The old guy sits alone at a small bare card table, looking for all the world like he’d rather be anywhere but there, in the corner of the lobby of the grocery store, hawking poppies.
The small glass jar in front of him is almost empty. From boredom, perhaps, or maybe from a touch of OCD or nervousness or deeply entrenched discipline, he’s lined up a few dozen of his poppies in four equal rows, with military precision.
From here, they look like four tiny rows of graves.
He looks at me when he thinks I don’t see him. What does he see? A well-dressed young woman with an overflowing grocery cart? Yet another beneficiary of his and his fellow soldiers’ sacrifices? Someone else without a poppy in a long line of someone else’s without a poppy who don’t seem to care anymore about November 11th?
I watch him watching me as I load my groceries into my rollie cart for the long walk home. I want to say something to him, but I don’t know what to say. It’s not like me to not know what to say. I don’t want to argue with him. I don’t want to say “I don’t believe in killing people, no matter what the circumstance”, because it will just start an argument. I don’t want to say “all wars are bankers’ wars fought to install central banks in otherwise sovereign nations, and all those who’ve fought those wars are little more than pawns and cannon fodder in the eyes of those who sent them to kill and die”. I can’t say that, even though it’s what I believe. I’m not a pacifist. I’m a realist. “Thou shallt not kill” is more real to me than “Support our troops”.
I want to say something that says he matters, even though I don’t want to buy a poppy. I want to reach this man. Sure, I could just drop some money into his hollow jar and grab a poppy that I’ll just throw into the garbage when I’m far enough away that he can’t see me doing it. I could do that, but that’s not how I want to reach him. And I need to reach him, this old guy still valiantly doing his duty in world that no longer seems to have time for him or his long-ago sacrifices.
But I walk out the door saying nothing. In my peripheral vision, I see him watching me leave. How many me’s has he watched leave today, not sparing him even a sideways glance? I’m ashamed of saying nothing, but I keep walking, anyway. I don’t want to start an argument, but at the same time I don’t want to leave him sitting there alone with his empty jar and his poppies lined up like grave markers.
I want to say to him “you matter to me”. I want to say “thank you for doing what you thought was the right thing, even if I don’t agree with it”. I want to say “bravery and discipline and self-sacrifice and endurance are amazing qualities that show the measure of a man”. I want to say “I’m sorry that you served your country, only to have it taken over by lunatics who think a man should marry a man and that the government should be able to kill its own citizens on request.”
I want to say “you matter”. I want to say “the empty jar is not the measure of your worth”. I want to say “I want to reach you”. I want to say “I care”.
I want to say “thank you”.
But I say nothing.
My silence bounces off him and follows me all the way home. It hounds me through dinner until I sit at this computer and write these words:
“Thank you, sir.”
That’s what I should have said to him when I had the chance. Not a diatribe, not a litany of excuses for why I didn’t want to buy a poppy.
Just simply: “Thank you. Sir.”