Charlie got a sliver in the bottom of his foot from walking barefoot on the playground this afternoon. Yesterday he had only wanted to walk one block; today, both his appetite and energy seemed restored and he ran, warbling, ahead of me.
The playground is on the grounds of a school in our neighborhood that Charlie attended when we first moved to our town in February 2003. Charlie slowed down when we reached the school's grounds, poking and staring at tufts of grass and dirt. "We're almost at the party for Sean," said a mother who was waslking briskly up the street, small boy in one hand and a present in the other. Another boy, around Charlie's age, walked beside them. And sure enough, I could see balloons bobbing in the yard of a house across the street.
Charlie went to stare through the windows of the school at his old classroom and the music room. He did the slides and climbed the ladders. "S'oes on," he said with a look down at me from the top of the slide.
"You want to take off your shoes?" I asked.
"S'oes off," said Charlie, and down fell the shoes. On the beach last summer, Charlie clearly revelled in walking in the sand and transferred his barefoot walking to parks and playgrounds. In fall and winter, he had been easily convinced to keep his shoes on, but today was a warm spring day of blue sky and grass growing green.
"So let's get STARTED, let's get IT STARTED, come ONNNNNNN!" roared the voice of a female DJ to a dance hall beat. "Welcome to the PARTY, we're all here to celebrate Sean's BIRTHDAY, we're going to play some GAMES and EVERYBODY's going to HAVE FUN."
The DJ's voice, and the music, resounded across the playground and almost seemed to be coming out of the school windows. Charlie turned his head.
"Let's get STARTED!"
Charlie walked the perimeter of the playground, with an occasional mumble. I stood by: The mere mention of "birthday" and "party" has been known to send him into an anxious state and to saying, and wanting, and moaning for "cake I want cake!" Charlie walked, and walked, as the DJ yelled out the rules for a complicated sort of musical chairs/hot potato game (with the result that The Wiggles singing that signature song boomed forth from some pine trees). Next came the Tootsie Roll treasure hunt which involved herding all the partygoers into one corner of the yard (we could see them) as the DJ & co. hid 445 Tootsie Rolls (and admonished some boys who were trying to sneak out to start the hunt before the DJ gave the word).
"And the winner has THIRTY-ONE, THIRTY-ONE Tootsie Rolls, come and get your prizes! And red-white-and-blue wristbands for everyone else. Everyone's a WINNER and you can show your PATRIOTISM."
I noticed that Charlie was pausing and rubbing the front of his left foot. His balance is poor but I managed to pull up his foot and saw a thin dark sliver under the skin.
"We have to go home and get it out," I said; Charlie kept walking in the playground, his head bent down. I kept coaxing and he followed me, slowly, across the grass. It was 4.30pm but I thought, maybe someone in the school has a pair of tweezers? I ran up the steps and found an open door. Charlie ran after me, smiling.
Two teachers, planted outside their classroom doors, looked right at us.
"Hi, I was just out on the playground with my son and he got a sliver in his foot and I was wondering if anyone has a pair of tweezers?" I smiled.
"The school nurse is gone," was the response. Arms folded, with a baleful look.
"We can't help you," was the second response. Charlie was hurrying down the hall, smiling and laughing.
"My son used to go to school here, he had Mr. [X], he has autism........" I kept smiling.
"Everyone is gone now," I was told by one of the teachers; I had to keep going down the hall, as Charlie was running towards his old classroom with a huge grin of delight. The door was open and he ran in and around. Signs in Spanish decked the walls and dividers where he had once sat. "We'd better head home, sweetie---you remember being here, don't you?"
Charlie leaned over occasionally to tap at his left foot on the way home. He was still smiling and in that peaceful easy-feeling mood except (of course) when I swabbed his foot with alcohol and tried to pull out the splinter. His face went from puzzled to panicked to him producing some spectacular screeches and I gave up, in need of Jim (who had to work late to host a special speaker on “movies and the Catholic imagination from a screenwriter’s perspective").
As bedtime approached, Charlie squeezed himself into and atop the cushions of a couch (lumpy and stained with the years); when I sat down, he pushed the soles of his feet into me, his hands pressed together under his torso, and laughed in a shivery delighted kind of way. He sat up with his blue blanket pulled around him and I read him a book about a sassy pigeon who attempts to talk--to crash--his way onto a bus to drive it, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!.
For the past few years, Charlie has run off, hummed, behaviored when I tried to read him a book (my mom has had a bit more success). Tonight he sat and, while he wiggled and his eyes were focused everywhere but the pages, he did look a bit more closely when I pointed out a word ("the," "and," which he has been working on at school). After I read the book, he held onto it and flipped through the pages a few times.
And Charlie brought Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! up to bed and fell asleep with it beside him.
A pigeon who just wants to get his chance to drive the bus; a pigeon who's not going to take "NO" sitting down, even if he does have wings not hands to hold the steering wheel: A potential mascot for my boy, who would have stayed at the playground to listen to the noises of the party, of the DJ, of the kids, had he not gotten that splinter; who had no scruples to make his way into the halls of his old school and his memories, stern teachers stand guard as they may.
I've been worrying about that two-centimeter sliver of wood in Charlie's foot since 4.30pm. But I think Charlie has bigger things on his mind--parties and norms and expectations to crash--real big fish to fry.