Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Notes From My Knapsack 12-12-04

If you were to ask me if this story happened in Hebron or Utica, Granville or Newark, recently or a while ago, I’d be hard pressed to answer with certainty.
But I’m pretty sure it happened, somewhere, sometime.

The boy who came in the store, walking down the aisle past the wrapping paper and blue bulbs, standing in front of the bolts and faucets, barely looked old enough to be out on his own. He was clutching something in his hand.
"Can I help you," said the cashier, with something less than the usual boredom. It was a quiet time for December shopping, and even this teenager felt maternal looking at this nervous child.
"Yes," was the answer, followed in a rush with, "and do you have this stuff for sale?" He held out, stiffly, his hand with a silvery piece of paper in the palm.
She reached out and took the object, which up close was a label off of a bottle of perfume. Even if you couldn’t read the slightly shredded label, the odor off of just the scrap of packaging was enough to tell you what brand we were talking about.
"That’s one we carry, all right. Here, let me grab it for you," she said as the boy’s eyes widened with obvious hope and expectation. She trotted from behind the counter to a nearby aisle, got the box with the bottle of perfume, and came back to the register before the child could even move. With quick motions, she slid the bottle out of the box and held it up in front of him.
"That whatcha want?"
He didn’t even speak, just nodded his head up and down.
"This is nice stuff; your mom will like it. You got enough to buy it?"
Again, wordlessly, the boy reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. Ones, crumpled up, which he flattened out carefully on the counter: one, two, three, four. Looking up into her skeptical face, he reached into another pocket, and pulled out a fat handful of change, which he very gently released onto the stack of dollars. Quarters, some nickels, quite a few pennies.
She paused a long moment, looking at the heaped offering, and then at the child.
"Let me get the manager."
Hollering a name out, a door opened in the side of an enclosure around the staircase in the middle of the store.
"We’ve got a customer you need to talk to here."
The older fellow stood, carefully, in the slanted doorframe, leaving a creaking chair. He walked up to the front, and surveyed the scene. The cashier explained the situation over the boy’s head to the man, who also looked at the inexpertly twisted bandage around the finger still holding the original label, and the worried look on the child’s face.
"Come back to my office," he said to the boy. There was room only for a desk and the one chair under the steps, where the man seated himself again. The boy stood in the doorway.
"So you want to get a bottle of perfume for your mom?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. But I don’t have enough to buy it?" The boy’s voice was more of a statement that a question, really.
"Well, you might after all, but we have something else to talk about." Looking a bit relieved, the boy replied "OK."
"Here’s what I’m thinking. Someone was looking for their Christmas presents in a closet, up on a shelf, where they weren’t supposed to be." The boy’s eyes widened with a jerk of his whole body. "As they were poking about, a package for someone else, like a mother, fell off the shelf and broke. How’m I doin’?" Bobbing up and down emphatically, the boy’s head looked like it was on a spring.
"So then he tried to clean it all up, and cut his finger on the broken glass, peeling off the label so he could go get another one to replace what he had dropped. Is that where we’re at?"
"Yes, sir."
"OK, then. Was this on a carpeted floor or something like linoleum?"
A young face starting to fill with hope suddenly looked downcast. "Carpet."
"Of course. Well, here’s what we’re going to do." The man heaved himself out of the wooden swivel and expertly bobbed past the angle of the doorframe. He walked around two corners, the boy obediently and gratefully following.
"Here’s some carpet cleaner. Does your dad get home before your mom from work?"
"Yes, sir. About. . .about any minute, I guess."
"That’s just fine. Now let’s go back up front."
He took the spray can, put it in a bag with the box sitting next to the register. Looking at the pile still on the counter, he picked up a dollar bill, a quarter, and a couple nickels, and gave them back to the boy. Crouching down, he handed over the bag after the money was tucked into various pockets.
"Don’t use the spray cleaner ‘til your dad gets home. Tell him what you were doing, just like you told me," glaring briefly at the cashier after she snorted a strangled laugh, "and tell him you bought and paid for a new bottle of perfume and this carpet stuff. You guys ought to be able to get everything cleaned up before Mom gets home, and she’ll think you’ve been cleaning house for Christmas. If he has any questions, tell him to call the number on the bag," he said, pointing, "’cause I’ll be here ‘til ten. OK?"
He stuck out his hand, which the boy gravely shook.
"Thank you, sir. And Merry Christmas."
Like a shot, he vanished through the glass door. The manager slowly stood up straight, and said to the cashier, "Well, give me an employee purchase invoice."
"Geez, you had that kid thinking you saw right into his house and what happened," she said, handing him the carbonless triple form. "He must be thinking you’re one of Santa’s helpers, right from the North Pole."
"And how do you know I’m not?" he answered smiling. "Anyhow, I’m old enough to be an elf, and when you have as many grandchildren as I do, Santa’s just part of the job description."
"You were sweet, though. Can I cover half the difference with you?"
"No, but thanks. Get your boy something for me instead, OK? Put it in his stocking. Tell him Santa gave it to him."
"And how do you know he didn’t, right?"

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio; if you have a Christmas story to share, e-mail him at disciple@voyager.net.

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