By Gregory Janetka
George sat on the park bench contemplating the day. It was cool for early June and he zipped up the blue Members Only jacket that the kids had given him all those Christmases ago. The youngest of them passed the half-century mark a few months back. That was the last time George had seen any of them. A few calls and a postcard from some tragic-looking theme park but that was it. He shuffled his feet to keep them from cramping then stretched them one by one. His right shoe had been scuffed somewhere between home and here but the effort to brush it off eluded him.
It was a Tuesday and this was his bench on Tuesdays and the ducks and seagulls came by but he had forgotten the bread and then forgot about forgetting the bread and when he couldn't find it next to him he remembered he'd forgotten. The wind picked up and he pulled down his cap, draped a blanket over his lap and put his hands in his jacket pockets. Then he started to cough. A cough like the dickens. Like Charlie still had so many years after being gassed. A cough like that put George back there with the mud up to your waist and the rats and the bodily fluids everywhere, waiting for the call to charge and dreading it all the while.
The cough subsided, giving him a brief respite during which he eyed a pretty blonde across the lake. It could've been Mabel. Hell, with his cataracts every blonde was Mable—every woman was Mabel. It was the only benefit anyone had ever gotten from cataracts. He breathed in the dying spring air and began to cough again. Harsh, hacking, dry, painful. The force bounced him in his seat and he hoped something would arise that he could spit out but it never came. Searching each of his pockets he found a peppermint candy. As he pulled it out his fingers shook from the cold, from the arthritis, from the loneliness. He unwrapped the two sides but the candy was old and had melted to the plastic and only part of it tore off. He coughed again and the candy fell to his lap as he grasped the bench for support. Once it passed he wiped his dry mouth and turned off his hearing aid. Then he got back to work on the candy.
The unwrapped half of the white and red disk was now covered with green fuzz from the blanket. He blinked hard to clear his eyes. The blonde was gone and the fuzz was reluctant to leave the candy so he focused his energy on the plastic. Most of his senses had been blunted by the years but he could still smell in memory, could still feel the hot heavy air of the plastics factory. It had provided for Gloria and the kids for 40 years and he had hated it for 39 years. Still, he'd been proud of the work and that they made products that were still around—and usable! Not like the cheap imports. He took a deep breath, heard his chest wheeze, and began hacking again.
“God damn it!” he said as saliva rolled down his chin from the new dentures that didn't fit.
Throwing his arms out in front of him as if pushing an enemy to the ground, George turned his hearing aid to top volume and tossed the candy—fuzz and plastic and all—into his mouth and closed down on it hard. The peppermint oil rushed over his tongue and felt cool though his nasal passages. He sucked hard and felt the saliva increase. He rolled it around with his tongue and felt the richness of youth, then the plastic jabbed his tender cheek and there was pain but the open wound absorbed the oil easier and then there was only pleasure.
Peppermint. It was the taste of Mabel's lips on the picnic when they stole her Aunt's bottle of Peppermint Schnapps. It was warm and green and bright. It shot through his body and raced through his system. As he closed his eyes a gun went off nearby, leaving a deafening ringing in his ears. George's head swayed as Mabel brought her face to his and as they lost their individual bodies he coughed, forcing the candy from his mouth and onto the sidewalk before him.
He gasped for breath and turned his hearing aid off once more. The birds swooped in and pecked at the candy but found it inedible and let it be. George looked at it. It was still half-covered in plastic. He couldn't see if any green fibers remained. He reached down but it was too far away. He was able, however, to brush the scuff from his shoe. As he straightened up he realized his cough was gone and he sighed with relief. Just then a silent mass of a hundred runners filed past. Of course—the gunshot had been the start of a race.
As the last of the pumping legs receded into the distance, George shrugged and reached next to him for the loaf of bread to feed the ducks and seagulls but it wasn't there to be found and he remembered forgetting it and apologized to the hungry birds.
“Next time,” he promised. George looked around for his bottle of water and realized he had forgotten that too. He hoped he didn't get a coughing fit, those could be hell.