I sit at our kitchen table. My head is tilting upward, in prayer to some celestial being floating high above our nondescript townhouse. I don’t need Manna from heaven. Just a tiny bit of help. A gentle nudge in the right direction. I look back down at the outline for my next book and there I see it. Not what’s there, but what isn’t. Symbolism. The missing piece d resistance to the twisty new story I contrived. The characters, resplendent in all their intricate psychological finery, are poised and at the ready to scale the hurdles I contrived for them. But the one thing that’s flagrantly absent is that little scrap of tangible something that takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.
As I’m grousing at the gods for their refusal to grant me my thousands wish for the day, my five-year-old toddles into the kitchen. A flurry of chatter swan dives into my ears. But as I look up, her actions are what freeze me in my place. She takes a piece of gum from her mouth and puts it into the wastebasket. Then proceeds to sneak a fresh stick from the pack. She unwraps it, without paying particular attention to the silver foil, puts it in her mouth and walks out of the kitchen.
On icy feet, I walk over to the trashcan and open the lid. The grayish wad is still in there. Sticking to the side of the trash bag. Teeth marks still mar its gummy substance. I reach in and gently pick it up. And that’s when it happens. I’m sucked back to a cold faraway place. A five-year-old is kneeling on the dirty sidewalk. Her nose is almost one with the lumpy concrete. Her little hands are furtively picking at a dark brown spot, the size of a nickel, tightly sealed between the ridges of the pavement. Brows furrowed in determination, she ignores the people passing on the street. Her only focus is the spot. Time flies as she digs the spot out of its hiding place, but finally it is done. She holds up the hardened piece of substance, as if it were a diamond or a ruby. With a huge smile, she runs home, careful to hold onto her bounty. At home, she dashes into the bathroom, turns on the lukewarm water and brings her treasure into the light. Over and over, she washes it until her fingers turn to prunes. But still, she is careful with it. Holding it with one hand, but keeping another hand underneath so there is not chance it falls into the drain. When water finally runs out, she carefully dries it with a towel and places it in her palm. Her heart is thumping. She bites her lip, as if unsure if she should do it. Whether she is deserving of this prize. But finally, the desire grows too strong. She closes her eyes and puts it in her mouth. And begins to chew. At first, the process is slow and painful.
Maybe it won’t ever go back to its former state. But as the crunchiness slowly goes away, in its place is elasticity. Still tough, but it is there. Her smile widens and this new found knowledge gives her the strength to keep on chewing.
Later that night, when it’s time to go to sleep, she takes the substance from her mouth, puts it on a piece of plastic and puts it in a secret box. True, it’s only a discarded matchbox, but it is hers. And it is special. Clutching it in her hand, she takes a deep breath and falls asleep with a smile. The next day at school, she arrives with her prize. It takes a while for everyone to notice, but once they do, she is surrounded. How? Where? When? They all clamor for answers. They crowd around her and suddenly, she is no longer invisible. Envy, awe, admiration is clear in the twenty pairs of eyes looking at her. She clamps her teeth over and over, amazed and in wonder how she was chosen for such a prize.
For two months she follows the same ritual. Chewing by day, hiding her bounty by night. Each day, she becomes more used to it. Assuming it’s going to be around forever. And then one day, on a cold and blustery Saturday, she’s sitting on her bed, playing with her bear, when her friend says something funny. And so she laughs. A big hearty open mouthed laugh. The kind of laugh meant to be done laying down and rolling around holding ones belly. And so she does it. She laughs and laughs and .. suddenly. It’s gone. One second it’s on her tongue and the next, she feels it in her throat. Help me get it, she yells at her friend. They scramble around the room, eyes wild. Distraught. Think, think, she tells herself. She sees a chair and lunges for it. She goes around and throws herself upon the rigid back. Right in the stomach. Maybe that will do it. Force her treasure back from the journey it has begun. Over and over she does it, but there is nothing. Her most prized possession is gone. She crumples upon the bed and weeps. Two months. At least she had two months.
I close the lid to the trashcan and smile sadly to myself. At that moment, my daughter runs back into the kitchen, reaches for the packaging and pulls out another piece. “What?” she asks in response to my staring at her. “It always tastes better at the beginning.” It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell her not to go through so much gum. But instead, I lean over and kiss her on the forehead. “You’re right. It does taste better at the beginning.” And as I hug her close, I look up toward the ceiling and silently thank whatever gods are up there, that she will never know what it is like to peel gum off the sidewalk and think you’ve been given the greatest gift on earth.