From the cart corral I watch them. Lined up out front, impatiently waiting their turn. Pushing, shoving, pulling pig tails, shirt tails. Their equally impatient parents (mostly mothers) moving them along, picking them up, putting them into the hard plastic seats, stuffing the coins into the slot, watching their boys or girls gyrate for a minute or two and then pulling them out and leading them back to the car.
I’m not far away but they don’t pay me any attention, they’re too busy waiting to board the train or plane or covered wagon. And they never want to share. Even the rides – like the covered wagon – that are meant for two, they only ride one at a time. That’s because the older brothers and sisters never want to ride with their younger siblings. So after the older kid is done, Mom has to dig around the bottom of her purse for a few more coins while the little kid waits their turn. And the longer Mom takes the more upset the kid gets; the excitement of being a few feet off the ground quickly fades. And just as their face gets red and tears are about to start, Mom usually finds another quarter.
I’ve never gotten a turn on any of the supermarket rides. My Mom says they’re a waste of time but more importantly, a waste of money. She says when we barely have enough for food the last thing I should be thinking about is a stupid ride outside the grocery store. Mom says those rides – even the ones that are only 25 cents – are meant for rich kids. Kids who wear new jackets every year and not older brother hand-me-downs. Kids who walk around the store with a candy bar or cookie sticking out of their mouth and not grapes that Mom says are free if you eat them quickly enough.
So I’ve never gotten to ride, but I still come here to watch. When Mom thinks I’m playing on the old playground in the backyard, I come here. And last week I actually almost got a turn. It happened when a mother and her son came out of the store.
“Mom, lemme ride the train,” the small, chubby boy said.
“Okay, honey, climb up.”
The boy hopped up into the blue train as his equally-chubby mother searched for change. Once the money was in nothing happened.
“Uh, I don’t think it’s working, Brian.”
“C’mon, Mom,” Brian said, now starting to whine, “Make it go.”
She put in another quarter but still nothing happened. She shook her head.
“It’s not working, Brian. C’mon, let’s go.”
“Hey,” she said, pulling a box of cookies from one shopping bag. “Once we’re in the car, you can have some cookies, how’s that sound?”
Brian grinned and jumped down from the train and followed his mother out into the parking lot.
I was just about to turn and head home when I saw the train start moving. I couldn’t believe it at first and took a step towards the store, but then I stopped, thinking
Brian and his mother might come back. I glanced their way but they were already halfway across the lot. I smiled and bolted towards the train.
This is it, I thought; finally, I’ll get to ride. But when I raised one tight blue sneaker up to the step, the train suddenly stopped. I almost climbed in anyway, thinking it might start up again, but after noticing a tall man in a red vest looking at me through the window – a familiar “do you belong here?” look – I quickly turned and walked home.
I don’t have any money, I never have any money. Mom says any money I get – from Grandma (even though we don’t see her much anymore) or anywhere – I’m supposed to give to her. She says everything, even pennies, count.
The line is thinning out now, only a man and a little blonde girl are left. She reaches her hands up and he lifts her into the gray airplane. She giggles as the plane slowly moves up and down and when it stops, the man lifts her out and they go on their way.
With no one left to look at, I stare at the rides for another minute and then turn and head for home. I notice my shoe is untied and crouch down to tie it. That’s when I see it, right near the overflowing garbage can: an old, brown quarter. That’s probably why no one’s noticed it; it blended in with the dirt around the can. I stand up and look around and then quickly lean down and grab it.
Mom will be happy. As she puts it into her special jar, the one she keeps locked in the closet, she’ll say how every little bit helps, how much closer this will get us to our own house and out of the cramped apartment.
I start walking home – the apartment building is just across the street. But after a moment I stop and stare at the quarter. How would Mom know I had it? There’s no way she could know, could she? I gaze at our apartment – it’s the second one up on the right.
Could she be looking at me right now? I freeze. No, I’m sure she’s still sleeping like she was when I left. She’d never know. I could go and put this quarter into one of those rides and she’d never know. I smile. I feel as happy as I did last week when I almost got to ride. But this feels different. This time it’s my quarter, I won’t have to rely on someone else, this will be my ride.
After another glance at the apartment window, I turn and head back to the store.
The only question now is which ride to pick. The covered wagon is out because that takes two quarters, so my choice is either the train or the plane. They’re both pretty good. The train shakes a little and goes back and forth on a little track. The plane tilts slightly and moves up and down.
It’s a tough decision, mostly because this could be my only chance to ever get to do it. Finally, after a couple more minutes of thinking, I decide on the train; it might not be as fun as the plane but I’ve noticed the ride is twelve seconds longer.
When I climb up into the seat, I feel as if I’m on a throne. I look around at the cars, stray carts, light posts as if they are my subjects. I rule over them. I reach into my pocket for the quarter. It’s not there. I dig deeper thinking it might have slipped to the bottom. Still nothing. Didn’t I just have it? I just had it! I check my other pocket and after a painful moment finally feel the cool circle of metal.
Carefully, I put the coin into the slot and sit back. Nothing happens.
Remembering the delay last week, I sit and wait. But still nothing’s going on. Why did I pick this one? With the plane right here, why did I pick the stupid train?!
I hit the coin return button but besides a hollow clunk, there’s nothing. I glance into the store. Another person in a red vest – this time a fat woman – is glaring at me; I only have a second to prove I should be on this ride. Just as I feel that familiar stinging sensation behind my eyes, the train jerks forward. I relax and sit back, but after a couple of seconds it stops again.
I’m going to scream or cry or both but then finally – finally – it starts moving.
My heart stops pounding and I grin as I’m pushed back and forth along the track. I it’s not going fast but it feels fast, like I’m on a train – a real train – zooming across a field or over a mountain. After a moment I start laughing, then I raise my arms and cheer loudly, I can’t help it. A man walking his dog on the sidewalk gives me a funny look but I don’t care.
After the ride is over – it somehow seemed very long and very short at the same time – I linger for a minute and then step down. Suddenly the doors open and another mother and son emerge from the store. The mother’s brown hair is messy and she looks angry. The son has what looks like chocolate around his mouth.
“Mom, can I go on one of the rides? Please?”
“No, not today.”
“Please, Mom! Please?”
“No, Michael, come on!”
She grabs him roughly by the arm and they disappear around the corner.
I smile as I head home and search the parking lot for another quarter. This one I’ll give to Mom.