“How are you today, ma’am?”
It was a greeting Jeremy had used so many times as a grocery store clerk that the words no longer carried any meaning as they left his tongue. Like when you say ‘apple’ twenty times in a row, you no longer see a mental picture of an apple. You hear ‘a’ and ‘pl’ and together they make nothing, just sounds.
When he said “How are you today, ma’am” this time, his thoughts were really on the chest of Connie, the new girl at the register directly across from him, and how her frumpy red vest that passed for a uniform somehow accentuated her rather generous curves rather than camouflaging them, as they seemed to do to everyone else. At the exact moment he said “ma’am” in fact he was noticing the heavy roundness of her left breast in her skin-tight white long-sleeve through the large sleeve-holes of the vest. This was why he was so surprised when he received this reply back:
The usual reply was obviously, “fine” or “good” or even “great,” sometimes ironic and sometimes genuine. But to hear “terrible” sent him reeling, to say nothing of the profanity. It violated the careful ritual that was dealing with strangers. The jarring reply pulled his mind away from Connie’s significant side-cleavage and back in to the world of the living, where he found a cigarette-thinned woman with over-tanned skin roughly the texture of tree bark. She was wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing that appeared to have been intended to serve as workout clothes sometime in the early eighties, and her hair, an artificially crafted replica of what might have been a righteous hair-metal mullet, sat on her head like hair-shaped paper machet helmet. Her face appeared to have been designed by a two-year-old with a worn-out brown crayon, and at the corner of her mouth rested a livid red sore that appeared to be thriving in the moist crack of the woman’s face. He found he couldn’t think of anything to say, then, stiffly, he countered: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Me too,” the woman said, heaving a family-sized block of toilet paper on to the narrow black conveyor. “Woke up this morning smelling shit. Not exactly the way I planned to spend my day off, I tell you. I walk in to the bathroom, and sure enough: Shit! Sewage water leaking back up the pipes like a motherfucker, overflowing all over the floor. Looked bad and smelled like a dog’s asshole.”
Jeremy stood in captive silence, speedily scanning every item with the hope of sending this woman on her way as quickly as possible. The items that had followed the toilet paper were two types of toilet plungers, a mammoth block of paper towels, five cans of “pumpkin-spice” air freshening spray and three wholesale boxes of heavy-flow maxi pads.
“And then Randy came over and what does he say? ‘I told you not to put all those damn pads down the drain, Doris.’ And that’s all he has to say for himself, just standing there shaking his head while my apartment flooded with shit water. And that’s what really set me off, you know? What does he know about my god damn lady problems? I go through two of these boxes with every period,” she paused to viciously tap the cardboard packaging on the last maxi pad box, “Every period! And you think I enjoy that? You think I enjoy feeling like Niagra Falls every time god decides to remind me that, yet again, I have failed to bear fruit? The answer is no. And I told Randy so.”
Throughout this tirade Jeremy had nodded at random moments and chuckled nervously at the louder parts in what he hoped sounded like commiseration. He had placed the last box of pads back in the cart and was waiting for payment by the time she finished. But even as she keyed her information on to the small touchscreen she didn’t stop.
“So after he was so insensitive he still couldn’t even do anything about it, worthless piece of you-know-what.”
She slammed the touch-pen back in its holder and looked at Jeremy, as if expecting him to say something. All he could do was contract his upper cheek muscles and shrug, unsure of what the physical result of this looked like to Doris. After a few more eternal seconds, she breathed out heavily and shook her head as if Jeremy was one of them too; another Randy. Another lazy-ass landlord who couldn’t fix anything and who looked down from his ivory tower of male-ness on her alarming woman problems. With that she turned, gripped the handle of her cart, and walked quickly to the exit, her once-white flip flops clapping behind her.
As she turned through the sliding doors, Jeremy managed to choke out “Have a nice evening,” which was both too late to reach her and completely inaudible to anyone more than five feet away. Not that it mattered; he said it more for himself than for her. Having re-established the script, he looked longingly across the checkout lanes, but Connie was nowhere to be found.
Photo by seanomatopoeia