Setting: Wednesday, December 23, at an evil super store in Prince George's county, Maryland.
I am pushing my cart slowly through the stuffed animals aisle, curious about whether the pre-Christmas selection of Care Bears is any different in Maryland than it is back home. Behind me I hear a child shrieking "Care Bears! Care Bears!"
I turn and see two women, one pushing the cart, the other following. A child, probably no older than three, is in the cart's seat and she's pointing to a large pink Care Bear on the shelf closest to her. The mother (?) shrugs her shoulders at the child.
"You like Care Bears?" She asks off-handedly and in one motion she reaches for the yellow Care Bear next to the pink one.
"No I want the pink one! The pink one!"
"I'll decide which one you get for Christmas," the woman says, grabbing the yellow one off the shelf and tossing it into the cart. "Pretend you didn't see me get it for you," she says, more to her friend than to the child, and the two laugh as if sharing a hilarious joke. The child looks confused and as the cart rolls away she looks back at the pink Care Bear sitting on the shelf.
Preoccupied with that utterly depressing pre-Christmas scene, I am standing at the express checkout with toothbrushes and one large tube of wrapping paper. I look up briefly to see a tall man standing near the exit. His face droops with confusion and his eyes are empty, lost and glazed over. A security guard stands next to him. She has taken charge of the situation and seems suddenly enlivened by the drama of the situation.
"Stand right here," she tells the man, pointing to a spot on the floor next to her.
I wonder what the man has done. Shoplifting? Causing a scene?
"What do they look like?" The guard asks the man. He mumbles something and the guard speaks into her walkie-talkie. He's lost his kids.
As I drive off in the rain I think about the little girl and the tall man. I want to turn my car around and head back--back to find out what happened to the man's children. I want to shrink myself into something small and follow the little girl home. I wish I could give her the pink Care Bear, and take away whatever terrible things might happen to her--or have already happened. I want to know the end of their stories--that man's and the little girl's. His face, empty and numb, haunts me.
Back at my parents' house again my kids sit at the piano, banging out a strange version of a Christmas song; one which seems to involve a constant repetition of the word "Noel" over and over again. L.'s voice is high and tentative, T.'s low and loud.
Their voices are unbearably sweet and earnest. I imagine the sound carrying out into the night, making everything right again.