Author Note: The Road Back tells the story of Gabe Schoenbaum, age 77, who meets a little boy in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, whom Gabe instantly recognizes as the reincarnation of his late wife, Estelle. It turns out that the little boy, Ben, was born on the exact date, and in the same hospital, where Estelle passed away six years earlier. The Road Back tells the story of how Gabe searches for ways to ensure that he can reincarnate as a little girl, and be born to parents in the same neighborhood, so he can increase the chances that he will meet Ben in his next incarnation, so the two of them can fall in love, and spend their lives together again as husband and wife. Gabe explores Tibetan and Hindu texts to find the answers he seeks.
It happened to him only once before, fifty years ago when Gabe Schoenbaum first met his wife, Estelle. He felt an odd tingling on the back of his neck and an incredible sensation of being utterly and completely happy.
It happened again this morning at Golden Gate Park, when a small boy and his dog ran past Gabe. He felt the prickly things on the back of his neck and with it a transitory moment of déja vu. It brought tears to his eyes, remembering Estelle and their first encounter so long ago. Gabe watched the boy and his dog for a brief moment then continued on his way toward the concession stand by the Children’s Carousel. He had just finished the Bocce ball tournament at the bowling green and was on his way to get a bottle of water when he saw the boy.
It was November and a cool sea breeze blew inland from the Pacific Ocean, causing Gabe to turn up his collar to keep the chill off his neck as he traversed the path through the park. After buying his water, he sat down on an empty park bench and lay his cane down beside him. He took his reading glasses from his breast pocket and adjusted them on his nose. Carefully unfolding the San Francisco Chronicle, he glanced at the headlines then thumbed through the paper to the obituaries, reading slowly as he ate his peanuts from a brown paper bag.
While re-reading the listing for a young girl who drowned in a boating accident on San Francisco Bay, he felt a sudden thump on his left ankle. Looking up from his newspaper, he found a soiled tennis ball at his feet.
As Gabe reached down for the ball, the same feisty little Jack Russell terrier that had passed him earlier on the jogging trail ran up to him, barking and growling. The dog tried to grab the slobbery tennis ball from Gabe’s hand. He held the ball out towards the dog then tossed it across the grass. The dog retrieved the ball, dropping it at his feet.
Gabe laughed. He held the ball out then jerked it away, teasing the dog.
“Hey! That’s my ball!” A young boy approached.
Gabe stared at the boy, realizing it was the same boy who ran past him earlier on the jogging trail and caused the feeling of déjà vu. The boy had sandy blond hair, blue eyes, and a missing front tooth. He looked to be about five or six years old.
The boy held out his hand and Gabe threw him the ball.
“Thanks,” said the boy then he turned and threw the ball for his dog. But the dog ignored him. Instead, the dog jumped up on the park bench beside Gabe. The boy watched, incredulous as his dog licked the old man’s fingers.
“What’s his name?” Gabe asked.
Gabe smiled at the boy. Something about him seemed auspicious and familiar. Gabe studied the boy’s inquisitive blue eyes.
“What’s your name?” Gabe asked.
The boy shoved his hands in his pockets. “Ben.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Ben. I’m Gabe.”
Ben sat down on the bench beside Gabe. “I think your name is Pinky.”
Gabe stiffened. His smile vanished. “Excuse me?”
“Your name is Pinky, isn’t it?”
Gabe stared at the boy.
“And you’re a schoolteacher.”
Gabe frowned. “Do I know you?”
Ben shrugged then helped himself to a fistful of Gabe’s peanuts. “These are great.”
Gabe held out the bag and Ben took another handful of peanuts.
“All we need now is a root beer. Right, Pinky?”
Gabe’s face went ashen. His lower lip trembled slightly. At that moment the prickly sensation returned to the back of his neck. “How old are you?” Gabe asked.
Ben held up six fingers.
Gabe nodded. “You live nearby?”
“On Haight Street. Four blocks that way.” Ben smiled, reaching for the peanuts. Gabe proffered the bag and Ben took it.
“What about you?” Ben asked. “You live nearby?”
“Forty-Six Kittridge Terrace. Over by the USF campus.” Gabe loosened his tie, wondering how this little boy could know such intimate details about him. Gabe had taught history at the University of San Francisco for over forty years. But no one other than Gabe’s late wife, Estelle, ever called him Pinky. And she loved to put peanuts in her root beer.
Gabe’s thoughts raced. Estelle died six years ago. Ben was six years old. Estelle always believed in reincarnation. Could it be that Ben was actually the reincarnation of his dead wife? Up until now, Gabe had been ambivalent about the theory of reincarnation but nothing in his seventy-seven years of life had prepared him for this.
Ben began to hum softly. He picked up his dog and cradled it in his arms.
Gabe watched the boy as he hummed Amazing Grace to his dog, thinking of how Estelle used to sing that hymn while she washed the dishes.
“Ben!” shouted a woman as she approached. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”
Ben jumped up clutching Jack in one hand and the peanuts in the other. “Mom, this is Pinky. He’s my friend.”
Gabe stood up. He took off his cap and reached out to shake the woman’s hand. “Gabe Schoenbaum. Nice to meet you.”
She eyed him without shaking his hand then turned to Ben. “It’s time to go, young man.” She bent down and fastened a leash to Jack’s collar.
“But Mom. We just got here. And you said I could have an ice cream bar.”
Gabe reached in his pocket and fished out some quarters then he asked Ben’s mother, “Is it all right if I buy the boy a Heath Bar?”
“A Heath Bar!” Ben jumped up and down. “How’d you know that’s my favorite?”
“Lucky guess,” Gabe said.
“No,” she said. “It’s almost lunch time.”
Ben stomped his foot. “But you promised!”
“Oh, all right.” His mother relented, throwing her hands.
Gabe pulled some dollar bills from his pocket. “Would you like one too?” he asked Ben’s mother.
“She likes fat-free frozen yogurt instead of Heath Bars,” said Ben, holding out his hand.
Gabe gave him a $10 bill. “Buy me one too,” he said to the boy.
“You bet,” Ben said, taking the money from Gabe. “Thanks.”
Gabe watched the boy run across the park to the concession stand, stroking his beard. Then he turned to Ben’s mother and said, “This may sound a bit strange but I believe Ben is the reincarnation of my late wife, Estelle.”
She laughed. “You must be joking.”
“I assure you, Madame, I’m not joking.”
Gabe pulled out his wallet. He gave her a business card and said, “I’m a retired professor of history. University of San Francisco. My wife, Estelle, passed on six years ago. We were married for fifty-one years.”
Gabe took several photos from his wallet and offered them to her. She hesitated, and then took them from him, looking at them one by one.
“We have three children and five grandchildren who all live nearby. Thus, I am not a senile, lonely old widower.”
She glared at him. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because in a span of less than five minutes after making Ben’s acquaintance just now, he told me I was a schoolteacher, he called me Pinky – which was a pet name that only Estelle called me, and he loves peanuts and root beer. Estelle ate peanuts and root beer every single day of our marriage, for fifty-one years.”
“What does that prove?” she demanded.
“And on top of that, he was humming Amazing Grace, which is Estelle’s favorite song.”
She shouted, “I taught him that song! He sings it constantly. That doesn’t prove a thing!”
Gabe hesitated then said in a hushed voice, “Estelle passed away at St. Mary’s Hospital. August 3, 2015.”
She frowned. “St. Mary’s?”
“Yes.” Gabe reached for his photos, and she returned them to him. “And where was Ben born?”
She watched Gabe as he placed the photos back in his wallet then she said, “St. Mary’s. August 3, 2015.”
Gabe sat down slowly on the park bench and put his hat back on. “There’s no other explanation for it. I mean how else could he have known that my nickname was Pinky?”
She sat down on the bench next to Gabe. He pulled another photo from his wallet and held it up for her to see. It was a picture of Estelle, holding a Chihuahua.
“This was taken two months before she passed on.”
She smiled as she looked at the photograph.
“They were inseparable. Pedro and her.”
She glanced up at Gabe. “Pedro?”
Gabe put the photo back in his wallet. “Yes, Pedro. They adored each other.”
She turned to Gabe and said, “Ben’s first stuffed animal was a white rabbit. He named it Pedro. He still sleeps with it.”
She stared off toward the corner at the concession stand, watching as Ben stood in line to buy his ice cream.
“Look,” said Gabe. “He’ll be back any moment. I wanted to say this to you without him hearing it. There’s no need to frighten him.”
She said, “I don’t understand what you expect me to do.”
“Perhaps I can treat you to lunch?” Gabe offered.
“I’m not hungry. And neither is Ben.”
“Won’t you just allow us the chance to get to know one another?”
She stared at her feet.
Gabe said, “Suppose by some wild twist of fate that I should die tomorrow then be born as a little girl whose parents live on Haight Street. And suppose my parents might take me to Golden Gate Park in my stroller at noon on Saturday. Ben could be playing ball with Jack ten feet in front of me and I’d not even know it. Then twenty years later we might both sit down on this very same park bench and maybe we’d both get a peculiar feeling that we’re not exactly strangers.”
She shook her head. “If Ben’s father knew I was sitting here listening to this, he wouldn’t like it one bit.”
“I understand,” Gabe said. “But I assure you the last thing I want to do is hurt your son.”
She checked her watch. “We really do have to go.” She stood up and started to walk away, but she stopped short and turned back to Gabe. “Maybe we’ll be back next Saturday.”
Gabe stood up, clutching his cane for support. “You will?”
She nodded. “Eleven o’clock.”
Gabe tipped his hat. “Thank you.”
She smiled at him then headed across the park towards Ben and the concession stand.
Gabe watched as Ben and his mother stood there for a moment, while Ben ate his ice cream bar before they turned and walked away.
Gabe sat on the bench for more than an hour before he got up and made his way back to Kittridge Terrace, to his home where Pedro was waiting for him.
Pedro’s tail thumped against Gabe’s leg as he struggled with the can opener. Arthritis made it difficult for Gabe to turn the can opener, but he managed it, slowly, until he opened the can of Alpo.
Gabe spooned the food into Pedro’s ceramic dish while the dog watched, licking his chops. He set the bowl on the floor in front of Pedro and the dog gobbled the food, his tail wagging even faster as he ate.
“Have I got news for you!” Gabe said to the dog. “How would you like to see Mom again?”
Pedro ignored Gabe and kept eating.
Gabe took off his cap and hung it on the coat rack by the kitchen door. He rubbed his forehead and tried to decide where to begin. Gabe’s first thought was to phone the university and speak to someone in the Religious Studies Department, but because it was Saturday, he decided the quickest route to the answers he sought would be the campus library.
He checked his watch; four more hours until the library closed. Gabe grabbed his cap and headed outside. It was just a few blocks to the library. The cool breeze felt invigorating as he pondered what exactly he needed to research.
As Gabe made his way across the USF campus, he realized that he had two questions. One was about choosing his gender in his next incarnation. The other was about choosing his parents. Preoccupied with his thoughts, Gabe was oblivious to the fire truck screaming past as well as both of the ambulances that sped past him, lights flashing and sirens blaring.
He was absorbed in thoughts of Estelle— how they first met, on campus at Berkeley. He then thought of their first date, their paddleboat ride on the lake at Golden Gate Park. It was weeks before Estelle let him kiss her good night, but Gabe remembered that first kiss, on the steps of her parent’s Victorian home in the San Francisco neighborhood known as Nob Hill. Warmed by this memory, he quickened his step.
As Gabe neared the library, he tried to collect his thoughts. How would he approach this if he were writing a research paper? Where would he start? It was such a daunting subject, and so many different belief systems. Should he start with Buddhist beliefs? Or with Tantric or Vedantic Hinduism?
Gabe made his way up the steps then went directly to the reference desk and addressed the librarian. “Excuse me. Could you help me find some books on reincarnation?”
The librarian pushed her glasses back up on her nose and said, “What exactly are you looking for?”
Gabe smiled. “I want to know if it’s possible to choose one’s gender in the next incarnation. And I want to know what we can do in the present incarnation to ensure that we find our loved ones again in our next incarnation.”
“Let’s see,” she said, tucking her gray hair behind her ears. “For starters, I recommend the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.” She stepped out from behind her desk. “Follow me.”
She led Gabe past rows and rows of bookshelves until she found the book she was looking for and pulled it from the shelf. “This should serve as a good starting point.”
“Thank you,” Gabe said. “I appreciate your help.”
Gabe skimmed the index until he came across Chapter 6. “Evolution, Karma, and Rebirth,” he read aloud. “Exactly what I want.”
Gabe tucked the book under his arm and headed to the check-out desk. As he left the library, he realized how hungry he felt so he walked over to the little Tibetan restaurant on Geary between Baker and Lyon. The place was tiny, but the food was excellent and cheap. Gabe stepped inside and immediately his senses warmed to the aroma of spicy vegetables and steamed rice. There were only three tables in the little restaurant, so he sat down at the table by the window.
“May I help you sir?” asked the waiter as he approached.
“Yes. I’d like a large bowl of your vegetable soup and green tea.”
“Right away, sir.” The waiter hurried off to the kitchen.
Gabe pulled out his book and skimmed through chapter six. He took his pen from his pocket and copied the following text onto a paper napkin:
“The kind of birth we will have in the next life
is determined, then, by the nature of our actions
in this one. And it is important never to forget
that the effect of our actions depends entirely
upon the intention or motivation behind them,
and not upon their scale.”
When the waiter returned with Gabe’s soup and green tea, he nodded at the book.
“You are reading a magnificent book.”
“Am I?” Gabe said, tapping the cover. “I’m looking for answers to my questions about reincarnation.”
“What do you want to know?”
Gabe scratched his beard. “I want to know if I can choose whether to return as a male or as a female in my next life.”
“That’s easy,” said the waiter. He extended his hand. “I am Jamyang. I was a monk in a Tibetan monastery for thirty-five years. And the answer to your question is “yes” you can choose the gender of your next incarnation.”
“How?” Gabe asked.
“Through Tantric study and exercise. Raise the energy level and you raise the consciousness.”
“Yes, but where do I start?”
“Look,” said Jamyang, “Think of a stain on a piece of cloth. Can you get rid of the stain?”
Gabe wondered if it was a rhetorical question or if Jamyang actually wanted him to answer.
“Yes,” Gabe said. “You can clean the stain with detergent and stain remover.”
“Exactly,” said Jamyang. “And how much cleaner you want it to be, that’s how much effort it takes.”
“The same is true with reincarnation, with effort and study you can purify negative karma and choose your next life’s gender. You can also choose the location in which you want to be born, as well as choose your parents.”
“Fascinating,” Gabe said. He felt his heartbeat quicken, so excited to hear this. “And what can I do in this life to ensure that I meet my wife again in the next life?”
“You have to work harder to clean the stain. Same answer. Study and effort can purify the stain of negative karma and ignorance.”
“Why do you want to know this?” Jamyang asked him.
Gabe paused a moment before answering then said, “Because I met a little boy whom I believe is the reincarnation of my wife, and I would like to come back as a female in my next life so I can find this little boy and fall in love again. So we can spend our lives together again.”
“How old is this little boy?” Jamyang asked.
“Six years old. Estelle, my wife, passed away six years ago.”
Jamyang nodded, smiling.
“I would like to be born as a girl, to parents in this neighborhood, so I can meet Ben, the little boy I believe is Estelle’s reincarnation. What should I do first?”
“Purify the negative karma.” Jamyang held out his hands, covering his left hand with his right. “Look, negative karma is like a shade that hides the light. And the material of this shade is ignorance, anger, stupidity, jealousy and so forth. You can purify this negative karma by study and right action. Keep reading this book and you will find the answers you seek.”
“Thanks for your advice, Jamyang.”
“Certainly.” Jamyang bowed his head then picked up his tray and returned to the kitchen.
Gabe finished his soup and left a generous tip.
“Goodbye, sir,” called Jamyang to Gabe from the back of the restaurant.
“Goodbye,” Gabe said, “And thanks for your help.”
“My pleasure,” said Jamyang. “Come back soon.”
“I will.” Gabe headed for the door.
It took him a day and a half, but Gabe read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying from cover to cover. He felt invigorated but troubled too. There was so much to do before he passed on, yet so little time. He didn’t want Ben to be too old for him.
When his thoughts turned to Ben, he became apprehensive. What if Ben’s mother didn’t bring him back to the park next Saturday like she said she would?
He knew Ben’s age, and his date of birth. Perhaps he could look up Ben’s parents and their address at St. Mary’s in the medical records department. Gabe’s oldest daughter, Carol, had a friend who worked in St. Mary’s billing department. Perhaps she could get her friend to ask a few questions and help him find Ben’s last name.
But even if he found their names, how would he approach Ben’s parents? If he acted on impulse, he could jeopardize the future. He had to remain poised, and not let his emotions override his intellect. He had to find a way into Ben’s life in order to insure their meeting in his next incarnation. He had to devise a plan.
On Saturday, Gabe was awake at dawn. He took Pedro out for a walk and thought about ways he could link his life with Ben’s. While Pedro sniffed a fire hydrant, Gabe decided it would be a good idea to take Pedro to the park with him so he could see if Ben would remember Estelle’s dog. Gabe was certain Ben was Estelle’s reincarnation. What he wanted now was to win the support of Ben’s mother. If he could do that, the rest would be easy.
Gabe showered and trimmed his beard, then ate a bowl of corn flakes as he watched the morning news. At 10:30, Gabe put Pedro into his red plaid sweater then took the dog with him to Golden Gate Park. He went to the same bench where he first met Ben last Saturday. He held Pedro in his lap and scanned the area but saw no children and no dogs. Gabe stroked Pedro’s head as he waited.
At eleven thirty, a man who looked to Gabe as if he were in his early 30’s approached and held out his hand.
“Gabe Schoenbaum?” said the man.
Gabe looked surprised. “Yes?”
“Hello,” said the man, shaking Gabe’s hand. “Ray Reynolds. Nice to meet you.”
“Do I know you?” Gabe asked.
The man sat down beside Gabe. “Last weekend, my son, Ben, and my wife, Grace, met you here in the park. She told me all about how you believe our son is the reincarnation of your deceased wife. She gave me your card, so I had a friend do a background check. You have a sparkling record. And I must say the coincidence of your wife’s passing and the birth of my son at St. Mary’s makes me wonder.”
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” Gabe asked.
“My wife does,” he said. “I’m not sure what I believe.”
“But you chose not to bring Ben with you today.”
“Yes,” said Ray. “Because I wanted to meet you myself before I let Ben see you again.”
“I assure you I have no intention of hurting the boy or scaring him. That’s why I told your wife about Estelle while Ben was off buying ice cream.”
“I understand,” Ray said.
Gabe continued stroking Pedro.
“My wife wanted to call you last week,” Ray said then he laughed. “She wanted to invite you to dinner at our home.”
“Oh, how nice,” said Gabe.
“She’s at home cooking vegetable lasagna. She wanted me to meet you and then bring you back to our place for lunch. What do you say?”
Gabe grinned. “I’d be delighted to join you.”
“Great, we’re just a couple blocks up on Haight.”
“I should take Pedro home. Jack might not appreciate a strange dog on his turf.”
“Nonsense, “said Ray. “Bring Pedro along.”
“I’m curious to see how Ben reacts to Pedro.” Gabe stood up and reached into his pocket for his wallet. He thumbed through his wallet then pulled out the photo of Estelle with Pedro.
“This was taken in June, two months before she died,” Gabe said, handing the photo to Ray.
“She looks lovely,” said Ray.
“She was lovely. And the kindest person I’ve ever known.”
Ray returned the photo to Gabe then said, “Well. Shall we? Grace is expecting us.”
They walked up Haight Street to Ray’s apartment building. They lived on the second floor, above the flower shop on the corner of Haight and Cole.
“This way,” said Ray. “We’re upstairs.”
They climbed the stairs in silence. When they reached the second floor, Ray held the door open for Gabe to exit the stairwell.
“I can smell the sauce from here,” said Ray. “She’s a marvelous cook.”
Gabe nodded. “It smells delicious.”
Gabe followed Ray down the narrow hallway to the corner apartment. When Ray stopped to take his key out of his pocket, Gabe reached down and picked up Pedro.
Ray opened the door and held it for Gabe to enter. The aroma of lasagna filled the apartment. It was a two-bedroom flat, with a den and a study. Gabe glanced at the baby pictures of Ben on the wall, and the portrait of Ben and his mother over the mantel in the living room.
“Would you care for a glass of wine?” Ray asked.
“No thanks,” said Gabe.
“Grace?” Ray called over his shoulder. “We’re home. Come see who I brought with me.”
Grace came in from the kitchen wearing an apron over her khaki slacks and button-down shirt. She hurried up to Gabe and shook his hand.
“It’s so nice to see you again. All week long, Ben has been talking about his friend Pinky, and that Heath Bar.”
Gabe laughed. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting Ben again too.”
Grace reached out to Pedro and let the dog sniff her hand. “Who’s this?” she asked.
“This is Pedro. My wife’s dog.”
Grace petted Pedro on the head, and the dog licked her hand. She laughed.
“He’s very chic in his little red sweater,” she said.
“Mom?” yelled Ben from down the hall.
“In here,” Grace answered him.
Ben came running down the hallway and into the den. He stopped short when he saw Gabe.
“Pinky!” Ben exclaimed then ran up to Gabe and started to hug him. But as soon as he saw the little Chihuahua in Gabe’s arms he stopped.
“Pedro?” Ben whispered.
“How did you know that dog’s name?” said Ray.
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “It’s just the first word that popped into my head.”
Ben scratched Pedro’s ears. “Can I hold him?”
Gabe held the dog out towards Ben.
“Use both hands,” Ray said to the boy as he took the dog from Gabe.
“I’m so glad you brought Pedro.” Ben laughed as the dog licked his face. “Now I can introduce him to Jack, and they can be best friends.”
Ben whistled for Jack, and the little dog came running, his nails clicking on the hardwood floor as he approached. Ben put Pedro on the floor so he could meet Jack, but Pedro stood up on his hind legs, pawing at Ben’s thigh and wagging his tail with all his might.
Gabe laughed. “I think he likes you.”
“He wants to be held,” said Grace. “Let’s take his sweater off so he won’t get too hot.”
Gabe pulled off Pedro’s sweater, folded it and put it in his jacket pocket.
“Is lunch almost ready?” asked Ray. “I’m starved.”
“It’s ready. We’ll eat in the dining room.”
“Sit by me, Pinky.” Ben led Gabe into the dining room. Gabe sat down beside Ben and listened as he talked about what he learned at school last week.
“We’re learning chunking,” Ben said.
“Chunking?” Gabe put his napkin in his lap.
“Yes. Chunks of letters that go together to make words. My teacher says that’s how we learn to read. But I already know how to read. Dad helps me read the newspaper.”
Grace and Ray entered the dining room and she put Ben’s plate down in front of him.
“May I use chopsticks?” Ben asked.
“Not with Italian food,” Ray said. “Chopsticks are for Asian food.”
“Mom lets me eat with chopsticks all the time. Yesterday I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my chopsticks.”
Grace said, “It’s easier with a fork. Mind your father in front of our guest.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ben said. He scooted his chair closer to Gabe. Ben pinched a piece of pasta from his plate and held it down under the table. Pedro scurried under the table and ate from Ben’s hand. Jack turned up his nose and wandered into the kitchen.
Pedro put his paws up on Ben’s leg as the boy slipped him another bite of lasagna.
“So Gabe, tell us about your family,” said Grace.
“Pinky has three children and five grandchildren,” said Ben.
Gabe stopped chewing and stared at Ben.
“How do you know that?” asked Ray.
“Is that true?” asked Ray.
Gabe nodded then said to Ben, “How did you know that?”
“It’s the first thing I thought of, so I said it out loud.”
“Amazing,” said Ray. “Do you know their names?”
Ben shook his head, suddenly shy. He became self-conscious when he realized that he was doing something out of the ordinary.
“Do your children live nearby?” asked Grace. “I ask because Thanksgiving is next Thursday, and we’d love for you to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, unless you have other plans.”
“I’d be delighted to join you. I’ll have to let my daughter know I won’t be coming to her house for dinner. She lives in Palo Alto.”
“Won’t they wonder why you’re not there with them for the holiday?” asked Ray.
“I’ll just tell them the truth. Carol, she’s my oldest daughter, will understand.”
“Great,” said Grace, “Then it’s settled. You’ll have Thanksgiving dinner with us.”
“Awesome,” said Ben. “After lunch can you come to the Great Valley and draw with me?”
“What’s the Great Valley?” asked Gabe.
“His room. He calls it the Great Valley. A term from one of his dinosaur movies, ‘Land Before Time.’”
Gabe smiled, thinking of how Estelle used to sit for hours in Crissy Field and sketch the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with sailboats on the bay.
“Of course I’ll draw with you in the Great Valley. That sounds like fun.”
“Then I can read to you,” Ben said, stirring the lasagna around on his plate.
“Sounds great,” said Gabe.
“Don’t monopolize our guest, son,” said Ray. “He might be tired after we finish eating.”
“Not at all,” said Gabe. “I’ve looked forward to this all week, and nothing would make me happier than spending time with you. All of you.”
“Wonderful,” said Grace. “I’m so glad we found you.”
“Me too,” said Gabe.
After lunch, Ben took Gabe by the hand and led him down the hallway to his bedroom. Ben took great pride in showing Gabe all of his dinosaurs, model cars, and computer games. But what touched Gabe’s heart the most was when Ben grabbed his sketchbook from his desk, took Gabe by the hand and led him back into the living room to a plush leather recliner.
“Sit here,” said Ben, “And we can draw together.”
Gabe sat in the recliner and Ben climbed up in his lap. They drew dinosaurs, dogs, cats, monkeys and Ben’s parents. After drawing a picture of his mother with her apron on, Ben shuddered.
“What’s wrong?” Gabe asked. “Are you cold?”
“It tickles,” Ben said. “On my neck.”
“Prickly things on the back of your neck?” Gabe asked.
Gabe said, “Remember that feeling. And then remember what you’re doing that made you feel so good.”
“What does it mean?” asked Ben.
“It’s a feeling you get when you are supremely happy. And you should never forget it. Especially if it happens years from now, when you’re all grown up and you meet new people.”
Ben nodded then drew a pair of glasses on the picture of his mother.
After a while, Grace came into the den. “Gabe, would you like some coffee?”
“No thanks,” he said.
“Can I rescue you?”
“Not at all,” Gabe replied. “I’m thoroughly enjoying this. You just can’t imagine the memories it brings back of sitting with Estelle in Crissy Field, watching her draw in her sketchbook.”
“That’s nice,” Grace said, “But I don’t want Ben to wear out his welcome.”
“Not a chance,” said Gabe.
“Who’s Estelle?” Ben asked.
Gabe glanced at Grace.
She said quickly, “Estelle was Gabe’s wife. She died the day you were born.”
“Oh,” said Ben. “So does this make you sad?”
“Not at all,” said Gabe. “It reminds me of some of the happiest times in my life.”
Ben smiled. “Me too.”
Ben handed Gabe his pencil and said, “Draw a duck.”
Gabe chuckled then tried his best to draw a duck. When he finished the sketch, Ben took the pencil from Gabe then climbed down from Gabe’s lap.
“Now we can color it,” Ben said. He ran back to his room to get his crayons.
“I’m sorry I slipped, speaking about Estelle.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Grace said. “Ray didn’t want me to tell Ben about Estelle, but I disagree. I think we should discuss it openly and let Ben ask questions.”
“I don’t want to frighten him,” said Gabe.
“Ben doesn’t scare easily and he’s so inquisitive, I think it will be okay to tell him about Estelle.”
Gabe checked his watch. Two hours had slipped by since they finished lunch.
“Look at the time. I should be going. Does Ben need to take a nap?”
Grace laughed. “He doesn’t nap anymore. Relax. You can stay for dinner if you like.”
“I’d love to, but I really should be getting home. I don’t want to wear out my welcome either.”
“So, you’ll be back on Thursday?” Grace asked.
“You bet,” said Gabe.
“We’ll have dinner at noon.”
“Looking forward to it. Thank you for a lovely afternoon.”
Ben ran back into the room with his crayons. When he saw that Gabe was getting ready to leave, he protested. “But you can’t leave yet. We have to color our pictures.”
Grace touched Ben on the shoulder. “Gabe will be back on Thursday. You can color with him then. Okay?”
Gabe reached down and hugged Ben and the boy started to cry.
“Don’t go,” he said, sniffling.
“I’ll be back soon,” Gabe said. “And we can play in the great valley. And color our pictures. And you can read to me about dinosaurs.”
Ben wiped his eyes. “Can Pedro stay here with us?”
“Ben,” said Grace. “Pedro has to go home with Gabe, but he can come back on Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner. Okay?”
Ben nodded then wrapped his arms around Gabe’s thighs. Gabe bent down and hugged the boy.
On Thanksgiving Day, noon came and went and still there was no sign of Gabe at the Reynolds’ apartment. Grace took Gabe’s business card from Ray’s desk and dialed Gabe’s home number. No answer. She waited an hour and called again. Still no answer.
They ate their Thanksgiving dinner in silence.
“Maybe we should go over to Gabe’s house and see if he’s there. He might be sick,” said Grace.
“He probably couldn’t get out of having Thanksgiving dinner at his daughter’s house, and he just forgot to call us and let us know,” said Ray.
“I think he would call if he were able. We should go to his house and check on him.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Ray. “But I don’t want Ben to go. I’ll stay home with him, and you go check on Gabe.”
“Good idea,” said Grace.
She left after lunch and walked the fifteen blocks to Gabe’s home near the USF campus. When Grace reached Gabe’s home at 46 Kittridge Terrace, she found the front door standing wide open, so she stepped inside.
“Hello?” she called. “Anybody home?”
No one answered, so Grace entered the front living room and found a woman sitting by the fireplace, reading a journal.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Grace Reynolds and I’m looking for Gabe.”
The woman dog-eared her page in the journal and stood up to greet Grace.
“I’m Carol. Gabe’s oldest daughter.” She stepped up to Grace and shook her hand.
“I was just reading about your son, Ben, in my father’s journal. He was so looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with you and Ben.”
“So you know?”
“Know what?” Carol asked.
“That he believes Ben is the reincarnation of your mother.”
Carol put the journal down on the coffee table.
“Would you like some tea?”
“No thank you,” said Grace. “Where is Gabe?”
Carol’s eyes filled with tears.
“He passed away yesterday.”
Grace gasped, and covered her mouth with her hand, then stepped up to Carol and hugged her. “I’m so very sorry,” Grace said.
Carol stood there, limp and numb, letting herself be hugged by a perfect stranger. She pulled away then wiped her eyes. “I tried to call him several times yesterday to see if I could persuade him to come to my home for dinner, but he didn’t answer the phone.”
“What happened?” Grace asked.
“Heart attack. He died in his sleep, early yesterday morning.”
Grace took a deep breath. “Ben will be crushed.”
“I’d like to meet your son someday.”
Grace glanced up at Carol then smiled, realizing that Carol might want to meet the reincarnation of her mother. “Yes, of course.”
“My father wrote extensively in this journal about how he felt whenever he was around Ben. Relaxed, at peace, happy for no apparent reason.”
“If my son truly was your mother in his last incarnation then maybe you’ll feel the same way around him.”
“The funeral is Saturday,” Carol said. “Please come to our home after the service. We all want to meet Ben.”
Carol checked her watch. “I’ve got a house full of people and I must get back. Do come to the service. Sinai Memorial Chapel on Divisidero. Eleven o’clock.”
“Yes, of course,” said Grace as she reached out and took Carol’s hand.
“It’s funny,” Carol said as she clasped Grace’s hand, “Reading his journal, he actually believed he could reincarnate himself as a female, so he and Ben could meet, fall in love, and spend the rest of their lives together.”
“Yes, I know,” said Grace.
Carol picked up the journal and flipped through several pages. “He was worried about the age difference. The longer he lived in this life, the less likely it would be that he and Ben could meet in his next life.
“That makes sense,” said Grace.
“He was in perfect health. It’s almost as if he just willed himself to die, so the age difference wouldn’t be too great.”
“But he was so looking forward to getting to know Ben. You should have seen them together last Saturday. Ben snuggled up in his lap and they spent a couple hours drawing in Ben’s sketchbook. As if they’d known each other all their lives.”
“Mother was an excellent watercolorist,” said Carol. “Does Ben like to paint?”
“He’s very artistic. He’s constantly drawing in his sketchbook.”
“Ask him to bring his sketchbook with him to the service on Saturday so we can see his drawings. And I’ll show him some of my mother’s paintings.”
“Great idea,” said Grace. “One thing, though.”
“What?” said Carol.
Carol sighed. “He’s upstairs underneath Daddy’s bed and he won’t come out. Not even to eat.”
“What a shame,” Grace said. “Maybe we can coax him out together. Ben would love to adopt Pedro if you don’t have room for him.”
“I have two cats and Pedro hates cats. I think that’s a marvelous idea.”
“Great, let’s go upstairs and get him.”
Grace and Carol went upstairs and found Pedro poking his nose out from underneath the hem of the bedspread.
Grace called him and he crept out from under the bed, wagging his tail. Carol took the leash from the bedside table and fastened it to Pedro’s collar.
“That was easy,” said Carol.
“I think he could smell Ben on me,” said Grace. “Pedro didn’t want to leave last Saturday when they came for lunch. He and Ben were inseparable the entire time he was there.”
“That’s good. Then they’ll both be happy,” said Carol. “I’ll get his sweater and his bowls. They’re downstairs in the kitchen.”
“Ben will be overjoyed to see Pedro again.”
Carol stopped short suddenly in the doorway. “You know,” said Carol, “Mom would have liked you immensely.”
Grace smiled. “Thank you,” she said, then picked up Pedro and followed Carol back downstairs to the kitchen.
Carol took a shopping bag from the cabinet beneath the sink and filled it with cans of Alpo and Pedro’s water and food dishes.
“Here,” said Carol, slipping the sweater over the dog’s head then poking his paws through the sleeves. “I miss Daddy already, but I’m so excited to meet Ben.”
“We’ll definitely be there for the service on Saturday,” said Grace. “And thank you so much for letting us adopt Pedro.”
“My pleasure,” said Carol.
On her way back home, Grace stopped at the corner and let Pedro mark his spot on the fire hydrant. A chilled wind blew, and Pedro shivered against the cold. When Pedro was finished, Grace picked him up and carried him back home to her warm apartment, where Ben was waiting with his sketchbook, his crayons, and his dinosaur books. Ben hugged the little dog, overjoyed to see him as Pedro licked his face.
Melissa L. White is a screenwriter, novelist, and short story writer. Her film, “Catch the Light,” premiered in Mumbai, India June 2019. Melissa’s biopic feature script, based on the life of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, was a FINALIST in the 2020 ScreenCraft Screenplay contest. It was also a Finalist in the Chicago Screenplay Awards Contest 2021, and a Finalist in the New York International Screenplay Contest 2021. Melissa is currently in Pre-Production for her latest feature film, “Sunrise Hollywood,” which she will write, produce, and direct. Online Portfolio – Website: http://www.melissalwhite.com