Small Gifts

And just like that, a bad day has become a good day. He unfolds the bill. He looks at Abe Lincoln’s stoic face. Even old Abe seems happy about this particular holiday blessing.

Birmingham, Alabama—the 1970’s. The hairstyles are ridiculous. Fashions are even worse. It’s Christmastime in the Magic City.

Early evening. A young couple arrives in town to visit family. They are working-class poor. He is overworked and underpaid. She is too.

Still, things are looking up. Even though it’s hard making make ends meet, they have each other.

It hasn’t been a great day. But it’s going to be. They just coasted into a Magic City on magic gasoline fumes. They have enough magic cash for the return-trip home, but that’s about all the magic they have left.

They wander into Bruno’s supermarket. They are shopping on a shoestring budget.

The music overhead is Bing Crosby. “Silver Bells” is the tune.

She pushes a cart. He follows. They are only buying necessities. No fancy stuff.

He listens to the music on the intercom. He lets his mind wander while Bing sings:

“Strings of street lights,
“Even stop lights,
“Blinkin’ red and bright green,
“As the shoppers rush home with their treasures…”

He sees something that interrupts his daydream. It’s a five-dollar bill, lying in the aisle. Crumpled. Nobody is around. He looks both ways.

He bends to pick it up. This is the ‘70’s, five bucks can do a lot. It can buy six gallons of gas, or canned goods for a few suppers.

“Honey look!” he says.

And just like that, a bad day has become a good day. He unfolds the bill. He looks at Abe Lincoln’s stoic face. Even old Abe seems happy about this particular holiday blessing.

“Wow,” she says. “Aren’t you lucky?”

Luck isn’t the word. It’s a blessing from On High. Magic, even. It’s a sign that things are going to get better. That’s what it is.

But it’s short lived. Something’s wrong. There’s a pang in his stomach. He can’t keep this five dollars. He doesn’t know why. It just doesn’t feel right. So he takes the money to the store manager, even though he’d rather not.

“I found this on aisle twelve,” he says. “Maybe someone lost it.”

The manager thanks him.

The couple checks out. Their cashier is wearing a Santa hat, punching buttons on the register. She’s about as cheery as a bucket of room-temperature coleslaw.

Bing sings:

“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks,
“Dressed in holiday style,
“In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas…”

The cashier places the items into paper bags.

The young couple nearly empties their wallets to pay the bill.

“Merry Christmas,” the man says to the cashier.

“If you say so,” the cashier says.

His wife rolls the cart toward the door. He is noticing how lovely she looks tonight. If it weren’t for the low balance in their bank account, nobody would know the difference between this woman and royalty.

They are about to exit when they hear hurried footsteps behind them.

“Sir!” a voice yells. “Wait!”

It is the manager. He is accompanied by a young black boy. They are jogging after the couple.

“This kid wants to thank you,” the manager explains.

“Thank me?”

Then boy starts to cry. “My mama sent me to the store for bread and milk, and I lost the money she give me.

“I thought we was gonna hafta skip dinner again, and I was gonna be in trouble. I looked everywhere for that five bucks.”

The boy wipes his eyes with his sleeve, then shoots his hand outward. “Thank you, sir,” the boy tells the man. “And merry Christmas.”

They embrace. They part ways. The couple leaves the supermarket. Before they crawl into their car, the man looks into the night sky.

He could’ve kept that money. But he didn’t. He wonders why this is. What made him do it?

Maybe there is something up there in that sky. Something big, just beyond the stars. Maybe it’s in the trees, the ground, the air, and on aisle twelve.

Maybe it’s in everything. Inside young couples, little boys, grumpy clerks in Santa hats, and store managers. Perhaps it’s bigger than the Milky Way, but so small you might miss it.

A handshake, a hug, or five bucks. Something found in department stores, beer joints, sanctuaries, beneath bridges, on city busses, or baseball games. In the YWCA Family Violence Center, the nursing homes, the prisons, or Children’s hospital.

I don’t know what you call it. I don’t care what you call it. It’s magnificent. It’s real. It’s what the twenty-fifth of December is all about.

And there’s plenty of it here in the Magic City.

21 comments

  1. Jim Keith - November 30, 2018 6:48 am

    I remember Bruno’s. I had been away from B’ham 10 or 12 years when this incident occurred, but the reaction from that young man was a way of life as I remember it from my youth. I love the way you have of reminding us all about being a good person! You have such a gift. I don’t know you personally, but we are all kindred spirits. Keep up the good work and have a wonderful Christmas!!

    Reply
  2. Pamela McEachern - November 30, 2018 7:05 am

    That’s the kind of story that will tell one’s character and compassion for others. I’m glad that family had dinner and the little boy saw what a person with that would do.

    Peace and Love from Birmingham
    ” the Magic City!”

    Reply
  3. June Pryor - November 30, 2018 7:53 am

    It is awesome, a GOD thing. And it is every day!

    Reply
  4. Susan Self - November 30, 2018 11:10 am

    It’s 5:00 a.m. and again I start my day with Sean. And with tears because it is all about love. Thank you Sean.

    Reply
  5. Kristine Wehrheim - November 30, 2018 11:47 am

    I think I would have had that same pain- it’s just the right thing! And the boy got to eat. So sweet💕

    Reply
  6. Sherry - November 30, 2018 12:35 pm

    It’s Christmastime again! Thank you….

    Reply
  7. Christina Perry - November 30, 2018 1:20 pm

    I love this City! For all the bad, there is so much more every day good here. Bham is definitely a Magic City if you just stop and pay attention.

    Reply
  8. Shelton Armour - November 30, 2018 2:01 pm

    Great story! Thanks…

    Reply
  9. Beth Walker - November 30, 2018 2:27 pm

    You bring these stories to life. For that – and you – I’m grateful this holiday season.

    Reply
  10. Catherine - November 30, 2018 2:43 pm

    Sean, that thing is in you and you share and gift us with it in every word you write. Merry Christmas…

    Reply
  11. Carol - November 30, 2018 2:49 pm

    He’s called Jesus ! Savior , God !
    Thank you for reminding me , that he’s still with us and looking after us !!
    A Very Merry CHRISTMAS to You and Your’s!!
    Love ya!

    Reply
  12. Jack Darnell - November 30, 2018 3:08 pm

    You will never know dude the big smile I just had. My grandson Ben was visiting from Utah. I was getting gas in my pickup, and charging it as usual. When I went in the owner said, “Nice kid you have there Jack, he just found $5 out by the tanks and brought it to me.” He was about 6 yrs old. I was so proud of the little guy Yeah, people do that! Good entry.

    Reply
  13. Patricia Gibson - November 30, 2018 3:48 pm

    Amen

    Reply
  14. Bev deJarnette - November 30, 2018 3:56 pm

    Sean, thank yo again and again for sharing your stories of life with all of us. You have the gift of a gracious heart and a thankful soul. And you see the good in life that so many miss. Sharing your thoughts with us each day helps me remember to ALWAYS look for the good. The “ugly” wants us to see it and be bitter but you turn on the light!!!!

    Reply
  15. Dick McNider - November 30, 2018 6:07 pm

    Sean. Great story. Don’t know how you continue to lift everyone with your insight and imagination.

    Reply
  16. William Hubbard - November 30, 2018 6:10 pm

    Ain’t THAT the truth!
    And all God’s children said amen and amen!!

    Merry Christmas from an Alabama boy in exile in Georgia…….

    Bob

    .

    Reply
  17. Pat - November 30, 2018 7:55 pm

    Another tear jerker for two reasons…one for the boy who lost his money and then found it and showed his gratitude. Another for something I feel we are losing daily. Compassion and doing the right thing. Wonderful story!

    Reply
  18. dogsdolls - November 30, 2018 8:48 pm

    That magic is here too, in MO. in the small towns around our farm. Thanks for reminding me of that fact. And reminding me to be a part of that magic for someone.

    Reply
  19. Becca Allison - November 30, 2018 10:48 pm

    I was living in Birmingham my first 20 years, from 1952 to 1972. It was a Magic City. I’m glad it is still in very good ways. I love your stories. Thank you.

    Reply
  20. Edna B. - December 1, 2018 12:22 am

    I’ve never been to Birmingham. Who knows? Maybe some day. Thank you for another beautiful story. You have a wonderful evening, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  21. Dru - December 1, 2018 4:24 am

    You are starting to remind me of O. Henry. I hope I’m around when you get the recognition you have earned.

    Reply

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