An Afternoon Stroll
By Andrew Tan (USA)
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An Afternoon Stroll
Fresh air filled the autumn day, cool and crisp, as he walked along a wide asphalt path. Orange and yellow colored the world. A whispering breeze whistled through maple leaves while oak trees stood guard; pillars leading to an ancient Greek temple.
Henry listened as Danny Gleeson hobbled with a wooden cane next to him, speaking in a quiet tone.
"Henry, do you remember playing hide and seek here?" Danny asked. Wheezing, his chest heaved with each breath.
Henry watched as his good friend struggled for air. Frowning, he asked, "Are you okay?” He gestured to a green park bench. "We can stop to rest.”
Danny shook his head. A breeze across his face disturbed his fine mop of white hair—ethereal strands of cigarette smoke. "No, I'm okay."
They had walked side-by-side, in the park after lunch, everyday for the past ten years since Danny’s wife Margaret passed away.
"I remember hide and seek," Henry said. "We counted there." He looked at a particularly tall oak tree, and could almost see a boy with blue denim overalls, covering his face with his hands, counting to ten.
Danny tried to chuckle, but something caught in his throat and he coughed hard. His entire body shook. His cane shuddered under his weight.
"Sit,” Henry said. He held Danny’s elbow and guided him toward the bench. At sixty-three, they were both the same age. Danny's chronic pneumonia had weakened him; and now that Henry thought about it, he looked a lot older, frail, hunched over on the bench next to him.
Danny’s smile said, thank you, but his face had turned pale.
Henry became worried. "Maybe we should go back so you can rest.”
"No," he replied. "Stop worrying about me. I'm fine. I won't stop 'til I'm dead."
The energy in his friend’s voice surprised Henry. Not sure what to make of it, he was quiet for a moment, and then changed the subject. "We were a wild pair, huh?"
Danny placed his cane on the bench next to him. "No, I was the wild one. You had bruises from your Dad, so bad you were afraid to go outside. No, you were always in the corner, Henry. I had to give you caramels to get you to play—"
"—Excuse you?" Henry interrupted, embarrassed. He sure did love caramels.
"Don't interrupt—you heard me."
Henry opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it and let Danny continue.
"You were the best at hiding. It made the game fun," he said, and paused for a long moment and looked away at a distant tree. "Kathy always found you though. You couldn't hide from her."
"No, it was Margaret, “Henry said.
"It was Kathy," Danny countered, looking frustrated.
"Damnit," Danny shook his head. "—don’t argue with me."
The sun was sharp in the sky; the bright light was painful. Henry squinted and envied the shade of Danny's baseball cap.
"Well, they're both dead now," Danny said, a shrug. He smiled. "And it was Kathy."
Henry sat there, stunned into silence. Danny’s bluntness never ceased to amaze him. He thought of Kathy, fiery red hair and deep brown eyes—his wife—long, long ago. His vision started to blur with tears. She probably was the one who chased him out of his hiding spots.
Henry noticed Danny looking at him, and wiped at his eyes with a sleeve.
"Dust in your eye?" Danny asked and regarded him with faded blue eyes that seemed to say, just you and me left, old buddy. He grinned, the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes squeezed together into crow's feet.
"Come on, let's go," he said. Then he fought for breath, wrestled for his cane and struggled to stand back up.
Henry reached for his arm and helped him.
Continuing down the path, they walked in silence for a while. Danny turned to face him again. "Henry," he said. His voice was hoarse, unnatural.
Something was wrong. A friend for so many years, Henry saw it in his face, in the way he moved his hands, the twinkle in his eyes. The confidence, the optimism dissolved.
Nearby, a pigeon landed on the dirt and pecked at an invisible worm.
"—I'm dying," Danny said. "Doctors said I have lung cancer. Damn, cigarettes. I quit two years ago."
Henry’s knees felt weak, and he stumbled. He didn't think Danny noticed, but he did.
Danny laughed and smiled. "We should have stayed at the bench," he said, and added, "I have a month." He raised his arms to steady Henry, the cane dangled from his wrist.
"A month!" Henry cried. "Are you sure?"
Danny looked at him and chuckled.
"What's so funny?" Henry was annoyed.
Danny pointed with the rubber end of his cane. "Look, there."
And there on the ground, in the grass, covered by a single leaf, was a dead pigeon; decaying with flies buzzing above. Henry wrinkled his nose.
"Remember that time we took that dead squirrel and put in—" Danny slipped into a violent fit of coughing. His face flushed red, and then drained, pale.
Henry placed a hand on his shoulder. In the cup of his hand, Danny’s shoulder felt bony and fragile, awkward.
Danny’s entire body shook, and would not stop. Spit and saliva dripped from his lip.
Danny waved his hand off his shoulder. The color in his face returned. "—remember when we put it in the bag and left it in Margaret's purse?"
Henry was still disturbed and trembled to answer him. "Yeah," he said. "She was twelve, right?"
Danny nodded, and poked at the pigeon's body. Bloody feathers stuck to the grass. The head bent in an odd position, broken; a stray cat, perhaps.
"Hey, Henry?" Danny said, to his best friend.
"Yeah?" Henry replied, still staring at the twisted corpse at our feet.
Danny was always able to cheer him up. Fifty years ago, he gave him caramels. Today, he used a pigeon corpse.
Henry looked at Danny.
He was staring at the dead pigeon and he looked amused, like someone had just told him a joke and he was rehearsing it in his head. His wide smile lifted Henry’s mood.
"What's so funny?" Henry asked.
"Make sure you cremate me.” Danny poked at the soft underbelly of the dead bird. "I don't want to look like this."
Laughing, they walked off.