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'Ring up the coats,' he said ...

She was having a bad day. You know how it goes. She had driven the 120 miles to Bismarck with a long list of things to do and things to buy. And when she stopped back around 6 p.m. to pick up the computer she had dropped off earlier for repairs, ...

Tony Bender

She was having a bad day. You know how it goes. She had driven the 120 miles to Bismarck with a long list of things to do and things to buy. And when she stopped back around 6 p.m. to pick up the computer she had dropped off earlier for repairs, it was still sitting on the counter, untouched.

This is the story Wanda Meidinger told me last week, when she stopped at the newspaper office during her lunch hour to pick up the weekly fantasy football score sheet for her husband, Ron.

I don't remember how we got on the topic, but eventually the conversation turned to, well, bad days. You know, human beings being what we are, we like to complain a little. As if God has made another silly mistake. Like we could do better ...

Anyway, somehow during shift change at the electronics store, the computer had been lost in the shuffle. It was clear Wanda was going to be held hostage in Bismarck for a few more hours while the night shift repaired the computer.

It was frustrating. Who wouldn't be frustrated? You know how it is. It's different for rural people. "Just stop back tomorrow," some clerk will sweetly advise, as if everyone lives 10 minutes from a mall. But you can't. Stopping back tomorrow means half of another day is shot - at minimum.

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Making the best of it, but still stewing and dreading the long trip home in the early darkness of winter, Wanda decided to pick up some odds and ends at Wal-Mart. At the checkout, she waited in line with a fellow she described as a distinguished cowboy type.

A mother was ahead of them at the till with three kids, ages 2½ to maybe 8 years old. The youngest rode in the shopping cart. The oldest had his arm in a sling and glasses sliding goofily off his nose. The mother stood there with a handful of cash, as the items were rung up. When the total was announced she was stunned for a moment. Then she stammered, "I ... I'm sorry. I don't have enough."

I guess she was having a bad day.

There was an uncomfortable pause, broken by the clerk. "Oh, that's OK. It happens all the time. We can take some things off. ..."

The mom thought about it a long time. Finally, the words came out. It wasn't voluntary. They had to be dragged out by some unseen force. "I guess we can take off the kids' coats." Winter coats for three kids who could never know just how hard it was for her to say those words.

As quickly as she could without appearing to hurry, the clerk mercifully completed the transaction. Have a nice day.

As the woman and kids headed out to the parking lot, the cowboy stepped ahead of Wanda. "Ring up those coats," he said.

"What?" the surprised clerk asked.

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"I'll pay for them. Send someone out there to catch her ... and don't tell her who paid for the coats!"

Like lightning, the transaction was completed and paid for in cash - about $80. A clerk sprinted out to the parking lot, caught up to the woman and gave her the coats. Wanda could see them from the window. Like maybe God could, only he could have heard the conversation.

I wish I could tell you who the good guy in the story is. When Wanda told the story to her husband, Ron decided the woman had an angel looking out for her.

A real angel? C'mon. Hasn't this world outgrown that sort of sentimentality? Hasn't it just gotten too mean and too cold out there for even the angels? That's what the cynic in me would say. But there's another voice that tells me even if that's the way things are, if we choose to do so, we can become one another's angels.

Wanda had tears in her eyes as she told me the story, but I didn't. It was just another story about a bad day. The world is full of them.

Poor Wanda had to drive into the darkness, with the thought of that poor woman weighing on her mind. And the cowboy was out 80 bucks.

But I suppose some bad days are better than others.

Bender is the publisher of the Ashley (N.D.) Tribune, where this column first appeared in Bender's "That's Life" weekly column. He also is author of the comic novel, "If Every Month Were June."

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