Not Even for a Million Dollars
(c) 2023 Darin Miller
Donald sat on the park bench alone, listlessly scattering breadcrumbs to the pigeons gathering at his feet in anticipation. Was it Monday? Wednesday? Friday? All the days ran together after retirement. If he had known how utterly boring his life would become, he would have probably stayed longer, maybe even forever—or at least until they forced him out. He had a sense of purpose back then, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Now, he had nothing.
Who could have predicted Nancy’s fatal aneurysm not even three weeks after they had celebrated together at his retirement party? They had been married for forty-one years, and he couldn’t even remember a time before she was in his life. Every day since had been unbearably long.
They were both only children and had no children of their own, save for a procession of four-legged canines and felines who had provided companionship throughout the years. The last, a chihuahua called Bobbie, had passed away peacefully one night shortly after Nancy was gone, and Donald believed with every fiber of his being that the dog had died of a broken heart. That stupid little yapping dog adored Nancy but only tolerated him. Death had been preferable to spending one more day without her.
That was five years ago. Eighteen hundred and twenty-five lo-o-ng days.
They had met in a bowling alley in 1953. Donald had just returned from serving in Korea, and Nancy worked for the local newspaper. He was taken with her bright-eyed intelligence, and she thought he was impossibly good-looking. She began showing up conveniently on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Donald’s regular league nights. She was ten years his junior, but only their families seemed concerned by that. They bypassed all the wagging tongues by eloping on a warm summer evening, the beginning of a union marked by highs, lows and everything in between.
Bowling remained a staple throughout their marriage. Their social set was comprised of the members of the mixed leagues in which they participated. Their own team was an evolving roster of co-workers from the paper where Nancy was employed and the bottling plant where Donald spent his days, but they were always constant members. After Nancy died, his teammates had encouraged him to continue with his leagues, insisting it was good for him to get out of the apartment. It had only served to remind him of the tremendous void in his life, and he began to grow resentful of anyone else who filled her empty spot on the team.
And then Roy had his stroke, and Geraldine had a massive coronary within months of each other.
It seemed that Donald’s teammates were dropping like flies. Roy wasn’t a real surprise; he was overweight and smoked like a freight train, but Geraldine was only forty-seven. She was a single mother of four and had just welcomed her first granddaughter into the world. Why had God taken someone with so much life ahead and left Donald behind with nothing and no one? It had shaken him to his very core, and he had quit what little of the team remained. He couldn’t risk friends any longer; the price was simply too high.
He stared at the pigeons as they waited impatiently for more breadcrumbs. Did they even recognize him? Or was he just one of a countless number of strangers who performed this daily ritual? The weight of his own insignificance brought tears unbidden to his eyes, clouding his vision. He was startled when the pigeons abruptly took flight, disrupted by a young boy with strawberry blonde spiky hair and freckled cheeks who climbed right up onto the park bench beside him. He couldn’t have been more than four or five, and his eyes twinkled brightly.
“Can I feed them, Grampa?” he asked eagerly.
Donald struggled for a response, stammering as a young woman came running up the path, completely winded.
“Max!” she gasped. “I’ve told you not to run ahead like that!”
She turned toward Donald and smiled apologetically. “I’m so sorry. He calls all old—older men Grampa.” Her cheeks were bright with embarrassment. She reached for her son, but he pulled away, still intently focused on Donald. The pigeons had slowly begun to regroup at their feet.
He waved her concerns away. “It’s all right, Miss—”
“Abbie,” she said, extending a hand, and he shook it gently.
“Donald,” he said, indicating himself. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you and your son in the park before.”
She shook her head. “We’re new to the neighborhood. Just moved into that big old brownstone on the corner.” She pointed to the very building where Donald and Nancy had spent most of their years together.
He smiled. “Well, welcome, neighbor. I’m on the 3rd floor.” He handed Max the container of breadcrumbs and encouraged him to toss a few to the gathering flock. “Just a little at a time. There, just like that.”
The little boy’s face shone brightly as the birds ventured closer, taking his offerings. He giggled. “They’re very hungry, Grampa.”
Abbie buried her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry,” she said again. “His best friend at preschool lives with his grandparents, and I can’t seem to break Max of the habit. He doesn’t have any grandparents of his own. It’s always been just me and Max.”
Donald smiled up at her. “It’s okay. I’ve been called worse.”
“Come on, Max,” said Abbie, successfully snagging her son’s hand this time. “We’ve taken up enough of this nice gentleman’s time.”
Max pulled away once more and leaned over to hug Donald. “Thank you, Grampa.” Then he jumped down from the bench and took his mother’s hand. Abbie smiled and waved, before guiding Max in the direction from which they’d come.
After a few steps, she paused, turning back. “Would you like to have lunch with us, Donald? Nothing fancy, just tomato soup, but I do make a mean grilled cheese.”
Donald was touched by her kindness and was surprised to hear himself readily agree. He gathered his things and returned to the brownstone with his new friends.
Donald could never have foreseen what was yet to come.
He would teach this boy how to drive a standard transmission. He would be in the front row when Max graduated as valedictorian of his high school senior class. He would pretend he had something in his eye as he helped Max move into his freshman dorm. He would walk this young woman down the aisle and give her away to a ridiculously funny man named Wally who she would soon meet in a bowling alley, of all places. He would become both a father figure and a grandfather to a family into which he had been invited, and these would be the faces that saw him through his final days before he was finally reunited with his dear wife, Nancy. It was an eleventh-hour miracle that began with a simple act of kindness, something he would have never believed possible as he struggled to make himself get out of bed that morning.
And it was a mean grilled cheese. He wouldn’t have traded it for anything, not even for a million dollars.