The Boy and his Father enter the swap meet and immediately the boy becomes aware of the assault on his senses. It’s in the parking lot of a drive in movie, and it’s immense. Everywhere, there is something bright to look at, some toy or game. He can smell popcorn from the concession stand, and grilling hot dogs.
Immediately next to the gate, there’s a display of three or four bicycles, and the Boy is enthralled. His brother has a bicycle, and he’s been coveting the three-year-old Schwinn for months. Maybe if he asked his Father, he could get one. The blue one was small enough. But they pass the bikes and the Boy does not speak up. He does not yet know how to ride one, but he’s seen other kids doing it, and his brother, and he hopes to learn soon. Maybe for Christmas. But his eighth birthday has recently passed, and he has five dollars to spend on whatever he wants.
As he walks through the market with his Father, he notices once again how impossibly tall his father is. What would it be like to be that tall, he wonders—to almost touch the sky. As they pass through a swirl of people going the opposite direction, he briefly considers taking his Father’s hand. The World Is Full of Perverts, his Mother always says. He has only the most rudimentary idea what a pervert is, but he knows it can’t be good. His Mother has only spoken of a nameless, general sort of danger, and has never given it a name, or even a good description. But she has made him afraid, and is satisfied with that. She thinks it will make him cautious.
But his Father is here today, and he is safe.
And anyway, he thinks, they’re just people. He’s eight, but he somehow feels the truth of this. Not everyone is a Pervert.
His father has gotten a little ahead, but he’s stopped to look at an outboard motor so the Boy can still see him. It’s OK. He can see the back of his head—gray hair with the round circle of his scalp poking through—and it’s OK. As long as he can see his Father and know the safety, the freedom from fear his presence brings, it will be OK.
The Boy sees a display of books spread on a blanket and he stops to examine them. They’re old-looking hardcovers—what looks like the entire Hardy Boys series—and he suddenly wants them desperately. He doesn’t know how many of the books five dollars could buy, but he imagines at least a few of them, possibly as many as four or five. He hasn’t yet bought a book for himself, and the only book he owns is a copy of The Black Stallion, and he is excited. He’s heard about the Hardy Boys—about Frank and Joe—and he knows the stories will be good. And as he stops to examine the books, crouching down to flip open the cover of the first book, his Father slips away into the crowd.
It turns out his birthday money buys an even ten of the books, and he looks forward to reading them, and the additional dozen or so that a list inside the cover promised. He can’t wait to tell his Father about the books, and proceeds over to where the outboard motor is to find him.
His Father is gone. He stands on his tiptoes and searches the swirl of people for his gray head, but it is nowhere to be seen.
He is gone.
The Boy feels a snake of fear uncoiling in his stomach and he looks around desperately for his Father.
“Dad!” he calls. His Father does not answer and he starts walking down the crowded aisle. His eyes sweep left to right, right to left, but he does not see his Father. He’s not at the Craftsman tool display, and he’s not looking at the old records.
What if he can’t find him? How will he get home? His five dollars is spent on the books, and he doesn’t even have a dime to call his Mother. Panic starts to set in and he feels himself begin to cry.
Sissy, he thinks. And he knows it’s what his brother would say if he were here. Boys don’t cry, and they don’t complain.
His hands are sweating around the books and he walks further into the swap meet. “Dad!” he calls every few seconds, “DAD!” A man comes up to him and asks if he wants some help. He’s wearing a fisherman’s cap, but without the lures, and the boy is reminded of his Uncle. He’s afraid, because his Uncle is scary, and perhaps even a Pervert. More people begin to gather.
He’s crying harder now, and he can hardly breathe, and the Man who is not his Uncle says “It’s OK, son. We’ll find him.”
He tries one last time, and pulls in a deep lungful of air, “DAAAADDDD!!!”
And then he’s there. The Boy sees the familiar shock of gray hair, and his blue and gray flannel parting the crowd of people and his Father is there. He has a bag of popcorn in his hand and a slightly annoyed expression on his face, but then he pulls the Boy into his chest and things slow down. He’s in the presence of his Father. He is safe.
“I’m sorry I cried, Dad.” He says. He knows his Father does not think much of crying, and he buries his face in his Father’s chest because he hasn’t quite stopped yet. He’s more embarrassed than he can ever remember being. He doesn’t want him to see. “I couldn’t see you. I thought I was lost.”
“It’s OK,” his Father says. “You’re not lost. I would never lose you…”