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 suddenly felt the prickly things on the back of his neck and with it a transitory moment of déja vu. It almost 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 then took his reading glasses from his breast pocket and adjusted them on his nose. He unfolded the San Francisco Chronicle, glanced at the headlines then thumbed through the paper to the obituaries, reading them 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, he felt a sudden thump on his left ankle. He looked up from his newspaper to find a soiled tennis ball at his feet.
As he reached down for the ball, the same feisty little Jack Russell terrier which had passed him earlier on the jogging trail ran up to him, barking and growling, then 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 shouted.
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 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. “My name is Ben.”
“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you, Ben. My name is 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 school teacher.”
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?”
“46 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 wife, Estelle, ever called him Pinky. And she loved to put peanuts in her root beer.
Gabe’s thoughts raced. Estelle had been dead for six years. Ben was six years old. 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 up in the air.
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 five dollars. “Buy me one too,” he said to the boy.
“You bet,” Ben said, taking the money from Gabe. “Thanks.”
As Gabe watched the boy run across the park to the concession stand, Gabe stroked his beard then 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. And they 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 school teacher, 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, 2008.”
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, “Ben was born at St. Mary’s. August 3, 2008.”
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, “Just 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 can understand that,” Gabe said. “But I assure you the last thing I want to do is hurt your son.”