In we walk, to the to the shade and stale air,
leather boots, jacket, and black helmet for me,
red overalls for him, sitting up on my shoulder
in a jaunty way.
He throws himself forward, says “Bump!”
and pulls my hair for balance.
Only last year, when I came into this mall,
the shop owners kept an eye on me.
Boys leaned to one side; mothers raised eyebrows;
rent-a-cops scowled. Girls gave me odd glances,
making up their minds.
Now, none of that matters.
Even with the same clothes and grease,
the mothers smile. They seem so knowing
when my boy takes my helmet and hugs it
or takes the fruit pie out of my hand and says “Share?”
The rent-a-cops laugh when they walk by
and the little man hides behind my leg.
There is a secret society of baby owners,
a series of nods, winks, and grins others do not know.
I see it in a teen, a girl half my age
with a newborn, just a few weeks old.
My stare and smile reach her as the child struggles,
lifts its head, blue eyes open, strong baby,
and she beams back, somehow noticing
my gaze, my stupid mouth open
from eighty feet away across a crowded hall
because she is part of the society, too.
Mothers with strollers glance,
old women with carriages, too,
fathers with toddlers, grandfathers with grown children,
their children’s children, all gawk at my son
and he giggles, my passport to this shriven world.
He gives them the secret hand sign that admits us
through all the society’s doormen.
There, in the center of the mall, I catch myself for the first time
scrutinizing the faces of the other young creatures.
No one acts like I’m a kidnapper.
A black mother in denim catches me
studying her child and chuckles.
The Indian woman in the play area notices
and smiles despite two daughters pulling on her sleeves.
Desperate women in tight jeans and tired eyes smile.
Redneck pickup drivers in flannel shirts smile.
Only the old men in suits do not
and even them, sometimes,
when my boy gives them a secret sign
that I do not yet know.
What is it about these animals, our children,
that diminishes us, crumbles our suspicious exteriors,
our hunched shoulders, keys jutting from ready fists?
They are clumsy monkeys but they make us laugh.
They are proof of our membership in life’s hidden cause,
our big eyed, chubby fingered, running, stumbling,
drooling, shrieking, gurgling, half bald,
buddha-bellied, badly dressed
unwitting soldiers for peace.