Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Panther in an herbal jungle.

Even in the yellowy commercial lighting, way up in the ceiling, she glowed with confidence and beauty.  She was stunning.  With each step, her jet black hair, like a panther's coat, shuffled and twitched with a motion all its own, waves of light shimmied down its length.  She was oriental, vaguely Japanese, and extraordinary.  The kind of beauty that must be hard to live with; like a streetlight outside a bedroom window, blazing and never off.  As she approached me, little bubbles and tiny stars seemed to trail behind her as if we were in some Pepsi commercial.

"The rosemary is out.  Can you help me?" she asked.  It came out flatly, like the bored command of a woman used to getting her way.  I might have cringed at the abruptness of the words, but I hadn't even processed her question yet.  Her stars and bubbles swirled past her as she stopped moving.  They tickled my nose, spun around my shoulders and drifted toward the floor.

She meant, of course, that there was no rosemary, but I did not understand.  The little bubbles had popped against the bridge of my nose and tiny puffs of ether had made it to my brain.  "The rosemary is out" I thought again.  Of course its "out," I'm putting "out" the corn and the grapes and the bananas; cilantro and parsley and klondike rose potatoes.  Everything is "out," because that is what I do.

"Show me what you mean," I said, "and I'll see if I can help."  I was giddy and clueless.  That's when I noticed the tall Midwestern American guy standing a few paces behind her.  He was good looking, charmingly rugged, but clean and seemed smart without uttering a word.  Three days of dark whiskers smudged his chin and cheeks.

The three of us walked over to the herb section.  I lead the way because I like to seem like I'm busy and capable.  The woman followed closely behind me pushing a cart with shallots, portobello mushrooms, other fancy veggies and an expensive looking cut of meat. As we arrived, she said "See, no rosemary."

The commanding tone rung in the air like a large deep bell, the kind of bell that is struck by three men and a large, swinging log.  It was now obvious, even to me, that she needed rosemary for some extravagant meal, but I didn't have any "out."  I poked at the other packages of herbs hanging there; hoping.  Occasionally, an extra of one thing gets put behind a row of something else.  I had no such luck.  Mr. Clean and Steamy brought up the rear and waited for us to resolve the situation.

"Give me two minutes and I'll check if I have some in the cooler," I said, sounding crisp and confident, like some minion trying to please the lady of the manor.

I walked briskly toward the backroom with the vague worry that I wasn't going to have any rosemary.  This worry competed with the not so vague sense that this woman, as beautiful as she was, was actually quite difficult in real life.  She countered the fear that every man who talked to her was on the make with aloofness and brutish behavior.  Mr. Clean and Steamy was probably doing all the cooking tonight; under careful supervision.

The skin on my arms shrank and goose pimpled in the cold air of the cooler.  Occasionally, even if I knew we were out of something, I'd wander into the cooler for a minute or two, before telling a customer we were out of what they had wanted.  They felt better because I had made some effort to help them.  I felt better because I had spent 90 peaceful seconds alone in the cold hum and out of the chaos of the retail trade.  This time, however, I thought I might find some rosemary.  The cooler was packed.  Neither the night shift nor the morning crew had been able to make much of a dent in the huge delivery we had received.

I was looking for the little card stock boxes that the herbs came in.  The herbs all seem to get ordered at the same time and the pile of small boxes is easy to spot.  The herbs were a pain to put out.  The clear plastic clamshells stuffed into little boxes could only be priced one at a time.  Rather than the rat-a-tat-tat of a rapid fire pricing gun, these went up slowly.  Each shift was likely to put them off for the next.  There was no pile of little boxes, I left the cooler empty handed.

As I pushed through the swinging doors from the backroom, the panther woman was walking across the floor toward the fancy tomatoes.  The same bounce, the same glow, the same shimmering waves of blue black light.  She smiled expectantly.

"I'm sorry," I said as I headed back toward the herb section, "I don't have any rosemary back there, but I should get some on the truck tonight."  Out of the corner of my eye: a little pouty frown.

She followed me over to the herbs and watched me paw at the potted plants.  It would be more expensive to buy a whole pot of rosemary, but it would be rosemary.  In fact, a renewable resource of rosemary.  I'm sure they lived in some trendy, formerly industrial, neighborhood.  Their bright, open loft would be decorated in a minimalist way.  Expensive Scandinavian furniture, in teak and chrome, would sit on an expensive rug, apart from everything else on the reclaimed industrial wood floor.  The sterile, professional kitchen would tuck against an exposed brick wall on one side of the open space.  Stainless steel and european birch would stand proudly under a bevy of expensive, but rarely used pots and pans clinging to a repurposed industrial rack.  They could put the pot of rosemary with the other plant that sits under the window on the old radiator.  The radiator they don't even use for heat anymore.

"Nope, sorry.  I don't have rosemary in a pot either."

"There might be some in these tubes," Mr. Clean and Steamy offered, a whiff of desperation twisted through the air like a chili fart at a funeral.

The panther woman's face slammed shut like a prison.  I felt the big door hit the hinges and heard the dead bolts slide home.  The little bubbles and stars were swept away as smoke oozed up from under her black hair.  Fire flashed behind her eyes like a broiler's first roar off the pilot light.

"We're going to another store," she said curtly and was gone.  Only the smell of burning hair remained . . .  and the squeak of italian shoes on terrazzo as Clean and Steamy struggled to catch her.

Silently, I saluted him.  Putting up with her shit probably seems worth it.  But he should really be thinking in the short term with that one.  I grabbed the cart and started toward the meat counter, the fancy vegetables I could put away myself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I am the Ostrich, goo goo g'joob.

She was friendly enough, perhaps.  Standing at the door, at attention, she greeted customers with military precision.  Leaning in toward the anticipated customers, who would enter next through the automatic doors, like hogs in a slaughterhouse.  She stared unblinkingly at the inside of the door - waiting.  She did nearly nothing else.  If she wrangled the grocery carts into order, she was crisply efficient and thrust them together almost with disdain, like pushing a cow into the yoke to be brained. Whether a family of noisy children, a retired couple or a man in a suit, her precise greeting of clipped, identical words fell at them.  More like brass casings showering the floor of a gun range, than the warm friendly embrace her employer had envisioned. The nice words stood in stark contrast to her delivery.

Her hair, coifed in that overly short, low maintenance way, hung in vaguely straight, ragged clumps like a Japanese cartoon character.  Often, style is completely absent from hairstyle.  Her unblinking eyes, magnified by large thick glasses, scanned the entryway like klieg lights at a prison riot.  In Winter, her calf high boots and fleece vest, worn over the requisite red polo shirt and a turtleneck, gave her a vaguely sinister look; like a Scandinavian Nazi.  Not heinous, but like a cheap effort at heinous in order to fit in with an occupier.  More accurately perhaps, she looked like a Swedish Nazi in a drag show; if there could ever be such a thing.

When she sauntered into the breakroom during my lunch, I smiled and went back to my smart phone.  She sat at a table across the room and began twitching like a nervous bird.  Her gigantic ostrich eyes panned the room, each time jerking back to a point at a purposely obtuse angle from me.  I swept the phone's screen with my finger, turning a virtual page.

"Playing a game?" she asked.  The sentence fragment crashed around the room like a tear gas canister.

"Oh, no," I offered, "I'm reading."  I'm nearly forty seven years old, but she thinks I'm playing a game on my phone.

"What's it about?" she asked, as three errant sniper rounds smacked into the back wall.

"Well, the Daily Beast has a panel of five authors discussing the new, posthumously published, novel of David Foster Wallace. He was a famous author who killed himself a few years ago.  He wrote fascinating, densely detailed books that I have never been able to actually read."  I had rambled on, without a breath, as if I was at a writers conference or in a bookshop coffee bar.  Instead, I was sitting in an overly warm breakroom, deep in the aseptic bowels of a big box retail store, having lunch during my shift at a minimum wage subsistence job.

With a Wiley Coyote creaky stretching sound, her neck pushed her tiny head toward the dirty panels of the dropped ceiling.  Little plinks echoed off the institutional laminate walls as little feathers, like peach fuzz, sprang from behind her ears and at the neck of her sweater.  With a disgusting smack, her upper lip slid down toward her chin like a beak, and her cheeks sucked in around her teeth.  The sinewy tendrils of her throat and neck twitched.  I could hear individual tastebuds being peeled from the roof of her mouth in a dry swallow.  Those huge eyes, free from the thick glasses, plinked sharply in the dead air.  Big pink eyelids closed, and then raised again.  A terrified ostrich, she just looked at me.  Her beak swung nervously toward a noise in the hall, and  abruptly snapped back to me and my phone.  I went back to my reading.  The sterile silence was only broken by the rustle of feathers and the scraping blink of those huge, dry eyes.

More noise crashed in from the hall and two girls walked in.  The feathers and the plinking eyes were drowned out by the swish-swish saunter of polyester pants and single mothers.  With a wet plop, the Swedish Nazi countenance returned.  The ostrich was gone.

"How are you doing today?" she practically shouted at the girls.  Like a roadside bomb, she had destroyed the conversation the two single moms had been having, and obliterated the uncomfortable presence of my phone and I.  We were a round peg she could not assimilate into her square world. I stroked the screen and went back in my virtual coffee bar.

Image lifted from http://www.visitcumbria.com/pen/eden-ostrich-world.htm