I stand in the very center of all that is kind, good, and loving, but most importantly, I stand for the dimensional and the judged. The lovers, the killers, and the soulful. I stand in this small, menial patch of untended grass strong in conviction. Tested by the howling winds, for I know that no matter how the wind petulantly tries to rip me out of my bearings, I cannot give, only bend. I remain strong, feet reaching down to hell beneath the soil, deeper than fraud is ingrained in the human spirit, my arms reaching to heavens higher than virtue reigns. And I stand. In this way, in this very fenced off patch of grass. While the wide, cold concrete world bustles about, day in, day out.
I stand for the neighborhood.
A woman screamed. She shrieked as though she was being engulfed in flames; as though a wild animal was licking at her heels: teeth unbarred, claws extended. Her screams bounced off of the walls of quaint Italian facades echoing forth through the busy streets. Suddenly and abruptly, she didn’t scream anymore. She was as silent as a rabbit’s paws running about, hiding from the grim reality in the dark, dark night.
Tears spilled as blood does on the battlefields of war, as the midwife walked into the living room of the small flat, her expression giving away the bitter, gruesome truth. A baby was born. Not born into a kind world, not born into any type of reality suited for those that are weak, but born into a motherless puddle of crimson. And while the harsh truth of his first few minutes remains apparent, he was a joyful, babbling babe; smiling through the grime and darkness. The father received his darling boy, and whilst his face was twisted in agony like a tie dye T-shirt, the stars came out and his eyes brightened at the sight of his child as he was delivered into his arms. And this was the day, the very day the royal purple Gladiolus at my ankles bloomed for the very first time.
And his name was Saul.
The neighborhood. A busy, bustling place. A happy place. Back when I was a seed, it was the industrial district for the city; you could tell in the way the buildings were. It looked like an urban sprawl on the surface in the areas people have updated. But in the cracks, in the thin dark alleyways between the developments, you could look down and see history. You could see her in the darkness in more brilliant light than anywhere. The scorch marks and etched names, crumbling brick and concrete walls built for necessity, iron hulks and machine parts that people never bothered to move. The history was beautiful. The neighborhood was beautiful. The people in this neighborhood were beautiful. Beautiful in that each was their own tapestry of emotions. Beautiful in that each one of them was uniquely broken in ways unknown yet fabulous, broken in the way a mossy cracked stone is: shattered but strong. Broken in ways that made the neighborhood the place to be. A place where the broken could show their cracks.
It was an overcast day; the wind howled as though angered by a great offense. Rain lunged at the world like a savage dog threatening an unsuspecting bystander: roaring and stopping, roaring and stopping. A moving truck came through, sporting some worn ad. A strange man walked out of the flat across from the park. Well, not strange, simply surrounded by vivid colors, which was a sight to behold. He was a young man with this springy, very lively presence to him… yes, lively. He had healthy golden-bronze skin, wild, curly, black hair and sparkling eyes that were black as onyx, yet gleamed with a million colors every time he walked in the sunlight. “Where’d you like this here couch, Mr. Leonardo?” That was when I first heard his name. Leonardo. It was a name that had melody — a name that had color — much like the man himself. It was like its own song in a name.
Then came the lady.
The lady’s name was Eliza. And she was wretched in all senses of the word. She had thin, sickly, blonde hair that was the color of sandpaper, and her personality wasn’t much better. She gave the impression that she was like a tightly stretched rubber band, begging to snap at any moment. She had this voice too, a voice that was so shrill, it could only be likened to knives, and whenever she spoke, it was as if an unwelcome intruder had pierced the sanctity of your ear drums. Eliza was Leonardo’s fiancé, however when they were close, you couldn’t tell. Whenever Eliza would kiss Leonardo, he would wipe his cheek. Whenever Eliza rested on his shoulder, he shuddered. And if you were Christine and sweet Saul, their next door neighbors, all you heard was shouting and screaming and banging from the other wall, “as if someone recorded pots and pans being thrown down the stairs, but added shouting to it” said Saul one time, if my memory serves me well.
Christine could only be described as the woman that knew everything about everyone, hence the name, “the woman that knows.” She owned, loved, and ran the pub along with Saul beneath the home they shared. If it’s anything memorable to note, it was that she loved lilac. Generally, you’d find her wearing traditional, but simple, dresses for work. But each week, she would get all gussied up her Sunday best which consisted of a million different shades of lilac: an elaborate lilac dress, these dainty lilac shoes, a small, lilac overcoat, and her pink pearl chain which Saul had given her for their 40th anniversary. All was painted in beautiful tranquil shades of lilac, all except for one thing: her long, black nails. Everything about her was beautiful but this one, tiny, intentional detail, almost as if her pitch nails were there to defy her ethereal beauty and bring it back down to reality. As if her nails, black and imperfect as they were, acknowledged flaw, and the stain of imperfection on everything we hold dear. Each day, she would wait outside the pub, waiting for exactly an hour each Sunday while Saul got ready. Some might suspect that she was frustrated at having to wait for so long, but she wasn’t peeved in the slightest. I always suspected that she was just waiting. Waiting to make the moments with her aging husband more precious, waiting to hear the weekly report of personal business the bustling neighborhood talked about. Or perhaps, she was stubbornly waiting for her nails to give in and lighten to a lilac color. If not a lilac, at the very least a purple, waiting for time to paint her nails without reality or flaw.
The disruptions from Eliza and Leonardo’s home went on for many months; loud noises breaking the silence of the night and disturbing Christine and Saul, new marks showing up in Leonardo’s eyes, and more wretchedness shown through his soul. But one day, he found a friend and it all changed. No mere friend could brighten a life so dreary as Leonardo’s like he did. No soul could quite save the lonesome spirit of a one so trapped as Leonardo. Marcell was his name. He moved in across the street from Eliza and Leonardo. Marcell was the life of the party. He loved Latin music and painting, trying to make it in the rising San Francisco art scene by painting the world as he saw it: painting it with the flaw and shadow as to “bring the beauty of it” he liked to say. The neighbors all complained about his late night music sessions, loud listening parties he used to capture the “fire of life,” to bring color back to the strange picture he saw in every single glance between people. However, as much as they complained Marcell knew they all secretly enjoyed it. He knew his neighbors all saw his vision too. Marcell, the man with the music “hot as chili peppers” they called him.
Leonardo and Marcell is how it was. They would meet at my feet each evening, in the dead of night. When all was black as pitch and as still, vast, and unwavering as a great mountain, and the sun was hidden behind in its golden kingdom in worlds unknown. They loved spending time together, but in particular, they loved spending time at night sitting under my lowest arms in the park, talking for hours.
One thing that I remember as strange was how touchy Marcell was with Leonardo and no one else. Always hanging on his shoulder and patting him on the back. It was the most bizarre thing, and especially because Leonardo made no effort to stop him. One thing is for sure, he wouldn’t be caught dead letting Eliza touch him with a 10 foot pole, and you could just tell, Eliza wasn’t having it. Whenever she saw the two together, even casually, her face scrunched up so tight like those bands little girls put in their hair. She’d make this huge grandiloquent sigh, as if to get more attention and send a message than to express disappointment.
Saul the Ancient. That was what they called him — Eliza, Marcell, Leonardo, even Christine. He was known as Saul the Ancient because he was particularly old. He had hair white as doves and skin that was as wrinkled as the pages of an old book. The name was partially ironic, however, because his soul was far from old. While many his age sit in sadness and despair, waiting for the grim reaper to bring death down upon their crown, Saul didn’t give in to the years so easily. He had this smile, a smile like a newborn, as if amazed at the beauty in every fleeting moment. Entranced with the value of the human touch and the warmth brought by the sun each morning he still opened his eyes. Saul was always on a bench in front of me, despite each season. Rain or shine, dawn or dusk he sat on the old, iron bench. And hell raining down, or god coming down to earth wouldn’t move Saul off this bench. He loved to sit on this bench, but not because of the bench in particular, but because of the people. Throughout the day, everyone would come by Saul, on their way to work, on their way home, running away from their problems, walking towards their happiness; Saul could act as their guardian. All he had to do was talk. And he talked alright, regardless of what type of folk you were, you could be any color, orientation, age, gender; it simply didn’t matter. Anyone could just sit, and jaw away their troubles with him. He would listen. But even more so, he would talk. But not to no end; he spoke many words, however, he never wasted them. You could bet that when he spoke, over hell or high water, they would be the only words that mattered. Because whether it was his personal opinion, or other, he had this way of speaking the words you secretly knew you always needed to hear. Nobody dare take that park bench. It was almost as if everyone in the world revolved around Saul’s bench. Or, everyone in the neighborhood or rather. Because just like no mortal could take God’s throne, nobody could take Saul’s seat on that very bench.
Leonardo was always on the phone. Whether it was for his work, or speaking to his family far, far away. Every Tuesday, and Friday, at 6:30, this appointment was never strayed from. Leonardo would come down —dropping whatever was going on — to this funny, little, red phone booth. Much like the business that was discussed here, it was a very sad phone booth. Discolored glass panes with some missing and others stained from ages of dust and grime, covered in peeling red paint like a grated orange. Each day, he would start by leaning up against the side of the phone booth and letting out a big, monster sized sigh. He would reluctantly pick up the phone with lead in his fingers and soul, and every, single, time it was the same person on the other end. An angry, very bitter woman. Much like Eliza, but older.
We never saw Leonardo’s mother. She was ever elusive, but from Leonardo and Saul’s long talks on his bench, I could only deduce that she was a nightmarish woman. Garish voice like needles and a personality that was much worse. Leonardo, sad, sad Leonardo. Leonardo who always dawned an expression like heavy stone walls. Dark grey and heavy, like the world on Atlas’ shoulders. When that woman came calling it was as if the bridge that was his spine, the bridge that was his neck, which allowed pride, brightness and happiness to cross over to the mind, fell. For she was the source of Eliza, his tormentor, the source of his pain. The person who took the man with music as hot as chili peppers away. The person who took his smiles away. The reason he wore black and purple marks shaped like pots and other heavy objects; Marks he tried to cover up, but still showed in his eyes every moment he was around that wretched woman. And every time she came calling, his neck would give in and it would hang like the stem of a derelict poppy, abandoned by life’s gift succumbing to an inescapable, freezing winter; dressed in white, with church bells ringing in the background like a swan song of misery.
Eliza used to dream of her wedding when she was girl, dressing up in her best dress, wearing a pillowcase over her hair, hanging colored ribbons from the things in her childhood room, she would run smiling down the middle of the room imagining her true love at the end of the “aisle”, offering safety, true love and an escape. You see, Eliza was broken; someone had shattered her long ago, long before she was betrothed to Leonardo. I don’t know who exactly, but by my reckoning I would guess it was her father. Every time Saul would ask, she would distance herself like ice cracking off the mainland in the arctic. Becoming instantly colder than a lonely mountain standing in the tundra. Eliza once shared the play by play of what she’d always dreamt of on the old bench with Saul. And when she said this, her twisted, bitter and strong face lightened in shade and untangled itself, revealing a scared little girl. It revealed a girl just trying to get away. A girl who would overlook anything, believe any lie, and even perpetuate any lie just to get asylum. The dream she once held for true love was dead, but the chance of getting away from herself and her life was still there, and she would pursue it even if it was in the arms of someone who could never love her.
A young Christine sits at an old oak table. It is raining outside, rain thumping against the pavement just outside the small window, like the pitter patter of a rabbit’s feet. Just like the rain falling outside, tears stream down her cheeks, her black mascara staining her beautifully blushed and painted face. It is a Sunday, so she is wearing her lilac clothes, but she didn’t go to church. She shivers. Saul is away and she has no one to comfort her. Christine’s lips quivered like a leaf, her big doe eyes glistening. She holds back hysterical sobbing and she looks at it. A letter, made of pieces of newspaper. Crafted with only malice and deceit from the mind of the criminal. And underneath this hollow threat, there is a box. Nothing unusual, just a wet, structurally unsound cardboard box. Something that was of a good nature could very well be in it. But Christine, the woman who knows, knows that this isn’t true. She is quavering, terrified because she already knows the truth. She finally decides to cement her truth, and inside, she finds something unbelievable. Something so tragic, something so twisted it is beyond criminal. It was a single picture. A picture of her lost child. He was sitting in a chair, tears scratching the side of his tightly gagged face. Something about it told her that this was the last time she’d ever lay eyes on him. She did report it to the police, but they never tracked down the rest of Elijah that wasn’t captured in that last photo. She and Saul spent many nights crying for their dear Elijah, holding each other in a warm embrace, praying to god that he was alive. But it was this day, this day that Christine, sobbing wildly, painted her nails black like midnight for the very first time, and she never missed a day of church since, and Saul never missed a day on that bench.
Saul the Ancient began to do this strange thing. While talking to Eliza, Christine, Marcell, or Leonardo, out of nowhere, he’d be overtaken with hysterical fits of hacking, with the ferocity of a lions roar, and the soul crushing scratch of an old record, or perhaps knives on old porcelain dishes. Each time, they’d comfort him and try to fuss, but he’d give the same excuse: “it’s just allergies” or “that dang cat!” He did an excellent job at convincing them by pushing away the deep reality he knew to be true. But what he couldn’t hide was the even deeper, longing stare he had in his eyes as they walked away. The look as if he was seeing his long lost child walk away after every talk, and the deep, almost-black hues of red that stained his shirt sleeve after every single, agonizing cough.
One day, Saul had gotten up at his usual early hour and hobbled out to that bench just as he had every other day since that black, black day. Instead of his usual — sitting in the bench and spreading out bird seed, welcoming the hoards of pigeons — he sat at my base, laid his head on my trunk and closed his eyes. He just sat there in this manner, eyes closed as the sun slowly rose, warming his smiling face while the birds chirped and all the world bloomed alive. He was on the cusp of a warm eternal sleep when he spoke. He said one thing — the only thing he or anyone has ever said to me, and I cherish it — with a hoarse, hushed voice: “I will always treasure you, friend.” It was with this that his shoulders fell, his hands lost color, and his eyes closed. And the Gladiolas bloomed. I will remember this sight forever, burned in my mind is the golden shine of this moment: a man, a mortal, fallen below my golden leaves, surrounded by newly bloomed, royal Gladiolas that were only meant for him. Gladiolas that were so true a purple, they were only reserved for the throne of a king.
Christine awoke without Saul by her side and assumed he’d just gone out to the bench like usual. But something felt different today, as if a candle she’d depended on for heat had gotten blown out. As if a fire in her heart had been stamped on. She felt a chill and decided to look out the window just to see her love. When she slowly opened the curtain, she saw him peacefully resting there, engulfed in shades of purple and gold. I saw her face that day, in that moment. Looking down, she had the brutal realization and as it dawned on her, a single tear bore down the side of her cheek.
She ran down through the building and burst out the tavern doors sobbing uncontrollably as she headed to him. She knelt down beside him, tears spilling down her cheeks. She beckoned into the neighborhood, shouting and crying in a frenzy all could hear. Eliza, Leonardo, and Marcell were each just getting up and heading to work when they each heard Christine’s voice. Each came running down to the park, observing Christine’s distress. Christine was still crying, but there was nothing to be done; he was gone.
They all gathered around Saul, watching and waiting while Christine broke down in that square. There were tears sparkling in their eyes as the new sun shone through my leaves. They noticed the flowers as they each saw the corpse of their Saul.
“It’s almost perfect,” Eliza remarked, tears scraping down her face.
“He is sleeping now with Elijah,” Christine added with a teary smile. I will never forget it, the way they all gathered around this one, precious, old man. Standing together divided as ever, but more close in spirit than they could tell. Feet reaching toward the dirt as mine do, but arms and shoulders hanging like wilted stems. Saul was dead, but his last wish of strength bloomed in shades of purple in those Gladiolas. Subtle, but strong. Giving them the strength to do what each of them knew in the trenches of their soul they needed to do.
I know not where they go from here.
They are now walking away, getting smaller and smaller as they disappear, farther off in the distance. Separate in path, going off into their various ways of dealing with the loss and the pain. Saul was carried off to be stuffed in some box like every other soul, but I like to believe he is not here. Not here in some worm-eaten, wooden box beneath the ground to rot with indignity. I like to believe he is in the hearts of Leonardo and Marcell, in every trial and in their deepest suffrage. With Eliza, in her most redeemable and honest moments. And he is tucked inside Christine’s heart. Every moment she sees purple and hears the sound of rain, she sees him and love floods her mind again. I like to think he is with Elijah. Living out their days beyond the stars, in safety behind the sun, where the wind doesn’t blow so hard. Where the black truly does lighten to a lilac. Where the spring never ends, and cherries are red year long. A place I stand for. A place I was made to bring to earth. I can almost see him now, sitting on that rusty park bench laughing in that heavenly chorus of joy, strength, and wisdom. Telling stories of the colorful Leonardo, the misunderstood Eliza, the man that loves painting reality, and the lovely Christine.
I can hear him now, telling his boy all about his people, his neighborhood.