At 5 P.M. Pete Brogan’s clock radio woke him with news that thirty-seven people had just died on a commuter flight from Houston to Dallas as a military jet collided with an outgoing training plane over Love Field. Thirteen people, most of them women and children, were also killed in a car bomb explosion outside a prep school in Suffolk, England. Nineteen was the count in Afghanistan.
Peter sat up and switched off the radio. He dressed, then drank some orange juice from a paper cup as he started toward work on his walk through the park across the street from his apartment. As he approached Reid park’s lake, he felt the background sadness of his life emerge from behind him, as if from hiding. He even looked back, then sat on a bench and considered his lack of real friends. . . his job as custodian at a call center. He liked to work at the center when the ‘headset’ people were gone, perhaps to talk on cell phones like everyone who passed him on the street, off to some other life. But tonight would be different, he realized. Tonight the waste paper he emptied would feel like wasted days, and the scuffed floors that he buffed more like prison than refuge. He wasn’t sure why the radio report he’d heard had precipitated this, yet recently he had begun to wonder if there would ever be any good news again, and if the sirens would ever stop wailing or the suicide bombers would stop bombing. Don’t be like your father, son, his mother had said on the morning before she died of a brain aneurysm that unnaturally hot Saturday on December 31st, three winters before. Yet he’d never known his father, really. The man had come and gone like a phantom over the years, before dying of lung cancer. But from what he gathered, his dad had been a loner too. Of course there were a lot of loners in the world now, even in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And the irony of it was that the more people who entered the world, the more lonely it seemed.
Pete glanced at his watch. 5:31 stared at him, the decimal blinking like a heartbeat. When the CBS Evening newscast ended at 6, his shift would begin at the call center opposite the other side of the park. And he was about to stand when he saw the old man in the rose garden.
He’d seen the old geezer many times, he realized, but he’d never really noticed him before. . .never really looked at him. Until today. The old man was seventy at least, and wore a tattered gray raincoat. He just sat there in the middle of a circle of barren rose bushes fifty yards across, like a fixture there. Not smiling or moving. A fence surrounded the garden, and no one entered the gate in the winter because there was no reason to, with the roses gone. But the old man must have liked the solitude, being a loner too. So he just sat and stared out at the wilted vines, and the ducks on the lake beyond, using up what little time he had left.
That night at work, as he filled the paper towel dispensers in the center’s restrooms, he found it hard to forget the old man. Should he invade his private garden, maybe sit on the opposite bench under the center gazebo there? What would he say? Excuse me, but I’ve been wondering what you think about, sitting here all day.
All day? Now there was a thought. Maybe the old man really did spend all his time in the park, sitting there on that bench of his in the middle of all those desolate bushes. Maybe he was even there at night, so motionless and quiet the park’s maintenance crew didn’t notice him at 10 PM closing time. Could it be that this mysterious Mister X, whoever he was, had been on that bench at the same time each day for the past three years?
He tried to remember. . .tried to imagine other weeks, other months of walking around the lake and feeding the ducks. Nothing stood out, nothing was clear. The days seemed to blend together, no one day distinct from the others. But there was a feeling, though, like being watched. A perpetual subliminal trace, like background noise that magically disappears as one drifts slowly into sleep. The feeling did seem limited to winter, though. He couldn’t remember feeling the same in summer, when the blooms were radiant in the rose garden, and people came and went. Only in winter did the old man seem to fit there, somehow.
Probably a rich retiree whose wife died and left him half a million in insurance. Plus he’s got Social Security, and a pension. What have I got?
”Hey, Pete,” said Ben Abrams, the call center’s security guard, in the restroom. “You mind doing the windows in my office tonight? Hard to see my new car out there in the lot clearly.”
Pete nodded as Ben gave a little chuckle and pushed his way out. As the restroom door closer hissed home, he realized Ben hadn’t waited for a reply. And in the distraction he forgot all about the old man in the park until the following afternoon.
He was there as certainly as the sign at the entrance to the rose garden–PLEASE DON’T PICK THE ROSES. While Pete circled the lake the old man’s eyes seemed to follow him. He wore the same gray raincoat. And the same blank stare.
Pete waved once, in a quick sideways motion from waist level, but it got no reaction.
What if he’s a serial killer, he thought crazily. The ominous Mister X might be sitting there looking for victims like that guy in Seattle who sat outside a suburban school playground, patiently, until the day came when some little kid sat beside him. They’d never found that boy’s body. Pete remembered trashing that report, shredding it into long white strips and dropping them into his own plastic garbage bag.
A small three-wheeled maintenance car came puttering around the lake with a hose and a rake stuck in back, and two big plastic sacks filled with leaves. Pete motioned to the driver, who stopped and cut off the motor, apparently eager for a break.
”Yup?” the kid said, fishing out a pack of Marlboros.
”I was wondering…”
”Well, don’t look directly over there, but that guy over in the middle of the rose garden. Ya know anything about him?”
The kid rubbed his chin and, playing along, turned toward the rose garden to light up his cigarette.
”What old man?” he asked finally, his first drag still in his lungs.
Peter turned around. The old man was gone.
”Wass the game?” The kid restarted his cart and puttered away, glancing back with annoyance.
At 5 P.M. the next afternoon his clock radio was saying twenty-four people had been killed in Egypt when a terrorist blew himself up on a tour bus. Three high school students in Atlanta were killed with a ‘Saturday Night Special’ by a 17 year old hostage taker who’d been kicked off the football team due to failing grades. The report continued, spanning the globe in search of more bodies to count, until Peter managed to hit the cutoff.
They don’t get it, he realized. But I’ll bet that old man does.
He dressed quickly, skipping food, and crossed the street into the park. As he approached the rise overlooking the lake and adjacent rose garden he tried to decide what he would say to break the ice. What if the old man had some ghastly disease which he was unable to face–what then? What if he was just an emotionally paralyzed park bum? What should he say then?
He had to find out. It was curiosity pure and simple. And in any event, he had no solutions either. Maybe it was too late for that, anyway. Maybe the world was too big and too jaded, and the only question he could ask was: why do you only come here in the winter, old man, when all the roses are dead or dying?
He stood atop the hill overlooking the rose garden, with the band stand behind him, and looked down. Yes, there he was, and on the same bench. On the same side of the same bench. Alone.
The old man’s head turned slowly up.
He sees me, Pete thought. He’s been waiting for me.
Motionless, hands folded on his lap, the old man stared in his direction now. Peter started toward him, his steps purposeful, determined. When suddenly the old man stood.
He knows I’m coming. . .knows what I want to ask.
At the gate to the rose garden he stopped, realizing he’d never been inside before. The empty rose bushes circling the gazebo at the center had tiny name plaques in front of each cluster. One read ECSTASY, another STARDUST. Beyond the groupings of budless clusters was the circling chain link fence, six feet high.
Got you trapped now, old man. No way out this time.
He started up the path. The old man turned toward him, something in his hand now. Something gray, half hidden at his side. A gun?
Pete froze. Something gray like the raincoat, still partially hidden by his hand. He’s got something for me, he realized. Something he’s been meaning to give me for a long time.
Now the old man lifted his hand and smiled. Or tried to. There were no teeth in his mouth. No teeth in that scar of a mouth that—
A shot rang out, like an explosion.
Pete recoiled, then glanced down, feeling his chest. Finally he looked behind him. An old Buick, cruising the parking lot, had just backfired. He sighed in relief, and turned back.
A solitary sheet of gray paper drifted to the ground where the old man had stood. It settled in the returning silence on a gust of wind. But the man himself was gone. Vanished.
Pete sat heavily on a bench under the gazebo, staring down at that rectangular square of gray on the ground. It was folded once, but the fold was close–the halves of paper clung together, lying there on concrete.
His heart thundered in his temples at the impossibility of it. He closed his eyes, praying that when he opened them again the gray paper would have likewise disappeared.
What if it was me? he thought crazily, his eyes still shut, afraid to see. If I was the old man, and I’ve just written myself a letter of warning from the future?
He sat back on the bench and finally opened his eyes to take in the lake beyond. The ducks drifted lazily on the silver surface tension in the approaching January twilight. A jet flew overhead on its way back to Davis/Monthan Air Force base. . .a jet no doubt piloted by two young people who were trained to protect one’s right to sit in this park and watch people drinking beer, walking dogs, and planning families. And would they someday sit here too, at seventy-five, and look up at other young people flying jets? Would they see the way the light and shadows play through the trees, and begin to see other things as well? Or in protecting the park in the name of Freedom, would they not want someone to sit here and have these thoughts?
His inexplicable sadness returned, in a fresh wave. He shivered as a breeze rolled past him. Then he heard a rustling, but still he didn’t look.
Was he waiting for me? Or was I waiting?
He tried to imagine what it would be like for time to slip away so easily, like an acceleration, and maybe his perception of it faulty somehow too.
Seventy. That would be a big one, maybe the last one. At fifty it wouldn’t be too bad. Or at sixty, even. You could still remember thirty like it was yesterday. No matter, it wouldn’t seem fair that this was the one life you had, and it’s going so quickly. You’d wonder if young people understood how it goes. In the park at five o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday, with no one there, everyone out on I-10 going home from work, you’d be looking up at this big Spanish palm tree, with little birds in it, and thinking how little anyone sees of reality. How you couldn’t have a real life anymore because everyone around you just went through the motions. How it was all phony now, programmed like television. How you couldn’t just sit and look up at a tree and know the great Secret. You’d notice the lovers in the park circling the pond, instead, their steps in sequence, their heads bowed slightly as if praying. They’d move slowly as if blind, and always stop at some point and look out at the ducks. The ducks would swim toward them, quacking eagerly, expecting bread, but the lovers who didn’t have bread would keep walking before the ducks got to them. As for the kids in the park, they would stay at the playground in their own private fantasy world, happily oblivious in a different way. Joggers would be rarer, but they would usually come in pairs and seem oblivious to anything except mentally ticking off the miles to their own imagined future. And although some might come to fish every day, you’d never see them actually catch a fish. You’d understand them, but you’d be too old to believe even that myth.
That’s how it would be, he imagined.
The light began to change now. Shadows grew longer until only the tops of the distant pines caught the dying sun. Somewhere a newscast was concluding, and there would be no one to clear away all the waste paper at the call center where calls came in during the day shift from people all over the U.S. with defective cell phones or dead batteries.
Peter looked down, almost casually, at his feet. The gray paper was there, gently nuzzling the outside of his left shoe. One corner of it was bent so he could see writing inside. He leaned forward and reached down. The paper felt brittle, ancient, like the pages of a Gutenberg Bible must have felt. He lifted it and opened it carefully. It lay in his hands now, but still he couldn’t read it. His heart had long subsided its pounding, but the thought persisted: what if it was me? What if I was the old man? Would it come to that?
Finally he looked down, and focused.
I thought life was meant for other people. I thought only of the bad things, so that’s all I ever saw. I sought out the lonely places, even at the end, and I wanted you to know that I was wrong. Don’t make my mistake, son, for you don’t belong here in winter. Not you. Your grandfather, a year before he died, once wrote me a postcard. It was the only thing he ever wrote me in the ten years after he left my mother for alcohol. It said: >This is where I spend most of my time, now. Hope you’re having a nice Christmas. –Daddy.< The postcard was of some park in Connecticut, with trees whose leaves had long fallen, just like your park. I wondered what my father saw there in his park before he died, and if I’d get to see it too. Well, I have, son. I have. And I can tell you. . .
There’s nothing there.
Peter stared at the note for a long time with an oddly familiar surprise, as though he’d written the note himself, but couldn’t remember when. Then folded it slowly and put it in his pocket. The sadness had seemed overwhelming, but as he stood it began to lift. You don’t belong here in winter. He walked toward the gate of the rose garden, and paused near the entrance to see that on this side the sign above him now read:
THANKS FOR NOT PICKING THE ROSES.
He looked down at the cluster of barren rose bushes at his feet. The cluster bore a tiny plaque: NEW BEGINNINGS. He reached into his pocket for the note, but it was only ashes now.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
He felt a tentative smile form on his face. Happy New Year. Hadn’t that been the message–that death returned to life? He stretched out his hand and sprinkled the dust over the cold vines, and with vows to return in the Spring, walked resolutely toward the call center and its waiting piles of waste paper.