It was just one of those impromptu trips, the result of a round of “What should we do today?” The air was crisp and cold, a turn toward the seasonal from the spring preview that had hung over the Bay Area the previous week. There was some good-natured grumbling about, lamenting the lack of gumption on display by the warm front to hang in through the weekend proper. Our chosen destination was a book store Nik had heard about up north where they accepted donations and allowed patrons to walk off with up to 100 books, free of charge.

We’re not a book-deprived family. When we downsized six months ago to our current one-bedroom apartment, we put boxes and boxes of books into storage, but we still had enough to warrant bringing our gigantic Ikea bookcase (Billy, if you’re wondering). Since books are basically the only purchase we always seem to have room for in the budget, six months of bargain hunting and ooh-gotta-have-its have re-filled and then over-filled even that “pared down” selection that we couldn’t bear to be separated from. Even my Kindle, which has accounted for perhaps a quarter to a third of the books I’ve picked up over the last year or so, hasn’t done much to stop the steady flow of books into our home. It should be noted that this is all on top of regular trips to the library.

But a road trip and an investigative stop with the promise of free books was too much to pass up. In the end, the book shop was great. They had an unfortunate five book limit on children’s books (per family, even) but Nik and I came home with about fifty books between us. Some were true treasures (I found a massive old volume called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer and a copy of Sue Grafton’s A is For Alibi, which I had been seconds from buying the previous week), others were cost saving measures (I picked up about five future volumes of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series), and still others were picked up because they were free and interesting so why not? (Nik got a copy of the Maureen McCormick memoir Here’s The Story on a whim; I picked up a book of poetry and a hardcover Stephen King novella collection, Full Dark No Stars that is in brand new condition except it’s missing a dust jacket).

The shop was small, though half the available floor space was taken up for administrative work by the staff of volunteers and stacks of unprocessed donations in big plastic bins, making the shelving space even more cramped. Most of the books were on a dozen or so nondescript bookshelves but a large number were stacked into cardboard boxes that lined the walls and were stacked on folding banquet tables. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and it took us nearly an hour and a half to look through it all; as it was I’m sure I missed some finds.

Callie was amazing throughout. Some shopping excursions are easy to manage with an energetic toddler. As long as you plan ahead and don’t peruse aisles but surgically approach a list of items, department stores and grocery stores can be managed single-handedly. As full-family outings, plenty of other retail adventures can be managed by dividing and conquering: one parent essentially runs interference on the child while the other looks for what they need. Since shopping is a functional activity to me and not a pastime, I’m usually content to lurk in the toy section or let Callie explore while Nik browses. But book stores are a unique challenge because, at least to me, they demand a dedicated attention to the rows of potential purchases, relatively few of which are uniformly out of the question. The hazard is that Nik loves bookstores as well, which means there is no ready volunteer for toddler duty. But here we were able to find that as long as one parent was stooped over and searching through boxes within arms’ reach of the stacks of children’s books, Callie entertained herself by flipping through picture books for a good half hour or more. She did eventually get restless but I retrieved the stroller from the car and let her play games and watch videos on my phone while Nik and I took turns pushing her around the few aisles wide enough to accommodate our oversized jogging stroller while the other ventured deeper into the piles of cost-free literary treasures.

On the way home Nik and I chatted while Callie played with stuffed animals in the back seat. The sun was low on the horizon but there was still some lingering, silvery light left by the time we stopped by our mailbox before heading back out to get some dinner. As I hopped back into the car, Callie casually lifted her small arm up over her head and said, “Hand?” It was a simple gesture, a not-unique query in search of just some comfort and reassurance after a long time spent amusing herself in the relative solitude of the second row of seating. Nik said, “I can’t hold your hand right now, honey, I’m driving.” I turned a bit awkwardly in my seat and my daughter hooked a small, soft fist around my index finger and squeezed. I wrapped my comparatively massive hand around hers and we just sat for a bit and held hands.

I looked back over the rear-facing seat to see how she was positioned. She’s getting big, now, her legs now forced into a relaxed bend where they meet the seat back. Her straw-colored hair is long and gets in her face so we fight with her to pull it up into a ponytail, which she claims to dislike but I think provides her relief from sweeping her bangs out of her eyes all day. Her feet are growing and her little velcro tennis shoes that a grandma bought her need to find their way to the storage bin very soon. She had her arm raised way up over her head, a position that seemed a bit awkward to me but she gave no indication of discomfort as she leaned her cheek against her own shoulder and just held on.

I tried to take a snapshot with my mind, to just remember this simple, innocent, inconsequential moment where our small family drove off to find something to eat on a Saturday night and my little girl reached out to make a connection with a parent, a sweet girl looking to express her need for love and affection from the people she trusts and relies upon the most. I saw the momentary drift of a dust mote through a slanting beam of setting sunlight just before it lighted on a stuffed Snoopy toy that is Callie’s flavor of the week in plush companionship. I felt the uncommon softness of her tender skin, the lithe plumpness of her still-small but no longer toy-like fingers embracing my own. The radio played a morose tune about lost love and I squeezed a little bit tighter.

The agony of parenthood is the knowledge of inevitability. This small, vivacious, veracious girl will one day know heartache. She will find the dark corners of the Earth that I can’t hide from her, the places from which flow things that I have vowed to protect her against to my dying breath, to the best of my ability. The light that dances in her eyes, the light of trust and careless enthusiasm, may one day dim as war and poverty and hate manifest themselves to her. I resent the world for not being as idyllic as she is, for not meeting her perfectly reasonable expectations for comfort and joy and love. We speak of sheltered children as if they were broken in some way but the mad, frenzied instinct for me is to shelter her up, to block out the hard, harsh truth and take the brunt of the world against my back while I hold her in an unending embrace.

It’s foolishness, I know. I can’t possibly fight off the world. I wouldn’t, even if I could. Within the confines of that embrace, she would smother. Yes, there is darkness. Yes, there is pain. But there is also light. And there is also beauty. My gift to her should not be a protective shell but a toolbox, full of whatever she may need to fight the world or champion the meek all by herself. But still it hurts. She deserves better; better than me and better than this place.

She gave a little sigh. Just a small puff of contented air pushed past her lips that swirled the invisible dust in the air. Her hand loosened on mine, the reassurance she sought now found and she retrieved her small hand to focus back on her toys or a sip of water from the cup we keep on hand in case she gets thirsty while we drive. For an extra moment I just looked at her, peering over the car seat from the awkward angle that allowed only an outline of her full, ruddy cheek and her little button nose. I saw the pleasant bulge of her little toddler belly, pressing against the fabric of her t-shirt as she took another breath and began a stream-of-conscious monologue that was mostly about puppies and mamas and daddies and how they liked to play and eat. I smiled around a thick tongue and turned back, rubbing my fingers against each other where there was still the warm, lingering sense of contact, left by her tiny hand.

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