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     At first, I’m highly annoyed. With limited time and no love for cleaning, I’ve made my semi-annual run to the local Dollar General to stock up on supplies. Even my woefully inadequate tidying tendencies can’t resist the appeal of a sparkling new scrub brush and fresh bottles of chemicals promising to make the dreaded job a wee bit easier. And at a deep discount, too.


    Get in, get out – that’s the plan. No wasting time on this rare rainy day, since once the sun returns I’ll find it impossible to stay inside and tend to the necessary chores. My just-clean-enough home, complete with dust bunnies in the corner, is testament to my preferences for how not to spend my time.


But now, an obstacle. The already cluttered store, where boxes block the too-narrow aisles on the best of days, is filled with several women, laughing and teasing one another and taking their sweet time perusing the low-end merchandise.


Keep your cool, I tell myself. A few minutes’ delay won’t kill your plans. 


     I wind my way between them, up and down the rows to claim my purchases, adding a few candles and novelty items to my basket as I go. (My family takes delight – and issues a perpetual challenge – to find the most oddball thing imaginable when we’re in a store like this, so I seize that opportunity.)


I’m adding a camo beer holster (score one for absurdity!) to my stack when I overhear two of the women talking on the next aisle. 


“Sharona’s gonna love this,” one says. “She loves anything purple, and she’ll be so cute with this in her hair.” 


Silence from the other. 


“Your kids coming tomorrow?” the first one asks. 


A whispered, “No,” and I peer between the shelves, just in time to see the first one wrap a sturdy arm around her skinny, pale companion. 


    Another woman appears around the edge of the aisle, waving gummy candy, excited with her find. “Y’all, I love this stuff,” she exclaims. “And it’s two for a dollar, so I’m gonna treat myself.”


“Not me,” the first woman says. “Only ten dollars to spend, I’m gettin’ stuff for my kids.” 


Just then, a uniformed woman passes through. “Five more minutes, then head to the checkout,” she calls.


     Now I get it. These are inmates from the local prison, boisterous on a rare outing, savoring a breath of freedom, a chance to make their own choices for a change. What I’ve considered drudgery, is to them a treat. And what they wouldn’t give, I think, to have a house to clean, and money for Lysol and sponges.


    Just like that, attitude adjusted. I slow down to watch and listen. They linger in the housewares, touching the cheap dish towels, remarking on their favorite colors. They shake their heads and “tsk” in the condom aisle, one joking that one of those could have changed her life a few short years ago.


   Trying to beat the rush, I move to the messy checkout counter and begin to unload my purchases. “Fifty-two-eighty-seven,” the clerk proclaims. 


An intake of breath behind me – it’s the quiet woman, the one who won’t see her kids tomorrow.


   Then, a soft touch on my arm. She offers me a paper, part of a receipt. I see it’s a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $25 or more. “Oh no,” I say, “you keep it.”


“Can’t use it,” she says. “I’m only spending ten.” 


I catch her eye and smile. “Thank you,” I say. She nods and looks away.


Utterly and unexpectedly humbled, I am quiet as my husband greets me back at home. “What’d you find this time?” he asks with a grin.


“Jesus,” I say simply. “I found Jesus at the Dollar General.” 

Karen Vernon is a freelance writer who makes her home near Asheville, NC, and has enjoyed a long career in corporate communications and HR. On a glide-path from that role, she is devoting time to personal creative endeavors in fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry deeply rooted in her daily experience.

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