Thursday, January 19, 1989

Three Hundred Sixty Seven

a short story from college days

Tellers at drive-up bank windows and servers at fast food joints were the extent of my noon companions. Lunch hour barely served as an escape from work; I was always rushing to complete menial tasks that, faced with under sixty minutes to complete, take on titanic proportions.

Every day I flew past the local park, blessed to have never hit a pedestrian unwisely trying to soak up some sun instead of treating noon to one like an Indy 500. In the summer the park was populated with its own version of hustle and bustle. A traffic jam of skateboarders, joggers, and roller bladers crowded the walking trail, all racing towards nowhere in particular, while I was engrossed in a life-or-death quest for large fries and a chocolate shake.

For some inexplicable reason, the call of the green grass and open skies bellowed louder that day than the black and blue ink scrawls of my to-do list etched on the back of a wrinkled Quik-Trip receipt. My automobile swerved into the parking lot and screamed at me to, “Get out!” I did. Then I did something so extraordinarily out of character that I questioned my sanity. I stretched. I stretched and then I strolled and then I even started to relax. I could feel stress dripping off me as I soaked in the June sun and chuckled at pigeons squabbling for leftovers and children quarreling over whose turn it was to swing. Even watching dogs tinkle on the oak trees offered a peculiar affirmation of the freedom of the outdoors.

About twenty feet ahead of me on the path, an elderly gentleman stood frozen in his tracks, his eyes gazing downward. I wondered if the man was looking for something. The words, “do you need help?” were just forming on my lips when a pre-teen cyclist came hurtling toward us. “Look out!” I yelled to the man, finally getting him to look up and thereby convincing me he was a person and not just a statue for the pigeons to use as target practice.

The boy swerved and the man stepped backward, untouched by the bicycle but tumbling over in a heap. To my astonishment the boy actually stopped, instead of racing onward and ignoring his actions, and got off his bike to help the man.

“You all right, mister?” yelped the boy, leaping off his bike. I’m sorry ‘bout that. I’m trying to break my record. Five minutes and thirteen seconds. That’s how long it takes me to get around the track.”

I rushed to their aid expecting any fashion of mutilation. Either the old man’s heart would halt from the shock of the ordeal or he would strangle the boy.

However, the old man not only appeared unharmed but unphased. His temper appeared in tact as he righted the bicycle and spoke calmly. “Son,” he said, “you mind if I give the bike a try?”

The boy was bewildered, probably terrified that the old man would bash the bike, its owner, or both into the nearest tree. Being a corporate-minded adult, I pondered the likelihood of the boy getting sued not over nearly hitting the old man, but the old man then borrowing the boy’s bike and crashing into a tree.

“Sure,” the boy fumbled, “I guess, mister.” Soon the man was grinning ear to ear as he zipped down the trail, both he and the bike a little more scratched than five minutes ago, but neither in irreparable shape. The man proved as much menace to the public as the boy; he swerved left and right narrowly averting innocent mothers and strollers and downright terrifying an unprepared squirrel.

About a hundred yards down the sidewalk the man wheeled about, paused, and then pedaled like mad. The bike came hurtling back towards the boy who was reeling in horror at the prospect of being run over by an angry senior citizen wielding the boy’s own bike as his weapon. Instead the old man came to a screeching halt a matter of feet before the boy, laying down a skid mark that the shocked kid swore had to be some kind of world record.

“Man for an old guy, you’re pretty wild.”

The old man smiled broadly as he dismounted the bike and returned it to the boy. “Go scare some more people.”

“Bye, mister!” The kid stormed down the sidewalk once again, sending pedestrians screaming left and right, narrowly escaping his reckless path.

I was now convinced I was asleep and this was some weird dream. In my haze of puzzlement, I approached the man. “Sir?” I said, “I’ve got to tell you - that has to be, well, one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen. You must be the most forgiving victim of an almost collision that I’ve ever seen.”

“Ah, the boy’s just having fun. Don’t mean no harm. I’ll tell ya – there’s one thing you learn about gettin’ old,” he began, his words coming out slowly and thoughtfully, as the twinkle in his eye glowed brightly. “It’s better not to.” He jabbed his finger toward me in a mock warning and then turned and trotted away, his body showing no signs of having been ravaged by a bicycle accident.

The summer dragged on, each day threatening to send the mercury past the previous day’s record scorcher. Despite the heat I frequented the park; it was less torturous than my standard lunch hour of a few months ago. I’d rather sweat to death than stress to death. I looked for the old man, half assuming he’d be tearing up the walking path on a shiny new Schwinn, but through mid-August I spotted neither man nor bike. I fought back my fear that the man whose youthfulness rivaled the playground crowd might have seen the last of his cycling days.

The few park dwellers challenging the wrath of the hot August sun did so better equipped than I. They came armed with shorts and tank tops; I arrived in suit and tie. The tie was suffocatingly tight when I neared the park; it was as if corporate America refused to release their stranglehold on even my one hour haven from my nine-to-five life. Stripping myself of suit and tie didn’t free me from the prison of the noon-day sun, but it did offer me refuge from cubicles and computer screens.

The younger park dwellers proved the brightest of all. I have yet to witness a ten year old playing at the park in a tuxedo. Stripped to just shorts or a swim suit, the kids washed away their trouble with a dip in the fountain. When the city constructed the fountain a few years ago, the goal was a centerpiece for the park. The local swimming hole was not what the city had in mind. The fountain was not conducive to swimming, but its foot-deep basin was ideal for wading.

The mist from the fountain spray licked my face, already bathed in summer sweat. While I was physically uncomfortable, the relaxation of watching the children gleefully wash their troubles away more than made up for it. Of course, I thought, their freedom isn’t forever. The impending Labor Day would toss the fountain dwellers back into their own corporate worlds of crayons and chalkboards.

Glancing at my watch reminded me that while their freedom had a few weeks to go, mine only had minutes. I rose from the park bench and tucked my newspaper under my arm. With my eyes fixed gloomily toward the ground, I didn’t see the man until I’d already collided with him. Without even looking up, I muttered, “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“It’s alright, sonny. I’ve survived a few bumps in my time,” came the response.

“Hey! It’s you!” I said, now breaking my glued-to-the-ground gaze.

“Sorry? Have we met?” The old man looked puzzled, but not at all concerned. I couldn’t imagine he had any enemies to be afraid of running into.

“That day - here at the park - a kid nearly ran into you with his bike.”

The old man nodded firmly, the incident obviously coming back to him. “Oh sure,” he said, “that was the first time you’d been at the park, wasn’t it?”

I was startled. “Yes,” I responded, “how did you know that? I don’t remember telling you that.”

The old man smiled, suggesting he was pleased with himself. “No, no. You didn’t. I just kinda figured. You just looked much older then.”

I was baffled by the remark. Could I have worn such a face of desperation that it screamed a message of stress to people? Before I could ask the man, he excused himself. “Well, young man, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll take a dip.”

The man padded across the paved area surrounding the fountain. As I watched in shock the man stepped right in the fountain without so much as removing his shoes. A delighted chorus of shrieks greeted the man as he turned back toward me and smiled. “Come on,” he coaxed, “get in.”

My heart sank. My sole encounter with this man at the summer’s onset had sent my life expectancy into the black. He now wanted to give me lunacy instead of vibrancy. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I protested. “I’m wearing a suit! I’ve got to go back to work! In fact, I was just leaving. You’d have to be insane to get in that fountain fully clothed.”

A look came over the man’s face that I had not thought possible. His smile contorted into a disgusted frown and his brow furrowed in anger. “Young man,” he said in a firm but quiet tone, “do you know what insanity is?”

“Of course I do. It’s when someone doesn’t have the capability for rational thought.”

“Let me give you another definition. An insane person,” the man explained, “is not aware that what he does is out of the ordinary. A sane man knows, but does it anyway.”

I found myself beside the old man, splashing and laughing and feeling the stress melting off into the water. I looked at the old man, reveling in the joyful howl of the children in awe at witnessing fully-clothed adults cavorting in a park fountain. “Are you sure you’re old?” I jokingly asked the man.

In a tone scarcely audible over the din of aquatic acrobatics, he declared, “only the parts.”

The words flooded me with a realization. I gazed at the man surrounded by the representatives of several generation gaps and noticed the liver spots on the back of his hand. I pondered the sparse, wispy tuft of hair perched atop his scalp like a snow-capped mountain. He squinted through lenses half an inch thick and strained to listen with his ear plugged with a hearing aid. His arms looked like saplings threatening to snap at the first sign of a strong wind. Despite his frailty, his vibrancy fooled one into believing he was at least thirty years younger than his physical features confessed.

My curiosity finally overwhelmed my discretion and I finally asked the man how old he was.

“I’m really not sure anymore,” he declared with total sincerity, “I lost track after the Civil War.”

I looked for a grin or a twinkle in his eye to assure me he was kidding, but he was already engaged in a splash war with the fountain’s entourage.