A chill breeze caressed the cheek of the old woman sitting on a worn, well-used, wooden street bench. Trenches of wrinkles creased her face. Strands of coarse, grey hair pulled loose from her tightly wound bun and danced with each movement of air. She glanced down at a small plastic bag resting on the bench next to her.
A shudder crept through the woman’s body. She pulled her old, green, wool coat tightly around her bloated figure, seemingly content in the little warmth it offered.
Children squealed in the distance. A couple sauntered by, hand-in-hand, as oblivious to the old woman as she was to them. Her eyes fixed on a point somewhere in the distance, lost in a memory too long past. She could barely make out the figures that circled and danced in the events of yesteryear.
A muted grunt popped her chest and her gaze fell to the sidewalk in front of her. Old birdseed, swelling from the previous night’s rain, lay scattered for squirrels and pigeons to peck and nibble. The woman’s brow creased, shadowing her beady eyes from the early dawn. Her jaw moved in a rhythmic, chewing motion. Her cheeks sagged and puffed in the absence of teeth.
Breathing deep, she stretched out her legs, crossing them at the ankles, leaned back and wiggled into what comfort a cold, wooden bench could offer.
“This is nice,” she sighed, tilting her head to the side. “We never take time for us.”
Her head fell forward as she studied her hands, scrubbing the crevices of her fingers and digging at the dirt caked beneath her nails.
The wind, as if agitated with her, suddenly whirled around her feeble body with a chilled force lifting the hem of her housedress.
“Oh blithers!” she cried, tucking the dress into the folds of her legs.
“Oh no, dear, I’m fine,” she reassured whatever memory had popped up to check on her.
She reached down and tightened the knot that kept her bag closed. She rubbed her hands together attempting to ward off autumn’s cool contempt for her.
“Those darn thorns!” she cursed, eying the scratches that decorated her palms and fingers, “always catching on my hands.”
She picked at her knuckles, bringing one to her mouth to nurse a small cut that had opened from the agitation of her unkempt nails.
“Nasty little beasties,” she complained. “I don’t know why people like to keep the thorns on all those rose bouquets.
She studied one hand, then the other, turning them as though looking at a strange picture with too many details to really take in all at once. She frowned, losing interest in her contemplations. Dropping her hands to her lap, she breathed deep.
“I don’t know why you like this spot so much. This bench is terrible.”
She scowled as she stood, wiping drops of water and soggy leaves from the bench. Shaking her palm to free it from grit and moisture-locked paint chips, she plopped back down.
“You prefer elegant things. Why do you like this bench?” she questioned impatiently. “Never mind.”
She wiped her hands on her coat and tucked them into the pockets. “I never did like green.”
She pulled one hand out of a pocket revealing a palm full of dusty, cracked seeds. She rolled her eyes, fighting a smirk.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
She laughed and threw the seeds to the cement. Birds ogled her discarded goodies with hungry eyes. One by one they snuck in to sample her meager offering.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the sounds of cars splashing through water, friends calling to one another and drivers cursing at clumsy pedestrians. The smell of car exhaust and wet cement mixed with the scent of coffee and fresh baked croissants.
“Good morning,” she whispered.
She picked up her plastic bag, set it in her lap and tugged at the knot. She sniffed, then exhaled; her breath leaving a faint path in the air as it swirled with the wind and disappeared.
Her fingers stiffened around the bag. “Never could untie these darn things.”
Scooting back in the bench, she took hold of the knot and pulled with strength equal to that of a small child. “Phooey,” she cursed, scowling. She paused, eyed the bag, then swiftly grabbed the plastic as though to catch it off guard. She tugged the sides of the bag. Nothing!
Giving up, she growled, “I’m just making the knot tighter. Damn plastic.”
A city bus coughed and echoed as it rumbled by. She glanced behind her. “Better hurry. Time doesn’t wait.”
Scratching her head, she contemplated how to open the plastic bag. A bobby pin caught the edge of a ragged fingernail and came loose. She looked at it with a fond expression. Smiling, she pulled the bobby pins loose one by one until her hair uncurled and fell to her shoulders. She smoothed her tresses, tucking pieces behind her ears like an unconcerned schoolgirl.
Pocketing all but one of the pins, she punctured a small hole in the plastic bag, tearing at the opening until she could fit one finger inside. The wind blew, ruffling the bag. The woman pulled her finger out, startled, spilling some of the contents onto her coat.
She stood, brushing herself off. “Damn! I’m sorry. Damn!”
The city clock chimed eight o’clock. Scavenging birds, startled by the sudden noise, took flight, flapping and cooing into the trees. The woman stood, stiff with age, searching the park for passers-by. With no one around but the birds, she tore at the hole in the bag, ripping the plastic apart. A gust of wind swept from behind her, carrying the contents of the bag with it.
Ashes swirled and scattered over the walkway, into the trees and into the sky with the birds.
The woman chuckled and clapped.
“There they go!” she laughed, tucking the bag into her pocket. “You and your damn birds,” she mocked, watching the ashes dissipate into the cold, autumn morning.
She shuddered, hair dancing in the wind. Looking around at “their spot,” she wiped her nose and sighed.
Wet leaves stuck to her shoes as she scuffled down the walkway. A couple passed, arm in arm, laughing, carrying paper cups of franchised coffee, talking of future plans.
“We were like that once,” she mumbled to herself.
The old woman turned briefly to see them take her place on the empty bench. The young man wrapped his arm around his companion as she snuggled close to him, sipping her coffee, smiling.
The old woman tugged at the tarnished buttons on her coat. “You always liked elegant things,” she said, slipping her arms out of the sleeves.
She stroked the faded wool as she walked down the path toward a trashcan. She stopped, brought the coat to her nose and breathed deep. The once familiar fragrance of her husband’s cologne had evaporated; she smelled only the musty scent of the attic from where she had pulled the coat that morning.
She heaved a deep, deep sigh.
“Good-bye,” she whispered as she laid the coat over the side of the iron garbage bin. “I don’t think I’ll be back. But it will always be ‘our’ bench,” she promised as she waddled away.