Walter stopped in front of his favorite bench, set his newspaper on one side, a lunch bag on the other, and settled in to enjoy the beautiful spring afternoon. Wednesday was his favorite day to enjoy some time at the city park and a free performance at the Institute of Drama across the street at two o’clock. He always enjoyed watching the young couples pass by –– hand in hand, laughing and teasing –– for this was the same path he and his wife had walked many years earlier. He had long since retired but still remembered the happy hours they had enjoyed during their courtship, when they, too, were young students at the school across the street. Now, he often brought his grandchildren here to play while he enjoyed sunning and dozing.
Walter took a handful of peanuts from his lunch bag and began throwing them in front of the bench. As if he had rung a dinner bell, a chubby little squirrel appeared from behind the thick shrubbery lining the walking path and began feeding.
“Good afternoon, Jonathan. How are you today?” asked Walter. Walter liked to call the squirrels by his brother’s name as he carried on a conversation to pass the time. Jonathan had always had a vivid imagination and believed in reincarnation. As a child, he loved to climb trees. As an adult, he often said he hoped to come back as a squirrel after he passed away. Climbing as high as possible, he would survey the landscape and tell Walter down below all the wonderful things he could see from his vantage point. And while Walter hadn’t shared his older brother’s belief in reincarnation, he always played along with him. He saw no reason to deprive his brother of his fantasy. After all, he thought, didn’t everyone fantasize about something?
Walter himself enjoyed the theater for that very reason. It allowed him to suspend reality for a brief time and become a pirate, an ace fighter pilot, or a circus clown under the big top. As a young man, his ambition was to become an entertainer, so he took classes at the Institute of Drama. Only the necessity of putting food on the table for a new family had kept him from graduating and pursuing this career. Regrettably, his dream had been side-tracked with the pregnancy of his girlfriend, herself a student, whom he married. Throwing more peanuts in front of the bench, Walter continued his make-believe conversation with the squirrel.
“Took the grandchildren kite flying the other day. The breeze was perfect and they had a wonderful time. Saturday we’re going to see a Disney movie; they’re very excited about that.”
Engrossed in this ongoing conversation with his make-believe brother, Walter hadn’t noticed the two young men who seated themselves on the bench across from him. Their initial looks of curiosity at this old man having a conversation with a squirrel changed to indifference as they picked up their text books and returned to their studies.
“You look well, Jonathan. Put on a little weight I see,” said Walter, as he casually tossed a few more peanuts out in front of him.
The squirrel paused its chewing for a moment as it twirled the peanut around in its tiny paws. It looked straight at Walter with a stare that seemed intentional and thoughtful.
“Well, thanks for noticing that, pal. You could have left that unspoken,” came back a sarcastic reply.
Walter had been leaning forward as he threw the peanuts on the ground. Hearing this unexpected response, he was snapped back in his seat and momentarily speechless.
Walter’s sudden movement frightened the squirrel. It dropped the peanut and took several small leaps away from the bench. Eyeing Walter warily, the squirrel cautiously retrieved the nut and sat back on its haunches again. Walter’s eyes grew wider when he heard:
“You couldn’t say something kind and flattering –– like how nice my bushy tail looks? Why is it everyone only comments on my weight these days? Geez.”
Walter was in a state of shock.
“Jonathan –– brother –– is that you? You really did come back as a squirrel?”
Holding the peanut in its tiny paws, the squirrel twitched its bushy tail several times as it continued to stare up at Walter.
“Well of course I did, silly. Didn’t you believe me?”
Walter swallowed and took a deep breath.
“Well no, not really,” he said, his face turning red. “I just played along so you wouldn’t get angry. You know what a bad temper you had.”
The squirrel turned the peanut over once or twice as it looked for a soft spot to chew on. “You mean all those years out in the woods you were just stringing me along? Humoring me? I should have known you weren’t a true believer; you would have wanted to come back as something yourself if you were.” Suddenly from behind the bushes a second squirrel appeared. Joining the first one, it picked up a peanut and began munching away.
“Hey, Herbie, my brother here doesn’t believe we got what we wanted up there from you know who after we passed away.”
“What? You’re kidding,” said the second squirrel, nibbling around the edges of a chunky peanut. “Your own brother has no faith in The Man? I can’t believe it. What’s your name, brother?”
“Walter, Walter Bantan,” came the stammering reply, “but Jonathan always called me Wally.”
“Right. Wally listen, you’ve got a lot to learn. You can get wishes granted, but only if you’re a true believer. Your brother and I truly believed and The Man made us squirrels –– neat, huh?”
Walter stared wide-eyed as the squirrels twirled and chewed their peanuts with effortless agility.
“I must be dreaming. This can’t be happening. I’ve never heard of anyone being reincarnated, let along come back as a squirrel,” he muttered.
“Well of course not, brother,” came a brash response. “Once you’re reincarnated, you can only speak to your closest relatives. What were the chances you and I would meet here today, Wally –– a gazillion to one?”
Walter sat back and took a deep breath.
“Oh my God, this is incredible. I never would have believed it.” Pausing to collect his thoughts, Walter leaned forward with a quizzical look.
“Jonathan, your voice has changed –– it’s different. More nasal now.”
The squirrel turned the peanut over several times as he responded.
“Oh, that. I caught a bad cold and I’m still not over it.” Walter looked from Jonathan to the second squirrel sitting nearby.
“And your friend here –– he believed in reincarnation, too?”
“Are you kidding? He believed in it even more than me. He was already making a tree nest when I met him. After we talked a few minutes, he let me help him finish it, and that’s how we became best friends.”
Having finished the last of the nuts, the two squirrels began scampering back towards the shrubs.
“Wait, don’t leave, Jonathan,” cried Walter. “There’s so much I wanted to ask you.”
Before leaving Walter sitting in stunned silence, he heard one last comment they disappeared into the shrubbery.
“Sorry, Wally, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. Bye.”
Moments later, a gentleman carrying a clipboard came out from behind the shrubs and took a seat at the end of Walter’s bench.
“Excuse me, sir, but I must apologize for getting you all upset over the squirrels. They weren’t really talking to you.”
Surprised at this sudden intrusion, Walter tried to collect himself as he looked over at the suited gentleman.
“They weren’t? But I heard them, and I even had a conversation with my brother,” he said.
Pointing over at the two young men sitting across from them, the man said, “My dear sir, I have to inform you that what you heard were two of my senior ventriloquist students. They were taking their final exam today, and they needed to perform in an outdoor impromptu setting. We’re from the Institute of Drama across the street.”
Walter’s shoulders drooped a little and his voice had a questioning tone to it.
“You mean that wasn’t really my brother and his friend Herbie?” asked Walter.
“Oh my goodness, no, sir, it wasn’t. And, I’m terribly sorry if this little drama has upset you. I take it your deceased brother believed in reincarnation?”
“Yes, very much so; and I was starting to believe in it myself.”
“No, no, my dear man, reincarnation is pure nonsense; there’s not a shred of scientific proof to confirm it; it couldn’t happen in a million years.”
Walter looked over at the two students smiling back at him. Thinking over the last few minutes and trying not to look too foolish, he smiled back weakly.
“Well, I must say, you guys were pretty convincing. You almost had this old man believing he was really talking to his dear departed brother. Nice job.”
The students seemed pleased at Walter’s compliment and smiled appreciatively.
The professor looked at his watch and motioned to the students as he rose up from the bench.
“Well, sir, we’d better be going. Perhaps you would enjoy coming to our Wednesday afternoon play; it starts at two o’clock. It’s a comedy, it’s free, and these two fine students will be in it.”
Walter seemed a little shaken as he reached for his newspaper.
“Thank you,” he said, “maybe I will stop by. After this experience, I could use a few good laughs.”
As the professor and his students headed off towards the school, a pigeon searching for scraps of food in the middle of the path barely managed to hop out of their way. As the bird turned and faced them, they heard:
“Hey, watch where you’re walkin’ you big jerks, you almost stepped on me.”
The professor looked from one student to the other with an approving glance.
“That was good –– very good; which one of you did that?”
The students looked at each other and said in unison, “not me.”
“What?” said the amazed professor, “Neither of you said that?”
The three men looked back at Walter, now engrossed in reading his newspaper.
The pigeon strutted a little closer to them.
“Reincarnation is pure nonsense, is it? Wait ’til I tell the Old Man what you said. He won’t be happy about this.”
With that the bird flew off, leaving the men with their mouths agape, still staring at Walter.
As the three of them headed back towards the college, Walter lowered his paper to watch their hasty retreat. With a long sigh and a smug grin, he said:
“I could have been a top ventriloquist if I’d stayed with it –– those guys weren’t that good.”
Henry Foster has been writing seriously for about three years, mostly short stories and participates in several writing groups in the Princeton-Plainsboro area. He retired as an Allstate Insurance Agent in 2000, after almost 30 years, and spent his early retirement time traveling, horseback riding, and skiing with my wife. He also plays and teaches pool and billiards.