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, anticipating the 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 were thrust 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 a short, low maintenance way, hung in vaguely straight, ragged clumps like a Japanese cartoon character.  Proving each day that style is often 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 curry the favor of an actually heinous 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 countered, "I'm reading."

"What's it about?" she asked, her clipped words, like 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 actually been able to 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. The job allowed me to eat while going back to school for a certification.

With a creaking cartoon stretching sound, her neck pushed her tiny head toward the dirty panels of the dropped ceiling.  A curious rustling echoed off the institutional laminate walls as tiny 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 to form 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. Huge bird eyes, now free from the thick glasses, plinked sharply in the dead air, like ice cubes slowly dropped into a highball glass.  Big pink eyelids closed, and then raised again.  Suddenly 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 as two women walked in.  The feathers and the plinking eyes were drowned out by the swish-swish of polyester pants and the Swedish Nazi countenance returned. The ostrich was gone.

"How are you doing today?" she practically shouted at the two women who had entered the room.  Like a roadside bomb, her loud question had destroyed the conversation the two ladies had been having and exposed the presence of my phone and me.  We were round pegs that could not assimilate into her ostrich world. I swiped the screen and went back in my virtual coffee bar. The ladies decided they were on the precipice of intimate details they could no longer discuss. Thankfully, thankless jobs don't allow for long lunches and I escaped back to the serenity of the produce department.

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