Neil raced down the front steps, his boots crunching on the snow. Wow! he thought, tucking his sled under his arm. What a great day for sledding. If he hurried to Andover Park, he’d be there before anybody else.
He rushed down the street, pulling his woolen hat so tightly over his ears that he almost didn’t hear Mr. Hoffman calling to him. Oh no! Not now, Neil thought, reluctantly turning back.
Old Mr. Hoffman stood by his door, a sweater thrown over his shoulders. Mrs. Hoffman is probably sick again, Neil decided. Mr. Hoffman didn’t like to leave her alone when she was ill, so sometimes Neil went to the store for him. He liked helping out, but did it have to be today?
“Neil, could you please get me a loaf of bread and some strawberry jam?” Mr. Hoffman smiled wanly and held out some dollar bills.
Neil was about to object, but when he saw the old man’s face, he just said, “Sure. Isn’t Mrs. Hoffman any better today?”
“No,” said Mr. Hoffman. “She won’t get much better, I guess. She’s old and worn-out.”
Neil propped his sled against the fence. “I’ll be right back,” he said. He hurried to the grocery store, his hands shoved into his jacket pockets. All the way there he wondered, How can Mr. Hoffman live like that? He’s healthy. Why doesn’t he put Mrs. Hoffman in a nursing home where other people can take care of her?
At the grocery store, Neil picked up a loaf of bread and a jar of jam, plunked the money down, put the change in the grocery bag, and went back out into the snow. By now everyone will be at the park, he thought miserably.
When he got to the Hoffmans’ house, Mr. Hoffman opened the door immediately. “Thank you, Neil,” he said. “Come in and have some hot chocolate.”
“No, thank you,” Neil said. “I’m sort of in—“
“Henry,” a high, thin voice called from a back room.
“Coming, Eleanor,” Mr. Hoffman answered. As he hurried off, he said to Neil, “Just put the bread and jam on the table.”
“There’s change, too,” Neil called after him. Neil stamped the snow off his boots and stepped inside. He’d never actually been in Mr. Hoffman’s house before. He saw that the furniture was old, with doilies on the arms of the chairs. Magazines were stacked neatly on a side table. When he set the grocery bag down, he noticed an unfinished model ship next to the magazines. Small pieces of the ship lay on an open newspaper, but the ship already had masts, a flag, and intricate webs of thread for ropes. And on shelves around the room were many ships, all different types and sizes!
“Thank you again, Neil,” said Mr. Hoffman, coming back into the room.
“Mr. Hoffman,” said Neil, forgetting about sledding, “did you make all these?”
Mr. Hoffman chuckled. “Yes, I did. Not quite like their real counterparts, but I like them.”
“Have you been on any of the real ships?”
“Not on old sailing vessels like this one, of course,”—Mr. Hoffman pointed at the unfinished model—“but I was a navy submarine captain in World War II, and I’ve been on a few ships in my life.”
“Submarines! Wow!” Neil exclaimed. “I’ve only been in my dad’s rowboat.” Then he wondered, How does a submarine captain feel about being stuck in a house, nursing someone?
Mr. Hoffman looked out the window and noticed Neil’s sled. “Going sledding?” he asked. “It’s a good day for it.”
“Yes,” said Neil. “At Andover Park.”
“That’s where I used to go,” said Mr. Hoffman. His eyes became misty. “I grew up in this town. Many a snowy day I spent in Andover Park—Eleanor too.” He nodded his head toward the bedroom where his wife was. He chuckled. “I remember once I threw Eleanor’s hat up into a tree.” He added, winking, “But then I got it down for her.”
Neil looked up, surprised. He had never thought of Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman being children together.
Mr. Hoffman scratched his head, still smiling at the memories. “Neil,” he said, “if you’d like, you can come back sometime, and I’ll show you how to build these.” He pointed to the ships.
“Thanks,” said Neil. “I’d like that.”
Approaching the hill in Andover Park, Neil saw children laughing and pelting each other with snow. His eyes shifted to a tree atop the hill, and for a moment he imagined Mrs. Hoffman’s hat dangling from a branch. Mr. Hoffman’s not stuck, he thought. As long as Mrs. Hoffman is alive, he wants to be with her because he loves her. So he’s exactly where he wants to be.