The little girl burst into tears.
“But I never get to play the games I want!” she wailed. “Tommy gets to play in his room, but I don’t have any games. Can’t I ple-e-ease play in the living room?”
“No, Madeline!” Selena snapped, searching in her bag for the wad of bills that she was sure she had thrown in there. “Don, where’s the change?” she asked her husband irritably. “Didn’t I put it in my purse?”
“I don’t know,” Don answered. He picked up Madeline and pushed her hair away from her face. “Did you put it in the bag with the food?”
“Why would I do that?” she barked, scowling, still rummaging in the bag with increasing agitation. “It was, like, twenty dollars!” she complained. “Madeline!” She turned and glared at the girl, who was still wailing. “Stop that! You know I don’t like playing games in the living room; there’s not enough room. Everything’ll get knocked over.”
“Can’t we just move the furniture back?” Tom asked, rolling his eyes. “What’s in the living room that’s so important? It’s all just weird stuff from a long time ago.”
Don reached out and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You know that’s stuff that Grandma left for Mommy. It’s all she has left.”
Madeline kicked a foot out at her brother. “Yeah,” she said. “Don’t say mean stuff about Grandma!”
“It’s not Grandma!” Tom protested. “She told Mom to get rid of it!”
Selena felt close to tears; they swam in her eyes. “How can you be so cruel!” she hissed at her son. “Don’t you want me to remember my mother?”
“You’re not going to forget her!” Tom argued. “Plus you’ve got photos and home movies. It’s creepy to have all that stuff when she’s gone now.” He pushed his sister’s foot away from him. “We can’t ever just relax and enjoy anything. Jim’s family just enjoys things! Why can’t we be like them? His mom doesn’t get so upset all the time!”
Don looked distinctly alarmed. “Tommy, don’t talk to your mother that way,” he said firmly, hoping that Selena wouldn’t let this upset her any more than it already had. “Our house is good enough. Not everyone is the same.”
“But we’re not even normal!” Tom shouted. “We don’t even get to just sit and watch TV without a whole bunch of weird rules!”
Selena began to cry, and to feel both anger and a strong anxiety. “I can’t believe you’re comparing me like that,” she said in hurt tones. “I guess since it’s such a big deal, we’ll just get rid of all the game systems, and the TV, and everything else! Then maybe you’ll learn to appreciate things!”
Don, praying that she could be talked down from this plan, tried to put his arm around her, but she brushed it away. She dropped her bag on the ground in frustration, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I must have put the money in the bag with the food,” she decided in despair. “The bag we just pulled all the food out of and threw away!” She looked down the street, toward the alley dumpster they had passed on their way back to the car. “Why couldn’t we just eat it at home?” she asked, as though this oversight were her family’s fault. “Now I have to climb into a dumpster!”
“I’ll do it,” Don said. “I’m taller anyway.” He headed toward the dumpster, but Selena pulled him back.
“No,” she said glumly. “It was my fault; I’ll do it.” She stalked away from her family and over to the dumpster. It was as tall as she was, but there were some boxes beside it … she stopped abruptly, staring into the alley.
A man stood there. He had just pulled the used sack out of the dumpster; he had two french fries hanging out of his mouth, and in his hand – a gnarled and dirty hand with a worn-out glove wrapped around it – he held the wad of bills that she had carelessly thrown out. His clothes were filthy and full of holes, and all of them added together didn’t seem like enough to keep him warm. His eyes as he gazed in absolute awe and gratitude at the handful of cash were lit up as though he held a million dollars instead of twenty. He had already felt fortunate to have found the discarded fries.
Selena blinked at him for a moment in silence. Then, as a thousand emotions passed through her heart, she felt the anxiety and anger melt away from her. What the hell have I been doing? she asked herself. What the hell is wrong with me?
She turned back to her family waiting for her on the sidewalk, all of them looking resigned and none of them looking happy. “It’s gone,” she said. She put her arm around Tom’s shoulders. “Let’s go home,” she went on, her tone somber but pleasant. “We can push the furniture out of the way, and we can all play games. ‘Kay?”
The others stared at her in apparent confusion. “Really?” Madeline asked, her eyes filling with hope. “We can all play in the living room?”
“Yeah,” Selena said with a small smile. She didn’t say how ridiculous it sounded to her now, to have been doing things the way she had been doing them; she didn’t reveal how stupid and horrible she felt about it. “But I’m probably just going to watch, ‘cause I’m going to start sorting that extra stuff and getting rid of it. It’s time, I think, and other people could probably really use it.”
“Really?” Don asked. “What –?” He looked behind him toward the alley. “What happened back there?” He was staring at her as though he had never seen her before.
She took his hand. Everything, she thought. “Nothing,” she said. “Let’s find the car and go home.”