My shopping cart is filled with holiday purchases, but there are still scads of items to be crossed off my list. It’s a bizarre list, because my inner Martha Stewart has clawed her way to the surface, demanding to make holiday decorations now. So I’m looking for felt, raffia, burlap, pine cones—I’m going for that homey, cozy look. It amuses me that I’m willing to pay for pine cones, and briefly I wonder if there’s any kickback for the trees.
It’s definitely time to regroup. I decide to check out and take the haul to my van, perhaps recharge for a moment with something heavily caffeinated or sugared—or both—before tackling Christmas List: The Sequel.
Betty the Cashier is wearing absurd earrings: tawny reindeer from which little red-ribboned jingle bells dangle, with tiny candy canes suspended from the bells. Hey, earring manufacturer, why stop there? Why not add Santa to the chain, and a wreath, a snowman, and a stocking? Unfortunately, all of Betty’s holiday cheer seems to reside in her insanely festive earrings. I chirp “Merry Christmas” at her, and all she can manage in return is a muffled hmmmpf.
I add a cold bottled coffee drink and a chocolate bar to the conveyor belt and then head out to the parking lot, mentally mapping out the best strategy for Conquering Christmas—Part Two. A car follows me, hoping to score my premium parking space. Sorry, Charlie. I have not yet begun to shop. Back away from the van, and no one gets hurt.
When I’m almost to the van, my eyes are drawn to a heap of discarded clothing piled against a dumpster—I can make out an old leather jacket, desert camo trousers, tattered work boots, and a brown knitted watch cap. Could be that I’ve been spending too much time with decorating magazines lately, for the phrase monochromatic palette flits across my mind. Then the watch cap moves, and I realize that the brown heap is a man.
In no mood to deal with a potential panhandler, I avoid eye contact and quickly toss my fourteen bags into the open hatch of the van. The coffee and chocolate will have to wait. Darnitall. I don’t want him knocking at my window, making me feel guilty while I indulge. Locking the van, I return to shopper’s paradise.
Back inside, once more my cart fills up with holiday goodies. With every purchase, my mental cash register goes ka-ching. In a small and undecorated corner of my mind, I wonder how Brown Guy in the parking lot will celebrate Christmas.
The Baby in the manger starts to cry.
I’ve made my way to the grocery section of the SuperStore, and I bring my cart to a dead halt in the baking aisle, with gingerbread mixes to my left and bulk walnuts to my right. Just as it’s unsafe to talk on the cell phone while driving, I’m not so great at spiritual dialogue while shopping. Better to create a bottleneck at Cakes and Muffins.
Seriously? You’re kidding, right? I’m really not good at this sort of thing. I never know what to say. He’ll probably just take the money and spend it on drugs, you know. Well, maybe he’ll be gone when I go back out there.
With an invisible finger at my back, I go through checkout again. Betty is still in a grump, and even my tentative “Ho ho ho?” fails to crack her Scrooge-like façade.
At first, I don’t see Brown Guy in the parking lot, and as I toss the second round of bags into the van, my heart leaps at the thought of avoiding this particular holiday encounter. But then there he is behind me, speaking in a soft voice. “A dollar for sumpin’ to eat, ma’am?”
I turn to look at him. He could be any race—his skin, hair, and eyes are all the same shade of pale, muddy brown, completing his coordinated, monochromatic look. I clear my throat and fumble in my purse.
“A dollar won’t buy you much. Here’s ten. Uh, Merry Christmas. And, um, Jesuslovesyou.” That last bit is mumbled, my eyes studying the pavement beneath my sneakers. I kick my own backside. Worst. Witnessing. Ever.
Brown Guy accepts the bill almost reverently. “Yes, ma’am, He do. He surely do.” He grins—a toothless benediction—and this encounter becomes a holy moment. “Jesus love you too, ma’am.”
The Baby in the manger sleeps in heavenly peace.
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