Three Men on A Bench
No one remembers how they arrived here. They do not remember what day it is or what time. They believe it is either sunrise or sunset, as pink and red hues paint the sky. What they do know is that all three of them are in a park. It is a cool spring, cherry blossoms floating away from the tree branches. One of the three men remembers his pollen allergies, yet he does not sneeze. At the same time, two of them spy the largest park bench they have ever seen. The third one is a blind elderly Japanese man who bumps his cane against the wooden boards. The bench looks like it can hold ten people or more. Each of theme have the sudden urge to sit down so they follow their instincts.
When they sit, each man looks at the others. On the left is an old man. On his sagging, wrinkled skin, the others notice his scars. His molten skin folds into, and giant red blisters seem to be healing as if this man jumped into the sun. He adjusts his dark glasses with three fingers—the only fingers left on his good hand.
The man in the center is a middle-aged black man, though his sallow cheeks age him. His skinny frame makes the bench seem larger in comparison. His oxygen tank squeaks by his side as he takes slow, staggered huffs through his mouth. The tank pushes its innards through the slim tube and into the man’s nose, but it is never enough for his lungs. Purple lesions cling to his hands, and a wispy hospital gown fails to hide the rest on his torso.
The man on the right is Chinese and younger than the other two. Also, compared to the others, he is in perfect health. He slouches and wears his pajamas, but he doesn’t have anything notably wrong with him. It is when he winces and holds his head in his hands that the others see his massive wound. Dried blood hangs behind his ears as the wound begins to scab.
“Sorry” he apologizes, as he worries his agony disturbed the other men.
The man in the middle sighs, hanging his head back. “I always hated saying that. As if it was my fault.”
The young man turns towards the man with the oxygen tank. “You speak Mandarin?” he asks.
“No, I’m speaking English.”
“Bullshit!” the elderly man laughs. “That’s Japanese if I’ve ever heard it!”
The young man looks back. “Huh,” he says. “We’re all speaking the same language, but it sounds different to each of us. Why do you think that is?”
“Why do you think we’re here in the first place?” asks the elderly man.
“Maybe that’s what we’re here to find out,” says the man with the oxygen tank.
“We should start by saying our names. My name is…” the young man falters. His eyes grow wide in panic. “I…I don’t remember my name.”
“You lose your real name when you get here,” says the elderly man. “Your new name becomes what everyone else calls you.”
“Well, what’s your name then?”
The old man sighs and places both hands on his cane. “Hibakusha. That’s what they called us after the bomb. I wasn’t a ‘me’ anymore, I was a ‘them.’ I wasn’t human, but a new species entirely, or that’s what they told me. What about you?”
“Unmarked Grave at Hart Island,” says the man with the oxygen tank. “There were too many bodies and not enough graves. They shipped us off to another island and dumped our bodies in the dirt. They didn’t even bother writing our names on a goddamn tombstone.”
The young man tries hard to think of what his name is now. It then comes to him. “Another Asian American!” he shouts a little too loudly. “My…I’m in the news…they’re showing the…the bakery where…” The words catch in his throat. Tears pool in his eyes. His body slides off the floor as he howls into his knees. It’s a dark howl of grief, one that the other men know too well. They want to join him on the ground, holding his body like they wish anyone would have done for them, but their physical limitations prevent them from doing so. Instead, they watch him as his sounds become slower and deeper, eventually petering out like the last hum of a plane engine. Shamefully, the man crawls back onto the bench. No one says anything, not wanting to be the hammer that breaks the silence.
“My daughter is sick,” the young man finally speaks. “I was an essential worker at the convenience store, and then I caught COVID. I stayed in the hospital for weeks, but it felt like I was underwater. I couldn’t breathe. But I recovered and the nurses thought I was stable enough to go home. The next night, I heard my daughter coughing. Fearing the worst, I took her to the same hospital. That was twenty-four hours ago. To cheer her up, I went to Chinatown to buy her favorite treat—a mango roll. On the way out of the bakery, I saw these men. They were carrying guns…and bats. They saw me, and then…then I was on the ground…I could hear my ribs crack…I felt something warm trickle down my head…I touched it and realized it was my own blood…then…then it all went black…and now I’m here.”
Through his tears, the young man could see that the man in the oxygen tank was crying too.
“When you told that story, I remembered when I was a little kid, my mom made me soup when I was sick. It was a traditional Haitian recipe, and mom said it was so spicy it would burn the sickness right out of me,” he sniffled. “She kicked me out when I was sixteen when she found my magazines under my bed. She said that since she didn’t have a son anymore, she wouldn’t care if I had a roof over my head. I went into the city, and I did some nasty-ass stuff to survive. Those men hurt me, but they paid me good. Then I found a boyfriend, then I felt sick, then I got tested, and when it came back positive, he blamed me for killing him. I don’t know what he was angry about, I went first,” he forces out a laugh. “He didn’t visit me in the hospital. Every morning when I woke up, I thought today’s the day he’ll visit me, and then it was too late.”
The elderly man sighs, a sad smile growing across his face. “I’ve always wanted a family. My wife was pregnant when the bomb dropped. That…that horror was indescribable. The light was so bright. I saw my skeleton through my skin before I felt it on fire. My bones were the last things I saw before the flash blinded me. We survived and luckily our child did too, still in utero. All my family died that day. The bomb burned my brother’s shadow into the street. And they called me lucky! I was lucky that his shadow lives forever and so many others did not. The bomb burned our skin. My wife said we were pink as fish, but I didn’t want to believe it. Afterwards was the hardest part. People shunned us from their stores, fired us from our jobs. We lost our house because of something we couldn’t control. One day… these men saw my wife, eight months along. They yelled at her, cursing her out for bringing an abomination into our world. I saw them pull out a gun, and I stood in front of the bullet. And now we’re here, all together for some reason.”
All three stare out into the sparkling water far from them. After baring their stories, they do not know where the conversation should go.
“If you had the chance to go back to where you were then, would you do it?” asks the young man.
“How can we know the same thing won’t happen again?” asks the man with the oxygen tank. “Even if I wasn’t sick, they’d still kill me just for being who I am.”
“None of this was our fault,” the elderly man says bluntly. “Yet everyone else thinks it was.” He mutters to himself. “I didn’t drop that fucking bomb.”
The man with the oxygen tank turns towards the young man.
“It wasn’t our fault,” he says.
“It wasn’t our fault,” the young man echoes. He idly puts his hands in his pockets. He feels something squishy and pulls it out. Wrapped inside the brown napkin is one mango roll. He stares at the small, golden-brown ball. Silently, he breaks it into three pieces and hands it to the other gentlemen. The elderly man chuckles as he rubs the loose sugar between his fingers.
“Finally, something that I can eat without vomiting back up,” says the man with the oxygen tank and swallows it in two bites.
They do not know where they will go next. All that matters now is that they are here together, sharing a treat.
Melanie Davis-Kay currently works for the Huntington Theater in Boston. She is also a substitute teaches at her local elementary schools. She lives in Arlington, MA with her family and her forever hungry cat