Land's End

 

The old man is sitting on a park bench, surrounded by caution tape. The caution tape is wrapped around four large trees, so perhaps the trees will soon be cut, and the caution tape is present to prevent pedestrians from entering the space into which massive branches will fall after being severed. But there aren’t any chainsaws lying around, nor hydraulic baskets pushing tree trimmers into position, nor wood shavings suggesting the deed has already been done and mostly cleared away.

Between two of the trees the caution tape encircling the park bench has been torn down. It had been strung over a cement pathway, but now it is lying in ribbons and the old man is sitting on the single bench the cement pathway leads to. It is possible that the old man tore down this section of caution tape. It is also possible that some teenagers might have done it, as the old man seems like the type who would lift the caution tape up over his head, pass underneath it and then proceed to the bench, undisturbed.


The deep red leather presses close against his thin frame, and it’s buttoned all the way to the top, though the day isn’t particularly cold.


The old man is resting his hands in front of him on the curve of a cane. He has glasses and a hat, but I’m most interested in his jacket. The deep red leather presses close against his thin frame, and it’s buttoned all the way to the top, though the day isn’t particularly cold. It looks like something from the civil war; double breasted with two lines of large metallic buttons tapering down in an incomplete V, and cropped short, ending just above the old man’s belt. It’s a nice jacket.

Courtesy: Miekala Cangelosi

I put the book I haven’t been reading back into my bag, stand up from the picnic table I’ve been sitting at, and walk further down the pathway that will lead me to the old man and his jacket. I’m wondering how exactly I should approach the caution tape. Should I scuffle it under my feet and scoff a little, suggesting to the old man that a fellow rule breaker approaches? Or conversely, someone exasperated by teenagers and broken rules, however he chooses to interpret it. I decide not to make a big deal about entering this private public space, casually stepping over the yellow plastic that’s been stretched before it broke, rendering its message unreadable, and sit down on the edge of the bench.

The old man doesn’t acknowledge his new cordoned-off bench companion, still staring ahead through his glasses. I hope that he hadn’t noticed me sitting at the picnic table earlier. I crane my neck a little. It’s not really in his line of sight, I don’t think, but it’s not like I’d been following every movement of his head. I take out my phone and check the various things that need checking, but not much has happened since I checked them all last. I sigh, sliding it back into my pocket, and do an exaggerated look around, up at the canopy above and the caution tape below. My gaze falls onto the old man sitting at the other end of the bench and lingers like I’d just noticed him.

“I like your jacket. That’s a nice jacket.”

“I’ve got a motorcycle,” the old man replies, still looking forward.

The jacket doesn’t look like one designed for riding a motorcycle. I can’t detect metal plating underneath, or whatever it is that supports the elbows and vital organs in the event of a crash, in the event that the jacket and the person it contains is sent skidding over asphalt, grinding down cow hide till the metal or whatever is exposed, and hopefully the skidding stops before the metal is in turn all ground away and the old man’s flesh begins.

“It doesn’t look like a motorcycle jacket,” I say. “It looks like something from the nineteenth century, except it’s leather and a lovely deep red. Where’d you get it from?” Maybe he used to ride a motorcycle. I survey the hands resting on his cane, and they seem steady enough.


I had hoped for a designer’s name and the decade—something I could look up on eBay or Craigslist, bid for or buy outright. 


“This place has been taped off for at least a week,” the old man starts, “with this bench right here in the middle. I thought it was because the bench was freshly painted. It did seem to have that wet shine. But the tape was up for so much longer than it takes paint to dry.”

I had hoped for a designer’s name and the decade—something I could look up on eBay or Craigslist, bid for or buy outright. The deep red color is one that’s really in right now, to be worn with a pair of opaque tights and a black skirt much shorter than one you’d wear without the tights. Add something hugely jeweled and you’d have a New Year’s outfit for sure.

“It was you that pulled the tape down, then? I was thinking that maybe the caution tape was here because they were going to trim the trees. Have they trimmed the trees? Do you know if they’re going to trim the trees? Does it look as though these trees need trimming to you?”

The old man finally turns to look at me.

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“It’s a possibility,” I continue. “I don’t think they’ve done it yet, usually they butcher trees, I think. They take off far too much, maybe so they won’t need to come back again too soon. Or for other, more arboreal purposes. Have you seen what they do to walnut trees? Or almond trees? Any type of nut tree. They have these great big machines, like tractors with a raised arm and chainsaws or something at the end. They drive through the orchard, cutting off the tops of the trees so that everything is level. I think it’s to encourage the tree to put most of its energy into producing nuts, instead of reaching up towards the sky. Something like that.”


The old man points to the round helmet in the sidecar and secures the straps of his own snugly beneath his chin.


“Sounds reasonable.” The old man replies, and stands up, much more quickly than I would have expected, given the cane. “I didn’t tear down the caution tape. It was like this this morning.” He swings the cane forward a little, and his feet follow, totally fine. He’s leaving.

“I didn’t mean to bother you, but really—that’s a nice jacket. Where did you get it?” I toss my words at his back.

“I’ve got a motorcycle. I’ll show it to you.”

The motorcycle is parked perpendicular to the curb and it pokes significantly into the bike lane, which is annoying. I’d have to move into traffic to pass it and would end up becoming evidence in someone’s story about how cyclists are entitled and erratic, the stupid girl in a skirt with a basket on the front another ridiculous example. There’s a sidecar, which might make the motorcycle wider than it is long. The machine is low slung, old fashioned. The old man points to the round helmet in the sidecar and secures the straps of his own snugly beneath his chin.

I push the helmet on, and immediately feel like an idiot. My cheeks are squashed together like the chubby kids in ancient ads for Campbell’s soup, but the helmet still manages to wobble a little when I shake my head from side to side. It’s a bad fit.

“It’s a terrible fit. I’ve got a really small head,” I tell the old man, still shaking it in demonstration. He pulls something from his jacket’s pocket, and clips tinted frames over his normal ones. He reaches out and takes hold of my helmet, shakes it himself.

“Make sure the strap under your chin is tight. If it’s too loose you may as well not be wearing a helmet at all. It could fly right off your head, but only if you don’t tighten the chin straps properly.” I weave the nylon through the rings and pull, still skeptical.

I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle, I can’t even drive a stick shift, so I have to sit in the sidecar. I feel stupider, my legs feel cramped. The old man hands me his cane to hold.

“It usually goes in the sidecar,” he says, and I’m wondering exactly how it fits in here even without a person inside—the sidecar is so small the cane must rattle and bounce with each imperfection in the road. I hold the cane horizontal above my knees, like it’s a safety bar on a roller coaster, hoping I don’t drop it. The motorcycle with its sidecar matches the leather jacket, not so much in color as in style, but I still don’t believe it was designed for this.


The old man on the motorcycle and me in the sidecar holding his cane pass fields and groves and manmade waterfalls that pour into opaque green ponds thick with ducks and geese. I’m so low to the ground, it rushes past and I’m not sure how fast we’re going. 


The old man turns a key or flips a switch and the motorcycle bursts into gas burning cochlea busting life. It smells terrible.

“The engine needs to warm up,” the old man shouts through the exhaust, and I’m coughing and looking away from it all. Across the field there’s another grove of trees, cordoned off in caution tape. I can’t tell if there’s a bench in the middle or not. The old man throws a leg over the seat, and revs the engine. “We’re going through the park to the cliffs,” I hear.

Courtesy: Miekala Cangelosi

It’s midday and there isn’t a lot of traffic. The old man on the motorcycle and me in the sidecar holding his cane pass fields and groves and manmade waterfalls that pour into opaque green ponds thick with ducks and geese. I’m so low to the ground, it rushes past and I’m not sure how fast we’re going. We exit the park and the motorcycle struggles up the hill, the ocean to the left and sheer cliff face to the right, covered in brown cement, presumably to prevent erosion. Plants have pushed their way through, or maybe they were planted purposefully. Just past the crest of the hill is a parking lot filled with tour buses and minivans. The old man pulls into one of the spaces, turns the key or flips the switch and the engine quiets, but the smell remains. He takes off his helmet, and I take off mine. I hand him his cane, and struggle out of the sidecar.

“It’s colder here,” I say, rubbing my hands over the raised hairs on my arms, Pacific wind blowing my hair around, getting it stuck in my mouth.


He shouts above the engine’s noise, and it sounds like he’s talking about trees. Like he’s saying something about why they’re cut the way they are, and when and how.


The old man doesn’t say anything, but begins to unbutton his jacket. He hands it to me without ceremony, and I have to drape it over my own shoulders. Its leather is so worn and soft, it no longer feels like something that had once been stiff and squeaking with movement, that had been subjected to chemicals or buried underground, tanned, dyed that beautiful red color, now faded and deep. There aren’t any metal panels inside. It’s warm.

The old man has his helmet on again, has already put his cane back into the sidecar next to the helmet I wore. The motorcycle doesn’t need to warm up this time, and the old man is in his seat. He shouts above the engine’s noise, and it sounds like he’s talking about trees. Like he’s saying something about why they’re cut the way they are, and when and how.

After he’s gone I walk through the gravel paths that wind through the cypress trees. There are little flags of plastic ribbon tied to thin metal stakes pushed into the ground. The sun has bleached the markers and I can’t make out their colors or what they mean, they’re arranged in an indiscernible pattern.