“… I have measured out my life with coffee spoons …”
(T. S. Eliot: “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)
As it often happens to lonesome persons, Gordon Graham’s life consisted of the mere execution of carefully fixed daily habits. The meticulously constructed routine of his days served as a certain crutch to help him through life, which sometimes seemed to him too complicated, at other times too purposeless. Yes, it was a welcome expedient when it came to setting a goal of his existence; with it he could try and establish some kind of order so that his life would shape itself and make itself digestible.
A precisely performed day gave him a sense of perfection. Every day he could be seen at 8.15 a.m. in Macy’s Deli for an egg-sandwich; at 11.00 a.m. in the Museum Park, and by midday back at Macy’s for a buttered scone. Though well-preserved and impeccably attired, his presence lacked effect; even if you happened to walk by him several times, you would not remember him at a next encounter—your loss, because you could have set your watch to him as to a Swiss clockwork. Gordon Graham was the unnoticed metronome of the little city. Tick, Macy’s, tack, Museum Park, tick, Macy’s, tack … The climax of his day passed even more unobserved; at 6 o’clock p.m. he would be smoking his Irish clay-pipe in the dusk of his yet unlit living-room, smoke issuing forth from his mechanical mouth as from a chimney-stack, apparently deep in thought, yet possibly not preoccupied with anything more than the visualization of his approaching pickled-herring dinner.
But one Thursday afternoon something extraordinary happened. Mr. Graham was just about to direct his steps towards the kitchen, when, by an unplanned jerk of his neck, through his leftmost bedroom-window, he happened to catch sight of a rickety old man shuffling along the street. He wore a weather-faded raincoat, light-grey as the color of the pavement on bright sunny days, and a strange felt hat, once dark brown. His hands were folded behind his awkwardly bent back, which doomed him to the constant observation of the pavement instead of anything about and around.
He shambled along slowly and it seemed without purpose, but if one kept on watching him for a little longer, every shuffling step of his turned out to be part of a Plan to Reach the Red Bench which stood in front of Mr. Graham’s house. Yes, he was familiar with the street, and on good terms with the cracks and wrinkles of the concrete he tread. He cunningly took a longer step from time to time, in order to avoid a bump or step over a half dried-out puddle. At last he reached the bench. He stopped and, pulling his trousers a little, slowly squatted down until his rear safely touched the bench. He sat there for a few seconds in utter suspense, then started moving his neck, first left, then right, left, right, left …very slowly … then start circling his head around. After four-five repetitions, he bent forward, placing his palms on his knees, collecting strength to get up again.
Then this indescribable movement! He shuffled to the back of the bench, held on tight to it and started shaking his legs and shoulders, as if he was about to collapse from complete exhaustion, not being able to stand any longer, grabbing the plank so as to support himself. But no! It was a push-up of a somewhat idiosyncratic nature; a feeble attempt to bend both elbows and straighten them out again. He shook and shivered there in his worn raincoat and faded felt hat on a balmy spring Thursday, holding on to the bench and then suddenly stop and let go of it. He placed his arms behind him, and, as carefully as he came, he shuffled off, leaving an astonished Mr. Graham behind the pane of his third-floor bedroom window.
That Thursday evening Mr. Graham was thinking about the little old man, while he was puffing away in the six-o’clock dusk of his living room. It occurred to him that the old man might return. After all, he appeared to be familiar with the street. It might be a regular activity of his, and the bench his place of pilgrimage!
For the next few days, Mr. Graham adopted a new habit of standing at his leftmost bedroom window at five o’clock each afternoon, waiting for the pilgrim to return. It proved to be futile on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and by Tuesday he was ready to give up his quest, giving himself Thursday as a deadline. And lo, that was the very day when the crooked figure reappeared at last. He wore the same raincoat and the same felt hat and it seemed as if Time had stopped and it was still that Thursday afternoon of last week. He shambled and shuffled as the mirror-image of his last week’s self, and Mr. Graham, standing at his window, felt content.
Summer came with its hot sunny days, and the pilgrim kept on coming every Thursday, wearing his eternal raincoat and felt hat.
Autumn came and brought the same buttered scones and pickled herrings and the sight of Thursday pilgrimages into Mr. Graham’s life; and he felt content.
Then came winter, when the days shortened and a cold unfriendly wind disheveled the coiffure of ladies and knocked off the hats of men. It often rained incessantly for a whole day, but, rain or shine, dark or bright, the old pilgrim still appeared by the bench, and Mr. Graham at his window, five o’clock every Thursday, both as punctual as clockwork. Sometimes, the bench being wet, a dark round spot could be seen on the rear of the old man’s raincoat after he had stood up and was about to shuffle off again. The ghost of a smile would appear and disappear on Mr. Graham’s countenance and he would feel content.
One moody November Thursday started out just like any other Thursday of the last couple of months; Macy’s was tolerably busy, the egg-sandwich was slightly soggy, but delightfully resembled the one he had had the day before, and none of the listless people who passed Mr. Graham on his walk seemed to be aware of the great change that this day had in store for him. The bench, wet and shiny in the rain, remained empty. If anyone had taken the trouble, they could have noticed a solitary figure, stock still, watching it from behind the pane of a small window on the third floor.
The early spring of the following year was studded with unusually mild days and I got into the habit of walking home from my office instead of driving. The reception of that particular Thursday was not to begin before six-thirty, so I thought of stopping off during my walk at a bench to reread an article that was most likely to be one of the hottest topics of the guests that evening. It was fairly early, around four-five o’clock, so I expected to have a good half an hour of daylight to read by. The first bench I happened to come across was still wet from the rain of the day before, and I remember being half vexed, half amused at thinking about the consequences; at the reception people might think I had wet my pants.
Anyhow, I sat down and started reading, but soon a strange feeling took possession of me; I felt as if I was being observed. I’m sure you have had that feeling before; someone’s eyes, though there is no physical contact to speak of, grazing your skin. I looked around and about but the street was empty. I reclined back on the bench and continued to read, but the uncanny feeling would not leave me. Then suddenly turning around, with and unplanned jerk of my neck, I directed my eyes towards the house that stood behind my bench. Some windows were unlit, at others the curtains were drawn; but at one of the smaller windows on the third floor, despite the dimness of the room it belonged to, a dark figure shaped itself. It appeared as if it was positioned towards the very bench I was occupying.
I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine what he or she was looking at, or, if at me, why. Then I thought that there was nothing interesting whatsoever that the street could offer that afternoon, or on any other afternoons for that matter; it was one of those dead-ends without much traffic going through it, so my presence may have been defined as something of an event. I quickly stood up and was bent on getting away from the uncanny bench and its peeper, yet I could not help glancing up again to see if the person was still there. It was. A figure in the same position, unmoved, and, it suddenly seemed to me, lonesome. Despite my resolve to leave, I was fixed to the spot, looking back at the drab shadow of some human being, feeling sad and solitary myself, without the strength to tear myself away.
I couldn’t tell you how long it had lasted, but it was an involuntary shudder thanks to my wet clothes that broke the spell. I stumbled along the street’s cracked pavement as fast as I could towards the hotel where the reception was about to take place and never in my life have I looked forward to its bright lights and its loud crowd as much as on that particular spring Thursday afternoon.