Rosie, California

by Dan Heller

George gazed at the poster on the kiosk. "Make the Wright Choice. Choose Life and Family Values. Vote for Ralph Wright." This was the first time he'd had a chance to study Ralph's face, uninterrupted. He stared at it, resigned to the fact that it existed and there was nothing he could do about it now. For so long he'd thought Ralph would fade away, but it never happened. He wasn't the first to challenge George in an election; there had been many worthy opponents before him. No, there was something else, something almost offensive, in a way, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. And he knew it wasn't just Ralph, per se, or what he represented. Oh sure, he strongly disapproved of Ralph's politics, but that wasn't it either. Somehow, the mere thought of Ralph actually winning the election seemed wrong. He shook his head to break free from the thought. "Nonsense," he said to himself. "People aren't that stupid."

His attention was broken by his notice of a small girl stooped down under the poster of Ralph Wright. Her big brown eyes looked up at him as she gave an enthusiastic, "Hi!" Her blond curly hair was tossed around her shoulders and face, looking remarkably similar to the little doll she clutched with both hands. She mustn't have been more than nine or ten, George thought to himself. He instinctively scrambled in his pocket for change and grabbed whatever he managed to latch onto. As he placed the coins in her hand, the meeting of their eyes jolted him. He slowed his movements and stooped down to meet her eye to eye. A grin snuck onto his face, giving it a shape he hadn't felt for a long time. Taken by her innocence, he felt a purity that was immune and indifferent to the ominous image of Ralph Wright in the poster inches above her head.

"Well, hello there! It's so nice to see a sweet, innocent face after…that." He looked up at the poster briefly. "Now you be sure to stay clear of bad people, Ok? Is your mommy around? You should go home so she knows where you are." He looked at his watch and, noticing he was late, quickly trotted along towards City Hall. On his way, he let the residual feeling of peace and warmth from her presence consume him.

He approached the steps of City Hall like it was his second home, but the small building had grown over the years while he wasn't looking. The usual band of reporters were waiting for him, but this was an election debate, and the new television station had a small camera crew as well. He was prepared for that, but still hadn't had the experience of presenting himself in the new media. When they all noticed him, he was swarmed and a microphone was jabbed in his face. "Mr. Foster! George! How do you think you'll do against Ralph Wright in today's debate?"

George kicked into auto-pilot and presented his well-practiced, award-winning political smile, hiding the fear and anger he felt towards Ralph. "Frank, we've all seen the job Ralph's done getting people behind him. But his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric doesn't make him any more challenging than any other candidate. The people are well aware of his agenda and are too smart to fall for it." He winked into the camera as he walked off, just to be sure no one could see what was really behind his eyes.

Hundreds of people were waiting inside, some waving posters of George Foster and others of Ralph Wright. The great hall doors flew open as the afternoon sun beamed through the stained glass windows at the top of the cathedral-shaped ceilings. To George, God himself was looking in to preside over the great fight between good and evil. The two men met in the middle of the stage, shook hands, smiled for the cameras and, with right hands still clenched, their left hands flailed wildly at the crowds and towards the cameras. Cheers and Jeers echoed so loudly, the overflow crowd outside could hear, even without the aid of the external speakers.

The moderator, standing at the podium like the emcee for a game show, began speaking into the air, to no one in particular. "Gentlemen, I welcome both of you to the debate that may determine which of you will be our next Mayor!" The crowd cheered again, but the moderator's downward motioning hands quickly quieted them. As the introductory announcements were made, George went though his usual mental exercises to calm himself, drawing strength from his strong convictions and the belief that his record alone would speak for itself. The debate, he hoped, would be unnecessary: the people knew and trusted him, and the short-lived popularity of Ralph Wright should be but a mere blip in the polling data. He breathed deeply at the notion of his city feeling proud again, not lost in the confusing nonsense from Ralph's speeches.

The moderator recited the questions written on the cue cards held by the man in jeans standing behind the cameras. His tone seemed indifferent to whether there was substance to the questions or the answers. "Briefly describe what you see as the most important issues facing San Bolina today, and the steps you will take to address them. We will begin with you, Ralph."

Ralph played right into the giddiness of the crowd. He was more comfortable with the media's attention to the elections and politics in general than George was. In fact, Ralph thrived on it, enjoying the bright lights, the fast action, and the cheering crowds, like that of an evangelist on a late-night TV show. His perfectly combed brown hair parted on the side and glaring blue eyes reminded George once again that his challenger had more going for him than the others before him. Ralph had people's emotional attention and his disarming appearance and matter-of-fact tone of voice could fool many an unsuspecting voter. His little-boy smile emitted a glitter, a sparkle from his perfect, white teeth. Even George himself was taken with Ralph's appearance. So much so, in fact, that he had missed most of Ralph's response to the question. He regained his attention just as Ralph was finishing.

"…lost character the city once had," Ralph continued. "I plan on returning us to a time of low crime rates, high employment, a revenue stream that will put us in the black, and a strong school system where kids don't carry guns or take drugs. Unlike Mr. Foster's position of ignoring these problems, my new administration will improve this city by cutting taxes, disposing of that crisis center that attracts drug dealers and influences our children, dispense with the transients who've infected our great city, and bring family values back to our daily lives!"

The cheering echoed through the hall so loudly that George had to laugh. At that junk?, he thought to himself, trying to hold back the anger. He put on an annoyed grimace on his face and waved his right hand in front of his face several times, as if to swat away Ralph's words like a bothersome gnat. He wanted to change the tone of the debate to the level he felt the audience should hear. Sincerity. Honesty. Integrity. This was serious business, running this town, so the glitter needed to be put away now, the media circus ignored. He employed the same soothing tone and articulate expressions from a more experienced man. George's confidence radiated as he placed both hands firmly on the front corners of his podium when he spoke.

"Ralph, it's difficult to defend against abstract campaign promises where your platform is based on hypothetical and unsubstantiated economic theories. What's more, the emotional fears you've instilled in people will eventually fade, along with your idealism, thinly veiled as family values. I take pride in reminding the people of what I've done for them as their Mayor. When Sheila and I moved here close to ten years ago, this was a small, but growing and vibrant town. A nice boardwalk on the ocean's beach, a thriving community, and good people. Employment rates are fine on an annualized basis and our economy remains in good order, accounting for its seasonality. Yet, you have tapped into people's fears about things that simply aren't threatening us. Drugs, for example. Statistically, we're no worse off than any other time in our own history, and much better than any other county in the state. But your fear tactics that crime and drugs could be problem are only supported by frightening statements. No facts. Without substantiation, your "truths" simply have no merit. You've tempted people with financial incentives through tax cuts, but those would undermine the social programs and redevelopment plans we've had for downtown and the parks. I'm sorry, but your simple-minded solutions and emotionally-charged speeches only succeed in moving attention away from the more important, yet complex issues that face us: expanding our port authority, increasing our tourism revenue, the expansion of the community college…"

As George spoke, the audience appeared fidgety and restless. He noticed, but it didn't bother him because he also noticed the reporters fervently writing down everything he said. The analysts will comment on his speech and the newspapers and TV reports will educate and inform the people, he thought. When he was done, the audience spontaneously made obliging noises as if an "Applause" light were above their heads, but their lack of sincerity was unclear. He looked at Sheila, who was sitting in the front row, along side the city council members, who were all clapping more ferociously than anyone else. Her bee-hive hairdo that was held together by a small pin in the back had started to slip from the vibrations of her applause. Their eyes met, and he laughed lightly at her, but she was oblivious to it - she just thought he was thrilled to see her. And he was.

As the minutes whizzed by, all the cameras were synchronized in their bouncing between the moderator and the candidates like a televised tennis match. George's anxiety from Ralph's comments continued to dig deeper and deeper into George's sensibilities: it was no longer Ralph's over-simplification of issues, but his pronouncements that the solutions were equally simple. This is where George recognized Ralph's greatest strengths: he is incredibly articulate and knows how to couch his agenda into sweet-sounding promises that make it easier for the general public to digest. But it's not that simple. It never is. Yet, somehow, Ralph seemed to convince them that it is. George's previous opponents had always argued the "real issues" and everyone was informed enough that one didn't seem legitimate if they tried to make broad, sweeping statements without even trying to substantiate them. But Ralph could - to an art. And that's when it struck George what's been eating at him so badly: could it be that people don't understand Ralph's oversimplifications? Could it be that they are convinced by his nonsensical rhetoric? They liked issues they can understand, they liked controversy and arguments, and hungered for the media circus. "Importance" was irrelevant to them, if they could even gauge it.

George quickly looked around the room to look for clues on his new theory, and they weren't hard to find. He noticed the reactions from various audience members, and horror swelled in his mind as his eyes darted from face to face. He took particular notice to an old woman, glaring up at Ralph as though he were a movie star. His view of her seemed to be in slow motion as her smile and clapping hands hung in anticipation of Ralph's every word.. He could hear her individual claps when she put her hands together, and they reverberated in his head. Each non-answer Ralph delivered stabbed George in the gut, and the woman's enthusiasm twisted the knife. This awful man was taking advantage of his people, leading them astray into a disastrous future, with the Bible in one hand and a pocket book in the other. His anger built up further, as the old lady continued to clap, gazing mindlessly and fanatically at Ralph Wright. She is simple and naïve - she knows not the complexity of politics and how easy it is to be swayed by emotionally-charged language that effectively means nothing. How unethical it is for Ralph to manipulate the people that George had led for so many years. He was about to explode!

The new revelation bothered George so much for the rest of the debate that he was sure he didn't perform very well. After the final question was answered, each of them were swept away by the crowd, lead by the TV crew. Once outside, the press corps surrounded them. George noticed the same old woman approaching him with that same glassy-eyed gaze on her face. He felt vindicated somehow, since she was looking at him now! He opened his arms as though to greet a disciple, returning from a crusade, but she passed right by him, directly into Ralph Wright's arms. She spoke enthusiastically to him, touching his face as if it were that of Jesus himself. As Ralph cradled her and spoke with a soft voice and a smile plastered on his face, he glanced up at George and winked at him, knowing he was stealing a vote.

George felt weak. To him, she wasn't simply a vote. It was the principle of it. Suddenly, a sharp pain. He quickly grabbed his left forearm and took a single, decisive step towards both of them. He would have taken another, determined to tear her away from Ralph's arms, but he couldn't. He saw a bright light, then stumbled. His body was numb. The crowd hushed and fell silent as he dropped to the ground. A circle formed immediately around him until Sheila was able to jump on top of him as if he had been shot. She screamed for an ambulance, and though it seemed time had passed, one was there within moments. The paramedics put George on a stretcher and placed him in the vehicle as Sheila got in and sat next to him, crying his name repeatedly.

George awoke in the hospital to find a team of doctors surrounding him. Of course, Sheila was there, too, along with other staff members hanging around the back of the room. He knew the lecture he was going to receive: diet, exercise, the whole nine yards. Fortunately, it was just a mild stroke; Transient Ischemic Attacks they called it - but it was all the same to him. There was no noticeable permanent damage, so far as they could tell. Memory loss was what they were looking for. Once informed of the critical news, and the health advice, he stopped listening to everyone. His mind had moved inward about his new awareness about his people and their reactions to Ralph Wright.

The next afternoon, he sat at the dining room table with a look of preoccupation on his face. The white box containing the new blue running suit that Sheila had gotten him was opened, the light blue ribbon dangling from the corner where the Scotch tape had kept it from falling off. He tapped his fingers on the table next to the box, never once looking at it since he opened it. The only thing he could think about was how the debate went, but he didn't want to bring it up so it wouldn't upset him more.

Sheila walked into the room and stood at the doorway for a moment to assess his mood. He looked up at her, and noticed her hairdo had been repaired. She then walked further into the room looking at the floor as she walked and spoke. "People thought you were your typical, rational, moderate self. But they seemed to be taken by Ralph." She then looked directly at him and folded her arms and spoke with the tone of a debate teacher lecturing a student. "It's going to be a tough race. I think you'll need to dig into him a little more, dear. I don't think you're going to win this one strictly on your own merits."

George looked at her in amazement: this isn't exactly what you'd say to someone who's had a stroke due to stress from an intense political campaign. Why is she suddenly so concerned about this election that she seems to be discarding compassion? While Sheila's always been a major driving influence behind George's rigorous campaigns, she never seemed to show concern to this degree. She would almost always push him just a little harder in each election. But after he'd win each one, he felt she did the right thing, and they'd go back to the happy, normal life he was used to. But, this was different. She seemed distant.

He didn't want to talk about the debate at all. He needed compassion. He looked at the suit and held up a swatch of cloth. "I don't feel like exercising," he said like a child who didn't want to practice his piano lessons.

She sensed his demeanor and lightened up a little. "Don't worry; I'll be right here waiting for you when you're done. Besides, you know you have to do it. Didn't you hear what the doctor said today?" She then walked towards the kitchen, no longer facing him, and added, "After you get back, we'll discuss your next steps for your campaign against Ralph."

George didn't reply, he just raised his eyebrows and looked down - the look he gives when he isn't ready to fight over an issue. Besides, going outside seemed like as good an escape as any, so he got into the suit and headed out the door. The loose-fitting suit felt very comfortable and allowed him to move more liberally. He walked down the path behind the house, his pace ever so slight, not moving much faster than a walk. He'd always known the path to exist here, but aside from a few short walks with Sheila years ago, he'd never really gone that far. As he passed by the river on the left, his mind was focused on the activity itself, counting his steps, then every other one. As he brushed by the vegetation, which had grown much thicker this far out, he lost count completely and his mind began to wander.

In a moment's time, it was ten years ago when he first moved to San Bolina as an ambitious political consultant who was hired by the late councilman Robert McHenry to win the most famous upset election in the town's history. McHenry was always revered as the man of honor and esteem, and George learned everything from him. Following in McHenry's footsteps, George became known for his fairness of issues, his moderate positions, and the fact that he never compromised the integrity of the people or his opponents. He always gained bipartisan support from the council and interest groups, the press treated him with dignity, and the people loved him.

His reminiscing was interrupted by a scenery change: there was a small courtyard tiled with red bricks ahead. Directly in the middle was a redwood bench that had aged from the weather. Weeds and moss had grown between and over the bricks, and thick shrubbery had surrounded the area. The path went no further, and there was nowhere else to go because of the trees. He sat on the bench and closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on breathing deeply. He was relaxed for the first time in quite a while, and he wanted to bathe in the feeling, drifting in and out of one thought after another, some reminiscent, others merely tranquil. He felt peaceful, yet, still unsettled. The little girl he ran into in the city came to mind. So cute. So innocent. She reminded him of happier times when he was little, running through the park while the family was picnicking. What a nice feeling that was.

Time had passed, and when he returned home, Sheila was already upstairs in bed, reading the newspaper. Noticing he entered the room, she folded it back and looked at him over the top rim of her reading glasses. "Well. You've been gone a long time. How do you feel?"

George approached the bed and leaned on the post to take his shoes off one at a time. "It was great. I really liked it a lot." He began to take his pants off, and as he stooped to grab the bottom of the pant leg, he felt a sharp pain in his thigh. "Ouch. Well, I guess I really won't be rushing into this, will I?" He smiled. "It's not bad. I'm just sore."

Sheila made an acknowledging grunt, but her attention was buried in the op-ed section of the newspaper. George took a shower, and later returned to the bedroom, stopping at the doorway to make eye contact with his wife for a hint about what was to be discussed next. Sheila had put the paper away, but was still sitting up in bed with her bedside light still on, picking at her front teeth with one of her long, red fingernails. "Are you ready to discuss your next steps with Ralph now?"

His head fell straight back in resignation, as he stumbled towards the bed. "The political climate here is really getting out of hand. There's more politicking than intellectual debate on issues. What's this world coming to if the people who run for office are more concerned about obtaining power and not about what's ultimately good for the people?"

Sheila stopped picking her teeth. "Dear, nothing's changed. People were always like this. Remember Howard Miller five years ago?"

George was now lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. "That was different. The rules have changed. Today, political views, social policies and everything else don't seem to be as important as an emotionally-charged speech or the glimmer in an eye. Ralph is dangerous. I just know it. He must be stopped before the people do something they'll regret."

Sheila sighed, "As long as you're willing to play the game, you can win. The moment you stop, the game's over. You die." At that, she leaned over to the light on her side of the bed and turn it out. In the dark she added, "You better think of a plan for defeating him sooner or later."

George slept very lightly that night.

The long weekend came at the right time. George got some more walking in, and his pace quickened a little each time. He almost felt he was jogging now. Each trip, he'd stop at the redwood bench and sit. It was turning into his own personal place for solitude, his sanctuary, and he cherished it. He imagined what it might have been like when it was originally built, a marching band celebrating its grand opening, and women in wide dresses walking with white umbrellas around a gazebo. He enjoyed his new place so much, he even went twice on Sunday: once in the morning, and again in the afternoon after Sheila and he had it out again on the Ralph Wright issue.

On Tuesday, the first day he'd been in public since the debate, George had a noon meeting with Doreen at the Max's Café. Doreen was an old friend who also happened to run the clinic down by the wharf. The lunch crowd was in, eating and having a few drinks, but most people's attention was on the TV mounted above the cash register in the corner. Two of the local news commentators were discussing the debate and, of course, "Mr. Foster's recent health concerns." George and Doreen tried not to pay attention, keeping to themselves. She was telling him about the recent events at the clinic, addressing his concerns about the "drug problem" that Ralph's organization was alleging.

George was genuinely concerned. "You know, some people want to close that place down. They say it attracts the people that are bringing problems to town. That's putting pressure on the city council."

"Oh, yeah… and then you know what happens? All those kids are out on the street and look what will happen to crime rates, not to mention the street beggars that everyone's already complaining about. There's no more of a problem today than there was five years ago when I started working there."

The discussion didn't get far before the crowd howled a cheer towards the TV set. George and Doreen looked over to see what was going on, and the voice on the TV was talking over a video clip from the debates. "…and while George Foster had a pretty solid lead some weeks ago, Ralph Wright has been gaining an ever-growing hold on the middle-income families as he continues to pronounce his platform of lower taxes, reduction in public services that he calls 'hand-outs' and a return to family values. And when George Foster collapsed on the street after the debate, there's been speculation about his ability to govern."

One by one, the faces in the café turned towards George. He noticed what was developing and figured he better put the fire out before it spread. He stood and assumed the defensive posture of an employee having to explain why he was late for work. "Folks, I had a mild stroke, not a heart attack. I'm just fine. You can't believe every little rumor that gets out. I am still capable of running this town, the same town you all grew up in and have thrived in."

A man spoke up, "It's not the same town, George. Nancy was caught smoking pot with those kids down at the wharf. What are you going to do about that?"

George leaned forward so far he had to put his hands on the table to keep himself up, "The world is changing, Tom, but the more it changes, the more it stays the same. Didn't you used to upset your parents when you went out and drank with your friends at the wharf? And you're doing fine, now, right? Nancy's still going to college next year, isn't she? She's an 'A' student, you once told me. Your daughter is just fine! It's the same type of thing that you grew up with, only the circumstances are different." George scanned the crowd, assessing the effectiveness of his comments. He continued with more conviction, which put a more pained expression on his face. "Folks, I'd love to return to a time and place when these problems weren't so visible, or didn't exist at all…"

George stunned himself with his own comment: "a time when these problems didn't exist." Wasn't that great!? Not the social or economic problems - those, he was convinced, hadn't changed. But this new era of political posturing was incredulous. He finished his sentence slowly and unconvincingly, "but… it's… not… that… simple…"

Some in the café held their heads low, mostly because they felt badly for George: he was once an inspirational figure to them, but is no longer. Everyone turned back to the TV, and Doreen noticed how George's expression changed to desperation. His eyebrows were cocked up, his smile forced, his whole body leaning forward towards the group in hopes of gaining their confidence. She placed her hand on the lower part of his back, signaling him to return to his seat. As he did, his face remained frozen in its expression as he said very quietly, "I've lost them."

The discussion Doreen and George started were not going to finish. Instead, they said their farewells and left the café separately. On his way out, George almost tripped over the little blond girl from the kiosk. He glanced at her sitting in the sidewalk near the door to the café, and he was swept with a warm feeling that instantly remedied his despair.

"Hello again, George," she said with the softest voice. His attention was piqued because she called him by his name. She must have picked it up from talk in the streets.

"Well, hello, sweetheart!" He said obligingly, but authentically. He stooped down to talk to her, but looked at his watch and exclaimed, "Damn, I'm late." Embarrassed at his language in front of the little girl, he instinctively held his hand over his mouth and his eyes bulged out widely, giving her reason to giggle. The two eyed each other with affection, and the smile on his face was the most genuine he'd felt in a long time. So although he enjoyed the brief warmth he felt by her presence, he had to go and softly told her so. He slowly backed away and waved goodbye with just his fingertips. After a few steps, he quickened his pace towards home. She didn't want him to leave and set off to follow him, but he was too quick for her.

After he got home, he quickly got into his sweat suit and dashed down the stairs. Sheila seemed surprised to see him, but didn't try to slow him down. "I'll have dinner ready for you when you get back! Then we'll finally have a chance to talk about how you can respond to Ralph's latest comments on today's news."

He smiled and nodded, but was too anxious to say anything, especially anything that might prompt her to deliver another painful comment about his ineptitude or Ralph's dangerously close poll ratings. He was out the door and on the path in moments. He started out as usual, counting his steps, then every other step as he quickened his pace, anxious to purge himself of the day's events, except for the little girl.

Today's run included fantasies that involved a new debate with Ralph Wright. The crowd was cheering as George argued down Ralph at every point. "The people have seen the light, as you are so fond of saying. They have seen through your shroud and the cloak of deceit that you've used to hide the true nature of your agenda. You don't care about them, you just want to control them, to restrict their lives, their movements and their beliefs. Well, we won't have it!" The crowd and cheered louder than ever. George's pace quickened as a smile emerged on his face. He jogged more quickly still as his eyes fixed firmly on the path ahead of him. The endorphins ran rampantly through his body now.

Many similar victorious scenarios were dreamed before he finally arrived at the familiar red-brick courtyard. My God, he thought, this feels great! He sat on his bench and closed his eyes to calm himself from both the jog and the imaginary debate. One. Breathe in. Two. Breathe out. Three…This really does feel wonderful, he kept thinking to himself. He began to rotate his head to work out the kinks in his neck and shoulders.

Feeling more relaxed, he decided to pace around the perimeter of the red bricks, to survey his property. Then he noticed, there, behind the trees, an awning! He approached slowly, looking around to see if anything else seemed different. No, nothing else. But there it was. He moved some branches to the side for a better look, and sure enough, there was a small building in fairly reasonable condition. He peered inside and noticed what appeared to be an old grocery store. He traversed the side of the structure, squeezing between the branches and the wall till he got to the front. He walked inside, and surveyed the fully stocked shelves. A man came out from the door leading to the back room, and began putting pricing labels on boxes of Ritz crackers.

George looked at him carefully, but he didn't recognize him. The man, now aware of George's curious looks, stopped his activity and appeared surprised, "Oh! Hello, George! Nice to have you here!"

"Oh, thanks." After a pregnant pause from not knowing what to say, George added, "Do you have a cold bottle of water?"

As the man turned to the cooler behind him, George took a closer look at him, but still didn't recognize him. The grocer held out a bottle of Evian and George took it with slight trepidation. He took a drink and said, "Boy, this water really hits the spot. It's so clean and fresh."

"Yeah, I suppose. But, it's just water." He then noticed that George was studying the label and seemed to be quite taken with it. The man added, "You know, Evian spelled backwards is 'Naïve'."

George, startled, turned to the grocer and then back at the bottle to check it again. "Sure enough, that's what it says!" He smiled and shook his head side to side and added, "I wonder what the letters that make up 'Ralph Wright' say backwards?"

The grocer replied with confidence, "Ah, don't worry about that, George. You've got our votes here."

George was taken aback. "What do you mean by here?"

"Rosie. The good old town of Rosie, California. We're closer to you than you think. But, I was just kidding; we can't vote in your elections."

"You know, I've never heard of this town, not that I've ever come out this way before."

"Oh, we're a very small town. Not many people know about us. There are advantages to that."

George finally had to ask. "I'm sorry, what's your name?"

The grocer reached out his hand and enthusiastically replied, "Brady. John Brady. I own this little store."

George always meets people who know him, but of course, he doesn't necessarily know who they are. This is never surprising, and he doesn't question it. If people claim they know him, he accepts that. But something was definitely different about this place. He liked it here. He was comfortable.

He stayed for what seemed like hours, talking to John and a few people that would come and go, each of them knowing him and expressing their support. After hours had passed, he realized he better get back home. Without much fanfare, he slipped out to the red brick courtyard and back down the path towards the house, all the while thinking how nice that was. And how convenient, too, to have a little store right next to the end of his running path.

When he got home, Sheila was sitting upright at the table, one leg crossed over the other, tapping the sharp ends of her fingernails on the tablecloth. "I was worried sick, you know."

"I'm sorry honey, but I had the most amazing thing happen to me on the run. I met these very interesting people who…"

"Dear, do you realize what time it is? It's close to six, and I was beginning to get worried. Are you hungry? You need to eat, and we need to discuss your campaign."

"Yes. Let's eat, but I want to tell you all about this great place I saw. I had no idea it was there…"

Sheila didn't let him continue. "I ran into Marla today. She says that Ralph's people are putting together a program to dismantle the clinic and turn it into an office building. Now, I'm no great fan of that clinic, but this could be great ammo for you in the debate tomorrow."

"Jesus! I can't believe it! He's already got plans to tear that clinic down? And, of course, it makes sense that he wants to build an office building. He'll sell it to his real estate company, and they'll develop it into a profit center for himself. He's so awful, it makes my blood boil! I can't believe he's just going to…"

"George! Hey! Get with it! What's wrong with you? It's politics! You know he can't do anything without a vote from City Council, and they're on your side. It's no different than what Miller tried to do, and you dealt with it then. Deal with it now!"

George's eyes were fixed in empty space as she spoke. Sheila looked at him strangely, but the look changed to one of concern. "George? Are you Ok? You're not being yourself."

His expression remained for a moment, but he snapped out of it and looked at Sheila. "Yeah, I'm fine." But he lied - his mind kept slipping back to the red brick courtyard, and now the little grocery store he found. He'd say the name of the town to himself, and it'd feel good. Rosie, California.

His only action was a haphazard attempt at dinner, but it went mostly untouched. Later, he went upstairs to get ready for bed and Sheila was already there reading the paper. He noticed the headline that was facing him. He asked, "Did you notice the article about school uniforms in the paper?"

"Of course, I did. It's ridiculous. That's another thing you need to attack him on in the debates," she said as if nothing were spoken before. Her indifference wasn't convincing, but it wasn't meant to be.

George replied sarcastically, "He's not the guy to beat, it turns out. It's those stupid people."

Sheila came undone. "George, I am just in shock! What the hell is your problem these days?"

Her undoing was his as well. "Ok, you want to know? It's high time you figured it out! It's not Ralph. It's the people! He could say anything, but what the people believe, well, that's another story isn't it?" His anger caused his eyebrows to jolt up and down spastically. "What I'm telling them isn't rocket science - they know what's right and wrong, or at least, they used to. But now, he makes these ridiculous statements that even a second-grader wouldn't believe, but these people are biting, hook, line and sinker!" His facial expressions were like that of a madman who thought he just discovered how bring the dead back to life.

Sheila couldn't let him continue. "George. That's nonsense. People are imperfect. People are flawed. That's human nature. But, we seem to survive, don't we? These people have kids, they grow up, and they have their own kids. Drugs will always exist, as will crime, and people will always be bad to one another, telling each other lies, taking their money, cheating on their spouses, and voting for bad politicians. But people are also nice to each other, help one another in times of need, care for the sick, love their children love their pets, and sometimes vote for good politicians. It's the world, George. Would you like to return to it now and help contribute to it by winning this election and effecting change for the better? I want to help make it a better place, and so did you a long time ago. I don't mind getting a little rough with Ralph Wright in the boxing ring, and hitting below the belt now and then might be just the thing to do. But we can't do that if you're going to …I don't know… get weird on me."

George's mind was uncontrollably drifting between the rational and the irrational, right down the line between the emotional and the logical. She was right - of course she was! It made all the sense in the world. But for some reason, none of this seemed to matter anymore. George was having serious doubts about himself: Am I getting too emotionally involved in the very aspects of this job that requires stability and level-headedness? Are my value systems changing because of what I've learned about people? Have they let me down? Am I letting them down? Can I lead people I don't respect? Does my despise for Ralph Wright warrant this kind of reaction, or is he only the catalyst that is opening my eyes to the innate faults of the people? Was Hitler the one at fault, or those that followed him? Who should take the blame?

Sheila had been looking at him with pity as George pondered silently. He looked up and saw her pseudo-empathetic look, which prompted him to take a chance with a new approach. He struggled with the beginning of a smile and held his hand out to her. "Honey. Let's part from this for a moment. Listen to me." She reluctantly placed her hand in his. He paused to let the touch soothe the moment, but her expression remained, so he continued, "I was jogging today and while I was gone, I was thinking about how it might be nice for us to return to a simpler life. Remember town squares? Picnics? Going to the park? People in little grocery stores that not only knew everyone else, but cared about them? I went to a place today where people still live like this, and it's given me such perspective on life. Our life. What it could be like. Just a taste of it, and you'll know what I mean."

Sheila took her hand back and changed to a condescending tone, but George didn't notice it - to him, she was just calmer, almost pleasantly understanding. "George, I don't know where you think you went today, but it wasn't here in San Bolina. You've always had a vivid image of what you think the idyllic town would be like, but this isn't helping you win this election, is it?"

He was sitting up, thinking about how important the election really was to him. "No, I suppose not." He had to acknowledge that, at least. No more was said that night; the two went to sleep, exhausted from the exchange that had just taken place, wondering whether this was going to continue.

The next day was grueling. First, there were several meetings with the dock workers union and their management, trying to ward off a strike. This, at a time when exports are at their peak. Then, George met with the teacher's union about their reaction to Ralph's proposal for school uniforms. Each person George met only made him more depressed. They were just getting more stupid. Why can't they just use their common sense and think? Is that so unreasonable? He was so looking forward to his jog that afternoon that he was oblivious to people calling out his name as he rushed through the streets to get home. Even the little blond girl went unnoticed, which he would have regretted passing up, had he known she was there. She called out as the others did, but her voice was unheard. As before, she tried to follow, but catching up seemed futile.

When he arrived home, he whisked up the stairs, not even noticing that he'd never run up them before. After getting into his running outfit, he dashed out the back door and down the path towards the redwood park bench. Once again, fantasies about defeating Ralph Wright in the election overwhelmed him. During his victory speech, the crowd would cheer his idealistic statements about how people were smart enough not to let ridiculous ideas sway them and how the city is going to be just fine now. He imagined Ralph being caught by investigators for campaign fraud, absconding with funds, and for having had an extramarital affair with a young, under-aged volunteer in his organization. The feeling was great, but his daydreams soon wandered randomly to other thoughts, most of which had nothing to do with life at home, but more of Rosie, his long-awaited destination. He imagined the park, people gathered under the gazebo, a small band playing old songs from the 40s.

He virtually sprinted till he got to the redwood bench, which he regarded as his finish line. He sat and began his lengthy recuperation process. His running was getting more intense each day, and the rest on the bench was not only desired, but required. So, he sat and rested, thinking in a more determined manner about how much better life would be if he were to live here. He began his breathing exercises, eyes closed… one… two… three… As his heart rate stabilized, he rotated his neck and shoulders again and shook his arms and legs from his sitting position.

Looking towards John Brady's store, he noticed that now all the branches were cleared away. He enthusiastically trotted over and went inside. John was standing behind the counter, as if he were waiting for George.

"George! Welcome! It's wonderful to have you back!"

"You're not kidding, John. It's great to be back! Say, I noticed you cleared away the shrubs on the backside of the store."

"Yeah, we're all cleaning up the rough edges of the town these days. Helps our image, you know." He then reached into the cooler and handed George a bottle of water. "Here, it's on me."

George took it and drank from it as though it were holy water. After a few healthy gulps, he set his hands on the counter and leaned over it to rest again. "I'll tell you, this whole election is getting so out of hand, I can't stand it anymore. I just want to get out of it all and just live life somewhere where people are a little less …"

He struggled to find the right words to end his sentence, but couldn't, so John interrupted. "I know what you mean." He picked up a pricing staple-gun began putting $.99 stickers on little packages of dried soup. "There are places like that, you know." He paused for second, then added without looking up, "here, for instance."

Startled at first, George's realized that's what he'd been thinking all along. The next moment seemed like eternity as the two didn't say anything, though their eyes had locked. During this time, George instantly ran through many thoughts: moving, abandoning the election, not to mention his current job as mayor, selling the house, what he'd do for a living here, etc.

His thoughts were broken by Jim, a friend of John's that George met last time. They pumped each others' arms in a firm handshake. "Jim? Is that right? How's everything coming along with the garage? Did you finally get that workshop finished? You need help?"

"George, anytime you want to hang around here and help or just sit and talk, I'd love the company."

"I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do at this point in time, I was just telling John." The others just smiled and waited for George to think and complete his thought. He paused for a moment as he took another drink of water. He continued, "let me ask you guys something." They both nodded with eager interest. "Do have you school prayer here?"

Each smiled and looked at each other, giving a look of acknowledgment, the smiles never leaving their faces. Jim looked at George and said, "Are you kidding? What year do you think this is?" While they all laughed, the issue was important to George: it hasn't come up in the debates yet, but Ralph's talk of school uniforms will certainly lead to this.

Jim sensed George's discomfort. "We don't have to think about that here. Not now. C'mon, let's go see about that garage and I'll tell you a story about when my dad caught me drinking beer at a football game when I was in 9th grade. It was hilarious. You remember back in those days, things were…"

As Jim told his stories, the two walked out of the store together and strolled around the neighborhood. George drenched himself in all his senses: the sun, which was still shining brilliantly in the afternoon sky, seemed to brighten the surroundings with a surreal effect; the colors of the flowers popped out as if they were freshly painted with thick, wet paint; the smells were so pervasive, it was as though his nose had never worked before; and he could hear the sounds of birds, the rush of the river, and the laughter of children playing not far away. He inadvertently glanced in the direction of the red brick courtyard, which caused him to stop and think: what an odd turn of events that a heart attack could lead to his finding this place.

Jim noticed George's observation, and joined him in overlooking the courtyard. He knew George wanted to ask about it, so Jim volunteered the answer first. "We might clear out all the weeds around there and maybe replace the bricks. We renovate the town now and then."

George smiled and added, "Yes. I've heard." His eyes never left that bench.

The next day at City Hall, the final debate before the election was about to begin. It started in the usual way, but George was finding it far more difficult to concentrate. No longer did he feel the home-court advantage; the audience seemed to be fitting nicely in Ralph's palms. George wouldn't even be there if he had a choice, but he had responsibility, and there were expectations. Ralph's comments and the audience's response continued to eat at George down to the pit of his soul. At one point, Ralph had said, "I do not seek political power. I do not wish to implement policies and other government interventions on people's lives. I just want to help balance the representation of the Christian demographic, so their wishes and desires can be appropriately represented in government. I had no intention of being Mayor; that was the people's decision." This caused George to double over in nausea, but he recovered elegantly by pretending to have dropped his pen.

Nevertheless, his emotional and physical pain was evident to everyone. The only thing keeping him from passing out was thoughts of his run to the little town of Rosie. They don't have such problems there, he thought as his mind slowly drifted back to the little store where he met John and the others. He noticed someone in the audience with a bottle of Evian water, and this brought a smile to his face. He looked over at Ralph and tried to say his name backwards. "Phlar," which made him giggle to himself. In doing so, he instinctively looked around to see who else he could share the moment with, when he realized what he was doing. The gazes of puzzled looks were upon him, like people do when they see strange behavior from a mental patient.

The moderator spoke to him, apparently for a second time. "George? I'll repeat the question: Where do you stand on the issue of school prayer?"

George was paralyzed. He collected his thoughts and tried to muster one last time some sense of rationale, of level-headedness, restraining his anger and despair. In a more controlled tone this time, he started speaking more slowly than usual, almost like a séance chant: "Can someone tell me what year this is?" He scanned the silent audience as his head and shoulders were lunging forward over the podium. His will was slow to move forward, like a locomotive trying to leave the station. "Is this the 1930s? 1940s? Does anyone remember the monkey trials?" He paused again for a moment to let the people think and absorb his line of questioning, but also to give him the time he needed to sustain composure. He straightened up and resumed speaking in a more familiar and controlled tone of voice. "The entire purpose of the separation of church and state was to avoid the kinds of unsettling problems like harassment of minority religious groups, the handing out leaflets in the name of 'free speech' on school grounds, and the introduction of all sorts of other social problems. Our educational environments are not places for religious activities and this country has gone through great pains to get to that point. Let's not turn back the clock now."

Some inaudible mutterings were heard throughout the auditorium, but he also noticed the smiles on some people's faces, mostly friends and allies he already had. There was some clapping, but he wasn't able to discern the sources or sincerity. He was unsure of his effectiveness, especially after the embarrassing moment preceding it.

The rest of the debate got progressively worse; he simply didn't care anymore. As it drew to a close and the crowd left the building, he escaped out the back of the stage and made his way to the main street, avoiding the press and almost everyone else. Everyone but Doreen. She noticed him and yelled for him to stop, but he didn't. So, she hurriedly walked along side him, oblivious to what was on his mind.

"You know I support you completely, and I agree with what you said about school prayer, but I sense that your problem with Ralph Wright it getting to you more personally than it should. I've seen you perform better."

"Oh, Christ, not you too! I'm getting enough of this from my wife. While I'm not Ralph Wright's biggest fan," he said as he finally stopped walking and looked back at the auditorium, "it's not his doing anymore, it's those damn people. They're the losers now. I tried! Oh, how I tried! But, they're so…pitiful."

Doreen seemed incensed. "Oh, so I see what you're saying. We might as well get on the black robes and work on our scribing techniques so we can translate more copies of the Bible. Well, you're in this too, buddy. If you're not going to help, what are you going to do? Move to Mongolia?"

George looked at her with such intensity, she hardly recognized him. "No. Someplace much better," he said. "Yes, indeed. Much…much…better."

As he ran off, his footsteps echoed between the tall buildings. He swooped around the corners of the back alleys, taking the shortest way home. On the last corner before the road to his house, he almost fell over the little blond girl, but this time, didn't notice that it was her. She yelled out to him, but he didn't hear. She ran after him again, but he was too fast for her.

Almost like clockwork, he went through the motions of changing into his running suit and heading out to the path. In what seemed like no time at all, he arrived at the red brick courtyard, but his speed continued to increase, tiring him more than ever. By the time he arrived, he sat again, proud of his physical improvement, but still resigned to his need to rest it off. He did his ritualistic breathing exercises, and emptied his mind of the turmoil from the day. He imaged, he daydreamed, and fantasized, but he no longer had images of Ralph Wright losing elections or being convicted of crimes. The election and Ralph Wright were no longer important to him. This time, he had only pleasant thoughts of children, bands playing in gazebos, and fishing by the river.

His concentration was broken by the sound of a whistle. He looked around, but couldn't see where it was coming from, but it may have come from a new separation in the trees just ahead. Looking through, he noticed a sign, Rosie's Park. In it, two fairly large groups of children wearing soccer uniforms were scurrying about. Another whistle was blown, and the kids started cheering.

He strolled over slowly with curiosity. When he got to the edge of the park, he stopped next to a bench where a woman was sitting, knitting a sweater.

"Is one of your kids out there?" George asked.

"Oh hello, George! I didn't see you there. Yes, that's him over there. Number 32."

"George!" a man yells out, even though he's only ten feet away. "Come to see the big soccer game this afternoon? This is a treat!"

George suddenly felt very peaceful. "How does everyone know me?", he asks to no one in particular. "I mean, they know me so well. And they're so enthusiastic."

As he walked around, he noticed more buildings and stores that he hadn't seen before, each one having more character than the last. The town was certainly beautiful, but it was more than that - the feeling was so intense! So incredible! He was lost in its greatness, distracting him from the rational thoughts of questioning his environment.

People continued to greet him as he carried on short chats with a few here and there, but he avoided having deep discussions with anyone. He just didn't feel the need to address heavy issues here. It felt like he spent the entire day there, and all the while, he was happier than he'd ever been before. When that old guilty feeling of returning home again came over him, he left. But not without a definite plan for returning. He still had Sheila to work with. He still loved her, and felt that it was only the election causing tension between them. If he won or lost, it didn't matter - they would be together again and could be happy. He had to go back for her.

George returned home, determined to resolve this once and for all with Sheila, but he found it hard to find an appropriate time to bring it up. This was a delicate matter and he needed to time this properly. They finished dinner, and Sheila started the dishes while George sat at the table fiddling with his thumbs, hoping to find an opportunity, but he was too scared.

That night, he couldn't sleep at all, and he was worried his tossing and turning would awaken Sheila, who remained asleep next to him, but not close enough to touch. He got out of bed and went into the bathroom, drank a glass of water, and studied himself in the mirror. He examined the details so closely, he hardly recognized himself. His hair had become not just gray, but wiry. There was an age spot growing on the end of his nose, and the dark circles under his eyes seemed to sink like oversized hammocks. The look of sadness and pity overwhelmed him, for he had paid the toll of his life with his physical and mental spirit. He asked himself out loud, "George? Are you Ok?" He just stared into the mirror as his response.

The image of Sheila standing right behind him in the reflection jarred him. She looked at him with tired eyes and said in a calm voice, obviously not trying to start any conflict, "George, I'm concerned about you. What is going on in that mind of yours?"

He looked at her, and then away, embarrassed about his own mixed feelings. But seeing as he returned home this one last time specifically for her, he had to ask, "Sheila, do you love me?"

"What kind of question is that? Of course I do!"

"You know I need to reduce stress, right? And you know I am feeling anxious about this election, right?"

"Yes, but you always get that way in a tough election. It's nothing you haven't been able to handle before. Well, up until now, that is."

He turned and faced her, "Yes, but that was before. Things are different now, and it's not just me. The world is different…"

"Again with the world?", she asked, still in a quiet tone of voice. "I just think you're tired and you're giving up on the world. You just can't handle it and you're looking for someone to blame. You just happen to be blaming everyone else. People are stupid, you keep saying. People don't think, you say. Your problem is that you have to keep educating them over and over, year after year, time and again, and are now just tired of doing it."

"You're right; I'm damn tired of doing it." His voice began to rise. "There's only so much I can do, and I don't think I can do this anymore. And that's the point, I shouldn't have to!" He paused and she just looked at him with the tired, but concerned look still on her face. He continued more calmly, "I want to tell you about this place and the people I've met. They're wonderful. They have the right value systems, they are intelligent, friendly and warm-hearted." Sheila's look grew even more concerned. He continued, "The place is Rosie…"

She interjected quickly, "Rosie! Rosie!" She repeated as she paced in circles around the room, moving her arms up and down, mocking him. She bobbed her head up and down as if she knew exactly what was going on. "George, you're beginning to look at the world through rosie glasses! You have this idealized world view that doesn't exist." She turned and walked with fatigue towards the bed like a Raggedy-Ann, having little control over her limbs due to her exhaustion.

He followed her and continued talking as both got into bed. "It does exist! And I think it can be our reality if we just…"

She interrupted him and herself as she was adjusting her pillow. "Just what? Move? Have you leave politics? Retire? Ha! I think you need to get a grip, George."

As she turned out her bedside light, he knew the discussion was over. There's no talking to her now. His heart was no longer beating for Sheila. There's nothing left for him here. Not anymore. Her views of politics was now obsolete: winning won't be the objective anymore. It'll be survival. It'll be a constant fight to defend against allegations of wrongdoing by political opponents who fabricate issues to use in the next election. It'll be a continued deterioration of the political climate to a degree that will be impossible for anyone to govern. And, then he thought the worst: I would be forced to do shady things just to get anything done.

Lying on his back, eyes focused on the dark ceiling, he made his final statement to Sheila. "At the end of the day, we only have ourselves, and we have to decide what is best for ourselves."

George woke up just after 9am, and Sheila was already gone. He went to the office next to the bedroom, and sat behind the desk, which hadn't been touched in at least two weeks, the last time the maid had been in. He rested his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes with his palms. He began to massage his scalp with his fingertips, thinking about whether he should call the office. After all, the election was today, and they needed written statements to release to the press, however the results turn out. Before he could finish the thought, he was interrupted by the quiet, high-pitched bleeping of his business phone. He only moved one hand away from his head to slap the speaker-phone button, and returned it immediately to his head. Without hesitation, a voice said, "George, you better see what's on TV. Channel 7."

Again, without any more movement than what was necessary to complete the task, he slapped the speaker-phone button again to hang it up, and touched the "power" button on the TV's remote control that sat next to the phone. His hand returned to his head where it resumed massaging with its twin, already in progress. He didn't watch the TV, which was already on channel 7, but he did listen to it.

The voice of a reporter was heard. "Mr. Wright, we understand that you had come down here immediately when you heard the news about the drug bust, supporting your assertions that the clinic is just a hangout for drug pushers and addicts."

"Yes, that's right," said Ralph, with the confident smile on his face like a boy who'd just broken open the piñata. "While I truly believe in what the clinic has attempted to do in the past, it's time has come and it no longer serves it's original purpose. The locals are too scared to come here now, and the tourists go to the main hospital in town. The only people left here are making it dangerous for everyone else."

The reporter continued, "The wharf last night, and the school board today. You are pretty active, even though it's not clear you've won the election yet. If your meeting with the school regarding school uniforms goes well, you'll either have a head start on your new job as mayor, or you'll make it very difficult for Mr. Foster to continue, should he win. Either way, you've made tracks here."

"That's what our hope is," Ralph said as he faces the camera, which zooms in on his sparkling face and plastered smile. "I truly love San Bolina, and the people here know I am the one who can end all of these problems and bring sanity, family values and the blessing of God back into their community."

George slapped the "power" button on the remote to turn off the TV. He swiveled his chair in a semi-circle and got up, moving in mechanical motions, like a robot. He walked out of the office into the bedroom and got out a small suitcase and began to fill it with a few changes of clothes and some odds and ends. He was hardly paying attention, mimicking mostly the same actions he's done a million times before when he packed for a weekend to the beach with Sheila or a short business trip. With slow, deliberate movements, he got into his running suit and proceeded outside. His robotic actions began to relax into a confident stride as he proceeded down the path next to the river. His head was up high, and his running was smooth and controlled. He held his suitcase so steadily, it didn't even swing as he jogged. His thoughts were now focused entirely on Rosie, California. This is what I want, he thinks. And these thoughts stayed with him all the way to the little red brick courtyard where his redwood bench sat, forever available to him.

When he arrived, he sat and placed his suitcase on the ground next to him. He looked around and absorbed the scene: it was warm, dry, sunny, and full of life. He closed his eyes, breathed, and said out loud, "I will come and sit here often. This is my place." Sounds began to swell: he heard people, children, the river. He reacquainted himself with the smells and all his senses came alive once again.

Sufficiently relaxed, he arose and noticed that the people of Rosie cleared all the weeds and moss away from the bricks. In fact, the bricks themselves seem fresh and new! And look, there by the grocery, John and Jim were walking towards the park. He motioned a big hello wave at them, and they enthusiastically waved back. He got up and ran towards them.

"George! What great timing! We're about to have our annual town picnic. Please join us! Lunch starts in about a half hour."

He ran over to them and they all shook hands and gave pats on the sides of each others' arms. Smiles everywhere, as they walked towards the center of the park where the kids were playing soccer the day before.

George, feeling great now, stopped and said quietly to himself, "This is where I belong."

"What was that, George?" Jim asked as the men kept moving the tables out of a truck.

"Oh, I was about to have a very bad day… but it isn't going to be. No. It's going to be a great day, today."

Jim and John resumed setting up tables. George watched them and thought to himself that he's found paradise. Everyone here knows him, likes him, trusts him, and he can live in a world with reasonable, responsible and intelligent people. With enthusiasm, he rolled up the sleeves of his sweatshirt and grabbed a table. Jim and John noticed this and the three men smiled at each other, acknowledging that George was participating as permanent member of the community.

Sheila was in the city at George's office watching the elections on TV with the rest of the staff. The reporters were interviewing people about how they were voting and what their opinions were on various issues, but no one was paying close attention. The demoralized staff was draped over their chairs, sitting in odd positions, as if they'd been there all night. The conference table had small boxes of donuts and paper cups half full of coffee; the TV was sitting at the other end, not pointing directly at anyone.

"Madge, is George watching this in his office at home?" Sheila asked. "Has he reviewed his statements to the press with you?"

Madge replied, not taking her eyes away from her crossword puzzle, "I called him at home and told him to watch the TV. He just hung up. And, no, I haven't gotten anything from him. I figured he'd give it to you at home so you could give it to me when you got in."

"Well, call him again." Sheila said. And she added to herself in an audible tone. "Where the hell is he?"

After more time and phone calls, Sheila became concerned. "Call the police," Sheila instructed Madge. "Tell them to meet me at home."

When they arrived, she escorted two policemen into the house. "I have no idea what might have happened to him. Madge called him here at home this morning, and she said he answered, but didn't say anything. I thought maybe he had another heart attack, but he's not here."

"Mrs. Foster, since he's had a stroke before, we should have an ambulance with us, just in case," one of the officers said. "In the meantime, we will put out a missing-persons report and see what turns up."

More hours passed and Sheila paced the kitchen during most of them. The ambulance arrived hours ago and the police had made several tours of the neighborhood, but nothing came up. Now and then, everyone would get together to brainstorm about where George might have gone, but no progress was made. Late in the afternoon, it finally dawned on Sheila.

"Rosie." She only mouthed the word at first. Then, quietly, she repeated it in a whisper. "Rosie."

"Huh?" says one of the officers, as he was sipping a coffee.

"He kept mentioning a place he wants to take me to. Rosie, California. I have no idea what that means. He always mentions it when he runs… runs! That's it! He went running! He must be out there somewhere!"

They all piled into one cruiser and took off, with the ambulance close behind. They drove down the path where George said he ran. As they drove through the thick vegetation for a couple miles, they finally arrived at the end of the path where there was a small clearing in the trees, but the path didn't seem to continue and the trees were too thick to have gone anywhere else from there. The cars stopped and everyone got out and looked at the only visible object there: an old park bench with weeds so thick they broke through the ancient red bricks that surrounded the bench. George was as motionless as a statue. His small suitcase was on the ground next to him, and a small child was sitting on the ground, playing with a doll.

Sheila quickly ran over to the bench with the officers and the paramedics closely behind. As they got closer, Sheila looked down at the little girl, who was calmly and quietly playing with her doll. She was dirty from the dirt and moss that had been growing over the bricks. Sheila looked at George again and touched his face, but he remained still, even though his eyes were open. Looking more closely, she noticed he had a smile on his face and his head was slightly cocked to the side as if he were looking directly at the little girl. As tear streamed from her eye down the side of her nose as she caressed his face gently with a single stroke down his cheek, taking care not to disturb him. The sun, which had gotten very low, caste a long shadow of the three of them at the bench. There was a warm breeze in the air, gently tossing her hair in and out of her eyes, as the bright, golden yellow tone from the backlit sky completed the scene.

One of the paramedics approached her, "Mrs. Foster, could you please stand aside for just a moment. We need to check him out." As she stood back, she looked down at the little girl, who seemed oblivious to what was going on. One of the police, who was standing behind her the whole time, stooped down with Sheila to speak to the girl.

"Hi, honey. How are you?", asked the officer.

"I'm fine!" she said in a bright tone, but her eyes did not leave her doll as she played with it, making it dance as though it were a puppet.

"Do you know who this man is, dear?", Sheila asked.

"Sure! That's George. He's my friend."

"Your friend? Do you know each other?"

"Sure. He would say hello to me in the city."

Sheila and the officer looked at each other and then back again at the little girl. "Yes, honey. He'd say hello to you in the city, and then he started coming out here, right?"

The little girl still focused on her doll. "Yeah, I guess. I'd follow him. He'd run all this way, and then sit on this bench… I'd eventually catch up and here he'd be sitting and…" She stopped in mid-sentence.

"…and what, honey?", Sheila asked anxiously.

"Well…" She cocked her head at an angle the way children do when they are trying to explain something they don't understand. "Usually, he'd sleep, but sometimes, he'd talk to me, and I'd tell him stories."

"What would he talk about?"

"I don't know. A guy named Ralph. He didn't like him."

"And what kind of stories would you tell him?"

"Just stories. Stories my grandma would tell me when I was little." She smiled at what she was about to say next. "George's favorite one was about the town where grandma and grandpa grew up. It was a small town with friendly people. It had a store where you buy food and stuff, and a small park. My grandpa John owned the store. His best friend Jimmy would help out now and then. George loved those stories best. He said he'd like to live in a town like that someday. I told him John and Jim would love to have him there with them!"

Sheila felt pale. She interjected a question, her voice trembling with anticipation, "Honey, can you tell me your name?"

"My name?", the little girl asked, as she raised her head for the first time. She looked at Sheila right in the eye and said enthusiastically, "It's Rosie!"

At that, Sheila howled a scream that could be heard for miles. One of the policemen took her aside and tried to comfort her, but to no avail. The quiet and beautiful sunset was indifferent to the pain of Sheila's realization about George. As the paramedics wheeled George's body towards the ambulance, the smile glued to his face was dimly lit by the fading sun whose light flickered on his face like the end of a movie reel.

One of the policemen took Rosie's hand and walked with her slowly towards the police car as she asked, "Is George going to be Ok?"

The policeman stopped and stooped down and replied, "I'm sure George is in a better place now, sweetheart."

As the spinning lights from the ambulance and the police cruiser dimmed as they drove away, George replaced the drapery from behind the window in the large Victorian house from where he was watching the drama unfold. He then turned to John and Jim, who were sitting in chairs out of view of the window, and said, "Gentlemen, I do believe I am here to stay." And the last beam of light from the sun faded as it set on Rosie, California.

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