Story With a Murky Moral

I am the Queen of Thrift. During times of high stress, I find myself relaxing at the thrift store every other day. There's something incredibly freeing about a couple of hours in an environment where the biggest decision I have to make is, "Is this sweater really worth three dollars?"

The Goodwill's been especially good to me. First of all, it accepts about a bag a week of our clothes, toys, and household miscellany of waning usefulness (although my husband, John, did recently get a stern lecture during a drop-off: "Hey! You can't leave this here [referring to a two-drawer oak filing cabinet that needed some glue]. Why does everyone bring us their junk? You're supposed to bring stuff you'd give your own mother. Would you give this to your mother?").

Second of all, I've scored some really nice bargains at Goodwill. Like the two beautiful oak library chairs in my study, ten bucks a pop. Or the sweet, carved wooden bookshelf in Lillie's room. Or the hundreds of dollars worth of clothing I've purchased there over the years. Or the fourteen tins I found there to fill with gingerbread for friends and neighbors--and the big stash of lovely hand-painted canvas bags--washable watercolors of cardinals, chickadees, pine trees, and hens--all brand-new with their ribbon-tied tags, and only a dollar apiece. What sweet presents to stash away for little girls and boys.

So you can understand what brought me to the Goodwill not long ago in the middle of the afternoon with my two youngest children.

I'm blissfully preoccupied with the rack of children's coats and Lillie's buried in a pile of children's shoes over to my right; Max is within earshot a few aisles away poking through the lamps and small electronics. I barely notice the middle-aged guy a couple of racks over who is apparently looking for a coat for the blond-headed toddler in his cart. Until he starts up a conversation with me. "Gosh, this little one really likes to play outside," he says. "But it's getting cold out there. I've got to get her a coat so she can run around in the yard."

"Umm hmmm," I answer absently as I negotiate my way out of buying the obnoxious neon-colored polypropylene super hero slippers for Lillie.

"Maybe this one will work. Let's try this one," he says to the little girl. (I'll call her "Ashley"). "What do you think, Ashley, does this one fit? Hey, you're a mom, does this one look like it fits?" he gestures over to me.

I appraise the child. "Well . . ." I say, taking in the light blue nylon jacket squeezed around her shoulders and riding up on her tiny midriff. "I think it's a little tight."

"Yes, maybe it's a little tight, isn't it Ashley? But I think it's going to have to do. Her mother took off for the afternoon, and now I've got her, and she loves to be outside, really loves to be outside. But it's getting colder now, it's getting so you've got to have a coat.

For the first time, I really see this man fumbling with the child in the too-tight coat. For the first time, I really listen to what he's saying. It is December. As balmy as it's been, of course a child needs a coat to be outside.

Suddenly, Ashley bolts. The man runs after her and catches her by the arm; he squeezes her back into the seat of the cart. "No, no, no, you have to stay in the cart, Ashley. You have to stay in the cart." Turning to me, he says, "She likes to run away. Gosh, she just runs away. I've got to keep her in the cart--don't I, Ashley? But I have to find you a coat so you can be outside. Maybe this one is too tight . . . "

All at once, my attention is no longer grudgingly divided between this social customer and my shoe-shopping daughter and the rack of children's coats. My attention is no longer divided at all--I cannot stop watching this man and the little girl--his granddaughter? What if the child doesn't belong with him? What brings that unwelcome thought into my mind? This has never before occurred to me about anyone else, and this man looks as normal as could be. But don't they always say child abductors look just like everybody else? My first instinct is to gather up my children and leave the store as quickly as possible.

"Come on, Lillie," I say. "Let's go. Let's find Max. We're going home."

"You live near here?" the man asks.

"A couple of miles," I say. Then I decide not to dash so quickly. If something is truly wrong, shouldn't I try to find out more? "How about you? Do you live near here?" I'm thinking maybe he'll name a familiar street or nearby neighborhood--something concrete to make my crazy suspicion dissolve.  

"Oh . . . in the area," he sort of stammers. Ashley squirms in the cart.

"Is that your granddaughter, then?" I blurt out.

"Oh, no, she's my daughter. Youngest of ten," he says with a muffled laugh.

"Really?" I ask. "Wow. Ten kids! I'd think . . . I'm surprised she doesn't have pile of siblings' coats at home she could wear."

"Oh, yes, usually we would. But they're all--well, right now they're all packed away. You know, just packed away."

Packed away! Every coat in the house, packed away? And where is Max, anyway?

"Max! Max! Where are you?" I call out toward the lamps. "Come on, Lillie, we're going, right now!" I scoop her up and track down Max, all the way at the front of the store near the holiday decorations, right where anybody at all could . . .

"Come on, Max. We're getting in line right now, and you have to stay right by my side. Do you hear me? Right by my side."

"Mom! I was looking at that stuff!"

"I know. But now you're standing by me."

As timing would have it, Ashley and her her so-called dad fall into line right behind us, with Ashley sporting a much more comfortable-looking jean coat in lieu of the tight nylon number. The man continues to give me information about how his wife has gone down to the Holidazzle parade with the rest of the kids (the Holidazzle parade? That wouldn't be starting for another several hours!) and he just had to get Ashley a coat so she could get outside, because she sure loves to be outside.

Yeah, right, I think. I believe you . . . as long as you're driving a car full of car seats and plush toys and empty graham-cracker boxes.

We head out to the parking lot simultaneously; he's parked near the door--a tiny little two passenger pick-up truck, with no car seat. Ten kids? No car seat? As he sets Ashley down on the pavement to unlock the truck door, she bolts again. He grabs her by the arm and says, "No!" Then he puts her in the truck and shuts the door. I walk up close enough to get a good look at the license plate. When our eyes meet as he opens the driver's door, I want him to suddenly say or do something to make me realize I am being totally ridiculous. But he doesn't. So I sputter, "Uh, you don't have a car seat."

"It . . . it's in my wife's car. This is just a short drive, but still, it's not too safe. I wouldn't recommend it."

As he starts the engine, I walk back into the store and grab a manager, tell him my darkest fears, write down the license number, and call the police.

"I hope I'm wasting your time and making an idiot out of myself," I tell the officers when they arrive. "This has never happened to me, but I just couldn't shake this feeling, and if I didn't call, and something was actually wrong . . . "

"It's never a waste of time," they assure me as they take down my disjointed story. When we're through, they thank me, and I go home.

Later that evening as I paint woodwork in our upstairs hallway, the phone rings. It's Officer Jones--calling to tell me that he and his partner tracked down the guy from the Goodwill.

He actually is the father of ten kids, and Ashley is one of them. I am instantly overcome with relief. Next, I am filled with horror for what I have done to this innocent dad. Never mind that thousands of children are abducted in the United States every year. Never mind that according to Mayo Clinic research, seventy-two percent of parents fear that their child will be abducted by a stranger. And never mind that according to a study conducted by the Washington State Attorney General's office, "Timing is critical both in reporting a missing child and in initiating police investigations. Quick action on both counts may save a child's life and improve the probability of apprehending the kidnapper." Never mind all that now. I am a paranoid lunatic with an overactive imagination and this guy must hate me--and rightfully so.

But Officer Jones is still talking. He's saying, "Ashley's father asked us to thank you for calling. After all, he's got ten kids. He wouldn't want anyone to ignore anything that could possibly be a dangerous situation for a child."  

Well, thanks, Ashley's dad. And my heartfelt apologies for this most terrible misunderstanding. Maybe we'll bump into each other again sometime over the children's coats at the Goodwill. With any luck, I'll go unrecognized by you, but believe me, this time, I'll know exactly who you are.

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