While I earned my teaching degree, I worked at a major grocery store chain in the university area. My apartment was so close to the store that I walked if my shift ended at a decent time, or if it was 15% Tuesday and I knew there was no way I could get a parking spot anywhere near the store. Most days, it wasn’t a bad little part-time job, and I really enjoyed chatting with the folks who came through my till. Even if unpleasant people came through, it was reassuring to know I would only have to deal with them until their groceries were bagged and they were (thankfully) on their way to aggravate someone else.
As in any job, there are still experiences that stand out in a person’s mind years later. One muggy summer day, I met a man I’ll never forget. He shuffled up to my till, hanging his head, and he didn’t have to wait in line because the store was pretty dead. It was probably a Wednesday evening, or some other time when the grocery store isn’t exactly the hot place to hang out. Without a word, he set a chocolate bar and a rather pathetic bouquet of limp yellow flowers on the counter.
Let me take just a moment to describe this man. He towered over me, Jolly Green Giant style, except that he wasn’t quite that green. His biceps strained the cotton of his Harley Davidson t-shirt, and his neck erupted from the collar of his black leather vest (complete with tassels) like a mighty, hairy redwood. This guy had more hair in his sideburns than many men do on their entire heads, and he had a carefully cultivated mullet that would put John Stamos circa 1991 to shame. A skull tattoo that had to be life-sized smirked at me from his shoulder, and an inky eagle, claws outstretched and wings displayed in all their glory, prepared to land on his forearm.
He was the kind of guy my father warned me about. Actually, scrap that. He was the kind of guy my father promised to shoot and personally bury in the back 40 if I ever brought him home for dinner.
“Special occasion?” I asked, gesturing at the chocolates and mums. He covered his whiskered face with his massive hands and shook his head. When he raised his arms, I saw “BARBARA” tattooed in fancy pants old-English letters down the underside of his forearm. Each letter was the size of the kind of marshmallow appropriate for roasting over a campfire.
“Nah,” he whimpered. He shook his head slowly, “Man, I’m in so much trouble.” A smart major grocery chain store cashier knows when to speak and when to keep her mouth shut; I waited a moment. “D’ya think these are okay? My girlfriend is ready to kill me.” He gestured at his intended purchases. I chose my words carefully, mindful of the fact that this guy was both emotionally vulnerable and the size of the average abominable snowman.
“Well,” I started apologetically, “Chrysanthemums can be really beautiful, but they’re kind of a flower you buy for your mom.” He looked at me with panic glaring under his bushy brows. “I know we got a fresh shipment of roses today, and I bet there are some she’d like.” I patted myself figuratively on the back for helping Barbara out on this one.
“Roses…yeah, that sounds good.” He nodded but didn’t smile.
“Does your lady have a favourite colour? We have about nine different colours of roses right now.”
He thought a fraction of a second before announcing confidently, “Black. Definitely black.”
“I, uh, don’t believe we stock black roses,” I said, “but I know we have some gorgeous deep red ones. Very romantic.”
“I want those, please,” he confirmed. “How about the chocolate?”
I stared at the king size Caramilk bar on the counter, and tried not to sigh aloud. I looked to my right, where another cashier had no line up, and out into the store, where only a couple people were wandering about with half-full plastic shopping baskets. With a clatter, I threw my “Please Use Another Lane” sign onto my counter, and announced, “Can I help you? Let’s get your girlfriend something that will smooth things over a bit.”
I trotted out into the aisles, scrambling to stay ahead of the huge, tender-hearted man who so desperately needed my assistance. I showed him where we kept the good chocolate, and he wisely selected a Swiss dark (I may have nudged him in the right direction, but I’ve always been an educator). Then it was time to select some roses. The floral department girls had all gone home for the night, so I helped him decide.
I knew I’d found the right bouquet when he really smiled for the first time since we’d met. “Perfect. She will love those.” He released the breath he’d been holding onto and his shoulders finally relaxed. I wrapped them up for him in clear floral plastic and tied a big shmancy purple bow. He nodded approvingly and jammed his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans.
“Now,” I said, pointing to all the little cards, “you can fill out the message you want to give to your sweetie, and I’ll slip it in with the roses.” I was getting excited too. Barbara was going to be swept away by all the romance. Thor and Barbara were going to be just fine after all this, and I helped. A Caramilk and half-dead old lady flowers indeed.
He picked a lovely card that said, “I’m Sorry,” and looked suddenly uncomfortable again. His mouth opened once or twice before he spoke, “Um, could you please write on the card for me? My writing is terrible. She won’t be able to read it.”
I’d helped enough already that I was more than happy to do this one little thing for Mr. Tough Guy. I uncapped my pen with a flourish. “What would you like to say?” I asked, ready to write whatever gushy man message he figured would fix things up with Barbara.
He cleared his throat gruffly and looked a little sheepish. “I love you more than I words can say. You are my whole world. You are my everything.”
Wow, I though to myself as I carefully wrote his message. This guy is a real teddy bear! I slipped the card into the envelope and asked about the last detail, “What should we put on the envelope?”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “Can you write, ‘I love you, Tammy’?”
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