Digging In

by Mehnaz Turner

I am walking home when I spot the flower shop. Inside, this saleslady in a peach dress grins at me something special, asking how she can help, and I point to the yellow tulips rising out of a square vase in the corner.

I don't like salesladies much. They wear strong perfume and talk in that maple sweet voice, fake sugary sugar. You know they're just after your buck. Still I play along, knowing that if she saw me in the street, she'd either frown or giggle. But she carefully takes out a dozen flowers when I ask her to and wraps them up real special. I have to give her that.

As she's ringing me up, I start thinking her sweet smile isn't an act. Maybe she's one of those rare ladies who looks past your flaws. Her nametag reads Tammy. I like the name. Plain and sturdy, it's easy to say. Thank you Tammy, I tell her as I take my change. She flashes me her whites.

I climb up the steps to my apartment and find a bowl to lop my tulips in, and the evening's settled sane. The breeze tastes like salt and I think I'll go to the beach tomorrow. Tuesdays are never crowded, the swarms in cubicles and cars. I can dip in without kids snipping at me silly while their folks watch on.

Dinner's a bag of popcorn followed by a couple of bars of milk chocolate. Later, while watching the TV spin commercials, I heat up some leftover tandoori chicken in the microwave that's about to give up. And then when I can't sleep, I'm back at the fridge taking out a couple of blueberry muffins for distraction. But once I'm finally dozing off, my stomach hurts. It's a feeling that makes the other one faint. It's the only way.

In the morning I wake up remembering. I need another name, a mental eraser, but that's not how the game works. A seagull on the fence outside scuttles away when I open up the living room window. The day's fresh and warm. Maybe I'll head down to the Santa Monica pier and get one of those egg and potato breakfasts. The fancy kind with a bit of fruit garnish. Maybe I'll chew slowly for once, begin chatting with the waitress about this great weather we've been having. The this and that of it.

Instead I'm back in the kitchen, searching through the pantry and opening up a box of powdered donuts. By the time the box is empty and I've downed a couple of glasses of milk, I'm not thinking about the pier or the beach or swimming in the ocean. I'm sitting on my rented couch watching some guy in a tweed jacket on the history channel. He's standing outside the Taj Mahal at night, holding a microphone, and pointing at the lighted domes. He looks like a jerk. The kind of guy that uses words like 'philanthropy' a lot. A wise-guy type, like those puffed up morons I bumped heads with in grad school. That was years ago, but thinking back makes me mad. I switch off the TV and lay down on the couch, letting it squeak beneath me as I settle.

I wake up to loud knocking at the door. Sitting up slowly, I wipe an inch of drool off my chin, my throat a dry chimney. There's that knock again and I'm walking to the door now, opening it up, thinking about that bottle of coke in my fridge. But then this short stocky guy in uniform flashes me his badge, wonders if he can come in and ask me a few questions, and I forget all about being thirsty.

Sure, I say giving my head an ample scratch. We sit on the couch and he's talking and I'm wondering what I could've done. But then this call-me-Frank officer tells me he's here about my neighbors, the Kellers. Turns out the wife's been missing five days and the family's in a panic.

Are you married, Mr. Rana, Frank says, flipping through this tiny notepad in his hand. I shake my head and see him watching me closely. Then he's wondering how long I've been in this country, and I don't like the question, but I tell him the truth, that I was born and raised in Pasadena. When he presses on, I tell him my folks immigrated from Pakistan in the 70s, and he begins scribbling this down fast like I just said I've got a dozen loaded guns under my bed. He asks about my work and I tell him I've been unemployed for six months. I tell him about getting fired, how the bankers thought I was stealing, but how that's not true because I've never stolen a damn thing in my skunk of a life, not even those free shampoo bottles you get at hotels. They just didn't like me, I tell him. Frank doesn't ask why, just looks me over like he's got a reason or two not to like me himself. That's when I remember I'm wearing an undershirt that barely fits and it's been a few days since I've showered.

Frank wants to know if I've ever heard the Kellers fighting. I tell him that I have. Then he asks if I've ever heard anything else, but I shake my head. He says old Keller there's been beating her up. She's run away before, only she usually comes back after a day or two gone.

Frank keeps talking but I'm not listening now. I'm picturing Mrs. Keller, that time she came over all dolled up near Christmas and gave me a tray of home baked cookies. "Now I'm not sure if you celebrate the holiday, Mr. Rana, but people the world over love sweet things," she said. I had needed the surprise then. It had been over a week since I'd talked to anyone.

Old Keller's a skunk, I tell him. Frank nods saying her sister reported Mrs. Keller missing. And I'm wanting to pound my fist into something. But Frank points to the right, giving his chin a scratch, and tells me he likes the bulbs.

Later, when Frank leaves after giving me his business card in case I hear or see something, and I've downed a pint of soda and swallowed the better half of a dry turkey sandwich, I put on a pair of shorts and a tee and step outside into the dim hallway. But seeing old Keller's front door reminds me, which makes me angry, so I knock on it something funny but no one answers. Good thing because I might have fisted the jerk if I saw him.

I make my way down and out of the complex and onto the residential street. It's almost two in the afternoon and it's quiet out, so I head left, down to the beach, where I can forget.

Half a mile or so later, I'm sitting on a bench, watching the Pacific make its rounds. The sun's tired but shining and I rub my bald spot with my right hand, wondering if I'll ever date another lady. Maybe Mrs. Keller will come back and leave her husband and we can strike up something special. But most ladies, they like skunks. And the world is full of them. Rich skunks and poor skunks. Fat skunks and skinny. Skunks peeling off bananas on their patio. Skunks dressing up in ties and ordering around other skunks with smaller offices. Skunks reading the paper at the cafes, digging up streets, delivering mail. Skunks in uniforms, in designer wear, in hippie tie-dye. Black skunks and white skunks, brown skunks and yellow. The world's just throbbing with them, the what's in it for me, get the fuck out of my way masses. Skunks raising other skunks to go out skunking in the skunky world. To go out making a skunkful difference.

And all of them, the whole skunking lot of them, make me mad.

I take a breath. The wind's pulling sand, and I can taste it in my mouth. So I get up, all three hundred and forty seven pounds of me, and head left foot forward back to the main street. The day seems dead, raw, pointless. The women walking their dogs, the storekeeper washing his windows. All of it, empty.

And so I walk faster, past the groceries, the liquor stores. Past the boutiques and department stores. Past the seniors at the bus stop.

I walk like I'm being chased, like the skunks are out there hunting me and I'm a slice of pie away from getting caught. Then the panic ruffles me and I think of finding my way to a movie theater where I can settle down and cool off. But there isn't a cinema in sight. So I slow down, walk school steady in the shade, letting the hard streets beat me back to calm.

That's when I spot her. She's coming out of one of those beauty salon hair places that smell like perfumed baths. And I stop cold, wondering if she remembers me, wondering if she'll smile or frown or walk past me without so much as a bored glance between strangers. I hold my breath. She's fishing through her purse for something and then she finds it: a bunch of keys dangling off a butterfly key chain. I lower my gaze, but then I hear the click of her heels pause against the pavement.

It is almost evening, and the sky's three shades different, clouds spread out like waves. And suddenly there's a shift of some kind, as if a thousand pounds of stress just flew off of the street.

You bought tulips from my store yesterday, she says, her lips widening into a smile. Her voice is friendly but not forced. I remember you, she says, I always remember the customers with good taste.

I want to say something. Say something normal, something real, but I've got a ball of dough in my throat, so I just nod my head and wave a hand. Then I stride away swiftly with her staring after me. Stride away without looking back.

I know what I need. Still feeling guilty about blowing Tammy off, I enter the first decent restaurant I spot, under a neon sign reading Pete's Diner. Inside the waitress takes me to a booth in the back, by a large window overlooking the beach. I order a steak and fries without opening the menu. I watch the day simmer down, the night blowing in. And it's strangely comforting how predictable the world can be. How full of sense in the oddest moments.

When the meal arrives, I dig in fork and knife. And for the first time, in a long while, I chew slowly.