I don’t know how to choose between a heavy duty water gun and a mini replica arcade game. Just get him an app, I think. A gift card so that he can download what he wants.
“Are you going to move?” says a little voice. It’s a girl, maybe seven. Brown curls and a ski jacket.
“What would you get a twelve-year old boy?” I ask her. “Gun or game?”
She shrugs. “Because he’s a boy. You’re not supposed to talk to kids. Can you move now? I need to steal something.”
I look at her, so serious. “That sounds like a bad idea.”
“So is buying your kid a gun,” she tells me. She opens a package with an action figure, some chunk of plastic carrying a lasso, wearing a hat. It vanishes into her boot, and she leaves.
I stare at the shelf. Gun or game. A store associate walks the aisle, sees the open package at my feet. I pretend not to notice her.
I’m in the store bathroom, grungy mirror, automatic faucet that barely dribbles when it’s on.
I have an arcade game under my arm. Sweating. I open the package and shove the game into my boot. It sticks out, can’t put my pant leg over it. I toss the package, leave.
I limp through the store, the game rubbing against me. People look at me, sad to see me this way, unable to walk properly. Meanwhile, a game is sticking out of my boot, unmistakable. Clear as mud on the store cameras. Easy to spot by an associate.
On the run up to the sliding doors, there are two greeters, surprisingly middle-aged. I clomp my feet. One nods at me, smiles. The other clomps her feet too, like it’s a dance.
The doors slide open. I’m outside in the wind. The game slips from my boot.
The little girl is sitting on a boulevard, under a tree that went to sleep. She’s eating a round chocolate thing.
“Did you steal that too?” I ask. She nods. The action figure is sitting on the curb next to her. I sit. “I stole this,” I confess, and show her the game.
“You should have got the gun.”
I shrug, turn the thing on. Batteries included, thank god. Thank god for the inclusion of batteries, I think, as I tap the screen, and pixeled things do what I tell them. “Do you have parents here?”
“Everyone has parents here,” she tells me, finishing the chocolate thing. She points at the parking lot, families heading to minivans, SUV’s. New cars coming in to replace the ones leaving, everywhere parents.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?” I ask her.
“Kids don’t accept rides from strangers.”
“Even ones who steal video games?” I ask.
“Especially those ones. Thieves are bad. What kind of car do you have?”
I don’t even know. It’s got four wheels, I want to tell her. It’s been driven by people before. Parents on the way to the store, to buy a thoughtful gift for a thoughtless child.
“What’s your boy going to think when you give him a stolen game?” she asks.
“I wasn’t going to tell him…”
“That’s lying. It’s worse than stealing. But not as bad as trying to give little girls rides somewhere.” She sticks her tongue out at me, like I’m an idiot, and maybe I am, I think. “When I was five, my daddy put me on the car roof, forgot I was there, and drove off. He was just going down the street, not far. Not too fast. I didn’t fall off,” she grins, proud. “You’re a bad parent. I can tell. My daddy’s better than you. My daddy doesn’t steal or lie.”
“He just forgets he put a kid on the car roof,” I point out.
“But I didn’t fall off,” she reminds me. She hands over the action figure. “Here, you have this. Give it to your boy, and maybe he’ll think you’re a good parent because you didn’t steal it.” With that, she dashes into the parking lot. A little girl like that, it’s easy to lose in the cars, the minivans, the SUV’s.
The action figure is yellow and red. Its head turns all the way around, and it can bend completely backwards. When I get to my car – a Subaru, I didn’t even realize – I put the action figure on the roof of the car.
I drive off, slow. At the end of the parking lot, the driveway slopes down, and I worry. Then I turn right, worry more. But I take it slow, down the street, as cars bunch up behind me, and a few people begin to honk.
At a traffic light, a car pulls alongside, a window rolls down. Her breath fogs up my window as she yells at me. On green, I drive. Slowly, slower still, being careful. Being good.
At home, I park on the street rather than risk driving the incline to my garage. Jam the arcade game in my pocket, open the door. Hold my breath as I look at the roof of the car. But it’s still there. Yellow and red, that action figure. Looking straight ahead, toes aimed at the sky, arms stretched, a lasso around its waist. I wonder what to do with it. Leave it there, drive around with it forever; or bring it inside, and pretend that I bought it for him, so that he’ll look at me, tell me how great I am, cuddle with it when he goes to sleep, throw it out four years from now, when I’ll put in a shoebox, keepsakes and memories of a time that was simple, when nothing bad ever happened, not even once.