The following is among the 16 essays, personal reflections and short stories from the recent collection, Outer Voices Inner Lives. Now a Lambda Literary Aware Finalist for anthology.
The Green Bench
By Richard May
He was alone that morning, which disturbed me. Every day I walked through the park on my way to work and every day they were there, two old gentlemen, sitting on the green bench side by side, sleeves touching, if not arms. In winter they wore overcoats, in spring windbreakers maybe, in summer short sleeved shirts and in autumn something heavier, a regular coat probably.
Today, it was just him, the One on the Left. He was slumping but that wasn’t unusual. He was quiet but that wasn’t out of place either. I hardly ever saw them speaking to one another. They just sat, wordless, motionless, but together.
I had never had the urge to stop, to know their names, but today, with the One on the Right missing, I felt the need to know why. Where was he? I looked at my phone; I would be late. I never gave myself more than the minimum amount of time to make the transit from home to office. A brisk walk was good for you anyway. I sent a text to my secretary. I’d bring her coffee; she’d love me for it.
“Excuse me. You don’t know me but I was wondering, where’s your friend?” No, I can’t say that. Much too personal. Besides, is the One on the Right a friend or a lover? A brother? They do tend to dress something alike.
“Pardon me but my name is Paul Stallings and….” No, that won’t do either.
“Excuse me. Is this seat taken?”
“No,” the One on the Left said, looking up with sad eyes in a sadder face. He moved towards the left end of the bench. I sat near the right. There was still space for the One on the Right in between us. I hoped he was coming. I really hoped he was coming.
We were silent together, like they were. But silence wouldn’t answer my questions.
“Yes,” he answered, looking up and around. I looked where he looked. We wound up looking at each other.
“Would you like the Times?”
“No,” he answered, trying to smile. “We…I have it at home.” His face fell. He turned away from me, perhaps to hide his sudden emotion, perhaps to keep it private.
I hesitated. “Is anything wrong? Can I help you?”
He turned back to me. “I wish you could.”
That seemed like an invitation to intimacy so I moved closer, filling half the space we had left for the One on the Right. The One on the Left did not shift onto the other half.
“My name is Paul Stallings,” I said, extending my hand.
He stared at it as if he were unfamiliar with the custom of shaking hands but then, belatedly and in a rush, grabbed for it like he was drowning. “My name is Clayton Evers.” We shook and then held hands as seconds ticked. Mr. Evers’ hand was calloused and strong. If I’d only shaken hands with him, without seeing his face and body, I would have guessed he was much younger. When he let me go, I felt regretful.
He visibly pulled himself together, sitting up straight, straighter than I’d seen him sit in three years of daily encounters, Monday through Friday only. “You’re very kind,” he said. I smiled. He took a breath.
“My partner died last night.” That was as much as he could say. It seemed like a summary of much more.
I took his hand again and kept it. “I’m so so sorry. It seems awfully sudden.”
“It was,” he agreed, then pulled his hand out of mine, looking at me quizzically or suspiciously, I couldn’t tell.
“I pass by here every day.”
His expression remained wary.
“On my way to work.”
He remained silent, leaning away from me, evaluating.
“I see you here every day when I pass.”
He examined me more carefully, then seemed to relax. “Oh, yes. You’re the Man Who Stares.”
“Bob and I noticed you always stare at us as you walk by. We called you the Man Who Stares. I’m sorry.” He seemed embarrassed.
I tried to laugh, for his benefit. “I guess I did. I guess I was curious about the two of you. I mean, you’re here every morning on the same bench, sitting beside each other, not saying anything.”
Mr. Evers chuckled. “Well, we did talk sometimes I’m sure but, after 43 years, you don’t need a lot of words.”
We sat silently on the green bench for a few moments. Mr. Evers looked at the duck pond. I looked at nothing. I began to think I should be saying goodbye.
“Bob was 81, eight years older than I.”
I liked the attention to grammar. I hesitated but then took the plunge. “Mr. Evers, pardon me, but could I ask how your partner died?”
“Of course. And my name is Clay.” I nodded. He sighed and said in a shaky voice, “It was a heart attack. He’d had two before but recovered. This time….” His voice trailed off. I moved close beside him and put my arm around his shoulder. He leaned a little towards me. He probably did that with Bob.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I could hear that he was crying very quietly. I held him more tightly.
“There is nothing to be sorry about.”
“Oh, but there is. In 43 years you have plenty to be sorry about.” His voice was rueful.
“But you were together all those years. You were in love.” I was proud of myself for not stumbling over the word.
“Have you ever been in love?” he asked, looking askance at me but not pulling away. I shook my head no. “Well, I hope you find someone soon but when you do you’ll know what I’m saying.”
“I can’t see myself 43 years with anybody.”
“Why not?” he asked, turning in my arm to look more directly at me.
Why had I made it about me? Jack said I always did that. I disagreed with him when he said it, mainly because he was moving out and I was angry, but he was probably right. Looking back, he was right about most things we argued over.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“No, obviously it is something.”
I could see he was interested. He must be a kind man. Maybe it would help…no, no, no! “I’m just being silly. It must be terrible for you right now.”
“I’m afraid it’s going to be terrible forever,” he said, trying to make a joke out of it. He looked at me again and caught me checking the time. “I’m keeping you.”
He was. I needed to go on, walk away, be at work. It was Friday. So much to do. “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” I asked him. He didn’t look surprised, just said he would be. “I’ll meet you here. What’s a good time?” I wondered when he and Bob came to the green bench, when they left.
“We….” He stopped himself. “7:30 would be good.”
“Okay, 7:30. See you then. Shall I bring you a coffee?”
“No, thanks. We always have…uh, yes. That would be great.” I started to ask but he answered before I could. “Regular, one sugar please.”
“Got it.” I stood up and Clay stood with me. We shook hands again. “See you tomorrow,” I promised.
“See you tomorrow,” he agreed.
The next morning I made my way to the green bench carefully carrying his regular and my black coffee. I let out my breath when I saw him sitting there, in his usual spot.
“Good morning,” I said to his back to let him know I was coming. He turned around, left arm resting along the back of the bench.
“Good morning, Paul.” He had a lovely smile and a good profile. When I sat down beside him, I realized he was a very good looking man for his age. He must have been handsome when he was younger. What did—what had Bob looked like? Was he was handsome too? I’d really never seen his face.
“How are you doing today?” It was a pro forma ask but I really did want to know, once I’d said it.
“Of course it is.” I opened his coffee for him. He took several sips. “When is the funeral? You must have so much to do.”
“Tomorrow. And no, I don’t. Andrew, Bob’s son, is taking care of everything, at least all that’s left to take care of. Bob had already arranged most of it. He was a very organized person.”
I tried to picture Bob. Clay seemed to be doing the same thing.
“Would you like to see a photo of him?” he asked. I said I would.
He took two out of his wallet. The first was of an elderly man with a wide smile and happy eyes. The second was of two men about my age, younger versions of Clay and Bob I could tell. Clay was indeed very handsome, very blond, with regular features and a thick moustache. Bob was not so attractive but he already had that wide smile and those happy eyes. He looked a little like me. I wondered if I should mention that to Clay.
“He had a great smile.”
“He did,” Clay said quietly. We stared at the photos for a while. I was beginning to get used to the silences. Clay looked up as if an idea had just occurred to him. “Would you come to his funeral?”
When I walked into Gershon’s, the room was a sea of black suits and grey hair, with islands of blonde and brown. An usher handed me a program for the service. I hesitated, wondering where to sit, when suddenly Clay was in front of me, taking my forearm, welcoming me with words and smiles and guiding me towards the front. He introduced me to Bob’s children and then sat us down.
“I saved a place for you.”
I should have said, “You shouldn’t have,” and retreated towards the anonymous back of the room, but I didn’t.
He linked his arm comfortably through mine. I saw that Polly, Bob’s daughter, noticed. I wondered what I should do but then the rabbi began and we all faced forward. I hadn’t known Bob was Jewish too.
After the rabbi finished, quite a lot of friends and family rose to tell stories about Bob. I felt I got to know him, know why Clay stayed with him for over 40 years. When Clay tried to speak, he broke down almost immediately. Polly was beside him in a second, taking his arm, whispering. Andrew and I sat marooned on the bench, separated by the spaces where they’d been.
Afterwards, Polly spoke to me. “Thank you for coming.”
“I’m Paul Stallings. I’m….”
“The Man Who Stares.” She suppressed a smile. “Clay told us.” She looked at me in an evaluating way. “You do look a lot like my father,” she decided, as if she were confirming information given to her by another source. “I heard you saying the Kaddish. Are you Jewish?”
Clay joined us before I could answer. “Thank you so much for coming, Paul,” he said, taking my hands in his. “Would you like to join us for lunch?”
I made some excuse.
“Will I see you tomorrow at the green bench?” he asked in a voice full of hope and dread. Polly’s eyes gave their approval. Something inside me did too.
“Of course,” I assured him. “I’ll bring the coffee.”
Richard May writes gay short stories, erotic and not. His work has appeared in several literary journals, short story anthologies and his first book Ginger Snaps: Photos & Stories of Redheaded Queer People. Rick also organizes literary readings and events, including the annual Word Week literary festival, Noe Valley Authors Festival and Magnet San Francisco author events. He lives in San Francisco.