This Heart Hole Punch
I’m not a thief. The music in the craft store is playing Lionel Richie – a song my father liked to sing to me while he made me dance with him – not on the ceiling. The floor is white laminate and impossibly shiny. I can see my black shirt and red pants reflected back at me, but my face, well, I am unrecognizable; it’s just a blur.
I have no money and I need some supplies.
There are aisles and aisles of crafts materials here. You can create anything you want. Stacked near to the ceiling with markers of all thicknesses, rough wooden shapes with which to paint and make your own!, fake leaves and flowers, so many kinds of papers of all weights and designs – argyle and paisley and polka dotted and ombre. Also, feathers of neon from no bird that lives; I hate those the most. Cans of spray paint are under lock and key and children in heavy winter coats follow mothers with squeaking wet sneakers tracking in the dirty slush from outside. Older ladies lumber down the aisles picking up every ball of yarn, assessing whether they should use worsted weight yarn or heavy worsted weight yarn for their grandson’s new booties. I know this because I was just asked by one of them. Apparently I look like I knit.
I am in front of a staggering array of hole punches, mostly branded by Martha Stewart. I doubt she tested all these, but I like the baby blue and silver packaging. I get great satisfaction out of punching perfect shapes into paper. Leaving a void in a shape that is more perfect than what was there before. I lost all mine in the move. One box missing and it’s that one. And now I barely have enough money for food and I’m staying on the couch of the second cousin of a friend from back home.
I check to see if I’m alone in the aisle. Right now there is still a person down at the other end, looking at paper. I can’t be too careful.
My father despised this habit of mine. He complained about the small dots that embedded into the carpet. Called me his little weirdo and made me pick the pieces up with my fingers and refused to let me use the vacuum. He stood behind me and watched as I bent.
I moved to Seattle three days ago and I don’t know anyone. I moved because they said it rained a lot. I wanted to be somewhere that wept all the time too. Mom: died in childbirth - mine. Dad: died the day before my college graduation. So, with an inheritance that was just enough to move me somewhere new and live for a few months without a job, I went west. Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t moving across longitudes and latitudes supposed to heal you?
I hated my father, it should be said, and the healing I sought was far more complex than mourning.
The woman at the end of the aisle moves on. I’m alone.
As I look at the pegboard wall, I think about which hole punch I can pull into my sleeve. I pick one up, simple and green-handled, stream-lined. I test out the theft, pulling my fingers toward my wrist, allowing the handle of the hole punch to graze my sleeve. Slowly I push and the tool disappears little by little, like I am pushing in a needle.
“Can I help you?” asks a chipper store employee. I don’t see her coming. The nametag on the green vest reads “Andie” and “Yorba Linda, California” in italics beneath it. I sound it out silently in my mouth and I like the way it rolls on my tongue. I pull the hole punch from my sleeve and clutch it in my fist. I tell Andie I’m looking for a hole punch, hold the green-handled one up as evidence.
“Well, you’re in the right place,” she says. I’m looking for something to punch into my skin, I want to say, but don’t. “What do you need it for?”
“I need it to be strong. To cut through something heavy,” I say, not fully answering the question.
“Well, these bigger ones,” she picks up hole punches that would require your whole arm to break something, anything; the base of the tool is the size of my palm.
“These are more for borders,” she says. The ones she points to cut out trim with jagged teeth or with winding ivy – very Christmasy. I can imagine the paper would look really pretty, but that’s not what I’m looking for. And anyway they don’t create holes, just snips along the edges; that’s not enough. That’s nothing.
“Yeah, I need something more for the middle, you know?”
“Yeah. The thing is, some of these aren’t made so well. Don’t tell my boss I said so,” Andie says. “Maybe they’d cut, like, two pieces of construction paper at a time.”
“I need stronger,” I say. They all cost at least eight dollars and that’s two meals at Taco Time. “And I need less expensive.”
“Don’t we all,” Andie says. I look at her. A smattering of pimples across her forehead belies youth, but she looks tired – the kind of exhaustion that comes from living in corners and not from being up all night doing whatever some kids usually get up to.
When I was in high school, I spent many middle-of-the-nights walking the track at the school across the street. They kept the gates unlocked and the bright lights on all night, though the sign said it closed at eleven. Quarter mile, half mile, one mile, four miles. And on and on went the night. Whatever I could do to be out of the house when my father, too, was home. He often worked the graveyard shift at the 24-hour pharmacy. Those were the nights I stayed in bed. I too had the same fighting-demons-all-night look as Andie when I was young.
I pick up a hole punch in the shape of a fleur de lis. It’s so intricate I imagine it might actually tear the paper when you pull the utensil away from the paper. You can’t be too delicate or the whole thing would rip apart and who would love you then?
I started with a simple, black-handled, small hole punch. The original. Tiny circular hole. Meant to make holes to attach pages together, to stick in binders, to tie with ribbon or brads. The morning after the first time my father came into my bedroom, I found one on the floor of my second grade classroom. I pushed it against my fingertip, unsure of its purpose. Mrs. Sterling found me, cross-legged, silent, hair matted and unclean, and kindly said here, let me show you.
It was miraculous – the voids created in the paper where it was full before – and eight year old me asked to keep it.
I still have that hole punch but it has grown rusty and takes too much effort to punch through paper. I plan to hang it on my bedroom wall, which will probably stay, otherwise unadorned. I carried it separately from my others. I could just stop now. Now that they’re all gone. Start fresh. I’d thought about it the whole way to the store. But the thought of being so unmoored makes me queasy and I decide one. Just one.
In the craft store, I survey the vast selection. Daisy, rose, cloud, dragonfly, pineapple, footprint, rabbit, musical note. Would I know what I wanted when I saw it?
“Back-up at front registers,” a voice orders over the PA system. Good, let her go. I can’t very well get the deed done with her staring right into my soul like this.
“There are some in the bargain bin,” Andie says, “up at the front,” motioning toward the front of the massive store. “Like half off.” “I gotta go,” Andie says. “You going to be okay?” I stare. Confused and feeling weirdly abandoned, despite the relief. As if we had this whole meaningful encounter and now I’d be left alone in the aisle, which might as well be an island in the middle of a vast ocean.
Maybe I’ll take up something else. On the other side of the aisle is a rainbow of string, the kind used to make friendship bracelets when we were kids. I didn’t think I could manage that kind of hand-eye coordination, and anyway, who would I make them for?
I take one last look at the myriad hole punches in all shades of sherbet. These aren’t what I want. Need. I tell Andie I’ll be fine and watch her hightail it down the aisle as the overhead voice calls yet again for help. I select a few colors of string anyway. The names of the colors are musical: azure, raspberry, marigold, tempest. I scrunch them in my hand, deposit them into my pocket as I walk away.
At the front, I locate the bargain bins. One is filled entirely with hole punches. Reindeer, Easter eggs, jack-o-lanterns. Seasonal. Unwanted now. Only wanted when the time is right. Otherwise, forgotten. All seventy five percent off.
I pull out a heart hole punch. Valentine’s Day. But, hearts are for always, right? I take that one. It’s small and would come to two dollars. I could skip a taco, get two instead of three. The shape of the tool is like the old-school hole-punches, the kind you use by clenching your hand. It’s not unlike what I imagine squeezing an actual heart is like to pulse it back to life. But instead of a circle, this hole punch makes a simple, tiny heart. I’m no surgeon, but it feels like I’m saving a life.
Outside I start with my receipt; it’s the only paper I have on me. I put the string in my pocket and walk and punch and it feels right in my hand and cuts easily as I leave a trail of small hearts on the wet pavement.
About the Author: Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter or via her website here.