The City Does That to People (Flash)

My daily routine included, until recently, a late lunch in the little park next to my office tower.   It’s a bit hemmed in, but weather permitting the setting was still more pleasant than a café or the office break room, and it was a half-hour well spent.   The advantage of the late lunch was the lack of competition for what I had come to think of as my bench.   I got to sit in the air, listen to the squabbles of sparrows, and enjoy a little separation from others.   After the regular lunch hour, the park was pretty much deserted.

The last time I went there, I had just unwrapped my sandwich when a young woman parked a stroller across from me, in the shade of one of the little trees.   She smiled at me, I nodded back and began to fish for my ear-buds; if I wanted to talk to anyone, I’d have stuck at the office.   She was spreading out a blanket on the grass and chattering to the infant about what I nice day it was when my current audio book drowned her out.   I watched her for a moment longer, trying to work out if she were the child’s mother or a nanny.   Her hair and nails had a definite look of someone with a moment of free time available in the morning, and her outfit lacked the slept-in look I associated with mothers of the young.   Not conclusive evidence, of course, and I looked away without settling the matter, not wanting to be a staring park creep.

Off to the left, there was a new tower, just finishing, one full of condos rather than office cubicles, and the banner clinging to the side showed the prices were nearly reasonable. I contemplated whether moving closer to work might not be wise, not really attending to the voice in my ears, when suddenly through that voice and through the soles of my shoes came a thud like the closing of a huge book.   Before I had quite processed that, there was a wave of a terrible smell I couldn’t identify, like a blend of sewer and spray paint and the front end of a car covered in squashed bugs on a hot day, all bound together by something else I never smelled before.   It mingled with the taste of the half-chewed bite of sandwich in my mouth, and I bent over to spit it out, barely mastering the urge to vomit.

A moment later, the kid began to howl.   I understood why; the reek, if not the sound, was something to get upset about.   I looked up from my ejected sandwich, with a notion of giving the woman some stink-eye if she weren’t moving to quiet the child.

No woman.

Not even a blanket.

Beyond the stroller, which was shaking with the strength of the kid’s complaints, there was just a bare patch of green, shaded grass.   I looked around, and saw no sign of her.   It’s a small park, but could she really have fled it that fast?   If she could… why?   I stood, slightly dizzy from the dissipating stench, and scanned around once more, without result.   She was gone.

The kid, however, was not.   I pulled out my phone, not positive that this was really a 911 sort of situation, but at a loss as to just who else to call.   I stepped across to the stroller, looked at the angry pink face in it, and dialed.   I was still looking downward when I heard the operator answer, and saw there on the grass one of the shimmery earrings the woman had been wearing, bright but for something stuck to the hook.   I did not bend for a closer look.   I clung to the thought that it was just a piece of gum.

And that it absolutely was not the end of a bright red fingernail on the pavement next to it.

I switched off my phone and walked back to my office.   I’m sure someone else came to help the kid after I left.   He was making a lot of noise, and the stroller was gone when I came out at the end of the day.

I just couldn’t get involved.

“The City Does That to People” © 2013 Dirck de Lint