Life plods along, gray and featureless, then smack. It fires off signals in staccato. Bam, bam, bam. So listen up. Watch closely. And here’s what happened.
I headed for Walgreens. One of those revelatory choices one just makes in life. So there it was, Walgreens’ back door, the one facing the parking lot. I had just maneuvered a wheelchair slalom between cars, parked and moving, the distinction inherently vague in a place where vehicles pause and start at irregular intervals. The back door. A woman was opening it, a young Asian woman, glancing backward to see if I might need help. A decision point for both of us. I continued on, but only as far as the button for the electric door. In other words, I spurned her human assistance and went for the automated.
Why? In retrospect, I was not feeling very good about myself at that particular moment. Something on the abandoned-unwanted end of the human coziness spectrum. Feeling unworthy of help and, therefore, determined to prove I did not need it anyway. So, fuck you, young Asian woman with your door opening. I’ve got a button. Button, button, who’s got the button? Damn straight – me. Once inside being greeted by another fabular figure, the tale unfolding as it was, who asked me, all intimate and sotto voce, if I did not need a bit of help. The great puppetmaster in the sky spurring the drama through the clever insertion of this balding, clueless man early in the plot…the question groundless, having effortlessly snagged a shopping basket and heading at speed for the paper products aisle. No, I told him.
I am nothing if not experienced in the ways of Walgreens. Trader Joe’s. The entire mercantile spectrum of inner Menlo Park. The trick being to combine them. Because, the savvy shopper knows, one can purchase in the overlap zone between shops, say, paper towels at Trader Joe’s, and milk at Walgreens. The latter naturally being on the uppermost and out of reach shelf. Milk, please, I tell the Filipina staff person. She grabs the chocolate milk. Milk, I say. She attempts to put the chocolate milk in my basket. Milk, I say again, now shaking my head elaborately to convey in several cultures, across continents, that all is not well. You don’t want milk, she asks? I want milk, I say. This is some sort of test, something that springs naturally from my discontent. My way of proving that she is, what…uncaring, self-obsessed, the bad mother? Yes, approximately. Never mind, for we finally get it, the milk that is, into my basket. Oh, milk, she says, as though this is the first time the word has popped up.
I even know Walgreens well enough to be almost certain that packaging my goods, including nine rolls of toilet paper, will prove beyond the capabilities of the pharmacist. Yes, I have picked up some toe ointment, throwing a bunch of other stuff on the counter. Two bags, the pharmacist assures me, will have to do. Fuck it. I head for the other counter in the front of the store and ask the woman to achieve unification. The two small bags go into one big one, and I go out the door. Having achieved much the same thing, two shopping stops in one, the milk being the key. And what a good boy am I.
I am, in fact, such a good boy, that I decide it’s time for an espresso. Under normal circumstances this means time for Peet’s, but that is precisely what I do not have. Starbucks being right next door to Walgreens…oh, come on, it won’t hurt you now and then. I order a double espresso, silently musing upon how long it has been since I was here. Wondering how much the cost of an espresso has gone up. And falling just short of the estimate, the $2.05 price tag requiring just a bit of change…a nickel residing deep in my man’s purse, under the snap closure of the coin holder. Hardly a big deal, except for the big deal on my lap, the two-bags-in-one load of retail crap I just scored next door. The barista, being terribly helpful, wanders out from behind her station with my espresso. Which is, to put a fine point on it, a macchiato…the distinction being too slight to note. But being a corporate establishment, Starbucks’ employees pumped full of customer service cant, what ensues is somewhere between gratuitous and embarrassing.
She tells me that she has put on some extra milk foam to make my macchiato finer than fine. One could shrug this off, if one could shrug. I can barely move, that is the problem, so encumbered am I by my shopping, the tissue lightness of one plastic bag enfolding another, my numbed fingers getting tangled in the mess, that the Anger Management Fairy is badly needed but nowhere in sight. Because what I’m trying to do while this woman holds my cooling espresso is to pay, to extract change from purse, slap bills and coins on counter, and depart. Sailing homeward, one hand holding the espresso and the wheelchair joystick at the same time. But I’m not there yet, am I? My one hand is fumbling with this fucking purse, the young woman’s promotional rap long finished, her macchiato long cooled. And by the time I manage to get $2.50 on the barrelhead…another helpful customer intervenes. Don’t I want my coins? No. Obviously not. Mr. Tip is our friend, I want to tell the guy. But there is more. My purse is open. My heart is not. But my funds lie fully exposed and vulnerable to both loss and attack. There just isn’t room between the bag of bags on my lap and my chest to get the thing closed. Would you help, I ask the barista? She zips the purse shut.
‘Paul?’ It is Jack. One time high school volunteer, public figure, late of the city council. Big shot, if one believes such things are possible in Menlo Park. He knows I am a loser, it seems, cutting our conversation short once names are exchanged. For which I should be grateful, bouncing up the sidewalk toward my home. Though something about the last half-hour or so has left me depleted. Not to mention tense. And a major failure in anger management. But what the hell. I am now active, doing things. On a roll. Drowning in grief one moment, coming up for air the next. But finally, for the first time this day, moving.