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The Park

It was a cool summer’s day when I first met Jason Anderson. He was only four years old. I myself was only recently assembled. I had but two paths, lovingly paved from dirt and mud. Back then my lake was blue, not red, thank you very much, and most of the trees were comparable in height to the children who tried to climb them. I was fresh and innocent.

Jason wasn’t the first to come, but he was the first infant. I couldn’t understand most of the other children. They swam, kissed, climbed trees, dared each other to kiss, played hopscotch, and talked about kissing. I wasn’t as old as they were, and I was always anxious when they came. Still, I gave them a home, and as they enjoyed me I studied them.

But Jason didn’t want to kiss anyone, except maybe his mother. She was beautiful, but a tired kind of beautiful. She was probably very pretty once, but it was in the things she did. The way she stroked Jason’s hair. The way she laughed when Mr. Anderson told a joke that wasn’t funny. The way she told Jason that one day he was going to be rich and famous and that he’d have a whole park like this just for himself.

Jason came to play every single day. To run in my fields and climb my trees. I would make his favorite trees grow faster for him. In the summer, his father would teach him to swim. He was a strict man with high expectations, but he loved Jason, in his own way. We lived the first year like that. In the winter, he would come to make snow angles with his grandmother. Without fault, every day when the sun was just over the frozen lake, he would bound through the snow with a scarf suffocating his elation. The angels were beautiful, like Mrs. Anderson. Not in how they looked or what they did. But in what they were made of.

In spring, Jason and his mother would come to pick dandelions. They would make bouquets of them and Jason would pretend to walk his mother down the aisle.

“You look pretty, mommy,” he would say.

Mrs. Anderson would always give a smile. There were creases that no makeup could hide. Creases made of life and experience and sadness and happiness. She was imperfect, but not to Jason.

In the summer, his father would play catch with him. When they would start practicing, the ladybugs would be exchanging fresh afternoon gossip, and when they were done the lightning bugs would be bickering. I could see Jason struggling to catch the ball, but when his father finally put his arm around Jason and told him “good work, son” Jason smiled. He had the same well-earned creases his mother had.

In autumn, Jason and his grandmother took walks after lunch. Sometimes they’d bring a checkered red and white cloth and picnic in the field. Afterward they would go to pick up the falling leaves and make scientific evaluations about their color. Sometimes – most times – Jason would pretend to be a king and make his grandmother pretend to be an evil pirate or a sorcerer. She would sigh, but she smiled as soon as he turned away. Jason loved climbing the trees and screaming out battle cries and great speeches. The birds would flap their wings and the rabbits would perk up their ears with fear and respect. He would command the leaves to fall, and they would fall. Jason was my king, and he was my friend.

As I grew up, so did Jason. He started playing Little League on my freshly-minted baseball diamond. Lots more people came then. Jason’s team would practice every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night. It was grueling and he’d often leave bruised and beaten, but his father’s arm was always slumped over his shoulders. Jason liked baseball and loved his father.

But he was good. Oh, was he good. I was giddy whenever he tapped the bat on home base. The pitcher would draw in a nervous breath and the ball would pinball to Jason, then across the diamond, and over the trees, and it would skid through the dirt and onto a lucky tuft of grass.

“That kid is gonna play for the Yankees someday,” they would marvel. They would say that about every kid, but there was something different in their voice when they said it about him.

And so Jason grew up. His teammates admired him, and soon Jason had lots of friends. His best friend was a short boy with freckles and glasses who Jason took on his adventures. They would plumb the mysteries of my lake, which they dubbed Loch Atlantness (a fearful combination of the lost city and the mysterious monster cove), before retiring to the Secret Hide Out. It was a simple grove hidden behind a cluster of pine trees, but to Jason, it was a castle from which they would draw up battle plans against the ogres and goblins and trolls and ghosts and, most dangerous of all, girls.

“Jason, you can never ever ever touch a girl,” his friend told him once.

“Why?”

His friend leaned in close to his ear, scanning the trees for enemies unknown.

“They have cooties!” Jason looked befuddled. “You know, cooties? They’ll kill you! Once at school a girl came up and kissed me on the cheek, and I was sick for a whole year.”

“A whole year?” gasped Jason.

“Don’t never touch a girl,” his friend said triumphantly, basking in the awe and attention.

A few weeks later Jason and his friend were invited to join an especially competitive game of tag a few classmates were playing. Despite being very quick, Jason was tagged it. He chased his friend up a tree and down again, and chased one of his classmates through the apple grove and around the lake, before he finally cornered a bushy red-headed girl near the Secret Hide Out.

“Well? You gonna tag me?” she asked impatiently.

“Well… I dunno,” he replied queasily.

“Then why’d you corner me here?”

“To tag you. It’s just – you have cooties,” he explained apologetically. She looked him up and down.

“Fair enough. Truce?” she offered after a long pause.

“Truce,” he said thankfully.

“C’mon, Fiona, let’s go!” yelled the girl’s irritable looking friend with a short black bob from outside the Hide Out. Fiona smiled and ran out to greet her friend, her long red hair bouncing behind her. Jason liked that girl with the long red hair, but he disliked the thought of cooties more.

For my part, I got bigger, too. My trees grew tall enough that some of the smaller kids had to be hoisted onto their brothers’ shoulders to reach branches low enough for embarking upon an expedition. A pier was placed on the side of my lake, and I played host to impatient fisherchildren and their wily grandfathers. A short, balding Italian man made a small fortune selling ice cream for two dimes on the newly paved paths. Soon I was a subdued chorus of barking dogs and gurgling fish, young lovers and old souls, cold ice cream and warm summer afternoons.

Jason was a teenager then. He had grown taller, stronger, hairier. He still played baseball – and his father was still the coach.

“CATCH IT, CATCH IT, CATCH IT YOU –” he was drowned out by the crowd’s roars. They had introduced beer to the stadium. I looked everywhere for Jason’s mother, but in those years, she came rarely. When she did, she always came a little bit into the game and sat in the shadows, where she hoped no one could see her. Mrs. Anderson had become thin and pale – her skin was white, except for the splotches of deep purple around her left eye. But when she smiled, the whole world stopped, and her cheeks crinkled. One night she walked in twenty minutes late, glancing towards the dugout in the hopes that Mr. Anderson wouldn’t see her.

Jason was sweating. He stepped up to home plate. His father was shouting a mixture of profanity and encouragement. Jason furrowed his brow. The pitcher took a deep breath. The ball soared through the air as if meandering through a field. Jason gulped down and breathed heavily. A bead of sweat trickled from his hair, fluttered over his eyelids, fell onto his lips, drooped down from his chin, and sank to the dirt. The stadium was silent enough that one of the more wild children in the stands thought he heard it splatter across the ground. Mr. Anderson clenched his teeth. Mrs. Anderson leaned forward with a trickle of a smile, her lip quivering.

Bat connected with ball, and the ball was up, up, up, going, going, going, gone, gone, GONE! Jason streaked across the bases, hands outstretched. His teammates cheered wildly. His father yelled himself hoarse. The stadium erupted, calling for more beer. The opposing team stood flabbergasted, looking from Jason to their coach, unsure of what tactics they had discussed in the event of a game-ending home run. One player threw his mitt on the ground. The shortstop and second basemen on Jason’s team were handed a bucket of water, their coronation confetti.

Jason’s mother smiled and cried and smiled some more and cried some more. Her little boy had donesomething. Oftentimes I look back upon that smile. I can’t remember my first birthday, or all the flavors the ice cream man sold, or the names of the first kids to play with me, but that smile is imprinted in my memory. It was a smile to best all others… beautiful, wistful, awed, sad.

Afterwards, she stood up, and walked back towards her car with one last look back at her crowning achievement – her Jason. I never saw Mrs. Anderson again.

I’m the only one who saw that smile. They fill the history books with the names of men who conquered vast lands and inspired revolts, but I think maybe the history book writers are wrong. When old men sit on my park benches looking back on their life, I always wonder what they think about. I’m pretty sure they think about all the home runs they’ve seen and the smiles they’ve smiled and the birthday candles they’ve blown out and the fish they’ve caught. I’m willing to bet you three trees they don’t think about European colonialism.

Mrs. Anderson was the first grave in my cemetery. I was sad and shocked when it happened, when two men came in carrying spades and dug a big, deep hole in me and I started bleeding and all the dirt was strewn across the ground, and then a somber man in black robes came forward carrying a cross and a large book and I wondered if he might have a son who was going to play in the hole, but then little somber soldiers dressed all in black flooded through the paths towards the hole and eight somber men carried a big black box and even though I had stopped bleeding I felt like the very earth was rumbling and popping, and then came Jason and his grandma and his father, and Jason was crying and I knew that this hole was not for playing in.

“We are gathered here today to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Mrs. Henrietta Anderson, who has journeyed into the kingdom of heaven with our Lord…”

I looked at Jason and he looked at his mother in the big black box and his father looked at the ground as though he would never be able to watch his son play baseball again and Jason cried like he was merely my peasant and not my king. I started to shake and cry, and all the leaves landed on the ground and in the water, and the wind sent the picnickers by the lake swimming for their hats and I started to rain big, heavy, violent raindrops. I looked up and my sky was a murky gray. Across the street the pet shop and the little ranch house were crying, too. It seemed like right there and then the whole world was crying, because everyone, parks and pet shops, birds and humans, peasants and kings, knew that Mrs. Henrietta Anderson would never ever smile to them again.

As the funeral dissolved some of the little somber soldiers retreated to their cars with their hands over their heads or camouflaged themselves beneath their umbrellas. There was only a small group of people left staying to watch Mrs. Anderson get lowered into the ground and get covered up with dirt. Jason’s grandma was yelling at Mr. Anderson and Mr. Anderson was standing there pathetically, mumbling under his breath. He looked dazed, as though all the water had seeped into his pores and made him so slow and so sluggish that he had sunken into a puddle on the ground. Finally, Jason’s grandma screamed something so angrily that he started screaming back, and Jason was breathing heavily as they pointed to him but didn’t look at him. Finally Mr. Anderson stopped shouting and looked up at the dark, murky sky. I don’t know whether he was looking to Mrs. Anderson, or maybe to that Jesus the man in the black robes was talking about, or maybe to his own daddy. All I know is that when he looked down he finally started crying.

“I’m sorry, Jay – listen, I’m sorry –” he said. Jason didn’t look as his father turned into a puddle again and trickled out of the park. I knew I would never see Mr. Anderson again, either.

Jason’s grandma gave Jason a weak smile and told him that she loved him and asked him if he was ready. He said he wasn’t.

“We can stay as long as you want,” she said, and they stood there with me and the patch of dirt, in the rain. Jason stared at the patch of earth, his eyes full of tears that refused to come out. His grandma stared and cried with him. After a while she started glancing at the car. It was in that moment that I knew that the entire world besides me and Jason Anderson had already forgotten the world’s most beautiful smile.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I just stayed up, crying and bleeding, and tried not to think about the world’s most beautiful smile.

The next few months, there were more graves. Sometimes there was a big funeral like Mrs. Anderson’s, and sometimes there were just three or four people. Once or twice the men with the big black box came in the night and dropped it in a hole before anyone could come to cry. I wondered if I had seen any of these people before. If they liked fishing or eating ice cream or if they had bought a pet in the shop across the street. If they had ever seen Mrs. Anderson smile, or Jason hit a home run. I wondered what they thought about before they died, and if it was European colonialism.

I didn’t see Jason or his grandma for a long, long time. They had gone the whole winter without making a single snow angel. In the spring I had been hopeful they would come and pick dandelions like the old days, but then again, maybe Jason didn’t want to do it without Mrs. Anderson. I had expected Jason might come to play baseball in the summer, at the very least. Summer came and passed, and the leaves drifted cheerily from the trees. It wasn’t as breathtaking without Jason commanding them to fall.

Winter and spring passed again before I saw Jason. I was beginning to think that I would never see Jason again either. Then, a week into summer, he came back.

He looked different, tall and gaunt and thin. There were creases in his face that weren’t like his mothers, and his eyes were a cold gray. He was dressed all in black and wore a heavy chain as a belt. His hair was wild; some spots looked freshly mown and others a bursting collection of jungle weeds. I didn’t care. I was happy to see Jason.

Jason took his friends to the Secret Hide Out and I thought it was going to be just like old times. One of the boys was swearing viciously, and another one was pulling up flowers with a cruel smile, but I didn’t care. I was happy to see Jason.

Jason sat down and the girl with bouncing red hair from so long ago, Fiona, sat down next to him. She looked different, too; she had cut her hair short and died it black. It was a crime to die that hair black, but I didn’t care. I was happy to see Jason.

Jason’s friend who had told him about cooties was talking about the conservatives and their parents and their teachers and the president and the government and the media, and he was using not very nice words. Someone had lit him a cigarette, which added smoke to his fire. Whenever the boy finished a statement someone would say “yeah, eff them man”, only they did not say eff. Fiona had taken out a bottle of beer and was swaying woozily, giggling about a spot on Jason’s nose.

Jason grinned and started kissing her sloppily. The boy picking flowers on the ground was smoking too, and some of their friends started coughing from all the smoke.

“All right, let’s get down to effing business,” the one yelling about politics and society said. He unzipped his backpack and brought out a big bag and a needle. I felt sick. I didn’t want to watch anymore. I tried to avert my eyes as Jason and the girl kissed violently and as his friends passed around the needle and as Fiona got more and more drunk and their friends coughed even louder, and I squeezed my eyes shut when Jason took the needle into his hand and smiled.

Jason came back a lot of times after that, sometime with needles and sometimes with Fiona or other girls. I was… happy, to see him.

Jason’s friends would be there all the time, and soon there were more of them. Strange teenagers and grizzled men who came to drink and smoke and use needles and kiss girls. They left their trash and their needles and their cigarettes and their bottles and their food wrappers and their paper in the park, and nobody picked it up. When the leaves fell in the fall, they could barely be seen amidst the junk.

The ice cream man retired on his seventy second birthday and gave everyone a free cone. All of the parents from the golden days stood there and clapped for him as he waved one last arm up before shuffling off with his daughter. The lake was black from the exhaust of cars from the new highway. I felt sad and pathetic and angry. But most of all, I felt so incredibly alone.

They had started holding concerts in the pavilion, but they were not nice concerts. They were usually performed by men with long beards who would scream music about politics and society and the government in front of a skeleton on a cross. The crowd would jump up and down and drink and kiss and scream obscenities. “I feel so effing alive, man!” Jason’s friend said to him. Jason took a swig of beer and nodded at him as if they, in that moment, had transcended space and time. Their achievement made me feel even more alone. I kicked up the leaves and the branches, but they did not notice me.

After one of the concerts, Jason and his friends went up to the grove to yell some more about politics and society and drink and smoke and use needles. Fiona leapt on top of Jason and started kissing him madly.

“Young love,” one of their friends said drily. “Who’s got the kit?”

Jason looked away from Fiona and took the needle, plunging it into his arm. His face conveyed pure ecstasy. Fiona took a puff from a joint they were spreading around. I wondered what it would be like to try it, just once. They looked happy… maybe it would fix the trash and the skeletons on the cross and the pollution from the highway, like it fixed the government and the media and the conservatives, whatever they were.

Fiona and Jason were kissing even more furiously now.

“This is perfect,” one friend said. “This – right here – right now – we are perfect. This is life, man.”

“I effing get you right now,” another one replied.

“I’m so effing high,” Jason said.

“We’re gonna fix the effing world, man!”

“If everyone were in this park right now – they would get how to fix everything, man.”

“I’m so effing dizzy.”

“Just gotta tell them, man that we don’t take no for an answer. I mean, if the whole effing world just –”

“What was that guys?”

“I’ve never been this high before man. This is so weird, man,” said Jason.

“Quiet guys! Do you hear that?”

“It’s the police.”

“Eff. Eff eff eff eff eff.”

“Put that stuff away! Now, man! Eff,” shouted Jason’s friend. Fiona leapt off Jason and Jason stood up, groggily. A flashlight peered into the grove.

Two policemen grimly entered the grove, shining their flashlights around. My stomach churned. For the first time, I felt scared for Jason.

“Good evening. Hope you kids are having fun,” the cop asked. “May I ask what you’re doing?”

“We’re just having a bit of an intellectual debate about the state of the union, you know,” said Jason’s friend.

“There’s no need for that, young man,” the second cop shouted.

“Hey, hey, hey, it’s true. It was a really rousing discussion, sir,” said the flower-picker slyly.

The policeman shined his flashlight onto a needle sitting at Fiona’s feet.

“Very rousing intellectual discussion, it looks like,” he nodded.

“I’m a diabetic, sir. It’s a hard lot to live with, I really have to be conscious of my health at all times,” explained the friend in a panic.

“How old are you kids?”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen,” Fiona lied. Her voice squeaked. “Jason,” she breathed, nudging to her side. “Jason?”

Jason had fallen to the ground and was convulsing hypnotically. His mouth was foaming and his skin was chalk white.

“Holy effing…”

“We’re gonna need an ambulance over here, ASAP.”

Sirens blared from somewhere in the city. Fiona stood with her mouth dropped. Jason’s best friend tried to shake him and sit him up.

“Holy effing – !”

“When are they gonna get here?”

“His hearts thumping like a…”

“Get him onto the stretcher, quick, before he…”

“We’ll need to inject the adrenaline in the…”

“Stand away, please, we’re taking him to…”

The ambulance escaped into the night, and the policemen took Jason’s friends in their cars. The needle lay forgotten on the ground. One more piece of trash nobody would bother to pick up.

The crickets were roaring and the lake was seething. I knew I wasn’t going to see Jason again for a long time, and I knew that nobody was bothering to take me home in a shiny car or to make sure I knew whether Jason lived or died or even to tell me that everything was going to be alright. Because everything was not going to be alright, and I was so incredibly alone. Sometimes I had a polite conversation with the pet shop or the little ranch house across the street, or sometimes the library or the big office building, but they were busy with their big city life. Nobody was there to be my parent or my friend. I had nobody to kiss or to play tag with. And I just wanted the trash to go away and Jason to be better and be my king and command the leaves to fall like he used to and the lake to be blue and the ice cream man to be young and round again. I wanted it to be like it was when I was all shiny and new and when I didn’t know that people died and got put in boxes in the ground or that some teenagers put needles into their body that made them shake and foam in the mouth. Most of all, I wanted it to be like when I didn’t know I was so terribly, hopelessly alone.

At first I half-hoped Jason would be coming back any day now, that he would have learned his lesson and return, triumphant, to the baseball team. I was ready for a new golden day, and I was sure it was coming. Jason was a strong, smart boy. He’d gone through a lot, and a lot had gone through him. Each day I opened the creaky metal gate a little earlier than I was supposed to and kept it open a little later than I should have, just in case he decided to stop by at any hour of the day. Perhaps he was in the hospital, of course, or in therapy. After all, Jason had had a serious fright – he couldn’t just come bounding into the park after a day of recuperation!

There was more trash and more bad things in the park than ever before, but I tried to remain sunny and upbeat. I was hoping to see Fiona or some of Jason’s friends again, if only because they might know where he was and if, when, he would be ready to come back, but they didn’t seem to have any inclination to return to the spot of their friend’s overdose.

Two years had passed, and I was beginning to think Jason was never coming back, for whatever reason, for better or worse. The drugs and sex had not stopped, and for the first time I was neither hopeful nor lonely. I was mad. I had been such a beautiful place once, and the idiotic humans had squandered it. I did not much feel like living in a world where ten year olds went for a bike ride in the park and returned home walking barefoot, bruised and with empty pockets. What had I ever done to the world to make someone so angry at me? I had been a safe place, a nice place, a safe haven for the tired and a new world for the new. Someone had seen fit to punish me for existing, for being sad and alone. Maybe it was Jesus, whoever he was. Jason’s friends hadn’t liked him much, and after all, he had stolen Mrs. Anderson and put her in a big black box. It certainly wasn’t my fault that Jason had overdosed and that I was angry! It was… it was… it was his friend’s fault. They were the ones who brought the needles and the alcohol and the cigarettes, weren’t they?

I screamed at Jesus, pelting him with my wind and my fury. Punish them, I screamed. Make them foam at the mouth and convulse on the ground like he did. I was not proud of what I said. It infuriated and tormented me that I could think something so vile and awful. But for the first time in my life, I was honest with myself. I wanted to bleed, to have little men dig up holes and put them in big black boxes. I wanted them to be all alone in a big black box for what they did to Jason, and to me. Three more years passed.

At first, I briefly entertained the notion of Jason’s lack of existence. This notion was quickly disproven and ridiculed; after all, there would’ve been a big black box, wouldn’t there? Over the next few months the prickling sensation crept over me. I started to suspect Jason may not have been – in good health. Gradually my fears turned into theories, and my theories turned into facts, and my facts turned into nightmares. I knew, in my heart, that Jason Anderson was dead.

I tried to argue with Jesus. I told him I wasn’t angry, that I would be a good park and do everything possible to clean myself up. I was in a rut, I wasn’t usually like this, I told who, I don’t know; myself, Jesus, thin air. I told Them that I would cut a deal with them. I would volunteer fifty of my tallest trees for Jason to come back. I devoted all my attention to picking up the park, to blowing all the trash away and making it sunny. Tentatively, some of the visitors from the good ol’ days started to return. A committee was made to regulate park affairs, and friendly and important-looking people with clipboards bustled through to inspect the lake water and the quality of tree bark while volunteers chatted and picked up trash. Still, there was no Jason.

I decided perhaps it was time for another offer, and told Them I would keep the temperature at seventy two degrees for three weeks straight for a week with Jason in the park. They didn’t deign to communicate with a lowly being like me, and life went on. The park committee and the policemen had stopped the concerts and arrested a drug dealer operating in the park. I made sure it was quite sunny, with a nice breeze as an added bonus, in case They had time to take notice.

The park committee held a very important vote, and it was decided that the lake would be outfitted with lights and a small counter for ice skating in the winter. A few of the mothers had gotten together and outfitted the trees with twinkling bulbs and sprigs of holly while the dads installed several inflatable Christmas characters along the main path. The teachers from the school next door led a reluctant group of third graders enveloped from head to toe in winter armor to a small clearing, where they had two hours to perfect the formation of a snow angel. A group of teachers carrying straw hats, large, gruesome-looking carrots, and beetle black buttons meandered to and fro to aid in the construction of snowmen. One of the more mischievous looking boys packed together a small, tight snowball and flung it across the clearing at a girl in a pink coat. This, of course, led to widespread chaos. The teachers made sure to appear disgruntled, but happily resigned to sipping hot coffee in a thermos on the park benches after a few minutes of required reprimanding.

By Christmas Eve, the park was finally ready for the holidays. Someone had clumsily laden a banner saying “Winter Wonderland” over the gates, which was quickly covered with snow. The snow on the big hill was soft and plentiful, and it made for perfect sledding conditions. After a few hours, mothers and fathers walked hand in hand back home for a quick drink of hot cocoa before returning to ensure there were fresh snow angels and snowmen for the night’s festivities. At about four o’clock the fathers led their children (crying, of course) from the park for a sumptuous Christmas dinner. At seven thirty, the visitors returned en masse to the lake. It was freezing, and snow was drifting lazily to the childrens’ tongues as they sat waiting. The only light came from a few candles tucked away in bell jars. At long last, the overhead lights flickered on to reveal the newly adorned skating rink. Fifty pairs of ice skates were lined up along the side of the lake.

I stayed up that night long after the last carol had been sung, the last Merry Christmas wished, and the last light shut down. I stayed up listening to the wind and the snow and the squirrels hunting for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner. When I turned off my thoughts I swore I could hear what sounded like angels singing. I wondered where Jason was and what he was going to get for Christmas. Please, I pleaded with Them, one day with Jason. One day.

The next morning, the skating rink and the big hill were silent. The squirrels and birds were kept firmly inside their dens and nests. The fathers were probably sinking into a pleasant Christmas nap after an early morning visit from Santa Claus and a nice time at Church. I imagined the children revving up their new trains and reveling in the sheer, endless possibilities that their new doll or action figure had given them. I imagined the mother fretting over what her in-laws would think of the turkey as the gravy dinged in a cooker larger than the Christmas tree.

I imagined Jason, wherever he was, in heaven or hell or the hospital or his house. I wondered if he ever thought of the park he used to hit home runs in. I wondered whether his Christmas was going to be a merry one. I wondered what the New Year’s would bring Jason, and what it would bring me. Another year, I supposed. Another year.

Jason walked through the gates with a small smile. The woman clutching his arm was wide-eyed with wonder. She was blonde and very pretty, and I was very happy for them.

It had been fifteen years since Jason had been wheeled out of those gates on a stretcher. He looked older and a little plumper – not at all fat, of course, but he had been eating more than when I had last seen him. His hair was a fair brown, and a few flecks of gray were already setting in. Thankfully, his smile was the same as it had always been.

The woman was pointing here and there, nudging him gently on the side to fawn over the trees and the pavilion and the big hill. Her belly was much larger than Jason’s. He would nod and smile. Every so often she would drift off to examine a particular tree or clearing and he would gaze at her happily. Twice she started to bend down to pick up a flower, and twice Jason quickly plucked it for her. She clutched them tightly in her little hands. They made for a nice couple.

“Won’t it be perfect, Jay?” she said as they sat down on a park bench.

“We’ll have it in the middle of July. The weather’ll be great,” he replied. She was starting to walk towards the Secret Hide Out, but Jason gently shifted her towards the lake.

She smiled and hugged him tight. It was a pleasant day; the breeze was crisp but not harsh. Jason placed a hand on her belly. His eyes flickered with amazement. I was very happy for them.

They returned a couple of times after that to marvel about the trees and the pavilion and the big hill. Jason bought her a triple berry ice cream cone from the stand every time. The ice cream man had long since passed away, but his granddaughter and her nine-year old son had reopened it a few months ago. Jason and his fiancée sat on the park bench, licking their ice cream and staring off into space. Jason looked at her belly. He looked happy and uncertain. I think everyone should be happy and uncertain.

Sometimes Jason would come and walk by himself. A couple of times he stopped to gaze at the big trees he used to use as his castle. He looked at them with a twinge of sadness. He could not climb them anymore, and he could not command the leaves to fall. I understood.

One time he walked into the Secret Hide Out. He stood there looking sad and afraid. It had not been tended to for some time. He sank to his knees and started to cry. I understood.

Jason kept well away from his mother’s grave. I understood.

July came and passed and there was no wedding. Jason still kept walking. He looked uncertain. I hoped he was also happy.

I wondered whether anyone was really happy. The old men who came alone to fish at ten o’clock every day and left twelve hours later, alone. The ice cream man’s granddaughter who worried about her son all day long. The married couple whose hands had long since separated even though their owners insisted on walking together as if everything was normal.

Jason walked every day now, from the gates on one end to the lake on the other. Sometimes he would get an ice cream cone, sometimes not. Sometimes he would bring a fishing pole, sometimes not. Sometimes he would pick the most beautiful flowers you’ve ever seen and let them loose in the breeze. It was a simple beauty.

There was a new regular visitor. A man with balding black hair and a bushy black moustache that looked as though all attempts to keep it kempt had failed. He wore a bowler hat and carried an umbrella even on sunny days. Each day he would come to the cemetery and stood in front of the grave, his head drooping sadly.

He would stay for around an hour each day. Sometimes he checked his watch or looked around expectantly, as though he were meeting an old friend who was running late. When his acquaintance did not arrive, he would troop out of the park resignedly. This man did not get an ice cream or bring a fishing pole or let flowers loose in the breeze. I had the feeling that he had never done those things before and began to realize how terribly much he had missed.

It’s remarkable how much of life is coincidence. Marriages are formed and countries are broken upon chance and timing. Imagine what would have happened if John F. Kennedy had gotten sick and decided not to visit Dallas, Texas. Or if Marie Antoinette had been ugly and never married Louis XVI. Or if Sir Isaac Newton had been too horrendously busy to notice an apple falling from a tree. How different would life be?

It was coincidence that brought them together.

The man with the black moustache had already eaten a large lunch his neighbor Mrs. Avery had prepared him and decided to skip supper. In doing so, he arrived at Mrs. Anderson’s grave exactly thirty minutes early.

Jason had to stay fifteen minutes late after work to finish up a project long overdue. His boss had taken another five minutes to berate him on the way out the door. Though Jason’s work was relatively close, there was an enormous accident on the freeway, and Jason was floating in the middle of a sea of angry drivers desperate to overturn the current of traffic. When he had finally arrived at the gates and parked his car, a homeless man began to plead with him. It took forty five seconds for Jason to fish around in his pocket, pull out his wallet, and hand the man a five dollar bill. He walked through the gates exactly thirty minutes late.

Jason walked along the path more flustered and more quickly than usual. He passed the big hill and the newly minted jungle gym and the Secret Hide Out. The path winded around the cemetery. The man had reached Mrs. Anderson’s grave. Jason slowed to a halt, his mouth agape and his eyes full of tears. Mr. Anderson turned his head, slowly and patiently. He gave Jason a weak smile. The sun was shining so brightly, I could not see if Jason returned it.

They stood there like that for what seemed like hours. They didn’t speak. Finally, Mr. Anderson tipped his hat, smiled, and walked out of the gates for the last time.

I cried. A single tear dripped onto Jason’s head. He smiled.

A home run. A smile. A snowman. An ice cream cone. A tip of the hat.

Jason would come every Saturday to see the blonde woman. Her belly had long since deflated. Jason looked older but seemed younger. The woman was still pretty. She talked to Jason as though she was sorry but she did not know what for. Their daughter waited in the car as they talked. They laughed and she touched his shoulder instinctively, withdrawing it quickly and painfully.

“Hey honey! How’s my little princess this weekend?” Jason would crouch down to give his daughter a hug.

“Good. I learned a new word this weekend,” she said. “Scientific.”

“Lilah’s learning about rocks and volcanoes this unit,” her mother explained.

“Yes. And some volcanoes are going to bubble up and lava will come out and some will not because they are sleeping,” their daughter said, proud to display her knowledge. “And lava is like magma only they are not the same thing but I do not know the difference.”

“Have I ever told you how smart you are?” Jason whispered.

“Yes daddy,” she said with a small smile.

“Good,” he replied.

“I’ll leave you two then, okay? See you tomorrow night… have fun with daddy!” the mother kissed her daughter goodbye.

Jason and Lilah would sit on a park bench with their ice cream cones counting butterflies. Jason would have chocolate with pecan shavings and Lilah would have triple berry, like her mother. She looked like her mother. Very pretty with blonde hair and a round little face. But she had her grandmother’s creases – her father’s creases.

After that they would race to the castle tree, and Jason would lift her up on his shoulders so she might reach her throne. Her daddy perfected his repertoire of characters, which included an evil sorcerer, a bumbling court jester, and the princess’s royal servant (of course). When autumn came, the princess would hold a special court to command the leaves to fall.

“They fell, daddy, they fell!” she shrieked. It was magical.

When they had exhausted their royal adventures, were waterlogged from too much swimming, and fat from too much ice cream, they returned home for the evening. Jason would pick Lilah up and carry her over his shoulders. She was fast asleep. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether she was really asleep or simply pretending. She was a very crafty princess.

Sunday afternoon Lilah’s mother would come pick her up.

“See you next weekend daddy!” she would smile.

“I love you honey! Remember to show me that volcano again, okay?” he shouted to her retreating back.

Sometimes she would be buckled into her car seat only to run back out in a panic.

“I forgot to kiss you goodbye daddy,” she would say, breathing heavily. He kissed her on the cheek.

“Bye princess. See you next weekend, okay?”

“Okay daddy. I love you,” she would say happily, running back to her mother.

Jason smiled. He looked happy and certain. I think everyone should be happy and certain.

Jason was now made of almost nothing but crinkles. His hands had crinkles and his eyes had crinkles and even his teeth had crinkles. It was a beautiful summer afternoon full of wonderful crinkles. Teenagers lolled around the lake with their friends, and families were strolling through the park haphazardly.

Jason was playing chess with his wife. They had been married eight summers ago in the pavilion. Her short black bob had turned gray in the years since. Fiona had come to the wedding and told them she had four children.

The cool summer breeze lazily drifted across the table. The white king teetered on his square. Jason was not good at chess, but his wife was.

“What do you want to do for our anniversary this year?” he asked. She smiled.

“Well, we could always go on vacation,” she said quite soberly before breaking into laughter. Jason laughed too. They had told themselves they would go on a vacation for their anniversary for the last eight years.

“How about we have a picnic!” he said. “Bring wine and bread and some… I don’t know, we can think of what to bring later.”

“That sounds lovely,” she said. “Check.”

Jason squinted at the board, scrutinizing his pieces. His wife was looking around as though she were trying to trace the breeze with her eyes.

“It’s a nice day.”

“Great weather.”

“I think a picnic sounds wonderful. I haven’t had a picnic since…” she trailed off, lost in her memories.

“Yes, it’s a plan then!” Jason said. At last he toppled his king over. “Good game.”

“You improve every time,” she assured him brightly.

“No, I don’t. But thank you,” he laughed.

“You’re welcome,” she said, her cheeks wavering. They packed up the chess set and walked arm in arm out of the park.

Two weeks later they had their anniversary picnic atop the big hill. The sky was a rich auburn and the wine was delicious. They created a menagerie of cloud animals. They kissed for the last time.

A week later Jason Anderson was put in a big black box and placed in the ground beside his mother and father and grandmother. It did not hurt when they dug the hole. It was a crisp, lovely day. The bees were buzzing excitedly around the lilac bushes and ants were busy at work on their new hill. I tried to remember all the lovely days we had had together. When Jason and his grandmother made snow angels. When Jason hit the home run and everyone cheered wildly and told him he would play for the Yankees. When Jason’s fiancée marveled at the pavilion and the big hill. When Mr. Anderson tipped his hat and Jason cried. When Jason and Lilah commanded the leaves to fall. When Jason and his wife saw animals in the clouds.

The ice cream man’s granddaughter and her son stood in the back with some of the other park regulars and committee members.

Fiona and her family arrived early. Her children were grown now. Her hair was still bouncing and red.

Jason’s best friend turned up with his wife. Ironically, he had become a state senator.

Lilah was the last to arrive. Lilah and her husband had been married two springs ago. Lilah’s belly was getting very big.

Her stepfather stroked her mother’s hair as she cried.

When the priest in the black robes came, I wondered if Jason was making snow angels with his grandmother and playing catch with his father and walking his mother down the aisle somewhere right now. I hoped he was eating chocolate ice cream with pecan shavings on top.

A few weeks later, Lilah and her husband walked through the park with a stroller. Their son’s eyes were wide with amazement as Lilah told them about her royal childhood and about ice skating on the lake in the winter and about the time when daddy tripped on a tree root and had to get a cast for it. The morning had been cool and cold, but it was slowly and surely warming up.

“Someday you’re going to fish on that lake and climb that tree and command the leaves to fall,” Lilah said. Her son looked at her in amazement. Would he really be allowed to climb it? “You’ll count butterflies and you’ll make snowmen and play baseball. You’ll love it, Jason, I know you will.”



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