Besides me and my kids — ages 5, 3, and 1 — and my 10-year-old niece, there were just three people in the convenience store: the cashier, a teenaged single mother; a local 50-year-old man who owns a farm, in line behind me; and a local 30-year-old man who has a nice new house, also in line. We’re all from the same small community. We all know each other, or at least of each other.
My kids had had a long day of helping with housework, so I’d promised them we’d stop by the store for a treat after our trip to the dump with garbage. Each was allowed to pick either a drink or a food item; even the baby got to pick, and she picked a Tootsie Pop. We also chose two half-gallon flavors of ice cream to take home to the rest of the crew for dessert.
As I and my gaggle of kids stood at the counter ready to check out, the thought crossed my mind that I had neither my debit card nor any cash with me. I could see in my mind’s eye both the card and a pile of five-dollar bills sitting on top of the microwave back at the house. No problem, I figured; I’d just write a check. I opened my checkbook and stood with pen poised, ready to fill in the grand total.
The young mother behind the counter (just a kid herself compared to me!) looked at me apologetically. “I’m sorry, we don’t take checks,” she said.
You know how you feel when you’re standing at the counter ready to pay and something’s not quite right? Maybe the black strip on your card won’t read anymore or you suddenly discover you’re out of checks or perhaps that big ol’ bill you were sure you were carrying has disappeared into thin air. If you’re anything like me, when something like this happens, your heart starts beating fast and your face gets real hot and real red and you feel like the biggest money-mismanaging scum of the earth (even if you know you’re really not) and you’re sure the people behind you are judging you. Like you’ve maxed out several credit cards and bounced several checks and like you’re just a heartbeat ahead of the IRS and here you are at the gas station buying ice cream and candy bars and pop for your kids — who are no doubt on state insurance — with bad money! (!)
I had just finished taking the wrapper off the baby’s sucker when the cashier broke the news to me. My other kids were at the ends of their ropes, emotionally and mentally and physically, after a long day of waiting on grown-ups, and they obviously had no idea that there was a payment snafu to contend with.
The five-year-old was obliviously repeating this question. Over and over: “Mom. Can I open my candy bar yet?”
His sister was whining at that dog-aggravating high pitch reserved only for three-year-old girls. “Maaaaaamaaaaaaa. Whennnnnn do we get to have iiiiiiicecreaaaam?”
The baby was licking her sucker with great interest.
“Uh… uh… uh…” I wracked my brain, trying to think of what to do. I had had an equally long day. “Do you have an ATM machine?”
The cashier’s face brightened. “Yes, right back there.”
“No,” I said when full realization washed over me. “That won’t work. Because I don’t have my debit card.” Then I raised my voice so everyone in the building could hear the truth: “I KNOW RIGHT WHERE IT IS. IT’S ON TOP OF THE MICROWAVE AT MY MOM’S HOUSE.
“Uh… uh… uh…” Back in my normal voice, I kept on stammering. The kids kept on whining in that monotonous drone moms are trained to rise above. My 10-year-old niece was starting to suspect something was up. She’s probably used to me by now; just another embarrassing social situation with ol’ Aunt Tam.
(Looking back now, I realize that I did indeed have other methods of payment in my wallet that day: the card and checks for the ranch rodeo I organize each year, as well as a card and checks for our Health Savings Account. It’s conceivable that I could have used any of those methods to pay for the stuff, at the risk of some sort of entity catching me at “cheating” some sort of system. I mean, is it really okay to use the non-taxed money set aside in a special account for paying our medical bills to instead buy sugary treats for the kids?)
“Uh… uh… uh…” I halfway hoped one of the two men behind me would come to the rescue and offer to pay like it was no big deal. But they both seemed as nervous as I felt. I wasn’t exactly seeking eye contact with them, but I could sense that they were fidgeting. Examining the ceiling. Whistling tuneless tunes. I considered turning around and half-jokingly demanding that the older of the two pay for me… but in the end I decided even I am not that brazen.
“KIDS.” I finally spoke up resolutely. “We are going to have to put our treats back. We can’t take them home. I don’t have ghdma mpma alijasodikma ahj ams ldkfj asod ifuoij…” My voiced trailed off in an inaudible whisper. I couldn’t seem to find the words or the thoughts to sort out this situation for myself, much less explain it to four little kids. I just hoped I had the tenacity to force them to leave the treats I’d promised them… because it was indeed going to be a fight.
“Let’s see… the sucker,” I said, eyeing the treat that the 16-month-old already had in her hot little mouth. Rivulets of red drool trailed down her chin. I looked at the young cashier. “I think I have some change,” I promised as I opened the zippered pouch on my wallet. “Just a minute here… I’m looking… Taylor,” (I spoke to my niece), “would you please take the ice cream back to the freezer for me?”
“It’s okay,” the cashier suddenly said. And I looked up to see her sliding a card through for payment. It was her own card. As I came to the full realization of what she was doing, my face flushed hot yet again. A young mother — isn’t she still in high school? — who I really hardly know, coming to my (my!) rescue. The well-to-do men behind me witnesses (ashamed witnesses, I hoped) to one mother’s kinship with another mother. It wasn’t that I needed that non-nutritive food to nourish my children. It was just that I was paralyzed with embarrassment over Just Another Day in the Life of a Mother, and she sympathized, and she (she!) rode in and saved me. Though she is very young, with one small baby, she recognized that place where I was: bedraggled. Humiliated. Disheveled. Sweaty. Tired. Just about worn through. Forty-six-hundred miles south of the Organized Pole. The woman who never dreamed she would be in public with kids wearing mismatched hand-me-down outfits.
I could feel perspiration springing forth on my forehead and under my arms. I wanted to escape that store so badly. “Ohmygoodnessthankyousomuchyoureallydidn’thavetodothatandhowmuchwasit?” I clicked the pen once again and wrote a check directly to the girl for the exact amount of the purchase. Why I didn’t write it for a hundred bucks over, I can’t say; I can only blame the inadequacies of a brain that hasn’t slept in about five years.
I put the treats in my kids’ grubby little hands and we headed out the door. But not before I promised that girl that I’ll get even with her some day for her kind and compassionate deed executed in my time of need.
And I will.
© Tami Blake