someone took away something important ...
would you do?
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
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
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
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.
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
"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.
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?"
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
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
Her mother frowned and adjusted the hem of her frail
dress. Marty went upstairs to look up "malignant" in
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.