The soccer hoards are back. With school out and the spring league ended the park has been blessedly quiet the past few weeks and so Duncan and I have spent a great amount of time there, both in the quiet mornings and then in the evenings before dinner. The wide fields, suddenly greener than I remembered them, have been clear of the kids and their refuse, and the sidewalks have been free of the clutter of their cell-phone addicted parents who seem more intent on Angry Birds or catching up on the neighborhood gossip than watching and encouraging their children. We have had it all to ourselves and each day has seemed like a gift because of it. Duncan has chased his ball unhindered and exuberant, we have rolled in the grass together, stalked bunnies and squinted into the darling face of the sunshine, forgetting all the while that the summer league is bigger and badder than its predecessor.
Today was the first day of the summer nightmare. The kids are out of school and that means Soccer Camp, which attracts a seemingly infinite number of participants whose brightly colored, garish jerseys obscure the green while their feet tear and mat the grass, which has grown thick and soft in their absence. The evening bird song is drowned out by their screams and the whistles their thick-necked coaches blow every few seconds. And the parents are everywhere, hovering around the perimeter, fat and bald or overly thin, bleached and tanned into leather.
It is no secret that I loathe them, but my animosity is born of both my respect for the kids who seem abandoned and a fierce love and devotion to the park that Duncan and I enjoy year round, long after summer has passed, when darkness comes bitter early and the tracks in the deep snow are the only indication and reminder of our devotion. But tonight I decided to take a lesson from Duncan, who could care less about the invasion. While not particularly enraptured by them, the scuttle of their bright balls across the field and the smell of their fast food do interest him, although I can tell that he's just as exasperated as I am by their seeming inability to step out of our way when we pass. Nonetheless, he doesn't let them hinder his love of the walk. He presses his cold nose against the back of their knees, startling them, and steps around them, eager to move on to a clump of clover, the sticks which litter the trunks of the trees and the tall, billowy tufts of dandelions gone to seed and waiting to wished upon.
My resolve was short-lived tonight, though. The woman seemed to be waiting for us in the shade of the crab apple trees near the port-o-potty and the picnic tables. She had a scowl on her face before she spotted us, but when Duncan stopped to sniff the large rock placed at the junction of two sidewalks, a place a parade of dogs have paused and lifted their legs upon, her scowl darkened and she jumped up and hurried toward us.
"That is disgusting," she announced, jerking her head at Roo while he left a message splashed across the surface of the rock. "Children play there."
A million evil thoughts ran through my mind but I took a deep breath and smiled at her. "I understand," I said softly.
"I am so sick of dog walkers disregarding the behavior of their dogs when they're in a public park," she persisted, her face red, a shimmer of perspiration glistening across her brow, curling and frizzing the red hair at her temples.
"I understand," I repeated, never raising my voice or letting my smile falter. "I come here several times a day and nothing makes me more upset than seeing all the water bottles and fast food bags and forgotten socks left behind by these soccer people. It's really sad seeing how little regard they have for this public park we all share."
She studied my face a long moment and realized she'd been beaten.
"Maybe someday they'll learn to pick up after themselves and the dogs will learn to stop marking the territory they love," I continued. "But I wouldn't bet on it." Duncan was sitting at my side, his big, pink tongue lolling out, his eyebrows raised in that quizzical expression I love so much.
She could do nothing but turn away and slink back to her deep shadows under the crab apple trees where her cell phone waited. And Duncan and I turned back into the sun and walked merrily away.