I’ve been sitting on this cement mall bench for hours, watching the people rush by. Old women carrying shopping bags, young women pushing strollers, and absentee fathers dragging weekend children to the theater. “Excuse me. Have you…?” I reached toward one after another. None glanced my way. Teens dashed back and forth, throwing popcorn at the mall-birds. They travel in packs: the teens…not the birds, thumbing cell phones. They seem unable to be separated from someone on the other end. No one looks my way. Could I be invisible?
I don’t have a cell phone, or for that matter, any friends I could call who would want to talk to me. Here I sit, alone in the midst of a bustling crowd, picking at the peeling paint on the bench. How did this happen? In another lifetime, I had things to do and places to go. In another lifetime, I breathed and ate and slept and played and did all sort of things. What happened?
Maybe I am dead. Is this what it’s like to be dead?
I remember folks saying that when you die, you go to Heaven. Heaven has streets of gold, angels glorying in God’s presence and animals. Lots of animals. There’s supposed to be music, art, nature, and love, all rolled into a package tied with a ribbon. Just pull off the ribbon, open the package, and there you are…Heaven.
If that’s all true and I’m dead, I must have missed the train to Heaven, because I’m sitting on a bench in the mall, alone, and invisible.
My wife and I used to go to church, at least several times a year. That’s where I learned about Heaven. Yes, I used to have a wife and friends, and we even had a dog. A small spotted dog we called Spot. Go figure. My wife made a pot roast every Sunday night and Spot would dance on his back feet for a bite. Spot died a month after my wife passed away. I haven’t touched a bite of pot roast since then…
Wait. There’s a Marine in a uniform coming toward me. I’ll thank him for his service and maybe we’ll talk for a few minutes. But, what if I speak to him and he walks on by? It will just prove my suspicions that I’m really…dead. Why take the chance? Do I really want to know? He’s probably on his way somewhere important. He wouldn’t have the time for an old guy like me.
My wife always made us shake hands and thank any military person we met. Policemen and firefighters, too. It was important, she said, because they caught a lot of flak from people who took them for granted, or even verbally abused them. Couldn’t figure out why folks would do. They’re just here to help folks.
I said ‘hello’ to a teenage boy a few minutes ago, but he didn’t stop. Didn’t even turn his head. Probably too busy–probably has a girlfriend, maybe a job at McDonald’s, and for sure, a cell phone. It was in his ear. Literally, stuck to his ear, like a hearing aid. He was talking to someone. Or maybe not. Maybe he was talking to himself. I do that a lot lately, because if I speak to someone, they don’t hear a word I say. But why should they if I’m invisible…or dead.
Wife always wanted kids, but it never happened for us. Probably for the best. I never had much interest in sports, and teenage boys like sports. I wouldn’t have been a very good father to a boy. Or a girl, for that matter. What do I know about raising a girl? She probably would have run away and got into all sorts of trouble. Now, why would I think such a thing? I was married to a good woman. She would have made sure a girl child would turn out alright. Having kids would have been okay. It would be nice to think someone gave a rip if I died. If you don’t have kids, there’s nothing left on earth to show you were ever here.
It’s nearly five o’clock. This bench is hard and cold. I’ve been here most of the afternoon. I should walk back to the bus and go home. I should go, but it’s a long way to the bus stop and my feet hurt. I walked too far this morning…all around the mall, past Macy’s, past the shoe store where I bought a pair of shoes once. Brown shoes.
My wife saw an ad in the newspaper and insisted we buy a pair. Wonder whatever happened to those shoes? Haven’t seen them for a while. Maybe they’re in the back of the closet where I used to store my golf clubs and fishing poles.
We used to take weekend trips in the motor home. I fished and usually managed to include a game of golf. But that was before my wife died. Before my world turned dark and hopeless. Before I gave away my golf clubs and fishing poles and sold my motor home. I guess that’s when I turned my back on everyone. When I stopped returning friend’s calls and stopped going to church, even several times year. I think that’s when it happened. I guess the truth is, it’s not that I’m really dead. I just chose to become invisible.
“What? What did you say?” There’s a man standing in front of me. He’s about my age. Has gray hair and a mustache. He nodded toward the chess tables nearby.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. I asked if you played chess. Would you like to play a game?”
I stared at my hands. “I…I used to play when I was younger. Haven’t played for years,” I mumbled. “Are you sure you want to play with me?”
“No mistake,” the man says. “I saw you were alone. But, if you’d rather not, I understand. I’ll ask someone else.” He started to turn away.
“No. No.…” I stumbled to my feet. Surprisingly, they didn’t hurt any more. “Thanks. I mean, yeah, I’d love to play.”
He reached out his hand. “Name’s Walter. What’s yours?”
We shook hands and my fingers tingled at his touch. I wouldn’t have felt that if I was dead, would I? “Mine’s Darwin. Nice to meet you.” We walked to the chess table.
He sat and opened his chessboard and dumped out the pieces. “You come here often, Darwin? My friend and I used to come every afternoon, but he moved to a nursing home across town. Sure do miss him. We spent a lot of afternoons here together.” Walter held out two chess pieces. “Black or white?”
“You choose,” I said. My heart was beating so fast, it was hard to catch my breath. The cement bench didn’t even feel cold or hard at all.
“I’ll take black,” Walter said. “How do you feel about meeting here a couple days a week?”
“That sounds nice. Maybe you’ll think I’m not as good a player as you,” I said.
Walter carefully set up the pieces. “Then, I’ll teach you. You’ll be fine. After a couple games, I like to go over to Denny’s and have a bite to eat. What do ya’ say?” He turned the chessboard so the white pieces faced me.
I felt a crushing sensation in my chest, almost painful, and wonderful, all at the same time. I’m not dead after all, and I must not be totally invisible. Maybe I just felt that way because I turned my back on all that was good in my life. Maybe when my wife died, I just gave up. I thought I had nothing more to live for. I was wrong. It’s all about the choices we make. We can choose to keep on living, or choose to become invisible.
“Your move, Darwin. Let’s see if you have game.” Walter grinned at me, like a friend.
The muscles in my jaw twitched. It was a smile. I remember that feeling, though I haven’t felt one for a long time.