Farmer Hal left a trail of straw through the Goodwill. With Merle in his other hand, he leafed through the shirts for something that would look good—not for him, but for Merle. The dang birds had pecked holes all over his shirt, and it was time to get him a new one.
Let's see… He'd gotten a flannel shirt last time, and that seemed to suit Merle better. He held a red shirt in front of Merle's chest. Merle's coat-button eyes stared out from his face, which had once been part of a burlap sack.
More straw fell from Merle's body as Farmer Hal browsed. He didn't want just any clothes for his scarecrow.
A plump middle-aged woman with a name tag walked up to Farmer Hal. "Um, can I help you?" Her tag said LILY.
"No, ma'am," Farmer Hal said. "I reckon I can find what I need." He held up a handful of flannel button-down shirts of different colors. "I'll just be taking these to try on."
"Um." Lily couldn't get another word out before Farmer Hal turned his back on her and headed for the changing room. She had only gotten this job a few months ago after getting laid off from the insurance office. She beckoned for Scooby, the college student with the half-shaved head who'd trained her.
Scooby came up holding her price gun. "What's up?"
"There's a man in here buying clothes for a—well—" Lily gestured to her feet, surrounded by straw.
"Oh, Farmer Hal," Scooby said. "Don't mind him. He's an oddball, but he's a sweetheart. Comes by every Spring to shop for his scarecrow, every summer to shop for his wife, and every fall to shop for himself."
Lily crooked her eyebrow. "That man's married?"
Scooby shrugged. "He says he is. He just takes that scarecrow seriously, is all."
"I just never run into anybody like that."
Inside the changing room, Farmer Hal was buttoning the red flannel shirt onto Merle. It looked good, but it was a little loose on the shoulders. He'd look like some poor kid waiting to grow into his new clothes. The blue flannel shirt was too tight, and if Farmer Hal weren't careful, he'd have torn the seams over Merle's wooden arms. The green one had a hole under the pocket. Only the purple one was a good fit and in good condition. Farmer Hal didn't especially like purple—he didn't want Merle to look like that singer with the frilly sleeves. But if Merle liked it, that was what mattered.
Farmer Hal put the shirts back on their hanger and carried them back outside. He left the rejects on the rack and took the purple shirt to the checkout counter. Lily took his payment.
"That really is a nice scarecrow," Lily said.
"Scarecrow?" Farmer Hal said. "What scarecrow? This is my son."
Lily's face went chalk white.
Farmer Hal started snickering, then that grew into a bigger laugh. "Oh man, I had you for a moment there."
Scooby was chuckling, too. Farmer Hal had tried the same thing with her the first time she rang him up. The Goodwill workers considered it a rite of passage. Lily relaxed and handed him his receipt.
"It's just we work real hard on these fellas, the wife and I," Farmer Hal said. "We figure, might as well make sure they look their best."
"I see." Lily glanced down at the trail of straw he'd left behind him. "Now about that…"
"What about what?"
Scooby shook her head and made a throat-cutting gesture. But Lily didn't tolerate it from her boys at home and she wasn't going to tolerate it from this gentleman, either. "You've left a mess all over our store. You think perhaps you should help us out?"
Farmer Hal ran his gaze over the straw, then turned toward Lily and pointed at the broom and dustpan behind her. "Ain't this what that's for?"
"Excuse me?" Lily said.
Scooby made a face at Lily that said I will friggin' murder you for this.
"Some of your customers track dust," Farmer Hal said, "and some of 'em track mud. I gotta have Merle here with me to shop for him, so you're gonna get some straw. Ain't cleaning up in your job description?"
Lily's mouth hung open in abject shock. Of all the ignorant, self-entitled— "I'm a mom, so I thought I heard it all. But you, sir, you son of a—"
"WHOA WHOA WHOA!" Scooby ran up to the checkout counter. "Sorry, sir, she's new. We will clean it up. It just… just seems like a little more than usual."
Farmer Hal gave her a half-grin. "When'd they make you manager?"
"About the twelfth of Never, Sir."
"You any closer to graduating?"
"Got about a year left." Scooby crossed her fingers.
Farmer Hal took one last look at the straw. "Right. Sorry about all that. Here's a little extra." Farmer Hal left three dollars on the checkout counter. "Guess I'll have to tighten him up on the bottom there."
Lily folded the shirt and slid it into a bag and handed it to Farmer Hal. He nodded to her, then waved to Scooby, then carried the bag and the scarecrow out to his Chevy pick-up.
Lily took the broom and dustpan out and started sweeping up the straw.
Meanwhile, Farmer Hal drove down the highway back to his farm. He waved to his wife, posted Merle back in his original place in the wheat field, pulled off his ratty denim shirt, and put on the purple flannel shirt in its place.
It didn't look half bad, actually. But somehow it seemed a little incomplete.
Farmer Hal tore the sleeves off the old shirt and tied it around Merle's neck as a kind of scarf or kerchief.
Merle still looked like that singer, but for now, it worked out.