Herbert had occupied the same weathered bench in Central Park for as long as Roxanne could remember.
She had met him literally by accident one spring day just before she graduated college. While jogging through the park she had tripped over a crack in the pavement, and face planted- right in front of Herbert’s bench.
In a city of more than eight million people, she would have thought there would have been someone there to come to her aid, but there wasn’t a soul. Well, that is if you didn’t count the crazy homeless man regaling the evils of politics from the pulpit of his park bench. And in all truth, Roxanne did not count him.
“Lying political vipers!” Herbert was shouting at the moment Roxanne came to grips with the fact she was going to have at least try to enlist his aid.
“Nothing they tell you is real! Unholy vessels filled with dirty little secrets! Flee I tell you! Flee now! While their backs are turned!” he ranted rigorously, arms aloft as he passionately exhorted his imaginary congregation to action- yet remained totally oblivious to Roxanne’s plight on the sidewalk- right in front of him.
“Sir!” Roxanne called out to him from the pavement, cautiously at first, as you never know how one of these crazy people was going to react. “Excuse me! Sir? Can you help me? It seems I’ve fallen and…”
At the sound of her voice the forgotten man froze, and looked worriedly around him as if trying to figure out where the voice was coming from.
More injured than afraid, Roxanne tried again. “Excuse me? Sir?”
“Are you talking to me?” Was Herbert’s shocked reply, as his gaze fell upon Roxanne, his eyes widening as if he was seeing her for the first time.
“Yes. Yes I am. I was wondering if you could help me. You see I’ve fallen.”
“That’s quite a nasty cut you have there, on your forehead. It may need stitches.” Herbert admonished, as soberly as if they were chatting in church. He dug a neatly folded paper towel out of the inner pocket of his ravaged overcoat and handed it to Roxanne. “This will have to do until we can get someone here to look at it.”
Roxanne accepted the paper towel graciously and applied it to the cut on her forehead without first inspecting it for cleanliness or even thinking twice about from whence it came. “Thank you, Sir. You’re very kind.” She responded with a sincere, albeit slightly dumbfounded smile.
Herbert made short work of retrieving Roxanne’s phone from the grass where it had fallen, and sat faithful guard over her as she placed a call for paramedics.
“I couldn’t help over hearing your name is Roxanne.” Herbert commented thoughtfully after Roxanne had finished placing the call. “Quite a beautiful name. Of course I am sure you’re acquainted with the story of Cyrano DeBergerac and his unrequited love for the much sought after Roxane with whom you share the name?” He queried, as Roxanne looked on in wonderment at the man who was just moments before addressing an imaginary public from his perch on a weathered park bench.
“Yes. Yes, I am. I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name?” her interest was sincere.
“Herbert. Herbert Markham. At your service ma’am.” Herbert introduced himself with the regalia of royalty as he tipped his imaginary bowler and bowed low from the waist. “Always happy to be of service.”
As he spoke, Roxanne noted a distinct twinkle in his eye, a gleam Roxanne would not soon forget.
In the moments that followed, the paramedics appeared and Herbert retreated to his park bench. As Roxanne was being wheeled away he was off and running again, regaling evils from his park bench pulpit, just as if their discourse had never taken place.
In the weeks that followed, Roxanne made several trips to the park to see Herbert. She’d bring coffee or sandwiches and they would sit on his bench and discuss literature, art, or classical music- until some unscripted sound or movement would trigger him, and off he would go, back into the world of his own creation.
Several years passed. Roxanne had since married and had a daughter, Gwinn, whom Herbert was sure was the modern day incarnation of the Lady Gwendolyn of King Arthur lore, and had taken to calling her such whenever they visited.
The two of them visited Herbert every Saturday afternoon religiously. Gwinn ever anxious to hear the next in Herbert’s unending repertoire of tremendously tall tales, and Roxanne because watching the two of them interact together gave her unsurpassed joy.
One Saturday, Herbert was not in his usual place when they arrived. Roxanne was concerned, but didn’t let on- for Gwinn’s sake. She masked her concern by explaining that Herbert probably had something important to do that day, after all he had other things to do than just sit here and wait for them. Didn’t he?
The second week they arrived to find no Herbert, Roxanne inquired with one of the mounted policemen that patrolled that area of the park.
“The crazy old coot that hung out on that bench?” He responded with a tone of amusement, “We carted him off to the funny farm. Straight jacket and all. Musta been last week sometime. Maybe the week before that. Why’d you wanna know?”
“He’s our friend!” Gwinn cried out, visibly hurt the policeman was speaking of Herbert with such callous.
“Yeah, well your friend was one crazy old coot!” the cop laughed as he heeled his horse and continued on his beat- nonplussed by the little girls obvious distress.
“Why did that police call Herbert crazy, Mom? He’s not is he?” The little girl asked from the brink of tears.
“No honey, no. Herbert is not crazy. He is, mentally ill. There is a difference. Herbert has a disease. A disease for which the cure is often worse than the disease itself I’m afraid.” Roxanne answered thoughtfully- thankful for the silence that followed as she was unsure as to how one went about explaining mental illness to a four year old child in any more detail than that.
This piece incorporates the three prompt phrases provided by the OLWG #19 and Misky’s Twiglet, ‘a weathered bench’.
The phrases were:
- Dirty little secrets
- The cure is worse
- Nothing they tell you is real