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A Wonderful Life

December 8, 2004

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. The weather was, though. It was that kind of damp, chilly night where there's a sticky film on the sidewalks and I can't decide whether to hole up for the night or get out and do something. Either way I feel kind of "off" so I go with my impulses and end up eating at an all-you-can-eat fish fry at the tavern on the lake or sewing buttons on old cardigans while watching It's A Wonderful Life for the 27th year in a row. Except for the year we had the Johansens over and watched it twice in one night just to say we did.

So there I sat weighing my options for later in the evening while the kids played broomball (rollerskates included) in the basement. Mr. Sundberg was up in Duluth speaking before a group of retired teachers, so it was the kids and me and a long, long list of things to do. Like get groceries. Now it sounds crazy, but once Mr. Keillor got going with "On the Road to Grand Marais," I somehow got it in me to take the kids grocery shopping after the show. The song is a kind of march and once it gets in your head, you're a goner. You HAVE to get up and do something or it'll keep you up all night.

I hollered for the kids and amid flying mittens and small change, we all piled into the car and were off. We listened to the show the whole way in and I timed it all just right. As we pulled into a parking spot in front of the nail salon, Mr. Keillor said his thank you's and goodnight, and the kids clapped and gathered up their coins for the Salvation Army red bucket and in seven minutes we'd made our own train of three shopping carts and were discussing whether we should have pork or beef or fish for our Sunday dinner.

That's when I saw an elderly man who clearly hadn't shaved or bathed, even, in some time. He was wearing gloves and an old gray knit cap and a red flannel shirt and his lips were chapped enough to crack and bleed. He was standing in front of the deli counter where a young woman with black hair in pigtails snapped her gum as she filled a big bowl with chili. It even had noodles in it, the way my mother used to make it. The man paid her and took his tray over to the table near the gold-wrapped Brie display. He took off his hat and gloves and let out a big sigh as he sat. He crushed a handful of crackers over the bowl before he dipped his spoon in and ate. "That man looks a little like Santa," one of the kids said. And just at that moment he glanced our way and saw us looking at him and he gave a little wave.

I think the kids will remember that night in the grocery store after the show. Not so much because of the smells of cinnamon and pine, and the sounds of bells and people arguing and the general rush of things. Or the giant inflatable snowman out in front or the free candy canes or the fact that it took three hours. I think they'll remember how they were in a grocery store at night, and how we filled two carts full and how the gray-bearded man in the deli smiled at them as he went up for a second bowl of chili.

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