This Thursday, I went to Walmart. I don't like going there, but I did anyway, hoping to find a large bag of holiday M&Ms for a project in Brandon's class. *
They had a Salvation Army bucket at each door. There were two ladies at the bucket I was going to pass. One of them seemed tired and was sniffling a little, but she spared a smile for each person who passed by and nodded gratefully when someone dropped money in the bucket. The other one . . . I don't know exactly how to put this gently, but I think she was a cyborg.
See, I watch people a lot. I mean, I don't stare, but I take in details of people's faces because, as a writer, faces are an important hook for the reader. I look for interesting marks and hairstyles, but I also look at facial expressions and, in my head, try to sum them up in words as best I can. If I'm with Christy or someone else I trust, I might even share these words to see if I'm doing a decent job of it.
This woman looked like a cyborg. Her facial expression wasn't fixed, exactly, but it was artificial, like she was trapped in a Christmas card pose with people for whom she felt no genuine affection. She would turn that face toward each person who passed her, but her eyes were unfocused, unless you moved close and dropped something in the bucket, in which case she'd look at you, nod and say, "God bless."
I had twenty bucks in my wallet, earmarked for a pizza dinner on Friday, but I did a little quick math and figured that if I bought a slice of pizza inside, I could drop a dollar in the bucket on my way back out. Distracted by my thoughts, I didn't realize that the cyborg had turned its eyes on me.
"A donation, sir?" she asked.
"No, I . . ."
"That's fine, then," she said in a tone of voice I associate with prim schoolmarms who've just found a horse has dropped one in the parlour when there's a gentleman caller. ** "Merry Christmas," she said, evidently relishing the opportunity to hiss the Lord's name at me. I wasn't sure what my response was supposed to be, so I crossed myself and said, "Salaam alaikum," and went in. I didn't spare her a glance, but I heard the other lady snickering quietly to herself. ***
I navigated my way fruitlessly through the aisles of Walmart in search of my large bag of holiday M&Ms and, marginally disheartened, found myself at the takeout counter.
There was only one person behind the counter, a mountainous fellow evidently named "Lenny." **** His face looked well lived-in - pockmarked all over, craggy in spots, saggy in others with a crude, rough scar leading from his left ear to the side of his nose. He seemed tired, murmuring to the guy in front of him who was grossly abusing the store's policy on sampling, trying one of absolutely everything before walking away with the smallest possible container of the least expensive item. His eyes didn't rise all the way to my face as he said, "How can I help you?"
"Just a slice of pizza, m'man."
"Kay. Which one you want?" he muttered, gesturing at the lone pizza in the warmer - plain cheese.
"Chef's choice," I said with a shrug. His eyes were on mine in an instant, intense, practically glowing.
"Been a long time since I've heard that." The glow died quickly as he realized what he was doing. Everyone should glow all the time, is my thinking.
"You used to be a chef?"
And that's how Lenny and I passed the next fifteen minutes, with him telling me all about his days as a chef. He started as a line cook, worked his way until he was sous chef, and then the economy tanked and the restaurant went under. He picked up other food service jobs pretty quickly but he was, as he admitted, an alcoholic mess and eventually ended up with a three month tour of the local penitentiary system after getting drunk in a public park.
He's out, living with an ex-girlfriend ***** and trying to live straight. When he was done, he let out a great, long sigh, like he hadn't taken a breath the entire time, and smiled.
"Man, I never tell anyone that story."
"No worries, this happens to me - I think I was a bartender in a former life." I put out my hand for my pizza. "Can I pray for you?" Lenny's big hand fell on top of mine, pressing it to the counter.
"Please," he said, and bowed his head.
I'll be frank, I have no recollection of what I prayed for. The Spirit was doing an awful lot of groaning on my behalf. When we were done, I turned to leave, politely ignore the dampness in both our eyes.
"Hey buddy," he said.
"Merry Christmas, Lenny."
And God bless us, everyone.
I dropped a dollar in the bucket on my way out, along with the change in my pockets.
(The above is fiction - mostly. Well, it all actually happened, but not this neatly and not at the same time.)
* I ended leaving with a bag of glowsticks and two boxes of theatre candy. This is what happens when I go to Walmart.
** Hey, I said I try to sum up people's expressions - some are harder than others.
*** Was this the most mature way to handle the situation? No, probably not, but people who treat the chance to greet a fellow human as a chance to test them are bullies, and I don't like bullies.
**** His name wasn't Lenny. But it should have been.
***** "We aren't together or anything, she's just got three bedrooms and it's only her now," he said, as though I knew what this meant. I didn't, but I nodded anyway. I got the general idea.