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 Older siblings dangle precariously from outdated playground equipment.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.
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?