The scene: Very back corner of the local Walmart. Not the corner with the toys, which plays into much of the drama that is unfolding before me. No, I’m talking about the other back corner. Namely, the applesauce aisle.
The characters: One mother, aged mid-thirties, dressed in a faded pair of blue jeans and a Johnny Cash T-shirt that reads FOLSOM COUNTY PRISON in faded letters. Hair a frazzled blond.
Also her son, aged six by my estimation, wearing a similar pair of jeans and a look on his face that says Watch Out, I’m Gonna Blow.
And then there’s me, standing some ten feet away and playing the role of Gawker. Because this kid is about to get the snot knocked out of him.
Not that I can blame him, really. Sometimes Walmart puts me in just as much a foul mood as it has put this poor kid, who has just about had enough. He’s endured rows upon rows of boring stuff—tomato sauce and cereal and flour and canned soup, not to mention a questionable assortment of produce. Time has gone wobbly. Past and present and future have been sucked away within these four massive steel walls, creating some sort of hellish alternate dimension where Happiness cannot survive for long. He wants to go look at the toys or at least the DVDs, something besides groceries. Mom says no, not yet. She says groceries are more important than toys and DVDs. The boy knows is either a lie or further proof that this woman who gave birth to him, who carried him in her very womb and suckled him at her very breast, is some sort of alien overlord.
He tries to keep quiet, keep himself together. Tries to hang on. But it’s here in the applesauce aisle that he finally loses it, and only after waiting in agonizing silence as his mother spends a full two minutes pondering the difference between the cinnamon applesauce, the low-sugar, and the regular. He’s tired. He’s grouchy. He just wants to look at some toys for a little while.
What happens isn’t the sort of slow-building meltdown with which every parent is familiar. No, this is a full on natural disaster that goes from calm to catastrophic in less than three seconds. The boy wails. He thrashes. He stomps his feet and screams and yells “STUPID!” and “TOYS!” and other words I cannot decipher, all of which draws every eye near. There are sympathetic looks from other parents. A few nearby children offer slight nods of support.
Everybody knows what’s coming. People can go on and on about corporal punishment and the negative effects it has upon children, how it’s even a form of child abuse. But most folks consider those words as little more than academic ramblings that have no place in the real world, and the the world doesn’t get more real than the applesauce aisle at Walmart.
We’re all riveted—me, the young man a few feet away who looks as though he’s just decided he was never going to be a father, the old woman with a cart full of panty hose and microwave dinners who looks at the boy and whispers “Kids these days” in the same way another old woman no doubt had once looked at her. The only exception is the mother herself, still studying a package of low-sugar applesauce and one flavored with cinnamon.
She places both back on the shelf and looks at her son.
He crosses his arms, making a stand.
She bends down.
He steps back too late. Her arms shoot out and take hold of his shoulders the way a spider would its prey, making everyone flinch. The boy, now caught, struggles as his mother pulls him toward her. He fights and squirms and screams more before realizing none of it will do any good, at which point he plays his only remaining card—he goes boneless.
Unfortunately for him, his mother doesn’t care. She continues reeling him in until he is near her face, at which point she lifts his feet off the ground. The eighteen-year-old boy next to me turns to leave, likely remembering his own public spanking sometime past. The old woman only shakes her head (“Kids these days” she says again) and decides to keep watching.
But just as the moment we’ve all been expecting finally arrives, the mother does something that surprises us all. She doesn’t turn her son over and give him a stiff whack on the butt, doesn’t shake her finger in his face and give him a lecture about all she has to do to keep him alive. Instead, she lifts him up to her eye level, staring through those red cheeks and wet eyes and the snot running down out of his nose.
And kisses him.
That’s it, nothing more. Kisses him square on one red cheek and then lowers him back to the floor, where the boy can only stand shocked into silence as she goes back to studying the pros and cons of applesauce.
What crowd had gathered now moves off in search of other entertainment. Me? I linger. I take a minute, because I know something important has just happened here. Anger has been quelled. Rage has been stymied. Not by means of hotter anger or larger rage but by a single kiss—by a simple act of love that said I know you’re upset, but I promise it’ll be okay.
And do you know what I think? I think a lot of our problems with each other could be put away just by doing that. Not to meet screaming and yelling with louder screaming and yelling, but with a simple act of love. With a reminder that we’re all in this place where happiness can never last long, but we’re all in it together.