Watching Swans

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This short story by Ken Staley is from his collection “The Art of Ageing” and published here with his permission.

Watching Swans.
I sit in this chair, day after day. Time passes, I’m convinced it must, but I take no note. The sky is always blue, the grass always new spring green and butterflies dance and chase each other from blossom to blossom. And that pond, always there, waiting. There is music here, always. Not their music, but our music. Songs, my Carol, songs you so deeply etched on my heart that those notes echo as long as I breathe, as long as my eyes can still see – you.

Oh, others stop now and then, and speak about me as though I do not exist and cannot hear them. I feel their pity and sense their shame. Words they have for each other – adult words – to salve their guilt. “Poor man – does no one come to visit?” “What does he find so interesting out that window?” “How can he sit here day after day after day?”

I know they feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. They think I have nothing left but this sorry excuse of a chair, leaking stuffing and padding and so age worn, like me, that when I finally leave, they’ll discard this relic – and this old chair as well. In the meantime, they toss medication at me, believing that the right pills, the right mixture, the correct cocktail will “bring me out of it” and that I will once again come to my senses and join the human race – again.

But my race ended with you, dear Carol. You were the marathon that made life such joy. You paced my race through each day; those memories cause me, now and then, when they cannot see, to smile at those sweet memories. And oh Carol, how we did dash, you and I.

Before you, life was a straight jacket bound around me in an ever tightening, ever smaller circle. But you came into my life – forced your way in – battered and badgered me until I had no choice but to shirk Wall Street and the Bank and my oh so important desk on the seventh floor. You, Carol, released my wild side.

And that first day, stealing my brief case as I stopped for my morning coffee – leading me on a chase through the park across the street. Do you know I almost stopped to call a cop? Do you know, at that last stop light when you dashed into traffic, against that Do Not Walk flashing red at us both, I reached for my cell phone to have you stopped, to have you detained until I was sure you would not follow me again – would not hound me – would not stalk me.

And you turned then, Carol dear, first with a smile and laughed, head back, at serious me. I have found that you did not give me the broad grin that you gave to everyone who ever met you. Not that other smile you reserved for those you cared most about, but that secret smile peeking from beneath hooded eyes: a smile that just graced the very corners of your mouth and turned every dark moment into glory, regardless of the weather. That was the smile you saved just for me alone.

And so I followed you on, disgusted and angry at being led further and further away from my oh so important desk, from my oh so important meeting, from my oh so important job. And you, ever laughing Carol, danced across the deep green regardless of the Do Not Walk On The Grass signs. You never once glanced down, never thought to hesitate, but skipped across that small fence and into the middle of the clearing. You paused just log enough to give me another of your looks when I stopped, cemented in place by the Don Not Walk On The Grass line. I, who followed every law, every order, without question or hesitation – hesitated. And sitting here now, I remember so clearly your one soft snort, like a young filly at play in the morning meadow, heard that day, mocking my staid self, and never again.

You tossed your raven mane, dearest Carol, your face to the sun, and turned away, defying me as no one had in ages. I knew that you didn’t care if I followed or not, that this was your final attempt to break my chains and rejuvenate my life. And standing there, at the very crux of my life, knowing that if I trod on the grass and followed you, there was no turning back. I think you knew the conflict raging in my soul – felt my deepest, inner fears – and did not care about the resolution, only hoped that I would make that last step across the Do Not Walk On The Grass line and come with you.
How could I do otherwise, my precious Carol. You knew. You always knew. Even now I can smile now and then because you still know. And I resigned myself, mentally creating this weak alibi and that feeble excuse, for my boss who would question my absence at an important meeting – one of many important meetings – at the cop in the park who was sure to follow us, and ticket us, and chastise us for ignoring the rules, for not following the Do Not Walk On Grass order, and pointing out the small print, the city ordinance we violated.

And you, my lovely Carol, did not stop there, but skipped across the entire expanse, twirling now and then, my briefcase swinging far out from your side, a counter weight to your dervish spin, your long skirt flaring out to flash a first very brief glance at your long, lithe legs.

And you laughed, my lovely Carol, for the very first time. And joy split the air and suddenly that important meeting and those urgent messages no longer were important or urgent. And that desk near the window, that I once found so vital, meant so very little, and that office, the space I’d cherished and aimed towards for years, became a prison cell, simply better appointed than others. And I saw my life to that day cursed, sentenced to sit in that office, at that desk, gathering dust and empty days. And when I saw them through the music of your laughter, my sweet Carol, those walls shattered, that desk evaporated – and I felt unfettered for the first time in my life and the beginnings of joy blossomed.

And you, my dearest Carol, danced on, skipping yet another fence, and another. You knew, by then, that I was plodding along behind you, still too burdened with my own self-importance to fully enjoy this new life or to match your spinning self. You danced to the reflection pool in the middle of the park; the Henry Larson Pond according to the sign. And then you hesitated, but only long enough to hitch up your skirt and fasten a hasty knot at your waist, kick your sandals aside, before stepping into that murky pond.

And the stoic me, still staid and conservative and important, stopped on the path just above the pond, shocked at your daring, at the bareness of your legs, at the beauty of your thighs so delightfully displayed for all the world. Again I questioned your sanity, my sanity in following you, convincing myself that my fears that all sorts of incredibly nasty diseased bacteria awaited to infect anyone who dared touch that murky, city center mess.

And you, oh my love, stopped knee deep in that pool, the bottom of your skirt now saturated, and stared at me. I heard your songs for the first time – although you never said a word. Your look, then as always, spoke directly to my soul. And today, and every day since you’ve left, I hum your song – our song. And that day, that moment – that instant you ordered, commanded, insisted that I sit on the side of the path, take off my boring and oh so solid wing tips and knee high black socks, roll my pants legs up, and wade out to join you.

That moment that very instant, dear sweet Carol, became the axis of my world, my being. You left the choice to me, as you always did my lovely Carol, but in your eyes, from your heart, I heard your plea, felt your need and, much deeper, recognized both my want and your love.

And even now, my seven years gone Carol, sitting here in this chair, staring at a different pond, out of a mesh covered widow, I can still hear your laugh of abandon. Because, my love and life, I did not sit, I did not take my shoes off, or my socks, or stop to roll up my pants. But I smiled because at that very instant, you knew – you who always knew me so very well – and I stepped off the path, stepped away from all that was once important because, my dearest Carol, your laugh sang youth back into my heart, and filled me with joy, and led me to fun, and wild abandon and I didn’t care any more about any life that didn’t include you. You were always there and always wanted me, all ways, and needed me as no one else had ever needed me – before or since.

Every day, dearest Carol, I leave my bed very early each morning, before another soul stirs, to come and sit by this window because, my love friend, you were as wild and filled with joy and abandon and overwhelming love in those most secret sacred of times and no one, ever, will share them with me, or take them from me, my naked friend. And when sleep fights with me, you always come to me, your head on the pillow, your face but inches from mine, whispering so very softly, as you did every night for fifty years. And if I’m ever tempted, my wonderful Carol, to bemoan my lot, you still reach out that very soft hand with those lovely long fingers and I feel your caress on my cheek again and I am at peace.

And precious Carol, your joy and your laughter and your wild abandon carried us for so very long, so very far. And each step was a delight, each turn into the unknown another adventure because you made them so and you made me look forward to those twists and turns and forget about the past and, oh my sweet Carol, live. And it was so very hard when you got sick, and could dance only in smaller and smaller circles, never giving up joy even when that pain got so great, there at the end, and you danced dear sweet Carol, even on the very day you passed from this tune to another – even on that bed, your feet moved and your last effort was to give me my smile, etch it so completely in my heart that none other shall come close, or even as near.

They never see you, my Carol. They do not understand that I am not lonely here, nor am I forgotten, nor am I sad, but see only a grime smeared window and a chair long past its useful prime. But I, I have a lifetime of memories to live and relive and live yet again and, when they can’t see, I smile with you again. And when I am certain they have left me for the day, I can laugh with you. You, who could always make me smile, still have that power.

And now, today, my ethereal Carol, you sit beside me in this chair, as we have done so very many times, two crammed into a space for one, and watch the swans glide across the water. And I know, my Carol, that you are there, gliding with them, and nothing is more important in the world than for me to wait here, in this chair, for you to come to me again. I know now, dearest love, friend and intimate confidant, that you are not far away, and not far gone, and that the time approaches very swiftly when you will step back into my life, take my hand, and lead me into our eternal pond, to forever wade and chase the swans.

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