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One never knows

It had been one of those intoxicating days Winter grudgingly offers as reprieve after six grim weeks of blizzards, frost, and unrelenting cold. The sun had come out into pure blue skies and crystal clear air. Now late afternoon, it still shone spiritedly through branches laden with last night's snowstorm. Nearer the earth, brilliant rays and shifting beams reflected from the snowdrifts, sparkling winks seducing me along the path.

Off and on, I passed other sunshine worshipers, strolling, playing, animating Christmas card scenes. Shame all of it'd be too soon a memory; the gloam of evening close, the passing moments' pleasant reminder how Winter begrudges but so much.

Up a slight, but continuous incline led me to a knoll near the center of the park, and I was decidedly huffing it by the time I had trudged there. I should go on more: the heart needing just such deliberate stress to grow strong again. But doctors' orders or no, my bellows apparatus needed pause. So, the first bench at hand, I sat and gave my sturdy cane a rest, while I puffed my hip-hopping heart back to a foxtrot beat.

This was a tranquil spot presenting a pleasant panorama of the park. The gaze could linger on the blank flower plots near the front gates, and on my exercise incline with its snow-blanketed pathways winding up through heavy-branched firs and pines. The far end of the view found a thick, continuous green of well-forested hills, any of which would be fine vantage to watch the moon rise, or the city's evening light up: a best window for any sort of busybody.

Nearer by, the parka-clad folks frolicking in the snowy flats were colorful teddy-bears to me without my glasses. With puffs of breath, they semaphored fun to each other; word-clouds of closeness that remained afloat in their departed space.

All about, the air was alive with children - their keening screams, their snowballs, the delight of their laughter. They were romping and tumbling and frisking and falling in a manner that assured they'd all sleep well tonight.

Penetrating my musings, it slowly occurred to me that there was something odd about the person standing under a young fir some fifty feet away, at about three o'clock in my view. A family on their way out passed near him, and their little girl had to be called back from wandering over to interact with the stranger. But it was a casual recall by the parents. No tension at all. Still, my suspicious subconscious maintained scrutiny.

Abruptly, he sauntered on, and I recognized what was peculiar. He was a small man but didn't carry himself so. In fact, his stroll was more like a strut, albeit slope-shouldered and loping, which, with long arms swinging rhythmically, made him seem to be bouncing along with a presumptuous jauntiness.

I suddenly realized he had left the beaten snow of the pathways, and was plowing through the two-foot-deep lawns, heading directly toward me. Anxious that he had felt need to respond to my scrutiny and dreading a confrontation, I stared down at my feet in dismay.

When the effort of his excursion sounded near enough, I stole a glance up. My peek was immediately overcome by the eyes in his face: right on me, bright, alert, intensely examining. Still, my brief look could not miss the challenging gleams of intelligence crowning the vaguely triangular face. But by then he was quite close, so I retreated to lowered eyes once more, and reached into my pocket for the peanuts I had purchased on the way here.

At this, and to my utter chagrin, the fellow took a seat at the other end of my bench.

Steadfastly, I gazed for lonely freedom through the broad window of my view as if his presence was a wall that separated our spaces. Although, of course, nothing he did escaped my wary side-minding of him. And gradually, my puzzled observation became certain that his eyes and interest were only for the bag of peanuts I held.

For further evidence, I switched the bag to my right hand, away from his side. As if his stare was magnetized to it by a powerful beam, the fellow followed forward like a leaning pole to keep the bag in view. At that, I felt a melting within, and a trickle of guilt seeped out. For I had been biased to the face of strangeness. And even now I was being selfish to the mouth of hunger. I couldn't have felt more ashamed. So, without daring to look his way, I offered the bag over.

He wasn't coy. There was no hesitation. The bag was swiftly from my hand. I heard the un-crimping as its wrapper yielded, the rattling of the roasted unshelled peanuts as they were scooped out. Then the bag was placed on the bench and the evening was serene but for the urgent crackle of shells, and the rapid mouth-muffled crunch of peanuts.

From behind a pretended yawn, I sidled a glance down the bench and confirmed that the fellow had indeed placed the bag right next to his own leg, fully an arm's length away from me.

Now, that I didn't like! Be he hungry or not, such was improper response to my generosity. My sympathy quickly diffused away, unmasking the rudeness of his intrusion. Still, I was civilized; I did not snatch. Instead, eyes only on the bag, I leaned over, took it up and scooped out two or three peanuts. Then I deliberately replaced the bag on the seat, halfway between us.

Didn't have to look to know he had followed my every move. His attention was a fixed stare I could feel, leaving me warm with embarrassment and pique at my unsubtle parry. But I couldn't have allowed my good manners to be bullied by him. So, defiantly, I cracked a shell, popped a kernel in and chewed the time I awaited his response.

All he did was stare at me. I felt the look searching my profile all through my cracking, shelling, and chewing three more peanuts. I felt it score into my skin, seeking, assessing, deciding on my intent. I felt it make incorrect judgments about me, and find me close and stingy.

Recalling his fine, intelligent eyes, I pictured them now glazed with hurt and disappointment. I could almost feel his misery at my siege of the bag. So. What else to do? Again eye to bag, I took it up, removed a couple, and replaced it - that is, leaned over and pointedly spotted it quite near his leg. After all, I couldn't let the poor guy grovel.

The lightening up of mood was marked. Tension whisked away. Graciousness mellowed the ambience as he accepted the hint and promptly lessened the bag once again, replacing it within his comfortable reach, and not too far out of mine. Then he relaxed completely into peanut consumption. By now though, distracted with curiosity, I just had to pass eyes over him.

First, it was his hands. So narrow and nimble, and swift at shelling and peeling, flicking the peanuts into his mouth. So casual, so competent. Then it was his posture: relaxed to the point of a slouch; un-composed, yet somehow natural and comfortable. Maybe it was the grey indistinctness of the evening that made his clothes seem ramshackle and too voluminous, shrinking him, and peculiarly explaining the boniness of those fine hands. But then I came to his face.

The sun had set off-shoulder behind him, leaving spot-bright that part of the early darkness, so some of his face remained mysterious in silhouette. Yet within that dimness were enough indications of my companion's features. A small, bearded, pointed face. Low brow. The striking eyes. The busily munching jaws. Instantly, though bewildering and ridiculous, an overall impression formed: The little guy did look uncannily like a larger monkey.

Once again my consternation sought refuge in the uniform grayness of the evening in front of me. Thinking through the blinking in my mind, I searched the growing darkness to see if I was being the victim of a practical joke. But the dusk remained sedately innocent. Which braved me to attempt a serious ascertaining look at my companion. For the monkey notion had left its doubtful lurk; it now was poised to seize conviction as I breathed deeply and turned to find him just hopped off my bench and loping down the path.

Then I caught his single brief glance back and was stunned by a queer thrill. For nothing more than smug was his look, and nothing less than amused. Those sharp monkey's eyes might've even been laughing at me. One certainly had winked.