“What,” the old man behind me snorts, “did you knock up your girlfriend?”
Scowling, I turn away and grab a few jars of baby food.
“Easy kid,” he pats my shoulder.
I shrug him off.
“Junior, it’s okay. We’ve all been there.”
“You don’t know anything about where I’ve been.”
The old man sighs and runs his hand through what little hair he has left.
“Why are you even talking to me? Shouldn’t you be loading up on denture supplies?”
He gives me a toothy grin. “Don’t be a punk.”
I walk a few steps and debate throwing a stuffed bear into my cart.
“You have the same look I had on my face at your age,” the man says. “How old is the baby?”
“First time father?”
I put the bear into the cart and keep walking. Why won’t he leave me alone?
“Of course you are.”
His eyebrows shoot into his invisible hairline and I roll my eyes.
“How many are there?”
“What business is it of yours?”
He shrugs. “Gossip is the only business a retired people have, or so my wife tells me.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Doesn’t that make you more of a hen than a rooster?”
“Son, when you’ve been married as long as I have been, you learn to love gossip. Either that or you pierce your eardrums.” He turns up his palms. “And I’ve never liked needles.”
“How old is the other child?”
His eyes widen. “Older than you look, are you?”
I shake my head. “Not really.”
He walks with me as I pick up diapers and formula.
“What’s the mother’s name?”
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” I fight a smile, seeing him try to do the math. “I was twelve,” I say helpfully, “when she got pregnant with the older one.”
“How old was she?”
We turn the corner into the toy isle and I swallow seeing the prices. I pick up an action figure. “Pierce would love this.”
“Is that the five year old?”
“Yeah. Spider Man is his favorite.”
“Good man.” He says with approval.
“What’s the baby’s name?”
“Grace.” I smile without meaning to. “She has her grandmother’s blue eyes. She’s a sweetie.” I cough as my eyes start to water.
“I have two girls.” The old man says. “There isn’t anything that will steal a man’s heart quite like a daughter.”
I put the action figure into the cart. “How old were you when they were born?”
“Sixteen the first time around and nineteen the second.” He scratches his chin. “You know, I’m glad teen parents are treated better now than they were in my day, but I’m still sad when I see a crib bought before a ring.”
“Would you change what you did if you could go back?”
He thinks for a minute. “No. But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad over it. We had to give the first one up.” He swallows. “But I’m sure, wherever she is, her life is better for the decision we made. There’s a part of me that’s always scared she grew up believing we didn’t want her, though.”
“Did you?” My stomach tightens.
“We wanted her more than anything.”
We walk to the dairy aisle in silence and I pick up a gallon of milk. “I’ll never understand why people give away their kids.”
“We couldn’t feed her.” He says, looking at his withered hands. “Being unwed was a black eye in those days and what her daddy didn’t own in town, my daddy did.”
My knuckles whiten, my shoulders tensing as I grip the cart. “Why didn’t you fight for your kid?”
He squeezes my shoulder.
I feel myself blushing and turn away. Pushing my cart faster I put some space between us.
“Your kids are blessed to have you,” he says. I hear him huffing the longer he tries to keep up with me.
Why won’t this guy leave me alone? Taking a deep breath, I slow down. ”Look,” I say, stopping so he can catch up, “I know you’re lonely, but I have to check out.”
“Then I’ll walk with you. I’m on my way out too.”
Rolling my eyes, I give up and let him walk with me. I offer to let him checkout first, but he refuses.
I pull out my wallet and watch the total climb higher and higher. I gulp and begin to sweat.
If that stupid old man hadn’t been talking to me I could have kept a better eye on the prices.
“You total is $45.50. Will that be cash or charge?”
I rifle through my wallet, my hands shaking as Grace’s hungry cries ring in my mind. I hand her a twenty and two fives. “Hold on,” I say, digging through my pockets. My heart beats faster and faster, the line building up behind me.
“Sir?” She says.
“Here,” says the old man handing her the remaining $15.50.
I go to stop him but the old man simply raises his hand.
I help him carry his groceries to his car. I don’t know how else to thank him.
“Son,” he says after a moment, “I wasn’t half the man you are at seventeen. I don’t know where you’ve been, and I don’t know where you’re going, but I do know you’re hurting. You wanted to know why I stopped to talk to you, and that’s it. I recognized the anger on your face. You bluff and huff, but in here,” he pokes my chest, “there’s a lot of love that those two kids need.”
Shaking his hand, I thank him.
Checking my watch, I press the gas pedal. Mary will be home soon.
As the sun begins to dip below the roof-line, I turn onto her street. Pierce is waiting for me on the porch, like he has been every other week for the past two months.
“Hi, Harold.” He grins, showing me his missing tooth.
I scratch his head. “Is your mom home yet?”
“Is your nana in there?”
“Yep. Do you want me to get her?”
I grab his sleeve as he turns to run. “Maybe next time, buddy.” I put the groceries beside him. “Wait until I’m gone, and then help her bring this stuff inside, okay?”
“You’re leaving again?”
His big brown eyes are enough to melt me. “I have to, pal.”
“Can I tell Mommy yet?”
I give his head another scratch and get back into my car. As I shut the door, my heart stops. In the rear-view I see Mary peddling up on her bike. I slip down into my seat and study her reflection. The dark bags under her eyes from double and triple shifts at the diner make her look way older than she is. I hope the groceries will help them get through the month.
Pierce jumps up and down in the driveway and she smiles. I see the dimple I inherited from her and it makes my heart ache. Why am I so scared to introduce myself to my own mother?
Thank you all so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this story. Have a question you’d like to ask Harold? Leave it in a comment below and I’ll be sure to include it in my next character interview.