The following story is NOT a work of fiction. It is my own account of something that actually happened to me while I was working in a retail store about two years ago.
I hate the holidays… The thought ran through my head a hundred times a day. Working retail in December had to be the cruelest form of Karmic punishment ever devised.
It was December 22nd and I was working at a local grocery store. To the customers, of course, I was cheerful and pleasant, but inside I was a scowling Grinch, a miserly Scrooge waiting eagerly for the dreaded day to pass. But then something happened, something so simple and yet so complex, something that I still remember to this day.
“The whole world is one big case of heartburn.” I muttered as I shoved more bottles of Tums up onto the shelf.
At the end of the aisle two customers’ carts hit each other and they began yelling angrily. People stopped to watch, to stare at the display. There’s that Christmas spirit. I thought dully as the pair finally broke apart and headed in their own directions.
“You! Girl!” An impatient looking man had walked up to me. “Do you sell prewrapped gifts?”
It took me a minute to realize that he was being serious. “No sir, I’m sorr-“
“Well I need something right now! I need a toy and I need it wrapped. If I buy the paper and tape, will you wrap it for me?”
Times like this made it hard not to laugh in the customer’s face. But I forced that vague, empty smile that kept me out of trouble and shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t.” He cursed at me and walked off. “Well a very Merry Christmas to you too you jacka-“
Someone was tugging gently at my sleeve. “Excuse me miss…”
I turned and looked into the smiling, gentle face of an elderly woman. Perhaps between seventy and eighty, she had gently curling silver hair that was sticking out under a hat and her face was lined with soft wrinkles. I couldn’t help but smile at her. “Yes, hello, how can I help you?” Dimly I recognized her as one of the usual customers in the store, though I had never caught her name.
Another customer pushed impatiently past us and she drew a little closer to me, looking meek. Her eyes followed the rude woman up the aisle before looking back at me. “I hate to be a bother, I know you’re so busy, but I need some help.” She handed me a handful of bills and a shopping list. “I need to buy these things, and some Christmas presents, but I don’t know if I have enough.”
There was something so sad in her expression that it nearly broke my heart. “It’s not a bother at all. We’ll get you sorted out in no time.” I counted her money, a mere $46, then looked at the items in her cart. Immediately I knew that she had too many things. Perhaps if she hadn’t needed so many different medicines, there might have been enough. But she had pain pills for her arthritis, cold medicine, antacids and fiber pills. Twenty-some dollars right there. Then she had a bag of chocolate chips, a tin for the cookies they would yield, another five dollars or more. Then she had Dogopoly, which I knew was $20. “I’m sorry… but you don’t have enough…” I told her after I had sorted through the cart.
We did everything we could think of, switching to the generic pills, the store brand chocolate chips, put the cookie tin back, but still there wasn’t enough for her to get her granddaughter a doll and her grandson a castle playset. I kept telling her if she could put the Dogopoly game back, just for now, that she would be able to afford it, but she said she couldn’t, it was a gift for the nursing home her husband had stayed in before he died.
For the second time that day someone caught my sleeve and I turned away from the stricken face of the elderly lady. “Yes?”
There was another woman standing close to my side. She had brown hair that was about shoulder length and was probably in her thirties. To be honest there wasn’t anything special about her, I figured she was just another rude customer who couldn’t be bothered with waiting until I finished helping the lady. She smiled at me and pressed something into my hand. “Make sure she gets everything she needs.” She whispered.
I looked down into my hand. There, curled up, was a fifty dollar bill. I laughed softly and showed it to the elderly woman. “I think you can get those toys now ma’am.”
We both looked up to thank the woman, but she was gone. The elderly lady went up and down aisles, trying to find her, to thank her, but it was no use. The generous stranger had disappeared. She took the bill from me and looked down at it, tears in her eyes.
I finished helping her select her gifts and walked with her to the register, both of us fully of teary-eyed smiles.
When it was over I returned to the aisle that I’d been stocking.
Another employee was finishing up what I’d left behind. “What are you all smiley about?” He asked rather sourly.
I grinned at him and picked up another bottle of Tums to put away. “I love the holidays.”