The boy had the items laid out on the end of the cash register belt.
There were twelve: A pint of milk; a loaf of white bread; a package of that ham that is miraculously square; an apple; three Snickers; two fruit pies, a can of beans and a bottle of cheap perfume in a Christmas box that had been taped at the top and stamped “Reduced.”
“That’s twelve-fifty,” the clerk said, and smiled as the boy, maybe ten, fingered the few bills and pile of coins on the belt. He counted out the bills and shifted quarters four at a time to rest next to that pile. The man behind him heard the boy say, “Nine.”
“What’s the hang-up?” a voice from the back of the line harshly asked.
“It’ll be just a minute,” the clerk said.
The boy counted out a few dimes and nickels, and said, “Ten twenty five.”
He pushed around a pile of pennies, and said, “Ten eighty seven.” He dug into his pockets and pulled out a couple more coins and then dropped them on the belt.
“How much?” he asked.
His blue hat was too large for his head and it slipped over his eyes. The tan jacket was torn at a seam and the stuffing poked out; it seemed two sizes too big. His face was more worried than any young boy’s should be, the man behind him thought.
“That’s eleven oh two,” the clerk said. “You need a dollar twenty three more.”
The boy fingered the candy bars and pushed them over to the clerk, his face collapsing to a silent cry.
“That’s only thirty-five cents,” the clerk said. “They’re on sale.”
The boy touched each item before him, painfully, slowly, as if calculating the weight of the item’s loss to his day’s shopping; maybe each was a meal, a treat for someone else. He picked up the apple, shook it once, stared into the distance for a moment and put it back down. He touched the bread and the ham and pushed them together; they were untouchable.
The clerk looked up at the growing line.
“Need to choose, honey,” she said to the boy. “Maybe the perfume?”
“No,” the boy cried. “It’s all she’s getting.” He wiped his eyes with his coat sleeve, and then his dripping nose. “I don’t know what to do,” he said softly and closed his eyes as his face crumbled with the pain and confusion.
He reached for the perfume box and knocked a few coins to the floor and closed his eyes again in anguish. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, then kneeled down to pick up the coins.
The man behind him leaned over. “Let me help.”
The little boy with the saddest eyes smiled.
They gathered the coins on the floor and placed them on the belt.
“Count them again,” the man said to the clerk before he put down the magazine he was holding and walked away.
The clerk, measuring the pain in the little boy’s face and the growing agitation of the expanding line of anxious adults, shrugged and slowly counted out the bills again. She got to eight; then the quarters: “That’s eleven-fifty,” the clerk said, and then paused puzzled as she counted out the dimes and nickels, and then the pennies.
Then she smiled and glanced over her shoulder to see the man who had been standing behind the boy, pause in the open doorway and nod, before disappearing around the corner; she reached for a bag to pack up the boy’s purchases, making sure the bottle of perfume was carefully placed and the bread was on top.
“You’re all set,” she said to the boy. “Tell your Mom I said Hi.”