A Walk in the Park
Allan Drew (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
Dean woke on Friday morning before it was light. He pushed off the covers, sat up, and pressed the heels of his hands hard into his eyes. He raked the floor with his toes, searching for his robe. He pressed a key on his phone and was offered a bluish glow and he spotted it, curled up against the bookcase like a cat. Bethany grunted.
He sat on a wadded-up towel on a deckchair, waiting for dawn. He looked down the hill. Columns of streetlights glowed yellow. The early morning traffic swept along, clusters of red tail-lights, brightening as they came together and dimming as they separated. Always movement in the city, cafés opening, bars closing, life happening. Reality, happening.
“Better to be where you want to be, even in a rented place, than in your own place where you don’t want to be.” He’d said that to Bethany after they’d signed the lease. Bethany had wanted to buy a house in Glen Eden at the bottom of a cul-de-sac that backed onto a council playground. The playground had graffiti on the jungle gym. Suburban graffiti. The kind that says, In case you didn’t know, there’s nothing happening here, nothing at all, in indecipherable script.
From inside came the sound of crying, steady, determined. Dean turned his head slightly towards the noise, but kept his eyes on the trees. A glow had begun to appear. Dean picked up his camera, a new digital SLR, a thousand dollars-worth—an investment for the future. Through the viewfinder, nothing but darkness. A light went on inside, and he flicked the power off and put the camera back in his lap.
Claws tapped on the timber decking. Pupsicle appeared at his right foot. She lay down, her chin resting on the ground. Pupsicle had been his Christmas present to Bethany four years earlier. She was a pure-bred beagle. “Like Snoopy,” he’d said.
Pups looked nothing like Snoopy. She was a digger. She just dug and dug. Made such a mess all the time. When Bethany got pregnant with Paulie, she’d said, “The baby will be easier than Pups,” and Dean had said, “I bloody well hope so.”
Bethany slid the door open and came out onto the deck. “He’s okay now,” she said.
“Huh?” said Dean.
“Paulie. He’s okay. He was grizzly but he’s okay. He’s had some milk.”
“Good.” Dean looked at his son, perched on Bethany’s left hip. “Boo,” he said. Paulie smiled, then looked at Pups.
“What is it today?” Bethany asked. In her right hand she had a cup of coffee.
“Same,” Dean said, looking through the viewfinder. “Look at that,” he said, and pointed into the trees.
He picked his camera up again and started flicking through past images. “I had this idea,” said Dean. He returned the camera to photo mode and held it back to his eye.
“That clouds are important. And weather in general.” He twisted the zoom lens a quarter turn. “Where is it?” he muttered.
“What?” Dean looked up at Bethany. She looked at the trees.
“Do you have enough light yet?” she asked.
“Still waiting. But when the moment comes I want to catch it.”
“You know—the moment.” he said. Bethany took Paulie back inside.
Dean went back to his camera. Photography. It was the thing. Career change for a better future. His time was getting clipped back at the office, to four days a week—it was a twenty percent pay cut. They’d had to economize. Bethany had to put off joining the gym. They bought those store-brand loaves of bread that cost one dollar and were as white and light as cotton wool.
The camera was a necessary expense. The next step was night classes at the high school. He’d break into it, chuck in his job, make more money, and spend more time with Paulie and Bethany. There was a friend of a friend who was a photographer, and he made pots of dough. He had a new house in Freeman’s Bay and a boat at Gulf Harbour and all he had to do was take photos of idiots getting married on weekends.
“He won’t settle,” said Bethany. Dean had just got out of the shower, having got fed up waiting for the perfect moment to take a photo of the sun behind the cedar. Bethany was holding Paulie on her left hip again and standing right outside the bathroom door—he jumped slightly when he saw her.
“Pamol?” he asked. Dean tightened the towel around his waist and tickled Paulie’s feet.
“Well?” he said. Bethany’s reluctance with pain relief was frustrating. Analgesia was one of the things that separated humans from animals.
“I don’t know,” said Bethany, looking at Paulie for an answer.
“What about a walk?” Dean suggested.
“Maybe. Paulie, would you like to walk to the playground?” Paulie looked blankly at his mother. Dean balanced a plastic Superman plate on his head, and Paulie smiled for a second before he started grumbling again. He pulled Bethany’s hair. Bethany grimaced but didn’t say anything, and Paulie let go after a few seconds.
“Okay, come on then, to the playground,” said Bethany.
“Have you had coffee?” asked Dean.
“What? Yes, before,” said Bethany.
“Is there any more?”
“It’s gone cold.”
“Microwave it for me? I’ll get dressed while you get him ready,” said Dean, and walked away towards their bedroom.
At the top of the right-of-way the wind was stronger, and Dean paused so Bethany could zip up the weather shield on Paulie’s buggy.
Dean tied Pups to the handle of the buggy. Pups would sprint out ahead of them as far as the lead would allow, then come to a sudden stop and frantically sniff at something until Dean and Bethany had walked passed, and then sprint back once there was a tug on the leash. She did that over and over again.
“It’s a wonder she’s fat, the way she digs, and the way she runs like that,” said Dean.
“She’s fat because you feed her bacon rinds.”
Dean’s camera bumped in its padded case against his chest as he pushed Paulie along. He’d get some shots of people at the park, when they weren’t looking. People. People were difficult. They always complained about the way they looked in photos. The worst were the people who were least important. Like a grandmother with her grandchild who complains about her double chin when people are only ever going to look at the kid anyway, because the kid is the whole point of it. Who wants to look at a wrinkly old hag? But it had to be done. The money was in weddings, and that meant photographing people—even if they were all cretins.
“Look at this idiot,” Dean said. It was rubbish day, and someone had left their recycling bin in the middle of the footpath. He had to push Paulie’s buggy onto the grass verge to go around it.
“They do a lot of recycling,” said Bethany. The lid hadn’t closed properly because the rubbish was piled over the top rim.
“Recycling is a joke,” said Dean. “You know, they ship all the recycling to China. Massive ships loaded with rubbish.”
“Can that be true?”
Dean ignored her question. “Case in point: that new toilet paper you’ve started buying, EarthWise or SmartPlanet or something. I read the label. On the packet it says they use plastic packaging because if they were to use paper it would have to be laminated, and that laminated stuff isn’t recyclable, and the plastic they use is highly biodegradable anyway.”
“So?” said Bethany.
“So, what are you supposed to do? Paper, plastic or what?”
“I guess we should be better informed.”
“Incorrect,” said Dean. “Impossible. Some guy on breakfast TV said that it was better to heat your home with a wood-burner than with an electric heat pump, because a wood-burner used renewable fuel while electricity was made by burning coal.” Dean and Bethany used an electric heater in each room in winter, and mopped the condensation off the window sills with a towel each morning. “When we get a house, we’re going to have a wood-burner. Dry heat.”
“What?” said Bethany.
“Yeah.” said Dean. “Did you know, you’re not allowed wood-burners in Christchurch?”
“What? Because of the quake?”
“No, because there’s not much wind. The smoke just hangs around. Pollution.”
“Are you sure?”
“Fact.” Dean stopped and looked at the ground, then pointed at a soggy Snickers wrapper in the gutter. “Pollution,” he said. “Right there.”
They waited at the lights. Behind them, the corrugated iron door of the fish and chip shop rolled open. That takeaway shop made most of its money from people buying food to eat at the park, so they opened when the people started arriving and closed when they began leaving. There was a sign that was supposed to list its opening hours but the spaces beside each day were blank. They just opened the door when they thought they could make a buck. Deep-fried opportunism.
The opening of the roller door released the smell of cold cooking oil and the beep-beep of the video game machines. When Paulie was born, Dean had given up video games. He had been really good at them: “It’s just a matter of hand-eye,” he used to say.
At the park, Bethany took Paulie to the swing, sat down on the rubber padding, and started playing peekaboo as Paulie swung in and away. Dean stayed at the picnic table, fiddling with his camera, searching for the right setting. Pups sat by his feet, looking at the children and periodically smelling the air. There was no wind at all. The clouds hovered.
Dean sat his camera on the picnic table and looked across to Bethany and Paulie. Bethany had her hair pulled back into a pony tail and Dean looked at her neck, long and white. Paulie kicked his legs wildly, laughing. Dean looked to the sky, felt the wind pick up, and goose-bumps formed on his arms.
A man walked towards him, wearing blue fleecy track-pants with an elastic waist and rolled-up cuffs. His brushed cotton shirt was tucked into his pants. He slide-shuffled in his slip-on loafers. Dean felt that rustle in his stomach, the kind he got when some idiot knocked on his door and tried to sell him religion or a deal on a telecommunications bundle.
He had a limp. Not the sort you had when you had an injury. It was the sort you had when there was something not right upstairs. The man’s face was skewed, with a half-smile on the left side but almost no expression on the right. A mongrel puppy scampered along at his feet, attached by its collar to a long leash that was rolled up in the man’s left hand. The man stooped to pick the puppy up and cradled it in his arms. Dean sighed. Oh great.
The man stopped when he reached the table.
“Hicht—hicht,” he said. Whatever the words were meant to be, they were getting stuck in the top of his mouth. The man shook his head and tried again. “Hicht—thmth, hicht, thpth,” he said.
“What?” said Dean, and leaned forward and turned his head, as if proximity, concentration, and a direct line to his ear were all that were needed for comprehension.
The man pointed to Pups. “Heelod?” he said, and pulled that half smile again. Dean had the feeling the man was proud of that last utterance.
“Pardon?” said Dean, leaning in and turning his head like before, presenting his right ear.
The man pointed to Pups again and said, “Heelod?” Dean apologised by moving his shoulders up beside his ears.
The man tried another approach. He pointed to the puppy in his arms and said, “Sith mots.” Right, this is shit. How to get rid of him? If this guy’d knocked on his front door he would have just closed it and walked away. But, this was neutral ground.
Dean looked over to the swings. Paulie was still smiling and kicking his legs. Bethany was looking over to Dean, and she tilted her head to one side.
“Sisth moks,” the man said, again, still pointing to his puppy. Something locked into place.
“Six months old?” asked Dean. The man nodded several times.
“Oh right,” said Dean. He hadn’t been breathing much, and had to take a few recovery inhalations. “She’s a cutie.”
“Boh,” the man said. Bastard, here we go again.
The man rolled the puppy over to show Dean its underside. The puppy had big brown spots on its belly, and, quite clearly, a penis and two bumps for testicles.
“Oh, he’s a boy.” said Dean, sighing again, but less deeply. The man smiled with half his face as he showed Dean his dog’s genitals.
“Heelod?” the man said, pointing back to Pups.
Dean shrugged. “Come again?”
“How old?” asked Dean. The man gave the thumbs up. “Oh, right. She’s four. Her name’s Pups.” The man bent down carefully and stroked Pups’ ears. Pups licked his wrist with slow contemplation.
The man put his puppy on the ground and it ran back and forth, sideways, like a crab, but always with its nose towards Pups. Dammit, bloody cute. Pups watched the puppy, her head going left then right like she was watching tennis. She was panting lightly, with her ears flopped at the sides of her head. The man bent down again and stroked her head; Pups lay on the ground and rolled over.
“Oh you little slut,” said Dean, and the man made a sound that could have been a laugh, and rubbed her belly.
The man picked up his puppy and held him to his chest. He waved at Pups and said, “Baba,” then looked at Dean and gave him a half-faced smile and turned around and went and sat at another picnic table.
Bethany walked back over with Paulie. “Who was that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Dean, looking sideways across the playground. “Some guy—I think he must have had a stroke or something. He wanted to say hello to Pups.” Pups wagged her tail and sniffed the air.
“Right.” She looked across to the man then back at Dean. “Paulie seems to be feeling better. Maybe just cabin fever.”
“Yeah, okay, right, I guess,” said Dean. He tied Pups’ leash to the buggy and Bethany clipped Paulie into its harness. Dean looked over to the man, and when the man saw Dean turn his way, he lifted his arm to wave. As he did so, his body folded and twisted forward at the waist; the man reached his hand back to the table but missed. His left leg shifted abruptly forward, buckled inwards, and he took two short staggering steps then crumpled into a silent heap.
“Oh, holy shit,” said Dean, and he ran across the playground to the man. “Hell,” he breathed as he knelt down. “Are you okay?” The man pushed with his left arm to try to sit up.
The leash was still looped around his left hand. The puppy had scurried across from where it had been sniffing around the rubbish bin and was now panting next to the man as he lay on the ground. “Here,” said Dean, and pulled the man’s right arm. His finger and thumb met as he gripped the wrist. The shoulder would pop from its socket if he pulled too hard; there were more clothes than flesh. Dean got him sitting.
“How’s that?” Dean asked when the man seemed comfortable. He nodded firmly in reply. There was a graze on the back of his right hand; Dean flinched when he saw it. The graze was the size of a matchbox, and the skin had lifted right off and folded back in a single clean layer, like a pastry top peeled back from a pie. The piece that had been peeled away was translucent, and rested upside down on undamaged skin. Where that skin had been, the flesh was patchy, red and white. Clear fluid was starting to glisten over the surface. “Jesus, that looks sore.”
The man looked at it blankly and said, “Ne, ne.”
Bethany arrived, pushing Paulie in the buggy. “Can I help?” she asked. The man shook his head. Dean said, “Let me help you up,” and the man nodded and Dean gripped him under his armpits and pulled him to his feet. He was so light, but somehow awkward to lift, too, like a clothes airer. The man stood for a couple of seconds then sat back down on the bench.
“Can we, maybe, help you home or something?” Bethany asked. The man shook his head and looked to his puppy, and gestured to Dean to pass him up. Dean squatted down and cooed at the puppy like it was a child, trying to entice it over to him. It sat and looked at him. Dean tugged on the leash, jerking its head, and the puppy skipped over and Dean lifted him into the man’s waiting lap.
“You sure there is nothing else we can do?” said Bethany. The man shook his head again and smiled at Bethany with half his mouth. He looked at Paulie, seeing him perhaps for the first time. Bethany said, “This is Paulie. Paulie, say hello to the nice man.” The man bowed, like he was meeting an emperor. The graze on his hand was very wet now, with a mixture of blood and that shiny fluid, and it was starting to seep down to his fingers. The man saw Dean looking, and put his left hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out a handkerchief and covered the graze. The handkerchief quickly turned pale pink as the fluid was absorbed.
“Hell, mate, be careful, eh?” Dean said. The man bowed his head again and made a gentle pushing motion with his left hand.
Dean and Bethany walked back up the hill to their house. Paulie sat in the buggy babbling to himself. “That guy’s got it tough,” said Bethany.
“Yeah,” said Dean. There was a chilled breeze coming up the road and he pulled up the hood on his sweatshirt. He looked at Paulie in his buggy, sitting up with a blanket over his knees. Paulie smiled at him. Dean said to Bethany, “You know, if you want, tomorrow when Paulie wakes up, I can get up and you can have a lie in.”
“Except, I have to feed him.”
“Oh yeah,” said Dean.
Paulie suddenly arched his back and screamed. Dean applied the brake and Bethany reached into the buggy to comfort him.
“Here, I’ll get him out,” said Dean. “I can carry him the rest of the way.” Dean put his hands under his son’s writhing shoulders and lifted him out. Paulie screamed again and began kicking, feet flying, as if running wildly in mid-air. Dean pulled him close in an effort to settle him, and Paulie’s right foot connected with Dean’s left testicle.
“Umph,” said Dean. He held his breath, passed Paulie to Bethany, then sat on the footpath. He felt something shift—something behind bone and muscle, an intestinal twist. He tightened his stomach, pushing in silence at the visceral squeeze. It began to retreat. He became aware of the need to breathe but held off, fearing an inhalation would revive the spasm.
“Where’d he get you?” said Bethany. She had Paulie back in the buggy, quiet.
“Square on.” Dean breathed. Bethany nodded and rolled the buggy back and forth.
“So, shall we keep going?” said Bethany.
“Give us a minute.”
“It’s cold. I’ll take Paulie on and see you at home.”
Dean looked up. He wasn’t ready to move, but felt strange about being left on the footpath alone. Bethany and Paulie set off, and he got up. He took a moment, leaning with his hand against a power pole. Quite suddenly, something bit his finger. “Shitting shit.” He looked at his hand. A small red circle with a white centre had formed, slightly raised above his skin. As he watched, it swelled to the size of a ten cent coin—as if there were half a macadamia nut lodged under his skin. Dean set off, shaking his hand, walking quickly to catch up to his wife and son, his gait more hunched and less rhythmic than normal.
“Wait up,” he called out.
Dean kept his bitten hand in his pocket, and didn’t mention it to Bethany, even though it throbbed. For the next few minutes, they talked about Paulie’s first birthday, which was coming up in a couple of months. Dean said he was pretty sure Paulie would be walking by then, and Bethany said she hoped that he would be too. So far, whenever they pulled Paulie up onto his feet, he sat straight back down and cried.
Dean smelled rain in the air. He looked up. There were grey and white formations, some streaky, some soft and round, some sailing quickly across the sky and others anchored in place. “Shit,” he said.
“Language.” said Bethany. Paulie stopped babbling and turned to look at Dean.
“Sorry. Sheesh,” said Dean.
“I didn’t take any photos, and look at the clouds now,” he said, pointing.
“You want to go back?” she asked. They stopped walking and Dean turned around to look back down the hill at the park. He could just make out the man sitting on the bench. He imagined him stroking the puppy’s back and tickling it behind the ears. He thought of that graze, and pictured tufts of the puppy’s fur getting caught in the sticky fluid. He’d never seen skin give up on itself so easily, and he couldn’t get the idea out of his mind that the man would be dead before that graze had healed.
“Nah,” Dean said, “I’ll try for something else. Can’t be bothered walking back down and then up the hill again.”
They were nearly home. “You could give him some of the milk from the freezer,” Bethany said.
“What?” said Dean.
“If you want to get up with Paulie tomorrow.”
“Oh, right. That stuff in the zip-lock bags?” The frozen, expressed breast milk that Dean was wary of.
“I’ll thaw some in the fridge.”
“Right, okay, great,” Dean said. “So, what do you do?”
“Huh?” said Bethany.
“With the milk?”
“You warm it up.”
“Right.” Dean stopped walking—a sharp and fast pain had shot from his scrotum down the inside of his leg. “And he just drinks it?” He winced a little.
Bethany stopped, turned, and looked at him. “I’ll show you later.”
That jolt of pain was the last damage the injury delivered; as he began walking again, Dean felt the ease and fluidity of his usual stride. Just up ahead, a minibus slowed to walking pace, then pulled over to the left on the dotted yellow lines and indicated to turn right. The car behind stopped, uncertain whether it was safe to overtake. Dean shook his head and said, “Check out this gripper,” and peered in the window as he walked past.
Allan is currently completing his PhD in creative writing at Victoria University Wellington. Allan’s short stories and poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and his work has won or been shortlisted in several international and national writing competitions. You can find him online here.