She looked like any one of a thousand cute, skinny girls with glasses, bangs and her hair in a ponytail. You know the type - sweet, maybe a hard luck case, just barely out of that gawky stage. Probably 19 or 20. She's the waitress that always smiles and never forgets how you like your eggs, or the nurse's aid you found reading to your mom or the babysitter you just can't do without. She's that girl, I could tell.
They were standing just outside the dressing room in JCPenney's. She had her back turned to an equally skinny guy a little older than her, and was holding up her hair with one hand while he worked the zipper on the back of the dress she was trying on.
He finally managed to get her zipped and she scooted back into the first dressing room. The guy (who was more of a kid, really) shoved his hands in his pockets and tried his best to look comfortable standing in the doorway to a ladies dressing room.
I smiled as I stepped past him and went into the next open stall to try on a sundress.
"Jessie?" I heard him say. "Can I see how you look?"
There was no reply for a minute and then I heard a small voice say "It's so beautiful." A door opened and Jessie must have stepped out in her dress because there was a lot of quiet conversation back and forth. I heard "princess" and "too expensive" and then the door closed again.
I knew the sundress I had wouldn't fit me but I loved the color. I squinted at my image in the mirror trying to make the dress work, and thought about some memorable people I've met in the past five months.
The kid at KMart trying to buy frozen chicken and cereal and bread with a mostly used gift card.
The homeless woman in the bakery having a cup of free coffee but no breakfast.
The tattooed man in front of me at Target, working a pile of gift cards to buy a Wii Fit for his mom who just came home from rehab.
The dad at the cheap movies trying to stretch a small popcorn and a bottle of Sprite between three little kids.
I took off the sundress and put it back on the hanger. It was a beautiful shade of coral. I got dressed, opened the door and headed out into the store. In a corner off to the left stood Jessie and her boyfriend next to a Levi's display for ladies capris. On the shelf was a pile of wadded up bills and some coins. Jessie was searching through her purse. The boy was going through his pockets.
"I've got $22.53," the boy was saying as he dropped another dime and two pennies on the shelf.
"I don't need this dress," she said. "It's too expensive."
"Yes, you do," the boy replied. "You're beautiful."
"It is," she said, eyeing the dress. You could tell from her voice that wearing it made her feel beautiful.
I opened my wallet and took out a $20 bill.
She had a dusting of freckles across her nose and a tiny scar in her eyebrow, and brown eyes that were huge. "Enjoy your dress, " I said and put the bill in her hand. As I moved away, she swallowed and looked at the money in her hand then at her boyfriend. He just stared at me with his mouth open.
"Ma'am, " Jessie called, holding out the twenty toward me. "I can't take this!"
"Yes, you can," I told her. "You looked gorgeous in that dress - enjoy it."
And then I walked out of the store, trying not to grin. Just as I had walked out of KMart, the bakery, Target and the movie theatre trying not to grin.
Don't write comments of praise. Please don't tell me what a good person I am. I owe a debt.
A few months back, someone I don't know did something incredible for me - something kind and generous and meaningful.
I can't pay this person back, even if mere money could equal what I've been given. I can't write a thank you note, even if new words were invented big enough to hold my gratitude.
But I can help the Jessie's of this world when I find them as a sort of honor to someone who was kind to me. I openly admit that there's a selfish element at work here, too, that can't be overlooked. My offering of help is so small compared to the blessing I received but you know what? It gives me that same can't-stop-grinning feeling I had when I first heard about this wonderful person's generous gift to me.
I wonder if they knew they were giving a gift that keeps on giving.
I was raised by a thoughtful and generous family who always found some way to help those less fortunate, even when they didn't have two nickels to rub together. That is how I learned the difference between having money and being wealthy.
Somewhere tonight, a girl named Jessie twirls before the mirror in a dress that makes her feel as beautiful as she really is.
And somewhere tonight is a kind and generous person who showed me once again that there are better angels in all of us.
Both have given me something priceless, and I am wealthy beyond measure.