I was behind them in line at the Walmart return counter, Dante’s 10th circle if ever there was one.
Brothers, maybe twins, I’m guessing knocking on five’s door. They were crammed into the back of a shopping cart; one kid would have been too big for it himself, but together, potentially, it was a recipe for disaster.
They had been indoors longer than me but their hoods were still drawn tight around their faces. Perfect little round faces that reminded me of a smiley, except the one hanging over the edge of the buggy wasn’t smiling. His expression was absent, blank, not the look you expect on a little boy. His brother was the spicy one. While their mama was conducting her business with the clerk, he slowly, quietly pushed their cart away from the edge, farther from her. His grin told me he thought he was getting away with something. He was proud, a victor…a darling, little rascal.
Tried as I might, I couldn’t get them to look at me. I wanted to offer them kind eyes, a smile, the joy of being noticed and liked. Two little boys ought not be caged in a grocery cart, but I suppose it was simply to keep them out of trouble. Still, it bothered me. Maybe it was in all the time I watched them, neither never said a word. They didn’t poke or pick at each other the way siblings often do, and I thought how well behaved they were. The expressionless one who kept leaning over could have fallen right onto his head and their mama wouldn’t have seen until too late. I was ready, though, Spidey-mother senses on alert, ready to spring into action if he needed me.
It takes a village.
The rascal was getting bored, looking for new distractions. I had already been there ten minutes and, like I said, they had been there longer than me. Where babies normally ride sat one of those clear cotton candy containers, or at least that’s what it looked like. Rascal wriggled past his brother and peeled open the lid, and that’s when I realized there was money, not cotton candy, inside, paper and coin. He stuck his fist in and pulled out both, metal dropping back into the tub and making a plastic percussion, the “tell” that alerted his mother. It was the first time she gave them any notice, and she did so by smacking Rascal on his mouth and sharply insisting that he “sit down and leave that alone.”
His countenance fell faster and harder than the money in that stupid bucket.
I continued to watch them, still trying to telegraph love through eye-to-eye connection. The blank one kept tracing the squares of the buggy or leaning over its blasted edge, but Mr. Mischievous had all but disappeared. He was hiding in plain sight best he could, his arm resting across the back edge of the inner baby basket, that perfect little face burrowed underneath, refusing to make eye contact with anything or anybody.
I couldn’t help but wonder what happened when they were home, when the mama had freedom to express her irritation or anger without onlookers. Maybe I was jumping to conclusion, but I couldn’t help my imagination. But then I thought back to the countless times I dragged my kids to places they didn’t want to go, and how, sometimes, I pinched, prodded, or popped them to obey, or how I used my expression, tone, and words as a weapon.
Who was I to speculate or judge?
Still, I read volumes into what was being played out in front of me.
I don’t know why I felt so desperate for them, but I did. I prayed for them and their mama, wanting to do something for them, and feeling a fool at the same time. Was this an opportunity or my brain on a pint of crazy?
I opened my mostly empty wallet, finding two quarters and a penny, and when I say I felt like I was “supposed” to give those boys the quarters, I mean it. I argued in my head over the benefit of a quarter – back in the day you could buy 25 pieces of penny candy, but now the two of them together could barely buy a chocolate bar at Walmart. And their mother…what would she think of a stranger giving her boys money? I was frightened of her response but mostly I questioned any value derived by such a small offering.
OYTO. An opportunity? I found myself in an odd test of wills.
The mom appeared to be nearing the end of her transaction so I knew I had to act swiftly: I placed the two quarters on the lid of the cotton candy tub, grabbing the attention of both boys. In a fluid move, I pointed with both index fingers, first to the coins, and then to each brother, then hastily turned and walked past the registers toward the closest aisle I could hide behind.
But not before seeing the expression on both of their faces….
Rascal was back, his countenance lifted, his sweet face alight. For the first time I saw his brother smile.
Turns out I misjudged the value of 50 cents.