Walmart being the great social center that it is for those of us who live in Paradise, I’ve had more than one strange encounter while shopping there. The most recent occurred just a couple of days ago.
Gwen and I came in together and then went our separate ways. She zipped over to the organic fruits and vegetables, and I ambled to the snack tables where Doug the Dog Breeder so often holds court. We hadn’t talked for awhile, and I was eager to get up to speed on what was going on in his life.
My good friend was nowhere to be seen, though, so I got a cup of coffee and sat down by my lonesome for some people-watching.
At first I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Just:
- A group of teenage girls posturing for a group of teenage boys
- A five-year-old girl whacking her little brother alongside the head when their mom turned her attention from them to a display of potted plants
- An elderly man riding his motorized cart like a bumper car and frowning disappointedly when everyone scooted out of the way.
I did my best not to grin so widely that the afternoon’s entertainment caught on to how very entertaining it was being. I’ve learned from sad experience that some folks don’t take all too kindly to that.
Then the strangeness arrived. In the form of a woman of about 50, wearing a faded dress. She sat down across the table from me and leaned forward with a very serious look on her face.
“I’ve got a problem,” she said. “Don’t have a clue about what to do.”
“It’s my cousin’s son,” she went on. “He called me yesterday out of the blue to tell me his father just died and he’s glad. ‘My daddy was a terrible man,’ he told me. ‘He was tall and broad and taken by fits of temper that made everybody in the household fear for our lives.’
“I didn’t know what to say,” my Walmart confidante continued. “I don’t know the boy and barely remembered his father. Probably only saw my cousin half a dozen times when we were kids and never after we grew up.
“The boy said he had to call other family members and hung up. And as soon as he did I recalled a few things about this ‘terrible man’. He was big even as a child, and gawky, and he tried very hard. But his mother, my aunt, never saw him as anything but a mess. She mocked him when she talked about him to my mother, and I saw her mock him to his face.
“She treated the boy like the family idiot, and he never knew how to respond. Because he was a kid, and what can a kid say about the cruelty of any adult, let alone a parent?”
The woman twisted in her chair, a look of pain taking over her face. “I have no idea how intelligent my cousin was, but I suspect that one of the reasons he grew into an abusive man was that he was so betrayed by the woman who was supposed to support and protect him.
“I feel like I should call his son back and tell him about this. Not to absolve my cousin. Not even to excuse him. But to explain just a little. So many of us grow up not understanding our parents as people, and it’s so easy to end up bitter or even twisted as a result.
“That’s it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to make that call. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
My Walmart confidante reached out and hugged me. Then she pushed back her chair and strode away, passing Gwen, who was coming over with her cart.
“Friend of yours?” Gwen said.
I could only shrug. “A lady with a problem,” I said.
“Were you able to help her solve it?”
“Then why don’t you look as happy as you should?”
I realized I wasn’t smiling. And I also realized why. “Honey, this isn’t exactly my kind of thing. What would’ve happened if instead of me sitting here it’d been Doug?”
Now it was Gwen’s turn to hug me. “Exactly the same thing,” she said with a laugh. “All she needed was for somebody to listen.”
I always wondered why Doug spent so much time in this place. Now I know.
It’s more than just people-watching.
It’s for the hugs.
Larry Brody is an author, veteran television writer and producer and creative director of Cloud Creek Institute for the Arts. He, his wife and their dogs, cats, horses and chickens live in Marion County. The other residents of the mythical town of Paradise reside in his imagination, however, and any resemblance to actual places or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Originally published July 31, 2009