Detainee 717


Chapter 11

Beside him, his wife appears to be standing motionless, but movement not visible to the naked eye whispers through her limbs like vibrations enlivening the plucked strings of a sitar. When she is not in motion it is because she wants to prove to Salah that she can control the impulse that compels her to associate stillness and quiet with loss. For Yasmine, who at the age of 9 had watched her father over the course of a year sink deeper into the coma that erased each day in a soundless countdown toward death, stillness and silence continue to equal a body subtracted from life, absorbed into a sleep as unfathomable and terror-inspiring as the number zero. Salah realizes that all these decades later, she moves almost ceaselessly because her comatose father could not. Knowing the reason helps him to be patient when he would sometimes rather snap at her. It is not her fault that this excess of life-affirming energy over time has become exaggerated, imbalanced and inward-spiraling, fraying an already highly strung nervous system. Is this similar to electricity? With a current running at too high a voltage for too long, does the electricity begin to burn away the cord’s protective outer layer? He still regrets that he does not know the answer to questions like this, regrets that he was unable to attend the university to study electrical engineering in pursuit of a childhood dream.

“Look, baba, way at the end of the parade line, completely in the rear.” She has to shout or her voice will be trampled by the herd of spectator chatter, the amplified commentary and music beating hooves on eardrums. “I think I can see Jhanda’s class marching.” She tries to hand him the pair of birding binoculars he bought her when she had been an Audoban Society member but he politely refuses them. Yasmine’s interests, always passionate and intense, are short-lived; her involvement in birdwatching lasted less than a month.

Salah and Yasmine are sandwiched by people stretching east and west down Main, standing curbside behind barriers that keep the spectators from spilling onto the street. Right now members of the equestrian club are passing by two-by-two on horseback. The front legs of the animals lift and fall with maidenly precision and the huge heads bob in a stately rhythm. Yasmine, no longer able to stand still, now bounces up and down on the balls of her feet, braid lively as a kite tail waltzing with wind, pointing at whatever catches her interest: the weatherman from Channel 8 who also performs at the city’s sole stand-up comedy club standing on a parade float mock-up of a huge television screen, the mayor waving to the crowds from an open convertible, the Red Cross carrying a huge banner encouraging donations, the Northfield High cheerleading squad with batons that flash when twirled and tossed like silver stars spinning across the firmament, prominent entrepreneurs who advertise their businesses in zany late-night cable TV commercials and have risen to local celebrity status, university sports icons and marching bands, the chamber of commerce, representatives of various societies and clubs and civic organizations. Cameramen prowl with leonine resourcefulness on the sidelines, ENGs slung like preyed-upon carcass over shoulders, recording the event for the evening news. People the world over enjoy being in parades, Salah suspects, because parades allow them to march before others and display themselves in a way that says, I am here, I am in this moment which has never come before and will never come again, I exist, and may you be a witness to it. For five years Salah and his family have been coming to the Main Street parade, and he still does not know the reason it is held or the theme the parade celebrates.

“Do you know,” he tells Yasmine, leaning close to her ear and making a corridor with his hands the words can walk through, “that we have no idea why this parade is held each year, but here we are nevertheless?”

“Why must there be a reason? It’s good enough that this is a lovely parade. The Main Street Parade! What more is needed?”

“Everything needs a deeper purpose, Yasmine.”

“Then it will be your job today to give it one, not mine.” He is about to suggest a new name for the parade, the parade of bearing witness, when Yasmine exclaims, “Look, baba, across the street. Taj and Rana.”

He looks, but it is not Taj and Rana. Yasmine has forgotten that Taj left with her professor and five other students for a trip up north today, as part of an special project for a Geology class. Yasmine and Salah had looked could only look at one another when Taj explained the purpose of the trip with more excitement than they were accustomed to seeing their daughter display. Topological studies. We’re gathering data in a section of interbolate moraine. Salah issued his questions with great restraint; he knew that Taj was insistently straining against the restrictions he tried to impose, and that his protectiveness was causing friction. He had asked Yasmine to talk with Taj, find out more about the trip, and had been disappointed when, the next day, she told Salah that there was nothing for them to worry about and that everything would be fine.

This is the year when his daughter’s eyes, content in previous years to blindly trace over the contours of her parents’ beliefs, now sketch her own picture of the world; the year when his daughter’s ears, content in the recent past to embrace the words used by her parents to explain right and wrong, hold echoes of ideas that would never have been allowed to cross the threshold of her parents’ hearing; the year when his daughter’s body, formerly nourished by the chicken bryani rice Taj formerly begged her mother to cook, is nourished by In-N-Out burgers and Popeye’s chicken. Salah had been at first concerned and then upset by her gradual drift into independence, but he found that the state of agitation he was drawn into whenever he confronted his daughter about any of her newly adopted tendencies did not change her behavior and only exhausted him, whittled his nerves to rawness. Oddly, Yasmine had accepted her daughter’s transformation with the sort of philosophical equanimity that he discovered he could not display, or could not display genuinely. And he felt as if he had lost his wife as an ally. But there was nothing to be done, and he, too, came to accept his daughter’s tortuous transformation, though with a lack of grace and a begrudging reluctance that served no purpose and only made matters worse for both himself and for Taj.

Yasmine waves to Taj and Rana across the street but either they do not see her or pretend not to see her. Now that Taj is the author of her life, the latest chapter in the book of her journey into womanhood revolves around Rana, the son of Aadesh Hatwalne, the man who five years ago had rebuilt the transmission in Salah’s perpetually malfunctioning Mazda. Someone, Salah now forgets who, had told him about an honest and reliable mechanic, a Pakistani immigrant, who had turned the garage in the back of his home into a repair shop, and Salah had called Aadesh and arranged to drop the Mazda off on a humidly sticky Saturday morning when the sun had driven its steamroller of heat through the streets, flattening everything in its path.

A short man with a sturdy build, a gold front tooth like a tiny tombstone flashing furtively when he smiled, and a hearty handshake that inflicted the smothering squeeze of an over-inflated blood pressure cuff, the mechanic had convinced Salah, who planned on dropping the car off and taking the bus back home, to stay and keep him company, promising to be done in the flutter of an eye.

“And besides,” Aadesh said, “if you go traipsing about in this heat, you will collapse on these unforgiving American streets where people will act like you’re not there and keep walking.”

“Whereas back home, if you collapse on the streets, at least passersby acknowledge your presence with a swift kick before proceeding,” Salah pointed out, dispensing his humor cautiously in the presence of a stranger. He was pleased when Aadesh dropped his heavy crate of laughter on the floor, almost shaking the garage’s foundation with his vibrating baritone boom. Aadesh’s wife served Salah tea and then cold lemonade while he sat on a folding chair in the back of the airless garage listening to the man working under the hood of Mazda tell the story of his triumphs and tribulations since living in America. Parts of the story were so familiar to Salah that he felt he was listening to a brother he had long been separated from speaking poignantly of a past they both shared as children. Rana, Aadesh’s twelve-year-old son, had wandered sheepishly into the garage from the backyard that was little more than an orphanage for abandoned rusty tools and car parts, insinuating himself under the hood of the Mazda to be close to this father. The next week Aadesh invited Salah and his family to dinner, and by the end of the evening, Salah already thought of Aadesh as a long lost friend.

This may be why Salah finds it hard to accept Taj and Rana’s relationship as anything other than a friendship. Over the years, as the families jointly celebrated birthdays and holidays and special occasions, Salah had seen the two display toward one another only the half-hearted affection and obligatory camaraderie shared between brother and sister. At a certain point Salah understood that the neutral territory where their daily lives casually and necessarily overlapped – they had both been students at Northfield High – had become a zone of purposeful intersection, the sought-out place that afforded them the opportunity to meet and spend time together. At least that was what Yasmine, who seemed quite comfortable with it all, led him to believe. When Salah expressed what his wife gently insisted was an unnecessary concern over his daughter’s relationship with Rana, she would remind him, “Surely you trust your own girl. We’re in America now, baba. And this is the way children grow in America. Otherwise, what are we doing here?” When Salah pointed out she would never have allowed herself to assume such a lackadaisical perspective in Lahore, she would only shrug and smile her perfect crescent smile at him, as though the whole thing was predictable and easy to understand. Now Taj and Rana both attend Polk Community College and spend more time together than ever, and although when Salah sees them there is nothing in their behavior to suggest they are anything more than close friends (they study together in her room but she leaves the bedroom door open), her attitude confirms for him his fear that she is losing her innocence, and he attributes her rebellious insistence on becoming her own person to the relationship he knows is taking place in secret. Today, in fact, after the parade, he plans on visiting the boy’s father, his dear friend Aadesh, still repairing cars in his garage all these years later, and candidly discussing this tangle of troublesome concerns with him.

Salah grows impatient standing in one spot, pressed on all sides by spectators; the miscellany of noise and color and motion ebbing and swelling tidally through the streets fails to hold his interest. “Why don’t we go to the other end and see if that’s Jhanda?”

“You can see everything from this spot,” Yasmine says. “I’ll wait here. You go on.” Salah begins to shoulder his way methodically through the crowd, squeezing into spaces as bodies shift apart, taking advantage of the gaps that open into longer corridors by dashing through them before they close. A moving mural of faces, of arms reaching and grabbing and sweeping, of legs striding and strutting and stretching. Odors dart in and out of his nostrils like a school of fish, the odor of excitement, of energy summoned and spent, of anticipation exhaled through the pores of the skin. Before long he can see Jhanda clearly, wearing the blue and white uniform of the elementary wing of the Northfield High School marching band. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in four abreast rows, their uniforms ill-fitting, the children lack the sizzle and snap of their high school marching band counterparts a block or so ahead of them, leading the advance; they appear bedraggled, bewildered, failing to move as one. Nevertheless there is Jhanda, blowing into his flute with a determined look on his face, struggling, as all the children appear to be struggling, to march with some semblance of collective precision.

“Over here, Mr. Bhatti!” Salah thinks he hears his name being called and turns to look behind him. A tall man wearing sunglasses, and a beige sherwani kurta and shalwar approaches him with an air of urgency, hopskotching through the crowd, waving to attract Salah’s attention, his smile broad and welcoming. This man is Pakistani? Is this someone he knows? Someone he has met through Aadesh? He feels his own hand lifting almost involuntarily to return the wave. His arm in the air above his head triggers something, superimposes over the present moment a dim nameless flash from the recent past that he cannot trace to a point of origination. A sense of elusiveness mists through and over him, a desire to remember so pressing and avid it burns, and he steps backward as the man moves closer.

“Mr. Bhatti,” the man says, offering his hand. Salah shakes the man’s hand. “Forgive me, but do I know you, sir?”

“Mr. Bhatti,” the man says as if breathlessly. “Your son, Jhanda, in the parade is very good. The best one in his class. Look,” he says, pointing at his son, and before Salah knows what is happening this man’s arm grips his shoulders in a mock intimate embrace. “See how, of all of them, he works the hardest to stay in step.” A group of teenaged girls shoves past Salah. One of them maneuvers herself as close as she can to the curb and, yelling something nonsensical at the top of her voice, lifts the sweatshirt she is wearing, exposing her small, brash, braless breasts. She is called, approvingly, a strumpet and a skank by her friends. The girl rejoins the group and they stagger off in wild hilarity. Salah tries to withdraw from the arm around his shoulder but the encirclement clenches, crushes him closer to the stranger.

“Little Jhanda is such a hard worker, Mr. Bhatti. Yes, he may have to work harder than some to keep up with his arithmetic and geography, but there’s no shame there. Working hard builds character. As long as he’s healthy and happy … that’s the important thing. Isn’t that so?”

“Who are you? How do you know these things?”

“You want to keep Jhanda out of harm’s way, which means you want to keep him out of my way, Mr. Bhatti. Do you see this?” The man shows Salah a handgun, which has appeared suddenly in his free hand. When he sees it, the thing he was trying to remember is thrown into sharp cinematic focus: the robbery in the store a few weeks ago, the way his hands filled with a helium of surrender and floated helplessly above his head. “We want to keep Jhanda safe, we want to keep him from harm. I want you to come with me, so that no harm befalls your son.”

“Sir, this is not appropriate, let go,” Salah says, attempting to pull away. “Maybe you think I wouldn’t dare use this in public. To harm a child, with so many witnesses. You’re right. This gun is not for your son – it’s just to impress upon you the seriousness of all this. It’s a prop, but a prop that helps you understand how real this all is. Look there, directly opposite, across the street. Straight across. Do you see my friend over there? He’s the big man, waving.”

When Salah looks, a man standing in the very front of the crowd pressed against the barrier waves to him with a gleefulness oddly earnest. Wearing sunglasses, the man looks to Salah gigantic in an almost mythical way. With his boxy broad shoulders and his arboreal thighs in wooden outline against black sweatpants, he could be a professional player of that most American of athletic contests, football, a game of painstaking and grueling territorial acquisition. “See that gentleman there with the very strange name of Audi? If you don’t come quietly with me, he will abduct your son before the parade is over. Or Yasmine. Or Taj. Now walk with me.”

The man releases Salah and turns his back to him, disappearing into the crowd, giving him a choice that is not really a choice at all. Without hesitating, Salah follows him.

His mind smudges sound: the car engine with his own breathing. He waits for an explanation. He listens, waiting for the voice to tell him why he is here, laying on his side in the back seat of the car with his hands cuffed behind his back and the foul-smelling blanket with its corpse-like odor of decay thrown over his head. The radio is turned up loud but tuned to static, a scald of sibilance, butter’s yellow hiss against a skillet’s hot black slide.

“Salah,” the voice says, pitched above the static. “Salah Bhatti.” He attempts to think past the barrier of the blanket, its woolen wall, and is unable to, lapsing into purposelessness. He knows he should be attempting to negotiate something with the voice but finds that he has no purpose like this, under the blanket, handcuffed, waiting. Something sharp toothpicks his bicep. From the inside turbulence horns the softness of his stomach.

Darkness is a door opening to a crypt, the blanket tumbles off behind him, he soars into darkness, accelerating.

Next Chapter

Chapter 12

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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