The Immortals of Thomas Street Park

The suitcase was an old, battered, black hard-shell that had clearly seen better days. In its prime, the suitcase had probably been expensive. It was fairly large, with gold colored handles and trimmings. However, its prime was likely the mid-1940’s, maybe the 1950’s- but even that would be generous. Covered in nicks and scratches, from getting dropped or roughly man-handled, the corners appeared worn shades of gray- likely from being set down on or scraped against the pavement. The hinges, handle, and surrounding metal were all heavily pockmarked by rust. Overall, it was the kind of case you could find either in a dumpster or at a local Goodwill for less than five dollars. Despite the case’s appearance it opened and closed smoothly, kept its cargo safe, and was well oiled to prevent squeaking. Most importantly, it suited its owner just fine.

Lugging the suitcase was an older man, probably only a few years younger than the case itself. He was short, standing an inch or two shy of five and a half feet. The man was small in stature and struggled slightly with the size of his bulky carry-on. Despite the bright sun shining overhead, he wore a tweed brown jacket and un-tailored khaki slacks. He had a full head of gray hair and wore a pair of wire-framed glasses that seemed to magnify his hazelnut eyes threefold. On his feet, the man wore a pair of pristine, recently polished leather shoes that had long ago gone out of style. Completing this look was a crisp blue undershirt and a brown belt, adorned with a large brass buckle. The look fit the man very well, and despite his age, he had a spring in his step as he made his way down the sidewalk. He moved with purpose and motivation, two things he rarely left the house without.

John T. Walker was his name, and he was indeed a man on a mission. For many years, Mr. Walker had done his best work at Thomas Street Park. As he walked, he thought about his lunch. This morning, Lucy had made him a ham and cheese sandwich- his favorite. She had also given him a bag of potato chips- enough to be filling, but not too many to be fattening. Last but not least, the apple. They’d gotten a bushel or so from the grocery store on the corner, the one right across the street from the post office. Just thinking about his lunch left John’s stomach rumbling.

The fence surrounding Thomas Street Park was wrought iron but well kept, so its age wasn’t apparent to passersby or park-goers. However, John knew that the fence was exactly 24 years old, and was installed to keep young children playing in the fields from running into the street. He remembered when they first put it up, all the construction and noise. It was a large scale project for a small town like theirs, and the whole area had been blocked off from the public. Today, he found the fence comforting- a physical barrier between the sanctuary of the park and the real world.

Upon reaching the corner of Thomas and Lilac, John stopped and set down his case directly outside the main entrance of the park. With his feet just outside the threshold, he looked up at the arching metal sign. Elegantly painted golden script spelled out “Thomas Street Park” high above him, beckoning to pedestrians of all sorts. An ear-to-ear smile slowly spread across John’s face, and as he crossed beneath the sign he felt a sudden surge of youthful exuberance. With renewed strength, John picked up his suitcase and headed down the park’s central path. It was time to eat.

Despite its small, simple appearance, the layout of the park was actually sprawling and quite complex. Upon entering the park, visitors were greeted by a large fountain, spraying a delicate mist to the delight of joggers and bikers. Further down past the fountain and a bit to the right lay a section full of playground equipment and a jungle gym for the children to play on. After school got out for the day, the park was usually full of kids playing a variety of games- such as tag, Cops and Robbers, or Man on Woodchips. Directly behind the playground was an open field, perfect for picnics or large social gatherings. The left side of the park was full of trees and several small streams, which acted as tributaries for a small pond. Pristine upkeep had preserved the park from the effects of time and pollution, while the respect of the community kept it free from vandalism and abuse.

John sat down on a bench beside the fountain. Not a bench, his bench. He set the case down beside him, undid the latches, and pulled out the paper bag containing his lunch. He then placed it on the ground next to his feet. He’d get to it eventually. From the case, John withdrew a 1974 Smith Corona typewriter, the silver gleaming in the bright sunlight. It was time to work.

When John Walker put his wrinkled fingers to the keys of the old Smith Corona Silver Classic model typewriter, the world around him stood still. From the outside perspective, Thomas Street Park quite literally froze- a single frame of film stuck on screen by a defective projector. Lush fields of perfectly manicured grass remained rippled by a wind trapped in time, while several birds; including a family of robins and a pair of house sparrows, were suddenly held captive mid-flight by an invisible force. Face calm, John looked around and smiled- he could sit for hours and hours in this single second. In fact, he had done so many times before.

 Looking up, John spotted several windswept leaves left dangling in space a couple feet above his head. The sycamore leaves were rather large, and it must have taken a large gust of wind to free them from the mighty branches towering over him. Trees like the one behind him were his favorite: they were strong, beautiful, and provided shade for his tired eyes. Smiling, John thought back to when they were first planted. He had been there of course- when these gentle giants were only saplings being covered in soil. It seemed like only a few minutes ago. In fact, the oaks, poplars, and sycamores had been his idea. Lucy had pushed hard for the Eastern Redbud, a tree she first encountered in her college days that she often chose to study beneath. Upon blossoming, they had ended up being his favorite as well. His wife had a sharp eye when it came to beauty and aesthetics- it was what made her such a great poet.

During these mid-noon hours, the park was rarely unoccupied. With everything at a standstill, John had ample time to people-watch. From his position on the bench, he could clearly make out several faces, many of whom were familiar. Just like himself, many others chose to take their lunch break at the park. A woman with brown hair cut extremely short sat at a picnic table about 50 feet away, a celery stick clenched between her teeth. Sitting beside her was another woman, this one with fair skin and shoulder-length blond hair. She appeared to be chewing a bite of potato salad, but John couldn’t quite tell for sure. It may just have easily been some sort of coleslaw or pasta salad. Two benches down was a short, plump man eating a sub from a deli on the corner of Rollins and 5th. Several pieces of lettuce and onion had fallen from the sandwich, and a drop of mustard hung several inches from the leg of his khakis. Another man sat behind him, leaning against the tree with headphones shoved deep into his ears. He was busy on his smartphone and had a closed tin lunch box resting beside him.

The man was new to John, possibly looking to get away from a tough day at work. He appeared younger than the first, no older than his early 30’s, with a military no-nonsense haircut that didn’t match his face. His expression was serene, and despite his age, the start of wrinkles from laughing and smiling had already begun to form. He was dressed professionally, yet sat in the grass without fear of stain or other ground-related misfortunes. There was a corporate bank across the street, and John could definitely see this man handing out loans or depositing checks based on his dress. However, it just didn’t seem right. The man had an old Transformers lunch box for goodness sakes! Something about the man made John smile. Much like a younger version of himself, the man was escaping the daily grind with a bit of fresh air. It didn’t mean he disliked his job, just that an outdoor lunch break did him a lot of good.

Besides this typical “lunch crowd”, there were a string of other familiar faces. A man in his late 60’s walking the westward trail with his wife. A twenty-something-year-old blonde woman being dragged along by a pack of dogs on leashes. A stay-at-home father, playing at the park with his three kids. Preschool tended to get out around noon so John wasn’t surprised to see the kids, but the dog woman typically went to the park right before dinner. Perhaps she had plans tonight? He chuckled to himself- to be young and looking for love. Those days were long past, and he was glad. Regardless, she could be an interesting place for him to begin writing. Instead, for some reason, his attention was dragged back to the man in the suit with the lunchbox. It was decided: John would start with him.

With a lurch, time and space righted itself and the park returned to normal. John peered up at the man, trying to do so discreetly in order to avoid drawing attention. He probably looked so foolish, he thought, a crazy old man staring people down intently through his clunky glasses. Returning his attention to the man, John noticed he continued to fiddle with something on his phone. What was so interesting? John put his fingers to the keys and began to type:

The businessman beneath the tree felt a sudden pang of hunger. He’d forgotten to eat breakfast this morning, and work was so busy that he had no time to grab a snack. At least it was finally time for his lunch break. After putting away his smartphone, he reached for his Transformer lunchbox.

As the words appeared on the page, something eerily peculiar happened. Right on cue, the man stopped his scrolling and powered down his phone. He looked down at his stomach and appeared to think for a second, then frowned. His frown quickly subsided as he reached for his lunch box, now smiling in anticipation for his previously prepared meal. John continued typing:

Upon opening his lunchbox, the man found the lunch he had put together late last night. It was his favorite…

Closing his eyes, John concentrated on the lunchbox with his mind’s eye. What did the man like to eat? He appeared to be having a difficult enough day, a good lunch was the least John could do. John’s body began to tingle as warmth spread from his fingertips to the rest of his body. Without warning, his fingers resumed their diligent dance against the keys.

…a turkey sandwich on white bread, with lettuce and mayo.

The man took a bite of the sandwich, chewed, and after a second- frowned.

With Swiss cheese of course.

The man took a bite and smiled. Perfect. John smiled as well, relieved to have quickly corrected his small mistake. He didn’t usually make mistakes, but he was glad he caught his temporary lapse. Making this man’s day a bit better with the right sandwich was the least he could do. A good sandwich could make or break someone’s day, he thought to himself.

The businessman, while eating his sandwich, noticed a squirrel crawling cautiously down a nearby tree. The squirrel was a chestnut brown, with a bushy tail and eyes that followed his every move.

Moments later, a squirrel descending the trunk of a nearby oak caught the man’s attention. John continued typing as the tree-dweller reached the ground. It crawled towards the man, carefully, until it was less than ten feet away. The businessman smiled and ripped a piece of crust from the sandwich. “Hey, little guy, you hungry too?” The squirrel eyed the man and his scrap of bread, frozen in place by suspicion. Gently, to avoid scaring it away, the man tossed the piece of bread. The bread landed softly in front of the squirrel, still causing the beast to jump back about a foot. Quickly, the squirrel scampered to the tidbit, grabbed the bread in its mouth, and ran off back up the tree. The man laughed, returning to his lunch and shaking his head.

John stopped typing to stare at the man. His demeanor appeared to have improved with this interaction, and it brought John a great deal of joy to see the impact of his work. Now what to do next?

“Tiny! Get back here!” John jumped, startled, and quickly located the source of the commotion. One of the dog-walker’s pups had somehow slipped out of its collar and was making a break for it. ‘Tiny’ was anything but small. The English Mastiff appeared to weigh upwards of 200 pounds, with paws the size of softballs. Each bounding stride Tiny took seemed to double the distance between himself and his pursuer.

Without missing a beat, John began typing. If Tiny made it out the nearby park entrance, he would find himself at the mercy of oncoming traffic. The dog was about a hundred yards off from the opening and closing in fast. Faster! After what seemed like ages, John jammed his pointer finger down on the “.” key and looked up. Tiny was 20 yards away, maybe less.

Tiny the great big mastiff shot across the park like a bat out of hell, chasing the delicious odor he had smelled since walking down Lilac street this morning: Mr. Napoli’s Italian sausage.

Mr. Napoli’s was a small Italian restaurant further down Lilac, towards where the road was intersected by Wade Memorial Street. Their Italian sausage was the best in the town, made using a special family recipe. John loved the quaint little restaurant; he loved the food, the atmosphere, and it’s owner- Antonio Napoli. He had long ago passed, leaving the fruits of his labor to his son, Angelo- who in turn passed it down to his son, Luca. Luca was proud to carry on his family traditions, especially one such as tasty as Napoli’s Famous Italian Sausage.

It just so happened that one of the chefs from the Napoli family restaurant was taking his one-hour lunch break at the park. He walked through the gate of Thomas Street Park just as Tiny was getting close. Tiny took one whiff of the man and–

Thud! Tiny hit the man like a freight train, toppling him to the floor and causing him to drop his bag of carry-out in the process. By the time the woman got to Tiny, the man was covered head to toe in drool. His lunch was nowhere to be found, and the mastiff sat happily licking its chops. The woman quickly reattached Tiny’s collar and helped the man slowly rise to his feet. “I am so so so soooo sorry about that! I have no idea how he got off the leash, and by the time I saw he was gone I had no chance of catching him and…”

“It’s alright, I’m fine!” The man cut her off mid sentence, dusting off his pants in the process. “I’m a cook, I can just whip something else up when I get back to the restaurant. Besides,” the man said as he reached to pet Tiny, “your dog is adorable.”

“Oh- thank you! Tiny and Mario are mine, I take these other guys along with me because their owners aren’t able to walk them. I work at Golden Oaks, the old folks home–”

“The one right off of Haverford, I know the place. My grandfather lives there, as a matter of fact! Perhaps you know him, Arthur Durant?” The man looked into her eyes, and from where John sat he could see a spark that wasn’t there before. The girl gasped, over dramatically.

“No way- YOU are the famous Travis Durant?” She laughed, “your grandfather talks about you all the time, he’s such a sweet man. My name is Sloane Perkins, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m really sorry about your lunch, please let me pay you for it.” She extended her hand and he took it, his grip firm from hours spent preparing meals and kneading dough.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, believe it or not I’ve also heard of you. Arthur always spoke about a cute blond that drove all the old men crazy, but I didn’t know she was this cute.” She blushed. “If you really want to make it up to me, why don’t you come with me to the restaurant for lunch? I can whip us both something up…”

“Eavesdropping, John? Really? How old are you?” John turned to find his wife, smiling playfully at him.

“My apologies, darling- I couldn’t help myself. You know how I can’t help getting involved in other people’s business.” He winked and gestured to the keys, returning her playful smile as she sat down beside him. Lucy Lillian Walker had been a beautiful woman all her life, and there wasn’t a thing age could do about it. While her hair wasn’t quite as luscious or as full as it once was, it still sparkled and shone under the sunlight with a glow that warmed John’s soul. She wore fitted khakis and a pink flowing top, the pink so light and airy it seemed to embody Spring. As far as jewelry went, she wore a small gold necklace with a cross and her wedding band. Everything else just seemed unnecessary for a woman like herself. John returned the typewriter to its case and placed the case on the floor beside him. He then leaned over and kissed his wife, glad for her company on such a beautiful day. Together, they turned their attention back to Sloane and Travis. They both had their phones out, exchanging numbers.

“I was planning on going out with my girlfriends tonight, but I can see them later this week. Dinner sounds great, but let’s go somewhere you don’t have to prepare the food.” Sloane smiled at Travis, “Well, I guess I’ll see you tonight.” They waved awkwardly and turned their separate ways, both smiling from ear to ear. Lucy gently hugged her husband’s arm close to her body.

“It’s beautiful when you do that- when you create something so pure out of nothing.” John looked back at her, swimming in her hazelnut gaze.

“I do it for them.”

“You always have. The park, the trees, the trails- everything for them.”

“And for you.” John helped his wife rise to her feet, then bent down to pick up his case. Taking his free hand in hers, Lucy led John towards the forest path. Along the way, they passed some of her Eastern Redbuds. Several of the trees had already begun to blossom, bringing life to a park which already had more life than most. “What a great choice. Do you know that they are my favorite too?” Lucy nodded, then stopped walking, looking at the trees deep in thought.

“I think this path could use an oak.” John closed his eyes and focused, tapping on the vein of magical energy that ran through him. When he opened his eyes, an oak seedling was just breaking through the ground beside the trail. Lucy nodded in approval and smiled as John stooped to pick a flower that had sprouted seemingly from nowhere. “Lilac, my favorite. Thank you, John.” She took the flower and held it close to her heart. Together, they resumed walking.

 

Martin Talbot closed his lunchbox and stood to stretch his lower back. Martin had given his five-year-old son airplane rides yesterday, and he was surprised at how sore he was. He looked at the Transformers lunch box and smiled- only a few more hours until he could return to Kristin and his little boy. Before leaving to return to the office, he pulled out his phone to call home. Martin wasn’t in any rush. He had been with Emblem City Bank since 2007, and nearly a decade later it seemed unlikely he would leave anytime soon. The bank would still be there in half an hour, he could afford to take his time. Plus, the park was absolutely beautiful. He hated being cooped up in the break room during lunch, and one of the guys from the second floor had been telling him about this place for weeks. It was refreshing to get some air and simply exist outside of their musty building. While the phone was ringing, he strolled over and sat down on a nearby bench. It had been empty when he’d gotten there, but for some reason, he felt like sitting underneath the trees instead. He couldn’t explain why, it was just a gut feeling.

After ringing for several minutes, Martin hung up. Kristin must have been busy trying to deal with the little guy. He loved his son to death, but Tyler was still a child and children weren’t born to be easy. As he stood to leave, Martin noticed a plaque on the side of the bench. It read:

 

In Loving Memory of Mayor John Thomas Walker and Lucy Lillian Walker

“Give a man nature and he’ll find his path.”

1923-1992

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