So, this article is in Forbes, and I wrote the following story, originally published in Jackhammer back in 2000.
by Mike Rimar
–Time is a remarkable thing. You can see its passing as the seasons change. Smell it in the bouquet of apple blossoms, and decaying leaves. Feel it in your bones. Taste it in overripe fruit. Time has sound in the ticking of a clock.
Time. You have either too much of it—or not enough. For me, it is life’s biggest irony.
From my bench in Barclay Park, I watched the old man sling bread crumbs to a cluster of pigeons. To the average person he acted as though he had all the time in the world, but a trained observer could see the old man’s time was on his mind constantly.
The wristwatch gave him away. A quick twist of his wrist, a glance at the watch’s face, then back to flicking bread crumbs. It was so subtle, so ordinary, but then, that was the point.
I had chosen my bench very carefully. Opposite a finely groomed patch of lawn, I looked like any another office worker taking time out to enjoy the fine summer afternoon. Although the old man’s back was to me, adding to my confidence, my fingers twitched and I crossed my arms to hide the spasms.
I didn’t intend to spy. My morning started the usual way: stretching exercises capped off with a long walk. I had only been to Barclay twice before when I was a child myself, not too long ago. But I saw the signs, and decided to watch. It was risky. If the old man noticed, it would spoil everything.
Children laughed and screamed in a play area filled with monkey bars, swings and slides that held perennial fascination. The school year was done, and the sun hung like a fiery billboard declaring this was the best day to play. Numerous and boisterous, they revelled in the fact the day was, indeed, as advertised.
Two young boys circled me, playing tag. The lead boy used my bench as an obstacle. He wasn’t fast, but agile–cutting left, then right like a hare on the run, always inches away from his pursuer’s outstretched hand. They laughed and screamed no louder than the other kids, yet I feared the old man would turn and search for the source of the noise. He would see nothing unusual, just two young boys circling an underfed man on a bench. I felt apprehension, all the same. What if he suspected?
Then the boys ran off. A slow whistle escaped between my teeth. The old man hadn’t moved.
I couldn’t see much of him from my bench. He wore a plain white polo shirt that had seen too many washes, and a blue peaked cap like those worn by golfers in bygone days. I pictured the face I had seen earlier when I walked past him: face worn and weathered, sad eyes and a monstrously bulbous nose. That was when I first noticed the repetitive flicking of the wrist and decided to find my perch.
With the two boys gone my line of sight was clear. The old man began to sway, like a reed in the wind. I leaned forward, as if the few extra inches would telescope my vision. I forgot to breathe.
Was this it?
I wanted to get closer, debated chancing another walk past, when I saw a woman pushing a stroller. Young and pretty, her lavender sun dress accentuated a figure untarnished by pregnancy. As she neared the old man, she pointed out the cluster of feeding pigeons to her child.
The old man must have noticed too, for he ceased swaying and fired another round of crumbs at the insatiable pigeons.
The young mother stopped at the old man’s bench and sat. He turned to her and smiled. What were they saying? The need to know was unbearable. Whatever they said might be important–a clue, perhaps, to a better life.
I wanted to get at least within earshot, but it was too dangerous. One of them was sure to notice.
Then the old man looked at his watch again and leaned toward the woman. She slowly stretched her arm out, resting her hand on his thin shoulder, her pretty face expressive with compassion and sympathy. She stood and pushed her child away, glancing back only once to offer a half wave.
He had told her. I felt overwhelming respect for the old man, and for the woman. She hadn’t shied away as if he had some contagious disease. She had honoured his privacy.
A wave of shame washed over me. What was I doing? The old man wasn’t some laboratory animal to observe, or data to compile. He had feelings, had lived through experiences I would never have. He deserved his privacy, something I had not afforded him.
An ice cream cart wheeled in front of me, an odd tricycle with a multicolored icebox instead of a basket. Children flocked to it from all over the playground. Soon the space between us was filled with children. It reminded me of the old man and his pigeons. The thought forced a wry smile.
I leaned back into my bench and sighed. What the hell, let him be. It was time to go.
My right leg extended first, then my left, stretching out the stiffness that creeps through my body with increasing swiftness. Someone sat next to me, and I glanced absently at the new comer.
My heart froze in mid-beat.
The old man’s pale blue eyes stared into mine, and for a brief second I was sure he was going to rail on me for spying. A smile cracked the old face. I returned it, warily. He settled himself, and turned his attention to the children as they jostled for position, trying to get their frozen treasure as soon as possible.
I looked up, startled. “Pardon me?”
The old man smiled. “Watch them,” he repeated. “The children. You like to–observe things. I can tell. I do, too. You thought you were watching me, but it was I who was watching you. I guess we were watching each other.” Though his voice rasped, and he wheezed when he took in air, it had strength, commanding attention without belligerence.
Blood rushed to my face with the knowledge I was uncovered and angered that I was the one being spied upon.
The old man winked an I-got-ya. “You’re new here, so you were easy to spot,” he explained.
Disarmed, I leaned back and chuckled.
Satisfied the ice had been broken, he continued with his original thought. “Much has been written over the years on how to plan for children, how to have children, how to raise children. How to teach children what we know so that they may grow up to be wonderful, mature adults. Bookstore and library shelves are filled with them. Yet no one has written a book on how we—the wonderful, mature adults—might learn from children. What did you learn from those two boys playing tag around you?”
“Honestly, I hadn’t noticed that much to learn from them,” I said, surprised he had known about them in the first place.
“Yes, I know. I’ve been watching you, remember. I’ll tell you what I learned. Speed is good, but not everything. The boy being chased thought on his feet, he knew when to move out of the way just in time. Thought can overcome brute strength.” The old man huffed in satisfaction of his deduction. “It’s not a new notion, but one many have forgotten. Now, see these children here? They all want one thing, their ice cream. Watch how they go about it, pushing and shoving, bullying their way to the front. Real go?getters. But watch now—there, see that big one? He just got to the front. Watch him.”
The boy had easily muscled his way to the front of the pack. The vendor was a businessman, not a referee, and exchanged the ice cream for a few coins. The boy pushed his way back, but now had his ice cream to balance. His strength did little to compensate, and the jostling was nearly too much. He almost spilled his ice cream before he got out of the throng.
The old man seemed disappointed. “He was lucky today. Now, see that young girl to the left. Keep your eye on her.”
Short and blonde, no more than ten, she wore a T-shirt that read: Adorable and know it.
“Now, see those children over there? They make no move for the cart. Why, I ask you?”
“Because they know the cart will come to them eventually,” I said after some thought.
“Good answer,” the old man smiled. “We taught them that, you know. Look at the girl.”
She inched forward until the mob of children trickled to only a few. She strolled to the vendor, took her ice cream, and walked off without trouble.
“Do you think we taught her that? You may not know this, but she is the sister of the boy who almost lost his ice cream to the pigeons. Here’s another thing I bet you didn’t know. Pigeons love ice cream. So do people, of course–so for birds, it’s a luxury.”
I chuckled softly, liking this gentle man more as time passed.
He joined in, then glanced at his watch.
My good humour faded. I leaned in close. “How soon?”
The old man looked up. “You are a good observer.” He smiled his admiration, then sighed. “Soon. Very soon.”
My earlier thoughts of his privacy returned. “I’ll leave you alone then.”
“No!” The old man grabbed my arm. He released it almost immediately, as if shocked by a jolt of electricity. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Please, stay. I want the company–and, I think you want to see–to learn. I would have too, when I was younger.”
I settled back onto the bench. The vendor pedalled his ice cream cart to the next batch of children. After a time, the old man flicked his wrist again. A tuneless hum escaped his tight lips. “What is your name?” he eventually asked.
“Bill, Bill Thomas,” I answered looking into his blue eyes. In them I saw reflections of sadness, regret, and longing. Yet there, down deep–a twinkle of what? Satisfaction? No, curiosity, maybe even excitement. “I’m afraid my time is up. Good bye, Bill Thomas. Never forget, watch the children.” He slumped forward and exhaled, a long slow wheeze of air, and then silence.
I grabbed him before he crumpled to the ground. He was remarkably light, and I had no trouble propping him into a sitting position. He looked like he was napping. As an afterthought I adjusted his golf hat to reinforce the effect.
A tear rolled down my cheek as I leaned over and grasped the old man’s frail wrist, turning it to expose the face of his watch. The digital display read:
yrs dys hrs min sec
0000 000 00 00 00
It gave off a gentle electronic whine, and I knew that somewhere a collection team would pick up the signal. They’d come for him soon.
The watch wasn’t unlike the watch on my wrist. It was similar to the watch on the little T-shirted girl’s wrist, and the one on the mother pushing her baby through the park. Shock-proof, water-proof and completely removable. Curiosity kept it on the owner’s wrist, not law.
The Life-Watch, the hottest technological marvel since the microwave oven, measured the body’s natural rhythms. It could predict, to the second, when you would have a natural death—excluding accidents or acts of God. A clairvoyant countdown, adjusting itself to any health changes.
I looked at my own Life-Watch, and finally understood. I had observed the old man to learn how to live life to the fullest, perhaps to glean some wisdom that would tell me–something, anything. I was wrong. I didn’t want to learn how to live, but die with grace and dignity. And courage.
Stretching my arms and legs, I stood and walked over to the trash can across the walkway, removed the Life-Watch from my wrist and tossed it in. The digital display of zero years, two hundred days, twelve hours, twenty minutes, fifty-five seconds winked out when the watch’s sensor plate disconnected from my skin. The numbers would be hard to forget, as hard as my illness, but I would try. I returned to the bench and sat with the old man, waiting for the collection team to arrive.
And I watched the children play.