Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Associated Year": A Memoir. Episode 5: "The Witch's Offering"

The Witch's Offering

After being on the job for a few months, I had gone on a number of deliveries, many of which were to repeat customers; it didn't take long for me to abandon my dreams of coming away with a twenty dollar tip.  You see, there seemed to be a recurring demographic to whom I found myself delivering goods--a demographic that, after only minimal analysis, would imply a high level of frugality (not to mention eccentricity).  Like any good forensic detective, we must get into the mind of our suspect (or, in this case, recipient of said delivered goods) and examine what type of person would request home delivery of items from a smallish supermarket.

Remember--we're not talking about a Key Food or Waldbaums where people spend hundreds of dollars on goods and would thus warrant a large delivery; most of our customers spent between twenty and fifty bucks on their goods (which, technically, should have been less if it weren't for my shyster of a boss).

Anyway, most of these people, as noted, were ordering a relatively low quantity of goods.  Many of said goods were things like toilet paper, paper towels, cans of cat food, cans of tuna fish, bottles of soda, and the like.  All of the deliveries were to relatively nearby locations (at most it would take me ten to fifteen minutes of walking to reach their residences). 

So here's our profile: people who live close to the store, buying a few things, one of which always seemed to be cat food.

Our suspect?

Mostly elderly women or female shut-ins.

I never knew to whom I would be delivering (unless I had already been there before) but I stopped being surprised by the quantity of older folks who would be purchasing their groceries and having them delivered.  Most probably couldn't make it over to the store in the first place let alone lugging a somewhat decent amount of goods back to their homes.  Most lived in apartment buildings and few, if any, lived on the first or second floors of said residences.

It became like a routine--the same old song and dance, just with different performers.  The old person would open the door and offer up a drooly smile or, on the odd occasion, a confused look ("Groceries?  mmmmdon't remember ordering no groceries?  Eh?  Say that again?  Eh?  Groceries?  Yes, of course I ordered them.  Why are you still standing outside?  Wait--what are those?  Groceries?  Eh?  I didn't order groceries.  Where did you say you were from again?  Eh?").  I would ask them where they would like me to place the groceries and they would direct me (mostly to their small kitchen tables).  I would enter the often dimly lit apartment only to be assaulted by that distinctly pungent aroma that seems to cling to the ancient folk: something sickly sweet like Ben-Gay mixed with lonely tears and possibly urine.

At this point I would begin holding my breath and speaking in a nasal voice, not unlike an English/Irish/Scottish/Welsh person mimicking the American accent (which, sadly, they all seem to get spot-on, not like our pathetic attempts at Irish or Scottish Brogues, Cockney British Accents, or whatever the hell those Welsh whackos speak).  They would shuffle into the apartment and stand idly by while I unloaded their goods.  Sometimes they would make attempts at small-talk and I would politely smile and nod.  My goal was to make them think I was either retarded or not a native-speaker of English.  I figured if I elicited a pity-response from them then they wouldn't get angry and, more importantly, they would stop their inane elderly attempts at conversation.

Eventually, when I would finish taking out their groceries, they would ask me how much they owed me and I would tell them and show them the receipt (my boss, to his credit, was remarkably savvy and knew not to take any shit from old people who would, given the opportunity, pull the old "that's not what he said on the phone" routine).  This approach also helped with my convincing them that I was, again, either retarded or not a native speaker of English because, when posed with a question or a statement to which they do not know how to respond, a retard person or non-native speaker of English will either repeat the last thing that they said or, if they have a piece of paper in their hand, they will extend their arm out and show it to the inquisitor/conversant. 

Fortunately, they would often have the money ready and would usually not require change.  Once the transaction was complete, they would often whip out their tiny change-purse and remove a few crinkly dollar bills reminiscent of the long, hard tales of their lives etched on their brows.  I was always gracious (even if the bill was $29.81 and they told me to keep the change as my tip) and I never stood waiting around for a tip if they didn't reach immediately for anything extra; I figured that, this way, I would never be disappointed.

Over time, I came to accept the fact that I wouldn't be getting a large bonus sum from these people (usually older women) and, when I would, I would actually feel bad.  To be honest, I usually felt bad in general when I would go to any of these places, what with the commingling scents of loneliness, impending death and sounds of Donahue or Maury and whatever bizarre clocks they would have on the walls.  Many times the hand that placed the sad sweaty bills in my palm was shaking like a leaf (what an utterly ridiculous idiom--shaking like a leaf?  How about shaking like a virgin reaching for that $10 vibrator or shaking like most people's heads after I open my mouth and speak?) and I just felt...well...bad.  I felt like I was stealing from them by accepting their tips--that they needed that dollar or two far more than I did.  I mean, I did try not to accept it but they would be insistent.

I probably reminded them of their grandkids who never visited them...except I wasn't their relation...but I did visit them.  Double score?

Anyway, as you would imagine, I dealt with quite a cast of characters.  Some would impart some arcane, creepy wisdom as I would head out the door.  Others were just strange in a much more general way.  You could usually identify the whack-a-doodles by the way they answered the door or from their choice in d├ęcor and/or whatever strange collections they had on display...

...but not always.

One scorching summer's day I had the pleasure of getting out of the store to take a decent walk a few blocks away to do a delivery to a house I had never visited before.  The woman didn't order much, which meant that I could carry the packages instead of taking that godforsaken shopping cart--an even bigger bonus.  As I'm preparing to head out the door I notice Lumiere and the register girl snickering, presumably at me.  I asked what was funny and they both said nothing, smiled, and laughed some more, which meant, in actuality that not only was there something but that something had to do with me.

Leaving in a huff, I headed out the door and began my journey towards the customer's home.  It was such a beautiful day that whatever anger I brought outside with me dissipated beneath the velvety summer breeze and strong golden love of the mid-year sun.  Still, though, my mind returned to the mocking laughter of Lumiere and the register girl. 

"What could they have been giggling about?" I wondered, examining my person but finding nothing out of the ordinary.  (I had suspected that someone had planted a sign on me or something, knowing that I would be heading out into public unaware of the snide epithet emblazoned upon my back.  In retrospect, this is something that I should have done to Lumiere.  I could have easily placed a "HONK IF YOU LOVE MY LITTLE PONY" sign on his back.  That would've been awesome...::sigh:: I suppose I will just have to add it to my list of lost opportunities that will haunt me until my dying day!)

I arrive at the woman's house and am greeted cheerfully at the door by, you guessed it, an older woman.  She invites me in and comments on how hot out it is.  I concur and she asks me if I would like a cool drink of water.  Not a glass of water.  Not some water.  A "cool drink of water," as if enticing me not simply with the offer of liquid refreshment but cool, sating liquid splendor.  I was sweating a bit and, without thinking, I accepted her offer.  I had enough sense to watch her grab a clean glass and pour some water for me from the tap.  I don't recall whether or not she put in any ice cubes but, for argument's sake, let's say she did.

So I'm enjoying my cool drink of water as I hand her the groceries.  She's smiling an awful lot and I attribute this to the catching positive vibes offered up by the stupendously gorgeous day.  We banter a bit as I take in my surroundings.  Everything is mostly brown; nothing is out of the ordinary.  She has the money in hand and offers me a decent tip of a few dollars as I finish my glass of water.  I thank her for both and head out the door feeling even better than when I had first arrived. 

It was as if I was filled with a magical happiness, kinda like when you roll out of the right side of the bed and have one of those days where everything seems just to go right.

...or not.

I get back to the store and see that everyone is looking at me as I come through the door.

"How'd it go?" someone asks.

"...fine?"  I responded.

Snickering laughter.  Not just from Lumiere and the register girl but the owner and whoever else was present.

"What?" I asked, growing annoyed.

"You don't know?"

"Know WHAT?!" I bellow (because that's how I roll when I get angry).

"The woman you delivered to..."

"Yeah...?"

"She's a witch."

A beat passes.

"She's a what?" I ask, dumbfounded.

"She's a witch!"

Everyone laughs.  Apparently that's what the joke was: this lady is a Satanic concubine and I had no idea and they knew that I had no idea so ha freakin' ha on me, right?

Then it hit me.

"Oh God," I say, feeling like I got kicked in the ribs.

"What?" Lumiere asks.

"She gave me a glass of water."

Silence.

You know the kind of silence I'm talking about--the type where you can feel the wind get sucked out of the room and all you feel is a sort of low-pressure system before-the-storm arrives sensation all around you.

"You're joking, right?" someone asks.

"No.  Oh man...she offered it to me.  She was so excited about it too," I said, realizing the severity of my action.

No one said a word.  In fact, the small crowd that had gathered to mock me dispersed suddenly as if I contracted spontaneously leprosy...contagious spontaneous leprosy.

I resumed my daily work, wondering if that sick feeling in my stomach was just fear or if she had slipped some sort of devil-seed into my drink.  I replayed the entire scene from the moment she opened the door until the moment I left, over and over and over and over again.  I questioned myself as to how I could be so stupid.  I asked the other employees if they were just fucking with me but I could tell by their reactions that they weren't...

...and that they were scared.

No joke--everyone avoided me for the rest of the day.  It was a Saturday so a) there were a number of people working and b) I was working until closing and thus had a long day ahead of me.  If someone was coming down an aisle as I was traversing the same space, he or she would turn around and literally jog the other way.  If Lumiere or anyone else was in the walk-in refrigerator as I tried to enter, he or she would scoot out of there, hugging the doorframe in an attempt to bend spacetime so as to avoid me.

I ate lunch by myself, I did the shelving by myself, I cleaned up by myself. 

It was as if I was quarantined. 

As far as I can tell, nothing bad ever happened as a result of my thirst-driven error.  Eventually, everyone (including me) forgot about it, and things went back to normal.

But to this day, every time I pass by that house, I shudder, just a little, thinking about the day I accepted a witch's offering.

You might even say that, as I pass by, I shake like a leaf...

...but please don't.