Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Warming up – A Christmas story


Many years ago when I was a young mother, I went to the grocery store with my daughter and waited behind a poor old gentleman who was unable to pay his bill. I desperately wanted to help him, but I was afraid and kept silent. The episode bothered me so much that I went home and wrote this fictional Christmas story. I wish I had been the woman in my story.

Dan held the mug of coffee tightly in both hands and felt the steam rising to his face. He lifted the cup to his lips and let the bitter amber liquid trickle slowly down his throat.

Even though he knew that the apartment was well-heated and comfortable, he was cold. He felt that he would never be warm again.

Dan was always cold and lonely. He missed Abigail and the children – but Abby was gone now, and the kids had their own lives to lead, their own problems to solve.

The future looked bleak. His days were filled with routine. He was thankful for his independence and reasonably good health, but he longed for something more.

“An old man’s foolish dreams,” he thought to himself.

Dan placed the empty cup on the table and reached into a pocket for his wallet. He opened the worn black billfold and checked its contents. There wasn’t much money left, but he would make do. He always had.

Walking gingerly to the closet, he took out his winter jacket, a flannel-lined wool coat. Briefly, his eyes scanned the kitchen shelves. He made a mental note of a few items, slid into his coat sleeves, and placed his keys in the ample pocket.

Making sure that the door was locked securely behind him, Dan slowly descended the winding staircase.

It was an overcast and blustery December day. He shivered and pulled his collar up around his neck as he sauntered down the street toward the supermarket.

There was a time when he had enjoyed grocery shopping. He had loved to watch Abby shop. Even though their Social Security checks barely covered the necessities, she always had enough for the bill and managed to save a little bit extra.

He smiled when he remembered how she used to sneak a little something into the basket for the kids. He would always pretend not to notice.

Dan knew how much it had pleased her to feel that she had made the burden a little lighter for him – and she had. Being with Abby had made everything easier.

He entered the market, chose a cart, and started the trek through the numerous well-stocked aisles. Sterile-sounding Christmas carols played over the intercom.

He was tired as he finally made his way to the express checkout lane. In the corner of the oversized shopping cart were cans of soup, cereal, orange juice, bread, and coffee.

He took his place at the end of the line, which wound its way down the immense corridor. Impatient shoppers paced nervously while they inched forward. Dan waited.

No one spoke. His mind wandered. He remembered the market he had shopped at when he and Abby were newlyweds. The proprietor had been a friendly man who had appreciated each of his customers. The cashiers had called Dan by name.

It was different now – so impersonal. Everyone just stared straight ahead while the electronic scanners did the talking.

It was his turn now. With disbelief he saw the final total on the register. He would have to put something back.

Dan felt ashamed. He had never had much money, but he had always had his pride. Now he felt that even that had been taken from him.

Dan cleared his throat and in a whisper told the clerk that he had changed his mind about the coffee.

The lady behind him bent down, picked something up, and tugged at Dan’s sleeve.

“I think you dropped this, sir,” the woman said, handing him a small slip of paper.

Confused, he glanced at the free coffee coupon and without thinking passed it on to the clerk.

The old man looked up in surprise when the total came within his means. He paid the bill, accepted his change, picked up the bag and walked out of the store.

Dan smiled at the woman as she came through the exit doors into the cool, bright sunshine.

“Why did you do that for me?” Dan asked as he patted the head of the squirming toddler strapped securely in the front of her shopping cart. “You could have used that coupon for your own family.”

“God has always given us enough and a little bit extra,” she replied. “I like to share the extra.”

With eyes brimming with tears, Dan reached for her hand, squeezing it tightly.

“God bless you,” he said. “Have a very merry Christmas.”

As Dan walked back to his apartment, he didn’t feel quite as cold as before. He felt the warm sunshine on his back and a warmth radiate from within.

Impulsively, he stopped at the first-floor apartment and knocked on his neighbor’s door. He waited patiently while Harry opened the multiple latches.

Smiling into Harry’s puzzled face, Dan said, “Why don’t you come up for a cup of coffee?”   

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