The toy store downtown is one of those mom-and-pop deals that you can get lost in, the sort of place where you can find things that Toys R Us would never think of stocking. Good things. Great things. Things that really, really make me wish I were a kid again. Which makes shopping there both a pleasure and a curse. A pleasure because there is so much I’d like to get my kids for two weeks of chores well done. A curse because I can’t make up my mind what to get them.
So, there on a Wednesday during lunch, I wander. And in my wandering I happen to spot a Longaberger basket sitting atop a wooden display of toy soldiers (Toy soldiers, I think to myself. My son would love some toy soldiers).
In the basket is a pile of those long, thick pretzel sticks. The sign above them says PLEASE TAKE ONE.
Given the fact that it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry, that’s exactly what I do. I take one and munch while I walk. Through the Legos, the building blocks, the books, the dolls. Through the Tonka trucks and coloring books and Play Doh.
And I am back to where I started. At the basket of pretzels.
Still unsure of what to buy and still hungry, I decide to restock and take another trip around the store. I reach into the basket for another pretzel. And as I bite it, I see something out of the corner of my eye.
Standing beside the stuffed animals about four feet away is a little boy. Sixish, not much older than my son, and staring. At me. He holds out one fist and raises his index finger.
One, it says.
I wrinkle my eyebrows, unsure of what his attempt at sign language means.
“What?” I ask him (which actually came out as “Wamp?” because I hadn’t swallowed yet).
“You took two pretzels,” he says.
“You’re only ‘posed to take one.”
“Who are you” I ask, “the pretzel police?”
“It’s what the sign says,” he states, now using his index finger to point. “Mama said the sign says ‘Please take one.”
I look at the sign, then back to him. “No,” I answer, “the sign says ‘Please take one.’ There’s a difference. It’s all a matter of emphasis.”
“Never mind,” I say.
“You shouldn’t have taken that pretzel. Mama says God watches us.”
My mind takes a sudden detour to those old Disney movies, where the older, bigger kid was always accompanied by Jiminy Cricket, Mr. Disney’s version of a conscience. I’m starting to think this kid is my Jiminy Cricket. Or maybe just aggravating. I haven’t made up my mind yet.
“Your mama’s right,” I answer, wondering where in the world his mama was. “But since God knows the sign says ‘Please take one,’ I think I’m in the clear.”
“Please. Take. One,” he corrects.
There we stand in the middle of the store, staring down one another like two gunslingers in a Western wondering who would draw first.
PLEASE TAKE ONE. An invitation to me, a rule for him. Which was right? I’m not as sure as I was a few minutes ago.
How do we decide who is right and who is wrong? Easy.
Go ask the owner of the store.
“Excuse me,” I say to the nice lady behind the counter. “I was wondering if you could shed a little light on a problem this youngin’ and I are having.”
She perks up and joins us, happy to have something to do.
“We were wondering about this sign here,” I say. “Is it please take one, or please take one?”
The owner gives us both a strange look. “Well, I’m not sure. No one’s ever asked.”
“It’s preyin’ on our minds, ma’am,” the boy says.
“Preyin’,” I add.
“If you’d like a pretzel,” she says, “please take one. If you’d like another, you can take one, too.”
“Can I have a pretzel?” the boy asks.
Situation resolved, the three of us part ways. Him to his mother, who had been preoccupied with the books, the owner back to the register, and me to finish my shopping.
Funny, I think, how three words led us this far. But I am sure of this: if two people can disagree over something as simple as pretzels, it’s no wonder why we disagree over the important things even more—politics and God, right and wrong, war and peace.
Who’s to know which is right and which is wrong? Or even if there really is a right and wrong? How do we settle our differences, put away our prejudices, and find the truth?
Maybe, I thought, we should all do what that little boy and I ended up doing.
Maybe we should all go the Owner of the store and see what He says.