I was in my office, happily encircled by little piles of paper, drafting an article, when real life interrupted.
My wife Cynthia was on the phone. Our sons, she said, had ridden their bicycles—with permission—to the fancy overpriced coffee shop two blocks away to buy caramels. The shop was closed, they found.
So our elder son, Ben, who is 9, decided to go to the 7-11, several blocks away and just beyond the border of what we consider acceptable society for young boys. This Ben did without permission. And without his little brother, Tommy, whom he left, alone, outside the closed coffee shop.
Ben confessed after Cynthia noticed him eating one of those mass-produced snacks he could only have bought at 7-11. (The overpriced coffee shop sells caramels, artisanal chocolate, and a single yuppie-approved brand of potato chip.)
I got the point. Going to 7-11 without permission, bad. Abandoning the 7-year-old, really bad. It actually required almost no effort for Tommy to find his way home, but still. Who knows what could have happened to him?
When I got home that evening, the phone was ringing. The woman on the line sounded uncannily like my mother-in-law, a funny lady who sends people cards on every last rinky-dink holiday but not on Christmas. The care and safety of children, however, brings out her dark side. She asked if I knew what Ben had done. From the sound of her voice, I realized this had to be worse than the 7-11 thing, so I began imagining some later act of cruelty or vandalism, something really horrible that must have followed Ben’s notorious trip to a déclassé convenience store.
“What did he do?” I asked.
It would be better, she said, if Cynthia told me. But then she choked back a few tears to ask if she could speak to Ben herself. Fortunately, I did not have to decide this one. Ben wasn’t home to talk to her.
Summer is the season of discontent in my house. Everyone goes to bed too late. And what crimes our children would have committed at school often happen in plain sight, on the watch of my dear wife, who works part time from home. Day camps help, but with three kids going this way and that, Cynthia is reduced to taxiing about town, racing the minute hand, and running low on patience.
When I saw her that night about an hour after our usual dinner time, I said that her mother had called. I could see from her face that she was adding this to the day’s mental bill.
“What was she so upset about?” I asked.
“The 7-11 thing. I should never have mentioned it.”
“Oh. I thought . . . whatever.”
Fortunately, we are going on vacation soon. We’ll spend two weeks in a place where no one worries about their children. It’s a paradise for adults, who I see all day long reading on their porches and drinking white wine.
Thousand Island Park is its name, and it is located on an island in the St. Lawrence River just south of Canada. A Methodist summer resort founded in the nineteenth century, it continues to provide spiritual nourishment while relieving parents of their nerve-wracking sleeve-danglers.
Children wander free all day long. There is an adult-run kickball game or soccer match for them in the morning, if they’re interested, and in the afternoon a whole lot of sweet nothing. Car use is de minimis. Bicycles and golf carts rule the sleepy dirt roads.
“Where are the kids?” Cynthia or I will ask, in a light voice, as if the answer doesn’t much matter. But frequently the other will say, “They’re at the Guzzle.”
The Guzzle is an ice cream and penny-candy shop (with actual candy you can buy for a penny) in the center of town, with pimply kids manning the counter and some out-of-date video games in back. Everyone loves this place.
Now, I hate to tell you this, but last year it burned down.
We were falling asleep when a neighbor knocked at our door to let us know a fire had engulfed the Guzzle and several connected buildings, only a block away. We gathered our wallets, car keys, and some clothes, but in the end didn’t have to flee. Firefighters, drawing water from the river when the town’s antique hydrants proved unusable, bravely struggled to contain the fire and, in a few hours, put it out.
The next day people gathered by the wreckage. Photos were taken. A few Sunday painters set up their easels and began depicting the charred remains. No one had been injured, but everyone mourned the Guzzle, that adorable symbol of a barefoot childhood, now so rare, and its great corollary, unanxious parents.
It was no time at all before we heard that the town was vowing to rebuild.