F2: Stranger In The Parkby_Lynn_©
FAWC 2: The Stranger in the Park
(Author's note: This story is a submission to the second Friendly Anonymous Writing Challenge (FAWC). The true author of this story is kept anonymous, but will be revealed on August 16th, 2013, in the comments section following this story. Each story in this challenge is centered around a random determination of four "mystery ingredients." There are no prizes given in this challenge; this is simply a friendly competition.)
(The mystery ingredients for this story were: humility, location, fascination/fetish, and game/toy.)
* * * *
I wasn't sure what made me turn off the highway at the Perry Street exit. My head throbbed from an overly long meeting at my company's headquarters and I looked forward to relaxing at home. Yet there I was, on the road that ran into the park located a block from where I lived as a kid. That's where I fell in love with the merry-go-round. I dug my feet into the sand in a lazy motion to move the platform in circles. After saving my allowance for a few weeks, I bought a cheap harmonica. The music blocked out the daily arguments between my parents. I was devastated when my father refused to let me buy another after I lost the toy. The memories faded as I parked my truck at the curb.
Weeds took over the entire playground. Rusty chains dangled from the swing set that didn't have seats. Steel posts poked through the brush in an area I remembered as having a seesaw. Litter and garbage lay everywhere. The remaining piece of the merry-go-round lay sideways, battered and destroyed. I stepped closer and saw bullet holes in the metal.
"Are you going to fix my park?"
A young girl stood partially hidden by the trunk of an old maple. I guessed her to be five or six years old. A pink ribbon held her blonde hair in a ponytail.
"My mama used to push me higher as ever on the swings," she said, reaching up with both arms as she spoke. "It's brok—ted now but she promised she would find someone to fix it. Swings are fun."
"Yes, they are. I used to swing too," I said.
My reply didn't seem to connect with the child. She stared into the distance without commenting for several minutes. Her silence began to make me nervous.
"Mama went to heaven."
Her eyes held a combination of innocence and wisdom in their depths. I hesitated, unsure what to say to such a young a child who talked about death and heaven.
"When I get big, I'm gonna' be rich and fix stuff and help people," the child said.
Eerily, her words matched some I said at age six, standing in the same playground, surrounded by broken equipment.
"I will so, Tommy. Mama said I'm smart and can do anything."
"Nu uh, you're dumb, Chad."
"I'm gonna' be rich and help people and fix things. You just wait and see."
Tommy Marsh had been the neighborhood bully. I never forgot the smirk the ten-year-old gave me before he slammed his baseball bat into the merry-go-round. He didn't stop at one hit, either. The boy kept at it until he destroyed the last useable piece of equipment on the playground. Tommy went on to terrorize the neighborhood, stealing from anyone with something he wanted, and eventually shooting a clerk during a store robbery. Still lost in the images from those long ago days, I forgot about the young girl for a moment.
"Bad people break stuff, huh, mister?"
She tipped her head back and looked into my eyes before she stepped over to the swings and touched the rusty chain. Her shoulders drooped.
"Good people fix things again," I said in hopes of taking away a bit of her unhappiness.
An elderly woman approached from my right before the conversation continued. Her fear for the child showed in the way she hurried toward us.
"Grandma, I lost you."
"What did I tell you about talking to strangers? Git over here, child," the woman said, motioning to the young girl.
I wanted to assure her I meant no harm yet realized how the situation looked from her position. A lone man in the park, talking to a young girl, would scare any parent.
"I knew mama wouldn't forget to send someone," she said with a nod.
The child's trust in her mother warmed my heart. Yet how could I tell her I didn't know her mother? Would I need to? Or could I let the subject go? She tugged on her ponytail before taking the woman's hand. They walked a few feet when the child stopped.
"Tell Mama I miss her."
My instincts told me they needed help. I wanted to go after them, to do . . . something. Instead, I remained where I was, thinking of the ironies of life. Tommy Marsh might have ruined the merry-go-round but his actions didn't destroy my affection for playgrounds. Perry Street Park wasn't on the right side of the tracks, so to speak. Any funding—city, county, or state— mysteriously went to the playgrounds in wealthier neighborhoods. Private funding wasn't easy to come by unless you knew someone—or knew of an organization working to salvage and rebuild playgrounds. I was both.
"Got any identification?"
A police officer stood several feet away with his hand over his holstered weapon. His demeanor indicated he wasn't out for a friendly stroll.
I nodded and tugged my license out of my wallet. "I didn't mean to cause any concern, officer."
"People here don't like strangers hanging out in their neighborhood." He studied my license before staring at me. "Cagle? You related to that rich guy uptown, the owner of Cagle Construction?"
He didn't wait for a reply as he called in my information. His glare indicated his level of satisfaction with the report he received.
"Why are you here, Cagle? You don't live on this side of town."
"I used to live in the area," I said, keeping my answer vague.
"What're you doing hanging out at the park? You come here to see if you could find some little kid to take home?"
His fingers clenched into a fist and his voice rose. I wasn't stupid. I recognized his tactics. The man wanted me to react. I refused. For whatever reason, my presence angered him. Even if the officer doubted me, I wasn't at the park for immoral purposes. Eventually he tossed my license onto the ground and left. Fifteen minutes passed before I got into my truck and drove away.
If I trusted divine intervention, the little girl's mother sent me to the park. She directed me to take the Perry Street exit so I would see that specific playground needed a transformation. I wasn't certain the dead talked to us, but that little girl deserved a decent and safe park.
* * * *
Perry Street Park wouldn't be the first playground I helped transform. Cagle Construction did well over the years. The profits allowed me to fund Blue Steel, the non-profit organization with a focus on renovating and rebuilding playgrounds and neighborhood parks. Blue Steel retained a legal team to deal with the tedious details while I did the fun parts, including scouting out potential projects. A cancelled afternoon meeting left me with time to wander through the area again.
"I 'member you. Mama sent you to fix my park."
The same little girl I talked to during my first stop at the park stood near the swings. Instead of a ponytail, her hair hung straight down her back.
"Hello." I glanced around for the grandmother but didn't see her. I didn't want the child in trouble for talking to me again.
"Can you see my mama?"
The child moved the rusty chain, mimicking the motion of pushing someone on a swing, while I struggled to come up with an answer.
"Your mama is beautiful," I said, hedging the truth in hopes of making the child smile.
A single tear rolled down her cheek. I lacked experience with young children but I somehow understood the little girl in front of me needed reassurance and kind words. I walked over to her and kneeled before speaking again.
"She said she's sorry she had to leave but she's in a pretty place. And she doesn't want you to feel bad anymore because she's never sick there."
A second and a third tear followed the first. She wiped them with the back of her arm as more fell. I wanted to comfort her but she moved away. Before I stood, I noticed the child's grandmother nearby.
"That was nice, what you said. She needed someone besides me to say that. Thank you," the old woman said. "But I don't understand how you knew her mama had been sick."
"You don't believe I can see and talk to her mama?"
"Young man, do I look like I just rolled off a turnip truck this morning?"
I couldn't decide if the old woman intended her words to be funny or not. When she didn't smile, I cleared my throat.
"I don't think any such thing at all."
"Kate's been through more in six years than most adults have all their lives. I don't want her hurt again."
"That sounds like a warning."
"Consider it whatever you want."
"Look, I . . ."
I failed to find an explanation for how the little girl affected me without giving away any of the plans for the park. Until Blue Steel received the permits and contracts back from the city, the plans remained sketches on paper.
"I understand," I said instead.
"Good. Now are you goin' to tell me why you're at the park again? And don't give me some crazy excuse."
"Ma'am, will you just trust me?"
"Trust a stranger. Does that sound smart to you?" she asked.
"Chad Cagle, which means you know my name, so technically I'm not a stranger."
"Any fool can take a name from the phone book and say it's his. Don't mean nothin' if you don't have proof."
I thought for a moment before pointing to my truck. Although I didn't have large lettering covering the entire sides, stencils of my company name decorated the doors.
"Does that help?"
"All right, so you're him."
"Now it's your turn."
She glared but began to smile. "Violet Stoddard, and that's Kate, though I guess you figured that part out already."
"I did, but thank you."
"Is the city taking the park away? They've done that in places they wanted the land for what they called progress. I realize the place is torn up, but at least the kids can play together," she said, lowering her voice as she spoke. "She loves it here, even without any equipment, and I would hate to see her lose it."
"Is that what you're afraid will happen?"
Since I first decided to take on the playground project, I tossed around the idea of including the elderly woman in the plans. My name wouldn't be on any of the publicity because I learned early in my career to separate my business from my charity work. I made a living with Cagle Construction. Blue Steel started from my heart. The organization soothed the hurt Tommy Marsh caused when he ruined the one piece of playground equipment where I went to evade my father's anger. After Tommy destroyed the metal, I vowed to give kids a safe place to play.
Blue Steel received media attention and earned numerous awards from assorted groups as well as from the city. Accolades and commendations helped people who needed the boost to their pride and ego. I didn't need awards to tell me people appreciated Blue Steel's work. A walk through a completed park where children laughed and played on safe equipment was all the reward I needed.
I shifted my attention to the present. I admired the woman's caution, especially as the sole provider for the child.
"I grew up a couple of blocks from here," I said, scuffing my boot in the dirt. "With the ruined equipment, the place brought back memories."
"And you couldn't do that in your own home?"
"What, I'm not allowed here? Is the place just for people who live in the neighborhood?"
"You have a smart mouth, young man. I'll bet you had a rough childhood."
Her comment surprised me. "Why would you say that?"
"The bullies are sitting on their butts in the can while the good ones grew up and learned how to take care of themselves. You ain't in jail. That means you're a good one."
The woman impressed me with how close she came to the truth.
"Please, just trust me, OK?"
"The last time a man said that—"
"Grandma, look what I found!"
Kate ran toward us, a streak of dirt covering her forehead, both knees black. From her appearance, she had been digging in the dirt.
"Look, it's a 'monica."
"What?" Between the child's eagerness and her missing tooth, I didn't understand what she said.
"It's one of those things for music, Grandma, right?"
Giving her treasure to her grandmother, the young girl wiped her hands on her shorts, accomplishing little in her attempt to clean them.
"This is called a harmonica, honey, but it won't work because of all the rust."
"But I wanted to play music," the child said, crossing her arms and stomping her foot.
"I bought one like this when I was your age. In fact, I lost mine here in the park."
"Maybe this is yours," Kate said, her eyes showing her excitement. "Can you make it play music?"
"Well, see this edge?"
"Ew, that's gross. Look at the dirt."
"It is gross, and that's the edge you use to make music."
Time caused quite a bit of damage to the metal, but the more I rubbed the tiny crevices the more the toy resembled mine.
"Mister, you can keep the 'monica. I don't know how to make it play music anyway."
"Thank you. I'll scrub the dirt off and see if it still works. Now I need to go back to the office. You take care of your grandmother."
The child giggled, reminding me why I spent so much time and resources on playground renewal.
* * * *
Several weeks passed while Blue Steel waited for the approval on the project. A lull in the construction business gave me the perfect opportunity for a vacation. Few people understood my interest in carousels, although I saw it as more of a hobby. My intrigue took me to the Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky, Ohio. I spent hours with the artisans who carved and restored carousel animals.
When the Perry Street Park project first began, I imagined a real carousel in the middle of the playground. Even though I thought the children would love riding the horses, my trip proved it wouldn't be feasible to put an old-fashioned carousel at the park. Without full-time supervision, the carousel could prove dangerous, and safety ranked over their delight. I scrapped the idea until I found a more appropriate location.
Contract issues delayed the start date for the renovation and I was restless. One evening I decided to clean the inside of my work truck. Along with a dozen Styrofoam coffee cups, I uncovered the rusty harmonica Kate found. I went inside to see how much of the filth would wash off.
It didn't take long to realize she found my old toy. The initials scraped into the side took away any doubt I might have had. Even though it wasn't useable, I heard the music in my head. As an adult, I realized the child I was back then didn't have any idea how to use the small instrument. Because of the rust, I thought about throwing the toy away but I wanted to show young Kate my initials. Her disappointment after she realized the instrument was too rusty to use gave me an idea. I tossed it on the counter and went out to my truck. Then I drove to the nearest music store.
A sales clerk directed me to the back corner of the store where I found several harmonicas. I grabbed one of each and headed to the check out. With my transaction completed, I left the store, imagining Kate's excitement at learning to play a harmonica.
I didn't go to the park again until construction began. Issues at work kept me busy until late in the evenings when I barely had the energy to shower before I crashed each night. I learned Kate and her grandmother lived on Perry Street, a block from the park. The information was part of the documentation required for the project. But if I went to their house uninvited, I would have to explain how I knew where they lived. Instead, I left the bag of harmonicas in the truck.
Several more weeks passed before everything was in order to begin. Crews prepared the site for the actual demolition. Cagle Construction provided workers and equipment but I wasn't in charge this time. The Perry Street Park project was more personal than previous playground renovations and I didn't want that to interfere with the job. A simple revitalization turned complicated involving childhood memories, a little girl, and a rusty harmonica. So I remained on the side with the other bystanders. There I struggled again with how to explain my presence to young Kate. I couldn't let her think her mother sent me to fix the park. On the other hand, I didn't want her to believe her mother hadn't kept her word, even from heaven.
An hour passed before I saw the young girl waving from across the street. After a quick word with the supervisor in charge of the project, I jogged over to her.
"Kate, Violet, good morning," I said when I stood close enough they could hear me over the noise in the park.
"You're fixing my park!"
I kneeled before giving Kate what I hoped was a simple explanation. "A nice company called Blue Steel is renovating the park."
"But all those big trucks have the same name on the sides as your truck does."
I shouldn't have been surprised at the observation. Kate was smart.
"Yes, they are, because Blue Steel doesn't have their own trucks and bulldozers, so they're using mine."
She seemed satisfied with the clarification and smiled. One of my employees came over to tell me of a problem that needed immediate attention. I jogged back, my mind already on the issue.
* * * *
Perry Street Park was complete. I stood by the merry-go-round the way I had before the project started. Memories of lying there for hours, looking at the sky, playing the harmonica, ran across a movie screen in my head.
"You look sad."
Kate sat on the swing, kicking her toes in the sand. I hadn't seen her there until she spoke.
"Grandma says it's OK to be sad sometimes."
"She's a smart lady."
"I even cry sometimes and she doesn't get mad," the girl said. "But now I'm happy 'cause the park is fixed. I knew you would help."
"Young lady, if you don't stop sneaking away from me, I'll have to tie you to my waist."
The girl's grandmother appeared on the path and sat on one of the new benches scattered throughout the park.
"You can't tie a person to another person. How would we walk? That's silly."
Kate slid off the swing and made odd movements of walking tied to her grandmother. Her antics made me smile. Violet looked in my direction but didn't say anything. From her expression, I questioned whether she learned of my connection to Blue Steel. If she had, I appreciated her silence and hoped she understood my reasoning for staying out of the media.
I waited until she turned her focus to Kate before I took a slender package out of my jacket pocket and laid it on the bench. Then I walked down the path toward my truck. Halfway there, I stopped and hid behind an old maple tree.
I didn't need awards or ceremonies. My reward was the laughter associated with Perry Street Park—and the image of a young girl with a handful of shiny new harmonicas.