The old man sat alone on the bench and watched the family from a distance. Four of them picnicked in the center of the park, beneath a massive oak near a playground and a pond. The father’s tie hung loosely around his neck. His leather loafers and dress socks sat discarded on a nearby quilt. A shirttail escaped the back of his slacks as he ran barefoot through the grass and tackled a boy holding a football. A toddler in a princess dress cheered them on, her red curls bouncing as she jumped up and down.
Clouds were coming. Maybe rain. The old man felt it in his hands and knees. Across the lawn, the father chased his children, unaware of the weather ahead. In the shadow of the oak, the mother looked on and laughed, at least on the outside. The old man imagined her hidden tears as she wondered how on earth she would tell them about the tumor and the treatment and the time she might have left.
It was pure fiction, of course, the product of an old man’s overactive imagination. Or was it? It didn’t take much imagination, overactive or not, to see the stories in everyday life. In all the seminars, all the interviews, it was the one thing everyone always asked him. Where did he get the ideas for all those stories? The answer was simple. Look around. They were everywhere. Hopes, dreams, struggles, and fears. These were the lines on the face of humanity.
Oh sure. Some people tried to hide the lines. Who doesn’t want a second draft, maybe a third? Let’s give that lady a happy ending. But in the end, it’s reality that gets the last word. You can be sure of that. Every day, real life writes the true stories, the ones we try to change, the ones we don’t even remember, and the ones we can’t forget.
This was why he came here, for the stories. Like words on a page, people wove together into sentences and paragraphs around picnic tables and pavilions. Together, they told tales as real and as true as if he’d lived them himself. The park was better than television and without commercials.
The brim of the man’s hat sat low to protect his ears in case the day brought more than a light breeze. So far, so good. An excited Labrador retriever caught his eye as it chased a young runner along a brick path. While the two of them outlined the park’s perimeter, the old man outlined their narrative in his mind. He pictured a puppy bouncing through a suburban backyard, a birthday present chasing the birthday boy. Now, years later, the chase continued. But thanks to that exceedingly unfair ratio humans called “dog years,” the Labrador was winning the wrong race. One day, probably sooner than later, our young runner would circle the park alone. But not today, declared his furry companion. Ears pinned back, head raised into the wind, the Labrador let his tongue wag free and tasted the thrill of life in the fast lane. Not today.
The breeze kicked up a little. The man had forgotten his blanket. He pulled the frayed edges of his cardigan together and looked up at restless leaves. Still hanging on, he thought. Soon, those leaves would fall, leaving limbs to ride out the coldest part of the year like skeletons laid bare by the changing seasons. For now, the leaves held fast. Not today. Bronze and crimson, ocher and tan. Days from death and they were the height of God’s artistry, the true story of their beauty saved for the final chapter of life. Was it hard to just let go and drift away like that?
The clouds, just as his joints had predicted, started rolling in. Between them, rays of light shoved through the closing curtain, unwilling to give up the stage before their time was up. The man closed his eyes and let their warmth settle on his skin. He smiled. He wasn’t sure how long he had been here. But he knew he didn’t want to leave anytime soon. After a moment, he opened his eyes and looked for another story. These last few hours of daylight cast a true beauty upon the world, a bronze reality that the frenzy and harsh light of mid-day managed to obscure. Here, in the cool colors of the sunset, he remembered how glorious life could be. Then he saw the woman.
She appeared from a line of trees separating the park from the cars beyond. She didn’t walk as much as she glided across the garden. Even from a distance, the man could tell this was no ordinary woman. He had written about many kinds of women, from coquettish coeds to self-assured matrons. Yet, this woman defied invention. Her hair was silver silk, pinned up at the sides and flowing free across her back and shoulders. Grey hair is the crown of glory. Where had he read that? He couldn’t remember. Her slender frame was feminine, yet strong. Her sundress, casual by design, fit like a formal gown at an evening gala. The words of Lord Byron echoed down the halls of his ancient memory. “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies.”
As he watched her, he tried on story after story in his mind. In one version, she traveled as a member of the Royal Family, lesser-known, but equally regal. On holiday across the pond and desperate for a few minutes of bloody solitude, she abandoned her security detail by the Rolls and worked to blend in among the unsuspecting yanks. No, too pretentious.
In his second draft, she became an heiress to some great American fortune. Banking? No. Industrial manufacturing — aircraft for military contracts, perhaps. A walk in the park was a risky but rewarding way of seeking refuge from the pervasive paparazzi and the burdens of an inherited empire for which she had little interest. All she wanted was to enjoy a quiet day at the park among normal people. No. Too predictable.
None of these stories fit. He considered the task a moment longer. But once again, he suspected she might be a character he could not write. Then, he had it. She was an angel. Not fallen, but sent. Sent to Earth to light the way and show poor souls like him the path to Heaven. I must be closer to the end than I thought. The picnic basket was a clever subterfuge. It almost threw him.
Of course, he was being melodramatic. But he was an old man. He had the right to be melodramatic. He simply could not remember seeing someone so lovely, ever. He wanted to know her story, her true story. Whoever she was, wherever she was going, he would gladly follow. But she might have to help him off this bench first.
Love at first sight was a cliché he’d learned to avoid during his freshman year of Creative Writing, the same year his heart experienced that very cliché for itself. Since then, he’d fallen in love on a few occasions. Sometimes he landed on cloud nine. Other times, he landed on his face. In either case, he considered “falling” an apt description. What he felt now, however, floated all by itself. It came in waves and crashed into his soul. He sat on his bench, stunned, intrigued, and smitten. When the woman began walking toward him, his breath left him.
He told himself not to say anything stupid. Remember to smile, and try not to make any strange noises. His hands still ached, but he refused to fidget.
“Hello,” she said. Her arms held the wicker basket, but her eyes held the man’s attention. They were hazel, with flecks of green. She was a vision.
“Hello, yourself,” he answered. Be calm. Be charming.
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Please.” He tried to stand, but his knees wouldn’t let him.
“No. Don’t get up,” she said.
Yes. He was falling, falling for her soft voice and the small lines in the corners of her eyes when she smiled. Forget those leaves. She was the height of God’s artistry. If she wanted his heart, she could have it. She would find it wedged firmly in his throat.
“What’s in the basket?” he asked, then instantly regretted it. That was exactly the kind of stupid thing he did not want to say. But her laugh was gentle and without judgment. This made him feel a little better.
“Well, it’s my dinner. But I’m afraid it’s more than I can eat. Would you like some?”
He certainly was hungry. But, “No, I couldn’t.”
“Please. There’s so much here. I’d be happy to share. I hope you like turkey.”
His stomach growled. He couldn’t remember the last time he had turkey. “Do you have cheese?” Did he really just ask that? How embarrassing.
“Yes,” she laughed again. “But only swiss.” She held out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. He took it without another word. His stomach demanded it. After a few challenging moments, he managed to unwrap the sandwich and take a bite, which was probably too large. The crunch of romaine lettuce released hints of black pepper and Dijon mustard. This was a great sandwich.
As he chewed, he watched the woman unwrap the other items in the basket. He noted the nimble efficiency of her hands, so quick and light, as if this was something she did every day. Her skin bore the badges of age and hard work but also conveyed an uncommon care for appearance. Her nails, not long, were polished and uniform. Her jewelry was simple, a small watch, a charm bracelet, and a solitary diamond banded in gold on her left hand. As the ring glistened in the afternoon sun, reality summoned clouds of disappointment and rained on the old man’s parade. What a fool he had been. Certainly, a woman like this would be spoken for. He replayed the last few minutes, hoping he had not offended her in any way.
Pushing away embarrassment, the man resigned himself to settle for nothing more than her pleasant company and a tasty sandwich. As he swallowed his turkey and his pride, he couldn’t help but think about her husband. What was his story? One thing was for certain, he must be the luckiest man alive.
As the first hint of darkness crept along the eastern edge of the park, the two sat on the bench and fell into easy conversation, like lifelong friends. They talked about favorite foods and changing seasons, about good books and authors they had both read. When the conversation waned, they turned their attention to the few people still left on the lawn. As they took turns telling the stories that played out in front of them, the man was not at all surprised to learn that this woman told great stories.
Eventually, the afternoon breeze turned into an evening chill. The woman asked if he was cold. He was. She took out a blanket from the basket and wrapped him in the warmth of her kindness and the light scent of her perfume.
“You’re so thoughtful,” he said. He wanted to keep the conversation going, to keep her with him a little longer. “So, you’re married?” he asked.
She looked down, taciturn and fixed upon the napkin in her hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said immediately. “That was forward of me. I apologize.”
“No. It’s okay,” she said, still working the napkin. “I don’t mind. Yes, I’m married.”
“Would you tell me about your husband?”
“Well,” the woman said and sighed. “He is a truly great man.”
“He must be.”
She laughed. “Oh, he was great long before I came along.” She watched the family of four pack up toys and quilts. “It was always just us. We never had children.” She looked at him. “But I never felt alone. Forty-three years, and he was always there for me.” She paused for a moment, absently rubbing a faint scar below the crease of her neck. “We’ve been through so much. Even when all he could do was sit beside me and hold my hand, he did.”
The man felt the impulse to reach out and take her hand then, but he didn’t.
“He is kind and funny. He loves to make up stories about people he doesn’t even know.” She laughed. “He’s a writer. Well, he’s retired now, of course. We come here sometimes. To watch the people.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s right.” She put down the napkin and stopped talking. He knew he shouldn’t ask his next question. But he truly wanted to know.
“Where is he now?”
The woman looked away as a tear rolled along the contour of her perfect cheekbone. He knew he shouldn’t have asked.
“He is not well,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
“I see. Well then, I hope he gets better.”
For a moment, she didn’t respond. Finally, she said, “I’m sorry. This is a difficult season. It’s just hard to watch him go through it.”
“But, he will get through it. Right?”
She bit her lip and shook her head. “No, I’m afraid not.” She broke down then. Maybe he understood what she meant. It was hurting him to watch her go through this, too. Without thinking, he took his arm from under the blanket and pulled her close to him. Realizing what he’d done, he tensed. She didn’t protest, though. Instead, she laid her head on his shoulder and sobbed.
Minutes passed like that, him holding her. Eventually, the blanket fell away. Only then did he notice the ring on his own hand. A cloud of confusion covered him. It was a familiar feeling, a haze that followed him constantly. But when he looked at her, a sudden ray of clarity broke through his clouded memory. He drew a sharp breath. His lip quivered and his own eyes filled with tears. He was a child then, scared to ask, but scared not to ask.
“Is it — me? Am I your husband?”
The woman placed her hand, the one with the ring, on his wet face and caressed his cheek. With her forehead touching his, she nodded. Yes.
“Oh, I was hoping it was me.” How he loved this woman.
For a few minutes longer, the two sat together on the park bench like two words punctuated by the reality of hopes, dreams, struggles, and fears. Trees in transition lined the horizon in silhouette against a backdrop of pinks, violets, and blues. The rain, it seemed, was all talk, which was fine with them. Alone now in the park, the man and the woman watched as glorious colors fell from the sky, leaves like the final pages of the most beautiful story ever written. The man watched them drift down, glad they finally found the courage to let go. As the sun settled beyond the horizon, he held his wife and marveled aloud.
“What a great story.” He couldn’t have written it better himself.