"To lend each other a hand when we're falling ...
perhaps that's the only work that matters in the end."
It was one of those sultry August afternoons. The kind when the flies stick to your skin and you can’t tell whether it’s your sweat that holds them there or a consequence of the atmosphere – almost liquid – having doused the fire of their tiny wings.
The gas station called my name as I drove toward town, beckoning me in for a cool drink. Without giving it much thought, in a rare state of whimsy, I turned in. Let summer have her final hurrah, I’ll raise a SoBe with the best of the flies and store up the memory of perspiration’s drops along my brow for those wicked winter days when I wish them all back with vengeance.
My arm slowly closed the glass door of the deliciously refrigerated beverage case lining the far wall, and that is when I first saw her. Her voice was loud, drawing stares from everyone in the place. She was rifling through her pockets and change-purse, searching for coins which were either clattering to the floor or not showing up at all. She appeared to be highly unorganized or perhaps developmentally challenged. From where I stood, I couldn’t tell which.
Eager as I was to keep my date with the bottom of the SoBe bottle, I cautiously crept up behind her in line at the cash register – careful to keep a healthy space of about four feet between us. You see, public humiliation has never been my thing and with loud, unpredictable characters like the one in front of me? Well, a little bit of room seemed like a good idea.
The matronly cashier was ringing her up for a fun-size bag of Ruffles and three candy bars. Change continued to jingle out around the woman’s feet as she shook her shirt and then looked up as the total was announced. Upon hearing it, she muttered something incomprehensible and dove into her fanny pack with renewed zeal.
Whether or not the cashier was tapping her toe behind the counter, I couldn’t tell, but I did recognize impatience growing in her eyes. I thought of my own thirst, begging to be quenched. I thought of the debit card’s smooth green plastic in my hot little hand. But to my shame, I never once thought about how I could help the lady in front of me. Perhaps if I’m honest, though, I will tell you that what stopped me more than anything is the nasty little habit of assessing some people as in need of more help than I can give them.
The door swung open then, letting in the breeze and forcing the acrid fumes of gasoline and humanity into my face. But there must have been something divinely incarnate riding the dust that blew in on that staunch summer breeze – something that reminded us what we’re all made of – because when I blinked my eyes and wiped my face, the scene I turned back to at the counter had changed.
Mama Quickstop was digging in her own pocket for the change that her needy customer could not produce, in spite of her best efforts. The woman with the fanny pack retreated gratefully from the counter, arms laden with treasures. She was closer to me now than my four feet of intentional distance, but somehow I didn’t mind so much. Our gazes locked for a moment, each of us. First the shy smile I exchanged with the cashier, who really grinned more with her eyes than her lips. Then, turning to meet the other woman’s eyes, I recognized a certain bland vacancy in her eyes, something I’ve only ever seen with those who suffer from delayed cognitive process. She wrapped my heart in the way that relief dripped from her slightly lopsided smile.
As she stumbled toward the door and I slid my beloved SoBe onto the counter, I couldn’t help but watch her go. Could she possibly know what her presence had done to us? That it had not only revealed her neediness, but showed us our own as well?
Because whether or not she really needed that money from the cashier’s pocket and whether or not she really needed to feel close enough to me to share a smile, I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the wrong question.
Perhaps it was we who needed her.
Whatever the locking of our eyes meant – at the very least – I think it meant that we were no longer strangers, any of us.
And that together, we had witnessed something beautiful.
(Originally published here at my lovely friend, Deidra's blog.)
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