It was cold, the familiar chill of New York mornings in the air. Light, gray clouds hung low over the buildings, barely allowing shafts of golden sunlight to enter the city. At six, I had left my apartment, shutting the door with the satisfying click of the lock. The city was quieter than ordinary, the only evident noise being my short panting breaths. The brisk air burned my lungs, but I kept running, down Main Street, towards Central Park.
As soon as I entered the park, the mood shifted. Suddenly less of a desperate fight against time, to the lack of it. I kept running, my knees aching as my sneakers pounded against the cobblestones. Few other people were out on leisure, mostly runners. I rounded the corner, pushing forward up a steep incline. There was a row of benches ahead, at the top of the hill. The famous wrought iron and green wood of Central Park. A man sat on it, wrapped in a ragged gray parka, his breath coming thick fog. He paid no heed to me. I slowed slightly as I passed him, catching my breath slightly. His eyes were a dull gray, staring towards the other side of the path, though not really looking. The low gravelly tone of his voice startled me. He was muttering strange intonations. I attempted not to stare, concentrating intently on the gray marble of the nearest fountain. The trickling of the water as it rushed over the edge of the tallest tear. I glanced uncertainly at the man, who had nestled deeper within his parka, the tangled gray of his beard barely visible over the neck of his coat.
I continued on, the man in the park quickly leaving my thoughts.
The day I saw the man was on my morning run. Normally, I would take the route through the autumn trees, pass by the fountain, and the copious kids on the playground but the sidewalk was being repaved. I took a detour to the outskirts of the park and saw him on a park bench. I didn’t slow to look at him too closely but I knew he wasn’t well. Just from a glimpse, I could tell. I thought him well-wishes and continued on past the park.
The second day that I saw him frightened me, yet I couldn’t understand why. He was just on the bench in ragged clothes and unwashed face, sitting peacefully. And yet that perturbed me, though I had no idea why. I stopped at a water spout a few feet from the bench and drank slowly. He was mumbling. Mumbling balderdash, or so it appeared. There was nothing out of the ordinary, so I continued and ignored him for the next three days.
I took a different route the next run and avoided the bench but something was tempting me to look again. Curiosity got the best of me and I walked this time.
He was there. On the same bench, same clothes, same word pattern. And same enticement. There was something about him that made it feel wrong just to leave him here. I didn’t know if he stayed overnight, or if he had a house or a family. Were people looking for him? Or was it just a vagabond, taking residence on the bench for the time being?
I shook that out of my head and walked away. Out of the park, I didn’t immediately go to my apartment. I walked down the streets of New York, trying to get the voices out of my head. He was an impediment in my mind. People passed me without another glance but I looked at them with a new light. Some of them had somewhere to go, someone to go home to, while others were alone, going to a job of which they might hate, or love.