For the Love of Children

Rough, weathered planks on the old park bench creak under my weight. Chill seeps deep into my arthritic joints. Windburn reddens the thinning skin on my nose and cheeks. Delicate snowflakes disappear into the coarse, wiry mess slowly extruding from the lower half of my deeply lined face. Time has been a cruel companion. As my old, tired body warms this splintered throne, I sit and I watch.

The winter scene presenting itself before me is rich enough to inspire poetry. Barren deciduous trees glisten with the thinnest icy sheen. Stroller wheels leave parallel tracks in the tiny, dense forest of stiffly frozen blades of grass. Ducks, lacking the good sense to leave for the winter, swim eccentric routes in a hole cut through the thick crust of the otherwise frozen pond. Icy stilettos hang beneath the eaves of what we once called a comfort station. A crystalline sky with the barest hint of the most delicate blue stretches overhead as far as my eyes can see. But I am not a poet. These details do not hold my interest. For me, today’s park is the same as yesterday’s school yard, which is the same as the previous night’s darkened bedroom, into which I quietly peered.

I sit here, not for the scenery, but for the children. Tiny feet toddle past, crunching frozen grass. Unblemished innocence. So pure. Older siblings dangle precariously from outdated playground equipment. Legs and arms flailing, their ear-piercing screams and shrieks slice through the dry frigid air, piercing my soul. Warming it. Even the adolescents on the basketball court draw my attention. On the cusp of adulthood, surging hormones amplify their insecurities. They feel life so intensely that I can almost see waves of energy and emotion rippling away from the congregation of teens. As those waves flow over the bench on which I sit, smelling sweetly of excitement, fear, and confusion, I inhale deeply.

The adults are of no more interest to me than I am to them. I am simply a harmless old man on a park bench. Sometimes I bring stale bread for the birds, plucking off minuscule pieces and scattering them one by one on the grass. The tedium of this act is quick to bore even the most attentive of parents. Their short attention spans are much more easily held by the colorful, ever-changing screens on the phones they each hold. I have no use for their arrogant, greedy, polluted souls. No, the adults do not concern me.

It is the children I feel compelled to watch. It has been this way for as long as I can remember and I know that this is unique in me. I am drawn to them through some force that I can neither understand, nor explain. It is simply what I do. I could no more choose to stop, than one can choose to stop drawing breath. Day after day, night after night, season after season, I come to where the children are and I watch. I have seen so much over the years.

One spring day, I see a tender two year old, ebony ringlets contained with a ribbon. She watches with fascination as the ant works his way back home. The pudgy finger descends, finds its target, and leaves an ant sized smudge on the path. She releases a wail, not of remorse, but rather of irritation that her entertainment has come to such an abrupt end.  Salty tears slide down tiny round cheeks as smooth and silky as chocolate milk. Desire fills me. I long to take this precious creature home. I think of the games we could play together. I know she likes candy, they all do.

In Autumn, I see a trio of grade-school children enjoying the thrill of a merry-go-round. The oldest wraps his slender fingers around one of the vertical bars. Leaning into his work, he straightens his elbows and begins to push. Each step exposes pale, almost translucent skin stretched over narrow ankles. It peeks from beneath his outgrown pant legs. Right, then left, then right. Ankles strangely delicate, they look out of place on this lanky boy. His little sister hops on board and tightens her grip on a horizontal rail, her whole face lighting up with a gap-toothed grin. Half a revolution later, their brother leaps up onto the platform, wedging his rounded little body between the perpendicular hand rails opposite his little sister. With the younger children safely on board, the merry-go-round picks up speed; loose clothing, limbs, and hair fly wildly. Gleeful screams and laughter spiral out across the park as inertia and centrifugal force have their way with the children. The sights and sounds of young lives are so are exquisite, so intense. This is what sustains me. It’s my reason for being.

But there is no more time to reminisce. Night has fallen. The dropping temperature and freezing winds drove the children inside long ago. I watched their games and squabbles. Watched over young families as they enjoyed a warm, evening meal. Heartfelt prayers were said by bedsides as I stood witness outside, concealed by darkness.

Now I must return home. My work has kept me away all day; I’m frozen to my old brittle bones. I want nothing more at this moment than a hearty dinner and a soft bed, where I can reflect on all I’ve seen. My body fails, but my mind remains sharp. So many sweet memories, so many tender young lives I’ve touched, forever captured in my mind. I can re-visit them anytime, consider the details, savor each moment once more. But first, I must give the reindeer some fresh water and grain. They love the excitement of December, its their favorite time to fly.

Author’s Note:

I came across this old post and thought it was appropriate for the season and good enough to post again.  Below is my original Author’s Note from 2 years ago.

This story was quite a stretch for me. It is my first work of fiction. It is also told from the perspective of an old man, which I am not. At the beginning of December, I considered what a creepy old man Santa is. Even as a myth, it seems odd to me that parents would choose to tell their children that it’s okay for a stranger to be watching their every move and recording who is naughty and who is nice, observant to the point of determining what they would enjoy for gifts. Who would do that? How could it even be accomplished?

Troubled Times

“Go Fish!” Yelled Samantha.

Jessica glanced through the kitchen doorway to see her little girl on the rug in front of the fire, alone, propped up on her elbows. Cards were fanned neatly between her hands.

“Samantha, dear, the cinnamon rolls will be ready soon. Would you like some hot cocoa, too?” Jessica asked, picking bits of dough from her serrated knife as she watched.

“Not now, thanks. I’m winning.”

The poor girl was so thin already, Jessica worried she would waste away completely. Now she was delusional, too. All Jessica could think about was that she already had enough problems.

She returned to the kitchen and slid the pan of plump, sugary, pinwheels into the oven. These are just like my year, she thought, so full of sugar coated promises on the outside, then a downward spiral to nothing but crumbs and bloated remorse.

Earlier this year, she and Kris had hatched an idea to partner with Amazon when they realized they couldn’t compete. If you can’t beat’em, join’em, right? Wrong. Once they closed the shop and laid off the elves, they realized that there just wasn’t enough delivery business left to keep them afloat. Between Uber and Lyft, that market was saturated.

Now the reindeer were starving and they were down to the last child, one that would barely make a meal, at that. And where the hell was Kris, anyway?

Just then, Kris breezed in humming a Christmas tune. He pecked Jessica on the cheek while making a show of sniffing the air.

“Smells delicious!”

Jessica blushed and batted her eyes, irritation dissolving away. She could never stay mad when Kris was around.

“Why don’t you take Samantha out and feed the reindeer, while I finish up these rolls?”

“A fine idea!” he said, with a wink.

Author’s Note:

I wrote this for a Flash Fiction contest using the prompt: fish, fire, knife. It’s almost halfway through December so I figured it was time to try to get into the Christmas spirit. Not sure I’ve quite got it yet, check back next Tuesday.

Perfection

I’ve always been a dancer. Movement is the only way I’ve found to feel truly free. Countless hours I’ve spent twirling in front of the mirror while the music plays. All that exists in those moments are focus and precision.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole production of it, too. The pointy satin shoes, layers of soft tulle floating over my hips, each golden strand swept up into a tidy bun. I never tire of it.

And, of course, nothing feeds the soul so much as starry-eyed little girls watching intently as they imagine themselves being just like me someday. The only advice I can give them is to just believe in yourself. Nobody can take your dreams from you, you can only give them up willingly. Oh, and practice! That’s especially important.

There can be some long stretches between performances, but I don’t waste a single minute. Even when I’m not moving, I’m still dancing in my head. I gaze at nothing and allow the first memorized notes of Tchaikovshy to wash over me. In my imagination I rehearse my entire act, one graceful pirouette following another, just as though I were performing it physically. I do it again and again until the dance is burned into my brain, body, and soul. I can’t allow complacency or I run the risk of being unprepared for my adoring audience.

I shudder to think of how humiliating it would be to hear the key wind, (click, click, click) and not be prepared to spring into action when lid pops open, the light turns on, and the music fills the air. That would never do. I would die of shame right there on the stage.

This is why I practice all the time. I must stay on my toes.

Author’s Note:

This was written for a contest entry using the prompt words: wind, believe, act. I noticed immediately that the first word has three very different meanings. I decided to take the path less traveled. Sure enough, all of the other contestants used the weather related meaning. Yes, I read my competition. You should, too.