On Deck

A short story by William Gensburger

She sat demure, blond hair straight down, mid back length, smooth legs outstretched.  Daniel didn’t have a name for her yet, was almost ready to settle on Karen-she looked like a Karen, pale skin, soft features, eyes made up to stand out, foundation hiding freckles, white and tight T-shirt, revealing curves.  There was no doubt she was pretty, Daniel thought and he had seen her every day for the four weeks he’d been coming to the skate park, watching from the air-conditioned comfort of his van parked few feet away by the chain link that separated the skate park from dirt parking area.

Karen had seen him, had gotten in the habit of looking his way every quarter-hour or so, making eye contact for a second before looking elsewhere.  She was seated on the grass in the shade thrown down by the pylons and concrete tracks of the spell BART system, oblivious to the trains scraping past, the sound the blending with the grinding of skate board lips onto metallic rapping on concrete walls and steps.

Karen had two boys, Jason and Sam, real names he had heard when Karen had called to them.  Both boys about 12 years old and Karen barely 30-she had lost her virginity young and lost the father moments after the pregnancy test glowed pink.  There was no dad, no wedding ring, and she had the look of someone who had given up expecting a man to take her from the difficulty of single parenthood.

“You will not,” Karen said loudly.  Jason and Sam were laughing.  Daniel couldn’t determine why, but from his van he smiled along with them-their tone was infectious.  As if on cue she looked his way, but only in passing.

The skate park was relatively new, a good edition for an otherwise generally drab Bay Area city in need of creative outlets for youths.  The designers had done well, a series of bowls, half-pipes, and steps with walls to keep all level of skaters happy.  The grassy area allowed a reprieve from the extreme California sun.

“I wouldn’t let my boxers hang out like that,” Jason teased.  He was the more sensible of the two boys, slightly older, tall, almost six-foot, lanky and gawky, yet with a certain grace to his movements when he skated.  In a single movement he lunged forward dropping his board into a roll and casually stepping onto it, body leaning ever so slightly, arms by his side, palms facing back.

At the other end of the park his friends were taking a break, lined up orderly like sparrows on a telephone line or mosquito shaped Harriet Jump jets stretched on the deck of an aircraft carrier waiting for the launch command.

Jason did a spin and landed on his ass, pants dropping, underwear showing.  He pulled them up, accepted a few high-fives for the attempt and assumed his place on deck.  Friends didn’t need words.

“Mom, come skate with me,” Sam shouted.  Karen smiled, shook her head then looked at Daniel who pretended not to have noticed.  He envied her, enjoyed their visits.  Sam reminded him of Alex his own son whom he had not seen for two years.  Such regrets are not correctable, Daniel told himself. Sam’s mother had seen to that.

Karen had accepted Daniel as a daily fixture in a way beyond words.  He had often thought about getting out of the car and actually talking to her, but he knew that he might never return if he did; he would learn that she was not as he had imagined, or worse, that she might not be so accepting of him, after all he was a man, alone, parked in a van at a kids’ skate park — a definitive cause for concern.  Of course it was all open for interpretation as he had no way to know for sure what would happen short of actually finding out what she thought.

It was only when a skateboard sailed across the chain link fence and smashed into his hood, indenting a large section before falling to the floor that the decision was made for him.  He looked up to see Jason aghast, clutching at the fence in disbelief and, peripherally, Karen getting up and walking quickly toward him only to realize that to reach him she would have to go all the way back and around, which she started to do.

Jason leaped over the fence and awkwardly landed in front of Daniel.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”

Daniel looked at the dent, large, visibly needing attention, and shrugged it off.

“It’s fine, barely noticeable. Apology accepted.” He forced a smile, watching Karen off to the side — she was out of the park now. “You do a good half-turn but your landing needs work.” He picked up Jason’s skateboard and handed it back to him.

Jason stared in shock, expecting a tirade. “It’s not nothing, “ he finally said, “it’s huge. I’ll have to pay for it to be fixed. My mom’ll tell you…”

Daniel was shaking his head, backing off now to the car. He opened the door.

“It’s nothing, really. Forget about it. I’m late for a meeting — have to go. Goodbye.” And he got into the car, started it backing away from the fence, from the park…from Karen who, seeing him leaving, abruptly stopped. She was thirty feet away. She looked puzzled, then looked over at her son.

Daniel was gone, a cloud of dust from where he had backed roughly over the gravel.  Jason walked to Karen.

“What happened?” she asked?  “Didn’t he need our insurance information?”  He shrugged.

“He told me to forget it,” Jason explained, “said it was nothing.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s odd. Did you at least get his name?”

Jason shook his head. “Maybe you should ask him tomorrow when he comes.”

Karen smiled. Maybe she would.

But he did not return the next day. Karen arrived earlier than usual hoping that he would be there. She had a good feeling about him, even though there seemed to be a lot of mystery surrounding him. She wondered why he was hiding, what could make him so uncomfortable. She felt awful that her son had dented his car and she could not even give him insurance information so she could pay for the repairs.

“You should talk to him, Mom,” Jason said. “He’d understand. We know you like him.”  Sam nodded as though this had been some secret he had been protecting for months.

“Like him? I don’t even know his name. How can I like him?”

Jason shrugged. “Why don’t we make a name for him, that way we have something to call him?”

“Like what?”

Sam said, “I know – David. He looks like a David.”

“David works,” Jason said.

Karen smiled. “David it is.”

The following week Karen began to be concerned. She had not seen David since the day of the accident. Now she sat waiting, watching each car pass as though he might at least drive by, even if he did not stop. Carefully she scrutinized each face, in case he had used a different car. She didn’t see him.

“Mom, I told you,” Jason argued, “he didn’t say anything except that I shouldn’t worry about it.”

“Was it a big dent?” Karen had asked, again.

“It looked big, but he said it wasn’t. I dunno, maybe it was there already.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she added. “I wonder why he didn’t come back.”

“I know that he seemed very nervous when he saw you coming closer. That’s when he left.”

“Me?” Karen did not understand why she should have made him nervous. “Did I look angry? Maybe he thought I would attack him?”

Sam began to laugh. “Mom, you don’t attack people.”

“I know, Sam, but what else could it be?”

“You like him, huh?” Sam asked her.

Karen smiled. She couldn’t explain it. “Just a little. Maybe! He seems like he could be a nice man. I have a feeling that he is a father, but we haven’t seen his children.”

“Maybe he’s divorced and doesn’t have his kids. Like Dad.”

Karen seemed angry at the mention of “Dad.”

“Your father…,” she began, and then changed her mind. “I don’t know. Go play, skate — do something,” she told them both, and made herself comfortable on the grass in the shade.  Overhead the light rail scraped by toward the nearby station.

It felt good talking about David. It made him more real. It had been a long time since she had shown an interest in a man, and longer still since she had slept with one. There was something fearful about opening herself to that kind of hurt again, but more; the energy required to get to know someone, to learn their details, nuances, intentions, actions, likes and dislikes, to become part of a whole rather than a separate, to rely on, at least in some sense, for a degree of joy — was way too much to consider. Certainly she had desires, but they could be fleeting and she could handle that herself. The boys’ father had left her with quite a need for self-protection.

“Hi David,” she said only mouthing the words silently, smiling at the thought that he had just arrived. “I was worried about you. I thought you’d never return. I missed you. Won’t you come sit and talk with me. I’d like to get to know you.”

She could imagine him smiling back. In her mind he was happy to see her, too.

“Hi, David,” she said during another imagining. “Why do you stay in your car? Why don’t you come and join us?  I’d love to spend some time with you.”

And yet again, “I’m glad you came back. Would it be possible to talk?”  She liked that approach and promised herself that when he came back she would approach him.

“David…,” she said softly. And then remembered it wasn’t his name.

Two weeks later, Daniel returned to the skate park.  He arrived later than usual, just in case Karen had been expecting him. He pulled into his usual spot on the dirt lot, close to the fence, close to where she was, but far enough to leave quickly. He turned off the car.

Karen looked up and froze. Daniel stared at her, then smiled and quickly looked away. His heart was racing and he could feel the hard beats. Ahead of him Jason skated past, looked and waved. Daniel waved back, but just enough to be noticed. He tried to relax. It felt odd.

Jason passed by again and stared at the hood of the car. There was no dent to be seen.  He rolled over to his mother and said something to her. She looked up. Jason pointed at Daniel, but Daniel could not hear what was being said. Karen stood up, nodded, brushed grass from her jeans and patted her hair back.  Daniel could see that she was about to come his way.  She looked scared. He felt scared. He wasn’t ready for this, needed to stop it before it got too far.

As she started to move he started the car. She heard it and stopped. He slipped it into reverse. She took a step toward him and he allowed the van to roll back slightly. Karen stopped, as though facing a wild cat that was about to lunge at her sudden movement. Daniel stopped. She took another cautious step and Daniel rolled further back. She understood and turned to walk back into the skate park.

Daniel slipped the van forward to the spot he was in, waited until she had sat back down before turning the engine off again. He could feel her staring at him. He looked at her, smiled and nodded. She nodded back then turned to watch her son skate.

Daniel leaned back in his seat, his eyes scanning the park, watching the kids on deck, dancing on wheels and defying gravity. And every few minutes his eyes would sweep past Karen, noticing a detail here and there, the way she sat, the way her back curved, the way her hair blew forward with the slight breeze.  He felt as if he had always known her and could count on her.

Here there was no loss and no pain. There was no disappointment to be had, no let-downs. She could never betray him the way his wife had betrayed him. She could not steal his son away never to be seen again. And he could still feel some joy to compensate. It was good enough. It was all he could handle, at least for now. It was the best he could do.

And it was good to come home again.

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© 2016 William Gensburger www.Gensburger.com

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