old man.
“Do you mind if I sit?” I ask the man. “I’ve got a bit of a cramp.” I hide the expression of pain from my face. He doesn’t seem to notice either way.
“Oh, of course,” he says. “These benches are for everyone you know.” He laughs lightly at himself.
I smile at his friendly humor. “I guess they are,” I respond. I sit on the bench next to the old man. My knee hesitantly cooperates and slowly bends. I lower myself, apply a little pressure to the joint to keep it in place, and settle in.
That tibial collateral ligament is not happy with me today. Well, the entire joint is screwed. Quite literally.
The man remains quiet. I look at him and his head raises, his eyes meet mine. “Are you having a good day?” he asks.
“As can be expected, I guess.” I say.
“Are those high expectations?” he asks. His expression is earnest.
“Some days, sure,” I reply. “I don’t know about today.”
“I see.” The man’s eyes leave my face, and he continues to watch others passing through the park.
I look at him. Why is he here every day?
“I saw you roll your ankle. Are you going to be okay?” The man looks at me, concern in his eyes.
“It’s an old injury coming back to haunt me,” I answer. “More with my knee but it impacts the entire leg. Nothing I’m not used to.”
The man nods. “I was always lucky there. No major injuries.”
I ask, “I was wondering if I might ask what the picture is of that I always see you looking at?”
“Oh, sure,” he says. “You want to see my gorgeous wife?” He lets out a laugh. It sounds forced.
“Is that who it’s of?” I ask.
Regret that I sparked up a conversation with him immediately overcomes me as I realize what I’ve gotten myself into. This man is probably a storyteller. I’ll probably have to listen to a cavalcade of stories about him and his wife’s life now that I’ve asked. Is it rude not to listen?
He hands me his photograph, the paper slightly aged, and I glimpse it for the first time.
“This picture is blank,” I say without thinking, looking at the shiny white piece of photo paper.
Oh gosh, I’m so rude.
“No, it’s not. It’s a picture of my true love.” The man smiles, the creases in his skin around his face deepen. His candid eyes and the authenticity of the smile confuse me. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
I hold the blank photograph in my hand and stare at it. There is nothing on this paper. No opioids in my system today. I feel pity for the man. Do I play along, or should I be honest? It’s obvious. He’s lost his mind. I’ve already been rude.
I attempt to prevent my honesty from sounding too impolite. “I’m sorry,” I say, shaking my head, “I don’t see anything. This picture’s blank.” I hand the small photo back to him and he gently places it on his knee, still staring at it. “Has it faded?” I ask with hope.
The man maintains his smile as he lowers his head, still looking at the picture. “I know it’s blank. I don’t have her picture yet.” His voice is rougher than when I first sat down. He lifts his head up again, his smile fades. I watch his eyes as they wander around the park. He begins blinking rapidly. His gray eyes moisten and fill with tears. His face, deep lines and all, quivers. “I haven’t met her yet.” The words passed through his tightened lips.
My mind races to find the right words to respond to the man. Is he crazy or not? What is THIS story?
He continues. “But I have to believe…” he pauses, choking on his words, “I have to believe that I still can. I have to believe that I will.”
I’m silent. I have no response. Has this man truly not known love?
“I come out here every day,” he starts to say before I can reply, “in hopes that she might pass by me. I’ve been looking for her my entire life, but our paths haven’t crossed yet.” He lowers his head again and wipes his eyes with one of his bony fingers. “They’ll cross though. I can feel it.” He lifts his head, his expression distant.
“That’s the most positive thinking I’ve ever heard.” My brain attempts to process the situation. How do I respond to this? This poor man. I quickly realize my statement may be misinterpreted. “I mean,” I say to clarify myself, “that’s a very beautiful way to look at it.”
A car honks as a nearby traffic light changes to green.
The man’s lips part slightly, and then close again. He takes a breath. "I can sense you're out there; I feel your spirit in the wind. I reach out for you and I can feel you reaching out for me. There isn't a single doubt in my mind that we're meant for one another.”
The man lowers his head to look at the empty photo and clears his tightened throat. After a deep breath, he presses his lips together tightly and then loosens them. They part again and the man continues.
“Together, our lives will never be the same and we'll be happier than either of us ever thought we could be. My only wish is that I could meet you. Every moment apart is one moment less with you and my heart aches a little more as each second passes. Even still, I love you. I love you more than I ever thought I..." The man’s word’s trail off. “I’m sorry. I’m saying too much.”
I relax my wide eyes, knowing I’ve got an expression of shock on my face. Am I really listening to this? Has this man really been searching his entire life for one person? What else has he been doing?
“I believe you’ll find her,” I say. The words sound hollow.
The man nods. He turns the photo over on his knee and lays his hand over it. He clears his throat again. “I’ve sure tried. No life lost, just had nobody to share it with.”
All the words that normally come to my head abandon me.
“Are you married?” the man asks, staring across the park, the tears drying around his eyes. Another moment passes and his gaze lands on me.
I clear my throat. “I am,” I say quietly, still dumbfounded by the elderly man’s unfound love.
“Then why are ya here talking to me?” he asks. “You should be with her.” He wipes a final tear from his face.
“But, what about…”
The old man laughs, interrupting me.
“Do you love her?” he asks.
“Then what are you doing worrying about me?” He smiles again. “You should go. Be with your wife. That’s where I would be if I were you.”
The man is right. I can’t help him. He’s helping me.
I stand up and shake the man’s hand. “You’ll find her.”
“Don’t you worry about an old man like me.” He shoos me away.
I walk away from the man, not knowing what more to do or say. The pain in my leg is still there. I push the thought of it out of my mind as I board the bus. I sit in silence. I miss my stop. Extra walking on my already sore leg.
It’s now Thursday. I sit on the park bench where I sat with the elderly man the day before. That same park bench. The man is not here. He wasn’t on the bench on my way to work this morning. He isn’t here now. Is his absence an indication that he’s met his love at last? Did I scare him away? I think about the conversation I had with him. His outpouring of feeling. His clear direction to cherish love.
If he found his love, he wouldn’t be in the park. He would be home with his love. I stand and take a look at the now vacant bench. Its open seat providing enough room for a couple to sit comfortably together. I’ll be home with my love soon. What a love she is.
Why I Wrote this Story:
The foundation of the story rests in a personal desire to connect with other humans. We often take relationships, both intimate and plutonic, for granted but the value these individuals add to our lives is immeasurable. I wrote this story several years ago when I was single and went through a series of dating experiences that led nowhere, and it wasn’t due to my lack of trying. I wanted something significant, but the search felt endless. At the time, I concluded that I may never find a deep, meaningful relationship with a single someone to a degree that was more than a valued friendship. In that respect, I imagined myself to be the old man. I have been fortunate enough to find that special someone and am now a married man. I often reflect on this story as to not take my relationship for granted. In a way, I can relate to both the narrator and to the man on the bench. The theme of meaningful connections is found throughout all my stories and in my novels as it’s an intricate part of the human experience.