“Do you know him?” She asks.
“Well, I can’t remember his name, but yes, I’ve certainly seen him in things,” I reply.
“No, no. Do you know him?” She points at the cover of The Mentalist: Season One.
The ball drops. She’s one of them–the others, the forgotten, the lost, who dwell so deeply within the shadowed labyrinths of their minds that the outside world seems to exist solely as the screen upon which their innermost fantasies and nightmares are projected.
“I’m not personally acquainted with him, no.” I look over at a co-worker of mine, who has been listening in on the conversation, and now conceals a smile.
“Oh. Well what is his name, do you know?” She asks.
“No,” I pull out my smart phone. “But I can check.”
I hurriedly punch in “lead actor,” “Mentalist,” “name,” in the hopes that finding such information might curtail an inevitable and painfully protracted monologue about her perception of reality. I click “search,” and wait. And wait. And as my apparently glacial 3G connection labors to find the results, she sees her opportunity and begins:
“He’s a bad man, you know. You shouldn’t trust him. He almost killed me one time.”
I know better than to take this bait–I do, for even though I had not encountered her previously, four months of working the electronics department at the weirdest location of a chain store in Portland, the weirdest city in America, had already equipped me with considerable awareness of those like her. And yet, I bite:
“That’s awful. Are you serious?” The words seem to leave my mouth in slow motion, pausing just before they reach her ears to turn around and, with a gleeful smirk, give me the finger. Her eyes light up; she nods emphatically.
“He came to my kindergarten birthday party. This was when I was living in Montana, you see.”
Filled immediately with regret, I stare daggers into my phone, threatening it with destruction if it fails me now. Grasping the severity of my unspoken words, it obliges.
“When I was born, my lungs were–”
“Looks like his name is Simon Baker,” I interject. Deaf to my words, she continues:
“–as flat as pancakes, so the doctors had to staple latex balloons to my back so I could breathe.”
I hear my co-worker struggle to contain a laugh. I do the same.
“But he was there,” she again points to the image of Baker, “He was at my birthday party.”
“Oh, really?” I say, as earnestly as one can in such a situation.
“Yep. And when everyone was running around bursting all the balloons when the party ended, he popped my lungs with a sewing needle.”
“That’s…terrible. Maybe it was just accident, though.”
“No, he meant to do it. And then he lied about it. He still does.”
“Don’t trust anything he says. He’s a liar.” She hands me the DVD set. “But he’s a great actor. And I really love this show.”
“I’ve heard it’s a good one,” I say.
“It is. Will you hold that for me? I won’t be able to buy it until tomorrow.”
“My name is Pretty Pretty Princess. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
She leaves. I return to the counter, where stands my co-worker, grinning from ear to ear. We both laugh.
Perhaps that seems like a callous response to dealing with such a clearly ill person, but I assure you, our laughs were neither derisive nor at her expense; rather, they were in response the oddity of the situation itself, with all of its “stranger than fiction” qualities. No, the truth is, as I’m sure many who work retail in areas with high rates of mental illness already know, if we are to maintain our own sanity, then laughter is the only possible response in the face of such daily encounters. And I mean daily. Pretty Pretty Princess is merely one example among dozens of others that I’ve seen in only eight months of working there; and while it is difficult enough to find humor in cases like hers, there are others for which it is nearly impossible.
My least favorite customers are those whose lives have crumbled around them, without so much as the luxury of departing from reality; those people forced to understand fully the tragedy of their circumstances and remain lucid throughout–mothers mostly, whose children have succumbed to various drug addictions or have committed heinous crimes. I say this not out of insensitivity to or intolerance for the struggles of others, but rather because, as a caring and deeply empathic person, my heart breaks a little each and every time I hear their woeful tales. I don’t know why it is that so many of them so willingly confess their troubles to a mere electronics salesman; to be honest, I’m not sure that I want to know–the thought that these women might have so few kind figures in their lives that they would seek just a few moments of compassion from me, little more than a courteous stranger, is a rather frightening prospect.
It’s certainly one thing to express concern for those struggling from afar, but when confronted with them in person, and even more so with the knowledge that there is nothing I can do to help them, save for offering a few kind words and maybe a coupon for 20% off ink cartridges, such concern ceases to positively reinforce the thought that I am a caring individual, yielding instead a disheartening sense of powerlessness. I don’t for the life of me know how psychiatrists who are truly dedicated to their work manage to stay positive. My own father is just such a man, and my admiration for his ability to divorce his home life from his work continues to grow each day.
I often joke that my department should hire a therapist to field such phone calls and hear such personal confessions; -that I am party to some geomagnetic anomaly wherein I have inadvertently become the magnetic north for disturbed and distressed people everywhere, such that their compasses invariably point them in my direction; -that perhaps I have unknowingly been tricked into starring in some puckish hidden camera prank show.
I often joke, and I often laugh–but all too often, it is only to keep from crying.