He Never Asked
By Laura McHale Holland
The old man eats Cocoa Krispies from a plastic bowl high up in the branches of an elm tree that doesn’t exist anymore. But he’s there anyway, enjoying the flavors melding in his mouth as he takes in the sights, smells and sounds of long ago. He watches his childhood friends, girls in ponytails and pigtails boys in crew cuts, all wearing faded shorts and sporting scabbed knees and elbows as they roller skate down the block.
The old man’s former self is among them, 10 years old, eyeing Susie, the girl who’d just moved in next door. He’d been hoping the new neighbors would have a boy his age, not a girl. But it is summertime, and all is well anyway as the day unfolds.
The man throws his empty cereal bowl and spoon down, but immune to gravity, they sail up and away into the clouds as station wagons come and go below. Mothers in shirtwaist dresses unload and stash groceries and dish out snacks to barefoot children breezing in and out of screen doors. The afternoon wears on.
Children splash in a creek near the house. The old man watches his young self sitting on the grassy bank, his skin drying in the warm wind as Susie approaches, sits down next to him and offers him a charm. It’s a pink collie from a box of Cracker Jacks. “Thanks,” he says as he lifts it from her moist palm and slips it in his pocket. The boy wonders how she knew Lassie was his favorite TV show. The old man doesn’t know the answer; he never asked.
Soon it is suppertime. All the children meander toward their homes. Youngsters set dining room tables while dads pull into driveways. Except for Susie’s house. Nobody is home. The girl bites her lip and waits on the porch as it grows dark outside and crickets begin to sing. She starts to cry. The old man climbs down from the tree and walks up her driveway. He sits next to her on the porch.
“Who are you?” she asks? “You look kinda familiar.”
“I’m just a friend, and I’ve come to tell you everything will be fine,” he says. “Your dad was in an accident on the way home from work, and your mom is with him now. He’s going to be okay. He’ll live a long, long life, and, Susie, so will you. You’ll marry the boy next door, and you’ll raise a family and grow old together.”
“How do you know?” she asks.
He stands up, sticks a hand in one of his pockets and touches the familiar collie charm. “I can’t explain it, Susie, but trust me it’ll all work out.”
“Okay,” she says.
He kisses her on the top of the head, turns and walks away. When he reaches the end of the block he heads toward the creek and runs to the water’s edge. He jumps in and merges with the current as Susie’s mom pulls her station wagon into the driveway.