I was taking pictures of the large Paul Bunyan statue in Kenton, when I noticed a small, old man was standing next to me. I had no idea where he’d come from, and the sinking suspicion he’d been standing next to me for too long.
I’d been engrossed with the knobs and switches on my camera, trying for just the right exposure.
“Yep,'“ he said. “He sure is something.”
The man was small and blockish, patiently wringing a limp felt hat in his cement hands, grinding the tortured cap, over and over. I waited, thinking maybe he had more to add.
Finally, I said, “Mm-hm.” But he stayed there with me. I startled as he suddenly called up to Paul, “There you are! You old rascal!”
It was Thanksgiving day. There was no traffic. Not a car in sight, and nobody out walking. Just him and me.
“I just like the statue.” I said. He seemed to agree and was nodding eagerly.
If we’d enjoyed a moment there, mutually admiring our local Paul Bunyan, the moment passed and, again, he was just looking at me, waiting for me to continue. His eyes were deep, slate shadows beneath a shock of white brow, pinched in the middle, expectantly.
“But then,” I went on. “I also like that sign,” and pointed, over my shoulder, to the other side of the street, to the Dancin’ Bare and its huge, clumsy billboard.
I’ve always noticed that sign—and loved its inelegance—the word “bare,” and the mostly nude woman (Relaxing? Trying to nap?) wearing only stiletto heels. Maybe because of the club’s possibly misleading name—which implied a magical playhouse rolling with furry, playful teddy bears—they’d been thoughtful enough to pile-on illustrations of a teddy bear, as well as the actual word, “bear,” both crossed out with a bold ‘X.’
I found myself going on, “It’s just so tacky,” I said. “And obvious. How can you not love that sign?”
“I’m glad you noticed her,” he said, finally.
I said, “Yeah well…” I was uneager to discuss a strip club’s marquee with a crotchy old man. “I’ve passed it countless times. It’s a little hard not to—”
“They say,” he interrupted. “They were once lovers.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“The girl, of course.” He nudged again, to the Dancin’ Bare’s disproportionate nude. “Also,” the old man turned to Paul. “Big Paul here. They say Paul and her...” he demonstrated with his hands, wedging a gnarled stub finger into his other hand which he’d creaked into a stiff ‘ok’ sign.
I said, “Shit.”
“It’s true!” he implored. “And they were staying over there, in the Kenton Hotel, when her husband discovered them.”
He rocked back on his heels, satisfied, waiting for this to sink in.
Undeterred, the man unrolled his threadbare hat and draped it on his bare, liverspat pate.
“As the story goes, when the husband, who was a jealous Armenian, caught them together, he dragged her from their room and threw her up there. On that sign. And she’s there to this day. Trapped.”
He held onto the lapel of his dark brown velvet jacket, poised to continue, gathering his thoughts, or maybe, trying to remember the story forward. I noticed he was crying. Or, he was about to cry. Ruddy, and tearing up.
“Paul,” he rasped. He stopped and swallowed down, “Paul was heartbroken. I mean, you could imagine. So, he took up across the street and just stayed there, waiting for her to come back down from that sign.”
I looked over to Paul. He was patiently smiling, over to the sign, his axe planted with resolve.
“He looks okay to me,” I said.
“And there they stay,” the old man went on. “Like two ships…passing in the night. So close, but…”
I waited for him to go on, but nothing.
I asked, “So close, what?” I turned from Paul. But the small man was gone—disappeared. And I was alone in the intersection. It turns out, we hadn’t been alone. There was a couple, over at the MAX stop, waiting for the train. They were watching me, amused and whispering.
Casually, I put away my camera, and returned to my bicycle and, giving the intersection one last look for the old man, threw a leg over my bike and, under Paul’s watchful eye, pedaled away.