“Soliloquy on a Park Bench” by Conrad Aiken
The model for the afternoon hour was an Italian boy–about her own age, she thought. His face had a heavy beauty, sombre as that of the sleeping Medusa, particularly in profile; seen fully, it was a little stupid. But his torso was what most delighted her, and this she drew with careful strong strokes, luxuriating in a new sense of precision. Her pleasure in this was exquisite, was prolonged. “Extraordinary!” she murmured, and found herself oddly frowning at the dark beauty of the skin, the well-muscled shoulders, and arched ribs, in the April sunlight that slanted from the half. shaded window. She was sorry when the hour was over. Miss N, thrusting off her apron, paused beside her and asked if she were going “down town.” She repressed a shade of annoyance–though she liked Miss N–and replied vaguely that she “had some things to do.” This was not true, and she felt a slight contrition when she saw that Miss N was unconvinced and a little hurt. However! . . . She put on her hat and escaped into the soft afternoon.
The parkway invited her–it was vague, it was hazily green with new leaves and buds, the muddy river gleamed sleepily here and there as it curved among flat gardens and under small stone arches, and the drowsy quackings and laconic comments of waterfowls seemed only to add to the immense and melancholy stillness. She caressed affectionately, with a fugitive hand, as she walked, the low stone wall that led to a ridiculously conceited little bridge. She slid two fingers over the white flank of a birch. Further on, she touched her palm, and scratched it, against a barberry frond, on which two elfin red-peppers still hung. . . . Why had she rebuffed Miss N? . . . Well, really, one wanted, sometimes, to be alone. Particularly when one was–what? . . . Her eyes wandered from the word, she paused to watch a duck stand on his head in the still water, and then walked on absorbed. The benches here were too crowded. A nursemaid scolded a child, lifting an angry round eye from her knitting. A small boy was digging in the gravel with a bit of broken glass, murmuring “It’s like this–it’s like this.” A bored perfumed lady waited patiently for her Pomeranian; which suddenly twinkled after her as if on wire springs. . . . The bells in St Matthew’s Church began striking five, and it seemed to her that the slow deep tones hung afterwards among the trees and over the water like a mist. White and purple crocuses were sunning themselves in a corner by a wall–absurd! She felt suddenly like laughing at everything, and then, just as suddenly, for no reason, felt unhappy, as if she had a bird shut ,in her heart who wanted to escape. She found a deserted bench and sat down, at the end nearest the water. Grackles made scraping sounds in the maple tree over her head–scolding at sparrows. Cruel birds, grackles! . . . Who was it that had told her of seeing a grackle pursue a sparrow tirelessly till he had worn it out, and then stab it to death on the ground? . . . How horrible, and in April . . . There was a grackle now. He walked awkwardly by the water’s edge–a bedraggled fellow, getting on in years; but what a beautiful iridescence on his black feathers! . . . It was Fred Thomas who had told her. He always came out to smoke his pipe here after lunch. A curious, a nice thing for a man to do, an unexpected concession–as if the grackle should pause and admire a crocus! She laughed to herself, and half shut her eyes to make a picture of the water, with a round cold cloud in it, and part of the stone arch of a bridge.
It was while she was doing this that a young man walked slowly between her and the dim picture, looking down at her intently. She felt ridiculous. She became aware, after he had passed, that she had gone on screwing up her eyes without the slightest notion of what she was looking at. She relaxed her forehead, and turned to glance after him: to her surprise he also had turned, and was irresolutely coming back, still staring. In fact, he came and sat down at the other end of the bench. He was pale, his clothes were slightly shabby, his mouth was oddly pursed, one of his eyebrows twitched. She averted her eyes quickly. . . . How very curious! She felt flushed and confused, and after a second, during which she had ridiculously held her breath, she could hear her excited brain going through a preposterous rigmarole of its own–”Grackle under a white cloud–muddy water–grackle, grackle–muddy water–’It’s ferocious, simply ferocious.’” . . . He was going to speak to her–but of course she would ignore him–of course, of course. She crossed her knees with exquisite conscious leisureliness, and smoothed her skirt as if to say, “Young man, you simply don’t exist!” But no: it hadn’t been emphatic enough. She assumed an expression studiously indifferent, even hostile, and stared superciliously at the water. She glanced to the right, at a small girl propelling a velocipede, toes blandly turned out. She looked past him, to the left–examined witheringly the bare boughs of an elm tree. At that instant, unfortunately, he struck a match, and startled her into looking too abruptly away again. A cloud of cigarette smoke drifted warmly over her, the bench shook under his shift of posture, agreeably stirring her spine, and low words followed the smoke.
“Nice afternoon, isn’t it?”
She ignored him, allowing her eyes to follow blindly a passing pedestrian . . . So this is how it’s done . . . Prelude to the afternoon of a faun . . . More cigarette smoke, another tremble of the bench . . . Her heart beat violently, she seemed to have a red cloud before her eyes.
“Would you like to go to a movie? . . . Be a sport.”
She had an acute desire to reply “But I’m not a ‘sport’”–but she was silent. Several people passed, and she was embarrassed by perceiving that when she shifted her head to look at them, now to the right, now to the left, he did likewise, as if they were in concert. She turned her back towards him, but not too aggressively.
“You don’t mind my talking to you, do you? . . . No harm in talking, is there . . . I haven’t talked to anybody all day. . . . If you’re a stranger in a town you don’t find anybody to talk to. You can’t stop a cop and talk to him, can you? . . . on a train it’s different. You can almost always talk with the man sitting next to you, or get a game of cards. You look out the window and say, ‘I wonder what they’re building there?’ and that’s all there is to it. . . . But it’s hard getting to talk with a woman, unless she’s old . . . You offer her a newspaper or a magazine, and she says ‘No, thank you’ in a tone as if you’d insulted her. . . . And if you’re a stranger in a town, how are you going to meet any girls? That’s why, when I saw you here, I thought I’d try talking to you, just as if I knew you. You don’t mind, do you?”
He paused, puffed at his cigarette, looked at her (she knew) beseechingly. How quickly, if she responded, he would drop the beseeching and become proprietary! . . . She hoped nobody she knew would come along. Awkward . . . But of course she was paying no attention to him. She felt perfectly indifferent, and, for no reason, extraordinarily happy.
“Look at that duck–isn’t he comical! Funny beady eyes they have. . . . Last week I went out on the Concord River in a canoe. Did you ever go out there? . . . Lots of ducks and turtles and muskrats. . . . It’s great. After a mile or two you don’t meet a soul–nothing but water and trees, burnt willow stumps in the water, bushes in the water, red-winged blackbirds in the bushes . . . I spread my coat out and the wind carried me for a long way. When I got hungry, I went ashore and ate a lunch. 0 say didn’t I get,scratched in the bull briars! They were a caution. . . . All the same, it would have been nice if I’d had somebody to talk to. . . . It’s not much fun going to places if you’re alone–”
A man and woman went by, preoccupied. The woman was saying, “Well, he got a broken leg, that’s what he got, didn’t he.” The man walked grimly, his eyes on the ground.
“How would you like to go there next Sunday? . . . We could take some sandwiches and a couple of bottles of ginger-ale. . . . It’s pretty scenery . . . One place, I saw last year, there was a big sloping field full of tall asparagus–all feathery, you know–and a man driving a white horse through it, cultivating it. The horse looked as if he were half lost in a green fog. . . . It was like a picture. . . . Sometimes you find a canoe pulled up. among trees and bushes in a quiet spot, and a man and girl having a pretty good time. . . . Maybe you’ve been up there. . . . Maybe you don’t like the country much? . . . How would you like to go to a movie? There’s a good one a little way from here–swell music. I go there once in a while. I like to be in a crowd of people like that, in the dark, and hear them all laughing–did you ever notice that? The way the laugh goes all over the house. . . . Well, it’s a rest after you’ve been running a linotype all day–believe me! . . . Last night I dreamt I went to a movie, all dark, full of rows and rows of people who looked at me and smiled, and a girl I had never seen before said ‘Why, hello Charlie!’ (that’s my name). I put my hand on her knee, and then I woke up! . . . Gee, I felt sad, as if I’d lost my best friend.”
Quack, quack. A duck swam along, followed by a flotilla of industrious ducklings. The sky was beginning to turn pink.
“Won’t you tell me your name? . . . Come and have supper with me . . . I know a Chinese place–the tables have marble tops and carved legs. Then we could go to a movie. I won’t bother you–all I want is somebody to talk to. Have supper, and then, if you want, you can leave me . . . or, if you want, we can go to a movie. . . . It’s nice to sit close together–you know what I mean? I like to feel a girl’s shoulder against mine, moving when she breathes. Why is it it feels so good? You feel happy all over, as if you were melting, and then you touch each other’s hands–”
. . . She got up suddenly, trembling all over, without having been aware of any decision to go, and walked rapidly away. For a moment he did not follow, but then she was aware, half turning her head, that he had risen and had begun to walk after her, but with the same odd irresolute step with which he had first approached her. She quickened her pace, her heart beating. She had a strange pulsing pain in the side of her throat. When she had turned the corner she ran and barely caught a street-car which had stopped there. She looked back and saw him standing at the corner, foolish and pathetic. Then he turned aimlessly back towards the parkway.
All the way home in the street-car she felt extraordinarily confused, ecstatic, and at the same time ashamed. She wanted to hear music, to dance, to draw pictures–pictures full of darkness and depth, with pointed lights and dim people moving among trees hung with lanterns. She thought of the river, as he had described it. That had been delicious–especially the white horse in the mist of asparagus. She thought of the marble-topped tables, Chinamen, carved legs, and the girl who had said ‘Why, hello Charlie!’ . . . When she got to the boarding-house she found that her sister had left a message, saying that she would not be home till late in the evening. . . . Good! . . . She ate her supper without talking to anybody, and then, feeling excited and happy, went out.
She walked, without apparent aim, towards the more crowded streets, where the lights were brightest and the sound of the idle stream of people loudest. Everybody wanted to be gay. But she was getting tired, she couldn’t walk about like this all evening–What should she do? A movie sign caught her eye. Ah! . . . She was given a seat between two men, both of whom looked at her with interest. An orchestra was playing loudly, the great shaft of light poured down to the screen over the dark rows of people. It was full of narrow rays, crossing and recrossing one another. A laugh began somewhere and ran irregularly over the house, gathering volume, then died away. She sank back in her chair, sighing. Her shoulder touched the shoulder of the man at her right, and she quickly withdrew it, and began, for some reason, to tremble violently.