Years ago, my girlfriend’s sister ran off, and we had to go to Rittenhouse Square and wade through a pre-dawn spate of bodies—fringe, leather, sweat, Hindu oils and acrid smoke–to ask an ex-high school math teacher peddling LSD, young runaway hillbillies, Irish factory girls, and one tall black guy whose astrological signs served as names for news of her, cribbed in, as we were, between high-rises, Art Alliance, Ethical Society, Curtis Institute, all funneling breezes into the crowded square, backdropped as if by a huge wraparound poster an artist of the times might have conceived.
Tonight, in the center of the square, I recognize a man I’ve seen a thousand times on corners, squares, every block party, celebration, museum terrace, free concert, I’ve ever wandered through. He hasn’t changed since I first spotted him—picked out among the celebrants as not one of the fleeting participants in the city’s mysteries. He limped, his one leg shorter, and wobbled recklessly, his bulk threatening to topple even when he sat on some bench or townhouse stoop, forever silent, agape mouth like a text, divined, awaiting codification.
He looked lost in those familiar places, having lost even the reasoned sadness that set him free to scour the city. Yet he noticed me, I’m sure, each time. I thought he was middle-aged, though he’d transformed so little in those decades, I’m no longer sure he is not the reflection of myself, caught obliquely in shop windows, projected—after some original astonished glimpse of him—out of some initial fear that he saw me as tortured and alone as I saw him. Or worse, that passersby, so breezy in their elevation and style, brushed by interchanging us in view.
Now, as dusk hardens into night, he stands in the thinned-out park, not one of the innumerable saviors of the universe I first thought him to be, unpropped by the empty fishpond and police hut. When he turns his head to face me his whole doughy body follows, split-second behind, and with a gentle wave motion, before averting his eyes in a manner I’d call coy, had he been one of those student cellists who passed by earlier, stirred-up, soul less burdened after a Bartok recital—he begins to walk in circles, his short leg leading him to spiral in, circles concentrically smaller.
I remembered that summer at the Jersey shore, just after my girlfriend’s sister ran off. I stood on the beach with friends waiting for the moon to slip into the night’s pocket—after a day fighting breakers, stenches of burning flesh, scattered parts of Leviathan chopped-up and strewn across the beach, the feast in which I could not take part. I too began to wander in circles, slowed down eddy of whirlpool, convinced, as I paced, each step, inches smaller and angled in, that as my circle closed upon itself more tightly, and I approached the sacred and hidden epicenter into which all life resolved, I would no longer be visible.
Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Missouri Review, Iowa Review, APR, Harvard Review, etc. Recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz published in 2018. Craniotomy Sestinas in 2021.
Artist info: Mania Dajnak is an artist/printmaker from New Jersey. In addition to receiving several National Endowment for the Humanities Grants, she has also gotten grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Fulbright to study at the Art Academy in Krakow, Poland. She currently teaches at Passaic County Community College and runs Studio M Printmakers.