“Wait up Maggie!” Helen yelled at her older sister as they raced towards the Rite Aid at the corner of Montgomery Street.
Every day they would meander in with their fifty cents and buy the blueberry Pop Rocks in the candy section. Maybe they would have a small conversation with their friend Rhonda who worked at the register. Rhonda would tell them how cute their new dresses were, and that they have gotten so big, even though Helen didn’t feel any bigger than she did the day before. Helen would admire the long, tight, dark braids that hung down from Rhonda’s head, and Maggie would talk to Rhonda about “grown up stuff” as Helen felt the popping of the Pop Rocks on her tongue. However, things were different that fall day.
As she skipped across the sidewalk to catch up to Maggie, Helen saw the old, blind man sitting on the dirty, tattered bench outside the Rite Aid. His ripped wool hat was lying upside-down in front of him. His pursed lips slid the side of a harmonica in his hands, a beautiful tune. Helen couldn’t help but wonder why he decided to sit on that old, dirty bench, getting the remains of his clothes all muddy. She looked inside the upside down hat and saw one penny lying there, almost lonesome. Helen reached her hand down to the bottom of her back pocket and slowly pulled out the fifty cents that she planned on using for her blueberry Pop Rocks, and dropped it into the almost empty hat.
“Bless your soul,” the old man smiled at Helen, as if he could see her.
Something about that moment made Helen’s heart feel warm, almost like she put a brand new wool sweater around her soul.
“No Pop Rocks today, Helen?” Rhonda questioned, frowning, “You’re too young to go on a diet. Eat while you can because when you get to this age—”
“I’m not going on a diet Rhonda,” Helen chuckled, “I just gave my fifty cents to the man with the empty hat in front of him.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I suppose a good deed like that deserves a reward. Here you are.” Rhonda held out a pack of blueberry Pop Rocks in front of Helen.
“No Rhonda, it’s okay. I don’t need Pop Rocks.” Helen didn’t know why she felt a sudden impulse to help the old man, let alone ignore free Pop Rocks.
It felt like it was her duty, her duty to help this man, this stranger, somehow.
Over the next three weeks, Helen gave her fifty cents to the old, blind man sitting on the dirty bench outside the Rite Aid. Every week the man, who through small conversations Helen eventually learned was Salvatore Johnson, would smile and thank her. With time, Helen seemed to forget her childlike ritual of buying Pop Rocks, and she was only concerned now with her new friend Mr. Johnson.
A few days later, Helen was walking to the Rite Aid alone. Her sister, who used to accompany her, was home sick. She skipped down Montgomery Street and pulled out the fifty cents from her back pocket, but when she looked up she was surprised.
Mr. Johnson wasn’t on the bench. There was no one there. Helen frowned when her eye spotted two words encrusted in the bench that she had never noticed before. She traced the letters with her finger: MARY JOHNSON. Helen didn’t know who this Mary Johnson was, or why her name was on this bench, or why her last name matched Salvatore’s.
* * *
Helen didn’t know what happened to Salvatore Johnson. She hoped that his life improved for the better, and that was why he was no longer on the bench every day. She hoped that her good deeds brought him good fortune. Helen’s eyes went from the dirty bench to the window of the Rite Aid where she saw Rhonda smiling at her.
“You buying Pop Rocks today, pumpkin?” Rhonda asked Helen as the bell over the door rang when it opened.
“Yeah,” Helen said, “I think I’ll get some Pop Rocks today.”
As Helen ambled out of the store and past the bench with her Pop Rocks, she noticed an unusual feeling that she never had before. She felt aware, selfless, and humbled. She knew that she would be forever changed, all because of some Pop Rocks, some spare change, and Mr. Johnson.