By Amos J. Hunt
During the summer, following his annual release from the trial of attempting to interest scores of oblivious undergraduates in the finer pleasures of Edwardian literature, Peter’s lifestyle was entirely guided by a series of misanthropic considerations. He conducted his researches online as much as possible, and if he had to visit the library he would do so only at precisely 10:30 AM, when he knew that the affable librarian would be too absorbed in conversation with his stupidly beautiful wife to greet him in that infuriating way of his. Peter would read all afternoon and stay in evenings watching wildlife documentaries and drinking wine. His mail he would collect furtively under cover of darkness, and his daily constitutional through the park he would take only in the very early morning, when its paths were yet unpopulated.
Aside from the occasional sleeping vagrant, the only person Peter ever encountered at that hour was an old man whose habit it was to sit all morning on a bench on the west side of the park, a man whose quiet presence was not irksome. His mouth churned constantly on his chewing tobacco, while his eyes looked always straight ahead, motionless, as though waiting, with the patience of a fishing crocodile, for something particular to happen, precisely there, in front of him.
Today, however, Peter’s routine was disrupted. Some nameless anxiety had kept him awake for hours last night, and he had slept in. Thinking of the horde of toddlers, picnickers, and layabouts who had surely taken the park already, he considered omitting the walk altogether; yet he knew he would not have the momentum to begin work on the syllabus for his new seminar on “The Infernal Saki” unless he got away from the apartment for awhile.
In the course of the first ten minutes of his walk, he was several times unpleasantly disturbed by the passing of joggers, who frightened the birds out of the trees around him. They were ruining his walk, and he suffered himself to be cheerily greeted by them only by imagining to himself how energetically they would tumble if he knocked them over, denying himself the more substantial consolation of actually doing so.
One particularly slow pair of women, progressing only slightly faster than he (though their attire and demeanor attested they were rather straining themselves) was too thoroughly engaged in conversation to offer any such greeting. As they passed him, the woman on the left, dressed in a lime green sweat-suit with matching head and armbands, was saying, “You won’t believe it. I swear to God, you won’t in a million years.”
“Try me,” said the other, whose costume differed only in its color, hot pink.
“Okay, but I’m telling you you won’t believe it.”
Peter slowed his pace a little in an endeavor to get them out of earshot.
“You know the old man who’s always sitting on the bench on the west side of the park?” began the woman in green.
“Wait, which way is west?” The woman in green thought a moment, then pointed. “No,” answered her companion, “I haven’t noticed that.”
Peter, however, had noticed, and he had often wondered and speculated about the old man’s history and habits, and imagined him to have walked a considerable path in his time. It wasn’t Peter’s way to indulge his curiosity by interrogating strangers, so he had always left him alone, but here was a chance to hear something of him that promised to be outrageous enough not to disappoint Peter’s fantasy. He sped his pace again and began to listen eagerly.
“Well, he’s always sitting there,” the green woman explained.
“Okay,” said the pink woman, absorbing the information.
“Well, last week, you remember, I came here alone . . .”
“I couldn’t help that,” interrupted the other, “I told you I had a lot to do last week. I didn’t have time. I thought I was going to have a breakdown.”
“I know, I know, don’t sweat it. Really, I mean it, it’s okay. I mean, I didn’t have anyone to talk to and it’s so boring to be out in the park by yourself, you know? But really it’s okay.”
“Okay,” said the other. “So what happened?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, if you’ll let me.”
Peter began to fear that the conflict would forestall the story too long for him to safely overhear it, but the hot pink woman soon proved accommodating enough to let her companion speak freely.
“So last week I went just the way we usually go. I wasn’t thinking about where I was going at all, so I ran close by the old man’s bench, right along it, without thinking about the guy. And do you know what happened?”
“No, tell me!”
“He tripped me! I fell right over into the dirt! At first I thought it might have been an accident, but then when I looked at him he was grinning horribly. If he weren’t so old I’d have socked him right there.”
Peter was outraged. The old man he knew was a much more magnanimous character, and he could not stand to hear him so belittled.
“You call that an unbelievable story?” He shouted ahead to them. It proved, not at all to his surprise, to be the first they had noticed of him. They did not alter their pace, but quieted the furious swinging of their arms to indicate that they were now walking. The woman in green was clearly affronted, and was about to venture a rejoinder in her defense, when Peter found himself shouting on, “I’ll tell you a story about that man to make your heads spin!”
She relented doubtfully, and maintained a posture of defiance, but let him speak.
“I do not doubt the impossibility of its having not escaped your attention,” said Peter with a graciously conciliatory air, “that across the path from our old man there stands a considerable horse chestnut.”
The woman in green nodded uncertainly. Her companion shrugged.
“Three weeks ago, I was observing the gentleman, as I had often done, when I noticed that his eyes were not at their usual rest. Instead, they were shifting slightly back and forth, and his brow was folded in an unmistakable expression of concern. Struck by this aberration, I turned my gaze to see what he was watching and saw, to my disgust, a squirrel chasing a wounded swallow back and forth under the chestnut tree. The bird seemed to have a broken wing and it lacked the energy to fly more than a few feet at once; the squirrel was always fast enough to catch it on the other side and renew its attack.”
“The poor thing!” declared the woman in pink. The woman in green showed no sign of sympathy, but Peter could see she was struggling to remain composed.
“So thought I,” Peter admitted, “And so thought our old man. I watched as his pity grew until I thought that he would surely cry. Then, suddenly, his compassion turned to anger, and just as suddenly, his anger turned to action. He sprung up from the bench with a terrible swiftness and lunged at the squirrel! The sadistic little rodent valued its life more than its sport, and darted out of reach up the tree. But that didn’t stop the man. He clattered up the trunk in seconds and swung up onto a low branch. He was lost to my sight for a short while. Then I heard a dreadful little shriek, and then silence.
“When he dropped back down to the ground, he almost crumbled with pain. I ran over to offer him my assistance, but he found his composure again soon enough and waved me away. He had splashes of blood on his shirt, and if my perception was not altogether deceived, a runnel of blood stained his face from the corner of his mouth to his chin
“He scooped up the wounded bird and walked away with it; he would not tolerate my accompanying him. So I remained behind, staring in wonder alternately at him and at that tree. Since then, I have not had the courage to go near him.”
The women were astonished at this story. They could not work out between them whether the old man’s tenderness for the swallow was enough to outweigh his vile prank and his positively beastly treatment of the squirrel (though it surely deserved what it got). They were quite definitely resolved, however, to run a new route thenceforth. Peter wished them a good day as they turned onto a side path.
He made his own way to the west side of the park, where he found the old man at his usual spot. In the confidence of having just done the man a favor, he decided to attempt a conversation with him.
He approached the bench, stood before the old man and inquired, “Would it be all right if I sat here? I’m rather fond of that chestnut.”
The old man looked at him, and opened his mouth in wonder. Slowly, between his parted lips, he let a long strand of sickly brown saliva slide. When it had reached the bottom of his chin, he bent over and dropped it onto Peter’s left shoe. Then he looked up again and laughed softly and hoarsely through the grimace of a crocodile.