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Table of Contents

Detainee 717

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Chapter 7

Salah bends, balancing several cartons of chamomile tea in his arms, and a small pain pyramids somewhere in his lower back. Careful, careful, he thinks, there can be no illnesses or accidents. Bending, his head breaks through a hover of sunlight reflected by the window; his vision is washed white for a moment. At the same time there is a counterclockwise motion inside his head, the blood rushing down or away; he has lowered himself too quickly. For illnesses and accidents there must be time for recuperation, and he has no time. He read on Taj’s beloved Internet that some, struggling to keep pace with their lives, feel too guilty to allow themselves to rest. This is when the mind tiptoes in, smuggling circumstances that permit the accident to spill, like a cup of overturned tea, across the neat tiles of your life. The person can then blame the accident, not himself, for having to rest. It would be better for Salah to set aside an hour as a reward to himself in exchange for however many days of labor. Better to take that hour and go play chess with his friend Aadesh, rather than to open the door to the broken ankle, the thrown back, the shattered rib that would leave him bedridden. “Listen to yourself for once, Salah,” he chides aloud, and then stands and sheepishly looks up and down the aisles, as though someone in the store might have overheard him.

The first customer of the day has not arrived and probably will not walk through the door for another 30 minutes. On days when Jhanda gets a rid to school with the neighbor and her son, Yasmine shows up to help Salah at about this time; when she drives the boy back to school herself, she returns home first to wash dishes and restore order to the kitchen, and will show up in the store a little later. He looks forward to this quiet time in the store when he takes inventory, arranges merchandise on display stands and shelves, slices boxes open with the boxcutter. He will move down his aisles with the sense that great rewards hide in things as ordinary as a quiet time in which to work. An atmosphere where thinking loosens, unscrews itself, the stubborn cap on the bottle of his preoccupations finally twisted free: Jhanda, Taj, Yasmine, how it was easier to be a family in Lahore – it seems the more difficult conditions are, the more earnestly people seek each other. Now, it is as though they are only remembering what kind of family they once were and are attempting, gamely but palely, to imitate the memories. Salah does not know why it is different here, in this city; difficulties have not disappeared, they have simply changed shape. After all, Lahore was not a city that existed on the far fringes of the Western influence, a city that stared wide-eyed at America, starstruck by the glamour of negligent abundance. It was not unduly impressed by America’s speed and shout and slick magazine- gloss, not awed by the way America was able to showcase the same brutal and bloodthirsty acts practiced by the rest of the world in more sleekly packaged renditions of violence. The vice and selfishness that America was accused of flowed freely through the streets of Salah’s birthplace. In the end, there was simply a difference of degree, of scale. Lahore was no stranger to Western ways and was becoming more and more sophisticated in the forms of corruption it embraced. So it is not as though, once Salah and his family arrived here, they were beguiled by a way of life so foreign that they were seduced, straying from one another onto separate paths. But he knows that although they have not been driven to separate paths, each of them struggles to find a way in this vast place, this city of strangers, this often inhospitable land. When Salah sums up for himself this matter of his family and tries to identify the reasons for what he feels, he can only produce a mental list and conclude these are not the reasons; he cannot say what they are, or why they are, or how they have come to be.

Although the store is open for business, he is surprised to hear the bell above the door announcing a customer this early. Stepping away from the window and out of the sunlight, he turns to face the door and is violently startled when he sees a tall man dressed in black like an assassin walking toward him, his hands hidden in the hooded sweatshirt’s marsupial pouch. He is so startled that sickness fills his mouth and he swallows, pushing it down with his adam’s apple. The man wears a ski mask with the triangular flap of a black kerchief tied bandit-style around his mouth, his eyes are hidden behind mirror sunglasses, his hood is raised. Not the smallest swatch of skin is visible.

“Listen to me now,” the man instructs Salah. He removes his gloved hands from the pouch. No skin is visible there either. The left hand holds a gun, barrel pointed benevolently toward the floor. “I want you to walk to the door. Lock the door. Use the key. Come back. Then walk to the back where it’s private.” The voice sinks, sleeved in whisper, as when a pane of glass is lowered by the touch of a button. It is melodious in an ugly way. “Do it now. Go slow.”

“I understand.”

“Put your hands down. Look normal.”

“Yes.”

Salah locks the door and returns.

“What did I say? Privacy.”

Salah had forgotten. He walks still slowly to the back of the store. The man is behind him and Salah’s hands are in the air again. He has seen so many movies with characters who, held at gunpoint, have their hands in the air that he thinks he must be imitating the behavior. But then he realizes that even if he had never seen a movie, his hands, full of their own untutored wisdom, would be up in the air, as though compelled. “You have told me once to put my hands down,” Salah confesses, his breath sheer, breakable as glass. “They seem to have a mind of their own.” A small pause. “That doesn’t auger well, does it? Hands with a mind of their own.” Salah does not know the meaning of the word auger but is able to respond nevertheless. “Not in that way,” he explains quickly.

“Hands on their own reach for things.”

“No, sir. These hands are not compelled to reach. They are only compelled to be in the air.”

The man is still behind him and the aisle slowly ticker tapes by, the generic products massed on the tiered shelves like stunned spectators seated in a stadium. Salah corrects himself, begins to draw his arms down, reclaiming his hands.

“Leave them up.”

“Yes. As you wish.”

“I don’t wish.” The voice pushes at his back. “Your hands wish. They have a mind of their own? They like it up? Keep them up, then.”

“Yes.”

“You can stop now.”

Salah halts. The sudden hammering of his heart builds a construction site of desolation in his chest: Jhanda’s face, and Taj’s, and Yasmine’s lay strewn across his mind like abandoned tools, and he fiercely regrets that he brought them here, to this place, foolishly attempting to pose as the architect of their future. Yet they could not have stayed where they were; they had to leave Lahore or, staying, risk death. Then he recalls that all Yasmine has to do is remember that the life insurance policy is in a manila envelope on top of the box with their tax returns, in the back of the bedroom closet; he recalls that at least they are taken care of in this way, and his desolate feeling lifts. He can die now, cleanly, if he has to.

“Please, sir, I do have a family, a wife and a son and a daughter.”

“Which one do you love most?”

“I … I … I love them all.” He should not have said anything about having a family. “I only mean that I hope you take what you have come for, and that that will be enough for you.”

“How do you know what I came for?”

“Everyone wants money, sir. We all want it and need it.”

“99-cent store philosophy.”

“What little I have is yours.”

“You’re damn right it is. Anything I want is mine. Even your pathetic life is mine. If I want, your wife, your son and your daughter’s life, they’re also mine. So be careful. In fact, now would be a good time to get down on your knees. Those hands of yours that have a mind of their own, put them behind your head. I know you have a safe. Maybe I even know where it is. But I want you to tell me. All this ‘sir” this and ‘sir’ that shit, let’s see if you’re as truthful as you sound.”

Salah has been robbed before. Robbed last January at four in the afternoon by a Serbian boy of seventeen who brandished not a gun but a tire iron and walked away with $86.00. “The safe is right there in the floor behind the counter, there at the cash register.”

Salah can feel the gun aimed at this back. The man goes behind the counter. “You got a gun back here? Maybe something sawed off?”

“No sir, I do not. I do not believe in them.”

“I don’t care what you don’t believe in. You know what I don’t believe in? The death penalty. What’s your name?”

“Salah.”

“Afghanistan?”

Salah pauses. “No, sir. I am Pakistani. And I am well on the way to being an American.”

“What are you, a cheerleader, motherfucker? Give me the combination.”

Salah inhales deeply and follows his orders. “Let me establish something,” he hears the man say. “I don’t trust you. You’re too earnest. But do tell me you have no intention of moving from that spot. Do tell me you won’t even twitch.”

“I am right here.”

He appears in front of Salah. The gun is now in his right hand and his left holds a bolus of cash: $80.00. Salah sees that he holds no reverence for the money and jams it in the sweatshirt’s pouch without counting it; one bill, a $5, floats carelessly down to the floor near the man’s feet. The Serbian youth who had robbed him had been elated to look down into his hand and find his palm modestly tousled with cash; his withered drug addict’s face slackened in what must have been a rare respite from its rictus of habitual desperation. This one does not care about money, does not really need it, and his voice and movements betray no desperation; this one is dangerous in a way that dwarfs the magnitude of the danger Salah confronted in the Serbian boy. “Pick that up and hand it to me, nice and easy-like. You like Westerns?” Salah’s face is blank.

“Western. Cowboys and Indians. That’s a line you hear a lot in Westerns: nice and easy like.” Shuffling across the floor on his knees, he picks the bill up and holds it out. The man moves forward but instead of taking the bill, he slaps Salah hard in the face, knocking him to the floor on his side. An ill-fitting removable bridge replacing a molar in his lower left jaw catapults from his mouth and skitters across the floor.

“I asked you a goddamn question.” Cupping his mouth in his hands, a centipede of blood crawls between his fingers. “Please, what are you asking me? What have you asked me?”

“Stand up. I asked you if you like Westerns.”

“Cowboys and Indians?” Salah answers, standing. “No, I don’t like Westerns. It takes those who have been exploited and paints them as villains.”

The man laughs. “Yet you want to be an American. You won’t make a very good one. Don’t you know by now that exploitation is the American way? They forget to teach you that in your civics class?” “That is not all the money,” Salah volunteers. “I keep the real bulk of the money elsewhere. In an envelope in the back of a file cabinet. It contains $500 dollars.” Salah points to the file cabinet in the hallway leading to the storeroom. “The money I keep in the safe is for drug takers. I can take you to the larger amount.”

“I wondered if you were going to mention that. It’s a good thing you did. You’ve passed with flying colors.” The man pretends to weigh Salah’s offer. “Hmmm. $500 or $80? $80 or $500? Tell you what. Keep that $500. I might really be in a pickle and need it one day. Maybe I’ll come back for it.” “I would much rather you take it now.”

“That’s good. You’ve got jokes. Good to have that in the face of adversity.”

“Yes.”

“Now go and unlock the door, then come back here.”

When Salah returns, the man asks, “You speak Punjabi?”

“Yes.”

“Urdu?”

“Yes.”

“Farsi?”

Salah hesitates, then says, “Yes, I can speak some Farsi.” Now he is backing away from Salah, passing the counter where the cash register sits, slowly moving down the aisle toward the front of the store. At the door, the man says, “Urdū acchī zabān hai.” Urdu is a good language. Then, in Farsi, he says,

“Amma Englisi behtar-e.” But English is better. Then again in Urdu, “Khudā hāfiz.” Goodbye.

Salah locks the door and walks down the aisle, passing the storeroom. The man has left, taking the quiet of the aisles with him, carrying it away like luggage. He does not think of the cottony pain sprouting in his bottom lip or of the fact that the man left the bulk of the money and said goodbye to him in Urdu. Beyond the storeroom is a utility room where cleaning solutions and rags and buckets and mops are kept. Mr. Clean and Ajax Cleanser, not the thin generic cleaning solutions he stocks the shelves with. There is a cold-water sink with a faucet that clears its throat when first turned on, expelling a clot of rust, eventually running clear, humming. He bends over the sink, patiently waiting for the phlegm of rust to turn transparent, and he knows he will not call the police. He had called them when the Serbian boy robbed the store, and when the police came, they took incurious notes and toured the aisles dismissively. When they directed questions at him he felt that they were treating him as though he, Salah Bhatti, was the one who had committed the crime. That his crime rested in leaving Lahore and daring to come here, of all places, to make a new home.

Next Chapter

Chapter 8


Article By: dglenn


Arts | Fiction | Novels


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