I had to stop at Walgreens to pick up a prescription on the way home from work. Ugh. I sighed as I put my keys in my purse, ready to get out into the cold air and do chore number one on my list of 8.
I heard the bell ringer. Sighed again. Reached into my change purse for some coins. I have been doing this with Liv since she could walk. We would always put change in the bucket. Liv wasn't here, but it's a habit now and a good one.
When I advanced closer to the door, I looked up and made small eye contact with the bell ringer. He was about my age, I surmised, give or take a year. He had no jacket on, just a sweat shirt. He looked cold, his nose was cherry red. He stopped ringing the bell and spoke to me.
"Is thhhhhaaat your ttttrrruck?" he asked.
I nodded. Smiled thinly. Didn't want to encourage too much talk. I was in a hurry.
He went on.
I used ttttttto haaave a tttttttrruck llllllike th-th-th-that. It rrrran rrrreal gggggggggggooood."
A stutterer. My heart hurt a bit for him. I smiled again, this time put some shine on it.
I told him that it was not working all that great. Really never had.
SSSSSSSo, you inttttteresssssted in ssssssselling?"
I smiled even more deeply, shook my head. Told him that I would never forgive myself if I sold such a poorly working vehicle to anyone. Laughed.
He smiled, then laughed. He had soft blue eyes, tender in a way that older men have sometimes. Usually older men who have been through some miles and pain.
He tried to say something more, but it was too much. He shook his head ruefully, looked away, embarrassed.
I reached out and touched his hand, just once. But gently.
"Take your time," I told him. "I'm in no hurry."
Well, that was a fib. I WAS in a hurry. But, he seemed hungry for conversation and astonished that I hadn't walked away. So..he tried again.
He told me that he worked at a grocery store a few blocks away. That he worked in the meat department and if I had a dog, to come visit sometime and he would save a bone for him.
You would not believe how long it took for him to get this out. And I am merely being honest, not mean.
Something about him held me in place. Mostly, he looked like he couldn't believe that someone was talking to him. Taking the time.
I told him that I did indeed have a dog, a dog who adored bones.
This made him smile.
I held out my hand. Said that my name was Maria.
"I'm CCCCCCCHHHHHH-CCCCHHHH-CCCCHHHHarlie," he said.
A snide voice behind me said, in sotto voice: CCCCCHHHHarlie.
I turned around swiftly in time to see a teenage boy saunter past us, chuckling to himself.
Rodent. Little rodent.
Charlie flushed. Looked away and then back at me.
I leaned towards him, conspiring. "He's not worth our time," I said.
Charlie nodded, but it was weary. This must happen to him all the time, I thought.
Suddenly, I just wanted to cry. And this was not the time and would absolutely not help anything. But, my throat felt tight anyway. I hated it that Charlie had to endure this. This was not his fault, I could see that this was so hard for him. He was obviously a gregarious man who had so much to say and yet his tool for talking was failing him.
I asked him why he was volunteering to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. He spoke up immediately, haltingly told me that it was the least he could do, that he had been helped so much by so many. That this was nothing.
But, it wasn't nothing, I told him. It was something. It was a big something.
I asked him if he liked the holidays.
He smiled incredulously at me as if this was absurd. OF COURSE, he liked the holidays, he told me. He loved how beautiful his church looked this time of year.
Of course, this came out something like: Offf CCCCCCCCCOURSE I lllllike the hhhhholidays. Mmmmmmmy ch-ch-ch-church is bbbbbbeautifffffffful."
I asked him if he had family to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with. He said yes, he had a brother. That his sister in law made the best turkey in the city.
I pointed to his sweat shirt.
"Where's your jacket, Charlie?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Nnnnnnnnextttt ppppppppay dddday," he answered.
I nodded. Said that I needed to get into Walgreens now. I looked down at my hand which was still holding my change.
"Whoops, almost forgot!" I said. "This goes in your bucket, Charlie."
Ggggggod Blllless you," he said.
I wanted to hug him. And believe me, I am SO not a hugger. But, something in him struck me. He was a good, decent man doing a good, decent thing. He didn't deserve the way that people must treat him.
I went inside and found the laundry detergent and went to go pick up my prescription at the pharmacy.
But, I found myself standing in the greeting card aisle. Tears suddenly brimming.
God, WHY do people treat people with impediments so badly? I thought of my mentally handicapped niece, Amelia. How one time I picked her up at work for dinner and she came lumbering out in that way that those who are mentally handicapped walk sometimes...a back and forth motion to her walk. I watched her, smiling, waving.
And then I noticed a young boy about ten behind her with a man who probably was his father. He was mimicking her walk and the grown up with him was laughing along with him. I felt rage take over. I wanted to spring out of the car and go up and slap both of them. But, I did nothing. Amelia hadn't noticed and would never notice unless I brought attention to this. So, I sat, seething.
When she got to the car, I unlocked the door and gave her an impromptu bear hug. She laughed and patted me.
Gosh, Aunt Maria, you just saw me YESTERDAY," she had said, laughing.
I had just seen her, but I needed to hug her.
That incident had infuriated me and stayed with me for a long while.
It was how I felt then, staring down at the rows of cards, trying not to cry.
Charlie was a good man. He deserved better from all of us.
I paid for my purchases at the pharmacy window and groaned a little, checking my watch. Really, really running late now.
And then I saw him. That teenage boy who had taunted Charlie. He was standing next to a teenage girl in a Walgreens smock top as she re-stocked the candy aisle. She was pretty. He was obviously trying to flirt with her and she was allowing it, albeit halfheartedly.
I walked up to them.
"Don't waste your time on this guy," I said to her, using my firmest voice possible.
The guy gaped at me, surprised. The girl looked up, startled.
"He just made fun of the bell ringer outside who has a stutter," I said. "Honey, you can do so much better than this jerk."
The girl looked up at the guy.
"My brother used to stutter when he was in junior high," she said.
The guy's face was bright red.
The girl picked up her box and walked to the swinging employee doors. She didn't look back.
The guy looked angrily at me.
"I can't believe you just did that," he said.
"Believe it," I told him. "It's called karma and it was going to bite your dumb ass sooner or later. I just made it come sooner."
I walked briskly away from him, feeling just a touch jubilant. I wasn't scared at all. Pip squeak.
I turned around and said in a loud voice, "That was for all the Amelias and Charlies out there."
I saw Charlie standing by the inside front door, rubbing his hands together to warm them.
I stopped in front of him. "I have an old jacket that belonged to my father," I said to him. "It's leather and very warm and I think it would fit you. It's not doing any good sitting in my front closet and I think my Da would like knowing that it was being worn by someone as nice as you. Can I run home and bring it back?"
Charlie said that he had to leave, and it looked like his ride was here, the minister from his church. But, he would be at this store again tomorrow, same time. Could I bring it then? That is, if there wasn't someone else who needed it more....
Of course, it took a LONG time to get this all out.
No, I told him. I knew my Da would absolutely want him to have it. I would bring the coat tomorrow.
I know you're thinking that the perfect end to this story would be that I hugged him. I didn't. I gotta be me and all that shit. We parted at the door. He walked swiftly to a big blue car and I went to my truck.
But, when I got home and pulled that coat out of the closet, I felt good about the decision. That coat will have a good home with Charlie. I had only kept it in my closet because it reminded me of Da. Time for it to go have some fun with Charlie.
I didn't pass this story along to show what a good person I am. Sometimes I am good, sometimes not. On many occasions, I would have not encouraged talk and slipped away as quickly as I could.
On many occasions, I am certain that I have missed good chances to make the world better, to be a kinder, gentler me.
Just not this time. This time, I stopped. It didn't kill me and it was a good conversation with an interesting man who probably doesn't get to let his words out enough. I think it would drive me nuts to not be able to communicate. I probably would not have a tenth of his good cheer. I most certainly would not be volunteering to be a bell ringer.
I don't understand those who feel the need to mock those with a disability. I just don't. And I do believe that while I may have given that dick head kid something to think about, I probably didn't change him. I probably just pissed him off and he'll pass that anger and disappointment on to someone else.
Most people don't learn well through humiliation, which is basically what I did to him. I humiliated him.
I suppose I should feel sad about that. But, I don't. I still feel this little rush of glee that I was able to slug one in for the Amelias and the Charlies.
I'm looking forward to seeing Charlie tomorrow and giving him Da's coat.
Da would have liked that, I think.