She is a distinguished looking woman. Deep lines in her face, like swaths of permanent marker. Hair pulled tight into a bun, save a few stray wisps. A beige parka, fake fur collar, to protect against the cold. And her purse, compact and solid and tube-shaped, it sits beside her on the park bench.
She looks solemn, this woman. Her posture straight. Her eyes focus ahead, always. For hours. For days. On the concrete wall at the park’s edge. Children play handball against a mural of chipped and faded paint. For weeks. For months. The cold is no bother. Nor the snow, so easy it is to brush off her parka. Rain is another matter. And sleet, that’s worst. Like a terrible milk shake poured from the sky. Cold as snow, piercing like the rain. But somehow heavier than either.
She is a serious woman. Rarely does she speak, but instead smokes cigarettes at a steady interval. Thin, brown ones she keeps in a chrome case. Keeps in her purse. The smoke she takes in deep and thoughtful drags. And lets go in directed plumes. Filters, yellow with nicotine, gather at her feet and on pleasant days birds peck them and carry them off. When the weather is not so fine, they are buried in the snow. Or torn apart by the rain.
She is troubled, this woman. The steady eyes. The cigarettes, sucked to nothing in three puffs. The routine, unbroken. Rarely she speaks but when she does, she speaks of the mural. Laid it down, she says, stroke by stroke, her own brush. This was decades ago, she says. Somewhere between three and four. By now everyone has forgotten this, her work. The children playing handball, even they do not see it.
* * *
This was years ago. People look back and say the neighborhood was much better. They say it was clean and safe. A young girl could walk home after dark. All by herself and without worry. That, and never have to step over a littered soda bottle or fast-food container. People look back and say these things, the good old days. But they are wrong. The only change is this: then they were young. And now they are old.
A lifetime ago, that’s when this was. When everyone was an artist or a poet. And sleeping on mattresses without bed frames was cause to brag. Sharing food and drugs and beds. An odd moment, a sepia snapshot of history. When they judged one another not by the sum of their assets but by the sum of their dreams. Tomorrow? Never.
This was a world ago. The day she went down to the park with her paints and her brushes. On the concrete divider, a safe partition between the basketball court and four lanes of traffic just beyond, she sketched first with white chalk. Women blending into mountains dissolving into clouds. And every day she would paint. The old men playing chess made foolish moves when she bent over to exchange brushes. And every day she would paint. Until all she could add were the most diminutive details. And still, every day.
A dream, that’s when this was. Before the artists and poets became addicts and nobodies. Before they realized the sum of their dreams could not buy even a cup of coffee. And one by one the old men stopped showing up to play chess. Replaced, one by one, with men not quite so old. And she gave up adding details. She let the mural be.