The Caterwaul

By Sean Hooks

Beth and Artie pass one of the ‘Park Closes at Dusk’ signs, walking slowly due to their age. They are cute, in their way, their outfits reminiscent of a bygone era—Beth’s gingham dress, Artie’s checkerboard shorts and Buster Brown shoes. His head is hatless because the day is overcast, and there’s a just-visible residue of sweat on his forehead. Beth’s hair is short. It was cut in a backyard without a picket fence.

They’ve been taken for a walk, as people their age sometimes are. At this point Beth is the spryer of the two, Artie the more verbal. Beth likes to silently contemplate the lake at the park’s center, sometimes smiling at the passersby who are so busy, so firm of body, so sure of gait. Artie likes to feed the pigeons, much as this vexes his attendants who have referred to the birds as flying rats on more than one occasion.

It is just after four o’clock on a mid-summer Sunday when the accident occurs. Artie drops his plastic bag of makeshift bird-food. One of the attendants retrieves it for him but the damage has been done, a spillage of crumbled up bread, a pile of off-white Wonder atop the dark brown dirt, wet from a late morning shower, a now lighter and more denuded bag, the former contents muddied or blown away in the wind.

From Beth a gasp but from Artie a scream, a cry, a caterwaul, four-year-old vocal chords stressed and strained and pinkened, reddened, vibrated to their limit. All due to a scattering of bread well on its way to mold. What if it’d been a fallen scoop of ice cream? What if the scream signifies the acquisition of knowledge, knowledge of the harshness of the world?

In this same park, the previous weekend, there was a shooting, a boy of but twelve years of age the culprit, some ungentle soul less than a decade older than Artie and his fraternal twin. Their father drapes a long, lean arm around their mother. Such perfect skin, he thinks, stroking the mahoganal smoothness of a tank-topped shoulder. The slight shimmer of sweat-sheen is on her as well as she tousles her non-husband’s burnet hair, he the darker of the couple, a nubian neck now caressed by the never-wife, a twenty-two-year-old un-bride, a high school graduate, an employed woman walking in the park with her employed man. All but aristocratic, these two parents, both film aficionados, who attend no college, no university, who do not resemble younger versions of Mother Sister and The Mayor, though they are trying to do the right thing.

But that colorful bag of bread, Artie’s charge, once carefully cradled, oh so silent in its fall. Yes, perhaps indeed the attainment of awareness, the learning process, the anger and dejection that boils up and spills out and fires forth from a son’s round mouth, his abashed sibling looking on, the education of children as they confront the dichotomy of something and nothing.