Mar 22 2017

The Walk

Deb Olin Unferth

The idea was to go for a walk: the baby in a stroller, the child by the hand, the path straight and scenic, the weather warm and breezy, the family fine and in good humor.

But the dog got too hot and lay panting on the ground, and they'd forgotten again to bring the water. The baby (Kryptonite, they called her) was in one of her moods, weeping on and off, refusing to sit in the stroller, tugging off her hat and throwing it into the dirt, so that they had to stop every few yards, retrieve the hat, pass the baby from one parent to the other because she wanted only to be with the father while he, exhausted ("weakened," he said), kept handing her back.

The father didn't want to carry the baby. He'd carried the baby yesterday when they'd gone to see the sand dunes. Kryptonite had wailed and was hot and had put a fistful of sand into her mouth, and they'd forgotten the water in the car then too. He had sat down in the sand for a while, calling, "We are not having another kid," a sentence he'd been repeating the whole trip (he no longer called it a vacation), often within earshot of the mother, who, to his horror, only laughed.

Kryptonite always wanted the father, the mother was thinking. Both the children did, even though without the mother they'd be dead in a day. Kryptonite could hog a whole event, anytime, anywhere. The mother couldn't manage to have a simple conversation with the father without an elaborate pause in the road to hand off baby, transfer bags, retrieve hat, and so on, couldn't manage to have a simple joke between them like they used to. "Daddy's girl," the mother kept saying each time the baby reached for him—sweetly at first, but after a while with clenched teeth. The baby went back and forth, screaming, between them.

The father was hot, like the dog, who kept dropping to the ground. The father worried about the dog. He felt every emotion the dog did—powerfully—felt at least as much pain as the dog did at any moment, felt the dog's hunger, felt the dog's thirst. Felt the dog's loneliness and isolation at being the only one of its kind amid this crowd, felt the suffering of walking a path in the heat wearing a heavy fur coat, of walking with no destination, no food or water, tied to a rope, dragged like a slave.

The mother could tell just what the father was thinking. He didn't have to say a word. Just the way he moved his feet along the ground said it all, the mother thought for the tenth time that day.

The older child was the only one among them who was having any fun. She was on her feet, too old for any stroller. She was so used to her younger sister's cries that she didn't hear them ("a Kryptonite shield," the father always said, a talent that later in life would be seen as a defect—"lack of empathy," people would say), so used to her parents bickering that she didn't hear them either, uninterested in the suffering dog. She strolled down the path looking at flowers.

"The Walk" from Wait Till You See Me Dance. Copyright 2017 by Deb Olin Unferth. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,