This story is by Madeline Slovenz and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Winter never quite got off the ground when spring moved in, and the marshals evicted Janet from Conrad’s bungalow on the park. Locked out and with nowhere else to go, she crawled under the front porch. From behind the latticework that hid her from the street, Janet watched as her belongings, commingled with his, attracted scavengers who picked through the remnants of the lives they had lived together. City sanitation finally came and shoveled what was left into the truck and drove off.
Warm rays of sun finally cracked open the curtain of fog that lingered in the air, parting it to welcome weekend promenaders to Parnassus Park. Janet clambered out, brushed herself off, and headed into the gardens, pushing a shopping cart packed with all that she had left.
Jonquils and tulips, well past their prime, filled the flower beds where people walked along the paths. Janet stopped to look. Limp tubes of yellow hung their heads, and lifeless petals once bright with color, dried and tired, fell away.
Soon the irises will bloom, Janet thought as she drove on with a wobbly front wheel that tugged her cart off course. The contrast of her presence against this field of spring in motion did not draw anyone’s attention. Advanced age faded her. Though her flesh was warm, her breath strong, and the passion she felt peeked out from her wise eyes, Janet was isolated from view. She was alone on the path, in plain sight, but occupied no place in the eyes of those who passed her by. She moved on to find a bench.
From that very bench over there across from the café, Conrad Collins had penned countless poems. And Janet knew those about the change of seasons were among his best. Pedestrians, unaware of all the books that bench once birthed, passed it by without a thought. That was the place where he sat and wrote. From there, he watched and listened, but never spoke. Disheveled and unassuming, Conrad was content to sit alone and watch.
One board of the backrest, loosened over time, hung down suspended from a single bolt. Janet eased it back in place. She plucked a dandelion to tuck behind her ear. Did these pop up from Conrad’s scattered ashes? She chuckled to herself. He would have liked that idea.
She stayed to watch two tiny sparrows bob their beaks in a nearby puddle. A pigeon flew in to scare them both away. Birds often came around in search of scraps of bread that Conrad liked to toss.
Above the bench, reluctant buds—on trees that spread their branches to the sky—unraveled in the light, bringing lines from Conrad’s second book to mind:
A canopy of shade and light
Mottled the softened ground below
With speckled spots of gray
To counterpoint a medley of emergent greens.
Whichever way she looked, it was spring, and spring, much like winter, quickly turned to rain. Most people sought shelter from the shower. Conrad would have stayed to taste the salty drops that fell from his cheeks.
A young couple ran past Janet to take cover beneath the café awning. Standing beside the metal tables covered with upturned chairs, the boy rose at least a head above the girl’s. When he shifted his arm to caress her shoulder, the girl combed her fingers through her hair.
The breeze that brought the sun, then rain, moved a cloud aside to let the light return and paint a rainbow on the sky. The girl stretched her arm to point and gazed up to catch his glance. “Look, over there! Quick, before it’s gone,” she said.
Blessed by nature’s gift, they sauntered back to the gardens. They veered around Janet and her cart without breaking one step in their leisurely stride.
The ding-ding of a bicycle bell announced a family of four. With faces open and bright they came up from behind. Leading the way was a girl no more than eight pedaling her pink and lavender spider bike. As she zoomed ahead, streamers flying from each handle grip tickled Janet’s arm. The youngest, strapped safely in a sturdy three-wheeled stroller, passed on the left pushed by Dad, who trotted behind, though well ahead of his wife.
The tires left ephemeral trails of droplets that rose from where the rubber spun on pavement. The wife toddled along, her belly swollen with child. She paused to catch her breath. If Conrad were here, he would write what the mother felt when she rested both hands on that protruding mound.
Near the café there was a grove of maples, oaks, and aromatic sassafras. Janet wandered over hoping to take a rest but a couple holding a plaid umbrella sat upon the fallen tree. Janet observed how the old man patiently coaxed the squirrels to take walnuts from his palm.
She listened while they spoke. “We met sixty-three years ago, at a Sunday school picnic. Over there,” he said with a nod of his chin. “You asked me to go in the three-legged race. Remember? We were both in shorts, and the thought of my bare leg against yours in a flour sack was more than I could bear. I didn’t even know your name.”
A squirrel plucked the nut from his hand and scurried off. The couple laughed, and the woman passed him another one she pulled from her pocket.
“Dorothy, do you recall that day?”
“It’s stopped raining, dear. The sun is out.”
He lowered the umbrella and parked it on his knees.
“Come Gilbert, the café is opening. Let’s get some tea.”
Janet tried to hold their conversation in her head. Conrad would have logged their exchange in his journal—carefully inking each word spoken, capturing the moments as they floated through the air.
Like clock-work, he would take his morning tea at eleven. He said he preferred to get in before the lunch crowd came. From his bench, Conrad would watch the opening ceremonies, as he liked to call them.
While the couple from the grove waited at the café entrance, a twenty-something waitress clad in a black polo shirt monogrammed in gold came out to right the chairs. She wiped the tables down and set out condiments then stood a sandwich board outside.
“Table for two?” the waitress asked.
“Yes,” Gilbert said.
The table she offered them was Conrad’s. His favorite one was right in front behind the rail that divided the seating area from the path. It ensured a steady unobstructed view.
“The usual?” she asked.
Dorothy smiled. “Yes, dear. That would be perfect.”
The waitress placed a pot of tea on the table followed by two cups and saucers with shortbread cookies on the side. When Dorothy lifted the lid to check the brew, a stream of jasmine steam perfumed the air. “Looks like rain again,” she said.
Two sparrows flew in and landed on the rail. From outside, Janet continued to watch as Dorothy broke off a piece of cookie and rubbed it into crumbs. She handed it to Gilbert to feed the birds. Two more, then two more arrived to picnic at their feet.
When the rain started, it poured. It was as if the entire park tried to cram into the café. All at once, they ran for cover. Each one passing by Janet, who had taken refuge with her cart just inside the entryway where she perched on the narrow window ledge.
Behind the crowd of patrons waiting for their tables, she rummaged through her belongings until she pulled out a tortoiseshell fountain pen and a small leather-bound book. Janet ran her fingertips over the gold initials embossed in fancy script, C.C. She then placed it on top of her cart, opened it and began to write.
Winter never quite got off the ground when spring moved in…