This past Tuesday morning after I dropped the kids off to their first day at school, I went to Target. Across the parking lot, it was easy to spot my fancy friend. Blender was shoving an unwieldy cart, talking to a lady parked in a handicapped space. "She likes it!" Blender shouted at me waving and pointing to her cropped and freshly-dyed bright yellow hair. We hugged like we always do and walked inside. "I'm off next Tuesday and Friday," she said. "Let's go to lunch." For a minute, we tried to think where to go. "Maybe a nice drive to get there," she offered. "And definitely, it needs to be good." Definitely, I agreed. I made a mental note to check the calendar for the next week. "I'll text you." I told her. One last hug before she told me she'd be on register 3 when I got ready to check out. "Come to my line," she said. (As if I needed telling....I always went to Blender's line.)
When I finished gathering what I needed, though, Blender was not at register 3. I watched the employee door, waiting for it to swing open and when it didn't, I went through self checkout instead. She must still be off the clock, I told myself. I made a mental note to text Blender about Tuesday or Friday for lunch and also about missing her at register 3.
But the day slipped into an evening of kid-chaos, and no text was sent. That night, just before drifting off, I went through next week's schedule in my head. Tuesday or Friday would work, I thought to myself, but Tuesday was a little easier. I would text Blender tomorrow and we'd figure out a plan.
But there would be no text and there would be no plan. Because during the night, Blender, my beautiful, radiant, steadfast friend, died.
From 7am on, Wednesday was a blur - a day punctuated by moments that ranged from twilight-zone numb to shameless ugly-face crying to register 3. Over and over again, I circled back to register 3. Why hadn't I waited longer for her to come out of those employee doors? Why hadn't I texted her right away...just to let her know I'd waited, then left? Why why why, a thousand times why.
As I write this, not quite 48 hours have passed since Blender has been gone. But a small thing happened that has left me as heartened as I could hope to feel right now. The arrangements have been announced and the service is set. And it looks like my beautiful friend and I will meet next Tuesday after all. At 12 noon.
How very Blender. For nearly 15 years, she showed up behind the registers at Target and smiled. This, despite "life" and all its tribulations. So OF COURSE, she will keep our date, won't she?....sweet slumber or no.
Blender: My heart is broken into so many tiny pieces. Register 3. I will never go into Target again without thinking of it and wondering if you wondered where I was that morning, if I'd forgotten you. Oh my precious friend. I did NOT forget you. Nor will I ever. I should've stood there a moment longer. I could've gotten one last glimpse of you and your fancy hair and that big red flower. That smile that masked a thousand heartaches. That hug of yours, so strong, so REAL.
You were the best of us, Blender. All the things you taught us, the kindness you showed us. I will miss the rainbow that you were for all the days to come. And I will love you even longer.
Thank you for being my friend, Blender.
I'll see you Tuesday now...okay?
I wait for him outside the food court at Southpoint. It has been a season since I've laid eyes on Mr. Tim after the last Durham Bulls home game in 2017. I am so looking forward to catching up with him. In the off season, Mr. Tim works at Macy's in their maintenance department. On this day, I barely recognize him without his baseball hat. And yet, there is no mistaking his big 'ole smile and outstretched arms.
Today he will see his picture for the first time and take it home. But first, a lunch from his favorite food court spot, where it's clear Mr. Tim is a beloved regular. We talk about his years as a parole officer and it's not a surprise to hear how he supported the parolees assigned to him. When I ask him what he was most proud of during this time, Mr. Tim tells me about a mentally-challenged man he helped to find a job when he got out of prison for the umpteenth time. "There weren't a lot of options," Mr. Tim says, still shrugging his shoulders after all this time. But he found the man a job stuffing envelopes. Many years later, a happier version of the same man ran into Mr. Tim. "I'm still stuffing envelopes," the man told him. "And I haven't been back to jail once." Today Mr. Tim is working with young people on the Durham Bulls staff. But his work is more or less the same as it was during his parole officer days...he's mentoring these kids. And preparing them for the next stage of life.
We walk out to the parking lot outside of Macy's and my heart is beating like crazy. But when I open the car door and drag out the painting to show him, relief rolls over me. He's smiling his same big smile, but his eyes are fixated. "I'm hangin' this in my foyer", he says and then after a while..."This here is somethin'."
But the real "somethin'"in this scene is not a painting. It's a Bull City gem named Mr. Tim. Him and his electric smile and a lifetime of giving good.
I saw Mr. Ron the other day. He told me a plumber had been in his house a few days before doing some work. The plumber was admiring an assortment of trophies won by Mr. Ron’s daughters from years ago. “Here’s MY trophy,” Mr. Ron told him, pointing to the BEST OF US Project painting.
All that to say...my day was way-hey better than yours. #grinning
When I told Mr. Ron I wanted him to be the first person I profiled for the Best of Us Project, he was all in. I know what to do, he said. Which was good seein' as how it's always better to start a project with confidence. At least we were halfway there.
When I got to the Hope Valley Diner that morning I was a hot mess, me and my used camera and the fancy lenses I'd just mortgaged the house for. I had the tools alright, but the skills? Nuh uh. The red dots weren't matching up, but worse than that, the camera menu items sounded like something I'd heard in a (failed) physics class once. And who was the genius who decided to torture photographers for life with math that made zero sense, like big aperture numbers equal little lense openings? I wanted to pluck my eyeballs out. But I thought of that crackerjack kid in the camera store instead, the one who fingered my camera like a Stradiveri violin. This lense'll let you stand way back and take freakin' ridiculous shots. It's THAT good. By now, I was sweating like a bear at the beach. It better be, I muttered, squinting to figure out what the heck ISO meant. My piggy bank was shot and I needed a great picture to paint from. And mostly, I hated do-overs. I scrolled through my choices. ISO Speed Bracketing, ISO Speed Extension, ISO blah blah blah. DANG IT! I spun the dial to the settings-for-dummies (the green AUTO square) and wavered between hot shame and blessed relief. Ansel Adams Jr. in the camera store would be disappointed, but hey...ISO.
I forgot about the PhD I didn't have when Mr. Ron walked in, though. Good Lord Almighty, I said. A chef's jacket? And gun-checked pants to match? Are you FOR REAL? He was for real. Never had I seen him wear anything in the diner but regular clothes and an apron. Today he was chef-to-the-nines. One look at his face, grinning ear to ear, and something in me, something bigger than skills, snapped to attention. Camera SNamera, I thought to myself. We've GOT this.
An hour later, I sat back in the diner, downloaded the photos and shuffled through them. Hundreds of photos. But truth be told, maybe only ten worth lookin' at. I slumped in the chair reluctantly dragging pictures to the Favorites folder and taking them back out again.
That's the one. Mr. Ron said, pointing over my shoulder.
Really? I said wryly. Uh...WHY?
Shows my hat.
Three weeks later, the North Carolina Tarheels won their sixth NCAA Men's Basketball Championship.
I'm glad we went with the hat.