Glass rectangular boxes with shiny silver frames stand in two rows before me. The chunky metal handles are cool to the touch as I turn each in hopes that a glitch in the system will produce a free prize. Each box tantalizingly displays the most coveted items on the front. Will I receive a pair of tiny handcuffs, a whoopee cushion, or a bracelet filled with sparkling green glitter?
The bottom row is more predictable. A few clicks of the handle pours out a handful of Runts, Reece’s Pieces, or a round ball of colorful gum. This is the sure bet—but I’m not fooled. The anticipation of the loot in the top machines is what I live for on these grocery store visits.
I shift from one foot to the other in my dirty Keds as my yellow ponytail sways back and forth. Already hoping for the quarter that Mom may give to me, I peek beyond the cashier to see how close she is to the end of the checkout line. She sees me watching and nods my way. I smile and just know one of these treasures will soon be mine. My window shopping will not be in vain.
Customers pass by me in the doorway as Mom strains to watch me beyond the passing bodies. I hold her gaze and she becomes reassured as the crowd thins and she turns to pay. I’m still smiling as a woman begins to shuffle past me, her uneven gait causing me to stare longer than a few polite seconds. She has a black leather change purse in her hands, open with the silver knobs pulled apart. Before I can open my mouth to protest she is pressing two quarters into my small hand and nodding toward the machines. She shuffles out the door as I look for Mom, unsure of what to do with this unexpected gift from a stranger. When Mom arrives moments later, her brow furrows and she looks towards the doors in a futile attempt to glimpse my benefactor. It’s too late. She has disappeared into the bright summer afternoon, and now it’s a different head that nods towards the machines.
What precious prize did I receive from my windfall that afternoon? Was it a disappointing neon green sticky hand that became ruined the moment I dropped it in the dirt? Was it a pack of trick gum that would snap the finger of some unsuspecting friend? My memory has wiped out those details long ago. What has persisted for over 30 years is the kindness of one woman who saw a small but meaningful chance to brighten one little girl’s day. She has given me the gift of a lifetime.