The Smiling Man


The world can be a crappy place sometimes. Petty, mean, shallow; harsh, unkind, vicious.


There are these moments, these inexplicably meaningful moments, where time stands still and the world is a beautiful place.

I was waiting for a Triple Grande Mocha at my local Kroger Starbucks, my mind preoccupied with my list of Last Week’s Disappointments and Next Week’s Things-I-Don’t-Want-To-Do when they tumbled in, a rag-tag looking family, all laughter and high spirits.

“Want some kids?” the dad called out to me, laughing (and interrupting the mean-spirited litany in my head). “I’ll sell you some. Five bucks a piece.”

The children giggled, and he smiled at me – a poor man’s smile, with yellow, crooked teeth. Teeth there had never been money enough to fix. He was very thin. He looked young too, so young that I wasn’t sure if he was the children’s older brother or their young father. But there he was, smiling at me, in his beat-up jeans, faded T-shirt and ball cap.

“Well…I don’t know,” I said. “I like kids. I might just take you up on the offer.”

More giggles as the children moved past me.

“I’m worth $20,” announced the little boy. A small girl about the boy’s height chimed in, “Me too.”

Then big sister turned around --  long blonde hair, big green eyes and a hemp choker and said,

“I’m worth a million dollars today." She paused. "It’s my birthday. I’m finally 13.”

I smiled, and cast a sideways glance at the father.

And then I paused.

It was the way he was looking at her. Loving. Gentle. Kind. His expression had a faraway look to it, as if he saw all that she was and all she would yet be...

I swallowed and turned my gaze back to the girl.

“13,” I said, “now you can finally say you’re a teenager!”

“Yep,” she answered.

The two younger children were looking at the Starbucks cake pops, chattering to each other and pointing, and I knew in a flash that they were going to get a birthday treat today.

“Big weekend,” said Smiling Man to me. “Nephew has a birthday too.”

I turned and looked up at him --  not quickly and sideways this time but slowly and forreal --  and Time Stood Still. That’s the only way I can explain it.

All the yucky of the world – and my mind -- just slipped away, and there remained before me only Smiling Man, his rag-tag family and their simple joy – joy for a Starbucks treat, for family birthdays, for just being together.

I was struck with an overwhelming desire to be part of it.

I thrust my hand into my purse (otherwise known as The Great Abyss) and moved my hand round and round, searching for any cash that might be floating in the bottom. I grasped and grabbed, holding then discarding mascara and Kleenex and Hershey’s kisses (don’t judge me, people).

My hand hit some cash, I pulled it out, and called to the girl --

“Birthdays are special. I want to buy you your Birthday Starbucks.”

There were exclamations of excitement from the two youngest, but the 13-year-old’s eyes just widened and her mouth opened in a little O of surprise as I placed the money in her hand.

“OHMYGOSH,” she said, beaming. “Thank you so much."

I turned to Smiling Man. “Thank you for speaking to me today. Ya'll are pretty awesome.”

“Thank you,” he said simply. He looked over at the birthday girl, then back to me. “And thank you for doing that.”

He smiled at me one more time – a big, beautiful, light-filled smile --  then turned and moved towards the children, who were talking to the barista with enthusiastic voices and animated hands.

I left the store, climbed into my truck with my Triple Grande Mocha and promptly burst into tears.

Jesus. In. Disguise.