“Look at the dog! Look at the dog! Look at the dog! Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie, look at the dog!” Peter and Harry look at the dog.
“Ewwwww,” says Harry. “It’s all wet. The dog is all wet.” The dog is all wet. Sophie, circling the stroller, is uninterested.
“It’s still—it’s—why is it all wet Mummy?” Thomas says. The day is sunny and warm. The few clouds don’t forebode rain.
“Perhaps he had a bath,” Mummy says. She is seated on the bench where Peter is dangling and Thomas is standing. She is holding two small bags of potato ships, a fancy brand. Piecemeal lunch items are scattered all around her.
“He’s a rat dog,” Harry says. “They take a rat and they take a dog and they make a baby and it’s a rat dog, innit?” He nudges Peter.
“I reckon,” Peter says. The dog is black and white, some sort of small terrier. It shakes water drops off itself. The man holding its leash wears a tank top that displays his toned arms and shorts that display his lean legs. He and the wet dog are walking away down the path.
“Can I pet him Mummy?” says Thomas.
“Course not. He’s not your dog, is he? Here, have a crisp.” Thomas takes the proffered potato chip. He puts the whole thing in his mouth at once. His mouth isn’t quite big enough to crunch it easily. Sophie has tired of circling the stroller and makes a sudden run for the faded green lawn in front of the benches.
“Hup hup hup hup hup,” says Daddy, grabbing the back of her bright pink dress. Sophie is shocked to be stopped. Her big blue eyes bug. Her little red mouth opens but she doesn’t cry, just reaches—
Daddy swings Sophie around, setting her on a trajectory towards Mummy, who is now dispensing chunks of cantaloupes from a clear container purchased at one of the food carts that ring the square. Sophie accepts a chunk with two hands. She sucks and gums and gnaws at it.
Daddy wipes his forehead. It’s his job to keep the family all hemmed in to the little fort they have created in the park. It’s about as easy a task as sweeping spilt water. Just now, for example, Harry has—he has dropped a twig on Peter’s head, and he is scampering away screeching but Peter tackles him, they tussle, laughing at least — “Boys,” Mummy says, and “Boys” when they don’t respond at first. The tone of the second call makes them lift their heads.
“Get over here,” Mummy says. “No fighting.”
“We weren’t fighting,” Peter says. “We were playing.” Still, they untangle themselves from the mess of little-boy limbs. They are filmed in pale dusty dirt.
“Stay where I can see you,” Mummy says. She fixes a tiny bonnet on Sophie’s blond head. With that and her ankle-length pink dress, Sophie looks as cupcake-like as a toddler can. The children’s hair color signifies their age as accurately as their height: Sophie’s hair is blinding in its almost-whiteness, Thomas’s bowl-cut locks are golden, Harry’s shoulder-length mane is sandy, and Peter’s close-cropped hair is nearly as brown as his Daddy’s.
“John,” says Mummy. “Do you remember what the weather’s supposed to be like tomorrow?”
“Not as nice as today I think,” Daddy says. “Rain maybe.” Sophie has batted her bonnet to the ground, which is an asphalt-paved path that borders this side of the park.
“Look look look look look,” Thomas says. He is pointing to the retreating form of a tall man in a body-length black coat.
“Stop pointing, it’s rude,” Mummy says.
“He’s wearing all black,” Thomas says.
“Doesn’t mean you should point at him.”
“But he’s wearing a coat. Isn’t he too hot?” Mummy retrieves Sophie’s bonnet and tugs it back onto Sophie’s head. Sophie fusses and throws her mangled lump of cantaloupe to the ground.
“I reckon he is hot,” Mummy says.
“So why’s he wearing a coat?” Thomas says.
“He’s being foolish,” Mummy says. Thomas tugs Peter’s leg.
“Foolish. He’s being foolish,” Thomas says.
“Cut it,” says Peter, who is teetering on the brink of adolescence like a puppy about to grow into its oversized paws. Peter is all elbow and knee and scabby shin. His skin is brown for a Brit’s, but it is midsummer. Peter kicks with the leg that his brother is holding. This sends Thomas tumbling into Sophie, who plops to her bum in surprise.
“The museums then,” Mummy says. “We’ll go to the museums tomorrow, in the rain. And today—”
“Statue of Liberty!” says Harry, now standing tall on the bench. He thrusts up on arm as though bearing a torch, then jumps down to the ground. He lands inches from his little sister.
“No, Empire State Building,” says Peter. Sophie’s bonnet is on the ground again.
“Look at the man! Look at the man! Mummy Mummy Mummy look at him.” This is Thomas, of course.
“Thomas, I told you. Don’t point.”
“But he’s sleeping.” The man does appear to be sleeping. He has one leg up on the bench across the path from the family fort. One hand covers his face.
“He looks like a bowling ball,” Peter says.
“He’s all dirty and hairy,” Harry says.
“Why’s he got bandages all over his arms?” says Thomas.
“Shhh!” hisses Mummy. “You’re being very rude.”
“Baaaaaaaaaa,” says Sophie.
“But he’s sleeping,” says Thomas. Peter swings Sophie onto his shoulders. She opens her mouth in a smile and drums her sticky hands on his head.
“It’s rude anyway.”
“Can I touch him?”
“Would you want a perfect stranger touching you?”
“But he’s sleeping. He won’t know. I promise.”
Thomas has been edging towards the sleeping man. Now he makes a run for it crying “Just with one finger I promise I promise” but Mummy leaps from the bench and grabs his skinny arm. Her fingernails dig into his tender skin.
“Owwwwwwwwwwww,” says Thomas.
“That man is dangerous,” Mummy says. She drags Thomas back to the family bench and settles her plump bottom amongst the clutter of their lunch litter.
“Owwwwwwwwwwww,” says Thomas, though Mummy has released his arm.
“Why’s he dangerous?” says Harry.
“He’s dirty,” Peter says. “He’s got bugs and viruses. And he pees on himself, innit Mum. You’d get sick if you touched him.” Peter dangles Sophie by her ankles. She squeals with pleasure. Thomas has stopped squealing, though sustains the trauma with a minor whimper. Mummy’s fingernails have left red marks.
“Why’s he so fat?” Thomas says through his pout.
“I ‘spect he eats a lot of rubbish,” Peter says.
“Looks like they’re equally easy to get to from here,” Daddy says. He is consulting a large unruly map and a guidebook. Daddy is young but worn and very thin. He wears a loose T-shirt, a non-baseball baseball cap and three days stubble.
“Dangerous,” Thomas says.
A breeze through the elm trees shuffles the sunlight. Sophie, back on the ground, looks up. Thomas is tugging Harry’s arm.
“Whichever one has less walking,” Mummy says. “I can’t take much more today.”
“Looks like—” Daddy says.
“Harry,” Thomas says. He has moved to the left, and he is looking to the bench left of Mummy and Daddy. They can’t hear him.
“Well it looks like—like—” Daddy says.
“Bog off,” Harry says to Thomas. He’s not looking at his little brother. His eye is on a particular elm tree. Peter is giving this tree a serious assessment. He is running his hands against its trunk.
“Well the Empire State Building’s much closer to the hotel,” Daddy says.
“Brilliant,” Mummy says. “Then that’s what we’re doing.” Mummy is heavy and already dowdy. She is wearing a plain cotton T-shirt and loose jeans. Not much care has gone into her dark hair. The ponytail can’t restrain its coarse frizz.
“That lady,” Thomas says to Harry. “She’s got – she’s – she’s got a knife.” Harry sneaks a look. She does have a knife. “Is she — she’s — she’s dangerous, isn’t she?”
“Quit being an idiot,” Harry says.
“But but but she’s got a knife,” Thomas says. Harry has skirted away. The elm that Peter is eyeing has a particularly thick trunk and a profusion of knobs. Peter is testing it for footholds, running his precociously gangly hands up the bark and making first endeavors with his feet.
“I could climb it faster than you,” Harry says.
“Could not,” Peter says with all the authority of an older brother. “You’re shorter.”
Sophie has discovered the iron-wrought leg of the bench where Mummy is sitting. She pats her hands against it. Her face is close – a model baby girly face, round and milky, symmetrical, no flaws to throw in question the potential for future beauty. She licks the bench leg.
“And after the Empire State Building, I’m perfectly content to go back to the hotel for a nap. I’m content staying in the hotel the rest of the night.” Neither Peter nor Harry is having much success scrambling up the tree. It has no low branches.
“Mummy Mummy Mummy,” Thomas says. Half of his golden hair is sticking straight up on his head.
“Fine with me,” Daddy says.
“What is it, Thomas?” Mummy says. She smoothes the errant hair.
“I have something to tell you.”
“That lady. She’s got – she’s got a knife.” Mummy’s face stiffens. She turns her head in the direction Thomas is pointing.
“Keep your voice down, Thomas,” Mummy says. There is a thump. Harry has landed flat-footed, bent-kneed on the pavement. He holds his arms out in front of him longer than necessary before standing. Peter’s jump from the tree doesn’t make nearly as much noise.
“Sophie’s licking the bench!” says Harry.
“Soph – Sophie – grab her –” Harry is already dragging Sophie away from her iron lick as Mummy frets.
“But Mummy,” Thomas says. He has clambered back up onto the bench next to Mummy. His hands are pressing into her left shoulder. He can still fit into her lap, but he does fill up the whole thing. “Isn’t she dangerous?”
“But I want to go to the Statue of Liberty,” Harry says. He hurls his cap to the ground.
“Harry, you’ll like the Empire State Building,” Daddy says. “It’s much higher up than the Statue of Liberty. You can see farther.”
“Mummy Mummy Mummy,” Thomas says.
“She can hear every word you’re saying, Thomas,” Mummy seethes. This is true.
“Up,” Sophie says. “Up. Up!” She is stretching her hands up above her head.
“Can’t either,” Thomas says. Harry picks up his hat and beats it against his pants. He creates a cloud of dust.
“Sophie said ‘up!’” Peter says. “Did you hear that?” she said ‘up.’”
Everyone is silent. The park continues to bustle. Sophie is silent. She is looking up at the bench and her brothers and her parents and the trees and the sky.
“Up, Sophie, up!” Harry says. Sophie flaps her arms up and down, up and down. Harry lifts her high and she squeals.
“She can’t hear me or she’d look over,” Thomas says.
“Will you shut it,” Mummy says. She is wearing a self-conscious expression.
“Only, only if she’s got a knife, isn’t she dangerous?”
“Thomas another word and I’ll punish you for the rest of the holiday and—”
“But isn’t she dangerous?”
“She’s using the knife to slice a tomato, Thomas. And now I’m embarrassed.”
“But she’s not looking over so she can’t hear me,” Thomas says.
Up to this point he was correct. But then, maybe to make Thomas happy or maybe to make Mummy happy, or maybe just to see all six pairs of their eyes at once, I did turn my head and look over.