There was a man who used to walk his two dogs in the neighborhood where I grew up. He had long, almost pill-shaped head, his hair having vacated the most of his head in the comparably favorable realm of only occasionally visible chest and arm hair. The dogs were big fuzzy creatures, brothers I think, in my life long before I knew names or even the idea of breeds. He would walk them by our elementary school and periodically my cousin and I would meet up with him on our way home from school. We would chat idly with him when it happened, sometimes running for brief distances to make it to him ‘naturally’. He spoke to us not necessarily as a friend, but as a quietly annoyed bystander of childhood, something that seems to plague many adults who forget how to deal with the blistering innocence of childhood.
One day he asks us, “Your parents taught you not to talk to strangers, right? They could abduct you or something.” He seemed to catch himself in the silence of our walking, “I mean, I’m not going to, but it can be dangerous.” I remember interjecting hastily, “Oh yeah, you just seem nice.” The latter comment based, I’m almost certain, on the fact that he had two dogs joyfully marching ahead of him every time we met.
It was true; my parents had told us about stranger danger. I needed him to know that. We were smart kids, we knew stuff. Who to trust, who not to trust, my parents had taught us it all. I needed him to know that, not just that I was cool, and smart, and clever, but that my parents had in fact raised us with the appropriate amount of fear, even if it didn’t stick particularly well. We had more conversations. I know we did. We lived in the neighborhood for years. At a certain point I moved up from grade school and the man and his dogs disappeared from my life forever. I remembered them just now, the conversation just now unsticking itself from whatever unkempt wall I pin small memories of my childhood.
I wonder what he’s doing now. Moreover, I wish I could continue that conversation. I wish I could tell him that parents have to teach their kids fear out of love, distrusting the world to care for what they have put some much time and energy towards, but that children keep smiling because they have hope. Hope that their parents are wrong, that they can be right and that the world can be the way we see it then, a lovely place with dogs and conversation.
I wish I could tell him I don’t want to believe in a world where you can’t have light conversation with someone when you walk in the same direction. Mostly I want to tell him thank you. Thank you for the company and for not telling Dad.