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The Sign

By Lawrence Kirsch


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Henry drove past the hardware store everyday.  Today seemed no different until he looked over at the large sign on top of the building, resting next to "Al's Discount Hardware."  That new sign read, "Today Only, Free Product!"


"Free product?"  Henry wondered aloud to himself as he slowly tapped the brake pedal.


"I've got to see this."  He hit the blinker and made his way into the parking lot.


Standing behind the counter at the front of the store was Josh.  He was busy stacking the little Philips head electric screwdriver bits like tiny logs. Unfortunately, once he reached three levels, the weight of the bits forced the lower ones to roll out from underneath and the entire stack would flatten out.  Henry walked in and interrupted Josh's fifth attempt at building his little pile of bits.  "Excuse me, but is that sign for real?"


Josh looked up a little annoyed.  "What sign?"


"The free product sign."


Josh didn't register.


"You know, the one on the roof."


Josh scrunched his nose up and scowled.  "You mean the store sign?"


"No, the one that says free product." Now, Henry was getting a little annoyed.


At that moment, an elderly man, Al, walked in from the back room, catching Henry's last sentence.


Josh was just about to display his best attempt at customer service. "Mister, I don't know what the hell…"


Al cut in.  "That's okay Josh, I'll take this customer."


Al turned to Henry and produced a genuinely warm smile.  "Good afternoon young man.  How can I help you today?"


"I was trying to find out if that sign you have up was for real.  He didn't seem to know what I was talking about." 


Al nodded and replied, "I understand.  Come with me and let's see if I can be of some assistance."  As Al started moving to the back of the store, he motioned for Henry to follow.


Just before he reached the back, Al suddenly stopped, turned around and faced Henry, startling him.  "Now, what seems to be your concern?"


"Well, it's not really a concern.  I was just driving by and noticed that sign on your roof."


"And what sign might that be?"  Al asked in a gentle, grandfatherly tone of voice.


"The one on the roof next to your store sign.  It's right there, next to your regular sign."  Henry was feeling a little paranoid.


"And what does this sign read?"  Al asked.


"It says, ‘Today Only, Free Product.’" 


A strange expression quickly flashed over Al's face.  He stared intensely at Henry, and then he produced that wonderfully warm smile again.


Henry never intended for this little side trip to go where it was taking him.  It was disconcerting, and he wasn't sure what to do next.


Finally, Al responded.  "I understand."  Then, nothing.


Henry spoke up.  "So, is it true?  Are you giving away free product?"


After what seemed like a tremendously long pause to Henry - but was actually only a couple of seconds - Al nodded.  "Yes, we are."


Henry motioned in the direction of Josh, now on his ninth attempt with the little drill bits. "You should let him in on the news."


"Wouldn't make much difference," Al sounded like a disappointed parent.  "He doesn't pay enough attention to things."  Al sighed.  “Most people don’t.”


Henry was beginning to recover from his paranoia and in doing so, noticed that he was the only customer in the store.  In fact, during this entire time with his pressing question of free product - nearly fifteen minutes - not one other customer entered the store.


Henry commented on this fact.  "I don't understand.  Why isn't your store packed?"


"I guess not everybody sees the sign.  After all, they do have to be looking in the direction of our store, don't they?"


Sounded reasonable.  Still, Henry was skeptical.  "I suppose so.  But you would think that someone would see the sign?"


Al nodded in Henry's direction.  "You did."


"Yea, I know.  But isn't that a rather bold thing to do?  I mean, offering free product?"  Henry was curious.  "You must have had others come in.  Weren't you concerned about giving away the store?"


"No. Not that many come in.  Certainly not as many as I thought.  Still, I am gratified with those that were able to read the sign."


Now, Henry wasn't paying enough attention.  "So, I can get whatever I want, as much as I want?" 


"Well, not exactly.  You probably didn't read the fine print."


"Fine print?"


"Yes, it's on the sign.  I guess it's a little too small to read from the road.  In any event, it says that you can only pick one item."  Al's tone seemed a little apologetic about this detail.


"Oh.  Well, it's still a pretty good deal."  Henry smiled at Al.


Henry continued, "But I have to believe that giving away free product, even if it is only one item per customer, has to cost you a fortune.  I mean, some of the stuff in here is pretty expensive - and I know you can't mark things up that much."  Henry was still trying to get his mind around this promotional event.


Al found Henry's fixation on the free product concept amusing, and understandable.  "You'd be surprised how little it actually costs me.  To tell you the truth, when you get right down to it, most people end up taking something they need, rather than what they want."


Then Al added, "When people stick with their needs, I usually don't have a problem.  Wants are a whole another story.  But isn't that the way it is with life?"


Finally, Henry was paying attention.  "What do you mean?"


"The people who can read the sign - have the time to pay attention to the sign - and more importantly, can take the time to stop in, usually only take something they need.  Oh, they may think they want something.  But when you get right down to it - when it's time for them to pick the one item - they always pick something they need.  And isn't that the way it should be?"


Henry was trying to take it in.


Al continued.  "How many times have you picked something you wanted only to discover, sadly, that you really didn't know what to do with it?  You know why that happens?"


Henry shook his head.


"Because you rarely ever need something you want.  I know that sounds strange.  But, it's often true." 


Then Al looked squarely at Henry.


"What do you think you want, young man?"


Henry was drifting off into his mind, savoring the question.  "I've always wanted a tractor lawnmower - a really big one.  Red.  With a bunch of gears for shifting."  Henry smiled.


"And what would you do with it?"  Al asked softly.


Henry looked up with a puzzled expression.  "Cut my grass?"


Al stared at him.


Then Henry continued.  "Actually, I don't have that much grass to cut.  I wouldn't even know where to store the damn thing.  I guess what I really need is a simple push mower."


Al nodded his head in agreement.  "They're right over there, in aisle 3.  They're light weight, and easy to use, and store."  Then Al added, "It's just what you need."


Henry slowly walked over and picked up a push mower.  He looked it over, nodded his head and then walked to the front of the store where Al was waiting for him.


"Can I ask you a question?"  Henry asked.


"Go right a head, young man."  Al smiled.


"Why are you doing this?  Why are you giving me this free push mower?"


"Because you needed it.  If you hadn't, you never would have seen the sign."

Henry offered up a weak smile, not really understanding what the old man was trying to say.  It didn't matter, really.  He was happy with his push mower.  And it was time to go.


Henry placed the mower in the back seat with the handle sticking slightly out the passenger's side window.  He started the engine, and just as he as about to pull out of the parking lot, he took one last look at that sign.


It was no longer there.

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