The Label Maker

Deepinder Mayell

The trigger felt cold against Shiv’s finger. A strange sensation considering he had been palming the plastic label-maker for the better part of the morning. A woman he had never seen before flicked a cigarette onto his front lawn and walked up the porch steps. He could hear the crunch of fresh snow under her sneakers. She lumbered up the stairs, leaning hard on the rail and pulling her legs up one strained step at a time. Undeterred by the small red label that read NO SOLICITATION or the dismantled doorbell marked BROKEN, she rapped on the glass window on the door. Shiv was just out of sight and tucked in a corner where he waited, ready to post TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT as soon as she left.

Shiv had been holed up in his house for days, and a thick, matted beard blanketed his face and the stench of body odor emanated from his mismatched flannel pajamas. The week had been divided between spurts of obsessive productivity and bouts of fuming anger. Half-finished model airplanes, family pictures, and unopened mail littered the floor. And the labels.

His label maker was a rather simple mechanical device comprised of a circular dial that rotated to punch out raised letters. Then the label was cut, its sticker strip peeled and affixed as desired. Over the last few weeks Shiv used his handheld machine to punch out hundreds of little messages. He charged around holding the machine judiciously like a gavel, slapping his authoritative summation on whatever he pleased.

After his wife and son had left, BITCH was clicked out and stuck under her chin on their wedding picture in the stairwell. It was followed quickly by WHORE, WEAK, and FAILURE. ANCHOR and MUTT adorned his son’s torso. FATTER read the image of his wife’s sister, and PIG was pasted to his father-in-law’s head. He called in all his vacation at work, NON-WHITE COG ABSENT on the calendar in the kitchen and TRAP on his cell phone. The scattered colored labels gave every corner of his house an unsettling and jittery sense of obsession, like a hidden cell in an asylum.

Lubbock, Texas, was certainly not where he imagined he would end up when he daydreamed about AMERICA from his one-bedroom flat in Hyderabad. That dilapidated room packed in six members of his family. As a teenager, what he pictured, more often than not, was cruising around LA with Heather Graham passed out in his lap like Corey Haim from License to Drive. HERO. He had first seen L2D after a kid from Chicago visited the bungalow where he’d done odd jobs since he was twelve. After Shiv spent a week tending to his dirty laundry and commands for sandwiches and bowls of cereal, the teenager tossed the cassette at him like a half-eaten apple. The boy’s menial orders were a welcome divergence from Shiv’s more dreaded typical tasks like cleaning out the water tank and wedging his body down the window shafts to chase out roosting pigeons. SLAVE. But it was better than nothing, which is what most other people had. He didn’t have a VHS player, so he watched it in a dark room in the back of a teashop where he also worked. In that hallucinogenic swirl of American pop imagery, Shiv was hypnotized. He was a few years younger than Corey, but that just added to his admiration of Corey’s COOL. From there he learned more about the infamous Haim and Feldman DREAM TEAM, and traversed the city looking for copies of The Gremlins and The Goonies.

It would have been nothing more than an adolescent crush were it not for a childhood of surviving bone-crushing poverty, where he saw two siblings die before the age of five. Shiv finally escaped that life and his family PEASANTS when he was nineteen. AMERICAN DREAM. Along every step, in the darkest of corners along one of the most dangerous migrant routes on the planet, fantasies of wild parties and flashing cameras pushed him forward. He crossed thirteen international borders on a route over eight months to get to the US border. Rides in convertibles, fluorescent clothes, and white women with frizzy hair gave him comfort on freezing nights.

Shiv crossed through the Sonora Desert led by a coyote for a hefty fee. A jolla cactus ripped through his worn sneakers and sliced open his skin on the last day of his trek. The group didn’t stop and it was hours of slogging pain before it was cleaned. The men in the waiting van gave Shiv and eight of his fellow Indian travelers’ dirty blankets, bologna sandwiches, and lukewarm coffee. From there they were ferried to Tucson and he was dropped off in a Walmart parking lot.

The scar on his foot never properly healed and when he got nervous it began to pulse in rhythm with his heartbeat. He wondered whether a remnant of the cactus was lodged in there and how long it would take before the foreign object was pushed out.

He spent several nights in a homeless shelter in Tucson, HELL, followed by another stretch in a shelter in El Paso, HELL DELUXE, before he heard about a meat-packing facility in Lubbock. He took off, with free bus fare from the City, to find himself a simple life in West Texas and a steady job where he cleaned the machines that squeezed pig remnants and noxious gels into skin casings.

It was at the post office that Shiv met her. What sealed the deal for him was the fact that her name was Heather—just like Heather Graham from L2D. A few differences needed to be overlooked. His Heather was a large woman in every way. She weighed nearly three hundred pounds and had a booming voice and a cackle of a laugh. She loved watching football, buying bulk at Costco, and her favorite meal was chicken cordon bleu. But a BLONDE AMERICAN GIRL! and she gave Shiv companionship, something that he desperately longed for thousands of miles away from a country he thought he’d never see again. Within months she was pregnant and they were married in a small ceremony with her family at the Holiday Inn downtown.

He felt his pulse through the scar as he watched the woman on his porch and held his breath. Please leave, he begged to himself.

The two inches of wet snow on the ground added to the general unreality of the moment. Shiv had never seen snow before. It hadn’t snowed in Lubbock like this in decades. CRISIS. Epic pile-ups were reported on the interstate. The radio announcer spoke of grocery shelves stripped of bottled water and canned goods. Shiv had spent the morning, detached, just staring at it with a blank expression, as it fell from the sky like sopping ash.

The woman was not wearing gloves and her fingers trembled. Her hair was hidden under the dark hood of an oversized gray sweatshirt. She wore matching sweatpants that were wet up to her shins. After she knocked, she peered through the window and then stomped back down the porch. She spat as she headed around the side of the house to the back. DANGER.

Shiv had never really known any black people. He only knew what crept in around the edges. He had seen footage of the LA riots and heard some gangsta rap songs. The names Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela seeped in, along with Idi Amin, Timbuktu, Eddie Murphy, and Whitney Houston. Even as a poor boy in an Indian megacity, he felt a tier above THEM, and not just BLACKS, but AMERICAN BLACKS. When he settled in Lubbock, he quickly learned where the bad neighborhood was and to stay away. GHETTO. When he saw groups of young black men, he thought about Ricky from Boyz n the Hood. BLOODS. He avoided eye contact. He crossed the street and checked his wallet. CRIPS. The woman on the porch didn’t belong here. SUSPECT. Not in his neighborhood. WHITE. She must’ve come knowing when to hit some houses. EASY PREY.

He imagined clicking out a Hindi word on the label maker.

T – H – U – G

When she walked to the back of the house, Shiv considered running up the stairs. He didn’t have a landline, but he could find his cell, plug it in, and call the cops. Before he could compel himself to move, she was back on the front porch looking through the window. She looked closer. Maybe she saw something she wanted. The flatscreen? The laptop? The silver in the cabinet? No one would hear a sound if she kicked in the door. Everyone was locked away, shovel-less, waiting out the crisis.

THIS HOUSE IS A GO, he feared.

The label maker was a gift from Heather after their first night together at his place. She joked about the many handwritten labels that adorned his medicine cabinet, pantry, and toolbox. Labeling his small world of possessions was a way for him to control and manage all the newness in his life. The gift was more of a gag, and when they had moved in together she warned him that she didn’t want to see them everywhere. So he never used it and tossed it to the back of his closet.

After Jayden was born, all organization systems seemed to end. Grime collected in crevices. Socks and underwear sat in laundry baskets unfolded or shoved into over-crammed drawers. The floor of their home had a perpetual scattering of books, plastic toys, blocks, and the occasional used diaper.

The label maker was all but forgotten, stratified like a fossil at the bottom of a pile in his closet, until three months ago, when he remembered the little machine while standing in the checkout line at Walmart. He stood behind a father and his daughter. Lit by fluorescent light and with incessant checkout beeps chirping in the background, he examined the pair. The father was wearing a big gray coat that hid any suggestion of a body frame beyond a mound. His daughter’s boots, leggings, and jacket all contained an array of different shades of hot pink. The father’s face was bloated and unshaven, and his neck wasn’t visible. He had a hollow expression and only moved to shout at his daughter and tug at her arm. Shiv felt bad for him. He wanted to turn away but he just stared. The longer he looked, the more he saw himself, as if he were having an out-of-body experience. When he looked at the little girl, he remembered his little sister and her tiny body on the day she was cremated. In the slow-moving line, surrounded by an entire warehouse of consumer goods, he remembered the scent of incense that burned at her funeral and a faint wisp flared in his nostrils.

TRAGEDY he thought. COWARD was the next word. Then HOAX.

The words started to flutter around his mind and that day when he came home he dug out the little machine, wiped it clean, and released whatever emotion it contained like an ancient curse.

“Hey, I see you in there! I need some help! It’s freezing out here! My car is broke down!”

Shiv couldn’t hide anymore. He moved out of the corner and met eyes with the woman.

The choice to leave must not have been easy for Heather. She tried to connect but he just couldn’t figure out a way to tell her what was swirling inside him. Things he never talked about with her, terrible things he tried to block out that happened on his trip. He had bouts of insomnia, and when he did sleep, he thrashed about, fighting off all the resurrected demons and pain that he’d left behind. She had stayed with him even after he closed himself off from the family, stopped talking, ate by himself, and watched television in the basement until the early hours of the morning.

“Hey, my car is broken down, sir. Can I use your phone? Can you please let me in?”

She stayed even after the labels started to show up everywhere.

First small unneeded notes:

FORKS

DOORKNOB

STOVE

Then the slight jabs:

SHIV’S FOUR PAIRS OF ORGANIZED SHOES

HEATHER’S PILE OF SHOES

UNFOLDED LAUNDRY

Then the strange messages:

ALL WILL BE FORGOTTEN

VISITORS UNWELCOME

HELD CAPTIVE, NEED RESCUE

“There’s a gas station down the road, lady! I’m not opening the door.”

“Please, mister, I’m freezing. It’s a goddam blizzard out here. I’m not gonna hurt you!”

“What do you want from me? I don’t know who you are, okay. I’m not opening the door!”

Shiv’s scar pulsed so hard it stung. Shiv’s neighbor heard the yelling and peeked out her window. She called the police. HURRY. There’s a BURGLARY. She’s a BLACK woman.

“C’mon, mister! Please! I swear to god. I need help! Can I just use your cell phone?”

Heather left when she found it on a shelf in the attic. She confronted him about it right away. She said she didn’t want to have any part of it. He brushed aside her offers to get help, to see someone together. He denied her depressed theories and exalted the Texan way.

“This ain’t you Shiv. I know you. Don’t you forget that. I seen boys call you Bin Laden, seen em’ throw beer bottles at you, seen grown women spit on you. You ain’t never get angry, Shiv. No matter what they did. And that’s why I love you, Shiv. Don’t you see that? I love you and I know you and that this ain’t about self-defense, Shiv.”

“Jesus Christ, mister, I’m not gonna hurt you! Please, let me in. I need help.”

“Get off the porch! You hear me! Get off my porch! I don’t want you here. You’re just looking for the easy way. There is no easy way.”

Shiv was panting hard and flecks of spit sprayed out of his mouth.

“Not for me, not for anyone! You understand that! You need to learn to sacrifice. I was never given anything. You people, you have government housing, welfare checks, food stamps! I had nothing. My family was starving most days. You have no idea what I did to get here. What I gave up! To be here, in this country, in this damn place! Now turn around and get the fuck out of here! Fuck you, you goddam—”

And then he uttered a word he had never actually heard used in person. THE WORD. The one that’s only referred to by its initial. It, and what it symbolized, snuck into his vocabulary, as if it were spelled out in the blank spaces between the characters of the English language, holding all of it together, like the mortar of a building. That is when the woman saw resting in Shiv’s right hand the label maker and, in his left, the glistening silver steel of a nine-millimeter pistol.

She turned around, slipped down the stairs, and hit the concrete slab at the bottom hard. She was too large to handle that type of fall with any type of grace. The impact rippled through her body as she flopped backwards. Her shirt pulled up at the waist. Her sweat suit was muddied and wet. She moaned and grabbed her side.

Shiv pictured his mother, another large woman, in a wet salwar kameez, flopping at the base of his steps. He pictured his mother walking the streets of Lubbock, lost, confused, and knocking on a stranger’s door for help. Could this flatscreen-stealing hood rat be a person? A mother? Maybe even a grandmother?

Shiv tossed the nine onto his couch and walked barefoot onto the wet porch, unarmed except for the label maker. He wanted to apologize. To tell her that he would never use a gun on another person.

“I’m sorry! Listen I’m sorry! Don’t run!”

He wanted to tell her everything, tell who it was really for, that she would have been the first person he confessed to. But she was too scared and ran across the street.

“I didn’t mean to say … I didn’t mean to be like this…I never wanted this.”

The first bullet pierced his arm. He slapped his hand over the wound like a suture and dropped to the ground. The firing officer moved towards Shiv and another officer charged the woman across the street, gun drawn. The woman was tackled and cuffed—her wrist bone shattered.

In the confused flurry, six more shots were fired. The series of bullets that followed tore up Shiv’s sweat-covered flesh.

Gun smoke lingered in the air and mixed with the falling snow. When he was close enough to Shiv’s bleeding body, the officer picked up the label maker to toss it out of reach and realized it was not an actual gun, that it was a plastic household item, that Shiv was not who he feared he was.

As he holstered his sidearm, the officer noticed a strip that hung from the label maker and the words that Shiv intended on sticking to his wrist before the woman ever showed up.


Deepinder Mayell is a human rights attorney and clinical educator at the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School. His opinion pieces have been published in the Star Tribune. He grew up in New York and currently lives in Minneapolis.