Go On Ahead, Baby

On a caffeine run one day last week, I was once again charmed by a stranger. It was during the heat wave, and coffee was not an option, so I headed to a bodega near my office, in search of a Coke Zero, my carbonated beverage of choice. Standing like a zombie in front of the refrigerator case, I overheard a woman buying lottery tickets say something about a younger woman who had just left the store. The two had been chatting like people do in line at a bodega.

“‘Cuz it’s hot outside,” the girl had said.

“I know. That’s why you ain’t hardly wearing anything on your body,” the woman said.

The girl left, and the older woman continued a previous conversation with the clerk. I didn’t hear what she said, but I knew it was a reaction to how little the girl had been wearing.

“Some people just like to show their bodies,” he suggested.

“Uh-huh. Well, I like to show my body too,” said the woman, laughing saucily. “But you got to have some sense about it. You can’t go around wearing nothing.”

The clerk agreed.

“I show my body too,” she continued, “but at the right time, you know what I’m saying?” She paused for effect. “Leave something to the imagination. That’s what I say.”

The clerk laughed a little. I imagined he didn’t know what to say in response.

I was a little annoyed by her. She seemed to be trying too hard to impress her audience. She is not someone about whose body I would typically spend much time thinking. It’s not a body one would expect or want to see uncovered, and I was surprised to hear her say something suggestive about it. The sentiment was old-fashioned, but the images it provoked were more than I wanted to consider at the moment.

She was sort of sausage-shaped and she wore a modest dress generously cut from an immodest print of big orange and green flowers that swayed on a white background with every move she made. She was not an invalid, but I could see she didn’t have an easy time getting around. She stood as if her legs were always stiff and sore. Her swollen ankles bulged around the edges of her shoes. She was not a beauty, but she was clearly full of life. She’s what I would call robust.

There was something holding up the lottery ticket machine, and it was occupying the clerk’s attention. She noticed me standing there, patiently holding a bottle of soda and two dollar bills.

“Go on ahead, baby,” she said warmly, and motioned to the clerk to take care of me.

I was struck by the aunt-like quality of the gesture. Baby seemed a strange word to use. It could mean everything or nothing. You could say it to a lover or you could say it to a stranger at a bodega. It underscored a generational difference. A cultural difference.

Her sauciness made more sense to me. Or rather, it was easier to imagine her in other situations. Jolly, yet formidable. A talker at a family barbecue. Good with a story. But if I were one of her grandbabies, I would not want to cross her. I left the store admiring her vitality.


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the untallied hours

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