Cyrus leaned back on the bench and kept his faded blue eyes on the little girl in the sandbox. Seemingly unaware she was being watched, the child bit down on her lower lip in deep concentration as she created grainy mounds with a paper cup. Midway between Cyrus and the sandbox, a sparrow danced around, picking at a discarded candy wrapper. Orange and yellow leaves spiraled in the crisp breeze and gathered around the old man’s feet.
“Back at it, I see.”
Cyrus flinched and turned to see a familiar face. “Aw, cram it, Daniel. No harm in me sitting here enjoying the autumn air.”
“Autumn air, my ass. Ah…” Daniel gingerly lowered his 78-year-old frame to sit beside Cyrus. “You’d be bundled up here in a foot of snow if that little young’un was out there. When are you gonna get it through that thick skull of yours that you’re wasting your time, Cy? And precious time it is, at our age.”
“I don’t know what you’re babbling on about.” Cyrus shifted a bit and turned his attention back to the sandbox. He watched the little girl jump up and run toward the parking area. An attractive young woman, arms outstretched, was crouched there by a large oak tree.
Daniel gestured toward the woman and the little girl. Although he couldn’t make it out from this distance, he knew that they each bore a slight resemblance to Cyrus. “Do you ever think about how long you’ve been doing this? Just sitting on this bench, watching first one little girl and now this one. You think that, by some hook or crook, that woman over there is gonna holler this way and invite you home for the holidays or something? She probably thinks you’re a lonely old fool with nothing better to do than loiter in the park. Or worse, some creepy old perv that warrants a call to the cops.” Daniel’s voice was stern, but his eyes were kind. “Cy, you’ve been at this off and on for over twenty-five years. And in all that time, have you ever once said a single word to either of them?”
Cyrus braced his hands on his knees and let out a grunt as he slowly stood. With a half-turn to Daniel, he said, “You know as well as I do, I can’t do that. It was the one promise I made to Stella that I intend to keep. God knows, I broke all the others.” He shook his head and watched as the woman took the little girl’s hand and led her to a car parked near the old oak. “Just look at them, Daniel. Carla sure did grow up into a real pretty woman. And that little Emily? Why, she looks just like Carla did when she was that size. Just like Stella did, for that matter.”
Carla maneuvered the car along the lane through the park and stopped less than twenty feet from where the two men were talking. She glanced over at them and politely smiled before pulling into the street.
Both men watched until the car turned out of sight, and then Cyrus shuffled toward the sandbox. His knees sang like firecrackers as he knelt to retrieve the paper cup. Carefully flattening it, he slipped it into the safe confines of his jacket pocket. Cyrus didn’t turn when he heard the leaves rustle under Daniel’s footsteps, but he nodded to acknowledge the hand on his shoulder.
“Why do you put yourself through this, Cy? I’ve been your friend for half a century, but I just can’t understand why you do it. If Stella can’t forgive your mistakes, so be it. Why go through this torment…spending your days spying on people you can’t have?”
Letting out a soft moan as he rose, Cyrus studied the clouds for a moment and finally glanced over at his friend. Speaking slowly, as if to a child, he said, “Daniel, you’ve got the same wife now that you hoodwinked into marrying you more than fifty years ago, three kids who still call on Father’s Day, and I don’t know how many grandkids and great-grandkids. Somehow, through all the years, you’ve managed not to screw it up. You have a family, Daniel. People who will sit at your deathbed and weep over the prospect of a life without you.” Cyrus slipped his hand back in his pocket and fingered the rim of the paper cup. “And what’ve I got? I’ve got the wretched memories of a son who was blown apart a week before his tour was to end and a wife who hung herself in a mental ward because she couldn’t live without her boy. I’ve got a hostile middle-aged daughter who blames me for everything that’s gone wrong in her life. And I’ve got a granddaughter and great-granddaughter who probably don’t even know I’m still alive.”
In all the years Daniel had known Cyrus, he’d never heard him talk so much at one time. Not wanting to jinx it by responding, he simply gestured to where they’d been sitting earlier. Cyrus continued talking as he and Daniel headed back toward the bench.
“Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not crying foul. I know better than anyone that I was a lousy husband and a worse father.” Cyrus looked up at the tree leaves straining against the wind and then leveled his gaze to his friend’s lined face. “Stella washed her hands of me because the one true thing she could count on was disappointment. I did her wrong so many times, Daniel. No one can fault her for not trusting me anymore…or for keeping me from her family.”
The men let out simultaneous groans as they settled back down on the bench. At some point during their walk back, Cyrus had pulled the flattened paper cup from his pocket. Absently turning it over and over in his hands, he said, “Funny how a man doesn’t recognize what a dang fool he’s been until it’s too late to change things. But I’m not about to go through life without at least seeing what’s left of my family now and then. Even if it’s from a distance.” Cyrus let out a small sigh and regarded the now empty sandbox. “I may never get the chance to say a word to them, but I can still look at their faces and remind myself they’re real. Call me a crazy old coot if you want to, but that gives me something to toss around in the dark when I’m lying awake at night.”
A single tear worked through the stubble on Cyrus’s cheek as he looked back toward the street where Carla’s car had turned. “So, do you get it now, Daniel? Do you see why I come here? Even if I don’t have them, I’ve got the idea of them. It’s a whole lot better than nothing.”
Daniel followed his old friend’s gaze. Shaking his head, he shoved his hands deep inside his pockets. “Sorry, Cy. You’d think as long as we’ve known each other, I’d have figured all that out by now. Guess I’m a bit slow on the draw sometimes.”
“A bit? Hell, Danny-Boy, any slower and you’d be thinking backwards.” Cyrus straightened his back, clapped his hand down on Daniel’s knee and forced a smile. “So, old man, what do you want to do today? Anna Peterson stopped by on her walk earlier and said Louise has fresh apple cobbler at the coffee shop. How’s that sound to you?”
“Sounds like a plan, Cy,” Daniel said, patting his friend’s hand. “Sounds like a real good plan.”
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