A Walk in the Park

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The sun was going down; she was a handicapped old woman: his response was compulsory. “May I walk you out of the park?”

“Oh, would you?” she gushed instantly, her voice crammed full of false
surprise, as though she’d been forced to wait too long for his offer.

Oh, would you? he mimicked to himself in a Polly-wants-a-cracker falsetto.

A wind swept toward him; he could hear it, and watching the oak trees in
which the last orange rays of the sun had moved high up the bare old trunks, he could see it too. The wind came then with a cool rush, its sound distant because the trunks were upraised arms that held the rattling leaves high above in bony fingers, and distant, too, because it was a sound he hadn’t heard in years, a sound associated with far places, not city places, certainly not New York City places; the wind came then, and swept him back to the past. He lay in his bedroom half-dreaming of his brilliant future and listening to the dry soft clatter of eucalyptus leaves outside his window, like muted
applause. The breeze filled out the gauzy curtains, put form behind them, and he smelled the memory of a smell that had never been much stronger than the memory of a smell: the tangy acidic resin-powder scent of eucalyptus coming across the edges of his nostrils, then gone, then come again, then gone.

A moan-sigh-wheeze-wail dispelled his reverie. “I’m scheduled for a hip
replacement in three weeks,” said the woman. “It’s very painful. Very painful, I assure you.” She let out another muffled wail. “It can’t be any worse than this.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“What do you have to be so sorry about?” she snapped. “You had nothing to do with it.” And shaking her head, trailing off, “absolutely nothing to do with it ... ”

Rotten old hump, he said to himself, entertaining fleeting thoughts of escape. No, he could not abandon an old woman in the gathering darkness, two blocks from the exit. After all, it had been his idea to walk her there, and to tell her he would do it.

But “walking” implied going forward, and now he knew that it was indeed possible, as Poe had written, to move as slowly as the minute hand on a clock. He felt as if he were working not against mere air but against something thicker, progressing only with the effort one must exert in a nightmare. The old black streetlights along the main road had come on, though their dirty silver glow lit up nothing at this hour. The woman
had now begun sighing with every exhalation, which meant with every step, for though she did not breathe rapidly, she took a step no more often than she drew breath. Even at this pace he could feel her pulling and stalling, balking like a horse that did not wish to be led. She would not be satisfied until he picked her up bodily and carried her.

“Why on earth would I come to the park so late?” the woman asked the air around her. “Why ever would I do that?” Then a little louder: “There has to be a very good reason.” She turned her head to him and spoke still louder, her pitch falling heavily, weighing out each syllable: “There is. There is a reason.”

He did not ask her what it was, because he had run away to the farthest place he knew, which was Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. He was holding a large yellow-green coconut in his hands and drinking the milk through a straw. Though here coconuts were called “ice colds,” this ice cold was as warm as the early summer air that conducted scents to his nose: the fatty sweet smell of the coconut itself, curried goat meat from the Hot Tasty Roti truck, toffee peanuts from Sidney the Nut Man. Down the street someone was playing Marley and the Wailers, and nobody had any place he had to be.

The woman’s voice was a poke in the ribs: “Would you like to know why?”

“Pardon me ... ?” he said vaguely.

“Certainly,” she said, as if granting an actual request for pardon. “Would you like to know why a woman of my age and infirmity would venture all alone into Central Park at twilight?”



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