He was a kid. A towhead. Pale skin, with more freckles than a spilled pepper shaker. I could tell he was lost by the way he was anxiously sucking on his fingers.
I could relate, I was a lifelong thumbsucker. Thumb sucking was a childhood habit that screwed up the growth of my two front incisors. As a boy, whenever I wept, I would suck my thumb until my front teeth were sore.
Sometimes, even at this age, when the Atlanta Braves’ pitching staff has a bad night, my front teeth ache.
I saw the boy wander from aisle to aisle wearing the noticeable expression of fear on his face.
Then I started noticing how enormous this store must seem to a little pair of eyes. Remember how everything seemed bigger when you were little? Remember your huge school gymnasium was? Or your enormous childhood bedroom? And remember how, years later, when you revisited those places as a middle-aged taxpayer, you kept bumping your head on the ceilings?
This big-box hardware store must have seemed like Siberia to the kid.
I approached the boy.
“Hi,” I said.
No response. He took two steps backward.
The last thing I wanted was to scare him more. Kids today are more jumpy than children of my generation. When I was a boy, we played with pocketknives, walked to kindergarten alone, and ate gluten. Today kids are more cautious.
“Are you lost?” I said gently.
He sucked his fingers.
“Where are your parents?”
He just looked at me.
“Are you here with your mom? Your dad? Can you tell me their names?”
The kid took another step backward. He looked like he wanted to bolt.
I could see I was going to have to change my approach.
I took a knee. I told him my name and did my best Joe Friday voice. “It’s okay. I’m here to help, son.”
He said nothing.
“If you can tell me who you’re looking for, I’ll go find them.”
“Look. You don’t have to come with me, you don’t have to do anything but wait here. Just tell me what your parents look like and give me a name.”
This was going nowhere. So I started to leave. I figured I would fetch an employee or at least a capable manager.
I turned to walk away but heard a little voice behind me say, “My mom has yellow hair.”
“You mean she’s a blonde?”
“Well. Her hair is yellow.”
God love him. My mother went through a bottle-blond phase, too. Good times.
“What else can you tell me about your mom?”
“Um. She likes Justin Timberlake.”
“How about something a little more visual?”
“She, um, has on shorts, and um, purple kinda socks.”
Yellow hair, purple socks. Timberlake fan. Got it.
I told the kid to wait by the wingnuts and rubber grommets and under no circumstances was he to leave this place. Not even if former members of the boy band NSYNC came around.
So I conducted some highly professional parent-finding and started scanning the aisles. I began in the home-and-garden section and worked my way to the plumbing aisle. I combed through the appliances, closet-organizers, and the septillions of LED light fixtures.
I located one dishwater blonde, but she wasn’t wearing purple socks, just flip flops and jeans with pre-ripped holes in them.
I ran into another lady, light blond hair, wearing a shirt with a picture of a pug on it. But she looked old enough to have a single-digit Social Security number.
I looked for nearly 15 minutes until I made it to the end of the store near the lumber department. There, I saw a young woman with cropped bleached hair and lavender socks.
“Ma’am,” I called out.
She turned to face me. I could see that her cheeks were wet and her mascara was running like Alice Cooper after a long night.
“Ma’am, pardon me, but are you looking for your—”
I never got the full sentence out.
In seconds we were making a brief jaunt across the ginormous store, half-jogging through oceans of sink faucets, burnished bronze door handles, particle-board bookshelves, faux wood-grain ceramic tile displays, throwback ‘60s lampshades, high-tech vacuum displays, and energy efficient refrigerators that connect to the internet and remind you to recycle.
When we reached the woman’s son, a lot of happy crying ensued. A lot of hugging, too. There were a lot of “Don’t you ever do that to me agains” and lots of “Mom, I’m sorrys.”
And I don’t care how old I get, when I see the purity of a mother’s love like this, it still makes my nose run and my front teeth sore.