As I walked the path, I noticed that the trees along side it were spaced too meticulously to be the work of Mother Nature. She was much more random in her perfection. I forgave them for being planted by men. I was just happy to have their company. They didn’t have any shade to offer me, as the sun was directly overhead. They did give the squirrels a place to play though. It was a wonderful distraction from real life. The squirrels chased each other up the trees and down, squeaking the whole time. I wondered what they were saying. I tried to duplicate the sounds they were making, but I couldn’t get my mouth to do it.
I laughed out loud at myself just as a young fellow, maybe nine years old cruised by on a scooter. He wore a helmet and all the pads that I never wore as a kid. He looked back at me like I was crazy. His raised eyebrows just made me laugh harder. Maybe I am crazy. I kept on. My laughter subsided as the young man rode on out of sight.
I heard a crow cawing to my right. They always sound so evil, nasty birds. Nasty birds, that reminded me of a time when I had taken my son to the zoo. He couldn’t have been more than two years old. He was just starting to talk a lot. We went to the aviary and he put his face right up to a bird that was roosting. I can’t remember what kind of bird it was, but I remember what he said. He looked at that bird, sneered up his lip and in a raspy little voice said, “Nasty birds.” I laughed so hard I almost dropped him. He really meant it. We still tease him about that.
I started looking for the crow that had squawked, that nasty bird. I came to a clearing. There was a small building, bathrooms I think. It was square and made of brick with two glass block windows that had vents in the middle of them. The roof of the building came to a point and perched right at the top of it was the crow. It was a big one. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a crow that big. He must have been at least a foot and a half tall. Well, maybe not that big, but he was a moose as far as birds go. I sat and stared at him. He stared right back at me. Five minutes must have past while I was looking at him. All he did was sit and squawk at me.
“You like birds do you?” A man’s voice said.
At first I couldn’t spot the source of the voice. I looked around.
He spoke again, “What the hell are you looking for? I’m right here.”
Directly in front of the building that the crow perched upon was a park bench. I hadn’t noticed it before. Nor had I noticed the elderly fellow seated upon it. I was confused. How did I miss that? I had been looking right at him. Maybe I am crazy. I chuckled at myself.
“Yeah, I like birds alright. I have a cockatiel at home named Hercules. I know that it’s kind of a funny name for a little bird, but the kids named him. They were young and into Disney movies. Hercules had just come out, blah, blah, blah. You know how kids are.” I have a tendency to talk too much and that day was no exception.
“Nope. I can’t say that I do. I’ve never had any. I like kids just fine. I just never got around to marrying.” He shrugged. “You want to have a seat?”
I shrugged right back. “Sure.” He seemed to have the same problem with being a little too wordy that I had.
As I walked toward the bench, I recognized him. It was my grandfather. No, it couldn’t be. He had died fifteen years before that. The resemblance was uncanny though. He had a bit more gray hair and a few more wrinkles, but fifteen years will do that to you. My face must have shown my shock.
“What’s the matter with you? Why you looking at me like that?” He squinted up his eyebrows.
I shook my head. “Nothing,” I said. “You just look like somebody I know. Or knew, I should say.”
His expression said aha, but he said, “I get that a lot. I look like everybody.”
“What’s funny about that?”
“Nothing. You just have a very distinctive look about you. I can’t imagine that there are a whole bunch of people that look like you. Besides my grandfather, but he died over fifteen years ago.”
He humphed, “Maybe you don’t get out enough.”
I shrugged, “Maybe not.” I extended my hand as I sat beside him on the bench. “Sean. Sean O’Brien. Pleased to meet you.”
As he shook my hand he said, “Emil Rukavina. Likewise.”
He may as well have hit me in the head with a hammer. “What?” I asked, shaking my head.
“I said Emil Rukavina,” he repeated himself. “I know, Emil’s not a very common name anymore and Rukavina. Well, I guess there aren’t that many Croatians running around this town anymore either. There used to be though.”
I looked closer at him. It just didn’t make any sense. “That was my grandpa’s name, Emil Rukavina.”
“Hm, good name.” Then he changed the subject. “What would you have named him?”
“What?” I was too stunned to have any idea what he might be talking about.
“The bird, your bird, you said the kids named him. It sounded like you weren’t too fond of the name. What would you call him?”
He had diverted me. “Oh, I don’t know. I probably would have called him Napoleon. When he walks back and forth on his perch, he kind of hunches over and sticks the tops of his wings out. They look like shoulders. It looks like he’s a little dude walking with his hands behind his back. It reminds me of a movie I saw with Napoleon as one of the characters.”
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pack of Salems. He offered me one. I declined and got one of my own. I can’t smoke those menthols. It’s like smoking a candy cane. I heard that the menthol crystallizes your lungs. I suppose that could have been my mother trying to scare me off of smoking, but I wasn’t going to chance it. Not that smoking regular cigarettes was any safer. Somehow it made sense in my head. Maybe I am crazy.
“My grandpa smoked Salems.” I said as I lit my cigarette.
“Alright kid,” he began. “You’re pretty hung up on this. Didn’t you say that he died over fifteen years ago?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Mother’s Day, 1990. I don’t remember any of it though. I guess I blacked it out. It sucks really. I wish I could remember. My mom has told me all of this stuff about it, but I don’t remember anything. My wife says that it’s probably better that way. I only have good memories. I don’t know. I wish I could remember. I’ve even thought about getting hypnotized. It seems kind of weird that I don’t remember you dying and here you are talking with me. It’s kind of like I found you.”
“Slow down kid. I already told you that I never had any kids of my own.” He put his hand out as if he were stopping me.
I shrugged, “Maybe you have amnesia or something.”
“Do you hear yourself?” A quizzical expression came to his face. “Do you think that your family’s been lying to you for, what did you say, fifteen years?”
I sighed, “I know it sounds crazy, but you look just like him. You sound like him. You have his name. You smoke his cigarettes for Christ’s sake.” I shook my head, hands out in front of me as if I were holding something. “I guess when you really want something to be real your mind plays tricks on you. Has that ever happened to you? Did you ever convince yourself that something you wanted to be true was, even when you knew it wasn’t?”
“I suppose.” He nodded. “But you know what they say.”
“What’s that?” I looked over at him.
“You can have a handful of want in this hand and a handful of shit in the other. What do you got more of?” He had his hands out and clenched into fists, as if he were holding something in each of them. Then he opened them both and said, “Shit.”
My jaw hung open as he said this. I tried to respond but I couldn’t. I couldn’t say anything. My grandfather said that all the time. He used that expression so much that when I think of him that is the first thing that comes to my mind. That expression was part of him. All of it, the words, the look on his face, even the hand gestures. This man that I was talking to was my grandpa. I just knew it. I started to get angry. Why wouldn’t he just give up the charade, hug me and tell me how much he’s missed me.
“You’ll catch flies if you keep your mouth hanging open like that.” He looked up at the sky.
I shook my head. “What the hell are you trying to do to me?” My eyes started misting up.
“What’s your problem kid?” He looked honestly confused by my behavior.
I was losing it. How could it be that this guy was a perfect replica of my grandpa but wasn’t him? Why couldn’t I remember anything about his death? I don’t remember the hospital, the wake, the burial, nothing. I was a pallbearer and I don’t even remember carrying his casket. How can that be?
He spoke again. “Maybe I’ll be getting along. I think we’ve talked enough today. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again someday, some other time.” He started to get up.
“No!” My shout startled him. I put a hand on his arm. “Don’t go yet. I’m sorry. I just really thought…well, I don’t know what I thought.” I dried my eyes. “Look, you look like you might have a story or two in you. Would you humor me and tell me one? Just let me pretend for a minute. Please.”
A wide smile spread across his face. “Sure,” he said. “As long as you quit all that emotional crap. Crying never solved nothing for nobody.”
I smiled right back at him. “I know. Somebody told me that a long time ago.”
“A story,” he began. “Let’s see. I was driving a delivery truck. Oh that was a whole lot of years ago. There was this fellow, Charlie Campman. Nothing but trouble that guy was.”
As he told his story, I closed my eyes. I had heard that story no less than twenty times from my grandpa when I was a boy. It was the same story and he was telling it exactly the same. Word for word it was the same. The sound of his voice was the same. I imagined myself sitting at his kitchen table across from him. He was drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and I was eating grandma’s cheesecake and drinking a soda. I loved listening to his stories.
When he finished the story I sat for a moment with my eyes still closed. Tears wanted to come out, but I was holding them in. I folded my hands against my chest and took a deep breath in through my nose. I smelled a mix of cigarettes, Hall’s, and coffee, the smell of my grandpa. I smiled big as I opened my eyes and turned to look at him. He was gone. I stood up and spun a quick circle. There was nobody around but me. He couldn’t have gotten away from me that fast. He was just talking to me. I took another look around. Nothing. I was alone.
As I stood there, memories flooded into my head. I remembered running from school to the hospital. I remembered looking at my grandpa in his casket. I remembered touching his face. He was cold. I remembered carrying his casket. It all flooded back in at once. I fell to my knees, put my head in my hands and balled. I’m not sure how long I sat like that, but I might have stayed all day. Instead, I was interrupted by a loud squawk.
I raised my head up and wiped tears from my cheeks. They were quickly replaced by reinforcements. The crow was still there. He was staring at me. He squawked again and then flew away. As he left, it felt like a huge weight was being lifted off my shoulders. I waved and he was gone. I looked around again, still nobody but me. I smiled, collected myself and started for home.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever see Emil Rukavina again, except in my head. Who knows though? Maybe I will.