"How are you today, ma'am?" I ask.
Cheese, milk, cereal, peanut butter, juice.
"Surviving." Smiling. Always smiling.
"Oh, wait a minute, honey," she says, handing me the familiar green vouchers. "This gonna be WIC."
Whenever I happen to run into her outside of work, she winks at me and beckons me over with the fat pointer finger of her right hand. "I ever tell you 'bout the first time I went into that government office?" she asks.
She has, but I always say no.
"I go in there, right, and everybody just starin'. Just starin'. I go up to the window and tell 'em mah name, and the woman there, well, she just keep her mouth open. Don't say nothin'. Just starin'. So I says, 'I'm gonna have me a seat, honey,' but some guy comes out right away and leads me into his office. Same expression, that open mouth.
"'I'm Mr. Kurtz,' he says. 'What can we do for you?'
"'Well, I'd like some of them WIC coupons,' I tell him.
"He been standin' this whole time, but now he sits down in his chair with this concerned look all over his face. His hand coverin' his mouth. 'But . . . you're the ruler of the universe,' he says.
"Well, you know what I did?"
I shake my head, already grinning at what she'll say next.
"I laugh right in his face and say, 'Motherfucker, that job don't pay shit.'" She laughs as hard as she did the first time she told it to me.
I don't see her again until six months later, when it has been below zero for days. She's in the middle of an intersection, swatting at a large icicle that has formed underneath the light with a broom. Her two daughters sit wrapped up in a red wagon on the sidewalk.
The light changes green.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"Surviving," she says, coming to me on the sidewalk. "Getting out of the way. Else them cars would hit me."
I point to the broom.
"Oh, that. I figure that icicle could fall. Don't want nobody gettin' hurt."
"Scuse me, honey." She runs back out into the intersection and begins swatting again. The icicle is so long that, despite her short stature, she can reach.
Green. A car honks.
She walks over to the sidewalk, and the cars start to go through. The icicle falls on the first car to turn left. "Dammit," she says.
The car stops, and a tall man steps out of the driver's-side door. "You crazy lady!" he yells. "You made that icicle fall."
Can't he recognize her? Must be her winter clothing.
She grabs me by my jacket, the wagon by the handle, and begins to walk away. "Fuck it," she whispers. "I tried."
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