I sit here every night and every once in a while something little happens that changes my mind about things. A bird in her nest. A snowflake on a leaf. A Will you marry me?
It’s a quiet little place. A bit of a walkway and pale yellow streetlights, right old-fashioned like you could be in the oldest streets of Europe or something fancy like that. The trees, as green as you please in the summer and bare right now, iced with virgin snow like you won’t believe. It’s pretty beautiful, even though I don’t find much stuff beautiful anymore.
Tonight’s really beautiful, so I’m thinking some thing good’s going to happen. I can feel it in my bones, like the weather. Everyone says that’s my age speaking, You’re a crusty old man now, Charlie, my friends tell me, but I know something’s going to happen.
I can see my limo taking off, John at the wheel. Good man, John. Your cigar, sir. Never sticks around. He knows to leave me be here, knows I come here to think of my Tess.
My Tess, I loved her, I did. Married her- 1961- forty years ago. Had a couple of children and then she died. 1965, she died. Cory was four and Damian one. They don’t remember her, but I sure do. I asked her to marry me right here, this very bench. So I come to sit here every night. The boys are always at the office. Not much for a crusty old man to do.
I ain’t that crusty, though. My boys keep their pop all dressed up. Armani suits and all that jazz. Right dirty rich, I am, but a man gets lonely after a while.
I’m near lonely here too, but there’s a boy a couple of benches away, and s’long as he’s being lonely with me, I ain’t really alone, am I?
This boy, he keeps me company most nights. He started coming ‘round a year ago, straight out of nowhere. Ain’t much people come here every night. My own boys is telling me, Dad, don’t you go sitting there all alone again. They’re only scared someone’ll rob me. New money, that’s why. Made my whole business from scratch, I did. ‘S why I still talk like them men on the streets. Didn’t have much money when I married my Tess. She didn’t give a fig, though.
Anyway, this boy. Been coming over since a year. I don’t know when, though. What time, I mean. He’s always sitting at the lone bench under the tree, with the broken streetlight, away from all the other benches. Ain’t ever say anything. The first time I saw him, near a year ago, I tipped my hat to him and he stared at me like I’d grown a horn or something. I figured he must be one of those drunks or something. I don’t mind no drunk. To each his own as long as you don’t bother me.
He had this look in his eyes, though. That night. Every night. Like he’d lost his world, y’know? In all my life, I claim that I ain’t seen no man with grief like mine in his eyes. Sounds all high and mighty but it’s true. Ain’t no man ever loved anything more than I loved my Tess.
Even after meeting this boy, I maintain. Because this boy, he ain’t got grief like mine in his eyes.
His eyes, they got bigger grief. And I ain’t seen anything like it.
I don’t bother him, so. I let him be. Someone like him, let him be.
Two days the whole year, he’s ever opened his mouth. This one day in November, near a year ago, roundabouts, just a month after he started coming, and it was just the two of us. We sat for a while and then he turned to me, he turned to me and he said “You got a family?”
He wasn’t all that close and his question barely cut a whisper, but there wasn’t much wind that day so it carried across. I nodded and I said “Yeah. I got two boys.” He didn’t ask about Tess, and I liked that. Loved my Tess, I did, but I don’t ever talk about her, no I don’t.
That was that. He nodded and turned away and didn’t say nothing until the chap in the trench coat came to pick him up. I don’t know who that trench coat man is, and it don’t look like the boy knows who he is either. Still, the man comes to pick him up, round about midnight, every night, since the first one. Don’t ever say anything either, except I think that’s ‘cause he don’t know what to say. The boy, he doesn’t talk, ‘cause he don’t got anything to say. Like whoever he used to talk to’s just up and left or something.
I think he had a family once. He looks like the sort of man who had a family once. He looks like a family man gone wrong.
The trench chappie doesn’t ever sit with the boy. The boy’s all alone and midnight, the trenchie comes over and he helps the boy up and leads him away. Sometimes I think they just disappear into thin air but that’s just my age again, like the weather in my bones and that tingling that tells me something good’s gonna happen tonight.
He’s silent tonight, too. We’re used to each other now. I think he’s a little lost, though. A patient, maybe. The trenchie must be a nurse. The boy doesn’t look like a patient, though. Tall and sturdy and short cropped hair, leather jacket and all. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s got the look of a man returned from Iraq or something. But I don’t think so. Oh, sure, he’s come back from a war but a different one. A worse one.
The only other time he ever said anything, the boy, was this one day in May. That day, I knew something was wrong with him. I mean, something’s always wrong with him, I know that. But that day, something was especially wrong, because he had this stricken look in his eyes like he’d just seen someone get run over by a car, he had this glaze to his eyes. I thought I should sit next to him, but then I didn’t because I plain didn’t dare. So I looked at him a second and sat down on my usual bench.
It was May, so no snow or anything. Just a pleasant sort of breeze and the streetlights and all. Beautiful walkway. Of course it is. That’s why I proposed here.
Anyway, so he was just sitting and staring ahead and I was, fine, I was openly staring at him. Not like he realised or anything. He looked in a different world. Probably was. I know how that happens. But yeah, he didn’t realise or anything. Then, he didn’t even look at me or anything, didn’t even look up from wherever he was staring, and he said, “My brother.” And that was all he said. I couldn’t even figure out whether that was all he meant to say or whether his sentence was cut off halfway, because he just up and started crying. Not like a woman or anything, real silent and all, but drip drip drip there were fat tears rolling right off his face and onto his knees. Nothing else, just that, but if that isn’t the most painful thing I’ve ever seen in my life…
He sat there like that and he went on crying until midnight, and the trenchie came over and he touched my boy’s shoulder and nothing else, and I turned away, because maybe they were going to hug or something and it felt too private, I don’t know. But when I turned back, they were gone, the two of them.
Tonight, he’s just sitting. Staring off into nothing as usual, and it’s a couple of hours to midnight and just the two of us.
Like so many nights before this, I feel like striking up a conversation, but then I don’t because he just don’t seem like the sort of boy who’d carry on a conversation. It’s like all the talk’s just left him. So I keep shut.
All of a sudden, it seems, the trenchie’s walking down the little path, but I’m not really looking at him. I’m used to him by now, too. Once or twice I’ve caught him looking at me real long and hard, and I’ve felt…naked. But I’m used to him too, so my eyes, they just go straight to this giant of a man walking behind him.
It’s the only word that comes to mind. He’s a jolly old giant. Some ten feet tall with a curtain of hair like all the fancy boys like to keep nowadays, and hunched shoulders like all them tall people like to keep, and a look on his face like he’s being led to a guillotine. The trenchie is striding and for the first time, I think I can see some look on his face other than his usual What’s that? Sprouts for dinner? expression he’s got going on.
It’s almost…happy. Or something. I don’t really know what’s going down but I’m damn curious, so.
Some thirty feet from my boy’s bench, the trenchie stops suddenly, and he looks behind at the giant. Doesn’t say anything, these people never goddamn say a thing. But the giant nods, and takes a deep breath, nods to no one, flicks a glance at me and nods again, and just walks right up to where my boy is sitting.
I swear to God, Trenchie just…melts into the woods or something. I’m not paying much attention, too busy gawking at what’s going down at the bench, so.
The giant just kneels down in front of the boy, all slow like, not to scare him. For one second I think he’s going to propose or something but I know he won’t, so I tell my brain to shut up and keep looking.
For the first time, that broken streetlight flickers. I don’t even know how, but it flickers, and here’s the beauty, not the beauty that I know is going to happen tonight, but…a beauty, two young boys under a broken working streetlight on a snowy night, one on his knees and one on a bench, and to me it looks like my boy hasn’t realised it yet, but he’s about to get his life back.
The boy doesn’t even realise there’s someone in front of him until the giant takes his hands from where they’re resting on his knees in the snow, and he takes the boy’s hands in his hands and looks up at him and he doesn’t say anything. I wonder if they all have a thing with not talking or are they like those weird people in those films with that chap with the blades sticking out of his knuckles.
Anyway, the giant doesn’t say anything but the boy blinks and looks down and he just stares into the giant’s eyes, just right keeps on staring, the way I think I’d stare at Tess if I got to see her again.
The boy stares some more and the giant stares right back, and I swear to God I’d turn away but I just can’t, I’m just staring because this is the good thing that’s gonna happen tonight and I think I’m about to see something really goddamn beautiful.
And I do.
The seventh word I’ve heard the boy speak in a year: “Sammy.”
His voice sounds like he’s just been brought back to life. I wonder if he ever spoke this past year more than what he spoke to me. Something tells me, not really.
“Been waiting long?” The giant sounds like he might be smiling, but then again, he might be crying, so. I’ve been there.
My boy doesn’t say anything. But I didn’t expect him to, so.
“Let’s go,” the giant says, getting up and pulling the boy along with him. The boy doesn’t struggle or anything, just goes, like he trusts this giant with his life, even though it’s the first time I’ve seen him. He must be the brother, then.
Something tells me that this is probably the last time I’ll ever see this boy again, and I’ll be damned if my eyes don’t right tear up. I don’t know this boy’s name but he’s grown to be my boy.
That same little birdie that told me flies right along and tells him as well and so he turns around and he looks me square in the eye for a second, and I stare back and then I smile and nod, and he smiles. Ain’t never seen that boy smile, all these months. I look at the giant and wonder where he was, but I ain’t sticking my nose where it don’t belong. I’m just right glad he’s back now, that’s all.
The giant, Sammy, I guess, leads my boy away after throwing me one small smile. He’s holding the boy’s hand tightly in his own, like me and Tess walked home that day.
He’s taking the boy home.
I look at them walk away towards a black car that I ain’t ever seen, and I sit and smile to myself like a right old idiot at the end of an Audrey Hepburn film, until I hear a bit of a rustle.
The man in the trench coat is back.
He looks at me long and hard and then he says “Contessa Smith is at peace.”
And then he walks away.
I don’t question it. At my age, you learn not to question things. You just take them in your stride, that’s what you do. So I take it in my stride and I think of my Tess, at peace.
Then I think about how the giant found the boy and took him home.
If I sit here long enough, someone will find me too.