Friday, December 18, 2009

Mr. Lincoln

One mild, windy night in February, when a breath of spring is in the air and the moon stands unseen above the lights in the parking lot, a man who looked exactly like Abraham Lincoln walked into the grocery store. He did not just resemble him; he looked exactly like him. He had the same startling height and thinness, the same sunken cheeks, the same jawline and lips. He had the same eyes and neck and hairline, and the same thick hair. He had the same expression of wisdom and patience, and did not even bother with a beard. The resemblance was not merely strong or arresting or unmistakable. It was dumbfounding. Literally: people in the grocery store were struck dumb as they looked at him.

He went to the customer service desk, and had some sort of business taken care of. No one except the clerk waiting on him could hear him speak. The store was busy, five or six checkout lanes open, and there were lines of customers two or three deep at each lane. An average night. The whole store shone brightly in reflection in the big plate glass windows shielding out the dark night: young women ringing up sales, young men bagging groceries, people fetching and pulling the big silver carts, managers in mauve smocks observing things and writing things on clipboards, signs and lights, “Deli Department” and “Produce” in the distance, racks of candies and magazines up close, all caught and trembling in the big black windows at the front of the store. The flare of headlights from cars in the parking lot occasionally swept in, as if from another dimension. There was rain on the windows.

As the man who looked like Lincoln conducted his business, more and more people noticed him. The front of the store remained busy but grew quiet. Everyone wanted to comment to his neighbor, but any comments would have seemed so ridiculously obvious that no one did. It seemed disrespectful. Cashiers looked, looked away, and scanned things and made small talk with their customers, and then looked quietly again. Baggers did the same. But no one looked at each other. No one went up to the man and said, you know, I’ll bet you’ve heard this before, but you look incredibly like Abraham Lincoln. He not only knew, but was dressed in somewhat old-fashioned clothes – a kind of frock coat and a small floppy tie – that seemed to show he must have been at some sort of historical re-enactment, or perhaps in a play at a school. He knew.

One black man especially stared at him, half-smiling in wonderment as he accepted his bag of groceries. That was the feeling that had descended over the whole front of the store. A strange happiness and wonder pervaded the hush; it was as if a father or a protector had miraculously come back.

And then the man who looked like Lincoln took up his plastic bag of groceries, and walked out of the store. His business at the customer service desk was finished. People tried to take one last look at him, tried to see him as a modern man, as somebody who must have a job and a family. It was impossible even to guess how old he might be, certainly impossible to imagine him in jeans and a t-shirt, or with a three-day growth of beard. He walked off into the mild night, probably got into a car and drove away. No one talked about him as the store got back to normal, got noisy again, because it all seemed so obvious.

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