Italy is a complicated country, and the virus multiplies the complications exponentially. The stress builds, and thoughts surface to alleviate the tension.
I ordinarily lock my bicycle to a signpost before entering the fruit store. But wearing the surgeon’s mask and gloves makes it too difficult to fish the key out of my front pocket to unlock it upon return, so I leave it unchained in front of the store under constant eyeshot. That should be easy. All I need is a five-kilo sack of potatoes. I walk into the store, looking over my shoulder at my bike.
The Pakistani cashier wearing a stiff white mask says, “Hey, boss, you can’t come in here.”
“Why? Is there a line?” I look around but he’s the only one in the store checking out a customer, a middle-aged lady wearing a pink mask.
I’m wearing blue protection, and I’m amused by the thought of color and fashion in quarantine.
“No, all the produce is outside. This stuff on the inside is our stock.”
I remind myself the ordinance for the virus allows only one customer in the store at a time. I also remind myself to glance at my bike before I say, “I just need a sack of potatoes.”
“They’re outside on the left, three euros for five kilos.”
I locate the spuds and put my gloved hand on the potato sack while my other hand dives into my pocket for the exact change. I intend to drop the money in the cashier’s hand and leave but the lady with the pink mask is finishing her order. The cashier is about to give her the total amount owed when he answers his smartphone and talks in rapid Urdu.
I make an audible groan. The teller hears me and returns to the client’s order. “Twenty-three thirty,” says the cashier. He ends the Urdu conversation, takes the lady’s money, and waits.
The customer says, “I gave you a twenty.”
The Pakistani holds up the money in his hand, “You gave me ten and three euros. You still owe me ten euros thirty. Forget about the thirty cents. You owe me ten.”
The cashier hesitates, and she goes on, “I swear I gave you a twenty, the man behind me saw it.”
“I didn’t see anything,” I say, staring at my exact change in hand, distracted from watching my bike.
She opens her wallet and extracts a twenty. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I gave you the bigger bill.” Some people stick with their story until they believe it.
“No problem,” he says, handing her the receipt.
“It was a simple mistake.”
“Yes,” he reassures her.
I lean over and put three euros in the cashier’s dark blue gloved hand, “for the potatoes,” I say.
“Thank you, dear,” he says. I nod and smile behind my surgical mask, and, by the look of the cashier’s high cheeks, it looks like he’s smiling too.
I suddenly remember the unchained bike and run out of the store with the potato sack. A white-masked Pakistani stock boy, standing by the bike, sees the panic in my step and says, “I’ve been watching it, Boss.”
It’s uncanny how the virus seems to bring out the worst in some and the best in others. I imitate the cashier, “Thanks, dear,” I say. I think it sounds silly calling him dear, but why not? I’m hiding behind a mask.
I chuckle to myself, slinging the spuds on the back of the bike.
As I peddle off, I imagine myself in a different place. I feel like I just had a haircut, and after the barber whisks the hairs from my shoulders, he rubs a pleasant-smelling cologne on the back of my neck.
“Thanks, dear,” I say humorously and laugh behind the mask.
When I get home, my wife asks, “Did you get the potatoes?”.
“Yes, dear,” I say with a snicker.
“Yes, very dear.”
We move close to kiss but hug instead.