In the lengthening afternoons, as the daylight lingers and the dinner hour gets pushed back, the kids have been abroad on their bikes. There's a little gang of them in the neighborhood: my younger boy and girl, plus a pair of brothers, plus another brother and sister, plus another girl who's taller than any of them, wears a supercilious look, but goes with the rest of them because that's what there is to do.
I don't actually know where they go a lot of the time, unless it transpires that someone has money for the ice cream shop on the square. Uptown, they say vaguely, when pressed for information about where they're going, or where they've been. Uptown, of course, is three blocks away and consists of the courthouse square, with businesses where the kids are known by sight at the very least, so that if they got into trouble of any kind, it wouldn't be anonymous trouble. Three of the four sets of parents involved have agreed on boundaries: for example, the gas station way out Main Street where they stopped for drinks last week is officially over the line. No gas stations. No going way out to where the Mom and Pop businesses give way to AutoZone and Bojangles and the Department of Human Services.
Three out of four sets of parents draw the line, and maybe the fourth would, too, for all I know. At the supercilious girl's house I've never ever yet seen evidence for the existence of adult life. When Crispina, my youngest, had a sleepover party for her eighth birthday, somehow this child wound up spending the night, despite the fact that not only had her mother never met me, I had never met her, the child; she came as an appendage to the other neighborhood-bike-gang girl, and after disappearing home briefly to ask permission, she seemed perfectly happy to have a sleeping bag unrolled for her in our strange house, in a roomful of girls she mostly hadn't known for more than three hours. As a child I think I would have found this uncomfortable. As an adult, long acclimated to the parental anxieties of other adults, I found it at least vicariously uncomfortable. For all I know, however, her mother slept the night away in perfect peace, trusting me sight unseen.
Still, I'm just going to assume that she'd back the rest of us in this matter of children and bikes and boundaries. Suddenly I feel like Daedalus, handing Icarus his wings and saying, Now be sensible about this, will you, even as I know what boys, and girls too, are like, especially when you present them with something as world-enlarging as a pair of wings, or a bicycle. A pair of wings, a bicycle, a bunch of other kids with the same apparatus, and you're talking to yourself, daddy-o.
Helier, riding the loop road behind the gym today, managed to fall off his bike and catch a branch in the kisser, also destroying, in the ruin of his fall, whatever was left of the Nutty Buddy he had taken from the freezer and put in his backpack for later. It is to my credit, I think, that I looked at his teeth, to ascertain that he still had any, before I asked whether the ice cream was still in the backpack, or what, because what was going through my mind, maybe to keep me from thinking too much about blood, was how utterly unspeakable a backpack full of ice cream would be three days later, when somebody finally thought to think about it. As it turned out, the girls who were riding with him had disposed of the ice cream before dashing up to find me, to tell me breathlessly that Helier was hurt, that they thought his teeth looked crooked now, and that I had better bring the car.
Long story short: his teeth didn't look any more crooked than they looked before, but I took him to see the dentist, who was more worried by Helier's uncharacteristically neglecting to bring a water gun with him, for the express purpose of shooting the dentist while his back was turned, than by anything in Helier's mouth. Our visits to the dentist in his tiny little office, with his staff of motherly hygienists, even at the worst of times are like fluoridated homecomings. (ADDENDUM: And let me be clear here that it's the dentist who started this water-gun-fight-in-the-office business. That's not something we habitually do in public places) Crispina rode along with us because it's been six months since she last spoke with Miss Christi, her own personal hygienist; while I sat with Helier, reading the National Geographic and waiting for his x-rays to come back, she disappeared down the hall and came back with some kind of little twisty-bendy puzzle thingy which apparently Miss Christi always keeps on hand for antsy non-dental-work-loving patients to play with, and which she had said that Helier could borrow if he needed it. It was pink, so he didn't need it, though until the last minute he was consumed with worry that his teeth would have to be pulled. No good my arguing that the dentist's objective -- beyond not being caught unawares by Helier's water gun during a routine cleaning visit -- was to keep a person's teeth in his mouth. This assertion became credible only as we were leaving, laden with Macdonald's Happy Meal toys from the treasure chest, of which no child ever is permitted to take just three.
One thing the entire dentist's office knows now is that Crispina makes her First Holy Communion on Saturday. Like Helier, she's had her share of bike wrecks -- though so far her teeth have been spared -- and her legs are a mass of bruises, scrapes, and bites. I tell her that these are evidence that she knows how to live. They're the marks of a girl who flings herself into God's arms, which as often as not feel just like the sidewalk. That's what it is to be a girl, and eight: to have those legs and the life that gives them to you, and then to put on a veil, like a bride, and become something that should have a red candle burning beside it, day and night, to tell the world that God is in there. In her, with shouts of joy and occasional blood, God will soon go riding.