Sunday, June 11, 2006


It’s Sunday at the grocery store, and I’m dancing the usual jig at the checkout, stepping up to the shortest or quickest line. The religious Jews are out in force, having postponed marketing until after their Sabbath. There are eight lines open, and a wait at each. I shuffle from one ‘any size order, any payment’ queue to another, gauging the size of the purchase, and the cashier’s efficiency. Another shopper and I both eye the same register. The line is short, so I’m surprised when she surrenders it to me instead of nosing ahead with her cart. I pull up behind the last customer.

Then I see. The older woman pushing the basket ahead of me, deep in conversation with what looks like her daughter, has no right hand. Or rather, she has a hook. She’s not hiding it inside a long sleeve or a glove. She’s waving it around, gesturing in conversation, like someone long accustomed to making her point with a wagging finger.

I draw closer. I notice the other arm. No hand on it, either. Just a second wood-and-metal contraption. It’s not just a hook; it’s a hook with a hanger. A portion of the metal loops out in a ‘u’ that looks sturdy enough to carry, well, a grocery bag.

Not that any of this seems novel to her. She’s shopping like any elegant grandmother who stopped to buy pop for a picnic. There’s a maroon designer purse hanging on the elbow of her right arm. She neatly lifts a giant pack of napkins up to the counter between her hooks—squeezing it like an accordion—and then slides the handbag off. It rests in the upper section of the cart, and she roots around inside with her hook. It looks to have 3 digits: the hook, and two pinchers. She pokes inside until she finds her quarry. Black Calvin Klein sunglasses. But instead of wearing them, she waves them about—in one hook—while talking to her daughter. They’re discussing the merchandise.

Her collar length whitish-blonde hair falls back and reveals her face. Whatever took her hands must have got her features, too. The skin is alabaster and taut; much tighter than her neck’s flesh and a slightly different shade. Her nose points up abruptly, as if an inch of bone was shaved off. Yet, she isn’t scarred. Her daughter watches her eyes; they are both matter-of-fact. Whatever caused these injuries—accident or fire—it’s old news to them.

I don’t turn away. Her complexion is smooth and unblemished, at least in the usual sense. There are no visible pores, no wrinkles. Instead, she appears burnished, like soldered metal. She doesn’t quite shine. Perhaps the skin is too tight to wrinkle, or rests differently upon the sub-dermal layers of fat, vein, muscle and blood, impervious to the imprint of smiles or frowns.

But she’s not hideous. There is something artful about her, like a robot’s dream of people. The mechanics are right. What’s wrong is so subtle, the imagination gropes to name what’s missing: follicles, the soft mist of down on a cheek.

Her clothes have a near-sheen, too—flowing violet silk slacks with a matching top; perhaps they’re en route to a celebration. In contrast, I am barely dressed, in old jeans and a stained orange shirt with mismatched socks. They’re in upbeat moods, as if it’s party time, as if nothing can spoil that. Not a detour to the store, nor loss of limb.

Above her, the hovering faces on the television monitor, positioned to sell extra toiletries and recipes, wear forced smirks.

As she checks out, she leans toward her daughter and speaks. They hold each other’s eyes, and don’t flinch. And why should they? Perhaps the mother gave birth to this 40-something daughter post-trauma; this pale glowing mask is the familiar face of love.

Next, her glasses require attention. It’s a brief struggle, but she manages both sides of her movie-star shades, and pushes them up her abbreviated nose with the backs of her hooks. She grins at the cashier and makes a joke I can’t quite overhear.

I want to will off her glasses, so I can study those eyes, too. I know it’s rude, my stare. I recall a remote Holiday Inn in Wisconsin. Famished, my husband, children and I drove across rutted roads to find the advertised dinner buffet. At the next table sat a family much like ours, except that father had prosthetic arms. It didn’t impress his children. They were as unruly as mine, giving no special notice when their father lifted a glass in his tweezer-like grasp. I watched their meal progress more keenly than ours, though my family was oblivious to the spectacle.

There was the young pitcher in Rogers Park who would stand on the mound, glove tucked under his left stump. He’d burn one across the plate with his right hand, grab the mitt, and make the catch—then tuck the glove back in his armpit, pick out the ball and begin again. At the ball game, my ill manners were forgiven. I could stare with abandon; you’re supposed to watch the pitcher.

But this is the grocery store, where we crave anonymity within the aisles of replicating boxes. I should only stare at the packaging, the monitor, the checkout ad for the weekly special.

The cashier laughs as the mother and daughter wheel away. I unload my cart and glance back at the crowd of frowns: impatient grimaces, crying toddlers, knitted brows. I turn back to the
clerk. I can’t catch her comment through her thick, Indian accent. I don’t try. I don’t want to be in this line. I want to tail the mother and daughter out to their car and see who drives. I want to watch her open doors, adjust the radio, buckle her seatbelt, caress her daughter’s brow with those metal claws—to answer with every motion the inevitable question: how does she, how would I, how do any of us cope?

1 comment:

bonniejo said...

Wow, wonderful observation and musing. This is how we open up the world, by observing the detail so effectively that the world comes into focus therein. I love the essay especially when it gets surreal, when I'm not sure whether the hook-lady might in fact be a machine... or a human built by machines.