A Dollar Afternoon

Friday afternoon, I reluctantly pulled in to the Dollar General, as it is mostly an excuse to expand into outright hoarding. I complained about the necessity of stopping there. Not that my wife had a gun to my head, of course, but I could smell the gunpowder from the last time I defied her.

When we pulled in to the lot, a small gaggle of motley individuals was standing unsafely in the entrance of the parking lot. It would have been easy to accidentally run them over, especially considering that every road construction worker in the state seemingly was working on the road in that area of Springdale.

My wife expressed a little uncertainty as she looked around and said, “That guy is huge. He could tear you in half,” to which I replied, not joking, “Anyone half his size could just as easily tear me in half, honey.” We laughed, acknowledging the truth of it.

I’m fearless around some situations, mostly because it doesn’t occur to me that anyone would want what I have – and they certainly don’t need to use force. I would gladly hand my entire wallet to anyone desperate enough to believe they needed to threaten me to get it. Running away isn’t an option for me unless there’s a good pizza place in the direction I need to run. But, if a good story emerges from a fracas, I’m in favor of it.

As we got out of the car, the group blocking the parking lot entrance dissipated and one of the older men ambled haphazardly behind my car. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I recognized an old familiar face.

Out of the recesses of my mind came his name. “Steve!” I yelled, and he turned, gladdened by the sound of his name. He quickly made his way toward me.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked, half-smiling, shifting back and forth on his feet. He smiled, but with an edge of nervousness.

“No, you’re not in trouble, at least not that I know of. Are you ready to admit your crimes?” I thought I was being witty.

After a few seconds, I could tell that life had beaten him repeatedly, probably long after he had begged for a reprieve. I was sure he now suffered worse with some form of mental impairment. Many of his teeth were missing and what remained was painful to see.

I offered my hand and after an initial hesitation, he shook my outstretched hand as if I had given him a free beer. “Steve, I worked with you. My name is X.” It took him a few tries to admit he remembered my face but not my name. Usually, my name sticks out like a stubbed toe – and usually with the same contorted face that accompanies stubbing one’s toes in the dark of the night.

I motioned for my wife to go ahead of me into the palace of Dollar General / Hoarder’s Emporium, then turned back to Steve and told him that he and I used to poke incredible fun at one another back in the day. I didn’t remind him that a few of our co-workers bullied him; I remembered getting pissed more than once at the mean-spirited things several of the workers did to him. Steve had been a very hard worker but he couldn’t grasp nuance in conversation. It cost him dearly with people who thought they were superior to him.

A memory caught up with him and he laughed. “Yes!” The laugh and smile took me back across the span of intervening years, momentarily washing away the sullen recollection of people misbehaving. “X! Lord yes, you were half crazy,” he told me.

I asked him if he still lived nearby and he told me that yes, he lived in housing toward the airport. After I asked him how he was doing, he paused, not wanting to say anything troublesome. I pulled out my wallet and gave him the $20 I had. I told him if he needed anything from the store, I would buy it for him to celebrate the new year. He hugged me and we laughed for old time’s sake.

Despite the cliché of it all, I teared up as I so often do.

I no longer felt irritated for being forced to stop at Dollar General. For a second, it seemed as if I was supposed to stop and intervene for a moment in Steve’s life. Or, more likely, he in mine.

It’s also true that within 90 seconds of being inside Dollar General, I was cursing my fate and ready to dive out a window to escape that place. Life lessons fade quickly, it seems.

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