Chapter Sixteen: Reseda
"You look different.” Magdalena handed me the bag of pan dulces.
“I took a shower.”
“At the Rescue Mission?”
“At a friend’s.”
She gave me a broad crooked smile. “You have a good friend.”
I smiled back. “Have a good day, Magdalena.”
“You too, Dylan.”
Truth was I still didn’t know what to make of Pearl. Or how I would act when I saw her at work. Or how she would act. I knew not to make a big deal about it on the job. But what about afterwards? Should I see her again? If I needed to shower again, would she ask me to come?
All those questions went away the moment I put on my apron. I found Ngoc, Pearl, Fatima, and Kishana staring at the refrigerator case in the back of the store. The lights were out. I knew this was bad.
Veins were popping on the side of Ngoc’s face. He shook his head and uttered the Vietnamese words for “Holy fucking shit!” He exhaled and turned to me.
“The refrigerator case went bad last night. Throw everything away.”
He turned and continued muttering “motherfucking cock and shit balls” in Vietnamese.
I didn’t blame him. The closing crew stocked the unit completely. Milk, butter, half-dozen cartons of eggs, deli meats, cheese. All generic brands. They probably didn’t taste good. Except for the milk, because milk is milk. But sitting overnight in a busted refrigerator, they were dangerously inedible. Ngoc had to throw several hundred dollars in the trash.
Even remainders can be so bad, they’re worthless.
I rolled out one of the trash cans from the back and dumped armful after armful of food into it. I then rolled it outside and tossed the food in the dumpster in the back.
When I returned, Kishana handed me a paper sign and a roll of duct tape. “Tape the refrigerator door shut and put this sign on it. Corporate says they’ll have a new unit out here tomorrow.”
I looked at the sign. “Sorry. Temporarily Out Of Service./Lo Siento. Temporalmente Fuera De Servicio.”
I taped the sign to the door using the duct tape. It made a hideous scraping, tearing sound as I peeled it from the roll. I thought I needed scissors to cut it, but it tore across easily. I then had to tape the door shut. I peeled off a length and tucked it between the refrigerator unit and the freezer. It was a good thing the freezer didn’t fail, because that food would have been damp and stinky as well as spoiled. Once I tucked in the end and pressed it tight, I pulled the strip across the door. That scraping, tearing sound made me grind my teeth. I was grateful when I reached the other side of the door. I peeled off some more tape and tore the end. I pressed it against the side of the refrigerator.
I peeled off another piece of duct tape and discovered why we were able to sell it for a dollar. It didn’t look like there was enough tape to go across again. I figured I better ask Kishana for another roll of tape.
When I turned around, Pearl was there. She wore another button down short-sleeve blouse and short skirt.
“Looks like fun.”
I was surprised that she wasn’t sarcastic.
“Want to join me?” I smiled.
She pushed her brownish blond hair back over her shoulder. “I’d like to, but I can’t.”
I blinked for a second. I couldn’t figure out why her reply sounded odd. Especially when she looked down at her wrists.
“I have to take Mom to the doctor after work.” She put her hands together in front of her. She rubbed the top of her left hand with her right thumb.
I stepped closer to her. “Is your mom OK?”
She glanced back at the register and then stepped back. “I have a customer.”
“No pro...” She was halfway down the aisle before I could even finish.
I looked down at the floor at the bottom of the refrigerator case. Ngoc didn’t mention the water on the concrete floor. Perhaps it dripped from the food as I threw it away. I knew I had to mop it up.
I didn’t think about Pearl the rest of the shift. I couldn’t. There was too much to do. After mopping up by the refrigerator case, I had to restock the paper towels and toilet paper, clean up the toy aisle because some mother let her kids run crazy there, clean the bathrooms, clean up the toy aisle again because another mother let her kids run crazy there, spent about ten minutes helping this man look for plastic anchors for putting screws in the drywall only to find that they weren’t the right size. Then this one girl asked for a pregnancy test. It made me think about Zoey, which started bringing up hateful thoughts for me.
Then Mrs. Cimino came in and asked, “How’s your day?”
“Great.” I hoped she didn’t know how big of a lie that was.
“And how’s the book?”
“Good.” I hoped she didn’t know that this was a lie too.
But the way she stared at me, she must have known. I thought she’d get pissed off at me. But she spoke in a soft, gentle voice.
“I had a hard time the first time I read it. It said so many things I didn’t want to hear, but I stuck with it. So should you.”
I turned around. Kishana stood behind me.
“Can you dump the trash in the back?”
“Sure.” I then turned to Mrs. Cimino. “Excuse me.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
I was nervous that Kishana caught me chatting with Mrs. Cimino, but I was relieved that I didn’t have to talk about that fucking book anymore. Steven said so many things I didn’t want to hear because they were all total bullshit. Stupid war stories, Biblical passages seemingly picked out at random, and long-winded sermons. Why would Mrs. Cimino find such a steaming pile of tree pulp so profound that it saved her life? And what happened in her life that she had to read Steven’s garbage to save it?
It didn’t matter because I had some actual garbage to get out. I headed to the back of the store where I had put the big wheeled trash can. I dragged it around the store and dumped the smaller trash cans into it. Then, I wheeled it outside.
And when I got to the dumpster, I froze.
I thought I closed both lids, but one of them was open. I took a step closer. Something seemed to be shuffling around inside. I wished I had that folding knife with me. I took one step closer, than another. The shuffling got louder.
Then a blur. I bolted back. From behind the dumpster, soft footsteps.
“Hey!” I shouted.
A figure froze. She had her back towards me. At least she looked like a woman with long black stringy hair. The baggy, ratty coat she wore made it hard to tell.
“What are you doing!?”
She turned around. It was a woman, and she looked fairly young. She wore stained, faded jeans with the bottoms torn up and fringed around her feet. If she wore shoes, I couldn’t tell.
And clutched in her hands were refrigerated items I threw away that morning.
I pointed to them. “You can’t take them! They’re spoiled!”
Her voice crackled and strained. “My children are starving.”
“If they eat that, they’ll get sick!”
“If they don’t eat, they’ll die!”
“Lady!” I stepped towards her. She turned quickly and ran. One of items fell out of her arms and landed on the asphalt. But she turned back, picked it up, and kept running.
I knew I should chase after her, but what would I do if I caught her? Make her throw the food away? When I left, she’d come back and get it. And if she didn’t take spoiled food from our dumpster, she’d take it from somewhere else. And if I were that desperate, I’d steal spoiled food from a dumpster too.
I thought I hit rock bottom. I didn’t think anyone could fall further than me.