“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”
— Og Mandino
Sporadic moments, magic moments… I don’t know why, maybe because of the medicine or maybe because it’s payday: there’s no way of knowing really: but at times I get to feeling more connected than most days. More in touch with my neighbor or however you want to put it. Buzzing with deep charges from far beneath the surface of the boring grind, I feel inspired- on occasion- to light out down a road I rarely wander on. I’ll get brave. Brazen. Let my guard down/ humming with some new flash of confidence I know won’t stick around long, I take the leap, risk the rejection, try overt kindness on for a fucking change.
I doubt you understand what I am trying to say. Chances are, you and me, we move to the beat of very different drummers and fair enough with that. Who wants to be another cookie cut drip boy you know? Who wants to walk around flashing the same stupid bright smile as everyone else/ the same political frown/ the same bogus sense of righteous understanding? You don’t understand ape shit from apple butter. Neither do I. That is everything if or when you think about it.
Even so, the human mind is such a fickle spark/ such a perfect catalyst for surprise. Each of us is sitting on so many time bombs. It’s nice when one of them, every now and then, goes off with a puff of pink smoke and the gentle scent of teenage patchouli and autumn leaves in your hair, you know? It’s a gentle reminder/ these rare nice explosions/ that life is absolute chaos.
There is nothing but random innocence and happenstance guilt.
No one has a goddamn clue what ten seconds from now will bring.
People are dying right before they reach the chorus. People are dropping dead right before they get off in bed. Across your street, down your block, people are going about their day as if nothing will happen that they can’t handle.
But the wires in the walls are fraying with decay.
And the dog doesn’t recognize anyone anymore.
Someone is flushing the toilet for the very last time.
Tomorrow they are no more.
Isn’t it strangely beautiful, these random shots going off in the dark? I hear screams, voices laughing, the bursting of echoes in the roaring night.
My own behavior can be such a beautiful bird landing on my shoulder.
Come with me and I’ll show you what I mean.
In the checkout line at the Walmart, I lay my stuff on the moving surface. I drop a bag of avocados when I see that there is a need to delineate here. There is the ass-end of this lady in front of me’s stuff/ her cat food cans and her Lysol wipes and her bottle of knockoff brand Dr Pepper/ and then there is my stuff/ my avocados in the clear flimsy bag/ so I pick up one of those little plastic fence separators and I lay it down where her order ends and mine begins.
Without it, I think to myself, everyone here is fucked. Me, the lady in front of me, the cashier with the bright pink hair, we are all going to be messed up if somebody doesn’t step up and stop the orders from being combined.
If my avocados end up in this other lady’s life, I mean, I don’t know what could happen. But I don’t want to find out either. You play around with certain angles of reality and you can get bit in the face, man. Puncture bit. Like: you ain’t coming back the same as before.
It doesn’t matter though. I save the day, I guess. I keep my avocados and the lady pays for her shit and pushes her body into her cart and disappears behind me towards the front doors on the western side of the building. I will probably never see her again. We had no interaction other than her looking at my one hand dropping the fence in place. She has rolled off into the world and we are, more than likely, never to cross paths again.
I’m fine with it.
I get nervous now though. Heaving all of my groceries and Halloween decorations and kid t-shirts on the checkout surface is always a race for me. Sometimes before I can get everything out of the cart and onto the rolling sidewalk thing, the cashier has filled up every bag on their rotating trolley of plastic bags and I see this happening and I start getting some hardcore anxiety.
The bright halogen lights begin flashing high above me, up in the rafters of the wide open box store prairie sky. I can feel the security cameras hooked solid to every fourth painted white beam all spinning slowly towards Aisle 5/ towards me and the pink hair lady/ and then it’s like: I sense the people who watch the screens in the back of the Walmart and also the ones watching down at the mission control center in a bunker deep beneath a soybean field in Bentonville, Arkansas/ all of them moving closer with their faces to the screens in front of them as if they are NASA people peering in on an alien face trying to lick the satellite Go-Pro/ all of them looking at this jittery middle-aged guy in Aisle 5 State College Store 2 as he tries, desperately (pathetically) to get all of his crap up onto the moving counter before all 8 bags on the checkout trolley are full and there is nothing left to do for the checkout lady but to wait/ ho-hum/ for this idiot to get his shit together and stop costing Walmart millions of dollars a minute in lost time.
Because, I mean, that has to be a huge financial hit, right? Me holding things up with my diving into the shopping cart, all sweaty and B.O.-ing out, as I roll around down in there trying to wrangle a bag of cilantro out from under a plastic skeleton with a cool little velvety top hat on his head so that I can keep all the veggies together and not have, like, one dumbass bag of cilantro bagged way late with a whole bunch of toiletries or (god forbid) in with the t-shirts instead of up in the veggie bags where it knows goddamn well is where it belongs!
I know that’s not sexy. I know a man isn’t supposed to become flustered at a thing like that. Sometimes I think of the fur traders from the 1830’s. I try to imagine what would happen if some grizzled leathery mountain man from the Wyoming territory was faced with the loose concept of trying to get all of his wampum up on the rolling conveyor belt before the universe splits in two parts because he is a slow moron.
Oh god. The mountain man feels his heart racing like never before! The panic of a moment like this is too much, he thinks to himself. How do people even exist in this rat race bullshit madness??!! He raises a half cleaver- half Rambo knife in the air above his buckskin fur hat and he slams that bad boy down with a screeching country boy squawk and it lands in the scalp of the poor lady with the pink hair and Jesus H Christ, all hell is breaking out over in 5 where DadMan in the Gettysburg t-shirt is hiding in his cart under a bag of cheap dog food (fuck that expensive shit, fool) as anxiety makes the mountain man monster out and here comes Paul Blart firing his taser and Penn State kids are running out without paying for their ramen and their sex lubes and their Primes and it’s just a real shit show, people.
A real fucking shit show all because I pile way too much crap in my cart because I hate Walmart so much that I don’t want to come back here for two weeks if at all possible even though that never happens ever because I always end up back here a few days later.
Because I don’t hate this place.
I secretly love it.
And I’m lost in the universe, spinning out of control on the security cameras, I think.
As it happens, I am feeling pretty good today, like I said, so I don’t even come close to freaking out about anything. I stand in the check-out line with some kind of weird Big Dick Energy that feels organic. It feels real. Like I’m wearing a mud bath face thing but I don’t give a damn about it and everyone can sense that, everyone who passes me by and all. And that calms everyone. Me on my meds walking through the spices and passing the little apple sauce lunch packets feeling tall and proud and handsome even though I am a small, thick pygmy squash dressed in black. It feels sensational and I love it.
Cut loose from the reigns of anxiety, we are true masters then, me and you. Or maybe not you. I can’t speak for you. But for me, at least. I hope for you too sometimes, but for me at least right here and right now, I am bigger than myself. I outfox the menace of the creeping nerves and stroll through the store on big platform boots/ big pizzeria high heel man boots from 1977. Everyone smiles at me. Everyone nods and winks and touches my arm tenderly, flirtatiously as I take packages of smoked salmon into my strong fists and then set them down again, gently, as if I was a mountain man who has a pet trout down in a certain cold water hole where no one else goes because the Lakota are there and they will slit your throat just for sniffing their wind.
That’s how good I feel. I don’t get it either. My paycheck will be gone in a couple more minutes. All this food and shit, I’ll be back to broke. Back to black. But it doesn’t phase me today. I am riveted by some interstellar connection. I am feeling alive and generous and enlightened.
The girl with the pink hair is plump and she seems tired and I normally wouldn’t probably engage with her because I would think she might just look into my eyes and tell me to fuck off, but not today.
I literally cannot help myself.
I say it before I can even realize I’m about to say it. I say the thing way before I have my shopping cart emptied and the rung-up bagged stuff transported back into the safety of the cross-hatched metal. The bags are piling up on the bag carousel. I smile up at the cameras on the ceiling staring down at me.
Pink Hair seems forlorn. Dejected. Bored. Underpaid. Mad. Sad. I don’t know. I make assumptions based on zero information. Life is chaos, man. I already told you that.
I like your hair, I say, with a little bounce in my words, out of nowhere.
And just like that: everything shifts.
Her face rises from the green onions in her hand and it breaks out in a smile and she is happy and I can tell.
THANK YOU!!! she tells me. I can see her being born now. A writhing newborn dropping out from between these thick buttery thighs of Walmart State College #2 where she has been wombing out for God knows how long. Covered in a jelly coat of Arkansas Placenta, she lands right before me on this dirty tile floor. There must be 300,000 tiles on the floor of this place. It’s a super store. Whatever that means.
What follows then, is good life, I’d say.
We are kind to each other and there is no pretense. There are no hidden agendas as far as I can tell. She spouts endlessly about all the different hair dye colors she has tried before and how this one was the one she wanted now because her son… blah, blah, blah.
I don’t clock every word. She doesn’t clock all of mine either, I’m guessing. I talk ishkibibble about how I want my kids to dye their hair and she looks up her pink color on her phone and tells me where to find it back in the cosmetics. She shows me a photo of the bottle it comes in and I nod my head and thank her. She rings up my chocolate milk jug and my frozen pizzas and my microwave popcorn and the whole time she is talking about her kid who is autistic and hair dyes and commenting on some of my kids snack favorites.
It is easy and relaxed and I don’t understand it. Why? Why did I say anything? Why did I reach up into the never-ending storm of chaos and wrap my fist around a baby lightning bolt and drag it down out of the sky? Why did I immediately put it in my mouth? Who does that? Why did I do something like that, something I hardly ever do?
Why did I say it?
I like your hair.
How did I know? How did I sense that by saying such an innocuous thing, by going out on a personal limb for myself and complimenting a complete stranger’s effort to change themselves in some way for whatever reasons they harbor inside, how did I ever find myself with the balls to take that chance like I did?
How did I absolutely know, in that precise moment, that by saying what I said: I could not lose.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin.