Walking With Charlie

By Julie HaydenAugust 26, 2012

Walking With Charlie

The Lists of the Past by Julie Hayden

The following short story is excerpted in full from The Lists of the Past
To read "Day-old Baby Rats," click here

HAND IN HAND, and very properly, Charlie and I cross Fifth Avenue as if it was water. In the Saturday-afternoon traffic it is important not to let go; red and green lights are beacons signaling take care, take care. By the time we reach the other side my hand is moist, and Charlie’s, within my fingers, feels cool and amphibious. With my free hand I bump the stroller over the curb; it is stocked with objects his mother has chosen for him: sand toys, several Matchbox cars, The Gingerbread Man in a Little Golden Book, a spoon, his crib blanket—extensions of his personality, definitions of himself. Just to the south the museum broods like a sphinx, and directly across the street a bored Secret Service man keeps vigil over the apartment house where the children of the late President Kennedy are staying. A low wall separates us from the Park, our destination.

            Though familiar with the Park, I am a West Sider. I have identified sixteen kinds of warbler in the Ramble, including the Connecticut, and glimpsed a peregrine falcon menacing children’s kites over the Sheep Meadow. The broken kouroi in the Greek Rooms of the museum are old acquaintances; so are the hoarse, ironic seals by the Zoo Cafeteria. But I have usually approached their whereabouts from the west, bicycling through the Park with Robert (who has gone to live in another town), and certainly never before in the company of a seventeen-month-old infant.

            It is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever been alone with Charlie. His landmarks clash upon mine. For a confusing second all directions become jumbled in my mind and the familiar wavers like a mirage. I cannot remember where I was told to go or what we were to do.

            What we are doing right now is watching the shiny, colored cars flow by. City-wise Charlie tallies their passing. “ ’N a car,” he observes, with an almost blasé flick of the hand I am not holding. “ ’N a bus. ’N a tackie car. ’N a car. ’N a car.” They are his sheep, or birds. Rumble. Honk. Beep. Screech, they call to him. Before I become mesmerized by the traffic, I choose a direction at random, and at once several mothers with strollers and children appear ahead of us; we follow in their tracks.

            Soon we find ourselves at the playground, guarded by bronze gates adorned with figures by Paul Manship, out of Aesop: the fox and the cheese, the lamb and the wolf. The gates, when shut, have gates of their own fore and aft to protect them against vandals. The fables seem to warn against flatterers, against opportunists. Charlie is politely inattentive to my comments about the beauty and moral purpose of these gates. I am talking, I recognize, too much. But then, so is he.

            Because what is this he’s saying? “Mommy. Mommy. Mommy,” in accents uncannily close to hers, like some mimic bird. Spoken so purely, the name seems an accusation, an indictment. Because she is not here. How could I have expected to be to him what she is—my sister, who sleepily saw us off at the apartment door, arms hunched above the bulge where Charlie’s rival is waiting to be born? Ought I to return him right now?
            But Charlie goes on softly saying her name, and his face is as serene as a snowman’s. Lightly I buss the feathery top of his head. “Daddy, Daddy,” he breathes abstractedly, stroking a polished bronze rosette. He will speak these names all through our afternoon; they become a kind of litany, a primitive om, a hum.

            Charlie and I are at the gates. Then he hunkers to examine a curved leaf with burnt edges. He finds a sewer grating. He offers me a glittery arrowhead-shaped stone, and I release it through the grating; together we watch it plop onto the leaves below. A few shabby leaves still cling to their trees, and the sky is mottled with cirrus and cumulus clouds. Leaf dust and blue car exhaust eddy around us. It is mild, smoky, parti-colored day and, now that I think of it, Halloween.

            We enter the playground where a girl died walking her dogs, shot by a sniper in full sight of the nurses and mothers and little children. The playground is empty today. Charlie marches straight ahead. Receding, he dwindles to the size of a red-and-blue doll soldier. He s not at all fazed by the huge slides and swings, the seesaw that looks as if it were meant for giant children with big red hands and ears. Solemnly he makes the circuit of these enormous toys, then slides over to the sandbox, which is the only thing the playground contains that is the right size for him. Charlie crouches on the brown-sugar sand, singing tonelessly, “Teetaw Margie Daw—”

            And the playground quickens with those other inhabitants of Charlie’s world, Jack and Margery and Wee Willie Winkie, the ones who dwell in that crazy, funny, disturbing place innocent of the principles of physics and biology, where dogs laugh, frogs go courting, and children suffer outrageous accidents—fall down or are beaten—while the gingerbread man runs triumphantly, thumbing his nose at the farmer’s wife. I try to sing along, but

                                                Seesaw, Margery Daw,

                                                Sold her bed and lay upon straw

are the words that come to mind. I cannot remember Charlie’s version of the song. Some grownups remember better than others. Robert despised memories, though he did claim that his mistrust of a certain relative dated from some early Christmas when she sent him a sinister greeting card, depicting the old man who requests you please to put a penny in his hat—and that may be true, because I do not recall that he ever gave anything to a beggar.

            With a blue tin shovel, Charlie pats the sand into heaps. “Row row row,” he sings (it is his bathtub song). He sighs. “Mommy, Daddy,” he says, climbing out of the sandbox. He takes my hand and we go up a stone ramp with the stroller to the top of the hill that overlooks the playground, with its outcropping of rock, the bone of Manhattan. On the grass a group of young people sprawl indolently in a circle while a large golden dog cavorts around them. Their musical instruments lie in a heap. They seem like a company of troubadours (or beggars), brightly dressed and riding high. They smell of incense. Charlie looks not at them but at a small boy who runs on tiptoes across the grass, grandparental protest screaming after him: “William! No. No. No.”

            A breathless grandmother tags him at last, carries him, with a jangle of bracelets, over to where we have parked the stroller, watching. The grandfather, who wears a red beret, comes along at a more sedate speed. “He’s got the dickens in him today, all right,” Grandmother boasts, fanning herself with a handkerchief.

            William prepares to take off again, like the gingerbread man, and the grandfather makes a church out of his joined fingers to distract him. “How old is he?” I inquire, instantly jealous for Charlie of William’s superior size and energy. It turns out that they are exactly the same age.

            If William is sturdier, Charlie is handsomer. He is a conventionally stunning child, with blank blond beauty of the very young, but nevertheless such as Raphael might have painted. Today the warmth and wind have lit him, set red circles on his cheeks, made a nimbus of his yellow hair. The blondness, of course, is temporary, and already fading. Still, I do not believe that either my sister or I resembled him at any moment of our lives. “I’m only his aunt,” I apologize.

            William is swinging an orange papier-mâché basket with a face painted on it; Charlie still has the blue tin shovel. They look at each other. We three custodians allow them to swap. “That’s a pumpkin, baby,” I explain to my nephew; he echoes, “Pump’n.” The grandchild bangs the borrowed shovel against a wooden fence.

            “Hiah, dog,” says Charlie, drifting over to where the teen-agers preserve their circle. Dog leans on his forepaws and woofs softly. A long pink tongue swipes Charlie’s face; frowning, he backs away, accompanied by cracked, adolescent laughter. His face crumples, but he does not cry. Quickly I go to him and we stroll out onto the rocks. With papery fingernails Charlie scrapes at a particle of mica, crooning his names. He has left the funny-face basket some way behind him.

            It would be pleasant to linger here, but I was urged to wear him out, so, feeling almost professional now, I collect Charlie, pumpkin basket, tin shovel, stroller, and Charlie (he has caught some dickens from William); returning the basket, we bid farewell to the grandparents and cross the street of cyclists, whom Charlie greets with a friendly “Hiah, bike.

            We are on a rustic path under tall oaks and sycamores, half-leaved, a tapestry forest. The shadows deepen and there seems to be nobody around. We come to the edge of a cliff. We look down. The canyon below us is a habitat for every species and race of vehicle: blue cars, Buick cars, convertibles, taxi cars, police cars, buses, motorcycles, hurrying east. They sound like the sea. I hold firmly to the dangling hood of Charlie’s jacket while Charlie fiercely and obsessively identifies the vehicles in their flight, as though he were necessary to them; he could not stop even if he wanted to. “ ’N a car. ’N a tackie car. ’N a bus.” Green car, taxi car, taxi car, motorcycle. The time of warblers is long past, and Robert and I will never again eat cheese and drink beer and quarrel in the Ramble. (Once he asked, “Can’t you say anything right?” and burst into tears, hiding his face in his hands.) The Park belongs to Charlie. I cover his red sneakers with leaves. He shifts and leans against my knee.

            My ears ring with the beginnings of nursery rhymes: “How many miles to Babylon?” “There was an old woman lived under a hill.” “Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea.” “I run and I run as fast as I can.” You can’t catch me, says the gingerbread man. It is Halloween. The Park begins to rustle with presences. Look, one of them is over there, a man in a leaf-green cap slouched against a maple tree, watching us. Well, he is watching us, but he is doing something else, too. Where did he come from? What is he doing? What is that in his hand?

            In a single movement, I pop Charlie into the stroller, wheel it around, and get us back down the leafy path to the bikes and the people. Charlie has noticed nothing wrong! I have performed a responsible act, for a change. I am not even shaking. Best of all, Charlie does not mind relinquishing the cars. Perhaps he enjoys my company.

            However, he does not car for being in the stroller, squirms in the seat, wants to walk like a man. To live. As we go up the sidewalk, Charlie, voluble now, greets everybody who passes, every animate thing. “Hiah, man!” he shouts expansively. “Hiah, girl.” A gray squirrel glares at us from behind a litter basket, and he murmurs, “Hiah, kirl.”

            It is getting dark; a policeman rides up to us on a dappled horse (“Hiah, horsie.”) “It’s getting dark, lady, and the Park isn’t so safe,” he warns up gravely. I thank him, and we walk on.


At the top of the rise, the trees give way to a vast open space, a field that seemingly extends to the horizon, the jagged wall of city. The field looks emerald in the late-afternoon light. Purple and black clouds are blowing across a Walpurgisnacht sky, with the moon suspended in it like a jack-o’-lantern smile. Near the road is a goal cage with scuffed earth around it, but no one is keeping it. Not far from a real pumpkin glows warmly on the grass. Whoever put it there is not in view. Charlie runs to it as if recognizing an old friend. “Pump’n. Pump’n!”

            With a deliberately silly smile, he tugs at its curved green handle, but the pumpkin only rolls foolishly about it axis and will not budged. Beside the pumpkin, surrealistically juxtaposed, is a pair of oxblood-colored loafers, approximately size 10. I have the sense that Peter’s wife is going to peek out of the pumpkin, or a troop of tiny children file into a shoe. I look around for a barefoot pumpkin owner. However, nothing here is the least strange to Charlie. One sneakered foot slides into one of the loafers, then the other into the other. Trying to navigate, he falls backward. “Daddy,” he says. He capers away at light feet and looks at the pumpkin lovingly. “Look at the moon, baby,” I tell him. It is almost too much for him.

            Charlie lifts his hands toward the moon and revolves in a dance of admiration, conducting some ceremony of his own. The Park gathers itself and freezes. For a beat in time, wind, noise, wheels are stilled. The animals in the Zoo are listening. The gingerbread man stops running. I feel as though all my life I have been traveling toward this spot, to wait beside this baby at the vortex of his joy. In the spooky silvery light, everything is a clue. There are clues all around me, but I cannot interpret them. I cannot even distinguish the mystery.

            Then a cloud is dragged across the moon, a boy comes along with a loud transistor radio, bats emerge and begin to tumble in the violent air. It is at last time to go. But something else unexpected develops—Charlie does not want to leave the shoes behind. We were so happy for a while, I cannot bear that anything should change it. I carry him under the armpits over to the stroller, but he runs disconsolately away, back to the objects of his fixation. “Daddy.” He is trying to tell me something. He cannot make me understand. Somehow he manages to lift one shoe by the heel, trundling it back to me, like a mother cat dragging a large brown kitten. His anxiety makes me hurt too. “Oh, Charlie,” I tell him, “I wish we could take the shoes. But they don’t belong to us. Somebody needs them, somebody with cold feet.” But nobody appears to claim them.

            Then it comes to me with the simplicity of faith that 10 is not an uncommon size, and all he is trying to tell me is that he things these are the shoes are his father. Under this light, with the air full of distant flighty things, it is a supposition too reasonable to dispute.

            However, I think I now know where we are and what to say. “Going home, Charlie. Wave bye-bye shoes. Bye-bye pumpkin.” We wave farewell to the moon, to the Park and all its kind and dangerous inhabitants. On the sidewalks outside the Park, the first small pirates and witches and Batmen will already be out begging; next year Charlie will be among them. I wish there were more that I could do for him.

            Did I ever care so much for another person that even his clothes were holy to me?

            I am thirty years old and I have no child and on attachments. If Robert came to me barefoot across the meadow I would turn my back on him, having mastered the knowledge that you can love someone and not be able to live with him, and that there are no grownups who can tell you what to do.


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