Jackie dipped his finger into droplets of lemonade on the picnic table and tried to turn them into a wild, sticky sun. But the beads weren't big enough and he didn't want to spill more on purpose and waste any of his drink. Besides, bees like sugar; stings could make his day worse. Lunch included a few half-stale bologna sandwiches, drinks served in old peanut butter jars, and three people who were together most of the time anyway; the two grownups didn't get along.
Mama and Aunt Ruth fought about who should have what or who was responsible for the last disaster. Their nasty words hung around long after they stopped yelling at one another. They didn't pay any attention to Jackie; they got stuck inside an anger fueled by I'm-right-and-you're-wrong. He sighed. The air seemed hotter and heavier, as if it were made of globs of glue.
Neither his Mama nor aunt would ever win. Besides, they didn't get any prizes for winning, just the chance to say humph a lot and tighten their lips as if their teeth could fall out.
Jackie reached into his pocket for his toy car. There would be plenty of room to play with it on the empty table next to them. Grandma had given him the bright red car on his birthday last month when he had turned six.
He pretended to be driving all the way to the stars. So he told the car it was special, because it could travel like that. He and the car were going to make this year, 1950, different. Somehow. It ended in a zero and zero means nothing, so he could change things, run away maybe.
His daddy had taken off at least two years earlier. Mama seemed even more miserable after he left. Aunt Ruth always had acted as if she wore starched underwear with red ants crawling inside.
"One more thing," Aunt Ruth said, her finger waving in Mama's face. Jackie wasn't so sure Mama wouldn't bite it.
Mama interrupted. "As soon as I find an apartment I can afford we are out of your place. It's so filthy a hippo would refuse to roll in it."
"That will be the day. You can't be grateful for a darned thing. Daddy gave you his car and got another one. It was in mint condition, a '48 Dodge. Barely a year old. So what did you do with it?"
"That accident could have happened to anyone, and you know it."
"To anyone who drinks a fifth of whiskey for breakfast."
A squirrel paused not far from the table. Jackie and the furry creature stared at one another. Jackie wondered where it would scamper next, what kind of food it would find, how fast it could jump from one branch to another. He followed it across the path and onto the other side of the park.
The squirrel ran much faster than Jackie could. However, more squirrels hurried up and down trees and across the paths that laced the park. He tried to count the critters. But he couldn't tell which one matched which finger: one, two, three, four, or ten. Birds sang from the top branches. Jackie wanted to be as free as a robin or a squirrel. Just for a while.
At the top of a long hill he saw a man with shaggy gray hair and dirty, wrinkled clothes on a bench at the edge of a path. Jackie liked to get dirty. That way he felt he could hide among the piles of stuff at home: unwashed jars, clothes that didn't fit anybody anymore, Mama's empty bottles, "Life," "Hollywood," and "Lady's Companion" magazines, newspapers, enough dust to bury a small dog. Mama said that Aunt Ruth was scared to throw anything away because she lost too much in the Great Depression, as if one more tin can was going to save her. By Mama's figuring, it was more like it was going to smother her, and everyone else, too.
Jackie didn't know about that one way or the other. At his age he didn't particularly care about dirty or clean. He only knew that if he wasn't noticed he felt freer to be Jackie. Although it got mighty lonesome sometimes. And he felt as if this old man needed him. Now. Not that he could understand why. He knew it the way he knew today was Saturday.
"Hi," he said in his best talking-to-a-grownup voice. He didn't usually speak to anyone else, much less strangers. However, this man had something about him that seemed familiar, somewhere around the man's eyes maybe. Something in the way he held his chin, even though Jackie couldn't see it under a lot of unshaved stubble. "I like squirrels. Do you know where they hide their acorns?"
"If I did, I reckon they would hide them somewhere else."
"That makes sense." Jackie climbed onto the bench next to the gray-haired man. "Where do you live?"
"Somewhere between a rock and a hard place."
"Is that in this town or somewhere else?" Jackie asked.
"It's not an easy place to describe to anyone, much less to a little boy. Besides, it's not likely that you are old enough to roam free all by yourself. Where is your mom right now?"
"Someplace. I think that way. Or is it that way?"
"What will she say when she notices you are missing?"
"Scream. Say bad words. Call the cops probably. Unless her whiskey bottle got empty and she fell asleep again."
Jackie kicked his legs as if he were on a swing. The bench didn't move, not even in his imagination.
"She may be kind of lost, too."
"Huh?" Jackie looked up into the older man's eyes. "She's sitting at a picnic table with my aunt. We ate sandwiches. They were kind of icky. But the lemonade was okay."
The older man nodded. "I would guess that if it took a long time to find you she would get mad as a whole hive-full of hornets, sting twice as bad, whether she bothered with you much when you were there or not."
"Sounds like you know my mama."
The man sighed. "There's a policeman coming up the path. Maybe if you got to him first, told him you needed to find your mama." He hesitated. "Then, just maybe you could let him know she could be sleeping when you got there. He could help you."
"Cops just catch bad guys."
"Sometimes the nice ones help little boys."
Jackie shrugged. "Will I see you later?"
"Probably not. I've got to be moving on. But, if you feel like this cop is nice, it's okay to trust him. And it wouldn't hurt to talk to him with some little-kid charm, the way you would talk to a grandmother to get another cookie. Or the way you jumped up onto this bench to talk to me."
Jackie grinned. "Yeah, I know how to do that."
"Good, then you understand what to do next."
"I think so."
Jackie shrugged, and then jumped onto the grass and down the hill. "Mr. Policeman?"
A man dressed in a suit whiter than the morning sun appeared and sat next to the gray-haired man. "Looks like the time has come. Not many folk win this chance. I have to tell you that as you return to your past, Jack, you won't recall any of your mistakes. You could make the same ones again. Maybe not. Your future is open, blank, erased. This moment will fade until it is lost inside new memories."
The older man nodded, patting the park bench where he had died twenty minutes ago in a future time. Already he didn't recall his last breath, only the regrets he'd experienced, turning to alcohol the way both of his parents had, and abandoning his wife and son just as his father had left him.
He recognized that policeman from days that hadn't yet occurred. When Jack knew him he directed as many kids as he could into sports. He had tried to help Jack the first time he had gotten into trouble. But bitterness had already filled his being by then.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jack spied a red metal car on the ground next to the bench. His spirit could quickly retrieve it, and then return it to the pocket of the boy he was to become again. But artificial luck wasn't going to play much part in his future anymore. At least he hoped it wouldn't.
In the next second both the gray-haired man and man in the glowing suit disappeared. And young Jackie and the park policeman walked down the park's paths together -- into the fresh year ending with a zero.
Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-02-16
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.