|Posted by Connor Huchton on July 25, 2011 at 10:13 AM|
This was Vernon’s spot. Vernon had come here on the day the bench had been built 30 years ago, screwed to the ground as part of the Park’s modernization remodel. Since then, Vernon had fervently protected the bench against all comers on a daily basis. He came to the park every day (weather allowing) at 4 PM, found the bench, and left promptly at 6 PM. People would occasionally walk by and glance interestedly towards Vernon and his bench, but they always moved on upon Vernon’s angry returning gaze. Vernon was proud of his prized possession, an 8-foot green bench with receding paint. This is my bench, Vernon thought. He took comfort in something being firmly his.
The spot hadn’t been public domain from 4 to 6 PM for two decades, and Vernon had no interest in that changing, especially for the disheveled man that stood before him. He grimaced at the man, desperate to submit him to his will and retain his sole possession of the bench.
The man gazed intently towards the elderly man on the bench. He seemed undaunted by the unyielding stare of the old man. Silently, he glided towards Vernon and his bench, his feet drifting gracefully over the sidewalk pavement, as if in control of the ground’s texture. The man emanated a sense of belonging, as if he held just as much of a right to the bench as Vernon did. Vernon attempted to cover the bench with his legs as a last-ditch effort to persuade the man away from his pursuits, but the man slowly sat down on the other edge of the bench. The man made no eye contact with Vernon as he moved.
Vernon didn’t know how to respond to the man, because there was little precedent for his resolve. Other people who had bravely sat next to Vernon in the past had soon moved away. Uncertainty soon surged through Vernon, and this uncertainty quickly turned to anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Vernon asked the man, attempting to seem as gruff as possible.
“Sitting,” responded the man as he looked away.
“Who said you could sit here?” Vernon could feel the irritation rising with him. Lately he had felt his emotions seeping away from him, but they were sharply returning upon this intrusion into what he considered, “Vernon’s personal space”.
“No one. No one needs to. This is a public bench, and it’s a nice day. Who said you could sit here?” The man pointedly turned towards Vernon as he spoke.
The anger and irritation that had been brewing within Vernon continued to stir, as if looking for a place to escape.
“How dare you? This is my bench,” Vernon was annoyed by the man’s seeming disinterest in paying heed to Vernon.
“I must have missed the sign somewhere. Can we just enjoy this beautiful day and stop arguing?” At this the man took out a paper sack from the backpack he had been wearing. He removed a sandwich from the sack and began happily chewing on what seemed like a ham and cheese combination.
“Why do you have to sit on this bench? Look at all of the benches around us with no one sitting on them!” Vernon persisted.
“This bench looked really comfortable, and I thought you could use some company,” the man replied with a slight smile.
For a moment, Vernon could think of nothing to say in protest to the man’s indifference. He was tempted to continue his ranting, but so far that method had proven generally ineffective. Vernon decided to try and reason with the man to get him to move.
“What’s your name?” Vernon asked, attempting to seem genuinely interested in the answer.
“My friends call me Jimmy,” the man continued to look away stoically from Vernon.
“What are you doing here today, Jimmy?” Vernon pressed.
“I live near the park, and I’ve heard only nice things about it. Thought I’d check it out on a nice day like this. Not a bad idea, dontcha think?” Jimmy now seemed more interested in the conversation.
“It’s not that nice of a day,” Vernon responded. He couldn’t stand the man’s cheeriness.
“So you say. What’s your name, anyway?” Jimmy retorted.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business, but my name is Vernon.” Vernon didn’t enjoy the focus being turned on him.
“Nice meeting you, Vernon,” Jimmy turned away from Vernon once again, as if he now knew all he needed to. Vernon remembered that knowing look. He remembered it playing across his own face, so many years ago. I remember too much, Vernon thought, and I don’t want to remember. Preservation and remembrance go hand-in-hand, and Vernon was determined to keep his hand in his pocket. He didn’t want to know anything, except the blindness of solitude.
Jimmy was still eating his lunch. Jimmy was an interesting person to take in all at once, especially physically. He was one of those people who always seemed to blend into their surroundings and immediately become the focus of said surroundings. He fit the curvature of the bench’s backing, but he also dominated its form. He wasn’t an especially large man, probably around 6-foot and not especially heavy, but his frame was distinct. He had a dark, powerful beard, one that would usually be too ambitious for most men. His body belonged to him, and nature acquiesced to this belonging. Vernon watched as birds chirped and trees rustled close to Jimmy. Everything seemed alive near Jimmy. Vernon believed for an instant that he recognized Jimmy, but quickly he pushed those thoughts away. He didn’t want to associate anything with Jimmy. He didn’t want anything to do with Jimmy, Vernon reminded himself.
“You not gonna talk anymore?” Jimmy startled Vernon back to attention.
“Don’t have anything to say, I guess,” Vernon felt more resigned than anything else.
“Come on, Vernon. You don’t get tired of just sitting here?” Jimmy’s smile seemed ever-present.
“How do you know I just sit here? Maybe I just don’t like sitting here with you,” Vernon retorted.
“I’ve been watching you for the last week, Vernon. You never get up from this bench. You never walk around. You hardly move at all,” Jimmy explained to Vernon, almost wistfully.
“You’ve been…watching me?” Vernon sputtered, taken aback by Jimmy’s forwardness.
“Sure thing, Vernon. I actually visited for the first time in months three days ago. That’s when I noticed you. I decided that I would come talk to you today,”’ Jimmy claimed, his smile now turning wry.
“Why would you be interested in me? You said yourself that I don’t do anything. Of all the people that come to this park, why would you watch me?” Vernon felt an unsure feeling he hadn’t known in years.
“That’s what interests me so much, Vernon. You do nothing, but you do it so well. You must come here every day. And you just sit, sit, sit, and then leave. I’ve never seen you leave that bench. I’ve never seen you talk to anyone. Hell, I’ve never seen you look at anyone directly,” Jimmy’s concentration now seemed fully focused on Vernon.
“You……you don’t know that! You don’t know anything about me!” Vernon wasn’t used to being faced with answering questions.
“You’re right, actually. I don’t know anything about your past or what you do outside the park. But what you do inside the park is fascinating in its own way. Tell me more about you, Vernon,” Jimmy continued.
“What if I don’t want to talk to you about me?” Vernon had an odd sensation seize his body in a way he vaguely remembered. And then he realized: I feel vulnerable. I feel afraid. I don’t want to talk about me.
“That matters very little. I’m interested in you, and I’m sure you’ll eventually come around to my thinking. So, Vernon how long have you been coming here?” There was a certain bright-eyed optimism in Jimmy’s speech that Vernon found difficult to ignore.
They sat there for a moment, each gazing forwards at the bush that lay about ten yards in front of them. Vernon’s mind was torn. Part of him screamed out to answer Jimmy, to tell him everything, to pour out his secrets, his troubles, his anger, his sadness, and his questions like an open sieve. The other part of him screamed out for the seclusion he had so long known and protected. It was an unhappy part of him, but one that had taken hold for so long that it was impossible to ignore. Jimmy sat completely unaware of the struggle occurring deep within the old, withered man directly to his left.
“You gonna ignore me, Vernon? I thought we were making some progress!” Jimmy looked confused as Vernon uninterestedly made eye contact with him. Still, Vernon was not ready to answer. A minute passed. Then two more minutes. And then three more minutes.
“Vernon? You still with me?” Vernon heard Jimmy’s voice ringing out in the background, insistent upon receiving an answer from the quiet and immovable Vernon.
“Yes. I’m thinking. Haven’t you seen anyone think before? Now, what was your question? Spit it out,” Vernon felt comfortable once again. He was back to his demanding self.
“You’re a funny guy, Vernon. I’m sure people have told you that. I asked how long you had been coming here,” Jimmy looked expectantly at Vernon as he asked.
“A long time. Years. A lot of them. It’s none of your business how many exactly,” Vernon gruffly answered. “I’ll take it,” Jimmy talked on, “why do you like coming here so much? You must like coming here if you keep coming back. What makes this bench and this park so special?”
“I don’t know. It’s my park, and it’s my bench. I don’t care about the flowers, or the plants, or even that new fancy playground. I just like that it’s mine,” said Vernon. At this Vernon stared intently down at his hands. Each day these hands grow a new wrinkle, thought Vernon.
“But why come here every day and ignore everyone and everything?” With each question, Jimmy leaned in more and more, his eyes widening with inquisitiveness.
“I come here every day because it’s quiet. The middle school where I work gets out at 3:30, so I come here after it ends. Why do I ignore everyone? Because I can ignore people, and I want to ignore them. I have no business with people, and I have no business with things,” For the first time since he had begun his conversation with Jimmy, Vernon felt comfortable with his answer.
He could see the bright light that had shone within Jimmy’s eyes just a moment earlier dim for an instant, though it soon returned. Vernon had long felt vindicated in his cynicism and indifference, and this mode validated his attitude. Vernon almost felt the urge to smile, but he soon quelled that with the self-reminder that “Smiling is for the weak and ignorant.”
“That’s a pretty grim philosophy you got there, Vernon,” Jimmy’s smile had returned, “Where does that attitude come from?”
“My life is none of your business,” Vernon sensed his nerves bristling at the idea of self-revelation.
“I know you don’t think it is. That won’t stop me from asking. Come on, Vernon. We both know you have no interest in moving, since this is your bench, so why not talk to me? I’m interested in you, and I’m determined to find answers,” Jimmy pressed on with his questions.
“Fine. Where does that attitude come from? Look at you, Jimmy. You walk around like you understand everything that’s happening, but you don’t. I don’t claim to either, but I know what I’ve seen. And there was a day that came when I finally couldn’t take dealing with the things I felt anymore. That was the day I came to the park. I didn’t see anything terrible here, Jimmy. I saw nothing, and wished to see nothing. I didn’t want to hear people and their stories and their sadness, and I still don’t. I’m done with that. I’ve lived enough of those moments. So I’ve come to this bench for the last thirty years, and sat. I’ve sat, sat, and sat some more, and that’s been just fine with me. Not once has this bench ever caused me grief and I refuse for that to change with you or anyone else in this damned park!” Vernon’s voice rose as the sentence came to a close. Vernon looked down at his hands again. They were shaking, overcome by the unfamiliar nature of Vernon’s intensity.
The smile previously only lightly threatened that had waited on Jimmy’s face was now gone completely. His brow was furrowed as he looked downwards. For a brief moment it appeared that Vernon had finally succeeded in breaking Jimmy’s interest in understanding him. The chirping of the birds that had been incessant since the beginning of their encounter seemed to vanish almost instantly. Jimmy reached down for the comfort of his lunch sack but removed nothing from inside its confines.
Vernon had once again turned his attention to nothing, choosing to simply stare forwards contently. His hands had stopped shaking. Suddenly, a smile returned to Jimmy’s face.
“You know, Vernon, you think that’ll scare me away, but it only makes me more interested in you. That outburst was the most human thing I’ve seen you do,” Jimmy said. Vernon chose not to respond.
“Anyway, Vernon, I still have a few questions for you. If you answer them, I’ll leave you alone forever. If you don’t, I’ll come back to this bench every single day and sit with you,” explained Jimmy.
“I’ll answer one question, but that’s it. One question,” sternly warned Vernon.
“Deal. I’d rather not upset you anymore. I just want to know what happened in your life that made you believe everyone was shit?” Jimmy questioned.
“Everyone is shit. Even you,” Vernon murmured.
“Come on, Vernon, that isn’t fair. I’m probably not just shit. It seems to me that you’re ignoring the good side of people. Why?” Jimmy’s earnest tone was buried with his smile, but it persisted.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Jimmy,” Vernon said this with a vehemence he couldn’t understand. Why did he even care what Jimmy had to say?
“I get it, Vernon. You don’t like people, they suck, blah blah blah. That’s not what I’m asking, though I’m sure you’re well aware of that. You know what I intend to ask, and yet you sidestep it with talk of the depravity of mankind as a whole. Today, I don’t care about mankind as a whole, Vernon. I care about you,” Jimmy pointedly explained. Vernon decided to answer the young man’s question once-and-for-all. He wanted his quiet again. He demanded his quiet again.
“You want to know what happened to me, Jimmy?” There was a certain wryness to Vernon’s question that seemed out of place.
“I couldn’t want to know anything more,” Jimmy stated.
“Fine. I’ll explain. Pay attention,” Vernon commanded, and then began. “I used to be like you. Most people are like you at some point during their lives, Jimmy, but I was the most fervent example you ever could have seen. I met the woman I loved when I was twenty-five. I married her when I was twenty-six. I had my first kid, a boy, when I was twenty-eight. It’s hard for me to remember those years now, and not only because of the passage of time. It’s so difficult to look back on a time of constant happiness and remember the details. Happiness swallowed me up, and I never thought it would spit me back out. Like anyone else, I had problems. But they never controlled me, because I had no interest in dwelling on the negative. There was too much positive in my life to notice anything else. I worked at the factory in our local town for a few years and eventually was promoted to manager. And then it was all gone,” Vernon became quiet. He didn’t want to continue.
“What happened?” Jimmy whispered fearfully.
“I happened. Everything fell apart, and there was nothing I could do. There was an accident. A terrible accident,” Vernon was sprinting through his words now.
“The factory where I worked was built by a company called Venerable Steel, over twenty years before I became director of the plant. On July 1st of 1978, an inspector told me that the building had serious structural flaws and needed to have immediate improvements made, or else it would need to be evacuated within the next two months. The inspector was my friend, so he believed me when I assured him we’d have the problems fixed immediately. He told me that he’d sign off on the papers until his next inspection in 5 years, trusting me to start having the necessary improvements made within the week. I didn’t want to shut down production. If we did well enough in our production count for that calendar year, I would be able to get a bonus. I kept telling myself that we’d get it fixed as soon as the calendar year ended, as soon as I got my bonus. On September 17, 1978, the factory building collapsed. The steel foundation built below the building had slowly been crumbling.
I had scheduled the building to finally be checked on January 2nd of the next year. I can’t forget that date. I can’t forget anything,” Tears poured down Vernon’s wrinkled face as he spoke, “I wish I had been there that day. I deserved to die too. They didn’t. I remember every single one of their names. Scott, Joe, Mike, Dave, Aaron, Sammy, Romario, Chris, Wesley, John, Eric, Damon, Sanjay, Greg, and Anthony. Many of them were my friends. A few of them were like sons to me, especially Anthony. Anthony had a kid on the way. He never got to see that kid born. The saddest day in town history began in that moment. And I didn’t even have the decency to be in the factory with him when the building collapsed. I was on one-week vacation.
For the next year, I hid. My wife tried to talk to me during every single one of those days, but I couldn’t hear anything she said. I told her I didn’t want to be around anyone, that I was dangerous to others. In my mind, I had killed those men with my bare hands. She took me to every known psychiatrist in the state, but I refused the help. My sons were ignored at school, and cried out in loneliness every day. On the 366th day of my insulation, my wife explained that she was moving back to her hometown with the kids, to live at her mother’s house. She told me that she loved me still, but she couldn’t have the kids around me anymore. As she turned to leave, her bags already packed and the car running, I whispered, “Ok.” It was the most I could muster as my wife sobbed, shook her head, and walked out the door.
When I finally snapped out of shock, the full realization of everything I had lost confronted me. I didn’t leave the house for the next few months. I ordered my food and ignored the door when the families of the dead workers came to console me, or scream at me. I couldn’t face any of it,” Vernon was now sobbing, his words breaking through his tears only through great exertion. But he continued on as Jimmy sat next to him, stony-faced.
“When I finally left my house, I was served with papers. They described a civil suit that had been filed against the inspector, the steel company, and myself by the families of the victims killed in the accident. The factory had been long closed. I felt a grim satisfaction upon realizing I would lose everything at the hands of the lawsuit, though I regretted the inclusion of the inspector. I had broken his trust as well, and his life would now be ruined. I didn't deserve a damn thing, I told myself. I was present at the trial, but I had no wish to protest the claims against me. I ended up losing my house and the majority of my savings. With what I had left, I rented out a small, gray apartment downtown, and managed to get a job as the janitor at the local middle school. I was determined not to leave the city, not to outrun my problems. I wanted to revel in the legacy my tragedy had spawned.
People gave me angry stares as I walked to school, at least when they recognized my face from the papers. I did nothing to rebuff them. What could I say? My mistake had seemed unimportant, before it cost 15 men their lives. So I walked by quietly, resolutely. For a long time, I almost enjoyed their hate, if only because of how much I hated myself. Eventually their hate turned to apathy or non-recognition, and so did mine. I fell into a pattern of feeling nothing. It was easy to live life like a zombie when there was no reason to live. I only survived on my determination to not take the easy way out. Taking my own life would have been a final insult to those men who died in the factory, and so I moved on. The years have passed quickly, and nothing has changed. I am a shell, a zombie. That is why I come to this park, and say nothing, look at nothing. And that is all I know, “ Vernon finally looked up at Jimmy as his voice cracked with emotion. Jimmy seemed unable to comprehend what he had just heard. His eyes darted back and forth. His lips mouthed words, but no sound escaped.
“Jimmy? Jimmy?” Vernon desperately asked.
“I didn’t want you to be real,” Jimmy whispered.
“What do you mean real?” Vernon said.
“I’ve seen pictures of you before. I’ve been told all of the stories about what happened. When I first noticed you a few days ago, I couldn’t walk away and forget. I tried, but I couldn’t. So I came back the next day and checked at the same time. You were still here, and I couldn’t help but think, He looks like the pictures. So I decided to find out for certain, to convince myself that my mind wasn’t playing tricks. But it wasn’t. You’ re the man who killed my father Anthony; there is no doubt about that. He died on that September day, though I had never known him. In my younger days, I hated you. Maybe I still hate you, but I cannot truly feel my hatred burn now,” Jimmy put his head in his hands and cried rhythmically. Vernon gazed at Jimmy as his Adam’s apple contracted violently, with tears pouring down his face.
“What should I say? What can I do?” Vernon desperately asked Jimmy.
“Nothing,” his response came, “There is nothing to say. You were a good man who made the worst mistake he could. You robbed me of my father and 14 other men’s lives. You can’t erase that. I can’t say, “Everybody makes mistakes, it’s ok!” and just dismiss it entirely. It happened, and it wasn’t ok. But you sitting on a bench for 30 more years will solve nothing. You’ll just die without improving the lives of anyone.”
“What could I possibly say or do to help anyone now?” Vernon questioned.
“You could tell me about my father. My mom could never really bring herself to talk about him and what he was really like. I need to know more.”
“I remember him. Vividly.” Vernon’s eyes darted towards Jimmy.
“Explain to me the man that my father was,” Jimmy’s demanded.
“I will. I will,” Vernon agreed, now resolute.
“Let’s start today,” Jimmy fervently stated.
A slight smile played across Vernon’s lips. He remembered that voice. He remembered that tone. Soon Jimmy would understand it too.