Tremble

L. Annette Binder

His hands began to shake again in the Safeway check-out line.  The woman in front had eighteen items when the limit was fifteen.   Diapers and canned soups and a shabby head of lettuce.  Comet and ten different Weight Watchers dinners, and her baby was crying in its seat.  It wailed just like a siren.  His hands shook so hard he almost dropped his wallet.  The regular cashier was gone, the pretty Korean lady with the long black hair.  This new one had a goiter.  He looked around at the other aisles, but they were just as busy.  He had to stay because he needed turkey to make his chili.  That’s the only reason he came.  Turkey and kidney beans and a fat green pepper but not any spices. He ordered those on the internet because he didn’t like those cheap glass bottles.  The light stripped out all their flavors.  Might as well use wood shavings the way they tasted.

The mother up front was looking for her Club Card.  “It’s in here somewhere,” she said.  “I can never find things in this purse.”  She wore a blue down parka that was torn at the collar.  Her boots were wet from the melting snow.  Her baby was stll crying, and people two aisles over were starting to look, but she didn’t seem to care.

She started to empty out her bag, a dirty suede bag that needed the brush.  She fished out a Kleenex wad and a pair of rusty nail clippers, a cigarette lighter and a comb.  She put these things on the little platform where people signed their checks.  “I saw it just the other day,” she was saying.  An asthma inhaler came next, some baby wipes, a Ziploc bag with coupons.  She lifted up her bag sideways so she could see inside it better, and it was too much, the mess she was making.  He felt a throbbing behind his eyes.

He reached inside his wallet.  He took a five dollar bill and set it on the belt.  “Here you go,” he said.  He looked at the lady but not the crying baby with its perfect little fists.  Her hair was oily and stuck to her forehead.  It was blond in places, but the ends were brown.  No telling what it color it had been when she was little.  “Forget about the card.”

The mother tilted her head.  She looked at the crisp bill.  “I don’t need your money.”

 “It’s more than you’d get if you used your card.”

 “How would you know a thing like that?”

 “You’re holding up the line,” he said.  There was nobody behind him.

She pushed her cart forward.  “I don’t want your money.”

The cashier reached for a metal ring with cards hanging from it.  “Ma’am,” she said.  “I’ve got a blank one right here.”  She swiped the card over the scanner.

There wasn’t any checker so the cashier bagged the groceries herself.  She mixed the lettuce with the Comet, but the mother didn’t complain.  The cashier set the bags in the cart and looked at the receipt before handing it over.  Her goiter was big as an apricot.

He set his items on the belt while the mother gathered up her things.  He dropped his basket on top of the others and straightened up the stack so people wouldn’t trip.  He had only three things and look how long he’d waited.  He pointed to the Express Lane sign.  “Next time pay attention,” he said to the mother, who was zipping up her parka.  He stepped a little closer.  “Can’t you read the sign?”

“Don’t go pointing at me,” she said.  “You need to learn some manners.”  Her baby was wheezing. It hit the handlebar of the cart like a tiny drummer, and she squared her shoulders and pushed her cart past the aisle and through the double doors.

She was in the parking lot when he came out with his bag.  She was only a few cars down.  She drove a rusty Datsun that might have been green once. She strapped her baby in its seat and left her empty cart pushed up against another car, and she was a sign of how things were going, another symptom of a general disease.  He set his bag in the passenger seat.  He scraped the ice from his windshield, and his hands shook even harder from the cold.  People didn’t pay attention to the rules.  They made right turns from the left-hand lane, even when it snowed.  They pulled out into the street without looking because what did it matter if somebody had to hit their brakes.  What did it matter if they used the parking lane to cut their way to the front.  Pornography on the billboards.  Ladies with their mouths open and their hair looked bleached and ironed flat like the bristles of a broom, and he didn’t want to see them.

She took Circle all the way to Highway 115 and then east toward Fort Carson.  He could see the sticker on her window now that he was close.  She was married to a soldier and she should shop in the commissary and not at Safeway.  She should stay where she belonged.  They passed the new apartments that were coming up on both sides of the highway.  Mushroom-colored buildings with names like Gold Rush and Wildridge Meadows.  She turned left at the gate and the MPs waved her through, and he kept on going.  It was another half mile before he could turn around.

#

The checker at King Soopers with the scar above her lip.  The Mexican girls walking home from Mitchell.  They wore short skirts even in December.  The lady selling roses outside the Guadalupe Church.  Nothing was better than that Aztec hair. Those slanting indio eyes.  All the mothers pushing their strollers around Memorial Lake.  They were fifteen, sixteen, they weren’t even twenty.  He wanted to warn them the trail wasn’t safe.  They needed to walk in groups. 

#

He used his mother’s copper pot.  She’d never measured anything.  She went only by taste.  You have to cook with love and not with those recipe books, she’d say.  She taught him how to make the stock when he was eleven.  They stood together in front of the stove, and her skin was shiny from the steam.  Her hair was long back then.  She wore it in a bun, but the ringlets came loose from the band and curled against her neck.  He was on the step stool and she was there behind him, and he could feel her breath against his cheek while she told him what to do. 

He chopped the bell pepper and the onion and he minced the garlic on his board.  He worked in his white undershirt because it was warm inside the kitchen.  He didn’t skimp on heating.  He’d kept it warm for his mother when she was sick, and he kept it warm now that she was gone.  He rinsed the beans, and he seeded the jalapeno and chopped it super fine.  His shaking stopped when he worked the knife.  His hands were always steady once he knew what he was doing.

#

Sweet Deepa with her shiny hair.  Look at her by the sink.  Washing those containers from her lunch and the whole office smelled like incense from the spices.  That’s the way her house probably smelled, too.  Her house and her skin, and he wanted to follow her home.  She lived in an apartment off Murray.  She kept a bicycle on her balcony, but he’d never seen her ride it.  He stood by the vending machines and pretended to look at the chips, but he was watching her instead and how she’d pushed her sleeves back to her elbows.  Skin dark as chocolate and the water ran down her forearms.  Deepa and Loretta with her strawberry hair and all the girls who walked between the bays.  They smelled like shampoo when he came close.  They smelled so clean until they got engaged.

He dug his hands deep in his pockets to stop them from shaking.  He pretended to dig around for change.  Even in the lunch room he could hear the humming from the phones, all those voices saying the same things, and some were laughing and some tried to sound sexy, but Deepa’s voice was different when she worked her lines.  It flowed like water.  It rose and fell, and she was so serious when she talked.  Sometimes he took the long way to the men’s room just to get close enough to hear.  She’d come 8,445 miles from Bombay to Colorado.  He’d looked it up on the net.  She’d come halfway around the world, and now it was winter and she could be answering phones in India where it was always warm.  

She finished drying her stainless steel containers and packed them in her canvas bag.  Her hair was loose today and not back in a braid the way he liked it.  He came beside her and opened the fridge.  He was close enough to touch her.  He could brush against her shoulder if he wanted.  She was wearing that pale blue sweater, and it had started to pile down the sides where her arms had rubbed.  He could touch the wool of it and that long black hair.  She didn’t gossip with the other girls or go outside for a smoke.  She didn’t have a boyfriend.  He knew these things.  He tried to stand straight because that way he’d look thinner, but he was enormous, big as a house.  If somebody cut him he’d bleed gravy.

He reached for his strawberry yogurt.  He kept it in the back, and when he pulled it out it was lighter than it should be.  Somebody had peeled away the foil.  They’d eaten half his yogurt before putting it back inside the fridge.  His hands shook at the wrongness of it.  It was only a little thing, but his hands shook and he had to steady himself against the wall.  He went to the Whole Foods on Academy just to get those Australian yogurts.  They had pectin and not gelatin like the cheap ones they sold at Safeway.  His legs shook, too, and he couldn’t still them.  When he came back into the main room the voices hit him like a wave.

#

His mother’s hair had been beautiful before the surgeons took it.  Sometimes he watched her brush it.  He’d held her braid when he first learned to swim.  He was seven, almost eight, and they went to the outdoor pool at the Satellite every afternoon.  She knew the doorman there, an old man from Madrid who didn’t care if they weren’t guests.  She smiled and the doorman smiled, too, and opened the gate for her.  Come on, she’d say.  Before it gets too busy.  She carried him on her back and went below the water, and the world went silent in that moment.  Her skin was waxy against his.  He grabbed her braid, that fat black braid.  It’s easy, she said.  This is how we were a million years ago.  Just a momma monkey and her baby in the water.  She laughed the way she sometimes did.  Her hair was almost blue.  She looked like a mermaid or those carvings on the front of ships.  That olive skin she got from her grandma who came from Jalisco.  She lay beside him on the lounge and talked about Nagual who could turn into a puma and Cihuacoatl who went to the crossroads at night.  Poor Cihuacoatl who waited for her baby boy but all she found there was a knife. 

#

They ate his chili next.  He went to his table to pick up his thermos, and someone had eaten the chili from inside and left the dirty spoon.  They’d taken his apple, too, and squeezed the jelly beans from the goose his mother had crocheted.  He kept it beside his monitor. They emptied it out and didn’t refill it, and they did it because he was fat.  They did it because the regular chairs weren’t big enough and he used a special rolling chair from Widebodies that didn’t pinch his thighs.  He needed to get a hidden camera or maybe some ipecac to put in his thermos, and they’d be sorry then.  He wanted to burn them with hot peppers.

He sat down in his chair, and Loretta was laughing in the corner. She was waving her fat hands, and Deepa was working a call and her face was serious the way it gets, and someone had burnt their Lean Cuisine.  There was shouting in the lunch room.  Dilman the next table over had taken off his boots again and now the room smelled like feet.  He knew this place.  All its sounds and its voices, the way the sun came through the windows at three every afternoon.   He knew it when it was full with people and when he was there alone, and some day this place would burn or a shooter would find his way inside.

There was a poster beside the coffee maker in the employee kitchen.  It said to take the stairwell in case of fire and to turn off your cell phone if someone is shooting.  Turn it to vibrate so the shooter won’t hear and then wait until he reloads.  That was the time to run.  Active shooters and suspicious behavior and all the tips wouldn’t help.  They were sitting at round tables.  They were wearing headsets, and there wasn’t any place to run.  The doors were at the end of the room and the stairwells were too narrow.  One day it would happen.  Someone would come through the doors.  Someone with a loaded gun, and he needed to keep Deepa safe.

#

Deepa kept her hairbrush in a sandalwood box beside her keyboard.  It was half past three in the morning, and the office was empty.  That’s when he liked to look.  He swiped his card and opened the double doors and he walked between all the tables before coming to her spot.  He opened that box, and she had chewing gum in there from Cadbury’s India and extra hairbands and a photograph of a little girl standing next to a carved stone wall.  Elephants and dancing ladies with long long hair and the girl stood right between them.  Little Deepa when she wore knee socks.  She looked straight at the camera, and he knew her from her eyes. 

He pulled a few strands from the hairbrush.  She would never know.  That heavy hair that spilled down her back.  It shone even under the fluorescent lights.  Imagine her in the water.  Just think how it would shine.  He pulled the strands out from the bristles and cupped them in his palm.  The old security guard was gone.  He never made his rounds.  He was probably sleeping down at his desk.  Sometimes he left for Dennys and he ate nachos instead of watching the doors.

Deepa’s chair was too small for him, but he sat down anyway and looked around the room.  It smelled like coffee and microwave popcorn.  The monitors glowed blue.  This was where Deepa sat, and it wasn’t right how she couldn’t see the window.  He needed to bring her a present and leave it on her chair, a box of caramels or a bromeliad from Safeway, a purple phalaenopsis like the ones she knew from home.  He needed to be brave.  He wasn’t getting any younger.  All the girls and he remembered where they sat and how their voices sounded.  Before Deepa there had been Marta, whose family was Italian.  Marta and Pilar and Tina with her strange gold eyes.  They came, those girls, they came with their long dark hair and then they went away.

#

The widow who cried when he asked for her dead husband and the man who shouted about acid rain and mercury in the water.  One old lady thought he was her son.  Freddy you never call me anymore, she said.  Don’t you love your momma?  The babies wailing and the sirens through the line and all the people who cursed him for interrupting their supper.  A man who laughed and laughed at the sound of Leonard’s voice.  Maybe he was Armenian.  Te zent tartakuti, he said, and it sounded like a curse.

#

Deepa was wearing a new locket on a thin gold chain.  She touched it with her thumb. He was coming back from the men’s room when he saw it.  His hands were still wet from the sink.  It was a present, he was certain. Somebody had bought her that engraved locket and she’d lifted her hair so he could put it around her neck.  She touched it with her thumb and her eyes were closed while she worked her call, and he wanted to stop beside her table and to pull it off her neck, but he kept on walking and sat down in his chair. 

#

The woman who answered couldn’t see his shaking hands or how the carpet tiles were stained.  How the new girl across the table chewed her nails and spit the pieces in the trash.  Her hair was so short she might as well shave the rest of it off.  She was probably a lesbian.  “Who is this,” the woman said, and her voice was sharp.  There was yelling in the background and the sound of the TV.

“It’s Leonard Spivvy at Peak Marketing.  We’re an investment information –"

“Jacob, put that marker down.”

“We’re an investment information service,” he said.

“Do you hear me?  That one’s a Sharpie and it won’t come off.”

“We provide courtesy investment information for you in the form of a prospectus.”

“Who is this?” she asked again.  Her voice was even sharper now.  Someone was banging the walls at her house.  Someone was really shouting.

“Basically we work with a group.  And we offer folks like you the chance to participate in a real estate project or a trust possibly with a new company just starting --”

“Jacob Oren Goodman, if you don’t come here this second I swear I will take away the controls.  No games for a month.”

His hands were starting to shake harder.  He wasn’t sure why.  That boy was screaming when he should listen to his mother.  “You need to whip him,” he said. 

“What?  What did you say?”

“You need to use the strap --”

She hung up so hard he felt the concussion through his headset.  He rubbed his temples because that’s where he kept his tension.  The girl behind him was using her flirty voice.  She was laughing like somebody on a date.  Thirty people talking on the phone and they were all following the script.  Somebody across the room had found an investor, and a few people were applauding.  This is how his days would go.  The weeks and months and years.  He’d sit there from noon until eight in the evening.  He’d push the numbers as they came up, and he’d make his calls until somebody stopped him. 

#

It was the seventh of March the last time he held his mother’s hand.  It was half past eight in the morning.  The flakes were falling outside.  All night it had been snowing, and the roads filled faster than the plows could clear them.  There weren’t any doctors in the halls.  The hospital was quiet.  He held her hand and she lay there breathing.  There was a bandage on her scalp from where they made the incision.  She was sixty-three, but she looked ageless beneath the blanket.  Like a girl.  Like an ancient woman and her skin had lost its wrinkles and its color.  It had gone smooth.  The world was white outside the window.  The sky was white and the dead grass in the courtyard and the mountains were hidden behind clouds, and he sat on a stool beside her bed.  He held her right hand because the left one had the tubes.  It was eight thirty in the morning and the snow was falling and he held that hand.  It trembled and went still.

#

Deepa deserved better than those motorcycles in the lot and the rusty green dumpsters.  Sagging sofas on the curb stained black from the melting snow.  Soldiers lived there, young G.I.s who looked fifteen in their uniforms, and it wasn’t safe a girl alone like that with all those men around. They drank beer on the weekends and did pull-ups on the clothesline posts just because they could.  They walked around in summertime with all their muscles showing.  He sat in his car and watched her window.  He knew the best places to park.  Sometimes she stood on the balcony and looked out toward the mountains.

He turned his collar up.  Snow was coming in again, he could feel it in the air.  He’d have to scrape his window before he left.  People still had their Christmas lights up.  It would be March before they took them down.  Some people would leave them up all year, and there was nothing sadder than Christmas lights in May.  The world was full of lazy people.  His mother said loneliness was a disease.  She said it was catching like the flu, but loneliness was a blessing.  There were people everywhere he looked.

A man stepped out on the balcony where Deepa kept her bike.  He wore boxer shorts and a white T-shirt, and even from across the street Leonard could see how his arms were ropy with muscle.  He didn’t seem to feel the cold.  Deepa came out in a robe.  She was holding a coffee mug, and she pulled him back inside.  The man laughed.  He pretended to pull back before letting her win.  They went inside and he could see them through the glass, how they pushed and pulled each other in circles.  Deepa smiled and threw back her head.  She laughed for this man who didn’t deserve her.  She told him all her secrets.  They were dancing in her kitchen, and one day that building would burn.  It was made of wood and the roof was, too, and it wouldn’t take much, just a rag and some kerosene, and somebody would do it and he wouldn’t save her, that man with the muscles.  He wouldn’t lift a finger.

#

Hotel fires.  Steam pipe explosions.  Twenty three dead on Weber because somebody was frying a turkey.  A special ed bus overturned when the driver had a seizure.  Stampedes at Walmart.  A little boy at Fort Carson who found his daddy’s gun.  A coffee cup wedged under a brake pedal.  Acre upon acre of forest gone.  A lady park ranger had been burning her husband’s letters.  Girls abducted from the swimming pool.  Patients at the nursing home smothered in their sleep.  Christmas trees going up like torches.  Especially those Scotch pines.  The billboards, everywhere the billboards, and there wasn’t any quiet and there wasn’t any peace, not even when he tapped the walls or rocked in his mother’s chair.  Everything ends, that was the lesson.  The city was burning, and there wasn’t any place left to go.

#

She was wearing silver shorts today, and her nails were painted white.  The others called her Bibi, but he never said her name.  He shouldn’t have come.  Three months resisting the pull and he needed to be stronger.  He should be home filing his bills.  He had entire folders waiting to be shredded, but he parked his car in the gravel lot and walked inside to find her.  She led him down the hall.  There were girls dancing in the mirrored rooms.  He tried not to look as he went by.  Those girls with their ironed blond hair that looked stiff even in the flashing lights.  Their skin was too pale or too orange from the bronzer.  Their nipples were too pink.  They moved their hips and they took their bras off and the men sat in their chairs as if crippled by the sight of them.  Like paralytics at the gates of heaven.  The women danced and touched themselves.  They leaned close to the men and pulled away.  They crouched like cats across that sticky floor and their backs were always arched, and he wanted to cover them. 

She had a chicken pox scars on her temples.  He knew each one.  He knew the tattoos on her hip and he wished them away.  Her hair was wavy, and it came to the small of her back.  She took him to the room and sat on a metal stool.  There were mirrors on three of the walls and a sagging velvet couch.  He combed the spray from her black hair.  He started at the bottom and worked his way upwards through the tangles.  He divided her hair into three parts when it was ready, feeling them by weight to make sure they were even.  He braided the plaits.  He started low at the nape of her neck so it wouldn’t hurt her or pull at her skin.  The music went quiet as he worked.  The room was full with the sound of his beating heart, and for a little while he wasn’t fat, no he was slender the way he used to be, and his hands stopped all their shaking.

She sat still for him when he was done.  He watched her in the mirror.  The ovals of her breasts and those chocolate-colored nipples.  Big as half dollars and her chest rose and fell with every breath.  He stood above her and looked at her fat braid and it was perfect how it dangled.  He needed things to stop for a while.  He needed to close his eyes.  It was three o’clock and the sun was shining off the water and that concrete was rough beside the pool so people wouldn’t slip.  The smell of coconut lotion and chlorine from the water, and she was getting up.  She was always getting up.  Their time was done, and she was looking at herself in the mirror.  He would have given her a hundred dollars, but she asked only for twenty.