Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Giving Thanks

At 5 o'clock in the morning you see things

Today at 5 o'clock in the morning I offered 5 dollars to a ghost.

The ghost was behind me in the line at the supermarket, and while I had about a hundred bucks worth of food, he was buying only Listerine. It was orange colored Listerine, flavored like apples I think, or maybe more medicinal. Doesn't matter, really. The fact is, I gave him the money to buy it. He was short on money—his shaking hands counted just over a dollar in change—and he looked right through me, like I was the ghost in his world, like he hadn't a clue I was there at all.

At the supermarket at 5 o'clock in the morning you see lots of things. I don't make a habit of shopping that early, but I should tell you that I almost never wait in line when I do. There are downsides, though. The deli is closed, for example, and the dairy aisle lacked soymilk. Still, you get in and out fast before the sun comes up.

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Unless, of course, you see a ghost. And if that ghost looks at you first and acts like you're the one who doesn't belong, then you have cause to stop and think. Whose world am I in? Are there maybe two worlds out there; one for the people who seek the light and another for those who shun it?

The ladies who work at the supermarket saw him. They sat close together on a bench near the register, one holding her paper-cup coffee, another fingering the cigarette box that sat in her apron pocket. They looked like birds, these ladies, sitting as they were, equidistant from each other on a country wire, high in the air where they could survey the waking world. Like I said, they saw the man with the Listerine, but they saw more than that. I think maybe they live in both worlds, existing, as they do, on the cusp of things.

The man was shaking, counting his change, a focused look on his furrowed face, each coin placed carefully with a rattle on the tray in front of him. Thirty-five cents, then forty, then seventy-five. Just over a dollar. But the Listerine scanned into the register with unfriendly numbers:

Five dollars and nine cents.

His shaking hands starting to recount, as if fingering the coins for a second time would cause his nickels to morph into dimes, his dimes to ooze towards quarters. There was a bead of sweat forming on his brow.

The women working in the market started looking for something, watching him the way a chameleon can move one eye to its hunter and another to its prey.

"You'll need gloves to tell him ‘no'," one lady said. My cashier nodded, ringing up my eggs, the milk, the waxed shiny apples that I had carefully selected.

"He doesn't have enough," another one whispered. She whispered loudly; we could all hear what she had said, but she meant no harm. It was just a statement of fact. He was a visitor from another place, but a regular, it seemed, back again for what he craved and still unable to stop the craving.

He held the Listerine tight to his chest, like he was holding a newborn baby, resting it just below his matted beard, his eyes wide and sunken, his head bobbing with wandering focus. His legs wobbled a bit, and he used his free hand to steady himself, pushing up against a magazine with Kim Kardashian on the cover.

"No gloves," another one whispered, bringing plastic shopping bags to the register.

The clerk looked at her colleague and nodded.

"We ran out of gloves yesterday," the first woman explained. "Put these on your hands when you're ready."

The woman at the register nodded again and motioned with her head for the spare bags to be left on the counter.

The ghost stood there in line like a supplicant, balancing himself on wobbly legs, his face dirty, the Listerine bottle shiny and new.

My tortilla chips were counted, my seltzer, my butter. Oreos looked good at 5 in the morning, and when you don't shop over a holiday weekend and you have to make lunch for your kids, you gotta get what you can when you can. Orange juice and baby carrots (peeled, ready to eat)...all of this found its way into my cart

I pulled out my wallet for my credit card and scanned it into the machine. Things happened, I suppose; a computer somewhere affirmed that my card was legit, that it had value and worth, and I signed my name to a piece of paper.

Staring at me from my wallet was Abraham Lincoln, his head slightly askew, that famous austere look checking me out. And I don't know why or even how exactly, but I gave the man my money. A five dollar bill for his Listerine, enough to stop his shaking. There was a heck of a sunrise going on, all pink and green with seagulls in the clouds, but he couldn't see any of this while he shook. He couldn't see that the sun was coming up.

But I am not without conflicts. I worry that this is all selfish.

It might be.

Did I buy him that Listerine because I didn't want to see what would happen if I did not? Who am I to predict the future? How do I know what would have happened? Still, judging from the ladies in the store, he had been there before. It looked as if these ladies, who meant well, of course, were used to ushering him out into the street, using rubber gloves when they could and plastic bags when they had to. Maybe, with my eggnog and pretzels and my suburban guilt, my Kia waiting for me as the lone car in the parking lot...maybe I couldn't stand to watch him tossed out the door. Does this make me delicate or strong? Was I right or was I wrong? These are not easy questions to answer. They're not even easy to ask.

At a concrete level I know exactly what I did. I know without question the mechanics of my actions. I bought a man a drink at 5 o'clock in the morning. He wouldn't seize or withdraw in the next hour or so, and I would drive home with my satellite radio and listen to the Grateful Dead.

As I was loading my car, one of the women came running out of the store and into the parking lot.

"You forgot your milk," she said, smiling, out of breath. She put the bag with the milk in the back of my car and then studied me for a moment. It looked like she was about to say something, but instead she turned and went back into the shop.

On the sidewalk the man with the beard stumbled, working as best he could to get the plastic wrapping off of the lid of the mouthwash. It was shaped, I noticed, just like a flask. It fit nicely into his hand, as it does in mine or anyone else who happens to hold it.

"Hey," I called, trotting away from my car. "Do me a favor."

He looked at me funny, like he didn't speak English.

"At least eat this," I said, handing him an apple.

"But I don't NEED that," he said. He sounded like a child.

"I know you don't." I said. "But just save it ‘till you do."

He removed one of his hands from the bottle and took the apple in another. I don't know if he saw me at all. A creature of the night and a creature of the day, parting ways on a sidewalk at dawn.

And I drove home to keep all of my perishables fresh.

Steven Schlozman's first novel, The Zombie Autopsies, was published in March, and he contributed to the book of essays The Triumph of the Walking Dead. Schlozman is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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