Because Stephanie was in the fridge, and I had been cleaning the bathrooms, I hadn’t realized the door had opened and a man had walked in. I had just finished wiping off the white film that water droplets leave on the mirror, before I opened the door to see him standing there. He was middle-aged, and balding, and really not much to look at. He had a green plaid shirt on, and the stubble on his chin was carrot-orange. His head was shiny and a dirty brown color, like faded yellow and brown paper. He seemed entirely comfortable in his skin. Like he could recline in it and the flabs and folds of his flesh would cradle him through rough water. He slouched into his jacket, practically oozing self-confidence into the tiles I had scrubbed in front of the sandwich line.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Haven’t you been helped yet?” He shook his head with a small, stubbly smile. “Have you been waiting long?” I fiddled with the mop bucket’s handle.
“No,” he said.
“Oh good,” I said. I opened the wooden half-door between the hallway to the bathrooms and the back of the sandwich line. “Just let me wash up and I’ll be right with you.”
“All right,” he said.
I methodically waved my hand over the paper towel dispenser, punched the soap with my palm and curled my fingers under to catch the foam. Then I jerked the faucet on, a stream of cold water tickling my fingernails as I scrubbed away at my lifeline. I nudged the squeaking handle to the “off” position, dried my hands, and wrangled the thin plastic gloves onto my hands. I often wished they were blue surgical gloves, so I could snap them against my wrists with a dramatic flourish.
“Okay. What can I get for you today?”
He ordered roasted chicken breast on white bread with cheddar cheese toasted. A very sensible sandwich. As I fished the necessary components from the the black bins in the sandwich line, we got to talking.
“I just got back from a funeral,” he mentioned.
“Oh I’m sorry,” I said. “Uh, how was that?”
“It was nice,” he continued, as if I hadn’t said anything. “He was a local fireman. Just in that station down the street, you know. He had been working there for 30 some-odd years.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yes,” he rambled on again as though I hadn’t spoken. “It was beautiful. They released balloons at the graveside, and the people who spoke were some of the people he had saved from burning buildings. Once, he climbed up to a third-story window on a rickety ladder left by the gardeners, smashed his way in, scooped up a little girl sitting at the kitchen table, and took her down to safety in the time it took the firetruck to set up it’s hoses.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s incredible.”
“Yes.” he agreed.
“I think that’s really great,” I told him, as I slammed the door to the toaster oven closed. “People who do beautiful things for the community deserve a decent farewell. A good send-off, you know? I’m glad that he got all that.” I nodded, decisively. My hat slipped down over my eyes and I bumped it back with a forearm.
“Yeah, it was nice. I know he would’ve appreciated it.”
“Someday I hope I get a funeral like that. Someday I hope to be important enough that people will miss me when I’m gone. It would be nice to be known.”
I looked up, embarrassed. That was quite a bit more revealing than I usually got with customers, with anyone, really. I ducked my head back down to the veggies I was piling on his sandwich. I huffed a sigh and rolled one shoulder.
“I just make sandwiches.”
“I’m sure you’re important!” he said. His carrot-colored eyebrows had swept up to where his hairline used to be, and turned the wrinkles in his forehead white. His lips were pursed, and he looked at me as though he was trying to see right into me, like a bug under a microscope.
My heart stopped. I heard it go thump, thump, and then go silent. My hands were still buried in the tomato bin, cold and slimy seeds running down my fingertips encased in gloves. Was I important? To this man I hardly knew? Could I be? Did I dare?
I looked up, the pink rims around my eyeballs stinging and weeping for being held open so long. My neck had cracked a little. Still I stared at him.
“You really think so?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sure you are.”
The rest of the transaction followed normally, with all the questions (cash or credit? Do you have a rewards card? Can I get you any chips, cookies, or drinks today?) proceeding as usual. Well, as usual as can be while my world was reeling on its axis.
It was a nice thought. A good thought. And as I waved goodbye to him as he left the shop (“Have a nice day!” “You too,” he had said, like he really meant it) I felt filled up and warm inside. My uniform smelled like yeasty bread. And there was a mountain of tomatoes waiting for me to slice in the back. And after that I would ride home on the bus, anonymous and quiet as ever, thanking the bus driver as I plodded off to my quiet house, where I had chores and fights with siblings like anyone else. Really, an all-around uninteresting life.
But someday, I might be important. I have big dreams for the future. Wriggling little white hopes that squeeze their way into my brain and won’t let go until I pursue them.
I hope one day to be an animator. I want to work for Pixar. I want to have a beautiful cubical decked out in pictures of my kids on our latest trip to Oregon, on my money because I am financially stable. I want a cat, I want a house, I want a cute husband. I want it all. I want, more than anything, to be a good person. Somebody who will bring a casserole around because you’re sick. Or can write a heartfelt card, even if it’s several months late for your birthday.
I’m still working on it. And I’m still very selfish. I’d rather surf the internet then look for opportunities for service.
But I’m getting there.
I have many years to practice, after all. And if I start now, I might be a decent person by the time I leave college. After all, I have my whole life ahead of me. I’m finally getting my driver’s license, three years late, of course, but better late than never. And maybe I’ll be able to get my act together long enough to look past the end of my own nose. Maybe I’ll get politically active. Maybe I’ll donate to saving the rain forest. Maybe, someday, you’ll see my name up in lights as it scrolls after the film in the latest Pixar movie.
But, until then, I’ve still got time. Time to be silly, time to be selfish. But it’s time to stop wasting time. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me, but I’ve only got my whole life. That’s sixty, seventy years if I’m lucky. There’s a lot to be done in all those years. And the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Until then, you’ll see me around. I’ll be the one quietly checking the clearance rack at your local Macy’s. I’ll be the one who panics and fumbles for her bus pass, even though I should have known to get it out when I saw the bus coming down the street. I’ll be the one sitting in the theatre until the credits are done, sitting in awe and just dreaming about the day that my name will be up there, too.
I’ll be the normal one. I’ll be the one who struggles to make ends meet, just like anybody else. But in the meantime, between now, and success, I think I’ll content myself with doing the mundane things. Paying for college. Waking up late for class. Working a minimum-wage job, just for a while. Just until I can get my name out there.
After all, somebody’s got to make the sandwiches.