It was Friday morning and Nate and Sam were mulling around the house waiting for Tess to wake up from her morning nap.
Nate glanced at the Ninja Turtle watch on his wrist. He found it under the couch about thirty minutes earlier and suddenly decided he couldn’t live without it.
“It’s 11:06, Mom.” It wasn’t. The actual time was 10:06, but the watch was too cheap to sync with the recent daylight savings time adjustment.
“It’s 11:07….still 11:07.”
He was home from school because parents were busy decorating the building for the fundraising auction that night. Which is brilliant on the part of the school, by the way. Parents who have to spend all day with their little angels are more likely to need alcohol by the time they arrive at the auction. And tipsy people spend money.
Which might be why Tighe, spending roughly forty-five minutes with them that evening before we handed them off to the babysitter, purchased ukulele lessons.
Anyway, back to the morning. We were anxious to get going so we could get to the dollar store. Not a typical morning activity, but I was trying to help Tighe. He had been organizing a collection of winter amenities to pack into small backpacks to hand out to people who are homeless. He had already been to Costco earlier in the week, but there were some key items he was still missing.
Nate wasn’t excited about the goodwill charity part, he was hoping we could stop by Target on the way home. He hadn’t bought a new Lego set in five days and he needed his fix. He had high hopes for the day.
I drove ten extra minutes to the dollar store that’s farther away. The dollar store that’s closer sucks. It’s dark and dingy and looks like the dollar store delivery truck just careened into the side of the building and spilled all it’s contents, and no one bothered to pick them up and put them on the shelves.
Jars of olives are rolling around on a shelf next to scented candles, which are resting on top of off-brand diapers. Easter candy is still on display, and shoppers stumble over boxes as they search for their desired products.
The other dollar store is bright and friendly and smells of cinnamon and vanilla and structure. So I’ll gladly drive those ten extra minutes for a better consumer experience.
I tucked Tess into the seat of the tiny dollar store shopping cart and we began weaving our way through the spacious, neatly organized aisles. I steered towards the toiletry aisle looking for mass quantities of chap stick, hand sanitizer, and tissues.
I reached up and clamped the entire batch of chap stick between my palms, sliding it off the hook. I brought the stack to my chest to stabilize it for a second and hurled the whole thing into the cart, practically toppling in myself.
Sam watched me with curiosity, the sleeves of his puffy winter coat dangling down past his fingertips, while Nate was scanning the aisles for loot. His patience was thinning.
“So, guys…where is the hand sanitizer? Oh, there it is!...Since you’re helping me today, you can each pick out one thing….Wow, they have a lot, I wonder how much Tighe wants…”
One of the bottles of hand sanitizer slipped out of the box and started rolling away from us down the aisle.
“Sam, maybe you can get a coloring book!” Sam’s obsession with coloring is stronger than Justin Bieber’s obsession with Selena Gomez. Did I mention I used to teach at an all-girl’s school?
“Yay, a coloring book!” Sam clapped his sleeves together and began spinning in a celebratory circle.
“And Nate, you can get something, too!” I called up to him. I was on my hands and knees, trying to scoop the hand sanitizers up off the floor and back into the cart.
I stood and pushed our load to the end of the aisle where I had spotted some knit hats and gloves.
“Do these look warm enough?” I asked no one as I started hurling them into the cart.
“Where are coloring books? I don’t see coloring books…”
“Mom, I don’t want any gloves and hats.”
“Nate, these aren’t for you.” Satisfied that I now had enough—mostly because our haul was overflowing in the cart—I pointed the cart in the direction of the toy aisle.
Nate and Sam were like starving dogs who know there’s a pile of steaks on the kitchen counter. Anxious, hurried, territorial.
“Coloring books, coloring books, coloring books…” Sam seemed to be on a scent.
Nate pointed his nose in the air, sniffing, searching for that perfect one dollar toy that doesn’t actually exist.
Tess, slumped to the side in the shopping cart, one sock dangling on her toes, glanced up with minimal interest. “Why Boobs would ever take these two clowns to the dollar store is beyond me,” I imagined her thinking. Pretty sure she refers to me as Boobs.
She curled her knuckles and rotated her wrist around so she could examine her cuticles. “I could so go for a mani this week.”
“Uh, Mom….I don’t remember what a coloring book is.”
I took Sam by the shoulders and pulled him in front of the coloring books, inches from where he’d been standing.
“Oooh, I want this one!” he said pulling a Spiderman book from the rack and hugging it to his chest. He closed his eyes and smiled, rocking the book back and forth as though it was the answer to all life’s problems.
Meanwhile, a few yards away, Nate was suffering a crisis of indecision.
“But Mom,” he was saying though I hadn’t been listening. “Which one should I get? The mask?”
He presented a blue and black hunk of cheap plastic in the shape of a mask.
“Or this?” He pointed at a ninja weapon set. Or something. It was a belt and accompanying throwing star and sai that will surely all break or be forgotten about by the end of the day.
“I don’t know, Nate, it’s up to you.” I was distracted by the mental list of homeless amenities I still wanted to find—tissues, granola bars, maybe some scarves. Plus, I still needed something to wear to the auction that night. The theme was Vegas, a place just as tacky as the dollar store.
“But Mo-om! Which one?” When did “mom” become two syllables?
“Just decide and let’s go.” If he had glanced at his wristwatch again, he would have realized it was nearly lunchtime and that we were all getting hungry. Sam was busy whispering sweet nothings to his coloring book, but Tess was getting antsy.
“Can’t I just have two things?”
“No. Just one.” Like a fugitive dodging the cops, my head was on a swivel, peering and squinting into the other aisles looking for something that said either “Vegas” or “homeless.”
“No-ah!” Why does “no” suddenly have two syllables?
We went on in this mother-son tug-of-war for several more minutes. When I was winning, we’d inch toward the checkout counter and he’d slump his shoulders, practically surrendering to my one-toy policy. When he was winning, we’d end up back in the toy aisle, weighing the pros and cons of each piece of crap toy.
Finally, I was done.
“Nate, don’t whine. Just make a decision and let’s go. Here, I’ll count to ten and—“
“No! Don’t count!”
I flashed back to the night we set the tabata timer to encourage them to clean up their Legos before bedtime. It didn’t end well.
“Please don’t count. Mom, I want both! Can’t I just have two things?”
His voice trailed off into a whisper as real tears started to form in his eyes. I almost felt bad, and for a second I contemplated relenting. But no! I had a drawn a line and I had to hold my ground!
Plus, then Sam would need a second toy, too, and I really didn’t have the patience for that. Though I was pretty sure it’d just be a second coloring book.
“Egh!” Tess was fed up. She reached back into the cart and started pulling at anything she could grab.
My friend gave me a plaque when I was pregnant with Nate that reads, “Don’t yell at your kids. Lean in and whisper. It’s much scarier.”
I decided those are wise words, so I bent down to Nate’s level.
“Nate!” The words seemed to just barely seep through the gaps between my clenched teeth.
“Hurry. Up. And. Make. A. Decision.”
His jaw was jutted out in despair, he was gasping for breath in between sobs, and his eyes averted mine, too angry to make contact.
“Fine.” He grabbed the mask and trailed behind me, sullen and defeated, like a Confederate soldier.
We trudged to the checkout counter, my arms swiping even more hats and gloves into the cart as we passed. Since we had more items in our cart than there are complaints about Harvey Weinstein, I knew I had to be strategic about my timing in the line. I didn’t want to anger the people behind me, nor frustrate the cashier for making her do her job. The store was mostly empty, so I felt good about what was about to happen.
Oh, but I didn’t anticipate The Great Dollar Store Balloon Fiasco of 2017!
When we approached the counter, the elderly employee was at the far corner of the store using a helium tank to blow up balloons for another customer, and she seemed to be the only employee.
But the helium tank was unforgiving, causing some sort of failure that captured the full attention of the lone employee for over seven minutes. Which is an eternity when you’re standing in line with three hungry kids, over one hundred items in your cart, and a line of increasingly irritated customers queuing up behind you.
Meanwhile Sam had spotted the display of Ring Pops and asked me if he could have one every six seconds. Did he not see the game of hardball I had just played with Nate? Consider it a win streak.
Finally, a second employee emerged from his secret lair and opened another register. I watched him, amazed at the speed with which he scanned items and rung up totals, handing customers their receipt before they even took a second breath.
Then I looked back at the elderly employee still struggling to fill balloons and finally shuffling back over to the register where we waited impatiently, our tummies rumbling for some peanut butter and jelly. I ached for the speed of Employee #2, but I didn’t want to hurt Employee #1’s feelings.
So we stayed loyal and endured Sam’s six-second Ring Pop queries and Tess’s periodic sock removals and attempts to eat the plastic bags as they piled high in the cart behind her. Only Nate remained quiet, probably because he sensed any sudden movements might make me snap.
After unloading our cargo into the back of the Suburban and making sure everyone was buckled, I glanced in the rear view mirror at Nate, who was examining his mask, turning it over in his hands and looking pensive.
“Mom,” he paused a moment, and our brown eyes met in the mirror, mine narrowing, almost daring him to continue. “I don’t know why I got the blue mask. I think I should have gotten the red. Can we go back in and exchange it?”
Such was our mood when Tighe returned home a few hours later. When we arrived at the auction, he needed a drink. When we left the auction, Tighe had a ukulele under his arm and a gift certificate for four lessons. Well played, school. Well played.