The man sat down on the bench and placed his small bag on the ground by his feet. There would normally be more people walking by, but winter had arrived early in Georgia and the sun was yet to rise high enough to warm last night’s chill. Today, the only ones on the sidewalk were those that must be—their jackets pulled tight to their necks against the frosty air as they darted in and out of the little shops along Broad Street. He could feel the cold metal bite through the fabric of his pants but he made no effort to get up. There were worse things than being cold.
A young lady pulled into the parking space beside his bench before getting out—toddler in the back seat sleepily finishing a juice box—and running into the coffee shop. She emerged a few moments later and smiled sheepishly at the man before getting in her car and quickly driving away. The man tucked his gray hair behind his ears and adjusted his brimmed hat. Cups Up Café. At one point—twenty years ago—it had been the 2 Cream Café. Maybe it was fifteen years, he thought as a quick gust of wind blew the hair out from behind his ears. He wondered if they still offered two creams.
Long before becoming the celebratory sounding café—or even the one that offered a modest variety of creams—it had been a hardware store. When the man had just been a boy his father had brought him down to the little Ashcroft Hardware and bought him his first gun—to the objection of his mother. “Now Paul”, his father had said to him in a serious voice, “I don’t want to hear about your mother’s birds coming up missing from the feeders or Ms. Wolcott’s cats disappearing.” It was a single action .22 caliber rifle with a bolt-action and a wooden stock—and at the time he had certainly been planning to shoot Mrs. Wolcott’s cats. He had always hated cats.
Ms. Wolcott’s cats lived to old age however—which is more than can be said of Ashcroft Hardware. Once the bright and cavernous lumber store went up across town Mr. Drexel decided it was a good time to retire and abruptly moved with his wife to Arizona. When he closed the little store and drove off, people speculated over their coffee cups—cream options unknown—as to what would come along next to try and charm the discerning consumers of downtown Ashcroft: a cigar shop; another greasy diner; someone even speculated it would be a barber shop. Such is life for the ancient brick buildings on Broad Street—always ready to transform their identity, like a theater performer, in the hopes of pleasing the public.
The first rays of the morning sunshine crested the top of the tall downtown buildings and warmed the old man’s face letting him briefly forget about the day ahead. A garbage truck pulled to a noisy stop on the street behind him and a pair of men hopped off the back. With practiced efficiency, they emptied and then replaced the bags in the two public trash cans before the truck pulled away. The man checked his watch but when he tucked his hand back under his warm jacket bottom he realized he hadn’t even looked at the time. It didn’t matter; he already knew that he was early.
At the end of the block a car tried to slip through the yellow light before—realizing they weren’t going to make it—screeching to a stop. The noise cut through the cold air and the man quickly turned to look. Drivers passing through the intersection stared accusingly at the car as they past, its bumper jutting into the crosswalk. He watched the car until the light changed and it drove off down the street—going a more modest speed now, he noticed.
The man conceded the stop lights probably cut down on accidents—when people didn’t try and run them at least. Like many of the shinier things along Broad, they weren’t always there. Progress came to the busy street slowly over time—the tendrils of modernity advancing quietly so as not to attract the attention of the old guard. Too much change too soon scared people—it scared him. He never knew if he would be equal to the next challenge.
When the pocked brick road surface had been covered with asphalt, few people cared—the brick was as costly to maintain as it was hard on the cars. And when the stop lights first went up people were glad to see the cars along the busy family street slow down. It wasn’t until an out of town business suit pulled Ashcroft Savings and Trust to the ground to make room for a new car stereo shop that folks realized—too late—that some things were best left as they were.
He was in high school the night he and a buddy—Dicky “Glass-jaw”—drove down to the same intersection as the chastised would-be light runner. A crowd had already gathered despite the short notice and late hour, and young people out looking for a good time filled the sidewalk on both sides of the street. Dicky rode shotgun as Paul pulled his fathers red Thunderbird alongside Harlan Banton’s Bel air at the intersection. Dicky had been drinking too much and he hurled a steady stream of insults at Harlan until the scarf had been dropped. When the race ended, Paul had beat Harlan to 2nd Avenue and the spectating teens were cheering for him as the cops arrived.
He had watched the blue lights arriving from down the block and quietly and quickly left before the officer could make sense of the scene. Following the race, he had been a minor celebrity in school and it seemed as if everyone wanted to congratulate him. He guessed there were more than a hundred people who there that night but not a single one ever gave him up to the cops—not even the vanquished Harlan; a testament to his own character. This town used to be like that. “Virtues can be pulled down like old banks”, he lamented to the old street.
More people began to crowd the sidewalk now, and the man listened to the myriad of variations for “good morning” that the town was capable of mustering. Professional looking business-people often just said “’morning” as they passed pedestrians going the other way. Ironically, the younger people usually gave more enthusiastic and sincere greetings to the strangers they met. Hearing one rhetorically ask the comparatively verbose ”how you doin’ this morning” was not uncommon.
It was on Broad Street that the man had stood—18 years old and terrified—as the Greyhound bus hissed to a halt. The town had been too small for him and he wanted to make his own way in the world. When the bus hissed again to a stop four years later, he had lost the chip on his shoulder and resolved to never leave again. The Greyhounds don’t drive on Broad anymore—there’s too many cars parked; both legally and illegally. You have to take a public bus now to the Greyhound station across town. Progress wasn’t always convenient.
After he left the Army, the old man had led Maggie by the arm down Broad Street: stopping for a float; going to see a movie; browsing the aisles of the used bookstore. At the end of the busy street, Rotary Park has beds of colorful perennial flowers that spring from the ground in the warm months. Beneath the backdrop of ancient Live Oak trees, the flower’s hues shine impossibly bright in the sunlight.
After a year of dating, its where he got down on his knee and asked Maggie to marry him. She had said yes and every year on their anniversary he had returned to the park to pick her some of the enchanting flowers. Even when she no longer knew why he brought them to her—or who he was—he dutifully put the delicate stems in glass vases with all of the care of a temple priest.
A woman wearing a heavy jacket came out of the coffee shop and sat down on the bench next to the man. He scooched over further even though it wasn’t necessary. The lady set her coffee on the ground and started digging in her purse. “I can never feel my fingers in the cold,” she said, her voice muffled behind a scarf. The man smiled and turned to her, “Me either. But you know, I never minded the cold. I like the changing of seasons.” She gave a short laugh at that. “I can live without winter. Except Christmas—Christmas I like.” But the man didn’t reply and she found whatever she had been searching for in her purse before grabbing her coffee and standing. “Well, have a great day”, she said before turning to walk off. “You do the same,” he replied. Have a great day, he thought, even I can’t make this one great.
He sat there thinking about what the lady had said. He liked Christmas too. He didn’t always, but when he and Maggie had Jessica it had been impossible not to. They used to bring her down to Broad Street at Christmas-time to look in all the shops. The store owners would all put their nicest and most desired gifts in front of the big windows by the sidewalk. At each stop Jessica would look through the tall glass and squeal with delight, insisting this gift would be the one she asked Santa for—before moving on to the next window and repeating the performance, to both Paul and Maggie’s delight.
When she got older, Jessica marched down the old street in the Christmas parade with the school band—her lips blue from the cold but still smiling at her parents as she walked by playing her drums. He had drawers filled with photographs of her marching with the band. They didn’t do a Christmas parade anymore; people stopped showing up and it was no longer worth the tremendous effort required to put it on. The man searched his memory for a quote about societies that—to the chagrin of their elders—gave up on honoring their timeless traditions, but snippets of phrases all just ran together in his head. I’m getting too old, he thought. If I were a bank they’d have come for me already.
Halfway down the block—at the building that was once Ashcroft’s only pharmacy—a man walked out to find his car blocked in from the street. His face twisted into an angry scowl as he looked around wildly for the offender. He didn’t have to wait long though and soon a second man emerged from the same building. Paul couldn’t hear what they were saying, but both men had their arm’s outstretched in incredulous indignation. Neither were looking for a fight however, and the offending man got in his car and left. The first man managed to steal a victorious look before driving off as well. I’d have punched him, Paul thought. ‘Youth is wasted on the young’—that one was Shaw. I think.
There were certainly more people along Broad Street than when he was younger. Ashcroft thrived while other towns wasted away—their residents seeking greener pastures in those villages that knew how to tear down a bank. What had started as a blessing eventually turned into a curse—at least according to some Ashcroftians—when the town could no longer comfortably hold the influx of people. Rent and property prices soared and the streets—designed for horses and buggies—brimmed with all the finery of modern automobiles.
Jessica lived in Florida now and she said her town was never crowded—not even at Christmas. Her husband was a big-shot land developer and they lived on a sprawling property close to the Gulf. People didn’t fight for parking spaces and there were no stop lights to almost run. When Maggie died, Jessica plead with him to move in with her and Anthony. For almost a year he managed to resist, preferring instead to keep living in the small one-room apartment overlooking Broad Street.
Soon though, the public bus will hiss to a stop and he’ll climb aboard with his small bag. Then a Greyhound will hiss and finally he’ll nap. When he wakes—Jessica promises—he’ll be in the warm sunshine. No more busses. No more sleepy toddlers with their juice boxes.
He had always wanted to die unexpectedly rather than after some long, drawn out illness. He wasn’t good at saying goodbye. When Jessica had left for college he cried the whole day without shame. It was the same the day she moved away to Florida with Anthony. When Maggie had died, it was in her sleep and while he had expected her to go sometime, it hadn’t been then. The loss devastated him but at the same time he was glad he didn’t have to say goodbye. Now, thankfully, there was no one here left to say goodbye to. They had all moved or died—their stories paved over in the town’s collective conscious like the crumbling brick beneath the street.
The man heard the hissing of air brakes as the bus pulled to a stop several blocks down the street. Shivering passengers climbed on, thankful to escape the chilly morning air. The next stop was his and then he would have his turn to escape the bitter wind one last time. He watched the few remaining people climb aboard before the doors swung shut. The man stood up and felt the blood flowing back down into his aching legs. He picked up his bag as the bus approached, its front sign simply reading: “STATION”. Even the busses had given up trying.
As the bus pulled to a stop in front of the bench the man looked down the street. Walking towards him from the next corner was Maggie and Jessica, walking hand-in-hand and wearing the matching floral Easter dresses that Maggie had bought in Eaton. Both girls had matching toothy smiles as they walked towards him, shopping bags in their free hands.
The man stood there for a moment, small suitcase in hand, waiting for them to come. “Is this stop you?” The bus driver broke his reverie and the old man turned to look up at him. “Oh, no. Sorry,” he managed. Without waiting for a response, he turned to shuffle the short trip to his apartment. He never did mind the cold. The bus driver wordlessly shut the double doors before pulling away. He knew the man would be there tomorrow.
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