San Diego, 1997.
CHARLES ASTON could swear there was a little girl in Rancho Bernardo, always sitting by the gazebo in an old park.
Charles loved the quiet of Ranch Parkway. He worked in Lauren Hill Lane, and would walk by evening past Silver Pine way, New Rochelle, get a robusto in Shelborne street and hold it lopsided in his mouth, muttering to the chirping starlings and people who changed lanes once they saw him coming.
Then he'd come to Rancho Bernardo and see the girl sitting beneath a red birch, staring at the cardboard turnips laid round the gazebo. Charles would ignore her and go straight to Hollingsworth way. He hated children. He had a daughter, Courtney. He hated her too, he hated the smell of her birckenstock sandals and totes, and the cheese sandwich his mum made her every morning. Courtney looked very much like his late wife, Brit.
On Wednesday, Aston was fired at work. He boarded a bus at 7:30 pm from Forest view lane to Ranch Parkway to get a pack of robusto. He walked to Rancho Bernardo and stopped by the walkway, staring in the park. The girl was there, and tonight, under the gleaming light, he could see the tuft of her flaxen hair and her flecked cheek.
He walked to the park, to the gazebo and stood over her. She was colouring in a paper. Charles sat. From here he could see that the cardboard turnips were labelled with names, probably of children who came here. He winced. He took a cigar, held it in his mouth and lit it.
"I hate children," he said.
"Do you have children?"
Charles looked round the park. "One," he said. No one was there.
She looked up. "A boy?"
She looked back in her paper. "You live down the street?"
"11504, Forest view Lane."
" Up street."
She finished her drawing with an amused grin and raised the paper to Charles face. "See."
He drew in a waft of smoke and stubbed the cigar in the grass. He looked in the paper, she had drawn big zero heads with lines underneath, and thin legs. It was a family, an ugly family. He nodded.
"You can keep it," she said.
Charles stayed till 9pm, then he left. He took a bus to Forest view Lane and didn't come back the next day. He burnt the paper with his lighter. When he walked by on Tuesday the next week, she wasn't there. She wasn't sitting by the gazebo or under the trees. On Wednesday, she wasn't sitting on the swing or sprawled on the grass. He never went in to check.
** ** **
Charles had stopped having real conversations with his mum. He had also stopped going to Ranch Parkway. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he went to 4s Commons Dr. He'd pass by Craftsman way to Dove Canyon Road, hoping to see a job vacancy or his ex-colleague, Susan. Then he'd turn back to 49th street, looking over Rancho Bernardo.
When he went home, Courtney would be sprawled on the floor, mounting her pack of K'Nex and his mum would be in the kitchen making tater tots or fish tacos. The house always smelt like garlic.
Charles would go in the basement and smoke his whole pack of robusto, reading old mails and receipts. When his mum came down to check him, he was always asleep between the cluster of papers. On Tuesday he was there, reading one of Brit's receipts when he noticed an envelope by his computer. He peered over it, hesitant.
There was a tiny scribble on its edge; "TO CHARLES ASTON" it read. He took it and held a quizzing look before tearing it open.
His head was aching, and his eyes dim. He felt like he had been in a balletic pirouette while bobbing his head. He held the envelope to his face and blinked continuously. There was a paper in it, but it wasn't a letter. It was a drawing, a stick art with a message inscribed beneath. It looked faint, smeared with ink, or grease. Charles imagined he was having a hangover, maybe he was, except he didn't ever drink. He had been smoking a lot and hadn't had real food in days.
He took a second look at the words. He knew what it said, he knew the words. He could almost whisper them, he could search in the box below the desk and find these words scribbled on one of Brit's CD collections. They were lyrics from a Rance Allen song. And he knew the drawing. If his head wasn't aching badly, he could pull away from this desk, pick up his lighter and burn it again.
Stirring away from the desk, Charles took the last stick of the cigar and held it in his mouth. He plodded out the house into the cobbled street covered with haze of snow. He heard his mum yell his name but he plodded all the more, cussing silently, rubbing his forehead, and nibbling on the cigar. He took a bus to Shelborne street, and walked the rest of the way to Rancho Bernardo, finally standing in front of the park.
Charles's heart ached within him. He had never been so vulnerable, so gullible. He imagined that the girl had delivered the envelope, but put off the thought. She wasn't in the park. Charles went by the gazebo and was greeted by the croaks of little birds and squeaks of crickets. He didn't lay eyes on the girl. He lurched on the grass against his knee, and Charles wept. He thought of Brit, of the night she had birthed Courtney, and they both held her tiny fingers, Brit had smiled, but he knew she was saying goodbye. He had never brought himself to think once of that moment again, or to look upon Courtney and be left with the profanity of hope, but here he was, by a gazebo, looking on the inscription of Brit's favorite line of a song, and wishing, he had never sung it with her, or even learnt the words.
When he looked up, he was facing the cardboard turnips, and this time, he noticed a different name on one of the cardboards. BRITTNEY ASTON. Brittney Aston! Charles lurched. He snatched the box and read the line beneath it: "To Charles, my husband, my love."
Without thinking, he stroke the cardboard repeatedly against the ground until it tore open. A single paper was in it, folded neatly.
Charles's cheeks burned. He took the paper and unfolded it,one breath at a time:
"...I hope my dear, you see this some day and realize that I sit in this park each evening with my little friend, Sally, while you're at work and think of our love....it may seem lost, like a vapor or a stone."
Charles tasted the bitter sweet taste of his tears as it crept in his mouth. Behind him, a tiny little voice came.
"She always wanted you to see that."
It was the girl.
" What is your name?"