If someone had asked Jake O’Malley if he was lonely, he’d probably have said no, loneliness being such an unmanly emotion. He just had a lot of time on his hands. After all, he had his dog, Milo, a little gray mutt with curly, wiry hair, his constant companion. No, he never thought he was lonely until he met Zoe in the park.
Pushing seventy, Jake hadn’t had hair on the top of his head for some time. The fringe that remained was that faded gray that blond hair leaves behind. His Irish skin, which freckled in his youth, sunburned easily so he wore a baseball cap and used the sunscreen his doctor recommended.
Years after a California vacation, he moved out to San Diego from Utica, New York, snow country, where he had worked a lifetime as a letter carrier. San Diego was an expensive area on Jake’s fixed income. Social Security and his pension only went so far. But he fell in love with the temperate weather and sunny days, such a contrast from Upstate New York. No one had told him about “June gloom,” but no matter, most of the year San Diego had perfect weather. Never cold and almost never hot. And, of course, it rarely rained, so he could get outside to walk—he hated the paunch he’d developed—appreciating the weather every day.
Jake and Milo led comfortable life. Some might find it boring, but it satisfied them. He’d found a one-bedroom apartment where he still lived in a faded yellow stucco building in the Clairemont neighborhood. It gave him easy access to Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway along the coast. Not that he really went anywhere, but if he wanted to, he could. The ground floor suited him. He didn’t have to climb stairs too often, which bothered the arthritis in his knees left behind by many years of delivering mail.
He walked from the cozy living room into his compact kitchen to fix Milo’s dinner. He didn’t need any of the fancy amenities that younger people wanted these days—stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, and the like. Jake grabbed some leftovers from the old white fridge. Should he heat them in the ancient microwave? He opted for the reliable gas stove instead, placing Milo’s warmed-up chicken in his metal bowl on the floor.
“Maybe it’s time for new carpeting,” he said, as Milo chowed down. “After all, we’ve been here ten years. Let’s see what the landlord says.” He kept the apartment nice and tidy, the way he liked it.
Fox News wafted through the window from the neighboring apartment of his friends Joe and Sandy, older folks like himself. Sometimes he got together with them for a cup of coffee in the morning, despite their politics, but mostly Jake kept to himself. Jake turned on the big screen TV that he’d splurged on last year, which made watching football games and golf amazing. There were worse ways you could spend the end of your life.
As Jake sat on the worn, brown corduroy sofa, to eat his dinner—the same leftovers he shared with Milo—he turned off the TV. The news was too depressing. He grabbed a magazine from the stack on the coffee table instead. A story about the weak economy in Upstate New York made him reflect back over his life.
“I need to stop doing that Milo. It’s not good for me. After all, the past is the past, right? Can’t do anything about it.” Milo jumped up on the sofa so Jake could scratch behind his ears.
But he’d had made a lot of mistakes, and he’d paid a high price for those mistakes. He had regrets.
Almost every day, Jake took Milo for a walk in Mission Bay Park, a short drive from Jake’s apartment, where they listened to the waves and watched the children play. They both needed the exercise. Sometimes they even walked there, when they weren’t toting heavy gear and wanted to sit awhile to enjoy the sun and breeze and water. After having lived most of his life in the dreary Northeast, Jake never tired of the green grass and palm trees. People whizzed by on bicycles and rollerblades, getting a workout and enjoying the weather.
He loved to watch the kids play soccer and envied the dads who coached their children, something he’d never done with his own son and daughter. Usually, he and Milo went in the afternoon, after school. The cheerful voices and laughter filled the sunny park, making Jake smile.
One May afternoon, Jake and Milo sat on a bench in the park. Jake was reading an old Michael Connelly paperback. He liked that detective, Harry Bosch.
He felt her eyes boring into him before he saw her. A little girl ran over to him, interrupting his reading. “Hi. Can I pet your dog?
“Sure,” he said. “Milo likes kids. See his tail? That wagging means he’s saying hello.”
“His name is Milo?” she asked. “Like in the movie?”
Jake laughed. “What movie? I don't know if it's from a movie. I don’t think I ever saw a movie with a dog named Milo. When I got Milo, he already had that name.”
She looked about seven or eight. “Oh, so you weren't his first owner?” Skinny little thing with a bouncy blonde ponytail held in place by some kind of stretchy pink do-dad. She wore a pink hoodie, and black and pink striped leggings, and purple sneakers, the kind with the rollers in the back.
“Right. He was a rescue.”
“What does ‘a rescue’ mean?”
“It means that the first people who had Milo weren’t very nice to him. They hurt him, so the police took him away and brought him to a shelter.”
“What’s a shelter?” She had started to pet Milo, who sat on the ground, smiling with the attention. When Milo jumped up on the bench beside Jake, the girl sat down next to the dog.
“That's where they take dogs and cats that nobody wants or if they’ve been hurt.” Why isn't she in school? he wondered. It's Wednesday morning. “They hope that somebody will adopt them, give them a new home.” He paused and looked at her. “You ask a lot of questions, you know that?”
“I know. That’s what my mom says.”
“So now it's my turn for a question. My name’s Jake, what's your name?”
She put her face down on Milo’s head to kiss him. “Zoe. I really like your dog, Jake. I wish my mom would let me have one, but she says no way.”
“Zoe. That's a pretty name. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone called Zoe.”
While they talked, Jake could hear a woman yelling into her cellphone. He glanced over to another bench about a hundred feet away that faced the playground. Then the woman hopped up and started pacing around, her left arm waving in the air. She looked angry or upset.
As he watched her, Zoe said, “That’s my mom.”
He couldn't help but notice that she paid no attention to Zoe at all.
Suddenly she strode toward them, cellphone thrust into her pocket. When she got about thirty feet away she yelled. “Zoe, you get back here right now! How many times have I told you never talk to strangers?”
“It's okay, Mom. This is Milo, Jake's doggie. He’s really nice.” Did she mean me or Milo? Jake wondered.
Jake stood up and extended his hand toward her. “Hi, I'm Jake O’Malley. You have a charming daughter.”
But Zoe's mother ignored his gesture, uninterested in Jake O'Malley. She grabbed Zoe by the arm, pulling her off the bench, and started dragging her back toward the playground. She twisted her arm—that had to hurt—and continued to reprimand Zoe for talking to strangers.
“Get into the car, Zoe, we’re leaving.”
Jake felt bad, because it looked like he'd gotten Zoe into trouble. He knew it wasn’t his fault. After all, he hadn’t approached Zoe. But still . . .
A week later, Jake and Milo drove to Mission Bay Park as usual in Jake’s secondhand green Ford Escape. On this Friday morning, he hadn't brought his book, instead bringing a folding chair and a towel to dry Milo off if he wanted a swim. Lunch sat in a cooler in the trunk. He parked the car at the dog beach on Fiesta Island in Mission Bay, where Milo could run off leash. It was uncrowded on this weekday morning. Jake avoided the weekends when unruly dogs who’d been cooped up inside all week overran the place.
June gloom had set in even though the calendar said May, so a chilly fog still covered the beach. That might be keeping some people away, which was fine with him. As soon as they got out of the car, Jake took off Milo’s leash, and they started to walk on the calm side of Fiesta Island. No waves there.
After scanning the beach, Jake breathed a sigh of relief that there weren’t any of the big, bully dogs that often visited, that liked to descend in groups upon little dogs like Milo and terrorize them, owners oblivious, on their phones, not paying attention. Milo wasn’t tiny—he weighed about twenty pounds—but his history of mistreatment had made him very timid. Jake hated it when those big, aggressive dogs came bounding over and scared him.
“Milo, wanna swim? It’s nice and calm on this side. No big scary waves, like the other side.” Milo wasn’t crazy about swimming, because, Jake supposed, he never had a chance to experience it until he was several years old.
Milo tentatively ventured into the water. Jake threw an old tennis ball out twenty feet. Milo dog-paddled out and carried it back in his mouth. After Milo swam and chased the tennis ball for a while, they walked back to the car and drove over to the ocean side. Jake put Milo back on his leash. They found a good spot where Jake opened his chair, unfolding the towel so Milo could dry off while they watched the surf, smelled the tangy salt air, and listened to the waves pounding.
“Look how foggy it is this morning,” Jake told Milo. “Can’t even see the rides at SeaWorld.” Jake settled into his sand chair, drying Milo off. “You know, Milo, I never get tired of this. Aren’t we lucky we can do this any day we want to?”
By eleven-thirty the fog had burned off, and it had warmed up. Jake decided they'd drive over to the grassy side of the park facing onto the protected side of the bay. Jake had brought lunch for himself—a turkey and cheese sandwich, some chips, a chocolate chip cookie and an apple—and some treats for Milo, who barked and jumped up and down with excitement.
They basked in the sun and ate their lunch. Jake fed Milo little pieces of turkey and cheese, his favorites, and tried to find a piece of cookie for him that didn’t have any chocolate. Then Milo got his official dog treats. As Jake carried their garbage over to the trashcan, he looked up.
Zoe was walking toward them. “Hi Jake. Can I pet Milo?”
It surprised Jake that she’d remembered their names. “Sure,” he said, pleased to see her. “If you think it’s okay with your mom. She seemed kind of mad the last time you came over, and I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
Today Zoe wore skinny blue jeans and a lavender sweater. “Oh, she’s fine. Mom’s in a better mood today.” Like the last time, her mom talked nonstop on her cellphone, sitting on top of a picnic table, her feet on the bench.
“So how come you’re not in school?” As usual, Jake wore what he regarded as his retirement “uniform,” sneakers, khaki cargo shorts, a tee shirt, and a hoody.
“Well, I kinda am in school. Mom homeschools me, so this is how we take a break. Mom says I’m supposed to be getting some exercise. But there’s no other kids to play with and usually Mom’s on the phone. Right now, she’s fighting with Dad.”
Uh oh. Sounded like more of a break for Mom. Jake had never liked the idea of homeschooling and was glad his ex-wife hadn’t proposed it for their two children. “So why does your mom homeschool you Zoe?”
“Cuz she says there's too many Mexicans at school.”
“Oh, I see.” Why does she live in San Diego if she doesn’t like Latinos?
“So Zoe, since you go to school at home, do you have any friends?”
Zoe dropped her head and said, very quietly, "Uh uh.”
“None?” Poor kid.
“Nope, not a single one.”
“Well that's too bad. It sounds like you and me are in the same boat.”
“What boat?” Zoe sat down next to Milo on the bench, with Jake on the other side. She’d been petting him nonstop. If Milo could have purred, he would have.
Jake chuckled. “In the same boat means that we’re in the same situation.” He wished he’d saved his cookie to share with Zoe.
“What do you mean?” Zoe asked.
Milo had moved so that his two front paws were in Jake’s lap. Zoe got up from the bench and walked in front of Jake. She put her left elbow on his thigh and bent over to kiss Milo on the head.
“I don't have any friends either,” Jake said.
“Well, maybe you and me can be friends, Jake.”
“I think we would have to ask your mom about that. You know, I have a granddaughter your age, but I've never seen her.”
“Because she lives far, far away.” Not the real reason, of course. His daughter wanted nothing to do with him. Even though he knew he had a granddaughter who would be about seven or eight, he’d never seen her. One of Jake's biggest regrets.
“Hey, I know what,” Zoe said.
“Maybe you could be my grandpa.”
“But don't you already have a grandpa?” You have no idea how much I would like that, thought Jake. What I wouldn't give for a relationship with a grandson or granddaughter . . .
Zoe frowned. “No, no grandpas at all.”
Startled, they both looked up and saw Zoe's mother, sitting cross-legged on top of the picnic table, gesturing for Zoe to come over.
“Uh oh, gotta go. Don't want to make Mom mad.”
“How ‘bout if I go with you and see how your mom feels about us being friends?”
They got down from the bench and Jake grabbed Milo’s leash. As they started walking toward Zoe's mom, Zoe grabbed Jake's hand.
Oh boy, that's not good, thought Jake. “Zoe, how would you like to take Milo’s leash?
She put her hand out for the leash. “Awesome! Can I?” She stood up straight and proud, Milo pulling her forward, and looked back at Jake with a huge grin as she walked toward her mom.
When they got to the picnic table, Zoe said, “Look, Mom, Jake is letting me hold Milo’s leash. Milo is such a nice doggie. I really like him.”
As Zoe’s mother scowled, Jake reintroduced himself. “Hi. Jake O’Malley.” What can I say that will reassure her and not annoy her? “So I’ve enjoyed talking with Zoe. She’s a great kid.”
Finally, her mom said, “Hey. I’m Sasha. Nice to meet you.”
Sasha had a hard look about her, too much black eye makeup, straw-colored hair with dark roots showing, pulled back in a messy ponytail. She wore skin-tight jeans and a blouse so low cut you could see almost down to her navel.
Back in my day, Jake thought, we’d call that cheap, or trashy.
After the awkward moment passed, Jake said, “I live pretty close, so Milo and I come here every day,” taking the leash back from Zoe. “How about you?”
“Yeah, we’re pretty close too. Zoe, come on, we’ve got to get going.”
“Bye, Jake. Can I give Milo a hug goodbye?” Zoe asked, her little ponytail bouncing around.
Sasha grabbed Zoe’s arm. “Come on, Zoe, we need to get a move on.”
Jake watched as they walked to their car, wondering what it was like for that sweet little girl at home. “Come on Milo. We should probably get a move on, too.”
Over the next month, Jake and Milo saw Zoe in the park once or twice a week. Zoe came over and petted Milo, she and Jake chatted, and her mom called her back after a few minutes. Even so, Jake treasured those encounters. He tried to make small talk with Sasha to reassure her. It turned out that they lived around the corner from each other in the same neighborhood.
Then Jake had an idea. Would Sasha agree to let Zoe take a walk with Milo and Jake at dinnertime?
One afternoon in late May, he pitched the idea to Sasha as she and Zoe prepared to leave. He worried about proposing it in front of Zoe, in case Sasha said no, but he decided to go ahead and take the risk.
“Since I live so close by you guys, how’d you feel about me coming over either before or after dinner with Milo and having Zoe take a walk with us around the neighborhood?’
“Yeah, Mom, please. Ple-e-ase say yes. I re-e-ally wanna go.”
“It would give you a little time to yourself, or even to run an errand if you need to,” Jake said.
Sasha hesitated, looking straight at Jake, who held her gaze. Finally, she said, “Okay, we could try that. When do you want to do it?”
“Tonight, Mom, tonight! Let’s do it tonight,” said Zoe.
Jake looked at Sasha. “We go pretty much every night, so it’s up to you. Whatever works for you.” Would she go for it?
“Okay, how about tomorrow night at six-thirty, right after dinner?”
As Zoe said thank you about a hundred times, Sasha gave Jake their address and said she’s see them tomorrow night.
So Jake and Milo started going over to their apartment and having Zoe come on walks with them at dinnertime, sometimes before, sometimes after. Jake didn’t know what Sasha did while they walked—it was only about half an hour—but one night, when they returned from their walk, Sasha wasn’t home, so they had to sit outside on the steps. Later, with some trepidation, Jake suggested that Sasha might want to give a key to Zoe so she didn’t have to rush to get home if she was running an errand and Jake and Zoe could get inside. She surprised him when she agreed, giving Zoe a big lecture on what a big responsibility it was to have a key.
As the attachment between Jake and Zoe grew stronger, Jake began to think more about the family he left behind. His ex had divorced him many years earlier when his children were young because of his drinking. He couldn’t blame her. He rarely saw the kids after the divorce, because his ex said if they tell me, even one time, that you’ve been drinking, you’re done. By then they were old enough to know.
So Jake didn’t see them, preferring to drink on weekends. But eventually it caught up with him, and the Postal Service sent him to rehab. By the time he got sober, the kids had become teenagers, involved in their own lives, and no longer interested in seeing him, sober or not. He sent his child support, and they turned out okay without him. He had to hand it to his ex, she did a good job.
He had no contact with his son Brian, now forty-five and married, working at a bank in London. His daughter Karen lived in Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter. His ex had let him know when his granddaughter was born, but when he tried to get in touch, Karen made it clear she wanted nothing to do with him. So he nursed a ton of regrets about all that. He should have kept up with those meetings that got him sober, which would have pushed him to make amends to his kids. Was it too late? Did he still have a chance? Every day he spent time with Zoe he thought about writing a letter to his kids, telling them how sorry he was that he’d messed up their lives. He still held out hope that he might be able to piece things back together.
As summer approached, Jake wondered what would happen when school let out. What did homeschoolers do in the summer? Would they still come to the park?
Sasha and Zoe stopped going to Mission Bay Park. But by then Jake had earned the Sasha’s trust, and she’d allow Zoe to go to the park during the day with Jake and Milo. The three of them would take walks, have picnics, and go swimming. Milo now loved playing in the water with Zoe. And Jake got a thrill out of watching the two of them splash around in the bay, barking and exclaiming with joy.
One summer day they were on the ocean side of the park. They watched the waves and listened to the noise over at SeaWorld, and Zoe said she’s never been to SeaWorld. “Mom said it’s too expensive.”
Jake thought, hmm, I haven’t either. We’re going to have to fix that. When he dropped Zoe off at home, he suggested to Sasha that the three of them have a little outing at SeaWorld. He made it clear that it would be his treat. Sasha said she didn’t want to go. Jake and Zoe both had droopy faces upon hearing that. But then she said Jake could take Zoe.
The next morning, bright and sunny, Jake picked up Zoe, who jumped around and chattered nonstop about their excursion. She looked so cute in her flowered dress and red sandals. Tickets cost seventy-five dollars each, as expensive as Sasha had said, and it would get more expensive when they got inside and Jake learned how many things the admission price didn’t include. No matter, they were going to have a great time. So they spent the day going from exhibit to exhibit and ride to ride. Jake found the quality of the animal exhibits disappointing; it seemed more like an amusement park than a marine park, but Zoe had the time of her life.
“What did you think of the killer whales?” Jake asked Zoe.
“Awesome! What was your favorite, Jake?”
“I loved riding on the Manta with you.”
Jake took pictures of Zoe on his phone, but he had none of the two of them together. He finally asked a woman if she’d snap a photo of the two of them. They stood side by side, and when Jake put his arm around Zoe, she looked up at him with a huge grin.
After the woman took the picture she looked at it to make sure it came out okay. “Great picture of you and your granddaughter.”
For lunch, they ate hot dogs and fries. After that they saw the sea lions. Zoe loved how they barked so much. While they watched the silly antics of the penguins, Jake’s favorite, he remembered a zoo outing when his children were young. His eyes glistened with tears.
They went on one last ride together, the Wild Arctic. By then the lines for the rides had gotten too long and they decided to call it a day, both exhausted.
On the short ride home Jake asked Zoe if she’d had a good time.
She smiled ear to ear. “Too bad Milo couldn’t come. It was my most fun day ever.”
He struggled not to cry, thinking, me too.
In September, homeschooling resumed for Zoe. Sometimes Sasha and Zoe met Milo and Jake at the park, and several times a week Jake, Milo and Zoe took short walks together before or after dinner. Early one evening in October, Jake stopped by unannounced with a little gift for Zoe, a board game they could play together. He had contemplated asking Sasha if Zoe could come to his apartment occasionally for short visits, not an overnight or anything, maybe just a Saturday afternoon. She had allowed Jake to come to their apartment sometimes to read with Sasha or play games.
He walked up the stairs to their apartment and rang the bell. Milo jumped around with excitement, knowing he was going to see Zoe. No answer, so he knocked. “They must not be home,” he said to Milo, sorry that his dog would be disappointed.
As they started to walk away, Jake holding his surprise gift for Zoe, an older neighbor lady who had seen them there sometimes said, “They moved out two days ago.”
What? Seeing the disappointment on his face, the lady said, “Didn't they tell you?”
Jake hung his head, at a loss for words. How could this be? Could they really have moved without even saying goodbye? What could have happened?
They started back down the stairs, the neighbor lady saying something behind them that Jake couldn’t hear. He barely held back tears and struggled to make sense of what had happened. Then he remembered he had Sasha’s cellphone number back in the apartment. He hurried Milo along, pulling him as they walk-ran the several blocks back home. When he called Sasha’s number, it rang and rang before finally an announcement came on telling him that the number was no longer in service.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” he exclaimed to Milo, his fists clenched. “I can’t believe this! How could they do this to us?” He gave Milo a treat and together they plopped down on the sofa. Jake went round and round in his head, trying to figure out what could have prompted this unannounced move. How could Sasha do this to Zoe? Could she be so cold-hearted or self-centered that she couldn’t see how much Jake meant to Zoe? Jake was her only friend, for heaven’s sake.
He paced for the rest of the evening, unable to watch TV or read or do anything. He couldn’t stop thinking about poor Zoe. Finally, at ten, he decided he might as well turn in. He got ready for bed, and Milo jumped up on the bed to comfort him, falling asleep curled up next to Jake. But sleep eluded him. He tossed and turned all night, trying to imagine what could have happened to Zoe.
The next morning, feeling like he’d been hit by a truck, he dragged himself out of bed and said to Milo, while feeding him his breakfast, “Enough is enough.” He sat down at his kitchen table with a yellow pad and started to write a letter to his daughter Karen. For weeks, thoughts had swirled around in his head. He knew he needed to do this, the amends long overdue. What could he say that might get her to reconsider allowing him back into her life?
I know it’s been way too long, decades too long, but I felt like I had to try to make amends for what a terrible father I was to you and Brian. I was a drunk for most of your childhood. I made a lot of mistakes, and I have a ton of regrets. Your mother had every right to throw me out. I deserved it. My first mistake was choosing to drink instead of spending time with you and Brian right after the divorce. I was deep in my disease and acted like a complete jerk. By the time work made me get sober, you guys were teenagers and had lives of your own. You wanted nothing to do with me, and I understand that. So I made another mistake. I gave up and left town and tried to forget what I was leaving behind. It was too painful. Although I sent checks, I made your mother be both mother and father. I think she did a good job. I know you’ve both made her proud.
When I was sixty, I retired and moved out to San Diego. I have made a quiet little life for myself here. I haven’t had a drink in over twenty-five years. More than anything, I would like to see you, to meet my granddaughter, to try to make up for the past in some small way. Or at least talk to you about what happened and your feelings about it.
Karen, I’ll understand if you’re not interested, but I had to at least try.
He included his address and phone number, said a little prayer, and put it into the mail. He had only one address for her. Hopefully, if she had moved, his former employer would see fit to forward it.
Two weeks later, Jake’s cellphone rang. Every time the phone rang, which wasn’t often, he hoped that it would be Sasha and Zoe, telling him where they were, explaining what happened. He longed to hear Zoe’s sweet voice.
“Hello, Dad. This is Karen. I got your letter. There’s someone here who’d like to say hi.”