Current Occupation: Real Estate Agent
Former Occupation: (inspiration for this story) Delivery Driver
Contact Information: Tom Cracovaner is a poet, fiction author and songwriter. He is an Honors College graduate from the University of Arizona and has been published in SandScript Literary Magazine, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Painted Cave and was named a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards fiction competition.
SANDWICHES, SWEAT AND QUARTERS
I walked into the back of the sandwich shop. “Ok Matt, you got one for the hospital, one on Farness Road, and one for Mr. Alexander,” I heard my boss shout from the front. My left hand clasped by my empty bucket, and I used my right shoulder to wipe the sweat off my forehead where it had collected in between my eyebrows and my navy blue Wildcats hat. I hoped to make as many deliveries as possible; rent was due this week and I didn’t have time to work the longer shift because I also needed to finish one of my ten page papers for college.
I stuffed my blue leather money pouch down into my right pocket so it wouldn’t fall out. That would be a bummer. I adjusted my shorts so as not to sag and reveal my moist boxer shorts to my coworkers and boss. I felt the tinging of the coins and the abrasiveness of the zipper scrape against my leg through the thin worn pockets underneath my elastic shorts. I stepped further into the sanctum of the cavernous kitchen, and I felt the rubber on the bottom of my shoes stick and release with each step. The smell of grilling onions and peppers woke me up from the daze of heat and tiredness.
“Are there any fryers on this batch?” I asked my boss, the steady mastermind behind the operation. He pensively shuffled the order tickets in his palms and looked down at the brown paper bags of near ready orders awaiting delivery, ballpoint pens above his ears, a modern day sandwich Hermes, the god of sandwich delivery.
“No, but I need a Dr. Pepper, Sprite and a medium Diet Coke,” he said. I sprang towards the soda dispenser, which neighbored the deep fryer and was nearby to the tiny Otis Spunkmeyer oven, empty since the morning’s sweet smelling batch. I filled the waxy paper cups with the soft crushed ice and then the soda and capped them to show completion of the task and to gain approval from John, my burly boss.
“Thanks, “he said. “And make sure to take the one to Farness first, they have been waiting for over an hour.”
Fucking great, I thought. The doctor’s office at Farness was already one of the worst tippers we delivered to, and now the food was going to be over an hour late. I hoped for good tips today.
I slowly picked up the tickets, instantly made soggy by my hands, and glanced enough to see that the unit I would be delivering to at the hospital was unit 500. I breathed quicker than normal and wondered what I would say to her and I how I would say it.
“Hey there, pretty lady.”
“Hi.” I imagined her blushing and smiling at me coyly.
“What do you say you and I go out to dinner?” I would ask her with perfection.
“I would love to — ”
“Matt. Let’s get going.” My boss’ harsh command snapped me out of my daydream.
Well, however the conversation with the hottie in my daydreams would go and whether or not it would end up with her back at my place, she was about my age and the sweetest and most beautiful unit clerk in the entire hospital. I put my thoughts about her away for a moment and filled up my bucket and turned to my boss. “All right, John,” I said. “See you in a bit.”
“Say hi to Mr. Alexander for me!” John said. John had the kind of sarcasm that made me cringe, but was always funny. I smirked and rolled my eyes at John and I waddled out the back door with my bucket full of food.
Mr. Alexander was probably the worst tipper of all the customers we had, and everyone at the sandwich shop knew it. Although a very nice old guy, he missed out completely on the proper etiquette of tipping. Whenever he ordered his chicken sandwich without onions (or Chk O- as John would scribble on the ticket each time Mr. Alexander ordered), the total would come to $5.05 with tax. Without fail, this famed customer would write a check for the exact amount of $5.05, signed Mr. Alexander and proceed to hand one of us delivery drivers a shiny quarter for our troubles.
This man was kind, thankful and very sincere with his daily quarter, but to us, it was a slap in the face, because the gas, time and energy it took us to deliver to him was not worth the effort. He was on the very edge of our delivery zone, so the time elapsed to make one delivery to Mr. Alexander was equivalent to three deliveries made closer to the restaurant. He was retired and he seemed pretty wealthy, but a quarter was always his tip. A delivery to Mr. Alexander was a death knell for the day’s tips.
Perhaps his most redeeming quality was that he was, in fact, at one point a doctor, but didn’t insist on being called doctor. He was simply Mr. Alexander. I despised his weak tips, but his humility was refreshing to me and he reminded me a little of my grandpa who had just passed away in the spring.
My grandpa was wealthy just like Mr. Alexander, and also just as humble. I grew up without a father, and it was my grandpa who helped my mother out financially during some rough spots. He guided me when I needed it. He even tutored me in math, which helped me earn a scholarship for college. My whole family was disappointed when my grandpa died, because they expected to cash in on a huge inheritance, but it turned out that he left it all for homeless shelters, soup kitchens and wildlife conservation funds. I just missed my grandpa.
I hopped into my rusty Chevy Nova and then scooted the food bucket to the passenger’s side so I could ignite my car’s engine. The engine fired up, the radio shot back on and the bumper music to Jim Rome’s “The Jungle,” or more specifically Iggy pop’s anthem “Lust for Life,” pounded through the car and out the car’s open windows. Everyone I knew thought I was crazy riding my car with the windows rolled down on a hundred and five day. It was standard operating procedure for me. I just had to remember in all my tiredness not to touch any skin to metal.
The Nova did have a working air conditioner, but because of the quickness of each delivery and the time it took to cool the boat-like automobile was longer than the time in between successive stops, it was without purpose to even attempt air conditioner use. In addition, the running air conditioner reduced the MPG from a sensible twelve to a feeble eight and a half. With the rent due at the end of the week, gas was unaffordable at those rates, so I used the second best option. Sweat on my arms, face, and neck were gradually cooled by the relaxing hundred plus degree air bursting through my four open windows.
I liked listening to sports talk on the radio during my delivery shift because of the humor that broke up the monotony of the consecutive alternation between stopping, going and the logarithmical navigation of the city’s crowded lunchtime streets. My grandpa had a great sense of humor and I often thought that it was his hilarity and wittiness that made him such a great businessman. My mom often drew comparisons between my grandpa and me, but I liked to think that I was different.
I pulled up to the fairly empty parking lot in the medical complex on Farness road. The trees swayed in the hot wind and an elderly woman walked with a shiny metal walker and the help of her middle aged daughter. I noticed how attractive the landscaping was; the row of Texas Rangers was nicely trimmed in a long rounded shape and the Mexican birds of paradise were in full bloom with their reds and oranges of glory. I entered through the ornate wooden door splashed to the right and left with doctors’ names and certifications in black bold letters on the adjacent clear glass.
“Hi, you must be here with the doctors’ sandwiches!” the receptionist said. She had a hairstyle in fashion with my seventy-nine model year car and the bright orange dye she used on it signaled she was holding fast to that year and to her fleeted youth.
“Yep. It will be $19.52. A cheesesteak, Albuquerque Turkey and a Cobb Salad. Also an order of fries and a medium Diet Coke,” I said.
“Ok. Here are your checks.” I glanced down to see three checks each from a person with MD following their last names. I used my rain man like mental math skills and quickly totaled the checks in my head. I arrived at $20.11. Well, the total bill had been covered. I feigned a smile and glanced back up at the receptionist. “Thanks, ma’am. It’s all here. Have a nice day,” I said.
“You too. See you later,” she said, unaware of the crime she just helped to commit against delivery drivers everywhere.
For whatever reason, doctors tipped horribly. All other professions, whether they were accountants, retail workers, lawyers, or printers, tipped in the range of two or three dollars for a regular delivery, and much more on orders in the twenty plus range, but doctors seemed to round up to the nearest dollar, meaning tips were often in the cents. My choice of major at college was still undeclared and I wondered if I should begin logging my tips in a spreadsheet. I could calculate my average tips based on profession and include the results as a metric for my selection process.
This decision was hard for me. I needed any rational data I could get my hands on. I wasn’t sleeping well and I was so annoyed with the pros and cons of it all that I played video games for hours every evening. I knew I was gifted in math and in the sciences, and most other subjects, but I had no passion or desire for any of them. My mom wanted me to study business and follow in the ways of my Grandpa, but I wasn’t sure what was right for me. I wondered what my grandpa would want me to choose.
Sandwiched in between the “alleged” tip I just got from the office on Farness and the inevitable quarter dollar I would receive at the well kept property of the retired Mr. Alexander was the nurses’ station on unit 500 of the hospital. Nurses were by far the best tippers of any profession and this order was for $41.36. This middle order could save this otherwise pathetic delivery route.
I tried to perfect the exact words I would say to get the girl of my dreams. If only my physics class at the university could teach me how to be smooth with hot ladies.
Jen had soft brown hair flowing to her shoulders, was petite but wiry strong and had an angelic face that helped me escape the hell hole of my automobile if only for a brief moment. In the Nova, the radio blared with Jim Rome’s interpretation of Mark Madsen’s championship dance. I was already with her, even though I still hadn’t even crossed Grant Road yet.
I looked forward to seeing her and to the tips I could receive at the nurses’ station. When I was almost there, a vagrant in a wheelchair jaywalked, which caused the driver in the van twenty five feet in front of me to slam on his breaks. I was lucky that I was immersed in fantasy and only traveling at nineteen miles per hour, because if I was driving the speed limit, my Nova would have made modern art in the medium of steel with the bumper on the van in front of me. I could not afford to have another car accident.
“Come on.” I slammed the brakes and skidded slightly and my balding tires sledded me to safety. I wasn’t mad that I almost had an accident, but I was upset that my daydream was interrupted once again. In a few minutes, I would really be gazing through the polycarbonate lenses of her thick framed glasses into the catchments of her eyes instead of pretending to, while actually peering through the cracking glass of my front windshield.
Emergency flashers are the delivery driver’s best friend. I pulled up to the hospital, I drove right up to the front of the building like I owned the place, in an area marked “No Parking,” and I flipped on my flashers. “Here it goes," I said out loud to pump myself up. It was time for the best tip of the route and time to ask out the pretty unit clerk. I straightened my hat in the off center rearview mirror, pulled my shirt up over my face and wiped the sweat off of it with the inside of my shirt.
I walked towards the grey desk in the central part of the hospital unit and took a deep breath, only to see that my crush was not sitting and smiling at me as I had imagined behind her cluttered desk. Instead, the other, elderly lesbian clerk sat there with intensity and a muted professional smile. She wore glasses as well, but they were thin and frail and lacked vitality. This clerk was also nice, but I was disappointed to see her. I was choked up, but I managed to shove out a half hearted greeting from somewhere in my sickening stomach. “How’s it going? I have a delivery here for the nurses.”
“Great! I have the cash. Here you go.” She handed me a stack of cash full of tens, fives and ones totaling sixty three dollars. They were all facing the same direction as she handed them to me and I gently slid them into my money pouch just in front of the measly checks scribbled with unreadable autographs from the thrifty doctors. I instantly calculated my tip of $21.64.
“Thanks,” I said. I was excited by the tip, but I took a slow deep breath and pressed my luck. “Where’s Jen?”
“Oh.” The clerk’s brow scrunched with surprise that her interaction with me was not transacted and over, especially considering the generous amount of money she had just forked over. “She’s on her lunch break.”
“Tell her I said hi.” I spoke with clarity and confidence to the somewhat bewildered clerk, so as to give the air of importance to my relationship with Jen; it was a foregone conclusion that she and I were already long time lovers, who just happened to temporarily misalign in respect to our schedules.
“Ok. I’ll let her know.” The elder clerk’s awkward smile left me unsure if my vital message would ever be received by its true recipient.
“Thanks. Have a good one.”
On the way to my final delivery at the humble doctor’s house, miles and miles away from where I was and miles from where I wanted to be, I thought about another missed opportunity to ask Jen out on a date. When would I get another chance?
I had seen her on campus once before, but I was on my way to class and I was fifteen minutes late. She was in a hurry too that day, so we only had time for an awkward hey how’s it goin’ and a wave as we sped in opposite directions. Should I show up fifteen minutes late for class every time just to run in to her again? I wondered what major Jen had chosen. If I knew that, I could solve two problems at once and just sign up for the same major.
My best chance was to hope that the nurses on unit 500 would place an order again. And soon. The delivery wasn’t a total loss though. I was about twenty bucks closer to my rent check and in a few more miles I would be twenty five cents closer.
I pulled up on the side street off of Broadway where Mr. Alexander resided. His front yard looked impeccable. There wasn’t a single piece of gravel on the side walk and juxtaposed next to his neighbors’ weed filled yards, his space was weed free. The tall palms from the back of his property framed the street view and his well trimmed myrtles, oleanders and rose bushes in the front all flashed their flowers of summer. I thought back to my grandpa’s apple and peach trees and the way he kept his garden. I found peace in Mr. Alexander’s landscaping.
“The total for today’s sandwich is $5.05.”
“I have a check for that and here is something for you.”
“Thanks. Have a good day.” I accepted the inevitable quarter tip, but was frustrated with Mr. Alexander and with the harsh consistency of the tip. I wanted throw it into his face and tell him that he needed it more than I did, but I didn’t because for some reason I enjoyed the reward for the task completed. I remembered how my grandpa would give me bits of change for helping my mom with chores when I was a little kid. I smiled over my bitterness.
I walked back to my car down the concrete path in his front yard and tried not to step on any of the cracks, but I fumbled to put my pouch away, now a quarter heavier, and one of my shoes felt the edge of the poured concrete. It was time to hustle back to the restaurant to get more deliveries. I needed to get as many as I could get and as quickly as possible, and eventually finish my shift so I could go home and complete my ten page paper for my English class. I liked writing but was not in any mood for it. I probably shouldn’t have wasted all that time playing video games the past few nights. I waved goodbye to Mr. Alexander and I opened the Nova’s heavy door. I looked up just in time to see a truck swerving down the side street right towards me.
When I woke up, I felt groggy and heard the hum of fluorescent lighting. Everything hurt. I had casts in multiple places and immediately I noticed an IV machine hooked up to my arm, pumping me back full of fluids and pain killing medicine. It was dark outside the window and reflections from the interior of the room bounced further inward; the whole room smelled of bleach.
“He’s awake!” I recognized that voice from somewhere. “Hey Matt, I got three more deliveries for you. Hahaha.” Oh yeah. That voice was my boss John. Despite his jokes, his presence comforted me.
“Hey John. Where am I?”
“The hospital. Room 524. And man are you lucky to be alive.”
“How bad is it?”
“Well, you broke some bones, nasty abrasions, bruised tissue and organs, nothing major.”
“The doc said you’ll be fine.”
“You sure are lucky Mr. Alexander was there to save your life.”
“Mr Alexander…” John paused and instantly got serious. “The doctor said Mr. Alexander administered CPR, stopped bleeding from your wounds so you wouldn’t bleed out and even put one of your cracked bones back into place, all before the ambulance arrived. He saved your life.”
That evening, after hours of friendly visitors and conversations with family, friends and various medical staff, including a nice conversation with the attending doctor as well as with Mr. Alexander, I relaxed in bed and wondered if my teacher would grant me an extension on my paper or if my landlord would let me pay my rent late without me having to pay the extra late fee.
I rubbed Mr. Alexander’s quarter between my fingers and thought about how I had offered twenty dollar tips from my blue leather money pouch sitting on my hospital bed nightstand to both my attending doctor and Mr. Alexander for their excellent service, and also how both of them had adamantly refused to accept my offers.
Even though delivery driving was not one of the majors offered at the university, it was definitely off of the list for future career choices. Whatever my choice was, a mathematician, writer, scientist, businessman or whatever else, was unimportant. I would choose a life where I could help others and that was enough. I still missed talking with my grandpa, but knew that I didn’t need his advice for this decision. Or anyone else’s. I thought about my chances with Jen and pictured her on the telephone at her desk smiling up at me and looking through her frames with desire.
After the other patient in room 524 at the hospital turned off his blaring TV and after the nurse helped me wash and get ready for sleep and after I finally started to settle in and get used to my surroundings and to the painful contraptions attached to me, I heard a familiar sweet voice, and this time it didn’t only exist in my head.
“Hi Matt. I say hi back.”