Not long ago, consumption was something you caught rather than did. That was also before summer became a verb and there was no one to haul freshly cut chard up four flights to your door. These are the thoughts that typically occur between the first and second floors. By the fourth floor, any pleasantry once tempted to escape my lips has been ground into a tidy morsel of “Hi.”
I reach apartment 5 with damp forearms and a blank mind that would approach a Zen-like state were it not for the constant worry that a cop is attempting to papier-mâché my truck downstairs with orange citation slips. This, I’m told, is simply the cost of doing business–an informal city tax that fluctuates depending on the mood of our local police force.
The door swings open into Mr. Demitri’s apartment. A Polish man of considerable vintage, he studies my face again for the first time. Within the space of three minutes he will welcome me in and ply me with kraut for a few minutes of quiet company. He will pull the vegetables out of the boxes I’ve brought him like a magician revealing his most coveted trick with each rhubarb that emerges. He will show me his latest project intended to fix nonexistent building code violations. But he doesn’t know this yet. Mr. Demitri’s dementia has robbed him of our countless afternoons of brief encounters over liverwurst. I smile at him with my eyes, boxes laid across the counter.
His caretaker snatches a bundle of asparagus out of his hand. The yellow tie around its stalks flutters with the force of her fist.
“He’s allergic. Hives and things.” Her fingers quiver in the air like a concert pianist at the mention of skin ailments.
I squeeze Mr. Demitri’s hand before leaving. The stairs are marginally less painful on the way down.
My next stop is heavy but there’s an elevator. I hear the woman before I can see her. The stilettos furiously tap out a Morse code for stylish suffering. Without ceremony or remorse, I push the ‘close door’ button and savor my 12 seconds of carpeted silence.
My first two knocks go unanswered. I turn to leave but my boxes precede me, driving their cardboard edges into a woman standing over my left shoulder. Wordlessly, she unlocks the door, and I recognize the sound of her heels across the floor.
The space is sparse and littered with artifacts from other people’s professions. An authentic butcher block, contractor-grade polished concrete floors and industrial kitchen racks all make up a museum of purchased expertise. The invoice reads ‘Rena’ and she dangles a black heeled shoe off her toe, sinking into the counter. She snorts a little under her breath as I unload the produce boxes. A gently sardonic smile floats across her face.
“My fiancé placed this order with you guys. He moved out this week. Looks like he was planning a big meal with asparagus and fish. Nothing like desperation by candlelight.” Rena’s words fall from her mouth like a child spitting up marbles, grateful for the relief and amazed they emerged intact.
“A last supper?” I ask.
She nods as her shoulders go slack. Her eyes moisten without spilling over. I lean against the refrigerator as she begins to spew dispatches from her newly rearranged life. I know my choices: sitting down with her will mean an entire afternoon and standing in the doorway always feels rude in a transient sort of way. Most people are content to sign the invoice and shove me back into the hallways of their lives, but some deliveries are of the more full service variety.
I watch Rena’s fingers as she talks. The left hand conducts a symphony of one while the right runs laps around an invisible track on the marble countertop. After a few minutes, she cuts a slab of cheese. I tell her asparagus is the poor man’s truffle anyway, preferring this minor lie to the larger one that says the produce was actually intended for an old Polish man who likes Vicki Carr records and pinochle. I grab the box and walk to the elevator.
A hallway window looks out on the street. My ticketed windshield means that twenty minutes at Rena’s has cost me $75. I think of it as a reverse therapy session and return to rehashing my grad school fantasies.
The last stop is apartment 15G in the same building. Much like the family that inhabits it, apartment 15G is a glitzy affair with scattered attempts at modesty. Herringbone patterned floors stacked with laminate furniture cede to obese couches flecked with dog hair.
This is one of my longest running deliveries and experience tells me that, unlike on movie sets, the animals and children will be the most hassle-free residents to deal with. I knock, hoping to be greeted by creatures with an exceedingly low center of gravity.
The door creeps open before slamming in my face. Expecting wet noses and a squeal, I crouch down. Instead, I’m met with a set of perfectly tanned knees, free of shaving nicks or childhood scars. Deanna shuffles her weight until I rise to meet her mascara’d gaze.
I had always admired her features, mostly the well-preserved quality with which they hung on her face, suspended against the odds. Her eyes and forehead alone had already furnished one unwitting child’s college tuition. Thatcher, her husband, comes to the door. He places a hand on Deanna’s shoulder, more of a request than a suggestion. Lips pursed, she turns, stepping over the two children in her way before disappearing behind a wall of slate tiles.
Thatcher. I write his name differently on the invoice every week, hoping he’ll correct it and end my year-long curiosity over what mysterious forces of poor judgment overcame his parents in the delivery room. Surely this was not a name one decided on months in advance, staving off the ravages of reason until the ink was dry on the birth certificate. Perhaps they had a thing for British female prime ministers like some people festishize early communist leaders. Maybe they envisioned their son as a prolific roofer in the West Indies.
This time I scrawl, “Thatchery” in the hopes that his parents were eccentric gypsies with a misplaced affection for fish farming and caviar. He lets slip a muffled laugh, but no explanation. A freckled offspring cling to each leg, velcroed to his respective femurs. Thatcher grins and stomps, Frankenstein-like, towards the couch as I bring the deliveries inside.
Back in the kitchen, Thatcher, though a trim man, fills up the space. The room seems to shrink in direct proportion to his presence.
“How’s life on the streets treating you?” he teases.
“Can’t complain, the mole people are nice folk and I’ve gotten really creative with my dining options.” I shrug, though it’s somewhat true. My days are spent primarily between the streets and strangers’ homes. This particular purgatory is exacerbated by the lack of public bathrooms.
“You thought any more about that literature program? The world could tolerate another scholar, you know.”
We’d had some discussions of my uncertain future over heaps of romaine, swapping cautionary tales of stalled dreams and ruined corn chowder recipes. He thinks I should be knee deep in Kierkegaard. I remain up to my arms in baby bok choy. A shrill voice blasts through the kitchen from unseen corridors.
“Thatch, he’s messed all over the carpet again!”
It’s unclear if the culprit is four-legged or human and whether that matters to Deanna. Thatcher unclenches his jaw.
“Well, if you decide to go ahead with it, I might be able to talk with someone at the school. I mean, I can’t promise puppet master-type string pulling but I’d be happy to look into it. I always thought about taking the more literary path myself, but…” A chuckle swallows up his words as he gestures to the swaths of granite around us. I only know that he works in marketing at a place that seems to require a commitment to high thread count shirts and Easter egg colored ties, loosely fastened.
“Alright, well you know where to find me if the grad school bug bites again.”
I assure him I do and survey the dog blocking my path to the door. My left shoe gently guides his belly across the floor, a furry broom leaving another mess in its wake.
“Wait, you holding out on me? Deanna loves that stuff.” He contorts his face into a mask of faux concern.
I look down. The asparagus is a bit ragged and splayed across its box like a tossed bouquet after a vicious bridesmaid derby.
“No, this one’s for me.” A soft hum of Vicki Carr comes to my lips as I close the door behind me.