Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Penny Park

If she could have avoided Marsten Street she would have, but the traffic was so bad Cam had to take the lane she could grab. It made her turn right and there was the street she tried to not use, cross, go near. It was inevitable that one day she would be corralled into its proximity. In this case, broad daylight, that mid-day blazing sunshine baking sidewalks, awnings casting heavy shadows, folks dabbing their brows while rushing to restaurants, shops, offices.

Then it came upon her, the small triangular park called Marsten Park–though that conjured up visions of columned manses and overarching, elegant boughs, of shiny long cars and women in linen dresses with floppy-brimmed hats. Now, however, it seemed closer to that incarnation. A neighborhood many invested in and it had paid off, she heard, but she’d not been here in two decades. Back in her childhood there were smudgy row houses that raucous families inhabited, sometimes two or three generations, life spilling out doorways any time of day, even night.

Penny Park, they’d called it when she was a kid. About big as a penny, her ma had said, and worth half as much. But they loved it, the kids, and some of the parents who brought smaller ones, Never mind it had one wonky swing for some years and a dented slide, with a horseshoes area (if you brought your own horseshoes), and four splintery picnic tables positioned close enough that they’d sometimes share extra burgers or frankfurters and even private info despite trying to keep talk to themselves.

Someone honked and she came to, saw the light was green, turned again since there was no choice, skimmed past the shady park. Such mammoth trees and so many more plantings the park looked foreign. She had to look again and hard. It was about empty, a small parking strip only half-full. Cam checked her watch, pulled into a spot. Parked and idled. Tapped her index finger, long tapered nail clicking against the steering wheel. She sighed and got out, shut the door. The place she had loved her life must be faced.

The first thing: play equipment painted primary colors and clean as can be– monkey bars, swirly slide, seesaws, four working swings. It took up the entire northeast corner of the triangle. That they stood empty dismayed Cam but she took a seat at a varnished bench–one of three. The day had been brutal, that Bampton case gone awry, the DA chomping at the bit and growling at her. Some days she didn’t know why she had gotten into this business of justice for all. It clearly was otherwise. But the wily ins and outs, the complex and intriguing nature of people and even the process had pulled her in from the start.

Who would have thought it? She was a pianist in her earliest and dearest of dreams. She imagined freedom from many conventions that had become part of her life, anyway.

Maybe it had started here, she thought, and pushed flyaway hair under a bow of perched fancy sunglasses. It certainly was not a family destiny, her father being a supervisor at the steel plant, her mother an overworked cook at Eagle’s Perch. But she had been a bit different, enough so that her dad said a few times a year: “How did your DNA sneak into this common stew pot?” She sometimes wanted to say that it was him, he had a far better brain than most, he had just not had a chance to exercise it all ways he wanted. But she did her own– because she’d willed it so.

A little boy ran to a swing and his mother trailed after. Soon he was pumping chubby legs so fast the swing was jerkily lifting higher bit by bit, the mother pushing only cursorily as she checked her cell phone. A half-attendant mother, much like her own, only better dressed. Cam worried he would fly out and then what? Maybe land on his feet, like she used to, mostly.

Cam and company hadn’t needed mothers much, fathers maybe less, or so they thought. They’d all lived across the street or around the corners, and after school they made a beeline for the only decent green space within arms’ reach, Penny Park. In summer they hung out until they couldn’t any longer bear the hot metal slide or smothering humidity of a Midwestern summer. They had a ball for kick or dodge ball, a found can for Kick the Can, a slingshot or two for whatever, and tangy Lick-a-Made packets saved up all week or rich butter mints snagged from blue glass candy dishes. They came there to share snacks and tales, play a game, do nothing, to hide from grown ups and maybe get into a little trouble.

Except Ben–he hung back, always with a book and a cold and sweating bottle of Vernors ginger ale. Despite the fact that the two of them lived next door, they were as suspicious of each other the first couple of summers as if they’d lived ten blocks apart. Cam excelled at games; Ben excelled at little but reading and just being outside, yet not even school held much interest. They nodded at each other after she had tried and failed to engage him in a good conversation. He watched her from behind the books and she attempted to ignore him.

But things began to change when they each turned twelve. For one thing, his father was out of work when her mother lost her job. They talked about it once briefly, a tentative, small bond over the failures of adults. They had zero allowance then so there was nothing to do but hang out at the park or sulk at their tense homes.

And that led to more chat.

“Why always the books?” she asked and plopped beside him under “his” aged elm tree. He was worried it’d be cut down for Dutch elm disease; he was likely right.

“I like what I like,” he said, scooting over a bit to create more space between them.

“What this time?”

Habits of Mammals in Spring,” he read off the cover. “Would you like to know about them?”

“Would you like to hear about my piano lessons?” she said.

“That would be a ‘no’. I am not so thrilled by your piano playing.”

“There you have it on those topics, then. But you have to talk and listen to know more about anything, not just read.”

Still, his words had stung–and did he actually listen to her practice? She tried to remember to lower the window sash in the living room.

“See, you’re the talker,” he said, upper lip curling slightly. “I hear you every day, talk, talk, talk.”

Cam rolled up a tiny bug into a leaf and tossed it at him. “That’s what we humans do.”

He laughed and batted away the leaf, laughed as if pleased by that assessment or the bug or both. It was a good sound to her–surprising. They sat quietly another few minutes until she got tired of looking over his shoulder–he didn’t move, just kept tuning pages– skimming info about beavers. It was interesting but she wasn’t going to admit it.

After that they spent random bits of time together. He explained food sources for small mammals and where good bird lookouts were. She talked about playing Bach and pleasures of the always cool Beatles and why she found them both so fascinating. But when she took part in an impromptu foot race with their neighborhood friends, he hooted at her.

“Back and forth on the same grassy stretch, that’s no dang race!” he’d yell.

“Try me–I’ll beat you before you even say ‘go’!”

Then one time the kids paused to see if a miracle would occur and Ben would join up. When he shrugged, put down his book and got set to run, they tittered among themselves. Everyone knew Ben was not a sporty guy. Cam was good at this; she won three out of five times. So when they lined up behind the pine cones, she was ready to impress him again. They got off to a good start, she was ahead by several feet, outran Sam, then Ken, then Marie, when suddenly out from behind shot Ben, his skinny legs wound up and set loose as he dashed past all, and barely stopped himself with the natural barrier of a hefty tree trunk.

What a sprinter! Cam and the others gathered round him. Why hadn’t he shown them this before? What else was he hiding? Good grief, he was faster than all of them.

Ben smiled graciously, then went back to his tree, huffing and puffing a little, face reddened. He didn’t need to prove such things, he thought to himself, but now they knew something more about him. In fact, he had surprised himself a little.

Cam slid down in the dirt beside him after a few minutes.

“You had us fooled, you prankster,” she said.

He slowly turned his head and those blue-grey eyes reached in and it was like she was staring back at slow creek water, and there was something moving under the surface. Cam felt it, an energy that frizzed and she barely caught it, it was swift, wholly baffling. He shifted, scratched his chin as he did when thinking, and narrowed those eyes as if trying to see more. Then he was back to his book on rock hunting.

“I like to run, you just never asked me to,” he said.

And that was that. They were not as before, but more than before. They walked home later talking about running and rocks, her piano teacher who was mean and their parents who were more and more annoying. He felt the dry warmth radiating off her hand as it dangled beside his sweaty one; she felt the soft release of his breath on her bare shoulder as he said “later, then”.

It was as if they had always been that way. It seemed unlikely that things could ever go back. But there was plenty of time to ponder it if necessary.

******

Cam observed the boy and his mother tire of swings and they grabbed hands to cross the street; she heard trucks bump and roar past, crows scolding whoever passed. She noted a meter maid putting a ticket on her car–did they now dare charge for parking here?–but she looked into the trees and saw only Ben, age seventeen as he informed her that he was accepted into Stanford as soon as he graduated and, of course, a year early.

They had been to the riverfront all afternoon and finally–after dinner at The Floating Cafe, after they’d browsed the shops and bought matching copper and silver wire bracelets, after they’d run out of odd trivia to trade–darkness slid over sky and onto pathways and their persons. Bobbing boats were all lit up, and decorative lights gave a festive air to the marina. They leaned on the railing that kept them safe from the swirling brown river.

“I have to go, you know that– I wish it’d all work out differently,” he said, looking down at his holey sneakers. “But we are still together, right?”

She nodded, afraid to talk. He was two heads taller than she was and she was tall, and when he pulled her to him she felt as much as heard his heartbeat, steady and a little fast. It was always steady and fast– like a bird, she thought, and that swish swish had been a reassurance, a kind of audible tether to life when things got rough. His dense, warm chest, that heart, his chin resting on her head, his strong, long arms about her. This was the way they were to stand forever. She for him, he for her.

He held her head still with his, a few fingers woven through her thick, wavy hair and then he smelled the top of her head. This spot always gave off woodsy scents, the barest touch of musky something. Maybe it was because they’d spent so many years in the forest hiking, camping, sweating, dreaming: it was part of their skin and hers was richer than his. His comfort, each inch a fine venous map that led to greater things, to hope, to the next moment.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Ben asked, pulling back to see her face. “Be reckless for once?”

“Stop. Have to graduate, then University of Michigan if I am lucky, law school, a maybe or maybe not…As if you’ve never head this litany before.”

They let the night cover their sorrow; they talked of bears and Dvorak; they walked stealthily through the streets past midnight; they heard the river run with a vast indifference and then certain exuberance. It hurt to say goodnight, as if their words were windows shutting firmly to keep out a storm but also the sweeter breezes promised afterwards.

******

It was time. Cam leapt up from her bench in Penny Park, got her car, drove away and parked again fifteen minutes later. Here she was prepared to pay to park awhile, it was Bonner Auditorium, a small venue but all shined up, one meant for important events but smaller crowds. Lectures, solo concerts, chamber ensembles, readers’ theater, obscure dance company performances–these she had attended often the last three years since her return to help her mother relocate to a condo.

Since her divorce and the need for deeper peace. Which she had not quite found or created though she was getting closer.

Inside, people were talking excitedly, milling about and greeting friends, threading their way one end of the auditorium to the other. Cam found her seat easily; she had two reserved seats for the season but her mother was in too much discomfort from arthritis, to her regret. Cam’s breath caught in her chest and she coughed, fanned her lightly perspiring face with the program and wishing they’d ramp up the AC. When the lights were lowered she bit her lower lip to keep calmer. Someone was talking on stage, then there was a spattering of applause.

“Please welcome one of our very own, the esteemed microbiologist and author Benjamin Widdstone as he shares stories of his worldwide travels and research from his latest book, ‘Promise and Pleasure of the Humble Pond’.”

Sustained, excited clapping rang out and he was there in the spotlight, the boy and youth who had avoided all spotlights. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap: yes, that same slight leaning forward, darkish hair longer than she had ever seen, hands expressive as he warmed up to the topic, his deep, melodious voice–oh, that voice. She closed her eyes; a tear loosened.

She will wait for him backstage, tell him she can finally almost play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, yes, with some difficulty–but still, she has managed it a few times, it does please her a little–and perhaps he’d like to hear it? If he has a free hour before the next plane, next book, next field trip. If he has the inclination, if he cares to recall just a little of what she did–and find out what she does now. How they both have done without each other.

She let herself look up. Ben tilted his head, turned his body to one side and as if searching the crowd he peered into rows of shadowy seats, a flattened hand cutting off bright light. He paused one beat, two, three– then nodded, smiled, scratched the close cut, graying beard on lifted chin, and then continued.

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