The day, which had begun overcast, cold, and threatening, had suddenly brightened and warmed, so that when my two-and-a-half-year-old wanted to go to the park I agreed. Our first stop, as always, was at the swings. Having abruptly abandoned her fear of them, Louisa now requires long and vigorous pushings.
We had the park nearly to ourselves. The big kids were in school, and most of the other little kids must have been napping. But there was a family--a man, woman, and baby--sitting on a bench a few yards away. The little girl played at their feet as the adults talked, their voices audible only as murmurs. The woman was around 30, stylishly dressed and conventionally pretty, with curly, shoulder-length dark hair and big gold hoop earrings. The man's short, curly hair was beginning to gray at the sides. He wore light slacks and a navy Shaker sweater with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows--he looked like a lawyer on his day off.
Suddenly the man stood up, slowly but purposefully, said something, and strode away.
"Wait!" called the woman. Then, screaming, "WAIT! Wait just a goddamned minute!" and ran after him. The baby stared after them, forgotten, and then started toward the play equipment.
The woman stood in front of the man on the curving asphalt path and prodded him in the chest with the red nail of her index finger. He glowered back, arms akimbo, the veins in his neck visible 15 feet away as they swelled.
Bits of her conversation filtered back. "If you'd accept your responsibilities... Yours too, you know.... Don't tell me that, goddammit."
I tried to pay attention to Louisa, who was scaling a jungle gym that was never intended for someone only three feet tall. Out of the corner of my eye I kept track of the couple's tiny toddler, who was so small she was having trouble climbing over the treated timbers that marked the boundaries of the playground equipment. She was still just a baby, still piston-legging the way that babies who haven't been walking long do.
"Look, Louisa," I said as the little girl drew up to us and stopped. She stared at us with enormous pale blue eyes. "Who's this?"
"A baby!" cried my daughter, delighted, starting to climb down.
The little girl was carefully dressed in navy tights and tiny sneakers, a navy skirt and a hooded white sweater with a blue-and-gold University of Missouri M on it.
The debate was still raging in audibly fierce snippets, but the man had noticed the baby for the first time in nearly five minutes.
I smoothed the little girl's hair and brushed the playground sand out of it with my hand. Louisa gave her a kiss on her fat pink cheek.
The little girl gave a small cry and stretched her arms out to me. I stayed hunkered down and gave her a hug. Louisa put an arm around each of us, patting our shoulders with her hands. We stayed like that for a while; the little girl didn't want to let go. Her arms grasped my neck.
Suddenly a shadow fell over us. The man had come to retrieve the baby. He picked her up as you would a wandering puppy.
"That's a sweet baby," I told him. "Mmmmm," he replied through a tight little smile.
He returned to the bench, where the woman sat cross-legged, crying into a Kleenex. The man had put the baby down and seemed to be trying to be conciliatory. The baby looked at them for a moment, then came stumping back toward us.
"Come on, Louisa. Let's go for a walk," I said, and we moved off through the long grass. When I turned around, the baby was only a few yards away. She held out her arms.
I waved to her, then turned my back and went on.