There are fewer places more depressing to be nowadays than at the gas station. Especially around here, where those tiny hybrid cars are known as “roller skates” and spoken of in the same mocking tones reserved for liberal politicians and terrorists. Everyone has an SUV here. Or a jacked-up truck. Or both. Having to spend close to a hundred dollars to fill up your tank does not make for a pleasant experience.
It also invites certain periods of discomfort and outright sadness when waiting in line at the cash register. Which is what happened to me the other day. And strangely enough, it had nothing to do with gas.
There were five of us, all lined up in succession in front of a somewhat shaken seventeen-year-old high school cashier who no doubt was tired of being held as the person responsible for the $3.85 per gallon price. That did not stop the farmer at the head of the line from asking how in the world he was supposed to plow his fields with the price of diesel so high, diesel being even more expensive. The cashier shrugged, said “I dunno,” and then offered a qualifying “Sorry, mister.”
Their short conversation would have likely been an interesting one, but my attention then turned to the mother and son in front of me. Both wore the dull layer of weariness common to a hard life, she in her baggy sweatpants and flannel button-up, he in a pair of too-short jeans and a Wrestlemania T-shirt. The mother sighed often—I think it was the deep, tired sigh that drew my attention away from the farmer and the cashier—her hand gripping a twenty dollar bill as if she were trying to squeeze out the ink.
Bored with standing in line, her son wandered away to the candy aisle. Mama’s eyes followed him and then drifted to me. “Hello,” she said. I helloed back.
The boy was back—“Ma, can I have this?”
He held up a bag of Big League Chew, the grape flavored. Not my first choice, as the regular flavored was much better, but still a valid request. Every boy worth his salt is a Big League Chew fan, my own son included. I thought at that moment that maybe I should grab him a bag, too. He’d like that.
“No Jimmy,” said the mother. “That stuff’s too expensive.”
I stole a look at the tiny orange sticker that had been placed just under the batter’s chest on the bag–$1.29.
Rather than answer, mama gripped her twenty harder. But Jimmy wasn’t about to let silence be her final answer.
The line moved forward. Mr. Farmer Guy was gone now, as was the lady behind him and the man behind her. It was now an elderly man’s turn to excoriate the poor cashier on evil oil companies and corrupt government officials. Mama and Jimmy were next in line, and the question of the Big League Chew was still in the air.
“No,” she said, and with a sharpness that revealed the hidden facts she was trying to keep from her son. Just one word, one no, that really meant, “Don’t you see that we don’t have the money, that this twenty dollars will maybe get us enough gas to go to the store and back home and you to school tomorrow and then I’ll be on fumes again? Don’t you see?”
But Jimmy didn’t see.
“No” again. Then a very sad and very final, “We ain’t got the money.”
The elderly man left—“Damn oil companies” was his parting shot—and mama and Jimmy moved to the register.
The cashier sighed in a here-we-go-again way and said, “You get some gas, ma’am?”
“No,” she said. Jimmy had by then managed to sneak the bag of bubble gum onto the counter in a desperate attempt to somehow leave the store with it, but mama’s eyes caught it.
“I said NO.” She grabbed the bag and held it out. “Take this back,” she told her son. “And do it before I tan your hide.”
I could see the tears in Jimmy’s eyes and thought there were perhaps tears in his mother’s as well, and I thought then that the four of us—mother, son, cashier, and me—were being privy to yet another example that life is unfair. That no matter what we do or how hard we try, some children will always want and some parents will never be able to provide.
“Ma’am?” asked the cashier.
Mother’s attention snapped back to the moment, sighed again. She held out her twenty and said, “I need a pack of Marlboro lights and fifteen Powerball tickets.”
This post is part of the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival: Road, hosted by my friend Peter Pollock. For more posts about this topic, please visit him at PeterPollock.com