Martha note: Today's blog post came in third (as judged by Scott Simon) in WMRA's short, short story contest ...
Ralph hated seeing himself in the mirror. Mostly he didn’t think of himself, of how he looked. He was just himself, a big man with tattoos on his arms. One faded blue ribbon on his bicep said “Bonnie.” Maybe he thought he looked tough, his arms thick from years of construction work. But when he passed the mirror in the Home Living section he saw a man with a gut, plaid shirttail out, weekend whiskers going gray, teeth a little yellow. His hair looked matted.
In the main aisle three young women, college girls he guessed, picked out window shades for their dorm room or apartment. He watched them sideways. They did not have guts, or matted hair.
As he started toward the hardware section he found it hard to get the young women out of his mind, and he pretended to look for something in the main aisle so he could see them again, one with long dark braids, one with blond bangs cut short. Their feet were bare, pegged to flip-flops by single thongs between their toes.
Their toenails were pink or peach-colored.
It made him ache to see their feet.
He blinked hard and headed off to get a socket for a lamp that’d burned out. Bonnie had been after him for days to fix it.
Bonnie would be kneeling now, repeating after Pastor Luke. Pale-faced Pastor Luke. Ralph just couldn’t do that anymore. Bonnie said he was becoming an atheist. He was not. Truth was that day-by-day he was filling up with something. Like that benign tumor they cut from his pancreas Christmas before last. Benign. It was a beautiful word.
Overhead fluorescent tubes burned, white light. In this cavernous space everything gleamed — clothes on their racks, towels on their shelves, automotive gear, fishing poles, hammers, wrenches, plastic toys, storage trays, canned goods, jars of olives, frozen foods.
The Walmart was his church. It was where he came to get what he needed. Maybe Jesus would have come here on Sundays, he thought. As far as Ralph understood it, Jesus was a construction worker. That was all he needed to know.
He found the lamp parts and picked one, a shiny brass-colored barrel with a black plastic switch. Then he headed for the lawn and garden section. There, for the first time in his life, he bought a bird feeder and a sack of birdseed. He put them in the cart along with the lamp socket and some groceries from Bonnie’s list.
Even on Sunday morning lines formed at the register. He saw the college girls at the end of one, and he wheeled his cart behind them. From the magazine rack movie stars stared at him, at all the regular people standing in line with their debit cards and paltry bank accounts. When he looked up, he met the eyes of the girl with the long dark braids. She stood close. Her eyes, crystal clear, seemed almost green. She looked at him and then past him. A big unshaven man with a gut. A construction worker. She turned away, showed the back of her head.
When he got home he would stick the bird-feeder out back. They would watch as they grew older, he and Bonnie, watch birds fly through the air to land in their backyard. He would fly away one day, with the birds. Then he would know for certain that all of them — the college girls, the birds, himself, everyone at all the Walmarts everywhere — were God’s own creatures.
--Jack Greer and his family have a mountain cabin near Shenandoah, Virginia, where he goes whenever he can to write.