Almond Joy

by Cristina Chopalli

I see her as I drive into the grocery store’s parking lot.

Hungry. No food. Please help.

A woman balances atop the lot’s concrete curb, biceps taut, a handwritten sign held above her head.

A toddler rides the woman’s hip. His fingers curl into the sweaty T-shirt across her breasts.

I slow my car.

Behind the woman, near a dried patch of grass, four young girls push dirt with bare feet. Stray bits of hair stick to their faces. Their cheeks flush with heat, eyes empty. Gaze concerned of nothing. The dirt. The grass. The occasional glance at a luxury sedan streaking across this suburban, Illinois, shopping complex.

Seven years ago, after we were married, my husband and I moved to Chicago.

I had never lived in a city.

I witnessed the homeless in myriad situations.

Homeless sat outside Union Station corralling puppies or kittens. Homeless handed out resumes and talked of the work they could not find. The clean-cut kid who said he just-needed-five-dollars to take a train home. The woman who cried, "Help me! Oh, God, help me!" outside Dunkin’ Donuts, so I bought her a donut and a milk, and having handed it to her, had to make a run for it. She hissed like a cat and clawed at me, "I don't want THISSSS!"

The veteran in a wheelchair, his legs amputated below the knees. The Halloween cupcake I'd handed him from my shopping bag. His question: “Can I hug you, angel?” The walkers, how they could not take their eyes off us holy-shit-she's-hugging-that-homeless-dude!

"She's on the street because she's crazy!"

OR

"Yeah, it's sad, but he must have made some really stupid choices. That's the price you pay."

AND

“If you give them cash, they'll just buy booze.”

Me, watching this daily interplay on State Street: If I was in need and no one stopped to help—I'd want a drink, too.

The snapshot of the woman and children burns my stomach. I park my car. Yank the keys from the ignition. Storm the grocery store ignoring the weekly shopping list on my phone.

Bananas. Kids like bananas, and apples, too. Maybe some raisins? No, not peanuts—too many allergies. Granola bars? Yes, the Family-Sized box. Juice pouches. The ones with cartoon characters. And chocolate because

fuck life.

Everyone deserves chocolate. God, I hope they're still out there. Hurry, up.

Who pays with a check? Greattttt…grandpa’s counting pennies!!!

I run across the parking lot in dress and heels.

Now, a man stands beside the woman. The little boy cries. The girls pluck blades of yellow grass. The man looks at and then away from me as I run toward them. Not her, he must think. Not her.

Draped in a dress of floral-patterned silk. Leather heels.

An outfit chosen from a closet stuffed with clothes.

My mother and grandmother each owned a handful of dresses.

My great-grandmother, two: One blue. One gray.

"This is for you,” I call to the man.

"Thank you, Jesus!" He jogs over.

“Please take care of yourselves." I hold the bags out to him.

"Thank you!” He grabs the handles. Shakes his head. “Thank you, Jesus!”

The man whisks the bag to the girls. They flock around their father. He has something. The woman rests her sign on the ground. Places her son next to his sisters. Little hands reach toward cellophane. The mother breaks bananas off the bunch. Pushes fruit into her children’s opened hands. The youngest daughter rips an Almond Joy from the bag. She clutches it to her chest. No contest. Don't even try.

Immigrants like our forefathers before us. People, who for whatever reason, offered their humanity in a Mariano’s parking lot. The best of Lake County, Illinois, flaunting their this and flashing their that.

No one stops.

"They’re lazy. That's why they have to ask for food."

AND

"Go back to your country!"

I remember the people who gave my mother bags of used clothes. The strangers who changed flat tires. Becky and Gail’s jovial smiles: daycare workers who fed us extra breakfast before my brother and I caught the bus to school. Kindness bestowed upon a single mother and her children.

I remember my first-grade teacher’s words and the warmth of her hug. "You are a special girl. Don't you ever forget it.”

I didn't.

Children don't forget.

The family waves as I turn to run back to my car.

Quick!

So they will not see the tears.

About the Author

Cristina Chopalli

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Cristina Chopalli holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and a BS in Education from Baker University. She is a former essayist for India Currents Magazine. Cristina is currently writing a memoir about family, dysfunction, and identity. She lives in a suburb of Chicago.