He has a beer, she has a beer. It’s a little thing, a garnish. A modest flirtation with teen rebellion. He took them from his mother’s refrigerator. Now they sip at their beers, he does, she does, as they sit on a city bench waiting for her bus to come. They talk of the day they’ve had and of tomorrow and next week. They touch hands. They talk of imagined somedays and sip their beers. Sometimes they laugh. She asks about a memory they together share. He asks about her bus, if she wants to wait and take the next one. She asks about next time.
“We could go for a walk. In the woods, I mean. By the park.”
“We could go see the man.”
He laughs when he says it. She only stares. It takes him a minute. Then.
“You know. The man in the woods.”
She shakes her head no.
“I don’t understand.”
He takes a deep drink. Bottle slosh glugs.
“It’s just an old story. The older kids tell their brothers and sisters to scare them.”
“That there’s a man in the woods?”
“Well. They tell it a lot of ways.”
He shifts on the bench. One foot tucks into the crook of the other leg’s knee. He lays an arm across the benchback. Then he begins.
“They say he’s in a clearing if you can find it. But there’s no trail, just dense wood you go around like a maze and then there you are. Sometimes when they tell it the clearing moves around so no two people ever remember coming to it in quite the same place, and no one person can ever find it twice. They say he sits on a tree stump with a case on his lap. It’s a case like a, like an old violin case. And if you give him a nickel he’ll open up that case and play you a song.”
Now she laughs a single, pure guffaw.
“You’re making this up as you go.”
His eyes widen, his mouth makes an O.
“I swear I’m not. How have you never heard these?”
She takes a tiny sip from her bottle.
And he does.
“Well. If you pay him a nickel he’ll play you a song, but it’s not always the same song for everybody. Sometimes it’s a sad song, and sometimes it’s.”
He stops, he looks down, searching for a word.
“Jaunty. And how he chooses which depends on who’s telling the story. Sometimes it’s that he looks you up and down, and sometimes he leans in and gives your soul a sniff, and then sometimes there’s no explanation at all, as if he’s getting his guidance from some source beyond anything we could hope to understand.”
“And then what?”
“And then. And then it depends on the song. If you get the happy one.”
“Yeah. If you get the jaunty one you’ll have all the good luck you can stand.”
Her face contorts and she makes a noise like a snort.
“Good luck? That’s lame.”
He shakes his head.
“Not if you believe in luck.”
She looks at him. One finger taps at the bottle in her hand.
“Well there’s also the sad song.”
Her voice is softer now when she speaks.
“What happens if he plays the sad song?”
“Oh you wouldn’t want to hear about that.”
She slaps his arm. He laughs. She does it again.
“Finish the story!”
“It depends on who’s telling. They all tell that part their own way. But every time. Every time. It’s always something terrible.”
A moment passes when she waits for something more, and then the bus is there, it is pulling to the curb, and she hands him her bottle, and he sets it down, and as they stand he dashes forward with a quick brush of lips against her cheek.
The bus doors open with a sigh. She steps in and turns to watch him go as the bus pulls away. When he is only a speck she makes her way up the aisle. She looks down at her feet with each step. Hands hold the backs of seats as she moves. Her smile beams. It hangs there a moment still when she looks up before a slow withering takes it away.
A long case is lain across his knees. He sits alone in the arrangement of seats. The curves of that timeworn trunk hint at the instrument held within. When she again moves she crosses the distance in wary steps. His old eyes come up to meet hers. Each clasp on that case pops open one by one with a satisfying thwap. When he lifts the lid with bent, skeletal fingers it gives a rending shriek like a thing sealed in antiquity. She holds out a nickel before her.