MARCH 31 (TUESDAY), 19 WEEKS + 1 DAY
I got up early today, since the supermarket I had to go to for my part-time job was quite far away. It was foggy, and my eyelashes were cold and damp by the time I reached the station.
The job suits me because my boss always sends me to a different supermarket in an unfamiliar part of town, and I never go to the same place twice. The supermarket is usually situated on a little plaza in front of a train station, with a pedestrian crossing, bicycle racks, and a bus terminal nearby. As I watch people come into the store, it makes me feel as though I'd gone away somewhere on a trip.
At the service entrance, I flash my ID card from the employment agency and the guard nods gruffly. It's depressing in the back, with boxes and wet sheets of plastic and bits of vegetable littering the floor. The fluorescent lights are dim. I wander through the store with the bag that holds my equipment, looking for the best place to set up. Today, I chose a spot between the meat counter and the frozen-food cases.
First, I made a stand by stacking some boxes from the storeroom. Then I covered it with a floral-print tablecloth and set out a plate. I put crackers on the plate, took my beater from the bag, and began whipping the cream.
The noise of the beater echoes through the empty store, and I always feel a little embarrassed. I concentrate on whipping the cream, ignoring the looks from the employees gathered around their registers for the morning meeting.
The store had just been renovated, so the floor was spotless and everything seemed to shine. I spooned little dabs of whipped cream onto the crackers and offered them to customers as they passed by. I always repeat the sales pitch exactly as it's printed in the manual from the agency. "Please try some. It's on sale today. What could be better with your favorite homemade cake?" I rarely say anything else.
All sorts of people passed by my stand-a lady in sandals, a young man in a sweat suit, a Filipino woman with frizzy hair. Some of them took a cracker from my plate and ate it. Some walked by with a skeptical look, and others put a carton of cream into their basket without saying anything. I gave them all the same smile. My salary has nothing to do with how many cartons I sell, so it seems easiest to be pleasant to everyone.
The first person to take a cracker today was an old woman with a bent back. She had what appeared to be a towel wrapped around her neck like a scarf, and a brown cloth purse in her hand. She was an ordinary old lady, almost invisible in the crowded supermarket.
"May I try one?" she said, coming up timidly to my table.
"Please do," I said, in my most cheerful voice.
She stared at the plate for a moment, as if she were examining some rare delicacy. Then she extended her dry, powdery fingers ever so slowly and took a cracker. The next motion, however, was amazingly quick. Her lips came open in a childish circle and she tossed the cracker into her mouth. As she bit down on it, her eyes closed appreciatively.
We stood there in the supermarket, surrounded by an infinite variety of food-behind her, stacks of meat in slices, cubes, or ground; behind me, frozen beans and piecrusts and dumplings. The tall shelves were packed tight from one wall to the other, and each shelf was overflowing with food: vegetables, dairy, sweets, spices-it seemed to go on forever. I felt dizzy just looking at it.
The shoppers passed by, baskets in hand, as if bobbing along on a stream of groceries. It occurred to me that almost everything in the store was edible, and this seemed a bit sinister. There was something disturbing about so many people converging on this one spot in search of food. And then I remembered my sister, and the way her sad eyes stared at a tiny morsel of croissant, how she seemed about to cry as she swallowed and the white crumbs scattered forlornly across the table.
As the old woman had opened her mouth to eat the cracker, I caught just a glimpse of her tongue. It was a brilliant red-in startling contrast to her pale, fragile body. Her throat was illuminated for just an instant, as the grainy surface caught the light. The whipped cream slid smoothly over her tongue and out of sight.
"Would you mind if I had another?" she said. As she bent over my plate, her purse swung back and forth in her hand. It was rare for anyone to ask for a second cracker, and I hesitated for a moment. But I caught myself almost immediately.
"Of course," I said, smiling back at her. She took another cracker in her wrinkled fingers and tossed it into her mouth, and again her crimson tongue peeked out from between her teeth. She seemed to have a healthy appetite, and there was a certain rhythm and energy to the way she ate.
"Thank you," she said, putting a container of cream in her basket.
"Thank you," I said, wondering what she would do with it when she got home. She turned, and a moment later she had disappeared into the crowd.