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Marcos stepped into the line to enter the home improvement store two minutes after his brother-in-law Jorge, and five minutes before his sister Theresa. Though still early, it’s already been a full day, like most mornings since COVID got going. The strategy he and his two cohorts worked out is the same one they’ve been deploying for the last several weeks; paper towels first, napkins second, and anything else that can be used to wrap or bag food third.
As a veteran of many such trips, Marcos knows exactly which items, in which row, in which order need to be execrated. Doing his best Mario Andretti impersonation, he weaves his cart in and around slower moving traffic careful to maintain the requisite six foot separation. Marcos carefully avoids overt sounds while still providing the backdrop of revving engines and squealing tires, which for the briefest of moments allows him to set aside worry and stress. Blissfully rounding the edge of the aisle containing paper towels, he slides to a haphazard halt on the highly polished concrete floor just outside the virtual six foot perimeter of an amazingly well dressed woman who appears to be agonizing over how many rolls of paper towels to get.
“Ya know,” Marcos causally offers extending the same rational he’ll soon deploy, “if you need them it’s not hording.”
Startled, the woman turns still clutching the fourth and final roll she requires to circumvent future hoarders. Now with the evidence of her transgression in full display, she’s uncertain if she’s required to put it back. Her floral pattern face cover reminds Marcos how he forgot his camo facemask in the truck, again, even though Theresa made a point of reminding him. The woman smiles past her shame while placidly placing the precious fourth roll in her cart. Of course Marcos can’t see her friendly, albeit embarrassed expression, but her eyes nonetheless revel so much. “With all the free time,” she graciously gestures, “I do find myself in need of extra towels.”
“But of course,” Marcos offers in warm solidarity. “And the good thing is, with so much extra I’m not left short.” Happy to have someone to talk to, he forgets about new social distancing protocols and instinctively step inside the woman’s virtual barrier. “Of course for the poor folks who follow, who can say, but I guess that’s the deal everywhere for everything right?”
The stranger’s overt intrusion causes the woman to jump back in manic apprehension. She quickly scurries to the opposite end of her cart reestablishing a safety cushion. Looking down until some sense of calm returns, she glances at Marcos smiling as gently as she can to let him know she doesn’t hold his invasion into her space personal. Again though, she fails to realize that all Marcos can glean from her darting eyes is a sense of worried panic. The woman mumbles something indiscernible while quickly retreating to the far end of the aisle, where she pauses to check her phone.
Mindful her scheduled rendezvous is mere moments away, she escapes this foreign sounding stranger who brazenly chooses not to wear a mask when acquiesced protocol demands it. Back to questioning the wisdom of coming to the home improvement center she tries to focus on the real reason she risked so much in coming here.
Marcos smiles as the strange, overdressed woman who wasn’t in the mood to talk, flees with her fourth roll of paper towels. Since COVID started, he’s found most people unwilling to engage in simple conversation. Undaunted, he refuses to modify the joy he gets from talking to random people he’ll never see again and doesn’t get offended if others do. His commitment to connecting with people is probably tied to why he willfully forgets to wear his facemask, even though Theresa is relentless in her admonishment.
With that encounter finished, Marcos diligently resumes his assigned duties cognizant of the timing issues he has between Jorge and Theresa. Their plan is the same as its been since COVID started, get what they need, then stagger their walk back to the truck so as to avoid the appearance of coordinated hoarding. Besides, it’s really not hoarding, because they need it. With the three of them out of work they’ve turned to selling food on street corners as a way to keep their heads above financial ruin. They’ve figured out that the stuff they need at this store gets delivered every Wednesday night and by early Thursday morning, the truck’s unloaded and the shelves are restocked. With similar strategy, on Tuesday’s they get tortillas and eggs at one store, and on Wednesday, get flour, bacon, pork, and sausage at another store. Meanwhile, butter, salt, cheese, and fresh fruit seem to be a catch-as-catch-can undertaking, which makes every morning after selling is done, a scavenger hunt for whatever they need next.
As Marcos finishes checking out, he notices that Jorge chose poorly since he’s still in his checkout line. Marcos doesn’t mind finishing first, it provides an opportunity to stop by the coffee kiosk for a quick shot of espresso. He can’t leave the store first because Jorge has the keys, so with practiced patience he rolls his cart into what he thinks is the coffee line, pleased to discover the well dressed woman from his earlier chance encountered in front of him.
“Pardon me,” Marcos says to the woman who’s back is six feet away. “It’s very hard to tell anymore who’s in line, are you waiting to order coffee?”
The startled woman instantly recognizes the stranger from earlier with his unmistakable accent. She turns around smiling. “No. I mean yes. I mean I wasn’t going to get coffee but then thought I would.”
“Is every decision for you fraught with so much conflict,” Marcos teases with a warm grin. “First you agonize over paper towels and now you seem just as unsettled about coffee.”
“I don’t usually drink coffee,” the woman defends. “I thought perhaps if I came I’d see a friend, but no. Then everything smelled so good though.” Her eyebrows rise in excitement as her eyes pierce the cavalier stranger who seems far too relaxed. “Besides, it’s not like I have anywhere I have to be.”
“Me either,” Marcos offers. “Well I guess that’s not really true, I’m on a bit of a time line.” He looks back at the checkout counter to confirm Jorge’s still held up. “But I strive to always have time for espresso.”
“Are you still working?” the woman asks.
“No,” Marcos answers. “Well actually yes I am working, but not really.”
“Sounds like you have a government job,” the woman teases.
“That would be nice,” Marcos laughs, “they at least get paid to sit home doing nothing. I’m a chef, well I used to be. I got furloughed from the Four Seasons. Probably I got fired. Perhaps its a difference without distinction. Who can say? Either way, I’m formerly a chef from the Four Seasons. Now I sell breakfast burritos and empanadas on street corners. It’s not elegant dining, but at least I get to share food with people, and besides, in times like these, people need comfort cooking not fancy cuisine.”
The woman points at Marcos’ full cart, “so all of this -”
“Is for making and packaging my food,” Marcos finishes.
“I see,” the woman teases. “And is your new found business doing okay?”
“Making way more than I did as a chef, and its all in cash, if you know what I mean,” he adds with a wink. “I do miss working in a real kitchen with other chefs though. I will go back someday, maybe. It’ll be hard to give up the adventure and excitement of life as a street vendor. But then again, I’m not sure how much different fine dining will be once COVID is done having its way with us.”
After a prolonged awkward silence, the woman turns back around to wait her turn in line. Marcos notices that Jorge has finally finished checking out and that Theresa just got in line to check out. That’s his window to get a coffee and perhaps get to know this overdressed woman who’s illusive beauty is captivatingly hidden beneath her COVID veil. “Ya know,” he restarts, “they put out paper towels every Thursday morning.” The woman turns around blushing to find Marcos beaming with warmth. “My name’s Marcos. Marcos the street vendor, specializing in breakfast burritos.”
“And empanadas don’t forget.” She smiles both at her new friend, and at the irony of flirting in the coffee kiosk line even though Paul’s a no show. “My names Tara.” She instinctively steps toward Marcos extending her hand before remembering such pleasantries are no longer part of social order. “Do you come every Thursday morning?” She asks while retreating back within her virtual bubble.
“Have to, it’s amazing how much material we consume each week.”
“Well then,” Tara teases, “perhaps I’ll see you next week, depending on how spring cleaning goes.” Assured of her safety within the virtual bubble, she starts to undo her mask. After all, there’s a reason she took the time to put on makeup.
“Stop please,” Marcos tells her. “For your safety of course. But also, I want to remember you until next week by your eyes which are so alive, the rest I’ll fill in with imagination.” He looks at her with a piercing gaze. “And you of course are stuck remembering me with nothing left to the imagination. Regrettably I fear I’m in a far worse position. I ask only that you don’t remember me for what I am, but for what I was; someone who once had a successful career, someone who before the era of COIVD, would have invited you to sit outside to share our coffee. But alas, now I must run to stay on my time line.” Marcos starts to leave. “I bid you adieu until we meet again next week in aisle twenty three.”
With that, Marcos pushes his cart out of the home improvement store into the constant challenges of his COVID caused world.
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