Waterproof and Green ~ 7
“I work in the food line. I scoop Jello.”
This is what I say, in my most professional sounding voice, to the volunteer job counselor who comes to interview me and find out if I qualify for his agency. I do not tell him about my secret plan to rob the soup kitchen. Lately, I’ve had second thoughts about that plan anyway. One immediate difficulty is that the soup kitchen does not seem to have any money. Almost all our supplies are donated: great big boxes of day-old bread from Costco, mislabeled cans from Albertson’s. Loads and loads of boxed up lentils that you have to transport on a motorized cart. Maybe all the government money going to St. Magdalene’s gets used up paying Harry.
The job counselor tells me that I have earning potential. He says I have considerable talent, and that I might make a very nice duck feeder, at a public park. Often, he says, duck feeders who apply themselves and work steadily toward their goals, get promoted to gardening positions. Sometimes, they become park managers. Park managers, he says, do not trip on crystal meth acquired from low-life street thugs who hang around St. Magdalene’s in the seedier hours of the night. If they do, they get fired. Then they have to go back to St. Magdalene’s. When I leave the room, I overhear Deena asking if the agency has any immediate job openings and the job counselor says yes, actually; the park is in need of a duck feeder.
It surprises me that the park needs to hire a duck feeder. It seems to me that many of the people in the park feed the ducks for free. Maybe one of those people was secretly the duck feeder.
I’ve been working at the park for two weeks, and I have a whole new perspective on ducks. Ducks are very complex, and misunderstood, individuals. There is more to a duck than meets the eye. They feed their young, and hunt for fish. They hold grudges, and fall in and out of love with each other. Every duck is an individual. Also, not all ducks look the same. There are many distinguishing points of reference as to one’s physical appearance, if one is a duck.
My favorite duck is a scrawny, gangly one with gray feathers, whom I have nicknamed Pee Wee. Pee Wee has a strange, zigzag way of walking, weaving back and forth, and frequently crashing into the other ducks. He’s always goggling his head around like he just can’t take it all in. He does not eat much. After the first week, one of the regular, lady duck feeders –Mira, age eighty-two- tells me Pee Wee had been at the duck pond for two years. Mira is an unpaid duck feeder. She feeds the ducks with scraps of bread and day old bagels that she picks up from the senior center for free. Technically, it would be within my rights to have Mira arrested. Regular people are not supposed to feed the ducks: only paid duck feeders. I am the only paid duck feeder. But Mira is a friend, so I let it pass.
Mira tells me that I am going to get fired. She says I am messy-looking and lazy on the job, also that my pupils are frequently dilated. She also tells me that Pee Wee is blind. After that, I shove all the other ducks out of the way before lunchtime, and sprinkle the food right in front of Pee Wee.
One day, I see Harry from the soup kitchen at the duck pond. He is wearing a cap pulled down low over his grizzled eyebrows, and it surprises me that he is not wearing his apron. It is a cold, windy day, and he sits on a picnic table with his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, not looking at the ducks. I have been sitting on a bench in my green sleeping bag, watching Pee Wee. It is not time to feed the ducks yet, so I walk over to Harry. When I get close, he does not look up, so I dump my bucket of duck feed at his feet. All the ducks in the park come flapping down on him.
“Gah!” Harry screams, and he jumps off the picnic table, shedding ducks. He slaps duck food off his shoes and ankles, hidden up to the knees in bobbing green heads and one large, white head, which belongs to our white goose.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asks me.
“Feeding the ducks,” I say. Harry narrows his eyes.
“I know you,” he says. “You work at St. Magdalene’s.”
I tell him I don’t work there anymore. I have a job.
“Doing what?” says Harry.
“Feeding the ducks,” I say.
“Yeah?” Harry squints, looking me over. “Well you’re gonna get fired from it soon.”
“Because, you moron, you look like a lazy slob.”
“What’s wrong with the way I look?” I am honestly surprised.
“Well for one thing,” Harry tells me, “people who keep their jobs don’t wear sleeping bags to work, comprendy voo? What the hell were you thinking? Get some pants.”
I am actually wearing pants, underneath my sleeping bag, but I don’t bother pointing this out. The sleeping bag makes me feel warm and safe, wrapped around my shoulders all the way up to my ears, brushing against my earlobes every now and then, when I move my head. I can hear the silky whispering sound it makes, and I can just make out two green triangles of protective nylon, in the corners of my vision. I know nothing can get me in it.
“You juvenile junkies amaze me,” Harry is saying. “You finally get off the streets, and then you do something stupid, like wearing a sleeping bag to work. What do you think happens if your boss runs into you wandering around the park, wearing a sleeping bag?”
Technically I am not off the streets yet. I’m still living at the Center, because duck feeding doesn’t pay the bills, but Harry does not need to know that. Moses is no longer my bunkmate. I have a new guy named Jeb, who believes that we are living on prehistoric Earth, and that he is a pterodactyl, and that I am a non-edible plant. I never have any trouble from Jeb. Deena is still my counselor and is trying to get me a new job, but I like duck feeding. She says the people who hang around the park are a bad influence.
“I can’t afford new clothes right now,” I tell Harry. “My job’s only part-time. I have to use the money for other expenses.”
“A part-time duck feeder,” Harry sneers. “I bet you’re still living at the Center, aren’t you? How much does duck feeding pay, a hundred, a hundred-fifty bucks a week?”
It pays ninety, but I don’t say anything.
“Bus fare to St. Magdalene’s costs you maybe three bucks. Whaddaya spend the rest on?”
I don’t say anything. Harry puts his hand on my shirt and shoves me, hard, in the middle of my chest. I stumble back a few feet, into the flapping ducks. I’m too out of shape to even keep my balance.
“Your pupils are dilated,” Harry tells me. “I don’t think it’s because of me. I ain’t much to look at.” (Continue…)