Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Exhale (08/15/13)
TITLE: Persnickety, persnickety, whack
By Jack Taylor
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“Persnickety, persnickety, whack. Your life is off the track. It’s not what you lack in your little home shack. Persnickety, persnickety, whack.”
Edie glanced up from her iPad and fixated on the shuffling old man in the trench coat. His hunched form and salt and pepper beard betrayed his age and drew out her empathy. Among a mosaic of shorts and tank tops he was highly over-dressed. She instinctively drew up her bare feet and tucked them up on the park bench as he slowed in front of her.
“Persnickety, persnickety, smack. You think you have the knack. It’s not the flack that you can hack. Pernickety, persnickety, smack.”
The odor of the alleys became suffocating. Latrine, dumpsters, smoke, rot, unwashed bodies. No one else seemed to be noticing her awkward encounter. Humanity detoured around the man as if a river around an island. They were busy on cellphones, late for appointments, fearful of muggers, determined not to emerge from their cocoon of security.
“Persnickety, persnickety, quack. You think in white and black. You think you can slack in your little blue sack. Persnickety, persnickety, quack.”
Sweat trickled down her spine and the fire of long hours in the sun burned her neck. She slowly slid the cover of the iPad in place and moved it toward her backpack. The bag of half-eaten potato chips lay tucked inside. ‘Perhaps the man was hungry.’
“Persnickety, persnickety, jack. You think your life is back. You feel on the rack like your spine will crack. Persnickety, persnickety, jack.”
Edie finally exhaled and gulped in another lungful of life through her mouth. The man stood unmoving like a statue. All he needed was the pigeons. Instead, an energetic Jack Russell sniffed at his pant leg and yelped as its owner jerked the leash to drag it away.
“You’re sitting on my bed.”
Edie jerked back. “What did you say?”
“You’re sitting on my bed.”
Edie swung her feet around, stood up and quickly moved out in front of the man. She swung her back pack behind her and stared down the stranger. “It’s a public bench.”
The man glared at her and then turned toward the bench. He pointed a grimy finger at a little brass plaque. “Read that!”
Edie took another breath and craned her neck toward the engraved strip of metal. “In memory of Captain James Elliott Horner.”
The alley rat turned toward her and stared at her for understanding. “That’s my son.”
Shoulders tightened in a vice grip. Eyebrows furrowed. Lips pressed tight like a child holding out against the last spoonful of pureed peas. She took another step away.
This time his whisper was like a plea. “It’s all I have to remember him by.”
The hunched figure sloughed off the trench coat, folded it carefully and laid it at one end of the bench. An untucked flannel shirt hung over a skeleton frame. He slumped down in the center of ‘his bed’and hung his head.
Edie exhaled again, breathed in and then took a step closer. “What happened?”
The still figure seemed to be deaf to her question. Edie moved a step nearer to avoid a skate boarder speeding by. She reached into her backpack for the bag of chips. Two sparrows hopped a little closer in anticipation of a handout. The shadow of a cloud sent a slight chill over the bench.
Without looking up, the mourner mumbled his reply. “He was in the Middle East. He wanted people to know about how much Jesus loved them. He was trying to help a crying child in a house. Someone had strapped an IED to the child and it blew up when he stepped inside. Now I can’t even sleep in closed spaces without nightmares. I’ve lost everything.”
Edie stepped up against the bench. “I’m sorry. I had a cousin who died that way. No one ever talks about him. It was about ten years ago.”
“My son died about ten years ago too. I used to make up persnickety poems when he got ready for bed.”
“My cousin was a chaplain.”
“So was my son.”
“My cousin died in Afghanistan.”
“So did my son.”
“My cousin’s name was Jimmy.”
“My son was Jimmy.”
“My parents died in a car accident the same year that Jimmy died. I’ve lived in foster care in Chicago. I came back to visit one more time.”
“Why don’t you share my persnickety bench? Always room for one more.”
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