Today should have been a random day like a lot of other days in my life. I do the same things all the time, every day of the week, day in and day out. Wake up, wake up the kid, get us fed, dressed, out the door. He goes to school, I go to work. After work I pick him up from my mom’s and we head home.
Today though, I needed to run an errand and I was dreading it. I should have done it before I picked up Ray, but it was homework night and I didn’t want to be out too late. I tucked him into the car, securely fastened in his booster seat. He babbled away about his day, telling me all the fun things he did in class and what he learned, down to what toys he played with and who he played them with. I half listened, trying to find a good time to interrupt. When he stopped to take a breath, I went for it.
“Hey, Ray? Buddy? I need to talk to you about something. It’s important.” I glanced up at the rear view mirror to find his almond shaped brown eyes fixed on the reflection of mine. I smiled, wide enough that he could see it in my eyes. “Hey guy. So, I have to make a stop on the way home, alright?”
“What kind of stop, mama?”
“Well, it’s kind of an important stop. You know your cousin, Jill? Her birthday is Saturday and we need to get her a present.”
“Are we going the toy store?” I saw his eyes light up and my heart sank. I should have waited to complete this mission, but I had to work late every night this week. It was tonight or never and we couldn’t show up to her birthday party in four days without a present, however small.
“Well, yeah. We’re gonna go by the little toy store. But honey, I want you to remember that we’re shopping for Jill. We’re not looking for toys for Ray.” I caught his eye in the mirror again and made it a point to lift my brows. “Okay? You got it?”
“I got it, mama.”
“Okay, good. So when we’re inside the store, you’re not going to ask me to buy you toys, right?”
“No, I won’t,” he answered.We’ll see, I thought.
I focused on the road ahead and made a right turn into the parking lot of a small second-hand store, hoping I could find something not too used. Angela was used to the presents that I bought Jill, but I always felt bad about not being able to spend much money and tried to find the best I could afford. She and her husband lived pretty well on the other side of town, but she never made me feel like my toy purchases weren’t good enough. My niece played with the items I bought her just as much as the ones her parents and grandparents bought her. Still… I pulled into a spot and put the car in park, heaving a small sigh and hoping that I could find something that wouldn’t scream, ‘I bought this at a used toy store!’
I unbuckled Ray, grabbed his hand and walked us across the hot blacktop to the door of a rundown toy shop. The owner, an older Indian man, smiled his usual warm greeting and went back to stocking shelves with plastic multi-colored beach balls. Ray tore his hand from mine and ran toward the display. The old man welcomed his attention and tossed a ball to him. Inwardly, I groaned. He would not want to leave without that ball.
“I’m going to look at little girl toys,” I told him, as I rounded the corner. The shop was tiny, just a few aisles stuffed with toys that didn’t seem good enough for retail shelves. Some of them didn’t even seem good enough for thrift stores. I sifted through the piles of musty, dusty, smelly dolls, melted plastic cooking sets and mismatched roller-skate pairs. My lip curled at my choices. Not much to choose from. I only had $20, though. There was no way I could afford anything from Toys R Us.
“Mama, look!” Ray rounded the corner with a shiny red fire truck, rolling it along the ground and making a siren sound. It had a ladder that raised and lowered, and Ray took great pleasure in playing with it, marching his fingers up and down while pretending to be at an out of control fire at the end of aisle three.
I shook my head and closed my eyes. What did we just talk about in the car? It looked like I was going to have to go to another store, and I couldn’t buy him this toy and get her something, too… Well, maybe if I asked mom for gas money, but she just let me money last week and I haven’t repaid her. Or we could bring Jill’s gift to her late… but that would be so tacky to show up for cake and not have a present… But I now can imagine the scene, trying to wrestle this truck from this boy…
When I opened my eyes, Ray was crouched over the truck, but his eyes were on me. “It’s okay, mama,” he said softly. “I’m just playing with it. We don’t have money for two presents.”
He said it, just so matter of fact, like he knew how hard I had to try to save $20. Kids aren’t supposed to know that they’re poor. But somehow, they just do. The old man who owned the store sheepishly stepped around the corner with a box. Inside was a brand new baby doll with shiny hair and long lashes and the cutest pink dress. I gasped. Jill would love it… but…
“We get new today,” he said, in timid broken English. “Doll and truck, fifteen dollar. Okay?”
Without even waiting for an answer, he carried the box to the register and placed it inside a plastic bag. Through my tears, I tapped Ray on the shoulder and waved him toward the counter, reminding him to pick up the truck as well.
He looked up at me, confused but pleased nonetheless, cradling the fire engine to his chest. “We can get two presents?”
“Just for today,” I said, “Because this man is being so nice to us.” I dug the $20 bill out of my purse and slid it across the counter. He exchanged it for a $5 and I tucked that into my wallet. “Thank you so much.”
The old man chuckled, the corner of his eyes crinkling with his smile, then nodded and handed me the bag with the doll inside. Ray clutched the toy under one arm and headed toward the door. I guess he wanted to get out of the store before either of us changed our minds. “See you next time,” he said. Then waved and went back to stocking his toys.
I secured Ray in his seat, playfully grumbling at having to maneuver around the truck he wouldn’t put down. Before I backed out of the car, I dropped a kiss on his forehead. He smiled up at me. “Thank you mama,” he said, so quietly and sweetly it just about broke my heart.
“You’re welcome, my sweet boy,” I said through more tears. “I have a little money left over. How about a dollar menu treat?”
The light in his eyes and the smile on his face that day are two things I hope I will always, always remember.