Looking out through the grimy window over the sink, his daughter watched her father’s once imposing figure receding slowly down the sidewalk as he limped off toward the duck pond. She shook her head with a mixture of pity and loathing, and although she was ashamed at her feelings of antipathy and was plagued by the accompanying guilt, she never allowed through the warm feelings that she had once had for her father. She thought, with disgust, how he wasted his time like this every day, sitting alone on a bench, feeding scraps of stale bread to those stupid birds. She continued to wash the dishes by hand, placing each of them in the drain which had showed rust where the yellow plastic coating had worn through. She stared at the television for a few moments, and then dried them with a tattered dish towel. She looked out through the window again, but he was gone. Noticing her reflection, she passed a hand through her uncombed bleach blonde hair. The scornful look on her face reflected the bitterness that all of the neighbors had dishwashers, while she was still doing dishes by hand. Finally finished, she draped a wet wash cloth over the faucet in one motion, coughed deeply, and, in another motion, took a cigarette from a pack on the counter. She lit it with a pink disposable cigarette lighter and took a deep drag, savoring the flavor. For the hundredth, thousandth, millionth time, she put away the breakfast dishes, chipped and worn and no longer a set. She rubbed the chapped skin on her fingers and hands, telling herself that she’d have to buy some more hand lotion next time she went shopping. Throughout, she was plagued by these thoughts: Do they really care? Does anyone really care? … her husband, who always seemed so apart from it all – so remote, so foreign to her now … their two teenagers off at school – who were either abusive or indifferent or mean-spirited but sweet only when they wanted something … and her father, who seemed to appreciate the room and the meals, her care and her caring, but who was ticking down the years and minutes of his life. Goddam it! Those bastards! She took another drag and started hacking again. The black and white TV on the scratched Formica counter faded into snow and hiss as she reached over to turn it off. It was the same old drudge, the same old routine, with never any promise, never any hope. At times, she wanted to cash it in and get away from it all, and let the sonofabitches care for themselves. See how long they’d like that! But she immediately realized that they’d probably do okay without her; even the kids could stick a TV dinner into the microwave. Who needs her anyway? And where would she go? At the pond, the flock of pigeons flew close when they saw him approaching. He had two bags of day-old bread that he had bought at the bakery thrift store, with the little that was left over after his daughter cashed his pension check. The monthly benefit was small, barely enough for him to get by on when he had retired many years before. Moving in was her idea; the money would help them all out, and there would be someone to look after him. Nowadays, only the birds acknowledged his presence, seemingly awaiting his visits with loving anticipation. Thinking this, he knew he was only fooling himself, realizing that the birds would come over to anyone who was toting a bag. And as they were being fed, they would give their unconditional love and acceptance, for they truly were fair weather friends. The seagulls circled overhead, squawking, waiting to dive down and scoop up the soggy pieces that the ducks and geese weren’t quick enough to grab. With more effort than usual, he lowered himself onto one of the benches alongside the pond. He sat facing the bright noonday sun, enjoying its warmth on his face. He ran his hand along the recently painted wooden slabs, fingering the initials and hearts and declarations of love carved into the wood over the years. These days it was so hard to derive joy from most things, but he forced himself to smile at the almost magical sparkling jewels of sunlight shimmering off the rippling water. As he sat there he couldn’t put out of his mind that he was, indeed, an old man, inevitably getting older and more brittle every day. He certainly didn’t need his daughter’s disdainful looks, so poorly disguised, to enlighten him; every painful step he took rudely reminded him who he was and where he was heading. He broke up the bread, tossing bits to the birds at the edge of the pond, and flinging some up in the air for the seagulls to snatch. He took his time in order to prolong his sense of purposefulness and usefulness. But the bread was soon gone and the birds started drifting away. While the pigeons carefully pecked away at the few remaining crumbs, and with nothing left to do but slowly limp back to his tiny upstairs room, he closed his eyes and let his mind wander back to all that he had and all that he had left, which were his memories. Memories of his wife – she was so beautiful – dying during childbirth ... of raising, with the support and help of relatives and friends, a daughter who looked so much like her ... of feeling, nonetheless, that he could never do enough for her ... of being ever so proud – feeling his mouth widening into a semblance of a grin – when he took that morning off from work and walked his daughter to her first day of kindergarten ... and shortly after, with minutes turning to years, her graduating from high school ... of meeting her husband-to-be and soon walking her down the aisle ... and then having the two beautiful grandchildren who now simply ignored him, treated him like an object to be merely tolerated or to be written off ... of having been a teacher when teachers and teaching were respected ... of having people addressing him as Mister instead of now condescendingly calling him by his first name – which meant everyone from the technician at the lab to the receptionist in his cardiologist’s office ... of somehow letting life slip by, of nearing death without a sense of serenity, without an argument, without a knock-down, drag out fight, without even a whimper at the injustice of it all. With his eyes closed it was easy for him to doze off, something which he generally did, and sleep allowed him to escape from the constant thoughts of death and mortal dread which nagged at him and tormented him. His naps were particularly sweet, especially when the gentle breeze of an early autumn day unwilling to release summer’s warmth wafted over his face and body, almost caressing his soul. Only occasionally was he interrupted by someone he knew, but anyone who really knew him well was long since gone. Last night’s yelling hurt him deeply in a way that he could never fully comprehend. There was no way he could avoid hearing the harsh, foul words between his daughter and her husband through the cheap plasterboard walls, and then the screaming and cursing of the kids. He shook his head sadly from the red heat of their anger and the iciness of their disrespect. He had tried to close his ears to it by turning up the volume on the transistor radio, then by pushing the miniature earphone deeper into his ear and burying his face into his pillow. But the words still pounded through. Without fail, whenever they argued, he would hear his name spat out – but what could he have done this time that could have angered them so? Then, as now, he started to weep in frustration. He opened his eyes and wiped away his tears with a crumpled tissue he kept in his sleeve. He watched the seagulls circling lazily overhead, almost like vultures, he thought, waiting for him to die. This is getting too damn morbid, he told himself. Gliding in wide circles, the swans were on sentry duty in the middle of the pond, ever so noble, ever so vigilant. He had sat through nine seasons, watching different varieties of ducks touch down and then fly off, watching the swans paddle protectively around their young, watching the male pigeons strutting and gyrating to impress the females, watching the Canadian geese goose-stepping automatically though their lives ... balls of fluff following their hissing parents in the spring ... the young ones later battling for superiority ... dunking upside down in mid-summer to shed their first set of baby feathers ... then assembling together before flying off in the fall ... always with great excitement and honking ... and always in pairs. They at least knew their time and their place. Once again, his eyes slowly closed. In a crescendo, the honking grew louder, more insistent, more urgent. He heard the smacking of wings and the rush of air against the water. Momentarily, he felt himself lift upwards, as if he, too, were one of them – one with them – and in a vision that seemed more than real, he saw and felt himself flying off, soaring above the pond, looking down at the pitiful old man sitting on the bench with his eyes closed ... while simultaneously realizing that these yearnings were simply the imaginings of a solitary, desperate old man. Yet for that one brief moment, he felt pangs of undeniable ecstasy, even as he gasped in horror and clutched frantically and hopelessly at the excruciating pain in his chest.
Spring 1985 .. rev April 1998 .. rev November 5, 2010 Copyright © 2010, Lloyd B. Abrams