Atonement

I was, as usual, in a hurry as I dashed into Wal-Mart late one afternoon. I nabbed a buggy and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of my pocket. The first item on my shopping list was birdseed. I knew exactly what I wanted: a twenty-pound sack of black oil sunflower seed. And I knew exactly where to find it: back left corner of the garden center, second shelf from the end.

Only one problem. Another shopper had his buggy parked all cattywampus right in the middle of the aisle. No way could I get around it, even without my own buggy.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said.

No response.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, sir,” I said again, louder this time.

When he turned toward me, I saw that he was ancient. Tiny. And very, very frail. He wore baggy khaki pants held up with suspenders, a starched cotton shirt and a blue baseball cap. WORLD WAR II VETERAN was embroidered on it in gold thread.

“Hello!” he said, as though greeting an old friend.

“Hello,” I said back at him. “Could I squeeze by you and grab a bag of sunflower seed?”

“Sure. You like birds, do you?”

I nodded and reached for the sack of seed.

“Me, too. I’m just not sure what I ought to feed them.”

Rats, I thought. A million things to do, and I was trapped in an ornithological conversation with a little old man. “Well…” I said. “Most birds like sunflower seed. Cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, woodpeckers. Lots of others.”

“Goldfinches are my favorite,” he said. “Even in winter when they’re not gold.” I smiled and started to turn away. “So you think I ought to get sunflower seed?”

Rats again. “I do,” I told him. “Would you like me to put this sack in your buggy?”

“Goodness no,” he said, and I wondered too late if I might have hurt his pride, though there was no way in the world he could have managed twenty pounds. “I can get one. But I think I’ll go with a smaller bag.” He painstakingly lifted an eight-pound sack of seed from the shelf and placed it in his cart. Then he looked at me with eyes so faded they were almost no color at all.

“Thank you for your help,” he said. “Enjoy your birds.”

“You, too.” And I was off to the grocery section, where I soon forgot all about the little old man. Until half an hour later when I spotted him climbing into a taxi as I hurried out of the store. The only thing he carried was a bag of sunflower seed.

That’s when I began kicking myself all over Putnam County. What would it have hurt for me to spend a few extra minutes chatting with him? Why didn’t I tell him that I love goldfinches, too? Even in winter when they’re not gold. Or ask if rose-breasted grosbeaks ever stop by his feeder in April. Or describe the partial-albino cardinal that was once a daily visitor to my yard.

Worse than that, why didn’t I inquire about the words on his hat? Which branch of the military was he in? When did he serve? Where? What did he do in civilian life? But it was too late. The old man’s taxi had pulled away. There was no way to atone for the fact that I’d selfishly thought myself too busy to chat with a lonely veteran. Or maybe there is, on the outside chance that he’s reading this column. Thank you, sir, for your sacrifice and your service to our country. And I hope your birds are enjoying the sunflower seed.

(November 11, 2012.)

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