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A CANDLE IN THE SUN

by Wess Mongo Jolley

The wooden slats bend with our weight. And yet they bear us up—keep us that important foot or so above the cold bricks of Union Square.

Some make their beds with the pigeons, here on these benches. But for those of us with the strength to sit upright, these scaffolds of wood and steel give us a platform from which to observe the world.

The New York bench is a great equalizer. Here, hipsters and high financiers sit, side by side. You’re as likely to see a Hare Krishna monk on this bench as a lawyer sipping a latte with his newspaper. The homeless man, tossing old bread to the birds, sits shoulder to shoulder with the young mom rocking her baby in the jogging stroller.

I imagine the young man across from me to be a runaway. He can be no more than seventeen—dirty and bedraggled, with an adolescent growth of blond beard, and his straw-colored hair peeking out from under his knit cap. He cradles his overstuffed backpack in his lap like a newborn. Next to him is a middle-aged businessman, suitcase between his feet, reading the latest John Grisham novel. His tailored suit is crisp, yet his tie has been loosened, like perhaps he is done for the day and is just waiting for his train.

My traveling boy is sleeping, chin down on his chest, hands twitching, as he dreams of whatever he is running from. My businessman is lost in his book, and neither is aware of the bustle on the sidewalk—or the bearded stranger across the bricks, painting word portraits of the pair in his notebook.

A breeze stirs the boy’s golden hair, and his head tips to his left, as if pushed there by the wind. Gravity begins its work, and he slowly leans, crossing the two inches between their shoulders like a candle left too long in the sun. I wait and I watch as the gap closes, and then the two men are leaning together—the businessman taking the slight weight of the bedraggled youth on his tailored shoulder.

If this were me, I think, I’d be up and moving to a new bench. If this were me, with my obsessive need for personal space, I’d be cringing away from this unwelcome touch.

But to my surprise, the man in the suit just . . . turns the page.

Without even a glance to his right, he accepts the weight of the strange boy and shifts an inch to support them both. Even as the sleeping stranger slides further toward him, and ends with his head resting intimately on the man’s shoulder, the businessman doesn’t move. He doesn’t flee. He just . . . keeps reading his book. Keeps turning the pages.

What magic is in this city! How sheer the curtain between Fifth Avenue and Alphabet City. How intertwined the strands of rich and poor, like gray hair and black, braided together in a rope that supports the weight of this city’s soul.

I wonder if I am the only one watching this tiny morality play. The only one desperate for life lessons. The only one looking for the miraculous in the mundane. The only one finding meaning in this sea of lonely humanity.

I notice that the middle-aged man has not turned a page in his book for several minutes. Finally, he lets it slide closed, his thumb keeping his place marked. And I see that his eyes, too, are now closed. The bustle of the sidewalk continues all around us, but at this moment it feels like we three are in a bubble, and the city itself is holding an enormous breath—waiting and listening, watching and waiting.

With a slight incline of his head, the businessman rests his cheek on the dirty knit cap of the boy. Gently, so as not to wake him.

And all is stillness.

The only sound I can hear is their breathing. The man and the boy, resting together on this bench in Union Square—head to shoulder, cheek to knit cap. Gently sharing the same air . . .

Until slowly, the city exhales, and the sound of the sidewalk whispers back into the sunlight.

The boy wakes after a few minutes. He rubs his eyes once before lifting his head from the man’s shoulder. Groggily, he straightens up, gathers his backpack in his arms, and without a glance back, disappears down 14th Street.

The man in the suit and tie remains with his head inclined to his right for long minutes, his eyes closed and peaceful. In time, he slowly opens the paperback book to the location his thumb had marked, and begins to read again. The pages flutter silently.

The river of the sidewalk flows past us both. We are two stones, one on each shore—touched by the currents, and yet, unmoved. I watch him for the better part of an hour, but he doesn’t look up from his book. Eventually, an old woman with a shopping bag takes the seat next to him, and only then do I feel the magic is finally gone. I look at my trembling hand, which had tried to capture that magic on these blue-lined pages.

The businessman turns a page in his book.

I turn a page in my notebook.

He disappears into his story of suspense and intrigue. I disappear into my dreams, where the touch of a stranger’s cheek on a tailored shoulder could remind me why this unlikely planet continues to spin, in the blackness and loneliness of space.

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Wess Mongo Jolley is a Canadian novelist, editor, podcaster, and poet, most well-known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel for 10 years. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in journals such as Grain, Off the Coast, PANK, Danse Macabre, The Chamber, and Apparition Literary Magazine. His horror trilogy, The Last Handful of Clover, is available on Patreon, Wattpad, QSaltLake, and as an audiobook podcast. Mongo writes from his home in Montreal, Quebec. Find him at http://wessmongojolley.com.

May 2024