Here in the ruralburbs of west Georgia, I’ve tried to practice meaningful human interaction with the nice people in my neighborhood, though after many years they are still highly unfamiliar. Once, back in 2011, I smiled and waved. I think they knew how hard that was for an idiot like me, because they have stayed away ever since. Nice people prefer to build intimacy with more familiar objects like beer, or Friends From Church, or spacecraft-sized LED UHDTVs.
I prefer idiots. People who – whether by poverty or poetry – brazenly and unapologetically display their failures to the world. The only other idiot on my street is a single mom like me, named Billie. The first time I met her, directly following hi nice to meet you, she immediately came clean about the cysts on her ovaries, her two babydaddies in jail for drugs, and how she had gotten fired for slapping her boss in the face (because she was a fat bitch and she deserved it). After years of failing with the nice people, here at last was someone who didn’t mind if I mowed the shrapnel of our Happy Meal toys into her yard or used hamster cages as end tables. Plus, our kids liked to do the same things, like ride my office chair backwards down the middle of the street. In drag.
“What on earth are you wearing!” she screamed as her 10 year-old son Jake zoomed past, pointing a plastic gun at her head.
“Oh sorry,” I said, waving my hand over the scene.
I’m never sure why I compulsively apologize, maybe because I exist, or she does. And niceness dictates that idiots, like ticking time bombs, should generally be defused whenever possible.
“Y’know,” Billie nudged me with an elbow, “Jake’s been playing dress-up since he was two. He used to wear my hot pink panties and his grandma’s bra. He called my panties ‘plan-plans.’ He used to be like, ‘Me girl, me wear plan-plans’ and I’d tell him, ‘you’ve got a pecker godammit and don’t forget it, ya little titty baby.’ His granddaddy woulda done shit a brick.”
“I dressed like that because I ain’t got no daddy!” Jake called, overhearing.
“Ain’t my fault!” Billie hollered back. ”Now SHUT YER FRICKIN MOUTH OR I WILL BUST IT.”
Where I come from in Whitepeopleton, Connecticut, mothers don’t take pride in the public verbal abuse of their children. Instead, they abuse onlookers with their PhD in gloaty parenting. Does Petra want a pomegranate? they ask their trendy, Merrell-laden tot in Whole Foods. I’m so proud of you for making a healthy choice!
“Pray for us,” Billie sighed.
“My Sunday school teacher pinches me on the butt if I pray too long!” Jake added, flashing me a grin full of rotten teeth.
I feel triumphant of course, because my kids’ fillings were paid for with a Walmart credit card.
Sometimes I overreach though. I get uppity and take my Walmart credit card to the Walmart portrait studio so I can assault nice people with photo packages of my precious children. Only problem is I can’t afford photo packages – I have to bootleg them at the Kodak bootlegging machine in the film department. Nice people don’t understand this discrepancy.
“’Scuse me, “ said associate Wendy. “ Do you have a copyright waiver for those photos?”
I stared back at her. I stared back with my bed-head, my sweatpants and my stained TJ Maxx purse, which contained two parts chewed Tootsie pop, and one part food stamp. She awaited my answer. She wanted to hear me admit that I wasn’t very nice, even though neither of us were paid enough to care.
Do I look like I have a copyright waiver? I said.
Actually what I said was oh sorry! Then I packed up, backed away and marinated in shame.
But why? Why was I feeling guilty in a store that enjoys exploiting the fleet of 88-year-old underinsured hospice patients they call cashiers. Copyright infringement should make me feel like Robin Hood.
The fact is, nice people are terrifying. And the most terrifying among them are women who wear scrubs while collecting your billing information.
“Hi,” I said to Rhonda through the little glory-hole in the glass window. “I don’t have insurance. Can I have a discount since I’m paying cash?”
It seemed like a reasonable request, something that could be laughingly blamed on Obama like most nice people problems, while we enjoyed fondling our mutual bootstraps because hey, it takes a village to raise my idiots.
“Ma’am?” She asked, as only southerners can — stretching it into a three syllable word and also an instrument of death. Ma’am? always precedes what is traditionally known as the Trucker Bar Throw-down Stance. Her penciled-on eyebrows issued a two-pronged attack, explaining something about $137.50, and how 100% of 50 minus getajob was office policy, tapping her finger on the fine print in my paperwork specifying No Handouts for lazy Freedom-haters.
This time, instead of immediately tucking into an oh sorry, I said: you can’t treat me like that! What happened next was, she continued to treat me precisely like that. Then I bent over while she swiped my maxed out Walmart card through the slot in my dignity. On the way home, the nice person driving in front of me braked cautiously at every green light until my head exploded.
But the worst thing about nice people is when they are nice to you and you don’t even know who they are. For them, every day is a beautiful day for a neighbor, even if that neighbor responds by galloping in circles, spanking her own ass or diving into the shrubs.
“Would you look at that,” said the woman next to me in the Food Depot. She grabbed the jumbo-sized bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch off the shelf and held it up to my unseeing eyes. I withdrew deep inside my own puckered anus.
“My husband can eat an entire half a bottle of one of these,” she explained. “On one salad!”
“Oh I know!” I said, rattling a bottle of pills as decoy.
“Amber always makes these eyeballs out of white chocolate for Halloween!”
Who the fuck was Amber. Who the fuck was this lady.
“You mix peanut butter with confectioner sugar, and then dip them in it, with little Life Savers in the center.”
“Dip them in what?” I am too ashamed to make eye contact. The Greatest Love of All is happening to me, and it’s a little like a prison shower.
“For Hallelujah night at my church, silly!” she said, clutching more non-perishables to her bosom. “Do you have kids! There are so many kids at Hallelujah night!”
I knew this church; I’d passed the sign a million times, the one with the cross impregnating planet earth from behind, and a heart drawn at the base like a big sack of balls. In an act of physiological mutiny my hands began slowly wheeling my car away, where I disappeared behind the horizon of a Fruity Cheerios endcap and imploded like a dying star.
“Oh sorry!” I whisper-screamed, careening to the shining solitude of the dairy aisle where I could find a good three-foot buffer between my cart and the rest of mankind.
Until I arrived in the express lane. Behind a woman whose purse was roughly the size of an adult diaper, and whose entire life had existed for this one, shining check-out. Did electronic transactions threaten? Why then she would soak up the evil with a wallet more absorbent than a maxi pad from 1952, complete with straps, snaps, flaps and a special zipper for her check writing pen.
The cashier announced the total, and lo, her pen was removed from its holster. The check register was carefully studied, balanced and deeply enjoyed; the date was subsequently addressed and then the time, the latitude, longitude, temperature and a full description of the products — Pepsi, pork chops, mega-tub of butter spread – all recorded in cursive at the rate of one metonic cycle per loop. Then the cashier hit 130 keys, jotted down ten lines of personal info, fed the check through 25 different printers, rebooted the computer and summoned an act of God – just in time for the dawn of the third millennium. Then the cash drawer began its slow migration toward opening, and we hovered over the face of the void as she folded her receipt into thirds, unsnapped the flaps, closed the zippers, the caps, the gaps, the straps and JUST! USE! A FUCKING VISA! GODAMMIT! I screamed, vigorously swiping my card through a slot in both their skulls.
No what I actually said was, oh, sorry because my produce had accidentally touched her produce. I gently backed it up on the conveyor belt with a dopey little laugh.
Life is better this way, with preemptive apologies. Because scribbling all over the rules that nice people follow does not build self-confidence or alleviate existential pain; Neither does it reverse idiocy or cure cancer. It does however, strongly indicate that one is not getting laid.
“Have a blessed day,” the cashier called to the check writer, as a hint. Somewhere at this very moment, she is still packing up that rolling suitcase of a wallet, because even blessings must wait on nice people and their checks.
The cashier turned to me. She looked tired, her white arms were massive and puffy.
“Long day,” she said to me, sighing. I arranged my items, salivating. It was MY turn now. MY turn.
“It’s my chemo,” she went on. “It’s got me so wore out.”
“Here’s my coupon,” I said with what I hoped was saintly concern.
“At least I’m doing better than my aunt,” she went on. “She drowned in her own fluids.”
I stared at her and she stared back, and suddenly nobody else existed but the two of us.
“How,” I asked gently. “How did she…drown?”
As the cashier explained the suffocating nature of bodily liquids – thoughtfully caressing my box of Kashi cereal, teasing the scanner but never fully crossing the threshold of checking me out – all my tension drained away, all my hurrying ceased, and the lady behind me waited and waited and seethed and longed to ram my 12 bottles of Pamplemousse Perrier straight up my pretentious ass.