The Waif in the Grocery Store

waifI stood in front of the produce display, contemplating the relative merits of organic ‘still alive’ butter lettuce and prepackaged hearts of romaine when a quiet voice caught my attention.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, could you buy me and my friend some food?”

I turned to see who had voiced the strange request, and to whom the speaker had petitioned.

A skinny waif with short, spiky hair stood next to me. The store seemed empty except for another skinny boy who stood on the far side of the banana display, hidden under his black hoodie sweatshirt.

I stuttered. Not sure what to say. No one has ever asked me to buy food for them at a grocery store before.

“Um…you want me to buy you some food?” I replied. Brilliant answer.

“Yeah.” His hopeful brown eyes assured me that he hadn’t been joking. “We’re having some money problems and we don’t have any food in the house.”

“What can you cook?” I asked. And immediately second-guessed my response. It’s not like he was asking for money to go buy beer (my usual excuse for not giving handouts).

“I can make spaghetti, prepare macaroni and cheese, and grill steak,” he said.

“How about I buy you stuff to make spaghetti?” I asked. “You go get the bread, and I’ll find the spaghetti and sauce.” I pushed my cart towards the pasta aisle and wondered if he’d skip out. It takes a certain kind of bravery (or hunger) to approach a strange lady in a grocery store and ask her to buy you food.

I found pasta (the kind with whole grains and extra protein) and sauce and made my way back to the produce aisle so he could find me again. I found strawberries on sale and grabbed two containers. Kids need fruit. I figured he wouldn’t come back.

He did, and he brought a loaf of white bread with him.

“You can put it in the cart,” I said. “Do you like strawberries?” He nodded. My cart looked hopelessly empty and he looked really hungry. “Do you know how to fix potatoes?” I asked.

“I like to bake them and add butter and cheese,” he said.

I took off towards the dairy section, and he followed along. The other boy still lurked. “What kind of cheese do you like?” I said.
“Whatever you want to buy,” he assured me. “I really appreciate this.”

“Do you like burritos?” He nodded. My mind works in strange ways. You know, grated cheese, bean burritos…

I zipped back towards the produce section, where the tortillas hold court on the end of the aisle between Hispanic foods and towers of apples. “Have you ever tried these kind of tortillas?” I said, pointing to the whole-wheat variety we usually buy.

“No. But they look good and I’ll eat them.”

I grabbed two cans of refried beans and added them to the cart and headed towards the checkout line. “Wait. What about lettuce? Do you want some lettuce?” I asked.

“That would be good.” He backtracked and grabbed a head of iceberg. By this time I had no idea if I had gotten too much or too little. I couldn’t even remember what I had planned on buying for myself.

“What’s your name?” I finally asked.

“Jared.”

I didn’t ask more because we had reached the checkout line and I didn’t want to dent his dignity by asking all the questions that popped into my head. Questions like, Where are your parents? How many people are going hungry at home? You look like you’re in the 8th grade, am I right? Tell me more about your money problems. Should I be calling Child Protective Services?

We unloaded the groceries onto the conveyer belt and the cashier rang up Jared’s food. I tied the tops of his bags to keep them separate from mine.

“They charged you more than fifty cents for the mangoes,” he said.

I glanced at the cashier and then explained that the grocery store rings up the non-sale price and then at the end they add all the discounts.

“He’s learning to be a responsible shopper,” the cashier commented.

“That’s right.” I said as I finished paying and got ready to push our cart out. Before we reached the door, I stopped and handed him four bags of groceries. “Can you carry it all?” I wondered if black hoodie was his hungry friend.

“I can. Thank you so much,” he said again. “Do you want help carrying your groceries out?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

I walked towards my car. When I finished loading my groceries, I saw black hoodie amble out of the store and turn left. Jared had disappeared in the opposite direction.

I drove home wiping my eyes and mentally kicking myself for all I didn’t say and all I didn’t buy. Now I’ll never know if black hoodie needed food, too.

The mangoes. He knew the sale price of mangoes.

I should have bought him mangoes.

Where have you met #Jesus lately? I met him in the produce aisle. http://wp.me/p2UZoK-1iY Click To Tweet

I’ve never lived so close to poverty, but one can’t avoid it when one lives in a one-grocery-store-town.  The signs and patrolmen out front keep the panhandlers at bay, but what does a kid do when school has closed for the summer and along with it the only hot meal some kids receive in a day. This isn’t the first time I’ve found a waif in town.  Last time, she was a toddler walking down the street behind the store. 

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Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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