J u n e   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

If someone took away something important ...
What would you do?
by Amy Nuttbrock

arty went to the grocery store to pick up a few snacks for her bi-monthly book club meeting. It was the club's one-year anniversary. It was also someone's birthday.

She had a list: chips, salsa, onion dip, cheese curls, low-fat cupcakes and big brown liters of soda. The only things in her plastic basket so far were an economy bag of cotton balls and a fashion magazine featuring an article about a famous movie star who'd had five malforming surgeries.

Marty browsed the shelves and experienced the hard, processed air blasting through the overhead vents. She pulled her sweater close. Leisurely people with blunt expressions wandered down the aisles, reading labels and fondling guavas. They shuffled coupons urgently. The bright, humming store seemed ordered and methodical.

The last time Marty had been to this grocery store, a skinny teen-ager with a sloppy, androgynous haircut had mugged her in the parking lot. Afterward she mostly ordered her groceries online and had them delivered to her front door.

Since then, Marty liked to tell people about what had happened. She would tell them mid-bite at a nice restaurant. She would tell them during the interesting parts of a movie. While on the treadmill, almost out of breath, she turned to her friend on the stationary bike: "Someone ran off with my purse the other day. I was shopping at Smyths on 4th Street."

Her friend made astonished and sympathetic sounds while resting a hand on Marty's elbow.

"You mean you were mugged?" her friend asked.

Marty paused the machine. She stuck her hip out, pulled her earring and said, "I wouldn't call it a mugging, exactly. I basically just dropped my purse and someone ran off with it."

People would ask her questions.

Her mother said, "Aren't you afraid he knows where you live?"

Her ex-boyfriend said, "Aren't you going to report it to the police?"

Her therapist said, "Does this remind you of anything from your past?"

The bank teller said, "Do you want to open a high-interest savings account?"

Her sometimes-best friend said, "Why didn't you stick your lipstick in his eye?"

The mugger's T-shirt said, "We do business with a smile."

He'd had a likable pout. Marty thought he probably looked nice in his driver's license photo. After the mugging, Marty only thought about grotesque things. She liked to read about recent crimes in the Metro section of the newspaper – a hit and run where someone lost their violin bow hand, a guy who killed prostitutes and arranged the corpses provocatively against tree stumps. She ate things that didn't go very well together – mashed potatoes with olives and lemon sauce.

ecently, she was sitting in her apartment with her sister, affixing press-on nails and watching a talk show about a woman who confronts the neighbor who'd run over her cat. The woman wadded tissues and wept. Pictures of the cat snoozing on the linoleum stretched across the wide TV screen. The woman's voice quaked when she told the driver that losing her cat was like losing her writing hand.

"I can't believe that woman's freaking out like that." Marty scoffed and held out a hand to admire her red fingernails.

"Well, what if someone took something important away from you?" Her sister had her legs tucked under her like a plucky hen.

"I guess I'd act dramatic to get on TV, too."

At work, Marty spent a lot of time re-heating her coffee and browsing online articles about control freaks. Sometimes she leaned over the wall of Bob Myers' cubicle, tore off pieces of Scotch tape and wrapped them around her finger. He would be eating oatmeal out of a coffee mug. She would tell him about her plans to re-pot her azaleas, then ask him what he would do in certain absurd, unreasonable situations.

"What would you do if your doctor gave you an explicitly sexual self-portrait for Christmas?"

Marty rubbed her greasy fingertips into the fabric of the cubicle wall.

"Oh, please." Bob wrinkled his lips and continued typing. Marty shrugged and walked over to Sally James' cubicle. She dangled her arms over the wall, told her that Bob Myers was a frustrated queer, then asked what she would do if an earthquake sucked her dog between a major fault line. Sally had a photo of her dog on her screen saver. She'd had the dog for 19 years.

"Don't you have to update your status report or something, Marty?" Sally picked a glop of eyeliner out of the corner of her eye and blinked.

ear the back of the store, an energetic woman in an apron was standing behind a circular display table. She offered spicy hotdogs on toothpicks. They were arranged attractively on a ceramic plate next to a steaming crockpot. "Try our free samples?"

"No, thanks." Marty veered down the cosmetics aisle. They were having a sale on fragrant hand lotions.

Another thing about the mugger: He smelled good. Something vibrant and ethereal. She'd noticed it on his collar when he'd leaned close and asked her what time it was. He was probably always punctual. He also had a nice voice. She imagined timely run-ins with the mugger and rehearsed possible conversations.

One scene involved waiting in line at a bank. The mugger is standing in front of her, wearing a sweater and holding a jar of change. He has his hair parted on the side. Marty accidentally crinkles her deposit slip.

"Aren't you the guy who took my purse in the parking lot at Smyths?"

The mugger raises a shapely brow and says one of two things, Marty can't decide which: "I don't know, what does your purse look like?" or "Do you want to have dinner with me?" Either way, she ends up meeting the mugger at his apartment, wearing a raincoat and bearing a loaf of French bread.

The mugger's apartment is full of adolescent charm. Each room is painted a different muted earth tone. He is a collector of toys and knickknacks: bookends, hood ornaments, wind-up action-figures, novelty items that talk when you press a button or pull a string. There are also several mismatched lamps, VCRs, televisions, video-game consoles.

In the kitchen, he has fruit laid out on cutting boards and counters: bananas, peaches, pears and tomatoes. Marty had read somewhere that a guy who eats soft fruit is practical and relaxed. She thinks of the phrase: "you are what you eat." They make an elaborate fruit salad together while listening to the radio. The mugger is quick and efficient with the knife and corer. They eat their salads with cans of beer and talk about their childhoods. The mugger tells her about his mother.

"She looked famous and unattainable," he says. "I used to weave between her ankles and just stare at her while she washed the dishes or played cards. Everybody was in love with her."

The mugger is passionate and enthusiastic, punctuating the word "everybody" with an upturned lilt.

Marty pictures his mother as a sophisticated blonde in a pale, fitted housedress with her hair tied back in a neat knot. She probably looked like someone in TV commercials.

"But she was also a selfish bitch." The mugger's voice becomes acidic as pineapple.

Marty thinks of her own mother. She remembers a time when she was a hypochondriacal 10-year-old, studying the graphic pages of medical atlases. Her mother was a non-monogamous dressmaker who worked from home. For each man she dated, she made herself a new dress.

"This is the most beautiful dress, for the most beautiful man." She swooned and held a low-cut evening gown with bric-a-brac trim against her chest. Marty scratched her stomach and examined her skin for bumps and spots.

"Mom, I think I'm dying," Marty said, arms all over like a melodramatic spider.

"Of course you are," said her mother, poking the dress fabric with pins and needles.

"I have a malignant tumor," Marty insisted, presenting a limp wrist and the inner canals of her left ear. She stepped on the backs of her mother's heels. "You're not even looking."

Her mother frowned and adjusted the hem of her frail dress. Marty went upstairs to look up "malignant" in the dictionary.

The mugger spears a cube of cantaloupe and mutilates it on his plate.

"I know what you mean," says Marty. The mugger's posture droops, making his body seem deflated and joyless. The corners of his mouth sag. Marty sips from his can of beer. She thinks the mugger's doleful affectations make his criminal actions seem heroic and daring. She admires him for being adventuresome.

Marty had never committed a crime, but sometimes she would lift the lid on one of the bulk-food canisters and pop jelly candies or cheese pretzels into her mouth. Then she would look around to see if anyone saw.

arty paused for a long time in the snack aisle. She picked up peanut butter cups for the woman in the club who thought every story was about a character's need to obtain material wealth. She got caramel cremes for the man who had strong opinions about books he never finished. She grabbed popcorn for the woman who never talked at all. Marty picked up something for everyone, even though none of these things were on her list.

Sometimes she thought about having sex with the mugger. He would do repulsive, demeaning things to her, like tie her wrists to the showerhead and pee on her feet. He would have weird fetishes. She would be asked to sit naked on a stool, wear wire-rimmed glasses and eat oranges while the mugger smoked and masturbated on his unmade bed. He would have black-and-white posters of glamorous older women hanging on his wall. When he took his clothes off, the mugger was as smooth and hairless as an amphibian.

After they fucked, he would go into the bathroom, run the faucet and flush the toilet. Marty would hide his shoes under the bed and take spare change from the ashtray on the kitchen table. She'd leave without closing the front door.

Marty dumped her groceries on the nine-items-or-less checkout-lane conveyor belt, even though she probably had close to 20 items. The cheerless cashier rang up her things with bored, mechanical ease. She did not make eye contact. Her mouth was a short, inflexible line. She probably didn't know that mailbox keys or tubes of lipsticks could be used as painful weapons.

Marty paid with a debit card. "Can I have a receipt?"

She exited the grocery store, but briefly stalled in front of the lobby bulletin board to see if someone was selling something good, like a four-post antique bed. A tenor voice asked someone what time it was.

Marty thought of the mugger again. She thought about how he'd come out of nowhere, smashed her breast and tugged her handbag off her shoulder. Marty's grocery bag had fallen to the ground, her things hitting the asphalt in an ugly explosion. A tube of lipstick scattered and the mugger stepped on it. He called her a cunt. But he also said she had nice taste in handbags.

Then he ran off, sneakers smacking the asphalt, her red purse flapping against his thigh. In the side pocket of her wallet, there'd been a picture of her mother wearing a cowboy hat; a key chain her sister got in Las Vegas; a fortune from a cookie that said: "People appreciate you."

The word "cunt" repeated itself in her head.

Marty had felt a little shook up, but mostly she'd felt embarrassed. She'd picked up the items and reorganized them in her paper bag – a pink box of Kleenex, hanging closet deodorizers shaped like fruit and trees.

he blunt ordinariness of these things made her feel stupid. She remembered feeling like someone had pulled down her pants and made fun of her in public. As she walked out of the parking lot, she'd had the odd sensation that she did not inhabit her limbs. Her arms and legs felt loose and vacant as ghosts. She imagined herself as a free-floating brain, bobbing along the sidewalk, with no real feelings or personality.

It was a wonder she'd even walked herself home.

Marty pulled an apple out of her paper bag and started chomping aggressively. Two teen-aged girls walked by wearing chinos and lots of makeup. They were chewing gum, and prattling over one another. A man in a heavy coat walked briskly past.

"What would you do if a police officer came up to you and stuck his hand up your shirt?" one girl asked the other. "Whatwouldyoudo?"

The other girl giggled precariously. A cat streaked across the street like a thin orange flame.

Marty thought about a brochure she'd read about how to deal with street crime. It suggested that if someone tried to assault you in the middle of the street, "Fire!" was always a better word to shout. People might actually come running to help.

See more from Amy in our archives.

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