Stories are alive and flexible. They can grow into novellas and novels and sequels. If you read Spring Fever a month ago, you might be interested to see how it has evolved since then. I’m posting the whole story. Part 2 begins after a line of asterisks in case you don’t want to re-read Part 1. Please feel free to offer some thoughts on where it might go from here.
My lower back starts to cramp. Why do mechanics have to move the seat just to do a test drive? You’d think they were driving cross country and had to have the seat just right. Now it going to take me a dozen tries to get the tilt and height to where my back doesn’t ache and my right leg won’t go numb. Mikey doesn’t worry about sciatica—my grandson, in the back seat. Everything works the way it’s supposed to for him. Today we’ll be going to the park.
We pass a farm field—black, harrowed velvet, rolling with the undulating curves of a woman’s back. Fecund. Waiting for spring rain to green. It pushes right up to the edge of the road, into my space—insistent.
We stop at the grocery store, Mikey and me. By the apples, I gawp at a young woman for more than the reflex neck-snap when a fire engine flashes by. I catch myself. Close my mouth. Look away. What’s got into me? Maybe it’s just the first technicolor day after a monochrome spring—the surprise of naked shoulders and budding pink toes, the first glimpse of summer bare legs flashing between the folds of a clingy skirt.
“Can I have it, grandpa?” Mikey intrudes, waving a candy bar in my face.
Later, I munch on the remains of the candy in a beam of late-morning sun by the rocket-ship slide. It’s not my favorite—Butterfingers. Apparently not Mikey’s either.
A woman smiles vaguely, watching her boy climb and slide, climb and slide. She’s trying out summer too. Her shy bare legs turn in slightly, huddled against the harsh light, as if emerging from a long night under the covers. She clutches her arms across her chest. Well, at least she has the time to spend with her son. Melanie has to work, needs me to watch Mikey.
“It’s nice to get them out of the house, eh?” she remarks, across her shoulder.
“Yeah, first nice day in a long time,” I answer.
She lights a cigarette. Snaps a drag. “I don’t know if I could have stood it much longer…stuck in the house with him.” She shakes her head, dragon smoke fumes from her nostrils.
She nods. Stamps out the cigarette. “Sometimes I just can’t handle him. He needs a firm hand.”
She cuts a sidelong appraisal. I wonder if she thinks I’m Mikey’s dad. I stand straighter. Mikey runs to me, holding a blue robin egg. “Hey Grandpa, look what I found!” Blows my cover.
The woman calls her son. “Time to go, Sean.” I follow her rolling stroll past the swings all the way to the parking lot, sigh, and slump down on the nearest bench. A woman my own age sits at the other end reading a book.
“Watching kids is overrated,” she remarks without looking up.
I’m startled. It’s as if the bench had spoken. I study her for a moment—mostly gray hair, jeans, worn running shoes. There’s an intelligent cant to her head. I jut my chin towards Mikey. “I don’t know. He’s always got something new to show me. Sees something…” I pause. Did she mean what I think she did? A knowing smile curls at the corner of her mouth as she continues to read. Was that a shot? Have I been had? I don’t even know the woman but I want to get back at her. I glance at the cover of her paperback. Pretty colors. Shell Seekers. “Reading about life, at one remove, is overrated too.”
She shrugs. “We all have our fantasies.” She looks at me out of the corner of her eyes. Eyebrows raised.
“So, do you come to the park to catch dirty-old-men ogling young mothers?”
She drops a yellow-tasseled bookmark in place. Closes the book. Places it on the bench. “I’m watching my granddaughter,” she says, waving at a youngster on the swings. “I still say it’s overrated.”
“What is? Watching young women or young kids?”
The woman squares around, levels her warm hazel eyes on me. “Kids. What made you think I was talking about women?”
“Hmmm,” I mutter.
“I was sitting here thinking about how children don’t remember what we do for them…not the first few years, anyway,” she says.
I watch a wren pecking bits of gravel. “Young women need to be watched too. Even if they forget, once they’re grown.”
Now it’s her turn to stare off into the distance. “I’ve never heard a more specious argument for voyeuristic leering.”
I shrug. “Hey, we all need an audience…or the hope of one.”
“Ha!” She barks a sarcastic laugh. Smiles.
I like her. “Maybe we have more to share than freshness when we get older.”
She stares at me for a long moment. “I have to go.” she says. “Leah!” she calls, scaring the wren into flight.
After a few steps, she stops, turns. “We don’t forget.”
At the park, two months later, summer is back and so are Mikey and I. Lots of long-legged, bare-legged, suntanned mothers in shorts and skinny tops. It doesn’t take long, I guess to get used to seeing more skin. It’s all about conditioning, I suppose. That’s half the fun of mid-winter, first-day in Florida—the shock of so much skin on display. By the second day, not so much.
Sun-bronzed children squirrel around, through and over the brand new puffy-plastic play structures with climbing walls and rope webs and spiraling slides. I guess wood see-saws and metal slides and galvanized jungle gyms are no longer acceptable for kids raised with Fisher-Price toys. I sit back on a brand-new blue plastic bench made from recycled milk cartons, so described by a prominent sign. Well, I can appreciate recycling as much as the next guy. After all, one of my favorite hobbies is to go the cancer resale store for pants and shirts and jackets donated by mourning widows to extend the ‘good’ left in them. Strange thing that. Having grown up on the fading edge of the Great Depression, I still feel the draw of garage sale signs and the promise of re-purposing good stuff.
So, anyhow, I settle back on the self-congratulatory recycled bench and let my eyes soft-focus on the scene the way I used to do when I was a life-guard in high school. You don’t focus on one child at a time. You have to let yourself absorb the whole scene. Like driving down a narrow alley. You don’t look at one side at a time—this trash can, that obstacle. You simply look straight ahead and let your peripheral vision take over. That’s what I did at the pool—see it all but watch for unusual. That’s what I’m doing—playground-monitoring—when a voice shouts behind me, “Leah! Leah! No! Take turns. She was there first.” I see a pair of white Birkenstocks stomp past me. Panning right—I used to be camera man for ESPN—I track a lemon-colored, fluttery summer dress on the body of an older woman. Her voice. Her profile. I know her. The lady from a few weeks ago. I decide to wait and see if she’ll sit next to me, if she’s still reading the same book. My wife used to spend all summer reading one ‘beach book.’
Satisfied that her charge was in compliance with unspoken playground rules, the woman turns in my direction, shaking her head. I pretend to be looking elsewhere. Let it be her serve.
She plops down on the bench, crosses her legs, waggles her foot and asks, “Does your grandson misbehave, too?” I plaster an ‘excuse me’ expression on my face. She closes her eyes for a count of three before saying, “C’mon. I saw you checking me out and trying to pretend that we hadn’t met before. Okay?”
I shrug one shoulder, square around to face her. “Did you finish your book?”
She reaches in her bag and pulls out the same paperback. “I write. And I’m reading this novel very carefully. Like an assignment in a creative writing class.” Chin high, she adds, “If you must know.”
“I hobby-write a little myself. Are you trying to copy her style or avoid it?”
Her eyebrows raise for a second and one corner of her mouth twitches. I take that for pleasure and interest. I could be wrong. But, hey, at my age, any response from an attractive woman is very welcome. And she is attractive in a Jane Goodall high forehead, open-face kind of way. Odd association…but we’re watching monkeys too. Aren’t we?
“I’m studying her descriptive passages,” she explains. “I’ve been told that I don’t set the scene well in my stories.”
I nod knowingly. “Every scene needs an establishing shot.”
We both stop, stare straight ahead—that charged, awkward moment, like before a first kiss, when you sense that something important could be about to happen—depending. But, we’re both old enough to slide past that and so both start to speak at the same time.
“What do you write?” I ask.
“You work in movies?” she asks.
We both do the abashed, ‘you first’ gesture. But before one of us can respond, there is a piercing wail from the play structure.
“Leah,” the woman says. She frowns, and with the assessment of an experienced parent, remarks, “She’s not hurt…not bad anyhow.” With an apologetic ‘be right back’ raised hand, she marches over to assess the damage. I watch her approach the circle of toddlers frozen by the siren cry of a contemporary in distress, staring at the victim, not unlike grownups rubber-necking a highway accident.
The woman carries her granddaughter back to the bench. Mikey follows behind and snuggles up next to me to watch the grandmother sooth the child. She uses wet wipes to clean the scraped knee. Leah continues to wail. I say, “You know what I think would help, is some ice on that knee. Why don’t I get some from the ice cream truck in the parking lot?” An immediate drop in decibels leads to slowly diminishing sniffles and sobs. Instead of ice, I bring a Popsicle back to the bench. The woman reaches for it and expertly pinches the top and bottom of the groove between the two sides of frozen sugar water and separates the treat into one stick each. “Now where were we,” she says as the two children look up, absorbed, the way kids do when savoring a taste treat.
“I wondered what you write…or before that, what’s your name?”
“Strom. Matt Strom.”
Olivia snickers, lowers her voice, “Bond. James Bond.”
Again, I get the quirky, pleased twist to her lips. Sometimes its easy to connect with a stranger. Sometimes.
Using another wet wipe, Olivia scrubs red runoff from Leah’s chin. “Fiction. Mostly short stories and novellas.”
I clock the startled tightening of mouth and eyes. “I’ve had a few pieces published and my writing group thinks I’m pretty good.”
“Mine, too. But then, that’s why I belong.”
Olivia shakes her head, scoffs. “C’mon, it’s more than mutual admiration…”
“How about support group? Nobody else will ever read our stuff, so we club with like-minded addicts.”
“You know. You might have something there,” Olivia says. “I never thought of us as stamp collectors or antique tool traders with an obscure hobby. Or, I know, like my next-door neighbor. He’s a model-railroad guy. Filled his basement with a miniature world of tunnels and roads and streets and buildings that no one will ever see except for his railroad club and the odd stranger like me.”
“I don’t think you’re odd.”
After a blank-face response, Olivia continues, “I think of our writing group more like a book club. Only instead of reading existing books, we read our books-in-the-making to each other one chapter at a time.”
I shrug, agreeing. “Hobby writers. But sometimes we do get ‘out there.’ I’ve had some success with my send-up stories for hunting and fishing magazines…slowly clawing my way to the heights of mediocrity.”
“Speak for yourself. A couple more tweaks and I’m going to have my own shelf in airport book stores.”
I hold out my fist. We bump. Tilting my head toward the kids, I ask, “When do you get time to write?”
“When she naps….and into the evening.”
“So, you’re full-time granny?”
Olivia sighs, lips parted, “Yes. Well, mostly. Sometimes her dad takes over.”
“Ahh,” I mutter, inviting the rest of the backstory.
“My daughter is missing in action. Took off when Leah was one month old.”
Maybe it’s my attentive expression. Maybe I offer the freedom to download with a never-to-be-seen-again seatmate on a cross-country flight. At any rate, she decides to tell her tale. “The whole pregnancy experience really freaked my daughter. She’s a fitness-obsessed, body fat measuring, muscle defining, workout fanatic. She met Brian on the treadmills and I guess you could say she stopped running.” Olivia sighed, focused on something only she could see. “She couldn’t handle having her body stretched and expanded…out of her control. And once the baby was there…even less control. They weren’t married but Brian wanted to make it permanent. To her, that meant more control, or loss of…whatever. So, here I am. Raising another daughter. Maybe I can do better this time.”
She pauses, gives me a look—your turn. “Oh…my story is not nearly so dramatic. My daughter, Melanie, the youngest of three, lives here in town, finishing up her nursing degree. Her husband is a patrolman and between his varying work schedule and hers, I fill in with Mikey-watch.”
Olivia holds my gaze with her own. She wants the rest without asking. I mentally shrug—what the hell. “My wife passed two years ago. And actually, I’m grateful for Mikey. I never had a son. He keeps me busy.”
Olivia sits back on the bench, staring blankly at the playground, satisfied for the moment with my explanation. I stand up, stretch. I cramp-up easily these days. When I sit back down, she says, without looking at me, “I’ve been a single parent. Maybe that’s why Trish has her problems. Who knows?”
I nod several times while we watch a sparrow pecking at the heel of a hotdog bun. “So, tell me about the father. Leah’s dad. You say he comes around…that can’t be all bad.”
“Ha!” Olivia mutters. “Strange. Strange.”
“Brian’s a football player for the Philadelphia Flyers.”
“Oh. I know him. I was the cameraman for an interview when he was a candidate for All American. He was drafted in the third round out of Stanford. Defensive end. I hear he’s got some competition for making the squad.”
“Yes, he does,” Olivia says, hands twisting in her lap. “That’s why he has an apartment in Philly with two other players near the team facility and trainers.”
“Do you and Leah get to see him much?” I slide my attention to Leah climbing the rope structure. Her sturdy legs. Her butter scotch skin and curly hair. Of course. She’s bi-racial.
“Uh-huh, during the off-season…which isn’t easy to define since he has to train and keep in shape all the time. Then there is a spring session…”
“Yeah, and then a camp this summer. And then the season. But he does try to be there for his child…I gotta say. He moves in with us, at my place, maybe four or five months out of the year.”
“I hope you have a big house. Brian’s a big man.”
“Tell me about it,” Olivia says. “And when you’re used to living alone for twenty years…first a child, then her dad, famous for sacking quarterbacks, it’s quite an adjustment. I still get startled walking into a room and there’s this hulk of a guy sitting at the kitchen table or on the floor playing dolls with Leah.”
“You’ve got a unique perspective on the kind of guy I only see on the field, performing.”
“That’s true of any celebrity at the personal level. No, Brian’s a good guy.”
“Do you think he’ll ever get back together with your daughter?”
“Nah. She doesn’t deserve him, anyhow.” Reacting to my raised eyebrows, she goes on, “You don’t know Trish. The best thing he could do, would be to start over with the right woman. And for Leah’s sake, the sooner the better.”
I puff out my cheeks, absorbing all that. Finally, I ask, “What about you? What if he does get it all together…career, wife, family? Where would that leave you?”
“Right where I want to be…where I was before all this drama.”
I give her my bedroom-eyes look. “After getting used to having a guy around the house, might you be open to, say, trying someone more our age?”
Olivia locks my eyes and purses her cheeks and lips, like trying not to laugh. She looks away, puts her hand on my arm, finally says, “I’m not that kind of interested. Ever.”
“Ah,” I say, “I see.” After a bit, “In that case, maybe we can meet here occasionally to appreciate sweet young mothers together…”
“Ha!” she barks and punches me in the shoulder, grinning the whole while.
“…or share manuscripts.”