by Patricia Russo
The bench had always evoked the most profound sense of disquiet in me.
It sat on the corner of Sullivan and Riding, where no bench had any business to sit. It wasn?t a bus stop. The nearest park lay fifteen blocks to the west, the closest senior citizen center two towns away. No library or community hall or school graced the entire length of Sullivan Avenue or Riding Street. Not when I was a child, not now, and as far as I knew, not ever.
The bench was green, or, more precisely, it had once been painted a rather unnatural sea-green shade. Over the years the paint had flaked, peeled, and chipped away, leaving only traces of the original hue caught in the splintery cracks of the wooden slats of the bench’s seat and back. The legs were cement -- or concrete, I could never tell the difference -- dark gray now with age, weathering, and exposure to car exhaust; pitted and crumbling.
Not an inviting place to sit, one would think. Not a spot upon which to while away a summer afternoon leafing through a newspaper, a fresh spring morning chatting with a friend, a brand-new autumn day just watching the world go by.
A nice place to sit, no.
One wouldn?t think so, and one would be right, especially as the sun never did seem to shine on it; even on the brightest, clearest days the bench squatted in perpetual shade, cast into murky, somehow dank-seeming shadow by some impenetrable cloud hanging directly above it.
This is simply how I remembered it, one might object; as a child and adolescent I had seen the bench in shadow on a handful of occasions, and either willfully or through some innocent trick of memory, I failed to recall the many times I must have seen it bathed in sunlight?or dappled by moonlight?or heaped with snow.
One would be wrong.
Season after season, year after year, the bench was ever and only in shadow. The sight was particularly disturbing on naturally overcast days. In the general mundane grayness one found it difficult to distinguish exactly where the deeper, danker grayness enveloping the bench began.
For this reason I always walked on the other side of the street on cloudy days. Even then, somehow, despite the dread that gripped me, I could not stop myself from pausing to watch the bench for some minutes?minutes that on occasion stretched into hours.
Sometimes I returned home so late that as punishment my parents confined me to my bedroom without an evening meal. Several times my father castigated me physically. Still, whenever I walked by the corner of Riding and Sullivan, I had to stop and watch the bench.
The bench, and its occupants.
For the decrepit, splintering, crumbling bench was rarely vacant. At noon, at midnight, in the sweltering days of August and the bone-freezing nights of February, the old men sat on the bench.
Old men I?d thought them as a child, and old men I thought them now, so many years later. I stood across the street, ice in my stomach and cold sweat trickling down my back. I had returned to the town of my birth out of necessity, to settle the estate of my late sister (our parents had bequeathed all to her after I?d abandoned my natal house as well as my hometown at the age of fifteen, with the determination never to return.) Out of necessity as well, for there were no hotels or motels in the vicinity except for those catering to prostitutes and their half-hourly clients, I was staying at the old house while the lawyer wended her slow way through mounds and drifts of paperwork.
There had been no necessity for me to trudge through the graffiti-embellished, trash-strewn streets of my childhood, past boarded-up houses and shops whose rolled-down metal shutters were sealed with rust, no need at all to scuffle down block after block of broken pavement until I reached the intersections of Riding Street and Sullivan Avenue.
They were the same men.
Fool, I admonished myself, though my heart was pounding. If the men who sat on this bench forty and more years ago were old -- and granted that even the mere middle-aged might appear incredibly ancient in a child’s eyes -- they yet had to be long dead by this date. These were other men?other old men?
A sensation like that of the furry feet of a palm-sized spider scurried up my spine.
?with the same slumped backs and misshapen shoulders, the same fingerless gloves covering overlarge hands, the same knit caps pulled down over low yet bulging foreheads?
The same faces.
Their sons, I thought, my heart fluttering in a disquieting manner high in my chest. Nephews. Continuing some neighborhood tradition, a particular family laying claim to the single bench in the area and occupying it by a tacit but generally acknowledged right for decades.
Quite a ridiculous rationalization, that. I admit it freely.
I remembered now, or so I thought, what it had been that had frightened me so much about the bench, what had terrified me to the extent that I had fled home and family, cut off all contact with my kin and allowed myself to be disinherited, simply to get away from it and stay away from it. These men, with their lantern jaws and lipless mouths?.who had stared at me every time I passed the bench, stared with hungry eyes, stared at me harder than I ever stared at them, and who beckoned to me.
As they were staring now.
As they beckoned now.
Just as it seemed that I must either flee in infantile panic or remain and suffer myself to fall victim to an infarct (my heart was beating very oddly indeed), relief arrived, as wonderful as a cool rain on a broiling day. Among the eight or ten figures huddled on the bench -- though when vacant the bench appeared of ordinary length, if not rather short, one that might comfortably accommodate three or four modestly sized adults -- I?d regularly seen it occupied by no less than eight and sometimes as many twelve men -- I spotted two that were unmistakably female.
Immediately my pulse slowed; my breathing eased. Wiping sweat from my forehead, I laughed at myself. There had never been women on the bench when I was a child.
The same men, indeed. The same faces. Giggling -- I detested giggling, so I bit my lip to make myself stop -- I began to turn away.
The habitues of the bench beckoned more desperately.
Homeless, I thought. It was so obvious when one looked at it rationally. All this lot were, was a collection of drunkards and derelicts, of the exact same sort and ilk as could be found in every city and town and indeed hamlet in the country.
"No spare change!" I shouted, laughing quite out loud now, heedless of the risk of provoking anger from the disheveled, disenfranchised, likely drugged tramps only a few yards away.
Instead of hurling invective, or indeed literally hurling some of the plentiful debris at hand to indicate resentment at being mocked, the bench sitters began to laugh along with me.
Something stirred, very deep down and very far back in my mind. A fragment of recall. A tendril of returning memory, inching forward into consciousness like a worm creeping slowly, slowly toward?
A person was approaching the bench. Some fool was staggering down Sullivan Avenue at two in the morning, weaving wildly, stumbling over every real or imagined crack in the pavement.
As I knew they would, the figures on the bench began to rise.
Memory from more than forty years ago thrust itself forward with increasing force. Memories. More than one. I had seen this several times. On the first occasion, I might have been as young as four.
This was the reason I had run away and stayed away. As the reality unfolded again before my unblinking eyes, recollection returned completely, so that, transfixed on the street corner, I saw and remembered simultaneously.
Six, eight, ten, twelve?how many of them were there? How many?people?could one dilapidated bench possibly hold?
They swarmed him, the blind-drunk idiot weaving down Sullivan, like roaches converging on?like roaches. Hunched. Scuttling. Somehow one knew that underneath their knit caps and coats and fingerless gloves, the bench-sitters hid unnaturally soft bodies. If one struck them hard, they would squish.
And yet they moved so very, very quickly.
Even if the two a.m. wanderer hadn?t been a wobbling, overweight, breathless sot, the tenants of the bench would have overcome him. Or her. Or them, too, sometimes. I remembered once when the bench people took a family, a grandpa with two daughters or daughter-in-laws and a bunch of small grandkids?
Abruptly I became aware that my hands had risen, it seemed of their own volition, to press their palms firmly against my ears.
The children had screamed so loudly.
The drunkard did not scream. He made no sound at all, so swiftly did the people of the bench bring him down.
My hands were still clapped over my ears.
They brought him down and stretched him out. I saw a figure -- I thought it might have been one of the females -- crouch over the inebriated man’s head. Her hands -- swollen, misshapen, in fingerless gloves -- moved, but her exact actions were hidden from me by darkness and by the shadow that had nothing to do with ordinary day and night, sunshine and clouds, the shadow that always surrounded the bench. Perhaps she smothered him. Perhaps she broke his neck.
In any case, the dismemberment proceeded in relative silence, the only sounds breaking the nocturnal stillness those of the tearing of cloth (long, stretchy sounds) and the snapping of bone (short, sharp ones.)
I felt an odd quivering just below my skin, a subcutaneous trembling I?d experienced before only rarely; most of those occasions I?d been relatively certain were dreams.
The bench people grinned. They beckoned to me.
At the same time, methodically and painstakingly they tore the man apart, hands and teeth moving with the sureness of long practice, reducing flesh, bones, muscle, and clothing to small -- one might say almost bite-sized -- bits, which they passed hand-over-hand back to the bench.
And the bench fed.
The two -- no, three -- women among the bench people gestured to me more urgently.
Perhaps I could have run, the way I had run before. Perhaps, if I had fled at that moment, I could have escaped.
The pavement was empty. A stain or two remained only?.stains that blended into shadow and vanished.
The bench looked exactly the same. Ancient, decrepit, about to fall to pieces.
The bench sitters moved toward it and took their places one by one, one by one, one by one?
I could not count them any more.
Slowly, I crossed the street.
When I was young, this is what I?d run away from.
The denizens of the bench opened their arms to me, their faces solemn but their eyes shining with welcome.
There was room for me on the bench. Of course there was. There always had been.
Each step that brought me closer to the bench lessened my terror. With a relief as sweet as spring water, I took my seat among my people, who had waited so long for me and with so much patience, and who embraced me without a shred of reproach or recrimination, but only with understanding and satisfaction, and a deep, quiet joy that I had finally come home.