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I check my watch and moan. I’ve been waiting for over half an hour now, and the line has only moved up by two or three people. If only I hadn’t held out on Christmas shopping until two days before Christmas Eve, I wouldn’t be wasting away in the tiny thrift store on the corner of Madison and Blackbird, buying something for my cousin Tanya, who refuses to wear anything that’s not secondhand.
“I’m trying to see what it’s like for people who have to live in poverty,” she’d sniffed when I asked her about it. I’d sighed and changed the topic. She lives in a nice apartment with all modern furniture and appliances. Oh, the irony – wear thrift-store clothing, but live in a technology paradise. Of course she’ll see what it’s like for poor people that way.
I examine the jacket I’d chosen for the umpteenth time. The edges are slightly frayed, and the buttons are loose and might come off any second, but as a whole, it’s in relatively good condition, compared to the other stuff I’d seen. None of the scuffed shoes are in shoeboxes, and everything, even the building itself, has a worn and weary look to it. Most of the furniture sold here look like they’ve been badly stained sometime in their previous life, but someone has made a huge, and unsuccessful, effort to try to clean them up. The whole place reeks of cheap, sickly sweet cleanser that’s giving me a migraine. The sooner I get out of here, the better. I stretch and try to look around the three people in front of me at the holdup.
At first I’m confused. There’s a little boy standing at the counter, wide-eyed and scared looking. He can’t be more than seven or eight years old, but the huge coat he’s wearing makes him look much smaller. It reaches all the way to the floor and is so completely covered in patches almost none of the original dull, gray-brown fabric can be seen. There are pockets all over, placed haphazardly on the sleeves and all over the body. Some of them appear to be filled. The overlong sleeves look like they were rolled up several inches and gathered around his shoulder in order for his hands to poke out of them. His hands, like his jacket, look patchy and old, even though the person they belong to is so young. They’re emaciated and bony, and covered in dust and grime. His face is so skinny, and his skin so pale and wan, that I almost think I could see right through to his bones, if not for the dirt coating his features.
I press closer, trying to get a better look. The little boy is pulling out pennies from the pockets of his jacket. A handful from one, a fistful from another. He treats each small mound like it is twenty-four karat gold, laying them down gently, making sure that he didn’t drop any. The counter looks like a sea of copper, with a silver glint here and there – nickels. Or dimes. Somehow I know none are quarters.
The man in front of me is tapping his foot impatiently and looking at the ceiling. He’s carrying a stack of shirts and pants folded messily. One of the women, the one behind the boy, is checking her watch every three seconds and yawning loudly in a way that’s meant to attract attention. The other has her arms crossed, and her bottom lip jutting out and curling disdainfully: a haughty pout. Can’t any of them see the poor little boy? My frustration at waiting had evaporated to be replaced by a breaking heart for the boy and vengeful wrath toward the three people in line in front of me.
The cashier looks like he is trying to push away frown and a rude comment about paying in such tiny increments. The little boy has finished emptying his coat of money and is saying something to the cashier. I strain to hear him over the sighs and taps and chatter and rustle of the room: “I want to buy these shoes, sir.”
My eyes pan over the counter, looking for the pair of shoes the boy was talking about. A pair of scratched, grimy looking black flats with dull buckles sat serenely next to the coins. The cashier sighs and begins counting the pennies quickly and impatiently, as if he couldn’t wait to get rid of them. The metallic sea diminishes quickly, until finally not a single coin is left. The cashier raises his eyebrows as the last coin drops into the money drawer.
“Son, you’re seven cents short,” he booms.
The boy’s eyes get even bigger and as round as the coins from his pockets. I see a tear glisten in his left eye. Then he blinks, and it rolls down his face, clearing a faint trail in the grime. He starts to jam his hands into each pocket, looking more and more worried each time he came up empty. He scans the floor, but the dusty speckled tiles are vacant of loose change. “Please, sir. I don’t – I don’t have any more. Can’t you… can’t you still let me have the shoes?” he whispers.
The cashier shakes his head and waves his hand in the general direction of the door. “Move along now if you don’t have the money, kiddo. You’re holdin’ up the line.”
The boy doesn’t budge. “But… but I’m sure I had the right – ”
The cashier shakes his head again, cutting the boy off. “Well, you obviously didn’t. Go on. Leave!”
“Please, sir. I need these shoes. It’s important.” The boy’s shaky voice is just barely audible.
“Oh? And why would that be?” The cashier rolls his eyes up toward the ceiling, not expecting an answer. But the boy speaks again.
“Momma… I need them for Momma.” The boy gulps, another tear sliding slowly over the bony ridges of his face. “She – she worked so hard… trying… trying to earn enough money… and – and she wouldn’t… she wouldn’t eat so I could have – so I could have her food… so I could grow big and strong…” The boy wipes angrily at his eyes. “And now – and now she’s sick. She’s been sick for a long time… and Daddy says – he says she might not be here much longer… and I know… I know these shoes will make her smile… again… and then maybe, maybe she’ll get better…” The boy trails off, his lip quivering.
The cashier watches him, stony faced. He opens his mouth, then closes it again, as though he doesn’t know what to make of the little boy’s story. Somehow, though, I know that he isn’t going to show the slightest sign of compassion. He’s going to herd the boy right out of there. The cashier shakes his head again, slowly and almost doubtfully at first, then more and more quickly, his conviction that the boy’s story is false growing with each turn of his head. He looks away from the boy. Anger bubbles in the pit of my stomach, but I don’t move. I could’ve marched up there and paid for the shoes. I could’ve given the boy my own shoes. The seven cents he’s short on, it’s anybody’s loose change. But some part of me kept me frozen to my spot, a spectator and nothing more.
The boy backs away from the counter, eyes brimming with endless tears. I can see the shock in his eyes. He turns and dashes out of the store. I stare at him, sprinting away in his overlong coat, sprinting away from the warmth of the thrift store into the snowy street, lit only by the moon and stars and a lone, flickering streetlight. A picture of Tanya flashes past my eyes, in her tattered clothes, sitting defiantly on an expensive couch. Just wearing secondhand clothes is not enough to understand. “You have to really see it,” I whisper aloud. “Then you’ll know.”
Suddenly I want, more than anything, to help the boy. I yell after him, “Wait!” and abandon my place in line. A glance tells me the number of people in it has doubled, but I don’t care. I run to the door and call into the inky darkness, “Come back!”
But the boy does not return.