By Kelsey Englert
I’m second in line at the thrift store checkout. Towers of used books teeter in my cart. I told myself to exhibit control, to go against instinct, but ten-cent books interfere with self-restraint.
The cashier checks out a woman buying a massive desk calculator while two boys and a girl, maybe aged three, four, and six, like retrievers, bring the woman a chipped nutcracker, yellowed Christmas cards, and a metal replacement harp for a lamp.
“Put those back,” she says to them on repeat. She turns to the cashier. “Everyone makes fun of me at work for having a big, old calculator. The equal key stopped working last week. Nothing added up. They’ll kick themselves when I tell them it was here and on sale for only a dollar.”
The cashier says, “One dollar and seven cents, please.” The woman burrows through the change pocket in her wallet. She drops a nickel. It falls to the floor. She finds another nickel and pulls two pennies from the spare change dish by the register.
The middle child squats to the floor and crawls under the checkout counter. It takes him two tries to lift the flat nickel from the flat floor with his round fingers. He gets it while on all fours. Fist tight, he sticks his back end up and readies to stand.
And I see it coming.
I step around my cart. He hasn’t risen. I could jump out, stick the top of my hand against the bottom of the counter and let the boy’s head, his soft brown hair, bump against my palm instead of the wood. I could be the buffer. But I hesitate. Will the woman think I am out of line for touching her son? Will she envy me for seeing what she missed?
My last thought before he thuds his skull is that maybe he won’t hit it at all. Maybe he knows it’s there. I grunt at the clunk of bone against wood, a fresh-swelled wound.
The woman doesn’t notice. She asks for a copy of her receipt. The boy limps behind her, away from his siblings like a dog off to the woods at the end of life, dying on the lam. When he thinks he is out of sight, he rubs his head, drops his hand, and then lifts to rub it again.
The nickel is still squeezed in his other fist.
He doesn’t cry, but he’s glazed over, deep in thought, memorizing painful patterns. Maybe he has been scolded enough times for crying that he is afraid to. I have been scolded for speaking out of turn.
I wonder how many more times he’ll need to hit his head before we remember how to lift ourselves with care.
KELSEY ENGLERT’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Into the Void, and The Citron Review, among other literary magazines. She is a Pennsylvania native and earned her M.A. in creative writing from Ball State University and M.F.A. in creative writing from West Virginia University. She currently teaches at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. For more information, visit www.kelseyenglert.com.