isidore arrived at the park a little later than usual. he noted with relief that "his" bench was unoccupied and that the shade had reached it on schedule. his "friends" hank and ernestine (he thought of them as "friends" in quotation marks) were sitting on the grass under a tree.
hank, reading his newspaper, looked subdued, and ernestine a little more pugnacious than usual. isidiore surmised that they had had an argument, but had more or less kissed and made up.
isidore never sat on the grass. if the benches were occupied he would just walk around, or sometimes sit on a stone wall. although he had been homeless for a year and a half, he made an effort to present a civilized and gracious appearance. an effort not helped by the fact that he had no teeth.
one thing isidore liked about hank was that his newspaper devouring usually gave them some pretext for conversation. now he sat on his bench about twenty feet from hank and ernestine, draped his arm over the back of the bench and addressed hank in the exact words he used every morning.
"any news today?"
"sure, there is always news," hank answered.
"but some days there is more news than others."
hank dimly remembered having this conversation with isidore before. "yeah, on sundays. the paper is bigger on sundays."
"he asks that all the time. don't you?" ernestine asked isidore good naturedly. ernestine didn't mind people saying the same things over and over. it was what she did herself.
"so what is in the news today?" isidore asked hank.
"iraq is in the news today." hank didn't elaborate on iraq. he continued turning the pages of the paper.
"so what do you think," isidore persisted, "about the current strategy in iraq?"
"let me finish the funnies first."
"they're the comics now, not the funnies," said ernestine. "you got to be the last person in the world that calls them the funnies."
"i heard there is a guy in sacramento who calls them the funnies,"said isidore. "and another one in new zealand. so hank isn't the only one."
ernestine ignored this. neither she nor hank ever pretended to laugh at anything they didn't think was funny. they weren't polite or well bred people.
hank mumbled something unintelligible.
"what was that?" ernestine asked him.
"mutt and jeff aren't in here. or alley oop."
"well, what did i tell you, that's why they're the comics now and not the funnies." ernestine laughed at her own humor.
hank hardly ever laughed at anything except jokes with punch lines. he turned some more pages of the paper. suddenly he reacted to isidore's earlier question.
"the strategy in iraq? i'll tell you the strategy in iraq. just drive on through. drive on through, smash everything that gets in the way, like me and patton did on d-day."
"but they've already done that. and there still seem to be problems."
"then they should do it again. just keep doing it and doing it until they get the message."
isidore was almost enjoying this. "and what message might that be?"
"to leave america alone," hank answered firmly.
isidore spread his arms and made a show of looking around the park with wide eyes. "i don't see any iraqis in the bushes. do you?"
"very funny. what about all these girls disappearing and being kidnapped? you think al qaeda isn't behind that?"
isidore laughed. "that's a novel theory, hank. maybe you should go to the police with it."
"ernestine's the one who should go to the police," hank said. "she saw something last night, didn't you?"
"is that right?" isidore asked her, suddenly interested. unlike hank, with his endless stories about singlehandedly leading general george patton across europe in world war ii, ernestine never seemed to make things up. in fact, she hardly talked about herself at all.
"yeah, i seen something. but i ain't telling the cops nothing."
"you didn't see someone actually being abducted?"
"that's exactly what i did see." ernestine didn't look up as she said this.
"then maybe you should go to the police."
"it's her civic duty," said hank.
"no fucking way."
just then a patrol car came crawling down the cement path of the park. hank waved to it excitedly. it stopped and a young patrolman wearing wraparound shades got out and slowly approached them.
"hank, you mother-fucker. you miserable, miserable motherfucker," ernestine kept her voice just low enough that the policeman couldn't hear her.
the young man's name tag identified him as officer jarowicz. he had had a long night and was in no mood for the homeless.
"can i help you?" he made a pathetic show of barely controlled aggression. the homeless just bored him and he didn't want to get too close to them.
"this young lady has something to tell you," hank told him.
jarowicz almost smiled at ernestine being called a "young lady" but he was too tired to smile. he was too tired to stand up.
"i didn't see anything," ernestine said calmly.
jarowicz had taken a notebook out. "did you see anything or didn't you?"
"no, officer, i didn't. i told my friends i saw something but i was just making it up."
"then i guess that settles that." jarowicz put the notebook back in his pocket. he returned to the patrol car and drove off a little too quickly.
as he rolled around the next curve he wondered if he should have asked the bag lady what it was that she didn't see.
"he should have at least asked you what you didn't see," said isidore when the patrol car was gone.
"yeah," hank agreed.
"maybe both of you assholes should learn to mind your own fucking business."
"i didn't say one word to him," isidore protested.
"that's right, you didn't," ernestine agreed. she turned to look at hank. hank jumped up and started running away across the grass, with his hats bobbing on his head.
ernestine didn't chase him. "that's right, run, hank!" she shouted after him. "you better fucking run!"