Verner column: The man who isnt there anymore
I don’t remember the last thing I ever said to the blue-eyed man with the mustache, but I do remember the last words he ever spoke to me.
“Thank you,” he said.
Maybe it was a couple of months ago, or perhaps even farther back — far enough back that I don’t recall what I had bought at the Z&H Mart on Mooresville Road that day. Maybe I’d noticed the gas gauge was pegged on “E” and had pulled in for a fill-up. Maybe I’d made a run for vanilla ice cream to top off a homemade cobbler. Maybe the trip was for hotdog buns or one of my infrequent purchases of a lottery ticket.
Maybe it was a couple of months ago, or farther back. I was not a regular customer at the mart, but it had been a convenient mainstay of the neighborhood for many years, dating back to a previous owner when it was known simply as “Ron’s.”
It’s the kind of small store that in an earlier day might have been described as a “mom and pop” operation, if mom and pop had enjoyed the amenities of automated gas pumps and serve-yourself soda machines. Sitting directly across from Neel Road, the store is a West Rowan landmark, and I’d come to expect that whenever I pulled in — however long it might have been since the last visit — the kindly man behind the counter would be there to greet me.
All of that changed Monday evening when a robber shot to death Hecham Abualeinan, the 59-year-old proprietor who had operated the store for the past few years. When I saw the headline on the Post’s website Tuesday morning, I stared for a moment in disbelief. Then I vaguely recalled hearing sirens sometime Monday evening, before I went to bed. Between house fires and car wrecks, sirens along Mooresville Road aren’t unusual, so I’d thought little of it. But Tuesday evening, the store sat dark and empty, yellow crime scene tape drooping from the concrete parking pylons in front of the cinderblock building.
I didn’t know Mr. Abualeinan very well — did not, in fact, even know his name until a few months ago. I knew little about him, other than the fact that he spoke English with a thick accent — Eastern European, I mistakenly thought; it was actually Syrian — and he always greeted me with a nod and friendly hello when I entered the store.
And when I left, he always said, “thank you.”
I’m sure he didn’t know my name, either. Ours were merely transactional encounters, those brief and largely anonymous exchanges that make up an increasing part of human interaction in an urbanized world. We have a passing acquaintance with the people who hand us our prescriptions at the pharmacy, our burgers at the drive-through, our stamps at the post office, our receipts at the bank and our lottery tickets at the local convenience store, but we rarely get to know the people behind the counter on a personal level.
We pass through one another’s lives like minnows through a gill net. Yet, somehow, there’s often a connection — however thin and nebulous it may be — and an expectation that next time we pull up or stroll in, a familiar face will be there to greet us, to ring up our groceries, fill our prescriptions, hand us our stamps, direct us to the electrical appliances or change our oil.
Even the people we don’t know, or barely know, become points of reference in our lives, as subtly reassuring as the worn stones of a footpath or the old oak that marks the edge of the yard.
We assume that because they were there yesterday, they’ll be there tomorrow. That’s not denial but a necessary assumption, like the sun’s rising, that enables us to move foward in our lives, or at least crawl out of bed in the morning.
We conduct our transactions and proffer our pleasantries — hello, how are ya, have a good one, goodbye — and pass on downstream, oblivious to the fact that life is about to change in unthinkable ways.
There’s black ice on the step ahead.
Branches creak in a rising wind.
Sirens moan in the distance.
The TV screen suddenly shifts to scenes of children fleeing a school building.
I don’t remember the last thing I said to the man who’s not there anymore. But I imagine it was simply “you’re welcome,” and then I turned and walked out the door.
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.