The park across the street from the pharmacy was one of those forced development deals; some EconDev deputy’s idea of a compromise. They worked with city planners in some kind of baseball card version of SimCity: I’ll trade you one tiny strip of grass and anemic tree line for six strip malls and a parking structure in our historic downtown, that kind of thing. Ken sat on his bench in the miserable little park and stared at the building, sneering at the painted facade the color of vomited hot dogs, and counted customers.
The padding of his buttocks had worn thin, like a pair of pants he couldn’t bear to throw out and so had weathered away any once-held utility. The bones of his hips ground against the painted slats—green, of course—and he hated everything. His tricycle was parked nearby underneath a shadeless tree, too newly planted to even stand on its own without the support of wooden crutches and rubber lashes. There were no leaves to keep the chrome handlebars from heating in the glare, there was no security provided by the flimsy chain lock (manufacturer’s provided combination: 1-2-3-4). The vehicle was plodding and uncomfortable to ride but beloved for its single provision: freedom.
Ken settled a curving pipe between his long mustaches and lit it with a match. His customer count reached 75 and he checked his watch while the hot summer wind threatened the light of his pipe. Eight forty-nine and Tim’s Discount Pharmacy had been open for under an hour, currently averaging more than one customer per minute.
There came a clarity with old age, a stripping down of mental tartar, revealing the inconsequentiality of sports, politics, news cycles, social engagement, and leisure. It rendered each of them vaporous and easily waved away with a gnarled hand. What remained was the fleeting bliss of family, the inevitability of oblivion, and the sweet allure of perceived injustice. It was this last that brought Ken to the park each day for the past two months, counting customers, tabulating data and biding time.
I met my husband on my eighth wedding anniversary. He likes to tease me that I even procrastinated on my seven year itch. David, my ex, had taken me down to Florida for a few days of alone time, not a full week. He could never stand to be away from the office very long.
When I first saw Gregory, we were crowded into a tiny Italian restaurant with about six tables total. Greg was there with a date and you could tell right away that the date wasn’t going well; most of what I remember about her are the four cocktails she drank before they got a table. David and Greg struck up a conversation. David was always good at breaking the ice, getting to know people everywhere he went. He was awful at maintaining friendships, but he could make like he was best buddies with a guy he’d run into ten minutes earlier.
Greg was from The City, down to visit family who had arranged his ill-fated date, and we lived in Jersey at the time. It was coincidental but not uncommon to run into a fellow New Yorker this far south, but it got a little funny when Greg mentioned he was staying at the same Hilton we were, just a floor down from us.
I didn’t get much of an impression of Greg then. David did the majority of the talking, converting me into a conversational barnacle, just along for the ride. He had a way of talking for me, saying things like, “Did you watch the game on Sunday? We did. We just about lost it when Folk missed that field goal!” He’d say “we” like I had been right alongside him, wearing my team jersey and spilling beernuts in agitation when the team lost. David’s narrative excluded how I spent the afternoon doing laundry upstairs, looking up recipes on the computer, and fixing the kids a snack. Game time was always David Time, and I tried to play the doting wife, coming down every thirty minutes or so to bring him a fresh beer and see if he wanted any chips. He’d smile and pinch my butt in a distracted but affectionate way. Everything he ever did carried the implied suffix, “little lady.”
The mist is thick in the pre-dawn gloom, and the commuters on the platform at the train station are huddled into overcoats and thick hats, wishing it were still Christmas. The depth of winter has yet to arrive; by the standards of the month to come today’s chill is moderate. But by the standards of the long Indian summer recently past, it is frigid and the workforce waiting for their diesel powered railcar avoid each other’s gaze, each locked in introspective longing for the warmth of their homes and beds.
Within these clusters of non-interacting, space-sharing humans, there is a peculiar silence that permeates gathering locations with shared purpose but no shared engagement. It is a silence typified by a buzz of accepted background noise: Car tires rumbling over the tracks at the edge of the station; hollow chatter from ticket machines stamping dates and times onto counterfeit-proof sheets of pre-paid cardboard; indignant wails from ravens engaged in a dangerous dance with stray cats over a discarded bag of fast food scraps. But there are few conversations, few droopy-eyed attendants who wish to unwrap the scarves from their mouths to exchange pleasantries with strangers.
The cry that escapes the suburbanite-approved pseudo-silence commands immediate attention. Through the bluish fog that obscures the tracks as they curve away from the line of sight, a repeated phrase echoes:
I need to quit this job, Charlie thought again, checking another day off her mental calendar where this concept had risen to consciousness. Two years of thinking the same thing each day still had not spurred her into any concrete action, such as rewriting her resume or opening a job search website. She smiled sweetly at the plump woman on the other side of the counter, protective hand rested on her inflated belly, the trademark of pregnancy everywhere. “Please have a seat, Dr. Kline will be with you shortly,” Charlie told her.
Receptioning for an Obstetrician/Gynecologist was a terrible job for someone recovering from a hysterectomy, especially for someone whose biological alarm clock had been blaring for three years prior to the diagnosis. She bit her tongue to keep the lump in her throat from swelling and tapped a few lines of data entry into her desk computer, trying to stop herself from hating Mrs. Gouli for nothing more than possessing a uterus that could hold a gestating child. Mrs. Gouli hadn’t given her cancer.
Charlie was cancer-free, now. In private, she darkly joked that she was baby-cancer-free. None of her friends thought the joke was funny. They tried to be supportive; in many ways they had been her salvation through the last five years. First, the breakup with Patrick—she mentally filled in the spit that her circle of friends had decided the name required as punctuation: Patrick-ptah!, every time—then the diagnosis. Endless nights of weeping into telephones and onto reassuring shoulders had proven those of her close circle who were in it with her for the long haul: Jan, Darla, Tim, and Vivy.
“‘Information Superhighway’ is a pointless term. It was never going to catch on; it’s clunky and awkward and too many syllables.” The male leaned back in his seat, feeling his point made. He had a sharp head poking through a half-ring of greasy hair that fell to his shoulders, dusting the faded greenish polo shirt with off-putting dandruff. His face was contorted by a pair of ridiculous glasses that pinched his bulky face together in the middle, suspended over a bulbous nose and perched atop large and flappy ears. The expanse of his girth was situated in his midsection, rounding him heavily at the bottom. His total appearance amounted to that of a cartoon pear. When he spoke, he waved his hands about as if they were prosthetic, belonging to someone else. “Plus,” he added, “it doesn’t even work as an analogy. It’s pointless.”
A lean, jaundiced woman with a stooped shoulder and a face that drew into a point somewhere between the narrow eyes twisted her scarcely separated eyebrows in an expression of disbelief. Her legs didn’t bend quite right, the knees arthritic despite her relative youth, so she stretched them out in front of her as she sat on the very edge of the institutional plastic chair. Between the awkward bend of her body, the general yellowness of her complexion and wardrobe, and the short spikes of her hair, she may have been costumed as a banana. Her posture was precarious and liable to slip off the seat at any moment to land on a bony posterior that had only known the caress of a lover’s hand upon it twice in her life. When the subject came up, she exaggerated and said it had been eight times. “So, what instead?”
They sat in the lunchroom, a human pear and a human banana, locked in conversation, oblivious to anything around them.