Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Sunshine Man


         I had desk duty at the library when I first saw him strolling toward me. His face broke into a cautious smile. He was good-looking—lanky with deep brown eyes and a head full of short brown curls. But I didn't recognize him.
"Julie?" he said, stopping in front of the counter. "Julie Hayes?"
I nodded, puzzled. His face blossomed into a brightest smile imaginable. "Dennis," he said.
"Dennis Wright from the track team. "
My hand flew to my mouth. "Oh, Dennis, I'm so sorry, " I said. "Wow—but you look totally different. I mean, you look great," I added, and he laughed before my face turned completely red. "Were are your glasses?"
"Contacts. And I gained a few pounds. Cut my hair."
I couldn't believe the sight of him. In high school he was tall and gangly with unruly curls that fell to his ears and forehead like a mop. But he was the state's best hurdler. "Have you come back to Fairfield?" I asked.
"I'm going to be your local weatherman. Channel Six. "
"When?" I felt my face brighten.
"Starting next week," he said. "Noon, six, and ten o'clock news." He shrugged. "Got tired of drifting around. "
"Unbelievable."
"And I've come for a library card," he said. "The way I devour books, I can't afford to buy everything I want to read."
"You're at the right place." From below the counter I produced an application for him and handed him a ballpoint.
As he filled out the application, my mind drifted back seven years to our seasons on the track team at Fairfield High and the thrill of competing. At that the time, Dennis wore thick glasses and read thick books between his events. Nick, my boyfriend, later my fiancé, pole vaulted and long jumped. I ran sprints.
After Dennis finished filling out the application and I made out his card, he smiled up at me and asked, "You and Nick, married? Kids?"
"It didn't work out, Dennis."
His smile dissolved. "Because of the accident?"
"You could say that."
A mom with three toddlers in tow came up behind Dennis. They obviously needed my help. So I told Dennis I had an hour for lunch at noon, and I'd meet him at the LeClaire Park. He said he'd get something for us to eat; he'd meet me back here at the library, and we'd walked down to the park together.

      At the park, we sat at a picnic table near the band shelter. The day was warm but overcast, a breeze stirring the treetops. I fed the tuna fish salad sandwich I'd brought from home to the ducks. Dennis and I devoured tenderloin sandwiches and ice cream bars he'd bought from a street vendor. At one point, in what I supposed was typical weatherman fashion, Dennis cocked an eye toward the sky and said, "Front coming in from the North. Might get a good April rain later."
"Looks like it."
Then we talked about high school, the fun we had running track. I told him I'd been at the library since graduating from State. "I'm the chief assistant now."
"Congratulations!" Then he added with a shy grin, "You look in good shape. Just like high school."
I felt myself blushing.
"You still run?" he asked.
"Nearly every day. Usually in the evening. Three or four miles."
"Me, too. Whenever I find the time." Turning somber, his brown eyes crisscrossed my face. "Are you going to tell me about Nick?"
"Sure."
"I mean, I know about the pole vaulting accident in college—his pole snapped when he was eighteen feet in the air. Broke his back, but he recovered, didn't he?"
I looked out across the grassy park. "He recovered perfectly," I said. "I can't imagine anyone braver or more determined than Nick."
I explained that he was in intensive care for twenty-two days, teetering between life and death. Nick went from wearing a halo in a hospital bed to a wheelchair, no halo; and after five months in the hospital, he went home. With lots of therapy, he slowly began walking again. He graduated from college a year after his fall, ambling across the stage, fully recovered.
"A miracle," Dennis said.
"You would've been proud of him—I was. He fought so hard."
"You were still engaged?"
I shook my head.
"Look, Julie, you don't have to tell me, it's none of my business, anyway."
"No, it's all right," I said and smiled, eager to prove what I was about to say was true. "I've been over him for a long while." I brushed a strand of hair off my cheek. "Nick fell in love with his physical therapist. They were married after he graduated. They moved out West to where she was from. Oregon, I think."
Dennis frowned in disbelief.
I reached across the table and patted his shoulder. "It's all right," I said. "I'm okay. Honest."
"What about now?" Dennis asked. "You haven't found someone else?"
I shrugged. "I'd gone through high school and college not thinking about other guys, other possibilities. I still haven't, I guess. "
"But you should..."
"And I've been busy."
"...you're beautiful."
My face heated up again with a blush. "Thank you." The last person to tell me that had been Nick. "But what's with you?" I said. "Wife? Kids? A weatherman who brings nothing but sunny skies?"
He laughed. "Like today?"
"Seriously," I said.
"Well, I've worked all over—St. Louis, Omaha, Sioux City. But no wife and kids. I never had a chance to settle down. I'm looking forward to finally staying put."
Finished with lunch, we started walking up Main Street to the library, side-by-side, chatting about how little the town had changed. We passed the jewelry store where Nick had bought our engagement ring. What a totally dark, stormy day in my life it had been when I gave the ring back.
When we stopped in front of the library, Dennis said, "Where do you run? When?"
"Duck Creek Bike Path. Usually about seven."
I loved the soft smile that curved his lip. "Would you care if I joined you?" he asked.
I blinked. Was he serious? "I'd be delighted."
"Seven." He said, and squeezed my hand, a tingle shooting through me.
I watched him cross the street, headed for his car. Then he turned and yelled, "Don't forget! Seven!" He tilted his head toward the sky. "Even if it's raining!"
But I didn't care if it rained or not. Dennis had brought a sudden glimpse of sunshine back into my life.
The End
Enjoy Reality! Contemporary YA fiction with an impact. Visit: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Jon+Ripslinger