Today was a special day for Benny Berchelli. Although no one would share his 86th birthday this September 17th, Benny would walk to the park as he had done for 22 years. He would sit on the same bench that he sat on the day he buried his beloved wife, Bernice. He grabbed a small paper bag of peanuts to feed the squirrels and walked the quarter mile to the park near the beach. The sun reflected brightly off the Miami shore. Something about the constant sound of the waves breaking onto the shore verified that all was well.
Benny found his bench waiting patiently for him. Rarely did he have to wait to sit on his bench. When he pulled the peanut sack out of his jacket pocket, several squirrels scampered toward him. They would always jump up on the bench, and Benny would hand feed them. Each squirrel grabbed his prize, ran off to hide it, and returned for another.
Benny had watched life change from his bench. The young children that had played in the park had now moved on. New people had moved in. He watched as Mary went by pushing her stroller. She waved and Benny smiled and waved back. Benny could remember when she used to play in the park as a youngster. Now she had her own child. He watched as she pushed the stroller to the daycare on the corner where she dropped off Rebecca and then walked on to work. She was a single mother now. One Sunday morning her husband just up and left. Benny gave another peanut to a begging squirrel that came all the way to his lap.
This area had grown so much over the years. The streets were one blur of cars whizzing by. He could remember when you could easily walk across the street to the beach. Now you had to go to the crosswalk. Benny didn’t even try it anymore.
“Morning you two. Heading for the grocery store?” Benny asked the couple.
“Wednesday, senior discount at the market. Every bit helps now days,” Margaret said.
“You doing alright, George?” Benny asked giving another squirrel a treat.
“Doing fine,” George replied. “Great day isn’t it?”
Benny nodded and watched them walk down the street pulling their little handcart. They were nice folk. Been here for many years. Been walking by like this every Wednesday since George retired. They had the same conversation every week. They were New York transplants like he was. Benny hadn’t heard from anyone in New York for a long time. He didn’t know if any of his old friends were still there—even if they were alive. None of his old acquaintances seemed to know or care if he was alive.
“Morning Lou,” Benny said waving to a slightly bent, old man shuffling by. Lou just waved and kept on going. Lou was probably born here. Benny didn’t know where he went. The old man never talked and Benny didn’t know if he worked. He was just another pedestrian going past his bench.
Benny hadn’t worked in a long time. Why work when you can just sit here and enjoy the scenery. He was a bona fide people watcher. When he got up in the morning, he didn’t have to be any place except here on his bench.
“That’s all there is squirrels.” Benny wadded the paper bag up into a tight little ball. “You cleaned me out. But I’ll be back tomorrow.” He tossed it in the nearby trash container. “Swish, another two points.” Benny thought back to his days in high school. He had the best jump shot. Some had said he should go into the pros but he never thought there was money in that. Maybe he should have because he didn’t have any money now anyway.
“Hi, Mr. Berchelli,” seven year old Rosa said running up to Benny.
“Well, hi Rosa.”
“My mom wanted me to give this to you,” Rosa said handing Benny a cupcake with a candle on the top. “She said today is your birthday.”
“She’s right. Thank you so much. I didn’t think anyone knew.”
“Well, bye and happy birthday.” Rosa skipped down the street singing.
Benny looked at the cupcake with a smiley face on it. It made Benny smile and tears began to well up in his eyes.
A dark green SUV pulled up in front of Benny. He watched as a young woman got out, came around to the passenger side, and opened the door. As she lifted her little boy from the car seat, a young man in a sweat suit ran up and shoved her and the child to the ground. She tried to kick but the assailant grabbed her keys.
Benny thought he recognized the boy. He looked like Tyler Robinson. He used to play here, too. What was he doing?
Benny stood. “Tyler! Tyler! What are you doing?”
Benny startled Tyler. Tyler swung around pulling a pistol from his pocket. Benny stood looking into the eyes of Tyler pointing the gun at him.
“NOOOO!” the young woman screamed.
A loud blast shattered the Wednesday Birthday party at the bench.