Inside Looking Out: A walk in the park
He’s Mr. Somebody.
He’s past 70 years old and he’s taking his daily walk in the park.
He navigates the same trail the same way everyday with his eyes pointed downward as if he’s calculating his next forward step before he takes it.
He hears the crunch of the gravel beneath his feet and that’s the signal for his mind to look down upon his walk of life.
Suddenly he glances upward. A jagged gray cloud cuts through the morning blue sky bringing him to that damn field again.
He’s in Vietnam, a hellish place he can never leave. He takes a long drag on a cigarette just seconds before the jungle guns blast into the midline of his infantry patrol. He sees Weston’s face riddled with bullets with blood streaming down his chin and what once were his bright blue eyes are now empty black holes. Weston slumps to the ground. His body trembles once, then twice before becoming deadly still.
Mr. Somebody’s vivid memory of the smell of smoke from the barrage of gunfire still burns inside his lungs. He lets out a quick cough at the quarter mile point of the park trail. A bony hand grabs his brain back into the jungle. From his belly, he opens fire at the unseen enemy, shooting at nothing but the brown leaves drooped by the morning’s thick humidity.
They lift Weston’s lifeless body aboard the rescue copter, and Mr. Somebody tells himself that’s be the last time he’d ever see his friend again.
Everyday that he walks the park trail, he sees Weston’s face when the recording in his brain hits rewind.
He lowers his eyes onto the trail as he continues his walk and just like that, the memory is gone.
He hears footsteps approaching. His eyes catch a glimpse of a young pretty blond woman who’s jogging the trail. She smiles at him as she passes by and he lifts his hand to acknowledge her before he walks along and bows his head into another familiar scene.
“Go ask her for a date, you chicken,” said Bruce.
“She’s the most popular girl in the school. She won’t go out with me. She only knows about me from English class.”
“Do it,” pleaded Bruce. “So she shoots you down like she’s done to a 100 other guys, but you never know, she just might say yes.”
She said yes. Three years after that she said yes at the altar. She said yes again when he asked her if she was pregnant and 53 joyful years later, she said yes once more when he asked if her cancer was terminal.
Mr. Somebody brushes away a tear as he approaches the playground that sits off the trail by the soccer field. The sound of children laughing reminds him of a time when his son and daughter stood barely above his knees.
“Daddy, throw me the ball!” shouts Kevin
“Throw it to me first, Daddy,” shouts Kristin.
Kevin played baseball at Lehigh University before his electrical engineering degree landed him a career in California. Kristin played high school basketball before majoring in environmental science at Penn State. She called last night from North Carolina and he listened to his grandkids yack for 20 minutes on speakerphone about their summer vacation.
Mr. Somebody takes a turn at the park’s Serenity Gardens and looks into the wooded area at the pergola built there last month by students from the town’s vocational school. He breaks his daily routine to sit on the bench inside the beautiful structure. He breathes in the cool breeze above the shadows cast by the circle of oak trees.
He wonders about the number of his days he has left to walk the park. Arthritis is crippling every joint in his body and his greatest fear now is he will awaken one morning and won’t be able to get out of bed.
His son and daughter tell him he can’t live the rest of his life trapped inside memories; he should start a hobby or join the senior center.
He looks up at the sun peeking between the leaves of a grand old oak and he thinks of words from a song he remembers from long ago.
They say you have to forget the past.
And leave it at the bottom of a whiskey glass.
He’ll pour another Jack and ginger tonight and upon his last sip at the bottom of the glass, he’ll stare into a vein inside an ice cube and feel his body melting away into liquid.
But his mind has frozen his past into the present. He holds onto the stories of his life with a cold fist, never letting them fly away and disappear with the wayward wind.
He’s a few yards from the end of the park trail now. He summons a burst of energy into his tired legs and like a champion race horse that kicks in another gear when it senses the finish line, he quick steps through an imaginary victory tape strung across the parking lot.
Mr. Somebody has won the race. He hears the applause from a crowd that’s not there.
He’s just another guy whose face is familiar to an observing some; his name is known to nearly none.
Tomorrow, he’ll walk by a Mrs. Somebody.
For the very first time, she will walk onto the park trail. She will look down at the gravel beneath her feet and take one step forward to go back into the stories of her life.
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.