No one else has noticed the hawk, though it’s been perched in the tree above them for at least twenty minutes. How long it might have been there before Joseph spotted it, he doesn’t know. It’s larger than any other birds in the park, an adult Cooper’s, he thinks, gripping the gnarled branches of a scarlet oak just a few feet above the playground, where half a dozen toddlers climb on an elaborate play structure made to look like a pirate ship or pump chubby legs on swings while their mothers chat and give an occasional push. The hawk hasn’t moved anything but its head in all that time, hooked beak swiveling every few minutes, bright orange eyes sweeping the area but not, apparently, spying anything appealing enough to make it spread its wings and fly.
There’s plenty of food for it below: dozens of squirrels scurrying after peanuts people have scattered despite signs posted all over the park instructing them not to, and pigeons picking over whatever the squirrels have left behind. Joseph has heard from another county employee that the parks division spends thousands of dollars each year trapping and euthanizing squirrels to keep the population from exploding. Yet here are more stupid people throwing peanuts, and fat rodents scoop them up in their little hands and strew shells everywhere. The squirrels seem just as oblivious to the hawk as the toddlers and their mothers, and he wonders why the bird doesn’t swoop down and grab one. Maybe it would save the county a few bucks if it picked off a couple every day. But it just stays where it is, swiveling or sitting still, its dark wings and speckled body camouflaged against dense oak leaves and moss-covered bark.
Joseph, too, stays where he is, on a bench beside the playground, lunch in his lap. Since a recent break-up, he’s taken to coming to the park most days when it’s not raining, walking here from his office on the other side of downtown Chatwin, even though it means he’ll be gone longer than an hour. He’s been working for the county for over a decade, and he knows no one will consider reproaching him, much less firing him, for being late. He’s become indispensable, the only one who knows how the press office functions, which is haphazardly and without much direction; without him, it wouldn’t function at all. So he takes long lunchtime walks to ease the cramping in his back, the heartache and longing that makes it hard to sleep, the monotony of a job that means little to him other than a paycheck that covers his rent, his child support, his food, with a few hundred bucks left over every month to put into his daughter’s college fund, which now has enough in it to pay for about three days of college. He has already promised to take out all the loans she needs to get through the rest of four years at whatever school she chooses. He’s grateful that her grades, while solid, won’t get her into Harvard.
Normally he’ll walk farther into the park, to a bench beneath a full canopy of the ancient trees, some of which have been here since before any Europeans set foot in New Jersey, much less the Revolutionary War heroes honored with bronze statues below. Everyone agrees that the trees are what make Victory Park special, and the parks division has consistently fought off redesign projects that might jeopardize them. But a few years ago, a group of parents tried to have the one the hawk is in cut down, for fear it might topple onto their children. A late-season ice storm had just brought down several huge limbs at the east end of the park, including one that flattened the roof of a car parked illegally overnight. What if our kids had been underneath? the parents asked at an open meeting of county commissioners, where Joseph sat with a pair of local reporters he’d known for a decade. Why would you have your kids in the park during an ice storm? the Friends of the Trees representative replied, and the oak was spared.
He hasn’t sat beside the playground in years, but there was a time when he was here three or four days a week, watching his daughter Emily wobble around like one of these toddlers. She asked to come to the park almost every day, and by the park she meant only the playground. Joseph hoped to walk under the trees or sit beside the pond, but the kid only wanted him to spin her on the tea-cups until she got so dizzy she fell over cackling. He found those endless parenting afternoons excruciating, back when he worked only part-time so he could look after Emily while his wife—ex for the past four years—earned a real living. Now, even though he knows the memories are clouded by recent heartache, he sees them only as pure joy, moments he wishes more than anything he could reclaim and extend. He’d replace any number of days at his tedious job with tedious hours playing with his daughter on monkey bars, or taking her to ballet classes, both of which included a fair amount of flirting with attractive young mothers like those pushing their toddlers on swings today.
None of it was terribly serious, and he never pursued anything close to an affair during his fourteen-year marriage. But the mild buzz of interest always gave him a charge that kept him alert while Emily played on the old steel structure with the treacherously steep slide the plastic pirate ship has recently replaced. Those moms—stuck doing most of the parenting themselves while their conventional husbands, he guessed, played golf and had flings with secretaries—gave him looks that suggested admiration, maybe envy, though he also feared they saw him as unmanly or sexless. He made sure not to shave too often—this was back when his hair and stubble were both still black—and to wear shorts whenever it was warm enough, to show off his calf muscles, well-defined from running. His upper body, not so well-defined, he kept hidden behind loose-fitting, untucked plaids. One of the moms would always smile and wave when she saw him, would sit beside him on a bench while their kids played together, and when she and her family were moving away, said goodbye with a warm, lingering hug and a few whispered words about how much she’d miss talking to him.
She was a small brunette like the one whose two-year-old slips off a swing now and totters across to the plastic slide, trying to climb up while another boy is sliding down. This mom has strong bare shoulders and a tattoo of a bat hanging upside down on her left calf. If she were to give Joseph a hug, he wouldn’t let go as quickly as he had that other mom whose name he no longer remembers. Of course at the time he thought his marriage would last for the long haul. If he’d known then that it had only a decade left, maybe he would have trashed it and gotten the pain over with, enjoyed whatever pleasure the sweet brunette might have offered. Now that he’s just past fifty, quickly graying, his calves still strong but his upper body getting a touch of flab even though he works out at a gym twice a week, neither that brunette in memory nor the one in front of him would give him a second glance. And then he remembers he’s supposed to be watching the hawk rather than the muscled shoulders and behind of a lovely young mother some fifteen years his junior.
He turns back to the tree, and there it is, still frozen, it seems, its cold eyes gazing over the pirate ship. Would parents want the tree cut down if they knew a predator was watching their kids from its branches? Would they want all the hawks in the park trapped and euthanized like the squirrels they insist on letting their kids feed?
Only now, finally, does the bird stir, for no reason Lewis can determine. Its chest feathers ruffle, then its wings lift and stretch, and with a single flap it takes off, talons releasing the branch, a quick silent glide right above the pirate ship and the swings, the chubby arms of the toddlers and the bare shoulders of the mothers, over the paved path and across a small open field, and then it’s out of sight behind a young maple whose leaves are impossibly bright against the early August sky. The flight is majestic but secretive, and Lewis knows he’s lucky to see it: a private pleasure just for him.
But when he turns back to the playground, the brunette mom has moved away from the slide. She’s a few steps closer and looking in his direction. So maybe she, too, has seen the hawk. As long as she doesn’t want it poisoned or its tree removed, he doesn’t mind sharing the sight with her. Especially now that he sees she’s even more striking than he first realized, small features contrasted with big dark eyes, tank top ending just above a pierced navel.
Her gaze, however, hasn’t followed the hawk’s path. Instead, it’s fixed on him. And it’s not a friendly look, either. He offers a smile she doesn’t return. She takes two long strides toward him, stops abruptly several feet away, shades her eyes with one slender hand. Before he can ask if she saw the bird, she says, “You know, you shouldn’t be here if you don’t have kids.”
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