Until I can make it back to the art table (Christmas preparations and band activities have been keeping me busy) to complete the portrait of Levi, here's my newspaper column for December.
Susan studied the cans of soup. Shoppers skirted around her, their carts bulging with holiday fare. Christmas carols played steadily and colorful decorations gave the store a festive air. Chicken Noodle? Split Pea and Ham? Tomato? Not exactly a Christmas feast, but it was cheap. She chose Tomato and placed it in the shopping basket. She browsed, her steps slow, unhurried, while other shoppers hastened to finish.
John quietly observed her. He guessed her to be in her late twenties. He’d seen her a time or two around the small town in which he’d operated a grocery store for almost thirty years. Over the years he’d learned to pick out a shoplifter. Something in their eyes, their attitude, their movements. Yet this girl didn’t set off alarm bells in his head. Her regular visits to the store for the past few days had caught his attention. He knew most customers by name, knew their families and where they lived. He also knew that most customers don’t come in several days in a row for long periods of time. How long had she been in here today? An hour? Two hours?
Susan moved slowly with her basket. It contained a can of soup, an apple and a couple of marked down items. She bought just a few things at a time. Gave her a good excuse to return. After working her morning shift at the grill, she’d read late into the afternoon at the local library before heading to the grocery store. Put off the inevitable as long as possible.
John was thoughtful. As he greeted customers and checked the shelves, he watched the girl. He saw no signs of furtive movement, no quick glances around - those telltale signs that meant trouble. Instead she bore a solemn, stoic look. Vulnerable, but determined. A few fact finding phone calls might be in order he decided.
Herb hung up the phone, sipped his coffee and considered the phone call. John was a good man, though he could be a bit abrupt at times. Some shoppers who frequented his small grocery store didn’t seem to know quite how to take him. But John put in long hours at the store and always gave the local churches and civic groups a generous discount when they bought groceries for fund raising events. Herb reached for his heavy coat - evening was coming and the temperature was dropping fast. It was only two days before Christmas. There was even talk of a white Christmas. Wouldn’t that be nice, he mused as he cranked up the gas delivery truck.
"Excuse me, young lady."
Susan, startled, looked up at what she assumed to be the store owner. She’d noticed him coming and going from the little office toward the front of the store. She’d also noticed him watching her. Her chin went up. She hadn’t done anything wrong. There was no law against taking your time buying groceries was there? Yet she felt a tremor of nerves as she faced him. This Christmas was difficult enough as it was, she didn’t need any more problems.
"How about coming into the office for a minute?" he asked.
Susan assessed his intent. He sounded reasonable. He was an older man, easily old enough to be her father, possibly even her grandfather. Something in her was tired of fighting, yet she was ready to defend herself if need be.
The office was small, cluttered, with piles of paper everywhere and notices hurriedly tacked on a bulletin board. An adding machine sat on the desk, alongside a well worn phone. He motioned her to sit and closed the office door.
Seated behind the desk, he steepled his fingers as he chose his words.
"Yes," she replied, immediately on guard. How did he know her name? Tension tightened in her. She said nothing, just waited.
"I hope you don’t mind but I made a few phone calls.... about you. I’ve noticed you in the store a lot this week, and, well, especially at this time of the year, you can’t be too careful."
She flushed. "I haven’t done anything wrong" she blurted.
"I know," he replied, "I’m not accusing you of anything."
"Susan," he paused, "We all go through tough times in our lives. I’ve been there myself. I’d like to help. Is that your Civic outside?"
She nodded, thinking of the old car with the peeling paint job.
"I thought so. I know most of my customer’s cars. I know you’re new here so I’d like to welcome you to our little town and wish you a Merry Christmas."
Susan stared at him. A Merry Christmas? People in her circumstance didn’t have a Merry Christmas - they just survived.
"It’s alright to go home now, Susan."
He stood up, opened the door.
That was it? She rose, wondering if he was crazy or if she was.
Lights were being turned out, the store was closing. Another night to face she thought, walking dispiritedly toward her old car. As she drew closer she saw odd shapes in the back seat. Both alarmed and curious, her steps quickened. The back seat was loaded down with groceries. A ham stuck out of one bag; fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, cookies, bread and various packages peeped out of others. She gazed in disbelief. A horn tooted. It was the man from the store. He waved and smiled as he drove off.
Overwhelmed by the gift, she bit her lip. The unexpected kindness brought her closer to tears than her recent hardships had. At least she had good food, she thought.
A few minutes later she pulled into the driveway of the tiny house she’d rented. Few jobs were available, and it took most of what she made in her part time job just to pay the rent and electricity. She dreaded the cold worst of all. Her little electric heater barely made a dent in the cold, but the expense of filling up the gas drum and turning on the heat was more than she could handle right now. So, when not working she’d resorted to spending as much time as possible in the grocery store, library, convenience store... anywhere it was warm.
She turned the key, braced for the unrelenting cold... and felt ....a gentle rush of warm air. Surprised, confused, she looked around. On the floor lay a notice. It must have been wedged in the door. It was a bill from the gas company for a full tank of propane. It was stamped "Paid in Full" and under that was written "Merry Christmas."
Herb parked the truck in the company parking lot. He’d rather enjoyed playing Secret Santa again. It wasn’t the first time. Quietly, over the years, John had made quite a few folks’ Christmas a little more merry. That, he thought, was indeed the True Spirit of Christmas.
** This story is a fictionalized account; however, it is based on true events. It is written in memory and honor of Remus Teachey, who, unknown to most folks, brightened the lives of many people in the Pink Hill community- not just at Christmas, but throughout the entire year. I was told of these events years ago by a close friend of his, and Remus never knew that I learned of his quiet good deeds. (Permission to relate these events granted by Gaynelle Teachey).
"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Matthew 25:39-41
Copyright 2008 by Teresa Houston. All rights reserved.