Revised April 17, 2021.
On a wooden bench in a wooded park sat a portly man in a tired suit. This bench was his favorite place because it was always vacant. Mr. MacArthur had few pleasures, except that things would remain as they were.
The park was modest, though it boasted hundreds of trees. Most of these were evergreen. A white oak could be seen here and there. The soft walking track hugged the park edge, weaving in and out of trunks. Sixteen laps came to one mile (though Trim Tuckerson, the retired Sheriff, swore it took seventeen). Most people found this too repetitive. Mr. MacArthur, to the contrary, often mused that if he ever took up jogging, this would be the ideal track. Creaky swings and a thigh-burning metal slide waited dead-center of the park. Mr. MacArthur had a running estimate of how many pebbles had stolen away on the knees of toddlers, who had knelt to play by the swings. By his calculations, the city would need a new truckload of gravel in thirteen years.
Facing north towards a thick forest, the prized bench sat next to a large cedar. It was close enough to enjoy the afternoon shade, yet far enough to avoid falling spiders. From this bench Mr. MacArthur could see the entire park, and he would typically do one of two things. His first choice was always to, as he called it, SO (Sit and Observe). SOing took practice. The passerby might distinguish daydreaming from a good SO by the movement of eyeballs. Daydreaming tends to lock the gaze, but SOing demands feather-footed pupils. Mr. MacArthur had perfected the craft. He noticed everything from his bench: oak leaves erratically dancing in a high breeze, a mother sneakily scratching the inside of her nose, roofers faintly tapping in the distance, bees furiously rejoicing over a new flower.
When SOing had run its course, Mr. MacArthur always found satisfaction in the afternoon B’s – bourbon and book. He would take from his coat a clanky bottle and a stout text. The bourbon would return to the pocket after a quick tip, but the book would stay open until it was read through to the back cover. No loose ends. Matters once begun needed to be completed. Even so, the digests were never more than a hundred and twenty pages, so the session inevitably ended within an hour.
There were peculiar days, however, when a good SO proved sufficient. These days typically came with the changing temperatures of Spring and Fall – seasons that brought reunions. Bees dancing, families walking, dogs wrestling, and deer scouting, together, together, together, and together. This was what Mr. MacArthur called a “Together Day,” and it was his favorite. A Together Day demanded a long SO and promised warmth in the belly that was sure to last through the night.
This day happened to be a Together Day – a sunny Friday in the wake of a stormy April Thursday – and there sat portly Mr. MacArthur, on a wooden bench in a wooded park in a tired suit. The corners of his mouth traced a saucer, as he watched three sisters chase one another over pine roots and pine-cone clippings. Across the way a fox slinked from the forest, and a couple of grinning mutts forsook their squirrel carcass for the livelier prize. An orchestra of birds carried on in the canopy. He did not have the faintest idea what their names were, only that the woodpeckers held a monopoly on the rhythm section – and, of course, that they were all singing together. They must be, because today was a Together Day.
After a generous hour of SOing, Mr. MacArthur nimbly rose and came to the street. One right turn and a twenty minute stroll would bring him to Martha’s Chapel. He was the caretaker there, employed by the landlord, Dr. Thomas Leafe. The position required guard duty from six to midnight, after which certain maintenance/cleaning duties would be conducted. In grass-growing months, Mr. MacArthur would mow the small church lawns every other Saturday. He was compensated a salary of $2500/month, plus living expenses and free medical care from Dr. Leafe himself.
The greatest honor of all, he felt, was that his duty involved a chapel, for he was a deeply religious man – which is not to be confused with being religiously deep. And really, he was also simply religious, which cannot be contrasted with being deeply religious. Mr. MacArthur was simply and deeply religious – seldom confused and often happy. He was raised Lutheran but contracted an Anglican twitch in the left leg, and as things were, he was quite alone in Arkansas. But I am not lonely, he thought, stepping into the cemetery behind Martha’s Chapel. Not today. Thank God for one more Together Day.
Around nine the next morning, the sun introduced itself above the trees. Crayon wax warmed on the windowsill, smeared by a child decades before. Mr. MacArthur had turned this Sunday School room into sleeping quarters. Duty typically ended by two in the morning, which gave him more than six hours of rest. At fifty-three, he found this to be sufficient. He spent rainy days in the study furnished on the opposite side of the chapel.
From a partly overcast temper the sky betrayed, Mr. MacArthur decided that today would not be one of those lovely, unique days. Even so, the weather prophets foretold no rain. So, promptly at noon – after morning stretches, a modest breakfast, reflections on Joel and 2 John, and two bowls of English Luxury in the briar pipe – he strode through the cemetery and towards the park. Not every day can be a Together Day, or else peculiar days would not be so special. Even so, there was something frizzly in the air that excited Mr. MacArthur.
As he veered left from street to park, a hush fell nearby. It was a decently dressed hush, without shock or shake, with reverence and honesty. But a hush is a hush, and a man can no more throw it back in the air than he can dust himself of glitter. Birds strangled their chirping. Squirrels stood on hind-legs, one clasping an acorn, another whispering to himself. The grass leaned in and a caterpillar cocked an eyebrow. Hickories guarding the track entrance bowed nervously, at least acting the part of normalcy, feigning ignorance of an asphalt-splattered hush.
Mr. MacArthur saw the thing plain enough, but kept his composure quite well, reasoning to himself that odd things are not odd in Patchwood. He distracted his worry with ministry and edified a tree in passing: “’In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: surely God has appointed the one as well as the other.’ Ecclesiastes, Mr. Hickory. Keep your chin up.”
Twenty hasty paces put him in line with the lonesome bench – his bench. Whereas it was before hidden by a wide pine, at this moment it became unmistakably perceivable, some thirty yards away. This was unfortunate because Mr. MacArthur needed a clear reason to be lost. This was his park, and that was his bench. Right – but it certainly was not vacant.
Who was that woman?