Donny Eisenberg was with security and had been watching the young woman and her little girl ever since they’d entered the store. He’d seen her slip the doll into her purse and almost grabbed her then, but held back. He’d been a Floor Walker for eight years now, ever since he’d retired as a bus driver for Metro Transit, and after all these years he could just tell.
Like he recently told Helen, his wife of fifty one years, “They just have a look about them. You know. Trouble.”
To which Helen slapped down her newspaper and stared at him , “All of them Donny? Every single one of them?” She glared at him, frowning.”You know they’re people, don’t you, not things? Each one is a person. A living breathing human being who just might be down on their luck. Can’t you sometimes give them the benefit of the doubt? Cut them a little slack?”
Donny knew she was getting angry but he snorted his answer anyway, “Never.” It seemed they were having this argument more and more often these days and he didn’t know why. “That’s not what they pay me for. The company makes the rules, I enforce them. I’m supposed to stop them if they shop lift, call the head of security and turn them over. That’s my job.”
“So you’re paid not to think, huh? Is that it? Have no feelings? Well, it sounded like a stupid policy to me when you were hired and it still sounds stupid,” Ellen spat out her words, making her point perfectly clear. Then she stared at him long and hard, waiting for Donny to say something. Anything. Donny stared back at her, his mind suddenly blank.
Finally shook her head in disappointment and stood up, taking her newspaper into another room. Donny watched her walk away, all his arguments suddenly coming back to him. But they were unsatisfying and did nothing to alleviate the fact that he was left with contemplating for what seemed the millionth time in their long marriage, why his wife was always so mad at him. He turned and looked out the window, seeing nothing but Helen’s disappointed frown, and wondered if maybe, in the long run, she really might be right.
Now, as he followed the young woman and little girl through the crowded store, he pictured Helen admonishing him with a flinty gaze and steely eyes boring into him like two overheated drill bits. He knew she’d be disappointed in him (again) but he shrugged it off. To hell with her, he thought. He had a job to do.
It was the day before Christmas Eve and the place was packed, especially today, a Saturday: parents pushing carts full of toys, most of it crap that kids would open and lose interest in before the new year began if not sooner. Harried adults, wound up children, everyone talking twice as loud as normal just to be heard over the incessant Christmas music pouring through the sound system. Most people would be driven nuts, but Donny had learned to tune it all out just to keep his sanity; but he swore if he heard ‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells’ one more time he’d…Well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he was sure it wouldn’t be pretty.
Up ahead the young woman (he guessed she wasn’t more than twenty one or twenty two) turned into the first of what was probably ten aisles loaded to over flowing with displays of Christmas lights of every type and style and decorations of every shape, size and color. Donny slowed and walked past her to a look at a row of indoor Christmas tree ornaments, keeping a surreptitious eye on the two of them. She had unbuttoned her ragged coat and even though she had on at least one sweater and a turtle neck, he could tell she was thin. Her skin was pale and her non-descript brown hair was cut short and he noticed that in spite of her street worn appearance, she looked clean. What struck him, though, were her eyes. Even from where he stood and even though she wore glasses, he could see they were bright and blue. Attractive, almost.
Definitely not a drug user, he thought to himself, assessing the situation. He knew that for a fact. He’d seen enough of them in the store to know – wild eyed and manic. Not this one, though. She was calm and under control. And pretty good with her little girl, too, he thought, now that he had watched her for what, he glanced at his watch, fifteen minutes or so. Lots better than a good majority of the other shoppers milling around him, some of whom even bumping into him without so much as even a ‘pardon me.’ Rude people.
He kept a casual but watchful eye on the two of them. Were they a mother and daughter? If so, the young woman seemed…what? Conscientious, maybe? Or thoughtful? Something like that. Not rude, anyway, that was for sure, and that might count for something, even though she was a thief. He found himself hoping she wouldn’t take anything more.
Megan visually scanned through what seemed like a hundred different styles of Christmas lights before she found what she’d been looking for. She’d seen them in a catalog once someone left behind at work – battery operated white, twinkle lights. They’d be perfect for what she had in mind. She calmly glanced around and, seeing no one but an old man looking at ornaments, she quickly slipped the small package into her shoulder bag – the bag she had lined with tin foil to get past the electronic security at the exit doors. It was a trick she’d learned from her friend, Alyssa, at work. ‘Yeah, you do that, girlfriend, you’ll be golden.’ And it did work. Megan always felt the slightest twinge of guilt whenever she shoplifted, but managed to push the feeling back down by saying that she’d eventually pay the store back. And she meant it, too. It just wouldn’t be today.
Donny went back to his pretend browsing, glancing over every now and then before moving a few steps. He was disappointed to see her slip a small strand of some kind of lights into her purse. Too bad. Now she’d have to suffer the consequences. He made a mental note: she’s got the doll and the lights. He started to get himself ready. One more item and he’ll blow the whistle on her. Just one more.
“Mommy, can we get this, please?” Little Lisa asked, interrupting Megan’s thoughts and tugging excitedly on her sleeve.
She looked at the object that held her daughter’s interest and tried to hide her grin. “Not right now, Sweetheart, but maybe some other time.”
“Please, please, please.” It was unlike her to beg like she was doing.
Little Lisa had selected a baseball sized snow globe with a picturesque scene of a quaint cottage and a decorated pine tree next to it. A little red bird (a cardinal? she thought) sat on a branch. You shook it up and the snow exploded inside, hanging suspended momentarily before drifting to the ground, covering the objects in sparkling white. Megan had always wanted one when she was growing up, but times were tough in her family with just her mother and Megan’s little sister and brother – no father and not much money (and, of course, no snow globe), the story of her life. Now her daughter wanted one, just like she had. Funny how things like that worked out.
“I’m sorry, Honey, but we can’t afford it, now,” Megan told her firmly, “We’ll have to wait.”
“Aw,” Little Lisa said, frowning. Then an idea clicked inside her and, not wanting to give up just yet, she smiled coyly at her mom and asked, “How about…maybe…tomorrow?”
Megan couldn’t help but let her heart go out to her daughter. Pretending to give the matter some hard thought she finally said, “Well…maybe, Honey. Maybe,” she said, smiling at her daughter’s persistence, thinking to herself, what does it hurt to have something for a little girl to look forward to? Then she said, “Now, give me the globe please.”
Happy that at least her mother didn’t say ‘No,’ Little Lisa lovingly handed it to her and then turned away to gaze wishfully at a display of candy canes. Megan took the globe from her, but instead of setting it on the shelf, she slipped it into her bag while Little Lisa’s eyes were averted and then said, “Come on, kiddo, we need to get going. Mommy’s got to get to work pretty soon.”
Little Lisa sighed, “Ok, Mommy,” she said, and took a last long look at the display of pretty snow globes (now, minus one) before she turned away, taking her mother’s hand uncomplainingly and, for at least the tenth time that day, left Megan to wonder what she had done to deserve such a sweet natured, agreeable child.
Donny watched as they made their way through the frantic crowds jamming the aisles, the little girl holding her mother’s hand tightly. He was the tiniest bit heavyhearted she’d taken the snow globe and that he’d have to bust them, but there you were. It was his job and he was good at his job. He decided to wait until they left the store to make his move. Maybe other shoppers would see him nab them and it would set an example not to mess around shoplifting in this store. At least not while Donny Eisenberg was on duty anyway.
He followed discretely fifteen feet behind, eyes roving side to side watching what seemed like hundreds of people at a time, all the while zeroed in on the young mother and her little girl. They were making their way past the long checkout lines (without paying, of course) and heading for the exit. Once they went through the doors and were outside, he’d grab them. He’d get them for the doll, the lights, and now the snow globe. Steal on my watch, Donny thought, not a chance.
He was watching carefully, moving step by step toward them when, just a few feet before the exit doors, the little girl stumbled on one of the big thick floor mats meant to soak up water and slush from outside. Donny made a quick mental note to get on the damn maintenance crew. They should be cleaning and changing those mats out every half hour. Then he re-focused on woman. The young mother was only a few feet from the doors. He started to move toward them.
“Mommy, I’m so sorry,” Little Lisa said, tears welling up. Megan had grabbed her to keep her from falling and getting wet, and fought to hold her up by the hand, trying to keep her off the soaking, soggy mat. “I tripped.”
Megan struggled for a moment before finally getting the little girl straightened out and her feet firmly planted on the floor, “That’s alright kiddo. I’ve got you, but just try to be more careful next time.”
Little Lisa snuffled, “I’ll try Mommy. I’m sorry.”
Megan moved them over by the wall, off to the side of the flow of the crowd now surging to leave the store, pushing overloaded carts, clutching packages and bags and struggling to get into their coats and jackets. She dabbed the tears from Little Lisa’s eyes talking quietly to her to help get her calmed down. Then she glanced outside and her spirits sank. Flurries were coming down and she could see them already blanketing the ground. The problem was that the snow would make the drive to work slow and she couldn’t afford to be late. It would also make it treacherous. The treads on her tires weren’t the best and she’d have to be extra cautious to stay in her lane and not slip into another vehicle. Megan shook her head – it seemed like there was always something to contend with.
She knelt on a dry spot to the left of the exit, zipped up her daughter’s coat, tightened her scarf and put on her knit stocking hat and mittens. Then, in one quick movement, she folded a strip of foil over the top of the inside of her bag, the final step in making sure she didn’t set off the security alarm. Now she was all set.
She was just standing up, buttoning up her own coat when, through the maze of people she heard, then saw, a Salvation Army bell ringer. He was on the sidewalk outside the door; a stocky black man dressed in heavy boots, an insulated jacket, tan Carhart overalls and a purple Minnesota Vikings stocking hat. He was also wearing a cheerful smile in spite of the cold and snow.
Little Lisa had finally calmed down and was back to being in a good mood. She saw him too. “Mommy, can we give him some money? Please? Please? Please?”
Megan didn’t have to think twice. She knew there were people out there in much worse shape that she and her daughter. After all, the two of them at least had a car to live in. “Sure Sweetie,” she said, reaching into her shoulder bag for her pocketbook and taking out a wrinkled dollar bill. “Here, give this to the nice man.”
“Goody, goody.” Little Lisa took the dollar bill, held it tightly between her mittened hands and ran through the door right up to the guy. “Here, mister,” she said, giving the money to the man who helped her put the dollar in the bucket.
“Why, thank you very much, and happy holidays to you, young lady,” he said kindly, giving her a big grin and pretending to tip his hat but never once stopping the rhythmic ringing of his bell.
Megan took a quick look around, noticing only the relentless crush of the crowd and, for some reason, that old guy who looked like the old guy she’d seen earlier. But her attention was drawn back through the doors outside to Little Lisa, who was now happily standing next to the bell ringer, chatting away like they were old friends. Megan wrapped her scarf tightly around her neck, put on her own stocking cap and mittens, and walked through the doors, momentarily holding her breath, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it didn’t and she sighed with relief.
She walked over to her daughter, took her by the hand and smiled a polite smile to the volunteer, wishing him a happy holiday. She had bought clothes from Salvation Army before and she was happy to give something back, even though it was only a dollar. Then they made their way through the slippery, slushy snow to her car. Little Lisa got into her car seat in the back and buckled herself in while Megan used a brush to clear the snow off. Then she got inside and started the old Ford. She let it warm up a few minutes before putting it in drive and slowly making her way through the snowy parking lot out to the street and then to the highway where she settled into the long drive to work, the snow falling ever faster.
Back in the store Donny had been waiting, watching their every move and he’d seen the young mother give her little girl the dollar for the donation. It made him hesitate. It was a gesture from her he hadn’t expected and it touched him in a way he wasn’t prepared for. He stood in place, oblivious to the crowd pushing past him and the dirty looks some people were giving him. He was thinking about the young mother and her little girl, seeing Helen’s face in his mind watching him, almost willing him to think for himself for a change. He weighed the pros and cons for a few moments and surprised himself by coming to his decision rather quickly. What the hell? Maybe it was his good deed for the season. Maybe it was the disarming vision of Helen in his brain. Whatever…sure he was breaking the rules but big deal. There was something about the young mother and her daughter. They seemed alright to him- not career criminals, that was for sure. Maybe they were just down on their luck. Maybe it was the little girl. She seemed so well behaved and the way she was with the Salvation Army guy was…well, kind of cute. Whatever the case, he decided to let them go and, he had to admit, immediately felt pretty good about his decision. He wondered if he should bother to tell Helen about what he’d done when he got home. He thought about it as he watched the mother and daughter trudge through the snowy parking lot out to their car, surprised to find he was holding his breath until they made it safely. Then he turned back to the store, thinking that maybe he would tell her. And, if he did, and she took the time to listen to him, maybe, for once, she wouldn’t be so damn mad at him. It was worth a try. Stranger things could happen.
He started to walk back into the store, taking out his two-way radio and making the call to maintenance about changing out the entry mats. Then he saw another person he might have to keep an eye on. A black woman and a bunch of kids all under the age of ten. Suddenly, though, the thought of trailing them through the store seemed pointless. Sure, if they didn’t have money and couldn’t pay for their stupid toys and crap, they shouldn’t be in the store in the first place. But, what the hell, maybe Helen had been right – who was he to be playing god? All of a sudden it just didn’t seem that important anymore. Maybe it was that young mother and her daughter. Maybe it was the image in his mind of Helen’s ongoing disappointment in him. Who knew? But he decided to let the black woman her kid go past him without bothering to follow. Instead, he took out his two-way again and made a call, “I’m going on break.” He walked to the back of the store and through a door that said, ‘Employees Only.’ He sat down and stared into space, suddenly very tired. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and then it’s over, Donny thought. Thank god.