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Detainee 717

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Chapter 17

As the customer approaches the counter where Taj is stationed behind the cash register, panic, like a pigtailed girl hanging on the hem of her mother’s skirt, clings to the edge of the bland transaction that will link customer and cashier in less than 30 seconds. She stands, waits, remembers: Her mother,Yasmine, sitting on the sofa, plaiting the paused ebony comet of Taj’s hair with a patient precision that allowed a drizzle of fingertips to sift, it seemed, a strand at a time, while Taj sat on the floor obediently beneath her. And so she wore pigtails but never did she cling to her mother’s hem. The customer is getting closer, the panic draws Taj subjacent like a silver hypnotist’s watch, toward heaviness, toward something like the desire to hibernate or sleep . She will greet the customer carrying the baby she’s guessing is a girl: Did you find everything you were looking for? Her tone will tweet, sing, stretch taffy-sweet, and she will apply the tang of a counterfeit English-as-a-second-language Pakistani accent to observe with dry amusement how the customer’s behavior subtly or not so subtly reflects an assortment of always readily available stereotypes. Even with her salesperson’s smile leaping forward from teeth white and bright as a kitchen appliance, the rest of her face is a quiet dark room, or the corridor leading to it. Rana tells her she has a terribly serious soul, one that has waned and waxed through many suffering incarnations, ancient and hushed as the dark side of the moon. Two writers she read this semester had something to say about suffering. Zeus has led us on to know, the Helsmen lays it down as law, that we must suffer, suffer into truth. Is Aeschylus right? Pain comes from a darkness and we call it wisdom. It is pain. Is Randall Jarrell right? Right or wrong Taj believes he should have written in his final line: It is just and only pain. That unspeakable observation deserves weight, and the weight falls like a Frankenstein boot descending a wooden staircase on the word just, again on the first half of the word only, and again on pain. What Rana says is probably true, she feels much older than her 21 years. When she was just and only eight she could sense the weariness that waited for her in the decades to come, a gargoyle of weariness perched on a parapet, looking down on her, keeping her in sight. Waiting to pounce. Time is not a thing outside you that happens in the sequence that the mind likes to impose … no … a sense of what time really is emerges from emotion, lives and hides in an inner flowing. In the world that seems to be out there, change performs its delphic dance, everything appearing and disappearing, the universe decked out in top hat and tux tails and white gloves, orchestrating the tragicomic magic show, which amazes and thrills the audience , though some like Taj are often enough terrified by it instead. Time is just the word invented for things that appear and disappear.

“And the thing is, Rana, what appears doesn’t progress into disappearance – the two aren’t connected. We think the connection is time, but for reals? There’s no progression.”

Rana did not like that. “Wait just a minute. Damn, Taj, are you saying spring doesn’t turn into fall?” “All I know is that every moment that passes exists on its own, unconnected to before and after.”

“But how do you know that’s how it is?”

“I just know it based on my feelings.”

“You’re exceedingly strange, Taj. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in your world, alone, overnight,” he said. “Too spooky. Like a haunted house.”

“Maybe I’m just a good little Hindu girl who believes this place is maya.”

“You know about being Hindu? Weren’t you a girl too little to remember all that stuff?” Her laugher at his puzzlement broadening into crescent white, a smiling slice of moon shining in her mouth. Her smiles were far between and few, so when she did, it was an event of sorts, a pleasant surprise that made the observer eager to forget that it was almost rare. “Have I been wrong all along to think that you were exceedingly cool? You don’t want to be with me in my little world, you know, in Tajland? You can’t get with that, Rainy?”

“I’ll be with you anywhere: A) In a closet, B) In an underground missile silo beneath an Iowa cornfield, C) In a haunted house, D) etcetera. ”

A lavender blanket cups the customer’s baby, who fills its muffling sleeve with a happy liquid cooing, the baby’s cheek nestled in the mother’s cleavage, lips drawing on a nipple hidden by the loose folds of the woman’s sweater. Taj stares at the baby’s head, really stares at the damp whispery tendrils that will eventually springtime into hair and cover the defenseless fontanel on the tiny skull’s crown, and Taj’s own hand meditatively drops to her stomach. Sometimes after she nibbles on her mother’s chicken tikka she hears and then believes she can feel a mild digestive purr beneath her fingertips when she lies on her bed. But then the mild purr morphs into a different sort of vibrating sensation and she toys with the half hopeful, half despairing conviction that she can feel the baby kicking – though, Googling it, she knows that to feel the child kicking at eight weeks is probably impossible. Quickening, these fluttering first movements are called, and the word, so suggestive of something formless urgently seeking to find its home in the world of form, so hopeful and desperate sounding, softens what stabs at her heart when she considers what’s taking place in her womb’s neptunian darkness. It’s bad enough to wonder what should be done and how she should feel, or what she and Rana should do about the pregnancy. But when she adds her parents to the equation, finding a way of looking at this event through her own eyes takes on the grey duplicity of mist, is simultaneously remote and intimately close, reduces the prospect of seeing clearly to a near impossibility. It’s an issue abounding in facets. Facets of faces that … twist toward and away from her when she closes her eyes: her own imperfectly imagined face (what does she want), Rana’s (what does he want), the bits and pieces of her father and mother’s faces, and while she can predict with simple sureness her father’s response, she’s not able to forecast her mother’s reaction. Her understanding is that her mother, after spending very little time in America, found a new leniency and willingness to embrace another’s definition of appropriate action and see it as valid for an alarmingly wide range of circumstances – that is, alarming according to her father. Her mother would no doubt support Taj if she knew, but how would she really, truly feel? And why should it matter how her parents feel? Didn’t they lived their lives unobstructed, make their choices for good or bad? Why shouldn’t she, Taj, be able to do the same without feeling, somehow, as though she’s responsible to her parents for something she’s unable to name?

The woman startles Taj when she says, “Is the sale on the Telecasters still on?” Startles because the insubstantiality of thought yet has the strength to eclipse what’s solidly in front of you, suppressing actual sights and sounds for the glinting length of thought’s lifespan, the woman’s question seeming a sudden bursting forth, a jolting splash in the face that summons surprise. Her conclusion? Thought easily surmounts its surroundings, but that a life played out predominantly in the head is a life amputated from reality. These days Taj finds lessons in almost everything, but doesn’t have energy enough to find a way to put what she’s learned to good use.

“It’s the Stratocaster’s on sale,” Taj says, recalling her intention to use the Pakistani accent too late.

In her right nostril the woman wears a diamond stud so small it confounds the eye and only signals its presence with the aid of the fluorescent spark, like a match quickly struck, produced under the Riff-Ready Guitar Center’s comatose ceiling lights, recessed and in tubed captivity. Taj was hired to work three days a week and had to convince her father that working would not interfere with the good grades she was able to earn in all her classes – as though she wouldn’t be able to earn good grades in a community college? Salah listening to her, bobbing his head in agreement, his expression fringed by doubt. He frequently moved through doubt to anxiety to other more complex emotional states that were harder to sum up with a single word. No better were multiple words, which seemed to allow more choices and options, more possibilities for successful summation, but that turned out to be nothing more than a fertile futility. Sometimes she thinks that whatever his emotional state in the end should be called, it arrives filtered through a prism of broad disconcertion or dismay – she can’t say for certain, because while she’s well acquainted with his opinions, she’s not as well acquainted with him, Salah himself, as opposed to the man in his role as her father. The speck of diamond stud makes the bridge of the woman’s nose look sleeker when her face is angled a certain way, and the zombie-colored overhead light licks and flicks erotically at the diamond like it’s a certain nestled part of the body Taj still refuses to invoke in slang. Rana says the word with ease, not because he’s aroused by it – his claim – but to persuade her to understand that it’s just and only a word. She told him that she was well aware of what words were. They were that part of the magic show with the power to convince you that everything had its place, that the place was stable as a marble plate held down and fixed on a marble table.

“Can’t you just go ahead and give me the Telecaster for the sale price?” Maybe she can see the answer rising in Taj’s eyes as though poured from a pitcher filled with refusal, because she quickly continues, “can you just like get the manager? I mean, unless you’re the manager. Are you the manager?”

“I’ll get the manager.”

“Her gumma get the mamagher,” she explains to her daughter, tossing her head side to side and sweeping her hai r back and forth in the child’s face, inflating her voice like a balloon, showing Taj what motherhood demands, “the prutty gurl gumma get the mean mamagher, yes hur is …”

Taj’s exit to the stockroom is a glum mortified scurry. She can easily picture Rana unselfconsciously shaking and rattling his own face down into the stunned face of a baby, but she herself could not pull it off, could not engage in such antics – the baby would never be convinced by her performance. Then she tries to visualize herself as a baby, tries to clothe herself in the transparent silk of vulnerability and dependency that accessorizes infancy. She simply can’t imagine being helpless and unable to protect herself, unable to survive on her own. She tries to walk the ledge of that thought to see where it takes her and it crumbles beneath her feet, plunges her over an edge; she falls as a baby would fall if cradling arms swung open, arms like the flaps of a trapdoor.

“What’s up?” the manager-in-training asks when she walks in. He’s busy removing packages of Hannabach 725 Golden Classic Guitar Strings from a box and only glances at Taj. Six months ago when she began working at Riff-Ready she took note of Rick’s developing managerial style – hands-off, uninvolved, lethargic – and concluded she wouldn’t judge him because of it. Often he disappears into the stockroom for long periods, and when he reappears to walk the floor he does so wrapped inside his private preoccupations as in a shawl, a cape, a cowl, bowed beneath some drape of pressure or weave of weight. Taj imagines that if Rick were older his attitude might present a problem for some customers, but in his early twenties, baby-faced, his manner is not inconsistent with the demeanor of disengagement displayed by males still relatively new to post-adolescence; she still sees traces of the sixteen-year-old Rana lingering in the twenty-two –year-old version. She would guess that Rick’s detachment is probably expected, well tolerated by older customers, parents buying expensive amps and guitars to make their kids – mostly sons, though some daughters – tractable or happy in the intense but ephemeral way accorded by the possession of nonessential material goods.

“The customer out there wants to speak with you.”

Now he looks up, terror leaping across his face. “For what?”

“She wants you to apply the sales price for the Stratocaster to the Telecaster.”

“Why can’t I ever get through one day here without some customer creating a bunch of problems? Is that too much to ask?” he says in a tone of deep anguish. “Why can’t they just come in and buy their shit and leave without all the drama?”

Taj shrugs. “Where’s the challenge in that?”

“Just tell her the manager’s not here.”

“Your father wouldn’t go for that,” she reminds him. Rick’s father, the owner of Riff-Ready, a cranky older man perpetually on the cusp of retirement, remains unreasonably eager to hand his son the keys to his financial kingdom, but Rick, thronged by the quiet mob of his manufactured anguish, exudes the chill of subzero interest in running the family business.

“I can’t, Rick. I have class in an hour. One minute, I’m officially off the clock.”

“Taj,” he pleads, wringing his hands.

The door in the back of the stockroom opens into a tunnel that runs along the rear of the building and is used as a delivery corridor for the dozen or so shops lining the mall’s east wing on this, the second floor. At the end of the tunnel the concrete floor slopes down toward heavy exit doors with confrontational push bars that challenge you to lean the appropriate amount of full-body weight into the ball of your shoulder, but too much shove and the cunning door relaxes its hinges, swings you stumbling out into the employee parking lot, your palms smelling faintly of brass from the two-second contact. The corridor has an atmosphere of dim abandonment and mild descent, of illicit seclusion. Taj is pulled along and through it, part of an unattributed momentum, and her sneakers’ soles preserve or enhance the silence, with the result that the corridor is as still as a Ouija board the moment before the planchette begins to prowl. To say she likes it in here wouldn’t be exactly accurate, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate either. In this charcoal sketch of a place, this tube of sterile and dinghy transit, she no longer has to think about her pregnancy and what she should do about it; no longer needs to think about the futility of declaring an English major when she has no real interest in teaching; no longer needs to dwell on her mother or father or brother, or even Rana, who is mere moments away, in the parking lot, sitting in the used 2009 Camry his father Aadesh recently bought him for his birthday, waiting for her as he does every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Or if she does think about any of it, it’s as though she’s a passenger on a bus looking down, with a distanced feeling of tranquility, through the window at curious scenery. Her gaze is diffuse as she follows the corridor’s shallow curve, so similar to a ripple unlacing its arc across the knotless surface of a stream. When the curve completes she sees perhaps 50 feet away the exit sign above the confrontational push-bar door. The word cuts the shadows with precise crimson pressed, it seems, off the sizzling coils of a digital branding iron. Letters bleeding stiffly in the wounded air. The sign casts the glow of a fire on the walls of a dark cave, and in it Taj can make out a tribe of teenagers – she can tell by the voices, vaulting and pitched high with youth – huddled and woven together, ominously, in the performance of some task. As she draws closer the tangle of their mass begins to dissolve and she sees that three of them are crouched, pinning someone against the floor. One boy is holding the ankles, another boy is holding down the shoulders, and a girl appears to be kneeling near the tossing head of the captured prey.

Another girl who has taken an overseer’s stance nearby commands, “Stop squirming around, Nam-ASS-stay, you don’t want the scissors to, like, poke you in the fucking tympanum. You need your ears to hear all your new age chants and pagan prayers and shit. ”

Their voices vie with one another in brief overlapping bursts, a medley of laughter, curses, wordless exclamations and barked instructions. When the sound threatens to become excessive, one of them reminds the group with a stab of stiletto sibilance to lower their voices. Taj can hear that the corridor carries an echo , but it’s dull and depthless, and no one outside the corridor will likely register the commotion. As Taj comes closer she identifies the victim as female, approximately the same age as her tormenters. Though she tosses and twists in the hands that grip her, churning the oar of her thin frame in an effort to pull free, she’s largely silent, grunting with exertion only sparsely. The grunt is small, pitiful, and fills the ears with the sound of lonliness. Closer still, Taj observes that the kneeling girl is wielding scissors, cutting the victim’s hair close to the scalp with rapid reckless expertise. The snip, snip, snip is a sound both toylike and barbaric, the hacked-off hair black shrapnel jagged on the ground.

“You guys practicing for careers at Supercuts?” Taj says when she’s close enough. She’s looking down at the cell phone in her hand, texting. She’s not looking at them but they’re visible to her as a peripheral gestalt; she can feel it when all heads roatate slowly toward her at the same instant, the movement creepily synchronized. “You take walk-ins? Can you squeeze me in for a cut? I’m a naturally combative type, so I’m thinking a military cut would be a good match my temperament. Close to the skull, which I see is a technique you’re in the process of mastering.”

The things happening on their faces too are synchronized, vacancy filming eyes like a window shade drawn down, mouths closing like lids so that words will not spring forward until the intruder can be assessed, brows knitted a little in puzzlement, the white flag of their complexion borne by soliders retreating in surrender to some even paler outpost. The kneeling girl, however, lifts the scissors up high and, looking at Taj from behind an expression that seems to be hung precariously upon the air rather than attached to her face, she snips three times slowly as a response to Taj’s comment, a smile like a hairline crack in a windshield appearimg in the line of her lips.

The boys release the girl on the floor and stand; the girl wielding the scissors drops them on the floor, hoists herself off her kness. The girl off to the side, the overseer, turns around and simply begins walking toward the exit door. The others, just as matter-of-factly, follow in silence behind her. The victim, the girl with the butchered hair, sits up and looks at Taj, running her hand in wary assessment over the nearly hairless head.

“Hey wait, where are you guys going?” Taj calls out behind them. “I texted my boss, who called the mall security guy, who’s an off-duty cop, who’ll be here any minute. He’s going to be pissed if you can’t hook him up with a nice fade.”

Without looking back the four walk without haste through the exit door and file out into the parking lot.

The girl with the butchered hair approaches Taj, her hand extended. “I’m Namaste.”

“I’m Taj.” She thinks Namaste wants to shake hands and extends her own, and she’s surprised when the girl embraces her fully instead, as though they have known each other for a lifetime, and begins to softly cry.

Next Chapter

Chapter 18


Article By: dglenn


Arts | Fiction | Novels


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