“What’s in a year?” she asks me.
Strange question coming from nowhere. I look up. She’s young, not that young, but younger. And pretty. I’m not dead.
Everybody’s younger than me, seems. She’s wearing jeans; designer, naturally; and a tight tee shirt accentuates her jut points. She’s a bottle blond. Oh well.
I think all you need to become common is do what everybody else in your crowd does. Wonder if she knows that.
It’s late in the day, the sun about to set, and you can look at it through the clouds. I’d been trying hard not to think and succeeding, up to now.
This young woman sits down on the park bench a few inches from my butt. She looks at the ducks a few feet away and then at me. I give up trying to be alone.
She’s probably bored, and me, I’m staring out at ducks waddling toward a pond. Nothing is moving fast. Nothing has to. There’s me, there’s nature. There’s the end of another nothing day. Now there’s her.
I sit with hands in my pockets, stretched out, slouching like I do. Thinking of how I am makes me smile. I do stick my hands in my pockets. Thinking about it makes me wonder why, and of course I have the answer. I take my hands out of my pockets and they flop around, turn over, get cold, stuff like that. Besides, I’m obsessive-compulsive.
I do this interruption in my semi-existence a favor.
“Depends,” I say.
“C’mon, it’s a good question.”
“Really good,” I say. She’s pulling me up. Don’t get annoyed, Donnie.
“How old are you?”
“You’re shitting me…”
“You don’t look it.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Last time somebody asked me that they thought I was thirty-eight.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Twenty-five years.” I cup my hands around the sides of my face and grin. “What you think?”
“You already told me, so it’s not fair.”
“So what would you think?”
“Until I look close.”
“They say that, too.”
“So I won’t look close.”
“That’d be good.” I don’t want to like her, but I might.
“What’s your name… Levi?”
I laugh. It’s light. I’m getting into it.
“Did I want to know?”
“We’ll find out. Why are you here? No, wait…tell me a story,” she says.
“Sure. You want a Once Upon a Time…?”
“No, not that. Tell me about you.”
“Classified. If I tell you, I have to kill you.”
“You’re so dangerous looking…” Her eyes grow wide. She’s torking me. I do like her.
“You see these hands?”
“Not too,” I say.
“I’m fifty-five,” she says and now I look at her. Well preserved.
“Why are you hanging around with an old guy?”
“You’re my pigeon.”
Alarm bells? No, I’m sitting on my wallet. “Okay, I give. What?”
“Tell me that story?”
“Uh uh, you first.” Okay, I’m interested. My wife dies three years ago from the cancer. The news has been bellyaching about a big ozone hole over southern Australia and how you got to protect yourself all the time or you’re going to get the cancer. Shouldn’t have happened to Abby. She was only sixty-two. Too young, but cancer doesn’t care.
Yeah, I’m over it, but life isn’t the same. There is something to say about being your own person, looking out for no one but you, but not much.
“I was just released from the Capehart Psychiatric Institute in Sydney.”
That changes things. I look at her with fresh eyes. She does not exude any signal I can catch and I’m trained to it. If I do tell her my story, the real one, I mean, I think it’ll blow her socks off.
I’m thinking that whatever her reason for being incarcerated in that famous place, it must have taken well enough. Like I say, I pick up vibes very quickly.
She has my attention.
“Ten months,” she says, “and out I go. No drugs, no insanity in the family, no thoughts of suicide, no closet skeletons. Clean bill of health.”
Like I say, she’s got me. “Okay, why that approach? It takes some getting used to.”
“Dr. Ryder said it would.”
“Ryder, huh.” Steve Ryder. I went to lower and middle schools with him. Then his parents decide that City College isn’t good enough for their extremely awesome son and send him to Cambridge. I stay in Adelaide and get mine in Psychology. I am retired comfortably enough until Abby passes, then I get my tough time.
So that’s where he ended up. “Did he sic you on me?”
“What do you mean?”
“This Dr. Ryder.” She doesn’t understand and I’m not talking until I figure out what’s going on.
She looks troubled. She glances around like she’d said something wrong. I wait for the other shoe to drop.
“Maybe I should tell you then.”
“The real reason I stopped by you.”
“I think you should.”
Just then I hear a sound behind me and I turn in time to see Steve Ryder walking toward me, white hair, unwrinkled gray suit, white striped shirt and subdued tie, spit-shined leather shoes, looking fit, although leaning ever so slightly on a cane.
My feet come under me and I vault from the bench.
“Steve, you old son of a bitch, what are you up to?” We shake hands and hug and Mary looks on. She doesn’t know what to think.
“Mary, would you step away for a moment. I’d like to explain something to this man.”
Yes, doctor.” Mary moves off to the water and stands gazing at the last blush of day. She doesn’t seem offended.
Ryder turns to me. “Donnie, I heard about Abby and I’m sorry. I was conducting an experiment. I still have friends in Adelaide and I knew you came down here to sit every few evenings. I wanted to test out Mary’s readmission to society skills on a stranger, but one where I thought I could talk my way out of a situation if one arose, if you know what I mean.”
I remain silent, withholding judgment.
“I want to ask you, in particular, if you noticed anything abnormal about Mary’s presentation, any vibes.
“That’s great. Mary has a new implant that helps keep her balances in check. I watched from a distance and I was more than pleased with what I saw. You being in a position to discern deeply only made the experiment more spectacular and convinced me that it’s going to work.”
“Don’t be mad. It’s for science.”
I sigh. He has me there. I wasn’t being taken for a fool and I’d found Mary quite interesting and attractive. I hadn’t felt a need to do anything but grow old and die in my time. Tonight I met someone who might reverse my thinking. Selfish? Sure. I only half lived at this point. Maybe there’s more to come.
“Okay, I’m good. I will get you back some day.”
Steve laughs good-naturedly.
“Mary,” Dr. Ryder calls. Mary walks over.
“Mary, meet Dr. Don Brownson. He and I went to grammar and high school together. I used him as a test subject relating to the social reprogramming work I’ve done with you. He had no knowledge of what I was doing, so you can both claim innocence.”
Mary’s brow un-crinkles. She looks me in the eye and smiles. She has a beautiful smile and her eyes are clear and untroubled. I make an unusually quick decision.
“Mary, after we get rid of this interloper, what say you and I get a spot of tea? I know a nice café. I want to hear the rest of your story, and I’ve got one for you.”
Mary’s smile increases and she almost glows.
“I would love to, doctor,” she says.