“Don’t you have something to put that in?”
Some of them gasped at the question.
“You can’t talk like that” one of the women said.
“I have a schedule to keep” he said, looking at his watch.
“Don’t you have a cardboard box — like for printer paper? That would work.”
One of them started looking through cupboards. She’d help if it would get him out of their midst.
The other women shot her a disapproving look.
“Will this work?” she asked, offering a paper grocery bag marked with the PUBLIX supermarket logo. Just like the ones in his mother’s kitchen pantry.
“You will not use that.” one of the others said. “I brought my lunch in that.”
“So, you’re done with it, then?”
“Well … “ she shrugged and left the room.
After inspecting to insure the bag was sturdy, without any tears or holes, he said “Let’s see how it fits.”
The one who was helping handed him the still-warm bundle. She made a face like she was handing it to the devil himself. He eased it into the bag, where it fit exactly.
He put the bag on the table to tuck the pleats neatly, then rolled the top carefully to form a handle.
“You’re not a good man” one of them said.
“Just getting the job done, Miss.”
(He called every female “Miss”, regardless of age or marital status.)
“Thank you ladies for your help keeping my schedule.”
He turned on his heel and stepped into the hallway. Ten or twelve paces down seven people were congregated, some weeping, others comforting them.
“Excuse me” he said as he walked past, pretending to have no clue about what was going on, the bag held nonchalantly in his right hand.
Twenty steps farther, he stepped into the elevator, pressed 1, and smiled to himself as the doors closed.
His boots broke the empty-institutional-hallway sound as he got off on the first floor. And, his route to the back of the building remained solitary. From the wad of keys in his pocket, he selected the one for the unmarked gray door.
Inside, he considered the absence of a label on the carefully-wrapped resident of the PUBLIX bag, and realized that wouldn’t do: The person sent to collect it might be confused. Checking his notes to get the spelling right, he labeled the bag in black ball point pen just below where it was rolled. At arm’s length the writing was legible and obvious.
He opened the walk-in refrigerator and stepped inside, depositing the bag on one of the large, wheeled, metal trays — where it looked tinier. He paused again for just a moment, contemplating the small, warm — but soon-to-be-ice-cold occupant of a paper PUBLIX grocery bag, of a walk-in freezer, in an unmarked room, in the back of a building.
Checking his watch, he turned, closed the refrigerator door, and headed for the 7am assignment.