Mr. Andy

My younger son met Mr. Andy at our local grocery store. Mr. Andy bagged groceries for hours on every shift. Once the bags were in the cart, Mr. Andy would push them out to the shopper’s car through rain, snow, ice, or 100-degree sun. Store policy forbids gratuities, but Mr. Andy wouldn’t take a tip anyway. He seemed to get something out of his work that you wouldn’t find on his W-2.

Mr. Andy gave my son Tic-Tacs and taught him to look both ways before stepping off the sidewalk. Today, if you hold my son’s hand as you walk, he’ll let you know how to cross the street.

“Look both ways,” he’ll say. “That’s how Mr. Andy says to do it.”

I don’t know when it started, but when my boy knew he was going to the store, he drew pictures to take to Mr. Andy. They were chicken-scratch crayon art on construction paper, the kind of thing any parent of a young kid might find all over the house on any given day, the kind of thing a parent might quietly slip in the recycling bin when nobody is looking.

Mr. Andy looked at the drawings differently. He’d tell you with nothing but honesty in his eyes, “His drawings are hung up all over my office.”

Mr. Andy worked harder than anyone at that store, and in the three years we’ve been going there, I never once saw him with a sour look on his face. Not when his wife was seriously ill. Not when the weather was terrible. Not when the cashier wanted to talk more than work. Mr. Andy simply was the happiest and kindest man I’d ever met.

And then one day, he didn’t come to work.

***

My son

My younger son

A parent wants to believe in his child’s preternatural abilities, and it’s possible for people like me to unintentionally inflate what we see happening with our kids. Still, as he approaches five years old, I feel like my son sees people—really sees them for good and bad—better than anybody in our house. If left to decide whether to trust a person’s heart, my boy is the one in this house to whom we should turn. My kid decided a long time ago that Mr. Andy was one of the good ones.

When Mr. Andy stopped coming to work, we feared the worst, and we were right to do so. Polite inquiries revealed that doctors believed Mr. Andy had bone cancer. For a man of his age, the diagnosis was the kind of devastating blow from which one simply doesn’t recover. Everyone at the store knew the mutual affection Mr. Andy and my kid shared, and it made everyone hurt to report that Mr. Andy was sick.

That’s the bittersweet reality of my kid’s heart. He tends to gravitate to older people who share the type of kindness only age and experience can produce. Mr. Andy is the prototype for any child’s vision of a good grandpa. My son wasn’t even three years old when my dad died, and sometimes I think there’s a spot missing in his heart where PaPa should still be. Mr. Andy filled up that space, at least on the days when we needed a gallon of milk.

I never want that part of my kid’s heart to go away, but I also know it will mean he will have to say goodbye to more than his fair share of people he loves.

***

The clouds moved in overnight, and rain was just a few minutes away when I made it to the store this morning. I shuffled across the asphalt alone and tried to think about what I was going to make for dinner. That’s when I spotted an older man I’d never seen start jogging for the front door of the store. His face was alight, his hand was outstretched, and he looked happier than anyone I’d seen today. When he reached the sidewalk, he nearly knocked a young woman aside.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her. He turned to the man piloting the grocery cart and embraced him “I’m so happy to see you.”

Mr. Andy nodded humbly and smiled, perhaps knowing—perhaps not—that it wasn’t just my son who loved him. Any regular at the store, any employee who has worked there, anyone with their eyes open for goodness has discovered there is at least one person in the world who knows what it means to be happy and kind.

The doctors’ suspicions hadn’t come true. Whatever it was that took Mr. Andy away from his job wasn’t cancer. He’d been granted a reprieve.

I collected what I needed and made sure to steer my cart into the aisle where Mr. Andy was working. He dutifully went to work, and while he bagged my stuff, we talked about my son. I told him my boy is a good judge of character, and we agreed the kid has a good soul.

I told Mr. Andy a lot of people were going to be happy he was back. He’d apparently been forced to work as a cashier for a bit, but now he was back on the bags, the kind of job that let him teach little kids how to cross the street.

“I’m calling it my first day out of prison,” he said. “Now I’m back where I want to be.”

There was a pause in the conversation as I swiped my debit card. Mr. Andy bowed his head for a second, ostensibly to grab the bag with the bacon in it and place it carefully in the cart. He turned back to me and told me how he still looks at my son’s drawings on his office wall every day.

“I just hope I’m around long enough to see him grow up,” he said.

I wanted to let Mr. Andy help me to my car today, but I told him to help the next person in line. I didn’t want him to ask me why I was crying.

“Alright then,” Mr. Andy said. “You have a great Sunday.”

I walked to my car in the rain promising myself I would make good on his wish. His tax returns may say he is a bagger at a grocery store, but when it comes down to it, he makes it his job to make our days better. If only we could all be like Mr. Andy, imagine the days everyone would have.