I never shower the day I see her. She’s got bedbugs and I’m told they slide off you if you’re dirty. She told me the chinks brought them in and I reprimanded her, an elderly black woman, for using a racial slur. I can’t be racist, she reasoned, I’m old and black. She told me she had bedbugs and I ran through all the times I stepped inside her apartment, the shithole. It looks like the spaghetti guy’s apartment in the movie Seven. I asked if she wanted me to call the landlord and get a cleaning agency to come in. She was worried about the money. Each week I kept asking, and she turned me down each time, so after a while I stopped. I told her I couldn’t go inside her apartment anymore. I also told her I couldn’t drive her son—the morbidly obese diabetic who lives with her in that shitty, infested hole—to a tour of a new apartment because I didn’t have clearance to transport anyone other than her. That was a lie. I couldn’t drive him because he wouldn’t fit into my car. Now I take pictures of the apartments we look at and show them to her son. His belly hangs out, heavy and low and I stand outside the entryway, scrolling through the photos. He complains about my bad photography and yells at me when I pack the grocery bags too heavy. He says it hurts his back to pick them up and I want to remind him they wouldn’t be so heavy if he didn’t eat so much. But I bite my tongue.
She has me drive her to a dirty meat market on the other side of town. Outside the market, a gangbanger in a wheelchair stops in front of me and offers me a ride. He whistles and spews aggressive sexual innuendo like, I’ll break you in two. I look the other way and try not to bend over while I help her out of the car. I don’t want him to get confused. She’s supposed to walk with a cane but she can’t carry it all for the dirty pleather bag and cigarette that she puts out in her hand, no spit, every time we walk into a store. I carry the cane and hold her arm. Once she fell out of her bed and cracked her ribs. She didn’t go to the doctor; just double-dosed on her pain meds for a week and cancelled our appointments. I open the door for her and follow her to the counter, stuffing my hands into my pockets so I don’t accidentally touch anything. She rings a dirty metal bell for service. The butcher comes out. He’s wearing plastic gloves with holes in them. I can tell they’re sweaty. He never takes them off as he opens freezer doors and peruses the spices, offering Lawry’s salt. Tastes great on chicken, he says. She asks me to take it and look at the price. I try to locate the tag without touching it. He holds it out for me to take it and I tell him I can’t. I remind her of her budget and she drops it. She gets the apartment pack for $70. Four pounds each of various meats. She substitutes spicy sausage for skin-on bacon. On the wall, beef sirloin is spelled sirlon. She gets hocks and chicken feet. The butcher wraps everything in white paper and packs it all up into a sagging box and offers it to me to carry to the car. I ask if he could carry it out for me and hold the door for him with my elbow. I’m afraid to touch anything. While we’re outside, he asks me if she’s my mother. I laugh and tell him no, I’m her social worker. He nods and drops the box into the trunk of my car.
We go back inside and I find her at the register, shoveling cheap candy into a plastic bag. Chick-O-Sticks. Knockoff mini Tootsie Rolls. Mysterious spherical candies with no wrapping. She offers me one. I’m not supposed to take up clients’ offers of food or drink unless refusing would negatively impact our working relationship. I think of this. I think of the butcher with the bloody gloves he never changed and shrug, no thanks. I’m not hungry. The cashier rings her up and she needs my help entering the pin of her EBT card after she swipes it. She remembers the two-liter soda free with any purchase. She points to the off-brand grape soda and has me load it in the trunk, in the box with the meat. It’s warm out and I’m worried the meat won’t stay cool. I ask if she wants to swing by her apartment to drop it off. She shakes her head no. She says they’ll eat it anyway.