Robert Parker is old. He doesn’t feel old. He’s alone, as alone as he can be. No family. No friends. They’re all gone. Dead. Bad luck, disease, old age—one damn thing after another. He’s joined the ranks of Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie. He never thought he would. What was he thinking? It’s the inevitable end if you live long enough. Good luck, bad luck—who’s to say? It’s almost as if he’d planned it but he hadn’t. “That’s how the cookie crumbles,” he says to himself as he dresses for his evening stroll around town.
He’s not the only one left alive like Wittgenstein’s mistress. No, no. There are others out there. They just don’t pay him any attention. And, he doesn’t pay them any attention. Why would he? They’re strangers.
Well, not too much attention. He does people watch. Which he did with his wife. When she was alive. Try to guess what they are like, what their life is like. Make up stories as if they’re characters in the perpetual novel that goes on in his head. Constantly. He keeps his mind active. He doesn’t understand mindfulness, mindlessness, meditation although he does space out sometimes.
His mind is his best asset. He accomplished quite a bit in his day. Not that anyone remembers him. He isn’t in the history books. He isn’t famous. As they say, people come and people go but nothing ever happens. That’s not exactly true. He did make things happen even if that was a long time ago. It all fades with time. Ozymandius.
It’s not that he’s invisible. He lives in a silent bubble like a child who puts a blanket over his head as if everyone else had a blanket over their head too. But there are no blankets. People do notice him. The pitch and yaw can still make an impression.
Which is why he doesn’t let down his guard. Why he dresses with pride. Why he wears a tie and coat on his walks. Like he did when he was a professor. It’s a matter of respect. Not that it means anything. It doesn’t. A man’s a man whether he wears a uniform or not.
Even now once in awhile someone will address him as Professor Harper. Of course it was many years ago when he was in the classroom. The small contributions he made in his field have long been forgotten, improved upon. Even he has forgotten. But, they’re still there. Everything is still there.
Most of the time he is as oblivious to everyone around him as they are to him. As he would be to himself if not for his thoughts. He has discovered other flavors of solitude than isolation. The taste of thoughts. Thoughts are words unspoken. Thoughts are memories made up or real, ideas old or new, inspirations, imaginations. Thoughts bring him joy.
He puts a flower in his lapel. Sometimes a young girl walks past him and smiles. “Maybe she’s the daughter of one of my students,” he thinks when it happens and he smiles back. “If that flower encourages just one smile it’s worth it.”
People say hello to him matter of factly. The garrulous ones. Always the same ones. They say hello to everyone. He isn’t special. They know nothing about him. It’s habit. That’s all.
One thing Robert Parker knows is that everything is connected. Everything is connected to him and he is connected to everything else. He’s not sure how this works. Well, some of it maybe like gravity but the subtle connections that hold the fruitcake together, most of that nobody knows.
Saturday night and busy. People are frantically racing off to wherever it is they go. No time for smiles. He sits on the park bench across from the duck pond and closes his eyes. Darkness overpowers him. Perhaps he falls asleep.
A jolt interrupts him. He is disoriented and confused. He stands up too quickly and is overcome by a bout of dizziness. He sits back down to steady himself, to wait until he is able to walk back home.
It has been an uneventful night. People are streaming out of the bar across from the park. He’s surprised when a woman waves at him. He raises his hand to wave back then realizes she is waving at a man passing him on the left. The man hurries by and almost knocks him down. “Excuse me,” he says but the man is already halfway across the street and ignores him.
It’s earlier than he thought. Too early to head home. He decides to treat himself to a drink at the bar. The place is packed. The music is loud. He nearly turns around when he spots an empty seat at the far corner of the bar.
“What’ll it be Old Timer?”
He bristles at Old Timer. The kid tending bar doesn’t look old enough to even drink. When he looks around it dawns on him that he’s the oldest guy in the bar by probably a few decades.
“What kind of wine do you have?” he asks.
“Red or white.”
“What kind of red or white?”
“Red or white. That’s it. Wine isn’t our specialty,” says the exasperated bartender. The place is packed and people are yelling at him from all directions.
“Red,” says Robert and puts a ten on the bar.
The bartender pours a glass of red out of a gallon bottle. Robert doesn’t recognize the name.
“$15.75,” says the bartender.
Robert puts another ten on the bar. “Keep the change kid,” he says.The bartender’s already smashing up green leaves and god knows what for a pitcher full of some strange thing called a Mojito. These seem to be very popular. So are Cosmos, a drink that comes in all the colors of the rainbow in a martini glass with vodka and different fruit juices.
Robert looks up from the bar and sees a table of four staring at him. Their combined ages probably don’t add up to his age. Frightening. When he turns back around there is a new drink in front of him.
“What’s this!” he asks.
“It’s a fireball, a spicy cinnamon flavored whiskey drink,” says the bartender. “That table of four in the corner sent it to you.”
Robert turns back to the two couples. They all hold their drinks up in a toast. Robert does the same and takes a sip. “Not too bad,” he says to himself. “Not too bad at all.” After a minute he looks back and the four are gone.
He too should be going but it feels good in the bar. To think that four strangers bought him a drink. It’s a comforting thought. As he takes another sip of the fireball. A jostling of bodies around him causes him to spill the drink on his tie. No one notices. Or even cares. “The people here must spend a lot of money on ties,” he thinks. But then he sees no one else is wearing a tie. Or a coat with a flower in the lapel.
He leaves. As he goes out the door he sees the four people who bought his drink standing outside laughing. He’s in the shadow. They can’t see him.
“What a silly old fart,” says one of the girls.
“I know,” says the man she’s with. “He always wears the same tattered old coat and wrinkled tie.”
“Don’t forget the flower,” laughs the other girl.
“It’s not a flower,” says the other man. “It’s a dandelion.”
All four break out singing in unison:
“Dandelion don’t tell no lies
Dandelion will make you wise”
They convulse in laughter and fall on the ground.
‘Look at those stars,” says one of the girls. Robert can’t tell which one, the blond or the brunette. He looks up. The stars are all ablaze.
“Dandelion don’t tell no lies …
They’re all laughing and laughing.
“Dandelion will make you wise.”
“Why does the old fool come around every night anyway?” says one of the men. “He always sits on that bench across the way.”
“Yea, snoring,” laughs the other man.. “He looks at the young girls as they walk by.”
“So do you silly,” says one of the girls.
“Who wants him?” says the man.
“Who cares,” says the other man. “Let’s go, we’re gonna be late.”
They dance off holding hands and singing Dandelion.
Robert Parker staggers back to his small apartment. As he walks through the door a draft hits him in the face. Suddenly he’s very cold and very tired. He falls onto the couch and pulls up the ragged blanket he keeps there. He doesn’t even take off his coat.