"Happy Valentine's Day!" These words had hardly passed my lips, when a slight wisp of a girl ran past me
and into the street.
"Same to you, old man." Her voice reverberated with the pleasure of the moment. "Sorry I'm in such a
hurry, but Josh is waiting."
The exchange of greetings was almost a daily ritual between this thirteen year old girl and me. It was a
cherished thing; a short interval of time to which we both looked forward.
I watched her in awe as she crossed to the opposite sidewalk, and as she passed from view, she was still
running. This Josh character must be somebody special, for her to be in such a rush. I was almost sad she
didn't have time for our usual conversation, but I am well aware of the haste with which youth must be
served. We older folks are prone to complain when younger folks seem to have so little time for the
pleasantries of life. We are the ones who should be in a hurry, it is we, after all, who may not have the time
remaining to complete life’s tasks. Kids should have all the time in the world.
Regardless, I looked forward to seeing her again as I passed by the park. She always stopped whatever she
was doing when I strolled by on my daily walk, and waved to me. "Hi, old man." she'd say, in response to
my greeting of, "Hello, young lady." It was our routine, upset only by those inclement days when neither of
us left our homes.
She was not at the park when I passed by this day. I slowed down and looked carefully, but the only
activity I observed was five small boys playing mumbly-peg between the swings and the inevitable chain
link fence. Puzzled, I slowed my walk a bit to better digest my concern.
I should not have worried. After passing the park, my walk always took me toward home, and as I
approached, I could see her sitting on my stoop, beside as pitiful and unkempt a specimen of boyhood as I
had ever seen. As I neared, she spotted me, and ran to meet me. “Hi, old man. I wanted you to meet Josh.
He’s going to be my partner at the Valentine’s party tonight.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why
she was attracted to him. Although there was a certain curiousness about him, his unwashed face belied his
likeability. His hair, uncombed, was only partially covered by a greasy baseball cap, and his clothing had
not seen the interior of a washing machine for ages. My displeasure must have been apparent, for she
immediately came to his rescue. “Josh lives in Oldtown, with his uncle. His folks are dead.” There was a
slight pause. " I asked him to be my partner. You have to have somebody to go with you, or they won't let
you in." There was another break in what was fast becoming a one-sided conversation. “No one else asked
him.” There was a defiant set to her young jaw, nobody need question her judgment.
For once in my life, I was without a ready set of words to express my disappointment. There were so many
young men she could have asked. Why him? He obviously was uncared for. Evidently no one had ever
introduced him to the pleasures of the bath. I supposed he would be acceptable, if only he were washed,
and his hair combed. Clean clothes would also have been a plus.
Feeling my years, I said my goodbyes and turned for home, just as a gibbous moon made itself visible in
the early evening sky. I remembered my younger days and wondered how many young people would see
that same moon, and use it’s beauty to lure a lover on this special night, the night when love is said to
bloom in magical ways. Magical for those fortunate enough to be young, vibrant and full of life's spices.
Not so magical for an old man, approaching life's end, one whose dreams have long since been replaced by
harsh reality. My days as a swinger were gone, senior citizenship was upon me. I was not altogether
unhappy, but youth had taken its toll as I drank in all its joys. No matter how delicious the meal, one can
only eat so much before fulfillment.
As I walked, I wondered, and thought of my late wife. It seemed like only yesterday I had laid her to rest,
and I knew that through a thousand tomorrows, her love would still be near, that the farther apart we were
in time, the closer we would be in spirit. It was only her memory that propelled me along the paths of life,
and the pure knowledge of eternity together was the only glue that held me together. I still half expected
her to meet me at the door as I entered the small cottage we had shared for so many years. However, the
only one to greet me was the old tom cat who had adopted me a year or so ago. As we exchanged
pleasantries, I realized that he was an excellent listener, never interrupting, and only occasionally purring
his agreement. He graciously accepted the saucer of milk I offered, then mewing his apologies for hurrying,
left by the little pet door that afforded him as much freedom as any old tom cat could desire.
Although it was much earlier than the time I usually retired, I bathed and prepared for bed. For some
reason, I was more tired than usual. The disappointment in the girl’s choice of friends seemed to cast a pall
on the evening, and I lay down to sleep. It came quickly this time, and with it came the dreams that
accompany such slumber. Once again, I could run, unencumbered by the aches and pains of age. I dreamed
of swimming in warm waters and never getting tired. I walked the hills without feeling the hurting legs and
painful back that filled my waking hours. As I slipped deeper into reverie, the dreams took on a renewed
reality. I was with Margaret, my wife, and we were happy. She talked to me of love and life, then,
incredibly, she appeared to morph into my mother, who told me I was useless to her if I couldn’t get a job. I
was hurtled back to a time I loathed, a time divided between satiating a cloying mother, and avoiding a
drunken step-father. It was a time I had tried to forget, but in my dream, I was there, attempting to walk the
fine line between love and hate. Then my mother disappeared, to be replaced once again by Margaret. But
it was a different Margaret this time. Her voice had become more shrill, and her usually beautiful face had
acquired a sharpness to which I was unaccustomed. She railed at me, and asked me how I expected to
marry her, me with no education, no breeding and no future. Then, Margaret disappeared and became
Mary, the child whose world had become so entwined in mine. Her voice was soft as she told me of the
dance she had attended with Josh. The last words I heard, as I awoke were, “I only asked him to go with me
because he reminds me so much of you.”
Breakfast was skimpy this morning. My thoughts kept going back to my dream, and it was unsettling. I had
misjudged them. My coffee tasted bitter, like it was yesterday’s reheated. My toast was burned, but I
merely scraped off the char and ate it anyway. I was in a hurry to get this day started, I needed to mend a
fence, and bridge a gap that was threatening to undermine a friendship.
Mary did not await me as I walked down the street past her house, nor did she greet me at the park this
morning. In fact, for several days my little friend was missing from my life. I entertained the idea of asking
about her, but in this day and age, one runs the risk of being labeled a pervert, on the prowl for children. So
I just waited.
My wait ended one day as I went by the park. A familiar face peered at me through the chain link fence, a
face that was now freshly scrubbed, with a clean, new baseball cap covering a shock of reddish hair, hair
that had recently been washed and combed. The clothes, while showing the effects of today’s games, were
basically clean. “Hey, old man! Aren’t you Mary’s friend?”
Eager now I responded, “Hey, young man! Yes, I’m Mary’s friend. Where has she been lately?” I was
elated to hear any news, and also happy to see the improvement in Josh. Perhaps there was hope for him
“She’ll be here tomorrow. She says to tell you to be sure and come by. She wants to see you. Will you be
here? I’m supposed to tell her when I go to see her today.”
I was somewhat puzzled. “Where do you have to go to see her,” I asked. “Isn’t she at home?”
“She’s in the hospital. She’ll be getting out tomorrow. Are you going to be here to see her old man? I have
to tell her today.”
I was aghast. What injury or illness had caused her to be hospitalized? At his tender age, Josh could not
have known the particulars, but I asked him anyway. “Why is she in the hospital? What happened to her? Is
she sick? Did she get hurt? Tell me what happened!”
As best he could, Josh told me of a terrible accident. Mary and her parents were involved in a devastating
crash, which took the lives of her parents, and put Mary in Good Samaritan Hospital with multiple injuries
and several broken bones. I felt terrible that I hadn’t known. For a whole week I had been looking for her
where I was used to seeing her, while she lay hurting, both from her own injuries and from the loss of her
parents. It was a helpless feeling. My walk that day took me to Mary’s bedside, where I tried to explain that
I hadn’t known, that I would have moved heaven and earth to have seen her before now. With a wan smile,
she eased my mind, and said it couldn’t have been my fault if I didn’t know. It was small comfort, I still felt
almost guilty that I hadn’t taken more positive steps to find her.
Mary was worse off than Josh knew. Her young life fluttered out just a few days later, and I held Josh
tightly as we attended the services dedicated to her life. It must have seemed to him that all was lost, first
his parents, then his best friend’s parents, then his best friend. I was helpless in my efforts to console him.
What does one say to someone who had lost so much? How do you help ease the hurt, so devastating in one
so young? All I could do was hold him, and cry with him.
Josh is going to be alright. I see him often, when my daily walks take me by the park. I raise my hand in
greeting and say, ”Hello, young man.”
Invariably, the wave is returned with a cheerful, “Hello, old man.”
One day, when we had a chance to talk, Josh told me we had to be friends for always, because Mary had
told him he should try to be more like me.
These days, my walks take me just a little farther, to the cemetery where Mary rests. When they are in
bloom, I place one of Margaret’s roses on her grave, and tell her, “Young lady, Margaret and I love you
© 2001 Lloyd James Boyd
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