The weather has broken and the whole world seems to know about it. Kids disgorged from dirty school busses leap over puddles, whooping with joy. Billy Miller wears his hood over his head, but leaves the rest of the coat hanging behind him like a shadow. Kayla Driesden sports pink running shorts, her winter-bleached legs blending in with the snow piled on the sidewalk, so if you squint your eyes just so you can almost convince yourself that Kayla strides on invisible legs.
And here comes Stuart Mason now, just in time. He walks down the street, afternoon cup of decaf clutched in his hand. He sits on the peeling park bench, watching the kids, enjoying their sudden sunny moods. The air is full of a near-hilarity, brought on by the thirty-degree change in temperature. Now, the kids aren’t looking for snow days.
They want baseball.
Stuart sits on the old park bench. Listens to the children.
And now approaches a stranger. No one ever seen in these parts, not in near memory, anyway. He sits beside Stuart, no, not at the far end of the bench, but just there, right next to the man, as if this stranger were expecting a third person to join them.
Stuart offers a slight nod. Scoots away as best he can without giving offense. The man clears his throat, preparing, Stuart knows, to make some sort of conversation. What is it that compels the most talkative people in the world to sit beside a stranger? Talkers seek out listeners, of course. If talkers sat with talkers, well the world wouldn’t get on as well as it has, would it? Still…Stuart had wanted to sit here in the brilliant sunshine, regular as a dove on a statue, and drink his coffee, watching the beautiful blur of the world pass by. Some people must speak evermore when sometimes what is called for is a bit of quiet.
“Tell me about your mother.” The stranger speaks into the beauty of the day.
Stuart frowns. Not three minutes before the stranger had sat down and now he was asking about his mother, of all people.
The man shrugged. “Why not?”
Good Lord, Stuart thinks. Now, Kayla has slipped into the snow. Her legs are an angry red when her sister hoists her up. Both of them are laughing. He takes a sip of his coffee, willing the man to go away. “Tell me about your mother.”
The stranger laughs lightly, presses the tips of each finger to its partner. “That’s not the way it works.”
In the square the bells begin to ring. One…two…three…four o’clock. The children are arriving home in dribs and drabs, trailing books and coats and balled-up math papers behind them, looking for food. “Will you go away, if I tell you something about my mother?”
The stranger considers. Nods. “Yes.”
Stuart takes a deep breath. “Her hair was a fiery kind of red.”
“Was?” The stranger stands, slides an iPhone from his pocket, consults its screen.
“She lost it. No one knows why.” Stuart laughs and the stranger returns to the bench, a little bit closer than he’d been before. “God, she was so proud of that hair. She’d brush it every night, sitting at her dressing table in her nightgown, smelling of lavender. My job was to get the hair out of her brush every night, toss it to the birds.”
“My mother wanted to give them nesting material.” Stuart smiles at the memory. “What my mother didn’t know was that I kept some of her hair beneath my pillow, so that I’d always have a piece of her with me, even when I was asleep.”
The stranger nods.
And suddenly Stuart begins to cry, quietly, so that the stranger can’t tell. He misses his mother, misses that old goat of a woman with the fiery hair. He needs to call her. No, he needs to go and visit her. It’s been too long. And Memphis isn’t that far away. Not anymore. “She’s a fiery kind of woman, too.” He shakes his head. “My mother has got the hottest temper you ever did see.” Stuart remembers the stranger. “Who are you?” He squints at the man.
“I’m the story collector. And now that I’ve got your mother’s last story, well…” He stretches out his left arm, exposes the watch on his wrist, which he consults briefly. “My condolences,” he says, and turns.
As Stuart watches him walk down the street, his phone rings.
The wind feels bitter and cold on his face. The water rushes into the storm sewers.