Auspex Usurped

by Matthew Falk

Waking in the afternoon, he stiffly swung his elderly legs over the edge of his bed and tottered down the hall to his kitchen. He opened the cupboard and got his medicines, one at a time, lining the bottles up on the counter. There were so many pills, prescribed by different doctors for his many ailments, such as arthritis, beriberi, catarrhs, diabetes, ennui, folie a deux, gout, halitosis, ichthyosis, jaundice, kleptomania, lupus, mesothelioma, necrosis, oxygen poisoning, quixotism, recidivism, sepsis, tetanus, ulcers, vertigo, warts, xerophthalmia, yaws, and zoomorphism.

He filled a tall glass with gin and washed the pills down in a few gulps. Thus fortified, he looked forward to his daily walk to his park, where he would sit at his bench under his oak tree until it was time to return home and go to bed. This had been his life for as long as he could remember. Parents picnicking at the park told their children what their parents had told them, that he had always been there, under that oak, and that he'd always been an old man. They often gave him little offerings from their baskets. But he was never observed to eat anything: he would simply take their gifts, their loaves of bread and candy bars and cheese, and feed them to the pigeons.

His favorite part of each day was when the people would come to him for his wisdom. Petitioners would line up before his bench, holding out five-dollar bills on which they'd written questions. He would take their money, read their questions aloud and give his answers. Someone might write, "Is my husband cheating on me?" And he would look the supplicant over and say, "Yes," while depositing the bill in the pocket of his tattered coat. Or, "Are you really a prophet or just a weird old man?" And he would say, "Yes," pocketing the five. It was, he thought, a good life, one of public service and dignity.

But all this was yet to come. Now, he was just leaving his apartment. After summoning the elevator, he had to wait in the hallway as his neighbor, a bird-like lady whose name he'd never bothered to learn, struggled to debark with several bags of groceries. He watched her drop a bag, then another while retrieving it, then the first one again. Apples and cans of cola bounced and rolled around in the elevator and out into the hall. At last she got all her purchases over the threshold so as to make room for him. He smiled politely at her as the door closed, and then he rode down and went out into the street.

He trudged cheerfully through the dirty city, tiny old-man steps that produced only rudimentary momentum. He knew how many steps it took to get to his park, and as he counted them off he was happy. But near the end of his route, after rounding the last corner, he stopped abruptly, alarmed by an impossible sight. There, beneath the brittle snow-coated branches of his pin oak, a man was sitting on his bench, a usurper, an upstart! The old man's hands squeezed themselves into fists and he started to tremble. It suddenly seemed to him that he'd always expected something like this to happen. And yet here he was, totally unprepared.

He thought about the first time he had come to his park. That was a long time ago. The bench had been occupied when he found it. Yet with old-man entitlement (for he was already an old man then), he had sat down anyway, and the person sitting there before him had muttered something and left. And he had sat there ever since, and his right to do so had never been challenged, until now.

Paralyzed by conflicting impulses, unable to decide to advance or retreat, fight or flee, the old man simply stood before his usurped bench until the snow soaked all the way through his shabby boots. Slowly he became aware that the challenger was speaking to him: "You all right over there?" The words broke the spell that had held him in place, and he immediately lurched back to the safety of the corner. The day was now fading fast, the sun already half-hidden behind ugly modern buildings. His boots sloshed as he hobbled homeward, heartsick and heavy-footed. The sky was almost black by the time he reached his block. A single sickly sodium lamp shone down on his neighbor, the bird lady, as she left their building dressed for a night out. He hoped she wouldn't look at him, but she smiled and waved, and he felt weak with shame.

BIO: Matthew Falk is the editor of Cardinal Sins, the arts and literature magazine of Saginaw Valley State University. He lives in Bay City, MI, with his wife and two cats.