When Stan’s neck craned toward Madison’s screen, I could glimpse the inside of his collar, the color, a few shades darker than Stan’s skin, of mottled seagulls. Madison scrolled through the Inquirer article. “Two years. Took ‘em long enough,” she said. “Sure cost enough for one slab of grass.” “Park should be nice though,” I said. Madison nodded. “As long as…” I studied the bright news story. The groups in the photo sharpened. I noticed one smudge slouching under a railing. “There! Already there’s one. Nobody’s near him. You can bet everyone’s keeping a fifty foot distance.” “Why don’t we just round them all up and ship them out then?” Stan raised his arms and his gray cuffs fell back past his thin wrists. Madison just looked at him. A pained smile twisted Stan’s lips. “What do you think, Bruno?” I exhaled. “It’s a shame they’re out there already.” Stan insisted on talking about ‘society as a whole’ at least twice a week. As if everything we did at the office were being squeezed out there, like a kid pushing those pegs through the holes. Then Madison glanced left. A squeal from Robert’s office had made her cringe. Stan and I slunk back to our desks. Robert’s face had paled the color of pancake batter. “Ashley, Tory and Maxim are visiting,” he said. “I’ll be taking them to the park. I don’t want them ruining their time.” Madison perked her voice, “Oh, when’re the kids coming?” “Next week, my sweet.” He gripped the back of her chair like how one might squeeze a hamburger bun. In the two years Robert had been our boss, Madison found the openings in him. But she had to deal with Robert calling her outfits sexy, slinky, in front of everyone; she’d still need Robert as a reference whenever she decided to apply to grad school. She winced as his fingers crawled up her shoulders now. “What…what if we go to the park now? It’s only two,” I said. It worked. Robert released her. “Bruno here,” he said, “has yet another great suggestion. Team, let’s go to Dilworth Park. Scope it out. Life is good. Like the shirt, right?”
Robert glistened in the yellow elevator light. A rough canvas brushed my forearm and knuckles. “What are those?” I said. “Chairs,” Madison grumbled. “Beach chairs.” “There’s chairs there,” Stan said. “What’s going on?” “What’re you doing?” I said to Robert. “Team, what we’re doing today is keeping the park clean. Prevent anyone who might try to ruin it from doing so. Keep it safe for everyone.” “I think this park will benefit everyone,” said Stan. “All boats will rise with the tide.” “Hope you’re right, bud,” I said. “Some boats fail to rise,” said Robert. “That’s why you have shelters, soup kitchens. Places in America for people whose only job is to sully our assets.” Now was when Stan normally would retreat to his computer. But he said, “Whose assets?” Robert glowered. “The world’s not some…people’s ashtray, Stan,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s charitable. We’re too dismissive of Stan the man. Guys, let’s check in with ourselves. How do we feel? I know I’m a little hungry. Aren’t you all?” Stan and Madison nodded.
The City had installed ugly, frail seating. It looked like Oriental Trading backstock. But the park was nicer than the dirt wedge where I sometimes took lunch. And it was good seeing regular people there. Grilling hotdog aroma sizzled the breeze. A sprayground spurted water. A family speaking Spanish wrapped in towels, all with wet hair, passed around Pringles. Near the sprayground, new construction gleamed: the Dilworth Park Café. But under the store’s front window, a guy slumped like a dirty washcloth. He was black. As we approached the Café, Madison said, “I should’ve gone straight to grad school. Instead of…wallowing in this post-grad puddle. I’m not even a big fish in a small pond. I’m a dead fish.” The man wagged a soggy paper cup in which his spare change clopped. “I’d still hook you,” said Robert. Robert was first in our line and the best-dressed among us. Asking him must’ve seemed only natural. The guy raised his cup to Robert and said, “Excuse m—.” Robert slapped the cup and a fistful of change smacked the window. The guy squinted as coins struck his chin and chest. His arms shot out from his coat like Whack-A-Gator to rescue his loot. “My God, Robert!” said Stan. Robert, Madison and I had to step over Stan, picking up the change, to file inside the Café.
The Café smelled like leaking freezer. Madison and I gathered around our boss near a sorry-looking banana display. “People are always hitting me up for donations.” Robert combed his fingers through his coral pocket square. “I’ll buy him a fruit basket for Christmas.” He folded the handkerchief and pushed it on Madison. She took it and scowled and squeezed the cloth tight. I had told Madison she’d have to strike on her own if she wanted to leave – she couldn’t be compliant. Robert asked, “Where’s Stanley?” “Oh I…asked him to watch your chairs,” I said. Stan leaned on the window outside. “You could’ve brought them in here,” Robert scoffed. Then Stan was slogging through the doors with his arms threaded through the beach chairs like some kind of crucifix. Stan backed me into a corner near an ATM. “I can’t believe what he did to that guy!” “His kids are visiting soon. He’s tense.” “We can’t forgive him now,” said Stan. Robert stood at the check-out, arm in arm with Madison. “Please, one item per bag, boss. So each of us can contribute to the labor. Each according to their own….where’s Stanley?” I watched them get rung-up. Madison held her bag of precisely one bag of soda crackers. Robert clasped one small paper bag of apple chips, one of a gourmet chocolate bar in foil, one of a blue tin of mints, and one final bag of a single pack of fancy soda crackers. “Nothing vegan for you, Maddie, Sorry.” “I’m not,” she said. She pulled away and joined Stan and me by the ATM. “I could kill him,” said Stan. “Sometimes,” she said, handing each of us a bag, “the people in our lives are like receipts. Some we throw out. Some we know we should but we’re too scared.” “You think we need to throw him out, right?” Stan said, his apple chips rustling, motioning to the Café’s entrance at our boss. The beach chairs were still slung over Stan’s other arm. “We… need to be careful with him,” I said. With her free hand, she stroked Stan’s wrist. She smiled. “His kids are visiting. You know they just see him as some money machine. Please, Stan. I don’t usually see him this worked up. I’m worried. This damn park.” Robert loomed toward us in the tight corner. Onto the tile, the chairs clattered. A woman with a grungy pink stroller watched them fall from the window. Stan said, “I don’t want to blame you, Robert. For what you did to that person out there. I mean, I’d…prefer not to see them either. I can admit that to all of you.” He turned toward Robert, Madison and I. “But what if we addressed the problem at the root? Not so much homeless people. But homelessness. A capitalist economy that only works for the very few.” Robert coughed into his own collar. “Stanley…” he said. Stan said, “The 1%…shuts folks out from even believing they’ll ever have their own space. Their own…facilities. Robert, you always say you can’t please everyone all the time. Right?” Robert nodded. “But if we had a system that worked for the vast majority, that could really be something. It’d be a lot easier for all people to have…baseline comfort. And then all boats would rise.” Robert glared at Stan. Stan said, “If you’re out of luck, you depend on a shelter, is that it?” “Rob,” I said, “We’re just asking you to do a little soul searching. We’re all in agreement. There’s too many homeless people here. I mean, they’re already in the new park!” “That is one hell of a segway,” said Robert. “We’re here for the people who really need this park.” I grinned so much it hurt. I’d only wanted to take the floodlights off my friend. Stan scowled at me; above his eyebrow a thick vein throbbed.
We left the Café. Late afternoon sunlight beaming through a bus shelter revealed an atlas of sticker gunk on the Plexiglas. “Help us find a place to setup camp,” Robert growled at me. “This was your idea.” “Of course!” I said, scratching my neck. That’s when I saw three more black guys draped on a bench. They looked deep in conversation. One wore a peppermint scarf but the slush-gray dirtiness of it outed him. Another had bushy eyebrows and sported a dingy American flag cap. The third appeared to be the man who Robert knocked the paper cup from. Madison saw them too. Robert squinted at the guys. Then Stan, his words dripping with disdain, said, “I’m so sorry, Robert. That you have to see poverty.” “I see your point, Stan,” he said. “I really do.” Robert exhaled. “But the families here today. You know, dad, a…Civil War armchair historian. Just trying to spend some time with his kids. The kids’ ma, she read about the park in the Inquirer. You can’t tell me they want their kids hassled for spare change.” ”You can’t get rid of the poor,” Stan said. “I’m not talking about poor people! I’m talking about a mindset.” “And who of? Black folks? Brown folks?” “That’s beneath you. You know that.” “Folks get locked into a system that pins them to the sidewalk. It keeps turning!” Stan gestured at the sky then crossed his arms. “There’s no use trying to sniff them all out. A new system. It’s… possible.” Stan exhaled. “Isn’t that right, Bruno?” “Naturally, what does Bruno think?” Robert took off his blazer, folded it and then pushed it onto Madison. Madison dropped his coat to the ground, spreading her arms. “Yes,” said Madison. “Tell us.” Yellow and blue flags snapped, one at half-mast. The sprayground burst a geyser. I saw the Café cashier staring through the window at our quartet. Madison stepped on Robert’s blazer, mashing her shoe into the fabric. Robert’s eyes flashed. I heard, in the intervals, the hollow thump of the Pringles and scrape of the chairs. “Stan… Robert’s right,” I said. “You can’t depend on everyone.” I resisted an urge to touch Stan’s shoulder. And then I saw Stan’s fist rocketing at me. I felt a snap. I cupped my hand over my nose and blood coursed through my hand and dumped on my shirt. I shut my eyes. My nose burned and nausea surged in my chest. In the dark, I heard the families shouting from the benches and spraygrounds. Their voices rang and pounded. Madison led me over to one of the flimsy beach chairs. “Goddammit!” she said. “He was right. You degenerate. Coming out here was a huge mistake.” I managed to pry my eyes open. She glared at me. “Your mistake.” The beach chair scraped and buckled as I wobbled in. When I opened my eyes, Madison and Stan were walking off toward City Hall. Maddie might’ve shouted something about going back to school, I wasn’t sure. “They’re outta here. Don’t worry!” Robert patted and squeezed my shoulder. Then he dumped a wad of brown compostable Café napkins into my lap. I watched as he stormed over to the men on the bench.