by Amy Montemarano
Perhaps the surest sign of her state of indignity was
the crotch of her pantyhose, torn and stained between her splayed
knees. What was the point of wearing stockings anyway, over those old,
blue-grey legs -- to make them look sexy? To impress that drunk on the
park bench across the way, whose chin was only held up by the thin
stream of drool connecting it to the ground? She snuffled at the
thought, sending a spray of damp cracker crumbs from her bosom. When
you're this far gone from beauty, from youth, the trappings of vanity
are pitiful in their futility.
So here the old woman sat, her mind mossy, and she didn't care
what anyone thought of her. It didn't occur to her, in fact, that
anyone thought anything of her. She was as familiar and indistinct a
feature in the bleak city landscape as the park bench on which she sat.
Invisible to the people who were still living their lives. No one even
looked at her. Not the busy people suited up and rushing to offices.
Not the punk skateboarders who vaulted her outstretched feet as
thoughtlessly as they jumped breaks in the sidewalk. Not even the older
and slower ones, who shared the bench with her for the short time it
took to smoke a cigarette or read a newspaper.
How had she gotten to this place? She, who had once had a
family and a home and a pack of girlfriends. She had taken her
daughters every summer to the lake house, where they would splash for
hours in the cold water and squeal at the knobby ducklings that rocked
by. Her Sunday morning blueberry pancakes had been the talk of the
summer town. She got together with her girlfriends on Tuesday nights to
play bridge and drink whiskey sours, and they learned how to arch their
eyebrows in just the right way when talking of scandalous things.
There was a time -- she can't remember at which house -- that
she had a cedar closet that was six feet deep. She kept her nicer
clothes in it, mostly dark wools and colorful silks, and one very
special black-cherry red organza evening gown, that being her favorite
color. She had worn it to a ball once, in Philadelphia, for some
long-forgotten event, and her husband had danced with her, held her
close, and whispered velvety things as he kissed her neck. They had
gone home that night and made love wrapped up in her ball gown, and the
zipper caught the delicate skin on her lower back. She moved her hand
back there now, and felt where the pinch had been, just as clearly as
if it were last night.
There was even a time when she stood on a stage, at a podium,
and addressed a hundred and fifty faces, members of an organization of
a national association having to do with something, and she had smiled
and delivered a rehearsed speech, and even though a heavy drop of sweat
ran down her ribs, slid along her stockings, and plunked onto her shoe,
the audience had applauded and smiled at her. And she had smiled
proudly and heard the applause for weeks afterward.
Images of these beloved moments and people flashed brilliantly
in her mind, and then they faded and mutated into other people and
other places, and then they were the names and photographs of the
stories in yesterday's newspaper, which lay damp and yellowed beneath
Her memories darkened and gasped, and lay down.
And so, she passed the day just sitting. Thinking about
everything and nothing in particular, always with the same deep and
indescribable ache that had been with her for years. The bum across the
way swung his heavy head in her direction, and looked at her with
"You'd think!" she shrieked, startling herself. Had she just
spoken? Was that her voice, or was it just inside her head, as usual?
"They'd pay ATTENTION! What are they doing, anyway, that's so
important? Just SELFISH!" A squirrel stood very still, poised on the
rim of the garbage can next to her.
"Ohhh, what's the point? Poof!" She stamped her foot. "It's
gone!" She glared straight ahead, a dull brown lock of hair falling
over her forehead. "Wasn't it quick? And lovely?" She laughed -- a low,
sultry chuckle -- and the bum laughed too. The squirrel didn't move.
A young woman appeared, walking alone, her face as pretty and
pale as a china cup, her blonde hair piled behind her. She hunched her
shoulders under a thin, white sweater, her arms crossed tightly around
herself. She strode quickly through the park, carefully looking
straight ahead and not at the messy slumps that were the old woman and
" . . Gigi? Is that you? Bridget!" The old woman's mind snapped
and billowed, and she was in another time, when it was June and the sun
shone clean, and the warm summer breeze danced across her eyelashes.
Her best friend Bridget was coming towards her, her arms crossed over a
man's white sweater, her face held in a near-grin that looked ready to
burst. She was wet, her blond hair slicked back with river water, and
she was about to share the thrills of the past hour -- of her secret
swim with the saxophone player . . . the sax player! . . . from the
band of boys that had played in the park the night before. He had
taught Bridget how to roll a cigarette, and they had kissed underwater,
and Bridget couldn't wait to tell her best friend the story,
appropriately embellished with an expected dose of wickedness. The old
woman giggled with wild anticipation, sprang from her bench, and
grabbed Bridget's arm to set up for their usual greeting -- a
two-handed double twirl. "Tell me Gigi!" she laughed. "Oh, tell me, you
little strumpet, how was it!" She threw her head back in delight.
The young woman's eyes flashed with sudden fear and disgust.
She shook the old woman off her arm, and pushed her away with an angry
shove. "Get off of me! What are you doing? GET OFF!"
And the old woman's balance was lost. She stumbled backward.
The bench caught her behind the knees, and she crashed painfully back
into place. The young woman glared at her, shuddering, and pulled her
sweater tight around her. "Crazy old witch!" she said, mean and quiet,
and she hurried away.
What just happened, the old woman wondered. Where was Bridget?
And where were her daughters -- she needed them so, right now. To help
her sit up and straighten out, to smooth her face and hair and tell her
that they loved her, to bring her inside. So she could look into their
eyes, so alive, and remember how it felt to smile back at somebody. Her
head felt like granite resting on her chest and she struggled to lift
it, and to breathe. But it stayed where it was, staring at her lap. A
cold spring wind rose up and whisked yesterday's newspaper from under
her feet, and the paper flapped out of sight. She stared at her lap.
And then, . . . was it her imagination? Again? A gnarled and
dirty hand came into her line of sight, outstretched just above her
lap. She looked at the hand, followed the arm up, and saw the bum. He
was standing there right next to her. His eyes surprised her. At this
close range, even through the cloud of age and alcohol, she could tell
that they were kind and that they used to be Paul-Newman blue. He
stayed standing there and pushed his mottled cheeks into a smile. He
had no real teeth to speak of, and a single tear of saliva rolled
slowly down his chin, finally clinging to the nub of a white whisker.
But when she took his hand and he drew her up, his arms were strong and
his shoulders were wide. He hiccuped a little as he tilted his head to
look at her. His arm circled her waist, and his other hand grasped hers
tightly and pulled it close to his chest. He took a step away, and she
They shuffled their feet together in a rhythm they both knew,
and they danced to the sounds and the voices and the memories that
filled their heads, as the waning light of the gray autumn afternoon
cast shadows over them, and he looked at her and smiled, and she smiled
~ Perishable Night ~
~ A Way into the Woods
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