First, I want you to meet Emily. I wish you could meet Emily. I met her standing in line at the pharmacy counter at Walgreen's #3848, 3300 Center Street, Deer Park, Texas. It was a long line at the end of a long day. People weren't happy. We were all of us hurting; we were all sniveling. We wanted drugs, and not the cheap plastic reading glasses or the bags of Goldfish dangling from metal clips next to us, unappetizing bait. Emily stood right in front of me. I didn't know her name, then; all I knew, and very much appreciated, was that she was as big and comforting-looking as an ice cream truck, and as brightly colored, too. Her spiky hair was purple and yellow (tutti-frutti, to my feverish brain; sweet sounds so nice when you're not feeling well). Her chest was covered in a zesty, orange sherbet safety vest, and she carried a bright yellow hardhat, a bright pink phone, and on her feet wore big brand-new-looking butterscotch workboots with splotches of red and yellow paint on the toe guards. I wanted to hug her. The feast of Emily blocked my view of the long line, another fact I very much appreciated: there's no point dwelling on how far you have to go on a drugstore march--it's like forcing yourself to contemplate Everest from your basecamp in Jersey. Besides, by now I'd noticed the glow, the beads of sweat shining on Emily; I'd seen how she was bouncing in that glum line (full of people, like me, with too many white blood cells and not enough Blue Cross to shield us), so obviously happy she could hardly contain herself. She was bursting. She wanted somebody to talk to. You could see that.
I love to see people when they're feeling that way. She kept checking her phone and then dropping it to her side, sighing. I didn't even need to make the first move.
"You looking at the paint on my boots?" she turned to me, eagerly.
"I sure was."
"These are brand new, too. But I don't care. I made it. I'm in! You get to one week, they paint you! Red spraypaint on one boot, yellow on the other. That means, you're in. That means you get to keep the job! It means I'm officially one of the gang."
"Wow. Congratulations. What kind of work do you do?"
She went on to explain she'd just been hired by a company that marked gas lines so that construction crews wouldn't hit them and explode us all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas. She loved her job, she said. She loved it. It was so exciting. And unbelievable to have, too, considering how many people were losing their jobs, right now.
But you only got three 'strikes,' though, she added, in a darker tone. If three times, crews hit a line because you didn't detect and mark it with paint of the right color, you were out. So far she had no strikes. Zero. A perfect week, and it was her first.
"That's good," I said.
Then I looked up the line at all the snivelers and moaners like me and said: "I hope it's a job with good health benefits?"
"Hell, no. Thank God we got my husband's medical. But I still love it. I mean, they grabbed me and sprayed me today! It means I'm in! I've been trying to call my kids and tell them. I'll bet they'll be excited."
I understood, then, what my job was--for a few minutes, anyway. My job, for a little while, was to stand in for Emily's family. To hold the place they would soon be filling. It was nice, having a job, waiting in that line. It gave me a sense of well-being. It was nice to know what to do, how to mark a given situation.
"So this is a good day for you," I said to keep things going.
"Yeah. But not for this other guy in my crew," she shook her head. "He's been working with this same company for years now. And all of a sudden, he gets two strikes. In one week. This week. Everyone's so worried about him. Because he's really sharp, otherwise."
How awful, I thought. You think you know what you're doing, you think you have it down pat, and then suddenly you lose your touch, or have a run of bad luck. And strike three . . .
Then her phone rang.
"That's my daughter," she grinned, and turned away from me. "You're gonna love this, honey!" she said, and moved up one spot, and left me, happily, in the Walgreen's dust.