Hanging out and looking good

MY son, Matthew, has just turned 15 and arrived at that time when children like to hang out where people are cheerful. As you may know, that is not home. The days of selling home-picked berries at the beach are gone. (I kept him at that for three years, but he objected to my taking half the profits.) Now he wants to work with stainless-steel machines - dishwashers and gas pumps. No more of this berry-basket stuff.

In the course of my recent belated education I have learned that 15-year-olds will clean up houses as a surprise for pleasant strangers, but they don't want to clean the house for me. They go for holistic personalities, which they find at ice cream parlors or in houses down the street. During this new age of the public persona the big trick is not to grow fretful. You want to project a smiley face, pretend you're an aerobics teacher. It gets hard.

Fifteen is the time when kids are too young to drive, and yet they want to go certain places. You may not want them to go, but you don't want them to hitchhike, either. As a result of such dilemmas you begin to perfect various levels of grumpiness. As Matthew pops out his plans for any given day I keep thinking there is something he should be doing around the house, but I can't think what it might be.

I was going over his new summer schedule, scratching my head as my mind drifted back to my own vivid past raising chickens. After pumping gas for six hours in the morning he figures the rest of the day is his, so he's off to town: to dive for quarters off MacMillan Wharf, go water-skiing in Provincetown Harbor , walk around town pricing silver bracelets, have a slice of pizza, and join the breakdancers at Union Square.

Listening blankly to his adventures, I feel I'm in some kind of parental limbo of the '80s: almost ready to go out and have a good time - but not quite. I still find myself waiting by the phone and can't really seem to set out for anywhere. I watch the underlying happiness of my 15-year-old as he scales the heights of adolescence, and I keep thinking maybe he'll drop me a rope. But as he wanders farther and farther from his backyard I become more and more homebound. I have begun to take up stamp collecting again. I do these little garbage things around the house.

One day I decided to slip into a disguise and follow my son up to Provincetown. I have some costumes from the '50s that I still occasionally wear, and I was going over these in my closet, confident that in Provincetown no one would notice. The last time I walked down Commercial Street there was a man dressed as a lobster in front of the Wreck Club who kept an eye on passers-by through his claws. No one paid any attention. Besides, I have this underlying certainty that no young person has looked at me for years.

So I got to town, parked my car, and walked down to the center. Nothing much seemed to be happening, just people moving along in short pants and sequins. As I looked around through my new reflecting glasses I noticed a ring of young people in front of the Town Hall playing hackensack - popping this leather thing around on their feet. Suddenly I realized that one of them was my son. Dressed in a mesh T-shirt, he was playing hackensack in front of the Town Hall.

There they all were - all his friends - with their smiles and their faces and their stainless-steel presences. And there I was, all bent over in my tattered overcoat, dreaming of lobster suits. It suddenly occurred to me that while I was in disguise, my 15-year-old had decided to go public. Like a small corporation that had gotten itself together and become a dazzling new entry on the Exchange, he was ''hanging out and looking good.'' He saw me and waved. There are certain things a disguise will never cover.

I walked back to my car, which I had left at a foodstore where there's free parking for customers, and a nine-year-old says, ''That'll be $3, mister.'' ''Your store didn't have any Sure-Gel so I had to go downtown,'' I say. ''That'll be $3.''

I pay up and drive slowly back to Truro. It was almost time for my walk in the marsh.

-30

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