|My brother and me. |
I'm the criminal on the right.
I have no defense. I did it. I'm guilty.
I was four. Is that an excuse . . .?
Mom and I were doing the weekly grocery shopping. A very exciting time for both of us. Well, for me, at any rate. We had driven in from the ranch in the family's late-model Chrysler (Dad always drove a Chrysler), which was an adventure in itself.
There were no seatbelts. They hadn't been invented yet. Apparently no one had yet seen the wisdom in fastening small, easily-launched bodies into a safe place while hurtling down sketchy gravel roads at 60 miles per hour in a two ton vehicle.
My mom used to hold out her arm when she applied the brakes.
I was safe.
We pulled up to the curb across the street from the grocery store and proceeded inside.
The check-out desk, usually manned by a woman, stood in the center of the store, surrounded by the magical world of the grocery. Directly behind the desk was a bank of cubicles, in which one could find the most amazing things of all . . . the penny candies.
It was there that I would park myself, after the cart got too full to hold me. I admit it was difficult to leave the treasures that my mom had been adding to the cart. Treasures like canned peas. Baked beans. Tinned salmon. And the all-important Spam.
But I found comfort in just looking at the myriad possibilities behind that main desk.
A whole family of chocolate. Straws of sweet, flavoured powder. Licorice and JuJubes formed into the most amazing shapes. Wax figures which could be nipped and sucked dry of their wonderful, sweet juices. Lick-M-Aid. Lollipops. Suckers. Bubble gum in two sizes of colourful balls. The choices were truly endless to a four-year-old. And my mom's purse offered the gateway to this bounty.
I couldn't stand it any longer. I ran to her.
"Mom? Can I have a bubblegum?"
"Not today, dear."
What? What had she said?
Had she really used those three words? The small utterance that shattered my hopes and dreams? That barred me forever from the bliss that all of that candy represented?
It couldn't be.
"Not today, dear. I don't want you to be eating any candy before dinner."
Huh. Dinner was a lifetime away. What a stupid excuse.
"Just one?" I turned. My eye was caught by the bin full of bright orange bubble gums. The big ones with the little, rough bumps on the surface.
And the total deliciousness inside.
I pointed. "Just a bubble gum? I'll eat my dinner. I promise."
A smile from my long-suffering parent. "No, dear. Not today."
Huh. Well, we'll just see about that.
Mom had brought her purchases to the desk. The woman behind it was distracted. I would just take one gum. No one would ever know.
My hand crept into the bin of orange bubble gums. Wrapped itself around one tempting morsel. Popped it into my mouth.
Ha. Mission accomplished. I began the wonderfully arduous task of breaking down the hard, candy shell.
Mom finished paying for her groceries and was following the young boy carrying them to our car.
I fell in happily behind her.
The boy set the bags in the trunk, smiled at my mom and me and left.
Mom opened the door for me and I jumped inside. Still chewing.
She got in.
And sniffed. Then her head whipped around and she skewered me with a gimlet gaze.
"Diane! What are you eating?!"
I froze. How did she know? The gum was in my mouth, safely hidden.
I decided then. Moms were definitely magic.
Clever prevarication was in order.
"Diane, did you steal a bubblegum?"
I stared at her. Moms could see through cheeks!
My head drooped. "Yes."
She sighed. "Diane, you know that stealing is wrong, don't you."
I lifted my head. Tears were already starting to pool. "Yes."
"What should we do about it?"
Tears started to slide down my cheeks. "I don't know."
Mom opened her purse and reached inside. Then she handed me a penny. "You will have to go back inside and pay for it."
I stared at her in horror. Go inside? Face my victim? Confess my guilt?
"I - I don't want to."
"But you have to."
I sat there, my four-year-old brain working frantically to find another solution.
Any other solution.
Finally, I sighed. Mom was right. I would have to go inside and pay for my ill-gotten bubblegum. I opened the door and got out.
For a moment, I stood there in the gutter, wiping my cheeks and staring across the street at the grocery store. Which, incidentally, had assumed gigantic proportions since Mom and I had left.
Suddenly the orange deliciousness in my mouth didn't taste very good.
I spit it out into the gutter and looked down at it.
It still had bits of the hard candy shell imbedded in the softer gum. I hadn't even broken it in.
I sighed and looked at Mom through the window of the car.
She nodded towards the store.
I started across the street, feet dragging.
This was the widest street ever known to man.
Finally, I reached the store and went up the steps.
The door jingled happily. The woman behind the desk turned and looked at me. I approached slowly and tried twice to produce a voice. Finally, "I forgot to pay for a bubblegum," I said, sliding the penny across the counter towards her.
She nodded and looked at me gravely.
"Thank you, dear," she said. "You know it's not right to steal, don't you?"
Well I certainly do now! I nodded.
"Don't do it again."
I shook my head.
"Thank-you for being honest."
And I was free. I ran back to the car.
Mom didn't lecture. She knew I had learned my lesson.
I still love bubblegum balls. Especially the orange ones with the little rough bumps. But every time I chew one, I remember being four years old.
And learning about being honest.