A young man sat on a park bench, his eyes gray and dismal as the bleak March sky.
“Move on,” someone had said. “Start over tomorrow.” But there were some things you couldn’t start over from. When you had completely lost and failed in everything, there came a time for calling it quits. No one could keep wringing themselves out like that. It didn’t work. When you were spent, you were spent. A sad and dramatic philosophy. But there it was.
He listlessly watched the children play in the park. There was a whole crowd here today. All over the place. Lots and lots of happy kids.
He sat stiffly, as if someone were watching him to grade how correctly he sat. He wanted to pull his knees up to his chest and wrap his arms around them like he did when he was little. On this same park bench. His mother used to take him to the park, although there wasn’t a playground then. He remembered a cold November afternoon, coming home from school with chapped cheeks and his nose “red as a button,” as his absent father used to say, in a three-year-old’s foggy memory. Even though there was nothing particularly red about a button. Buttons could be all sorts of colors. A little girl in a coat with blue buttons ran past him, calling after her friends. He resisted the urge to flinch as the whoosh of air she carried with her. So much energy.
There were few coats with buttons nowadays. Zippers were more efficient. The little girl waved to her friends as her mother took her hand and led her to the car. Her mother was a tired but cheerful looking pregnant woman with brown hair. She dropped her diaper bag halfway to the parking lot, and a girl from another bench leapt up and picked it up for her. She handed it to her laughing and joking about her own clumsiness. He couldn’t hear the exact words.
Everyone seemed very cheerful today. And the park was so full. It hadn’t been that full ever before when there wasn’t a playground.
His mother had taken one look at his torn clothes, scratched face, and tearful eyes, and told him they were going to the park. In the middle of November she dragged him out to the bare grassy space they called the neighborhood park, probably to get them both out of the dingy apartment. She sat him on the bench and told him to “tell all.” He pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them and told her about not knowing the answer in class and being embarrassed and then being teased about it afterwards in recess and losing his temper and trying to hit the bigger boy and getting into a fight right outside the school doors and getting pulled back by the principal and having to stay late. And crying all the way home and trying to sneak in quietly so that his mother wouldn’t catch him.
When he was done he glanced up at her, expecting an “I’m so disappointed in you” talk. She was sitting with her legs crossed, staring across the park at nothing, the wind blowing her red hair. Surprisingly, she didn’t look disappointed, or even mad. Just tired. He shifted in his seat and sniffed. She gave him a Kleenex.
“You’ve had a tough day, buster,” was all she said. There was a silence. “Everybody hits bad days now and then. You’ve just got to climb over them.”
“Climb over them?”
She shrugged. “Like they’re an obstacle in your way.” He didn’t understand that, but he didn’t say anything while she was in this strange, tired mood that didn’t involve getting in trouble.
His mother pointed. “See that pile of wood? Go climb over it.” He looked at her, confused. “Go on,” she prodded. “Go climb over it." She waved her hand theatrically. "Symbolically climb over this day.” He hesitated for a moment, then unwrapped his arms, slid down from the bench, and ran over to the pile. He looked back at his mother. She gave him a thumbs up, and he started to climb over it. After several tries he was balanced on the top. He wobbled, then started to clamber down, ending up in what the TV called an uncontrolled descent, and getting another scratch and a tear in his shirt in the process. He climbed to his feet and rounded the pile to go back to his mother, ready to start crying again.
The young man watched a boy slide down the slide where the pile of wood had been. He landed on his bottom with a bump and started to cry. His mother swooped in out of nowhere, burying him in her arms and accidentally swathing his face with her scarf.
“Did you climb over it?” she had asked him.
He sniffed, lip quivering. “I got to the top and then fell down.”
“Well then, it sounds like the day was just as eager to get rid of you as you were to get rid of it.” He climbed back up onto the bench. “It didn’t work. And now I have another scratch.” He decided to start crying again. He was an emotional kid.
His mother sighed. “War wounds, boy. When you hit a bad day, you climb over it and move on. I know you had a rotten day. So did I. We just have to forget about it and start over tomorrow.”
“But I can’t just forget about it!” he protested shrilly. “The principal was so mad and the other boys-”
She held up a hand. “Okay, okay. I misspoke. No, you usually can’t forget rotten things, because they were memorably rotten. So you learn from them. Remember it, but don’t let it bother you. Leave it behind.” She gestured to the wood pile. “Climb over it.”
He sighed and pulled his knees up to his chest again. He wasn't going climbing that wood pile anytime soon.
His mother let him be. “Maybe they’ll build a playground here someday,” she said suddenly. “Start this old stretch of grass over, huh? Then would you like to come here?” He shrugged and sniffed. No.
He could almost see himself, sitting next to him. A little boy with red hair, hugging his knees. Scratched and whiny, but thoughtful. A kid ran up and grabbed his ski cap off the bench where his younger self had sat. He grinned at the young man, then ran back to his dad.
The young man kept his legs down and his back stiff. It was getting chillier, but no hugging knees to make him warmer. He couldn’t move his left knee at all, anymore. The army doctors had said he was lucky he hadn’t lost the leg. Ha. Lucky. Like he could even use it now.
Two boys ran around the playground, shooting each other with pretend machine guns and making pew-pew sounds loudly, like sirens, while laughing wildly. Idiots. Idiots like he had been at that age, waving his hand desperately without knowing the answer to the question. What did he think would happen? The teacher would accept that he had no idea but just wanted to be picked and would tell him he was right? Kids were so dumb sometimes.
Most of the parents were packing up to go home now. It was getting colder. He and his mother had sat on the bench for a good twenty minutes after he had symbolically climbed over the day. He sat with his coat pulled over his head, being cold and considering the unfairness of the universe. She sat with her head back and her eyes closed as if she was taking a nap. She was always tired back then.
She walked home holding his hand, asking the usual questions about teachers, and friends, and games. Nope. No friends, mom.
“How about girlfriends? Or hidden wives?” Her seven-year-old looked at her in shock and horror. She laughed. “I’m kidding!” After a moment she shook her head. “But you should have friends. Why don’t you have any friends?” He didn’t answer. She went on. “You can be friends with a girl, too, you know. Do you know any girls that you want to be friends with?”
He shrugged. She kept on talking as if he had responded. “It’s easy, if you see someone who looks nice. You just walk up to her and ask her name. And you’ve got a budding friendship right there.”
He shifted in the cold wind. She had really tried hard as a mother. And she had tried to teach him important things. Move on. Yay. But some war wounds you couldn’t move on from.
She was a good woman. Alone in the world except for her sniveling son. She was a mess sometimes, but she tried. She loved him. She had a beautiful and catching smile.
All gone now.
“Die! Die, die, die!” yelled a little boy, stomping on a spider. The girl on the other bench laughed behind her hand at his antics. He smiled winningly at her until his mother came up to tell him to stop bothering the lady. She protested in vain that he was no trouble. The mother led her little boy away, and the girl settled back to watch the rest of the children.
She was pretty, now that he thought about it. He’d seen her all afternoon, but he’d never actually looked at her. She was nice to the kids. She’d offered to help in some of their games, and they didn’t seem to bother her. She’d probably make a good babysitter.
There was once a time when kids didn’t bother him either.
The girl smiled and waved at a little boy who was being towed away by his mother and was waving goodbye frantically at anyone whose eye he could catch.
A mother was calling to her kid up in the playground, trying to get him down because it was time to go. He giggled and ran to the other side of the platform. Eventually she grabbed him by the jacket through the bars and he slid down the slide and began running for the seesaw to escape. The mother shouted for backup, and a tall man who looked like her husband joined the pursuit. They cornered the kid up against the short playground wall, but he started to climb over it. His father grabbed him and lifted him down, trying to scold but laughing all the while.
The young man stood up unsteadily. He walked with a heavy limp, but with practice it was getting better. He went across the grass to the girl on the other bench. She was writing something down and looked up brightly as he approached.
“Oh, hello,” she said with a quirky smile.
“Hi,” he said. “What’s your name?”