I used to hang with Devious Dave and Stupid Stanley. I was Mischievous Mark back in those days, which was the least obnoxious of the names. Others came and went, but the three of us had been hanging together since we were ten. We were going to graduate from high school in a few weeks and that would be the end of it, I realized. It was a strange feeling. I didn't like the idea of change.
And maybe the other two were getting more desperate, realizing the same thing. Stupid Stanley, who had always set our daily goals, was getting squirrelly. I had heard is father said he was going to start work at the car dealership that summer or he was going to join the military. Or he could go out on his own. I don't think Stanley was that stupid.
I was going away to college. Dave was going to tech school. Stanley could have done either if he'd put his mind to anything but stupid stuff. I realized it even before that last day.
Stanley had laid his hands on one of those really hot chili peppers. He thought it would be fun to go down where the homeless hung out (as he put it) and see if he could get one of them to eat it for a few bucks. See, that was part of the problem. Stanley always had money so he never had to think about it. Dave and I were so used to following him and his money that we never thought much about what we were doing. We'd go have burgers afterward, that was all that mattered. Hey, we were teen boys. Free food.
But that day....
"Her," Stanley said, waving the plastic bag and chili toward an old woman sitting on a bench. Gray was the first word I thought. Gray everywhere. "Yeah, her. What an old hag. This'll liven her up!"
Of course, we were close enough for her to hear. We'd given up trying to stop Stupid Stanley from being rude a long time ago. Devious Dave laughed and I followed out of habit. We went closer and the old woman looked up.
Gray eyes as gray as the rest of her, except her face which was pale white. Maybe she wasn't so old. I was glad that she'd focused on Stanley and not me. It was still early, with sunset an hour away. I wouldn't have wanted to walk up to her in the dead of night.
"Hey, woman," Stanley said, sounding as rude as he could. "I'll give you ten dollars to eat this."
He held out the plastic bag and the chili and grinned. He loved wrangling the money part and he'd gotten a lot of people -- mostly at school -- to do stupid things for less.
The look of contempt she gave him was strong enough that I backed up a step, fearing she'd look that way at me. She sat up straighter. "Why do you want to pay others to watch their pain?" she demanded.
"I -- I -- uh --" Stanley had never done well with unexpected confrontations. Then he straightened and sneered at her. "Come on, old lady. You know you want the money."
"You think this is fun?" she asked. She stood and all three of us backed up in haste, though she wasn't very tall or threatening. "You call me an old woman. Would you offer this deal to your grandmother?"
"No!" Stanley all but shouted, annoyed and appalled at the idea.
"Not your own grandmother, but it is all right for someone else's grandmother."
"I -- I -- uh --"
"I think we should go," I said. I rarely spoke out when Stanley was in the midst of his 'work' but this had the feel of something we needed to walk away from before he did something stupid. Really stupid. I could see the rage starting to grow in his face. "Stanley --"
"Shut up," he snarled. "I'll find someone else. Someone who wants some money --"
"Some other grandmother or grandfather?" the woman asked. "Someone else's mother or child? What makes that right?"
"It ain't about right and wrong! This is just fun --"
"Fun for you to watch someone else in pain or humiliation. You are not so far from the streets, boy. Someday you might be the one on the bench."
Stanley snarled and stepped back. I don't think he understood what she was saying, but I did. I looked around, wondering where the people in the park came from because they had to be locals, right? They couldn't have wandered far to get here.
The three of us had lived in a little shell, but it was a fragile covering and we were about to go out into the world. I could be the one on the bench next time.
She looked at me, those unnatural gray eyes bright and her face wise. "You cannot fix everything, but you don't have to make it worse."
"I'm going home," Stupid Stanley said.
We didn't argue. Just waved goodbye and we each went our own way. I looked back to see the lady sit on the bench again. She looked as though she waited for someone.
That was the last night the three of us went out looking for fun. We grew up that night. A few weeks later I went off to the university with a vague idea that I might, really, do something that could help the world. Dave learned auto mechanics and went to work for Stanley's dad and did really well there. Stanley sold cars. He did pretty well at that, too, since he loved making deals. I don't know if either of them learned anything or not from that night, but every time I come home, I look for the woman with the gray eyes. I think there is more she can still teach me.