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The Old Man and the Pond

by Paul Lees-Haley

“May I?”

The old man on the park bench glanced up and motioned to the space at his right. “Of course.”

I sat down beside him for a view near the pond, on a bench long enough to respect his solitude.

Several ducks paddled near, slowed, eyed us, then drifted away. A breeze pushed a chill through the warmth of the April sun, fell away, and rose and fell.

For ten minutes we sat in silence.

“When I was a boy, I fished off a log right about here. There were no benches back then.” He gestured, pointing. “That stone border wasn’t there. The water shallowed out to mud on the edge.” With a pensive expression he raised and lowered his hand again as if I might have missed it the first time.

My husband used to tell me strangers talk to me because I have an accepting demeanor and appearance. And because I listen.

He sighed. “There were butterflies here in those days.”

To our left, across the narrow end of the pond, three small children screamed bursts of joy like a string of firecrackers while tossing something white to ducks, maybe popcorn or bread, and shrieked and ran when the ducks clambered onshore and waddled close. The smallest, a girl, cried, “Daddy!” and hugged one leg of a man snapping their pictures with his cell phone.

“My wife passed away when we were seventy. After that, things faded, like the colors drained out.” He frowned and appeared to have lost track of his thought for a few seconds. Then he shrugged, and his brow smoothed. “I’ve outlived all my friends.”

I longed for words, some right thing, a balm.

He sat up straight, brave. “I still drive. Do my own shopping.” He lowered his eyes. “What there is. Food and the pharmacy. Sometimes the bookstore.”

The wind weakened until it rippled the water with only traces of waves that vanished at birth.

Silver minnows swarmed past fat languorous goldfish, white and black and orange, some mottled all three, one ragged and peeling, wounded. Several of their dorsal fins sliced through the surface and flirted with the overworld with a sashay and then dismissed us with a swirl into the water below. From behind, a dove cooed in the trees.

“We lost our boy too. She always said that wasn’t natural.” He touched his cheek. “It was hard.”

He withdrew into his thoughts for several minutes then coughed and rubbed his face. “It’s what took the spirit out of her. For years she talked confused, hard to understand. Fifteen years of that and she was gone. She was only sixty-nine when she passed away. Would have been seventy in four days.” His eyes fluttered then he went absent once more.

A lone duck stopped, held its head at an angle as if puzzled, and waited with me.

“We married when we were nineteen, did I tell you that?”

I shook my head.

“We met at the county fair. Prettiest thing.”

The thought of such a time, young, happy, released in me a flow of sweet joy that completed me. The feeling lingered for a while, then ebbed and stranded my heart on cold sand, as lonely as if no one else was left, not even the man beside me.

“One time, after we married, we went back to that fair, but it wasn’t the same.”

After patting the grass with its webbed feet, the lone duck lowered itself to the ground and rocked for a moment as if to settle in properly to join our conversation. A companion.

“I still love that girl. We... Did I already tell you that?”

I nodded then felt uncertain that he had, that I might have responded from sympathy. I didn’t want to lie to him.

He hung his head. “I do that.”

After a time he looked up as a snowy egret flew low across the water.

A young couple strolled toward us, his arm around her shoulders, whispering, eyes only for each other. Both giggled and she kissed his cheek. We sat silently as they passed with no sign that we existed.

The old man pulled up the collar of his jacket and returned his hands to his pockets. “I can tell when it gets two degrees colder. You believe that?”

I gave him a nod with a tiny but genuine smile.

“It’s true. I can feel it.”

The pond answered with a cooling breeze that wafted over us and moved on.

“Brrr,” he said and shook himself and laughed.

Joining his laugh, I rubbed my hands together, fast, then cupped them and blew in warm air. His buddy.

A cloud slid over the sun and the pond darkened and seemed deeper.

Narrowing his eyes, he peered at me as if we sat further apart, and for a wistful instant focused intently as if I were someone he knew, a face approaching the edge of his reach. I made a smile with a quirky angle I thought he might recognize.

“You live long enough, you just take up space.” He cleared his throat.

I met his gaze.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not depressed.” He turned his eyes to the pond and pushed up his lower lip. “It’s simply a fact.”

As minutes eased by, his face smoothed then his eyes closed. His chest rose and fell gently and his lips parted and his head tilted forward. While he sat like that, our companion duck and I watched a second, smaller duck in the water dunk its head a few times and swallow its catch with back and forth snatching motions until the old man snorted and jerked upright but relaxed again without awakening.

Soon his soft snore uncovered the quiet that had snuck up on us, and I realized the children and father and couple had disappeared. We were alone.

I touched the bulge of the book in my purse but left it inside. My thoughts turned to what I might prepare for our supper. Maybe pork chops and a kale salad. John liked that. And maybe cornbread. It had been a while. A scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream wouldn’t hurt anything.

The wonder of his disease mystified me every day: how a man could recall his childhood and recognize his favorite foods but not the stranger beside him, the wife who prepared those favorites for sixty-six years.

I smiled for the sun and the pond, and the fish and ducks, and the people who were no longer with us. There was no hurry. Time enough for the old man and the pond.

Copyright © 2016 by Paul Lees-Haley

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