It was 9:30 on a crisp Saturday morning and the universe was fucking Denise over. She said as much to the woman on the phone. “I don’t know if you know this,” she said, “but I have an open house in half an hour and I have a whole tray of date squares in the car. I don’t have time to argue with you all morning.”
“Date squares?” asked the woman on the other end of the line, whose name was Monica. Denise’s date squares were terrible. No one ever took them, so she always had free food to draw in potential buyers. Denise had been using the same tray of date squares for six months.
“That’s not the point, Monica,” said Denise. “The point is I already submitted the form, which you took three months to process, by the way, and I was assured that the bench would be dedicated as soon as the paperwork went through.”
“I’m really sorry, ma’am—”
“My name is Denise.”
“I’m really sorry, Denise. Since you submitted that paperwork, the required donation has gone up due to the costs of maintaining our city and parks. I’m sure you understand.”
“I understand that it feels like I’m being blackmailed, Monica.” Denise rubbed her temples. The process of having a plaque placed on a bench had proven tedious and exhausting. Every step along the way had shocked her: the amount of paperwork (tons), the limitations on what she could write on the plaque (she’d settled on RICHARD FALLON – DEVOTED FATHER), the cost of the dedication ($4,000, bumped to $5,000 as Monica was now helpfully informing her). It had begun to feel like more time than she’d put into her relationship with her father when he was alive. “Look, I’ll just pay the extra money. It’s a grand. It’s a rip-off and I want you to know that but I’ll pay it. I just want this off my plate.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, ma’am.”
“Denise. My name is Denise. Is there anything I can do to speed this process along?”
“…Well, if you’d like, you could dedicate a bike rack in your father’s name. There are many excellent bike racks all over the city and the process is much less rigorous—”
Denise turned off the phone. As she walked to the car, she tried to push thoughts of park benches out of her mind. She had to go into realtor mode now. Denise always said that, independent of the thing that is wrong in your life, there is a place you must access where none of it matters because you have a part to play. Some people would call it acting. Denise just thought it was sensible—an emotional down payment in pursuit of being a better realtor, or a better daughter, or whatever.
“I don’t know why you’re wasting your time.” Nancy plunked another scoop of ice cream into the dish and pushed it across the kitchen island to her sister. Nancy and her partner Claire owned a business selling organic specialty ice cream over the internet. Everyone laughed when they proposed the idea but they’d recently cleared their first million and now it wasn’t so funny. “Erecting a bench to someone nobody wants to remember.”
“He asked for it,” Denise said, digging her spoon into the dish. “He asked me for it.”
“Do you think he’d do it for you?” Nancy asked.
Denise paused. “No. I don’t.” There was very little their father would have done for anyone. Acts of goodwill toward man were more commonly left to their mother, a fine, cheerful woman who had the courtesy to die suddenly in her sleep. Denise missed her, of course, the way anyone misses their deceased mother, but she was healthy until the end and the grieving process was straightforward. In their young life, Denise and Nancy’s father was the silent man behind their mother, gruff and taciturn, responsible for coming home late and saying he’d worked hard and was tired and not much else. Their relationship with their father was lubricated by their relationship with their mother, and without her around to fill silence and carefully tend the flow of information between the two sides, the women were forced to confront the reality of their father as a human being.
And not a good one, as Nancy was pointing out through a mouthful of hand-churned butter rum: “I’ve never met anyone so committed to making the people around him miserable.” It was a harsh assessment, but Denise didn’t blame Nancy. It was Nancy who was greeted, after years of pointed silence, with a bunch of eleventh-hour comments about “lifestyle choices.” By then, Richard was far into the weeds of mental decay. After the confrontation, Denise found him outside crying because he tripped over the hot tub cover.
“I know you hated him, but you could be more supportive of me,” Denise said, licking the spoon. “It’s not your money and it’s not your bench. You don’t like it, sit on another bench. There’s a bunch.”
“There’s a great bench on the hill overlooking the city. Dedicated to a woman named Ethel. Of course, she was probably a huge racist but you don’t know that while you’re sitting there, do you? ‘Cause it’s a fucking bench.”
“Alright. Message received loud and clear. We’ll talk about something else. How did the open house go?”
Denise shook her head and grimaced. “Someone ate one of the date squares.”
Nancy gasped in horror.
Usually, when Denise showed a house, like the cute rancher she was showing the American couple now, she turned off her phone or at least put it on silent. In a professional setting, people liked to know they were being paid attention. She’d never gotten a call so important it was worth interrupting her work. Even the call about her father had come in the middle of the night. But now she had her phone on vibrate and snuck nervous glances at it every moment. She didn’t know when Monica would phone her, letting her know about the status of her application. She didn’t know if she would receive any message at all. It had been six business days. The internet promised five.
“The kitchen was just redone, so it’s very contemporary. There used to be a backsplash there that was pure ’70s.” Denise shook her head. “And not good ’70s. Like an avocado threw up on the wall. It’s much nicer now.” She waved her hands and ushered the couple along to the next room.
Now and again, they would ask questions. The woman, a bottle blonde with bright red lips and a big grin, did most of the talking. Denise liked her because she asked politely, with kind eyes. Even when she caught Denise stealing glances at her phone, she smiled and said, “waiting for an important call?” Denise turned pink and said she was waiting to hear from her son, Jamie, who was in Colorado pursuing a law degree and called biweekly, rather than the faceless woman she had spitefully entered into her phone as Bench Lady.
She guided them through the floor plan, took them to the master bedroom and the en suite. They were most interested in the extra bedroom just off the foyer. Denise was surprised because the wife hadn’t mentioned any children in the email. “It would be perfect for a nursery,” she suggested. Perhaps they were planning on starting a family in the near future. “Put up some ducky borders or maybe that princess from the Disney ice queen movie.”
“Oh, no. Mike’s mother is moving in with us,” the blonde woman said. Mike looked, disinterested, at a fern. “We just want to make sure her bedroom is nice and homey, with a view.”
Denise looked out the window, at the neighbour’s rain-battered fence. “Perhaps you can paint a mural.”
The couple wandered around the house trying fixtures and knocking on drywall. Usually, she was careful to accompany prospective buyers around the house because things had a tendency to go missing, but instead she stood in the spare bedroom. She thought about the day she decided her father would move in to her home, the single sleepless night of preparation and mental renovation—gut Jamie’s old room, install rails and seats in the tub—only to find out Richard had died of a stroke in the night.
It was one of two things he asked of her—begged of her—when she visited him in the hospital. He’d had a stroke like the one that would kill him, milder though. One of the staff at his retirement complex phoned Denise and Nancy to let them know. She entered the impersonal grey hospital room, barren of the flowers nobody had sent, saw her father connected to tubes and her heart fell apart. “Igunnadie,” he mewled, in a flat voice, and in that moment, he could have asked her anything and she would have done it. What he asked for was this: he wanted to go home with Denise, not back to the expensive care facility Nancy placed him in when it became apparent he wasn’t simply curmudgeonly but dangerously ill, and not home with Nancy and “…thaddwoman” as he finally brought himself to spit out.
“Claire,” Denise corrected him, and he grimaced and shuddered.
And he asked for a bench. “Somewherepretty. Byyamotha.” Denise tried to quiz him about this, how she could find a bench near her mother when her mother had been cremated and her ashes scattered over the water, but she couldn’t get a coherent answer out of her father and gave up trying. She thought there would be plenty of time to quiz him, now that she was apparently checking him out of his care facility and into her home. It was a decision she regretted immediately, but he had asked her and she, in the horror of the moment and in gratitude to God over the mere fact of his being alive, said yes. And as she left, she assured him, “you won’t need a bench; you’re not going anywhere.” On the drive home, she thought about the months, years ahead of her: of cleaning up her father’s excrement. Of helping through speech therapy the man who punished her with almost a year of silence after she got a dolphin ankle tattoo as a 40th birthday present to herself. Of making mobile again the man who once used his legs to storm out of Thanksgiving dinner when Nancy wanted to watch The Brady Bunch instead of the football game. He didn’t return until the next morning.
And then, in the night, he died, and Denise was let off the hook for her promise to her father. And yet it felt like she had broken it.
“Excuse me?” It was the blonde woman with the big smile. Denise hadn’t even heard her come back into the room. She was grinning and jerking her finger toward Denise’s purse. “Your bag was vibrating just now.”
Denise opened her purse and tapped on the screen of her phone. MISSED CALL. 2:36 PM. BENCH LADY.
Denise loved wild art. The kind of stuff her father sniffed at and said, “any chimpanzee could do that.” Big bright splatters of colour. Mixed media. Naked bodies. Things bulging from the frame. The art at City Hall had been carefully selected to be as inoffensive as possible. Denise thought it was hideous. She was sitting on a hard-backed chair between two coughing strangers, looking at a photograph of a barn. She was aggressively bored. Her father would have loved it.
Denise had a dream about her father that morning, right before waking up. She was at his funeral and the reverend was speaking. In the corner, R.E.M. was playing. The song was “Orange Crush,” which surprised her because there were more appropriate R.E.M. songs for a funeral. The band was playing at the same volume as the reverend, which made it difficult to tell what either was saying. Her annoyance must have registered on her face, because her sister’s partner Claire turned to her and asked what was wrong. “I wish the reverend would shut up so I could hear the band,” she said, and then she woke up.
The dream had stayed with her all day, from when she got up and put her clothes to on to when she arrived at City Hall and informed the receptionist that she needed to talk to someone in the Parks Department about her bench dedication, to the two hours she’d been sitting around with a useless number in her hand. The light-up sign at the front of the room said E57. Her number didn’t even have a letter in front of it.
The number changed to E58 and Denise stood. She strode toward the counter, where a woman with long black hair sat. “Are you number E58?” she asked.
“No,” Denise said. “Are you Monica?”
The woman scowled. “Oh, God, no.”
“Good. We both hate Monica. That’s common ground. I’m Denise.” She extended her hand across the desk, and the woman hesitantly shook it.
“I’m Thuy. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait until your number comes up.”
“Please just listen to me. I have been trying for three months now to get a bench dedicated to my father. I completed form G-62, I completed form G-64A, I completed form G-64A again when Monica lost it the first time. I am presently in the process of being extorted an extra $1,000 on top of the $4,000 gouge job your city tried to perpetrate on me—”
“And Thuy, I want to make it clear, I blame you for none of this. In fact, you’re my new best friend, because you can right this wrong, right now.”
Thuy looked uneasy, pulled at the ends of her hair. She was rolling her head around, looking to see if there was a supervisor in the offing. Denise tried another tack. “How is your relationship with your father?”
“The bench,” Denise said. “It’s for my father. I had a dream about him last night. It’s not the first dream I’ve had about him. And getting this bench dedicated, I know it’s naive, but I feel like it… will help. More so than putting him in the ground, even, it will help. Do you know what I mean?”
Thuy paused, looked down at the copied forms Denise had slapped down in front of her. “My father is in Vietnam. He didn’t like that I came here. Last time I went back home, he didn’t even visit me.” She smiled ruefully.
“Do you think about him every day?”
“I want that.”
Thuy took the forms off the table and put them into a manila envelope. “Alright, give these to me quick. I’ll sort this out for you.” She typed something into her flat computer monitor and handed Denise a pen and yet another form, which she set to filling out. “Of course, if I wanna rush job this, I can’t promise the Taj Mahal. It might not be the rolling country hills you had in your mind.” She flipped her monitor around to reveal a large map covered in orange blips that indicated the locations of available benches.
Denise frowned as she pored over the screen. There were no dots along the coastline. “I was hoping for something by the water. Like, I don’t really care, but my dad wanted something by water.”
“Everyone wants something by the water.”
On a cold, clear day, Denise visited her father’s bench for the first time. She got lost trying to find it, spent fifteen minutes in coffee shops asking impatient baristas for the proper directions. When she finally found it, it was not on the seaside or in a park with a bucolic view of willows lining a creek. It was in an alley full of dumpsters. The concrete beneath it was covered in old chewing gum that had turned black. The plaque read RICHARD FALLON – DEVOTED FATHER, just like she’d requested. She sat.
The view was a wall, a brick wall that said UNLOADING ONLY. She did some quick cartography and realised that past this wall, many blocks away, at the end of the city, was the water, and thought that was nice. She heard a light humming in the air and couldn’t place it until she saw the name of the business: Bleeding Heart Tattoo. Etched on the sign underneath the back entrance was a large, round heart impaled by three swords, dripping blood.
Denise reached into her purse. She pulled out a wad of cling film, unwrapped it to reveal a large date square. She placed in beneath the plaque on the bench. She was so preoccupied with the ceremony that she almost didn’t notice a man arrive and sit next to the bench beside her. “Careful. That’s for my father,” she said.
The man was wearing a dark hoodie and thick jeans. Denise could see that his wrists and neck were covered in tattoos. He even had a small green anchor underneath his right eye. He must have worked at the tattoo parlour. “For your dad, hey?” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
“This is his bench,” she said. And she got up and started walking away, back to the parking meter she’d only plugged with ten minutes of change. As she walked, she heard behind her the sound of birds squawking. She turned to see the tattooed man had stood and moved to the other side of the alley as two pigeons descended upon the date square and had a loud fight over it in the middle of the bench. Denise smiled. Her father hated pigeons. He said they were the rats of the sky.