The old man sat on a swing-bench and watched giant yellow machines ravage the other end of the park.
He hunched forward, wringing his bony hands. His fingers idly traced the scars that riddled his knuckles. The bench’s chains creaked in the chilling autumn breeze.
Men, tiny in the distance, guided cranes and bulldozers and chatted as they dug into the earth, tore up massive clumps of trees and dirt, deposited them in piles.
He imagined that the park had been beautiful once--he tried to visualize it years ago in the summer time, when the stream weaving through it was perhaps filled with fish and the leaves scattered on the ground would be in the branches of trees that now looked like black skeletons stretching for the sky.
In two hours he hadn’t seen a single jogger or dog-walker. If the park had once been beautiful, those days had passed. Maybe that’s why it was being cleared away.
He wondered what might go in its place once it was cleared away. Houses? Not likely these days, with more and more people unable to pay for the houses they had. Storage units, maybe. He shuffled, his bony frame uncomfortable on the hard wooden bench. People never seemed to run out of things to stuff away in a storage unit.
He felt his breath grow shallower. His gnarled hands shook, the yellow-stained fingers aching for their long-lost companions. He knew it was just nerves--the nicotine had left his system years ago and he hadn’t let it back in.
The old man reminded himself to breathe, in, out, full breaths, and to keep his back as straight as possible, which was difficult since it had curved over the years. The little things were becoming harder--getting up in the morning, finding things to fill the days. His bones always felt dry and constantly twisted and gnawed against each other.
He suddenly felt lightheaded and sucked in a deep, rasping breath. His heart had begun to beat faster.
“Calm down, old guy,” he murmured, “just calm down.”
“What’d you say?”
The old man jerked around and saw a young man standing behind him. He could feel blood pounding in his head, could hear it in his ears.
“Nothing, nothing,” and damn it he could hear fear in his voice, “just thinking how pretty this park must’ve been. Ha--have a seat.” He patted the bench.
The young man looked at him for a second, then away. He stayed standing.
Pain was starting to work up the old man’s side.
Suddenly he could not remember a single one of the things he’d spent the past two hours thinking up to say, so he just said: “Hi.” It sounded stupid coming out.
“Hi,” the young man said, still looking away. His eyes were slits.
“How--how have you been?”
“You look good."
The monsters at the far end of the park turned dead flowers into craters.
“Ellie said you called and said you’d be here,” the young man said. He stared at the skeletal trees. “She said you had something you wanted to talk about?”
“Yes, yes.” He was shaking all over, but not from the chill. A sudden commotion in his bowels and a bitter taste in his mouth made him fear he’d throw up. “You have a wife now.”
“She’s very pretty,” the old man said.
“She's beautiful,” the other corrected.
“Yes--yes, she is.”
The old man shuffled on his bench. He randomly remembered when he was younger, thinking nothing would be as nerve-racking as asking a pretty girl to dinner. Then, later, when he’d thought nothing would be as nerve-racking as asking a pretty girl to a wedding. He’d been so naïve then--but then, he had been for most of his life.
The young man suddenly sighed and said, “So, what is it you wanted? To tell me my wife is beautiful?”
"Would you please come sit down? It hurts my back to sit half-twist like this, and I'd like to...to see your eyes when I talk to you." It sounded so corny, so idiotic. So fake.
"Hm. So now you're interested in talking to me. You never wanted to talk before." There was real venom and contempt in his voice, and the old man tried to steel himself. "I mean, shit, did we ever talk?"
Sharp ice twisted in the old man’s gut. He coughed and for a second was certain he’d vomit into his own lap--and then the young man moved around to stand beside the bench. He kept standing, but he was at a better angle and the old man could see him now.
A few long minutes passed. Both of the men just stared across the park as it was dug up. “It’s a shame they’re tearing this place up,” the man said. “A place like this must be beautiful in the summer-time.”
His voice sounded alien to himself, and he hated it.
“What’s worse, I’ll bet they’re just clearing it away for something like storage units. Certainly not for homes with all the shit that's going on now. It’s a shame, isn’t it?”
What the hell was he even saying?
The young man cast a sharp look, but said nothing.
“People these days are always tearing things down,” the old man went on, “and they never use the space to build anything better than what they tore down in the first place.”
The young man said nothing.
“You didn’t tell me you had a wife,” the old man said.
“No, I didn’t. I haven't told you anything in years and years."
This time the old man looked away. “I wish you had.”
“I also never told you I had a son.”
The old man choked back wet heat in his throat.
“Why did you come here?” the young man said. With his eyes squinted and brows furrowed he had a look that the old man had known very intimately on another’s face. “I mean, do you hear the things your saying? Fifteen years of silence, and then this?”
“I--I wanted to see you.”
The young man scoffed, turned and spat into the grass.
“I saw you on TV.” This seemed urgent to him for some reason that he could not articulate.
“Oh,” the young man said, “so that’s what this is about.”
“You’re not getting any money.”
“No, no,” he held up his hands and recoiled as if he’d been struck.
“I’ve got my own family to support, a wife and son that I love. And I like to remind them of that fact.”
The old man made to respond but suddenly his throat was dry and he just opened and closed his mouth like a fish.
“After everything we've been through, after everything you put me through, I don't owe you a thing. Not one God-damned thing.”
The old man felt embarrassed and hurt and had no idea what to say. He could taste something bitter and vile in his mouth. Far away the maw of a crane opened up and spilled huge clumps of dirt onto the once-green grass.
Then the young man said: “Why did you come here?”
“I already told you,” the old man said. Suddenly his voice was strong and steady, almost defiant, but he craned his neck around to hide the tears welling in his eyes.
“Well, then,” and the young man turned and started walking back the way he’d come, “you’ve seen me so I guess we're done then.”
“Wait, no!” The old man leapt to his arthritis-ridden legs and spun around with a nimbleness that he paid for with branching, crackling pain.
The young man kept walking, his hands in his jacket pockets.
“Please, wait!” the old man gasped, shuffling stiffly around the bench.
The young man kept walking.
The young man stopped.
The old man’s tears were flowing freely now, spilling down the cracks and wrinkles. He stood on feeble legs, holding out his old hand with its battered and scarred knuckles. The young man turned to look over his shoulder, his gaze instinctively going straight to those knuckles.
The old man followed his gaze and then jerked his hand back and wiped his eyes.
“That’s why I really came here, ok? To tell you I’m sorry. To apologize.”
They looked at each other, the young man standing straight with his hands in his pockets and staring blankly, the old man hunched forward.
“You look just like her, you know,” the old man bumbled. “That look of disapproval--of, of anger.” He forced himself to chuckle for effect and the sound was heavy and empty. “It’s the same one she used to give me when I’d get drunk or smoke in the kitchen.”
The biting wind carried sounds of engines powering tons of shiny yellow steel and the barely audible voices of men at work.
“You told your wife I was dead?” the old man said.
The young man shrugged.
“She thought I was lying when I first told her who I was,” the old man continued, “because she said I’d been dead for almost ten--ten years. When I asked why she thought that, she said because her husband told her.”
The young man shrugged.
“I showed her my drivers license and she still didn't believe me. Why would you tell her I was dead?”
“Because you were,” the young man said, and quickly went on when the old man’s eyes widened. “You are. You might as well be. I can’t even remember you. I don’t know if I ever met you.”
“I was always there,” the old man said, standing straighter. “I was always there for you."
The young man said, “Are you kidding me?”
“I was always there. I know I wasn’t perfect and that I made things difficult, but I was always there.”
“I was,” the old man pleaded.
“My father wasn’t there. Someone was, but it wasn’t my father. Maybe you.”
The old man turned, cringing, and slowly made his way back to the swing-bench. He plopped down. The young man stayed where he was.
“You know,” the old man said after a while, “I’ve stopped smoking.”
“Good for you.”
“And drinking,” the old man said, “I’ve stopped that, too.”
The young man chuckled.
A bulldozer barreled into a cluster of thin trees, ripping their roots from the ground and leaving them a giant pile of splinters.
“Why do you laugh?” the old man asked, his voice low.
“What do you think this any of this proves? Do you think this makes up for anything, that this makes anything all right?”
The old man twisted around again on the bench. “I don’t want to prove anything.”
“Do you think this changes anything?”
“I’m not trying to change anything.”
“You’re too late.”
“I just want to apologize.”
“You’re too late.”
“I just want to say I’m sorry.”
“It’s too late.”
“I always loved you.”
The machines ravaging the far end of the park continued their campaign. Ugly gaping holes spread like cancer. The old man’s scarred fists pulsed with a dull red pain, one completely unlike the old familiar arthritic gnaw.
The young man glared at him with hate in those blue eyes--and again he'd seen that hatred on a different face. The young man turned to look at the grass. For a second, the fading sunlight lit his glistening eyes.
The old man suddenly felt sure that this was his chance, his one remaining opportunity to try and explain himself. To explain how his own father had treated him, and how it had had left him so ill-equipped to take care of a son of his own. How exhausted he had been working a constantly shuffling array of jobs and how frustrated he had been at never being able to provide his family with the kind of comfort he'd imagined. How he had made such terrible mistakes with his outlets for self-comfort. How his life had started as shit, and how he had always intended to turn it around, to make it into something more, but now the years had passed and he was terrified that he'd take a lifetime of failure and regret to the grave.
But before the words could form the young man snapped his head back and the old man's heart leapt in his chest. The young man’s blue eyes were now red and fiery.
The old man scooted back on the bench, and it felt strangely like something inside his chest popped--a dull kind of crack--and even though he didn’t feel any pain, suddenly his head was very light and it felt like the world was swimming around him and everything blurred just a little.
The young man stood for a second, shaking. His fists, clean and unmarked, were clenched and white, a network of veins bulging on them.
He turned and walked to his car.
An odd whine was now mixing in with the old man's irregular breaths. He watched his son get into the car, slam the door, and drive away.
Wet patches spread on the arms of his jacket. He didn’t even feel the tears that dropped on to his arms and lap. Far away the construction crew continued to talk and gorge the earth, and as the old man sat on the bench, cold autumn wind blowing against him, he knew he’d be able to feel the chill-needles dance across his face, knew he’d be able to feel his tears, knew he’d be able to feel his broken heart, if he could just catch his breath. If he could just catch his breath.
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