Enjoy an excerpt from Rohit Sawant’s “Delivery Spéciale” featured in our newest anthology ON TIME.
Crossing paths with Ajay at the petrol pump was like a bear trap set by fate. And I walked right in. Or rather rode in on my Bajaj Pulsar. The one time I wasn’t tardy about refilling my bike’s tank, the fuel gauge still a few bars away from E.
Ajay and I weren’t the best of buddies in college. Our interactions consisted of casual exchanges and bumming cigarettes off each other. He still rode his trusty Hero Splendor, now fitted with one of those food delivery boxes. Only this one sported no brand names like Zomato or Uber Eats and was a nondescript grey cube instead.
The canopy overhead offered a reprieve from the sweltering heat. Some people in the queue almost seemed reluctant to quit the shade whereas others radiated impatience. Ajay ranked in the latter group. His fidgety movements at an adjacent fuel dispenser snagged my attention.
Having fed his tank, he arced away, braking to a halt at the exit as a car cut him off. This brought forth a familiar string of cuss words, a hit of nostalgia to me.
“Suraj?” he said, when I rolled up next to him.
A loud honk drowned my greeting. We got out of the way and parked on the road’s shoulder. After the How’ve you been’s and cursory conversation, we exchanged numbers and parted. He was running late.
Once the thrill of reconnection dulled, info swapped in a fit of excitement often had a way of stagnating in your contacts, existing thereafter as another symbol of your powers of procrastination. That was the case with me, at any rate, and I didn’t expect anything different from Ajay. So seeing his name light up my phone wasn’t an unwelcome surprise.
The avidity with which we spoke would’ve made you think we were best friends. What it was, in fact, for both of us I suspect, was an unconscious attempt to regain something of our former selves in the other. When ambitions still had their showroom gleam and adulting was simply a meme that lay on the cusp of harsh realities.
We conjured specters of old times then settled into venting sessions. Ever since he’d broken up with his girlfriend, he had to stave off arranged marriage proposals.
“At least your folks aren’t on your case about ‘settling down,’” he said.
“They stopped banging their heads against that wall a long time ago. Now, it’s the ‘you should get a proper job’ wall.”
After the design studio I worked at shut up shop, I circulated my resume and took to Fiverr in hunt of freelance gigs, using the time remaining to expand my portfolio and do some networking. Coupled with a part-time job bagging groceries, it was enough to get by and pay my share of the rent. My parents suggested that I move back to the family home, mainly so I wouldn’t have to work at the supermarket. They were horrified that a son of theirs should undertake so ‘menial a job’ to cover the rent and often gave me the What-Will-People-Say talk. But I didn’t mind, and they needn’t have worried; the supermarket wound up laying off some of the staff, yours truly included.
“I had a promising exchange with a recruiter I connected with on LinkedIn,” I told Ajay. “Just need something in the meantime to keep me afloat while I spruce up my portfolio.”
“You know,” Ajay said after a beat, “if you want a temporary gig, I could hook you up with my employer.”
“The Zomato thing?”
“Not Zomato. But yes.”
“You sure they won’t reject me for not having experience in the food industry?”
That had happened when I applied for a barista position.
“What? No. They’ll conduct an interview, though.”
“What can I expect?”
The building, a dingy four-story structure, was within walking distance of Link Road. I almost missed it since I scanned the area for a sign board but found none.
In stark contrast to the exterior, the lobby was nothing short of grandiloquent. It instantly quelled the second thoughts brewing in my mind. Ajay’s evasive responses when I pressed for details hadn’t inspired confidence.
“It’s basic stuff, the interview,” he said. “Part of it is kinda unconventional, but don’t let it put you off. They like to make a song and dance about being exclusive and all that.”
DELIVERY SPÉCIALE shone in sans-serif, stainless steel lettering on the widest wall. A bald man behind a curved desk sat next to a sliding door. He would’ve seemed more natural standing cross-armed outside a pub.
“Hi, I’m here to apply for a delivery rider job.”
“Take a seat and fill this out.” He handed me a clipboard with a three-paged form.
I sank into the L-shaped sofa and perused. The first page was pretty basic, asking for the usual contact details. Turning to the next two pages, I frowned. They were chock-full of questions relating to diet and medical history.
Maybe they wanna make sure anyone handling their food wasn’t carrying anything infectious?
Perhaps, but it seemed excessive, nevertheless. As evident from my prodigious paunch, I wasn’t exactly the picture of health, but except for the occasional bout of cold, I was mostly clear in that department.
I shrugged inwardly and proceeded to fill it the best I could.
Startled by the voice, I raised my head.
The gaunt, grey-suited man introduced himself as Viraj Sheth.
“Suraj Kadam,” I said, shaking the hand he extended.
“Would you care for some water? Coffee?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks.”
“Very well. If you’ll follow me.”
The hallway past the sliding door opened onto a pair of entrances on either side and ended at an elevator. He led me to the first room on the left, which was small but equally lavish.
“Done?” He gestured at the clipboard as we sat.
“Yeah,” I gave it a once over and slid it across the walnut desk.
“So where did you hear about us?” he asked, examining the form.
“An employee of yours, Ajay Panchal. He suggested I apply.”
“Ah, I’d say he’s one of our finest delivery personnel, but they all are.” A smile both prim and playful curved his lips. “Tell me, Suraj, what interests you in working as a rider for our company?”
My shrinking wallet.
Since I couldn’t say that, I combined what little I’d gathered during my research with some generous sprinkling of bullshit and managed a shambling reply. Saying it’s one of the booming markets of 2019, and from what my friend has to say, they’re the big fish.
“Do you have any prior experience as a delivery rider?”
“Well, only the rider part. Been driving a two-wheeler since I was a teen. I’m familiar with the area and know most routes like the back of my hand.” I added that I drove fast (true), safely (mostly true) and had never had a skirmish with the law (sort of true).
“That’s good to know,” Sheth said, reclining in a manner meant to be graceful, but despite his polite persona and spiffy appearance, he had all the charm of a coiled snake. “I’m sure you must have queries of your own. You see, ours is a specialty, delivery-only restaurant that caters to an exclusive clientele, which is why we choose to stay off app stores. Once you’re registered as a rider, you receive a private link to our driver app that provides order cards. The food is prepared right here in this building by a bevy of brilliant chefs, and around the back is the pickup station, where you’ll collect the order.”
Their lack of a public online presence, especially in this day and age, had struck me as a red flag, but what he shared threw some light on that front. I nodded along, inserting Oh’s and Okay’s where necessary.
“Upholding the highest quality of service is the cornerstone of our company. Our customers pay sums one might deem exorbitant, in turn enabling us to pay unparalleled rates to our riders. So it’s crucial that the food is delivered on time, fresh and warm, within specific temperature range. In the event you fail to make a timely delivery, you incur a late strike, and another rider is dispatched with a duplicate order. Two more strikes, and you’re let go after an exit interview.”
“Sounds like you run a pretty tight ship.”
“Indeed. A few more things before we wrap up.”
Opening a drawer, he fetched a leather folder, laid it on the desk, and placed his linked fists atop it. “You’ll be required to take a Rorschach test.”
“Oh.” Of all the things I’d anticipated, this wasn’t one of them.
“It’s just standard company policy,” he said, shrugging. “Shall we begin?”
The hollow-cheeked man grabbed the cardboard box I held out and offered a raspy thank you. He shut the door just as hastily. I imagined my hushed You’re welcome skidding past the closing door.
In a week’s time, I had settled into the job fairly well. I was unreasonably nervous on the first day, likely due to Sheth’s pompous speech, but in the end, it was just picking shit up and dropping shit off. He wasn’t kidding when he said they paid “unparalleled rates.” I double-checked the contract to confirm I’d read the number right. Having money that big in the equation elbows room for eccentricities, I suppose, like the Rorschach test. While its use as a personality test by employers wasn’t unheard of, its inclusion in the recruitment process for this job puzzled me. Those splattered splotches always gave me the creeps. I wasn’t one hundred percent honest with my answers and stuck to responses of the twirling hamster variety. Saying I saw a demonic eye rimmed with tentacles would hardly have been a point in my favor.
With all that talk about wealthy clientele, I expected to be frequenting affluent gated communities, but that wasn’t the case. I did deliver an order to one such location, though; a box of something divine smelling to a chirpy woman. But most of the time, my runs took me to regular apartment complexes and some grotty neighborhoods. I wondered why their clients chose to live in such areas when finances clearly weren’t a problem.
Finances so too weren’t a problem for me post my first month on the job. My delight following payday was short-lived, marred by my getting a late strike. All because two idiots blocked the byroad I’d taken to circumvent the traffic. Their cars were nosed up against each other in a showdown, and neither of their fragile egos allowed them to reverse. After much commotion, one of them finally relented, and traffic trickled through.
I drove like a demon. The order in question belonged to the chirpy woman. I jogged exiting the elevator, as if that would make a difference, and rang the doorbell.
By barely a minute.
My practiced apology died in my mouth on noticing her face. A sheen of drool coated her bottom lip, and when she blinked, the pink membranes bracketing her eyes twitched, sliding the smallest bit closer to irises that encased dinner-plate pupils.
I stuttered my apology again, and not wanting to linger, took the stairs, prompted by some instinct to climb slowly at first then darted soon as I reached the landing, my heart racing.
She was probably just high as shit.
When does being doped up cause your eyes to mimic the crawl of a cat’s inner eyelid?
Probably some minor mutation like an extra digit, nothing inexplicable.
I checked my phone on leaving the building. As it was on silent mode, I’d missed the rider app notification about my first strike.
I rang Ajay later but couldn’t reach him. I wanted to share that I’d joined the club as well. He had two late strikes and was flirting with the idea of quitting last we spoke. I tried once more but got the dial tone again, same thing next few days.
Stretched thin by concern and suspense, I called Sheth, my last—and least preferred—option. He revealed that Ajay had been let go.
“Oh, that’s…I haven’t talked to him in sometime so didn’t know.”
I asked if he’d mind sharing Ajay’s home address.
“Sorry. It’s against company policy.”
I said I understood and hung up. I was surprised he didn’t bring up the topic of my first strike.
Ajay had mentioned how it’d been a while since he visited Surat, his hometown. Maybe he took that long overdue trip, ditched his phone for some quality time? In any case, I hoped he’d flipped the bird at Sheth before walking out.
Rohit Sawant’s fiction has appeared in the Shirley Jackson Award winning anthology The Twisted Book of Shadows, Transcendent, Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe, Weirdbook, and elsewhere. He lives in Mumbai, India, and his favorite Batman is Kevin Conroy. You can find him at rohitsawantfiction.wordpress.com and @iamrohitsawant on Twitter.