This may surprise you to hear: a lot of those wagon trains to the West lost their children. Not just to attacks, accidents, cholera, or smallpox. They left their children behind, or, the buckboard bounced a child out and nobody noticed. They had the prairie version of road hypnotism. Or driving oxen under the influence. Or exhaustion and anxiety.
Now that you know about my store's no-babysitting policy . . . . previous post . . .
A clerk in the children's department came to find me one evening. "I've got this kid who's been reading for hours," she told me. "Nobody comes to check on him."
"Is he causing trouble?" I ask.
"No no, he's just read a whole bunch of books," she said. "I've been watching him and sometimes he goes outside. Then he comes back in to read another book." She was totally worried. "He was here at three when I got here."
It's now nine-thirty p.m.
We go into the children's department. The clerk was really good. She'd already learned his name and so she introduced me. Rather than stand up over him, I sat down at the kid's table. He's about ten years old, a serious boy.
"So, Travis, do you know where your parents are?"
He shrugs. "No."
"Okay. What have you had to eat today?"
He shrugs again. He's not moving from the chair, I can see that. I can see he's pretty much holding onto books and his composure, and that's a lot. I turn to the clerk.
"Get a chicken sandwich from the cafe and tell them I'll stop by there later." We don't have a lot of nutritious stuff. "What do you want to drink?"
A soda. Okay. She leaves and I turn back to Travis.
"Tell me about it."
He tells me, not in so many words, but his parents are on the lam from Florida. The whole car of family were stopped in our parking lot to sleep for awhile. Travis woke up, he went into the store because he wanted to read and not disturb anyone asleep. They took off without him.
"But I think they'll be back," he says.
I nod. "When did you notice they had left?"
He doesn't want to say. Early afternoon. Oh shit, they're not coming back.
I think about taking him home, brief fantasy, but no. All I can give him is the level.
"Travis, the store closes at eleven. There's no place for you to go after that if they don't make it back by then." I clear my throat. "I'm going to call the police. That way, your parents will be able to find you if they come back."
Neither of us say the police are the last people his parents want to talk to.
The clerk returns with the food. She agrees to watch over him a little more. My department head on duty is good, she's already got the crew rocking and rolling on clean-up. I go call the police. I pay for the sandwich. The entire cafe staff is now worried about this boy. They want to do something, do more. I kill their brief fantasy just as I squashed mine.
The police come: one male, one female. They get a description of the car, maybe even a license plate, names, circumstances. They tell Travis he has to go to juvie now. The clerk comes to get me. They need me to unlock the door.
He's leaving. I'm lost somehow. I say, "Good luck, Travis."
He doesn't know how to take it, any better than I knew how to offer it.
The police woman says, "Say thank you." She made it right for me.
Travis says, "Thank you," right before he heads to his fate.
I lock up behind them.