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Unrealized Potential

For most of his life, Scott has built machines and written code for them. He is now learning that building stories and writing for people requires no less precision or discipline--and often more.

Mom and I had arranged to meet Dad at the town museum. The special exhibit, "Unrealized Potential," only showed once each year from midnight until six AM on the summer solstice. The season's young heat hung in the humid air after the warm June day, and the first bold insects interrogated the darkness around the tired wooden building with their tentative rasping calls.
It was only eleven thirty, but locals of all ages had already begun to gather. For many of them, attending on even such a mild night was not a trivial undertaking. They rolled up in wheelchairs, teetered on prosthetic legs, tapped red-tipped canes, or were limply carried by parents and determined friends. Others doggedly towed along their own life support mechanisms--tenuous tangles of wet tubes and wires precariously perched on squeaking wheels.
There were also a disconcerting number of individuals from nowhere in particular. Their faces were pockmarked by the restless fingernails of drug addiction or scarred by lives gone wrong in other sordid ways; and they dressed in rags whose foul odors stubbornly resisted dissipation by the soft breeze.
Most incongruous were their expressions--so many genuine and excited smiles from such haggard visitors.
At last, the nearby clock tower chimed twelve-o'clock, the front gates opened, and the strange crowd made its slow, faltering way up the steps and ramps into the entrance hall. The makeshift stalls bordering the anteroom were promptly filled, coat-check style, with wheelchairs, canes, walkers, unstrapped limbs, oxygen tanks, and all the rest of the undesired but compulsory paraphernalia as the crowd moved with newfound poise and independence into the main exhibit hall.
"There he is!" exclaimed Mom when Dad appeared. We hurried over to him, eager not to waste a single moment. Six hours was such a short time after an entire year.
Together, we milled and churned with the others, sipping cool sweet wine and nibbling bits of cakes, meats, and freshly-sliced fruits.
The oldest guests strutted about, flaunting restored libidos and discussing long-forgotten plans with lucid certainty. The blind browsed the artworks on display with eyes now clear and wide, commenting on the rich colors, forms, and textures of each sculpted medium and canvas.
Some took up brushes of their own and painted alongside steady-handed Parkinson's patients at the crafting tables set up for everyone to use. Where the tables ended, the floor had been cleared and the deaf danced to baroque chamber music played by a dexterous string quartet of Thalidomide casualties.
Most enchanting of all, however, were the children. Grinning parents set down crippled sons and daughters on stable young legs to run and frisk among themselves, shouting, jumping, and laughing. The street people, now smooth-skinned and smelling as fresh as the breeze itself, joined in their fun. They played strong but gentle scoundrels in games of "pig-pile on the grownup" with raucous youngsters and read fairy-tales (with all the right voices) to the quieter ones.
Mom, Dad, and I watched, drinking in the joyful spectacle, talking about our days, weeks, and the previous year. We had all aged--time does not succumb to potential--but Dad looked good. Mom and I had missed him so much--more than we had realized. Was it really better to have this opportunity to know what had never unfolded in our lives? Or was it a morbid self-indulgence? A screeching stampede of four-to-eleven-year-olds snapped me back into the revelry. Of course this was better. These children's smiles and unbridled silliness were the undeniable proof.
We three continued with our own humble version, joking about our modest adventures, commenting about work and home projects, what books we had read, and which routine errands were the most or least fun to do. We filled each other's glasses again and again; the wine made us warm and happy, but would not make us drunk.
Finally, inevitably, the lights flashed three times to signal that it was five forty-five and the exhibit would be closing soon. Smiles became misty, hands were clutched more tightly, and the laughter grew subdued. Mom held Dad close and long before giving him one last kiss on the cheek. Then it was my turn. I took his right hand in mine and wrapped my left arm around his shoulders. I blinked back the tears but could not contain the silent shudder that came when I hugged him.
This brief evening paled so much in comparison with all of the times that we never had and would never have, big and small, grand and mundane--holidays and vacations, dinners on weekends, camping, baseball games, fishing--even just yard work or talking on the phone. And maybe grandchildren. Our own unrealized potential together.
As the clock struck six, my father, widowed as a young man by the profound tragedy that took his pregnant wife and unborn son, descended the museum's front steps.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Author Comments

I had a very vivid dream in which I was attending the Unrealized Potential exhibit. The ending to the story, which surprised me, did not come until after I started writing about the dream.

- Scott E. Ritter
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