By Susan Cleveland
“Welcome to LifeMart. How can I help you?” Maggie inquired. Her first customer was a young man in his late teens. His blonde hair, clear complexion, and strong build emanated the look of good health. He approached her with a sheepish grin and eyes full of hope.
“This will probably sound strange, but I’m trying to get some extra credit in my geography course. One of my professors wants us to figure out what city is the Capital of the World. I read a few articles that said unofficially it’s London or New York, but I think he wants a philosophical debate. I came here to see if you have any ideas.”
“Well,” Maggie replied “I think the Capital of the world is not a specific city. It’s the letter “H.” I say this for a few reasons: “H” is the first letter in H2O, which is the formula for water. People can’t live without water. “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and there are eight notes in a harmonic scale in music. It’s an octave which creates Harmony, which also begins with the letter “H”. The other reason is something I need to show you.”
Maggie grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil, then placed them on the counter.
“I’d like you to draw a capital “H”, if you don’t mind.” The young man did as she asked, then looked up at her when he was finished.
“Now, turn the piece of paper on its side and draw another capital “H” directly on top of the one that’s lying on its side.”
The young man stared at the image in front of him. He had drawn a picture of a window.
“A window is an opening which offers different points of view.” She said with a smile. “That’s why I think “H” is the capital of the world.”
“That’s neat. Thanks!” The young man said before he left.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” A male voice asked behind her.
“Yes. It’s my first day. My name is Maggie Crandall.” She said, turning to look at the person who’d spoken to her.
“I’m Mike. Mike Evans. I’m in charge of Oh My Soul.” His dark brown eyes lit up. Brown haired and baby faced, he stood about five foot eight.
“I’m not sure what you mean by that…”
“Oh My Soul is what we call the footwear department. Most of the areas here have names like that.” Suddenly, he said “Be careful. There’s a lady coming in who looks angry.”
“Welcome to LifeMart. How can I…” Maggie began, until she was interrupted by the irate woman approaching the counter.
“WHERE IS HE?” She yelled. “HOW DARE HE TAKE MY SON FROM ME?!”
Hot tears spilled from her eyes, which cascaded down her reddened cheeks. The woman looked like she was ready to erupt before she had even spoken. She exploded like a volcano, spewing molten lava that would burn whomever was closest to her. “I want to talk to the man in charge, NOW!”
Maggie picked up the receiver and made a call. Once on the line, she whispered “I need you here for this one. Please hurry.” Then, loud enough for her customer to hear, she added “And go to Hell.”
The woman in front of her was nearly speechless.
“Did you just tell the boss to go to Hell? You’re going to be in so much trouble! You can’t say that to God! What on Earth were you thinking?”
“You’re in a terrible place right now. He wants to guide people out of the darkness; out of the emotional pits of torture and pain. That’s where I asked him to go: into your Hell.”
The woman turned to look at a silhouette which seemed to appear out of nowhere. She heard a voice say: “Life can seem like hell on earth, sometimes. If you are willing to come with me, we can chat privately. I think I can help you.”
As God and the woman faded into the background, Maggie assisted her next customer. He was a middle-aged man suffering from depression. He wanted a full refund.
“My name is Dave. Dave Smith. I’ve made such a terrible mistake that I don’t want to live anymore. I wish I’d never been born. Please, take my life back.” He pleaded. His palms were open, facing upward, as if he was struggling to hold the weight of the world in his hands.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Maggie replied. “Taking your life says you are not worthy of love or forgiveness. You would somehow have to be erased from the memory of every person who ever met you: friends, family, school chums, teachers, co-workers: everyone. We can’t do that- it would be like thieves taking something that didn’t belong to them. Let me ask you a question: if you had an empty box and had absolutely nothing to put in it, would you see anything when you looked inside of it?”
“I guess not. I don’t understand what you’re saying though…”
“What I mean is, if you can’t turn nothing into something, how can you turn something into nothing? It works the same way with people. No one can erase the past or the people who lived throughout history. Even if you wish you’d never been born, you already were, therefore you exist. Whatever it was that happened, did you do it on purpose?”
“No, there was an accident, but it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been there, no one would have gotten hurt.”
“I get what you’re saying. But, how can we know for sure? Just for a moment, let’s say this accident happened and it was a good friend of yours who was involved instead of you. What would you tell your friend?”
“Jeez. I dunno.”
“Take a look at this, okay?” She took a picture frame from beneath the counter and handed it to him. The image showed a sad-faced little boy sitting on the ground by a bicycle. Next to him, a small girl appeared to be crying.
“The boy in this picture bumped into that girl by mistake. He didn’t do it on purpose, and his poor little heart is broken. He blames himself entirely. What would you say to this young man?”
Dave looked distraught. He stared at the picture for a moment, then said: “Hey, buddy. It’s not your fault. Sometimes accidents happen that we can’t do anything about. I know it’s rough, but things will get better, okay?”
When Dave finished, Maggie reached over and peeled back the plastic film which had been covering the surface. Hidden underneath was a mirror. Holding it up for him to see, Maggie said “Do me a favor: take another look and tell this guy what you just said.”
“Are you serious? You want me to talk to myself?”
“Yes. A mirror is for reflection, and self-reflection leads to understanding. Be your own best friend, Dave. When you’re done listening to the guy in the mirror, I’m going to repeat what you said.”
“Hey, buddy. It’s not your fault. Sometimes accidents happen that we can’t do anything about. I know it’s rough, but things will get better, okay?”
Dave let out a deep breath and walked away.
Maggie closed her eyes for a moment and sighed in relief. A woman was standing in front of her when she opened her lids again.
“Can you help me?” She asked. Her eyes welled with tears. Maggie’s customer was a beautiful lady, with hair piled into a blonde bee-hive. She gave the appearance of a gentle grandmother, with a few wrinkles of wisdom creasing her face. She was one of those rare people you just wanted to hug.
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m not sure, dear. You see, my husband was put into a senior’s home yesterday. He was getting a little forgetful the past few months, but it’s been so bad lately that I took him to the doctor. I thought he might need some vitamins or something to perk him up. The doctor said he has Alzheimer’s. Now, I don’t know what to do. Why do these things happen? I just don’t understand.” Her voice quivered as she spoke.
Maggie opened the small side door at the service desk and stepped out to give her a hug. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you.” She whispered sadly. “There are things I don’t understand either.”
“A good cry seems to help, for some strange reason.” The elderly lady said after a few minutes.
“Oh, boo-hoo-hoo.” A man’s voice said as he came up behind them. “All you women do these days is cry. You’ve been standing there long enough. I know because I saw you two when I first came in. Hurry up with your caterwaulin’. It’s my turn and I ain’t got all day.”
“Now, you just wait a minute, young man.” The elderly lady shot back. “I ain’t never heard the likes of talking to folks like that. You should have your mouth washed out with soap! That’s downright shameful behavior, if you ask me.”
“Well, I wasn’t asking you.” The man smirked. “I’m telling you two to hurry up. I got more important things to do than to listen to you two whining all day.” His head shook as he spoke, his short dark hair swaying back and forth. He was middle-aged and compact.
Maggie admired the feisty grandmother, and like a tag-team match, she jumped into the fray. “Stop being such a jerk. She didn’t do anything to you! Go on. Get out of here!”
He turned quickly, stomping loudly as he marched away.
“Well, my goodness, dear. He didn’t stand a chance against your gumption, did he?!” The elderly woman said wistfully. Maggie wasn’t sure if what was said was a question, a compliment, or a statement.
“I was inspired by your sass.” She said with a grin. Maggie hoped she’d get the chance to see this lady again someday. As long as you still have a job after this, a little voice in her head reminded her.
Maggie stared at her cup of tea. She was sitting by herself at a table in the cafeteria, taking a much-needed break. She started shaking, remembering each of the customers she’d talked to. And the day was far from over.
The other employees at Lifemart appeared to be avoiding her and concentrating on their food instead. A man with ‘Brian’ printed on his nametag appeared to be in a foul mood, so much so that he scowled in her direction. A petite older woman named Anita hid behind the book she was reading. A few others who were sitting together sent unsmiling, quizzical glances her way.
Wanting some comfort food, Maggie bought an egg salad sandwich and a piece of chocolate pie, along with another cup of tea. She hesitated, staring at her tray. What was the protocol for this situation, she wondered. When you worked for God, were you still supposed to ask for your food to be blessed? She didn’t know what to do.
As if by magic, the answer to her question arrived when He suddenly appeared in the cafeteria.
“How’s everyone doing?” He asked the group of onlookers. His voice was deep, clear, hopeful, and melodious, all at the same time. She was so sure He would be disappointed with her, that Maggie’s throat tightened in a knot.
Many of the employees smiled. Even Brian the Grump seemed less miserable. She was sure they all knew something she didn’t. A few wayward tears rolled down her cheeks- she was going to be in so much trouble! What would God do to someone like her, someone who called a LifeMart customer a jerk would have to pay for it, wouldn’t they?
“Hey, God? Can you hurry up and say grace so we can eat? I’m gettin’ kinda hungry here.” A woman’s voice shouted from a table in the back. Everyone started laughing, except for Maggie, who sat horrified.
“Cathy, have you forgotten what I said earlier?” He replied with a grin.
Rolling his eyes in mock disgust, He said “Heaven help me.” Pretending to be cross, He pointed a finger towards the antagonizing ‘Cathy’. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you can do that yourself. You guys Bless each other when someone sneezes, so you can certainly Bless your own food. It’s not like it’s going to turn into poison. Stand up in front of me.” He said. Doing as was asked of her, Cathy walked up to Him. Pretending to take a sword out of an invisible sheathe on His side, He tapped her once on each shoulder as if she was being knighted. He looked at her solemnly and said “There: I anoint thee with the power.” They both giggled as laughter erupted in the room.
“Seriously, everyone. When you’re praying over your food, thank the farmers who grew it, the truckers who transported it, and the grocery people who displayed it. So many folks are involved with the process. Once in a while, give yourself a pat on the back, too, for preparing, cooking, and serving it. Life is a group effort. If you only praise me, my head will swell to epic proportions and I’d become too big to fit in here. I’m good the way I am, okay?”
“Oh, and after lunch, we can sing karaoke if you want. We can all dance around while I sing an Olivia Newton-John song.” God continued.
“What song is that?” Brian the Grump wanted to know.
“Let’s get physical!”
Brian shook his head. “Ugh. What a groaner.” He muttered.
“Mike? Did you help any customers today?” God asked.
“Well, one guy came in. He wanted to know why the footwear department was called Oh My Soul. I told him it’s because empathetic people put themselves in other people’s shoes.”
Brian groaned again and rolled his eyes heavenward.
Mike stared at Brian. “You can lead a man to philosophy, but you cannot make him think.” He stated, using his fingers as quotation marks.
“Okay, then. Moving on,” God said, directing His attention elsewhere. “Janine. I believe you planned on giving painting lessons for beginners in the How Great Thou Art department. How did that go?”
“It went well.” Janine replied. “A young mother came with her two little boys. She seemed worried and asked me what would happen if her kids made a mess. Or, what if they broke something? She kept saying What if… What if… So, I said: What if Not? Even if someone did break something, I believe that children are worth more than trinkets. Items can be replaced: human beings cannot.”
“Well said!” Someone shouted from across the room.
“I couldn’t agree more!” Another voice chimed in.
“Anita? How about you, dear? Did anything interesting happen in Lords and Ladies Fashions?”
Anita put down her book and looked around nervously. Her child-like innocence was at odds with her age. She kept her graying blonde hair pinned with plastic barrettes. The old-fashioned dress she wore looked new: a home-made cotton frock, courtesy of her favorite pattern.
“Wait a minute.” Brian said gruffly. He got up from his chair and walked over to sit with Anita at her table. “You can talk to them now if you want to. I’m right here.”
All of the raised eyebrows and opened mouths in the room quickly turned into knowing smiles when they realized what was going on. Although they were as different as night and day, Brian the Grump had nominated himself as her personal protector. The lady in question looked up at her hero with admiration. Anita, his Queen, with Brian, the vigilant guard, faithfully by her side.
“Most of us know you’d rather ask questions than answer them. Would you mind sharing a bit with us?”
“Umm… okay.” Anita replied. Encouraged by Brian’s presence, she sounded somewhat confident.
“A woman came to see if we had any fancy clothes on sale. She said she couldn’t really afford them, but she was tired of being made fun of. A woman in her neighbourhood’s been saying nasty things to her ’cause the things she wears are old and worn, and because she had to go to a food bank a few times.”
“I asked her: Why would you want to impress someone who was mean to you?”
“She said: I don’t know.“
“Does that woman know anything about your life?”
“Is she your friend? Would you ask her for advice?”
“No, and No.”
“So I said to her: Does it really matter what that woman says?”
“Thankfully, she said: No.”
“Now, this same lady who came to see me said she still felt awful for having to go to a food bank. I asked her if she had any kids, and she said she had a little girl. So, I asked her a few more questions.”
“Can people live without food?”
“Does helping people make you happy?”
“Do you suppose when folks like yourself need a bit of help, it might make other people happy?”
“She said she never thought of it like that. That nice lady had tears in her eyes when she left, but I don’t think it was from feeling sad.”
One of the most amazing things happened right then: for the first time ever, the employees at LifeMart watched Brian the Grump smile.
Maggie didn’t know what to think. Everyone else seemed to have accomplishments and quotes and happy things to share. Everyone except for her. She looked up in surprise when she heard God call her name.
“Maggie? You’ve been very quiet. Are you okay?” He seemed genuinely concerned.
“No.” Maggie whispered. Here it comes, she thought. Scared to death, she rose from her seat. She might as well admit everything and get it over with.
“I’m so sorry.” She said looking down. “I want to help people, but I keep making mistakes and I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
“What did you do that you think is so wrong?”
With her head hanging, she spoke quietly. You could have heard a pin drop. “I don’t think I’m qualified to really help anyone. My first customer today was a nice young man. I thought he was really smart, and I wanted him to think I was intelligent too. I told him some of my thoughts, but I probably came across sounding smug. I think I did okay with the next guy. He was really depressed at first, but I think he felt a bit better when he left. Then, there was an older lady who was upset. I couldn’t help her at all! I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was give her a hug. She was so kind and sweet, and I felt useless. The last guy who came in acted nasty towards this other lady and me. I tried to defend her, but it didn’t end well. I called him a jerk. I hope you can forgive me.”
It felt like every eye in the room was on her.
“Wow. Okay. Do you mind stepping into the office with me?”
Oh, crap. “Yes sir.” She replied meekly.
She sat quietly, lost in thought. Scared out of her wits, she looked at God from His place across the desk. He looked like the outline of a human being wrapped in a light breeze. “Take it easy, Maggie. Would you like to know what I think?”
She trembled slightly.
“What you did was the job I expected you to do. You dealt with people’s problems as best you could. Customer service is tough work! Do you know what I like about you? Your honesty. Being willing to admit you make mistakes is wonderful. I worry more about those who don’t because nobody’s perfect. I did get one complaint about you: from Brian, the security guard. He became frustrated because you were doing his job for him. The next time you have a nasty customer, just page him, okay? That’s what he’s here for.”
“Does this mean I can stay?”
“The job is yours if you want it. You know, if I could pay you with physical money, I’d give you a raise.”
“Some money would make my life a bit easier, but I understand. Are you sure you want me to work here?”
“Let me ask you this; if I didn’t think you were qualified, would I have offered you the job in the first place?”
“Oh, Wow. Thank you!” She thought for a moment, then said “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course. What would you like to know?”
“When you go into hell, I mean real Hell, do you ever get scared?”
“In a way, I’m afraid for the people who are there, because what they’re experiencing is extremely difficult. I’m not afraid for myself, if that’s what you are wondering.”
“But, aren’t you worried about the underworld monster?”
“Sort of. That ferocious beast doesn’t see much of anything, because evil is blind. It lurks in the darkness and hides in the shadows. However, it does rear its ugly head sometimes.”
“How do You see while You’re there?”
“I carry the light of understanding within me. It has a glow, like a penlight.”
“Really? A penlight?”
“Separate the words Pen & Light. A pen is used for writing, and when the proverbial light-bulb turns on, a person understands. Therefore, a pen-light is an Inkling: a suggestion, an idea.”
“Why something as small as a penlight?”
“For a few reasons: guiding someone out of hell needs to be done gently, and it’s the little things that mean the most. Just like looking at the sun, anything too bright can blind a person. That’s the way, the truth and the light.”
“Oh, I like that!” Maggie said, smiling. “Can I ask you something else?”
“If someone asks me what You are, what should I say?”
“God is love. You can say I am the personification of love, if that works. And, you can tell people they don’t have to believe in God, because using that name causes arguments. Believe in each other and care about each other. That’s what love wants, and that’s all that matters.”
Thank you.” Maggie replied. “I think that’s going to help a lot of our customers.”
“Before you go, I’d like to tell you something: it’s not in our best interest to know everything. If we did, people would stop caring. Let me tell you why: no-one would ask any questions, because we’d already have all the answers. No-one would wonder how anyone else was doing because we would already know. Everything would be logical. Having all the facts means there’d be nothing new to learn, no surprises, no excitement, and no magic. We’d all be bored and indifferent. We’d be programmed to compute information the way a robot does. People would stop talking to each other because there would be nothing new to say, and everything would come to a stand-still. We would only have cold, hard facts and no emotions. Love would end. We cannot live without it, because making love is how people create a new life. Do you know why love is so powerful? Because it’s the combination of every emotion: hate, jealousy, anger, sadness, inspiration, hope, trust, happiness, etc. We have all of those emotions because each of them is based on Love.”
When Maggie stepped through the door from the office, the other employees were waiting for her. They welcomed her warmly, happy to have a new member.
Over the Public Address system, a familiar voice announced: “Go ahead and go home, ladies and gentlemen. Have a great day, and thank you for your time! The next shift is here.”
Before leaving the store, Maggie stopped at the service desk. “Hello again! Back so soon?”
“Yes. Before I go, I was wondering if everything went okay with the woman you talked to. The one in Hell.”
“I told her that I don’t end people’s lives: I accept them when their life on earth is over. Mostly, I let her vent. A person with a lot of pain often needs someone to blame, because it’s difficult to keep it inside and it needs somewhere to go. What love does, is it accepts pain but it doesn’t give it back. Love gives a person care and time in return, and apologizes for what they’re going through.”
“May I ask what happened to her son?”
“He died in a terrible accident. A vehicle hydro-planed and crashed into her son’s car.” He replied solemnly.
“Oh, how sad! That must be so hard on everyone involved: the son, his Mom, and the other driver.”
“It’s definitely difficult. You should know.”
“I should? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You met all of them today. Her son was the first young man you talked to. You and I will both be working with the Mom. And the driver: the one who hydro-planed? He was your second customer: that depressed guy, Dave Smith. Trust me: there’s more to the story. This is just the beginning.”
The next morning, the first customer at the service desk first was a female in her thirties with a complexion the colour of brown sugar. She was wearing a floral wrap-around dress and low-heeled sandals. Maggie was fascinated with the lady’s eyes, which were nearly gold and gave her an exotic look.
There was a trace of an accent in her voice when she asked “Why are there criminals? I was out shopping the other day when someone pushed me down and stole my purse. Oddly enough, I’d left my wallet behind at the last store I was in by mistake, so the guy wasn’t able to get his hands on my money or credit cards when I was mugged, but still…”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you weren’t hurt.”
“No. Just shocked, I guess. A couple of cuts and bruises from being knocked over. The police found my purse laying in an alley, and I got my wallet back from the store a few hours later. Why do people do that?”
“Probably out of desperation. Sometimes, people steal because they need money and that’s the only way they can get it. Sad, but true. As for the harmful things that happen, believe it or not, they serve a purpose.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” The customer’s golden eyes flashed.
Maggie shook her head. “It sounds strange, I know. The thing is, if a person dreams of becoming a police officer when they grow up, a part of their job requires criminals. Doctors and nurses need people who are sick. Grocery store employees and farmers depend on people being hungry. People who respond to an emergency can only do so if there’s an emergency to respond to: a hero needs someone to save in order to become a hero. This doesn’t mean that life is easy, and it’s not an excuse for all the terrible things that some people do: it’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me.”
“So, we all need each other?”
“In order to serve a purpose, I think we do.”
“I’m going to think about that for a while. I appreciate your time.”
“I’m glad to have met you.” Maggie said with a smile.
A moment later, Dave Smith walked in.
“Do you think God plans bad things to happen?”
“I don’t think life is scripted like a movie.”
“Are you sure?”
“Can I ask you a question first?”
“Did you eat breakfast this morning?”
Dave raised an eyebrow. “Yes…”
“May I ask what you had?”
“Toast and coffee.”
“So, God didn’t tell you that you were supposed to have cereal today?”
“Of course not! It was my choice. Oh… I think I know what you’re saying. But why doesn’t He fix everything?”
“Well, if He was responsible for everything, then we’d be responsible for nothing. I don’t think God planned the accident you were in anymore than He planned your breakfast for you this morning.”
Dave tilted his head for a moment then nodded slightly. After giving Maggie an affectionate pat on the arm, he exited the store.
Maggie lowered her head for a moment to massage the back of her neck. When she looked up again, she noticed someone waiting for her.
“I only want to talk to you. Talking to God yesterday was pretty intense. After what I said, accusing Him of taking my son and all. I don’t know how to handle that yet.”
“Certainly. My name is Maggie, by the way.”
“I’m Debbie. Debbie Leblanc.” She looked to be in her late 40’s. Listless brown hair framed her face. Though tall and slim, she looked shrunken, somehow. Her anger had dissipated and was now overshadowed by defeat. “Can we sit down somewhere? I could really use a cup of coffee.”
Debbie opened two packets of sugar and stirred them into her coffee. She seemed relieved to have the cafeteria to themselves.
Maggie took a few sips of her tea, then set her cup down when she noticed a fresh set of tears spilling down the face of her table-mate. Choosing her words carefully, she said “I’m so sorry for your loss. I haven’t experienced what you have, so I won’t say I know how you feel.”
Debbie dried her eyes with a napkin then gave a look full of heartbreak. “I miss him so much. Do you think I’ll ever see my son again?”
“If you mean while we’re here on Earth, I think it might be possible. My mother swears she saw her brother in a store a year after he passed away. She believes that happened because the worst of her grieving was over. Perhaps, both she and my uncle needed to get adjusted to their new living situation first. Maybe, we’re able to see someone that looks like our loved one when we’re no longer devastated by the loss. It depends on what you believe, I guess.”
“If I knew I might be able to see my son again someday, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much…”
Maggie thought for a moment. “Believing we have no physical pain after we leave here gives me some comfort.”
“Knowing he’s safe would help.” After glancing at her watch, Debbie got up from the table. “I need to be somewhere. Thanks.”
Maggie watched her leave, then lowered her head for a moment. She felt the gentle pressure of someone’s hand on her shoulder.
“Are you okay?” Mike asked, concern filling his voice.
“I will be.” She whispered. “This is hard. I need a few minutes.”
“Did you tell her you saw her son in here yesterday?”
“No. I don’t think she’s ready for that. I don’t think I’m ready, either. Telling a person you’re able to communicate with someone who’s no longer earth-bound isn’t easy. I have a confession to make: I’m still worried about messing up.”
“No one knows everything. All we’re doing is opening up possibilities and communication. Someone quoted something to me not long ago: If you’re not free to make mistakes, then free-will is pointless.”
“I like that.”
“So, what do you think?”
She let out a slow breath. “I think this is going to take some time.”
Standing side-by-side, they looked around at the empty isles. The stocked shelves were full of thought bubbles, each colorful orb containing a luminescent glow of hope and peace.
“If you want to call it a day, go ahead. I can cover the service desk for you.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you.” Maggie replied. She collected her coat and purse, then paused by the door for a moment to allow the next customer to enter the store. She heard Mike’s voice echo behind her as she made her way to the parking lot.
“Welcome to LifeMart. How can I help you?”
Susan Cleveland is a returning author to the Academy of the Heart and Mind. Her adventure stories and inspirational works have been published in the Scarlet Leaf Review, and in the In The Fog anthologies with Partridge Island Publishing. When she’s not writing, Ms. Cleveland enjoys spending time with her grandchildren and going on nature walks with her dog. She lives with her family in Atlantic Canada