The old man sat as he always does outside my bookstore, early in the morning with the rising dawn, the air crisp and promising under a pink sky. Hawthorns chirped with staccato sparrow song and twitched with their movement like electric wires. I never saw the old man arrive, and though his appearance was not poor, I imagined that he lived, perhaps for the rest of his days, on this green bench in the square. That life a mythic sort of routine, and mine too for all he saw, our fates forever crossed in some unknown punishment by an arbitrary god. Or he lived nearby. I nodded hello and he answered by checking his silver calculator wristwatch, smiling with a certain satisfaction as if complimenting my punctuality. I wondered if he had been expecting me.
After switching on the lights and getting my morning tasks in order, I returned to the door and waved him in, but he never came. Only a friendly tip of his frayed scally cap. I had no way of judging the old man’s tastes, but somedays after closing I left him something to read. He offered a faint thank you in return and then placed the book or magazine just beside his right leg on the flaking green paint of his bench. The old man stared ahead peacefully in the soft glow of the square’s sole lamppost outside my bookstore.
Another quiet summer passed and on Halloween, the square came alive again. Kids bumped around in the leaves with their masks and bags, scattering nervous squirrels up and down the trees in retreat, pillaging the willing retailers of their sweet wares. The bookstore was especially popular, and they came in droves to collect my comic treats, two Peanut Chews taped on their covers. I sat with the old man after closing and offered him a copy of Black Panther. “I saved one for you.” I said. “It’s what all the kids are reading now – I even saw a few T’Challas tonight.” He placed the magazine on the bench, smiled and thanked me in the same small voice as usual, only this time he followed by asking if I’d walk him home. I noticed that he looked weaker than usual, somehow older and perhaps unwell. I helped him up and noticed a pronounced limp, his left leg dragging stiffly behind the other.
He didn’t live far off from the square, but he needed help with the five flights of stairs to his apartment. As we ascended slowly, I imagined his bones hollow like a bird, his body weight hanging almost entirely, however lightly, on my left arm. He breathed heavy, with something that impressed me in its strength, like his lungs were still a perfect engine driving his otherwise exhausted frame, and looked down limply at the stairs, his head seemingly oppressed by the weight of the cap. He dug around for the key to the front door, which opened to a lofted apartment filled with desert cactus and exotic plants. The various bookstore gifts stood tall in one stack behind two potted buckhorn chollas, as if in a cage, guarded by the weaponry of their clustering spines. I only noticed then, seeing the books collected in one place, that I had unintentionally gifted books with animal names in the title.
In the Skin of a Lion
To Kill a Mockingbird
Eight Little Piggies
Under the Jaguar Sun
A Wild Sheep Chase
I made a pot of coffee and we spoke for over an hour. Francis had emigrated a long time ago from Northern Ireland. My grandfather came from Belfast, a Catholic fireman, so it wasn’t for nothing that I asked for details of his town, down to the street. Grandpa wasn’t alive anymore, but Mom might remember, and I felt a strange urgency to commune like old countrymen with this man who had been so long a silent part of my daily life. Francis never wed, a father and sibling to none, friend to very few, but never unfriendly or lonely. He worked as a bomb defuser in Belfast throughout The Troubles, the only man in the department not to have taken an early retirement or worse, despite a near fatal blast that split his femur like rotted wood. That’s when the long walks became longer, he said, but he continued out of an enviable sense of duty. He assured me that he found goodness and satisfaction in this quiet life alone, and even felt fated to solitude — or perhaps happily resigned — by the curse of a profession that could in a blink steal him away and hurt those closest to him.
I left the apartment feeling something bigger and more specific than happiness, like I had read a book that I knew I would re-read again and again. I couldn’t wait to ask my Mom about Grandpa’s Belfast neighborhood and if he may have by wonderful chance known this Francis. But it wouldn’t matter now the way I wanted. The old man was gone the next day when I opened the bookstore, and it took several days and a call to police to find his little body among his flowers and cacti. Francis died alone as he knew he would. I installed a plaque on the green bench in his memory.