With Child

WTH. He has a kid

What do you mean? Like, with him???

Yes. At the table w him.

omg ABORT ABORT

            Christina put her phone away and pulled her scarf up over her mouth. Her date, met on some app or other, had claimed one of the plaza’s round tables. “Between the coffee truck and the ostentatious Christmas tree,” per his text. And he was cute enough. Clean-shaven, sharp nose—and a sort of thoughtful look most people didn’t have when they didn’t know anyone was looking.

            But he’d brought a little boy.

            He hadn’t mentioned a son. Certainly not that he’d be bringing one to their meetup.

            Kind of a glaring omission.

            She kept walking, right past the park and into a bookstore. Change of plans.

***

            Fifteen minutes earlier, Jake nabbed the only open seat in the park. It was a little too close to the carolers for comfort. He hoped they’d move on before the girl showed up at her advertised “tennish minutes late.”

            He took in the light falling snow, the gaudily decorated evergreen tree, the ice skaters. A fine spot for a first date. And if he—

            Something tugged at his jacket sleeve.

            A kid. A boy. Five, maybe six. He had on earmuffs but only a t-shirt and jeans. His cheeks were little tomatoes, his nose a red button. Even after Jake made contact with those large blue eyes, the child continued to tug at his cuff, gawping and expelling breath-clouds.

            “Hey, guy,” Jake said. “You okay? Where’s your parents?”

            “I dunno,” he said. “Mom said wait here.”

            “Well, where’d she go?”

            “I dunno.”

            Jake looked around. No frantic mothers pushing their way through the crowds. No park security squawking into walkie-talkies.

            “She just left you? When was this?”

            “I dunno.”

            “Was it a long time ago? Just a second ago?”

            “Long time.”

            “Okay.” Jake rubbed his face with a pilling fabric glove. “Okay. Um.” There were no police officers around. He could walk the kid around until they were able to flag one down, but— What if the mother showed up while they were gone? What if his date (and boy were those profile pictures adorable) showed up and he wasn’t there?

            Better not to wander off.

            He looked around for someone better, a responsible adult. Two tables over a red-haired lady with a stroller chattered into her phone.

            Jake hovered a hand an inch over the boy’s head. He waved as frantically as an air traffic controller in the young mom’s direction, until she put a palm over her cell.

            “Yeah?” she said.

            “Do you mind watching him?” Jake said, pointing down.

            “What?”

            “He’s lost his mom.”

            The woman’s eyes were swallowed in a savage squint. “Well, you better find her, then,” she said. She returned to her phone conversation with an “Oh my gawd.”

            Jake breathed in. The kid hadn’t stopped staring at him.

            “What’s your name?” he said.

            “Jacob.”

            “No shit?” The kid blinked. “I mean,” Jake said, patting his chin, “No goofin’? My name’s Jacob, too.” The kid smiled. “Hey, man, I dunno about you, but I am dying for a hot cocoa. You want one while we wait on your mom to come back?”

            The kid beamed. Every tooth he had on display.

            “Let’s do it,” Jake said.

            They went together to the mobile café, Jake’s eyes peeled for a panicked parent in the crowd. At the counter, he tilted his head up at the looming woman in the window. He ordered two hot chocolates.

            “Does your son want marshmallows?” she asked.

            “What?”

            “Your son,” she said. “Does he want marshmallows?”

            “Oh, he’s not my—” Jake snorted. “Sure.” He knocked on the metal counter. “Sure, we’ll both take marshmallows.” He left a tip bigger than the total and gave the kid the first drink served.

            Young Jacob giddily thrust the Styrofoam cup to a pursed, expectant mouth. The instant the liquid touched his tongue he shouted “Ow!” and dropped the cocoa. It clacked on the sidewalk to splatter brown on Jake’s shoes and pant legs.

            “I’m sorry,” the kid said. “I’m sorry.” His bottom lip trembled.

            “It’s fine.” Jake turned away to hold a breath and grab a wad of napkins. The barista gave him more in fistfuls.

            “Another cocoa, co-co-comin’ right up,” she said.

            Back at their table, Jake popped the lid open on his cocoa and blew on it. The kid watched him for a few seconds, absorbent, then mimicked the act.

            Craning his neck in every direction, Jake scanned the sea of faces for Christina, the girl from the app he was definitely going to delete, even if this date didn’t go well. Definitely. Because who had time for it?

            He checked his phone: No texts. She was officially thirty minutes late. He sent her a quick “u ok?” and sensed the boy’s soul-scouring stare.

            “So what were you and your mom doing?” he said.

            “Shopping.” The kid blew so hard into his cup, specks of whipped cream went airborne. “Christmas shopping.”

            “Any idea when she’ll be back?”

            The kid shrugged.

            Jake nodded. He tried to remember being six. How the world looked to him. Of course, he would never have approached a strange man and hung out with him over beverages. Right now, in little Jacob’s shoes, he’d have been running through the park doing a Kevin McAllister scream until his mother reappeared.

            “Hey, do me a favor?” he said. He opened the dating app (oh, another match I’m definitely not going to investigate later, nope) and flashed Christina’s picture to the kid. “If you see this girl, tell me, okay?”

            “Is that your wife?” Jacob asked.

            Jake chuckled. “No, dude. Not even close.”

            “Is she your girlfriend?”

            “Not yet, anyway.”

            “Are you in love?” The kid slurped, emerging with a dripping chocolate stain all the way up to his nose.

            “Just tell me if you see her, all right?”

            Jacob nodded meaningfully. He had a mission now.

            They both jumped at a sudden, low thrum overhead. Mirroring one another, they craned their necks to gawp heavenward. A small toy helicopter—just a cheap plastic thing—sputtered over them before losing steam and clattering to the concrete. A bald man in a fat parka waddled over to collect it. He had a see-through bag full of the things.

            He made sure Jacob was watching and jammed a little ripcord into the toy, tugged it, and let it fly again.

            Jacob’s mouth dropped open, eyes asparkle.

            “Oh,” the man said, a little too pat. “Looks like your boy’s got his eye on these.”

            “He’s not my—” Jake sighed. “How much?”

            Jacob’s cheeks puffed up.

            “Fifteen.” The man held out a hand gloved only up to the knuckles. Jake dropped a twenty in his palm. Jacob sat frozen, even when the junky little toy was held a few inches from his nose. Deep thought colored his face. Like going through the stages of grief. He frowned in Denial. Bounced his gaze between the two men, Bargaining: Do you mean it? Finally, he bobbed his little head in Acceptance and took the toy. He turned his back and huddled over it, as though it might yet be taken away.

            With the seller already off to his next mark, Jake asked, “Why don’t you try it out?”

            The boy peered over his shoulder at the adult. “Right now?”

            Jake shrugged. “Yeah, why not?”

            The kid leapt from his chair and ran ahead. Jake followed. The boy pulled at the tiny thin ripcord with a weak, wobbly arm. The plastic chopper’s blades did a half-turn and it fell to the ground.

            Jake picked it up. “Here,” he said. He gave it a yank, really sent the thing flying.

            “Whoa!” the boy said. He raced after it. On the way, he bumped into an older woman’s coat-covered hips. She staggered back and yelped.

            “Sorry,” Jake said.

            “Hey, asshole,” the woman said in her Brooklyn best. “Maybe give your kid a coat when it’s twenty degrees out.”

            “Oh.”

            Jake waited until she was out of sight and took off his jacket. He wrapped it around the kid. “Sorry, man.”

            The boy didn’t care. He was fiddling with the copter and its pull-string, to little success. Jake reached over him and gave it a tug. It shot more out than up, between some shocked folks’ heads. The kid went after it.

            In a second he had disappeared in a sea of legs.

            “Man, wait—!” Jake checked his empty table and jolted off in Jacob’s direction.

            The kid was fast, already nestled shockingly deep in a series of thick evergreen bushes behind the divider fence.

            “It went in here!” he cried. “C’mon!”

            “I don’t…” Jake got on tiptoes, hugging his newly cold, bare forearms. The bushes’ nettles looked sharp. Moreover, they were rooted in a great deal of mud and sludge. “Just forget it,” he said. “Come back.”

            “I saw it land!”

            Jake couldn’t see anything other than rustling greenery now, the kid all but out of sight. “Dude,” he said, careful with his tone and volume. “Let it go. That’s off limits.”

            “Come and help me!”

            Jake bit his lip. Browsing left and right, he registered nothing but disinterested faces. No one met his pleading gaze, his embarrassed smirk. He wrapped a set of fingers over the rail.

            “Jacob, come back, okay?”

            No answer.

            The grownup shook his head, took a breath, and hopped the fence. SMELK. He’d landed up to his ankles in muck. Waist-deep in shrubbery, he pressed through scraping branches and pokey pine needles. Heartrate up, face flushed, he scowled. Despite the cold he felt a dampness in his armpits, down his back. The kid was right there. Just out of arm’s reach. But how many people were looking? How long would it take to cajole and corral him out—and by then, how many more people would be looking?

            “Got it?” he said. “Come on.”

            “It’s stuck.”

            Jake knelt. Through a wall of evergreen obstructions, he could see the kid wrestling with a bush. The toy was lodged in there good.

            “Let it go. I’ll buy you a new one,” he said.

            The kid didn’t respond, kept struggling. What did dads do in these situations? What would his have done?

            “All right, then,” Jake said. “I’m leaving. You stay if you want.”

            A momentary pause in the rustling of foliage. Then the bush itself shrugged and went back to shaking at the kid’s touch. His bluff had been called.

            “Um, sir?” A bored growl—park security. An older, heavyset man in brown coat and gold name tag stood beyond the fence, hands on hips. “Excuse me. You can’t be in there.”

            “I know. I’m trying to—”

            “You and your kid get on out of there.”

            Jacob’s head appeared out of the bushes, Whack-A-Mole style. “He’s not my dad,” he said, before diving back in.

            Jake winced.

            “Your nephew, whatever. Get out of the bushes. It’s off-limits in there.” The guard (officer? ranger?) waved them over with a bored flapping hand. “C’mon, now.”

            “Jacob, we gotta go.” Jake got on his knees, stretched out an arm. He leaned so hard a rib shifted. His fingertips brushed the kid’s shoulder. The boy brushed him off, diving into a cage of branches and roots that would not permit anyone larger.

            Jake shot up, looking at the guard. “I’m trying. I— I, look. I’m just here to meet a friend. This little guy’s lost, and—”

            “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” The guard took another step forward, so his gut hung over the rail. “He’s not yours?”

            “N-No, he’s… We’re waiting on his mom to come back. Can you help us?”

            The guard smooshed a walkie-talkie to his mouth, turning away to mutter into it. He came back up and glared at Jake. “Sir, I need to take the boy with me.”

            “That’s fine,” Jake said, holding up his hands. “That is fine. Please.”

            In the end, the guard had to sort of roll over the fencing and join Jake in the mud and the firm, unforgiving shrubbery. Several people had stopped to look, and when the kid started screaming in protest, out came the phones for filming.

            Jake took a kick to the mouth; he felt his lip burst. A few spectators went ooh. But eventually the child calmed, and Jake carried him over the fence back onto the smooth, snow-dusted plaza. Setting the kid down, Jake saw they were both caked in half-dry mud. A trail of blood streaked down his shirt in a stroke of street art. His arms and hands had scratches all over them, and one set of bite marks from when the kid had gotten his rowdiest.

            The security guard put a hand on the boy’s head.

            “Now, where’d your mamma go?” he asked, bending over.

            Jacob said nothing. His bottom lip clamped over the top, making a vault.

            “Son, I can’t help you if you don’t say anything.”

            “Where’s my hot chocolate?”

            Jake held up a finger. He went to get the drink—it might deescalate things. When he came back he could tell the tone had darkened in his absence. He didn’t like the sound of the guard’s voice. The stark, set, horizontal lines of his narrowed eyes and pursed mouth.

            He heard him say, “How did you end up apart from your mamma and with this strange man?”

            Jake swallowed, stepped forward. “He came up to me,” he said, and handed the lukewarm cocoa over to Jacob’s eager spare hand.

            The boy took a big sip.

            “Is that true?” said the guard.

            Jacob looked up at Jake.

            “Don’t look at him. Look at me.” The guard’s large ass was a centimeter from the ground. His wide hands squeezed his own thighs for balance. “Did you ask him for help?”

            Jacob nodded. His expression could not have been more different than his interrogator’s. To Jacob, clearly, none of this was a big deal.

            “Why did you go to him? Out of everyone in this park? All the mommies and employees? Security guys like me? Why did you walk up to this… This young man?”

            Jake’s head tilted.

            “Because,” Jacob said. He took a huge gulp of tepid cocoa and burped.

            “He was alone, too.”

            The guard nodded. With a grunt he stood up and considered Jake gravely. “I think you’re off the hook, guy. I’ll take it from here.” He clapped the child on the shoulder. “C’mon, son. Let’s get you somewhere warm and see if we can’t find where your ol’ mom’s got to.”

            Jacob took a step back. His head was shaking, left to right, fitful. Eyes locked on the large officer, he stumbled to the side until he collided, without grace, into Jake’s shin. He hugged that jean-clad leg. Pressed his chocolate-stained face against it.

            The guard held out a hand. “Come on, now, kid. Time to go.”

            “No!” The boy swung around, Jake’s legs his human shield.

            The guard shook his head. He took a large stride and lunged, scooping up the kid with impatience, with roughness. The little one writhed and shrieked, banged his tiny fists on the man’s thick arms and doughy chest. “No, no, no,” he said. “I wanna stay!”

            “Hey, man,” Jake said. “Be gentle.”

            But the guard only rolled his eyes and lumbered ahead, constricting the child’s movement with bear arms and disdain.

            Jake met the boy’s shimmering, wide eyes for just a second before the hood of the jacket flopped over his face. Jake’s jacket. His favorite jacket.

            He stood there, shivering.

            A clod of dirt fell from his knee and bounced off his filthy shoe.

            A few minutes later, he returned to the table. His cocoa had spilled. The sweet pool of brown there had already attracted an alliance of unrelated insects. Another cup appeared before his eyes. He followed the arm extending it, found the coffee truck barista attached.

            “Coffee,” she said. “You look like you could use it.”

            “Thanks.” He took it. “Merry Christmas.”

            “Sure. Yeah.”

            Jake bent over on his elbows, dropped his head, and slurped a sip.

            It burnt the hell out of his mouth.

***

            Christina left the bookstore. Curiosity killing her, she crossed the street and passed back by the plaza. Just to see if he was still there. If her date was still waiting.

            He was.

            No kid now, either.

            After a minute’s consideration, she went through the gate and waved both arms overhead.

            “Oh, God, I am sorry I’m so—” Her train of thought crashed at the sight of him. He looked like he’d rolled around in mud for an MMA battle. “What happened… Jake? Jake, right?”

            “Right. Christina? Hi.” The guy raised his coffee cup and jokingly cheers-ed. “It’s been a day. This kid comes up to me. Lost. We’re waiting on his mom to come back from… Well, wherever. Maybe she’s in a ditch somewhere. Who knows?”

            “Oh!” Christina said. “He wasn’t yours.”

            “What?”

            “Never mind. Well, why you?”

            “Huh?”

            Christina moved to sit down. Seeing the dried cocoa stain on the seat, she straightened up again. “Why’d the kid pick you?”

            “Oh.” Jake stared into his coffee. “I mean.” He flapped a hand. It looked like he was swatting something away. “Who knows? Kids, y’know?”

            “Yeah.” She pulled an empty chair from another table. The iron legs scraped concrete in an ear-rattling moan. “And that’s why I’m never having one.”

            The guy swirled his drink around, lost in it.

            “Dunno about you,” she said. “But never-ever for me, no thanks,” Under the grime, the busted lip, the potshots of a really awful afternoon—he was definitely cute. “Well.” She smacked her hands together. He jumped. That made her smile. “Looks like you need a drink. I’m buying. You in?”

            He sniffed. And he shook his head.

            “Not today,” he said.

            He leaned back, letting paltry snowflakes land on his face.

            “But someday, I hope.”

Best Christmas Things to Do NYC for a Magical Time in 2020