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by Amy Montemarano

Remembering, by Regina Noakes
by Regina Noakes.
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 feet.

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 rheumy eyes.

"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 the bum.

" . . 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 followed.

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 back.

More Fiction:

~ Perishable Night ~ Tanuki ~ A Way into the Woods

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