I stood at the customer service counter, wondering if anyone would notice me amid the shopping carts and baskets which surrounded me, each heaped with spurned gifts, returned merchandise that needed to be put-back. The lights were already dim in this part of the store, a testament to how slow my normally chaotic neighborhood had become due to the threat of snow. After several minutes, a tall, striking young employee approached me to ask if I needed help. I said that I needed to make a return.
Wordlessly, he rounded the carts and positioned himself behind the counter. I handed him my receipt and he scanned it, then reached for the tchotchke I was returning. He tossed it in to a giant bin behind him without looking. “$21 will go back on your card. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Did you have a nice Christmas?”, he mindlessly asked.
And because I have no boundaries, I replied, “I don’t really celebrate it anymore. Some years ago, my dad went in to a coma on the 23rd of December and passed away on the 29th. We buried him on the 31st. So the holidays just haven’t been the same after that.” My cheeks were hot by the time my explanation trailed off awkwardly. I should’ve just said, “Yes, thanks for asking!” and walked out.
My answer had snapped him out of his exhaustion, haze, reverie. “That’s deep.”
“Do you think you’ll ever celebrate it again?”, he asked. I stared at him, and for the first time, I really saw him. He was too pretty for retail. He looked like he should be the supporting actor on a sitcom, the one-liner-spouting son with an easy smile, filling out a fake nuclear family on some set in L.A. I had noticed him before, but only in the most cursory way– he stood out from the other employees. While they shuffled, slouched and grumbled, his posture was flawless. While they layered tee-shirts and sagged their pants, he always wore a designer crewneck sweater and a trim, shiny belt with a giant French logo for a belt buckle. The latter could’ve been a fake, but if it was, it was a great one. No fraying threads or tarnished metal in sight. He took his appearance and his comportment seriously.
“I don’t know…I hope so, ‘celebrating’ would be better than spending a whole week grieving,” I began. “Someone once told me that when I have kids, I’ll feel like celebrating…but I don’t have kids. I just have a puppy.”
“A puppy? Nice.”
“How was your Christmas?” I asked.
“Wow, did you just ask me that? That’s so nice of you. No one has asked me that. Not one person.”
“Well…that’s not…very kind”, I stumbled. I wasn’t surprised though. Columbia Heights seemed to be a neighborhood of haves and have-nots– and the haves whom I had observed were rarely polite to those in the service industry, as if being imperious and entitled would somehow magnify the numbers in their bank accounts.
“I’m used to it, in this neighborhood.” His face darkened. I hoped I hadn’t reminded him of some ugly situation. I tried to change the subject.
“Are you doing anything fun for New Year’s?” I was trying to sound cheery.
He stared at me and his expression changed, again. I’m telling you, I could see him on stage, emoting effortlessly.
He took a deep breath. “I’m not doing anything for it, if that’s what you mean. I didn’t think I’d make it to another year, so I’m just happy I did. I’m celebrating that.”
“What do you mean…why wouldn’t you make it?”
“Well, some of my friends didn’t, na’mean? My best friend, he got killed this year…he didn’t make it. I’m still here. That’s what I’ll celebrate. Every day.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss. That’s terrible.” He looked so young himself…how old could his friend have been?
“It’s been rough.”
The store was nearly empty. No one was nearby. It felt like the entire world had receded. Maybe that’s why I kept going. “What happened, if I may ask? If you don’t want to tell me, I understand completely. I’m sorry if it seems intrusive…”
“Nah, it’s all good. You did ask how my Christmas was and everything. You aight. My friend…he…hmmm.”
He paused, lips pursed, and looked away. I waited.
“My friend got shot. He told this kid a joke, and I guess he didn’t like it, because next thing I know he pulls out a gun and starts shooting. He hit my best friend and then shot this other kid in the leg. The kid who got shot in the leg made it. My best friend didn’t. Because this guy couldn’t take a joke.”
“How old was your friend?”
“16. No, 17. He was a little bit younger ‘n me, but he was my best friend. And he’s dead. For nothin’. For a joke.”
“Where did this happen?”
“In Columbia Heights, you mean?”
“Nah, nah…I mean D.C. In Northeast.”
“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged. “Nothin’ to be done about it. All I can do is try and move on and feel blessed to still be here. I’ll be all right. I have to go help close, though.”
“Take care,” I said, lamely.
He smiled from behind the counter, rounded the carts gracefully, and then walked away.