Reading The curator of cans by
By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

The curator of cans

R. Benedito Ferrão

Lobster pâté. It was only a small tin. But that was the first thing Vit took from the grocery store. It wasn’t really stealing. He worked there, made the company money through his service, and kept them in business. So, really, the things he lifted off the shelves were… wages? Yes, that’s it – that’s exactly right. They were part of his wages. It was really the company’s own fault. Still, he couldn’t keep the lump from forming in his throat and the sweat gathering in the itchy spot between his adam’s apple and the metal of his clip-on bowtie when he took things from the store.

Vit hated his uniform not only because it immediately marked him as one of the employees on the lowest rung at his workplace. The outfit a courtesy clerk wore consisted of a red apron over white shirt and black trousers, topped off by the piece of apparel Vit hated most – the fake bowtie. It all seemed so fifties Americana. Staring into the mirror before starting work, he’d think to himself that he looked like a character in a scene from the comic books he and his cousins grew up reading. Except there was no one who looked like him in any of the gatherings at the soda shoppe, and no matter that the comic book series continued to be stuck in the 1950s although new issues were still being produced.

If there was no one around in the break room, Vit would pull faces and parody the line he was expected to say upon patrons entering the store: “Welcome to Leonard’s! How may I not be of service?” During one such performance – a particularly good one he had thought because he’d come up with “Well, why come to Leonard’s? Now, may I show you the door?” – the intercom crackled. “Vit, you’re needed up front.”

Mr. Dempsey was waiting for Vit. “Where’ve you been? There’s a customer who needs help,” the manager indicated with a chin thrust before returning to the schedule he was drawing up for the following week. Vit walked towards the waiting shopper and began to say, “Welcome to Leon-” “Where do you keep your pâté?” the woman demanded, interrupting his spiel. “Oh, I’m not sure I know what that is, maybe I could ask-” But she cut Vit off impatiently. “It’s – you know – a spread that you put on little toast points to serve at parties. Don’t you know where they keep things? You do work here, yes?” she said, the exasperation in her voice sounding a high pitch as her unwavering gaze bore into him. “I’m so sorry. I’m kind of new, but let me see if I can help you find this… What was it called again?” The woman sighed deeply and said with exaggerated slowness: “pâ-té.” She followed Vit, continuing to rant under her breath. “Why do I always have to get the new ones? You’d think they’d train these people better.”

Vit strolled between the rows of neatly arranged tins, bottles, and cans on the shelves of the very wide aisle. This one was for condiments and spreads, so he figured it might have what the still fuming customer was after. Though he’d been on the job for close to five weeks, he was nonetheless puzzled by the different brand varieties and variations of the thousands of products in the market’s fifteen aisles of detergents, pet food, canned fruit, and everything in between. It was a regular occurrence that he would be sent to fetch an item a shopper had realized they’d forgotten once they were at the checkout, only to bring back something like Rose brand coffee whitener when what they really wanted was Reed’s coffee whitener – the low sodium kind. Upon his return to the aisle, Vit noticed that both items had not only the same coloured packaging, but were also exactly the same shape and size.

“Found it,” the woman said from behind him. Vit turned on his heel to join her as she took a can from one of the shelves and deposited it into her shopping cart. Without a word, she wheeled the cart away in the opposite direction and disappeared around the corner. A tinny instrumental version of some song by Chicago played overhead. He’d learned during training that the music piped through the store had been specifically chosen to deter shoplifting. Vit looked at the row of little cans. The slogan on them said “Europe’s Finest!” and the tag on the shelf put the price of the lobster pâté at $19.95. It made Vit catch his breath. He roughly calculated that after taxes, social security, FICA, and health insurance deductions, along with what they still had to take out for the cost of his uniform and the background check before he could be hired, he would have to work nearly five hours to afford this tin of mashed seafood. “VIT! Up front. Now.” Mr. Dempsey’s commanding voice on the PA startled him.

“Ok, so I’ve made up next week’s schedule,” the manager informed Vit when he ran up to him, “and I need you to work on the weekend. Now I know you asked for Saturday off, but no can do. Too many other weekend off requests and, well, you drew the short straw since you’re the newest.” Vit had asked for the time off so that he could go to a party at his cousin’s, whom he’d met for the first time when he arrived in California in the Spring. Vit had lived with him for a while at that time. During his break, Vit looked at the schedule Mr. Dempsey had handed him.

Only three shifts the following week. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and all closing shifts at that. There goes my weekend, Vit thought to himself, but it was still more hours than he had been given lately. On weekends, when Vit was done collecting stray shopping carts from the parking lot outside, wiping down the checkout stands with all-purpose cleaner, and restocking paper and plastic bags for use in the morning, it would be midnight. If he was lucky, and if he ran fast enough, he could get to the stop just in time to catch the bus home. But that generally wasn’t so. Between hanging out an hour before the next bus showed up and walking an hour home, Vit usually preferred the latter.

At the end of his shift, he walked toward the break room to change and collect his backpack from his locker. As he walked down the aisle, Vit realized it was the same one he’d been in earlier in the day when he was helping the customer look for pâté. Vit reached a hand out, picked up a tin, and shoved it in his apron pocket while still walking. It wasn’t until he was on the bus that he processed what he had done. He hadn’t even stopped to change out of his uniform and his throat itched intensely where the clip-on bowtie dug into it.

§

Vit was now no longer the new kid on the block. He’d seen Marli only in passing, so when they finally found themselves working together, a rare non-closing shift for Vit, they nodded in acknowledgment but were kept busy with their regular duties. One of the cashiers sent Vit to check on the cost of a bottle of detergent because the customer buying it was certain that it was a different price than what was showing up on the cash machine. He’d gotten better at locating things around the store and had quickly found the laundry liquid, which was on sale as the shopper had believed. Just then, Vit noticed an open can of soda and a small box of cookies stuffed behind the items on the shelf. A smear of bright magenta lipstick was visible on the edge of the drink container.

Marli’s shift ended at the same time as his, so it was no surprise that she was at the bus stop when he got there. Vit zipped up his jacket against the autumn chill and crossed his arms to conceal the square shape of the tin of corned beef he had pocketed. She hadn’t noticed him just yet as she was looking into her compact mirror, reapplying her makeup. Touch-up done, Marli looked to her left to see if the bus was approaching and caught sight of her co-worker. Vit smiled. “It should be here soon,” he offered. “Oh, hi!” she responded, her wide grin framed by the vividly painted pink of her lips. “Hope you’re right. This bus is always late,” she said with a dramatic eye roll. But just as she’d uttered this, the unmistakable outline of their bus became evident in the distance. “Guess luck’s on our side, today!” Marli beamed.

Vit sat by Marli in the back of the bus. She rummaged through her large purse and pulled out a box. “Want one?” He smiled as he took out a chocolate chip cookie. “Thanks. How do you like working here?” he asked, waving the cookie in the direction of the market that was receding into the distance. “It’s been less than two weeks,” Marli replied, “and I already hate every customer who walks in.” They both cracked up laughing simultaneously. “You live far?” she enquired.

“It’s only far when I have to walk back if I miss the bus,” Vit said. Marli nodded. “I rent a room from a lady who has a house in Waterville. Do you know where it is?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Do I? That’s where I grew up! But my family, we moved to near Glenlake College where I’m studying. It has neither glen nor lake, but plenty of Armenians.” She chuckled to herself at this last bit before going on. “My parents wanted to be closer to other family. Is yours here?” “One cousin,” Vit affirmed, “and I know Glenlake because I’m taking classes there. But the rest of my family is in Goa. Don’t know if you’ve heard of-” Marli cut him off excitedly, “YES! Isn’t there some legend about a Georgian queen… What was her name? Ketevan! A Catholic martyr whose remains may have been hidden in a church in Goa? I think it might be called St. Augustine’s or something like that?” Vit wasn’t sure. “There is a place called St. Augustine’s Tower, but it is mostly in ruins. I could ask my folks when I write home.”

Vit had been so engrossed in the conversation that he missed his stop. It was Marli who suddenly noticed, in the midst of telling him about Ketevan’s exile, that they were nearer where she lived. He hurriedly pressed the stop request button, said bye to Marli, and got off when the bus halted.

The area was not one Vit knew well, but he thought that if he walked back in the direction he had come from, he’d arrive in Waterville or see a bus that could take him there. Walking down the road, Vit caught sight of something familiar: it was another Leonard’s store. It struck him that he didn’t have any milk left. One of his housemates had used the last of his in the morning.

It wasn’t the first time that Ed had done something like that. “Welcome to Leonard’s! How may I be of service?” a cheery voice said as he entered through the sliding doors. Vit suppressed a laugh and, instead, asked the courtesy clerk where the dairy section was.

Carton of milk in hand, he stood in the checkout queue, thinking this a surreal experience. Here he was shopping for groceries at a market that was laid out exactly like the one he worked at.

Even the staff looked the same as his co-workers. And had he still been wearing his uniform, then Vit could well have been the courtesy clerk who had been greeting shoppers at the door.

The same clerk was now in conversation with a man who looked like he was a manager – portly, ill-fitting blue shirt, polyester floral-print tie… Both the employees were casting furtive glances at Vit while he awaited his turn at the till.

Vit paid for the milk. He was barely outside the store when he felt a hand firmly grip his elbow.

He swivelled around and was face to face with the manager. “Can I see what you have in your jacket pocket?” the man said, indicating the bulge. Terrified, Vit remembered the can of corned beef. “I’m sorry… I don’t understand…” he sputtered. The manager, grip still firm, stared at Vit, the no nonsense look apparent even in the waning evening light. Vit felt his throat constrict and the sweat gather in his palms despite the dusk cool. “Let’s go inside,” the manager said, leading Vit by the arm.

“The bag boy saw you put something in your pocket. We can do this the easy way, or we can wait for the cops.” It sounded like a line from a bad TV show, but it was all too real for Vit who felt like everyone in the store had stopped what they were doing to witness the interrogation.

With a shaky hand he took the square tin out of the inner pocket of his jacket. “And I want to see your ID, too.” Vit complied, removing his wallet from his back pocket. “Vitorino Rodrigues, huh? Interesting…” Fighting back the tears, Vit half-looked up at the manager, wondering what else could be so interesting about this moment. Tapping on his nametag, the manager decoded, “Your name, it’s the same as mine except mine ends in a ‘z’.” “Oh,” Vit managed to squeeze out. “So, you have a receipt for this?” the manager quizzed, examining the can from every angle like a forensic expert. But before Vit could say anything, the manager remarked sharply, “Hey! Wait a second, this says 77.” He jabbed a finger at a barely discernible violet mark stamped on the bottom of the tin. “This isn’t from here.” Vit gathered his composure enough to blurt out, “No, I was about to tell you that. It’s – I got it at another store and I was on the bus home when I realized I had forgotten to buy milk.” There was a tense silence during which Vit looked at a spot just past the manager’s face. “Uh huh,” the manager said after what seemed an eternity. “So why was it in your pocket?” “I didn’t want to waste a bag for just one thing?” Vit’s voice took an unexpected questioning upswing betraying the uncertainty of his answer.

Vit had never been so relieved to see the inside of his room. The claustrophobic space felt like a sanctuary for once. The landlady had converted a storage space into an extra bedroom and if Vit were just a little larger, he would have been able to stretch his arms and touch both walls.

The aftermath of the eventful evening and the walk home had still not diminished the surge of adrenaline that had coursed through his body. Vit took out the tin of lip balm he had put into the other pocket inside his jacket. How silly he had been. After he’d fetched the milk, Vit had wandered down the aisle with toiletries and saw that this branch of Leonard’s had items the one he worked at didn’t. Shea butter lip balm would make a nice present for his cousin Jena, he had thought. Flipping the container over, he saw that it had a purplish stamp that read “246.” He took the can of corned beef out of his jacket and felt under his bed for something. The can he retrieved was already end up. “Europe’s Finest!” it still proclaimed, and right by that slogan was a faded, almost invisible violet-coloured number 77, the last digit gripped in a printed lobster’s claw. Vit pulled out the stash from below the bed. There were the sardines for Uncle Roque, canned ham for granny, cocktail sausages for his dad, pearl onions for his bartender friend Savio, hair dye for his mother, dry fruit for his aunts, and more. A good percentage of these had the telling purple stamp on them. Vit sat down heavily on the hardwood floor.

A knock sounded on his bedroom door. “You there Vit?” he heard Luz, his landlady’s voice call. “Just a minute,” he hollered, hurriedly shoving the cans under his bed. “Just wanted to give you your mail. I’ll slip it under the door.” “Thanks,” Vit shouted back with relief. He grabbed the blue and red bordered envelope that appeared, immediately recognizing his mother’s handwriting.

“Dear Rino,” it began. “Hope our letter finds you well. Have you had a chance to look into a plane ticket yet? Yes it must be quite expensive to fly especially since you have only been working a few months. But your Auntie would really like for you to come to Jena’s wedding and how nice if you could be here for Christmas. Anyway, hope you are eating and studies are going well…”

Vit stared at the wall. It would still be sometime before he was calm enough to sleep, so he decided to reply to his parents’ letter. “Dear Mom and Dad,” he wrote neatly on the pad of paper.

“Thanks for your letter. School and work are fine. Give Auntie and Jena my best. A friend just told me today about a queen from Georgia called Ketevan who was killed in Iran in the 17th century. Her remains were brought to Goa by missionaries. Do you know of her?”

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