Summary: Herb Heineman’s first person story, “Checking Out” appeared in the May, 2014 issue of the Lumberton Campus Chronicle.
It has to do with a monetary gift from a woman who “turns around and smiles (as women are wont to do when their gaze meets mine).”
by Herb Heineman – May 2104 Lumberton Campus Chronicle
To the best of my knowledge, the checkout line isn’t where people go to find enrichment – material or spiritual – or even just interest. But I found all three at the Aldi market in Mt. Laurel a few weeks ago. Here’s the story, completely true.
As I get ready to pay for my groceries, a woman in line just ahead of me turns around and smiles (as women are wont to do when their gaze meets mine). The cashier begins to total her purchases. At that moment a man appears at my side holding only a loaf of bread and asks me whether he can go before me; I consent. The woman with the smile completes her transaction, followed by the man, and then it’s my turn.
The cashier tallies my charges and shows me a $20 dollar bill. Then she enters $20 as part payment; I only owe the balance.
“The lady left it for you,” she explains.
I gape in amazement. “I don’t understand. Who is she?”
“I don’t know.” The cashier, of course, is also smiling as her gaze meets mine.
“Are you sure it’s for me?” I ask.
“She must have meant it for the man right behind her? I bet he needs it more than I do.”
“No, she said it’s for you. No mistake.”
I make ready to leave and ask, “Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she’s military. A lot of them shop here and they sometimes help others out with money.”
Without delving into that intriguing aspect of military culture, I ask, But why me? I can’t take this; I’ve got to give it back. If I can catch her.”
The cashier looks out the window and says, “There she is, bringing her cart back. The black lady.”
She’s the one who smiled at me. I rush out with my cart and shout, “Miss!”
She turns. “Are you the kind lady who left $20 for me?” I ask.
“Yes,” she answers.
She waits patiently in case I have something else to say. Eventually I find words. “Why would you do such a thing? You don’t even know me!”
“The Lord told me to.”
Now I’m not much of a believer, but I recognize sincerity even when it’s not acompanied by a cash gift. I ask her as repectfully as I can whether she thinks the Lord will allow her to take it back, and she says no. Part of it, maybe? No again.
I don’t have the presence of mind to ask her name, or to take down her license plate number, or to ask the remaining question: Why didn’t she give the money to the man right behind her? Why me? I’m in the grip of emotion, so I hug this lovely, nameless stranger and say – meaning it totally and seriously – “Lord bless you.” In that fleeting moment I believe.
Can my unexceptional courtesy – letting a shopper with a single item go ahead – have so impressed this woman? I doubt it; shoppers do it all the time. (I don’t even know whether she saw that encounter, being in the process of checking out herself.) Was her initial smile a signal that I had already been identified to her? I doubt that too; women smile at me all the time. Did she see herself as appointed messenger, reminding me how one person’s conduct affects others? Was it pure chance that I was the beneficiary of a religious woman’s generosity? I’ll never know.
Later Maggie asks me, when I tell her of my experience, “What did you do with the money?”
With a twinge of guilt I admit, “I spent it. I mean, the cashier already had it.”
I know what’s coming but I’m powerless to stop it. “Then you should give money to someone else, not our usual charities, maybe a panhandler.”
I’ll try to think of someone who’ll make better use of my money than a panhandler, but I know that one day a person yet to be identified is going to find her/himself holding a $20 bill they hadn’t counted on – likely don’t even need. If they ask why I’d do such a thing, I’ll have my five-word answer ready.