by Karen English
Shemsia is standing at the kitchen window watching her son, Ali, play basketball with the boy next door. Coley Bunch. Coley Bunch is a thick set boy with a short neck and dull pit bull eyes that imply some kind of pending, unbridled meanness when he grows into his future self. He makes these fake overtures at play but it’s just a scheme to taunt Ali. To toy with him. Now he’s hogging Ali’s basketball while he makes futile attempts to sink the ball into the basket—from the end of the driveway. He does that maneuver where he brings the ball to his chest as if he’s going to pass it to Ali, but keeps it instead to make his next attempt at the basket.
Here is the question: should she go out there and intervene? Or, should she just let Ali handle it.
Twice that Coley boy has looked over his shoulder directly at the window where she stands. It’s as if he knows she is there, watching. She feels a familiar tension growing in the back of her neck as she takes in Ali’s defeatist posture: arms hanging loosely at his sides, head slightly bowed. He seems to be regarding his situation apologetically. Which is his way. He will not take up for himself.
She had to find out from another parent that Coley had been teasing Ali at school—about his food—at the lunch table. He’d snatched the injeera right out of Ali’s lunch, held it up and declared it stinky rubber bread that should be used to mop up spills.
Shemsia was forced to appeal to his teacher, Ms. Browley. (Coley had actually passed it around so everyone could take a sniff. )
What had Ms. Browley done? (A woman who was obviously trying to keep her marital status a secret.) She called them all in for a conference: Coley; Coley’s mother; she and Ali. And for what purpose? Shemsia was at a complete loss.
The Bunch mother, after giving her a withering side glance, full of threat, it seemed, spent the entire conference softly popping her gum and ignoring Ms. Browley’s lecture about cultural sensitivities and the need to accept differences. Coley’s mother was busy whipping her head around this way and that as if in search of something.
When Ms. Browley paused long enough for the woman to get a word in, she said, “Where’s Coley’s work? I don’t see nothin’ that Coley’s done.” She was referring to the starred math papers and spelling tests displayed around the classroom, with the student’s name tag posted underneath written in Ms. Browley’s special calligraphy.
“I don’t even like injera,” Ali said later as they were walking to the car. “Why did you put it in my lunch?” He had looked at her as if she’d found this way to humiliate him on purpose.
Now the tension is moving to her shoulders. She decides to do something, herself. She grabs the bag of laundry next to the back door and heads to the washing machine in the garage.
Coley is now dribbling Ali’s ball in a circle and chuckling to himself.
“Give Ali his ball,” she says as she passes him. Ali is too far away to hear, she thinks, but Coley seems to catch the sharp threat in her voice. He stops mid-shot. She’s caught him off guard and now she imagines him making his weasel like calculations about whether he has to obey this small brown woman with the thick accent or not. He looks back at his house. It stands lifeless and silent.
“ Give Ali back his ball,” he repeats in a whiny voice, meant to mock her. He bounces the ball low and hard toward Ali, gathers the bike he’d let drop at the end of the driveway. He gives a running start, hops on and speeds away—chunky legs pumping.
On her way back to the kitchen, Shemsia is shaking with fury. The nerve of that child mocking her like that, copying her accent. She meets Ali’s level gaze and in that moment she knows she’s made a serious misstep. He’d heard her. Now the moment would follow him. And no matter what he achieves in his life, even winning the regional spelling bee at the end of the month, he will always remember that it was his mother, with her unbearably thick accent, who’d had to rescue his basketball for him.
He bounces it listlessly a few times then lets it roll to a stop. He turns on it and goes into the house. She follows behind him, noting the fragile shoulder blades that show under his thin t-shirt like folded wings. How she’d like to reverse his growth until he was her baby in arms again.
Shemsia walks into the kitchen and stops short at the sight of her husband. He’s sitting at the table sipping coffee and grading papers. His hair is freshly dyed. It’s taking her some time to get used to it. He reminds her of some of the aging men at the mosque with their odd colored dye jobs and white roots pushing through. Yusuf’s hair now has the matte finish of coal. It does not work against his fading complexion nor his brows, once thick and dark, now plagued with unruly gray hair.
Just then she remembers he’d told her earlier that he had something to run by her. She suspects it’s something about which he’s already made up his mind. She sinks into the seat across from him and folds her arm, inhales deeply, and offers a quick prayer for sabr—patience.
She will not mention his hair. Not yet. Sometimes it’s better to wait before pointing out Yusuf’s foolishness to him. Besides she needs to enlist his help with their son. Tell him what he must do about the Coley situation, which she’s sure goes back to the day they moved into the house next to the Bunches.
She’d seen Coley’s mother sitting on her front porch steps vigorously smoking a cigarette with a disapproving scowl on her face, watching everything that was going on. Shemsia could feel the weight of the woman’s censure as she moved back and forth between the U-Haul Yusuf and his cousin had rented and the house. She was wearing jeans and one of Yusuf’s old shirts, but she was also wearing hijab.
“Yusuf,” she ventures, “you have to talk to Ali.”
Yusuf doesn’t say anything. Shemsia knows he’s thinking: And here we go again.
She continues anyway. “He was just standing there doing nothing while that Coley boy had his basketball and wouldn’t give it back.”
Yusuf looks up from his paper and frowns appropriately.
“He needs to learn to take up for himself.”
“He’ll be okay,” Yusuf says.
My gosh, my gosh! This man understands nothing, Shemsia thinks. Men can be so glib. So careless about things that can happen.
“Don’t worry about him so much. He’s okay. He’s just a gentle soul.”
She notes he’s saying this while having returned to the paper he’s correcting.
But, then he puts the paper aside, looks at her, and says, “I have something I need to run by you.”
Here it is, she thinks. She doesn’t like his careful tone. Here is the thing about which he’s already made up his mind.
“Marcus has to move in with us.” There’s barely a pause. Now he seems to be bracing himself for her response. “He has no place to go—he has no money. And, he’s my brother,” he adds.
“Marcus’s not our problem.”
“He’s my brother.”
Shemsia says nothing. She has to be careful here—wait a bit in listing her objections. She doesn’t want to make Yusuf contrary on general principle. She rests her chin on her palm and partially covers her mouth. It isn’t the eyes that give people away. It’s the mouth. Shemsia remembers the approach of a smile on her friend Desta’s face—when they were young girls—and she’d admitted to a bad grade on a math exam.
“He’s been living downtown—on skid row—on the street.” That’s meant to elicit horror, she’s sure. She doesn’t feel horror. She feels Marcus is a grown man—of some size actually. He can survive.
Now Yusuf goes on a bit about the importance of family and how everyone must pull together. She hates the way he’s raising his eyebrows in the middle, in an effort to look pathetic and helpless. She leans in, her chin still on her palm, her fingers still over her mouth. I will let him talk and talk, she decides, but he will come to my conclusion on his own. Marcus cannot live with them. It is out of the question. She looks at her husband squarely so he can be sure he has her undivided attention—then at the wooden base of the cup tree that sits between them and its fine layer of dust. Hadn’t she dusted it the day before?
While Yusuf yaps on, something occurs to her, something that occasionally worms its way into her consciousness and causes her even more disquiet. Why had she married this man? Oh, yes… In the beginning she thought he had a sweet face. Touching. A lovely brow and eyes that seemed to twinkle when he laughed—really laughed. There were other things of course, but the memory of those traits seem grander than anything else: steady; responsible; patient; unruffled. Oh and he’d become Muslim—in college, on his own. Astounding.
However, in marrying Yusuf, she’d married his whole maladjusted family.
That she hadn’t foreseen.
His sister, Vicki, for example, and her little Roashon. (And, what kind of name was Roashon, anyway?) One woe after another. And, Roashon’s father? Gone—just as soon as the very brief sense of empowerment he’d gotten from new fatherhood had fizzled. Then there was his cousin, Trina, with the slightly sticky fingers, it was suspected. She’d often arrive without calling and before Shemsia had the opportunity to put away her jewelry. And, then Marcus and his few “bad breaks.” Weren’t those bad breaks largely self-imposed—the result of bad decision-making? In her Ethiopian culture those kinds of “bad breaks” did not exist. It must have been an American thing.
She cannot not help herself. She has to speak. “Is Marcus working?”
Yusuf sighs. “Would he be homeless if he was working?”
Knowing Marcus, he could very well be working and homeless. Of course she doesn’t say this.
“Anyway, Harun has promised to find him something while he’s here.”
Harun is one of Yusuf’s friends. The one who has an inflated opinion of himself. He rarely does what he says he’s going to do.
“He won’t,” Shemsia says. “Oh yes, he’ll promise, but then you’ll have to chase him down.”
“What choice do I have? Marcus’s my brother. Right now he needs my help.”
“But your help is my help, too. Yusuf, this is not going to work. Where is Colette?”
Shemsia already knows Marcus’s ex-wife has had the sense to be nowhere near Marcus, but still there is a glimmer of hope that Colette has turned forgiving and maybe would be willing to give Marcus a hand.
“Colette moved back to New York last year. Marcus doesn’t even know where she is, exactly. “
Shemsia pulls her lips in to keep from smiling. “Yusuf I cannot be in my hijab in my own house. All day long…”
He stops her right there. “I’m pretty sure Marcus will be out of the house most of the day. Like I said, I think Harun is going to find him something. We’ll put a time limit on it,” he says. “One month.”
“Insha’Allah,” she thinks.
“Ya’Allah!” she says as she stumbles over Marcus’s duffel bag in the hallway three mornings later. “This is not good. Not good at all. I will not move that bag. If no one moves it, it will sit right there.” She steps over it and goes into the kitchen.
The kitchen is empty. Her brother-in-law must still be asleep. Of course he is. People who work their way into these kinds of predicaments are never early risers.
Her husband is gone. Yusuf likes to get to his classroom early, then spend the bonus time puttering about, getting his brain battle-ready for the onslaught of his fifth graders’ homework excuses, fights over choice spots in line, and the free-floating heartbreak of his students’ lives. He usually drops Ali off at the bus stop three blocks away before he scoots off to this separate world.
She looks at the closed basement door then out the window at the Bunch’s blue pick-up. Only a thin grass median separates their two driveways. One of the truck’s entire front bumper is covered in black primer. Then there’s the requisite nude silhouettes on the rear mud flaps and the old, unused barbeque pit by their back porch steps. Just taking up space, marring the landscape.
She’s sure no one in that family has the grit nor the inclination to get rid of what’s become useless. They probably pass it every day and are a little bit weighed down by it, but are too helpless to alter the situation.
The kettle begins to whistle behind her and when she turns to tend to it, there is Marcus. The Marcus. Standing in the doorway, tucking his chin in a false show of humility, she suspects. He looks thinner, a little unhealthy, like someone who’s been putting other indulgences ahead of diet and healthy living.
“Good morning,” he says cheerfully.
Shemsia fingers the end of her hijab. “Good morning.”
“Sorry about my stuff in the way. I was so tired by the time I got here last night, it was all I could do to make it to that bed down there.” He glances back at the basement door.
Shemsia forces a smile but deliberately remains silent because what he’s just said makes no sense whatsoever.
“Can I get some of that?” he asks making himself at home at her kitchen table.
Shemsia takes another cup off the cup tree. She prepares the tea while he drums the edge of the table and whistles tunelessly.
“Did Yusuf tell you about my plans?”
“Not really.” She dunks her tea bag with her back against the sink and thinks about dinner.
“I’m taking up carpentry.”
She sighs. She needs to chop onion for the alecha, but she makes no move to go to the refrigerator.
“Yeah. I’m excited about it.”
“So how are you these days, Shems?” he says veering to another unlikely topic. How’s all your folks in Ethiopia?”
It takes a couple of seconds to recover from the diminution of her name. She knows he’s making nonsensical small talk. He must know she hasn’t been to Ethiopia lately.
In answer she shakes her head and shrugs, hoping by some miracle, he’ll make the connection between the loans Yusuf has had to shell out to him in the past and their lack of money for a trip to Ethiopia.
Marcus, however, has moved on. “Carpentry. Just saying the name and I can smell the wood. Our grandfather was a cabinetmaker. I’m thinking that’s where I get the interest from. It’s pure. You know what I mean?”
Now she wants to burst out laughing, but she manages to say in an even tone, “No, I don’t think I do.”
“I’m thinking of getting an apprenticeship with a master carpenter or some such.” He takes up his drumming again but this time with his open hands. Then he does an odd thing. He places his cheek close to his drumming hands as if there is some subtle yet remarkable rhythm that only his genius can create or appreciate. He stops abruptly. He has a final, important point to make, she is sure. “But not just yet. I need to cool out a little bit first. Get myself together.”
Ya’Allah! she thinks. This is not a halfway house.Shemsia looks at Marcus closely. People like Marcus always have a kind of grandiose optimism. They always have big, big plans. And, they’re quick to announce these plans to whomever will listen. It’s as if the announcement itself is the actual doing.
Now he leans into the beat he’s making on her kitchen table, with eyes closed, seemingly pleased with himself. He stops to take a sip of tea through his teeth, holding his lips out protectively. After he swallows, he says. “But I’ma do it. I’m gonna take one step at a time but I’m going to get there.”
Where is there! she wants to scream. Where is there! She goes to the refrigerator for the onion.
The day Shemsia loves most is Monday. It is her market day. She actually travels to three markets. First, a big chain market in her neighborhood for canned goods and non-food items like paper towels and garbage bags—then, to Whole Foods for her fruits and vegetables and maybe something from the deli. Then onto Little Ethiopia on Fairfax where she buys spices that she can find only in the small market owned by her friend, Almaz.
She walks through the door and is immediately greeted by her.
“How is Ayana?” Shemsia asks once they’ve hugged. “Tell me she is coming home when the school year ends.”
Almaz shrugs and lifts her eyebrows. “I cannot count on it. She’s talking of doing a summer in Italy.”
“Maybe she’ll surprise you and come home,” Shemsia offers.
The store is small enough to allow them to visit while Shemsia puts her few things from her list in her basket. Ingredients for spiced butter and some be-beri for spice paste.
Shemsia likes Almaz and her happy round face and eyes that neatly close, or seem to, when she laughs. Almaz is always in a good mood even when life is not treating her well. She laughs off her husband’s indifference, her youngest daughter’s casual attitude about her home responsibilities, and doesn’t seem to mind that most of the work of the store falls on her shoulders. Shemsia wishes she had Almaz’s ease of attitude. How much more pleasant life would be if she could just laugh at her frustrations.
She pulls into the driveway then sits there for a few minutes thinking of the bags of groceries in the trunk. This is the part she hates: the unloading and the putting away. She looks toward the basement window, then at her watch. Marcus has fallen into something of a routine. When the music starts up in the morning she figures he’s gathering his courage. Over the last three weeks, some of that initial enthusiasm about his life plans have dulled a bit. Of course. Harun’s promise hasn’t quite materialized either. Now there’s this promise of something in a few weeks—or thereabouts. Simply that.
Marcus’s long shower usually follows the music—with no apparent concern about the water bill.
Yet, there’s a surprising quiet when she enters the kitchen with her arms loaded down with groceries. She glances at the closed basement door, then goes back out to the car. Marcus must be out “taking care of business,” as he likes to call his forays into the outside world. But there’s his old Buick across the street. He’s there.
When she returns to the kitchen with a second bag of groceries, she stands outside the basement door, listening. Silence. She sets the bag down on the counter and returns to the car for the last bag.
She’s walking in the door when she hears the distinct sound of a woman’s laughter coming up from the basement. Shemsia stands there a moment, then tiptoes to the basement door a second time.
Yes—a woman’s laughter. Full-throated, reckless, with an annoying sound of abandon. For a few moments, Shemsia stands there considering her options. But then she hears footsteps on the stairs. She moves out of the way just as the basement door opens.
“Hey Shems…,” Marcus says. And what she notes first is his ease and total lack of consideration of the teensiest possibility that this might not be a good thing. He steps back to allow his guest to emerge.
Shemsia watches the pair in silence as Marcus follows behind this woman with his hands on her waist. “This is my lady love, Viola,” he says drawing out the “o” as he steers her to the kitchen table. The woman giggles. “She don’t believe I’ma cook her some lunch.”
Viola smiles coyly. She rests her forehead on her folded arms. Marcus looks over at her and laughs a low drawn out laugh that sounds more like a growl. Then he pirouettes and studies the series of cabinets before him as if he’s using some kind of party trick to conjure up what each contains. He searches out what he needs for his (according to him) famous chili cheese and black olive omelet. Back at the table, Viola has surfaced from her crossed arms and is now watching him with amusement. She rests her chin on her palm in what she must think a sexy pose.
“Let me talk to you for a moment, please,” Shemsia says to Marcus as she leads the way into the hall.
After a moment of seeming confusion Marcus follows behind her, still smiling.
Shemsia pulls the door tightly shut behind them. “Who is that woman?” she asks.
“Whoah…wait a minute,” Marcus says, smiling, but holding his palms up in a gesture to put a halt to her suspicions. “She’s just a friend.”
“Why is she here?”
Marcus shrugs and begins shaking his head slowly. “She’s just a friend who came by to say hello.”
“Why does she say hello to you down in the basement?”
Shemsia can tell by the way his nostrils twitch as he tightly pulls in his lips and looks down, that he’s struggling to keep from laughing. The sight of him doing this infuriates her. When he composes himself, he manages to say, “She just wanted to see where I was staying. That’s all.”
Shemsia doesn’t wait to digest this. She goes back to the kitchen and right over to where Viola has surprisingly fallen asleep—at her kitchen table. That quickly. This woman does not look like a normal visitor with her careless t-shirt and tiny shorts. She’s barefoot and Shemsia can tell that she’s not wearing a bra. Who visits someone with no bra? What woman runs around in public like that?
She pokes the woman on the shoulder, but it is not a hard poke. “Excuse me,” she says.
Viola raises her head, but keeps her eyes closed. “What?”
“Excuse me,” Shemsia says again. “You are a nice person, I’m sure. But you must leave. You cannot stay here.”
The woman now squints up at Shemsia and blinks in apparent confusion. But Shemsia is done. Ignoring the woman, she quickly puts the perishables away and leaves the room. She has no more to say, especially to Marcus who’s quietly crept back into the kitchen to hold a whispered exchange with the woman.
In her bedroom, Shemsia sits on her bed and stares at the telephone. Maybe she’ll call Yusuf. It’s lunchtime. He’s probably sitting at his desk, correcting papers. But that would be pointless, wouldn’t it? Since she already knows what his response will be? He will excuse his brother. Not directly. Oh, no. At first he’ll pretend to be on board with her, wholeheartedly. At least while she vents. He’ll even second each comment with points of his own. Though they’ll be milder, more open ended, exposing another way of looking at the situation. She’s seen Yusuf do this before, especially when she’s detected a slight or some unfairness directed at their son by his teacher or by that little league coach who often seems to give other players more time in the field than Ali.
So, what is the use? She feels helpless. Not just in this—but sometimes in her life, when she thinks about it. She looks at the clock and sees that it’s time for her midday prayer . She goes to the bathroom to make wudu—the washing up. But when she comes out she sits on the bed. She thinks about all the ways her husband has disappointed her. Of course everyone has shortcomings. She must have shortcomings as well. She just doesn’t know what they are exactly.
She places her palms on her knees and sits very still. Someone has scraped a kitchen chair back from the table. It sounds like a decisive move. The sound of a second chair immediately follows and then keys jingling. A pause where the woman must be going down to the basement to retrieve her shoes. Finally, the back door slams and Shemsia smiles at the sound of it. They’re going. At least she’s accomplished that. They’re going. To make sure she goes to the window to watch them get into Marcus’s Buick.
Before they can even open their respective doors, Coley Bunch’s mother, of all people, calls out to them from her front porch. She happens to be sitting on the top step aiming her hose at the dry patches of her front lawn.
Marcus about-faces and crosses to the sidewalk in front of her house. She gets up, rummages in the bushes to turn off the water. “I’m sellin’ somethin’ you might be interested in. Hell, I could very well give it away,” she tells him while straightening and looking Marcus up and down. Viola, who’s been leaning against the hood of Marcus’s car, pulls herself up, yawns with both arms in the air, and crosses back over to join him.
What does that woman want? Shemsia wonders. It’s hard to make out her words, but now she’s leading them around to the side of her house.
Shemsia quickly scoots through the living room and crosses the hall to the open kitchen window. She’s just in time to hear laughter. The three of them.
In the next moment Marcus is dragging the Bunch’s old banged and battered barbeque pit across the two driveways, through the side gate, where she can hear it being positioned next to the back steps. She hears him clap once—as if congratulating himself.
She sits down at her kitchen table and gazes at her cup tree. She wishes she had the inclination to go out there and protest. But what’s the use? She would have to wait. Wait until Yusuf got home—somehow convince him to get that thing out of her backyard. Haul it back over to the Bunches back steps and don’t back down. Can she count on him to do just that? Just that little thing for her—his wife?
Marcus’s car is revving up. Finally. It’s a lovely sound. Even its jerky progression down the street. Wonderful. Now she can breathe. Please don’t stall before you take yourself away.
As a kind of reward, she puts the kettle on for tea, takes out the package of baklava from the back porch pantry. She’d stashed it from Marcus behind cans of black beans. Now she plucks out two pieces and returns the package to its hiding place.
By the time it’s on her plate the baklava has lost some of its appeal, but she’s still glad she’d thought to hide the package from Marcus. He probably would have finished it off by now. Nothing holds him back. In his mind their food is his food.
She realizes with irritation that he’s actually managing to spread himself out into their lives. That piece of junk from next door is a prime example. Why would he think that it was okay to just drag that thing into their yard? What were they supposed to do with it?
And the woman had done that on purpose—pawning her rubbish off on them. That was to show—Shemsia is sure—just what she thought of them—as her neighbors. It occurs to Shemsia then that she can return it. It’s in her power. Within her rights. Yusuf will think she’s being silly, so she won’t involve him. She and Ali can do it.
After dinner, as soon as Yusuf wanders off toward the den to catch the end of the football game, Shemsia sits down at the kitchen table across from her son. He prefers doing his homework at the kitchen table. He’s said his room is too lonely. It makes him feel as if he’s been put away for the night. She allows this. It’s a small thing.
“I need you to help me do something?” she says.
He looks up from his math book and frowns. “What is it?”
“It’s something I can’t do by myself.”
Now he puts his pencil down and crosses his arms.
“I just want to return something next door.”
Now he bites his lip. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just something Uncle Marcus accidentally put in our backyard.”
Ali uncrosses his arms and his shoulders seem to slump. He swallows. “What is it?”
Shemsia attempts to make light of it. “That old barbecue pit. You know the one by their back door. Uncle Marcus accidentally brought it over here.”
“How did he accidentally do that?” Ali asks carefully as if his mother is trying to enlist his help in something criminal.
“Coley’s mother gave it to him.”
Shemsia feels herself losing patience. “I don’t know why, Ali. I want to give it back and it’s too heavy for me to do alone.”
Ali brightens. “Why can’t Dad help you?”
“You’re the only one who can help me. Your father’s got his game and Uncle Marcus isn’t here.” She feels a pinch of satisfaction saying that last part.
Ali shrugs and it seems as if he’s summoned up all his courage to do so. “Now?” he asks.
“Let’s get it over with.”
The wheels are off the thing. How could that have happened? Shemsia comes up with perhaps there’d been a drunken barbecue brawl and they’d taken the wheels off the pit and to throw at each other.
She lifts her side by the rim. Yes, it’s definitely a two-person job. “Grab your side,” she tells Ali. He’s just standing there looking miserable. “When I count to three.” She begins to count then stops. He sighs and lets his hands drop to his sides.
“The gate,” she says. She hurries over to it and pulls it all the way back and lets the rod drop into place to hold it.
Ali takes hold again. His eyes are dull. He looks put-upon. And there’s something else. This is an indulgence on his part. He is indulging his crazy mother—even though it’s counter to his own comfort. This is exactly what that TV mother, who lives across the street from her son, would do. How many times has he indulged her? She puts that out of her mind—as much as she can. “When I say, ‘three,’ she says.
The pit has been successfully returned. Ali is finishing his homework at the kitchen table, her husband has switched to some crime show, she guesses by the sound of the gunfire, and Marcus is still out. She pictures Coley’s mother discovering the pit has been returned to her—to its rightful place. Shemsia smiles. How Shemsia would like to see her face. Passing behind Ali with her mug of tea, she resists the urge to run her hand over his head. He will shake it off and she will mourn the fact that he is no longer her baby boy.