Her short grey hair is flattened in places, and sticks out in others, as if she’s eternally just-risen from a couch nap. She’s skinny, and her head is unstable, like a tiny baby’s head when it is unsupported. She wears a turtleneck skivvy, but even that hangs limp on her wiry frame. She wheels a black trolley along in front of her – the upright, canvas kind. Her trolley is always empty.
She comes into the bookstore every few days, and it’s gotten to the point that I want to dive beneath the desk as soon as she walks in. She regards me without smiling. Her huge, wet eyes look as though she has just finished crying and might pick it up again at any moment. Her head wobbles, and she demands that I give her something.
I am here to help; that is my job. But she is old and frail, and I can’t give her a single thing to make her mortality not exactly what it is.
The first time she came in, she rattled up to the front desk and gripped its edge. Her gaze moved past me and phased out in the middle distance.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“I don’t feel well at all,” she said. I tried to remember everything I’d ever learned about first aid, and drew a total blank. I couldn’t even remember what to do with a person’s tongue if they collapsed. Do you roll them on their side and then clear their airways? Or clear their airways and then roll them? Can it kill a person if you do these things in the wrong order?
“I’ll get you a chair.”
She wobble-plonked into the leather office chair. With her big, tear-filled eyes she stared at me for five seconds or more.
“Are you alright? Would you like a drink?” I hurried back to the office and got a glass of water. I offered it to her.
“Can I call someone for you?”
My approach to sales has always been to ask questions, letting the customer express their own problems, and then I provide specific solutions. I threw questions at this old woman in the hope that she would articulate her problem, and I would solve it.
She looked from the glass to my face and back again.
“Is there any coffee?” she asked.
“There’s water there if you’d like it,” I said, putting the glass down next to her on the counter.
She picked up the glass and held it up to the light, and spoke too loudly when she asked, “Is this a clean glass?”
I replied as if giving instructions to a toddler. “We wash the glasses so that we can use them,” I told her.
She sniffed, as if she didn’t think it was a likely story. From behind the desk I kept the old lady in my sight. She said nothing, and didn’t touch the water. Selecting a Leunig compendium from the nearby humour shelves, she read for a few minutes. She soon put it back and selected another.
I couldn’t tell her to leave, nor could I tell her that I felt like she was abusing my generosity and concern. She obviously just needed some attention – perhaps she lived alone, or had no family to talk to. Perhaps her family existed but hated her. I wanted, briefly, for the bookstore to be her refuge. I found that I lacked the patience. The largeness of heart. Something. I wondered if I am mean.
In the back office, I recounted what had happened.
“Yes,” a coworker confirmed. “She did it to me last week too. She’s fine. She’s not sick, just old. I don’t know what she wants.”
When I returned to the desk, the seat was empty and the glass of water was still full. The woman was gone.
She came in again on a Sunday.
“Hello!” I chirped.
She mumbled a response.
“Are you alright?” I hoped, more than anything, that she’d request a book that John Faine had told her to read, or the work of Jennifer Byrne’s latest interviewee. I hoped that she’d been spending time at home with the television and radio as companions, gleaning some meaning from the friendly advice they dispensed.
“I need someone to talk to.” Wobble wobble, went the head. No sign of a smile – in fact, the edges of her mouth seemed weighed down by invisible sinkers, like some kind of drowning fish.
“I’ll talk to you!” I smiled with force.
She stared at me. I nodded my encouragement, as if to say, You make the first move. I’ll respond. She didn’t make her move though, only stared.
“What have you been up to today?” I finally asked.
Her wet eyes swelled. She shuffled away from me in a circle, and I didn’t catch her mumbled response. The shuffling rotation made its way back to face me, and I lost what I was meant to say next. I gave a dumb smile.
Confronted by the intensity of her unhappiness, I tried to beat it with my buffoonish gaiety. I will smile your mortality down! Good customer service dictates that I smile at shoppers as they enter the store. This both makes sure that shoppers know that help is close by, and keeps dishonest people from taking anything from us. Generally it’s not such an existential demand.
A nearby colleague glanced at the old lady and me, and flashed her angelic smile. She reached for the bowl of lollies that we keep on the desk, and pushed it toward the old woman.
We smiled at the lady. She stared at us, expressionless. We stared back. I re-arranged the stationery around my work station. The woman eventually shuffled to her trolley. She tipped it on its back wheels ready for the journey, and left the store without another word.
My colleague finished with her customer. I told her how bad I felt, and what happened with the water and the chair last week.
“Yeah, she came in last week while I was working, too,” she told me. “She didn’t want anything in particular. I offered her a lolly then, and it seemed okay.”
We agreed that she must be a very lonely woman.
“Another time she came in,” said my colleague. “She told me she wanted to die. I’m just so old and there’s nothing for me anymore, is what she said. I just wish I’d die.”
I couldn’t help it – I laughed. I laughed loudly, and carelessly. I laughed because I don’t know what else to do with helplessness like that – so excessive and over-the-top. I couldn’t begin to think about what it must be like to live in that world, and so when my colleague told me this story, the laughter erupted from me like steam from a pressure valve.
She came in again, and I ran. I left her in the hands of someone else, and hoped that they had an elderly neighbour or grandparent, skills with old people. I hoped that they would know what to say to ease her melancholy.
The lady came in again today. I was working with someone who hadn’t encountered her in the flesh, though we’d all told stories. About the awfulness of the moment when she lumps her entire sadness on you. This colleague, whose bookstore experience surpasses any of ours, said that bookstores attract old, lonely people. We tried to tell her that it’s more – worse – than that.
When the old woman entered today, my colleague was serving. The old woman had a new tactic, like an icebreaker for the mortally terrified.
She fumbled her wallet out of the trolley. She pulled out a fifty-dollar note and thrust it over the counter with shaking, tissue-paper hands. “I need change,” she said.
This was a request I could deal with easily, and I tried to guard my expression from the relief bubbling up in me.
“What would you like it in?”
She had trouble answering me.
“Two twenties and a… No. No, a twenty, and a ten, and… Um, twenty, two tens…” She sighed heavily.
I tried to make it easy. I asked, “Do you need coins?”
“No. No, I’m not very good with change.”
I thought about homonyms.
“I’m not good with any money really,” she continued. “And the people in this shopping centre, they’re not very honest.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” I handed her a bunch of notes that added up to fifty dollars.
She slid it into her wallet, and then stood in silence.
“Did I give you just one fifty dollar note?” The question was barbed.
“Just one,” I laughed, “We’re one of the honest ones.”
She didn’t reply, eyeing me with suspicion. I said nothing.
She shuffled to the other end of the counter, where my uninitiated colleague did something administrational on the other computer, listening to us with one ear.
“I’m so old,” the woman said to her. “I’m just too old, really.”
My colleague said, “Well, you’re old or you’re dead, aren’t you?” and laughed. The old woman did not. I did not either.
The old woman stared, and though she didn’t say anything, we felt the pressure of her demands. She did the shuffle-away again, like she did to me a week ago, complete with mumbling reply. Maybe my colleague caught what the woman said, but I didn’t.
My colleague levelled with the woman.
“You’re old, and you don’t like getting older. Getting old scares you.”
I pictured the graphs they use to measure the quality of our customer service. The questions.
“Did the team member solve your problem? Did they offer you an alternative solution?”
The old woman gave an almost imperceptible nod, and left the store.
Image: Ricky Norris
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer. She has just completed her Honours year, writing about food and memory. She also blogs, and is the Online Editor at Writers Bloc. She enjoys a good craft project.