“The World’s Saddest Dollar Store.”
“That ol’ truck’s been a ways, ain’t it?”a voice said behind me. I turned away from the steaming radiator of my ’56 Chevy pick-up and saw a small, slender man sitting on the sidewalk of the General Dollar Emporium. With a week’s worth of beard growth and shaggy hair, he looked like a bum, except that he had a guitar with him, so I thought “hippie.”
“I’d hoped it’d go a ways farther,” I said, thinking that my life had suddenly stopped anything like forward motion. I was stuck, but something about his slow voice and that bit of drawl in it, made me like the sound of this guy, so I added, “You in the market for a truck?”
His laugh was low, not loud, but it shook his body, and he thumped a couple of bluesy sounding chords on the guitar. To hear him laugh made me chuckle, too, but I stepped back from my ride, the words “cracked radiator” in my head cutting my laughter short. He stayed where he was, his low laugh running out slow, until it ended in a “Yeah, buddy.”
“Only you don’t want to sell a classic like that,” he said, squinting up at the setting summer sun over my shoulder. “Come, oh, two thousand and twenty or so, it’ll be worth over thirty grand, with a bit of TLC.”
The year twenty-twenty was a fantasy to me and I scoffed at his idea. I turned my attention back to the old rolling wreck and shook my head. The twenty year old Chevy’s color was a light green once but was now mostly rust. Both flared fenders in the back had rusted through and been inexpertly filled with bondo, by me and my Daddy, who’d given it to me to reach Chicago, where I’d failed to get the job I’d hoped for and was limping back home on blue highways. Poor old Chevy wouldn’t reach much over forty-five miles an hour, so I couldn’t take it on the big roads, and here I was, another one hundred and sixty-six miles from home and no promise of getting there. If somebody offered me a bus ticket for the rest of the way, I’d have traded it for the truck.
The guitar guy was smiling at me still, finger picking a simple tune that I thought I ought to know but could not place. “Why not sit a spell and let the steam die down, anyways?”he said.
It seemed like a good idea, so I said, “You want a coke or something? I’m gonna go inside and see what they got.”
“Sure. I’m thirsty,” he sang, and gave me his smile again.
The glass door of the shop shuddered as I pushed it open and step onto the cracked tiles nearly worn through to the slab beneath them and took a quick look around to find the drink cooler. Half the fluorescent light tubes overhead were flickering or out completely, and the place smelled like soured milk. The cooler sat behind a series of shelves that held cheap, plastic kitchenware and toys and even cheaper t-shirts bearing the names of cities I knew to be five hundred miles away. Daddy always said that shirts like that would roll up your back like a window shade, first time they’re washed.
Even the soft drinks were off brands and barely cool, but I picked up two bottles that looked like colas and a couple of dusty bags of chips and made my way to the counter, where a girl about my age stood thumbing through a magazine, looking at the pictures of movie stars and fashion models who were light years away. A cigarette smoldered between the fingers of the hand that turned the pages. Her skin was as pale as the blonde hair that straggled down her back. Without looking at me, only at the merchandise I placed on the counter, she said, “That’ll be a dollar,” in a voice barely above a whisper.
“These chips any good?” I asked hoping to see her smile. The unfamiliar brand name “Good Chips” was on the front.
Lifting red-rimmed eyes to me, she muttered, “They’re chips,” as though that answered my question. She finished flipping through the magazine, turned back to its first page and started flipping them again. I sighed, shook my head, and went out to join the fellow who was singing a song. I listened as I walked up to him. It was about a soldier with a drug habit, but the tune wasn’t all that sad. My truck had almost stopped steaming, and the engine was pinging as it cooled some. There would still be some time before before I could open the radiator.
I opened the soft drinks, though and took a sip of mine, which tasted something like prunes, I thought, and choked down a swallow. My friend drank deep on his, said, “Ahhhh,” and gave me a big smile of thanks.
“Cools you off and keeps you regular,” he said, and it struck me that he was the happiest person I’d ever met, yet he sat in front of the saddest dollar store I’d ever seen, and I told him that and asked him what he was doing here.
“Well, I been lookin’ for this place a long time,” he answered with a wave of his hand that took in store, grassy gravel lot, my broken truck, and a couple of filthy kids in a yard across the street who were playing tug with an angry looking dog.
“What for?” I asked, thinking that a man who could play guitar well and sing along with himself could be making money at it, somewhere.
“Why, here is everything you could want to see in life that makes it meaningful. It’s the ground, the base, and people who live here know what it is to live every moment that comes to’em.”
“It looks awful, to me,” I said, gazing at everything he pointed to.
“It is,” he said, “and for some of these, the least and the lowest, there’s chances to feel what it means to struggle and get by. There’s meaning here, and more beauty than you can imagine. Now, you take Sharon in there. She’s incredible.”
“That tired looking girl behind the counter?”
“Yep, the very one. Why, she’s just got sober, and the only reason she’s still here, is because her momma is sick and needs her, but Sharon is a math wiz. In another two years, she’ll be an accountant making a good living. But she can’t do anything until her momma is able to take care of herself. Sharon’ll never be rich, but she’ll remember what it’s like to live hard. She’ll have more gratitude for every breath she draws for all of her days, and it starts right here.
“And take them boys over there,” he went on. “Lonnie, the taller one, well, he’s just bad. He’ll end up bad, too, but he’ll stand by his little brother, Eddie, there, and Eddie will grow up to be a veterinarian, and he’ll always be close to Lonnie, even when no one else can be.”
‘And you, “ he said, “well, once you go back inside and buy three of those plastic pickle buckets and fill ‘em with water, why you’ll make it home just fine. You’ll have a lot of jobs, but someday, you’ll be a writer, and you’ll remember this day at the saddest dollar store there ever was.”
I stared at him in wonder, for though I loved stories, I never thought to write them myself. And the simple plan for me getting home would work. I was sure to find water at gas stations along the way, and though it might take a while, with five gallon buckets of water in the back, this old truck and I would make it home, even limping along. My life, it seemed, was back on.
How in the world he could say all that he had said, though, was much harder to swallow than the prune tasting cola and the stale chips. He knew things about people that nobody could guess. Yet, I realized that it was true, could be true, at any rate, and it hushed me to realize that I was in the presence of someone with a vision that could change the way a person sees anything. It was better than wonderful. It was miraculous, so I asked the question that my mind forced on me:
“Hey, are you God?”
That set him to laughing harder, and when he’d near finished, he offered me his hand and said,
“No, sir. I’m John Prine.”