He arrives at the park by walking down Central Park West and then entering through the opening at West Seventy-seventh Street. This is in the winter. It is early morning, and the sun is little more than an orangey haze behind heavy clouds in the east. Light snow flurries fill the air. There are not many people out, a few runners and women bundled against the cold pushing strollers.
He walks down the asphalt drive and when he reaches a path with a small wooden footbridge he stops for a moment, and it is there somewhere, a snatch of memory, but he cannot reach it. An elderly couple comes toward him, out for their morning walk. The man gives him a hearty good morning but he looks right through him. What is it he remembers? It is something beautiful, he is sure of it, but it eludes him like so many things seem to do nowadays.
If he could access it, what he would see was a day twenty years earlier, in this same spot. Though it was not winter, but a bright fall day, the maples bleeding red, and he is not alone. Elizabeth is here, as is his son, Ethan. They had gone to the museum and then had lunch before coming into the park. Ethan’s first trip to New York, and he is five, and though he loved the museum with its giant dinosaur skeletons, it is the park that draws his attention. The day could not be more glorious. Seasonably warm and without a cloud in the sky: a magical Manhattan day.
Ethan runs ahead of them on the path. His wife takes his arm, leans into him. He looks down and smiles at her. They don’t need to speak, for they are both drinking in the moment, the day, the happiness of their boy, and the gift of this experience. There is no reason to give it words.
Ethan finds a gnarled tree on the side of the path, one that grows horizontally just a foot or so above the ground. He immediately climbs up on top of it, shimmying his little body over its trunk, and the two of them sit on a bench a few feet away and watch him.
A couple of times they suggest they should keep walking, but the boy will not have it. He has found a tree perfectly suited for him and he demands in the way that children do that he be watched, admired, and studied as he climbs it one way, then the other. And this is okay, for they are in no rush. It is a small moment, but a perfect one. The child is right: Where else would they rather be? What could be more complete?
Now, standing on the same path, with the snow picking up and falling more steadily around him, he gives up trying to find this memory and instead focuses on the snow, tracing individual flakes as they come in front of his field of vision and then disappear. He is alone suddenly. There is no one walking in either direction. The park is his. He takes off his hat and places it on the ground. Then he removes his jacket. Next he undoes his tie and then his shirt and his undershirt. Soon he is naked, and he sets off again, leaving his clothes in a neat pile on the path, and he moves up and over the hilly terrain, his eyes straight ahead, oblivious to the people who gasp when they come around a corner to find him marching toward them. All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him.
“Why don’t you tell us what happened?”
“Where should I start?”
“Where do you want to start?”
He looks at the men sitting across from him. It is a stupid question, he thinks.
He says, “At the beginning, of course.”
“That would be helpful,” says the man who does all the talking.
“Why do you care?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why do you care? Just as it sounds.” He was growing exasperated. “What am I to you?”
“Sir, do we need to refresh you on how we found you?”
“I was in the park.”
One of the men laughs. The other one silences him with his hand. “Yes, you were in the park. Naked. Twenty-degree weather. Snow on the ground. Walking in Central Park naked.”
“Is that a crime?”
“Yes. It is, in fact.”
“In Vermont it’s not.”
“Yes. You can be naked. You just can’t be obscene.”
“What’s the difference?”
He sighs. He looks down at his clothes. They are too big for him. He is practically swimming in these damn clothes.
“Do I have to answer that?”
“Good. Because that will tire me.”
“Just start, then.”
“Okay,” he says. “But I want some coffee. Strong coffee. Black.”
The man nods. “We’ll get that for you. Begin.”
He leans forward. “The beginning,” he says. “This is how it starts.”
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Christopher Greene