“Raisins,” he said.
Her nametag read “Cassie.” He didn’t remember seeing her here before, until just now as her cheery voice asked him what he was looking for.
“You’re new here,” he said, surprised at how quickly she had answered, “Aisle J6.”
Before she could answer, another man rudely interrupted, pulling Cassie’s arm. “Baking soda,” he demanded. “Aisle A16,” she said, “But you want baking powder,” she said, pointing to his shopping list. “Same aisle, but very different.” “Can’t read the wife’s writing,” the man grumbled, moving on without bothering to thank her.
Cassie’s hundred-watt smile hadn’t lost a single lumen of brightness.
“I started working here recently,” she said, picking back up on the conversation that had derailed before it started. “But I’ve been coming here for a long time.”
“You like it here,” he said. There was no question. “I do,” she answered. “Do you?”
Mr. Wall smiled, it was faint, bittersweet. “I suppose that I do.” His face settled back into its default – sadness. He was sixty-something, a lot of life left in him, not so with his scarred heart. Sorrow and regret had left it weak, but never hardened it. “I’ll see you soon, I suppose,” Cassie said, smiling, hurrying off to where the checkout lanes were beginning to crowd.
Many at Wall’s knew the man’s story, the business side, at least. How he had partial ownership way back when it was just Frank’s Pharmacy, a fledgling that would grow and soar, becoming the model for one-stop shopping nationwide. Mr. Wall was a billionaire by all accounts, but inside, he was needy. Right after the merger that made him rich, he had lost what mattered most. The love of his life. Now twenty-some years widowed, he still wore his wedding ring and his grief. In Wall’s Floral department, they spoke of the man who bought two roses every week, a burgundy one to symbolize devotion, and a pink one, for gratitude, or grieving, or both. Mr. Wall was often mentioned in the training rooms, too. New employees were reminded to treat every customer as the most important; after all, the billionaire owner of the company shopped here, dressed in jeans and a wrinkled shirt. And every September, there was much talk and speculation about the man who quietly handed out bagged lunches and school supplies he’d paid for himself.
Mr. Wall finished his shopping and got in Nadine’s lane as he always did. She was many years his senior, with a radiant smile, the kind that barely ever graced his own face. At the next register, Cassie stopped scanning an elderly woman’s groceries to quickly help her with the bottled water from her cart. “I’ve got that,” she said, taking it gently before the woman could strain arthritic limbs.
“Someone raised that girl right,” Mr. Wall murmured, smiling a bit. Nadine’s eyebrow raised, it was the first time she’d seen Mr. Wall’s eyes sparkle like that. Just a flicker, and then it disappeared; gray eyes once again dimmed by sorrow and perhaps shame.
“I’ll help her out,” a somewhat reluctant young clerk said. Wall’s eyes snapped back to attention to Cassie’s lane, where she and her elderly customer were concluding business. Of course, the slouching teen had timed it perfectly, showing up just after everything was bagged and loaded in the shopping cart. He was angling for a tip, and moving in front of the woman before she could decline his assistance. At least she wouldn’t have to lift the heavy items, Mr. Wall thought, reminding himself not to let Nadine move his bottled water.
The rush over; the front end of the store was quiet for the moment. Cassie put her “Register Closed” light on and hopped over to bag for Nadine. Unlike her coworker, who later re-entered the store looking disappointed, she wasn’t looking for a gratuity.
She smiled when she bagged the raisins. “You found them.” “Right where you said they’d be.” Cassie was friendly and conscientious. Mr. Wall knew he wouldn’t need to remind her not to put the milk on top of the bread or to be careful not to bruise the bananas. She took extra care with the two long stemmed roses, wrapping them and holding them aside. After the groceries were bagged, she said without hesitation, “I’ll push this out, help you load it all up.” “Careful in the parking lot,” Nadine told her, “Cars on all sides of you.” “Thank you, Mom,” Cassie said jokingly as she headed out with Mr. Wall’s cart. He looked back as Nadine gave him a shrug. Kids. What can you do.
When his bags and bottled water were in the back of the Camry, Cassie surprised Mr. Wall, opening the car’s passenger door and sitting down inside. He opened the opposite door and peered inside, perplexed. “I’ll come along, and help you unload your groceries, too,” she explained. “Doesn’t that make sense?” It did, in fact, but it frightened him a bit, this young woman so innocent, so naïve. He was basically a stranger; was this prudent? “Before you ask, no,” she said, “I don’t do this all the time. But you’re a frequent shopper here, and you probably don’t live far, do you?” No, he conceded, it wasn’t very far at all.
Flummoxed by the young lady’s exemplary customer service and powers of persuasion, Mr. Wall surrendered, shrugging. “I appreciate this,” he said, as he started the car. “I appreciate you,” Cassie said. “You have shopped here for a long time, haven’t you?” “Yes, he admitted, “and yet I still can’t seem to find anything.” “You did today,” she said, laughing. It was musical, her laughter, and soothing. Mr. Wall felt the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth start to smooth.
“Do you remember the very first time you came to the store?” she asked as they pulled out of the parking lot. “I know I do,” she added. “Well,” he said, smiling, “I believe the first time I shopped here might have been just a few years before you did. It was Frank’s Pharmacy back then, and it wasn’t open 24 hours, or on Sundays, not back then. It opened in the morning at – – “
“Eight a.m.,” she said. Of course, she’d know the company history, Mr. Wall thought. Probably could recite more details than he could. As if to prove him right, she began telling him what she knew of the store’s beginning. The way Frank’s Pharmacy had merged with the neighborhood grocery next to it, the wall between the two demolished, creating one of the first large supermarkets in the area. Mr. Wall’s eyes widened as she described how the renovation lasted exactly seven weeks, and how the store had gradually added the floral department, a deli, an optical. The snack mart with huge pretzels, fresh popcorn, and Icees that stained her mouth purple. “I used to love running up and down the empty aisles after the store closed,” she said, smiling at the thought. “Every day I’d wear the little paper bakery hat I got from Frankie – -“ “You knew Frankie Fritters?” Mr. Wall asked, glancing over at her. That was a long time ago. “Oh yes!” she said. “He used to slip me quarters for the horse ride in front of the store. And Reuben Guitterez,” she said, “I thought I got him fired when he let me ride on the floor scrubber, and I steered right into the display of Green Giant canned vegetables. I was barely eight. I cried and cried and held onto Reuben’s leg, and all Mr. Frank said was that I should stick to the mechanical horse.” Frank had been a very kind man. A whole lifetime ago, Mr. Wall thought.
“It’s been a long time since those days,” Cassie said, reading his mind. “You sure did spend a lot of time at the store,” Mr Wall said, wondering if her stories were the product of excellent recall, or rather, a vivid imagination. “A lot,” she agreed. “And a lot has changed.” That reflection settled rather morosely on Mr. Wall, returning him to the present day, even as he reached his home. “Young lady, you are exactly the kind of person the company should be proud to have working for them,” he said, as he parked the Camry in front of his house.
“That means a lot coming from the owner, Mr. Wall.” She had recognized him, after all; he had been wondering. “You know things about my company I’ve long forgotten,” he said, as they transferred the groceries from the car to his front door.
Mr. Wall unlocked the door and disarmed the alarm, then turned to thank Cassie again as they parted ways. Again, she surprised him, moving past into the house with his water. “Kitchen counter?” she asked. “Yes, that’s fine, but – Well, this is far above and beyond, young lady,” he protested. “You must get back to the store.” “I will,” she promised. Then she had the two roses in her hand. “The vase on the table?” “Please.” She took out last week’s flowers and replaced them and the water. “Do you remember what time Frank’s Pharmacy used to open on Fridays?” Cassie asked as she brought the vase back. Odd question, but he did remember the answer. The pharmacy opened one hour earlier on Friday. It was a busy shopping day, and people cashed their checks there also, a service not many stores provided back then. “Seven o’clock,” he said. “Frank and his wife would get there an hour before that.”
“That’s how you knew,” Cassie said. “What?” he asked, suddenly confused.
“You knew that they’d find the baby you left. And that Frank and Nadine would raise her as their own. You thought she ought to have a mom. And — Dad.” She spoke that last word differently, looking right at him as she said it.
It could have been audible, almost, the sound of two heavy burdens lifting. Tears were flowing freely for both father and daughter. There was so much to say, yet Mr. Wall found himself speechless. Where to start?
Moving forward to embrace her, he said, “Welcome home, Cassie. The pink rose is for you.”