Neighborhood Outreach

By Mazzer D’Orazio

The company always tried to promote employee artwork, and Erica, one of their youngest Crew Members, painted the mural of Fairfax on the sidewall. The mural featured a very prominently located Trader Joe’s with a much brighter exterior than the one in real life. The windows shined with the artificial twinkles found only in pictures. The Crew Members high-fived customers, and some of the shoppers even toted around puppies in their carts. This would have been against the health code unless they were service animals, so Erica painted little service bibs on each of them. Erica was attentive to details like these. Some of her favorite customers found their way into the mural, too. The homeless man who came in every day shook hands with her in the produce section. His beard came down below his neck, just like it did in real life. She tried to get each of her fellow Crew Members’ faces just right, so she spent a great deal of time observing them. Especially Branson. She even used a tiny brush to get the mole just below his lips, which much of the time were smiling. Just like they were right now. Erica turned away before he noticed her staring.

“Man, was I wrecked last night,” said Branson, upper arms bulging from the Hawaiian work shirt he’d ordered two sizes too small. He turned parsnips over in his hand, twice, wondering why the hell they weren’t orange. He shrugged and punched in the code for carrots.

Laughter from Andrew, his right-hand man. He had a mess of floppy blonde locks and a tattoo of two lacrosse sticks intersecting with the cursive words “One Love” below them. This was also in the mural.

“I mean I’ve been wrecked before, but last night I was wrecked wrecked.”

“Did you get it in with that girl last night?”

“No.”

“What happened? I thought you were the king!”

Branson started bagging the groceries more violently. The little carton of grape tomatoes he shoved in the bag made a big bruise on the peaches at the bottom. There had been an after-work seminar on bagging techniques; he hadn’t attended. “Nah, that girl was a tease.”

Erica, in the checkout stall behind Branson, turned her enormous brown eyes away from him once again. She furrowed her dark brown caterpillars. That’s what her grandmother called them. “What a nice spell we’re having right now,” she recited loudly to the young father in front of her. She relied heavily on movies and books for clues regarding social interaction.

“Real nice,” the man offered as he signed his credit card slip.

Branson’s hand was slipping up and down the glass bottle of mineral water he was ringing up. He tugged at the waist of his pants, which were at half-mast, relieving some of the tightness around his crotch. A lanyard dangled from his pocket, sporting the logo of the state school he’d attended one semester before dropping out and moving back home.

Erica kept her eyes glued to the register. She had the breed of tender skin that seemed defeated from past battles with acne. It finally felt smooth, but kind of in a tired way. It was prone to turning red, succumbing to worldly pressure.

“I need someone to help at the sample bar!” Anne, the manager, yelled from the back of the store.

“Me!” Erica shouted, placing the “closed” sign on the register. She ran a wavering path to the back of the store, awkwardly flailing her arms in the kind of gait that only a girl that never played an organized sport in her life could possess.

Before she was far enough away, she heard Branson make a rude comment. “God. It’s like she’s autistic or something.”

“That’s your girlfriend.”

“Shut up. That’s disgusting.”

Playful punch.

“Boys will be boys,” she heard Anne the Manager say in the resigned tone she usually took when discussing Branson and Andrew. Brandrew, Erica sometimes called them in her head, like a celebrity couple.

She wasn’t autistic. She’d even been tested. There was nothing wrong with her that wasn’t wrong with everyone else.

At the sample bar, Erica ground some coffee to put in the giant filter. She loved the way the beans were obliterated to dust with the touch of a button. She loved the way nearby conversations were obliterated as well.

She set up little cups of today’s sample, Trader Giotto’s Lobster Ravioli. She felt it was cruel that each customer was only entitled to half a ravioli. It seemed overtly cheap.

“Hello, Erica,” a gruff voice boomed. Erica looked up to see the homeless gentleman that came in every morning.

“Hi, Philbus. And how are we doing today?”

“Perfect day.”

“Perfect day?” she said, raising those brown caterpillars. “I hope you’re right!”

“Coffee?”

“Oh, you’re gonna like this one. It’s free trade from Guatemala. Medium roast, not too dark. That’s how you like it, right?”

Philbus nodded abruptly. “Wife too.”

Erica broke out into a grin. “How’s your wife, Philbus? You tell me so much about her, I feel like I know her.”

“Good. Very good today.”

Erica paused, trying to think of an adequate response. “Nice … spell we’re having, isn’t it?” She cringed and made a mental note to watch a movie when she got home. Time for some new material.

“Nice spell. Weather holding off.” He carefully squirted the milk twice into one coffee while he left the other black. He threaded two little cups of half ravioli between his fingers. As complicated as it appeared, this was his method of transport for his breakfast every morning.

“Oh!” Erica exclaimed, grateful that her mind had landed on a conversation topic. “Didn’t you say you were a pescetarian?”

“Used to be,” he said.

Crap, Erica thought, but then she shook her head hard for having thought a curse word. Why would she have ever thought a homeless person would be picky? What was that saying? Beggars can’t be choosers?

“At any rate,” she said … at any rate? That’s not what teenagers said. At least not the teenagers she’d been studying in the Sweet Valley High books her mom had left her. “I’m sure you appreciate the opportunity to have some lobster again.” Appreciate the opportunity? Why did she always sound so stilted? Even the word, stilted … even that was stilted!

“Very appreciative,” he said. He nodded his head vigorously.

“You could have more, you know. We have lots and lots.” She looked around to see if her manager was far enough away. “Honestly, I think it’s kind of cheap we only give out half a ravioli. I mean, let the people have a whole ravioli, at least! Do you want another one? I mean, another one for you and your wife?”

Philbus smiled as if he’d just realized he was the butt of a joke. “Not a beggar,” he said. “Only take what everyone else gets.”

Erica brought a latex-gloved hand to her mouth. “Oh no … Philbus, I didn’t mean …”

He grinned, revealing a row of brown teeth. “No. Not mad. Just my philosophy. Many don’t understand.”

A girl from Erica’s school — a field hockey player — was in line for the sample bar with her mom. The two of them picked up a little half-cup of ravioli. The girl quickly turned away and summoned her mother over to the organic snack section.

“What’s your philosophy? Tell me about it.”

“You won’t understand.”

“Try me.” She grinned. She was sure this was something a teen should say, maybe even something Jessica or Elizabeth Wakefield would say. Probably Jessica. Jessica was always the wilder one.

He leaned in close enough for her to smell him. “Money is evil.”

She cocked her head. “Yeah, but it’s a necessary evil.”

He shook his head. “Not for me. The world is enough. No money needed.”

She broke out into a small smile. “But if you had money, you could buy a whole package of lobster ravioli. Or an actual lobster, for that matter.”

“Don’t need whole lobster. A taste is enough.”

“So you really would prefer not having money and not having what you want, to the opposite?”

“What do I want? What do you want? What can money really change?”

Maybe he was on to something. Money had never successfully bought her what she wanted. She looked down at her Sperry Topsiders. This was her latest iteration of trying to keep up with the current fad. It was Silly Bandz in 4th grade, gel pens in 6th grade, Abercrombie jeans in 8th … but it never made a difference.

“Money can’t really change anything,” she said slowly.

“So why work?”

“To make friends.”

“And you can’t have these otherwise?”

She shrugged. “It’s hard.”

“Let me tell you. Love comes. Friends come. Strange places. My wife. The loveliest woman I know. Met her with no job, no money. In the parking lot behind Home Depot.”

Erica grinned quietly.

“I love her more and more each day.”

The butt of Branson’s jeans skimmed past the sample bar. A little sliver of wood hanging off the edge caught his back pocket and snagged off. His arms were steadying a load of seven empty boxes — even though for safety purposes, the Crew Members were only allowed to carry four at a time.

He often interrupted whatever he was doing to break down boxes. Breaking down boxes was a job that could look like it required effort, and with his grunting and stomping to destroy them it could certainly sound like it required effort, but in reality it was one of the easiest tasks a Crew Member ever got.

Philbus said goodbye and whipped around to leave. He hadn’t taken a step before he ran right into Branson — upsetting six of the seven boxes in his arms.

Without thinking Branson extracted the box cutter from his pocket and held it high above his head. “Get outta here, you hobo!”

Philbus shielded his face. The sample cups went flying.

Erica looked around for her manager but she was nowhere in sight. Her hands remained at her side, frozen. Every part of her brain was willing her to do something, anything. Customers were starting to stare. A pregnant woman exited the store, leaving her cart full of merchandise just sitting there.

Erica found her arms reaching for boxes and transporting them to the back. She found herself retrieving a mop to eradicate the little swaths of coffee and ravioli sauce from the floor. She found herself creating replacement samples for Philbus, looking around to give them to him, but finding him gone. Not that he would have accepted a replacement anyway.

Branson was in the back, karate chopping boxes to smithereens. Erica was still trying to steady herself, her body temperature rising and her breaths coming in short.

He made his way back out front doing a little dance and singing a rap song. This was how Branson was, and it both terrified and excited Erica. One minute he was all rage, and the next he was happy as a clam, as her grandmother liked to say. It reminded her of her father back when they still thought she could live with him. She missed her father even though she knew she wasn’t allowed to and her grandma would get furious if she ever admitted it aloud.

The sample line was trickling down to an intermittent blip. Perhaps some of the suburbanites did not trust Trader Joe’s enough to serve them lobster? Erica took advantage of the slow-down and curved her way over to the produce section where Branson was. Wasn’t this how friends were made? Common experiences resulting in reminiscent conversations?

She opened her mouth to speak, but saw that Branson was already talking to Andrew.

“Man, what a fuckin’ weirdo,” he spat.

“I know, right?”

“Remember that time with the eggplants?”

“Ha. Yeah.”

“Dude, I am so sick of seeing that loser every fucking morning. Really disrupts my flow.”

“Yeah.”

“You know where he lives?” Branson began picking grapes off the stem, throwing them in the air, and trying to catch them in his mouth.

“I mean … if I had guess, I’d say he’s homeless?”

“No shit he’s homeless. But the other day when my friend was buying weed, he said he saw that same fucking guy under the on-ramp to the beltway. Like he’s got a whole fucking campsite under there.”

“No way.”

“Yes way. It’s so fucking weird.” Branson haphazardly unloaded a box of tomatoes, stacking them in an impossible heap that disobeyed all laws of physics. He allowed the top tomatoes to topple to the ground and didn’t stoop to pick them up. “Yeah, so. I think I’ll go over there on my break today. Change his mind about coming into TJ’s for good.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Erica shifted her weight to her heels, then her toes. She teetered towards Branson and tiptoed right on to a loose tomato.

“Gosh darnit,” she said, prying the juice from her shoe.

Branson and Andrew looked at each other and laughed.

“Hey Branson,” she said.

“Sorry, no time for butterfaces!” he yelled. Branson and Andrew laughed, trampling to the back carrying one box each. They’d be there breaking down one box for at least ten minutes.

She walked gingerly, creating a little trail of tomato juice with her. She grabbed a wipe and began to clean her tracks. From her place on the floor, she looked up to see her manager.

“Anne?” she said, perplexed.

“Erica,” she stated.

“What does ‘butterface’ mean?”

Anne sighed. “Erica, why do all these questions always come to me? Don’t you have any friends you could ask? Don’t you have the internet?”

Erica shifted her stance. “My grandma used to but then she canceled it because she got some inappropriate emails.”

Anne bit her lip. “I think a butterface is like a mean word for a girl. A really sexist, stupid word.”

Erica cocked her head. “But why butter? Why that?”

Anne crossed her arms. “It’s like a word for if a girl has an attractive body … but her face.”

Erica’s eyes widened. “Oh, I get it! But-her-face!”

Then she remembered: she was the butterface. Her cheeks started to burn. Branson said he had no time for her. He said that her face was unattractive. But! But! By saying this, he was unintentionally giving a compliment to her body!

She looked down at her body, mostly masked in an oversized Hawaiian shirt. Her boobs were all right, kind of perky and plump like Cher’s from Clueless. Cher didn’t have skin problems of course, but if you ignored that, their body types were similar.

Amid the employee art, there were no clocks. The only clock lived in the back. It gave the customers the illusion that in Trader Joe’s, time didn’t exist, just good food, good vibes, fair trade …

A few minutes before 11:30, Branson’s daily break, Erica found some boxes to break down in the back. Branson came through the swinging doors singing another rap song, this time one with inappropriate words. Erica tugged at the base of her shirt in the back, scrunching it up and tucking it into the back of her pants. That was how the girls from Clueless did it, right?

“Hey Branson,” she tried again. Speak slang, she told herself. Be cool. “You goin’ to see that hobo?” she said, shocked by her words. How normal they sounded!

He narrowed his eyes. “Why.”

“Just, y’know, wonderin’ if you want some company.” That’s how you did it, she was sure. Just any word with a g, drop the g. It wasn’t that hard, really!

Branson’s usual audience was missing. “No thanks,” he said gently.

“Are … you sure? It might be unsafe. You know what I always say, safety in numbers!” Why, why, why was she repeating the speech that the police officer had given her class in second grade?

Branson cracked his neck to one side, then the other. “I’m good.”

“Oh … okay.” She watched him disappear from her presence just as swiftly as he’d come. He floated out to the front and lit a cigarette. Then he hustled to the exit of the parking lot.

“I’m going on break,” she said to no one in particular.

Erica walked quickly behind him, a power walk, her grandma called it, and when she got too close she hid behind each column that held up the shopping center overhang. Peeking out, she felt like Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote. Not the sexiest idol for sure, but admirable nonetheless. Sleuthy.

A few blocks in, Branson broke out into a sprint. Erica had to give up the Murder She Wrote act in order to keep up. She bit her lip and continued onwards, even as she could no longer make out the Hawaiian flowers on Branson’s Crew Member shirt.

As she passed one apartment complex and then a row of townhouses, she started to realize that this was definitely going to take longer than her allotted 20 minutes of break time.

Near the beltway, the grasses grew uncut, but she plunged through, letting them whip her on her bare arms. She stood frozen as she saw Branson barrel up the concrete embankment under the overpass as if he owned it.

“You fucking lunatic!” Branson screamed in Philbus’ face. The homeless man began to sob.

Erica’s body finally caught up with her and her feet began to ache. She looked underneath her to see that she was standing in a lane of large rocks used for drainage. Still, she didn’t move.

Philbus’ arms grasped around a bucket. Not like how you’d typically hold a bucket. More like how you’d give someone a hug. Branson seized the bucket and he cried out.

“Give her back! Give her back!”

Erica strained her neck to see. There was no one up there besides the two of them.

“Don’t hurt her! Give her back!”

Branson threw his head back and pointed at the bucket, exaggerated movements. He acted as if he was on stage even though he wasn’t aware he was being watched. “Is this your girlfriend? Your wife?”

“She’s not yours!” he screamed. It echoed off the concrete.

Branson smiled that smile Erica had tried to perfect in her mural, and suddenly she realized it wasn’t a smile at all. It hadn’t been a smile this whole time. “How would you like it,” he sneered, “if I …”

Hands around Branson’s neck. Tight. Philbus hissed indistinguishable curses. Branson’s eyes looked as if he was seeing the first surprising sight of his life. His grip grew tighter. Branson’s face became a sphere of purple.

He reached lamely for his box cutter, but it was in the lower pocket of his khaki shorts and his hand only met fabric.

Erica found herself crouching and then speeding up the concrete embankment. She found herself holding the largest rock of the drainage path in her hand. She found it slip from her hand in the direction of Philbus. As she threw, she tried to remember what her gym teacher told her about throwing before he gave up on her.

The rock grazed Philbus’ cheek, drawing forth little parallel lines of red. His hands flew to his face, releasing Branson, who gasped for breath. Philbus looked at Erica and she thought for a second he was going to say “Et tu, Brute?” but he just said nothing.

Branson hurled the bucket into oncoming traffic. The sound of plastic cracking rang out like gunshots. Philbus collapsed to the ground, sobbing.

Branson hovered over Philbus. “If you come back to my store, I’ll kill you!” he screamed.

How did the brothers punch each other in Home Improvement? Don’t tuck your thumbs? Tuck them? Just aim, and give it all you’ve got?

Knuckles to nose. A rush of blood. Erica screamed.

“My thumb!”

Branson brought his hand to his nose in confusion. Erica began flicking her hand like she was trying to dry it off. She bit her lip and rolled her eyes.

Branson let a little waterfall of blood succumb to his lips. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to punch?”

Erica looked down at the place where her thumb met her hand, which was swelling fast. With her good hand, she shoved him as hard as she could.

He stumbled back. “Damn. What was that for?”

“No! No one ever taught me how to punch!” she yelled. “No one ever taught me how to do a lot of things! I’m not like you and I’m glad I’m not like you!”

He looked from side to side, incredulous, like: is anyone else seeing this unbelievable crap? But the only other person around was Philbus, who smiled softly in approval.

“You’re a psycho,” Branson enunciated, before turning around and running.

Maybe she was. That was okay. She’d rather be a psycho than a big baby who bullies everyone when the world doesn’t go their way. Which, in the case of Branson, was always.

She began walking back to the Trader Joe’s, cradling her thumb. She resolved that the next day they gave her a chance to paint, she had a few changes to make to that mural. Branson could keep smiling, but she was going to have to narrow his eyes and draw his eyebrows downward slanting, closer together. His eyes would have to be darker. And she was going to have to put a big bushel of apples where Philbus used to be. Trader Joe’s never put apples in bushels, but it still belonged in the mural more than he ever would.


Mazzer D’Orazio is a fiction author living in the suburbs of DC. She is currently teaching high school English and pursuing an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University. Her current project is a set of linked short stories called Space to Settle.