COULD HAVE WON THAT WAR
Copyright 1996 by Author, Timothy Herrick
On August 15, 1993, at the Van Saun Park Duck Pond in Paramus, New Jersey, Marlene Owens died. Her death was Bob Schnieder’s fault, the unexpected result of a practical joke. Bob and Marlene were two of several senior citizens who sat by the duck pond in the afternoon. Even when they were friendly, they never got along.
Their biggest difference of opinion was about New Jersey. Marlene felt Paramus when she and her husband first moved here in 1955 was better and just got worse. Bob insisted it was better now because there were more stores and more services and less teenagers. As long as you could drive, it was one of the best places to be a senior in America.
Only a few years ago, the seniors were a larger and livelier bunch at the pond. Seniors from nearby Bergen County towns came to Van Saun to be with their peers. The Ridgewood Home For The Elderly used to bring groups of seniors there every day. The Paramus Senior Center organized knitting and painting fairs. This was how the gatherings started. The arts and crafts aspect soon lost appeal, but the pond and its ducks had not.
The seniors who still lived at home and could drive would hang out with their more feeble friends. Our Lady of the Visitation Church even had a bus that picked up elderly parishioners and brought them to the pond for the afternoon.
Those afternoons were splendid for the old folks. They would bring sandwiches wrapped in Saran Wrap, salads enclosed in Tupperware containers, and lots of fruit. Sometimes they played cards and many of the women still knitted. Mostly they would talk—about their children and grandchildren or about their health and medications, or about the Depression and World War II—as well as upcoming activities, such as the bingo games at Our Lady of The Visitation, senior square dancing at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, the Beth-El Synagogue flea market and the local chapter of the AARP’s annual picnic.
Each year, their numbers dwindled. People died or moved to Florida or hospitals or hospices. Our Lady of The Visitation canceled the bus service. The Paramus Senior Center was sold to a Strip Mall Developer. A suspicious fire burned down The Ridgewood Home For The Elderly and an office complex was being built on the site. Among the seniors, there was a silent understanding each fall, when the weather became too cold to sit in the park, that someone else would be gone by spring. People died all year around, but there was always at least one senior citizen who could not survive another winter. The pond crowd would meet at the funeral and after consoling the bereaved, they discussed among themselves whether it is better for the family if you die before the holidays or after the holidays.
Last year, besides Marlene and Bob, the Duck Pond seniors included Mildred Lanier, Ethel Rosen and Danny Cypress. Danny died the day before Thanksgiving and now Bob was the only male left. The situation was not always comfortable for Bob; Marlene had a way of stirring things up.
Ducks, mostly Mallards and Pekins, made the pond their home all year around but their population multiplied during the warmer months. The Pekins were white, feral descendants of ducks first domesticated in Asia. The Mallards came in flocks, but were always paired up. The males were beautiful, with green heads and bright yellow bills and steel-blue wing feathers. Like most birds, the females were not as flamboyant. They had to sit on the eggs and not attract predators. Their feathers were brown, the color of dirt and bark, for camouflage.
Bob missed Danny. Danny was the bird watcher of the group. Danny was Bob’s age. This generation of males was disappearing fast. The women never appreciated Danny’s vast knowledge of wild life. His son had given him a pair of binoculars, and he brought the optical device to Van Saun every day. When Danny was feeling up to it, he would spend the morning walking around the woods of the park hoping to see rare species. Every afternoon he identified the birds. Mostly they were ducks—Mallards or Pekins—but sometimes Egrets or Herons waded in the pond. Danny would rock in his lawn chair with joy, whisper information he memorized from the field guides. Bob respected Danny. He was a good man, usually voted Republican and served in the Navy in World War II. He did not waste his retirement on useless endeavors like knitting, crossword puzzles and soap operas. Danny kept informed, kept learning, kept growing.
One day in May, Bob was the first one to arrive at the Pond. He fell asleep with the unlit cigar in his mouth. Marlene, Mildred and Ethel arrived together and it took several minutes to wake him up and they laughed at him for this. Through the distance channel of his progressive addition lenses Bob saw a Great Blue Heron. Some brat on a tricycle frightened the creature out of the water and into the air. Bob could remember seeing one with Danny and Danny describing its migration patterns.
The women did not notice the bird; they had never listened to Danny. They were more interested in mocking Bob.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t wake up,” said Ethel, who sat in the chair and reached for her knitting needles. “That must of have been some dream. You were out!”
“You should be careful falling asleep out here a man your age,” quipped Mildred. “Someone might call the Coroner.”
Bob decided not to mention the Heron. He yawned, rolled the cigar between his fingers and even laughed a little. “Oh, I wasn’t out for that long… if some people were on time.”
“Well, we’re keeping schedule now are we?” said Marlene. “The mall was crowded… it’s only three o’clock.”
Bob dropped the cigar in his rush to look at his watch. She was kidding. It was only one fifteen. His face turned red. Even when he noticed his cigar was stuck in a small pile of duck turd, which caused another eruption of laughter among the women, Bob was not angry. He was confused. These old women had no right to laugh at him, but he did not want to leave because he did not want to be alone.
Marlene always went too far. “You’re napping just like your hero Ronald Reagan and look what he did for this country.”
Marlene’s comments had an extra sharpness to their edge. He picked up the cigar and carried it over to a garbage pail. He never littered, and the women appreciated that. He resisted giving his opinion and every time Marlene referred to his slumber, he politely chuckled.
For the group of seniors that gathered at the pond, Bob had the most community spirit. He liked to think of himself as an active, middle aged man. You’re as young as you feel; or at least as young as you think you feel. At eighty years old, Bob prided himself on his youthful and optimistic outlook and lifestyle. Bob read three newspapers—the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Bergen Evening Record—every day. He used a computer for his bills and letters, and was an expert at programming his VCR. On holidays, like Christmas or Independence Day he would even drink a beer. Sometimes he even lights the cigar he likes to hold when he talks and likes to slip between his dentures when he thinks.
Bob’s life, while not free of hardship, had been easier than Marlene’s. His father had some financial troubles during the Depression. When he graduated high school, Bob worked and took college courses at night. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and when he returned, he went to The Wharton School of Business and married Lenore Parsons. Their two sons were well-balanced, obedient kids. In high school they were handsome athletes and smart students and they both went to well known universities. James became a lawyer and John a television producer.
His investments and career as a broker on Wall Street for thirty five years made Bob’s retirement comfortable. At sixty five he bid farewell to The Street—except for sporadic consulting and dabbling in the stock market—and Bob did what Lenore always wanted to do, Travel—Europe, Greece, Bermuda, California, Hawaii, Alaska. When they weren’t flying they were driving to New England or down South.
He was seventy five when she died of leukemia. It was the saddest day of his life and he never expected to get over the anguish. But he was an American; he endured. He could afford a maid and landscapers and vacations to Florida. His sons and grand children visited frequently. He was happy living in the home that was so distant from the office or the monthly business trips or the frequent adventures he and his beloved wife went on during her brief golden years.
Marlene’s husband was younger than Bob. He worked in a factory in Paterson. At fifty he made foreman and at fifty five he was promoted to head foreman. He had his first heart attack at fifty six. It was mild, but he agreed to retire early, at sixty. At fifty eight, he was looking forward to retirement and enjoyed reading the travel brochures Marlene brought home. His health improved and he felt well enough to resume eating cheddar cheese and drinking scotch, his favorite things to do while watching television. That was the year of the second heart attack, the one that killed him.
The house had been paid off. She did part time secretarial work for the rectory at Our Lady Of The Visitation and between her husband’s partial pension, insurance money and social security, she made ends meet. She did not mind that she couldn’t live anywhere else besides her Paramus home, even though she now lived there in a solitude that sometimes seemed unbearable.
Marlene’s family was poor. Her father was Irish and her mother Italian. She was born and raised in Jersey City. She lived with her parents, her two brothers and three sisters in an eight room apartment. Bill Owens was a neighborhood boy. When he returned with all the other handsome veterans after V.E. Day, she fell in love with him.
All she ever wanted was to be a wife and mother and live in a house with a yard and make that house a home. Armed with G.I. Bill money, he liberated her from Jersey City and they settled in Paramus. She gave birth to three children, Jeffrey, Donald and Joanne. They went to Mass on sunday, watched Ed Sullivan on T.V., bought a real tree every Christmas and hung the flag on their porch on national holidays. Life was good, until 1968, when their eldest son, Jeffrey, died in a car accident.
Jeffrey was with two friends. They were tripping on LSD and heading up Route 17 in a Volkswagen Beetle Jeffrey had bought with money saved while working at the Dairy Queen in Rochelle Park. At the border of Ramsey and Mahwah, he pulled in front of an 18 wheeler. The truck skidded, pushing the volkswagen into a telephone pole. The truck driver did not die. In The 1969 Paramus High School Year Book, each of the dead teenagers received their own page, their photograph outlined by a thick black border.
Jeffrey’s death was the Owens family’s defining tragedy. Maybe the incident could be blamed for Donald’s drinking problem and Joanne’s divorce. Donald is in A.A. and sober for five years and Joanne is doing better with the kids, bringing them over for visits as opposed to just free baby sitting. Time has a way of healing.
Around one o’clock one day in July, a man in his early twenties riding a black and red Mountain Bike stopped at a bench near the seniors. He wore gym shorts and a Knicks shirt. He had ridden several miles and was taking a break. He stretched, touched his toes a few times, then lay on the bench drinking water from the plastic bottle, which he carried in a metal clip attached to the bicycle.
Marlene was jotting words in the USA Today crossword puzzle as she talked with Ethel about plans to renovate the church. Ethel barely listened, she was concentrating on her knitting. She was using premium virgin wool for the sweater she was making for one of her granddaughters.
Bob was enjoying the sun. He twirled his unlit cigar, chatting with Mildred about sea food restaurants in Florida.
Marlene looked up from the page and said to Ethel, “Oh, he’s a nice looking boy.”
Without disturbing her rhythm with the needles, Ethel leaned forward and squinted. “A lot of the kids ride bicycles these days.”
“He reminds me of a friend of my son, Shawn Malloy. He and Jeffrey used to ride all the way to Harriman State Park and go camping,” said Marlene. “Matter of fact, he kind of looks like Shawn.”
Mildred turned away from Bob. “Jeff rode bicycles?”
“Oh, he loved that VW. He rode bikes with Shawn. Shawn wanted to race bicycles in the Olympics, but Paramus High School didn’t have a team.”
“I remember that Malloy kid, he was a hippie. He was on the track team, but he quit because they were going to make him cut his hair,” said Bob, chomping on the cigar. “He was fast. He won a few meets. But you know, all those baby boomers back then with the Beatles and the drugs and the long hair, they just tossed it away. Cycling wasn’t even a sport. The kid didn’t want to go to college.”
“He died in Vietnam,” said Marlene. That hushed Bob up. “He joined the army after Jeffrey died. He thought that all the hippie stuff was what killed Jeffrey, that’s what he told me before he shipped out. He thought the army would straighten him out, can you imagine that.”
“The soldiers weren’t the same like in the big one, when I fought.” Bob gummed his cigar. “Could have won that war, if it wasn’t for the drugs and the hippies.”
Justin used Mcpherson as his last name but his mother returned to using Malloy. A few months ago, with the divorce final she and his younger sister moved from Pittsburgh to his Grandmother’s house. His grandmother died eight months ago, and although the family agreed to sell the house, his mother’s siblings were in no rush to abandon the only monument left to their Paramus childhoods. They were happy she was living there. His mother needed to refocus her life. She called this her pit stop.
Justin graduated college in June. He had no money to travel or move somewhere cool like Manhattan or Los Angeles. Most of his friends were off in school or living someplace other than Pittsburgh. His mother welcomed him to her childhood home. “Look for a job in New York City. You have a degree.”
His job prospects did not go beyond reading the Help Wanted sections and sending out cover letters and resumes. He had a lot of free time in between his futile search for a career and meditating on the couch with the television on. Justin fixed up his bicycle and took to the roads of Paramus, riding around Van Saun Park.
Justin remembered visiting the park as a kid. It had not changed since. There was a children’s zoo with caged Emus and Donkeys and a little red train that dragged people through a tunnel and around the zoo. Near the zoo was a children’s playground, now usually crowded with Baby Boomer infants and toddlers.
The park also had a flower garden featuring a wooden bridge over a babbling stream. A sign near the stream claimed that George Washington washed his hands here while fleeing the British.
Justin rode past the baseball field, tennis court, picnic areas and parking lots. His favorite part of the Van Saun was the duck pond. It was peaceful. Sunlight glimmered on the water and the chlorophyll-rich leaves of the trees. Ducks floated in the pond, and people tossed bread at them despite posted signs: Please Don’t Feed The Birds.
And there was a friendly bunch of old people who were in the same spot every day. Justin adopted a summer routine that cleared his mind and got his body in shape. This meant riding at the same time every day, traveling the same route and stopping for his break at the same spot.
College had burned him out mentally, emotionally and financially. Grad school could wait. He could not decide whether to get a masters in Political Science or a degree in Law. He did not feel like doing anything, besides riding around his mother’s hometown.
Justin’s father had not called him when he graduated. The divorce had been bitter. His father was the adulterer. He was to blame and everyone knew it. Seemed like as soon as Justin went to college his family fell apart and by the time college was over, they were living in New Jersey like shell shocked refuges who escaped some far away turmoil.
The last time his family was truly together was for a vacation to Washington D.C. Justin was sixteen. They spent an afternoon finding the name of his Uncle Shawn on the black wall of the Vietnam Memorial. Shawn had stepped on a mine in Da Nang three years before Justin was born. Justin’s parents first met in high school. Shawn and his father were friends. When they found his name on the wall, his parents wept. It was the last emotion besides anger Justin remembered seeing his parents sharing.
After a few days of taking a break by the duck pond, the seniors began to anticipate Justin’s arrival. They waved to him, smiled and said hello. Except Bob, who resented youngsters not related to him and resented more the way the kid’s presence inspired Marlene to drone on about the good old days, before all the malls and highways.
One day Marlene struck up a conversation with Justin, and when he told her about his family, she mentioned that she knew his grandmother and expressed condolences. She said that she did not know his mother, but did know his uncle and that he was friends with her son. She said she felt very, very sad when Shawn died so young in that stupid war. “He used to ride his bicycle all around town.”
“That’s what my mother says, that he wanted to race, but Paramus wasn’t like Europe. They only had track and field teams. Cycling wasn’t really a sport,” said Justin. “Not like now with Velodromes and mountain bikes and everything.”
“Only little kids rode bicycles back then, it wasn’t something a lot of teenagers did.” Marlene looked towards the sky and felt a stillness that squelched an onslaught of memories. “Your uncle was misunderstood.”
Gradually, Bob felt that Marlene and this kid had become an intrusion depleting the tranquility of his afternoons. Marlene would tell the kid how the streets used to be free of traffic, that instead of malls there used to be verdant fields and that Paramus was quaint and charming when it was just a few housing developments and small farms.
What Bob hated the most was that Marlene wouldn’t talk about her son, or how the hippies and the left wingers ruined things. Their attempt at revolution failed. They were why people died young.
Justin thought the old woman was sweet and sincere. He liked the senior citizens, they were cute and amusing, like muppets with less dexterity. They were nice to him.
The house provided Justin with constant reminders about his grandmother. Her death was like a blur. It occurred in the middle of a semester and his studies and the intensity of his social life distracted him from his feelings. Now with college over he felt guilty about ignoring his own grief. He also realized how deeply the loss affected his mother and his sister. That was why he kept returning to the spot near the seniors by the pond. Instead of brooding about his future and his lack of a girlfriend, he thought about his grandmother.
The shiny new white Cadillac startled Justin when it slowed down alongside him and honked. Then he recognized the old man from the pond. Justin waved. The passenger side front window went down. Bob pointed his cigar at the parking lot of a Rite-Aide and yelled, “pull in here, I want to ask you something.”
The exertion necessary for the old man to scream made Justin afraid that something was wrong. Bob was wheezing when he got out of the car. “Hey kid, I’m glad I saw you. I was wondering, since you’re not working, you may like to earn a little money.”
Justin laughed. “I’m not good at yard work, I was raised in the city. I have enough trouble with my mother’s hedge.”
“I got professionals to take care of my lawn, kid.” He took the cigar out. A brown film covered his thin, cracked lips. “I wasn’t talking hard labor.”
“You mean in an office. I majored in political science but I had to take business courses too.” Justin stopped stammering, “I mean, I wanted to take them.”
“Nothing like that, kid, I’m retired from business. Thirty five years on Wall Street, lived clean and worked hard but I never lost my sense of humor.” Bob put the cigar back in his mouth, inhaled then exhaled imaginary smoke. “I wanted to play a little joke on our friend there at the pond… Marlene… one of the ladies. I want to make her laugh a little. Give an old woman a smile, you know. I’ll give you twenty five dollars.”
“Gee, now I can buy that Condo. What do you want me to do.”
“Tomorrow’s supposed to be a nice day and I figure you’ll be riding your bicycle. I’m just asking you to wear a costume.”
“What kind of costume?”
“Nothing that crazy, not a dress or anything.” Bob started to move towards the back of the car. “With all this stuff about the sixties coming back and another Woodstock, I thought it would be funny if you came riding by with a hippie costume on. It would remind her of all the kids back then.”
“I don’t want it to remind her of my uncle. She said she remembered him riding a bicycle.”
“Damn shame what happened to him, kid. I remember seeing him run with the track team. He was a quick boy. But it won’t remind her of Shawn, he was a soldier. ”
“My mother has pictures of him with long hair.”
“Hair was longer back then. This is just a joke.”
When they got to the trunk he handed Justin the keys. “Open that will you for me, my arms are stiff today. I have a little arthritis… I’m eighty years old.”
As Justin opened the trunk, all he could think about was that this person was eighty years old and still allowed to drive. And not just any car, but a gas guzzling pimp mobile with as much metal as the statue of liberty. He wondered, how many cyclists have been hit by Cadillacs driven by old men?
The costume was in a box marked, Ken’s Magic Shop, Fairlawn, New Jersey. It wasn’t too weird, just a pair of bell bottom jeans, sandals, tie-dye t-shirt, a peace medallion on a necklace made of fat, colorful beads, and a wig with a wide beaded headband velcroed to the fake blonde hair, which was as thick as bear fur and three feet in length. Justin put on the wig and laughed, “you are crazy.”
“Yeah, just a crazy old man. Take that off, you never know who is driving around.”
“It’s kind of hot to ride a bicycle in.”
“You only have to ride to the park. You can take it off after she sees you. We’ll all have a laugh. It’s just a rental. I still have to return the get up.”
“Make it fifty. And, I won’t be wearing the sandals.”
The deal was done. Bob didn’t bother haggling. He trusted the kid, gave him the money and the costume. Bob’s sons were well off, and he was set for the rest of his life. He was determined to follow the advice his sons always gave him: Enjoy life, enjoy your retirement. Spend!
Bob had a great sense of humor. At least he thought so. He enjoyed pulling practical jokes. In college he climbed the watch tower and set the clock back fifteen minutes. At christmas, he would always think of new ways to surprise the kids, like putting all the really good presents in a closet and waiting until just before the disappointment of his sons turned to tears before opening the closet door and blaming Santa for hiding their presents. Or he would put a small box inside a big box inside a bigger box and the note inside the small box read, look in the garage, where red bows glistened on brand new bicycles.
At work, he was the office prankster. He shopped Ken’s Magic shop for novelties the week before April Fools Day like other people shop for Christmas Trees or Halloween pumpkins. A styrofoam cup on top of a brown plastic oval and it was a fake coffee spill on somebody’s desk, or the leaky pen, or fake vomit. To his close clients, he would mail humorous letters from the IRS. Last April Fools Day at a senior’s dance in the Lutheran church he pulled the fly-in-ice cube gag on Mildred and everybody laughed. Even Mildred, eventually.
This would be a great gag. Marlene would not know what decade she was in. Mildred and Ethel would laugh at Marlene; she would be put in her place. Bob hated those flag burning pinkos and despised any type of vindication of the sixties, which he considered the nadir of American history. He blamed young people in general and the counter culture in particular for the problems that divided the country.
That was why he hated Marlene’s hypocrisy. She talked with the kid but never said anything about what her son and his friend Shawn were really like. She didn’t talk about their drugs or their disrespectful attitudes. A practical joke would prove how foolish she was.
To complete the joke, he called up the son of his plumber. He knew this kid pretty well. The kid’s van had a sound system that went so loud Bob could hear it from inside his house with his hearing aid turned off. He was willing to work for twenty five dollars and was free that afternoon. Bob went to the Tower Records on Route 17 and asked the clerk for the Compact Disc of the original soundtrack from the movie Woodstock.
Marlene was not feeling well. She had been to the doctor a week ago. She hadn’t bothered to tell the doctor that her vertigo spells had returned. Her blood pressure was up, and so was her cholesterol. Her daughter hadn’t called and Donald had her worried. His office number was disconnected and he had not returned any of the messages she left on his answering machine.
Marlene needed to get out of the house. She wanted company. Her friends at the pond always made her feel better, except for Bob.
He was in rare form, praising a new mini-mall in the old skating rink on route seventeen or the town house development that was going up on that patch of woods between Beth-El Cemetery and Reid Park. Mildred and Ethel just watched the ducks. Marlene tried to not pay attention, even when he got on the subject of Blue Laws—he thought they should be repealed, he wanted the stores to be opened on Sunday—Marlene was opposed to the repeal because Sunday was the one day of the week when the roads were not choked by shoppers driving to and from the malls.
The weather was hot and humid. Marlene felt dizzy. She was in no mood to bicker. She just wanted quiet.
A van entered the parking lot near the pond. The vehicle backed into a space and the driver opened both front doors, where two out of the four speakers of its Toshiba sound system were located. He turned the volume up as loud as it could go. The music blasted across the water. Mallards and Pekins fled the pond and filled the sky.
Marlene had heard this recording before but could not place it. Ethel dropped her knitting and covered her ears. Mildred talked about getting a cop.
The voice of Richie Havens echoed in the park. “Sometimes… I feel… like a… motherless child.”
“It’s sixties music,” cackled Bob. “Don’t you like it Marlene. That’s what kids listened to back when you thought Bergen County was so great.”
The recorded applause of the historic hundreds of thousands exploded. Next was the Country Joe McDonald track. “Give me an “F!” Give me a…”
Marlene looked at her watch. It was almost time for Justin.
“Not all of them were hippies,” said Bob. “I’ll say that. Some of the kids were okay.”
His comment made her mad, but a tightness in her chest kept her silent.
“What’s That Spell! What’s That Spell!”
Marlene looked up and saw the long hair and counter culture garb. Shawn was alive, riding a bike into the park. A blood vessel burst in her brain and she clutched her chest and fell out of her chair. Just as suddenly she felt young again. Shawn said her son and her husband were waiting for her. She hopped on the handle bars just like she used to climb on her father’s shoulders when she was a little girl and he would run with her, up and down the sidewalk in front of their apartment building.
Justin rode to a pay phone and dialed 911. Mildred and Ethel shrieked as Marlene twitched on the ground. Then she stopped moving and her eyes slowly closed. Bob was on his knees, gently slapping her hand and screaming her name.
The plumber’s son closed the van doors, shut off the music and drove away. A police car followed the ambulance. Bob moved out of the way of the paramedics and the policemen asked Mildred and Ethel questions. The paramedics shook their heads as they lifted her onto a stretcher and covered her body and face with a white sheet.
“I’m sorry, it was just a joke,” howled Bob, falling to his knees again as the ambulance drove away siren off.
Justin was ranting. “You bastard. You creep. He made me do it, he paid me to wear this stuff.” Justin ripped off the wig and threw it at Bob. “You killed her! You killed her!”
Justin was about to get on his bicycle. Patrolman Charley Smith grabbed his shoulder. “I’m sorry, son, we’re going to have to take you in too. We have to arrest you both. Procedure.”
Patrolman Joe Dixon said to Bob, “Pull yourself together, sir. Do you want to die here in the park too? We have to take you down to the station.”
Bob muttered something and regained his composure. Officer Dixon helped him stand.
“Should we cuff them,” asked Officer Dixon.
“Regulations,” answered Officer Smith.
“He’s an old man,” yelled Mildred. “He has a condition!”
“I have arthritis,” said Bob. “I can hardly move the hands.”
Officer Smith was losing his patience. “Read them their rights,” he barked. “Just cuff the hippie kid.”
AUTHORS NOTE: I consider this an “early” story, but re-reading it during some archiving I decided to post it, with little fanfare. In terms of my short stories, it’s transitional, it’s when I got serious about the fiction…. actually it’s when I got good enough to get serious.