The Lady in the Box
Words by Farhad Anwarzai Illustration by Ross Shafer
Leena’s booth is just below the ramp. Cars drive down the garage’s long incline and pass her booth every morning. She doesn’t see the sunrise over the incline. She barely sees the sky. If she were to bend down and squint her saggy eyelids, she might glimpse the pigeons eating bread crumbs, pedestrians smoking cigarettes, ambulances speeding across the street, maybe the busy intersection. In the late afternoons, the never ending lines of cars, coming and going, block her view of everything except her small glass booth. Fingers reach out driver side windows to push the red Take Your Ticket button. Hands reach out to give money and take change. Leena barely sees the faces behind the cars’ tinted windows. Everyone tints their windows nowadays. When she does see faces, she sees them partially. People say hello and thank you. Sometimes goodbye. Sometimes they just drive off.
Terry tells her to count bills before he leaves. She sits in her stool and counts each bill—a’deen, dva, tri, chetyre, pyat…She counts three times because last week she was short fifty dollars. After counting, she drops the money into Terry’s safe. Then she goes to the alley to take out the trash.
When Terry’s not looking, Leena draws angels on the yellow stationery. Drawing makes her smile, sometimes laugh. So many angels, so many halos, so many pages of bushy-bearded God smiling on His throne. The sun also smiles in her illustrations. She brings a childish but sad world to life with blue ink. Angels fly between Adam and Eve, little children dance in tall sunflower fields, and one fatter angel—an angel wearing the same CVS branded glasses as her own—sits on top of a cloud and waters Eden’s vegetation with her tears. The manager arrives at her booth to collect the receipts in the morning. He sees the drawings but doesn’t know what to make of them. Sometimes he collects and stuffs the notebooks in his drawer and supplies clean notebooks. Other times he throws the drawings in the garbage.
She’s not allowed to make phone calls. Terry says no cell phones. No Walkmans either, no personal radios, no Gameboys. Employees have to pay attention at the booth. Customers complain a lot. Their change is never given fast enough. Distractions are not the cause of Leena’s inefficiency, however. It’s the arthritis in her left pinky and the cheap CVS reading glasses that are bigger than her face. The manager keeps her because she works the lengthy hours, the early morning shifts and the late night shifts on weekends—the shifts no one else will take. She works on Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day, Labor Day, her birthday.
On weekday evenings at ten, after filling out her time card and organizing the receipts, Leena walks up the incline. She smells the air of the city and waits at the bus stop. Often when the wait is cold, she opens her purse and plays with her little martian doll she bought from the dollar store. She makes it dance. She makes it touch its big, bug-looking eyes. She makes it pretend to cry, moves its arms up and down while saying waaah, waaah. She is not embarrassed to do this. She lost those feelings a long time ago. She’s always alone at the bus stop.
On the bus, she holds the martian with her arthritic pinky. She always sits by herself and watches cars drive by out the window. The world, even in the quiet night, is always in a hurry.
Her apartment is small. She has a living room, which is also a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. She keeps lots of dolls. Oil paintings of angels are scattered over her coffee/dinner table. She usually comes home after the long days, boils tea, and micro-waves frozen ground beef. She doesn’t have a television. Sometimes, after eating, she shakes the Santa snow globe her son gave her for Christmas many years ago. She was thinner then. Her hair was darker. She used to move around. Now she’s stuck to her couch. She’s always sitting. Sitting and growing fatter. Her hair is turning orange and gray. Her sight is diminishing. Her teeth are turning yellow, her skin paler. She’ll stare at herself in the mirror on nights she recollects her youth. She smiles and then frowns in front of the mirror. Smiles and frowns. She alternates smiles and frowns for minutes on end before brushing her yellow teeth. She then stares closer. Her chin vanished long ago. It’s been replaced with the flabs of bad food and age. There’s another wrinkle on her eyelid. She turns off the lights and sits on her couch and breathes a deep sigh. Every day is the same. Leena pushes buttons on her register, draws her pictures, organizes her receipts, rides the bus, and eats her frozen meat before going to sleep.
She’s lost track of how long she’s worked in that little booth. The days are so slow. Every day is a new eternity. The years were unkind. Life was unkind and unsympathetic. Customers come and go, as does the money. There is no smell inside the booth. The acrid gasoline fumes are not even able to penetrate the glass booth. Leena draws her pictures and gives change at the same time. Eventually, her illustrations become less detailed. She takes money and gives money. In her free time, she rests her hand on her forehead, her eyes wide open and aching.
The Take Your Ticket button beeps. Cars honk. The register opens and closes. Customers get grouchy. The manager yells. Pennies fall to the ground. Change clinks and clanks inside the register with every push and shove of the drawer. The stitching is coming off of the martian inside her purse.
She sits at her coffee table on her birthday. The midnight shift has ended and she rewards herself with a gas station cupcake. She puts one candle inside the purple frosting and blows it out. Her martian, with one eye remaining, sits on the chair across from her. Leena stares at her cupcake for minutes, perhaps hours. She never eats it. She sighs and goes to sleep.
The garage is empty the next evening. She works the all-night shift. For the first time she considers leaving early. It’s eleven. The garage is lifeless. Terry left. Why can’t she leave? What’s the point of staying? Her thighs are glued to the tattered stool. Since she missed the bus, she now has to walk until she finds a cab. Her eyes are itchy. The clock hits two and she sits in her seat, tired, eyes still open.
At three, she faces her register. All the numbers. All the time. So many numbers. So much time. Gone.
At the instant the clock hits four, tears pour down Leena’s face. She cries so hard, cries, cries, cries for no reason and every reason. She screams and kicks and punches the glass and the register and the stool. Papers fly, the register crashes to the ground, the stool unscrews and breaks in two. Leena wails with all her voice, all her being, and all her soul. She loses her breath but the tears continue falling and watering the little booth.
The clock hits seven. Terry will arrive. She cleans up, puts the register back in its place, screws the stool back together, leaves her booth, and walks up the incline. Her shift ends.
She witnesses the sunrise. Even behind the tall skyscrapers, God finds a way to make the sunlight reach her eyes.
Farhad Anwarzai Farhad graduated from Butler University with Highest Honors in English. At Butler, Farhad served as an editor for the undergraduate literary magazine Manuscripts. He also founded Archives, Butler’s humor magazine. Additionally, Farhad has won several awards for his writing and was twice named one of the Top Ten Most Outstanding Students at his school. He will spend the next year applying to MFA programs in creative writing and doctoral programs in English literature.