People who live in the suburbs are tirelessly enthusiastic about the exploration and outdoor treasure hunting their children are able to do right there at home. If they do not have a swimming pool, the neighbors do; if they don’t have a back garden the size of a city park, why, their houses abut open parkland or a golf course or some other grassy miracle. “The boys just love the stream” one hears, or, “The kids play for hours in those trees,” or “…three acres, and we see foxes, and deer, and wolverines, and elk….”
All I can say is, we have some pretty interesting fauna here in the city, too, you know. We’ve got demonstrators. We get famous-for-D.C. patrons when the children set up their lemonade stand (and like everything, lemonade
sells for more in the city). And now and again the children encounter something really thrilling.
“We can’t park in back,” my husband says with an odd look one recent Saturday, reversing his vehicle out of the alley we share with two other
Why not?” I ask.
“Just go look,” he murmurs, and goes off to find a parking spot on the street. The children climb out of my car still in their swimsuits and begin milling about interestedly in the manner of children who scent that Something Mysterious Is Up.
What is it, Mummy?”
I begin walking down the alley and am met halfway by an anxious-looking
neighbor. “He’s very–” she begins in a low voice, tipping her head toward–
“Wow!” Paris yells. “Cool!”
The reason my husband could not park in back is that the entrance to our yard is blocked by a shiny black SUV with tinted windows and diplomatic plates. Such is a common enough sight in Washington, but this SUV has evidently quite recently shot backwards with some force and is now perched in a curious position. It has flattened the fence dividing one piece of property from another, run up over a low concrete wall, and now sits with its hind quarters dangling in open sky. The engine is still running.
Phoebe chortles with delight. “Look, the car is in the air!”
A man totters around from behind the SUV and gazes owlishly at us from behind dark glasses. I recognize a diplomat with whom we have often exchanged greetings. He waves with a loose and genial hand, then totters back across the front of the vehicle and climbs carefully into the driver’s seat.
“Why’s he walking that funny way?” asks Violet.
We mustn’t let him drive–” I gasp. The neighbor nods, sharing my fear. My husband joins us. Just then, the diplomat guns the engine–fwizzzzt!–and the SUV’s front wheels disappear in a blur.
“He’s not going anywhere,” my husband says, as the wheels dig through the
last of the gravel and spin pointlessly in the soil. After a moment my husband walks up and talks to the driver but I cannot hear what he is saying over the revving of the engine.
“What’s going to happen?” Molly says, hunching slightly.
“Nothing, sweetheart. Don’t worry,” I say, straightening her shoulders with
There’s a metallic snap, and Paris announces with relish, “It’s a good thing Daddy brought me this camera from that convention in New York.”
“Oh, bad taste, Paris–but funny,” I laugh. “Now, children, come inside. Let’s give this poor fellow some privacy. Daddy will talk to him.”
“–it’s so cool, did you see those wheels–”
“Is it safe? What if–?” Molly asks apprehensively, and I turn to her. Lately she has taken the world on her shoulders. She shepherds the Littles anxiously when we cross empty streets; at bedtime, she reminds me to double-check the locks. If Paris takes his scooter around the block, she hovers by the front door until he returns. “Don’t worry,” we say, over and over. “Everything is fine, and anyway we’re responsible, not you,” we say, but I suppose that is thin comfort when you are the eldest and you know better. “Daddy will talk to the man,” I repeat, embracing her. “He’s not going to hurt anyone but he is going to have a terrible headache.”
Up in the kitchen the children rush to the window to watch the drama.
“His head is drooping–” someone says, as the inebriate guns the engine again.
“–asleep. Yup. Look.” I do, in time to see an arm drift out of the driver’s side window and hang limply in the air.
My husband comes inside shaking his head. “Poor guy,” he says. “He has a cell phone. Perhaps after he has a snooze he can get himself organized.”
“Which is worse,” Paris asks suddenly, “getting drunk or crashing the car?”
There are times as a parent when you are excruciatingly aware that what you say may shape in a crucial way the opinions your children form. You do not, in this case, wish to make light of public crapulence, and you wish to impress upon your children that under no circumstances should sodden individuals get behind a wheel (except, perhaps, in this precise circumstance, when the sodden individual is asleep and the wheel will get him nowhere). At the same time, as a parent, you wish to inculcate generosity in your children for the frailties of others, if only to indemnify yourself against their future opprobrium. In short, you hope like blazes to strike the right balance between sense and sensibility.
“Getting drunk,” my husband says carefully. “Because by doing so he lost the ability to make proper decisions, and that’s why he crashed the car. Although, frankly, we don’t know whether he got drunk first. Perhaps he drove over the fence and felt so ashamed that he went out and drank too much.”
“Should we call the embassy?” Molly asks, still gazing out the window. My husband and I exchange a glance. Another doozy of a question. Are we our brother’s keeper?
“No,” I say finally. “If he could drive, I would call the police in a flash. If he were habitually swilling cocktails, I might call the embassy. But he’s a gentle person who has just made a mistake.”
The little girls get out some stuffed animals and play by the window, so as to keep watch. I begin stirring the risotto with one hand while playing dominoes with Molly with the other. Paris, meanwhile, is drawing a map with his father.
“This is the Northern Range,” Paris says, “and this is Pirate Cove, but the pirates were all drunk,” he continues, bending over the paper, “so this came to be called Crasher Cove….”
Molly has another question. “Were you ever drunk?” she asks the adults. Paris looks up. There is a pause. “Yes,” the adults admit. The childrens’ eyes widen. “It was horrible,” one adult says. “I don’t recommend it,” says the other. “But when I was young and irresponsible–” the first explains. “–I was young and irresponsible,” the second concludes.
ffwwzzzzzt! goes the engine outside.
“Suppertime!” I say cheerfully, and we all sit down to eat.
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.