Monday, May 16, 2005

INSOMNIA, 1:44 AM

The guy’s kitchen floor is covered in sheets of newspaper—probably two or three thick—like he expects an untrained puppy to go crazy all over the linoleum at any moment. It’s mostly the stock market pages, I think, because there are lots of narrow columns and very tiny numbers and acronyms galore. My eyesight is far too poor in the dim light to make out whether or not there are pluses and minuses next to any of the numbers. The papers are sloppily pushed up against the sides of his awful, yellowing particleboard cupboards, forming a kind of a scoop shape in the middle of the room. Kind of a literal depiction of what “America’s Breadbasket” might look like on a cartoon map.

“Are you training a dog?” I ask and instantly regret it. I am always so terrible in these first time social situations and my heart secretly rejoices whenever I’m able to come up with a very pleasant, normal sounding comment. In situations like this one, I’m banality’s biggest proponent. The worst is when it backfires. You say: “I like your brooch.” They respond with: “Thanks, it was found on the body of my murdered sister.” Awkward. And I can tell by the look on this fellow’s face that my newspaper comment was right up the same alley.

The guy stands facing me in his too short gray pants that look like they’ve been cut off mid-ankle with a pair of pinking shears. His unruly eyebrows heave momentarily and he looks as though a dog were the least likely thing to ever, ever be in his kitchen.

I cough. “Oh.” Then I laugh nervously. “I’m sorry, that was—no. That was the man who lives in the next building down. I deliver his groceries too.” The guy is still not convinced. “Whenever I call to confirm his order,” I explain, “I hear his puppy in the background. And he’s a dog trainer. He’s always telling me about the dogs he trains.” I cough again, and it’s the phoniest cough I’ve ever heard. I shift the two paper bags holding the guy’s groceries—which he has yet to offer to take or to let me set down—from my left to my right hip. They look like a perfect suburban family’s groceries. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep the tops of the celery stalks perfectly peeking out over the top of the bag’s edge, along with the brightly colored label of the Wonderbread and a miraculously balanced wedge of cheese. This is what a bag of groceries looks like in an illustrated children’s book. It’s a good thing too: I just went through a ten-day training course on how to spot a methamphetamine user from their grocery order. Do they buy excessive amounts of cold medicine and cleaning products? That’s a red flag.

The guy still seems like he’s waiting for the remainder of my explanation.

“I guess I just got you too mixed up.” I explain.

The guy takes a step toward me. Finally. He’s going to take these damn bags. He’s barefoot. The soles of his crusty feet are black from all the newsprint.

I move in for the kill—to completely smooth over the awkwardness. Okay, here’s my resplendently generic comment. I’m going to get a badge for my social skills. “Here you go.” I am prepared to heft those bags right over to the guy. One last chuckle and: “I guess I got you mixed up because you’ve both got the same tile floors.”

The guy freezes. There is no place in the room—positively no place—where any bit of the tile is exposed. It’s true what they say: you always get caught in your lies. It’s one reason that you can never commit the perfect crime. The other reason, quite obviously, is DNA testing. By this point, the guy is pissed. It’s fair enough, I guess. If you’re lazy and/or reclusive enough to have your groceries delivered (this is obviously excluding the categories of fugitives and invalids), you probably aren’t interested in social interaction. My bad for having made the attempt.

The guy has covered his floor in newspapers. He has no puppy with potty problems. It doesn’t look like he’s about to paint. He is clearly an odd duck, yet somehow, in the contemporary world of newspaper flooring, I have become the abnormal one. I all but drop the bags on his counter and flee, sans payment.

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