Parents would rather see measles-riddled corpses than see me try and say hello, or curl ribbon, or jog. Being autistic is almost as humiliating as working in a deli.
“I’m ready to try again,” I say. I wash chicken blood off my arms.
“This time, try to look them in the eye,” says Andrew.
“If you make your chicken into a combo, you’ll save money and get an extra piece,” he says to a customer. I stare at her, taking in every detail of her eyes and face, and can’t speak.
As the delighted lady turns away, I itch my hairnet.
“You’ll get it next time,” says Andrew.
For a few more hours I fry chicken, put whole chickens in the oven, package chickens, and clean inches of grease off chicken pans with steel wool and a dishwasher that accepts one pan at a time. Andrew and Nick are delighted that I’m small enough to reach the part in the top that pops off every third wash. I can also reach the chicken parts that fall under the counter.
“Hey Abbi?” says David as I make my way past him pulling a cart with a broken wheel. “We push carts, we don’t pull them.” His voice is sing-song and he makes a pushing motion. I wonder if he thinks I’ll just run down the aisles flapping my arms.
“Look at her for just a few seconds,” says Andrew when the next customer comes, and I force myself to. He tells me to ask her how she is, ask what kind of meat she likes, and wrap it up for her. I’m trembling so bad at the end that my gloves get stuck in her sticker and Andrew has to rip them off.
Nick passes and laughs. “Those gloves are crazy big on you. You’ll get the hang of it.” He gets a notebook out of his pocket, where I know he keeps a book of rhymes that he raps to. I glumly wonder if my customer service skills will be a topic.
Andrew suddenly pushes me into the freezer. Whole chickens lay on trays of blood, and bins of raw mixed chicken parts are stacked to the ceiling. We can’t wash the scent off ourselves.
Our manager comes in and starts screaming at Andrew that a customer has complained about us up front. He’s calm, apologetic, and his blue eyes glance for a moment to the freezer door where I’m concealed.
Nick and I leave Andrew and go on break.
“Do you think I should go back to school?” asks Nick as we punch out.
He takes off his hairnet and flings it above my head. It lands in the basket behind me.
“Three points!” he crows.
“Yeah, it’d be good for you,” I tell him.
“I want to make enough to live on, by myself,” he says.
Nick is an efficient cook, but his long arms are stretched with scars.
“But you gotta really concentrate on school,” he says, catching my gaze. “It costs money, too.”
He sits at the table, and I sit beside him and remove my hairnet and filthy apron. The dim breakroom smells like the toilets that are on the other side of the wall, and we can always hear at least one toilet flushing.
“You’ll have enough money someday,” I say.
“Every moment in our lives in just a repeat of something that’s already happened,” he says.
Andrew comes in and gets a drink from his locker. He smiles and says hey to Nick and nods to me. I look at him like I’m Lenny and he’s a rabbit I want to pet. He leaves again and Nick glances up from his rhyme book.
“You gotta tell him,” he says.
I scowl fiercely at Nick, but otherwise ignore him and begin to re-tie my hair, and he smiles.
“With your hair down, you look like Jennifer Lawrence. Everyone is just a repeat of someone else. You even have the same problems as someone somewhere else. That’s why I hear a different voice when you talk. It’s someone with the same life as you.”
“Maybe, but the person with my voice probably has different genetics.”
“Andrew is nice.”
“They all think they’re nice,” I mutter. “Nice is not good.”
When we’ve returned to the deli and put our hairnets and aprons on, I manage to stutter out “Eggs or cheese on your burrito?” to the next customer. Beside me, Nick is enthusiastically telling another girl one of his theories on how positive people attract positive outcomes. When they leave, Nick grins at me.
“She was kind of pretty.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I say, putting another burrito in the oven. “Though I do notice that when the girls from the beauty school come over, you’re mysteriously over here helping me, but when the senior citizen bus comes you’re still in the back!”
“That’s not true!” he protests. I hand the burrito to my pharmacist.
Ten minutes ago I picked up my birth control and she called out to me to use condoms. Three days ago when I got my anxiety medicine she empathetically said to be careful with it around equipment, like deli equipment.
“You’re getting better with customers,” he says.
I don’t say anything, just continue to roll up meat. Every day feels like kindergarten, like I’m trying to stack blocks with the other children and I already do it wrong.
“I mean that in the best possible way,” he adds. “I got to go now, my mom is visiting. Bye Abbi, Bye Andrew.”
“You too,” I say.
He pauses by the panini case and laughs.
“You know what I meant!”
I know Andrew’s here, but why does he have to come in while I’m sobbing in the cooler, my granny panties showing as I try and reach turkey on the top shelf? After deciding not to comment on this, he asks if I’ve seen his salad kit and I frantically stutter that I’m trying to help a customer. I’m busy wishing there was an island for people like me when Nick passes me in normal clothes.
“Wow, I’ve never seen you wearing clothes!” I say.
Andrew touches my arm softly when I get back to the chicken counter, and I jump and feel nauseous and scamper a few feet away like Gollum, (he’s touccchhhhed us, preciousss!), but his touch is just to direct my attention to a middle-aged woman at the counter. He hands me chicken tongs. He doesn’t say anything when I don’t look her in the eye.
“You go to school?” asks the luckily nice lady. I tell her I already have a degree.
“Honey!” she laughs. “What did you do to deserve this?”
She gets her chicken. I stare at Andrew; he must have heard. He looks back at me for a moment with some concern (I’m rooted to the spot holding greasy chicken tongs and struggling with speech), then he turns and helps the next customer with a smile. In the back, the dishwasher clunks to a stop as the piece pops off.
I go to help with the dishwasher and bump into Chris, who directs me on how to give a better high five when someone puts their hand up. With the dishwasher attended to and Chris out front, Andrew and I fall to packaging old expired chicken to sell, because people on food stamps can’t get hot food.
I ask Andrew what he did to deserve it.
“My grandmother raised me, and I have to be home in the day to take care of her so she can live on her own. I’m almost finished with school.”
We package chicken, get chicken grease off the floor, and season chicken for the next day.
As we leave after emptying chicken from the drains, David comes in. David usually shops on company time and gives himself discounts. He doesn’t season chicken for the morning shift, and says nothing is important even when we have a long line.
“See you, fatass,” he says.
Andrew and I glance at each other. We don’t really want to know whom he’s referring to.
We take off our aprons and hairnets.
“Listen,” Andrew says as we get to our separate cars. There’s a long pause where I look anywhere but at him.
“I’d like to take you out to dinner,” he says finally.
“No,” I say.
“Look at me,” he says. I look up unwillingly. I can meet his eyes for only a second, and he reaches for my face, slowly, and supports it so I can look longer if I want. But I close my eyes because I smell so much like chicken. I rest there for a minute before pulling away.
“I don’t deserve this.”
“The meat delivery guy is a huge asshole,” Shaylynne says. “Sorry your order got messed up, dickhead, but chill. Hey Abbi, go get the load from him, will you?”
The load is several hundred pounds of meat, chicken, vegetables, and salad to put away.
Meat delivery man hairless, which is probably desirable because there’s a bin of rotting meat next to our supplies, and if I was a butcher I’d be naked to the bone from the fumes.
I stare at the ground and ask him how it’s going.
“Not too good, we’re behind schedule. I just hate when this gets mixed up. Can I help you cart this back?”
He offers me a cart, helps me load a few boxes of chicken, and gives me a smile that shows all of his teeth at once, like a chimp.
Shay is still talking about him when I get back.
“So I told that dick, in my nicest voice, ‘sorry about that’, and he shut up.”
She goes to take her first break again. I notice she hasn’t done any of her work preparing food or doing dishes.
She comes back coughing.
“No!” Shouts an eighty-year-old woman. “Not that piece of chicken! THAT one.” She points at an identical piece of chicken. Sweat pours off me as I rifle through a three-foot pile of chicken on my tiptoes.
“Sorry for being such a dick,” a man apologizes after leaving me in tears because we’re out of coleslaw.
A teenage boy whistles to get my attention, like I’m a dog.
A manager yells at me Monday for giving an old man in a wheelchair a shrimp sample. Tuesday, for putting the wrong price on a box of food, she wonders loudly in front of a mom and baby daughter what I’ll do with my life if I can’t even work here.
“Can’t you stuff an extra one in for me?” A guy asks. He smirks at his friends.
I don’t even blink.
“I’ve been stuffing them in all day. I can actually fit two.”
“Well, what’s in them?”
“They’re chicken egg rolls.”
I tell them vegetables, but I’ve never made the Chinese food and the cook is gone, so I apologize that I’m not entirely sure.
One of them smiles at me, he’s missing a tooth and it’s been replaced with a rotted-out di.
“Don’t you know anything, you stupid bitch?”
“Hey,” says Shay sharply, coming back from another break. “You can’t talk to us like that. Get out.”
“I’ll complain to your manager.”
They leave, and she slaps me on the back.
“Don’t let them get to you.”
There’s a saying hung above our lockers in the break room.
Customers won’t forget how you make them feel.
Aurora started yesterday, and as I’m shredding whole chickens and throwing away the dark meat, I hear her cry out again and a fresh line of blood coats her hands.
We have to go up to the counter to help customers, and pull fried chicken out, and baked chicken out, and keep up with the chicken shredding and rib packaging. Aurora does each task about 30 seconds each and sings snatches of songs. The same songs loop over the speakers. I’ll be hearing “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and an advertisement for avocados about fifty more times before I go home.
“Can you believe these satanic packages?” she says, eyes streaming as she rinses the cuts.
A few customers come, and she bounces over to help them, and I follow more slowly.
“Out of the way!” she says, hip checking me as we bump into each other behind the counter.
A manager has already come by once tonight and told me to be more bubbly because customers don’t expect deli workers to be tired and sad, especially at 6 p.m.
When they leave we go back to ribs and chicken, and I glance at Andrew, who is doing dishes that go up to the ceiling. He hasn’t talked to me all day, except once to tell me to clean out a drain, and another time to keep a tub of pig blood from falling on me (Carrie-style).
“You’ve got those stickers on you again,” says Aurora, ripping about six off my pants. Watching me with the sticker roll is a fine motor control nightmare.
“Hey, it’s better than yesterday, when they were all over your butt,” she says.
“Andrew didn’t tell me they were on my butt!” I say indignantly.
He’s leaning over a huge tray of whole chickens, but even from behind he’s turned red.
“We need a big strong man to lift the chickens.” Aurora winks at him.
He mutters that he has to go to the bathroom.
“Make friends!” she calls after him. I watch him leave for so long that Aurora nudges me.
“To think I used to like ribs,” Aurora says. She’s pulled out the chickens and left them on the counter, so I package them.
“What do you mean, make friends?” I ask her, puzzled.
“I make friends wherever I go.”
“What did you do to deserve this?” I ask as she applies the tape again.
She smiles at me.
“I want to work here.”
The slicer at the deli has a warning sticker, alarmingly, of a hand with all of the fingers severed above the third joint, akin to setting it to the widest setting, putting your hand in as far as it will go, and using the other hand to turn it on high. But when I know Andrew will be coming, I have to turn it off and do something else so I won’t accidentally do just that.
I’m closing with David, and he makes me filter the oil in the fryer, but when it makes a loud sound I jump and burn my hand. I hear him mention Valentine’s Day is the same day as his girlfriend’s birthday, so he’s “double screwed.” I stare at him intently and wonder how any girl could look at him without vomiting onto themselves and then him.
“Use the scraper,” he says. I kneel on the floor and he stands over me with his legs apart. I look at the floor, layered with chicken wing stains.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t like the scraper. It’s too loud.”
He grabs it from me and scrapes it down the side of the fryer. It screeches like biting into foil.
“Just ignore it,” he says, continuing to scrape. “I just ignore the sound.” As I stagger up to run away, he shouts that he’ll get the manager if I do, and she wouldn’t like to know how bad I am at the fryer.
“Here she comes now,” he says with satisfaction as we hear footsteps. But it’s just Andrew.
“She’d also probably like to know you steal from the food counter,” he says. He offers me a hand and I take it, and he takes me to the sink and runs my burned hand under the cool water. We go to the breakroom.
“I don’t need you to save me,” I snap the moment David is out of earshot.
He doesn’t say anything, just gets the first aid kit and helps treat and wrap up my hand.
I can still hear everything. Whole chickens getting slammed into an oven, Aurora crying out as the packages slice her hand, the scraper going down the side of the fryer. I can hear bitch and hurry up and you can’t even do this, you’re worthless.
Touch is almost as painful as sound, but before we go back and put our hairnets and aprons on, I gingerly sit in a rickety chair beside him and touch his shoulder briefly, and he puts an arm around me as Aurora might. I put my head on his shoulder and take his hand. He kisses me and I close my eyes. I whisper that I’m sorry.
“Take out the trash for me would you, before I get yelled at again,” says Aurora.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going.” I slice another piece of brie for a sandwich, remove my gloves, and drag the trash out of the bin.
She briefly rests her hands on my shoulders and I don’t shrug away from them.
“Have I ever told you you’re the best?”
I tell her to get out of here and get her bus before she’s trapped like the rest of us.
As I drag the trash to the cart, I pass a group of three coworkers talking about an order for 70 pieces of chicken they’ve just had to refund because there was no record of it.
“Oh, who do we hate?” I ask them.
“Oh yes, I’ve heard that before.” I continue past them around the corner and sign a few items off Aurora’s checklist for the brie and trash.
“And I had to work with Nick again this morning,” I hear my nice shift lead say. “He’s so annoying.”
I frown at my checklist.
“Don’t let him get to you,” says David with a laugh, “He’s actually crazy, with his schizophrenia. You don’t want to see him off his meds.”
“Well…” says Chris, “I guess there’s different degrees, and we don’t know much about mental health.”
“Trust me,” says David. “He’s definitely fucking crazy enough to be on meds.”
“Yeah, haven’t you seen him get crazy about his rapping? And all that stuff about reality and the voices? He’d be fucked up without them.”
I look around the corner with the clipboard and glare at David. I consider beating him to death with it, but I always hate when autistic people are on the news for rampages.
Then I look uncertainly at my nice shift leader who covered for me once when I iced over all the freezers.
So I don’t say anything to them, like that they should drop dead, or that the voices in MY head were telling me that they were assholes, or that they should shut the fuck up. I just go back to making sandwiches.
Aurora left me a dripping pesto sandwich, and I’m on break eating it when Chris sits at the table next to me. His girlfriend comes in a moment later and I try not to stare at her too much. I mean, Chris is the nicest guy I’ve ever met, but she’s drop-dead gorgeous. I read my book but I can still hear their conversation. He asks her if her work was going ok, and she hands him a piece of paper.
“Work was fine, but they just sent the final notice for our power bill.”
“I know, I paid it just a minute ago. But we’re still going to need toothpaste this week.”
“Well, and don’t forget, we need to get formula.”
Under the pretext of looking out the window, I steal a glance at Chris’s face, which is half-buried in his hands.
I spend all week dropping wraps and sandwiches, and I’m a mess interacting with customers. My motor skills on the cash register and stocking day deserve their own autistic deli worker comic strip. Chris has helped me every day with every one of these things, and he tells me I’m good and not to worry about it. He even let me and Aurora share an unauthorized slice of cantaloupe behind the freezer while he did dishes. I’ve never seen Chris frown before.
There’s no trace of a smile on his face now. But she puts a hand on his arm, and it reappears quickly.
“It’s been a hard month, but we’ll be ok.”
I wait until he kisses her goodbye, then I take out my last Alexander Hamilton and stare at it, before saying goodbye and slipping it into his locker.
“I’m going to be a pharmacist,” Nick announces to the breakroom. We look up from our chairs set around the crumbling folding tables.
“Dude, that costs a lot of money,” says David. A middle-aged manager just shakes her head and goes back to eating an entire six-pack of muffins.
When we get back from lunch, we both put on our hairnets. Nick stops me as I’m weighing chicken.
“Do you…” he lowers his voice, and glances around to make sure nobody can hear us.
“Do you think I can do it?” he asks quietly. He clutches at his fried chicken container, and his rhyme notebook is out. He’s staring at me.
“You can do anything you try to do, Nick,” I say.
TABITHA PEARSON is an autistic adult who strives to be high functioning. Her life’s work is in the service industry making people sandwiches. She lives in Oregon with her cats and has taken writing classes at Oregon State University.