The Fountain and the Youth

Lanie Jane was in the throes of a temper tantrum. We were in the middle of the mall. Right by the fountain. That fountain was built in the space between the ascending and descending escalators, or the escalators were built on either side of the fountain, or they were all built at the same time. I’m not keen on worrying too much about those kinds of details, particularly when recounting this particular moment, even though telling of them mirrors the long-windedness of her screaming fit, the howling rising up from my ankles responsible for coloring my ears bright red. I thought taking my niece to the mall while I was watching her wouldn’t have been too big an issue since I had to watch her most of the afternoon and I needed to pick up my paycheck from the video store and all. Clearly, I was wrong.

My sister never takes her to the mall, poising yours truly in the favorable position of being able to navigate the little munchkin away from the points of interest kids freak out around until their parents crack and let them in a shop where they’ll inevitably spend money. Unlike those parents, my sister runs a tight ship. Once, while we happened past the entrance of a street fair, I watched Lanie Jane start to whine when she eyed this guy making balloon animals. In one fell swoop, one icy glance from my sister popped each and every inflated notions in her daughter’s head before they could twist into a fully fledged idea that she might be skating out of there with a colorfully-formed wiener dog. Since the last time she was in the mall was long before she could remember, and since I knew my nerves were in no way as hardened as her mother’s and since Lanie Jane had already been awake about an hour longer than usual and the grump monster was likely to show itself if I didn’t get in and out of there as fast as I could, I’d meticulously planned the trip in my head. We took the most strategic route possible. Instead of using the west entrance, we entered through the most boring section of women’s clothing and perfume stands on the north department store side. Lanie Jane held her nose as I held my breath. Then we went down the first available stairs so she wouldn’t catch sight of one of the two toy stores and arcade lurking on either side of the upper level. We made it to the video store without incident. I was sure not to let go of here hand for fear that she’d scurry off to the kid’s section.

It was a quick stop because I just wanted my check and really don’t want to turn into one of those people who hang around their place of employment on their days off, not to mention having my niece, a ticking time bomb who needed to get back to my sister’s place so she could have a nap while I got caught up with my favorite television show, which I was already two weeks behind on. I’d grabbed the tape before I went out to pick up Lanie Jane. Her naptime was my only shot at watching the two hour-long episodes, minus the time I’d save fast-forwarding commercials, and I couldn’t see them at home since my VCR was in the shop. My sister’s was the only option since all my buddies had seen the episodes when it aired and wouldn’t have the patience to sit through them again without spoiling the experience for me. I had to wait a few minutes before Kelsey, the manager on duty, returned from the office with my check, during which time I lifted Lanie Jane up and introduced her to this girl Fran who was working the counter. Kelsey returned with the envelope, I put my niece down, folded and tucked it in my back pocket and was about on my way when Lanie Jane tugged at my pants and clammed her fingers repeatedly into each extended hand. I figured it’d work best to heed this universal “hold me” sigh, so I scooped her up and bid the store a farewell until tomorrow. I was home free.

Passing the fountain, just as we were about to turn and catch the escalator back to the upper level, I noticed Stewart Kurtz, a guy I used to play video games with in middle school, waving at me as he walked by. He motioned me to stop and immediately asked me if he knew the kid’s mom, which I recognized as Stew-humor and told him she’d left me high and dry for a pocket-protected software engineer. I clearly had no time to waste though, so I cut to the chase and told him Lanie Jane’s actual origin and how she was a newly budding limb on my family tree. Around then I heard a low, grumbling murmur coming from her and my heart rate quickened. It was then I realized the folly this Stewart Kurtz encounter had unintentionally caused. The edge of the fountain where we stood was directly below one of those really popular burger joints that gets kids hooked on their food from a young age by offering some cheap plastic toy in a little plastic bag tucked between the fries and chicken nugget boxes of this disposable lunch container. You know what I’m talking about. You may have even been, at one point in your life, exactly in the same spot as little Lanie Jane, staring at an adult from behind pink, bleary eyes as you wail about the injustice in the decision to that is keeping you oppressed, hungry, and without a new plaything. In America, even the most high-security parent is unable to keep their offspring from learning about these mealtime meccas. As soon as the wailing began, Stewart bolted. I put her down by the edge of the fountain and crouched as to get on her level and explain the situation. Oh, the naivety! She only went on louder and trembled more violently.

On a typical payday, I have no cash on my person. That day, as the screaming commanded each and every hair on the upper half of body to stand at attention, I reached in my pocket and pulled two miraculously rare singles from my wallet. I’d thrown tact out the window within the first minute of the scene. I knew I needed to buy her silence, otherwise the screaming would continue well beyond the car ride. It would replace any hope of a nap. My chance at remaining loyal to my show would be shot. Plus, more fluid than I thought possible was now oozing from my niece’s eyes, nose, and mouth, and I started to wonder if she might dehydrate on my watch. I needed to resort to guerilla tactics.

I didn’t wait to act on the first and most practical solution that appeared to me. In hindsight, my choice was by no stretch divine. I figured since it wasn’t likely all the wishes made upon those tossed coins would be fulfilled, they should at least turn the fate of one frustrated uncle and his unhappy niece. I only had to reach into the water four times before I had a sizable handful and what looked to be enough to supplement my two bills. I tossed my take in a pouch I made with my tee shirt. With my free hand, I hoisted blaring Lanie Jane up and double-timed it to the escalator. By the time we were in line and I ordered, my cotton shirt had absorbed the fountain water from the coins and I picked out the requisite amount to pay the visor-clad man behind the counter as he spoke my order into the microphone that stretched to his face on a coiled, metallic stem. Lanie Jane was still howling, as if she didn’t realize the strange events of the past five minutes were necessary and soon would appease her wishes. I could hardly hear anything the clerk was saying after I paid, since all I did from that point on was repeat to my little niece that we’d be in the car in no time, motioning myself driving and mimicking acceleration and gear shifting sounds. She finally quieted to a soft whimper and I was able to wipe the sacrilegious baptismal waters from her rosy face. When the order was ready, I scooped her up so I could make a hasty retreat to the car, grabbed the cardboard lunch pail, walked hurriedly past a display of sample toy offerings, and rushed to the parking lot.

Once buckled in the car seat, I put the box on Lanie Jane’s lap and let her tear it open. Her hand mined out the gem of the toy, that holy elixir to quell the most ravenous of tantrums. I waited in anticipation. As soon as she pulled it out, hope fled from the moment like the air flapping from a whoopee cushion squeezed directly in my face. It wasn’t long before the howling began again. This episode forwent any babbling buildup. Her lungs produced decibels that reached higher than I’d ever believed might come from such a small creature. My anxiety spiked and my eyes darted to the bagged toy she was shaking in frantic disapproval.

Inside was a small toy racecar, the likes of which comprised the left-hand column of the toy display of toys in the restaurant’s entrance. The one I’d so quickly darted past. The other half housed a lineup of skinny, plastic dolls, each donned blown-out hair, bracelets, and purses. It was the franchise’s attempt to appeal to good little boys and good little girls by offering gender-specific toys. Each clerk who sold a kid’s meal asked which toy the child desired, as not to stereotype the preference. My niece is fairly traditional when it comes to these things. If given the choice, would probably rather play with a doll than breathe, but the parking lot meltdown was no one’s fault but my own. In my final attempt to quiet Lanie Jane at the counter, I likely said “car” over 10 times, getting her to calm down by pretending I was driving one. It had been the answer the clerk was looking for, but the farthest from what my little niece had expressed a desire for with that fountain side scene.

Had I taken notice to the display, been aware of how I’d answered the clerk’s unheard question, or never reached into the fountain’s chilly water for the unearned loot in the first place, I likely wouldn’t have been pulling my car out of the mall parking lot wailing in frustration even louder than little Lanie Jane. Remarkably, my genuine yowls of defeat are what it took to still her, make her grin, and conk her out.

I love that little girl to death, but how sweet it is knowing my sister permanently holds the other end of that child’s tether.

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