Wanting very much, in ways that seemed simple to her, to be liked, or loved, Bella clung to a certain trust that everything would, if she did nothing wrong, come out all right in the end: if she smiled on a kindness and overlooked what was mean, yes, it could work out well enough, this often confusing business of living, although so much of it happened against her own will or choosing, so much that she saw or heard about made her sad, and sad to be living, if honestly the truth were known. Bella would not have known how to say it, but often she felt like a trodden spirit, uncared for by those around her, and taken for granted, so often it seemed to her that everyone knew that Bella would always be Bella regardless, Bella would be what Bella unchangingly was, their loyal friend they could count on for anything, never would Bella be different for them, never would Bella display any outward sign of hurt feelings or anger when no one called her and nobody showed any care about Bella.
Bella drew in on herself, to be sure, when disappointments pelted her and thoughtless things were said, but Bella’s method of doing this was so discreet it passed unnoticed. She would turn her round, dimpled face away when she felt slighted, or move her stoutish, oddly graceful body thus and so, “showing her back,” so to say, but such faint, wordless actions never effectively conveyed her feelings.
She yearned for things to be less harsh, less terrible and dark, under the surface of everything ordinary and normal. She wished her day wouldn’t cloud so easily with secret grief, simply because a friend who had promised to visit failed to appear, or some small thing she’d counted on didn’t occur. She wished she were less sensitive, less moved by emotions she knew didn’t count, didn’t matter to anyone but her. Sometimes she mentally planned to transform herself, become less obliging to people who asked her for this and that, more stubborn, more courageous about saying “no” when asked to do things she didn’t wish to do. For Bella, “no” was an almost unutterable sound. When she emitted it, it came out like a murmured squeal, a timorous, blurry squeak, prolonged by its own implicit retraction.
These protestant, rebelling impulses never escaped from their hiding places. Instead, she manifested “the cheerful Bella” to all the world. The unsuffering Bella, a Bella who welcomed each day as a present wrapped in colorful ribbons, who cooked, and cleaned, and made herself tidy, Bella who gave all that she could and all that she had to an array of presences who called themselves her siblings and relatives and friends: Bella who’d never married and never knew men, upon whom these figures draped their woes and resentments and worries, expecting and receiving the balm of her maternal reassurance.
She encouraged them, incapable of all reproach, in believing themselves right when they were clearly wrong, gently supported their prejudices without really sharing them, fortified their self-pity by never casting doubt on its tenuous supports: for Bella, a fierce, unquestioning loyalty to anyone who treated her with a modicum of affection served as a protective charm against the abiding fear that one day someone would imagine, in the throes of implacable anger or drunken confusion, that Bella herself was the source of their unassuagable frustrations, that she was the cause, the instigator of their failures, the inspiration for their bad decisions and the wrong turns they had taken in their lives. Bella lived with a strong apprehension of one day being blamed for things that never had been any of her business, for problems she had never asked to hear about, for the weaknesses of those around her.
To say that Bella’s life was unhappy is to beg the question of what happiness is. She knew she lacked many things others had, and although she didn’t allow herself to covet these things she certainly wondered why at least some of them never came her way.
Bella worked as a bagger at the Stop and Go, a chain supermarket with its links in various indigent neighborhoods around the city. The produce at Stop and Go tended to be withered or rubbery or in some manner past its prime, the meat section featured rather iffy, green-tinged items cradled in styrofoam trays and enveloped in shrink-wrap. A Stop and Go broiler chicken could put a whole family off its feed. Most of the store was devoted to “staples” in bottles and jars and cans, frequently long past their sell-by dates. Its customers mostly looked sullen and depressed and a great many of them paid with food stamp “swipe cards.” Bella recalled one of her brighter moments at Stop and Go as the week when the swipe cards replaced the dreary, telltale food stamp coupons the customers had had to produce for the cashiers, always looking peeved and mortified when they did so.
Bella never aspired to become a cashier or a stock clerk, since the people who had those jobs carried on endless, long-running arguments with one another, usually having to do with when their shift times started or ended or when they were entitled to a fifteen-minute break. The baggers seemed somewhat less preoccupied by these kinds of grievances. They were mainly very young, and much preoccupied with “dating” and social engagements. They didn’t see bagging groceries as anything more than a temporary way of earning money.
No, bagging was not for them. They bagged indifferently, sometimes with unfortunate consequences, fracturing eggshells, bruising fragile vegetables, piercing the plastic of wrapped fish or cuts of meat and causing them to bleed their juices onto other items in a bag, creating dismay and health hazards for customers who, once they had trudged home with their groceries, were generally too demoralized by these accidents to trudge back and complain to the Stop and Go management.
Bella took pride in her bagging. She had no illusions about the relative insignificance of what she did, but knowing that she did it well gave her an increment of satisfaction, a tiny feeling of artistry — nothing that could possibly swell her ego, Bella’s image of Bella was far too modest for that. But she knew, at least, to put heavy things at the bottom of the bag, friable items and penetrable packages on top of the weightier ones.
Time passed, every day a repetition of the day before, more or less, slithering by without incident or inflection; the patrons of the Stop and Go, though friendly enough, looked careworn and vaguely troubled by problems they could never solve, questions for which no answers arrived, quite possibly the same questions rattled through each of their brains, vexed them day and night, Bella supposed that this had to be true because if she thought too hard about what worried these customers it seemed to her they were all on the verge of screaming, screaming out the same pain, life had dealt with them all too harshly, and each of them wondered why.
Bella tried to avoid thinking too much about this. She knew she could not cure anyone’s troubles, and sensed that any display of sympathy would enrage anyone she attempted to sympathize with. Who was Bella, after all, to tell anyone that life was good, when so clearly the opposite was true?
Life was good for some, Bella figured, it had to be fun for the people whose pictures appeared in the tabloid papers they sold at the Stop and Go, even if those spectral presences were supposedly having shaky marriages and plastic surgery mishaps and children turning out gay or getting in trouble with drugs. Those people always had money and lawyers and ways to get through unfavorable events without too much agony, life rescued them when they started to drown, fixed up their botched nose jobs and cured their diseases, found them better husbands and wives than the earlier ones and kept their kids out of jail; just knowing that millions of people cared what happened to them made their lives better than everyone else’s.
Of course Bella knew that every one of those lucky people would die, the same as Bella would one day, but how differently they would arrive at the same end, how much more pleasantly they’d spend the time before that. Only their photographs had to pass through the lines at the Stop and Go. Their actual persons flew all over the world on private jets, they got to see new things every day, and when they came home there were dogs and maids and swimming pools and a million other nice things waiting for them.
People like Bella, on the other hand, weren’t somehow clean enough, or smart enough, or something enough, for anyone to think about them, and if someone did think about them it usually proved to be unlucky. When she thought about this, she invariably thought about Felicia, a fellow bagger, a girl of about eighteen or so. Bella had always liked Felicia and even had considered her almost a friend, although they had never spent any time together outside of working hours.
Felicia was thin and quick and graceful, and careful about her bagging even though it bored her. Bella recalled that Felicia’s voice had a secretive quality, as if she understood things that were left unsaid. She didn’t say much herself, a few words sighed out now and then, but Bella sensed that Felicia gave a lot of thought to everything and chose what little she did say with caution, that Felicia kept herself mostly hidden, out of reach. Felicia had pretty hair that she cinched back, hair the color of walnuts, and a face that was prettier than most. She seldom smiled, she wore a blank attentive look in the store, and carried herself like a soft-boned robot.
Felicia had had some kind of romance going on with Fred, a part-time stock clerk whose arms were covered in tattoos. Fred had a face like a highly polished knife and a weak chin and a nervous, angry disposition. He was always rude and never said hello to Bella. He worked at the Stop and Go for six months or so and then was let go. The way Bella understood it afterwards Fred thought Felicia had started carrying on with Philip the general manager. Felicia often got called to the office, and stayed there for long periods of time, but whether she and Philip “had a thing” Felicia never said and Bella didn’t know.
One afternoon like any other, in the second week of April, Fred came marching through the pneumatic door of the Stop and Go, months after he’d been fired, and everything happened so quickly that Bella felt all glazed over until it stopped. Fred stalked past Bella’s checkout and pulled a gun from his jacket and shot Felicia three times and then ran through the store knocking shoppers out of his way and scrambled up the stairs to the office and shot Philip twice in the head. Bella mainly remembered people dropping their bags and groceries rolling all over the floor and the huge puddle of blood where Felicia had fallen, the sound of the shots and Fred flying out of the office and Philip staggering through the door upstairs all blood and Fred waving the gun at everybody and then the police. By that time Bella had ducked down under the checkout and didn’t see all the drama afterwards. Someone told her Fred dropped the gun and put his arms in the air and then they closed the Stop and Go for the afternoon as it was now a crime scene and everyone got questioned by the cops.
Bella couldn’t tell them much or anything they hadn’t heard from other people. “You can go home now,” the police told her. Bella took the bus home hours early and didn’t quite know what to do with herself. She didn’t think to call anybody and tell what had happened, but finally she fixed herself some dinner and the next day went to work as usual. All the blood had been mopped up and everyone except Felicia started their shift as usual, customers came in and bought their groceries and went out. It was just an ordinary day like all the others and hardly anyone said anything about Felicia and Philip being dead.
The shootings weren’t reported in the papers, Bella looked for a story about them, she’d thought it would fill the headlines or feature on the second or third pages of the tabloids, but she couldn’t find a word. Just like it had never even happened. Bella wondered about this, wondered how a thing so horrible could simply get folded into the routine of daily life without a mention. She thought if it had happened in a Duane Reade or a Walgreens the newspapers would have splashed lots of pictures with diagrams pointing to where the shots had been fired, maybe pictures of Felicia and Philip provided by their families, a picture of Fred being led off in handcuffs. But nothing of the sort, not even a sidebar news item.
If it had been me, Bella thought. True, no Fred had a murderous jealous passion for her, and she’d never been summoned to the manager’s office for any reason, but she reckoned that even if some Fred-like boy ever loved her enough to shoot her while she was bagging other people’s food, it wouldn’t amount to any big deal, they’d just wash her blood off the floor and clean up the rest of the mess and the whole business would be forgotten the next day.
She thought about applying for a job at Walgreens, but decided against it.