a short story by
BENJAMIN SELESNICK | Student + Writer
“Davidson Park” came out of a place of frustration. I found myself intolerant of a friend’s spiritual beliefs, and through writing this story, I was able to find some acceptance for her beliefs and my own.
Photo by Will Paterson
DAVIDSON WAS THE NAME of the park that they sat in. It spanned the size of a football field, and was shaped like a pineapple with a cement walkway that wove around its perimeter. There was a small stream riding its south side, where the local middle-schoolers liked to drink and smoke Black & Mild’s.
Tory remembered being one of those middle-schoolers, very pleasantly so. It was a time of adventure, when simply crossing the line of trees that separated the pathway and the stream felt like opening up the doors to a greater beyond. It was a place where the surreal interfered with the real, where her imagination first unveiled itself to her. And now sitting next to Keon, she felt immersed in between the fragile boundaries of her imagination and her surroundings. She thought it was marvelous, and she didn’t want the morning sun to ever rise.
“I’m sorry about your Dad. I wish I could’ve been here sooner,” Keon said.
Tory wanted to cup her hand over his, but instead ran her right index finger over the fingers on her left hand, “I appreciate it.”
Keon nodded. He gripped the pack of cigarettes in his pocket and shook it so slightly that only he could hear the rustling of loose tobacco. His heart beat softly in his chest and he felt that he’d relieved himself of a great burden he couldn’t quite understand.
“He still talks to me.”
Keon’s first impulse was to laugh, but he kept himself from doing so. “What’s he say?”
“He said I should be more trusting. He also said something about hope. I think it was a quote from Luke, but his voice sounded muffled so I’m not quite sure. Maybe it was Matthew. Either way, he said I need to spend some time finding myself. To become me.” Her voice was soft as she spoke and her head was bowed. The words left her mouth gently. She noticed the slight vibration in the back of her throat as she spoke the words “finding”, “trusting”, and “voice”.
Keon lost the impulse to laugh at spiritualistic ramblings, but only because she sounded so terribly truthful when she spoke, as if he himself were the God that she confides in after brushing her teeth at night.
“Find yourself? What does – how do you do that?”
She kicked her feet while she sat on the bench like a child playing on a swing set. “Spend some time by myself. Do what’s been working, I guess. exercise, church, knitting, has been really helpful. I met this group of women that meets in the basement of St. James, and I’ve been going to their knitting group every week the past three months. It makes me feel old but I kinda like feeling old. Like, I can just be together with them on a Sunday night and there’s nothing weird about it. We talk and they ask about me, about what I’m doing, what my siblings are up to, how I feel about them.”
Tory held herself back for a moment to gauge the integrity of Keon’s gaze. It looked onto the lampposts that surrounded the cement pathway, his eyes darting from post to post as the direction of the wind changed. His rounded shoulders fell forward with his snow globe-shaped head on top of them. His black jeans were tattered as they always had been. Tory remembered the first time he let her wear those pants. Stretched out over her thighs, she danced across his bedroom, her socks sliding on the hardwood floor, careening through the open space.
“I don’t know if they actually care about me, though. Maybe I’m just another kid in their group who’s going to come and go, but at least they listen to what I have to say. I told them about Dad. They said that the world can be mean but that’s just because God is saving up a huge surprise for me.”
“They asked you about your dad?”
Her bronze cross hung from a thin silver necklace. It danced back and forth as she shook her head. “No, I brought it up to them. They weren’t begging for details when I told them he passed, which was nice. They let it sit until I was ready. So I told them more. They mentioned God’s plan, and I stopped listening for a little bit, but what they were saying was spot on. There was even this one woman who said that a “K” would be coming back into my life. I was about to cry. Tell me I’m lying, I don’t care.”
Tory smiled at Keon with the expectation that he’d smile back. When he didn’t, she pressed on, “She said that God was bringing him or her here with a purpose. I guess that’s why you’re here,” she laughed again, “Show me your purpose, fool, show it!”
Keon didn’t look at her, and even though he felt the instinct to play along with her impression, he repressed it.
“So you knit now? That’s what’s working?”
“I knit you that beanie, remember?”
He nodded and regretted his bitterness.
“What about your dad, then? Are you two able to hold a conversation?”
She turned towards him and brought her legs onto the metal curvature that divided the two sections of the bench. Her dimples cut deeply into her face, and the humid summer air made her hair straighten out rather than frizzle. She had a sterling ring cupped around her left nostril, and her skin was pasty like a patch a butter, almost malleable like clay.
He’d almost forgotten about the tattoo on her forearm, exposed now by the pin-rolled cuff of her denim jacket. It was a quote that the two of them had seen the summer entering their junior year. They were both working at a chess camp that they’d graduated from three years earlier. It was held in a church basement on the north end of town, the side that had the fancy mansions and the front lawns that ranged up to an acre in size. Keon and Tory would walk two blocks past the lovely estates and hop on the train tracks that eventually lead to Keon’s house. With only an $8 an hour wage, neither were willing to pay the $3 fee it took to get across town, so they strode down the tracks, cutting their suburban town in two. They would duck into the trees that coated the sides of the tracks when the trains came running by. Hidden between those trees were campsites that either teenagers or homeless people had set up over the years. They, by in large, looked the same. They’d have small logs, barely two yards in length, placed in a circle, with a trash pit in the center, like a bonfire. Empty bottles, Dutch guts, those lighters that could be tweaked to have three-inch flames; that’s what was in the trash pit. But in the particular alcove that held the quote that Tory would soon tattoo on her forearm, was a molded mattress. Someone had attempted to paint a mural on it, layering it in black paint and then outlining it with white. A mish-mash of colors dominated the center. But the newest addition, the one Tory would become absolutely infatuated with, was written in red paint. It read: You still have a chance.
“Most of the time. Sometimes he won’t say anything coherent to me, and then I just judge his mood by his tone of voice. Like if it’s soft or melodic, or if it’s moaning or sneering.”
“Do you ever get to see him, or can you only hear him?”
She hunched forward and interlocked her arms underneath her legs.
“Only hear. I hope I get to see him though, like if he were to wake me up one night and be standing there next to my bed. I’d be scared at first, and then I’d probably cry. I’d cry and smile, that kind of cry.” She laughed, “I imagine him dressed in a clean-pressed button-up tucked into his khakis with flip-flops on. He’d probably wait for me to say hi before he sat down. He’d either sit on the floor or on the edge of my bed, next to that family portrait we got down in Taos.”
Tory tiled her head to the right as she lost herself in her imagination.
“I wouldn’t turn the lights on, I wouldn’t close the blinds. I might even open them. The moonlight could spill in, and then I’d be able to see him even better. We could pray together and I’d give him my new Rosary beads, and we could be together just like the few weeks before he passed. Him, in the front pew, and me and my mom right next to him.”
The darkened field of Davidson Park sprawled out in front of the two of them. A family of deer, the mother, father, and doe, ran across the grass onto the quiet street that neighbored the park. In what felt like only a few passing seconds, the deer slid between the houses and into the backyards of the homes on the opposite side. They were quick, and when they galloped by they didn’t notice the presence of the two humans sitting on the bench.
“Actually, he’d probably be wearing that Rutgers crewneck instead of the button-up. He liked it more.”
Keon tried to imagine what the crewneck looked like, but it didn’t come to him, “Does he ever give you messages to give to your Mom?”
“Not really. He says he loves her and he misses her, but he’s usually quiet.”
“Do you tell your Mom what he says?”
Tory tightened her lips, “I used to but she doesn’t like it. She thinks I’m lying. She acts like I’m silly or sad, which, I mean – she’s not wrong. But that doesn’t mean we don’t talk.”
“But can’t you – don’t you see – “
Keon tried his best not to match her stare and instead looked towards the houses that the deer ran past. “That bringing up your Dad, even though what you’re saying is all nice and refreshing and comforting – especially because it’s so comforting – it could make your Mom upset?”
Her chin quivered for a moment, “Yes, I see that. Duh,” her right hand was on her left wrist so that she could feel every determinant heart beat that bounced underneath her skin, “But still, it’s Dad. It’s like he became one of those divorced parents that can only see their kids on the weekends. Isn’t that better than being gone forever?”
Keon closed his eyes and lifted his palms to the sky only to drop them onto his kneecaps. “It’s worse. Do you think I’d ever tell my Dad that my Mom still talks to me? Four years since she died, and still he’d probably freak out and throw back a bottle of Jack before I could even finish my train of thought. It’s cruel. Your mom, my dad. They don’t need that.”
“That’s you, Kee. Your family is different.”
Seething with indignation, Keon said, “Even still – you’re the only one who can supposedly hear him. Your Mom doesn’t get that satisfaction.”
He shrugged. “Whatever.”
The sound of a slight, dribbling of water came from the stream only a few yards away. It was like a metronome clicking at an immeasurably fast pace.
She retracted her legs from the metal curvature, hugging them against her chest. “Don’t be shitty, Kee.”
The week Tory’s father passed, Keon was in Florida finishing his sophomore year of college. He had waited two months before he reached out to her. Her previous requests for a visit within the years following their break up were ignored. It was too soon, he thought, and he didn’t want to go home.
“If you could still talk to your Mom, you’d want to tell everyone about it. Wouldn’t you?”
He hadn’t looked at her for the entirety of this conversation, and he still didn’t. So when he whispered, “I can’t talk to my Mom. It’s impossible,” Tory didn’t hear him.
Keon didn’t say anything.
“What’d you say?”
He kept quiet.
He said something, but he wished he hadn’t.
“It’s impossible to talk to my Mom. It can’t happen. It’s fucking ridiculous.”
Through the corner of his eye, Keon saw that Tory got up. She strode towards the stream and out of his sight.
Throughout the conversation Keon had imagined that Tory wasn’t there. He had imagined that he was talking to a spirit that resembled Tory but was not actually Tory. He imagined a voice, only a voice, without a body or a personality or a history. He imagined that he could spool out enough compassion to pacify the spirit so that when he left, it wouldn’t notice.
Tory stopped at the wall of trees that separated the park and the stream. Keon didn’t move towards her and she didn’t move towards him, but he did build up the courage to yell across the cavernous, tree speckled-field called Davidson Park.
“Why does it matter if I believe you?”
She ignored him and pushed through the trees into the great unknown. This time, it was Keon who couldn’t understand Tory when she said, “You’re shitty.”
Keon remained on the bench with his shoulders hunched forward, cradling his pack of cigarettes in his hands. The light from the standing lamps bounced off the pack’s plastic wrapping and into his eyes. The pack said: Maverick.
The three deer appeared from between the houses, and headed towards the opposite end of the park from where Keon was sitting. Their intrepid movement, the way they sprinted with what looked like fear and anticipation, almost like a panic, caused Keon to stir. Writhing on that park bench, he got up and followed her into the trees.
Tory had marched a few dozen yards parallel to the stream towards the eastern edge of the park where the playground was. Mud began to cake around her ankles as she trudged through the gelatinous dirt next to the stream. Her Doc Martens left severe imprints in the ground.
Almost reaching the other end of the park, Tory found herself hiding behind a tree. She hid unintentionally, thinking only of finding a place where she could organize her thoughts into a manner that would solidify her feelings and intentions, if only to herself. Keon walked past her moments later. She paced behind him and then jumped to the other side of the stream.
“Did I challenge you when you grieved for your Mom?”
Keon turned around to see Tory standing on a shallow rock. Her skin looked translucent, as if she had somehow become the spirit he had imagined throughout their conversation.
“I grieved with rationality. I went to the funeral, said my prayers, shook everyone’s hand, cried with Dad, and made my peace. God, Jesus, Father Tom; they didn’t do anything. They sat there on the sidelines and let her go. They told me she’s in heaven, but she’s not. She’s gone. In the ground. That’s it. Death is final, Tory. That’s what it’s like to mourn.”
Tory closed her eyes.
“Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge –“
Keon lowered his head to the ground and rolled his eyes.
“God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do –“
“You know it’s – “
“those things – ”
“which are not convenient.“
Keon hopped the stream, and stood in front of Tory, daring her to continue, if only so that he could then throw it all back in her face, or, so
that he could finally understand what his defamed God had really been trying to say.
“Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness – Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.”
Tory’s tone was deep and unwavering, channeling a feeling that she could not articulate in mere chatter but only in the face of a directed front.
Keon recognized the maliciousness and the unrighteousness that Tory spoke of. He felt his own spite turn inwards, and this only made him more upset, because he didn’t know where else there was left to put it.
“Jesus wasn’t anywhere near me when Mom died. He didn’t have the courage to come down from his heavenly castle, castle mind you, and pull her up from the ground. Isn’t that what’s he’s supposed to do? Isn’t he supposed to save or at least prolong the lives of good people?”
Tory bent over and sifted her hands in the stream, pulling twigs and pebbles out only to drop them back into the water a second later. “Maybe if your faith was strong, you wouldn’t have these questions.”
Keon laughed, and ripped his beanie off his head, his rusty blonde hair ruffled from its cage. “How do you know that?”
Tory continued to sift rocks out of the stream, placing the larger rocks on the left and smaller ones on the right. She didn’t say anything, and she didn’t look up.
“Where was Jesus? Where? You tell me he’s hiding in the shadows or the footprints in the sand and shit, and I’m gonna rocket the hell back to Florida.”
The water looked black against the silver rocks, and Tory thought that if she didn’t rise from the crouching position she’d entered, her body would calcify and become another stone in the stream. She said to Keon, “I don’t know if Jesus was there, but I know he was there when dad died. He was there afterwards too. He speaks through my dad, and it’s only because of Him that I know my father lives on in heaven.”
Keon held his arms over his head and tried leaning upon a tree but a branch struck his temple as he shifted his balance. He winced and grabbed his head, massaging the fresh sore, and chose to sit cross-legged on the ground. His sweatshirt, a baggy torn mess that he’d gotten from his college, rubbed against the ground and his tailbone. It felt warm and it distracted him from his pain.
Tory rose from her crouch, and stood over Keon.
“Mom’s not in heaven.” Keon said.
Keon reached for the pebbles at his feet. They were smooth and slicked with murky water, and he thought that if he were to arrange them together perfectly, he could somehow create the large rock that they once were.
“Who’s your God?” he asked.
Her chin quivered again, but luckily for Keon’s sake, he didn’t notice.
“It’s like no one I’ve ever met. It’s everywhere and it’s quiet and it keeps me company. It knows how the world is supposed to work, how it does work, and it let’s me find out in little ways. Sometimes through people and sometimes through a shift in weather. It can be anything. It’s the God Luke and Paul talked about. The one who created everything.”
“And destroyed everything.”
She tilted her head and brought it back to center, “Destroyed some things, yeah, but It kept you and me alive, didn’t It?”
“That implies that we’re special,”
Tory paced around him. She leapt across the stream and then leapt back, landing right in front of Keon, dashing his shins with mud.
“If we weren’t, why would God have created us?” She paced around him once more and sat down. “I don’t think we’re special.” Keon muttered. “No, I don’t think so either. But God does.”
The slight wail of police sirens wedged its way between the trees that guarded the stream. They bounced around, in and out of Tory and Keon’s head, until the sound disappeared in the distance.
“Mom had just started doing yoga.” Keon said.
“Did she like it?”
“She said that it made her feel younger, limber. She really liked child’s pose. It’s what she’d come home talking about. Having her head in the carpet, she said she lost all sense of time. I don’t know what she meant by that, but she got really animated when she talked about it. I thought it was strange for something calming to give her so much energy. I guess it’s one of those paradoxes.”
Tory itched her thighs up and down the length of the outside of her leg as Keon spoke. She angled her fingers so that her nails could slice through her jeans, and when she felt the impression of nail against jean against skin, her legs grew warmer. It was her way to garner patience, and she’d done it even since she and Keon met at chess camp.
“The teacher for the yoga class was named Erin. She showed up at mom’s funeral. I only recognized her because of the photos Mom had taken with her after their first class,” Keon laughed, “She wanted proof that she was finally going through with it.”
He held himself up by gripping his knees. He wanted to fall back and face the stars, but he couldn’t allow himself to give up his posture. He thought the straight back and the outward look conveyed a sense of stoicism.
“Erin didn’t say anything to me at the service. She sat near the front, which I thought was odd, and didn’t cry at all. It was like she didn’t know she was even there. She stared ahead at the casket and never once checked her purse or her phone. I remember wanting to be like that. To be around something so tumultuous and still be in control. I should’ve talked to her. I think she would’ve had some helpful things to say.”
Tory quit scratching her legs, and instead grabbed a leaf that lay atop a moss covered rock. She ripped the thin, papery, colored parts of the leaf off until she was left with merely the spine. She placed it back on the rock, and found another leaf and ripped that one down to its spine too. Keon saw her and copied her movements with his own leaf. They piled the spines together on an empty bottle of Ol’ English.
“Dad didn’t like the priest very much. He said that he was arrogant. Even when we knew he had no more options left, he still didn’t like hearing from him. And yet he would go to mass every morning.”
“Do you like the priest?” Keon asked.
Tory reached out and grabbed her toes. She responded, “Father Tom isn’t really that compassionate, like, he doesn’t say anything that ever really comforts me, but he never interrupts me either. Maybe that’s a kind of compassion too.”
Keon nodded, “It shows that he cares. Sometimes it’s enough to know that somebody is listening. Even if that’s all they can offer, having another person to commiserate with can mean the world.”
Tory felt the first tear drop out of her left eye, and she wished it hadn’t. “Can you imagine all the death he must’ve seen by now? People have been coming to St. Ann’s for so long, like since the 1930’s. Think of all the funerals, all the people asking him for guidance, asking why their mom or their son or their friend died. That must be excruciating.”
Keon released his grip on his knees and fell onto the ground. The overhanging branches obscured his view of the stars but he could still see a pair of red flashing lights titter across the sky.
“It’s better than never having to look at it. What would it be like to live off in the hills of West Milford, and to never know death other than the times you see it on tv? Wouldn’t that be worse?”
Another tear dripped out of her eye. She allowed this one to pass down the slope of her nose and onto her nose ring before she wiped it away.
“I don’t know, Kee. That’s not the world I live in.”
The leaf spines slid off the glass and onto the dirt floor. Tory picked up the bottle and brushed the rest off while Keon leaned forward to organize them into pairs. One spine with another. Each pair placed an inch apart. It looked too uniform, too perfect, he thought, so he separated them and tried to make them look like a spider web. Tory threw the bottle into the water. It spluttered around a touch, shaking the rocks at the bottom, but then it got caught in the current, and slowly drifted downstream, hitting almost every rock in its path.
“I’m sorry about your Dad. I wish I could’ve been here sooner.”
“You already said that.”
Keon washed away the pattern of the spines with a few strokes of his hand until they were
scattered all over. Some in the water, others pressed into the dirt. The rest he blew away. “Yeah, but I don’t think I meant it back then.”