Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Plainclothesman

I recently went to Wal-Mart with my father and sister to pick up some last-minute Thanksgiving supplies. I can not adequately express through words my dissatisfaction with Wal-Mart corporation, and I despise myself a little bit more each time that I set foot inside of the sliding doors and pass by the greeters who no longer offer the anticipated "welcome to Wal-Mart," but rather just smile emptily at the throngs of people passing through the entrance with an expression that screams "help me" within every crease of their tired faces. But sometimes periodic visits to the establishment are a necessary evil.

This time, however, I was glad that I went.

As we got into line to check out and started to unload our items onto the undoubtedly filthy rubber conveyor belt, a man pushed his cart up behind us, waiting for his turn to partake in this strange ritual that has become such a normalized aspect of human life over the years. He was an older man, probably in his late fifties, with a peculiar nose that was unnaturally level along the bottom but turned up ever so slightly on the end. He had a small, unwavering smile permanently affixed on his face, and the outside corners of his eyes were curved upward in the universal representation of subtle contentment.

I did not pay attention to the things in the man's cart at first, but once ours had been emptied, he began to unload his items at the very end of the belt. As human beings thrown together in such an unnatural scenario are wont to do, I stared into the man's cart as though I was unprecedentedly fascinated by the miscellaneous elements of his life on display in the basket in front of him. It was just food. Food and toiletries and a dozen roses. My eyes settled on the roses, seeing at first only an odd juxtaposition of intentions. However, as the flowers came into mental focus, I felt a rise spread through my body, as though my mood was lifting from the realization of the implications. A warmth spread through my chest, and I could not help but smile faintly at the man who stood staring into his cart with the same striking grin with which he had unknowingly introduced himself moments ago, unaware of my poorly regulated intrigue.

The man had run out of room at the end of the belt and was waiting patiently for fresh opportunity. He was dressed simply: a tastefully drab plaid button-up shirt tucked into straight-cut jeans secured at the waist by an unembellished brown leather belt. He leaned forward to rest his weight on the hand-grip of the shopping cart, propping one work-boot-clad foot against the bar running along the bottom of the cart in the process.

From the corner of my eye, I saw my father's hand reach for something on the chewing gum display beside the register. It hesitated there for a moment, before deciding on a small tin of candies. I turned back towards the register to attend to the more pertinent matters at hand, and mere seconds after doing so noticed another hand floating into vision from the other direction, undoubtedly inspired by my father's spontaneous decision. Momentarily unsettled by this odd symphony of hands dancing around in my peripheral, I had to fight back the urge to reach for the display myself, knowing that I did not actually want anything from the shelf and was simply being socially convinced that it was the right thing to do. As I stood at the register, unsure of where to place my eyeballs to avoid potential awkwardness, the man's hand hovered over the tin that my father had selected before finally picking up the box of mints next to it.

The man returned to his upright position behind the cart and inspected the tin. They were nothing special; surely he had had Altoids before. But he seemed almost a little confused as to why they were in his hand. For the first time that evening, his smile dropped ever so slightly and his eyes narrowed in a display of determination: determination to find a justification for purchasing the mints to which he had unwittingly committed himself. His gaze remained affixed on the embossed logo on the small metal box for several seconds more until finally he came to a conclusion and carefully dropped the container into the cart.

The man's smile quickly returned to his face, and we made eye-contact as he looked up. I acted natural, looking away promptly, but not so quickly as to infer that I had been staring. The man's smile was agonizing. For a moment I had began to feel a familiarity with the man. His confusion at picking up the mints was so genuine; unbridled in its sudden manifestation. As a being who constantly wonders if his actions are his own, the man's expression upon thinking about what he was doing resounded with me. But the familiarity stopped there. As soon as the mints hit the pile of items in his cart, he was finished. The wonder did not haunt him any further. He simply let go of the mints and allowed the smile to return to his face as they alighted next to the roses.

I realized in that moment that I knew why the man's smile intrigued me so intensely. There was an honesty within it with which I am almost entirely unfamiliar. This man could with such ease experience an emotion that I can not even begin to muster within myself despite my desperate and perpetually failing efforts.

This man had free access to something that I can barely fathom.

This man was happy, and I sincerely hope that those roses made her day.

3 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, if only because you are a wonderful writer. Your description of the man was fantastic.

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  2. I could never explain to you in words how amazing you are. Your way with words and visualization touches me unlike any other. It's almost as if I was standing right there with you experiencing these couple of moments. Fantastic!

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