Everything Here Belongs Somewhere

Natalie Vestin

I smoothed some of the newspaper sheets and kept them, hanging up one red-inked comic in the dressing room cubby until I was told to remove it. The t-shirts weren't supposed to come from Pakistan. But they had to be cheap, so that people in this small town could drape themselves in a hurt that was turning, so that they could keep a Tuesday alive and pressed to their bodies, so that they could look at each other and see those flags and know that maybe at night, someone else's face itched from the salt. The third week was confused. Sweatshops half a world away manufactured cheap patriotism, and people pulled crumpled fives from jeans stained white with paper mill chemicals to hand over their t-shirt and pay for matched hurt in the eyes of the cashier. Nothing made sense. Nothing was right or wrong.

Week Four: The bombing that started only a world away. The bombing that started only on the Walmart radio station. The bombing that was only molecule sound and jumbled adrenal voice. The bombing that made us see sand and metal and skin in a flash we couldn't see. The bombing that accompanied graffiti demanding blood on the sand. The bombing that accompanied graffiti pleading no bombs. The bombing that clustered the softlines girls in a group of polyester and scared eyes. The bombing that wouldn't stop until nine, ten, eleven at night, when we drove home with our blue vests folded on the passenger seat, when the flag at Perkins Family Restaurant was back up from half-mast, when the bridge was dark, when the convenience store was just about to close, when we stopped to buy chips for a late dinner, when we got home, when our fathers were still up and watching television, when they asked us if we'd seen the news, when we said no, when we couldn't explain hours of hanging clothes under a rain of sound.

During a staff meeting, people suddenly wanted to know why. Why that Tuesday happened, what made a choice like suicide and murder occur in nineteen minds. We were really asking about the bombing, asking someone to draw a line between terror and horror and have that line hold strong. The manager, whose fingernails were now painted with American flags, said the line, believed the line. They were jealous of our freedom. We all knew this could not be true, did not make sense, but we nodded, because we were only the softlines girls.

We were only the softlines girls, but we listened to Kabul bombed for hours. We let those bombs pour over us, and though the volume on the radio didn't change, we felt the bombs grow close and move further away. Our skin hurt after, exhausted from tensing in the silences. And when we asked why, we were asking about the space between Tuesday and the night of the bombing. We were asking about four weeks. During days spent in a big-box store, we could only read the signs, the signs that arrived in trucks and on pallets, the signs that walked through the doors, the signs that came over the radio. We hung clothes when death lived on the television, over the radio. Only on the television, only over the radio.

It was hard after the hurting, the sound of bombs falling, the seeping of witness into our skins, to hear so many words. Words that turned a day into numbers, words about jealousy and freedom and extremism, words promoting consumerism and accusing us of consumerism, streams and streams of words that didn't stop.

In this small town, there were only a few places to go if you wanted to leave your house and hear these words, speak these words. You could go to work at the mill or the other mill, you could go to the grocery store, you could go to one of the diners, or you could go to Walmart. It's easy to go to Walmart, because Walmart has everything. Walmart even has the bombing of Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar.

Why was Afghanistan bombed in a Walmart store? There was no answer from Arkansas corporate headquarters, and if there were, it might not make sense. There was only us.

So here is this: We lived and worked in a small town, and when we were sad or bored, our impulse was to buy and buy. You know the small town I'm talking about where there's nothing much to do except drink beer and buy. And when we left our houses, we went to work in Walmart, we wandered and looked at the cheap things in Walmart, we met our friends and neighbors in Walmart. We were the consumers, the ones they encouraged on television, the ones they sneered at on television. We were the consumers. We were the ignorant ones who covered our bodies in flags and crying eagles, who pronounced the long "A" in "Arab," who smoked cigarettes and listened to country music next to a stand of garden rakes, who talked about anger and vengeance. This is all true. But there is, perhaps, a little more.

My father and I drove to the grocery store once during the weeks between Tuesday and the bombing. He was angry, in that way people feel rage as their world spins out of control and pours down on them. It is hard to remember those spaces in time between war and not-war, to be at war for so long in such an invisible and meaningless way, that the time before is liminal, hazy, wordless. But here was a space, and I don't know what we were talking about, but we were driving down the long hill by the horse ranch, and my father pounded the steering wheel. "All most people want is to go to their jobs and come home and eat dinner, watch TV, be outside. People always hurt because of what governments want to do. People always take the hit," he said. All those people crushed, burned. All those witnesses watching on their TVs, listening to their radios, a world of witnesses.

What is Afghanistan bombed in a Walmart store? It's a moral lesson, to be sure. All that consumption, all those ignorant small-town people, all that bloodlust directed at dark-skinned foreigners. If you came to visit the place where I grew up, you might find it easy to hate us, to feel disgust, to believe that this story has a moral.

Everything here belonged somewhere, even when nearly everything came from somewhere else, covered in the dust of its journey, unpacked and put where it belonged. Everything here belonged somewhere. Where did the bombing of Afghanistan belong in a Walmart store?

It wasn't like being there. I am not so arrogant, so cruel. It was no simulation of the experience of being bombed. But a girl in a blue vest, a girl experiencing the world through media, through positions of the flag at the diner, through the eyes of her co-worker, that girl knew something about witness. The stale helplessness of witness, handling the goods from other countries, handling what would be consumed.

But here's the thing with consumption, the secret behind the waste, the ignorance, the greed, the ugly wanting. Whatever you consume becomes part of you. Whatever becomes part of you makes you complicit. Complicit in wanting, in working, in being out of the house, in choices made by powerful people. Complicit in browsing for cheap things that came from Central Asia. Complicit in using ugly and hateful words to stand in for words that didn't exist. Complicit in being the representative of a company that rained down bombs from the loudspeakers.

Everything here stayed only for a season. Those flag shirts – by winter, no one wanted them anymore. People didn't remember why they wanted a flag shirt in the first place. The flag pins were now out of fashion, and the nail place only offered French tips instead of patriotic decals.

We are funny animals. We can drape ourselves in colors for a season and shed them just as easily. But Marisa and I remembered the night Afghanistan was bombed, even if we only held memory in our skin, in the wet white parts of our eyes. And all those people here that night, aching with wanting a cheap shirt or tennis shoes to protect their toes from the mill's machines, hearing the price of their wanting, complicit in a decision made by people with money forming plans in a very small room, I think they remembered as well.

Sometimes, even through the summer, I caught Marisa's eye as the radio cut to news, and I saw it again: What is Afghanistan bombed in a Walmart store? We didn't know the answer. But it belonged to our bodies in its small, distanced way, and perhaps this was what was intended.

It was called softlines. Clothes for adults, children, and babies. Unlike the rest of the store, it was carpeted. I hung dresses and folded jeans, smoothing the fabric, stacking squared denim in perfect towers, using two fingers to place even spaces between hangers.

Come in and find something you need. There will always be someone to greet you, and she will be quite elderly, and you will think to yourself, "Get that woman a chair." But she likes to stand; she'll tell you so. Listen to the bombs drop. People working here have been listening for hours. The sunlight is fading. Did you just get off work? Hesitate a little at the entryway. It's okay. No one likes to want whatever it is you want – antacids, a leather belt, dog food – while listening to people die. But your stomach won't heal itself, your pants won't conform to your middle, and your dog can't go hungry.

Ask us a question. We'll lead you to what you need. Look in our eyes. We're scared and a little nauseated, and you're ashamed. We'll remember this, you and I. You work at the mill, and I work at Walmart. We know how people with power and money think of us. We're the same kind of trash. We can take this on. I'll be fear, and you be shame. And all those people with bombs and power and words – we won't leave anything for them. We'll find what you need together. It'll be easy, not so much work. Everything here belongs somewhere.
<< 1 2