As I was riding down a country road, I chanced to meet . . .

The house, low and modern with a picture window overlooking a large expanse of carefully tended lawn, seemed lost and out of place among woods beside a nonpaved country road. No cozy converted farmhouse this, it appeared to have wandered off from among its fellows in some affluent suburb, enjoyed its new surroundings, and stayed. As I slowed a bit to contemplate that notion, I came upon one of the smaller occupants. He called to me from beside his yellow and green pickup wagon, parked across from the house in a roadside clearing. He sat patiently on a small stool, waiting. The woods formed a backdrop for his little enterprise. ``Would you like to buy some water?'' He pointed to a large jar, a pitcher, and a stack of paper cups.

``How much?''

``Oh, it doesn't cost anything. Would you like some?''

``OK. But let me pay for the cup. Would you take a dime for the cup?''

``OK.'' The dime went into a small flat box containing other treasures, mostly plastic buttons with pictures of baseball players. He poured water carefully into a cup and handed it to me.

``Do you live over there?''

``Yes, but Mom says it's all right for me to be here as long as she can see me.'' With all the dignity of his six years, he examined my bicycle with its load of camping gear. ``Where are you going on your bike?''

``Over to the mountains, just for a ride.''

He pointed to the orange flag. ``What's that for?''

``So cars can see me better.''

``At night?''

``No, that's just for daytime. The little light is for night, but I don't usually ride then. I have a tent -- there in this bag -- and I sleep in it at night. How about a refill?''

He nodded and carefully filled my cup again. I held out to him the bag of peanuts from which I had been snacking. He took one. ``Thanks.''

Preparing to leave, I put the cup in my front carrier.

``It's OK if you throw the cup here,'' he offered, pointing to a brown bag he kept near him.

``Thanks, but I think I'll use it again.'' I started away.

``See you tomorrow,'' he said, smiling, unaware of how far I would be going.

I did not have the heart to tell him, directly, that I would not return by his road. ``See you next time!''

His smile turned wistful, and as I rode away he waved and called out, ``See you next time!'' He understood.

At the next bend, I stopped to look back briefly, hoping to catch a glimpse of that thoughtful mother, patiently watching and guarding, aware of the deep loneliness an isolated little boy can feel in late summer. I did not see her, but I know she was there. He had told me so . . . and he knew.

The cup is gaily colored, with cartooned chipmunks panning for gold -- I still have it. But autumn has arrived. And bright yellow buses ramble the country roads, gathering and delivering their priceless cargo. My one-time friend has school friends now. And the loneliness, I hope, is gone.

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