How People Eat

grocery

The check-out lane extended into the cereal aisle, illuminated overhead by a harsh florescent light.  A couple pushed a cart filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and paper towels forward and took their place at the end of the line.  They inched forward at a pace only tolerable by those with an unlimited amount of life.  Unfortunately, it did not appear that any of the patrons in line had recently tasted of the sweet waters from the fountain of youth.  

The couple spoke in low voices, discussing meal planning and their weekly budget.  At the register, a man with a silver pinky ring and basketball shoes dropped an armload of goods onto the conveyer belt.  A can of peas rolled backwards as the cashier picked up a bundle of green bananas and swiped them across the scanner.  She wore a massive Afro picked out in every direction; her hair was loud and proud.

A woman in baggy jeans and a cat sweatshirt was next in line.  She dropped a bag of cat food onto the belt and unzipped a purple fanny pack from around her waist and started to dig around, while muttering something about coupons.   

Behind the couple, a thick woman with mascara heavy eyelashes rolled up with a cart full of breakfast foods: bacon, eggs, muffins, croissants, Poptarts, cereal and milk.  A chubby girl with her hair pulled into sections by colorful barrettes sat in the front of the cart, while an even chubbier boy stood at the end of it.  She was a distracted driver; the woman focused on a cell phone letting her cart find the way.  Meanwhile, the kids chattered back and forth in their own language, like birds on a wire.  

The boy looked around and rested his hands on his protruding stomach like a wise old man.  He was tall and nearly as wide as the cart.  Rolls held his head up, and gathered at his wrists and elbows.  The extra weight prematurely aged him as much as his surrounding environment, punishing and unfair to someone so young.

An elderly woman in large, round glasses and neatly bobbed grey hair, who looked like an elementary school teacher in a not-so-distant, pre-retirement life joined the line with her cart and stood behind the family.  She saw the boy looking so worldly, so bold and bright in that moment, she couldn’t stop herself from striking up a conversation.  

“Oh, hello there, you’re a big boy.  I bet you’re in…” the woman paused thoughtfully considering his age, “third grade,” she said triumphantly.

“Yup,” the boy agreed, nodding his head.

“Sure am.”

“K, you stop it.  You know you a kindergartener,” his mother said.

Without looking up from her phone, she took a few steps forward with her cart, not seeing her son’s crestfallen face and or his apologetic shrug towards the elderly woman.  The boy knew shame in that moment and pushed it down, deep into himself where it would stay with so many other hurts long after he became a man. 

The older woman looked at the boy through her thick lenses with love and appreciation.  She sought out his sad eyes and winked, bringing a quick smile to his face. 

This is how people eat.    

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Serve the People

shot glass

Ray worked every night at a grungy dive bar that clung desperately to its place at the edge of town.  The bar straddled the past and the present, unable to fully commit to one or the other.  It was a depressingly dark establishment with an ancient cigarette machine outside of the single bathroom, brown water stains on the ceiling tiles and a glowing touch screen juke box was mounted on the wall.  A flat screen tv played a college basketball game over shelves of dusty liquor bottles and entertained the few customers seated around the bar. 

Ray inspected a glass for lipstick and nicks around the edges before wiping it down and stacking it on shelf under the counter.  A man with an American flag bandana wrapped around his grey hair sat at the far end and stared into a glass that he considered very much half empty.  Next to him, a skinny man with large, dark square glasses watched the basketball game and made comments between plays and during commercial breaks.  He sucked down the rest of a bottle of Bud Light; he rattled it on the counter and cleared his throat to get Ray’s attention.

The customer was foiled in his attempt when another man with a wrinkled t-shirt, messy hair and bleary eyes walked in a side door and swaggered towards the bar.  

“Hey pal, you need another fire ball?” Ray chose his words carefully and reached for another glass to wipe down.  There was a definite difference between want and need in his business. 

The man gave Ray a sloppy smile, “You are good, man.  How do you remember every time what I want?” He swayed to the left and then slowly to the right like a tree in the wind, somehow, his trunk stayed planted.  

There was no rush to take the man’s money or to refill his glass with the liquid that would continue to destabilize him.  Ray could take his time with this man, he had him right where he wanted him without concern that he would quickly leave or cause trouble with the other patrons.  He had a sense about his customers, like who would leave a tip and who would tip over.  He prided himself on his professionalism, his ability to be present without prying, to engage without judgement. 

He was there to serve the people and he had no qualms about over-serving those who asked for it.  

A Snake with Personality

snakes

“I never knew I was snake girl until I met this little guy,” the woman explains.

She has bleach blond hair, a nose ring, and is missing most of the teeth on the left side of her mouth, a detail that only becomes clear when she smiles.  

Her sleeves are rolled up, revealing skinny wrists.  On one wrist is a faded red Chinese symbol and on the other is a live baby python, wrapped around twice.  The snake is no thicker than a cord of green rope.  It quivers as it continues to wind itself more tightly around the woman’s wrist, unsuccessfully squeezing her to death.  She laughs and strokes the scales on its back, like a cat.  The woman is more likely to suffocate the tiny reptile with her love before it ever will have the chance to return the favor. 

Customers stand in awe of the woman’s snake handling ability as they wait in the check out line at the pet store; the woman appears to be the only cashier, or employee for that matter, in the entire establishment.  

“What does it eat?” a man wearing a heavy winter coat, holding a 30-lb. bag of dog food asks.

“We feed him a pinky mouse and he swallows it whole, it takes him a while but he always manages it.  Isn’t that right?” She looks down and coos at the snake without a response.  The snake continues to wrap itself around his wrist, tighter and tighter.

The people in line begin to get irritated as the cashier continues, “We just got three of these baby pyth’s in and as soon as I met him, I knew he was special.” 

“Whaddya mean?” another man asks in spite of himself, he is first in line waiting to check out with a bag of dog treats and medium sized Christmas sweater still on the hanger. 

Sharply the woman looks up, offended that her meaning is not clearly conveyed or obvious from the crowd’s observation of the snake and its good behavior, amazing charisma, and general likeability.  The snake lifts its tiny green head and sticks out a pink forked tongue, scissoring it about in the air, further proving her point.

“I mean, quite simply, that he has the best temperament.”

She steps back behind the register, “You ready to check out,” without any inflection. 

It is not a question, but a statement.  She is done with these unenlightened fools.  While she scans the dog treats and sweater, she holds her wrist with the snake close to her stomach, a maternal instinct to protect her adopted young.  

They finish with the transaction and the man looks at the woman and then at the snake, “Thanks.”

He collects the plastic bag with his purchases inside and mutters as he leaves the store, “A snake with personality, what’s next, snakes in sweaters, working jobs and paying taxes, and then finally one day a snake in the White House?”

He laughs ruefully and shakes his head, “Never gonna happen.”

Cat Hospital

sickness-2.jpg

Our bathroom is now a hospice ward in what is turning out to be a cat hospital. The patients outside of the hospice ward are low acuity; they are working through issues of obesity and anxiety, an over production of hairballs and general sense of neediness.  Patient X is not working through, over, or around any issues.  She exists between life and death, stuck in the moment right after the sun sets and pulls the light from the sky, slowly wasting away in a state of limbo. 

I want Patient X to be comfortable and the environment is important in this goal.  The window is covered; the room stays cool and dark, even during the day.  Patient X no longer needs to keep her days and nights separated.  

Each day, I give her a fresh dish of water and crunchy kibble.  Last week, she moved the bits around with her paw to make it look like she had some interest in it.  Now, it’s all she can do to turn her pink nose up at it and lay back down in her box. 

I then sweep up the loose litter and scoop out the clumps and wet spots, but today, there is nothing to clean out.  There is only a dying cat hiding under a soft towel in a cardboard box, neither eating nor eliminating.  She watches me with dull eyes that sparkled green with curiosity and trouble not long ago; they are much like the changed eyes of my grandfather since the cancer spread through his body.  He, too, is lounging about in limbo, losing time and strength as his body winds down from eighty years of constant life.      

Sickness takes up space, a lot of it, especially where every nook and cranny is already filled with a knickknack or stack of books.  It’s hard to prioritize and harder to understand other than that it happens.  Sickness leads to a sadness that fills up rooms and houses, spills out windows and forces open doors.  When the sadness has no place else to go, it shimmies and shakes its way down the road to the neighbor’s house and lets itself in through the backdoor for a season.   Until then, I guess it’s here to stay.

Tentative

Fly Right

bird

When I was in kindergarten, my class took trips to the zoo and other places for young minds to learn. It was a privilege and opportunity for a country girl to get out and explore Indiana within a sixty mile radius or so. Sadly, the little brown stone building that I attended for my early education is closing this year with not enough hillbilly kids to keep it filled.

While I was there, I started to understand that there are two types of people in the world, those who follow the rules and those who do not. The realization came upon me like a slow sunrise, starting with a little light along the horizon quickly filling the sky with the big, hot ball of truth. Perhaps it burned hottest for me because it was not a fellow classmate or teacher illustrating this lesson, but rather my mother.

My class was preparing to go on a trip to some exciting town like Wabash or Andrews for an event which has now escaped my memory. We were each asked to bring in $5 and a signed permission slip. As a dutiful rule follower, I brought home the letter to parents and reiterated the request.

To my delight, there was no fight or complaint. My mother read the letter and signed with a smile.

“Let me get you a check,” she said still smiling. How could I have known her coy plan, as though a plan was needed for such a simple request?

She dug through her grungy purse and pulled out her worn checkbook. Through my childhood, I remember her thoughtfully staring at it, chewing on the end of a pencil, as she tried to balance the numbers. She never said anything about it, but I bet it never came out right. Somehow her motto, “Close enough,” ended up working out just about every time.

I carried the check and white permission slip in my little book-bag back to the school the next day. My teacher, an older woman with grey hair who wore skirts and loafers on the daily, collected the money and paperwork in the morning. She straightened the stack and retired behind her desk. We were left to a coloring project which I was in the middle of when she returned to my work area.

She squatted down, knees together and off to the side in the most lady-like-kindergarten-teacher-style and asked with the most serious face, “Is there something wrong with your mother?”

I set my crayon down and considered the question, “No, I don’t believe so.”

“She has been signing all of your paperwork with different names, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Jackie O, Barbara Streisand…. I have a list here of the alias’ she has used.” She waved a sticky note from the end of her finger to prove her point, like I had the capability to doubt a teacher at that time.

“We just need her to sign her real name or you can’t go on the trip to x,y,z place. It’s a liability for the school.”

Liability, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Streisand, this was all foreign, I shook my head. My teacher handed me a check, it was the same one that I had turned in that morning.

“And this, we can’t accept. It’s signed Dolly Parton.”

It was at that moment, I knew my mother needed fixing. She needed to be normal, to follow the rules; the easy, black and white ones as well as those living in the various shades of gray. Then another realization, the truth was out, it wasn’t at all what she needed, it was what I needed.

I needed her to fly right, something a bird with a broken wing can never do.

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