Happy Ending

Fiction
Ryan N. Hejmanowski


Bench
Photo Credit: David Hawkins-Weeks

The bench overlooked a corner of Bradenton that was well populated but not very often viewed from that vantage point. The ledge was there more by accident than by plan and the city maintenance crews had long forgotten about it. The paths leading down from above, and the one that had led up from down below, were overgrown fully. It was simply a bench sitting on the side of a hill with no direct path leading to it.

Even though the paths were unused, the bench itself was tended meticulously. The iron supports were always painted a lustrous gloss black without a single spot of rust or deterioration. The wooden planks were covered in British racing green and they shone in the sun with a gloss of their own. Each board was smooth along its surface without any indication that there were knots or blemishes in their length. Had the hillside bench been sitting with the rest of them in the park far below, it would have stood out.

The others were decrepit in comparison with their years of weathering, tears, and shit staining their visage. It was a function of frequent use by the homeless people looking for a comfortable, well-lit place to rest coupled with the general malaise of the government employees tasked with caring for them. It meant that they were cleaned about once a year and repainted every three years. To make matters worse, the repainting process usually didn’t involve any sort of cleaning beforehand. So there were simply layers upon layers of paint mixed with grime and bodily fluids to form a shell over the metal and wood. It made for a surface that was horribly uneven and usually cracking at various points.

James Madison was the reason that the hillside bench stood with unknowing pride in the sunshine every sixth of June. Not the historical figure, but James Madison who lived on Arlington Lane in the city below the bench. He was an average man who went to work for forty years in the nearby aviation factory where aircraft were conceived, born, and reproduced until their useful lives came to a close. During his forty years, James had conceived as many planes but only saw three of them actually birthed.

There were still copies of his last plane being produced. He would always catch himself looking up to the sky whenever he heard a jet overhead, hoping to catch a view of the latest variant of his fighter, dubbed the F-60 by his employer. No matter how many times he looked, James always knew it wasn’t one of his because of the sound. Most people couldn’t recognize the difference between a military jet and a commercial airliner. James knew instantly from the not-so-subtle differences in the turbines. His military children had raucous, vicious, uncaring engines that screamed even when cruising. The commercial airliners had larger turbofan engines that were tamer, gentler creatures that tried hard not to assault the ear as they passed.

Even knowing the differences in the turbines, he always glanced up hoping that his hearing was going bad and he would catch a glimpse of his baby flying proudly above. It had happened once before and that was years ago. He was walking along the street hand-in-hand with his fiancé, Rebecca Walsh. He stopped in amazement with the grin of an infant amazed by the mobile hanging above his crib. The enthrallment was such that he completely lost the thread of their conversation. Rebecca didn’t mind that as much as being rudely jerked to a stop by James’s iron grip.

“What is wrong with you?” she snapped as she spun around to face James. Only then did she see the childlike expression on his upturned face. She had known him long enough to know what he did for a living and she had no illusions about it. One part of her heart was touched with tenderness at watching her love entranced by the inherent beauty in his creation. The other part of her railed against her love of James in the name of all the people that would be murdered by being on the wrong end of his offspring. It was all she could do to keep from slapping him soundly at that moment but she held it together for the sake of their love.

It was the first of his aircraft to see production. He couldn’t help but look up every time one of them streaked across the sky in the most graceful of arcs. Occasionally he would catch one of them executing a turn out of the controlled airspace pattern that covered the majority of the town. It meant that watching the planes was a generally boring endeavor with the occasional turn being the pinnacle of excitement.

James didn’t care how boring it was to anyone else because he saw the beauty in every rivet and aluminum strut running through his planes. He loved the artistry of conceiving and designing an aircraft that could go twice the speed of sound and still land as gently as a sparrow alighting upon a thin branch. It was the balance between the sleek, eloquent skin covering the unbridled fury of a turbine spinning at over one hundred thousand revolutions per minute. The smallest piece being out of balance would create a catastrophic failure that would rip his baby apart from the inside out. The fact that his airframe could handle such barely controlled rage was a form of art that he just couldn’t explain.

“Nothing at all, my love,” James said in response to his abrupt halt and gave Rebecca a gentle kiss that temporarily wiped away the war between her heart and head. “You know how I get around airplanes. I have the attention span of a small child in a room full of shiny things.”

His final words rubbed her the wrong way because she knew he didn’t get that way about all airplanes… just his. Her response came out more acidic than she had expected but she felt justified nonetheless when she branded him a death-merchant before stomping off down the street. That evening ended with a heated argument that James couldn’t bring under control with any amount of understanding on his part or pleading for understanding on Rebecca’s part. It was that night that they both recognized there were certain topics that they would never agree on.

It was almost a year later when they finally realized the impact it was going to have on their relationship. Before that realization, they shared many days hiking through the hills on the outskirts of Bradenton. That was how they first found a discarded park bench in the weeds. To say it was pathetic would have been kind. Most of the wood was rotted through in more than one place and the iron supports were rusted terribly. James saw the way that Rebecca looked at it, envisioning the two of them sitting next to one another watching the sun setting before turning to go inside and retire for the evening.

Although that vision was never realized, he made it a point to restore the bench to pristine condition. First, he went back to the site alone and pulled all the iron supports out of the weeds. He spent his lunch hours at work taking an industrial sandblaster to them. Surprisingly, the rust was only on the surface and the sandblasting produced a clean piece of iron that was only pitted in a few spots. Those spots were filled with automotive body filler and sanded smooth. Then he took them home and spent some free time in the evenings painting them in the garage. It was easy to do since he and Rebecca weren’t married and, therefore, didn’t live together.

Once he had all the supports finished, it was a simple matter of getting the lumber and putting a proper finish on it. The color was an indulgence he allowed himself. British racing green was one of his favorite colors even though it was only in style overseas on the racing circuits at the time. It took some finagling on his part but he managed to get some imported. Within a day of receiving the paint he had all the wood painted to a lustrous finish that was as smooth as any car he’d ever seen.

It was only a few days after all the pieces were prepared that James spent an idle Tuesday hauling the components up to the ridge. He took the day off just for the occasion and spent it in sublime pleasure. The wood was bolted easily to the iron supports and the bench took shape in little time. He then set some concrete blocks in the dirt so the bench had support. He knew it would sink over time, so he set the blocks slightly higher than the earth hoping that it would level out a little over time. He wasn’t disappointed on that count as the bench settled in beautifully.

Once he was done assembly, and seating, the bench he went down the hill to get Rebecca. Things had been strained between them since the first time he saw one of his aircraft flying overhead. Things hadn’t gotten much better when he won approval of a second design in the weeks before the bench was finished. James knew that they would never agree on his work. He was certain that she would accept it as part of him and it was just taking time for her to work through that. He did what he could to assure her of his love and the bench was just another gesture in an endless string of them.

The day was beautiful with generous amounts of sun and a gentle breeze that kept it from getting too warm. They trudged up the hill with a bit of stilted conversation that James found normal as of late. Rebecca followed behind him without offering much to open conversation on her own. When they reached the ridgeline, James asked Rebecca to close her eyes and he led her by the hand to where the bench sat waiting. He did the typical unveiling by telling her to open her eyes and then beaming at her with a huge smile that bordered on grotesque, awaiting the praise that he was sure to receive for such a gesture.

Instead, Rebecca took his hand and led him to the bench so they could sit. Bradenton spread out before them as they simply sat there, side by side. They sat in silence for a few minutes as James became a bit confused.

“So, what…” he started.

“Shhh,” Rebecca stopped him with. She did this every time he tried to talk over the next hour. It did little to put him at ease and started to trouble him deeply by the time the hour mark approached. During that time, Rebecca simply sat with her arms folded across her chest, refusing to speak to James. She simply stared straight ahead and James tried to convince himself that she was simply shutting him up to sit and enjoy the view.

Only as the sun started to set and the town was bathed in oblique lighting that gave it a warm, soft glow did Rebecca speak. She reached down and took James’s hand in her own but she continued to stare straight ahead.

“I’m leaving town tomorrow and I’m not coming back,” she began and instantly raised her other hand to ward off any commentary on his behalf. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone but I can’t get past your job. Actually, it’s not the job. I can’t get past your love of your job. I know it’s selfish but I will not be that closely associated with death and destruction. I won’t contribute to it and staying with you would do exactly that.”

With those words, Rebecca let go of James’s hand, stood up, and walked away. James simply sat there and let her go without protest, knowing that there was nothing he could say to change things.

The years passed and James thought of Rebecca often. Every June he would begin the process of cleaning and restoring the bench that he first installed on that hillside over thirty years before. He would start on the first of the month and by the afternoon of the sixth it would always look as fresh as he had first built it. He was always surprised that it was still there when he went back on June first. Age made him somewhat more cynical and he always expected to see the bench missing or just destroyed by vandals. Instead, it simply sat there, overgrown by weeds, waiting his arrival and its rebirth.

Every sixth of June, James would sit on that bench watching his corner of Bradenton until the sunset. He freely admitted to himself that he was waiting for Rebecca to return and take a seat next to him so they could relive that moment and he could do something to change it.

This year, on the sixth of June, James got a surprise he had hoped for. As the sun was starting to set he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He realized that Rebecca was sitting next to him with her arms crossed on her chest. He didn’t turn to see her for fear that she was just a figment of his imagination and would vanish at his recognition. He sat rigidly with his heart hammering in his chest. James knew it wasn’t good for someone of his years to have a heart running out of control but he didn’t care. He knew that it was his time to make amends for his inaction years ago. He drew a deep breath, preparing to talk. Rebecca interrupted him before he could get his words out.

“You know it was one of your planes that dropped a bomb and killed me, right?” was all she said.

It was enough to drive the breath from his chest and rational thought from his mind. The feeling of her hand closing over his was enough to ensure that he would never return to that bench. Using what time he had left, he cried until the sun had vanished below the horizon.

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Ryan currently works as a photographer and videographer in the Chicago area, as well as practicing law. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Literature. He began writing when he was in grade school and hasn’t stopped since. Recently, another of his short stories, “Howlin’ For You,” was published at Necrology Shorts. Email: hejmonger[at]hejmonger.com

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