Abandoned Seat (a true story)
There’s a squad of exercisers out this morning, six altogether. I can’t yet tell which one is the trainer. They’re all facing the chain link fence down at the baseball diamond, their fingers bent around the wiring to steady themselves as they each swing their right leg back and forth while standing in place. They break formation to make a circle and they start doing jumping jacks, their shape together like an ensemble of sextants, gliding back and forth in unison as though measuring what might lie ahead on the horizon and charting their path forward.
I still can’t make out who’s leading, some subtle shift in direction must be transpiring between them, just below the surface, in the way tango dancers lead and follow invisibly to those watching on. They do a lap around the track together, four men and two women, jogging at a slow pace counter-clockwise around the park’s perimeter. Most everyone who uses the track goes counter-clockwise, myself included. And when I think back to ice-skating as a child, and later roller-skating as a teen, I realize in all such places most everyone goes round in that same direction too, an unspoken orderliness understood and observed by all.
There’s an empty bucket chair in the centre of the park green; the collapsible kind you see at outdoor music festivals and the beach; the kind with the little mesh well on one armrest where your drink goes. It’s facing the sun, open and upright, so maybe it’s not abandoned forever, and merely set in wait, ready for the occupant’s return to commence their leisure, when they'll position themselves toward the sunny day.
The lush and heady song of dove is intermittent around me, breaking through the choppy whir of a lawnmower over at the daycare centre where parent volunteers are tending the yard this morning; the coo is an intoxicant to me, curative, lifting me and liberating me; carrying me away. Of course, where it takes me is to Miami, to the wide open spaces there where I become expansive, at once settled and free; as my cousin there puts it so perfectly: this place unwinds me. That’s my particular place in the sun.
On cue for the season, the two little old Chinese ladies are back out for their daily Tai Chi practice. Their movements land somewhere between nonchalant and haphazard, liberal interpretations of the ancient discipline; though I suspect this tradition is less about fidelity to the form itself than to one’s focus and devotion to it.
The exercisers have returned from their loops around the track, and they’ve run up the hill before me and are now doing squats, with one of them breaking away to do push-ups against the park bench one down from me. Glancing over to watch, I notice Ken is now here, he too squatting – but he stays down, his torso sunk and slightly swaying between his bent and boney knees, his behind dragging back and forth against the ground beneath him. He seems more gaunt, or maybe it’s just that I can see his upper body bared by the mangy racerback tank he’s wearing to suit the new season. His flesh tone is off, sallow, and almost faded-looking, in the way his tattoos have turned that paler shade of navy, all the vibrance of tone drained away over time, their distinct shapes thinning into the surface that surrounds them. He’s smoking a cigarette, taking long hauls on inhalation and never appearing to release the smoke, or to exhale at all. What else does he hold inside that concave trunk of his, I wonder. What does that rib cage attempt to encase? He’s wearing the usual, aside from the racerback: his camouflage combat pants, stretched and torn and dirty, and the shin pads that protrude beyond his knees caps with the elastics cinching the pant legs tightly in bunches against his scrawny calves. As I see him here, rocking, I wonder if he’s ever lain in a hammock strung between two trees under the sun, somewhere where these are the things that make up a day; I wonder if he’s ever been cradled inside the netting and gently swayed as though floating on air.
The last time I saw Ken was a month or so ago, when I began coming out to this bench again, once the weather became more clement to me. That day he was picking up the chunks and shards of a broken 40 of Olde English Malt Liquor, the sharp debris scattered beside the bench where the exercisers are this morning. He was using his bare hands to grab and cart the pieces of broken glass over to the garbage bin that the parks board puts out. He patrolled the length of the pathway where all the park benches are positioned, and he scrutinized the grass and pavement for more trash that needed cleaning away, the waste left behind by the park’s revelers the night before: on that morning it was bits of paper, cigarette butts, a torn pizza box, crushed cans, and all that broken glass; other mornings, it might be different remains, yet really the same thing.
He was wearing his keys around his neck, and the shin pads over those same camo pants, with a grimy sweatshirt stretched out of shape and hanging lopsided off his bony shoulders. His cheeks were sunken, though not as much as now it seems; I realized that day it was because he has no teeth, not because he’s emaciated, though he’s that too. It was the first time I saw the scars all over his skull, little jagged tracks of raised tissue, interruptions in the shorn stubble—if they were brail or tactile hieroglyphs, I remember wondering, what would these ropey ridges tell us about this man? At the time, I thought to myself: Ken. My neighbor. This park’s unlikely caretaker. The man with the unlucky crown.
That was when I was in the midst of emailing with the city’s parks’ department staff, me asking when the track would be resurfaced with springier material than the sodden mess left after a winter’s worth of weather beating all the loft out of tidied trail laid last summer. There are now unseen holes and bits of exposed root, rendering the track dodgy and uneven, and in need of leveling. Soon, they told me. I finished our exchange by telling the staff about Ken, wanting his contribution to the park, if not seen, or commended, at least known. When I thanked him myself that morning for clearing away the broken bottle, he shrugged off my remarks, not wanting the attention.
Suddenly Ken shoots up and walks away, passing through the band of exercisers as they continue to leap vigorously in place together, breathing heavily in their circle and counting out loud as one. Through their huddle, I watch Ken as he heads toward his apartment building; his slow labourious lumber in his ill-fitting protective gear takes him past a foresaken shopping cart, and past another little old Chinese lady, this one having spent the morning collecting empties throughout the park and who is now resting on a shaded bench amidst her stuffed and stretched bags. It doesn’t look like anyone else has seen either of them, or if they have it doesn’t show or seem to register. I watch to the point of staring, seeing more than any of us should—a certain threat to the security of my well-being, I know.
The exercisers finish, and in unison they chant “1, 2, 3, hail”, clapping loudly on hail; then they fall into line as the trainer takes a step back and snaps a picture of the group. Now I know who’s in charge. Behind them, below, ball players fan out across the baseball diamond and take their places; and without moving it, they play, unfazed, around that deserted seat, the game unstoppable.