Cameras clicked as Japanese tourists posed in front of the dancing waters at the fountain in The Square. Old men in straw hats lounged, smoking cigars, watching old and young women toddle by with canes and high heels. Parents pushing strollers bearing sleepy toddlers, headed home as daylight began to fade — the last weak, golden rays peeping behind the tall buildings, washing the city in the hazy glow of early evening.
Motors rumbled, horns honked as hurried drivers maneuvered crowded streets, heading to the suburbs after a workday behind cubicle desks. A bus billowed smoke as it pulled from the curb. A man in a rumpled suit chased after, yelling and waving. The bus turned the corner and chugged up the street, soon out of sight. Defeated, the man ambled back to the bus stop, slumped to a bench to sit and wait.
I sat too, waiting for night to come, enjoying the comings and goings of people and city life in this urban, downtown park. A few steps from The Riverwalk that helped make this city famous and draws thousands of visitors to its dark waters and dancing lights, this neighboring park has become a favorite. I come here when I am in town to sit and wile away the hours, watch the milling and filling of The Square. Soon, the Riverwalk restaurants will clatter with chatter and china, forks scraping against plates, glasses clinking as the hum of an evening in Old San Antone lures locals and tourists alike.
As day dwindles, I am content at one of my favorite San Antonio spots — this small square in the shadow of the San Fernando Cathedral; a place where history and holiness stand strong against progress, urban sprawl and time. I watch a young Dad scoop up his son, swinging him high, perching the tow-headed tyke on his shoulders. College kids collecting selfies for social media pose in front of the Cathedral and ask a passerby to capture the moment. Laughing and merry, they amble away in search of dinner and drinks.
The Square is starting to empty. The tourists are leaving. Families buckle tired kids into car seats for the ride home or back to the hotel where they’ll order off the kid’s menu. The old men are gone now, too. Live oaks cast shadows across the park, and the wind whips at a piece of paper, sending it dancing in crazy circles. Dusk is coming, and the park is getting quiet.
In his late 20s, one of the table sitters holds a withered hand close to his body, stringy hair falling across his face. He has a gash under one eye, one side of his face bruised and mottled. He says nothing, his eyes vacant, distant. Beside him, a black man in green army fatigues and a backward ball cap argues quietly with a 20-something sporting a tight T-shirt with no sleeves. His well-muscled arms are lined with dark tattoos like a roadmap; his hair spiked in a blond-tipped Mohawk. A grizzled-looking, older guy with a ruddy complexion, dirty, reddish hair and a scraggly beard motions to the muscled one who gets up from the table and ambles around the park. He stops, bends over, and continues his purposeful lap around the dusky park, stooping to pick something up every few steps. The table sitters, wait, watching. The bruised man stares. The sleeping one dozes.
Mohawk Man returns, plops down, the chair leg clanging against the metal table. The sleeping one bobs into action, startled from slumber. The gray hoodie falls away. Long red hair tumbles down her back. The girl slams her hands down on the table, cursing.
She is, perhaps, 18, maybe 28. She is pretty with green eyes that have seen too much and that wild mane of red hair. She hurls herself back into the chair, continuing her verbal diatribe at the one who has awakened her.
Mohawk Man thrusts the stump of a cigarette at her and she takes a long, slow drag. He passes the other lit cigarette to his Ruddy Buddy, who hands it off to the man in the backward cap. He takes a slow toke, then places the glowing stub in the mouth of the bruised, beaten one. Bruised Man takes a short gulp before Baseball Man tosses the butt under the table, grinding it with the heel of his boot.
At another table, two men rise, heading to the trashcan to discard remains of a fast-food meal. The Bruised Man raises his hand, saying nothing, stretching his good arm and motioning at the crumpled, red-and-white sack.
“Man, it’s nothing. It’s only trash,” the guy says, stuffing the bag into the overflowing barrel.
Bruised Man raises his good hand again, and the second man passes off the remains of his meal. The two walk away, shaking their heads, heading toward the river where strains of mariachi music waft on the wind. The red-and-white cardboard basket sits in the center of the table, and four men and the red-headed girl pick over the remains like greedy seagulls.
When the basket is empty, Bruised Man picks up the wrapping, holds it to his face, licking the paper. Night is falling on the park. The table sitters remain, shadows flickering across their faces. The wind picks up and tousles the girl’s auburn locks.
Mohawk Man crumples the dinner sack, chucking it at the trashcan. It lands on the ground. Mohawk gets up, retrieves the sack, tosses it to the heaping mound.
I sit, still and quiet, at my nearby table, an unseen voyeur, a silent stalker, watching these people of the park in macabre fascination. I marvel that they are hidden here in plain sight. People have come and gone all afternoon; taken pictures and taken in the history and beauty of this place as four men and a girl with red hair sat in the midst of it all — Invisible in Plain Sight. I wonder at this small band and their unknown connections; A brotherhood of survivors perhaps — thrust together by chance, fate or safety in numbers. Four men and a girl. A girl with red hair and green eyes. A girl who is, perhaps, 18, maybe 28. A pretty girl with hard eyes who has already seen too much.
Near the table, I notice a battered, bulging green suitcase and a tattered, floral print comforter with tiny, yellow flowers. I wonder if this is the girl’s suitcase or some communal trunk where the park sitters pool meager belongings. The girl wads her wild mane into a ball and pulls the gray hoodie tight around her face. In one fateful glance, our eyes meet and lock. We watch each other from our respective tables.
I think of my own daughter, almost this same age, across town in her dorm room, readying for a college event that she and I will attend later this evening when I leave The Square and head to her cozy campus is a tony, San Antonio neighborhood. I think of my daughter’s reddish hair, her hazel eyes. I want to weep for this girl with these four men in the park, in the soon-to-be dark, scrounging for cigarettes and leftover French fries, pilfering the remains of other people’s lives. She is someone’s child. She is Someone’s Daughter.
I hurriedly gather my purse and newspapers, rushing to a nearby food kiosk. The proprietors are closing for the night, taking down the awnings outside the small, trailer-like building. I fling crumpled bills at the pimply teenager behind the counter, balancing two baskets of fries and bottles of water. I leave them at a table near The Invisible Ones. I leave the park, hurrying across The Square to my own hotel as dark creeps around me. Like others before me, and those yet to come, I turned and walked away.
I don’t turn. I can’t look back. But, I am hopeful Ruddy Buddy will send Mohawk Man to claim my meager offering. Long into this night, and on many nights to come, I am haunted by the faces of four men and a girl. A girl with red hair and green eyes. A girl who is, perhaps, 18, maybe 28. A pretty girl with hard eyes who has already seen too much.
She is someone’s child. She is Someone’s Daughter.