Damn, I couldn’t believe it had gotten this bad so quickly.
The last time I had dropped in, dragging my wheeled picnic basket, the park had been filled with people, many dots of color, the smaller ones dashing about and scream-giggling, the larger ones more controlled, lounging on blanketed grass or casually meandering the perimeter of the small lake where the paddle boats roamed. The cart vendors competed with the scream-giggles, enticing with their throats and wafting scents of edible promise. Up above, the elaborate windchimes on the grand gazebo held court over all, hoisted high and positioned just so, intertwining with the wind and showering us with gentle, tinkling bits of airy possibility, a soothingly dry rain.
The windchimes were gone now, who knows where they went or how someone managed to pluck them out of the sky. The paddleboats were no more, the landing dock half-submerged in water no longer blue, listless and brooding. The vendors, vanished. The swings silent, one with a broken chain, seat angled downward in defeat, ignored by the other slats in the somber line of non-motion. There wasn’t a soul in the entire place, just the traces of the many who used to be.
Wait, that thought was proven a lie almost as soon as it registered. There was someone sitting on a bench, far side of the chime-less gazebo, staring out at the boat-less water. Solitary, unmoving, garbed in a heavy, protective coat, signs that normally conveyed a propensity for aloneness but, even without the chimes, there was still muted magic in the air, and perhaps this woman had something to share, grudgingly. I worked my way toward her through the overgrown grass, trailed by the picnic basket which now seemed much heavier knowing that it would probably never be opened.
Her eyes darted my direction, for the merest of a second, before she returned her gaze to the water. “Do you mind if I join you on the bench?” I asked, suddenly knowing the exact two-word response she would proffer.
“Free country.” Deep, tired voice, a counterbalance to the clinking of yesterday’s chimes. Eyes still on water, a safe focus that did not include me.
I plunked on the bench, a solid thing, no creaking. This is how it used to be, the quality of craft, built to last. Not the impermanence of today, planned obsolescence, slap something together, throw it out there, wait for it to crumble and sell another one. All hail capitalism. Transitory. Just as our conversation would be if I didn’t get to the point, because that’s how she liked it. “Do you know what happened here?”
She made a smirking noise. “Of course I do. I come to the park every day. As did many people, for a while. Now I’m the last one and eventually even this bench will fade, joining the boats and the chimes and the hotdog vendors, in a place not here. Time is a thing which eats until there’s nothing left.”
Something tiny sprouted deep within me, nameless now, yet tinted with a vague sheen of recognition. I have trod these boards before, I know this worn wood, those are my initials etched in a quiet corner that nobody really sees. Or do they? Sense of dread, but pursuing. “And why did the people stop coming?”
“Because you stopped.”
“Me? But why do I matter? I get here as often as I can.”
She smiled, but it was not generous, a contorted smear. “You created us. You built this place. You filled the lake and you tuned the chimes and you swung the swings and you gathered us together every Sunday in the Park, sharing your thoughts and remembrances and hope for the future. It was nice, and we felt special, part of something, even if it was ephemeral and fleeting. Everyone wants a place to gather and be validated, sharing without fear of recrimination, where no opinions are considered unworthy. But then you skipped a few Sundays, randomly surfaced, then skipped even more. Now it’s been quite some time since you fed the ducks at the end of the pier.”
This was deeper than I expected, but it encouraged the tiny sprout in my soul to grow roots. “I haven’t been gone that long, have I?”
Again with her smeared smile. “It’s been 50 days.”
The sprout paused, unsure of how fertile this soil might be. “Well, that’s not such a long time.”
Smear. “In this short-attention-span world? People will stop coming to the Park if they are ignored overnight, let alone months.
The sprout resumed with its burrowing, tossing aside a Liberty penny dropped decades yore. “So what should I do?”
“Make sure you come to the Park with some kind of respect for regularity.”
I nodded. “Okay, I can try to do that. In fact, I should go start now.”
She nodded as well, then paused. “What’s in that picnic basket?”
I looked down, having forgotten about it completely, despite my appreciation for its aerodynamic ability to maneuver terrain with little effort. “Oh. Just a few things. Some deviled eggs, because why would you not. And some tapenade, with six kinds of olives. And some fresh bread that I baked myself.”
More nodding. “Lovely. Leave the basket. I’ve been a bit peckish since the last vendor pulled out and moved to another blog. Now get your ass home and write a new Park post.”
And so I did.