A misty rain began as we walked along the shiny dark sidewalk. “Looking forward to your birthday?”
“Yeah” There was hesitation in his voice. He seemed distant. We walked in silence as I thought about the past sixteen years. My favorite part was the early years. For this little guy, I felt an adoration I’d never felt before – for anyone. I’d read to him every night. After I closed the book, he’d flop on his tummy and I’d scratch his back. Then I’d sing the goodnight song. This was our routine. After I shut off the light, he’d ask a bunch of questions – to stall of course – he always came up with something interesting: “Why does Mr. Brown talk funny?” or “Can I have a pet ant?” One night I was in a hurry to get back downstairs for a romantic dinner with Donna. “One more thing Daddy.” Alex insisted as I gave him a quick kiss on his forehead. “Who is God?”
One of his first babysitters was a pretty girl on our block named Monique. One night he didn’t want to come home from her house. I literally dragged my four-year-old down the sidewalk as he cried “Min-oak, Min-oak!” The next day he was still calling her name. I put him down for his afternoon nap. “Daddy” he cried. “I want Min-oak.” Later, while sitting at my computer something caught my eye out the window. Alex had escaped and was running down the street.
At sixteen, he still liked older girls – specifically a senior named Laura. He was a good two years younger than her, yet Alex fit in with her friends and loved hanging out with them. He figured this entitled him to new privileges – like staying out late and not telling us where he was. Dealing with this had become a constant battle of wills lately that was literally consuming Donna and me.
“That Chinese place should be just up ahead.” I said.
“Dad, I’m afraid things won’t be the same when we get back.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think my friends will get used to doing things without me. They‘ll get used to not having me around.“ He kicked a small rock – it skated across the sidewalk. I resisted scolding him for nearly denting a hubcap. “It’s only five months, Alex. They won’t forget you.”
“It’s just too long. They are going to forget who I am.” He kept looking down, even as we entered the take-out place. After ordering, we sat down. I pulled some money from my pocket. “Here, go next door and buy some sodas for you kids.” He quietly disappeared and I wondered if taking him along on this trip was indeed a mistake. After a moment I felt tremendous loneliness, like I was floating in a lifeboat with nothing but ocean surrounding me.
Alex was pulling soda cans out of the case when I walked in. A short, dark man stood at the register and greeted me with a welcoming smile. I mustered up a return grin then headed toward the back where I spotted some cans labeled French Table Wine.
I placed the wine atop the counter. As Alex milled about, the man and I struck up a conversation. He was a pleasant fellow from Uganda and had lived in Salisbury for several years. He told me the locals kept to themselves but were good people.
“Your son?” he asked, nodding toward Alex. I gave him the short version of our reason for being here. He smiled.
Alex dropped three soda cans on the counter “I’ll go pick up the food, Dad.”
The man’s eyes followed Alex as he walked out the door. “Make him work.” he offered, punching his register keys.
“My father made me work at his age. It was the best for me.” The man’s face turned serious. “My life would have been totally different otherwise.” With a thick accent he explained his troubled childhood – about rising above the odds, escaping poverty, and finding success. I found it comforting that he was sharing this information with me. Oddly, it hit the spot.
I thanked him for his advice then started to walk toward the door when he stopped me. He grabbed a pack of gum and placed it on the counter. “For you.”