The plan was simple, which is the only way to succeed with small children. Dawn took Rose to Sunday school for two and half hours, so I decided to walk to downtown with Samuel to check out the babes and splurge on some children’s literature at Bear Pond Books. Only first we had to clean the kitchen, put away toys, change his diaper, and get out of pajamas. Delay upon delay. At 9:45 I said, “Are you ready, Samuel Sam?”
“Snack!” he replied, the N spoken through the nose rather than the mouth, and his face crinkled as if he smelled something bad.
Two bowls of apple sauce and a 45 minute phone call with the grandparents later, we headed down the narrow stairs to the garage. Spring had arrived bringing temperatures just above freezing, but the wind chill fought back. We dressed in warm layers, leaving the winter marshmellow coats in the mud room. Father and son, man and boy, a tradition as inevitable as crocuses following winter bonfires, we were ready to take our first post-hibernation walk down the hill to downtown.
But first, we had to move the laundry into the dryer. And put the mittens and fleece hat back on. And strap Samuel into the wheeled conveyance because he didn’t want to ride in the backpack today. My winter potato physique did not complain about this choice.
“Are you ready, Samuel Sam!”
Out the garage we went, me pushing and Samuel riding in what is not exactly a stroller, nor a pram, nor a baby buggy. It most resembles a modern baby jogger, but in the way that a mule resembles a thoroughbred. We call it the Twinkle, because that is the model name stitched in gold letters on the purple fabric. It was on sale in a small touristy mall/office center in Palmer, Alaska. Back in 2003 it was just perfect for Rose and now it is just perfect for Samuel. The small, tough wheels and compact body were meant for walking and hiking on dirt trails. You can’t really race with it and it does not go well with Spandex, but you can stop and smell the flowers on the way.
The air was cold and crisp, like autumn, only damp. All that remained of the snow was a six-inch crust over the lawn. Dirty green grass showed through where the snow had peeled away from the warmth of the maples and the asphalt. Shreds of abandoned circulars, buried for weeks under the snow, sailed past on the breeze crying advertisements. The wind smelled sweetly of gravel and salt and wet wet mud and rotting snow. There wasn’t a soul on the road here. Everyone who wasn’t sleeping or eating brunch was either collecting maple sap or buying maple syrup.
We took the sharp downhill turn onto Main Street. A car drove by, and then another. On one side of the walkway was a steep grade going up. Across the street a guardrail separated the road from a sunken wooded valley. The soil was well below the road level and gave the appearance of a forest full of stunted oaks and pines. For the first time in months, I heard the roar of the brook, swollen with snowmelt, that flows by those trees in summer. The air was full of a fine mist, as though a waterfall were nearby, but there was no waterfall. Just the sound of the water taking its crazy sled ride to Lake Champlain.
“What did you say, Samuel?”
“I saw it!”
“You see some lights, Samuel?”
“On the cars.”
Halfway to downtown, we followed the curve to Hilltop. In the middle of a residential neighborhood was a mental institution on one side of the street and a geriatric home facing across on the other. The former was a tall imposing yellow brick structure while the latter hid itself behind a tall wooden fence. Though the parking lots were always full of cars, I could not remember ever seeing anyone go in or out of either building. I imagined terrible neglect and abuse behind its steel doors being exposed to the ruin and shame of our little village. Then I saw them as rival castles facing off across a treacherous river, and I wondered what would happen if someone built a tunnel under the road conencting them. Then I remembered to stop daydreaming. I was a father with responsibilities, pushing a small, inert boy in cold weather.
“Samuel, do you still have your mittens on?”
“Let me see.” I leaned over and pulled up his rain coat sleeves. The left blue mitten was in place but the right one was gone, lost.
“Uh-oooooh!” says Samuel.
“Uh-oh,” I say.
“That’s Okay!” he let me know.
And it was. In any case, I wasn’t going to hoof it a half mile back uphill to go searching. I tucked his hand inside the inner fleece sweater sleeve and kept on trucking. We sang This Old Man together, one of Samuel’s favorites, and he sang lustily along all the way to downtown.
But when we got there – no babes. Not even a toddler. Just a bunch of crusty old Vermonters skipping church and cruising the few shops still open. The sun had disappeared and the red brick walls of downtown radiated a chill. The coffee shops were closed on Sunday, which was just as well for our budget. I lifted the back wheels of the Twinkle high enough for Samuel to press the crosswalk button, and for once the other pedestrians waited politely with us for the light.
Inside Bear Pond Books, I parked the Twinkle by the steam radiators. The store was not large and the bookcases were thickly arranged, leaving a narrow aisle between that the fire mashall would probably not approve of. The sides of the cases were decorated with maps and book advertisements and faux retro postcards. I walked with Samuel up the stairs to the children’s department. The steps were so old and steep that even the thick carpeting couldn’t muffle the groans and squeaks of the wood underneath. Upstairs were puzzles, small chairs, an ancient gilded cash register to play with. I quickly found a couple of books to buy for Samuel and sat down to read to him. He nestled in my lap. When we had read each one a few times, I said, “Samuel, we need to find a book or two for Rose too.”
“O-Kay!” He jumped up from my lap and ran across the room. The stairwell was uncomfortably close, and my forty-one year old legs heaved themselves painfully right behind him. He ran around a book case and stopped in front of the young reader chapter books. For two seconds he scanned the options and then pulled out a thin paperback, surrounded by identical thin paperbacks in the same series, something like “The Pterodactyl’s Dilemma: A Dinosaur Mystery.”
“You think Rose would like this one, Samuel?”
“OK. Why do you think so?”
“Dat purple.” (Isn’t it obvious, Papa?)
“Oh, yes. Rose does like purple.”
Downstairs again, the clerk cleared a spot on the counter for Samuel to sit and schmooze. I’m not sure what we were thinking. In less than a minute, two display books and a stack of flyers were lying scattered across the floor. The clerk laughed, told me not to worry about it, held the credit card form so I could sign it with only one hand, the other keeping Samuel upright.
“Go home,” said Samuel. He was getting tired.
“Are you ready to go home, Samuel?”
“Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle.”
I clicked him in the Twinkle and all the way up Main Street we sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.