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sharon mckenna

what might happen 

 The park is thickly wooded and close by. Although it sits in the middle of a busy city, bordered by tennis courts and even a small zoo, it is often empty. People have been known to ask: the park is such a beautiful place, why doesn't anyone go there?

Several well-padded trails twist across its low, rolling hills. I imagine that from the sky they might look like the river of veins on the back of my hand. Lately I picture most things like this; from very far away, yet through the image of some small and familiar part of myself.

I came here at first for the dogs. I was told I must take them to a designated area, an enclosed space that occupies just a sliver of the vast park acreage. This special zone is intended to keep dogs away from people. Many believe that makes sense.

But in this off-leash area I found only dogs as mean as barbed wire and masters in need of neutering. Often these dog owners would fight over the particulars of which bit which, their pets looking on in confusion as they claw and tangle, an activity they are denied.

I don't go there now, but instead let the big slope carry me down into the wet and wooded places, where my dogs can run without attachments. No one ever comes around to tell me it should be otherwise.

Homeless men live in the park. They sleep under dark hoods of pine branches on piles of soft nettles. I stumble upon them sometimes while I search for the ball, but I am never startled. I always say I am sorry for disturbing them.

Some of these men are drunk or sick. But I do not feel the need to help them. I want one of them to help me.

The few people that I still talk to, the ones that say often how much they care, are concerned about my weekday forays into the often deserted area. They wonder what might happen. They are even more worried that I am not.

_____ I had heard of, but until now never actually seen, other men come into the woods, on their lunch hour perhaps, one slipping in the entrance near the tennis courts, walking slowly, head bowed, the other rushing down a muddy trail toward him in anticipation. I watch them meet between a stand of tall fir trees, look around quickly, then agree to walk together to a more private spot, one where I can't see them and my dogs won't smell their dreary lust and haul it out like a rotting bone, into the light.

On a grassy hill I stand under a massive pine that grabs the sky and I hold very still. In the wide clearing just ahead I see a few homeless men laying on park benches in dusty clothes, reading. Others mill around the rusted barbecues and talk to one another in low voices, or smoke and watch a small portable television from inside a covered picnic area, where I imagine large family gatherings once took place. But that was a long time ago.

Next to them, just across a long, empty row of horseshoe pits, dozens of old people putter about on bright green lawn bowling fields. They are covered hat to shoe in brilliant white. Not a single mistake soils them. I imagine they possess things like mutual funds and children and grandchildren who know where they are, and will call later just to see how they are doing.

I watch the game and try to understand why there are no bowling pins. I wonder if this sport is intended as an elegant alternative to shuffleboard; the pressed, identical outfits and minimalist equipment designed to dignify their empty afternoons. I watch a small black ball glide silently over the clipped grass to halt just inches past that of a competitors, as if its victory were remote-controlled.

Then I find the missing pins: they are the white-dressed players themselves, aged into bottomy pear-shapes and clumped together at one end of the field. I wonder what one of them might do to knock another one down.

I stand and look at these two groups of people for what seems like a long time. I study their feigned ignorance of each other, and of themselves. No one sees me. But in them, I believe I finally see everything, and this time, from not so far away.

____ Soon after, on a cloudless early-summer afternoon, one of my dogs runs up to a homeless man as he sits alone reading at one of the weathered picnic tables. He reaches one hand down and pets her head with small, pressured strokes. I walk up and he offers a cracked smile.

I come close and see that in his other hand he holds a beaten copy of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." I let my breath out slowly, and for the first time since I can remember, I feel lucky, like I've unexpectedly found something essential I had lost and given up looking for.

I've known all along that I don't want someone stupid, or indiscriminate. His book tells me his motivations may not be base and might even hold a strange, but higher purpose, one which only the two of us will share.

He scratches behind my dog's soft ears. She closes her eyes in the day's last sun.

I stand above the man and draw the intention out of him carefully, like it is a rare type of blood that will at last cure me of some mysterious and painful affliction.

He sets down his book and looks around. The trees are empty and the cut grass holds still. As he reaches for my throat, I close my eyes and think maybe he'll even take care of my dogs afterward. Perhaps the man will walk off into the woods as the day ends, and they will follow close behind him, not looking back.

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