Two days before Christmas, I changed the world for the better in one breath.
I was in the check-out line at a local dollar store, just as the sun was relinquishing the day to a full moon. I stood there frustrated and testy. Perhaps I should not have spent the day, isolated in my new apartment, sorting through boxes filled with fifty years of unfinished business.
Some bearded guy with a baseball cap painfully counted out his pocket change, as if each coin was a shovel full of dirt on his grave. Two women in front of me – they looked like sisters –bristled as two girls and a boy – siblings and cousins, I think – milled around the displays. One of the women half-snapped at the boy not to wander off, which seemed unnecessary as he was pawing various packets of candy. The girls pushed each other, traded gibes, and then one whispered something to the other and they both laughed.
My impatience grew. I needed distraction, not dyspeptic observation. I reached for my cell phone but remembered that I had left it in the car. I scanned the racks; there were no magazines to be found. “Damn,” I thought. “I might have to be actually present.”
I decided to breathe consciously and ground. I dropped my shoulders. I felt my feet. I like to think of love as God’s gravity, always there to pull me gently back to my center if I will just let go of my resistance. I did this and felt the comforting embrace of that pull. This is when it happened; this is when the world changed.
Now the bearded guy seemed troubled, but kind and self-contained. He wished the cashier a Merry Christmas and meant it. The sisters and the kids were on edge, but there was something lovely about how they bumped up against each other. Sometimes the best part of family is knowing that grumpy is okay.
As I stepped up, Shelly, the cashier, was telling a teammate that she would be working Christmas Eve but planned to cut back from two days a week to one. This was not her only gig. There was something about her.
“You ever get a day off?” I asked.
“Not in 385 days,” she said.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I take care of 323 monkeys,” she said.
“Simians?” I asked, just to be sure.
“Yes,” she said. “I feed them every day. Even give the diabetics insulin shots.”
Question bloomed. What if the monkey doesn’t want the shot? Where do you find 323 monkeys in Gainesville? How did she end up here? Why monkeys? Why not cats, dogs, or giraffes? And what about hippos? How would that work?
“You must like monkeys,” I said.
Shelly said she loved monkeys and had from as long as she could remember. Shelly had even adopted a capuchin monkey as in infant, that she’s now twenty-three and diabetic.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Murphy Brown,” she said.
“Great name,” I said. “Does Candice Bergen know?”
Apparently, Ms. Bergen does know. I then learned that Shelly had been in the entertainment business in L.A. but had moved here on account of the monkeys. She said that decision even shows up in the lyrics of a famous artist’s song.
It didn’t take long for Shelly to ring up my items and hand me the bag. There was a line and I didn’t want to be the guy who lollygagged. I wished her a Merry Christmas and headed for the door.
Three minutes before I was in a world of grim lines moving slowly. But now I was in a world of wild love where a scrubby man is the gentlest of souls, siblings lean into each other whispering happy secrets, and the cashier casually affirms our deep connection to all sentient beings.
And how about Shelly? She takes care of 323 monkeys and one of them is a diabetic named Murphy Brown! There is a love story here and perhaps one day she will be kind enough to share it.