Jodi spun her shiny new quarter across the kitchen table while her mother carefully braided her long brown hair. Her grandmother sat on the other side of the table, smoking.
Jodi had found the quarter under her pillow, in exchange for her last baby tooth. At ten years old, she knew there was no fairy. She also knew that other kids got a dollar for a tooth, and sometimes more for that final baby tooth; but she felt proud of her quarter. It was part of an old family tradition, older than Gramma, and that was something those other kids would never understand. What’s more, Jodi was excused from school this morning to observe the family tradition. When her hair was braided, she would take the quarter downtown and put it in the gumball machine in front of the drugstore.
“…back when it was still called Richardson’s Drugs,” Mom was saying. The girl’s dreamy expression sharpened as the adults’ talk aligned with her own thoughts.
“It used to be a dime,” Mom continued. “And you got either a gumball or a little plastic egg with a surprise inside. Those were awesome toys. That tiny bicycle on my dresser, Jodi? That was for my last baby tooth.”
“That came from the gumball machine?” Jodi considered her mother’s miniature plastic bicycle, with pedals that turned, and handlebars that really steered. “We don’t get anything like that now,” she said.
“Oh, I know,” Mom agreed. “It’s all temporary tattoos and little Disney figures.”
Gramma tapped her cigarette over the ashtray and blew out smoke. “What do they call the drugstore now? Happy Kitty?”
“No, Gramma, it’s called Lucky Cat Bargain Palace.” Jodi’s brow furrowed. “But it’s still the same gumball machine, right?”
“‘Course it is! They keep changing the coin slot, though. In my day…”
“Oh, here we go,” Mom put in.
Gramma butted out her cigarette and went on. “In my day, we got a nickel from the tooth fairy, and it was all gumballs in the machine. I still have that blue one I got for my last baby tooth. It’s up in my top drawer, and Jodi, I want you to have it after I’m gone.”
Jodi giggled; but Mom’s hands went still. She spoke in a no-nonsense voice.
“Mother, please don’t talk that way. Now sweetie, hold still so I can finish this braid, or we’ll never get there.” Jodi hadn’t been fidgeting at all, but she didn’t argue. She met her grandmother’s solemn gaze.
“We’ll get there,” Gramma assured her. “We always do. Like I was saying, things were different in those days. When a girl lost her last baby tooth, the whole family would go downtown in our Sunday best, even the second cousins. Someone usually took a picture of the girl holding up her nickel, and then another of her holding up her gumball. Not if it was a black one,
though. I remember…”
“Jodi!” Mom interrupted. “You know what? This is a special day for you. Go upstairs and put on a dress!”
Gramma sighed, glanced at the kitchen clock, and pushed herself up from her chair. “Her jeans are fine,” she said, arming herself with her purse and walking stick. “It’s not such a formal occasion anymore. But now it’s time to go.”
Main Street wasn’t busy at 9:30 on a weekday morning. Mom and Gramma stood by while Jodi put her quarter in the coin slot and turned the crank. A plastic egg tumbled into her hand. She held it up, smiling at Mom and Gramma, and shook it. It rattled.
Jodi didn’t care if nobody took a picture, or if it was just the three of them instead of a big extended family standing with her on the sidewalk. She didn’t care if her prize was lame; one day, it would be just as special as the little bicycle on Mom’s dresser. She twisted the egg open and stared in at a tiny, white incisor.
“What is this?” the girl demanded, looking to her mother; but Mom had turned to beat her fists against the gumball machine, her sobs rising as she sank to her knees on the sidewalk.
Gramma reached out to caress Jodi’s cheek. “It’s your first baby tooth,” the old woman whispered. “Looks like She wants you instead.”
Jodi saw that a long, white car had pulled up to the curb. Its rear door opened toward the sidewalk. “You have to go with the Lady, dear,” Gramma said, and kissed the child good-bye.
Lori Gilbert is a visual artist and writer. Her art and film reviews have appeared in Off Our Backs, Matriart and regional arts publications. More recently, her short story “Double Blessing” was included in an Offbeat Christmas Story edition of the online and print journal Kentucky Stories. She lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario