Sometimes, fragments of conversations I’ve heard on the street jiggle around in my head; I hope I’m not alone in this. I don’t mean to listen, or anything, but when you’re standing beside people waiting for the crosswalk signal to grant access to a busy street, they seem to act as if they’re alone. As if there’s no one else with ears. 

Of course, it depends where they are in their conversation; I need context, and in the twenty seconds or so that I’m allotted I often have to invent it. But even so, I think it’s an interesting pursuit -I mean what else is there to do in retirement?

The other day, for example, I found myself standing beside a woman holding the hand of a little boy. Both were, I suppose, respectably dressed -she in grey slacks and a clean, white, no-nonsense blouse, and he in tiny, scaled down jeans and a green, bulky sweat shirt with a picture on it of someone I assume was Spider Man.

The woman seemed anxious to cross the temporarily empty street despite the upturned orange palm on the pedestrian signal. But the little boy wanted no part in that, and resisted when she tried to pull him onto the pavement.

“Come on, Christopher,” his mother hissed, through pursed lips. “We’re in a hurry and there are no cars…”

Still, Christopher was not moving. “But, there could be, mommy. One could come really fast around the corner.” He looked up at his mother. “Remember about Daddy?”

She stopped pulling his hand and stared at him. “What about daddy?”

Christopher stared at the pavement in front of him for a moment. “Remember that time when daddy took me for a walk to the park?” He suddenly realized he wasn’t supposed to say anything and looked away, but his mother tugged on his arm to answer her.

“Daddy stepped off the curb when he wasn’t supposed to but somebody riding his bike almost hit his leg. Then the man fell off the bike and a car screeched it’s brakes and had to bang into another car so it wouldn’t hit the bike…”

“What?” The woman almost screamed in her surprise. “Daddy never told me that, Christopher…”

The little boy stared at his shoes, and then at me, standing beside them. He seemed embarrassed at saying anything. “Daddy told me not to tell you… He said it was our secret.” Then, as if to show his father in a better light, he glanced at his mother, and then at me, for some reason. “He said that’d teach me to obey the signs,” he added, pointing at a solitary car hurrying past. “Then we went for an ice cream…” He looked up at the sign which was now a white figure that told them they could cross, and began to pull his mother off the curb.

“Did anybody get hurt?” I heard her ask as they passed me on the crosswalk. I didn’t hear the answer, just a loud angry sigh as a reaction from the mother. But the little boy turned to look at me as they stepped onto the opposite curb to safety. Was he embarrassed that a stranger had heard his confession, or that his mother had reacted so loudly? I think I would have forgotten all about the conversation had his eyes not pleaded with mine to keep the secret, too. Strange what we think about the power of strangers and the danger they might pose.

As it happened I was walking the same direction as them, but more slowly, just killing time on my way to… well, anywhere, I suppose. I was enjoying the outing; it was a break from doing nothing at home.

I soon lost sight of them, although in my imagination the little boy was still watching for me; still wishing he hadn’t disclosed his secret to the world. But even if walking along a quiet sidewalk on a nice day is usually pleasant, the morning was already heating up, so I stopped in a familiar little park along the way. It has a gravel path that encircles a tiny meadow like a lasso, with benches scattered under the surrounding trees. There are usually children playing in the grass, but I admit that although I often seem to be watching them, I’m usually snoozing on a bench in the shade, or scanning the path for a friend to happen by.

That day, however, I think I fell asleep, because when I looked again, there was little boy in a green sweatshirt sitting in the middle of the otherwise empty meadow, staring at a couple of women sitting close together and holding hands on a bench. He was idly pulling blades of grass and throwing them above his head, but I think that was merely a distraction. 

I couldn’t really see them clearly -they, too, were in the shade of a tree- but one woman’s clean white blouse stood out from the shadows. And every so often, the little boy would look my way, as if he was embarrassed. Or worried. Children are such interesting creatures: often unlike the adults they accompany.

I looked at my watch and realized it was close enough to noon to head to the Food Court of the nearby mall for a coffee and maybe a doughnut. It was Wednesday and often some of my retired friends met there, shooed out of their homes by their wives looking for a break. Even adults can be interesting creatures at times… 

Sure enough, Charlie was sitting at one of the tables in the Court, and I forgot all about Christopher and his mother. But, my friend was in a foul mood and rather than being hurried out of his house by his wife, he had escaped to the Court to avoid having to mow the lawn in the hot summer sun. It was all he could talk about until fear of retribution overwhelmed him and he excused himself after finishing his coffee and left to meet his fate. 

I was about to follow him, when I felt the weight of eyes resting on me from across the room somewhere. It was noon and the place was becoming noisy and energetic with people unleashed from their desks in the downtown offices. Hands were waving everywhere as secretaries searched for their colleagues, and construction guys, punched each other on shoulders and guffawed at rumours. Anybody could have been staring at me, mistaking me for a friend, or more likely, hoping I would vacate my valuable table.

But the eyes were still calling to me from somewhere in the cavernous room. They were silent beacons threading their signal through the milling crowd towards me. Like crosswalk lights, they were trying to attract my attention, hoping I’d notice. Demanding I notice…

And then I saw him, the little boy in the green spiderman sweatshirt, sitting with his mother at a small table across the room. As soon as our eyes connected, he smiled, and raised an ice-cream cone to his lips. A super-sized cone.

Children learn more quickly than adults, I think. 


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