Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Zero Balance

Every so often, I become fretful about people I love who are beyond my short reach. When that happens, I look skyward. I lack formal religion – my God looks like King Triton in The Little Mermaid – but our arrangement is like those that others have with their Gods: God looks out for someone I love and I offer something in exchange that is reasonable. Like letting everyone go in traffic for the rest of the day, or paying a stranger a compliment that’s sincere.

Last year, God helped me wait out my mother’s sudden, serious surgery. God helped me make a move that overwhelmed me. God kept an eye on three of my children while they lived in the city. In our longest collaboration to date, God helped me cut back the scrub around my marriage so that I could see the heart and soul of it with new eyes.

I can’t say my payments have been all that regular and so I wasn’t surprised when God came to the door last week to collect.

I was closing up shop – keys in hand, bag over shoulder, sunglasses on. I tried not to notice my co-worker who was involved in a printer jam that was making quick waste of her day-long project. Because I had plans. So I called out, “See you tomorrow," but elbow deep in printer guts she didn’t respond.

Now would be a good time, said God.

So,“Can I do anything to help you before I go?” I asked.
“Actually,” she said, and she handed me a stack of overnight express mail which had to be registered at the post office in person. “If you wouldn’t mind stopping…” She looked like she was going to cry.

Sincere, God reminded me.
“Not at all,” I said, “Happy to do it.”

The post office at 4:45 is like this:
And I was only there at 4:45 because I’d been held up in twenty-five minutes of summer construction traffic. Prepare for delays, said the signs and then it started to rain.

When I entered the post office (soaked because I had no umbrella), the line was seven deep. At the end of it stood a teenager holding a huge bag, and a stuffed animal in her hand. She wore a T-shirt that had some sort of cartoon figure across the front and pajama pants. She looked at me with a startled expression.

“Are you in line?” I asked.
“No, go ahead,” she said, “I just have to ask a question.”

Heads up, God said.

I accepted her offer and took her place in line.
When I turned, she was staring at me.
“I just have to ask a question,” she repeated.
“What’s your question?” I asked.
“Well, I started making these,” she said, raising the doll. “I’m trying to find out how to ship them.”
I nodded, but I was thinking about the line which had come to a halt.
With nothing else to do, I turned again and said, “How do you market them?”
“I have a website,” she said. “I have someone in Connecticut who wants one.”
Then, she reached into her bag. “Do you want to see the others?”

Prepare for delays.

“Sure,” I said.

She showed me three models, all perfectly crafted, in soft colors with impeccable, brightly colored stitching. They had the kind of appeal that everything homemade has in this freezer-to-table age of substitutes. Something your grandmother would make but with a teenager’s half-hopeful touch. Sincerely, I said, “I would have bought one for my child when they were small. These are really sweet.”
“I have to put a heart on this one,” she said, showing me the doll. “It goes on the outside.”

The line didn’t move for another five minutes. I wondered if there were more staff outside smoking. Then another person entered the post office and another, and each time, the girl surrendered her spot.

“Are you nervous about asking the questions?” I asked.
“Kind of.”
“Well, tell me,” I said.

It was simple. She’d put her enterprise together on the internet, researched and learned what she needed to know there, and managed to start production without actually speaking to another person. When it came time to interact, present her work, maybe defend her idea, well, it was easier to let people take her place in line. I could imagine the effect a negative postal worker could have, with only a single, sloppy word of discouragement.

“You go ahead of me,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Just ask, how would I ship twenty of these to someone in Connecticut?”

She took my spot. Something broke and we moved ahead. She was called to the counter and so was I. I looked over and saw an older woman talking to her, nodding, smiling, fingering one of the dolls and complimenting her work. When the woman began to describe some shipping process, the girl reached into her bag and took out a spiral notebook and pen with a gargoyle on the end. Very seriously, she wrote down the instructions.

On the way to my car, I noticed the rain had stopped and the traffic had cleared but no wonder. I had been in that post office for nearly a half hour. But I believe that girl went home and started another project. And I have a zero balance again.

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