The story of a man who follows a boy into a park. Suggestions for the title WELCOME.
| Starting at the school didn’t work; he boards a bus two blocks from his house every single morning, without fail, and his mom always picks him up from the after-school program. Going through the school won’t work because administration doesn't have anything in their records to connect me to him; in fact, it would be worse if they did seeing as I’m a felon. Waiting outside his house wasn’t easy either; some neighborhoods seriously complicate the art of being inconspicuous. One day, however, I found a way to follow him. After that, I imagined it would only take a couple of weeks to make contact.
Today’s the day. A couple dry runs came before: enough observation to sense the pattern, whether anyone would go with him, where he ended up; mainly to figure a way to work up the nerve to make it happen. His mom lets him go to the park by himself on Sunday afternoons; she has all summer, at precisely 2 p.m., and he has to be home again by 2:45 on the nose. I know because he checks his watch religiously. You can tell just by looking he’s a good kid who listens to his mom because he trusts her. I wonder how long it will take before he’s the same with me.
It’s a long walk to his favorite playground, the one where only a few kids show up so there’s always a chance he’ll get the merry-go-round all to himself. He does the funniest thing with it: he pushes it by himself, those little legs pushing against something that must weigh a ton to him, and then he hops on and inches himself toward the middle. Once he gets there, he flops on his back like a starfish and looks up at the big blue sky.
Damn it, how I hope I get to do that with him one day. Just to lie on my back with him sitting on top of me looking up at the sky and the clouds passing overhead. He’d point at one and tell me what it looked like – a dog, a boat, something generic, but miles from what it actually was – and I’d just agree and pretend to see it, holding him the entire time and loving every second of it.
I’m walking behind him now, about 100 yards back. Even after all the dry runs, I didn’t think making would be this hard. There are so many people around. The hard thing is, I just don’t know how he’s going to react. Will he even talk to me? What has his mom told him about this kind of thing? If it goes anything but smoothly, I’ll be standing there surrounded by hundreds of people with a kid clearly scared as hell and with me clearly being the cause. Maybe it’s time for another dry run.
Wait. Damn it. He went over the hill, that little one that rings the park like a big bowl with a fat, soft lip. No, it’s one of those things like getting in cold water: better just to do it and get it over with. I trot to the top of the hill, checking my watch as I start; it’s 2:15 now. Taking away travel time on both sides, he has only 15 minutes until he has to walk home and I lose my chance. Thinking about it again, maybe I can take advantage of that long walk home, use it make the connection.
I slow down when I reach the top of the grassy ring around the playground and take a seat on some rocks off to the side. I look around like someone taking in everything, or try to so no one can notice I’m focused on him. I glance over at the merry-go-round, but he’s not there. When I find him, he’s running back and forth across this bridge between two play structures with some other kid I’ve never seen before chasing after him. And, look at that, he’s faster – a lot faster. Good strong legs on that kid; man, that’s what you like to see. It doesn’t take long to get lost in it, the simple beauty of a young boy running under a sunny sky with nothing in the world to worry about but getting home on time. He’s screaming out a laugh with the other kid always a step behind him and, man, if it doesn’t look like he can run like that forever.
I get a little lost in it, watching him. It’s not until he checks his watch that I remember we’re both on a kind of schedule. When I look at my stop-watch – it’s not like we can synchronize our watches - he’s got just over a minute to go. The rush hits me only then: the moment of truth just arrived. I had thought out a speech, a way to make him relax and to talk to me for a couple minutes, but what do I do if I can't get past hello? Nerves set in from nowhere and I suddenly I’m thinking about another dry run. No, now I’m sure of it: today’s not the day, not with the place crawling with so many people they're practically brushing against me. I can’t do anything until I can figure out how to get past hello.
I sort of work myself around the shape of a tree as he passes by me on the foot path; sure enough, he’s headed home right on the stroke of the 30th minute, right on time to reach home by 2:45. He moves in that slightly jerky walk that kids have before they grow into their bodies. He’s about 10 yards ahead of me now and heading down the hill, toward the long, open space of the park. He’s moving among a bunch of people now, young couples passing older ones, people darting by on bikes; god, so many damn people. One suddenly stands out, a woman standing on the other side of him, but looking past him and straight at me.
Wait, is that? I bolt behind the tree and wait, breathing hard.
“What are you looking at, Mommy?” He turns around, not just looking over his shoulder, but clearly on guard.
The question says it all: there’s no way she didn’t see me. I stand behind the tree for about five seconds thinking about whether to walk out or just run as fast as I can and go and go until I reach another goddamn state. Dammit! Just about anything could have happened today and it would have been nothing; even if he saw me, I could have salvaged it. Her seeing me means no more dry runs: it’s show time. I look around the tree and there she is with her hand held against her heart and a look on her face I haven’t seen in years. She’s digesting the fact that it’s me standing there. I come all the way out now and walk over slowly.
“Jason?” No question it’s Susan, the way her voice rises on the “-son” in my name when she’s pissed at me. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s nothing Suzie,” I start.
“Dad?” He said it. My boy saw me.
“I have a restraining order. You can’t be here.” She pulls him close to her, putting her hands across his chest. “What are you doing, Jason?”
“Hi, Brandon.” I say this, not knowing whether it’s a mistake or not. I only know I don’t want him scared. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, buddy?” Completely exposed now, I turn to her. “Look, Suzie, I just wanted to see him. I…”
“You should have thought of that, Jason,” she’s shaking now, getting ready to lose control. Brandon looks so confused. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. “Do you know where Barry is right now? He’s in physical therapy, you prick! He’s in the goddamn hospital because you attacked him like an animal, Jason! Get the hell away from me, get the hell away from Brandon, just go somewhere and go…”
“Suzie!” I try to break in without yelling, but she’s so…mad. Shit, this is all so wrong! “Just listen, OK? People make mistakes. You might make a mistake one day, too, you know? Or you could have an accident…”
Her eyes get big and all wobbly right there. I can see she’s completely horrified and she’s backing away pulling Brandon with her and...shit, it’s over. I know it’s over. Why can’t I say anything right, why can’t I get anything right? Not one goddamn thing!
I turn around and start to walk. I start to wave, but let my hand drop. The last thing I see is her eyes, so big and scared as all hell. I remember Brandon. I’ll remember Brandon forever, that look on his face that I saw before turning away. Three years had come and gone and it’s a complete mystery to me, what goes in his head. All I can think, walking away down the soft rise into the park, is what’s going through his head right now. Right at that moment, did he want to run over the hill screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!” Just like he does every time I saw this day in my head?
All I know is she’s scared of me and my kid is with her. God, what now?