On the Park Bench

“Good morning, sir. How are you?”

“Oh, hello. Fine, thank you.”

“Name’s Charles Boling.”

“Oh. Yes. Nice to meet you.” 

And, with that, the busy man placed his headphones on and tuned out the rest of the world.

Charles Boling continued to sit on the same park bench he’d sat at for nearly a year. At the corner of Elm Street and Craven Avenue, the bench had a nice view of the park, a grocery store, small shops, and a bus stop. A few blocks east was city hall, and, to the west, neighborhoods turned into suburbs, suburbs turned into farmland, and farmland turned into not much else. 

“Been too hot lately, hasn’t it?” Charles barked, attempting to speak over the busy man’s music. The busy man did not reply. And, within a few minutes, he stood and walked away from the bench, lost in his busy-ness.

People streamed down Elm Street, passing Charles left and right. Most lost in their thoughts. Some noted his shabby clothes — blue work pants, a white undershirt tinged gray and straining some at the chest and belly, and old brown boots. Others noticed his bushy brown beard, which traveled down his neck to the point of meeting the chest hair sprigging out of the top of his undershirt. A few noted the thick arms and hands calloused with work, but, for most all, Charles rated only as an animated accessory to the park bench. 

“Good morning.”

“Hello. Hello, Father,” Charles responded, caught off guard by not being the first to speak.

The priest sat down on the park, placing his bag between himself and Charles. 

“Lovely day, isn’t it? A little cooler.”

“Yes it is, Father. Been too hot lately for my tastes. Name’s Charles Boling,” Charles said, extending his hand.

“Michael Yates, nice to meet you Charles.” The priest took his hand. “Are you waiting for the bus too?”

“No. No, I don’t take the bus, Father. I’m just sitting here enjoying the day,” Charles answered, honestly.

Father Yates gave Charles a subtle once-over as he pulled out his bus ticket and looked up at the bus stop sign. 

“Do you come here often, Charles?”

“Every day.”

“Where do you work?” Father Yates knew his question was a little forward, but he asked with a practiced, warm smile that signaled his good intentions. 

Charles paused and then answered, “No. No, I haven’t worked in years. I was a mechanic. Long ago. Long time ago.” Charles leaned back on the bench, watching the people in the park.

The priest noted Charles’s hands. “That’s interesting work.”

“Well, when you can get it, yes.” Charles answered.

“Do you live nearby? It would be nice to be able to come to a park like this everyday.” Father Yates was no amateur.

“I live here and there,” Charles said. “I like the park.”

“Charles, my church is five blocks from here. Maybe you’ve heard of it, St. Mark’s?”

Charles shook his head.

“Well, it’s a great place, and we have a lot of programs to help folks that haven’t worked in a while or are living ‘here and there.’ Father Yates opened his bag and fished out a card, handing it to Charles. “I’d really like you to stop by. I think you’d like it.”

Charles looked at the card, flipping it over and back again in his hand.

Father Yates continued, “At St. Mark’s, we’re most concerned with your spiritual well-being. It’s not just about a job or a place to sleep.”

“I see,” Charles nodded.

Across the street, a bus pulled up, and Father Yates closed his bag and stood up. “Charles, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope I see you again.”

“Have a good day, Father.” 

Charles watched the priest cross the street and climb into the bus. Shortly, the bus pulled away, and Charles sat, lost in his thoughts. He’d been a good mechanic, or at least he thought so. Got a job during high school and never left. He liked the people, the challenge of solving a problem. Working with his hands. Everything seemed to work for a while. Met a girl. Sarah. Sweet secretary at an accountant’s office. Got married. Had a little house. Went for walks at night. They got by. 

A crowd rounded the corner, led by Representative Janet Skilling. Following in her impressive wake were journalists, cameramen, numerous aides, and dozens of supporters. Charles noted the oncoming throng and observed that the group seemed to gain mass as it neared. 

“Ladies and Gentleman,” Representative Skilling began as she stopped thirty feet from Charles’s bench, “I’ve come to Asher Park today to announce a new jobs and housing initiative in the city.” 

Cameras rolled, journalists scribbled, aides listened, and supporters gave polite applause. 

“The downturn in the economy hurt everyone, but our most vulnerable have felt the impact in a way not known to most of us. The city’s unemployment and homeless rates have increased significantly, and we have not just a social responsibility to address this, but a moral one.” 

More applause. More scribbles.  

Charles listened as best he could from his park bench. As the representative spoke, the crowd around her undulated and swayed. The representative came into and out of Charles’s sight. On multiple occasions, he locked eyes with her. 

“…and with these additional funds, we will institute new job training programs and, just a few blocks from this park, we will construct a new homeless shelter to house and care for the city’s most vulnerable, the most at-risk.”

“Representative Skilling, Tom Junken from The Telegraph. The crime rate in Asher Park has increased significantly in the past year. Assaults, batteries, thefts. Residents also complain about intrusive panhandling. How will your jobs initiative address those concerns?”

“Tom,” Representative Skilling began as she pulled taut her suit jacket, “you bring up symptoms of the larger problem of unemployment and homelessness. Our goal is to reduce unemployment and homelessness. When those numbers drop, so do crime, so do panhandling. Believe me, no one wants to make Asher Park safe for families again more than I do. When a person has a job, when a person has a home, they feel different, they act different. Less crime. Less panhandling. We want to tend to not just their economic needs, but their needs as a member of this community.”

Scribbles, nodding of heads, and applause. 

The throng drifted away from the park, following the bold lead of Representative Skilling. Charles thought about the representative’s words, and then thought about Sarah. She was short, freckled, with auburn hair that went down to her shoulders. She was pretty, but not gorgeous. Charles especially liked that. There was nothing pretentious about Sarah. She was comfortable. Real. Real with freckles. He missed that.

“May I sit here?”

Charles looked around to see a short, squat woman, dirty, with wild hair. She was pulling a cart from the grocery across the street, loaded down with what was obviously all her worldly possessions. She wore a tattered t-shirt and stained slacks. 

“Yes mam, of course you may sit here,” was Charles’s kind reply.

“Thank you. I’m so hot. It’s been a little cooler today, but I get so warm walking around. It will be nice to sit for a while. I’m Nancy.”

“Charles. Nice to meet you, Nancy.”

“Same to you,” she huffed as she flopped down.

Charles could tell from the slight slur in her words that Nancy had been drinking. Her nails were dirty.

“Do you come here often?” she asked, still a little breathless.

“Every day.”

Nancy smiled a smile of recognition. “I haven’t seen you around. Are you new to town?”

“No,” Charles said. “Lived here a long time. Been coming here ‘bout a year.”

“Well, in case you don’t know, there’s a great kitchen a few blocks west of here. Nice people. I go there just about every day.”

“So, what do they want at this kitchen, besides to give you food? What’s their concern?” Charles asked.

Nancy looked puzzled. “Nothing, that I know of. I just go there and eat.” She pulled her cart around in front of her, resting her feet on it. “I’ve never gotten in any trouble for that.”

“I see.”

“You by yourself? Have any family around here, Charles?”

“No. No, it’s just me.”

Nancy stared at Charles, a little drunk.

“I was married,” Charles replied. “My wife passed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. All you want is a little happiness, isn’t it? Tell me about her,” Nancy said.

Charles smiled back, hesitantly. “And what do you want?”

Nancy understood his question. “Just to listen.”

“I loved Sarah with all my heart,” Charles began.

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