Life's hard out there for an icon

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

"My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes and I'm busted. ... I got a cow that went dry and a hen that won't lay, A big stack of bills that gets bigger each day. ... And I'm busted."

-- Ray Charles

The elderly gentleman in the unusual red, white and blue outfit and neatly trimmed white beard looked out of place walking down the aisles at Kmart. He had a couple of items in his shopping cart, but I noticed him checking out price stickers on every shelf he came to, often shaking his head sadly before moving on.

Intrigued, I decided to follow him around the store.

He wandered down the food aisles, reading the nutritional information on a number of products. He didn't, I observed, put any food in his basket.

"I don't know how they expect me to feed all these people," I heard him mutter under his breath.

When the gentleman turned right and made his way to the outdoors section, I followed close enough in his wake to keep him in sight but not so close that it became obvious I was watching him. There was just something about the guy.

He looked over the guns that were on display, seemed to make a decision on a couple of rifles, then put them back on the rack.

"I'll be back," he told the young man behind the counter.

The gentleman made a stop in the clothing department, looking at the price tags on both boys and girls outfits. He actually put a pair of size 12 work boots in his buggy and then made his way to the front of the store where rows of medicine were on display.

As he walked down each aisle, I noticed that the man would pick up several different bottles of medication, mutter something that was barely audible, and then put each item back on the shelf he'd taken it from. My curiosity got the better of me, and I managed to work my way unobserved to a shelf right behind him.

Pretending to read the label on a bottle of Pepto Bismol-looking goop that claimed it was the cure for just about every indigestion issue a body could suffer, I leaned as close to the gentleman as I could.

"I need some of that," he said as he checked out a bottle of generic ibuprofen. "I need some of that, too. And that. And that. And that.

"My people need a lot of all this stuff."

Even as the man made the declaration, pointing at a different medication with each "and that," I noted that he did not put a single bottle of medicine into his shopping cart.

When he got to the end of the last aisle of medicine, he looked forlornly back over the rows of display cases and sighed deeply. Then he started wearily toward the back of the store.

I feared I might have been too obvious in my surveillance, so I didn't immediately follow the man when he left the medication section. I had a feeling I knew where he was going. When I reached the weapons display he'd previously visited a short while later, my deduction proved correct.

He'd loaded a number of rifles, shotguns and pistols into his shopping cart and cases of ammo that corresponded with each weapon. He and the young sales clerk were having a laugh when I walked within ear shot, and I heard the salesman say, "Yeah, it looks very real, but that's just a paintball gun."

"I wouldn't want any of my folks to draw down on a target with one of those instead of the real thing," the elderly man chuckled. "They'd both be in for a surprise."

With his buggy packed full of items, the gentleman headed for the front of the store to check out. He didn't seem to mind that the long lines moved slowly. He picked up a tabloid, read for a moment and laughed quietly.

"That Charlie Sheen," he said quietly.

When it was finally his turn, the man watched the price mount as the clerk rang up his purchases. By the time she'd finished, I noticed I wasn't the only one staring at the old man.

"That'll be ... let's see ... 298 million dollars ... and 72 cents," the clerk, whose name tag read "Bernadette," said.

Without a word, the gentleman handed Bernadette a charge card.

She ran it through a scanner, and they waited for what seemed like an inordinately long time. There was a buzz, and Bernadette said,

"I'm sorry, sir, but your card has been rejected."

She eyed the man for a couple of counts, then put her hands on her hips.

"Looks like someone forgot our government is in default and ain't paying its bills these days," she said. "Your credit ain't no good here anymore. You need to come back with some cash."

"Damn, just like Walmart," the man in red, white and blue said as he dejectedly trudged toward the exit.

Just before he walked through the door, an energetic young clerk at the front desk said, "Thank you for shopping at Kmart."

"Yeah, right," the old man grumbled. And he walked out the door into the hot summer night.