I took a final gurgling slurp through my straw, balled up the empty hamburger wrapper and gathered trash as I stood to leave. That’s when I heard the little boy at the next table.
“No more chicken nuggets? I’m still hungry.”
As he asked, he and his little sister opened and shut the empty containers several times as if to verify their mother’s response when she answered “All gone.” The sight of two hungry kids looking earnestly between empty containers and their mother’s face almost made me ill. Memories have power. Even mine, some twenty years later.
My kids, then four and five, had just finished their own chicken nuggets. They were happily playing with the meal’s tiny toy when my daughter stopped and looked at me.
“No more chicken nuggets?”
Those were bleak years for me. A divorce, a lay-off, rent payment, car payment, and everyday bills made life challenging. Unfortunately, maybe fortunately, the kids and I frequented this fast food restaurant once a week. They occasionally saw friends there and always wanted chicken nuggets. They had stopped asking for sundaes. I was glad. I’d run out of excuses as to why they couldn’t have them. Never mentioning what they’d not have understood – money was tight. They looked forward to this outing and the same elderly cashier greeted us each time, always playfully interacting with them.
“No more chicken nuggets?” I heard her little voice repeat.
I had absolutely no cash and no other way to pay, but I remembered spare change in the car. Out we went. The kids stood behind me as I leaned inside to gather coins. There were fewer than I remembered, but was thrilled to find a total of fifty-six cents. Two quarters, a nickel, and a penny impossibly stuck to an old gummy bear. Money just the same.
Back at the table, I left the kids to their sodas while I went to the counter. Embarrassing! But my feelings of shame were overpowered by the desire to hand my kids more nuggets after watching them peer longingly into empty boxes. I guess it was symbolic. They wanted something. I should be able to give it to them.
The same elderly cashier greeted me. I pointed to the kids and told her they wanted more nuggets. My face turned red as I confessed I only had fifty-six cents, but would be happy to take what she could give me for that amount. If I went back to the table with at least one nugget each they might be happy. Next time I’d get sundaes too, I thought, trying to feel better about my parental failure.
I handed over the coins, apologized for the gummy bear remains I couldn’t totally pick off, and waited for her ridicule.
Instead, she took my offering, said nothing, but walked to the back behind large stainless steel shelves. In seconds she returned, smiled, and handed me a small bag. Relief! When I took the bag, something seemed odd. I opened it.
I had hoped for two chicken nuggets. What I got was a container crammed full of at least a dozen. No words came to me as I looked at the kindly cashier. I was stuttering a lame explanation for my situation when she shook her head and held up one hand to stop me.
She shrugged it off. “Sometimes it be like that.” She said, and went on her way.
Back at the table I opened the bag, spread out a dozen nuggets, and heard my kids squeal. At the bottom of the bag were two quarters, a nickel, and a penny miraculously freed from the remnants of an old gummy bear.
That entire memory was a sad, happy, emotional one of times and circumstances now long gone.
The elderly cashier knew nuggets wouldn’t solve everything for me, but she also seemed to know from experience how a small gesture with a large meaning might help me through a very low moment.
I snapped back to reality hearing the little boy’s voice at the next table.
“No more chicken nuggets? I’m still hungry.” He and his little sister continued to open and shut the empty containers as if to will a few more to appear.
I don’t remember every detail of my bleak times decades ago, but I do remember the helpless feeling and silent frantic search for a few more pennies when your kids ask for something as simple as a chicken nugget and you just can’t do it. That silent frantic search was going on at the next table as the mother poked and prodded every nook and cranny of her purse.
I knew what she was feeling.
Tossing my trash into the can, I stopped at the counter and spoke with the young girl at the register.
“When I leave, can you take two orders of chicken nuggets to that table?” I motioned behind me at the mother who had moved on to pants pockets in her search. The cashier nodded yes.
“Oh, and three sundaes too.” I added.
Puzzled, she rang up my order and handed me the receipt, her expression clearly asking what was going on with the woman at the table.
I shrugged it off. “Sometimes it be like that.” I said, and went on my way.
I knew nuggets and sundaes wouldn’t solve everything for her, but I also knew from experience how a small gesture with a large meaning might help her through a very low moment.
On a related note: The few times in life I’ve felt I did a “good deed” I think of and give credit to my grandmother, Nannie. She always said “When you see a need, fill it, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.” In conversation she’d go on to say if you can’t do a lot, do a little, because to someone else your little could be a lot.
Stuart M. Perkins