The Veteran: a short story

Staff Writer
          It is Carl’s first day of work as a cashier at the local grocery store. He had already gone through training and knew how to work the register, but this is his first experience with a real customer. He prepares his station, making sure there is enough change in the register and checking his nametag. The grocery store opens, and he sees a man walk through the front doors. The man is old, with white hair and a worn expression on his face. His clothes are ragged and it doesn’t look like he has much money. Carl wonders what his story is, but returns his attention to his station. It is a slow morning, with only a few customers, including the old man. Carl sees the old man walking through the aisles of the grocery store; he doesn’t seem lost, but he doesn’t seem like he’s looking for anything in particular either. Finally, he carries a loaf of bread over to Carl and places it on the counter.
          “Will this be all for you today?” Carl asks.
          “Yes,” he answers in a gravelly voice.
          “$2.40 please,”
          The old man reaches into his pocket and pulls out two crumpled dollar bills. He then searches his pockets some more and finds the remaining forty cents.
          “Thank you very much,” Carl says as he puts the money into the register. “And did you find everything okay today?”
          The old man looks up at him and replies,
          “Same as always.”
          He then takes his bread with him and leaves.
          Carl then realized he had just served his first customer, and an unusual one at that. He carries on with work for the rest of the day, but keeps thinking back to his encounter with the old man. At break, he finds his co-worker, Mike, who has been working at the grocery store much longer than he has.
          “Hey Mike,” Carl says as he takes a granola bar out of his bag to eat.
          “Hey Carl,” he replies, “How has your first day of work been so far?”
          “It’s been okay; there was some old guy that came in right as the grocery store opened.       His clothes were pretty worn out and his face had a lot of wrinkles. He walked around for awhile but just bought a loaf of bread. You wouldn’t happen to know him would you?”
          “Oh yeah, I know who you’re talking about. Don’t know his name though. Only thing I know about him is he’s a vet.”
          “Really? How do you know?”
          “Dog tags. Don’t worry, I didn’t notice them at first either, but he’s been coming here for years. He never causes any trouble, just minds his own business.”
           Now, Carl wanted more than anything to know more about him. Every day, the old man would come in and buy different food items, from a bag of potato chips to a bunch of bananas. Carl was the only person there who had the morning shift, so they were able to have a short conversation every day. Once, he was twelve cents short of being able to afford a can of fish, so Carl gave him a dollar. Finally, one day he came over to Carl’s register with nothing in his hands.
          “Not buying anything today?” Carl asks him.
          “Not today,” he replies. Instead, he pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket, folded several times with deep creases in it. He shows it to Carl. It’s a black and white photograph with two men with their arms around each other.
          “This is a picture of my brother and me,” he says, “I haven’t seen him in over thirty years, but he’s the only family I got. Every day, I think about being able to see him again, but I know I never will. For years, I’ve just been staying around this grocery store because it’s near where we grew up, hoping that one day he’ll come back. All that time, I thought that he was the only person I had left in this world. But you made me realize the world is filled with other people, good people. Every day, when I came in to the grocery store, I knew you would be there for me. But I can’t stay here anymore, I’ve already missed out on a lot, and it’s time I see the world again. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, I’ll always remember you.”
          “You’re welcome,” Carl says, as he takes in everything that was just said to him, “Can I at least ask what your name is?”
          The old man smiles and says, “It’s Lou.” He then walks out the doors of the grocery store, and that was the last time Carl ever saw him.