Monday, June 16, 2008

Characters: "Otto Van Otterson" (pt.2)

The random appearance of Otto on the bus Marcie used was a considerable diversion for her as we roamed the aisles at Ralph's loading our cart with goods. She was spilling over the whole time.

"Otto is one of our store urchins," she said. "I love that word. It totally conveys a sense of wretchedness, of abandonment."

"Isn't an urchin just an orphan or poor kid?" I asked.

Marcie bit her lip and rolled her eyes, pleased that she was about to impart some telling bit of knowledge on me. "It means poor and mischievous child," she said, touching my arm and then grabbing me to pull me close. "Or hedgehog!"

She made her "tongue slips out of her gaping mouth as her eyes open wide" before biting her lip, prompting me for the correct response.

"So Otto is like a mischievous urchin with a prickly side?" I asked.

"Yes!" she said. "He is toooootally mischievous and you have to be nice or he gets extremely offended."

I nodded and she turned, pushing the cart as she scanned apple sauce and explained. She was obviously relaying long-established lore, as she rattled off the tale without much focus.

"Otto, which is what everyone at work calls him, thanks to me, is full of the devil," she said. "He comes in, he goes up and down every aisle, he gets one of almost everything, then he comes up to buy it."

She started chuckling silently, suppressing her laughter in her chest. She turned to me and stopped the cart and let out one of her delighted guffaws. She looked off to the side and clapped her hands together, bouncing at her knees as she relayed the story.

"Okay, okay," she said. "So Otto brings up like an entire cart full of things to the counter EVERY time he comes in."

She continued, still bouncing and clapping, smiling.

"He wanders the whole store, and he makes a big production out of it all," she said. "Every thing he wants, he takes off the shelf, he inspects it with his glasses, which are different every time we see him and usually don't have lenses, then he holds it up high and drops it in the cart."

She demonstrated with a small box of granola bars, holding them up with her thumb and forefinger, then dropping them into our own cart, smiling smugly with her free hand on her hip, nonchalant.

"He smiles like this, like he has struck gold every time, and he looks at whoever is watching him or nearby," she said. "It's a crackup."

I nodded. "So he's proud of what he is buying? What does he buy?"

She leaned way back and then forward, smiling and bouncing again, clapping.

"Everything," she said. "It is so random. One time, he took every bottle of lens cleaner and rewetting drops off the shelf and loaded them onto his cart, then he piled a bunch of stuffed animals and every kind of candy we hadon top. Another time it was our cheap granny bras and trash bags with some soda and an empty battery display."

She was trying to hold in the big secret, so I prodded. "So that is a lot of money. How much did it cost to get all that?"

"It didn't matter," she said. "He'd pile it all into his cart, roll up to the counter and smile, then slowly have us check everything, saying nothing and just grinning from ear to ear with his little coin purse and wallet in his hand."

I nodded, wondering if it didn't matter because he was a well-to-do senior or because he seemed to have vast reserves of cash. It turned out that such a boring twist was not in the offing.

"It could be radios and walkmen and batteries and gum by the box or a ton of baseball cards or whatever, he just picked anything," she said. "When his cart was full, he would come up, smile and watch you put in all the prices. He watched you do it, then waited."

She stopped bouncing and clapping and looked at me, biting her lip a little sideways. She shook her head, "I learned my first day. I thought I was doing so well, and I kept asking if he wanted things behind the counter and he would nod or gesture. he had like $300 in stuff."

I nodded and her hands went to her hips as she tilted her head sideways.

"And wouldn't you know it? He only had two dollars," she said, smiling, then laughing. "It's funny now, but I was mad. Then he took like ten minutes to choose a pack of gum, a box of cookies and a mini Kleenex pack."

She tilted her head back a little and smiled, then let her eyes close. "I was... sooo... mad. I could have screamed. I could have just screamed. It took me an hour to put everything back. The girls thought it was a big joke."

I was chuckling with her. "So what did you do after that? Kick him out of the store?"

"Oh, no," she said. "I would let him wander around and if he came up to me, I just looked in his cart, tapped on the register and said, 'Okay that will be a million dollars, sir!' and he would give me his money, then I would tell him how much stuff to pick for his budget."

"Well, that was nice of you," I said. "Was it always kleenex and gum?"

"No," she said, clapping and bouncing again, looking off then at me. "I usually had him get a watch, some candy and a random hygiene item. Then he was out of money and had to go. I would have one of the girls put his things back. They hated him."

"So how did you end up naming him?"

"I noticed him and I knew I wanted to keep an eye out for him, because he was just this totally fascinating character," she said. "So I gave him a name."

"Why Otto?" I asked.

"Because he speaks his own little language and it sounds like German, but it's nonsense and he only speaks to himself usually," she said. "You heard it on the bus."

Indeed I had. "So why is he named Otto van Otterson?" I asked.

Marcie looked at me and leaned in close. "Because he is like one of the river people" she whispered conspiratorially. "And I can imagine him floating on his back, speaking his language and backstroking down the San Diego River."

Her eyes went wide, and she looked at me as if she had just let me in on a huge secret. I appreciated the little story with a chuckle and added, "I guess I could see that."

It was quite the image, but Marcie had even more to relay. Otto was more than an urchin to her.

Otto had his own mythos, and every time we saw him, she told me more. Soon, it seemed, we saw him everywhere we went.