The Slow-Cooked Sentence

What happened at the park’s edge

Rachael Conlin Levy

​Agnes carried the old milk jug back to the bench and shifted her attention away from the mother and to a small group gathered, like her, at the edge of the park. A few slept beneath the safety and warmth of the waning afternoon sky. Some talked in a circle, their stuffed carts and bags nearby, while, hunched and hooded, others stared into space. A man walked up to the group, where he was greeted with a few nods and a fist bump.

“Where ya been, dude?”

“Walkin’ ” he said. “Spent the last couple days in American Flats.” He dropped to his haunches, and pulled off scuffed and duct-taped boots.

“Get those outta here. They reek.”

“Fuck you,” and the man, who kicked the boots further into the center of the circle. Agnes moved off the bench and inched toward the group, stopping at the trash can to search its contents and listen to the conversation.

“Man, you’s red as a monkey’s ass.”

“Don’t I know it, dude,” said the man, pulling off his ball cap and running fingers through hair greased and graying. Agnes stood at the circles edge and stared at the man. “Got fuckin’ blown outta my mind. Passed out there in the park. Killer weed, dude.”

“That’s my hat,” Agnes said.

He glanced up, pausing to note taut skin stretched over delicate collarbone and the sharp thrust of a hip through colored leggings. “No, it isn’t.”

“That’s my hat,” said Agnes, pacing in her own small circle outside the group. “Tha’s my fuckin’ hat.”

“You don’t know shit. Someone gave me this fuckin’ hat two days ago.”

“There are children round here,” and Agnes, swinging an arm back at the mothers who were rounding up their children in the expiring sun.

“I woke up and found it laying next to me. I washed it and it’s mine.”

“Gimme my hat. Somebody took it. Took it and all my stuff.”

“Shit. They sweepin’ camps again?” the man asked his circle of friends, who nodded and grunted that’s what they’d heard, as well.

“Took my tent set up on the hill near Virginia exit,” Agnes said. Someone added that Bitty, who’d been camping near Wells Boulevard, had lost his gear, too. Another said he heard the sweep went as far as Prater Way.

The man swore under his breath, and eyed Agnes. She was weaving loose strands of hair back into her bun, exposing thin wrists, a slender neck and hooped earrings. “That’s my hat. You’ve no right to take my hat.”

“Take the hat and stop talking about it,” and the man, tossing it where it landed at her feet.

Agnes put it on her head, then pulled it off, and shook out her hair. “I don’t want it. Don’t need it.”

“You gotta chill, baby,” said the man, moving to widen the circle to include Agnes, who walked toward him. “We all need something.”

For a moment, she stood above him and looked at his face, at the laugh lines etched into skin burnt pink, at eyes that blazed with unmet hunger, then dropped the cap into his lap. “I just gotta get my stuff back.”

Around the circle, talk wandered, stories shared and information traded. Someone unwrapped food, broke it and passed pieces around. A match flared, and darkness encircled them. A joint traveled between hands. Cigarettes were lit to dull hunger. Those who’d been sleeping woke, pulled on orphaned sweaters and jackets, and took the seats of those who stood, shouldered their bags, walked away without a goodbye. Bulky forms melted into a darkness that burned like a live coal, where car taillights glowed like dying embers but shared no warmth.

Agnes had not left because she had no where to go. The grass was itchy and damp, and she shivered and dug into her pack for a hat, having learned that spring’s sweaty days quickly cooled after sundown. The man was there as well. Agnes had heard someone call him Leroy, and she thought he’d mentioned coming from California, but it was growing dark, and she had to rely less on her eyes and more on her ears to determine who was talking within the circle, now hidden in streetlight shadow.

Leroy’s voice was raspy and fast, interrupted by a dusty cough. His sentences crunched like gravel under tires, and as Agnes listened, she imagined a rooster tail of dust fanning out behind a moving car. There were other voices, too. A young man with a pierced nose, eyes rimmed with kohl, and wearing a studded collar, had a voice, hesitant and high, each word floating in the air like helium balloon before getting popped by the next word. There was an older woman with a husky voice whose gestures grew more animated the louder she spoke. In her lap, a pit bull whined softly as he tracked her hands, which flapped like fat pigeons. A couple, the man much older than the woman, finished each other’s thoughts, the deeper notes of his voice harmonizing with her sweeter tones, their sentences sounding like wind chimes.

As they spoke, burdens were put down, and a bottle was passed, quenching throats as dry and lonely as the paths they’d traveled only to arrive here, together, for a night. Someone talked of lost buddies in Afghanistan, and being crippled with PTSD. Craving escape and seeking to recapture the thrill of battle, he’d found it for a while at the poker tables. Another talked about how life had damaged her, made her damaged goods that nobody wanted, but was doing the best that she could, trying to stay on the brighter side. “Bad in, bad out. Good in, good out,” said the man in the studded collar. “You choose which way it has to go.” Agnes only half-listened, but nodded, knowingly. Maybe it was Leroy who said he’d worked construction until the housing market bottomed out. “From there, it all went down the shit-hole.” He lost his job, had his house foreclosed, and his wife had taken the kids and went to live with her family in Alabama. “Haven’t seen my kids for over a year.”

“I miss mine, too,” said Agnes. “Been gone so long, I’m ‘fraid they don’t remember me.” The crazed desperation that had gripped her throat since she lost all her stuff relaxed enough to allow her to feel her loneliness.

“Your stuff, it’s all gone?” Leroy asked.

Agnes nodded. “I came back and — Bam! — all gone. I was lucky to have my kids’ pictures in my pocket. Everything else, my ID, my tent, my clothes, my books, and my stove, gone.”

“That’s fucked. Probably all ended up in the dump, huh?” She watched him shrug off the soured luck. “They’re s’posed to store it for you at some warehouse on the other side of the city.” His narrow shoulder blades flexed against his thin shirt as he shrugged again. “Figures.”

A boombox was found, music played, and rare laughter shared. Leroy extended his hand, pulled Agnes to her feet, and together they shuffled and two-stepped within the circle. His hand wrapped around her waist, and pulled her into him. Where they touched, warmth blossomed. Sharp hip bumped against rounded belly, rough denim rubbed against tender inner thigh. Agnes reached up to place her palm against the weathered back of his neck, felt the tickle of hair and the heat from his sunburn.

From the boombox, Lucinda Williams rasped, Baby, sweet baby, you’re my drug. Come on and let me taste your stuff … ​ Within that circle of trampled grass, they were welcomed, if only for that night, that hour, that song, if only for this moment when it was safe to unlock the wicked worlds they inhabited alone in order to invite in another. They smiled through the whistles and howls, as the boombox crooned, Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name. Shoot your love into my vein. Baby, sweet baby, kiss me hard. Make me wonder who’s in charge … ​And with no words to separate them, they let the music speak.

Wet grass stiffened with the dropping temperature, and the few who’d remained rose, stretched tired and cold muscles, and packed their bags and suitcases. Some pushed their heavy carts to the Salvation Army shelter, others returned to camps along the river, while Agnes and Leroy sought the warmth of a city bus headed across town.

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