“Brainy, don’t tell me you’re a watch-gazer, too?’’ he said. I didn’t know what a watch-gazer was, and so I stopped staring at whatever thought I was having, and stared at him while I went over and over the word “watch gazer.’’ It sounded German to me.
It was my first job, and nearly my last. I was thirteen, and I was paid fifteen dollars a week. I came in after school and on Saturdays to deliver groceries in Mr. Gagino’s hand pulled wagon, and to go with him in his white truck to deliver groceries to old people.
It was a red-brick corner grocery store. Mom and pop stores used to be just that. A man and a woman lived in the house that always lay just up the stairs, and they would spend their days in the store and their nights in the house. They were almost never out of each other’s sight. To get away from one another, they sometimes took shifts running the store.
Mr. Gagino and his wife ran a good store. He was a butcher, and the shelves were well stocked with everything good in cans, and there were fresh vegetables, and he delivered in his truck as well. They had become a brown-gray couple, like doves. Each had a gray-brown sweater, and each wore brown clothing underneath their sweaters. The sweaters had pockets, which neither used, except to house a crumpled handkerchief. His face was long, with large Italian brown eyes. His eyes were as filled with emotions as a Van de Graff generator ball is charged with static electricity. His eyes were always wet and somewhat bulging, though not unattractively, with frustration or suppressed rage, exasperation, or the impossibility of believing something that someone had done to him or said. They were eyes that never just saw.
Mrs. Gagino was not angular, as he was. She was rounder in her features, but with quieter, mostly sad, Italian eyes, thin wire glasses, and a sharp mind which she soft-peddled for his sake, and applied only to business.
Mr. Gagino deeply hated me. It was curious, that with such a pile-driven hatred, he never chose to fire me. He preferred to keep me on, and remain in a state of held back rage.
I was a difficult employee. Being a young, skinny boy, often the wooden cases of large bottles of pop would be very heavy for me to move about quickly. The pop cases were kept behind a shelf in their own hidden corner of the store. One afternoon, as I tried to arrange them in some idea of order, one bottle slipped from the box, fell onto another bottle, and broke, loudly. I was quite hidden behind the shelving, and he and his wife were behind the counter. I could feel his fury fill the room like radiant heat, piercing my body in little hot prickles. He was ready to blow up at me for breaking a pop bottle. Still hidden, I lifted the broken bottle, and ever so gently drew it down my bare arm until the most imperceptible lines had been scored, but painlessly. Then I rotated my arm at a great speed, like a helicopter blade, until the blood was forced out through this tiny incision. It flowed out so dramatically it appeared that my hand had been put through plate glass. Then I carefully held my arm, like a baby, and quietly walked out, revealing this bloody scene where he and his wife could see. I played the energy back, and drew as much alarm from his wife as I did terror from him that I might have seriously injured myself. I said nothing, and tried to look as though it would all be all right. I was a difficult employee.
On other days, after stocking the rats in the basement with cases of canned food, looking into every opened cardboard box for the rats before reaching in and grabbing cans of Bartlett pears and gallon cans of button mushrooms, I would load up the wagon and pull it down the street to deliver groceries, which was my official job.
Always avoiding the street where Lyle Carter lived, who had already taken a disliking to me for interrupting his touch street foot ball game with my grocery wagon, I made my way to Mrs. Majerowski’s apartment. I climbed the stairs to the old wooden house, turned a ringer until she heard it and walked with a cane to open the door.
She was a fascinating woman to me. She had nothing, it seemed, but pain for a life. Her foot was un-shoeable, having some grapefruit sized lump on it, and she had a pasty color and many layers of fat. A great white clump of beard shot from one side of her chin, and she always wore a blue, flower patterned housecoat. On her feet she wore one normal fluffy slipper, pink, and the other was cut away to make room for the tumor. Her hands, too, moved slowly, as she was in pain with every gesture, and so old.
She paid the grocery bill, slowly, a dollar or two and then the rest she paid coin by coin. I suppose I placed the groceries on the table for her, but perhaps in my own unconsciousness I simply left them there inside the apartment. I only know that of all of the people I brought groceries to, this frightening and even repulsive woman to me, is the only person I recall. Given this, I recall everything about her with special clarity. It was her suffering that made her remarkable to me. The others, all of them, haven’t left even a smudge in my mind. By my records, I delivered groceries only to one customer, the pitiful Mrs. Majerowski.
“Dreamer! You forgot an order here! The people called!’’
“Never mind, I took it myself in the truck!’’ he said, eyes wet and large with wanting to murder me.
Their daughter was visiting them from California. She and her new husband lived far away. For a week and a half they stayed, having relatives over in the evening, and every night a different cut of meat, which I could see made Mr. Gagino happy to be able to pick, to cut and to bake. His white apron was always a little smeared, but he was a strong, and honest and sincere man. He tried to do the right thing. He ran his grocery store hard and well. He was an Italian man. He stayed every day with his wife beside him. He loved his daughter more than he could ever say.
His relationship with me, however, was not like that. I didn’t mind. He was a strong Italian man. I did not wish to ever become that, though I was as Italian as he. It was a world I was in, and even part of, but almost by mistake. I was an observer.
Mr. Gagino hated me, and it was true, I hated him too. I did not want to spend the rest of my life being seen through these watery Italian eyes, being called brainy, and stupid, and dreamer. If he didn’t like me, then he should have fired me. He should not have kept me around as something to make fun of.
It was a Friday night, and now I was fourteen. Tomorrow would be Saturday. But I would not pull his wagon and listen to his remarks about me. I was too hurt by the way he saw me. Tomorrow, I would quit working for Mr. and Mrs. Gagino. I would quit on a Saturday, when he needed me the most.
All night I thought about the next morning. How it would be to walk into the grocery store, look up at that angry face, and tell him that I quit working for him. If he would not fire me, then it was my job to go away. It was wrong to stay where you were not wanted. I would quit Mr. Gagino’s on a Saturday.
In my bed, the sun of Saturday came in, which used to fill me immediately with playfulness, and I would dress quickly, especially in summer, and be out in the back yard or down the block.
Working at the grocery store had brought me some money, but it had taken away my love for Saturdays. Fifteen dollars a week, in exchange for the freedom I had after school and my love for Saturdays. I was afraid. I was afraid of him, but I was hurt and now I too was angry. He had taught me how to not care about other people’s feelings. If he could call me brainy, and stupid, then I could quit on a Saturday.
I dressed and went out of the house. In my light khaki pants and light blue shirt I was disguised as a modest boy. I walked toward the grocery store, three blocks away.
I did not smoke cigarettes then, or I would surely have smoked them all. I was afraid. I hated myself for being afraid. I could not be treated like that. I had to quit.
I walked into the store. The door was propped open by newspapers that were still wired into a bale. The smell of bubble gum and vegetables, meats and fish slapped my face. Mr. and Mrs. Gagino were standing in front of the meat counter. I stood there, and then said, “I’m quitting.’’ That is all that I could say.
Mr. Gagino, turned and looked at me, his wet eyes now filled with tears. His daughter had left that morning for California. He had been crying. His wife had tried to comfort him with the handkerchief, but he had remained in tears.
“All right, you quit. Good bye,’’ he said, flatly, angrily, with finality.
I looked at him, and felt his pain, felt his love for his beautiful daughter, then turned and walked out the door, back to my Saturdays. But I knew, after seeing Mr. Gagino’s eyes, that revenge was not meant to be a part of my life.
No donation is too small