Hands by unknown artist
I was eight. And he was dead. He might as well have been, anyway. He didn’t seem like the rest of us living humans. Blue lips, heavy and uneven. Yellow eyes, with the skin around them in folds and creases. White hair – not “old” white; just “tired” white. White and long and shaggy – like the rest of him.
Everything about him elicited thoughts of decay and erosion.
He walked out of the bushes in the cruel heat of one midsummer afternoon. I sat on a bench in the park, beside a bronze statue of a horse, with my tongue almost stuck to the roof of my mouth from thirst. And, carefully hiding his face behind a right hand riddled with liver spots and scars, he came and sat beside me. He seemed self-conscious. Embarrassed. And I didn’t know it then, but he also seemed weighed down – like he had a burden on his shoulders. I sat still and observed him. And I wondered how old he could be.
“Do you have kids?” I asked. But he gave no answer, shrugged his shoulders, and looked out at the park.
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t have one,” he said.
I didn’t know whether to think that wonderful or terrible. And I couldn’t figure him out because he wouldn’t say anything about himself. He could’ve been homeless, or an escaped convict, or a lunatic, or anything else. I didn’t know.
But I felt no fear of him.
And every afternoon, when the sun was like a big blazing hole in the endless blue sky, I would go to the park and sit at my bench, and he would come out of the bushes with his right hand over his face and sit beside me.
One day, he came to the bench and just stood to the side. There was a flock of geese circling the air above the pond amidst a chattering commotion. A group of teenagers sitting on the grass leaned back their heads and called out to the geese. Other kids crowded around the pond, enticing the geese with bits of bread thrown into the water. But I stayed at my bench and watched in silence. I don’t know why I felt compelled to sit there. I don’t know why I didn’t go claim my own place at the pond.
When the geese landed, he sat. And he lowered his right hand.
I stared at his face, unable to help my gawking curiosity. Five days he had sat with me and kept his face hidden. Now, suddenly, it was in full view. Now, suddenly, I could see, in profile, the blue lips, the yellow eyes, the wild mane of white hair. He held a book in his left hand, and with both hands, he opened the book and started to read aloud. He read to me like we’d known each other forever. And I stopped staring when his voice began to tremble. I listened while he read, drawing circles with my fingers on the empty bench space between us. And he knew I was listening, so he kept reading.
He read to me for many days. His voice was a spider web that, with its threads, created a haven for my wonder. I lived inside that voice, inside the stories it told. At a certain point, it started to feel like he and I were the only two people alive. And I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone with him. It spooked me.
That was when I started to want for him to disappear.
I imagined closing my eyes and opening them to find him gone. I imagined him being hit by a truck and dying because nobody wanted to save such a hideous person. I imagined hurting him, throwing rocks and pebbles at him, making him cry. I imagined telling him he was a freak. “No wonder you have no name,” I imagined saying. “Even your mom didn’t love you enough to give you one.” I imagined telling him I hated his voice, hated his stupid stories, hated him. I’d picture his voice breaking and his shoulders heaving as he sobbed quietly while hiding his ugly face behind his mottled right hand. And for some time, these imaginings were my biggest comfort. The thought of his agony soothed my anxiety.
But I continued to go to the park. And I continued to listen as he read to me. And after a while, my hatred was reversed. I began to realize that, despite his seeming differences, he was ordinary – just like the rest of us living humans. And I also began to realize that I no longer wanted for him to disappear. In fact, I wanted to let him know that I acknowledged his ordinariness. And so, one afternoon, while he held the book in his left hand and read to me, I reached out my fingers that were drawing circles on the empty bench space between us, and placed them over his right hand that idled beside him. He paused – but only for a flicker. Had I been a less perceptive child, I wouldn’t have even noticed. But he paused. And anything else would have been better. He could’ve called out, shouted at me, slapped my hand away. But he did none of those things. He just paused – and in that moment my hand jerked back like I’d touched a red-hot stove burner. Small rivers of perspiration flowed down my skinny legs and pooled around my ankles and beneath my heels. But I didn’t move a muscle. And he continued to read.
The next day, he wasn’t there. I sat on our bench by the bronze horse and waited for him, feeling an immense disquiet building inside me, and all around me. Somehow, inside my eight-year-old heart, I knew I would never see him again. And I blamed myself, even as I hoped that my feelings were deceiving me. I don’t know why this happens, but when someone we care for is no longer there, our hearts are constantly on the prowl for them. It is as if we are in denial, unable to resist the gravity of their absence. Maybe I was in denial, then, as I sat in my tight corner of bench. I think I imagined him hiding behind his bushes and watching me. I imagined him leaping out and saying “Surprise!” But my heart was true. He didn’t come. Not that day. Or the next. Or the next. And I kept going to the park. Sitting on the bench we had shared for days. Waiting for him. Waiting for him to return so I could reverse things and bring them back to our pre-ordinary days. And again, I imagined telling him I hated his voice, hated his stupid stories, hated him. But beneath the surface of my sinister daydreams was a sorrow as vibrant as the blazing hole in the sky.