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‘The First of October’

Woman on Bench

She’d been sitting alone that day too, the first day of October, when Ben Thompson entered her life.
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The place looked the same, Penny thought. Two wooden benches, back to back on a hill above the campus, with towering oaks and shrubs and sidewalks that converged there like spokes on a wheel.

She sat on one of the shaded benches and looked down at the access road. It was here she had last seen him, trudging away down the hill to catch his bus. But even that memory wasn’t as deeply etched as another: This was where they’d first met.

Penny Wilson closed her eyes, remembering. In her mind she was back in college again, 40 years ago. She’d been sitting alone that day too, the first day of October, when Ben Thompson entered her life.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he had said.

She had looked up from her textbook to see him sitting behind her, on the other bench. Definitely Joe College, with his blue jeans and sunglasses and football jacket.

“I’m Ben.”

“Penny,” she said, over her shoulder. She had already gone back to her book. But she watched him from the corner of her eye.

“Penny,” he repeated to himself, then brightened. “I must be psychotic.”

“You mean psychic. At least I hope you do.”

“Right. I must be psychic.”

“I doubt it,” she said.

He just grinned. “What’re you reading?” He took off his sunglasses and leaned over the back of his bench to look.

“Organic chemistry.”

“Whoa. What are you, pre-med? Biology?”

She smiled and held up the book. “Just kidding. It’s English lit.”

Ben nodded, and laughed. It was a good laugh, she thought. A happy laugh. They sat there a while in the sunlight, feeling awkward but reckless in a way that only young people can feel.

Suddenly he said, “How about a movie, sometime?”

She studied him a moment. His smile was still in place, dimples an inch deep. He reminded her of a very young Burt Reynolds. Hadn’t he been a football player too?

“When?” she asked.

“Well…I don’t know. Tonight, maybe?”

“I’m studying tonight.”

Penny pretended to go back to her reading. Above their heads, yellow and orange oak leaves rattled in the wind. The sun disappeared behind a cloud and came out again, seemingly brighter than before.

“Did you happen to see the ball game Saturday?” he said. “No, let me guess—you were studying.”

She made a face. “I know you scored a touchdown, if that’s what you’re asking.”

His eyebrows went up. “How’d you know that?”

“My roommate.”

“I like her already. What else did she tell you?”

Penny looked up from her book. “She said it won the game.”

He seemed delighted at that, and Penny found herself smiling too.

After a pause she added, “I’m not planning to study at lunch.”

He looked puzzled.

“It’s 11:30,” she said, pointing to her watch. “That was my way of asking if you’d like to eat with me.”

Another grin. “You bet.” He started to rise to his feet, then winced.

“What is it?”

“I hope you’re not in a big hurry,” he said, blushing.

She gathered her books, came around the back of the bench, and saw the bandaged ankle. And the wooden crutch. With her help, Ben tucked the crutch under his arm and maneuvered himself out of his seat.

“I’m moving a little slow, lately,” he said. She looped his other arm over her shoulder, and they limped down the hill toward the university coffee shop.

“Did they tell you,” she asked, “what that touchdown was going to cost you?”

He hugged her closer. “Maybe it was worth it.”

Penny could still remember his smile as he said that, and the little thrill she had felt. She also remembered the following six months—the best of her life—and then, finally, that spring day when he was called to active duty, and their parting kiss, on this very hill. There had been parting promises, too—she to write to him in Vietnam, he to come back to her afterward. But life got in the way of their plans. Within a year Penny was engaged to someone else. After the wedding she and Terrell Wilson moved upstate, where she finished college and entered law school.

The marriage was a disaster. Six years later she was single again, and starting her own practice. A year after that, a mutual friend said she’d heard Ben Thompson had married too, after coming home a war hero, and was living somewhere out west. He never returned to Bridgeton.

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