An early December snow began to fall as Mallory settled onto her usual park bench. The air was crisp and very still as the flakes fell silently without navigation from even the slightest breeze. Holding her coffee cup near her lips she gently exhaled and watched the city slowly disappear as the rising steam fogged her glasses. No sooner did her breath taper off then the city came back into view. Playing this visual game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with the urban canvas before her she didn’t noticed that she was no longer alone on her seat.
Mallory eased the cup from her mouth and immediately took stock of the situation. It was mid-day in mid-town … OK. There were a lot of empty benches to choose from … strange. Her backpack was still draped over her shoulder opposite the intruder … good, and scalding hot coffee as a weapon if needed … excellent. She slowly turned her head, eyes leading, towards the presence to her right and was relieved to see the profile of a pleasant looking man who could have been her mirror image moments earlier. He sat with a white foam cup to his lips and although he wasn’t wearing glasses, the steam swirled with his every breath. Mallory wasn’t sure how long she watched him, but quickly looked away in embarrassment as he turned towards her. She raised her own cup to her mouth and hid in the temporary fog.
“Pretty, don’t you think?” his low, almost inaudible voice asked, if unanswered would have faded without repeat.
Mallory lowered her cup and watched the city return to focus. “Yes, the first snow is always pretty.”
For a few minutes, the two sat in silence and kept their gaze before them, both sipping from their cups and watching the city perform for them as if in some unstaged play. A large man in a stylish black overcoat hustled past them, close enough to draw their coffee scented steam with him. Mallory watched the speed and precision in his step and said flatly in a voice that was not much more than a whisper, “Stockbroker.”Mallory had been spending most of her lunch hours on this same park bench. At first, sitting and sipping her coffee had been enough, but after the novelty of the usual city sights and sounds had worn off she had came up with a game to pass the time before she had to return to her job in an office high above the park. She would people-watch and as a likely subject would enter the cobblestone center court that opened in front of her bench she would give them an occupation. She would also have detailed circumstances formulated in her mind for them before they left the bricks and stepped back onto the cement sidewalk. Once they left the brickwork the game would end and they would return to their normal lives and she wouldn’t care. An old man with a cane bent over from the years might be a World War hero injured while storming the beach at Normandy. A smart dressed woman might be a brain surgeon on her way to perform some life saving operation on the only child of some royal family. They were never janitors or cab drivers. They always were people of status in wealth or importance. As she said, “Stockbroker”, she subtlety offered her game to the man sipping coffee on the bench next to her … much like two kids on a playground might toss a ball near one another to see if the other is up for a game of catch. He did not answer right away and Mallory checked her watch hoping she would have an excuse to escape and not explain why she sat on park benches in the snow uttering random words for no apparent reason. Her relief finally came in a simple one-word statement. As a bulky red-faced man hurried by their bench, the man sitting next to Mallory said, “Chef.”
A happiness rose up from deep inside Mallory releasing a smile across her face as she turned to the man on the bench and said, “A French Chef,” her eyes giving her joy away. She leaned slightly in his direction waiting to hear how game he was.
“Nouvelle French Chef, I believe.” He said his dark eyes sparkling as he sipped from his cup. This bit of added detail caused Mallory to shift her hips slightly in his direction.
“Yes, a Nouvelle French Chef from Cologne. Invited to teach at the Institute, no doubt. You can tell by the shoes. They’re European … no heels. If he was living here, he would have been laughed out of the shoes long ago.” Mallory said, sipping and fogging. They both laughed and she was relieved to find a willing player. She had tried this before either sitting on her bench or riding the subway, but never found anyone interested in the game. She was only met with blank stares of indifference as if everybody in this city was mumbling occupations out loud for no reason.
She turned back to the people passing by and picked out a young couple, walking arm in arm. She saw them coming and waiting until their shoes touched the brick. “Lovers … parents don’t approve,” she said letting her statement trail off waiting for a response.
“Indeed. A modern Romeo and Juliet. It seems that her father wrote a play that his father financed. It flopped and he lost a fortune,” he said half turning on the bench toward Mallory studying the side of her face. He liked what he saw; her eyes were smiling as she looked out upon the park. He passed the Styrofoam cup between his hands and said, “James.”
Still watching the couple, Mallory said matter-of-factly, “Oh no, no names. I never give them names … too personal, plus there’s usually not enough time, unless they sit on one of the benches. Then anything goes.”
“No. My name is James,” he said extending his hand.
Mallory shifted her cup between hands and returned the gesture. She felt the warmth in his hand left by his coffee cup and smiled. As his warmth spread upwards she inspected his face. She guessed him to be near her age, early thirties or so. His eyes were dark, but inviting. She could make out the hint of a tie under the coat with the collar upturned against the weather. His features were sharp, but friendly. The curls of his dark hair, which looked that like they had a mind of their own, were beginning to collect the snow. “Mallory” she said squeezing his hand. His features held her gaze longer than the usual introductory glance and as she caught herself she repeated, “Mallory.”
“Well Mallory Mallory, it’s nice to meet you,” James said sending a blush into her cheeks as he exposed her awkwardness. “It’s about this time that the man meeting the woman in the park for the first time would say something like, do you come here often? But, I know that you do. I’ve seen you from a window up there on the fourth floor,” he said gesturing to the Walker Building’s windows overlooking the park. “Every day, same time, same bench. I do the same thing on this same bench, everyday, but an hour later than you.” His statement caught her off guard and she recoiled her hand, which was still meeting his. He noticed this and turned more in her direction and in his best comforting voice said, “Not to worry Mallory Mallory, I’m not the neighborhood ax murderer stalking his next victim. Honest. I just happened to notice you from the window and it actually took a few days until I realized that we always sit on the on the same bench.
“No charge.” She said, as a slight smile exposed her returning comfort.
“No charge?” He asked.
“For warming the bench.” She said with a grin and while keeping her body in his direction, but turned her eyes back to the bricks. “And it’s just one Mallory, James, or is it Jim or Jimmy?”
“It’s James. My grandmother called me Jimmy and it drove me nuts. Jimmy this and Jimmy that. Jimmy, wash your hands. Jimmy, eat your…” he let his voice trail off as he caught himself delivering words that seemed much too boring for an opening conversation and he too turned back to the bricks.
Mallory looked over at James and saw that he was looking at an old man coming through the park’s iron fence. The man was not dressed against the cold and the dirt and stains that clung to his thin coat and shoes that were held together with duct tape told that he probably lived on the street or the local mission. He held a brown paper bag twisted towards the top advertising its glass bottle contents. He was moving slow and was still a few steps from the bricks.
“President of…” James began, but was cut off by Mallory.
“He’s still out of bounds. He not in the game until he hits the bricks.” She said.
“Wow. Rules too?” James chuckled.
“Got to have rules. And a playing field.”
“OK. Annnnnnndddd…” he held the word until the man’s duct taped foot hit the brick and as soon as it did he continued, “… here’s the president of Global Wines International, testing his new line of Street Wines.”
“Oh very funny. I think you’ve mistaken him. That’s Howard Hughes Jr., the unknown son of the billionaire. The only way he could inherit the money is to prove that he could live without it, but he may have a sample of your so-called Street Wine.” They both laughed as the freezing air held their breath. The game continued until it was time for Mallory to get back to work. She rose from the bench and was surprised to see the amount of snow that fell from her lap onto her shoes. Laughing and tossing her hair she sent a small blizzard of snowflakes around her and said, “I guess we must have gotten caught up with the players. My feet feel like their frozen solid. Got to go … I don’t think they’ll like the idea of paying me to play games all day.”
James checked his watch. “Yeah, me to. I doubt my company would like the idea of paying me to play either … considering my amateur status,” James said.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think you played pretty well for a Rookie. I guess I’ll see you,” she said turning toward the courtyard. “Or should I say you’ll see me?” she said looking up towards the Walker Building.
“Yes, I’ll look for you, if that’s OK. That is if you don’t mind being looked down on,” a smile coupled his words.
“You’re the one with the window-seat,” she said and started walking across the bricks that were quickly losing their identity to the gathering snow. As she reached the edge of the bricks with one foot already on the cement sidewalk, she stopped and turned to James who was still sitting on the bench, his eyes following her every move. She lifted her trailing foot off the bricks and said, loudly with straightforward authority, “Game.”
“Who won?” James called as he watched Mallory disappear out the gate.
As she tossed her empty cup into a “Pitch In” wire trashcan Mallory turned and with a slight one-sided smile replied "We did ...," but her answer was swallowed by the noise of the street. In a panic, James rose and quickly made his way to the opening in the stonewall that bordered the park, but she was gone in the wash of the city.
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Observations/true story while bar tending in Baltimore 1984
The night Nixon quit through my eyes at 15
Chance meeting in a snow covered city park
Observation at the all night mini mart
Adventures of a street poet
Lou and Omba in Washington Square
God's ant-like face shines
Changing roles in a city library
Coming soon ...