Thursday, April 13, 2017

Waren Trust

In my small city, there's a stretch of land along the river. The downtown area surrounds it, but it's open and treated as an unnamed park. Someone told me that it belongs to the city, but the tables and benches in it are put there by businesses, and the gravel walk from one end to the other is likewise maintained by the merchants. It's not a long way from my apartment, and I go there on summer evenings to sit and write.

This week, I walked along the main street toward the open space, and there were two women walking ahead of me. The younger one was someone I'd seen before, a person with short, dark hair and black eyebrows. The older woman was new to me. She was speaking earnestly to the other one and sometimes making gestures with her hands. As we came to the entrance to the river land, they were joined by Airey, a man who was always wandering around in the downtown area, aimless and harmless, and usually with nothing to say. He simply dropped into step with them, walking along behind and eating from a bag of popcorn, one kernel at a time.

I took my usual place, on the town side, where there was a chair and a small table. I didn't want to be joined by anyone, so I left the long picnic-style benches to others. The two women sat down at a bench, facing each other. Airey sat down on the grass a few feet away.

In a few minutes, more people came in, either taking up seating or laying down towels or beach blankets to sit on. This was new, not something I'd seen before. If they said anything at all, it was too low to overhear, and the couple who sat down on the grass near me said nothing.

Then two men stood up and walked to the middle of the path. They stood back to back. Both were wearing khaki pants and white dress shirts, no ties, no jacket. Together, they raised both their arms and said "Waren Trust" in voices that carried. Everyone stopped talking except the older of the two women who came in with me.

I couldn't make out what her words were, but it was clear she was trying to persuade or influence the other person. The younger woman with the eyebrows said nothing for a moment, and then quite clearly said "Waren Trust". She made a finger-to-the-lips sign. The other woman raised her voice, saying "But Celia, please ..." Celia shook her head. The other woman got up, turned, and nearly tripped over Airey, then walked away, back up toward the street. Airey picked up the popcorn kernel she'd made him drop, ate it, and sat still. The two men on the path raised their hands again and said "Waren Trust."

As I watched, the men began to walk up and down among the other people, saying things that for the most part I couldn't hear. One came near enough that I heard him say "crisis of confidence". It seemed to be Celia he was speaking to. This went on for almost fifteen minutes.

Then two men came down from the street at the other end of the area. I stared at them, because they were both dressed in grey Edwardian suits and both had top hats. One carried a walking stick. The two leaders, if that's what they were, of the group saw them and moved to place themselves in their path. The newcomers paid no attention and as they got closer, I could hear that they were talking about the open area itself.

"Yes," one of them said, "it is strange that it's just here, left undeveloped."

"I know," said the other, "but apparently the merchants would rather have people here than more businesses."

" I suppose. But I did hear another story. About an asylum that was here." At this point, the group leaders stood in front of them, blocking the way. One of them said "Shhh. Waren trust."

The men in costume stepped around the leaders and the one who'd been interrupted continued. "There's something about being able to hear the voices of the inmates, still speaking." They continued their stroll. As they passed me, I heard one say "Gibberish, it's supposed to be. Just nonsense phrases." They strolled on, up and onto the shopping street.

A drop of tree sap fell close to my notebook, and I got up. One of the leaders looked at me, but I ignored him and walked away. Airey got up and followed me out.

The next evening the sky was supposed to be clear. The sunset would make glowing red light on the water and, as the sun dropped lower, on the backs of the stores. I went down to the area again. This time, my usual table was occupied, but I sat at the end of one of the benches. Shortly, it began to fill up with the same group that had been there the night before.

The difference was that the leaders had brought another man with them. He was a very large person, dressed in jeans and a horizontally-striped T-shirt, like a matelot. He wore a dark sport coat over it. When the leaders began their "Waren Trust" announcements, he said nothing. He just stood between them on the path, looking around.

Just as the leaders began their circulation among the group, the Edwardians returned. Their conversation grew louder as they approached, and the one with the cane was swinging it at the heads of dandelions as he walked. The topic was investments, something to do with exchange-traded funds and a shift of investor confidence toward corporate and away from municipal bonds. They ignored everything but each other, even when they came up against mister striped shirt. He held his arms wide, blocking their way. They sidestepped him and came together again on the path.

The big man then moved up behind them and took each one's collar in one of his hands. He lifted them up to tiptoes and gave them a quiet, professional bum's rush down the path and out of the area.

One of the leaders came by the bench where I was sitting, said something meaningless to one of the people, and then stopped across the table from me. I turned my notebook to a page where I'd written a rude phrase in large letters, showed it to him, and made my departure.

I wasn't pleased with the way things had gone, and I considered staying away, but by 5:30 the next afternoon, my curiosity took over. I bought a sandwich to bring along and went back to the place. This time I was early enough to get my chair and small table, and I quickly took possession. The group gathered as it had before, and the leaders brought their large colleague with them again. For almost a half an hour, nothing unusual happened. Then the consumed pair returned. This time, as they strolled side by side, discussing some regulatory topic, they were followed by two municipal police officers.

As the little parade reached the center of the path, the big man stepped in front again. The leaders walked up behind him. The Edwardians halted, still talking, and the police came around from behind. One of them placed his hand on the striped chest and pointed toward the exit behind him. One leader came forward, but got the same treatment from the other officer. The two gentlemen paid no attention. They just kept talking about property tax abatements. Everyone else sat very quietly, watching the proceedings.

The big man and one of the leaders turned around and began walking away. The other leader said something to the police and tried to push the officer's hand away. In a series of dance steps, he was spun around, handcuffed, and almost carried off, back the way the police had come. To my disappointment, he didn't complain as he was taken away, not even to say "Waren Trust."

Since that night, the group hasn't shown up, nor have the Edwardians. The only thing of interest is Airey, eating popcorn and watching the ducks on the river.
Copyright 2017 by Joseph McConnell

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