Detainee 717


Chapter 22

I don’t know why I’m sitting at the kitchen table.

I’ve made no dinner plate for myself. My appetite is like a dog that breaks its leash and flees, the flaps of its ears and its pink tongue streaming in the wind. It runs so far away that it forgets the way home. The little dog, lost and starving, sniffing around garbage cans for crumbs, thinks back to the time when it always had a dish filled with food, good pieces of meat with thick juicy rinds of fat. The dish was there no matter how the dog behaved. If it was obedient and played dead when told to play dead, the food dish was filled. But if it chewed slippers or upholstery or chair legs, its sharp teeth leaving playful or angry holes, still the dish was filled. Either way the dish was filled. Far from home, the dog begins to feel deserted, forgetting it made the choice to run away. It’s true the dog has to eat garbage, but isn’t it now a free dog, serving no master? Yet it forgets it made the choice to be free. What am I trying to say? I’ve chosen these words but what do they mean? The meaning and what I’m trying to say could very well be two different things … I wish for once I could see more clearly into my thoughts, down into their steep-sided valleys, but the valleys are often hidden in mist. Sometimes things are too hazy or complicated to pursue.

My cup of green tea waits for me patiently, surrendering its steam. There’s beauty in the way the cup surrenders its steam to the heavens. I’m waiting for my thirst to thread my finger through the hole in the cup’s handle. There is another cup of tea on the table I made for the man who earlier today sat across from me, but it was untouched and has gone cold. If I make myself sit and wait, both appetite and thrist might find the way back home to my body. I haven’t eaten since breakfast before the parade. A bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins. The raisins with their puckered elderly faces and the taste of cinnamon which can’t really be described, except to say that the taste is a woven basket carrying a soft sense of happiness and childhood, and that once it’s in your mouth, it gently nibbles the tongue with teeth of memory, making the tastebuds vivid. I’ve cleared away the white saucers that held the flat moons of English muffins with all their toasted craters. I toasted them too long and the muffins burned, leaving in the air a charred staircase of scorched odor for the nose to climb, making inhalation difficult. But I wouldn’t throw them away. I kept the burned ones for myself because I feel guilt if I waste food. It must be that little dog in me that understands how precious the things that nourish you are, especially when you’ve lost them. I was more vigilant with the next batch of muffins I made for Salah and Jhanda. These I toasted golden in a Black and Decker toaster oven we bought at Walmart near the new freeway overpass on Pocano Street. The heavyset girl at the checkout counter looked at Salah and then at me, finally dropping her eyes to the box on the belt. Most of the time we wear clothes that are the same as everyone else’s in this city. Only on special occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries, can we be seen in public wearing shalwar-kameez. Sometimes we wear them at home when we want to remember. Now I like the Levi bluejeans, their sturdy caress as they cocoon the skin of my legs in denim, but I do not own the truly expensive designer jeans. For the cost of one such pair an entire family of the poor back home could eat meals around the clock for days, maybe weeks. Since winter is coming, I’ve begun to wear simple sweaters or sweatshirts. The apparel is brightly colored, the vibrant hues of hard candy wrapped in crisp cellophane, colors that have the power to lift my spirits, especially orange, yellow and red. Salah wears khakis and long sleeved shirts, and soon he’ll switch to his favorite dark brown corduroys, or his gray ones the shade of an exhalation hanging in zero-degree air. But this morning he was wearing the khakis when the girl at the counter dropped her eyes. It was not enough that we were dressed like all the other customers, still we stood apart. Since 9/11 this happens much more frequently, and this saddens and, I think, frightens Salah. For myself? I’ve accepted my change of status: I was once an insider, now in the U.S. I’m an outsider. But you see, this is not as simple as it sounds, although pretending it is makes it easier for me in my daily life. Because while my insider status in Lahore was of course conferred by birth and citizenry, I was yet an outsider because of other things, such as being a woman. Or such as not belonging to the upper classes of wealth. And there can be problems of religion. Here, when I go out in public, with or without Salah, I’m often aware of a linger of eyes as they take in the features of my face. I’m no longer vain enough to fool myself into believing that it is beauty that draws the attention, this face possesses all the telltale signs of motherhood and middle age. Is it possible that I imagine the looks? Well, I’ll give the facts and leave it for someone else to decide: although the cashier with hair the color of a bright yellow crayon had a greeting for the customer ahead of us, a young bearded man with a tiny fist tattooed on his forehead, she had only silence for us. May Allah bless her.

Salah ate three teaspoons of oatmeal this morning, tapped the napkin in the corners of his mouth, one, two, then smiled. He waited with his hands folded schoolboyishly on the table while Jhanda and I finished. He watched us with satisfaction. He rarely smiles and Taj is just the same. Jhanda and I are the smilers in the household. The family is evenly divided in this way, between those who have easy smiles that lift the lips the way a wand lifts a spell and those with burdened or complex smiles. Yet when either Taj or Salah truly smile it’s like turning a corner on the street and bumping into a lovely friend that has been away for years. Salah does not read a newspaper at the breakfast table, like the men in television commercials in their white shirts and ties, checking on their stocks, or checking the sports page to see if the Green Bay Packers have conquered the Cincinnati Bengals. We, Salah’s family, are his newspaper, so he watches us. He reads us, thinking of what he needs to do to move our story closer to the front page of a newspaper called American Dreams. There’s no such newspaper that I know of, but it would be a good name for one. Taj, able to do anything, could become a journalist and start a newspaper called American Dreams. Or she could become a surgeon or a writer or a diplomat. She does not realize that I know she writes poems. In my youth I wanted to write, but there was a black curtain drawn across the threshold of so many occupations for women that wanting to write seemed to be something to dream about rather than something to actually pursue. But there are always women, people, who manage to overcome being dragged along in history’s strong blind current. Billions are swept along in it and most are powerless to resist. Myself? The only time I swam against that current was in coming to this country. In other aspects having to do with moving closer to your dreams I had neither the necessary courage or the strength. I should have tried even if the attempt brought failure. Who would have thought that sometimes it can be too late even for failure? The best I was able to do is to write in the diary I decided to start when we arrived in this city, to keep a chronicle of my adventures in this new land.

But I may know why I sit at the kitchen table. To make myself sit, to make myself wait. This way I don’t follow my nerves and scurry from room to room, my head swollen with the clamor of conflicting intentions. In my daily life I’ll suddenly want the sewing basket I inherited from my grandmother, Nani Wajiha, and keep in our bedroom closet. At that very same moment I’ll want the checkbook I’ve suddenly remembered I left in the car’s glove box. In such a moment if I were a cartoon, a cleaver hovering over my head would fall and split me down the middle. That way one half of me could run to the car while the other half could run to the closet. Taj can always tell when my momentary confusion drops its roots into the ground. I become a tree of indecision. There I am, standing in one spot, paralyzed, held motionless by a divided impulse. She sees my eyes bloom with a dozen shades of frozen focus, like buds bloosming on that jewel of a flowering tree, the Jural. She asks, “What is it, Mom?” She calls Salah Baba, but she calls me Mom. “What is it now? Look what you’re doing to yourself. You need to slow down.” She began to tell me this when she was old enough to be interested in the conversation of the adults around her, when she began to actually listen to the things that Salah and I said to one another. She heard him always telling me, “Things don’t go anywhere, Yasmin. They’ll be there waiting whenever you get to them. Do they have a choice? Why is the need to rush so great?” She listened to him telling me, “Drop by drop the bucket is filled.” I heard her one day ask her father what this meant and he explained, “It means many things. But I’m telling your mother that she’ll find more peace if she remembers that she doesn’t have to do everything all at once.” After that she, too, advised me, “Drop by drop the bucket is filled, Mom.” When she was old enough to use her own words and she stopped looking to her parents for the appropriate phrases, she began to tell me things like, “You need to lay back in the cut, Mom. See?” I would not lie down in a cut even if it were possible, surely it would be filled with bacteria and infections. She saw me frowning and to illustrate she threw her arms open, melting into a relaxed posture, a blissful slouch, leaning back a little, though she was standing. Not one to demonstrate her points with body language, this gesture was all the more startling. “You need to chill, or you’ll keel over.” I knew then that I had missed the meaning, she had used some sort of modern American slang, which the English language is filled with, especially embraced by the young. I had heard a saying on television and I surprised both of us by using it to respond to her: “You can rest amply when you are dead.” This must have been equally startling for my daughter, because her solemn eyes awoke and rounded in surprise, black dawns holding a soundless beauty that stilled my breath for a moment.

It seems that everyone, whether family, friend or stranger, feels that telling me what to do is the best thing, that it will improve me, and I think when that remark to Taj rose to my lips, it was on a day when the desire to please those around me was not as strong as other, deeper, desires. I have arrived at the place in my life where I don’t want to be obligated to follow suggestions for improvement that others direct my way. Their ideas for what I need are different from my own. How can they know with certainty when I myself only have an inkling? I don’t mind listening, but I want them to understand that it is appropriate for me to finally decide on the best way to bring about my improved condition, or whether I need improvement at all. But it’s true that Taj has always been a child mature beyond her years. As time goes on it’s as if she is turning into my mother and I, I’m turning into her child.

The man who was here a few hours ago, he who told me I could call him Mr. K if I wished, sat across from me here at the kitchen table, and though keeping my body very still helps, the clamor of conflicting intentions in my head is still active: I should call the police about this Mr. K… or I should not call the police … I should break down beneath the weight of unspilled tears, the heavy lumber of tears stacked behind my eyes finally tumbling forward so that I could build a shed of sorrow to hide in … or I should not break down in tears and instead laugh, my head thrown back, until I’m emptied out and numb … I should pray, or I should withhold my prayers. But I do none of these things and instead I stand up. Then I sit back down. I stand up again, I sit back down again. And yet again. For the hundredth time I take the cellphone that Taj insisted I buy from my purse and I push the speed dial button for my husband’s number. Our next door neighbor’s little boy, Matt, whose mother and father wrestle with the demon of drug addiction, was riding his blue bicycle yesterday. He had used a clothespin to attach a playing card to the spoke of the rear tire as a noise maker. Moving, the bicycle made a rapid stuttering sound. That is the strange noise I hear for no more than a second as Salah’s phone starts to ring, then falls silent, the ringing suddenly chopped off. I place the phone on the table next to my cup of tea, which no longer gives off steam. Mr. K, while slowly passing his palm back and forth through the steam that rose from his cup, told me that I would not be able to reach my husband by phone if I tried calling, but that I would hear from my husband later this evening.

“Now, Mrs. Bhatti,” Mr. K had said in a calm voice that gently surrounded me in its mist. I tried to swallow quietly but we both heard the noise it made in my throat and I was embarrassed, even more embarrassed than when cashiers drop their eyes. By the sound you would have thought that I had taken a huge gulp of tea and had difficulty swallowing it. “First, remember that if you call the police and ask for their help, they will eventually begin to look for him, but they won’t be able to find him.” Absently he passed his palm back and forth through the steam. “The second thing to remember is, I will know that you’ve made such a call after I’ve advised you not to bother, and I’ll be disappointed. There’s no way for you to know this, but I live my days with varying degrees of disappointment nipping at my heels like a little dog. In this day and age disappointment is a disease more pernicious than cancer. If I’m disappointed, the disappointment gets passed along to your husband. Just like any contagious disease. I hope there’s nothing to prevent you from grasping this concept.”

And I told him, yes. Yes, I could grasp it. I learned that he, Mr. K, is one of those people who are able to look at you for a long time without blinking, and when he did this my sensation of being pulled down in a quicksand of calm thickened. The house was so silent that I only heard the mild airy hiss that hovers close to my eardrums when all is quiet and I am falling asleep at night. Then he smiled. I was badly surprised because there had been no prior sign that a smile was on its way. I was more than surprised by the smile, maybe shocked is the better word, because it caused me to notice for the first time that he was a handsome man. But handsome only in a distant way, as though there were a long bridge my eyes had to cross between our two faces before I could see that quality. When he smiled, I remembered he was human, he himself was not a concept, and neither was I.

In all the years of living here, I’ve never spent the night alone in this house. Tonight, Friday, wil be the first time. The house has lost the hive that is its heart, a family’s buzz of activity. Taj’s quick patter of footsteps up and down the stairs to the second floor. Jhanda in his Spider Man costume bouncing up and down on his mattress in its bedframe shaped like a moon rocket. The muffled voices of my husband and his only true friend in this city, Aadesh, in the garage exchanging views and sharing stories about our native land as Salah learns to change the oil filter or spark plugs, both of them burrowing under the hood of our car. Today Taj left the house early to avoid parental advice and lengthy goodbyes, getting up even before Salah and leaving without a sound. She is away on her trip with her classmates and teacher, a geology expedition. It is local, only 30 miles away, but her absence calls attention to itself. Jhanda is spending the night at his friend Jarrid’s house. These arrangements I had made with Jarrid’s mother, Donna, at the beginning of the week. Children participating in the parade this morning were rewarded with half a day’s school attendance, so immediately after the parade ended Jhanda went home with Jarrid and his mother as planned. And Salah? Until Mr. K calmly explained that my husband had been taken for questioning, I thought Salah had been injured in an accident or had fallen ill at the parade and had been taken by emergency ambulance to a hospital somewhere. Because I looked and looked but never saw him again.

He had stepped away from me to find a spot that would allow him to better see Jhanda as he marched by playing his flute with a wing of the school band made up of the youngest students. I watched Salah as he disappeared behind a curtain of noise and color that closed around him, laughter and whistling and shouting and applause, a swirl of movement like a tireless carasol, all the festive chaos as the floats passed by with their giant faces wearing the bright cosmetics of dreams. When Jhanda marched clearly into my view minutes later I waited for Salah to return to my side. My excitement rose and I wanted to tell him how proud I was that our son had managed to exercise enough self-discipline to march in time with the other band members. A line of drummers in the front dictated the pace with the bass drum’s steady beating heart, the sharp snares rolling their R’s. I applauded with the spectators and bounced on the balls of my feet as I watched Jhanda and his school mates pass by, continuing along the parade route. I had never seen confetti before except in movies, and there was no confetti at the parade, but I supplied it with my mind and saw it falling down in a snug happy blizzard. For a strange moment I forgot that it was not real. I called Jhanda’s name and waved but it was impossible for him to hear me, and he looked neither left nor right. He marched on just like a little man, a toy soldier come to life, keeping his eyes on the distance. Then he was gone.

I waited for Salah and when he didn’t come I became irritated. We had been married for so long, for so many years, that it was not possible for him to have been unaware of what I was feeling. He certainly knew me well enough to give me suggestions for improvement, and yes, I know that the suggestions are never made in an effort to control me or to belittle me. He always made such suggestions hoping that I might find ways to open my life to less anxiety. I listened and often benefited from his advice, but I knew he was secretly always afraid that I would fall sick with worry and fear of the kind that stretches one’s nerves beyond the breaking point, so that they don’t easily snap back during the healing phase, if there really is a healing phase, as the special doctors insisted to me. Just as I had become sick years ago when my father died his slow death, drifting down on the parachute of his com. Just as I again became sick shortly after we left Lahore and came to this country and city to live. This was not a sickness like a cold or the flu. It was a sickness that spread from the mind into the body. The sickness spilled from those cramped boxes of thoughts about being trapped in a world where death reigned with sovereign authority. The thoughts, disguised as the truth, are accepted as real, and in the end they melted into emotions that left deep craters of bitterness, of spiraling emptiness. It is the illness where one cries out to God, to Allah, but receives no answer.

At the parade I was angry with Salah because if he could not come back to share my small feeling of joy, what would have happened if I had needed him to stand by me for something larger? I realized this was not a fair question to ask. It was not a reasonable expectation. These days it is popular to say that we, and not others, are the cause of our own feelings and that they, others, have no power over us, if only we can open our eyes wide enough to this truth. Therefore if a woman standing behind a checkout counter drops her eyes and refuses to greet me as a customer, she is not the cause of the humiliation or inferiority or sadness I feel at that moment. These are liberating times for those who think nothing of dropping their eyes, this is the golden age of blameless behavior. If a man plunges a knife into my father’s neck and robs him and my father bleeds away into a coma, I am the cause of the hatred I feel for this man, for I am solely responsible for what I feel. This is one of those things that seems right and true but is on some level flawed and stops making sense. I remember a famous guest on the Oprah Winfry Show. I was watching not because I had free time, I have little time for recreation in the afternoons, even when I’m not at the Neighborhood 99 Cents Store with Salah, but because a repair man was in the house setting up the box for cable on the shelf below the TV. A famous guest went to great lengths to explain this matter of the true cause and source of things to Ophra, the studio audience, the television viewers, the whole world. He was gently patient as he led us through the tunnel and into the light. It was clear to me that he had attained a state of empowerment I have never known, and as it occurred to me that I would likely never taste this sweetness, I wept, softly enough so that the cable man could continue his work undisturbed.

And so I knew that it was not reasonable for me to ask what would have happened if I’d needed Salah to stand by me for something larger. I couldn’t expect him to be responsible for my feelings. Yet I found myself asking it anyway. Is it too much, after all, to ask to share a small joy with someone?

The parade ended and for a time the crowds lingered. The streets were a rainbow of debris, scattered by the wind. What was left on the pavement and asphalt were the bones of the celebration, picked clean by the vulture that appears when joyful ceremonies and events are over. It is the vulture of finality and absence. The vulture also has something to do with time, the exact moment when you realize that something that has just existed will never exist in the same way again. A carcass left in the road is always a forlorn sight. When wonderful things are over what is left can be an empty, almost let-down feeling. Of course the feeling was worse because I stood in anxiety waiting for Salah. Gradually the crowds thinned and the adults left, with the exception of those who moved in to begin cleaning the streets and the few police who were there to keep order. Finally only the teenagers remained. They ran back and forth for a time, aimless and energetic. A girl who could not have been more than 14 kept raising her T-shirt to expose her tiny breasts to boys passing by. Her female companions were thrilled by this bold act and laughed in encouragement, fondly calling her all the names for prostitute, but the boys themselves seemed indifferent to the sight. Perhaps young as they were they were already jaded by the display of breasts they had seen on the internet, cable, or at other parades.

If Salah had seen her he would have looked away but his thoughts would have turned to Taj. He would assure himself that his daughter, even at the foolish age of 14, would never have done what that girl had done. But what the parade girl did would cause him to begin to worry about Taj in a more general way. Salah knows that his daughter has been blessed to have a mind filled with thoughts that shine as brilliantly as any polished gem. He is surprised and taken aback by it, because he sees nothing of the sort in himself or in me. Oh, he knows that the two of us are intelligent enough, in the way that ordinary men and women are sufficiently intelligent. But there are no shelves in our heads filled with row upon row of books thick with all the knowledge stored in them. If it was only memorizing knowledge from books, I would not be as impressed. I believe all the facts in the books are not memorized but enter the pool of her thinking and blend with her own ideas, so that the whole of it becomes something I have heard described as vision. The way the word was used when I heard it, I knew that it referred to a kind of seeing beyond sight. This prompted me to look it up in my Mirriam-Webster pocket dictionary. I use the dictionary frequently when I write in my diary. When I use the dictionary one thing leads to another, and I ended with the word visionary. So yes, knowledge is combined with her inner fire to make her visionary. All writers are not visionaries, but I know that if she became a writer, she would be a visionary one. You see, I have found her poems in a notebook accidently left open on the floor next to the sofa in the family room. I did not fully understand them. In fact, I may have understood very little. But they did make me think of the gentle man with a German accent on Ophra speak of the vision he was trying to share and once again I found tears seeding my eyes. I have not had a conversation about this with my daughter. I think it would only embarrass her. Perhaps she would even instruct me to chill. When she is ready I have no doubt she will tell me she writes poetry. Each morning when I wake, I hope it will be the day she has decided to tell me about her poems.

I think Taj’s brilliance overwhelms Salah and because of this the protectiveness he feels as a father is amplified. He feels a double burden: he must protect Taj on the basis of her gender, because living in a world that preys on young women, she is vulnerable. But he wants to protect her brilliance as well, a quality that is not tied to gender and rises above it. He may feel that he is more qualified to protect her from a world that preys on young women, and less qualified to protect the quality of brilliance she possesses as a human being. What I mean by that is, brilliance is more like a principle than something connected to gender. It is like the principle of freedom, or justice, or any principle. This is not a conversation I’ve had with my husband, and because I don’t think I would ever know how to accurately explain it, it may be a conversation I can never know how to have with him.

I stood on the curb waiting for Salah to return. What if I left to look for him and he chose that time to return to our spot? Only a sprinkling of young people and a few workers who were there to restore order remained. I had a clear view of the streets, the littered sidewalks and the buildings that banked them. Many of the floats had incorporated displays of flowers and petals of all colors, bright as Christmas bulbs, were strewn all around. I looked far up and down the length of Main Street. Salah was nowhere to be found and an agitated crowd of heartbeats began to congregate in my chest. As usual I was torn. Could he have gone to the car for some reason? We did not discuss meeting at the car, as busy as my mind often was I still would have remembered that. But it is possible that Salah intended to instruct me to meet him there and then forgot to tell me. Or had a false memory, a ghost memory, of telling me to meet him there, when he had only done so in his mind. I went over and over these possibilities and then finally, wringing my worry like a clammy rag in my hands, I left the spot and walked quickly to the parking lot next to the Sam’s Club building on the nearby cross street of Fairlane.

Salah was not at the car, just as I knew he wouldn’t be.

On my way back to the spot I encountered a policeman. He was talking to a an orange-vested man perched on the back of a municipal truck, waiting to receive a sawhorse lifted up to him by a fellow city worker, who was chewing on a white tooth pick. The officer’s uniform was not crisp and clean. It looked like it had absorbed all the sorrow and grief that must surely accompany his line of work. I saw that his excess weight made moving about an undesirable activity for him. A month on an aryuvedic diet matched to his body type would have helped him greatly. I wanted to tell him this, but no, I did not. I gathered my posture, which hung loosely from my shoulders. “Excuse me, sir.”

He kept talking for a time and finally turned to look at me. He looked at me without an answering word. The look was not rude, he was simply looking out from behind his eyes, like a camera behind its lens.

“Excuse me, but my husband, he is nowhere to be found. We both came together to the parade and he went off to see the floats and our marching son and he has not returned.” He looked about the vicinity with his thumbs resting on his thick belt heavy with clipped-on and secured objects, like a minature junkyard dangling from his waist. “Where were you standing?”

I pointed.

“Take me over there,” he said, though the spot was not far and he had looked exactly where I pointed. “Let’s give it a look.”

I took him. We stood there and he gave his look to the area. I did not, because I already knew my husband was not there.

“He’s not here,” he said.

“This is why I am now worried.”

“You came by car?”

“We did, yes.”

“He could be at the car waiting. Did you check that out?”

“Yes, I just came from there.”

“He could be anywhere,” the officer decided. “You’ve got the Walgreens, the Baskin Robbins there, the Ann’s Flower Shop, all these various venues and so forth.” He sprinkled his gesture around in a light-handed way, like a man with high blood pressure shaking as few grains as possible from a salt dispenser. “He’ll turn up. Maybe he’ll come out of Ann’s, have a nice bouquet of roses for you.”

“I’ve called on his cell phone. It goes straight to the mail for voices.”

“How long ago was it you saw him?”

“An hour and 13 minutes.”

“Thing is.” The officer rubbed the side of his neck. A dry and grainy sound was made by the rubbing. “I wouldn’t recommend taking serious action until everything’s been ruled out. Maybe he ran into an old friend, something, they’re chatting it up. Maybe ducked inside Sandman’s across there and who knows, tossing one back, reminiscing, lost track of time.”

“Tossing back?”

He pointed to the establishment called Sandman’s and I saw that it was a lounge for adult beverages and watching sports television. He put his thumb close to his mouth and tilted it down like a spout, jerking his head back quickly, and I then understood. “My husband will not drink alcohol.”

“Maybe he took a cab home.”

“Why would he do this?” I said.

“Was it an argument between the two of you?” He gave me a narrow-eyed crafty look. “Something you guys didn’t see eye to eye? Something bothering him, something up with him?”

I stared at him. I was trying to think. I said, “He seemed to be who he always is.”

Was something bothering him? Well, I knew that Taj leaving with her classmates and teacher in the morning to fulfill research for an assignment had made my husband uncomfortable. Salah did not approve of many of Taj’s choices, though he would not come out and say it that way. But approval was not the right word. He did not always understand the choices that were presented to her by the new world we now lived in. He thought the range of freedom young people had at their disposal was a great temptation to take the wrong path. He was afraid on her behalf, but she herself did not in my view appear to carry a great deal of fear in her heart. I knew what it was like to feel fear sitting day and night on its throne inside your chest, holding its raised scepter. I told him all this and he sat on the sofa this morning before the parade and listened to me. Then he shook his head slowly and sadly. I did not know what meaning he attached to the gesture, but I did feel the sadness of it.

He said to me, “I’m not saying that I think she is not trustworthy, but there are so many wrong paths she could take that could cause her grief.”

I said, “What wrong path are you afraid she might take?” He had no answer. I tried to think of the best way to express my opinion in as few words as possible. The more words that are used, the more tangled those words can become. “What right path that is not simply your own path would you want to see her take?”

Because the question seemed to startle him, I smiled to let him know it was not a challenge.

“My path is an ordinary one. She should do everything to make it possible for an extradordinary path to open up before her.”

“Whatever grief her path might cause her is her own grief,” I said, “and she will have to carry it, as we all do. There is a greater chance that she will carry more grief if she tries to take a path she has not chosen.”

When he had nothing to say, I went on, “It was a geology expedition and it was important for her grades.”

But I knew that it may not have been a geology expedition.

I wanted to tell him about the dream I had last night, but I didn’t. In the dream Taj and I went to the Burlington Coat Factory to buy a warm coat for winter. A saleswman appeared, holding two strings attached to two red helium balloons. She led us to the children’s section, which was much darker than the rest of the store, and she handed Taj a parka from the rack. Then the saleswoman turned and walked very slowly away from us, still holding the balloons. She disappeared into the darkness. Taj had to force her adult arms into the jacket and after struggling she managed to put it on, but it was much too small. The coat was tiny. “We are in the wrong section,” I said but Taj could not hear me. I tried to help her zip the jacket up and she cried out for me to stop, it would not zip up past her navel and it was causing the navel to ache. She could not breathe. There was another clothes rack nearby but instead of apparel oxygen masks hung from the hangars. I grabbed one and tried put it over her face as she fought to breathe. Then she took the mask from my hand and placed it over my nose. Then I woke up. I didn’t tell him the dream. I simply insisted that yes, it was a geology expedition and it was important for her grades.

I told the officer my husband and I probably disagreed about many small things but that we had not had a sudden or powerful disagreement at the parade. But he was swiftly losing interest. Just hang in there a few hours, he said, it was nothing to worry about, these things always cleared up and I would soon know I had made a mountain out of the hills of moles. He advised me to give my old man generous hell when I saw him and said that I should pretend to be royally pissed so that Salah would feel obligated to buy me a nice piece of bling to seek my forgiveness. I wondered if he had called Salah my old man because the stress of our small disagreements were aging him prematurely. Sometimes the language as I listen flows into my ears crystal clear and at other times it is muddy. I needed Taj here to translate some of what the officer had said.

When he asked me for a description of my husband I did not know what to say. I closed my eyes for a moment and waited for the darkness to conjure his image. Nothing came. I could not tell the officer how tall he was or how much he weighed. But the shape of his nose came to me in a flash so brillant that the word I was about to assign to it burst into white flame and was gone. A deep fear yawned in me because I knew his face better than my own but I simply could not find it. I knew it the way a bird knows the hills and valleys of the air. Yet I had no description for it. Rather than features what came to me were qualities. What came to me was the sound of his voice, the ways in which it found a special softness for serious assertions. Or the calm music it inserted in the spaces between the letters of spoken words.

I knew I had to say something but I felt trapped by my inabilities, as I had felt on so many other occasions. When I opened my eyes I saw the officer was pulling his belt up a little, preparing to leave. He was looking back with longing toward the truck where he had been speaking to the worker. “His name is Salah Bhatti,” I said. “His appearance is … his is not short and not tall. He looks like a man who is sometimes able to rescue others but who dares not ask to be rescued himself.” But he was already walking away and he told me he would keep his eyes open for anyone fitting that description. “Thank you,” I called out to his back, and I tried to scribble my name and telephone number on scrap paper I managed to quickly dig out of my purse, he needed the paper to contact me if he happened to see Salah, but when I looked up he was gone.

I was tempted to call my daughter and ask for her advice. I decided against that, because my doing so would have strengthened the feeling I often had, that I was the child and Taj, the mother. Besides, I did not want to frighten her. Also, I did not want to put her in the position of delivering to me a fabrication, if her situation was such that fabrication was necessary. For a moment I was tempted to go into the establishments to see if Salah was inside. What the officer said was after all possible. Salah might have met an acquaintance by chance, someone I did not know. Perhaps a customer who was a patron of the Neighborhood 99 Cents Store. A customer who came in to buy the little articles that were mainly not necessary, but that gave the buyer a sense of being able to freely acquire small things that were wanted rather than needed. By saying this, I’m not suggesting that the Neighborhood 99 Cents Store only brought a superficial value to people. No, it had an important purpose. It’s important to feel that things can be aquired and accumulated, that desires can be achieved. If desires can be achieved cheaply, this is much better than trying to fulfill expensive desires, which are out of reach for many people. They were for Salah and me. In Lahore, near the end, the small-motorized rickshaw business had grown solid and strong through my and Salah’s almost ceaseless labor, and we began to feel ourselves being lifted toward a new standard of living. Here it was different, we had less money than we had in our own country, for the money here did not stretch to the same lengths as it did there. We were able to open our store with the savings we brought from Lahore, and for that I will always have gratitude. But now there is no rising toward to a different level of living. The money we earned here allowed us to get by, but was not enough to allow us to expand the business by building another store in another location in the city.

Just as I knew deep in my heart that Salah had not gone into any of the stores during the parade, I also knew that he did not have even casual acquaintences. I knew that the only real friend Salah had made since coming to America was Aadesh. Aadesh was a good man and Salah treated him like a brother. He had even loaned him money a while ago so that Aadesh could buy a car for his son, Rana, as a birthday present. Would Salah have been a lender of money to Aadesh, who struggled to earn enough for the basic necessities, had he known that Rana loved Taj and Taj, Rana? I was not certain. Did Salah suspect they were bound together by more than friendship? I was not certain. My belief was that Salah did not allow himself to examine the thought of the two of them together long enough to have a clear awareness of the issue. I imagined that when the thought took shape, it was quickly brushed aside, and must have seemed like little more than a nameless flicker in his head. Because if he allowed the thought to take shape, his thoughts might have caused him distress. It was not impossible that he might think that as far as marriage was concerned, a boy from a different background might have more to offer his daughter than Rana, even if Salah’s own background was more similar to Aadesh’s than dissimilar.

Standing on the curb I realized that Aadesh was Salah’s only friend but I found it soothing to think that the police officer may have been right. That maybe my husband had met an acquaintance by accident and that they were gently strolling through the aisles among the merchandise talking together in low tones. Or that Salah would step out of Ann’s Flowers holding a rose that had sensed and absorbed his embarrassment over making romantic gestures, its red petals mirroring the blood rush just below the surface of Salah’s skin that his complexion, rich with the blush of copper, would not easily betray.

I don’t know how long I stood there, waiting and considering. Eventually I noticed the sawhorses were gone. Traffic was beginning to flow through the streets and people were once again trickling in and out of shops. Maybe Salah had fallen, twisted his leg, and a good Samaritan had driven him home. It’s true I had left my waiting spot for 10 minutes to stand in line at a portable toilet. Maybe this was the time when the Samaritan had looked for me. Not finding me, the stranger may have driven Salah home and even helped him upstairs so that he could lie down. After the stranger left, Salah realized his phone had probably slipped out of his pocket when he had fallen, but he was unable to hop down the stairs to call me on the land telephone. His ankle was badly swollen, his knee throbbed painfully. And in this helpless condition he had fallen asleep on our bed. I decided to leave.

At home Salah was not on the bed. I knew he would not be there. I called the police department and spoke with a Seargent Fryber. He asked me more questions than the parade officer had asked. Had Salah ever gone missing before? What was his usual schedule? Did he have other relatives in the city? Could he have friends I didn’t know about? (This was a strange question. If he had friends I did not know about, how would it be possible for me to answer the question?) I had to say that this was possible but not likely.

I told him that I knew my husband well, that he was a man who was very comfortable keeping his own company. It was not likely he was with someone.

“He has no friends?”

One friend.

“Have you talked to the friend to see if he’s heard from your husband?”

I admitted that I had not.

“Does he have enemies? Do you have reason to suspect foul play may be involved? Does he have a medical condition that would prevent him from calling?”

No enemies, I told him, he was a man with a big heart. My husband’s health was fine. I understood foul play to mean something not good in a general way but did not ask him to narrow the expression so that I could understand it more clearly.

“There are a few other questions I’d like to ask you,” he said, “they’re confidential in nature. I’d rather not ask you over the phone. And anyway we’ll need you to file a report. Can you come in and file a report?”

He was very eager to file this report. He was eager to ask questions of a confidential nature. Heat raced into my face like a sprinter on the track when the gun is fired. I felt perspiration prickling at my forehead, the little spikes on the bottom of the sprinter’s running shoes pushing through my pores. Keeping still was always difficult for me but when I was nervous, as I often was for no reason I could easily understand, it was impossible. As I spoke on my cell phone to the seargeant I chopped my steps across the living room floor. I chopped about aimlessly and quickly as I often do without realizing it until someone I have not noticed who has been observing me more closely than is warranted alerts me to my foolishness. Their concern for me prevents them from calling me foolish but I myself know, I know. This time though I knew why my trampoline nerves kept me bouncing within myself. I was worried by what the officer had said.

I was a naturalized citizen of the United States but I secretly believed this status would not prevent the government from deporting us if they felt they had an official reason to do so. All governments, even those that are democratic, can do whatever they deem necessary. They can break the laws they establish for their own citizens, and who can stop them? Can you? Can you, my husband? Can you, daughter, even knowing so many complicated and useful things? Will you be able to when you are older, Jhanda? Then let me ask: Can even We The People stop them? We The People do not know what is being done by the government, and that is the problem in stopping them. By the time We The People find out enough to be able to stop them, it is too late, the damage has been done, and the government has fortified itself. If it were a game of chess, the game that Aadesh and Salah sometimes like to play out in the garage but good-naturedly admit to playing very poorly, the government would already have planned the next ten moves to protect the king’s monarchy, while We The People would still be wondering whether to make a single move with the pawn. Wasn’t there the scandal of Watergate and a great outcry by the people to learn the truth? Yet the president and those who ran the government erased the tapes the courts and We The People wanted to listen to. After the scandal of Watergate other government scandals occurred in time. They continued as though Watergate never happened.

In the United States on television I hear those discussing government issues asking for greater transparency. Taj told me what that saying meant. She said that in America, there was transparency in government and that was where the counrty’s freedom came from. But to demand greater transparency, I told her, meant that there was not as much transparency as there could or should be. My daughter had looked at me strangely. What I meant to explain was, how much transparency must the government have to be able to call itself a true democracy? But I did not answer her strange look with this explanation. The government could deport Salah, me, Taj, even Jhanda, who had been born here. I wanted to know something more about the nature of these confidential questions Seargeant Fryber sought to ask me. “They’re regarding some particulars about your marriage that might sound indelicate over the phone.” I made a remark and then I hung the phone up. I was sorry to hang up suddenly, Seargeant Fryber was diligent in fulfilling his duties, but I felt like one being led into a trap. Questions of a marital nature? Yes, I hung the phone up quickly, because I felt my tongue filling with the thickening cement of stutters. I would not discuss my marriage with anyone because it was as the amusing commericial said. The one that Taj went to great lengths to explain to me, one that was based on a saying that many people enjoyed greatly. I heard it used in public places and people laughed knowingly when they heard it. It was meant to be humorous but I could not find the key to its humor. Even though I could not relate to it or fully understand, I said it. It seemed to possess great weight and authority even as I let it rest in my mouth, I knew it would be satisfying to say, so I remarked to the officer, “It is not only that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. What happens in a marriage stays in the marriage!” When the officer chuckled, I felt a flicker of accomplishment, and then I abruptly hung up. I was thankful that I had not told the seargeant my full name. If I found it necessary to file the report, if Salah did not come home soon, I would apologize to good Seargeant Fryber in person.

A sense of the stillness living without loneliness inside all the inatimate objects that surrounded me pressed aggressively into my own stillness. I did not know whether these objects needed me to exist or not. I had become almost motionless sitting at the kitchen table. I bent over and looked down and reached for my feet. I put shoes on my thoughts and laced them up as if they were skates. I sat up and I let my thoughts glide on, a pair of blades over ice, swerving in a big lazy S. Salah would be proud to see me sitting still this way, without my arms and legs moving like puppet limbs being jerked on strings. In time I rose and went upstairs and came back down with my diary and a Bic pen. I knew that I could call it a journal if I wanted, a very dignified word, but I preferred the word diary. When I had noticed Taj’s notebook on the floor next to the sofa in the family room I picked it up slowly. There were lines in black ink on the blue cover. I did not know whether they were her words or someone else’s:

Tears fall within mine heart, As rain upon the town: Whence does this languor start, Possessing all mine heart?

O sweet fall of the rain Upon the earth and roofs! Unto an heart in pain, O music of the rain!

Tears that have no reason Fall in my sorry heart: What! Was there no treason? This grief hath no reason.

Nay! the more desolate, Because, I know not why (neither for love nor hate) Mine heart is desolate.

I had been careful to put her notebook back exactly as I found it. The poem’s words sank into my memory without effort. I recalled them easily as I placed my own diary on the table next to my cup of tea. I did not know in what way the poem was beautiful, but I knew that it was. It was then that the doorbell rang. I knew it would not be Salah but I did not know who it might be. Yet I could not help running in that half-thinking way I often have to the door and flinging it open.

The man was tall. He was casually dressed but his appearance was very neat. The color seemed lightly laid on his skin, sienna powder that could be puffed off with belled cheeks. His complexion was close to my own, but mine was darker. In both India and Pakistan people wish for social advantages and the society rewards people with lighter skin. And so when mothers are pregnant they see a light-skinned child curled in their womb, though they will love whatever comes out. My own mother was pale as a low-watt bulb. I sometimes wished I had asked her if I was a disappointment when she saw me in her arms for the first time, because I was not pale. I imagined she might say to me, “Don’t be silly Yasmin, of course not! But, well …”

I could not tell what the man’s ethnic group was, I knew only that he looked American. His eyes were steady and regrets did not flourish in them. You could not tell what his eyes had seen, though you knew he had seen many things. But all people have seen many things. What I meant was, you could not tell what mark had been made by the things he had seen.

“Mrs. Bhatti, my name is Mr. Kane.”

He had not moved his eyes away from my face but I knew he was taking in the living room behind me, as well as the territories that lay off to the sides and above, and in the corners, and everything else not directly behind me or above me.

I opened the door wider. “Mr. Kane? Do you know where my hubsband is?”

He wore a zippered fall jacket that looked stylishly casual but did not look like it provided enough warmth for our falling temperatures, the trapdoor about to swing open under our feet and drop us into winter. His hands were in his jacket pockets and made bulges. I could not imagine that his voice ever rose to a shout. I could not, in fact, imagine anything about him. “Why do you think I would know that?”

“It is just a hope I have. I don’t know what else to do now except have this hope.”

“Haven’t the police been able to give you hope?”

I opened the door wide and stepped to the side. “Please,” I said, gesturing. I heard my voice trembling and I knew I was raising one leg and then the other, the tiniest movement like marching in place, and I felt by braid beginning to whisper lightly against my back. “Please step in. I must close the door. I know I should not be as cold as I am, but I have no heat in my body.”

“That’s a very generous offer of hospitality to make to a stranger.”

“You are no longer a stranger,” I said.

Behind Mr. Kane in a frame was a

“I know where your husband is.”

I opened the door wide and stepped to the side.


Next Chapter

Chapter 23

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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