This story is by Craig Martin and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., beautifully verdant in spring and summer, is absolutely dazzling in the fall when the forest’s ochre hues of yellow, red, orange and brown play host to landscape artists as well as lovers. Stone and wooden pedestrian bridges span the creek at various places along it’s meandering course and serpentine trails careen through the woods for miles.
Darlene Paige considered this park her sanctuary, the place she came to indulge the melancholy of her alter ego. It was the place that provided her with both pleasure and pain, memories of her optimistic young adulthood and memories of her later loss. She and her husband, Richard, walked these paths as undergraduate and graduate students, and sadly much less so as the professionals they became. They had loved, argued and fallen out of love here. Now as she walked, her notice of those obviously “in love” was bittersweet, but still she came.
Dr. Darlene Adel Paige, the public person, was very attractive and of graceful manner. She entered rooms with an effortless flourish that betrayed no conceit, and bestowed upon her audiences a smile that made each, and every recipient want to know her intimately. To meet “Professor D” you’d think here’s someone who couldn’t have suffered any misfortune in her life. She was sincere in her presentation, but she was, hands down, the ultimate thespian.
These characteristics, part of her word of mouth reputation, not to mention the mastery of her discipline, filled her literature in English classes every semester that she worked. She believed that “story” informs our individual lives, and our histories and legends greatly influence our realities and legacies.
“I regard ‘story’ as the linchpin of our intellectual existence,” she lectured her classes at the beginning of every term, “and we’re going to explore how our lives have been enriched by the art of literature.”
Always ready to discover the narratives of others, Darlene was an inveterate people watcher. She found the young woman she met at the Calvert Woodley Wine, Sprits & Deli recently, interesting because she was exploring the wine stock before she approached a clerk. The teacher in Darlene took over when she saw what the clerk recommended was not, in her amateur sommelier’s opinion, as good as a similar wine she was about to buy. So, she offered the young lady help with her selection. Her new student was grateful. Their subsequent conversation was more than interesting, and heart rendering.
“I’m shopping for my brother, Jonathan. He likes wine so I wanted to get him something special for when he gets out of rehab.”
“Your brother is in rehabilitation and you’re buying him alcohol!”
“Oh . . . no, my brother is a soldier. His Humvee was blown-up by an IED in Afghanistan,” her voice trailed off, “and he lost his right leg. He’s home now and in physical rehab.”
“My God, I’m so sorry,” Darlene said, and hugged her new acquaintance.
Darlene Paige and Jaclyn Oliver became friends. Darlene was older than Jackie’s mother but younger than her grandparents. She treated Jackie and Jon like the children she and Richard never had.
Shortly after their first meeting Darlene learned that Jackie was an undergraduate at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where she taught. She persuaded her to take her course for the upcoming fall semester in hope that Jackie would declare English as her major. Darlene could also be of valuable help to her regarding graduate school.
Because of the noteworthy circumstances of their relationship, Darlene started recording their interactions in her journal soon after they met.
“Jackie took me to meet Jon today. His injury is, of course, devastating, but he seems determined to overcome his handicap.
I met their mother, Candice. She’s particularly bitter. She blames Jon’s absent father for his decision to join the army, and her father for not doing more to dissuade Jon from doing so.”
Darlene hadn’t met Jackie’s and Jon’s grandfather. He and his daughter didn’t get along, so he moved to Miami, preferring, he said, the blissfully unencumbered geriatric set to his dysfunctional family. The estrangement was cultivated by Candice who, according to Jackie and Jon, blamed her father for the break-up of her mother’s and his marriage, in addition to his apparent lack of influence with her son. He didn’t feel the same way about her but, as reported by Jackie, both Candice and her mother had always been difficult. They tried to dominate their men.
As autumn really came on, Darlene walked the trails and admired the foliage of Rock Creek Park, as her schedule permitted. She still passed and met couples on the trail, and joggers, bicyclist and skaters. They all appeared to be invigorated by the mild fall weather.
There was a notable exception to the coupled-up and the physically fit. He was a tall, very handsome older man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache and short beard whose gait was as leisurely as hers. She found that she wasn’t so self-absorbed when she caught sight of him. They always exchanged hellos as they passed each other. She always took quick backward glances but never caught him doing so. Was there something wrong with her? Was there something wrong with him? She knew she was a 57-year-old “knock-out”! She still dated. Men still sought after her. She just hadn’t found anyone who really interested her. Perhaps her smile had been to tentative. She promised herself that when they again met she would initiate a conversation.
The next meeting occurred on a sunny Friday afternoon. She didn’t know if he walked every day, but when she had sporadically appeared on the trail he had been there. Today was no different. What was different was that when he approached and got close, she stopped.
“Hello again,” her smile was radiant.
He also stopped. He smiled too. There was no smugness in it, and she was relieved.
“Don’t you think we’ve greeted each other enough times that we ought to introduce ourselves,” she said.
“I don’t usually talk to beautiful women I haven’t been formally introduced to,” he said, his smile now an expansive grin, “but for you, I’ll make an exception. Hi, I’m Philip Harvey.”
“Darlene Paige,” she replied, and they continued their walk, Philip having reversed his direction.
He was 65 years old and a recently retired lieutenant of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. He was divorced. He cited irreconcilable differences as the cause and would not say more. He was a private person, and didn’t want to know Darlene’s private history beyond what she did for a living and that she was not now married.
They discovered that they both liked wine, fine dining and jazz. They both lived in the Cleveland Park community west of Rock Creek Parl. Neither could believe they never crossed paths anywhere other than on the hiking trail.
They were more at ease with each other now. Darlene wasn’t “acting” as she had been with the others, and Philip began to answer more questions. Darlene was careful still to ask only those she believed were not to intrusive.
“Why the police department?”, she asked him one evening.
“My father was an electrical worker. He spliced live cable underground. He was a hard man doing a dangerous job. He taught me that a man ought to be willing to die for something, if necessary; your family, your community, your country. He fought in Korea. I chose D.C.”
Darlene met Jackie for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. Jackie was distressed.
“Jaclyn, what is it? What’s the matter?”
“Jon appealed to the army to stay on active duty,” she said, his request has been approved, and mom and I can’t talk him out of it.”
“Jackie, he’s lost his leg! They’ll let him stay in the service?”
“It’s below his knee. He told me there have already been cases where soldiers fitted with a prosthetic leg and foot have even returned to combat. That’s what he wants.”
They ate in silence, except for Jackie’s sniffling. The plan was to meet Candice at Walter Reed after lunch for Jon’s last visit. When they arrived at the hospital they met Candice in the corridor. She was crying, and smiling!
“Daddy talked Jon into non-combat duty,” she blurted out, “he convinced him that he’d given enough.”
“He called from Florida?”, Jackie said.
“No . . . Candice pointed to the door of the room they stood next to. When they entered the room, there stood Jon, next to his grandfather, Philip Harvey. Darlene and Philip stared at each other in disbelief. Then Philip said:
“I didn’t tell them I was back!”