Timothy dropped Mary and Alice off in front of the park, then drove the car onto a side street. When he and George got there, Alice was already pouting because all the swings were taken. Mary tossed her a Frisbee, but Alice ducked. She marched to the swing-set and called a boy “fatty-fat” until he gave up his spot. Mary hated that Alice was so bossy but Tim just laughed. He knew his girl was going to be ugly and stupid, so she might as well be bossy.
Tim stomped his left foot on the ground as he surveyed the place. There were a dozen kids on the play-set. A boy jumped down the twisting yellow slide head first, belly to the plastic, and cried for someone to wait at the bottom and blunt his landing. No one came: the boy tumbled from the slide into a somersault. Lifeguards were getting the pool ready to open, adding chemicals to the water and setting out lawn chairs. Five boys and two girls waited outside the fence to get in. One of the girls, maybe three or four years old had no shirt. Just shorts, a pair of flip-flops, and a blue inner-tube around her waist. What kind of mom would let her daughter go off without a shirt on?
“This place sure has gone to shit,” Tim said to his brother. He stomped again, this time to smother the cigarette he’d finished. He reached into his right pocket and pulled out an unopened pack.
“Lookit over there,” George said. “Bet they ain’t been off welfare in five years. I bet he got at least six other children running around with different mothers and—”
“That’s if he’s these kids’ daddy.”
They laughed, watching the man and the children that surrounded him. One of them, a girl with braids sticking out every which way, sat cross-legged on the ground stacking pebbles. Another girl, half as tall, danced and spun around as she sang for someone to come with her to the pool. A boy, ten or twelve, was looking straight at Tim.
Tim turned away. “We should get started on the barbeque.”
The brothers got the cooler out of the car while Mary set the picnic table and while Alice swung. The most important thing to remember when barbequing was to be consistent: same flame, same charcoal, same cut of meat. At least, once you got a combination that worked. It seemed to Tim that people got into the most trouble when they tried to change things. He’d learned that much from his father.
Candy wrappers, leaves, and cigarette butts cluttered the bottom, and hardened bird droppings covered the bars. Tim scraped off the white stuff and brushed out the litter with his hand while George supervised, telling him which spots he missed. Tim handed George his Swiss Army knife and told him to finish it. George said that was fine with him.
“You know what I found yesterday?” Mary stood like someone whose posture had just been corrected. “A picture that Alice had drawn. It was a stick man holding a gun.”
Tim adjusted his cap and grabbed a can of beer from the cooler. “Oh yeah?” He chuckled and scratched his chin; he’d forgotten to shave that morning. Alice yelled from the swing for him to watch. She jumped off, flying through the air and landing with all the grace of a turkey. Mary screamed while Tim opened the beer. Alice lay on the Astroturf, fists pounding and mud-brown eyes spewing tears, for the whole of thirty seconds; then she got up, gave her daddy a fierce smile, and pushed a skinny girl off the slide.
“I don’t know why you let her get away with that,” Mary said.
“You’re standing here just as much as I am. I barely see the girl once a week. If anyone’s misraising her it’s you.”
“That’s not fair.” Mary slouched, her hands falling from her hips to her thighs.
“You just afraid she gonna turn out like you, before you got all prim and proper.” Tim put his arms around her waist and his lips a breath away from her ear. “Girl, you used to be fun.”
“It’s called life, Tim. People have to grow up,” she said, then walked away.
He kicked a pile of rocks a kid had stacked. They scattered, crushing an empty Doritos bag and an ant hill. There didn’t use to be so much litter, Tim thought.
The last time he came to the park he was eighteen years old, and Alice had just been born. He and his friend had fought with some black kids that came down from Winton Terrace. There were about ten or twenty of them, all looking at him and Dwight, throwing all kinds of shit at the two of them. “Goddamn niggers,” he said, thinking about what had happened. Mary didn’t like him using that word, but who was she to tell him what to do or say? Besides, some things just need to be said sometimes. “Niggers,” he said, looking at all of them in the park.
“George, you’re stacking it all wrong,” Tim said, stepping up to the grill. “The fire won’t spread like that.”
“Sure it will. It’ll catch wherever there’s lighter fluid. And if you keep the charcoal flat like this, the food’s cooked more even.”
“But I ain’t using lighter fluid.” Tim straightened his posture so he was almost as tall as George. “Dad never did.”
“Dad had a gas grill. Of course he ain’t use lighter fluid.”
“Nah, nah, nah,” Tim said. “I’m sure I saw him grill with charcoal and without lighter fluid. In fact, I’m positive of it.”
George laughed. “You just try it,” he said. “You just try it and see.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Tim pushed his brother out of the way and began arranging the charcoal briquettes in a pyramid. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Don’t nobody gonna care about you, so why you got to care for nobody?” His dad used to say. “It’s how this society works. Each person got to live the best life he can for hisself. If we start worrying about other people, how we sposed to take care of ourself?”
Tim took care of himself by drinking a six-pack on weekends and Wednesdays, and by sleeping with the blondest girl who would have him. That’s how he found Mary. She wasn’t pretty and blonde so much as she was wild, and that’s what attracted him to her. She’d drink seven shots on an empty stomach and still be able to walk to her car without much help.
Of course, after Alice was born, Mary lost her wildness and Tim was told to care for someone besides himself. “I wish you wouldn’t drink around her,” Mary had said, stacking cloth diapers as Alice slept in the middle of their queen-sized bed. Tim was laying to her left, hoping to take a nap. He told her that he didn’t remember drinking in front of Alice. Mary said, “Maybe that’s the problem.”
Five years later, Mary and Alice were living in a one-bedroom apartment while Tim stayed in the basement of his brother’s Winton Place house. Mary got a third of what Tim made at Proctor & Gamble each month and Tim got a visit with Alice every other weekend. George arranged to pick them up and take them to the park one Saturday after Mary decided she didn’t want Tim coming to the apartment. He said that he’d be good. He would cook the barbeque if Mary brought the side dishes and paper plates.
“Damn it.” The charcoal didn’t catch. The flame from Tim’s lighter got eaten by the briquette before it could spread to another. “Goddamn it.”
He flicked the lighter again and held it against four separate briquettes. The fire still didn’t spread. On the ground were fresh, green grass and leaves. Too moist for kindling. Tim hadn’t thought to bring newspaper to use, either. The charcoal was supposed to catch.
George showed him the lighter fluid. He told him how easy it would be, how the fluid just catches fire, how it just spreads all over. George’s upper lip was raised on one side, as if waiting to smile. He said that their father had a gas grill, didn’t he remember? Tim said maybe he was too young.
Tim lifted his head. “Fine, fine. I get it. Give that to me.” He took the plastic bottle from George, waited until his brother left him alone and began to sprinkle this stuff that looked like whiskey over the briquettes. Tim was careful to hit each one. After a steady fire had been lit, Tim took two steaks and two hamburger patties out of the ice-packed cooler, set them on the grill, and watched them brown.
About twenty feet away, a dark-skinned girl, maybe nineteen years old, wearing a tight red shirt with no sleeves, and pants that came down six inches above her feet, was sitting on a blanket, eating a sandwich and reading a story to another little black girl. The older one kept moving her hands, as if she were saying something really exciting or important. The younger girl got up on her knees and clapped.
A drop of sweat fell from Tim’s face and hit the grill, sizzling as heat tickled his neck, chin, and forehead.
She had sat back down when a squirrel jumped from the maple tree they were sitting near onto the blanket, making the little girl scream and the older girl jump to her feet. Then she laughed, smiling with her whole face. Standing there, Tim thought she looked like a picture he’d seen.
“Tim! What the fuck are you doing?”
Twelve inch flames shot up from the grill. Tim looked at his brother, and then stepped back as George put out the fire.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
Tim threw the meat, burnt into hard black balls, into the trees. “Nothing,” he said. “Wasn’t thinking about nothing.”
Alice cried when she saw that she wouldn’t get her burger. She refused to smile, even when Tim tickled her belly and the spot right under her chin. Mary just stood there with one hand on her hip, and the other held out as if asking for loose change. Tim barely heard her mutter, “Why am I not surprised?”
The wind had picked up, Tim thought. He had just done what George said to do. It wasn’t Tim’s fault. He sat down on the edge of a bench and poked his tongue through a hole where a tooth should be. He’d told George that he lost the tooth in a bar fight. Mary thought it got knocked out when he tripped down some stairs. Tim didn’t remember which was the truth. He let his tongue slide out the small hole and through the part in his lips, then clenched his teeth, just enough so it hurt.
Tim looked up and saw that girl, that fucking girl, with her thick braids and her greasy sandwich. Stupid bitch got startled by a squirrel? The littler one she was reading to had moved to the play set, while the older girl had taken out a thick book from a back pack. She was leaning against a tree, refusing to look up from the book. Tim stared at her head, trying to see if her eyes were really moving, reading the words on her page, or whether she was just hiding from his stare.
Tim scratched his chin. “Where’d all this come from?”
“While you were off pouting I was actually doing something to try to help,” George said. He held two plastic bags from the nearby deli. “We got to eat something. What do you expect?”
“There’s more hamburger in the cooler,” Tim said. “And Mary’s got those side dishes.”
“Mary’s got watermelon and potato chips. That ain’t enough for a meal. Neither is that quarter-pound of beef that’s left in the cooler. Since you fucked up the barbeque, this is the next-best thing. Get the girls, tell them we’re gonna finally eat.”
It wasn’t until the fifth beer that Tim stopped caring about the barbeque. “Say luhvy, say luhvy,” he said to George and then to Mary. To Alice, he said that as soon as his snot-nosed boss gave him the raise he deserved, he’d buy a big house in Hyde Park or even Indian Hill and they’d live all together, him and Mary and Alice, and Alice’d go to one of those good schools where everyone learns how to speak French or use a computer. “See?” he said. “I’ll provide for my family,” he said. “I’ll take care of you like Daddy ain’t never done for me,” he said. “Don’t you worry.”
Mary set her hand on his knee. “You’re nothing like Joe. You never raised a fist to me or Alice.”
Tim scooted out from under the hand, then sat Alice on his lap. He bounced her up and down, telling her all the things he’d give her, until she started to laugh and giggle. Mary stood, but remained close. Her arms tightly wrapped around the front of her, as if observing a toddler with a hamster. The sun had fallen behind the trees creating long, monster-like shadows that moved for attack when the wind blew. Tim’s face was a collage of patches light and dark, shifting with the branches, until he stood up, with Alice in tow. He held her 40lb body over his head then set her on his shoulders.
Tim was the Dodge Infinity and Alice was Al Unser, Jr. The car and driver eased onto the pavement. Tim spit to his left as the engine revved. Al’s legs tensed, the wheels started turning, and the car sputtered down the speedway. The turns were wide, which helped the Dodge to maintain its velocity. But there were many roadblocks: the car narrowly missed one of the fans in attendance, who had snuck out of the stands; broken glass made for tricky steering; and Mary stood in front of the finish-line. The car made a u-turn, away from Mary and back toward a pit stop. Here, the driver and crew did not disassemble the car; rather, it turned into horse and jockey, the horse yelling, “Full speed ahead!” as it charged through the park.
Tim’s father used to take him and George to the racetracks in Kentucky. He would let them each pick out a horse, and then he’d place a five-dollar bet. George almost always placed. Tim only did once, but it was 17-1 odds that paid over eighty bucks. George had never made over twenty at a time.
Mary called out, “Put her down, Tim.”
He’d once taken his daughter to the track. Tim put a hundred dollars on a horse called Alice in Wonderland. It was the color of polished wood. Right out of the gates, something seemed wrong with it. The horse was dizzy, disoriented. It was like it knew where the finish line was, but it had no clue how to get there. By the time all the other horses had finished, his was only halfway done. A couple of guys came onto the track to help lead it to the stables.
Tim began to spin when Mary shouted again. Alice’s hands wrapped around his face so tightly that he couldn’t breathe through his nose. “Would you get your goddamn hands off me?”
Her fingernails dug deeper into his cheeks. He pulled her sausage arms forward, jerking her body hard against his head. She shrieked or squealed.
“For god’s sake, she’s crying, Tim.”
He stopped spinning then crouched low enough that Alice could climb off. He stumbled as he rose, and caught the arm of his older brother. “What,” Tim said, “you got something to say, too?”
“There’s one more sandwich.”
“I don’t want it,” Tim said.
Mary had picked up Alice and set her on the bench of their picnic table. She was saying things like, don’t cry and it’s okay. Mary looked up at Tim, then quickly back to Alice. She was always doing that. Looking at Tim just enough so he knows she notices what a bad father he is, just enough to make him feel like shit.
He walked over to the table, grabbed the last sandwich, then sat on the opposite side, facing the opposite direction. “You treat her like a little baby.”
They still weren’t looking at each other.
“She’s six-years-old, for god’s sake. You treat her like she’s a toddler.”
“She’s seven,” Mary said.
“Well there you go,” he said. “There you go.”
Tim took his cigarettes over to the swing set. He sat limply on a swing then stationed his feet on the ground and pushed himself backwards. He released and began to sway back and forth. After a few minutes he stopped, then twisted himself and the swing until the two metal chains were tautly wound around each other. The sun had gone down enough that more children and their families had left. Only a few remained, scattered around the park. Alice was chasing fireflies around the table while George and Mary sat smiling at her and talking in low voices. Tim lifted his feet and spun.
His body whipped around, and George and Mary and Alice and the fireflies and the swing-set and the swimming pool became one repeating blur. He closed his eyes until the spinning stopped.
Tim fell forward into a kneeling position on the Astroturf. The parks lights had come on and seemed to stream directly onto Alice, trying to catch a firefly between her hands. The girl had freckles too big for her face, and eyes set wide like a raccoon. Tim rubbed his eyes, but that didn’t help: he still couldn’t tell if she was laughing. He let himself fall backwards onto the green, listening to his daughter. She was clapping her hands.
He groaned and scratched himself, asking whoever it was to let him be.
He propped himself up with his elbows. George was leaning over him, squeezing his shoulders. Tim said, “Hey.”
“It’s dark out.”
“No shit. Here, give me your hand.” George helped Tim onto his feet, then held him steady. “You alright?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Got a light? I dropped mine somewhere.”
“You’ll never get that back,” George said. “People round here these days find something—don’t matter if it belongs to someone—they keep it for themselves. They ain’t got nothing of their own, of course, cause—”
“It’s all given to them—”
“And taken from us. Lookit them over there in the pool. ”
They laughed and hit each other’s arms. The sun was gone and Tim could hear the steel of a nearby train grinding against its track. Sometimes, when he was trying to fall asleep at night, he felt the steady vibrations of the train. Sometimes they kept him awake. Other times, the soft murmur put him to sleep. George always hated the trains, wondering why they were still needed in the 1990s, but Tim loved them. When he got stuck on a road, waiting for a train to cross, he’d count the cars as they passed. Tim tossed his cigarette onto the ground then lit another one.
“I almost feel sorry for them,” George said, looking toward the pool. Five or six black teenagers had climbed over the fence and were swimming. All the lifeguards had left, and the gates were locked. “It’s hot as hell; I’m sure they ain’t got air conditioning and all they can think of is to break into a pool.”
Tim took the pack of cigarettes from his back pocket, shook it and threw it to the ground. The sky was rust. The smoke stacks of the factory where he worked, together with all the others, filled the sky with that rust. The sun had disappeared, but the lights of the city about five miles south reflected off of the low, muddy clouds. Sometimes it seemed to give an orange tint to the pavement and grass. Even the streetlights were orange. Everything was burnt out.
He stepped toward the picnic table they’d been stationed at. The cooler was gone, as well as the half-empty bag of charcoal and their dirtied plates and cups. He slowly turned around. The park was empty except for him and the kids in the pool. Neatly tucked under the table was his torn backpack. He pulled open the tiny zipper pocket and found a new package of cigarettes. He peeled off the wrapper, shook out a cigarette, and then dug into his pocket for a lighter. “George?” he called out. “You got another lighter?”
He opened the larger section of the backpack then carefully unfolded a flannel button shirt. He lifted the silver pistol into the air and ran his hand along the cold surface. It looked rusted under the polluted light.
Layers of sound played together: a thousand grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids played an awkward symphony, while the voices from the pool provided the melody. On top of those, he heard the pale squeal of a young girl.
Tim charged toward the pool. He saw a tall, dark, muscular man standing next to the chain-link fence that surrounded the pool, a yellow towel around his waist. He saw two smaller boys, maybe ten or twelve, in the water splashing; they didn’t have any shorts on. And perched on the side of the shallow end, poised to jump into the out-stretched arms of another young boy, he saw a red-haired creature with freckles, too big for her face.
The bullet escaping the pistol added another layer of sound. So did the screams of the boys, and the splash Alice made as she fell in. George came running, yelling what the fuck what the fuck, and Mary stood silent.
It barely grazed her head. The doctors, in fact, couldn’t be sure that it was a bullet in the first place. Tim said he was as sure it was a bullet, as he was sure who shot it. Sunday, when they asked, he told reporters that a group of black youths had come down the path from Winton Terrace yelling racial slurs at him and his family. This was how Alice got shot.