New Beginnings

Tucson sunsetAt 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…”
    ”Yeah?”
    ”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 YearHadn’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.

 

How Do You Change Your LIFE?

New Age FictionUpon getting Val’s call, Faye White professed to expecting it. Of course Faye usually pretended such things. As another former classmate, this privileged blond supermom was once known for her unbidden prognostications and spontaneous predictions. Born rich and beautiful, she’d often seemed to be burdened with the responsibility or hubris to dispense advice among the less fortunate, too. Yet she attempted to detract from her physical beauty and wealth by projecting eccentricity instead of foppish apology. Her one saving grace.   
    “Are you okay?” Faye now asked, leaning over a Caesar salad in order to scrutinize her. “You look kinda lost.”
    Hit the nail on the head, why don’t you.
    Val smiled in grim determination, suspecting Faye did not ask just to be polite.  Nor was she waiting for the invitation to chronicle her own exploits—an exercise that might obviously validate the esteem to which she felt genetically entitled. Looking into those azure eyes beneath blond bangs that highlighted a short, stylish cut, Val knew that Faye’s superiority was a given, even if Faye herself felt embarrassed by it. It was why men did not approach her in bars, with or without a ring in view. It was also why calling her for lunch prompted acceptance without hesitation. Perfection was intimidating to both sexes.   
    “I do feel stuck,” Val confessed, seizing on any chance at resolution. “What do you do when you’re on this treadmill, and you can’t find the off button?”
    “Jump off,” Faye suggested.  
    Val snapped her fingers.  “Just like that, you mean?”
    “Sure.  What are you afraid of?”
    Val ruminated while gulping at her margarita.  “Everything,” she said, at last.
    “Well, that’s pretty inclusive. Do you at least get the continental breakfast?”
    “If I do, it’s so tasteless I don’t notice.”
    Faye took a sip from the wine glass that held club soda and a floating lime wedge. “You’re kidding me, right?  You’ve got a great job, a great guy, and–”
    Val shook her head emphatically from side to side. “Not a great job, and no great guy, either, as it turns out.”
    Her companion’s askance stare now held bewilderment. “What’s happened?”
    “He’s cheated, is what. He’s a cheat. He’s also cheap. As for the job, it’s more about hype than anything else. Cheating in other ways. Not unlike lying or acting. All for the sake of ratings numbers.”
    Faye grimaced at the news, then touched Val’s forearm for a moment, the soft brush of her fingers like a consoling caress across the paw of a Basset hound winning honorable mention. “Val,” Faye said, careful not to let her tone stray into condescension, “I’m sorry to hear you’re unhappy.”
    “Is that what I am?  Maybe so.  But I think it goes deeper than that.”
    “It does?  How so?”
    “I’m not sure I can tell you,” Val replied, finishing her drink.
    “Sure you can. You can tell me anything.”
    “No, I mean I’m not sure I can tell you, because I’m not sure myself.”  She paused, trying to frame the unframable. “Okay then, have you ever stopped to wonder if what you’ve done so far with your life has been scripted by someone else?  That you never wrote your own script before because you didn’t know you could?”  
    “Huh?”
    “I mean, it’s like other people expected me to take this path, and so all I really know is the rhythm of walking where they’ve all pointed.  I’m on this route, see, always looking ahead, trying to see around corners, hoping to find whatever it is.  And then, when I suddenly realize I’m on the wrong path, I see that the path I should be on is going in the opposite direction!  I stop and look behind me, and there’s this beautiful sunset I never saw before, illuminating the clouds overhead, and I’d never seen any of it until that moment. Until the instant I realized that life isn’t about the future. That the future doesn’t even exist, except maybe in my mind. And it never will.”
    “Wow,” said Faye, smiling nervously.  “There’s a concept.”
    “Think about it.  Or not.  Just tell me how irrational I sound to you.  Before I drown in booze, that is.”
    Faye cocked her head, leaning back. She was obviously analyzing something, although it failed to furrow her forever youthful brow. Val had begun to wonder if the folds of Faye’s brain had absorbed all of her body’s wrinkles when she finally said, “Who have you been talking to, anyway?  Because this doesn’t sound like you.”
    “Maybe I didn’t sound like me before, and I just didn’t know it.”
    “Valerie Lott, the philosopher?”  Faye sounded dubious.
    “All I know is I need something I never knew existed.  Like there’s this space inside of me needs filling, and I didn’t know the space was even there.”
    Now Faye wagged a finger at her.  “You fell for some geek, didn’t you?  Some poet who drives a VW bug and wears sandals and has a pony tail and a tight butt!”
    “Let’s just say I met someone who opened my eyes to another way of looking at things, and leave it at that, shall we?”
    Faye’s blue eyes widened. “Ohmygod. Where did you meet this guy?”
    “A place I never expected.”
    “Really?  When?”
    “Now.”
    “Now?
    “You might say that. It’s always now with this guy.”
    “And you make love like there’s no tomorrow, I hope?”
    “No, we never even kissed.  And now he’s. . . gone.”
    “Ouch.”  Faye frowned on cue.  “You’re not in love, are you?”
    “I don’t know what I am, anymore. Considering you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. And you have to know yourself before you can love yourself.”
    “Huh?”  Faye puzzled it over.  “Gees, honey, you sure got somethin’.  Don’t know what it is, but I hope it’s not contagious.”
    Val considered telling her more, but then decided against it. Especially if it included reconsidering the preposterous notion that such a wise and gentle soul might be suspect in a major crime. She pondered telling her about Sarah Collins, next, but that too would be as foreign to Faye’s world as the gas giant Neptune.  She picked up a celery stick, dipped it in some ranch dressing, and chewed on that for a while, instead.  Then she asked, “How’s Mark and the kids, by the way?”
    “Good,” Faye said, noncommittally.
    “No,” Val insisted, “you can tell me. I want to hear it. Really. Has anything changed with you since we met last? And how long has it been, again, since we last talked?”
    “Three and a half months,” Faye said. “Over four, actually, since we last met with Joyce and Diane for Happy Hour.”
    Val cleared her throat. “Okay, how’s your family been doing lately, then?”
    “Good,” Faye repeated. She paused, then added, “Mark got a award from the American Society of Architectural Engineering, and we’re going on a cruise to Greece and Italy to celebrate.”
    “Wonderful.”
    “Jessica made the dean’s list at Summerville, so we’re taking her, too.”
    Val nodded, offering a closed half smile of approval.  “Nice. That’s a nice minivan I saw you pull up in, too. Is it new?”
    “No, I’ve had it for a few months.”
    “Lexus?”
    “Actually, it’s a Porsche. They’re still making minivans.”
    “Sold your house in Quail Creek yet?”
    “Yes. Mark’s building the A-frame for us up on Mount Lemmon. It’ll be great, you can come to the housewarming, if you like.”
    “You’re going to live in a cabin in the woods?”
    Faye chuckled.  “Not a cabin, silly. It’ll have five bedrooms and three baths.  Ponderosa pine finished with teak. Four thousand square feet, if you count the great room.”
    “Great.”
    “There’s a jacuzzi that seats twelve, and a huge flagstone fireplace, and this—”
    “Okay, okay,” Val said, holding up one hand like a traffic sign, “you can stop now.”
    “Thanks.” Faye fished in her Prada bag for a Kleenex, and used it to pick a shred of soggy lettuce from her blouse. “Getting back to your mystery man, what does he do for a living?”
    Val glanced around the restaurant at some of the other diners, then smiled to herself when the appropriate answer came, perfect in its simplicity. “He lives.”
    “He. . . lives?”
    “Yeah, he does, actually. Unlike us.”
    “Come again?”
    She looked back, only to meet Faye’s puzzled expression. “Tell me, have you ever seen men watch a football game, or stand around each other as they tee off on the golf course?  Men with pot bellies, losing their hair?  They still act like kids, competitive as ever, right?  And what do they talk about?  Have you actually listened?”
    “Of course. And your point?”
    “I’m not sure.  I just know the conversation I had with this man wasn’t anything like that.”
    “Men always talk to women differently, silly. They say what they think we want to hear.”
    “True, but this guy didn’t say what I wanted to hear. And somehow, just sitting here right now, I know he wouldn’t talk any differently to anyone else.”
    “Well, how do you know that?”
    Val looked over at three men several tables away. The tall one facing them stared back. She caught a few words from the man speaking, whose back was to them. Something about a rookie player being traded to Seattle.  She said, “I just know, okay?” She looked back at Faye. “Drive to Kitt Peak with me, will you?”
    “Where, did you say?”
    “The observatory.  The mountain with all the telescopes.  I’d like to show you something.”
    “And what on earth would that be?”
    “Who I could have been. Who I am. The person no one knows.”  She paused, getting a look from Faye more suited for an orangutan in the zoo, as though Faye had made a mistake about her identity as well.  “I don’t mean to sound cryptic,” Val clarified, “it’s just that I’ve been in this. . . state.  It’s why I’m taking the day off. To regroup. I was hoping you could diagnose me, quick. Give me just a handle on what I need. What’s missing. A way back, or forward. Read some tea leaves.”
    Faye patted her hand. “You’re just under stress, honey. We should go shopping together this weekend, what do you say?  There’s a sale at Neiman Marcus.”
    “I fairly sure I can’t buy my way out of this, Faye.”
    “Why not?  Works for me.”
    “Does it?  I mean really?”
    “Well, sure.”  Faye smiled brightly as proof.  “Absolutely.”
    “But it’s just temporary.”
    “Everything is temporary, when you come down to it.”
    “Yes, but it’s not real.  It’s not enough.  I need more.”
    “Chocolate’s a good substitute,” Faye next suggested, with a subtle wink.
    Val sighed.  “I really don’t want chocolate or ice cream or new clothes or even diamonds!  I want to be able to enjoy life.  To accept what I have and don’t have.  I want to be at peace inside, without reservations.  To be happy, in spite of it all.”  She paused, wondering how that had sounded.  “Are you happy, Faye?”
    “Well,” Faye deliberated, “I guess I. . .”
    “That’s a yes or a no.”
    Her eyes narrowed slightly, suspecting a trick.  “You come right out with it, don’t you?”
    “Yup.  Answer the question.”
    “Actually, I was just going to say that there’s degrees of happiness.”
    “Even for you, Faye? With everything you have?”
    “For anybody, sure.”
    “But you’re rich.  You’ve got a great home, a family, and you look like dynamite.  You could have any job you wanted, with your looks.  If you ever wanted a job, that is.  Or any man, if you lost the great one you’ve got.  You have good memories too, I imagine?  High hopes?”
    “I guess so.”
    “Great.  Now you just guess so? You’re not sure anymore? Okay. Are there frustrations playing over and over in your head, too, so you have to play loud tunes to drown them out?”
    Faye shrugged.  “I do like music.  So what?”
    “What about silence?  What about being alone in the dark, in the silence?”
    “I try to avoid that.”
    “Whatever for, Faye?  If you’re truly happy and at peace, you shouldn’t need to be doing things all the time.  You wouldn’t need a new car or a new house or even a new wardrobe, either.  No more than a drunk needs a bar stool.”
    “There’s nothing wrong with the good life, Val.”
    “True, but is it really life?  And is it so good, if you’re not even aware of what’s around you?  For instance, do you notice little things, like that vase of flowers by the door where we walked in?  Did you see the sadness in the eyes of our waitress?”
    “What do you mean?  She was smiling.”
    “She has to smile, Faye.”
    Faye looked down at her unfinished meal. One eyebrow twitched. She appeared uncomfortable and then confused, but said nothing.
    Realizing with some irony that she’d taken on David’s role as instructor, Val signaled their waitress, and then ordered another margarita. Still, she couldn’t resist asking more questions. “Do you drive fast, too, trying to get around people in front of you?  Or when you wait in line, does it really bother you, Faye?”
    Faye looked at her oddly, as though embarrassed for her.  “What are you saying–that I’m as miserable as you seem to be?”
    “You tell me.”  
    “Well, I’m not, if that’s okay.”
    Val nodded in confirmation, then decided to step back across the line she’d crossed.  “Look, I’m sorry,” she said, backpedalling too late.  “I’m just tired. Maybe I’m contagious, too.  Anyway, you did say I could ask you anything.”
    “Tell me anything,” Faye corrected.
    “Right.  Sorry.  Anyway, don’t mind me.” You’re the well adjusted one here, now.
    Faye’s gaze dropped again to her purse. Then she withdrew a $50 bill, and slipped it stealthily next to her plate.  A long moment of silence followed.
    “So you forgive my third degree?” Val almost pleaded when Faye suddenly scooted her chair back.
    A tense pause, then a half smile.  “Sure.  Forget about it.”
    Val sighed, heavily.  “Thanks, but I wish I could.  Wish I could forget about lots of things, actually.  Ignorance is bliss, or so they say. Whoever they are.”  She tried a laugh that she felt certain sounded hollow to such a privileged and insulated being, poised but unprepared for her late ramblings.  “Life is just too complicated,” she tried to explain.  “I need to simplify.  It’s what the man I met did, somehow.  What’s his secret?  Even if I knew, unfortunately I’d have to do something about it.  And that’s not something you can learn in those self help books at the mall about how to manage your life.”
    Faye glanced conspicuously at her watch, saying nothing.
    “Didn’t mean to go spiritual on you all of a sudden, either.  Maybe my death gene has finally kicked in.  Got me thinking nature doesn’t care about individuals, just survival of the species stuff.  Like once I make babies, I’ll start a quick slide down, and it’s up to me to find my own faith or purpose or meaning.  Whatever that is.”
    “Ummm,” said Faye.  “I hear you.”  
    She wondered if that was true, because Faye rose as Val’s refill came.  Even when she smiled, it was a little sadly.  “Call me if you change your mind about the weekend,” Faye offered, half heartedly, as a parting remark.
    “Will do.”  Val lifted her glass, smiling herself by force of habit.  “My best to Mark.”
    Every man in the restaurant watched Faye walk out, then, but Faye herself didn’t seem to notice.  Tipsy, Val lifted her glass to them all, but they didn’t notice that either.  When Faye’s Porsche SUV finally pulled away outside, then picked up speed, Val wondered if she’d ever see her again, and if so, whether enough time would have passed for the inevitable wrinkles to be evident on her perfect, mannequin face.

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On Kindle and Nook and iTunes.  Also an audiobook.  Opening chapters HERE.

 

The Ice Cream Man

The Ice Cream Man

(for Ray Bradbury)

The houses stood like antennaed armadillos, dead in the heat.  The dark garages slumbered with graveyard relics of picnic hampers, damp with mold.  There, tangled fishing rods lay beside wicker baskets, lids open, empty, collecting dust.  There, the past lay buried, and all but forgotten.
       Then, round a corner of endless suburban road, black with new tar, came the ice cream truck, its familiar jingle tracing the tranquil air around it from its giant vanilla-white four-funneled loudspeaker.  It was the color of cool waxen oranges and chocolate ice cream bars under the blazing summer sun, and moved deliberately along the lonesome, childless street, passing the neglected bats and roller skates to roll over the now covered and invisible hopscotch lines.  Inside the truck’s shadowed cab, the driver’s callused hands turned the chrome-capped wheels right and left, habitually evading bumps that had once been in the road.  When he heard a screen door flap and saw three kids appear under the shade of a cool, green veranda, he touched the brake, and leaned his head out.  “Hey!”
       And Kelly and Andy and Mary came running across sun-scorched grass to stand on the edge of the lawn, where they watched Mr. Andrews climb out of his cool-breathing ice cream truck to circle and open the shiny silver door in back, out of which all of Antarctica breathed.  The old man’s arm thrust briefly into the polar recess, and as the thick door swung quickly shut, withdrew amid a puff of frosty vapor clutching two smoky lime Popsicles and an ice cream sandwich.  He passed out the delicacies, giving Kelly the ice cream sandwich.
       “You always were my friends, kids, so these are on me today, free of charge.”  Watching the youthful trio quickly unwrapping their already dripping treats, he added gravely:  “Enjoy’em, now, ’cause this is my last round.  Retiring, I am.”
       Kelly’s teeth stopped halfway into the chocolate coating, and left an impression.  Her mouth dropped open, and she stared as if for the first time at Mr. Andrews and at the cool orange lettering behind him, which read proudly: ICE CREAM!  “Why,” said the little face framed with blond curls, amazed, “you just can’t do that, Mr. Andrews.  We won’t let you.”
       “I wish I didn’t have to,” the old man replied, hesitantly.
       “But why?” said Mary.
       “Why?”  Mr. Andrews touched his wrinkled cheek.  “I could show you…but you have to ask your mom.”
.    
Mrs. Peters waved from the front porch.  “Bring’em right back, Mr. Andrews,” she called.
    They climbed into the cab as Mr. Andrews held the door, and they licked at their dripping refreshments all the while the singing truck swam up the river of heat, like a giant metal salmon, past the sun-drenched lawns.
       “You don’t really mean it…do you?” laughed Kelly, not seeing where the old man kept his fingers on the wheel, his face attentive as they approached Timmons Park, with its child-empty baseball diamond and rickety, paint-blistered bleachers.
       “I know we go to the drugstore sometimes,” conceded Andy. “And I know we buy those fancy gourmet ice creams out of the grocery store freezer sometimes too, but it ain’t the same.  You KNOW that, don’t you?”
       Mr. Andrews stopped the ice cream truck to the side of the road and in reply pointed at the playing field where the grass was steadily filling in the bald spots, and he flipped a switch and turned a key, and the music around them died and the engine subsided.  “Do I?” he said sadly. “Look….”
       They looked where he’d pointed, and in the fiery air there was not a sound except the faint sweep of traffic along a distant superhighway, and the flapping of a solitary pigeon across the windless sky.
       “No one,” said Mr. Andrews tonelessly.  “Once whole families came here, not just the occasional company team.  Family and friends laughed, played together.  They shared something, then.  They had a real life to live because they took the time to make it real.  But now?  Now, on a day like this, there is no one.  Now mostly it’s only the cold light of television touches their faces, but it never really touches THEM, kids, it never does.”
       Andy made his own face sad.  “You’re…going broke, is that it, Mr. Andrews?”  
       “I guess you could say that,” Mr. Andrews reflected, opening the door.  “I guess we all are.”
       “Where are you going?” said Mary, seeing him get out.
       “To sit on the bleachers one last time,” Mr. Andrews replied.
       And so they sat on the ancient, buckling park bleachers behind the baseball diamond in the torrid afternoon, nibbling at ribbons of chocolate and licking at the cool whiteness of Eskimo pies as Mr. Andrews told them how it had been there when he was young: the shirt-sleeved men munching at ripe red watermelon slices, the ladies in their flowered dresses chatting about recipes under the shade of posted silk umbrellas, the Saturday afternoon baseball games that began with a prayer of thanksgiving and a pledge of allegiance to the Stars and Stripes hoisted aloft by veterans of WW II, the children wading in the creek with rolled up buck-fifty blue jeans, poking sticks at crayfish and flinging water on each other.  And of course there was the binging of a bell as a horse-drawn wagon arrived with homemade ice cream, while the dragonflies hovered in purple glints out over the field.
       There was the field now, threatened by weeds, an abandoned theater of ghosts.
       As they listened to Mr. Andrews’ voice droning peacefully on in the stillness of the afternoon Kelly had visions of swimming holes and tranquil lakes, the long oars dipping down to vanish under cool, shadowed liquid green.  Of gobbled cotton candy at fairs, and high-vaulting Ferris wheels.  Of horse-hooves beating a wood-winding path before late stories told around campfires.  Things that seemed almost like an old movie.  And all the time the ice cream truck waited for them, the reality of it here, now, all cool white and orange and brown enamel, its glistening silver door reflecting sunlight into Kelly’s eyes so she moved in her seat.
       “Well, I guess that’s that.”  The old man stood on the long, warped bleacher plank, and, putting one foot out, stepped carefully down to earth.  Then they walked toward it, it’s chocolate scent on their hands, and as they squeezed inside again the ice cream truck was silent, quiet as a hearse, and Mr. Andrews didn’t bother to turn on the loudspeaker.
       They sailed solemnly back down the long, boiling graveyard streets, past rows of brick homes with barren, wilting yards.
       “You just can’t do it,” said Mary as Mr. Andrews stopped to let them out.  She ran her hand along the dark brown images of Eskimo pies, and the handsome lettering, painted lovingly within a citrus-colored border.  
    Mr. Andrews avoided their eyes as the ice cream truck coughed, idling.
       “Mary’s right,” said Andy.  “We won’t let you.”
       “It’s not the same,” said Mr. Andrews, shaking his head.  “Things have changed.  The kids out now are forming street gangs, disfiguring the neighborhoods.  You wouldn’t understand.”
       “I understand,” said Kelly, carefully, “that you’re still our friend.  Even mom trusts you.”
       A smile, something of hope, came and went in the old man’s wrinkled face.  Then a gear ground into place, and the ice cream truck began to drift from the curb.
       “We’ll be waiting,” Kelly said.  “Tomorrow we’ll be waiting.”
       “Will you?” said Mr. Andrews.  “Tomorrow?”
.
When he was gone, Andy yelled.  “Come on!  We can trim hedges and lug bottles from gutters and with the money we can keep Mr. Andrews in business!  We’ll tell every kid on our block, and the next, and then Mr. Andrews can come back all the rest of the summer, and he won’t have to retire!  THINK about it!”
       And Kelly thought as if for the first time of how it might be that next day toward noon under a blazing sky, with a simple melody that swelled nearer and nearer as the captured glacier approached, beckoning with all of winter’s relief in the oven of summer:
    The enchanted sound that stayed with you somehow, though deeply buried.
       The tune that surfaced again and again amid the tidepool flotsam of dreams.
       The calliope music of Mr. Andrews’ ice cream truck.
       For if she closed her eyes she knew she would see the prison doors beginning to open, with the young prisoners begging change from smiling mothers in order to save what was left of summers past–when parents weren’t so afraid of every passing car.  She would see the things that must had made Mr. Andrews smile in his sleep, a memory of days fast faded.  She would see Mr. Andrews too, like a pied piper, reaching into his magical Siberian blizzard to pull forth miracles for parched throats.  And then?  Then she could imagine the warped Frisbees that would be fished free of gutters to be thrown across backyard greens to grinning kids…the dusty picnic hampers that would be pulled from attics and garages to be filled with fried chicken and potato salad for an afternoon of fellowship in the park….
       “Wait a minute–how about a baseball game?” shouted Andy, suddenly.  “Like Mr. Andrews had, with everybody there.  Kelly–what do you think?”
       “Kelly?” said Mary. “…What are you doing?”
        “Imagining it,” Kelly replied, closing her eyes.  “Just. . .imagining it.”   
            -0-

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©1994 by Jonathan Lowe

Ray Bradbury Poem

Poem sent to me in 1995 by Ray Bradbury

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