I sit cross-legged on the path and fold Noodle into my lap. A little boy who was stroking her with such a soft touch continues. Two others — younger, toddlers — step closer. One with a mop of curls squats in front of her and stares with the focus of a hypnotist. Unwavering, he peers along the length of her snout and into her steady eyes. She is so still. He ventures a touch, two fingers on the side of her head. She barely blinks. He steps closer and touches her flank. “Ga-ggie,” he says.
“Yes,” his dad smiles. “She’s a nice doggie.”
This is enough for the small one. He steps back and considers Noodle from a safe distance. His brother keeps that rhythm along her back, as regular as a metronome, as soothing as surf. Noodle’s fur drifts and settles, blanketing my black work trousers. She shifts ever so slightly and surrenders her weight to my belly. I feel her exhale. The third boy — another toddler — stands at his daddy’s shin. He grins and squeals then shoves a finger up his nose.
Behind me, Bug snaps off his rollerblades and tosses his helmet in the grass. I hear a basketball. Voices.
It is nearing dusk. Neighborhood moms call to summon their stray men home for dinner. I dump Noodle back onto the trail. She gives passive resistance a shot but her dead weight is more pliable than she thinks. Soon she falls into step beside me.
Bug is trotting around the blacktop in his socks, his blonde surfer hair flopping. Another boy passes him a basketball and Bug shoots then passes it back. I circle the park a few times watching while the boy’s dad stands and texts from center court. The duo abandons the game and strolls back and forth across the pavement. Bug trails a long stick. His companion holds the ball tucked beneath his arm. Their heads are bent together in a conspiracy of murmurs. They walk the length of the court at least six times over, six times back.
“Hey you,” I call. Noodle and I cut across the grass. Bug scratches his pooch under her chin and shoves his feet back into his skates. I chat with dad and boy. I’ve never seen them here before, although they live a block over from us. We talk schools and child care and pizza. Tomorrow, they kick off a week-long hiking trip in the Monongahela National Forest.
“I’m going to play on the playground equipment,” Bug says, rolling away. I love that he calls it that. Playground equipment. “Okay,” I shout after him. “But not in your blades.”
“I’ll take them off,” he hollers back. When the dad and I make our way over, I see helmet, wrist guards, socks, and wheels lying in a heap at the bottom of the slide. Bug is up high, straddling the outside of a suspended tunnel. His buddy is swinging from a bar. A third has joined them, a preschooler.
The small one points to Noodle. “Is she curly too?” He asks.
“Yeah,” he poofs his arms around him. “Fluffy. Like that.”
I shrug. “She sure sheds a lot. You know how I know when she’s been sneaking up on the couch?”
Bug grins from his perch. “She can’t fool us!” He cries.
“She’s tricky,” I shake my head in disapproval and glare at Noodle who is straining, straining to play with the kids. “Fur all over the sofa!”
The preschooler stomps a foot. “My bro-zher is the smartest of all!” He declares.
“Are you sure? I think you’re the smartest of all.”
“No my bro-zer is! He teached me math. See?” He holds up two fingers on one hand and two on the other. “One -two-free-four.”
Bug is swaying way up high. “Do you know how to do squares? You know the square root of 100 is 10?”
The one from the basketball court swings then plants his feet. “I can divide.”
Then it’s time to go home. A mom collects her mini math whiz. Hiker dad answers a text from home. “Dinnertime, buddy,” he says. He and his boy wander off in the direction of the townhouses. Bug clambers down and slips mulched socks over filthy feet. Buckles, helmet, wrist guards, off we go. Noodle trots along beside us.
“So that boy goes to your school, huh? Did you know him from school?”
“No,” Bug says. “He’s in first grade.”
“You just met him today?”
I picture them again, whispering as they strode off together like they’d been buddies since kindergarten.
“You know what? That’s a really cool talent,” I say. “You find friends everywhere you go.”
Bug shrugs but I see he’s sort of smiling.
What a marvel.
To my right, this clickety-rolling kiddo who enters every setting as if the place has been waiting for him to arrive. He strikes up a conversation. He jump-starts a game. He conjures up companions, assuming friendship is a given.
To my left, Noodle the Wonder Dog, a magnet for toddlers ready to face their fears. A touchstone for kids who still believe that contact with a fellow earthling is the high point of any day.
And me in the middle, a mama leading this bold pack out into the world.
This force, small yet mighty.