I love my job. I do. But freelancing is also the kind of job that makes you spend large chunks of every night staring at the darkest corners of the ceiling, wondering how long it’s going to be before you’re frantically trying to remember your LinkedIn password and making another round of Facebook posts about how you’re looking for work again. As far as job security goes, it’s somewhere between being named the oldest woman in the world and a Trump-era FBI director.
But this morning, Facebook’s On This Day feature reminded me that, even in its most cuticle-chewing moments, this career is what I’ve always wanted, what I’ve figuratively clawed and scratched for — and it also reminded me how different things were a decade ago. (“Haven’t you already used this as a framing device for this column?” you’re wondering aloud right now. Yes, yes I have. NOW LAY OFF, SUSAN.)
Anyway, nine years ago today, I was working retail, selling running shoes for eight hours a day while I worked to build a portfolio and sent writing samples out to random website editors. (And, holy cow, if you’ve never worked in retail, then please take a moment to thank the people who do. If you have — and if you do, currently — I appreciate your long days, your hard work and your eternal patience when you have to deal with dummies like me.)
ANYWAY, AGAIN. On this day in 2008, I’d had a slow morning in the store and was spending most of my time teaching myself how to juggle with the inflatable boobs from the sports bra display. I casually tossed the A-cups around, while a bland-looking man carefully examined a pair of white socks and a ponytailed woman came in to ask what kind of marathon would be good for a 10-year-old. (Um, that would be none of them.)
I didn’t see anyone else for an hour, until a wild-eyed woman came in, collapsed on one of the shoe fitting benches and waved me over. She had her shoes off before I’d given the nearest mannequin a small pair of slightly lopsided breasts. “Careful,” she said, removing a damp sock and flicking it toward the floor. “That’s a fresh scar.” She pointed to a pink line unevenly traversing the top of her foot like an odd-numbered interstate on an unfolded map.
“What happened?” I asked, knowing that the answer would be disgusting.
“Well,” she said, dropping her damaged foot directly into the palm of my hand. “I had a touch of the gangreem.” Yeah, she pronounced it as gan-GREEM, giving it the same mmm-sound found in phrases like “Mmmake this day end” or “Mmmaybe no one will notice if I throw myself through this plate glass window.”
She leaned over and poked the top of her other foot with two swollen fingers. “It feels like it’s done spread to this one, too.”
I honestly thought gangrene was an already-eradicated illness that once attacked sailors or feudal serfs or one or two of the weaker family members in “Oregon Trail,” but no, it’s a modern-day affliction that was resting in my right hand. Fantastic.
Lady Gangreem stared at me while I debated whether I’d need to strap two Brannock devices (that foot-measurement thing you remember from back-to-school shopping at Thom McAnn) together to accommodate one of her feet, a brick of discolored flesh the size and volume of a hotel ice bucket.
“I just need to take a couple of measurements,” I told her.
“No you don’t,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I’m a size 7.” Sure you are. And I’m a seahorse.
I crammed her left foot into the Brannock — she was a 12 wide — and before I could get to the other one, she started violently scratching her calf, digging and scraping at her skin. “Dammit,” she shouted. “I almost had it.”
She picked at her skin and I stared dumbly at her lower leg until my vision blurred, wondering what I possibly could’ve done to deserve this. I narrowed it down to cheating at bingo during Vacation Bible School or buying conventional, non-organic bananas at Whole Foods.
“Do you have a trash can?” she asked, standing up and looking around the store.
I hadn’t had time to make words or even ask what had just happened when she said, “I just knew I had a tick on me.”
A tick. A TICK, one of nature’s nastiest creatures, the kind usually found feasting on the underside of a mule deer or a stray dog or your ex-boyfriend who always goes to Bonnaroo. Their habitat shouldn’t extend to a suburban shoe store, especially not this one, not when I’m here getting eight bones an hour to deal with it.
I had no idea how to respond, other than throwing up into my now-gangreem-infested palm and hoping to god — to ALL the gods — that she wasn’t going to dislodge a tapeworm before my shift ended, too.
“Hang on,” I told her, unsure what corporate policy was on disposal of a customer’s parasites.
I walked to the back, with the intention of making a biohazard bin out of an empty Reebok box, but found myself heading straight to the exit. I pushed open the door with the uneven “Employees Only” stencil, got in my car to go disinfect my hands or maybe set them on fire, because wasn’t the Velveteen Rabbit incinerated for less?
I left, and before I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw her still sitting on the bench talking to one of my coworkers, possibly asking if he could mind her fresh scar.