Killing Grandma, and the Rat-Boy
The kid stood before me, saying nothing, but looking a bit, shall we say—pensive—as his beady little eyes bore into me. I was surprised. In the few short hours that I had been training him, he didn’t seem to display much of an affinity for deep and serious thought. That was okay though, I pondered. As I’ve always said—you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
And then his nose twitched . . .
Gary was young, perhaps nineteen or twenty or so. Probably five feet nothing, and if his weight hit ninety-five pounds sopping wet, I would have been surprised. A narrow hatchet face. Buck teeth. A suggestion of facial hair just above an upper lip—almost whisker-like. He wouldn’t stick around long enough for me to learn much more. Matter of fact, I never even knew his last name. We spent eight hours together. From one o’clock in the afternoon one day, to ten that evening, and I was training him in the meat and seafood department of GSM. He would be what they called a “closer,” someone who puts everything away in the evening and cleans up before he (or she) goes home.
A really simple job, at the heart of it.
He listened very respectfully, as I went about the nightly routine. I showed him the ins and outs of closing the department each evening. I stressed cleaning and sanitizing, and making sure to never touch any cooked product with his bare little paws—make that hands. I stressed the importance of not letting one product touch another, or to place anything raw over the top of anything cooked. I told him stories. I edified him—and, I illuminated him.
He seemed to take it all in. I thought I had probably just trained GSM’s next long-term employee. I thought he just might be a rock-star.
And then he didn’t come back . . . ever.
The rat-boy was gone for good.
One thirty came the following afternoon. I was still alone. I was beginning to wonder if he would call off for the day for some reason. Maybe he was just running late. Then came the phone call. I picked it up. It was the Store Director. The big cheese. The head honcho. Mr. Big himself. Actually, in this case, it was Ms. Big. Her name was Adele Pensler, and she was one of the good ones. As in, a store director that actually cared a little-bit about the people that works for her, and she also cared, more than a little, about food safety.
She wanted me in her office. Now.
I arrived there a few minutes later, more than a little pensive myself. The director’s office had been informally named either the punishment room, or the re-education room, by those that had the dubious pleasure of having been invited inside.
I knocked politely and then walked through the door.
“What did you do to your trainee last night?” she asked.
“You mean the rat-boy?” I replied.
“Don’t call him that!” she snapped. “His name’s Gary.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I declared. “What do you mean?”
“He called me this morning,” Adele continued. “He said he was never coming back, because he didn’t want to kill grandma. He was almost sobbing when he told me.”
“Oh dear,” I hedged.
“Sit down, Larry, right across the desk from me, and tell me exactly what you said to Gary last night that scared him so badly, that after just one shift with you, he’s never, ever, coming back again.”
I eased into the chair. It creaked a little, just to add a little ominous flavor to the scene.
“And you better make it good,” she added for emphasis.
“I told him the story about killing grandma,” I said.
“Tell it to me,” Adele replied. “And I better like it,” she added again.
“Well,” I started. “I actually got the story from one of the Health Department instructors that teach the food safety course for the county. When he started the class, he told everyone that he would love to see the day when the county didn’t have to hold these classes anymore. And that, he said, was going to be when we all stopped killing people.”
Adele leaned forward in her chair—more interested now. “And exactly how are we killing people?” she asked.
“Well, that was my question too. And it was also the question of about half the class. They were all under the impression that if food bad enough to actually kill someone were to get out there and actually kill someone, it would be a pretty big story. Like six o’clock news big story.”
“I’d think so too,” Adele allowed. “Go on.”
“Well, the guy said that it almost never made the news, because we were actually killing people and no one knew it. Or more exactly, no one recognized it for what it was. And he even gave an example of how it happened. That is—how we were routinely killing grandma. And grandpa too. And middle-aged sick people. And oh yeah—he said we were also killing little kids sometimes too.”
Now Adele was really interested—leaning even more forward in her chair.
“Go on, Larry,” she prodded.
“This is the story he told. It’s about grandma. She’s been sick for a while. Maybe bad sick. Maybe she’s been fighting cancer, or some other horrible disease. Maybe she’s been in the hospital. Maybe she’s been receiving radiation and chemo-therapy. Maybe they are actually starting to work. She’s beginning to feel better. A lot better. Good enough to come home. She’s starting to think that maybe she might just beat this thing after all.”
“And then she’s dead,” I concluded.
“How?” Adele nearly shouted.
“Because we killed her. That’s how. Because when she started to feel better, she wanted to eat again. She got her appetite back again. And when she did, she wanted some of her old favorite foods again—the ones she had always loved. Her family is only too happy to comply, and rush off to the supermarket to buy all the stuff for the dinner.”
“Trouble is, no one realizes that she has a severely compromised immune system due to the treatment she had been receiving. Chemo drugs and radiation will both do that—killing as they do, a lot of healthy tissue right along with the cancerous tissue.”
“The loving son, daughter, or husband pick-up some meat, or seafood, or any one of dozens of deli dishes, or produce to serve with that dinner. Some of those things are probably intended to be eaten raw or cooked rare. And just one of those foods are contaminated—because someone touched a cooked product with his or her bare hands—hands that had just returned from the rest-room unwashed, and maybe carrying a simple flu or cold virus, or other largely harmless bacteria. Harmless to almost everyone—but not harmless to grandma.”
“They have a wonderful dinner. Most of the diners are fine. A couple are a little “off” after the meal. One or two may be ill for a few hours or a full day. But they all get over it. Everyone except grandma that is. She’s dead in her bed the next morning.”
Adele’s mouth is hanging open at this point—her eyes slightly larger.
“They have a real nice funeral for her too. And a real nice obituary in the local newspaper as well. It says what a sweet lady she was. A real pillar of the community. A leader in her local Church. A fine, fine woman. And every once in a while those obits will give a cause of death. In grandma’s case, it will probably say something like ‘Succumbed to a long-time illness. Donations made be made to The Cancer Society.’ But it wasn’t the cancer that killed her. It was us, because we didn’t care enough to stop and wash our hands, or we were too rushed by other customers or management to be able to stop and do it. It was us. We were the killers. But no one knew it for what it was. The health-department guy says it happens all the time. He said you could read these funeral notices in the paper any day of the week. He said God only knew how many times it was us that was the killer, and not the long-standing disease.”
Adele said nothing. You could have heard a pin drop in the room.
“He said it wasn’t just old sick folks either. Sometimes they were younger. Fighting AIDS, or other diseases that lower the immune response. He said it could also be children. A lot of children do not have fully developed and functioning immune systems yet. He said that no one could ever know for sure—but the death toll could be in the many thousands a year—unrecognized for what they are—the result of food-borne illnesses. Killed by unknowing, and sometimes uncaring, food service workers. Workers in restaurants, supermarkets, warehouses, and so forth. And he said that was why we had to keep on having these classes—to try to lower the count.”
Adele just stared a few moments more, and then, with a shake of her head, arose and slowly opened the door for me to leave.
“That’s a good story,” she said. “I’m glad you told it to me. And I want you to continue to tell that very same story to each and every person you train.”
And then she added; “And if the rat-boy doesn’t like the damned truth, then he can just go and work somewhere else.”
I returned to work that day, and a few days later began training another new employee. I told that person that very same story. I have been telling it ever since. I like to think that it did some good. I like to think, that maybe, somewhere along the line, it might have saved a life. Maybe even grandmas.
Here’s what I would like you to take from this chapter. If you are going to serve a meal to an individual with a weakened or compromised immune system—COOK EVERYTHING. If you are going to take this person out for a meal, please make sure that all the dishes served to this person are COOKED. This is what I want you to remember: A dish that is cold, has only put the bacteria or virus on hold. It’s still alive—and just waiting to strike. HEAT kills the bacteria or virus. Repeat after me: COLD puts the pathogens on hold—HEAT kills the pathogens—COOKING is good.
Eat well done and completely cooked food if there is anything whatsoever that may have compromised your immune system. The life you save may well be your own—or that of someone you love even more than yourself.
Thanks for reading. Next time . . . a new installment of THE RECKONING: The Ice Queen
Dumb joke of the day: