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 Older siblings dangle precariously from outdated playground equipment.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?

Cash & Carry

Shannon reached across the sprawl of groceries on the conveyor belt and picked up the checkout divider. She hated shopping. She began absentmindedly unloading the items from her cart as she silently judged the purchases of the person ahead of her in line. The conveyor stopped, momentarily catching her attention. Great. Price check. Why did she pick this line? She shoved the rest of her groceries into the space available, balancing the paper towels on top of it all.

The cashier (HELLO! My Name Is:  DEBBIE) handed back the receipt and coupons to the customer ahead just as the bagger dropped a sack of oranges, splitting the mesh. Oranges rolled everywhere. Shannon watched as cashier, customer, and bagger scrambled to collect them, everyone apologizing to everyone. The comedy show was mercifully short. Debbie turned back to her register, quickly replacing her fake smile before greeting Shannon. Meanwhile, the prior customer headed toward the produce section with the bagger to select some new oranges.

Shannon stepped forward, placing her purse on the little shelf next to the keypad. It was a fashionably over-sized purse and it barely covered up the receipt and coupons left behind. And the cash. She couldn’t count it right now, not without drawing attention to herself, but she could see there were at least three bills. That’s sixty dollars, a nice reward for putting up with the checkout drama. Her day was looking brighter. It wasn’t technically hers, of course. She should probably just hand it back to the cashier. Who knew what Debbie would do with it, though. She might just keep it herself to cover up her mistake. Nope. This was a case of finders keepers.

Debbie had an endless supply of inane observations to make about the weather, traffic, Shannon’s choice of yogurt, and everything else. Shannon wasn’t interested in conversation. She was thinking about how to get the cash from under her purse to inside it without being obvious. All she needed was a moment when Debbie was turned away, then she could slide it out and tuck it inside. So far that hadn’t happened. Debbie just kept babbling as she scanned and bagged. The original bagger had apparently gotten lost in the produce section, never to return.

Only a few items remained on the conveyor belt and Shannon felt a little anxious. Her eyes nervously darted from the conveyor belt to the candy rack, then over to the service desk, and the front door. The open front door. It was open because the previous customer had just passed through it and she was striding briskly back to this register. Shannon was out of time. She would need to make her move or lose out.

Fortunately for Shannon, Debbie turned to follow her gaze toward the agitated woman approaching. Finally, she was facing the other direction! With one hand resting innocently on top of her purse, the other slid beneath and extracted the bills and paperwork. She would sort through it later. For now, she swiftly slid it up the side of her purse toward the opening, the money shielded on one side by her large purse and on the other side by her body.

She wasn’t quite swift enough, though. The previous customer had arrived and everyone was facing Shannon again. The customer complained that she didn’t get her cash back, Debbie assured her that she had given it to her, and neither had a receipt to prove that it even existed. What a cluster. Shannon realized that this was going to work out for her after all.

Suddenly a clear, young voice silenced the argument. It came from Shannon’s right, just behind the handle of her shopping cart. Sweet, innocent, and helpful, Shannon’s daughter pointed straight at the prize as she gleefully announced, “Mommy found your money!”

Author’s Note:

This was written for a contest with the following prompt:

“The battle between good and evil is endlessly fascinating because we are participants every day.” – Stephen King

I decided on my approach shortly after reading the prompt, but did not start writing it until late in the day. Then I was invited out to dinner and I chose that over submitting the story. The next morning I finished the story anyway because it was fun. Then I double checked the contest rules, did the time zone conversion, and realized I still had an hour left to submit it!

A few hours later I collected my first writing contest win!