The old man sidles up to her bench in Central Park.
She’s drinking her latte and listening, with equal parts frustration and fascination, to yet another podcast about how everyone has some kind of Great Work to accomplish.
She looks up at him cautiously. “May I help you?”
“I’m offering you the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says, “but I have to whisper it.”
The sooner she hears him out and tells him she’s not interested, the quicker he’ll leave, so, though having a stranger’s breath in her ear is far from appealing, she nods, pauses the digital voice, and leans toward him.
He bends down close, cupping his hands around his mouth. “I’m here to transfer possession of the Park to you,” he says, “the real one, not this simulation we’re in.”
“What?” She pulls back and scoots away.
“Yes, it’s folded into my coat pocket, clean and even at every corner, like origami.”
“You’re saying we’re not in Central Park right this moment?”
Now she’s whispering, too.
“Of course not,” he says. “This is just a projection.”
She scoots back a little further, and begins to edge sideways for a quick getaway.
“No, it’s true — since 1926, the actual, verifiable Park has been the victim of thefts and counter-thefts by the mobs and henchmen of The New York Post and The New Yorker. Sometimes one side had it, sometimes the other, and then there was that long, terrible period when the Park itself was torn — The New Yorker had a third and The Post had the rest. Look around — do you see the seam where the workers did the repairs?”
She surveys the scene. Hot dog vendors, balloon sellers, dogs and their walkers, shrubbery, paths.
“No seam,” she reports.
“Precisely! A dead giveaway. If we were standing in the genuine Park right now, it would be obvious, running right over there across from the Zoo. The seam is just one of eleven authenticity indicators.”
Pondering the two institutions, as well as the nature of the city itself, she finds this scenario credible.
“So,” she asks, “which side are you on?”
“Neither. I can’t divulge how the Park came into my possession, but it’s time to pass it on to someone who can keep it safe from the media wars.”
She wonders: Does she want to risk receiving stolen goods? If so, will she have to live on the lam with the black-ops details of two major journalistic enterprises forever on her tail? She hasn’t even agreed to receive the contraband, yet she can feel her internal diction slipping to the level of old pulp magazine slang.
“Why me?” she stalls.
“Your outfit, of course,” he says.
She doesn’t have to look down to remind herself of what she’s wearing, since it’s always the same thing, which she washes out in the sink with Dreft every night before bedtime and drapes over the shower curtain rod to drip dry.
It is the dress of many pockets: zippered pockets, sawtooth pockets, flap pockets, and patch pockets, as well as hidden and camouflaged pockets of various shapes and sizes, and pockets sewn into the lining against her skin.
This kind of dress runs in her family. Her mother, too, wore one every day, quite flashy since she had a thing for fat faux-pearl buttons; in each of her pockets languished an ancient, light-starved emergency dollar. Her grandmother’s pockets were packed with Iowa loam so that whenever she felt homesick, she could pinch a bit out to savor its taste on her tongue.
Oh, those serene lamplit evenings, their kitchen table a cross between a sewing circle and a surgical theater, as all three of them sat together to micro-suture worn spots.
Yet every morning they’d wake up to surprising configurations, since these pockets have personal itineraries of their own, migrating around a dress at will so you can never get a fix on them.
As for her own pockets, she’s always left them empty to honor the idea of keeping possibilities open.
She sets down her latte and sighs. Yes, she thinks; her dress would indeed serve as a perfect refuge for the poor, beleaguered Park, so apparently, this guardianship is not only her civic duty but her Great Work as well.
“All right,” she says, “I’ll do it,” as she holds out her hand, expecting him to reach into his coat to begin the transfer. Instead, he gives a deep, formal bow, turns abruptly, and strides off.
Immediately she concludes that not only was he deluded, but that during the few moments she believed his story, she must have been deluded, too, for as every city dweller knows, this kind of thing is contagious.
Still, as she stands to leave, she can tell that something is different: She’s almost discernibly off-balance, like a ship listing slightly starboard.
Patting the pockets on her right side, she feels something so new and small that only an emptiness-connoisseur would be able to detect it, no doubt deposited there by sleight of hand, the exact opposite of the pickpocket’s maneuver.
Only now does she understand her real motivation: not duty, after all, or even the allure of a Great Work, but a longing to hold the little packet in her palm, turn back its perfect folds, feel that slight weight increasing until it’s so heavy she has to set it down as it expands around her.
Might this be the true Central Park of the heart, where the hands of the Delacorte Clock point always to midnight, and wolves hunt in packs through the trees?