Thursday, August 17, 2006

a sunny afternoon

There is a palpable yawn on a small town street at 4:30 in the afternoon. The lunch hour is long over and restaurant employees are well inside laying out forks and stirring pots for the dinner menu. Storekeepers wander out on the sidewalks and look about idly, as if making sure the rest of the world is firmly tethered after industriously pinning down their own shops for another day.

Inside the dentist's office on the corner, the teenager got a shot of anesthetic. We got lucky; the receptionist worked us in at the last minute. It may be a while, my mother said, working her way through the Word Power quizzes in the stack of Reader's Digests on the waiting room table. Why don't you two go out and get some air. I'll stay here.

The youngest child took my hand hopefully, and we picked our way carefully down the stairs (the child holding on to the rail with his other hand, edging the points of his feet carefully before each step down).

I had to push with unusual force to open the tall, heavy glass-fronted doors of the office. Once outside, we squinted in the sudden warm light that reminded me vaguely of melted yellow wax. Small towns close up early. No one walked up or down the sidewalks. Just us, me and my youngest son. It felt like a luxury, but also, maybe, a little bit sad.

We crossed the street hand in hand, and then crossed another up the block to stand outside a newspaper office I once worked at -- back when my teenager was younger than the four-year-old child holding my hand now. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and walked in.

A woman behind a desk had a phone to her ear, but she smiled big at me and raised her eyebrows in such a way as to indicate she was on hold, but could still talk to me.

I bought a newspaper (paying her a dollar, so she had to rummage in her desk for fifty cents to give back as change) and asked if anyone else was in. She assured me, no, everyone's gone for the day. I sighed as I pocketed the change, not wanting to leave just yet.

"I used to work here," I said, and she smiled wider (probably wishing I'd leave before the person on the other end of the phone picked up). "A long time ago." I paused. "A long time ago," I repeated with more emphasis, looking down at my child.

She went on smiling. I thanked her and we walked back out again, my child and I. I folded the paper and tucked it in my purse for later.

Outside on the sidewalk again. Two men sat on a park bench in front of the bookstore, chatting. I recognized the man on the left as the owner and asked if the store was still open. He said Sure, go ahead, gesturing graciously before resuming his conversation.

I started to feel like everyone had someone else to talk to just then, except me.

The bookstore is the kind with shelves that go all the way to the ceiling. The art books (I know from experience) are in the room cordoned off with a big gold theater-style chain. My child hurried immediately to the chain and made a show of hooking and unhooking it from the doorway. "This way, this way," he called out importantly as I rifled through a set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don't want the books, but the teenager does.
It would be a good purchase, I reasoned. It's literature.

There's a Michelangelo volume in the art section that I've been wanting since Christmas, when I discovered this used bookstore in the first place. The only reason I haven't bought it is because it costs $35, and I can't justify that kind of extravagance yet. I'm still getting started with my artwork, and $35 could buy more art supplies instead. But I like flipping through the book, especially the huge color prints in the back. The details are so much easier to see in this volume. I could spend hours marveling over the reds and the blues in the prints.

I decided on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and peeped outside the doorway to let the owner know I was ready to buy. He jumped up alertly and followed me inside. I felt like apologizing for the interruption: "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to end your conversation." He didn't answer, but resumed his position behind the counter and looked inside the covers of the books soberly.

He looked downward at the floor, mulling something over, and then, decisively, told me the total. It seemed cheaper than the sum I'd added in my head. I frowned, but he was firm. That's what you owe me; that's all I want. I sighed and gave him the money. I felt he'd been too kind to someone who'd interrupted his chat.

I assured him I'd be back for the Michelangelo book and thanked him for waiting on me. He said You're welcome; you have a nice afternoon, now.

Outside the old man he'd been talking to; had vanished. The street was still sunny and empty, save for an older couple holding hands at the corner. I realized they were watching us, me and my child, as we crossed the street together (looking both ways, the child holding my hand, my other hand holding the plastic sack of Tolkien books). The man and the woman, they stood there smiling fondly at us both, as if they knew us, or we knew them (we don't).

Such a suprising discovery, to come across a small pocket of happiness like that; even if not knowing anyone around you in the moment, or understanding their kindnesses, but feeling so....grateful, and contented, all the same. It's been such a hard week. And yet, people are still so good.