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The Interloper by Maureen O'Leary

I invented a new podcast where I went to different parks around my city and struck up conversations with people there. The point was that the city I lived in was diverse in one way but not in another. It’s like we say we are the fifth most integrated in the country but we don’t all blend. We may work together and we might even live in the same neighborhood but we don’t hang out in the same places. I might ask you, where do you swim, in the neighborhood swimming pool or in your own backyard? That’s a tell right there.

So I was sitting on a bench in McClatchy Park, eating from a bag of carrots just sort of riffing. I didn’t want to seem like an interloper so I was hanging back, headphones on, just talking into the mic. Setting the scene.  Four guys across the way played basketball and on the other side of them, dominos was happening at a table because it wasn’t barbecue time yet or anything and I was just all, here we are on a Monday afternoon in September. Being together in our city.

            I knew I wasn’t keeping any of that recording because my chewing was super loud and dumb and I was acting like an amateur because I was an amateur when I heard the most beautiful music in my life coming from an alley between two buildings across the way so I followed the sound to where a man sat on a stool playing a guitarish instrument that a sign at his feet said was a Chapman stick, his eyes closed, his head shaking a little like he agreed with what the music was saying.

            The music. I remembered to record the music before the notes led me away in a pied piper situation to where there were brick buildings and baking bread and people being into each other, you know, like bohemians and beatniks and those cats in France between the wars who hung out or the ones in New York wearing berets and smoking on fire escapes listening to somebody play saxophone. Or those sharpies around the Algonquin table, everyone a name, everyone having something cool to say. That Chapman stick made sound like if a bass guitar and an electric guitar got married and the music told me that there was such a thing as belonging, that being lonely wasn’t the only thing, that there were places and times where people cared, really cared about music and talking about real things and poems and each other.

            When the dude was done, the last notes sort of floating away, I was like that kid with the White Witch who got one bite of Turkish Delight and wanted more than he could ever eat in one lifetime. I patted my pockets for a dollar to put in the hat when the musician opened his eyes and looked at me askance just then and said, “You don’t belong here, son.”

I was ashamed so I walked away. I walked through that park, my head down not talking to anybody or meeting a single eye, and not talking into my microphone either. I went home to my rented room in a house with a bunch of other guys who were never around when I was and I went to bed feeling maybe I had the flu now.

I didn’t sleep. I just lay there listening to one of the guys I lived with come home and open the refrigerator then put something in the microwave. I went out to the kitchen to shoot the crap with him a little and he just looked at me like I was maybe a ghost he wasn’t used to seeing and he was all, I can’t right now with you, no offense. He went to his room with his taquitos on a paper plate and I just stayed there hoping somebody else would come home but nobody else did that night.

When the sun came up I didn’t go to work. I went to McClatchy Park and I sat quietly on the bench and waited for the Chapman stick man to come back, thinking if I could hear just one more song I’d be okay, you know. I’d be okay to go back to work and be regular again.

People brought their little kids to the play structure and they looked at me funny. Because who was I sitting there without a kid, in a neighborhood I obviously didn’t live in? I walked around a little and thought I would try the podcast again and then I remembered. The recording. I searched for the sound file and I found it and put on my headphones and waited, waited, but there was no music. There was no Chapman stick, no promises of something else somewhere else, some other people, no berets or bongos or saxophones. Not even an old guy telling me I didn’t belong there, which I knew, which was the whole point. There was only a hiss. A silence like in the back of a dead person’s throat.

I waited all day and the next day. And more days too until my boss said don’t bother coming back and the landlord rented the room to a guy I didn’t know but who could pay. Still the man with the Chapman stick did not return and he isn’t here today either as you might have noticed. I’ll be here when he comes back and that’s why I live here now on this bench. Everyone is so used to me by now I guess. I guess you could say this is where I live. I guess you could say I belong here now, son.

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