If I Hadn’t Stopped: Conversations from the Walmarts

It seemed an innocuous enough question. “Which ‘uns o’ these are any good?” I was wrapped up in my own world when he asked it, trying to find just the right variety of frozen microwaveable lunches for my family. “I always git Hongry Man, but I can git tarred of ’em right quick.”

“I don’t know. I’m just buying these for my wife and kids,” I replied, trying to end the discussion right there. It wasn’t a lie. In our home schooling world, Michelina is our virtual lunchroom lady.

“Well, I know that. That don’t matter none. I just don’t know what to git.” Clearly, he wasn’t letting me off that easily. I pointed him to the Michelinas, grabbed the handful of them I needed and tried to move on. My wife and daughter were sick at home, which meant my six-year-old son was, at that moment, the man of the house. That’s fine if your needs are for a good poop joke or a running string of absurdist “what ifs,” but any real needs were awaiting my return.

“I used to have me a wife. She cooked for me real good.” The man looked to be in his sixties with a pencil thin grey mustache and a full head of grey hair. I know it was full, because I stood a good foot taller than him and could study it from above. I felt like the Google Maps satellite. “She ran off and left me, and now I can’t git no good cooking.” There it was, the overly vulnerable statement that just took this from the level of banal small talk to a real conversation. I wasn’t getting away.

So I stopped, and I listened.

I don’t know why I did. Maybe I think we’ve gotten so lost in our high-speed technological world where we rush from place to place just so we can check our devices and “engage” with people through social networking. Maybe I was following that verse in the Bible I claim as my favorite, Philippians 2:3, which says we should consider others better than ourselves. Or maybe I just have a big tattoo on my sizable forehead that reads: “Sucker. Unload your problems here.” It’s probably a combination of all those.

If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have learned that he was married to his ex-wife for 21 years. I wouldn’t have known that he raised her four children and several grandchildren. The kids grew up, and she left. “She storted drankin’ and stuff: goin’ to clubs and sleeping around.”

“Why’d she do that after all that time?” I asked.

“‘Cause I was done raising her kids, I reckon.” The kids still call him Daddy and Granddaddy. If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have known that she used to be a good, church-going woman, right with the Lord. I wouldn’t have known that five years before she left him, she was in a wheelchair. At least she was in a wheelchair until he took her to a tent revival. After that night, she walked. That is, she walked until she left him. Then she got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her hip and five ribs. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t stopped. I wonder where the faith healer comes down on karma?

If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have known that he met someone else. “I fell in love with this lady I met at the Walmarts over in Pell City.” I swear I’m not making that up. “She begged me to marry her, and I did. We had a big church weddin’ and all. Come to find out, she’d already been married fourteen years, so we watn’t really married. Can you believe that?” No, but I’ll go with it.

If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have learned that so much can happen in 24 hours.  A friend came over to visit, hoping to meet his his new non-wife. She fell for the friend within 20 minutes. They ran away together. Within 24 hours, both were in jail. He bailed them out. Within 24 hours of her coming back home, he was in jail for battery. “I was jest walkin’ through the house with a shotgun in my hand, and she grabbed it, slammed the butt of the gun into her forehead, had me arrested.” The county wouldn’t take his land as a guarantee for bail. He spent 24 hours in the Shelby County jail.

If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t know that he lost his job a year ago. His employer carelessly loaded the trailer of the truck he was driving. “I opened up the door, and them crates fell right on my head.” After several weeks of sick leave for a concussion and torn rotator cuff, “they farred me. Boss man called me in his office, said ‘You don’t work here no more.'” He’s now suing his former employer through a lawyer he meets with regularly “up at the McDonald’s.”

If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t have known that before becoming a truck driver, he worked in the steel industry … and as a cabinet maker … and as a mechanic. Now he’s sixty years old and can’t get a job. “They told me, ‘If I har you, you’ll be retarrin’ in a year.’ So I git some food stamps and a little bit o’ welfar.” Signs of the times.

He told me he’s happy. I’m not sure that wasn’t a lie. He said he’s right with the Lord, and he goes to church most of the time. “At least,” he said, “I do the best I can. Of course, that ain’t always so good.”

I apologized and wished him well, needing to wrap up my shopping and get back to the sick ones at home. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t deliberately avoid aisles he was on for the rest of my sojourn at “the Walmarts.” It’s a heady thing to have someone’s entire life story dumped in your lap while standing in frozen foods. At the same time, though, I hope that lending him a friendly ear did his heart a little bit of good. If not, it did mine.

That’s something I never would have known …

If I hadn’t stopped.

12 Responses to “If I Hadn’t Stopped: Conversations from the Walmarts”

  1. Well done, Wayne.

  2. Joey V. Kirkpatrick Reply February 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Wayne, it seems like you wondered into my universe for a bit. Usually those encounters occur at the corner gas station for me. At walmart, I usually have some toddler wander up and grab my leg which either indicates “your leg looks like daddy’s leg” or “can you take me to raise?” I think these are divine appointments in our lives that we did not realize we had but God knew that WE needed them.

    • It was a far cry from some encounters I’ve had…especially those that happened to me on Beale Street during Elvis Week. At least this one was mostly G-rated, PG tops.

  3. Wayne, you’ve practically got me crying. I don’t think I’ve told you this yet, but you’re a great writer. You really put me there right with you, and that’s an amazing thing that not everyone can do.

    I have worked in retail for a long time, and I’ve heard more life stories and problems than I can remember. I used to wonder what it was about me that made people dump their lives at my feet. I think that people just really need to be heard. They need to be acknowledged and listened to and sympathized with. I’m so glad that you took the time to listen to that man. It says something great about who you are. And you’re inspiring me to be a better me.

  4. These encounters happen to my husband all the time – and he has a big heart that seems to draw people to him. ( maybe you are guilty of having a big heart too) We call these meetings ‘entertaining angels unaware’. They are always moving stories – some crazier than others – but always always always they stop us in our tracks to reevaluate our own attitudes, prejudices and life stories. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. Wanted to add one other thing – I have been thinking about this story most of the afternoon and calling it The Parable of the Frozen Dinners as I mull it over. It is a great meditation for the beginning of Lent – anyway – great! K

  6. Oh my goodness…that poor soul.

    This was so well written. You certainly nailed his accent. It added to the storytelling in a big way. I am sure it took you some time to think the accent into phonetic typing. Thank you for doing that.

    So nice of you to give him your time. Sometimes that’s a gift only we give and sometimes it’s all somebody needs, a kind ear.

    • Thanks! That accent is easier for me to type than you would imagine. I’m obsessed with the way people talk. I’m writing a screenplay right now, and almost every character is described in terms of their accent.

  7. Wow, it’s the same thing up here in Tennessee, but this one was a gold mine! And I CAN hear the accent; sounds like Kentucky coal miners almost. I know, my in-laws are thick with the same sounds. Oh yeah, never tried Michelina’s not even once. But I’m a girl and I cook a lot. Thanks for a great read!

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