Every Bench

I’m renting on the kind of street where people walk their dogs in the evenings. I like to sit outside when they do, on a wrought iron bench with an easy curve that cups my back like a timber-slatted shell.  I’m careful about the book I have with me. I change it every three days even if I don’t change my shirt. 

Every day, the dog people go past, cord-leashed or bound by some invisible line to their best-forever-friends. Passing left to right, right to left are the dogged joggers, brisk walkers, cyclists, pram-people, and more people. Squirrels and confused kittens twitch once, twice before they make the gutsy dash across the road, death and guts a spinning wheel away. Under the hedges where piss, cigarette ends, and leaf rot have soaked into the ground, cats and small, rustling things probe the soil. Every now and then, I turn a page.   

I watch the trees and the clouds because what’s the point of looking at the ground if I don’t watch the clouds? They are clots of curdled milk, foamy suds, or a cumulus made of smoke, cooking smells, and thin voices rising like helium.  On bright days, the sun through the trees scatters false gold on the sidewalk. On dry days, leaves drift down, crisp as papadums. Every now and then, I scribble in my notepad. 

Sometimes, someone sits down next to me to tie a shoelace or catch a breath or rummage in their bag. No one sits for long. If they want directions, they never sit. If they have a book, they will find a bench of their own.  

If it rains, I wrap myself in a raincoat. I have, among my possessions, an old umbrella big enough for two, and rubber boots that don’t leak. When it pours, the dogs stay in their forever-homes and birds huddle in the trees, every unseen shiver like that of a leaf.  Rain splashes the sidewalk; drops explode like a carpet of water sparklers. I sit on my bench outside because what’s the point of loving rain from the inside?  

When the streetlights come on, I go inside and pour hot water on a tub of instant noodles. While I eat, I look at what I have written. Sometimes, there isn’t much, just the shape of a word like a squiggle of a noodle or I might read a blank page until the last drop of soup.   

When I go, I leave a table full of books as rent. They have library pockets deep enough only for a slip of paper. In each one, I leave a folded page from my notepad. If someone lays out all the pages like a tarot spread, they may see what someone like me sees on a street like this. 

They may see me curled on a bench reading the clouds. They may even take, from their pocket, a note as crisp as a dry leaf that crumbles in my hand. 
Shih-Li Kow
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