Rain At The Intersection Of Tomorrow

Advertisement  (turn off)
BJ Neblett
© 2016

Bennie lit his fifth Camel of the evening, flicking the spent match into the neon gutter. The pooling colors twisted and melted in a rain-soaked kaleidoscope of desperation. Taking a long drag on the unfiltered cigarette, he savored the breath. He could feel the bite of nicotine as it burned what was left of the soft fibrous tissue inside his lungs. A thick blue cloud floated in the air when he finally exhaled, coughing up phlegm in the process. He spat the yellow green wad to the wet pavement and coughed again. Ripples radiated in the standing water where it landed, transforming the reflected grey buildings into amorphous monsters from the Id. The big man smiled and spat again.
It had been another long, trying day. The incessant rain was now in its fourth day and showed no signs of letting up. Downpours were common in the area, but even the old timers were pressed to recall when it had rained so hard for so long. But Bennie didn’t mind the rain. Sitting alone on the corner bench, with his thoughts and his memories, was one of the few joys he could claim. And the rain always seemed to cleanse and renew everything, from the trash strewn city streets to Bennie’s own heavily laden soul.
Hot ash singed Bennie’s calloused fingertips as he drew a final deep lungful of smoke then flicked the smoldering remains into the street. Relaxing back, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.
A young woman sat poised at the far end of his bench. People often hurried past, heading for the transit stop two blocks down, or to some other self-important destination. But the old bench sat mostly forgotten at the corner of a deserted crossroads. Even the self-proclaimed street artists and aerosol taggers, determined to deface every building, bench and sign in the city, ignored the isolated intersection. Save for a few friendly foraging pigeons, Bennie always had the bench to himself.
Bennie turned.
He was alone.
Wiping rain from his eyes, he reached into the breast pocket of his denim shirt. A flicker of yellow danced in the rain to his right. With a toss of her head, the young woman flipped back a strand of blonde hair.
Again, Bennie turned.
Again, he was alone.
“Crazy,” he mumbled.
A sudden gust of wind rustled the few remaining leaves reluctant to release their tenuous grip on the street’s lone maple tree. In the summer it provided shade from the hot sun. But now, with winter rapidly approaching, the old growth tree stood naked, stripped of its color and dignity; thick barren branches still affording a modicum of protection from the steady rain.
Bennie lit his last cigarette, returning the empty pack to his pocket. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said aloud. A second, stiffer breeze arrived, sending a shiver through his body, and carrying with it the sounds of laughter. Bennie pulled the grey knit stocking cap low across his forehead. “Great, now I’m hearing voices,” he mused, as a single brown leaf tumbled in the air, a final graceful dance before dying.
The laughter continued.
Without moving, Bennie shifted his gaze to the right. Seated at the end of the bench, the young woman leisurely turned a page in the book she read. Her skin was the color of a warm sandy beach; her long hair that of the noon day sun. Barefoot, she wore a sheer white sleeveless dress that remained dry and crisp despite the rain.
Bennie twisted in his seat. A flash of lightning turned the grey afternoon a brilliant amber. Two brown squirrels chased one another up the side of the maple tree, disappearing into a small hole in the trunk. A tall, thin man trotted past, briefcase in hand, holding a newspaper over his head as he splashed down the sidewalk. One by one, up and down the block, street lights winked on.
But Bennie sat alone on the bench.
Shaking his head, Bennie rose and flipped the collar of his worn leather jacket. He could still hear the faint sound of laughter over the rolling thunder. He turned and headed for home, making his way through the rain.
+++
By the time Bennie arrived home the storm had broken. Pausing on the second floor landing, he had to stop to catch his breath. When he reached his apartment he was coughing and wheezing again.
The apartment was a simple, clean, third floor walk up in a struggling working class section on the city’s east side. Life in the city was never easy for Bennie. He had lived here all of his adult life, his monthly payments remaining reasonable, thanks to a weakening economy and stiffly enforced rent controls. He fondly recalled days when the buildings were brightly painted; tall oaks lined the unsoiled white sidewalks, and children played freely in the well manicured parks. That was before most of the factories and major employers were hit with cut backs and layoffs; before the population shifted away from white collar families; before desperation and doubt took up residence in the once social neighborhood. Drifting from job to job for several years, he finally landed a production manager position at a local plant. During the economic downturn, government contracts kept the facility out of the red, and a demotion to supervisor kept Bennie out of the unemployment line. His job at the factory was long, hard and dirty. But the work was steady and the pay provided an adequate living for him and his wife.
Bennie met Kate the first day of junior high school. Fate placed them side by side in home room; an inexplicable, mutual attraction kept them together. Slender, with flowing chestnut hair and bright emerald eyes, Kate was studious, artistic and beautiful. Large and deliberate, Bennie was a loner who struggled in school, preferring to work with his hands. From the moment they met they were never apart. After high school Bennie accepted a job in the city. Against her parent’s wishes, Kate eagerly joined him, the unlikely pair happily making a home in the small brownstone apartment. A year later they married.
Bennie knew the pause in the rain wouldn’t last long. That morning the annoying man on the television had smiled stupidly, pointing to his digital map. An approaching line of thunderstorms would prolong the deluge. Firing up his first cigarette of the day, Bennie wondered why everyone on the Weather Channel looked like they were made of plastic with painted expressions. Images of a factory churning out robotic talking heads kept him company on his way to work.
Slipping out of his coat and hat, Bennie dropped his keys into a plum colored bowl. Kate had fashioned the colorful ceramic in pottery class, proudly presenting it to Bennie their first Christmas together. Grabbing a towel to dry off, he headed to the bedroom. From the top drawer of an old chest Bennie pulled a carton of cigarettes. It was empty. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he mused aloud. Kicking off his work boots, Bennie flopped down on the edge of the bed. On the nightstand sat a framed picture. The woman in the photo wore a dark lavender summer dress and a bright smile as she waved from the building’s front steps. Bennie tenderly touched the familiar image. “Another day, Katie girl…” he whispered. Wiping away a tear, Bennie lay back on the bed and was instantly asleep.
+++
The rains continued, alternating between a steady drizzle and sudden violent cloud bursts. By now the sewers were nearing their capacity and most of the streets held standing water. Public transportation remained congested, running well behind schedule. Many shops and offices elected to close down until conditions improved. Some meteorologists had optimistically promised the storms would end soon. But the rains continued.
The persistent showers brought with them an eerie tranquility that Bennie found strangely relaxing. The city’s non-stop clamor fell silent, replaced by the steady soft patter of rain, accompanied by occasional thunder claps.
Bennie had wisely switched from his beloved leather bomber’s jacket to a heavy rubber rain slicker. The bulky coat made him feel like a child on his way to school. Its bright yellow color made him look like the school bus the child rode. But it kept him warm and dry as he splashed through sidewalk puddles and gutters turned rivulets. Reaching the corner, the bench came into view. Water dripped from the brim of his rain hood as Bennie paused to look around. A host of sparrows, with feathers ruffled against the cold, clustered together beneath the rotting eaves of an abandoned market. Newspaper and trash dammed the mouth of a storm drain as water percolated up through a manhole cover. Now totally devoid of leaves, the mighty maple tree did its best to shelter the vacant bench. But no cars plowed through the flooded streets; no one hurried to the bus stop; no one loitered on the corner.
Bennie was alone.
With a contented sigh, he fired up a cigarette and settled down on the end of the bench. “Well, here we are again, Katie girl. You always loved the rain, didn’t you; loved to cuddle up in front of the fireplace on a stormy night.” Holding the match before him, Bennie became lost in the flame.

“I love to watch the flames; how they jump and leap and change colors.”
“Are you sure you’re warm enough, sweetheart?”
“Of course, I’m fine.”
“I really am sorry about all of this. I shouldn’t have brought you here until we had some furniture; or at least until the gas and water were turned on.”
Kate reached up, tenderly placing her hand to Bennie’s cheek. “Don’t be silly, it’s fine,” she said, snuggling deeper into the big man’s arms. “Besides, it’s more romantic like this, don’t you think, Bennie bear?”
It was their first night in the city; in their new apartment. Shortly after dawn, Bennie had rolled up to Kate’s house in his old pickup truck. He found her sitting on a suitcase at the end of a long circle driveway. Bennie didn’t need to ask. He knew how Kate’s upper-middle class family felt about her relationship with the lumbering boy from the wrong side of the town. He knew her father had threatened to cut her off when she refused to attend a prestigious East Coast university. And he could easily picture in his mind the final falling out as Kate announced to her parents her intentions to enroll at the city college and live with Bennie. In silence, they loaded Kate’s suitcases and few possessions into Bennie’s truck and drove away. They now cuddled together in front of the apartment’s fire place, keeping each other warm.
Bennie pulled the blanket tighter around them, kissing Kate on the forehead. “You always see the good in everything, don’t you Katie girl. How’d I ever get so lucky?” He reached for his pack of cigarettes. It was empty.
Kate snatched the empty pack, tossed it into the fire and smiled up at Bennie. “Seems like a good time to quit.”

Bennie flicked the spent butt into the rain swollen gutter. “Of all your wonderful things, you never could get me to quit smoking,” he said aloud. “I’m sorry ‘bout that Katie girl.”
“That’s a very lovely name.”
Bennie glanced up, “Pardon…”
He was alone.
“Katie, it’s a lovely name. Kate, Kathy, Katherine…” The voice was soft, feminine and refined, yet held a childish quality. It floated in the air between rain drops; over the distant thunder, reaching Bennie from the far end of the bench. “Such a pretty name; you don’t hear it used much these days, do you?”
Bennie spun in his seat, searching up and down the block. He sat by himself in the rain. Suddenly something stirred in his peripheral vision. Without turning, Bennie shifted his gaze to the right. A young woman in a lacey white sun dress sat at the end of the bench.
“I can tell by the tone in your voice she must be special to you,” she said.
Bennie stared straight ahead in silence. Were the flashes of lightning playing tricks on his vision? Was she an optical illusion? What about the voice? He had distinctly heard her voice through the steady rain fall. Glancing to the right again, Bennie realized it was the same apparition from the previous day.
“It’s nice to have someone, isn’t it?”
Rubbing his eyes, he slowly turned his head.
She was gone.
Taking a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, Bennie coughed and laughed hoarsely. “This is crazy.” Lighting up, he exhaled a deep pull of blue smoke.
“I’m curious, what is that you’re doing?”
Bennie carefully studied the potent cigarette in his hand. “Katie always said these things would affect me,” he announced. “I just didn’t know they would make me crazy.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he heard the woman say, “I shouldn’t be so nosey.”
Looking straight ahead, Bennie’s brown eyes slowly shifted to the right. The young woman appeared again out of the corner of his eye. She now sat facing him, leisurely twirling a long strand of yellow hair with her finger.
“It’s… ok…” he replied hesitantly. “You’ve really never seen a cigarette?”
“No, no I haven’t. What is that cloud coming out of your body?” She watched intrigued as he exhaled and then coughed hard several times. “Why do you do that to yourself?”
“I don’t know.” Bennie closed his eyes and pictured Kate. She had once asked him the same question as they sat together on the back of his pickup, in their high school parking lot.

“Why do you do that to yourself?”
“I don’t know.” Bennie tamped out a half smoked cigarette, flicking the butt aside. “Because I enjoy it so much,” he managed between fits of coughing.
“Yeah, I can tell,” Kate replied, and they both laughed.
It took a month but Bennie had finally worked up the courage to talk to the pretty girl sitting next to him. One day before history class, the shy seventh grader steeled up false courage and approached her. With unabashed candor, he admitted to more than just a passing interest in the captivating brunette. Kate demurely replied she felt the same. The news only abetted his uneasiness at talking with girls. But Kate hung in there, patiently waiting out the awkward stares and embarrassing false starts. In time she discovered an inquisitive, tender and caring young man with a love of animals and all things mechanical. In Kate, Bennie found a beautiful, intelligent, fun-loving partner who accepted him unconditionally.
Kate scooted across the truck’s tailgate, her bright green eyes finding his. “You know, we’ll be graduating next month. You really should try and quit.”
“Oh, so that’s how it goes, huh?” Bennie teased. “After what, five years together it’s time to change old Bennie?”
She pulled him close, holding tightly. “I’d never try and change you, Bennie bear. I just love you too much.”

Opening his eyes, Bennie discovered the storm had slowed to a heavy mist. Sunlight began to break through narrow gaps in the gray clouds. He flipped back the hood of his rain slicker and turned his face to the warming rays. “That’s more like it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will last.”
His observation was met with silence.
Facing straight ahead, Bennie searched out of the corner of his eye.
He was alone.
+++
The brief pause in the rain didn’t last. A new round of thunderstorms soon settled in over the city. Arriving home, Bennie stripped off his work clothes, stepped into the shower and set the faucet to hot. The steaming water felt good, relaxing and soothing his tired, sore body. As it rained down from overhead, Bennie recalled his earlier encounters on the bench. He shifted his gaze to the right and concentrated. Instead of the young blonde woman, Kate’s rainbow shower curtain came into focus.

“We can’t afford all of this, sweetie.”
Kate dropped four large shopping bags in the middle of the empty living room. She turned and headed back out of the apartment’s front door. “C’mon, Bennie bear,” she called, “there’s more down in the cab.” Shaking his head, Bennie followed dutifully in silence.
That evening the tiny apartment resembled the aftermath of an explosion in Macy’s home wares department. Bennie sat on the floor surrounded by Rachael Ray pots and pans; a thirty-two piece set of lavender and black stoneware dishes; a full size microwave complete with cooking accessories, and an imposing Shark vacuum cleaner. “But Katie girl…” he said, setting aside a queen size periwinkle comforter set.
His pleas fell on deaf ears. Kate excitedly unfolded a shiny plastic shower curtain. “Isn’t it cool? It will definitely brighten up that drab little bathroom!” It was vivid yellow with wide bands of colorful rainbows arching above delicate unicorns rendered in lilac and iris and amethyst and a dozen other shades of purple. “And I got a matching rug, trash can and towel set! We can paint the walls a pale yellow to match.”
Bennie’s stare moved from the gaudy bath accessory to Kate. “It looks like something you’d see while on acid.”
Her pert nose wrinkled. “Oh, it’s not that bad. And we both agreed what this place needs is a splash of color.”
“And how are we going to pay for all this color, Katie girl?”
“You don’t need to worry about that, honey.”
“Why not…?”
Turning, Kate began to refold her purchase. “Because, I used my parent’s credit cards,” she whispered softly. Her words were barely audible over the crackling of the stiff plastic.
“What?”
With a sigh, Kate dropped the shower curtain and knelt beside Bennie. “I said I used daddy’s credit cards.”
“I thought we talked about this, Kate.” There was disappointment in his voice.
“I’m sorry Bennie bear,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder. “I just wanted to make a nice home for us.”
Bennie wrapped his arm around Kate’s waist, lovingly kissing the top of her head. “I know Katie girl, I know.”
“Anyway, it’s his stupid fault. He knows better; he should have cut up those cards the day I left. Besides,” she added with an indignant snort, “they owe us a house warming present.”
Pulling Kate close, Bennie couldn’t help but laugh.

Stepping out of the shower, Bennie wiped his eyes with a plush mauve towel. He stood staring into the bathroom mirror. “Damn, is that you, Big Ben?” he asked the reflection. “What happened to you, man? You’re looking old.”
“Life,” his reflection replied, “life. That’s what happened; too many dreams and not enough time; too many cigarettes and too much pain.”
+++
Bennie sat on his bench, tearing pieces of bread and dropping them to the ground. A blue dappled pigeon cautiously circled the doughy prey before stabbing at one with its pointed orange beak. As if expressing gratitude, it raised its head, winking a round black eye at its benefactor, and then swallowed the treat. “You’re welcome,” Bennie replied. Despite the steady rain fall, several other pigeons soon arrived, methodically pecking and waddling with anticipation.
“…for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet the Father feeds them…”
With a start, Bennie looked up. He knew the passage, and the voice. “That’s… Matthew,” he managed through a suddenly dry mouth. Without turning, he uneasily looked to his right. The young blonde woman appeared once again in his peripheral vision. Perched at the end of the bench, she wore the same long white sun dress and sat facing him.
“Yes, it is,” the woman replied. “You know your Scripture.”
“My… my mother… when I was little… she would read to me.” Bennie looked to his left. A black sedan made its way through the intersection, sending ripples of water across the sidewalk, scattering the pigeons. The street beyond lay deserted. “Do… do I know you?” he asked, returning his gaze to the side.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t. My name is Cassiel.”
“That’s an unusual name; very pretty.”
“Thank you. It means solitude and tears; kinda fits me, I guess. I love to come and sit here by myself. You’re actually the first person I’ve ever seen sitting on my bench.”
Bennie shifted uncomfortably. Her bench…? What was going on? Who was she? Turning his head to the right, the woman disappeared, returning only when he again faced forward and peered out of the corner of his eye. Where had she come from, and why couldn’t he look directly at her? Concentrating on keeping her within his vision, Bennie struggled for words. “I’m sorry,” he said at last, “but… are you real? I mean, am I hallucinating or imagining you or something?”
“Oh, my, I certainly hope not,” Her laughter brightened the rainy afternoon. “Yes, I’m real; I am as real as you believe me to be.”
Still uncertain if he might not be dreaming, Bennie found himself becoming intrigued with the lovely woman with whom he shared the bench. “I’m sorry. My name is Bennie.”
She propped an elbow on the back of the bench, resting her gracefully pointed chin in her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you Bennie. And I think it sweet of you to feed those birds.”
He’d forgotten all about them. Shredding the remaining slice of bread, he tossed the crumbs to the speckled blue pigeon, which had returned for more. “Well, with the rain and all I just thought maybe they’d be hungry.”
Cassiel turned, holding out her palm. “Rain…? What rain?”
Her reaction caused Bennie to glance up. Cold drops of rain fell from one of the maple tree’s branches, landing on his forehead. “The rain, it’s been raining for days. Surely you can see it; feel it.”
Looking around, Cassiel shook her head. “What are you talking about? It’s a beautiful, perfectly clear day.” She stretched out her bare arms, lush locks of golden hair trailing down her back as she tilted her head skyward. “The sun is big and bright and oh, so warm on my skin.”
“But… the rain…” The sound of her laughter returned Bennie’s gaze.
Cassiel raised a delicate hand to her mouth and pointed. “I don’t know about any rain, but I guess maybe that explains one thing anyway; why you’re dressed so oddly on such a pristine afternoon.”
Straining his eyes, Bennie realized once again her dress was dry. He could see the rusted red fire hydrant situated next to the bench. Beyond that, the street, the sidewalk, several abandoned buildings, an old Ford van, and a pair of trash cans came into fuzzy focus. Rain fell everywhere, pooling on the broken cement, streaking the Ford’s windows, and bouncing off the trash cans’ metal lids. But the young woman remained dry. Her dress was fresh and wrinkle free; her skin smooth and tan; her yellow hair hanging loose and long, as if some invisible barrier shielded her from the weather. And there was something else. Shadows caressed Cassiel’s neck and shoulders, moving as she did, following the patterns of a late afternoon sun.
Examining his own wet slicker and jeans, Bennie rubbed his tired eyes. “Oh, Katie girl, what have I gotten myself into this time?”
“You keep talking to her, is she here also?” Cassiel asked.
Bennie sat up straight and looked around. “No, no, she’s not. Why, can you see her?”
“No, I just thought…”
He sank back into his seat. “Oh…”
Cassiel heard the disappointment in Bennie’s voice; she could sense his desperation. “I’m sorry, Bennie. She must be someone very special to you.”

“C’mon, you can do it, babe!” One by one the candles flickered and then went out. Rapidly running out of air, Kate began to laugh. Three candles remained lit atop the chocolate cake. “Aw, that’s too bad, Katie girl, you didn’t get your wish.”
Catching her breath, Kate shot Bennie a punch to his arm. “Hey, no fair, it’s your fault. You used too many candles.”
“… 27, 28, 29, 30… no, that’s right, exactly thirty.” Another, harder shot to Bennie’s shoulder and he grabbed her up in his powerful arms, “Happy birthday, Katie girl,” and they kissed passionately.
“I love you my Bennie bear. Wanna know what I wished?”
“Hey, don’t you know,” Bennie replied, holding Kate at arm’s length. “If you tell, your wish it won’t come true.”
Kate puffed out her bottom lip, looking up at Bennie. “Well, according to you I’m not gonna get it anyway.” Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged tightly, burying her face against his chest. “I wished that we would never have to be apart.”
Bennie could feel her tears on his skin. “That will never happen, Katie girl,” he said tenderly, lovingly stroking her hair, “I promise, never.”

Tears mixed with the rain, running down Bennie’s cheeks. “Yeah,” he said, sighing deeply. “She’s special.”
+++
Slowly, the city had begun to return to normalcy. With the immediate threat of serious flooding passed, shops and businesses reopened, buses arrived and departed nearly on schedule, and people once again took to the streets, resuming their daily routines. The string of thunderstorms had moved on, leaving in their wake light but persistent showers. One optimistic forecaster on the evening news had even cheerfully announced an end to the unseasonable deluge. But the sun remained absent and the rain continued.
Unable to sleep, Bennie sat by the fireplace, curled up in his favorite chair. Lighting his last Camel, Bennie crushed the soft pack in his hand, tossed it into the fire and began to cough. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said, exhaling grey smoke. The saying brought a smile to his face. It was one of Kate’s favorites. Ditching fifth grade one day with three of his buddies, Bennie watched in awe as the boys passed around a stolen Marlboro. When the cigarette came his way, Bennie warily accepted, inhaling as the others had done. It made him dizzy; he coughed and felt sick to his stomach. By the end of the week, Bennie was buying packs of Marlboros from the older kids, eventually graduating to the stronger, filter-less Camels. From the day they met, Kate had made clear her feelings on smoking. But she never nagged or lectured him about the habit.
A cold shiver passed through his body and he reached for the mosaic patterned throw blanket on the back of the chair. Wrapping it around his shoulders, Bennie raised a corner to his face. He could still smell Kate’s sweet delicate scent in the soft material. Relaxing back into his chair, he recalled the strange events of the day. Cassiel appeared in his mind’s eye, dry and warm and happy, perched at the end of the bench. Her bench she had called the old wood and stone relic. How many times had he referred to it as his bench? And yet, through all the years, except for Kate, he had never seen another person using it.

“Stop it Bennie, someone will see!”
“That’s the idea, Katie girl. I want the whole world to see.”
She slapped at his arm, glancing around nervously. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. Someone will see what you are doing; a policeman, he’ll arrest you for defacing public property.”
Undeterred, Bennie dug his pocket knife deeper into the stubborn wood. “You ever see a cop around here, sweetie?”
Kate moved closer, trying to prevent anyone passing by from witnessing her boyfriend’s deliberate defacing of the bench. “I think you accomplished your goal. You’ve carved our names and initials into every tree, telephone pole, fence and park bench between here and city hall.”
Bennie stood, admiring his handy work. “There, I hereby claim this bench in the name of Bennie Parks and Kate… Kate…” He looked at her sheepishly. “What was your last name again lady?”
“You know my last name very well, silly man,” she replied with a shake of her head.
“Well… I forgot.” Returning the knife to his pocket, Bennie retrieved a small black satin box and opened it. “Maybe this will make it easier for me to remember.”
“Oh, my God,” Kate nearly screamed. She sat straight up, her eyes growing as big as saucers. “You… are you… is this… does this…?”
Bennie pulled a gleaming Marquise cut diamond engagement ring from the box. “Here, before you jump out of your skin.” Slipping the silver band onto her slender finger, he dropped to one knee, staring into Kate’s moist eyes. “Will you marry me, Katie girl?”
A month later they were married by a minister in a simple ceremony. Kate’s parents refused to attend.

After work, Bennie casually walked the nine blocks to the bench. Although exhausted, an unnamed urgency drove him forward. He rarely slept well anymore. His usual routine consisted of working too hard and too long until he collapsed on the bed into a heavy, erratic sleep. Even then he often awoke in the middle of the night to violent fits of coughing and wheezing. Recently, the bouts were becoming more frequent and troublesome. Bennie had spent the night curled in his chair, falling in and out of a fitful sleep, his tortured dreams drifting between fond memories of Kate and confusing visions of Cassiel.
Reaching his corner, Bennie paused to take in the scene. Despite the steady sprinkling, everything appeared normal. Water had receded from where it once pooled on the uneven pavement. An oversized trash truck lumbered down the street, its dirty, worn metal body refreshed by the recent downpour. Even the squirrels once again played tag up and down the side of the old maple tree, stretching their legs after their long confinement. Settling into his spot on the bench, Bennie retrieved two Saltine crackers from his lunch pail. On cue, a speckled blue pigeon landed at his feet. “Sorry old guy, that’s all there is today,” Bennie said to the attentive bird. He sprinkled the crumbs on the ground and the appreciative pigeon started his pecking dance.
“They know you, the birds. My mother always said you can trust a man who is trusted by the animals.” Cassiel smiled from her end of the bench. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a fluffy ponytail and she now wore a simple white cotton wrap dress.
By now Bennie had mastered the art of facing forward and looking sideways. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Hello. Were you expecting someone else?”
“No, no… hello, but tell me something, please.” Bennie glanced around then cast his eyes toward Cassiel. She sat as before, fresh and dry and beautiful, warmed by an invisible sun. “What, what do you see?”
“Well, I see a troubled but handsome guy wearing a wet yellow slicker,” she replied in a coy, flirtatious tone.
“No, I mean, look around you, what is it you see, in front and in back of you; on either side?”
Cassiel didn’t seem to understand. She tilted her head, her eyes narrowing. “It’s another beautiful, sunny day,” she stated flatly.
“Go on, please. Tell me, where are you? What does it look like?”
Uncertainly, Cassiel twisted to her right, slowly looking around. She glanced skyward then turned, facing straight ahead. “Well, I’m sitting on a bench in a lovely park. There’s soft green grass and lots of tall old trees for shade.” Her voice rose with excitement. “Oh, but not right here; that’s why I like this bench so much. I can sit and let the sun warm me all over. If I get too hot, I can dangle my feet in that stream,” she said, pointing to a place beyond Bennie. “And there’s a young couple over there on a blanket. I see them here a lot.” Cassiel raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. “Oh, he just kissed her!”
Bennie sighed, resting his head in his hands. “A park,” he muttered.
“I’m sorry, Bennie. Is there something wrong? Did I say something?”
“No, no,” he replied, slowly looking up. “But I don’t see any of that. Look at me; look at how I’m dressed, what I’m wearing. You said it yourself, ‘dressed so oddly on such a pristine afternoon.’ But it’s not, Cassiel. It’s cold and it’s raining and I’m in the middle of a big, grey, dirty city. When I look at you,” he paused, shaking his head at the irony. “I can only see you out of the corner of my eye; you exist only in my peripheral vision. And when you are there it’s like you’ve been filmed in front of a green screen and digitally inserted into my world. I don’t understand why it’s happening, or even if it’s real.”
“I’m so sorry, Bennie. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could help you; I wish I knew the answers.” Cassiel wanted to touch Bennie, to hold and comfort him. She reached out her hand but something stopped her. Bennie raised his head, and looked to his right. Cassiel came into view. She smiled. “You can see me, can’t you?”
“Yes, yes I can.” Bennie could feel the rain on his face. He could hear the soft cooing of the pigeons. He could smell the air, fresh and clean, scrubbed by the rain. And he could finally see the young woman who had danced in the corners of his sanity. But he still didn’t understand. “I can see you. But I’m still here in the rain. I still don’t know if you’re real; if any of this is real.”
“It’s as real as you want it to be, Bennie.”
+++
The next day, Bennie hurried through the rain, heading for the corner and his bench. He looked forward to seeing Cassiel. It was nice to have someone to talk with; someone who listened and empathized. Who she may be and where she came from Bennie still didn’t understand. He thought of the science fiction TV programs and movies he’d seen; recalled the works of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and HG Wells he’d read in school. Was Cassiel an alien, sent from another planet? Had she crossed over from another dimension, another time? Or was she just a product of his imagination, the result of too many dreams and not enough time; too many cigarettes and too much pain?
He didn’t care.
“It’s as real as you want it to be,” she’d told him. Bennie believed it to be real; wanted it to be real; needed for it to be real.
Reaching the corner, Bennie lit a cigarette and settled onto the bench. Cassiel was already seated at the opposite end. Taking a deep satisfying puff, he turned to his ethereal friend. “Hello,” he called through several hacking coughs.
“Good afternoon, Bennie.” Cassiel smiled but her expressive eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “Is it those smoke sticks of yours that make you cough?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Then maybe you should stop.”
“Yeah, maybe I should. You really don’t have cigarettes where you are; you’ve never heard of them?”
“No, we don’t. But it would seem to me they can’t be very good for you.”
Bennie considered the half smoked stick in his hand. “Actually, they can kill you.”
“Oh!” Cassiel replied, surprised at the casualness of his comment. “Then why don’t you quit?”
“It’s not that easy.” Bennie’s voice dropped, his tone turning ironic. “Besides,” he added softly, “it’s too late for me.” He took a final drag then flicked the remains into the gutter. It hissed and sparked in protest, sending up a thread of blue smoke as a rain drop struck the hot ash. “Tell me about you.”
She stared off in thought for a moment. “Not really much to tell. I teach at a school not far from here. You can see it if you… oh,” she felt her cheeks start to redden, “sorry. Anyway, its break time now, at least for the next few days.” Cassiel sighed, adjusting her position on the bench. “I was an only child; both of my parents are gone. I love the sun and reading and talking with friends and, well, you know normal stuff.”
“You never had children; married?”
“No, no, I didn’t. What about you, Bennie?”
He pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt then stopped. He could hear Kate’s voice in the rain. Seems like a good time to quit. Returning the cigarettes to his pocket, Bennie relaxed back on the bench. “Kate,” he said quietly.
“The woman you talk to…”

“We have to talk, sweetheart.”
Bennie looked up from his chair. “What’s on your mind, Katie girl?” Reaching down, she pulled the partially smoked cigarette from his lips and tossed it into the fireplace. “Uh oh, am I in trouble?” he asked.
“No, but…”
“Come, talk to me,” Bennie said, patting his leg.
Kate climbed into her husband’s lap. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. “I’m pregnant.”
“Oh…” They sat in silence for a time. Bennie cradled Kate in his arms, tenderly stroking her hair as she studied his reaction. Slowly his initial shock at the news began to fade. “Wow. But you don’t seem very excited about this,” he said at last.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just…”
“You’re ok, aren’t you?” Straightening in his chair, Bennie looked at his wife, knowing she could read the panic in his face. “I mean, everything’s how it should be, right?”
Kate held a finger to Bennie’s lips. “Shhh, no, no, Bennie bear, it’s nothing like that. I’m fine. The doctor says everything is as it should be and I’m in excellent health.”
If it hadn’t been for his wife perched on his lap Bennie would have come up out of the chair. “Doctor…? What doctor? What…”
“Yes, Bennie bear, the doctor.” Laughing, Kate grabbed his face, kissing him hard on the lips. It was all she could do to calm him down. “I’m pregnant, sweetheart,” she explained patiently. “I’ve seen my doctor. He’s made an appointment for me with an obstetrician. I’ll be seeing a lot of doctors.”
“Oh…”
“So? How do you feel about having a little Bennie running around here?”
A wide grin split the big man’s face, “Or maybe a little Kate?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you Bennie bear?”
“Seems like a good time to quit smoking,” he replied.

“Yes. Kate, the woman you hear me talking to, my little Katie girl.”
Smoothing the front of her white dress, Cassiel turned, tucking her legs beneath her. “Tell me about her, Bennie, please.”
He looked across the bench at his new friend. “We met in junior high. She was so beautiful and smart. I don’t know what she ever saw in me.” Bennie rubbed his stubbly chin. “You know, I can’t remember a time when we were apart. After school we moved to the city and married. Man, it wasn’t easy. But my Katie girl, she never once complained.”
Bennie’s deep love for Kate shone through his tired eyes; resounded in his voice. “She sounds like a wonderful person,” Cassiel encouraged.
With a nod, he continued. “We talked about having children. But it just didn’t seem to be in the cards for us. Then one day she came to me. I was going to be a father.”
“Oh, how sweet; was it a boy or a girl?”
“A girl,” Bennie replied with a proud smile. “Little Katie Anne.” The color began to drain from his face, taking with it his smile. “One day she called me at work. She’d started having early labor pains. By the time I got home the ambulance was there. I figured she’d called it. But she hadn’t. As she left for the hospital, Katie became faint and had fallen down the apartment stairs. She died the next day. The doctors couldn’t save our baby.”
+++
It was the first time he’d ever spoken of his wife’s death. Looking up, Bennie’s eyes found Cassiel’s. They were damp. He saw she felt badly for having inquired about Kate; wanted to say something to comfort him. It did no good. Lighting a cigarette, the big man wandered off in silence as the rain began to pick up.
Arriving at the apartment, Bennie discovered his nose was bleeding. It took some time to get the bleeding under control, but he eventually managed to undress and fall asleep. It didn’t last long. Around midnight he awoke. The fits of coughing and wheezing were now steady and more violent. Making his way into the bathroom, Bennie splashed cold water on his face. It felt good. But he didn’t recognize the reflection staring back at him from the mirror. “You look like hell,” it said.
Bennie laughed hoarsely. “You should see it from this side,” he replied between coughs. Bending down to splash more water on his face, Bennie began coughing up blood. Around 4:30 he finally collapsed.
When the alarm buzzed, Bennie’s eyes flew open. He lay across the bed motionless, staring at the ceiling. Something was wrong. No, not wrong, different. As he sat up, the bedroom came into sharp focus. He could clearly hear the rain as it lightly beat against the window. “Great, another day for the ducks,” he quipped. But his voice was sharp and deep, lacking its usual roughness; his words clear and crisp. “Damn, I must be dreaming; or else dead.” Bennie started to reach for an open pack of Camels on the night stand. Instead, the picture of Kate caught his attention. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said, gently touching the image. Leaving the smokes behind, Bennie headed for the kitchen, dropping two slices of wheat bread into the toaster. For the first time in months he’d awoken with an appetite.
Showered and dressed, Bennie glanced around his apartment. Hundreds of fond memories filled his mind, bringing with them a contented smile. A pack of cigarettes sat atop the fireplace mantel. Ignoring them, he slipped into his old leather bomber’s jacket and headed out the apartment door. Down on the sidewalk, Bennie stopped to stretch in the rain. He breathed in deeply. The air was cool and fresh. It felt good as it filled his lungs. At the corner, Bennie turned right instead of left. When he arrived at the bench, he found Cassiel waiting.
She reached out to him. This time nothing stopped her. “It’s as real as you want it to be, Bennie.”
Slowly, hesitantly, Bennie extended his arm. Their fingers touched. Instantly the rain ceased and the clouds disappeared. He found himself with Cassiel in the middle of a beautiful park. They stood in front of the familiar bench, surrounded by trees and grass and warm sunshine.
Cassiel took his hand. “Let’s go find your wife and daughter,” she said. Hand in hand, Bennie and Cassiel strolled off.