A few steps ahead of me, a toddler struggled to keep up with his weary, preoccupied mother. She stopped suddenly, to look at some toys in a shop window, and he took the opportunity to drop to the sidewalk and rest his legs.
It reminded me of the scene with Dudley and the baby carriage.
The steady drumming of the evening traffic mingled with the voices of the carolers a block behind me.
I passed the mother and toddler and made a sharp turn into the toy shop.
There is absolutely nothing in the world like a really good toy shop, the old-fashioned kind, full of puppets and puzzles and chemistry sets and model trains—and all those wooden and rubber gadgets you remember from childhood: the paddle with the rubber ball attached, the cup with the wooden ball and string.
And china dolls, of course, and ventriloquist dummys, and Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets, and the inevitable Jack-in-the-Box.
You step through the door, and you're in another world. The owner is predictably old and a bit shabby, a little baggy at the joints.
That special silence, broken only by footsteps on the wooden floor or the subdued voices of the staff and customers, the slightly musty odor, the occasional ring of an honest-to-god cash register, all transport you to another time.
I wandered to the back, where I found a bin filled with Nerf-balls-the kind with the tough, shiny skin. I pawed through them until I found one exactly the right size.
The shop sat at the bottom of a small rise, and as I came out the front door I saw a group of pre-teens with skateboards speed down the hill, just as they might have used it for sledding back east. One of them came barreling along the outer edge of the sidewalk—not eight feet from where that little toddler was sitting.
I scooped the kid up, out of harms way, and turned to present him to his grateful mother.
She swung her shopping bag at me.
This kind of thing happens to me all the time. People don't necessarily understand when you do them a favor.
"What are you doing? Put him down!"
I handed the kid to her.
"That was a close call, Ma'am. He almost got hit by that skateboarder."
She looked around. Just my luck, there wasn't a skateboarder in sight. She narrowed her eyes, and glared.
These situations can be delicate. I smiled graciously.
"Just don't let it happen again," I said.
"Yeah," she said, and lowered her eyebrows at me. "I won't."
She hurried away.
Sometimes Traveling Angel is a thankless job.
* * * * *
Julie and Tim were back in Tim's little sports car by then, speeding along the Pacific Coast Highway. The sunset was almost gone, and there was a heaviness in the air that hinted at rain.
Julie stared straight ahead, hoping that she could avoid conversation until they reached William's party.