I was almost finished with my first cup of coffee before I realized that it was the Fourth of July. The store was closed and technically I didn’t even have to be out of bed. But, by then it was too late, there was no turning back. It didn’t really make that much difference, anyway. The grocery business means early mornings, and I’ve been getting up early for so long that I tend to wake up by 7 or 8 in the morning anyway, even without an alarm.
I work for Higgledy Piggledy, not to be confused with Piggly Wiggly, which is a huge grocery market chain in the South. Higgledy Piggledy is a small, mom-and-pop chain of markets, if you can call three stores a chain. Two of the stores are in Coonskin Falls, Alabama, which is where I’m from, and one store is in Paducah, Kentucky, which is where I am now.
Coonskin Falls is a pretty small town, just a few miles away from Rogersville off of Route 72. I had been working for Higgledy Piggledy ever since I got out of high school, and I had been supervising the front end for a while, auditing the cash drawers and making sure the baggers weren’t out back drinking beer or smoking weed in their cars. One afternoon I got called upstairs to the office, to see Mr. Perry, the general manager of the store. The whole way up the stairs, I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out what I had done wrong. When I got to his office, he just smiled at me and motioned for me to take a seat. I tried to sneak a look at his desk to figure out what was going on, but the only thing there was an unopened, blank, manila folder.
“We’ve been watching you, Jacob,” he said.
At that point all I could hear was the blood rushing through my ears as my heart started pounding, and I’m sure my face was turning bright red. Classic fight-or-flee response. I’ve never dealt well with stressful situations.
But then I realized that he was saying things like, “…like what we see,” and “opportunity for advancement,” and the pounding in my ears started to subside.
“The company has acquired another outlet,” he was saying, “In Paducah, Kentucky.”
“Hillbillies,” was the first thought which popped into my head. “Oh my god, they’re shipping me off to work with the hillbillies.”
Mr. Perry said, “Now I know what you must be thinking, Jake. You’re thinking: ‘What the hell is there out in Paducah? A bunch of inbred hillbillies?’”
I shook my head and tried to look incredulous, as if that hadn’t been at all what I was thinking. “No…” I said.
“Nevertheless, that’s not the case at all. Paducah is as vibrant and exciting a place as Coonskin Falls, or even Rogersville. It is two states away, though, Jake. So if you did take this job, you’d be pretty much on your own out there.”
He explained that I would be moved out to Paducah, and that the company would hook me up with a place to live and all that. He told me to take the rest of the day and night to think it over.
“Sleep on it,” he said, and I promised that I would.
So, I thought about it, of course. I thought about it a lot. I never went to college, so I knew it was a good idea for me to grab at advancement, whenever it came my way. The money sounded pretty good, too; it was way more than what I was already making. And getting out of Coonskin Falls didn’t sound too bad, even if it was to someplace like Paducah.
The truth is, there really wasn’t anything keeping me in Coonskin Falls. I had been born and raised there, and lived there every one of my 28 years. But I was an only child, and Mom and Dad had moved to Florida a few years earlier, after Dad retired. I have some cousins who are really nice, but they live way down near Mobile and I really only ever see them at weddings and funerals.
I really had no friends at all in Coonskin Falls. This was not a revelation to me, in fact, it had been something that I’ve been trying to work on for quite a while. I suffer from extreme shyness. Even though I am able to interact with people normally at work and out in the world and stuff like that, when it comes to opening up and revealing the real Me to other people, I have a really hard time. This kind of makes it hard to make real friends. Truth is, though, that I would really rather be alone during my off time than be in the company of other people. But, as the years go by, I realize that this is something that is getting in the way of a lot of things, things like overall Happiness, Fulfillment, and Afternoons Watching Old Movies With Friends.
So, that night, I decided that I would make the move. I decided to come here to Paducah. But I also decided that if I was going to be making this fresh start, that I was going to try to start improving myself, too, by making an effort to reach out more to the people around me. So, the next day, I went in to Mr. Perry’s office and told him that I would take the job.
Six weeks later, there I was, standing at the end of a long walkway, and looking up at the pretty Victorian house I was to call home, as the movers hauled my belongings up the two flights of stairs to my apartment. The company had gotten me a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of this house. The landlord was a little old lady who lived on the first floor, and the second floor was rented to some guy who I just prayed was quiet and didn’t smoke clove cigarettes.
In the foyer, as I made my way up for the first time, I noticed the names on the mailboxes. “Mrs. K. Kaufmann” said one. “D. Murphy” said the other. Someone had recently added “J. Stubbs” to my box, on paper, in that fancy, European-style script. I thought that was nice.
Up the stairs I went, and I walked into my apartment for the first time. Even with boxes everywhere and everything in complete disarray, I liked it right away. It’s a nice-sized one-bedroom, with windows on all four sides, and a decent kitchen and bathroom. It looks pretty much the way you’d expect the top floor of an 1880s Queen Anne Victorian to look: full of crazy little nooks and odd crannies, not one thing in the whole place level or plumb. It was much better than the cookie-cutter, concrete box garden apartment I had been living in back in Coonskin Falls.
A few hours later, the movers had left and I was puttering around the apartment, trying to get things livable. I had gotten the bed put together, and the stereo hooked up. The TV was plugged in, but the cable hadn’t been turned on yet, so that would have to wait. I was trying to think of things that would make my morning a little easier, because there was no time to waste, I had to be at the store at 7am the very next day. I got a shower curtain hung in the bathroom, and at least got my toothpaste and shampoo put out where I could get at them. I moved into the kitchen, and got the toaster oven and the microwave plugged in, and got some dishes and some silverware put away and somewhat organized. I got the coffee maker set up, too. I have one of those programmable coffee makers that will have your coffee all hot and ready for you as soon as you get out of bed, as long as you remember to get it set up the night before. So, I got the coffee ready for the next morning, and got the cup set out and the spoon and the non-dairy creamer, and that’s when I realized that I didn’t have any sugar. Now, I can live without a lot of things in my coffee. I can survive without my International Delight Hazelnut creamer, I can even do without milk or half and half altogether. But I can not drink my coffee without sugar. And there’s no way I was going to make it for Opening Day at the Paducah Higgledy Piggledy without coffee.
“A cup of sugar? Really?” I thought to myself, as I made my way downstairs. “They’re just gonna think I’m some kind of psychopath, with a line like that.”
Nevertheless, I found myself a few moments later on the second floor, knocking on the door of D. Murphy. Part of me, the part that finds it hard to let go of old, deep-seated assumptions and stereotypes, half expected to be greeted by a snake-handling, toothless hillbilly. Would he be like Jethro Bodine? Or more like Uncle Jed? Instead, D. Murphy looked pretty normal, at least the half of him that I could see behind the three inches of open door which the security chain would allow. Behind him I could see a small hall stand, with a vase and a small bowl which contained a stack of business cards.
“Hi, I’m Jake,” I said through the three inches. “I just moved in upstairs. Believe it or not, I need to borrow a cup of sugar.” I held my empty sugar bowl up as proof.
“Really?” he said.
“Yeah, really,” I answered.
“Look, I’m sorry, Jake. I can’t really help you. This might sound strange, but could I ask you to call me? On the phone?” He turned, and took a business card off of the pile on the table. Apparently, this was something he did a lot. He handed the card to me through the half-open door. “I’ll explain everything then.”
“Umm, okay, I guess,” I said.
“Okay. Cool,” he said, and he closed the door gently.
I looked down at the card. It just had his name, Douglas Murphy, along with a phone number and an email address, and what I recognized was the address of this house. “Strange,” I thought to myself.
I put the card in my pocket and brought my sugar bowl down to the first floor to try my luck with the landlady.
I knocked on her door. A short time later, the door was answered by what I can only describe as an adorable little old lady. This was not the sort of old lady who looks as though she could shatter at any moment like a fine Meissen figurine. Nor did she look like the sort of ornery old lady who would come out with a cane in one hand and a shotgun in the other, screaming, “Get the hell off of my sidewalk!” No, this little old lady looked right out of Central Casting. She was plump, but not fat; her grey hair pulled into a neat chignon. Her cheeks showed just a hint of pink, and her brown eyes seemed deep and wise, but mostly merry. When the door opened, the air smelled like a curious mixture of musty upholstery and rosewater perfume.
“Mrs. Kaufmann?” I said. She nodded.
“Hi, I’m Jacob Stubbs. I just moved in upstairs.” I offered my hand, which she took and shook warmly. “I wonder,” I asked, “if you have some sugar I might borrow?”
She stood there, smiling, staring at me blankly.
“Umm, Mrs. Kaufmann?” I said.
“Sorry,” she said, in a thick accent of some kind. “No English. Deutsche.”
Deutsche. I knew that meant German.
“German?” I said.
“Ja! Cherman! Ja, ja!” said Mrs. Kaufmann, her German accent thick as a Bock Beer at Oktoberfest.
I know maybe five words in German, and most of those I learned from watching reruns of “Hogan’s Heroes”. I did take two years of Spanish in high school back in Coonskin Falls. My teacher, Mr. Burnside, had such a thick Alabama drawl, I kept expecting him to say “y’all” after every sentence. “Buenas dias, y’all! ¿Cómo está todo, y‘all?”
“No comprende Deutsche,” I said, stupidly. She just smiled at me.
I thought for a moment. Then, I started an elaborate pantomime. I pretended to be bleary-eyed and drowsy, yawning and stretching, then making coffee, breathing in the aroma and licking my lips in anticipation. She was smiling and giggling a little at my performance. Then, I pointed at my empty sugar bowl and made a sad face that Marcel Marceau himself would have been proud of.
Her face lit up. “Zucker!” she exclaimed.
I was a bit taken aback. What had she just said?
She grabbed the sugar bowl from my hand. “Zucker!” she said again, and I realized that must be the German word for ‘sugar’. She disappeared into her apartment and came back a short while later with the bowl full.
“Danke schön,” I said, showing off some of my Hogan’s Heroes German. She smiled when I said that.
“Willkommen, Jacob, willkommen,” she said, taking my hand. I knew that meant ‘welcome’.
“Gracias,” I said, and went back upstairs.
Later that night, I had eaten some dinner and gotten some more things put away. I didn’t have TV, so I decided to get ready for bed even though it was only like 8:00 at night. As I emptied my pockets, I found the card that my neighbor, Douglas Murphy, had given me. Ordinarily, I would have thrown a card like that onto my dresser, and there it would sit, gathering dust before finally being thrown away months later. But I had made a decision, when I left Coonskin Falls, to start reaching out more to people around me.
No time like the present, I figured. So I got into my PJs, made a drink, and called the number on the card.
“Hello?” came the voice on the other end.
“Hi, Douglas?” I said.
“It’s Jake. Jacob Stubbs. From upstairs. We just met. You, uh, you said I should call you.”
“Oh, Jake! Hi, How are you, man?” he said, as if we were old friends.
“I’m good, I guess,” I answered. “Moving is kind of a drag.”
“Yeah, for sure. For sure,” he said. “Me, I haven’t moved since I moved in here, and that was in like 2005.”
“Listen, Jake,” he went on. “I don’t want to sound like I’m blurting all this out, or like I’m laying all this on you at once. And it’s not something I would ordinarily do-”
I was getting curious now. I took a sip of my drink.
“-but since you’re going to be living here, in this house… Well, I figured it would be easier just to lay all my cards out on the table from the beginning. The reason I couldn’t really help you tonight, why I couldn’t open the door for you- well, among other things, I have agoraphobia.”
“Well, okay, but, I don’t really understand. What does an irrational fear of spiders have to do with it?”
“No, no,” he said, and I could tell he was chuckling a little. “That’s arachnophobia. Agoraphobia is a fear of open places, of the outside world, of being anywhere that you can have a panic attack. For me, that’s pretty much anywhere outside my apartment.”
“Now you know why I haven’t had to move since 2005,” he said.
I don’t know, but for a guy who hasn’t left his house in eight years, he sounded pretty normal to me. Nice, even.
We talked on the phone for a while longer. I told him about my move here with the grocery store and he told me a little bit about living here in Paducah. Once he had told me about his agoraphobia, I think we both kind of agreed not to talk about it for a while, until we could both get used to the idea.
After I hung up the phone with Douglas, I put some soft music on the stereo and sat for a while, finishing my drink. My mind was awash with all kinds of thoughts: a new job, a new home, a new town; and about three people living in one house. We were all prisoners, in a way. One, a prisoner of loneliness, one of shyness, and one of fear. I decided, as part of the New Me, my fresh start, to reach out to these two people. Maybe we could help free one another from our various bonds.
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