The toy was right there, sitting in the top rack of the old man’s shopping cart as he struggled to get his groceries into his car.
Thirty minutes earlier, the same man had been standing in the toy aisle, reaching for the last available action figure. He tossed it in his cart and made his way down the aisle, as I just missed the opportunity to get my 3-year-old the only item he wanted from Santa. I had waited weeks for that toy to go on sale, saving up my tips from the diner to be sure I had enough. Saddened by this unfortunate turn of events, I wandered through the other aisles, trying to find something—anything—I could get in its place. I found nothing even close to the toy he wanted, and I exited the store empty-handed that late winter afternoon.
As I walked through the crosswalk, taking care not to slip on any black ice, I noticed the old man in front of me. He stopped at a high-end vehicle and pressed auto-start on his remote. The engine fired quickly, sounding smoother than any engine I’d ever heard, certainly better than the 20-year-old clunker I had. This car was an older model but in excellent condition, like its owner. Dressed in a pressed button-down shirt and slacks, he was not hurting for cash. I wished I could say the same, my coat and leggings so thin my skin threatened to peek through a few places, and my boots sporting more scuffs than color.
I watched him move with precision, lifting the bags and gently setting them in the backseat. He was old but not feeble. As groceries overflowed from the remaining sacks, I felt an explosive sense of injustice. How dare he have so much? His backseat was almost full of food, and not the cheap, store-brand kind I always bought.
Filled with jealousy, I decided right then he really didn’t need the toy he purchased. It didn’t matter who it was for. He didn’t have a 3-year-old waiting with a neighbor who spoke little English but babysat for next to nothing. He had money, and Christmas was still a week away. He had plenty of time to find something else.
The eighth commandment—“Thou shall not steal”—ran through my head. I ignored it, determined to get that toy for my little boy. As I passed the old man’s cart, I timed my movements perfectly, lifting the package and shoving it into my coat while he was not looking.
“Ma’am?” he called as I breached the bumper, almost home-free.
I didn’t know whether to stop and respond or run. Every sense was tingling, my body aware of what I had just done. I had never stolen anything—not even a morsel at the diner when the cook made too much—and, here I was, a week before Christmas, taking a toy from an old man. I would have been ashamed if I hadn’t been so terrified of being caught.
He spoke before I could flee, his voice kind but needy. “Would you please help me with that last bag?” He pointed to the grocery cart. “I’m afraid it’s going to be too heavy for me.”
I stared at him for a moment, speechless but relieved. “Um… Sure.” I retreated a few steps and scooped up the bag. I pretended not to notice the space next to it, where the toy was sitting only moments ago.
I set the bag in the only available spot in his backseat. A carton of egg nog teetered at the edge of one of the bags, and I carefully repositioned it. Oh, the irony! I had just stolen something from this man, yet I was worried about the thick, milky concoction spilling onto his leather seats.
The toy bumped against my ribs as I stood up. The old man crouched by the cart’s wheels, scanning the area underneath.
“Need any more help?” I asked, hoping he would say no. The toy suddenly felt heavy inside my coat. I instantly thought of my 8th grade English class, and our assignment to analyze Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart. If I didn’t get out of there soon, the look on my face would betray me, just as the conscience of Poe’s narrator had betrayed him.
He stood up, looking puzzled. “No, I don’t think so.” He turned from side to side, checking to see if he had somehow dropped the toy as he loaded his bags in the car.
“All-righty then.” I brushed past him before he could realize I was the reason his purchase was missing.
He leaned into the backseat and sifted through one of his bags. “Did you see a toy? An action figure?” he asked as he stood up. “It’s for a young boy who’s in the hospital…”
As he turned toward me, he caught a glimpse of the toy’s packaging peeking out from atop the buttons on my coat. I looked at it and then looked at him, suddenly unable to move.
Moments passed, and we both just stood there in a face-off, neither of us sure what to say or do. Finally, I blinked, and it broke the spell. I took a few hurried steps backward. His reflexes were pretty good for an old man, but my reflexes were better. I was almost 10 feet away when he reached the spot where I’d been standing.
“Wait!” he called, and I broke into a run as he lost his footing on a patch of ice. A man and woman five or six cars away turned when they heard him yell, but it was too late. I jumped in my car, fired up the engine, and sped away.
As I made my way to the back entrance, I glanced in the rearview mirror, half expecting to see the old man chasing me down with his expensive car. Instead, I could see the couple huddled where I had been standing, trying to help the old man as he lay on the ground.
I raced through the intersection, my hands clammy and my stomach churning. What had I just done?
“He has money, he’ll be okay,” I convinced myself as I drove home. One side street gave way to another, and by the time I pulled up in front of my apartment complex, it was as if the incident never happened. I pulled into a space on the street and kept the toy tucked in my coat until I reached my bedroom.
I stashed it in the bottom dresser drawer, beneath a pair of jeans, where it would stay until I could find some wrapping paper. I headed down the hall to Mrs. Kruschev’s apartment, where I knew my boy would be waiting for me.
Two evenings later, I watched as one of the neighbors rolled her garbage cans to the curb. We lived on the same street but were worlds apart. Her side was filled with townhomes, occupied by newlyweds just starting their lives and single businessmen needing to be close to the city. My side was made up of tenants who scraped and scrounged just to survive each month, sometimes rummaging through people’s trash for what they needed.
The sun was setting as I ventured out of my apartment building. I pulled my coat tight to shield against the wind and crossed the street. Without hesitation, I reached into my neighbor’s green recycling bin and grabbed a stack of newspaper. With luck, it would include the Sunday edition, complete with coupons and ads. The coupons would be my own Christmas gift—a way to ensure that my boy and I continued to eat—and the shiny ads would serve as my own creative form of wrapping paper.
Once back in my kitchen—drafty, but still better than the temperature outside—I tossed the papers onto the rickety kitchen table. It, too, had been a discard, like so much of my life this past year. I thought briefly about my boy’s father who ran out on us, leaving me with the unenviable task of raising a toddler alone. I cut my work hours to eliminate child care at the local preschool, and the landlord of our nice, furnished apartment was unwilling to make any exceptions. My boy and I were on the street within a month, this tiny, filthy apartment the only place I could afford. Almost everything in it was recycled from someone else’s discard pile.
Until a few nights ago, I had managed to survive on luck and fortitude, not criminal behavior. I felt the first sense of remorse as I pulled a half-used roll of masking tape from the kitchen drawer. I willed the feeling to go away, reasoning, “What’s done is done.”
I crept into the bedroom and retrieved the gift, my boy still asleep on our used mattress. I repositioned the blanket over his tiny body, keeping the toy behind my back in case he woke up. He did not, so I tiptoed out of the bedroom. I laid his gift on the kitchen table next to the tape and picked up the first newspaper. As I shuffled through it, looking for one of the more colorful ads, I noticed this headline:
LOCAL PHILANTHROPIST DIES IN STORE PARKING LOT
“No!” I jumped back from the table, knocking over my chair. A picture of the old man appeared to the right of the large block text. It was black-and-white, probably 10 or more years old by the lack of wrinkles and dark hair, but it was definitely him.
The toy, perched near the edge of the table, fell to the floor with a loud thud. I heard my boy cry from the other room, as I collapsed in tears. “Oh, God… No!”
Christmas came and went that year. The toy never made it into my boy’s hands. Instead, I placed it in one of those gift bins outside the local shelter, unable to bear the thought of it residing in my home.
I attended the funeral, standing far enough away that no one knew I was there for him. I paid my respects silently against the gray sky as I stared at the final resting place of one Gertrude Tompkins, buried almost 16 years ago to the day.
The funeral was packed with mourners despite the blustery weather. I lingered afterward as workers rotated between covering the casket and warming their hands by the gas heater. An hour later, everyone gone, I made my way to the edge of the burial site.
I had been in the cold for more than three hours, but I didn’t care. Barely able to feel my hands and feet, I leaned down and ran my fingers over the makeshift tombstone. “I am so sorry,” I whispered.
I don’t know if I expected the clouds to part and the sun to shine through, but there was nothing, not even a gust of cold air to reassure me I had been heard. The air was still, only the smell of fresh soil filling my senses. I stood there a little longer, tears filling my eyes but refusing to fall in the cold air.
I made my way home, frozen and despondent. I am a good person. Everyone makes mistakes. I must have repeated this fifty times, but it did nothing for my peace of mind. I knew better. This mistake—this horrible, selfish choice I had made—could never be undone.
Once I started to thaw out, the tears came. Hot and salty, they streamed down my face as I thought of my boy at the neighbor’s house, still so full of childlike hope and joy. He had no idea what I had done to make him happy.
This was my burden to bear, and no amount of retribution would ease the pain I’d caused. That wintry day, as I wiped my face on one of our stained dish towels, I knew I would never be the same.
A year later, I had saved up enough to move to a small rental in the suburbs. As I walked with my son, now four, through the bakery at our local grocery store, he reached out his hand to snag a cookie. I smacked it, and he stared up at me in surprise. “I want it, Mama,” he said, with all the innocence of a four-year-old who had no idea he was doing anything wrong.
Well, I knew and would not stand for it. He started to sob, but I stood firm. “Absolutely not… That is not how we do things.” I ushered him out of the store, leaving our half-full cart between the cookies and the fresh bread.
He pouted the entire walk home, but I ignored it. It hurt me to think of my little boy stealing something and the consequences that could follow.
As we walked along the busy street, a ray of sunshine broke through the dark clouds. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that maybe—just maybe—I had been forgiven for my own lapse in judgment.
I held my boy’s hand tighter. One day, when he was older, I would share the story of that Christmas when he did not get the toy he so badly wanted. I knew I could never make up for my actions, but I could at least ensure that my boy did not make the same mistake. I never wanted him to feel the pain I felt every time I thought of that poor old man.