Aspen’s Time Out - Steve Kraynak
Late on a Saturday winter morning I stood third in the check-out line at a neighborhood Ace Hardware Store. The first man in line was buying a large assortment of paint supplies: brushes, plastic drop cloths, rolls of blue masking tape, and several gallons of paint. I patiently waited holding onto a mini shopping cart. The sunlight streaming in through the double glass doors and large windows revealed some mottled bright colors near the floor at the feet of the man in front of me. The colors were moving and reflected the sunlight.
The first customer signed his charge card receipt and exited. The next man in line put his cell phone in his pocket and stepped around something on the floor to reach Maria, the cashier. He placed his selection of plumbing supplies on the counter to be scanned. As he talked with Maria, I pushed my cart a step forward. Directly in front of it sat a little girl.
She faced sideways, toward the check-out counter, and looked to be about four years of age, or a little more. Her clothes were carefully coordinated, a white short-sleeve flower print blouse neatly tucked into blue denim bib overalls, and clean white tennis shoes with white socks. Her dark brown hair was arranged in a long braid that nearly touched the dirty black floor mat upon which she sat. Attached at the bottom of the braid was a large plastic butterfly barrette, yellow with pink polka dots.
Now in the unrestricted light I clearly saw the source of the colors. On the little girl’s left arm, from her wrist to her shoulder, was arrayed a line of spiral plastic one-ring key holders, the kind that stretch over the hand and grip the wrist. Each plastic spiral was carefully spaced from the others. The vivid colors shone in the sunlight. Shocking pink, lemon yellow, bright lime, neon orange, cherry red, and violet, wended their way up to her shoulder.
I leaned over my mini cart and spoke to the little girl. “Those colored bands are beautiful. Where did you get them?” She looked up and smiled at me and pointed to an empty wire bin underneath the check-out counter, directly at her eye level. Adjoining bins still teemed with batteries, mini flashlights and breath mints. “I like those,” I said as I straightened and continued to watch her as she admired her new-found jewelry.
While the man I assumed to be the girl’s father had been talking on his phone as he waited in line, his little daughter had been busy adorning herself with bracelets, making herself beautiful. She sat in the middle of the Ace Hardware check-out line happily oblivious as the adults around her were busy buying and selling. Delighted, she quietly hummed to herself.
Her young father completed his purchase, turned, stood over her and quietly said, “Aspen, we have to go now. Please put those back.” Without looking up at him, and while still admiring the rainbow on her arm, Aspen replied in a determined manner, “No. I don’t want to.”
Aspen’s father inhaled deeply. He stooped down next to her, gently put his hand on her wrist, and quietly said, “Aspen, please put those backnow. Mommy’s waiting for us. She has lunch ready. And Daddy has to fix the leak under the kitchen sink.” Aspen was unmoved. Still looking at her bangles she shook her head and again refused, more loudly saying, “No, Daddy! I don’t want to!”
As Aspen and her father blocked the now longer check-out lane, Maria the cashier and I looked at each other and exchanged cautious smiles. The people queued behind me began to exhibit adult behaviors of impatience: throat clearing, loud sighing, coughing, one generic groan, and, from the back of the line, an exasperated and barely muffled, “Shit!” We all waited.
Her father persisted. “Aspen, please look at me.” Aspen did so reluctantly. He continued gently but forcefully, “I need you to put those back in the bin,now. We have to go home. Mommy is waiting for us.” It looked as if his second invocation of Mommy had an effect on Aspen because, after a short pause, she slowly removed one plastic bracelet and put it back in the wire bin. Sighs of relief arose from the line behind me. Maria smiled and motioned to me to step around the father and daughter.
As I pushed my cart around them, I noticed Aspen removing another bracelet. Her father waited patiently while she carefully removed the others, one-by-one, and gingerly put each back into the bin, arranging them by color. As I unloaded a garden hose and bottles of spa chemicals from the cart, I heard Aspen’s father say, “No, Aspen, please put that one back too. We’re not buying any of those today.”
I quietly chatted with Maria during the few minutes it took me to check out and pay for my merchandise. For a moment I forgot about Aspen and her father. I assumed they had resolved their situation and were on their way home, to Mommy and lunch.
But as I turned to leave, I was surprised to see Aspen’s father standing a few feet off to my right, near the paint mixing station. He stood calmly holding his plastic bag of plumbing supplies at his side. I followed his gaze to where two wooden folding chairs were placed on either side of a small café table, a place for customers to wait for their paint to be mixed.
There in the chair nearer to him, calmly sitting with her ankles crossed and her legs slowly swinging back-and-forth, sat Aspen. She was singing to herself. I glanced at Aspen’s father in disbelief as if to say, “You’re still here. What happened?” Returning my look he sighed aloud, “She put herself in Time Out.” Again I looked at Aspen, still singing, and now looking directly at me.
As I looked back and forth between them, I pursed my lips and wrinkled my forehead to indicate that I understood both the complicated nature and importance of this new development. I did not want to appear to be taking sides or passing judgment in this family matter. “Un huh,” I offered. “I see.”
While we looked at each other, I carefully pushed my mini-cart three small steps toward Aspen. Her legs were still slowly swinging. “Aspen,” I said quietly. “It was nice meeting you today. I’m going home now. It’s time for lunch, and I’m hungry.” I paused briefly then continued precisely. “I’m going to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk.” Aspen watched my face intently. I persisted. “What is your Mommy making you for lunch today?”
Aspen’s legs stopped swinging. Her face went blank and she opened her eyes wide, as if the very idea of lunch on this day had never occurred to her. She shrugged her shoulders once. “Well, whatever you have for lunch, I hope you enjoy it. Goodbye.”
I turned away from Aspen and looked at her young father still patiently waiting. I raised both of my eyebrows as I passed him. He offered me a thank you nod, and I returned a sly smile.
I lifted my purchases from the cart and pushed it off to the side. With the garden hose pulling on my left arm and the plastic bag full of spa chemicals tugging on my right, I resolutely walked out of the Ace Hardware, delightedly humming to myself.