When we drive past the empty park, she mentions that it’s hard to get good summer pictures, the random ones that speak of youth and vitality and sunshine. She isn’t sure where the kids are, but they aren’t outside.
And we laugh that we’re not old enough to be saying “kids these days,” but it’s true; our endless summer days and deep sun tans and hair bleached and highlighted, well, they’re not so common anymore. I wonder for the rest of our drive, where they are and what they’re doing and what the repercussions will be.
He meets my eye when he shakes my hand and he looks much older than 13. He’s short, and stocky, and this is the only time he stops stacking bottles of Vitamin Water and Coke into the machine by the picnic table.
He speaks in the vernacular that still rings odd in my ears, adding the ubiquitous ‘n’at’ to the end of his sentences, a catch-all for whatever he might have forgotten.
“I’ve been a mechanic since fourth grade,” he tells me, nonchalant, explaining that he’s saving up for a lawn tractor or a four-wheeler to “tinker with,” and I don’t look at the photographer checking her camera. We’re both holding in smiles.
He’s only 13 but I see in him nearly every man in this corner of western Pennsylvania; they work hard, buy old engines, tinker in their spare time.
He speaks like a man, too, not a boy. He’s got a business to run here on the shores of the lake, and while his brother and younger business partner sips Mountain Dew through a straw at the picnic table, he keeps working.
We drive back to the office and ask who he’s imitating, because we know he’s imitating someone.
But I’m thinking, too, that while it makes me smile a bit and roll my eyes at the “mechanic since fourth grade” comment, that boy’s got a future, and he’s working toward it. Just 13 years old and he finds the endless days of summer boring and takes on a job. He has a goal, and even talking to me he’s polishing his image.
Serving the customers is the best part of the job, he tells me — a sales pitch if I ever heard one.
The park is still empty but I’m still on the lake shore, noting the soaking-wet hair of a 9-year-old sent off to comb it, the buzz cut of the older boy turning already into a man.
I don’t know what we’ll see in another 20 years, when the children missing from the parks and the fields and the sunshine today are the ones embarking on adulthood. But I have a guess what we’ll see with him; and I expect it will be good.