I am in Rite Aid buying C batteries and a 3-pack of scotch tape, and I pause in the isle of match box cars, considering a pair of matching red and yellow ones to stick in the boy’s advent calendar for tomorrow, and there he is. Towheaded, not quite waist high, in a blue action hero polyester jacket and jeans with holes in the knees. His mother is rushing past, yelling in a hoarse distracted voice for him not to stop. But he does, and she doesn’t, and soon she’s out of sight around the corner at the pharmacy.
“Hello,” I say, as the boy looks up at me. “Do you like matchbox cars too?”
He nods. “Yeah,” he says, fingers running lightly over a blue and white race car.
I sort of hesitate there until I hear his mother. She’s walking backwards, still talking with the pharmacy clerk, but at least she’s moving towards her son like a reluctant magnet, and so I go on my way in search of the batteries I’ve come for.
I can’t help but hear her say,
“But Gage always fills four, and lets the prescription roll over to the next month.”
“Well I’m not Gage,” says the pharmacy clerk.
The woman is wearing dirty pink sweatpants. Her hair is pulled back into a disheveled ponytail that matches my own on many too-busy days. Her face is ashy. She has a bronchial cough. She’s holding cigarettes in one hand, her cell phone in the other.
I walk on, ask a boy with barley enough facial hair to warrant his attempt at a beard where the batteries are, and then make my way to the register.
And then I see her.
“Noah Jeffery!” She is yelling in a tone that sounds more angry than anxious though I know what she must feel.
She moves down the isle quickly, and then reappears soon after, biting her nails, quiet now, looking. She walks up and down the front of the isles past the displays of stocking sized bottles of wine, and Russell Stover chocolates, and fake poinsettia plants. Then she goes out of the store and I hear her calling into the night. “Noah! Noah!”
I wait. A new register opens up. It’s the boy with the barely beard. I say, “There is a woman who has just lost her child in your store, is there anything you can do to help?”
He looks at me and says “Oh.” And then, “Debit or credit?”
As I run my card I say, “I’m a mom, I get it. Can you make sure no little boy walks out of your store. I just saw him in the toy isle.”
He gives me the vaguest of smiles, the slightest of nods as though I might be asking him to feed his cat bonbons. Like nothing I am saying computes even remotely with the gravity of the situation. The woman dashes back in even more frantically, still empty handed.
I linger as long as I can.
I do a sweep of the store. But with my paid-for merchandize in a sack it feels like contraband walking back through the isles. I do not see him. I do not see her.
Maybe they’ve found each other, I tell myself hopefully.
Still I plead: “Really, there is a little boy who got lost in your store. Please watch the door.”
And then reluctantly I go, looking up and down the street, and into the parking lot, where what must be her car stands with all it’s doors wide open, left abruptly when she didn’t find him there. It’s an old Chevy, the dents in the hood glint in the lamplight.
And this is what I pray will happen, despite the seemingly obvious odds: That when she finds him she will wrap him in her arms, that there will be soft voices and tender kisses and hands held and cheeks pressed close to cheeks.