Paloma, my brother’s wife, stomps her way down the aisles of the ShopTime Grocery, smoking a cigarette.
So far, three male clerks have asked her to put it out.
Paloma is tall like a man. Six feet easy. And she always wears high heels. Always. Her hair reminds me of a mink coat mama used to keep in a trunk–dark and glossy and wanting you to pet it. Her eyes are the color of new pennies and she focuses them like weapons. Her nipples are always hard and pointing up at the sky, like her breasts are rolling their eyes at you from under her shirt. She has tiny bony shoulders and long thin white arms that end in short red squares. Her name is Spanish but she’s not from Spain. She has a stabbing accent like the one they give Russians on TV and she frowns a lot even when she doesn’t mean it. She talks to me like I’m not 19. She talks to me like I’m her age, just not very bright.
Half an hour ago, I asked her why she married my brother. Now she spins suddenly on her heel to face me.
“Your brother is an ugly man, Tanya,” she says. “Even his cock. It is very ugly. A short, fleshy, bald thing.” She is Walter Cronkite reporting the short, fleshy, bald news. But if she’s telling me, she’s already told Eddie. I like Paloma. You know where you stand with her.
“But your brother, he is smartest man I know. And I know many smart man. Smart man is much better than pretty fool.” She lifts her eyebrow and seals that bit of knowledge into my brain by waving her cigarette at me like a wand. She spins on her heel again and heads off, trailing smoke.
“Vhere is Cap-tan Cronch?” she says, and she disappears around the corner.
I had been thinking about Eddie and Paloma a lot lately.
This is how they got together: Eddie went to a college called MIT. He didn’t like it. After three years he came home. But he started going to the post office a lot. And he started getting a lot of phone calls. He would pick up the phone and grunt and mumble and grunt and sometimes make a few grumbles with question marks on the end. A few months later, Eddie put on his nicest sweater and church slacks and drove all the way to the big airport and came back with Paloma. Married.
I hurry after her and almost crash the cart into Mrs. Bradley. Her cart is full of squirming blond children and frozen pizzas. She looks like an older version of me. All the women around here look like versions of each other. We are blond. Dimpled. Warm cheeks like baby dolls. We are short and plump and soft to the touch. But Paloma is making them harden. When she’s near, they flare their nostrils. Some of them ball up their fists like they might hit her. Sometimes I think about that. What if they jumped on Paloma, all pink faced and mean?
They’d never do it, but if they did, Mrs. Bradley would organize it. She’s the minister’s wife.
Mrs. Bradley eases her cart up next to me. She smells like apple shampoo.
“Tanya, you know you can always come over to my house. Whenever you want. I always need a babysitter, maybe I could pay you a little bit.” She speaks in a low voice, like we’re hatching a plan.
I search the boxes of tea on the shelf with my eyes while I try to think of something to say. Tetley. Instant Tetley. Lipton. Presweetened Lipton. I’m not going over there. Whenever they get me alone they just asked questions about Paloma.
“Maybe. I’m real busy with mama gone and all.” Mama is dead. Sometimes mentioning her distracted them.
“Oh Tanya, your mother was a fine woman. She was a pillar of this community.” Mrs. Bradley frowns and holds her lips like she’s chewing on a sob. She talks like that because she throws a lot of charity dinners. “She must be fit to be tied, looking down to see that woman married to her son.”
I don’t know how to answer that.
“Tan-YAH! You like the uh, mac-doo-dles?” calls Paloma. She’s two rows over. “Eddie likes the mac-doodles, yes? We buy them for Eddie!” she sings.
Eddie doesn’t like noodles. Paloma can’t cook.
This is what passes for love instead: Eddie is bent over his big flat desk, writing and drawing and measuring. And Paloma is perched up on a tall stool beside him. Smoking. Watching. They hardly talk. Every now and then she points at something on his paper. He grunts and hands her his pencil. She smiles, climbs down off her perch, takes Eddie’s place, erases something and writes it again. Or sometimes she points, and he points at something else and keeps his place.
Then Eddie smiles down at the paper, like he has a crush on it or something. And Paloma looks up and kisses smoke rings at the ceiling.
Eddie and Paloma are not bright and sparkling the way couples are on TV. Eddie is a mountain and Paloma is the lioness who prowls around him.
Mrs. Bradley offers to pray for me as I wheel around the corner.
Paloma tosses three boxes of noodles into the cart.
When she turns around, I take two out and put them back on the shelf.
“We need meat,” I say to give her direction.
“We need meat,” she repeats just as Chuck Graham rounds the corner and throws himself in her path.
Chuck Graham is a redheaded oddity. When he was younger the girls all wanted to touch his curls and he played them against each other. But he played too long and now he is heartbreakingly balding and still single. He thinks he can steal Paloma. Paloma is looking at him like he is a small, rude dog.
“I’m trying to quit,” he says, leering at her cigarette. “But you’re making it hard.” The way he says it–with a smile after the word “quit” and a raised eyebrow after “hard”–I can tell he has practiced. It makes me sad for him and his brittle red chest hair.
Paloma doesn’t like it when men are fresh. She is coiling her cruelty. I know that her straightening spine means danger. But Chuck Graham has had it too easy with women so he can’t read her. He waggles on, “Girl, don’t you know smoking will kill you?”
“Then you shouldn’t have stopped,” she says. She stares at him hard, then lets her gaze evaporate until he knows that she has just made him disappear. A wheel on my cart makes shivery wounded noises as I roll past him.
It’s always like this. Paloma makes people wear their emotions in their face instead of snug in their chests, where they belong. Even when she isn’t trying to.
Now I’m going to admit something: Sometimes I worry that we will all become memories to Paloma. I worry that the spell will wear off and she will go back to where she came from and she will talk about how she was married and how she spent two years in a small town. She will say it the way other people talk about the time they caught a bad stomach flu.
Eddie doesn’t worry though. About anything. Once Paloma called him a backwoods Buddha.
Paloma has a weird sense of humor.
Who is pointing at me.
Flanked by the deli counter.
Talking to me. “…the men in this place have no art. You must leave,” she says, then demands filet mignon from the butcher. While we wait, she examines two different brands of vodka she put in the cart. She is comparing the labels. When she looks down, her eyelashes make her look vulnerable. Then she remembers something.
“Wot is mail or-der bride?”
“Mail or-der bride. I hear woman call me Eddie Thornton’s mail or-der bride. What does this mean exactly?”
“That’s when a man can’t get a regular girl and he gets desperate and writes away to get a girl from another country to marry him. And she does it just so she can get in the country.”
“Oh,” Paloma says, still considering the vodka.
She sticks the cigarette in her mouth and grabs the white paper package of meat.
“Well,” she says, looking brightly at me. “I am a woman worth importing.” She tosses the meat into the cart. It responds with a metallic shudder. I can hear her laughing as she makes a beeline for the condiments aisle. The butcher is smiling at her back.
I see Tina Sharkey down another aisle. I slow down. I want her to see me, know Paloma is here, and go. I went to high school with Kerri Sharkey, Tina’s daughter.
Tina Sharkey used to visit the high school way too much. There is a rumor that Vince Carter lost his virginity to her.
One time I was in the burger joint and I saw Tina looking out the window with a face like she was looking–I don’t know–at a car wreck? I looked out the window too, but all I saw was Paloma leaning on my truck, waiting for me. Tapping a pointed, shiny black heel.
Then I saw about 15 boys staring hard and hungry at my brother’s wife. They had their backs to Tina Sharkey and her slightly stocky legs in cutoff shorts, white high heels, and her daughter’s old “Kiss me, I’m a cheerleader!’ T-shirt. Right after that she stopped using hair spray and she stopped wearing makeup. She makes me feel sad the way that abandoned houses with boarded-up windows make me feel sad.
Right now, Paloma is squinting fiercely at ketchup but looks at me fondly when I wheel the cart up next to her. “Fruit roll up,” she says. “We must have them.”
I am just about to tell her that we already have them when her eyes shift behind me. She zeroes in on a fresh emissary from management, sent to try to salvage the health code. This time it’s a stumpy man with eager eyes and a bristly mustache.
He has no chance.
“How are you ladies?” he says, glancing into our full cart. “I’m real glad you’re shopping with us this afternoon, but I’m sorry to say that our store is a no-smoking area?”
Paloma puts one arm across her breasts and the other makes the cigarette travel to her mouth. She makes her eyes glitter with confused interest. The man tries again.
“You see, because there are food products available here, many of our customers don’t want to mix the tobacco smell with the aroma of the food. Some people consider that to be unappetizing?”
Paloma smiles and stares pleasantly. Several of the clerks who tried to stop her earlier gather at the end of the aisle to watch. The man gets firm.
“Ma’am, you have to put the cigarette out.” He pantomimes throwing it on the floor and stepping on it. Paloma looks at him like he’s a curious little puzzle.
The man smiles at me, cautious of her feelings still. “Does she speak English?”
I shrug. He knows she speaks English.
“Can you tell her she can’t smoke?”
I shrug again.
He sighs and suddenly takes an apologetic step toward Paloma. He reaches for the cigarette. “Hot,” she says. Then she slowly floats her arm a little higher and closer to her face so that he has to get on his tippy-toes and teeter awfully close to her breasts. She is a snake charmer with a thick stub of a snake. Her long arm is halfway unfolded above her head before he realizes she is making a fool of him. Paloma smiles, then whirls her basket around so widely the man has to jump out of the way. She has the ShopTime logo on the handle in a death grip. “I am lea-fing,” she calls. I follow.
I look back at the man. Something dark is on his face when he watches her walk away. He wants to make her sorry. But he wants her to love him too. He has fresh sweat stains growing under his armpits.
I get a new thought: Eddie is the only one that never gets his feathers in a tuck over Paloma.
Is that calming for someone who is always wringing hot, moist emotion out of everyone? Could it be that simple? That Eddie doesn’t churn?
Paloma is standing in the express checkout with a full cart. I point at the 15 items or less sign. Paloma’s eyes follow my finger to the sign. I don’t expect her to care, but she gives a little jump of surprise.
“Oh Tanya, I forgot. You brink me pack of emery boards?”
I look down my arm, down my hand, and on to my jagged, dirty fingernails.
The 15-year-old cashier is aggressively popping her gum. Paloma is humming while she dumps things from the cart onto the conveyor belt. I pull at my own tether long enough to go get her emery boards.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Allen Crawford–Plankton Art Co..