‘People, too damn many of ‘em’ he was thinking, turning the corner and at the same time straining to see through and over the hundreds who coagulated the wide concourse. Hesitating in his walk, he kept to the edges of the crowd, and dwelled on a small group of kids who were gathered around a bench. The muffled giggles and high pitched squeals enhanced their strutting, preening and prancing, evidence that the young still held their youth in high regard.
One stood out. A slight young man topped with dark long hair over soft, angelic features. His right knee shredded with tendrils of string in disarray, and just above a red bandana was wrapped and knotted tight. A mark of who he was. The man winced, knowing they would meet again, sooner than both would like.
But not now. Now there was another and he turned his attention back to navigating the crowd and noted his own reflection in a store window. Turning away, he let his eyes wander, positioning his gaze to float amid the crowd and the countless vendors that populated the center of the mall concourse. Still moving slowly, he knew they were here. In fact, in all his years, he had only been mistaken once, and that was long ago and another story.
A corner of his lip turned up softly when he found them setting on a wood slatted bench. A passing surge of the crowd obliterated his view for a moment and then subsided. ‘Only need one today,’ and he made a conscience decision to take his time. He had the time.
“Wanna go get a coffee?” one asked
“No, had too much already, feeling like I’m gonna be peeing all damn day with my balder the way it is an’ all.”
“What, you’re going to end up like ol’ Voss and piss your pants all the time?”
“That ain’t what I said.”
The first man chuckled, letting his eyes dance in the reflection of a private joke.
The friend noted the look and with a finger splotched with age, nudged his black rimmed glasses up his nose where they would fail to stay. He was irritated this morning. Not at anything in particular, then again, maybe at everything. He thought it was somewhat funny, in an absurd sense, his agitation. Absurd because he knew there was nothing at the moment to be ticked about, but he was, and because of that, he actually was making an effort to control it. Controlling his agitation seemed to get harder as the morning along.
“Look at that, Alf,” was partnered with a gentle elbow jabbed against his, “Good God almighty,”
“Aw, wipe that spittle of a smile of your face Pete, she’s just a little girl.” And Alf’s disgust was evident in the tone, aimed more at his aches and pains than Pete’s.
“Little girl my ass, she’s at least 45, maybe even near 50.”
“No damn difference cuz you couldn’t get it up if ya wanted to, could ya? When’s the last time Pete? With Aggie?”
Pete’s breath fell away. Letting the woman fade away into the moving crowd of color and chaos. Pausing for just the briefest of moments, he then reached into his back pocket and pulled a hanky to wipe his brow.
“What the hell you have to say that for?”
Alf didn’t have an answer and shifted his body uncomfortably, just a bit away. Unsure why he had mentioned Aggie, her name bought memories abounding in his mind. Memories of a life lived, his life, her life, together, the good and the bad. Seventy years of too much heartbreak and he tossed those aside thinking of the good. “Dunno Pete, Guess I’m sorry.” And it seemed to both men, the sentiment was more of an exasperated sigh than an actual apology.
“Look at all these people, Pete,” Alf found he needed to pause, to gather thoughts, “how many of ‘em are going to end up like us, two old friggin’ codgers with nothing to do but set on a bench and watch everybody else. Kinda seems stupid, don’t it? I mean don’t it bother you that we got nothing better to do, like we lived all our lives to end up here.” And he found himself staring at Pete, knowing there’d be no answer. Pulling his own hanky, he coughed and covered his mouth, expelling a fair amount of phlegm into the material which he then folded over onto itself and placed back into his own pocket.
“Got too damn much of this crap in my chest that just won’t go away.” Alf was saying, clearing his throat as he noticed that Pete had slide closer to him on the bench. “What the fu..” Alf intentionally halted his curse as he noticed a man had sat on the opposite end of his bench, making for a crowded threesome. Wrapping his hand around his cane which had been immobile between his legs, Alf tapped it’s rubber tip on the glossy Terrazzo floor, leaned over to Pete, and whispered in his ear, “Why don’t you tell our friend to go away.”
Pete answered with a stare he understood as ‘shut up and don’t embarrass us’. He understood the stare as he had seen it countless times over the years, and in fact had used it often himself. Alf floated out a ‘wimp’ under his breath.
“Excuse me, am I bothering the two of you?” the man asked, leaning just ever so slightly forward, and tilting his head told the two men.
Alf too leaned forward, balancing his weight on his old cane, and rolled his tongue, through a fair amount of phlegm, against the inside of his cheek, held it there for a minute, contemplating, than spat out, “Well, matter of fact, you are!”. Glancing at Pete, Alf’s aggravation ticked up a bit when he saw his friends sigh and roll his eyes, and then added, “We were discussing sumthing, sumthing private.”
Pete glanced sideways toward Alf, who relished in his embarrassment, and started to utter, “We weren’t talking ’bout nothing”, when the man interrupted.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” and then leaned back against the open slats of the bench.
Alf watched, thinking he had made his point when the man rested his back instead of moving, and noticed a smile, a smart alec ass smile cross his face.
“Shi…” Alf hissed, not caring who heard when Pete interrupted his curse with a “lets go get some coffee.” as Alf shook his head from side to side in disgust at the mans intrusion.
“Don’t want no damn coffee.” came full on the back of irritability.
“Too much coffees not good for you.” the stranger said as he loosened his smart ass smile yet stared straight ahead watching a hundred pairs of legs carrying their masters to and fro, back and forth, all going someplace. “Did you know that, Pete?
Seeing an opening for a portion of cordiality, Pete hoped for a parcel of an apology for Alf’s abrasiveness. He had formed the first word on his lips when it hit him, struck him broadside that the stranger used his name and it showed on the quizzical look which formed on his features.
The man looked ahead, still watching, when he abruptly and silently swung his head over his left shoulder, to stare directly at Pete.
“Don’t be so taken aback, Peter. I know most every ones name.” His breath was soft and cool as it fell against the Peters cragged and dry face, “In fact, I’d be hard pressed to remember a name I’ve ever forgotten.”was heard with a chuckle as Pete turned to look towards Alf, who had remained silent while twirling the crook of his cane between forefinger and thumb of one hand.
Now he squinted in new found curiosity and stared at the intruder, studying him and then with his cup filled filled of question ans attack, asked simply, “You going to a funeral, Mister?”
The sounds of a thousand footsteps slapped against hard polished floor and voices drifted in murmurs towards the high ceiling where the sun outlined the grids of a large skylight which those thousand pairs of feet walked over and through with never a thought to disturb their form.
“No funeral, not today Alfred.” His dark pupils dancing in a bright ocean of white served to bait Alf’s growing attention, holding it briefly, before Alf asked his next question, “How’s Aggie doing?”
Pete winced in the stupidity of his friends question, wondering what in the world possessed him to ask such a question such as that.
“Alfred…” was a sigh of expression on the mans part, “I don’t have the time to concern myself with how every one is doing. Too much work to do, you know.”
Pete arced an eyebrow as he turned to Alf who remained concentrating on the stranger.
“Somebody tell me what the two of you are are talking about, please?”
Alf was reluctant to turn his thoughts from the man, not daring, not trusting to take his eyes away, but he did so, haltingly, slowly glancing over toward Pete as he spoke. “He’s here for one of us Pete, or maybe both of us…”
“What the hell are you mumbling…” Pete stuttered but couldn’t finish as Alf cut him short. “Don’t be so god damn assisine, Pete. Look cross the walk to our reflections in the glass. You see him setting on the bench with us in that friggin’ glass? See ya self, dont’cha, see me dont’cha, but ya don’t see him, do ya?”
“Oh for the love of mercy Alf, your minds finally gone, twisted ’round and fell out your big ears. You stop to think the mans dressed in black and might not reflect in the glass like we are?”
Pete had spoke with an air of his own irritability and yet even as he had done so, stole a cursory glance at the window.
“Let me tell ya something else then, you idiot. Last thing Aggie saw was a man dressed in black calling her name. I heard her say it, said he was standing just side her bed, holding her hand. You Gonna hold my hand Mister?”
“Alfred, I wouldn’t hold your hand if I had to pull you along with me, even if you were kicking and screaming.”
Pete stared at the man, unsure of what to say much less of what to believe. “Is what Alf’s saying, true?” was all that came cross his mind, and as he spoke, his words were soft, gentle.
The man started ahead, through the world which walked past him him and answered Pete’s question with a nod that was nothing more than a bounce of his head.
“Because it’ the ways things work. Not my idea Peter.”
“So who ya here for, me?” Alfs words were sharp, “Cuz if ya are, I ain’t ready to go just yet.”
“I understand that Alf, but just for my own curiosity, if I were here for you, what would you do?”
In a single strong beat of his heart, Alf grasped his cane, bringing it up, off the floor and then laid it back down with a loud ‘thack’, which reverberated and caused the walkers to glance their way in a nervous fashions.
“That’s what I’d do first, rap ya ‘cross your head a good one and then mebbe do it ‘gin just for the hell of it.”
“I believe you would old man and I dread the day we meet again,” then switching his focus, “and how about you Peter.”
He had listened to the two of them as he stared at his own shoes. Bringing his eyes up to Alf, Pete ran an old hand thru sparse white tuffs of hair which still sprouted like over grown weeds.
“It’s me he wants, Alf.”
Alf heard the weakness in his friends voice, the surrender which was already there and answered it the best way he could.
“Don’t have to go with him, you know that, don’t you?”
“Peter does have to come with me, Alfred, it is his time.”
Peter’s left arm tweaked with what he thought to be a muscle cramp but knew better as he raised a palm to massage his shoulder.
“This isn’t going to hurt, is it?”
“Just a bit Peter, only at first.”
“Wait a minute here,” Alf was frustrated, “You can’t be going just like that and leave me here.”
Peters cramp worked its way up the length of his arm, spreading out over his chest, gripping his heart, and he winced out the next words in pain, and trying to ignore the pain.
“I’m sorry about everything Alf, I mean Aggie and all.”
Alfs eyes had grown red, puffy as he watched this man whom he had known since childhood place an open palm against is chest and close his eyes.
“Ain’t nuthin’ to worry about Pete. It was long ago an’ nothing but a part of livin…’, wasn’t it? He asked of a man that was no longer there.
“Pete” came as a low shrilled cry as his friend took his last breath while Alf wrapped his arm around his shoulders.
Pete hurried to catch up to the man who threatened to disappear into the crowd. Matching his step, he glanced over his shoulder where he caught Alf with his head hung low, his cane lying on the floor and he heard him crying as they turned the corner.