The ping pong ball

California afternoon_photo by Wendy Jo carlton It was the dream the old man had before. The one with the river and the floating that felt so damn good. Beneath his body was a rubber inner tube and his arms and legs hung lazily over the sides of it. On the side of the tube was a cartoon of a smiling big-headed rat twirling a lasso. “The rat must be my guardian angel”, the old man thought. “Could be worse”. Then below his wet backside, in the clear cool water, he spotted, only for a second, amongst the river rocks and fallen branches, a white rosary swaying with the current.

The old man grew up Catholic, and even though he hadn’t stepped inside any kind of church for 50 years, the rosary still snagged him as something precious. It needed a pair of hands. He tried to stand up but his feet couldn’t touch the bottom, and the river was moving too fast for him to swim against backwards. He held his breath deep and stuck his head under the water to get one last blink at it, glowing and yessing at him like a blessed hula. But then the river curved around a bloated bluff of Willow trees, and beyond them was a parking lot full of cars.

The old man climbed up the river bank behind the VFW Hall and tied his raft to the bumper of a white limo. He saw his reflection in the windows, soaking wet and older than he felt, but still with a full head of dark hair to brush back. By the time he crossed the hot parking lot, the steam coming off of him made him look freshly pressed. He felt that the ping pong ball was somewhere inside the building. He could smell hot dogs and buttered popcorn and knew what was going on in there. Bingo. Even though he only loved the Mother Mary part of Catholic, the forgiving, blue-green part of it, he remembered what the nuns had taught him, about the mystery of numbers.

The old man entered the hall. Even with the ceiling clumped full of air conditioners blasting full force, the thickness of the cigarette smoke nearly gagged him. He coughed until his eyes teared up, so when the jittery skittery ping pong ball rolled right in front of him, it looked like he was crying with joy. The players did not look up from their cards because this was the the final game, the jackpot. But the caller did glance over, just in time to see him place the ball in his mouth and sprint out. The old man worked in the Senior Center for going on 6 years. He hadn’t lost a ping pong ball yet. He was happy there was something he was good at. And each time that beautiful, half-blind Sandra Kolenda flicked one out the window, it was another chance to show off his fantastic way with recovery.