Tuesday, you have decided, is going to be errand day. You enlist your three-year-old daughter’s enthusiasm with a promise to take her to the park. You haven’t been in a while, and now that it’s May, you don’t know how many pleasant mornings you have left before the summer sear sets in.
“Which park, Daddy?”
“Let’s go to
,” you say. Duck
Park is your name for Cortez Park,
one of the larger parks in the city of Phoenix. It’s got a man-made lake, and ducks, which
distinguishes it from the smaller parks in your neighborhood.
have a playground?”
she asks, frowning uncertainly. Duck
“Yes, it has a big playground.” She brightens in immediate response, as though she only needed to hear it to remember.
You load your little girl into the car, and join the straggling traffic of the post-rush city streets. You complete your errands without much difficulty, dropping reminders of
when necessary to steer your little girl back into compliance, which only
happens once or twice. You arrive at the
park as promised around 10:30. Before
you even open the door to unlock her from her car seat, you’ve already taken
note of several dark men reclining in the shadows of sheltered picnic tables,
but you see no reason to give them any more than a casual glance. They do not stir. Duck Park
You walk hand in hand across the grassy expanse of the park, passing in and out of the shade laid down by enormous old pine trees, following the cement trail that leads to the playground, and beyond that, the concrete-lined lake. She wants to swing, so you push for a few minutes, and then she wants to climb, so you lift her out and let her carve a path through the sand to the play structure, a combination of enameled steel and plastic in a swirling jumble of teal, and two kinds of purple. There are a few other little kids and their parents on the playground, and a small group of preschoolers under the supervision of a gentle-looking, but rough-voiced, African-American woman, but they’re all over at the bigger kids’ play area. You give your little girl the opportunity to roam far and wide, but she doesn’t want it. She wants you to go up the stairs with her into the structure, and stand by the cone-shaped tube at the top, which is too high for her to talk into, while she goes back down and talks into the other end of the cone-tube sticking out of the sand. You play this much sturdier version of tin-can telephone, and then she leads you across the elevated walkway to the curly slide at the other end. She wants to go down the slide, but it’s in the sun, and the plastic is hot. So you put her on your lap and go down the slide with her, taking the heat of it on your bare, but far less sensitive legs. Then you ask her if she wants to go see the ducks now, and she nods.
From the playground it takes barely a minute to reach the sidewalk that rims the lake. She sees a few ducks drifting on the water and stops, wanting to know why they’re not quacking. You quack on their behalf, and that satisfies her. The two of you continue walking around to the back side, where there is a bridge that connects to a small, grassy island. You cross the bridge, and then lift her over a low stone wall, setting her down gently on the wide, gently-descending slope beyond. There is a night heron perched with its stubby legs on the curb which lines the island tracking you with his gray head, his thick, spearing beak, and his eye, which is the color of tomato juice. He watches you warily before suddenly exposing a much larger bird’s wingspan, and lifting off. Six or seven ducks are napping under the shade of a tree, and you encourage your little girl to join you for a closer look. Then you hear the sound of a boy from behind, shouting something like “Hey, guy! Hey, guy!” At first you don’t even look, because you assume he’s calling after the man you nearly passed on the bridge, tackle box and fishing pole in hand, apparently calling it a day. But the boy is calling you, and you eventually realize this when you do look back and see him leaning over the stone wall, reaching towards you with his arm. Somewhere behind him, you vaguely see a man in a red shirt, watching inconspicuously from the shade. You and your little girl wait while the boy climbs over the wall and approaches. He is more hesitant about nearing you than you expect.
“Hi, how are ya?” you say, in your friendly, encouraging way, smiling. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice the man in the red shirt moving towards you, as though he intends to stop the boy, but he doesn’t come over the wall.
The boy looks you in the eye for a moment. He doesn’t smile back. You immediately notice that one of his eyes seems to think that you are a foot closer than you actually are, while the other one knows exactly where to find you. You think of Peter Falk, or the crazy kid from your neighborhood who once sucker-punched you while you were delivering newspapers, because that’s what their eyes were like. Your little girl, unsure, moves to the other side of you; you place your hand gently on her head. He begins to talk, but his speech is obscured and difficult to understand. It occurs to you that perhaps the boy has some developmental issues. You wonder if that’s why the man in the red shirt was going to stop the boy. Even though you can’t tell exactly what he’s saying, the way he points, the intensity of his expression, and the way he keeps repeating himself make it clear there’s something he urgently wants you to know. Your little girl begins to make partial whining sounds, like she’s scared. You tell her it’s okay, then you squat down to hear the boy better. “’Ed ’uck,” you hear him say, mixed in with other things. He keeps coming back to that phrase. “’Ed ’uck. ’Ed ’uck.” He is pointing at the ducks snoozing in the shade, and you finally get it.
“Oh,” you say, pointing along with him. “Dead ducks. You think those are dead ducks?” He nods vigorously. “Are you sure?” He nods again with certainty. He looks at you with great seriousness; he doesn’t want you to approach them. “You know, I think those ducks are just sleeping.” His face darkens at your contradiction. “See? A few of them are moving.” He follows your gaze. “That’s how ducks take a nap, with their heads tucked into their backs like that. Let’s get a little closer and see.” He doesn’t appear to believe you, but moves a step closer anyway with you and your little girl, who is right up against your side, shielding herself from the strange boy. A few of the ducks’ eyes pop open, a few tails twitch nervously, and two immediately scuttle into the safety of the water. The boy’s expression changes to delight, as though he had just witnessed a resurrection. He touches you tentatively on your shoulder, and at once you know something more about him, something which makes you feel a little sad. You can sense the man in the red shirt watching you and the boy, but you don’t move away from the boy’s hand. You don’t react at all. The boy’s hand comes off on its own; it wasn’t there long enough to become a problem: two seconds, maybe three. The man hovers silently for a minute more, and then you feel him falling back, fading into the background. The boy is absorbed by the ducks, and while he watches them, you look at him. He is probably five, but you’re a bad judge of kids’ ages, even though you have two daughters, so he could just as easily be six, or four. His hair is short, just long enough to lay forward on his head, light brown. He has a full, round face, which is flushed rosy by the sun, as though he’s been outside all morning. Between his mouth and his nose, spreading out on each side onto his cheeks, is a streaked mixture of orange and brown, the residue of cheese puffs and dirty hands, or maybe the brown stuff is congealed soda. His eyes are dark brown, and, of course, appear to be looking at two slightly different things. It’s a small difference, just enough so that it will always be the first thing people notice. Also, there is a feeling of wildness you receive from this boy that goes deeper than the discrepancy of his eyes.
The ducks that have congregated in the shade are male mallards, with heads that read more blue than green out of the sun. There are two white ducks just outside the shade; one resting in the taller grass beside the island’s curving lip, and the other treading in the lake just beyond it. The one that had been lying in the grass gets up and hops to the curb, reaching down to the water for a drink. It’s a small duck, and the feathers along its skinny neck are raised in uneven tufts. It is resting on one foot, the other held off the ground, hanging limp like a piece of wet paper from a wire. The other duck, also white, but much larger with patches of reddish brown on its lower body, emerges from the water and waddles in close proximity while its partner takes in individual mouthfuls of pond water and swallows them in small, fevered gulps. The boy notices the duck, and starts asking you about it, although the only thing you can partially make out is “’ad ’uck?”
“Yeah, that duck looks like it’s hurt, doesn’t it?” You say, nodding towards it. “See its leg?”
He nods too in response, now consumed by the lame duck. It finishes drinking, and hops back to its spot in the grass and the sun. “’Ees coot,” the boy says, and then says it a few more times before you can puzzle out that he’s saying “He’s cute,” partly because of the way he pronounced the words, and partly because his face is blank and carries no expression.
He says something and looks at you expectantly, and then moves slightly, like he wants to go over to the injured duck. You stop him, saying, “We better not get too close. That duck looks pretty sick. We should let it rest.” He listens, which relieves you for two reasons. First you don’t think the big duck was about to let anyone approach its companion; and second, you’re not quite sure of the boy’s intent. He may have wanted to console the sick bird, and maybe hug it, but part of you suspects (and regrets suspecting without in any way releasing the suspicion) that he may have ended up kicking it. That’s the result of the wildness you sense from the boy.
A couple of mallards plop into the water, forming a convenient distraction. They take their baths in the lake, cooling themselves off by submerging partially, then shaking the trapped water droplets across their backs, finally flicking them off with quick wiggles of the tail. This makes both the boy and your little girl laugh – until this moment your little girl has been pressed silently against your leg – and you make them laugh twice as loudly by encouraging the ducks to “shake their butts.”
You continue to watch the ducks in the water, and point out for them a mother mallard on the far side, with perhaps two or three ducklings in tow; they’re too far away to count individually. “’Imming?” the boy asks.
“Right, they’re swimming.” You feel like you’re beginning to catch on to the boy’s speech patterns, when he keeps them short. A few more mallards fly in and land on the water twenty feet away; a few more take off. The noise they make, the visual excitement of the movement, the flutter and the splashing light up the boy’s face; he looks at you with wide eyes and an open-mouthed smile. It happens again, and you watch him again, satisfied. You continue to watch until the pain in your legs from squatting outweighs your willingness to wait for something new to see. You also are vaguely aware that you need to move on.
You ask your little girl if she’s ready to go see the rest of the island. She is. You look at the boy, whose face is already drawn into a sad expression, and tell him you’re going to go look around. He points to the ducks; he doesn’t want you to leave them. You ask him if he wants to come see what’s over on the other side; he just continues to point at the ducks sullenly. You say, “Okay, we’ll see you buddy,” and smile and slowly walk away. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the man in the red shirt sitting still on a large rock in the shade by the bridge.
End of part 1
End of part 1