Bernard puts the pistol in his mouth, triggering the memory of a story his mother likes to tell.
“You were small, still a baby, riding on my shoulders and using my hair for reins. We were at the transit center waiting for a bus. The sun was high and bright. All leaves were green. There was a man with Down’s Syndrome wearing an agonized face. He put his head down the mouth of a garbage can and howled like an animal, heartbreak ricocheting ‘round the bin like a 22 caliber bullet inside a skull. And you. You reached for him, leaning out dangerously to stroke his back. That is who you are."
Bernard takes the toy gun from his mouth, and runs his tongue against the back of his teeth, tasting tin and sandbox grit.
“That is who you are,” his mother would say, as if declaring absolutely,
“It was Colonel Mustard, in the Library, with the Candle Stick.”
Bernard’s mother loves the game of Clue. And detective novels, and guessing lives for people who walk by as they sit together on the park bench. Bernard swings his feet in concentration, licking earnestly at his ice cream cone, unconsciously compulsive to shape it into a perfect dome.
“Mmph. Look at that woman. If you’re ever lost and need help, do not go to a mother like that. See how she ignores her daughter? Look at that little girl, turning so hopefully towards her mother to see if she is watching, and finding her never watching.
That man there, observe how he is dressed.”
Bernard studies the man carefully out of the corner of his eye.
“Well. The suit is too big, and too long, but he walks like his shoes are too small.”
“Bravo, Bello. Very good. The pants are very long. People can grow fat or thin, but not drastically taller or shorter once they are grown, yes? So the clothes and shoes are not his own. What else do you see?”
“It looks like he scrubbed his face for a long time. He needs a haircut, and had to work real hard combing his hair to make it look nice. Really hard.”
Bernard, a remarkably tidy child speaks the last part passionately, having despaired only that morning over the state of his own hair, which gaily misbehaved in ways Bernard never would.
“This man, he is clean, combed and dressed in the clothes of others. Maybe there is no money, yes? He wears dressy shoes even though they are paining him. It must be very important that he look nice for something. Or someone. So. What is it then, this most important thing?”
“Maybe a job interview,” Bernard says hopefully. “He needs a job. I don’t think he’s had any money for a long time. We should buy him a hotdog from the cart. I think he is hungry and can’t afford to buy one. He only ever gets to smell them.”
Bernard’s stomach rumbles empathetically. The hotdogs smell wonderful to him and he is not even really hungry. They must smell unbearably delicious to the man.
“He only ever gets to smell them,” Bernard repeats, suddenly desperately sad.
The beginnings of his Adam’s apple bobs awkwardly, emitting a series of impotent clicks against the imperative that someone must cry for this man who hungers alone in tight shoes.
A group of a dozen children pour onto the playground. They are young and querulous, peeping and disorganized as baby quail flushed from the grass.
Well behind them, a woman with glasses large and thick, waddles happily along. Her front teeth buck out and down as if attempting to impart a sunny grin to her own chin. She wears a singularly garish Mumu, and has suffered a bad home perm. Her hair looks like a burnt wig styled by an angry monkey.
Bernard likes her immediately.
“CHIL-dren! CHIL-dren!” she sings, clapping her hands on each syllable.
Her voice is sweet and warm, and the children clump and flow towards the sound.
“Come, my Darlings!” she calls, throwing her chubby arms wide and becoming in that moment, the most beautiful woman in the park.
“Mmph. You find help from a woman like that, Bernard. If you are ever lost,” his mother says.
Together they watch the children pile against the woman, gathering handfuls of Mumu in their sticky fingers and talking all at once.
“Now. Our man in tight shoes,” his mother redirects. “Look at him again, knowing what you know. What do you think he is feeling right now?”
Bernard resumes work on his ice cream cone, considering the question carefully now that he is less sad.
"Hoping and afraid at the same time.”
“I agree. What does that remind you of?”
“A dog from the pound, maybe getting adopted?”
“Ah. You put that perfectly, Bernard. I know exactly what you mean.”
Well pleased, Bernard examines the newly perfect dome of his ice cream cone then smashes it flat against his tongue, shuddering briefly in satisfaction.
“Do you want money to buy him a hotdog?”
“No. I have my own money.”
Bernard hands his mother his ice cream cone and stands. He tucks in his shirt then picks his way carefully down the slope.
He buys not just a hotdog, but a bottle of his favorite orange soda as well. Bernard selects a straw, arranges a selection of condiment packs alongside the hot dog, and gathers up a thick stack of napkins.
Bernard walks towards the man, whose back is to him, and feels his confidence leaking out all at once. What if the man is a vegetarian? What if he hates orange soda? What if he’s Diabetic?
Bernard pauses, one leg pulled up uncertainly. He turns his head and scans the rise for his Mother, who nods at him discretely.
“Excuse me, Sir,” Bernard says, emboldened and continuing his approach. “Excuse me. Sir?”
The man turns around.
“My friend was supposed to come to the park today but didn’t make it. Would you like his hotdog?”
Bernard stands formally, extending the hotdog on its red and white cardboard skiff, as if upon a butler’s tray. The man says nothing.
“There is also orange soda,” adds Bernard, in a rush, “It’s my friend’s favorite. I’d hate to have it to go to waste, you see.”
The man says nothing still.
“Why don’t I just set these here,” offers Bernard, forging ahead.
He finds a suitable patch of grass and sets down the hot dog, angling to display its most attractive side and places the soda precisely beside it. Bernard stands.
“There are also extra napkins. I always get mustard on myself,” he confesses without eye contact. “Well, enjoy your day. I have to be leaving now.”
Bernard swings around abruptly and runs nearly into his mother, who is always watching. She exchanges an unseen look with the man then smiles down on Bernard, her breath sweet with ice cream, and says,
“Come, my darling. It is time to go,” and then they go.
As they walk up the incline Bernard feels the weight of the sun on his back and thinks to himself,
“That man has been to war,” quickly followed by, “I am giving Summer a piggy-back ride.”
“I do too,” blurts the man.
Bernard and his mother stop, looking back over their shoulders. The man is gesturing helplessly down the front of his suit as if now wordless and trying to convey,
‘Were it not for you, there would be mustard here, and here, and here.’
“I understand!” Bernard calls back, waving wildly, like a boy trying to be seen from very far away. “I understand.”