Two men sat apart on a park bench. One wore a hat. The other was bald. Both were old. The man with the hat slept with his mouth open and his head thrown back against the warm wood. The bald man read a book with a cracked spine, and kept his arms buried up to the wrist in its pages.
After a while, the man with the hat stood up and stretched his arms over his head, peering at the bald man from beneath the crook of his elbow.
"There's nothing like a quiet afternoon in the sun," he said, as if coming back to an old conversation.
The bald man smiled and nudged his book so that a page turned on its own. His muscular neck was marked with deep, geometric wrinkles.
"What are you reading, friend?" asked the man with the hat, sitting back down and rubbing his knees.
"The almanac," said his companion.
The man with the hat laughed, showing large discolored teeth, but his eyes were trained narrowly on his companion's face. "That's an old one," he said. "I hope you're not looking for tomorrow's weather."
"It is old," said the bald man. "This is the almanac from my last year of farming. I like to--" The skin on his head was golden and sinewy, slipping easily over bone as he bent toward the book. "I like to remember certain days. I look at the date, and the shape of the moon, and it helps me to remember."
The man with the hat bent toward the almanac, his spine cracking, and squinted at the date: September 17, a crescent with a sharp profile, half of a smiling moon.
"Was there a half moon?" he murmured. "I wouldn't possibly remember."
The bald man kept his wrists deep in the pages.
"Yes," he answered. "My wife saw jackals in the corn."
"And the 18th?"
"The day was extremely hot, and the evening was--muggy and oppressive. We tried to have a picnic on the lawn, but the rustling in the corn scared her, so we went inside and drank strawberry wine from last year's strawberries. It was cool--I brought it up from our old cellar."
"The jackals came back," said the bald man, "under the full moon. We listened to them all night as they circled the house. My wife couldn't sleep. She said the moon was swollen, and she crawled away from its light on our pillow--as if it were a terrible thing."
The man with the hat cracked his fingers. They were very long, magician fingers, with disfigured, arthritic knuckles.
"'I grow old--'" he said. "T.S. Eliot."
His companion smiled and looked back into his book.
"I envy you a wife," said the man with the hat. "I never married. The years have not been good to me."
There was no response. The bald man nudged over another page of his almanac and the sun, glinting fiercely through the thin page, showed the shadow of his hand behind it. The shadow was round, fist-shaped. His wrists, disappearing into the pages, were the same golden-brown as the rest of his skin, and the man with the hat could see that they were marked with thick muscle and veins that ran deep.
"You must know, like I do," the man with the hat continued, "How it feels to sense your own death."
There was silence.
"Or maybe not," he said. "Maybe not. Well, I'm dreading it, absolutely, the whole goddamn ordeal." He laughed and pushed his hat backwards, revealing a milky scalp covered in shards of hair.
"You seem so wonderfully healthy," he said, touching the bald man on the arm. His hand lingered there, brittle bones in the sunlight, something between a caress and a claw. The bald man looked at the hand and a thin shudder ran down his golden neck. "As if the sun itself was beneath your skin," he continued, lifting his hand away. His wrist bent with the delicate, butterfly movement.
"Would you do something for me?" he asked. "Would you take this?" He pulled a white paper bag from the inside of his jacket. The bottom of the bag was damp. "No need to do anything special, just keep it safe."
"Pardon?" said the bald man. The man with the hat opened the bag, a fine sweat shrouding his upper lip.
The bald man glanced at its contents and looked away quickly.
"I couldn't," he said.
The white bag pulsed in the sun.
"It's really not much trouble," said the man with the hat. "No need to do anything to it, like I said. Just--just keep it in the sun, I suppose."
"I can't," said the bald man.
"I don't understand you." His voice took on a high twang. "I'm a man, afraid of death. Is that so unreasonable?
"No," said the bald man. "I have also been afraid."
"Then hold onto it! Please! Hold on to it!"
"I can't," said the bald man, watching the rhythmic throb of the white bag.
"I was designed in an image!" shrieked the man with the hat. "I am touched with divine fingerprints! Why would you let a life become nothing? Look at me!" He stood up, his glassy arms and pale, slow-moving veins engulfed by the sunlight.
"Is this not right?" he cried, throwing his arms open. "This life of mine?"
The bald man watched him with eyes that filled with salt.
"The heaviness of my own nights crushes me," he whispered into his almanac. "The moons, and all the night skies are upon me." He looked up.
The man with the hat smiled, blinking, wiping away the specks of froth on his chin with his sleeve.
"Well, that's absolutely wonderful," he said. "Wonderful! Wonderful!"
The bald man sighed and turned back to his almanac.
"How rude of me!" said the man with the hat. "I interrupted your story. You were talking about your wife, and the moonlight..."
"The 19th. A full moon."
"Yes, fascinating. Your wife was upset."
The bald man looked at his almanac with eyes that drove the sunlight from the pages. Whatever was buried deep in the book began to shake, and the book rustled in protest.
"I did everything I could to save her," he said.
"Well, well, well," said the man with the hat. "You don't know how happy you've made me. I'll just leave this with you, and wish you the best of luck with it." He held out the white bag. Then, with a liquid horror filling his eyes, a look of shock branded on his mouth, he stumbled backwards, shaking his head, as the bald man lifted his arms from the pages of the almanac and reached for the bag with gnawed, fingerless hands.
Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.
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