The Youngest Assistant
I looked down into the eyes of a miffed young lady as she tugged on my apron. “Well, hello there.” I said cheerfully.
“He,” she said, stabbing a finger toward a coworker who was pointedly avoiding her glare, “won’t let me make paint. He says it’s not allowed, but I don’t believe him because you’ve already let me!”
That got my attention and I examined her more closely. She didn’t seem familiar in her pink corduroy overalls, close cropped hair and deadly serious expression, but it was true that if we weren’t too hectic, I’d invite kids to come back behind the paint counter and “make” their parents’ paint. Looking around, I didn’t see a grownup who seemed to belong to her, so I asked where they were and what paint they needed today.
She explained that they didn’t need paint of their own, but while her mother was looking at carpets she’d decided she would come over to help at the paint desk because it was a busy day and we had a lot of customers. Trying to contain a grin I told her that I was sorry, but the store would only allow me to make her own paint and no one else’s.
She scowled. “I’ll be right back,” she said, striding off.
A few minutes later she’d returned, a quart of tintable wood stain clutched in her hands, towing her mother in her wake. “I read the sign,” she said, “and we want to make Rosewood color.” Her mother shrugged,mumbling that they kind of needed it anyway, then nodded as I stepped up to the computer and her daughter came around behind the counter.
As I started to type, the girlie cleared her throat. “I want to do it all,” she said, politely but firmly.
“This part you can’t,” I said, unaware that this would be the only battle I’d win against the world’s cutest bulldozer. I entered the data and sent the label to the printer- it was in her hands before my fingers had even left the keyboard.
She tore it oh-so-carefully, peeling it away from the backing and saying, “I’m putting it on the can where it doesn’t block the instructions, see?” I praised her forethought while automatically moving on to the next step, but gasped loudly when a small hand grabbed my boob as it reached for the tool to open the can, which dangled from a leash on my apron.
“I know how to use this,” she said, not registering my surprised chest rubbing. “I made my dad show me. I can be careful.”
“Um, here’s the problem,” I said with genuine nervousness. “Stain is very different from paint- it’s super thin, for one thing. It’ll splash everywhere if we don’t pay close attention.”
Her little face was staring so intently at the can it wouldn’t have surprised me if the lid popped off through sheer force of will, but she asked no questions and made no comment, only bent to her task, carefully prying the lid with the key and spilling not a drop. She looked up and said, “Now it’s the dots, right?” I nodded, impressed, as she maneuvered the can under the tint dispenser, trying to get all three laser pointers to reflect off the tint so she’d know it was properly aligned. The quart sized cans have almost no room for error, and I’d never allowed a kid to even try one, but I stayed quiet and watched her work at it until she’d found the sweet spot.
She exuded determination, and had a slightly odd, clipped way of explaining out loud what she was doing. It could have been offputting, but somehow it wasn’t. She had a piece of work to do, and she was going to do it.
And so she did, shooting the gun at the UPC symbol to start the tint flowing, accepting minimal help to hammer the lid on, working the shaker and taking it out. I congratulated her on a job well done which she took as her due before heading off with her mom.
I looked up to see that the line had gotten backed up and headed toward the next customer but a tap on my shoulder turned me around to find her mom looking furtive.
“Thank you for that,” she said quietly. “I can’t even guess how many times she’s watched that video – totally obsessed.”
“Video?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“It’s silly, I know, but I recorded it with the phone when she helped you the first time because it was so unusual for her to want to talk to a stranger – she’s mildly autistic of course – and you talked to her the whole time, so she knew why you were doing what you were doing. A hundred times, minimum, she’s watched it. Are you a teacher? Because you should be a teacher,” she said before rushing back to her daughter who was carefully examining the lollipop display at the checkout line.
I started to take the next customer’s order but after a few seconds excused myself and darted toward the cashier. It suddenly seemed very important that I find out her name, this little girl whose first visit I didn’t even remember, and whose autism I hadn’t registered, but she was already gone.