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Little Backpack October 15, 2014

Posted by Marc Troeger in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

She gave me a smile and said hi as she sat down next to me at the bar.

I smiled back, twirling the wedding ring on my finger.  She seemed to be in her early 20s; attractive – a cute little hook-nose and bright blue eyes, dressed in jeans and a Washington Huskies hoodie.  Little pink earrings peaked out from her short, dark hair.

Many at the bar seemed to know her and called out her name “Hi, Stephanie!”  A few came up and gave her a hug.  One called out “Who’s your boyfriend sitting next to you?”  Stephanie giggled, covering her face.  The stool on her right was empty.  The stool on her left… was me.  I looked up confused and embarrassed.  Everyone at the bar gave me a friendly, affirmative smile.  The bar tender gave me a wink.

I travel most every week for my job.  I don’t like eating a “bag” dinner in my hotel room so, not being a big fan of “chain” restaurants, I seek out local pubs and restaurants for my nightly meals.  I usually end up sitting at a bar for my dinners as bar tenders can be a good dinner companion, whether I have a drink during my meal or not.

Tonight I chose a pub in a neighborhood a mile-or-so from my hotel.  It was simple and cozy.  Monday night football was playing quietly on the few TVs scattered around.  The bar was not too crowded- a friendly bunch of people, talking and laughing.  I found a seat and settled in.  A little later, Stephanie came in and sat next to me.

The bar tender brought Stephanie a big, purple crayon and paper place mat.  It was covered in games and puzzles.  Stephanie immediately went to work.

Intently, she focused on each and every puzzle, her tongue jutting out of the corner of her mouth.  Occasionally, a shock of hair dropped over her eyes.  She impatiently swiped at it as she continued to work away at the word phrases she was trying to solve.   Several times, someone would walk by, patting her on the back, offering words of encouragement.

Eventually, Stephanie solved all the puzzles on her paper place mat.  She raised her arms high in the air and shouted “Yeah!”  The bar, waiting, erupted in claps and cheers.  Stephanie beamed with joy.

“Her mom works next door at the Dollar General.” The bartender told me a few minutes later as he brought her an orange soda in a plastic cup.  The cup had a lid on top with a straw sticking out, little cartoon characters decorated the outside.  “Stephanie joins us when she finishes her volunteer work across the street.  We all look out for her when her mom works late on Mondays.”  “You’re in the lucky spot next to her tonight.  I can move you if you want.”

“No.” I said with a smile, “I’ll be fine.”  My dinner arrived and I began to eat.

For the next 10-15 minutes, people stopped by to say hi to Stephanie.  They asked how her mom was doing and wanted to know about her new job as a volunteer at the animal shelter.  Stephanie beamed as she told them about all the puppies and kittens she cared for.  She was especially excited to tell them of the mother cat who had recently given birth to 6 kittens.

As I was finishing my dinner, a woman came into the bar.  Several people greeted her as she approached. Stephanie jumped off her stool and threw her arms around her in a big hug.  “I finished the puzzles, mom!” She proudly exclaimed.

“That’s great, Steph!” her mom exclaimed.  “You are so good at those puzzles!”

Stephanie’s mom was middle aged – slightly overweight with a pile of bottle-blond hair curled on top of her head.  She wore simple tan, polyester slacks and a black collared shirt emblazoned with the “Dollar General” logo.  Her face was cheerful, though it showed a weariness that, surprisingly she wore with pride.  Her beauty showed through when she smiled- a smile she shared with Stephanie.

“I have a present for you.”  Her mom said as she sat on the stool next to her, placing a big, brown paper bag on the bar.

Stephanie’s eyes lit up in awe.  “Can I open it?” She asked.

“Of course!” her mom laughed.

With a giggle, Stephanie grabbed the bag and reached in, pulling out a bright, pink backpack covered in little blue and yellow butterflies.

As the brown paper bag drifted to the floor, the world in that little bar seemed to stop.  All eyes were on Stephanie.

Holding the pink backpack at arm’s length, she sat there stunned.  It was hard to describe her reaction.  It was the look a child would have if every amazing, magical moment happened at once, right before her eyes.  Utter joy at something so simple.

Around the bar, there was nothing but big grins on everyone’s faces and even a sparkle or two of a tear.  It was obvious they had seen this before.  And it seemed they couldn’t contain themselves as they saw it again.

Stephanie suddenly let out a squeal, jumped off her stool and began doing a little, twirly dance, all the while hugging her pink backpack tight.  “I love it!  I love it!”  She shouted.  She ran to her mom and gave her a big hug.

“Thank, you!  Momma!  It’s so pretty.  It’s such a cool backpack!  I love the butterflies!” Stephanie exclaimed.  She hugged it to her chest; eyes tightly closed a big, bright smile on her face.

Not to be selfish with her gift, Stephanie began running from person to person around the bar, showing everyone her pink backpack, pointing to all the little butterflies and the zippers and straps and pockets. “It’s so pretty!  I love it!” she kept telling everyone.

Eventually she made her way back to her stool and sat down hugging her pink backpack tight.  The colors matched the earrings she wore.

Looking over at me, she suddenly realized that I had not been included in her show-and-tell and moved closer to share her new treasure with me.  I felt honored to be included.

Stephanie showed me the butterflies.  I asked her how many there were.  She started counting and very soon lost track.  “There are too many to count!”  She exclaimed a bit amazed.

I asked her about all the pockets and zippers on her new backpack.  She proceeded to open them up and offered to let me help her explore.  I pointed out a place where she could keep her pens, and grabbed a pen off the bar and stuck it in the little pen pocket.  She giggled with excitement.  I pulled a business card out of my pocket and stuck it in a little clear pocket, showing her where she could keep her own cards and pictures.  She covered her mouth and laughed.  I found an old receipt and stuck it in another pocket.  Stephanie giggled even louder and clapped her hands.

The bar tender joined in handing me a stack of the puzzle place mats.  We tucked them into one of the bigger zippered pocket.  The purple crayon went in next along with a handful of bar coasters.  All at once, people up and down the bar were handing things pulled from pockets and purses.  A spoon made it next to the crayon.  A nail file fit into an empty spot along with a pack of chewing gum, a roll of mints, a plastic wrapped package of tissues, a tattered Washington Huskies mascot stuffed animal and even a few coins and dollar bills.  The little pink backpack began to bulge as more items were handed over to stuff into all its nooks and crannies.  Stephanie could hardly contain herself as she laughed and laughed, jumping off her stool, clapping her hands and doing her little, twirly dance.

It was when someone tried to stuff an old, tattered phone book into the backpack that Stephanie’s mom stepped in laughing.  “All right everyone!  That’s enough.  Thank you so much for adding all these treasures to Stephanie’s backpack.  With all this stuff, she won’t be able to carry the things she really needs in here!”

Everyone laughed and began returning to their drinks and conversations.

After a few minutes of talking with people around her, Stephanie’s mom turned to her. “Steph, sweetie, we need to go.  You have an early day at the animal shelter tomorrow and I have to open up the store in the morning.”

Without complaint, Stephanie grabbed her plastic cartoon cup of orange soda and finished it off with a slurp.  She grabbed her new backpack and slung it over her shoulder.  With a big smile, she went to each and every person sitting at the bar and offered big hugs.  I was not left out.

Hand-in-hand, Stephanie and her mom walked out the door waving.

As the door closed, the bar area became a bit quiet.  With smiling faces, there was a sudden need to stare into our drinks as everyone held onto the lingering echoes of laughter and squeals of joy.

Quietly, but so that all at the bar could hear, a voice spoke up “To that inner child in all of us.”  I looked up and many were raising their glasses.

I joined the toast and, with a little break in my voice added, “And to the one that sits beside us, too.”