Criminal

[I'm not a criminal. At least, I don't consider myself a criminal. Well, it depends on your definition, but by my standards, I'm no criminal. At least, I'm not committing any criminal activities. And that's all that counts, right?]

Every day, for two weeks now, he's been going to the neighborhood park and watching the kids play: in the sand (he can feel each grain of sand that slushes in past the tops of their shoes), on the swings (he remembers wind that brushes over his eardrums so it hurts slightly), on the merry-go-round (which reminded him of college, actually, drunken nights with his first and only girlfriend). They are little pebbles of energy; they amaze him.

+

He used to hate the park. There were always too many blackbirds, too many splinters, and too many ants. The other kids were always bigger and older, and as a result there were too many bruises as well. On the whole, he preferred to stay at home or go to the library for read-aloud hour. (He wasn't a criminal then, either, despite lying about overdue library books and riding his bicycle without a helmet. Besides, children can't be counted as ciminals, right?)

As much as he hated the park, his parents still made him go on Sunday picnics there. (That was usually when the blackbirds and splinters and ants and bruises happened.)

"It's family time, son, so bring along a book or something if you don't want to play in the sandbox," his father used to say, and there was no arguing with his father, especially when he had a bottle of good wine half-hiding in the crook of his elbow.

"Or you could watch the other kids play." He didn't know why his mother always said that, but she did, and he couldn't argue with her then either, not when she put on her glossy lipstick and bright sundress. She would gather him up in her bare arms, already smelling of the grass in the park, and deposit him in the backseat of their Volvo. That was the end of that.

Of course, once they got to the dreaded park, there was too much distraction for him to read, so he ended up watching the others play. Running a narration of events through his head like the sports announcers on television - Rachel Geiger has just tripped and skinned her knee, but what is this flurry of activity in the far corner? Could it be? Yes, yes, that is Jamie Thomas' ninth birthday party, look JUST LOOK! at the procession of party hats bobbing up and down. Oh, breaking news: Penny Lane and Mark Underhill just shared their first kiss over the water fountain by the basketball courts. Wonder how long they'll last - became his new hobby, and he stopped complaining about having to go on picnics every Sunday.

Five years after he stopped hating the park, the word voyeur appeared on a vocabulary list in freshman English. He didn't talk to anybody for days.

+

He didn't know how old he was, because he stopped counting after his thirtieth birthday. There was no point, if he was only going to get depressed on the same day each year. He worked as a stockboy in a small grocery, and his coworkers would guess anywhere from 25 to 60 years. He didn't mind. If he was nondescript, so much the better. He liked working there; it was near the park, so he would take lunch breaks there.

Today wasn't supposed to be different.

As he was attempting to pick a spot of horseradish off his lime green pants (the color made it difficult), he was hit on the head with a red rubber ball. He jumped, cursed loudly, and accidentally stepped on his sandwich while turning around to look for the ball's origins.

"Excuse me, mister." There came an insistent tugging on his pantleg.

He crouched down. "Is this your ball?"

The boy nodded mutely.

"Well, be careful where you throw it next time," he grumbled. There were 568 grains of sand caught in the toe of the little boy's left sneaker, and he is distracted by this fact.

"Are you by yourself, mister?" The boy's eyes matched his oversized, grubby t-shirt.

"Yes, and I like it that way-"

"Eddie! Eddie! Where'd you go?" Multiple shouts from ingenue voices, then two girls and a boy advanced from the periphery. He felt trapped. They rushed toward the first boy - Eddie - and stopped short when they saw him staring at them, hands tracing nervous patterns on his unfortunately colored slacks. A chorus of "Hi, mister!" followed, and he had to sit down again. He was not used to talking to people at knee-level.

"A-Are you kids by yourselves?" He was not a criminal.

A blonde girl piped up. "Yup! Our muvvers are at a barbeque. They had lots of boddles of funny-colored drinks and told us to pway at the park." She had two tiny splinters lodged in her right palm. He wished he had tweezers on him so she wouldn't rub and irritate them.

"That's beer, stupid!" The other boy shoved her lightly and she stuck her tongue out at him.

"How do yooouuuu know?"

"Because I see them drinking it all the time. 'Sides, I'm older, so you gotta believe me." The kid had a skinned elbow from crashing into another kid while playing freeze tag. He fingered the handkerchief in his pocket.

"Just cuz you're older don't mean you know everything."

"Yes it does."

"No!"

"Yes!"

He couldn't take his eyes off the four children, all lined up in a row like dolls in a toy store display.

Suddenly, he exclaimed, "How would you kids like a cookie? I've got some...in my car."

Four pairs of eyes flashed in front of his face. He closed his own eyes, and thought, I'm not a criminal.

FIN