Getting Better

Monday, January 20, 2014 / 6:30 AM

Wayne drove a dark red Toyota that so obviously had seen better days. You often heard the car before you saw it, whether it was because the engine was backfiring or because Wayne had some top 40 song blasting on the stereo--and sure enough, there he was: pulling up into the usual handicapped spot at the front of the store.

Wayne made a trip a week, but you never knew what day he would show up. But when he wheeled in in his tattered old wheelchair, you knew you'd spend the next hour listening to his voice as he went around the store saying hi to the employees while he picked up the usual items.

He knew all of our names because he read it on our tags, and whenever he left he would give a small salute and tell you to check out his YouTube page where he posted recordings of motivational speeches he'd given around the county.

Some of the checkout clerks found Wayne's visits a disruption, but as a courtesy clerk still fresh out of high school, I loved it. Wayne brought with him confidence and charisma wherever he rolled. Even on days when I'd ask him, "How's your week been, Wayne?" and he'd say, "You know, Traci, not good. But it'll get better," I knew he meant it. He was endlessly hopeful--and I needed that on days I was endlessly depressed.

Near the end of my time at the grocery store, I was feeling the most lost I had ever felt in my life. As withdrawn from the world as I had become, I still got myself up to work every day because I thought it made me useful--until, suddenly, usefulness was a trait I couldn't quite understand.

I quit at a time when I sorely needed stability. On my last day, Wayne came in for his usual errands, and while I bagged his groceries and carried them to his car, I said, "Hey Wayne, this is my last day here."

He asked why and I stuttered through some excuse about my class load and schedule, and he stopped me with a motion of his hand.

"Now I'm not going to make assumptions about you, Traci," he said with a frown, "but I think I know that look on your face." He got himself in his car and I closed the door for him. He rolled down the window.

"Listen to me: you are special. You are unique. In a historical context, the world would not be the same if you had not been born into it."
I nodded. He reached out and shook my hand. I stepped back as he started the car and drove off with a pop song blaring on the radio.

My heart still breaks a little when I think back to that year of my life. During my four years at college, no matter how many times I went back to that store, I never saw Wayne or his red Toyota again. But I still remember what he said because those words came at a time I needed to hear them.

Sometimes, when I wake up, I still need to hear those words again.

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