East of Cousins
By Kevin Lavey
His stop came up; he dinged the bell and got off. People swarmed about. He had hoped that the relatively early hour and terrific heat would keep people indoors, but the opposite had happened. Open air stalls of fruits and vegetables were set up close to the bus stop. He elbowed his way through the crowd, stepped on a warm puddle of chewing gum; it stretched and sucked at the pavement.
He moved to Washington DC from Boston four years ago and had never got used to the swampy, muggy summers.
A block away from the street was the enclosed pavilion. Opening its door he felt cool air brush his face and arms. He stood to the side a moment--the colors and movement of the crowd, the smell of fresh coffee brewing close by, the sounds of sellers hawking their wares shifted his attention away from the heat-dizzy morning. To his right was a meat counter where several white coated men with mustaches waited on customers; above them slaughtered pigs hung by their back legs. Next stall down was a woman wearing a babushka selling lemons and tomatoes and squash. A kite in the shape of a fish was suspended high over the aisle, blue streamers flowed from its gills.
A heavy woman with fingernails painted red as candy grabbed his forearm.
"Craig, I thought it was you," she said. "Now I am happy."
"Mrs. Najim," he said. "You surprised me."
Mrs. Najim was Chaldean and lived by herself above Darlene's and his apartment. She had two sons in their twenties who visited once a week. They flashed big smiles and wore heavy, gold-braided neck chains and flipped key rings thick with keys around their forefingers. When they were around, the three of them sat on the front steps speaking to each other in Chaldee. With sons standing guard, she burrowed into her shell of foreigner. She refused to wave at Darlene and him as she usually did, and dished out her unfriendliness to the other tenants as well. She made sweeping gestures to her sons, who laughed and nodded.
He didn't like the woman. She was pushy and aggressively helpless, forever asking favors of people. I need you to move this couch for me. My knees hurt, take down these two bags of trash for me. My medicine is ready at the pharmacy. Run and get it for me. When her boys went home, her mocking disregard evaporated, and suddenly she would speak to you again.
"Craig, you must help," she said. At her feet were two straw handbags filled with market food. The bags bulged like filled wineskins. Mrs. Najim's dark brown hair had turned coarse and was thinning on top. He towered above her, looking down into her oily scalp and lidded eyes. She had bleached the thick growth of hair on her upper lip. Years of wearing heavy earrings had stretched open the pierced holes in her ears until the aperture in them was large enough for him to insert his pinky.
"Mrs. Najim, how long have you been here?" He hoped to distract her so that he could escape to his own shopping.
"Since six I'm here. The fruit is freshest then. Everyone knows that," she scolded. "The sellers are not so stubborn as now, either. But I have to get a few more things."
"Come, come," she clucked at him. She turned and headed toward a row of stalls farther down the long aisle, leaving her bags for him to carry.
"Mrs. Najim," he protested, but as he said her name he bent to the bags and followed.
Her wide hips rolled with the motions of a heavy bottomed boat as she trolled the aisles back and forth harassing vendors.
"What is this?" she said, holding a green pepper. They were eight for a dollar. The seller was a chinless farmer who looked like a stork.
"We call that a green pepper, ma'am, where I'm from."
"Ah," she said, throwing it into the pile. "Is that food for animals? Are you feeding livestock with that?"
"You won't find fresher, ma'am. Excuse me," he said, and raised his eyes to a woman behind Mrs. Najim. She cut him off.
"My doctor has put me on a diet of vegetables and how does one buy at these prices? How does one maintain health? Eight for a dollar!"
"Ma'am, they don't come cheaper than that. Yes?" again to the woman behind Mrs. Najim.
"I would like some," she said. "But I cannot afford that price."
"Eight for a dollar, ma'am."
"I am unable to afford that!" she said, pounding the wood of the stall.
"Ma'am, what would you like?" he asked the other woman.
"Don't rid yourself of me!" She rose to hysteria. "Are you up on your vendor's fees?" The woman behind them left. "You are bleeding me, you are gouging your patrons," she said. "I can offer a dollar for twelve," she said.
From a stall where plums were sold, a pair of female twins about twelve were left to run the stall while their parents divided between themselves two other stalls in another aisle. "This family has no seniority here," she whispered to him. "They've been split up." She worked the kids down to a disgracefully low price by calling their father unfair and suggesting the kids were cruel in making an old, ugly woman like her pay so much. While she diverted their attention with her scolding she plucked several plums off the pile and dropped them into her bag unpaid for. "To hell with you children," she said, and stormed away.
At first he was embarrassed by her pushiness and insults. But he'd begun to be fascinated by how easily people rolled over for her. She had a flawless sense for their weaknesses and exploited their earnest urges for fair play. By the end of their tour of the market he stood close to her--he didn't want to miss any of her moves. A more subtle woman might be concerned with soothing feelings of disgust roiling in her wake so that she could return another day, but Mrs. Najim hammered at the vendors as if she were in battle.
Although he'd come to enjoy a perverse pleasure in her wheedling and cajoling, she exhausted him. "Come, come," she would say to him in the moment before he had decided to tell her firmly that he had things to do himself. She seemed instinctively aware of the rhythms of his tolerance and wove back and forth across the aisles both in scouring for the easiest marks and to allow physical distance to come between him and her. He would be played out far in her wake, like a child be given the momentary illusion of freedom, then reeled in while she scrapped in a dogfight with someone over an ear of corn.
"Sit," she said as they neared one of the white metal tables placed close to a snack shop. "You'll have coffee," she said.
"Sure," he said. The moment had come when she could evade him no longer: the straw bags had swelled to splitting and he'd been clomping along behind her like a camel. By all rights he could claim that he'd done her a good turn, that he must be going. But now she offered him coffee which he was starved for. Escape eluded him.
She returned carrying a cardboard tray with two Styrofoam cups and two large rolls. All morning he'd had a headache and since sitting down this past minute it had flared two degrees more painful. The coffee looked wonderful.
"You've got quite a bundle here," he said nodding to the bags. "You shop for your sons, too?"
She eyed him while stirring sugar into her coffee with a wooden swizzle stick. "Those boys need someone to look after them. I should be so lucky," she said.
He could tell that if he wandered down that path too far he would unearth complications: a forced marriage, rotten relatives, something.
"You have a nice girl in that Darlene," she said. "Don't let her go."
"I think you're right," he said.
"You've got to get a better job," she said. "Working on that little newspaper is no good. That's for children."
"What do you mean?"
"You get paid like a little boy. It is degrading."
"I like my work," he said.
"That's irrelevant." She looked around, licking her lips and gums. "You Americans," she said. "You're so stupid. So naive. I am afraid to even bargain with these people for fear of offending them. Ah," she said, brushing the vendors away with a hand.
"You seem to do all right."
"I should show you my village at home. I should show you my father who is eighty go to the market with the goats and chickens running around. The way he works the sellers."
He scraped into the side of his cup with his thumbnail. He'd always allowed himself to be humored by Mrs. Najim--at arm's distance. Her pronouncements on the world were not new, but she'd never before taken direct aim at him.
"Where did you grow up?" she said.
"Boston," he said.
"Ah, Boston. One of your black people told me about Boston. You Americans are not so civilized."
"We're working on it," he said. Mrs. Najim's jabs at him and the marketplace, her cheap swipes at Boston and the entire country, pissed him off, but he felt ludicrous defending the very things he took issue with himself. If he told her that in college he'd joined a socialist organization on campus because he himself searched for answers, she would no doubt sneer and declare it was further evidence of his ridiculousness and in general the country's. Which on paper he would now agree with, but Mrs. Najim, with her dismissiveness and gypsy clothes and shifting eyes and air of suggesting that ancient Babylonia held a more correct understanding of how one lives life, negated any sympathy he might have felt for her.
"Look at your presidents," she said. "They are like children. They go to the Middle East and get their behinds tattooed and become international fools. Everyone should be so naive."
"We're working on it," he repeated.
"In fact," she said, "you Americans are working on nothing. You insist the world follow your program. Such stupidity. You will undo yourselves."
"Mrs. Najim, I think that's a little simplistic..."
"I wish it were," she said. "I wish it could be served up to your leaders that way because nothing is more embarrassing to your big shots than simplicity. Nothing destroys your presidents so much as telling them there is a more complicated way. They are in love with complications."
How could he begin to counter anything she said? She had her chin stuck out at him and her lidded tortoise eyes stared into his.
"Ah," she said, and sat back. "You know why your first presidents were so wise? Does it ever occur to you that all of these documents that the lawyers and charlatans of this day refer to in such hallowed tones--the Constitution for one--that these are very wise documents? And think of it, they were Americans who wrote them. Where does such wisdom come from?"
He was galled that she lectured him like this. What could this woman who came from a desert village God knows where tell him about American life? "I guess I've never thought about it," he said trying to brush her off.
"Let me tell you why," she said, oblivious to his sarcasm. "Because the early ones of this country were European in their hearts. They had perspective," she said, making a circle with her forefinger and thumb. "They knew how the world worked."
"Because," he said, needing to top her, "they saw this country as part of a historical process."
"Ah," she said, waving him away. "Historical process. Such words. Such idiocy."
They had both finished their coffee and rolls. "Come," she said. "Come."
Again he obediently picked up the overstuffed straw bags and followed in her wake. They left the enclosed pavilion. Mrs. Najim bustled ahead. She seemed unaffected by the swamp of heat which drained his energy. He wanted to shout to her to stop. He had things to buy. He followed her, bumping into people; the bun of hair on the crown of her head was a visual beacon he watched bob through the low valleys in the crowd.
She turned and waddled through an open air section of the market. The rows of stalls were shielded from the sun by a roof, yet sodden humidity collected beneath it like algae in a stagnant pond.
Mrs. Najim, bundled up in her peasant dress and pirate's belt, was indefatigable. Laden with her groceries he shouldered his way forward, unable to make up the distance between them. Once beyond the stalls, the last in the entire market, he skipped ahead and walked at her side.
"What now?" he said.
"The bus stop is here." She had gone up a block from where he'd got off.
"But I've got shopping to do," he said.
"So then why didn't you do it in the market? Where are you going to do shopping once we get on the bus?"
"But I was helping you."
"So help me. This is our bus coming already."
He and Mrs. Najim sat in one of the front seats that faced the aisle and at their feet were the straw bags filled with groceries. Only six or seven other people rode the bus which glided along making infrequent stops. He was glum. Not only had his time been taken away, but he'd allowed Mrs. Najim to impose her demands, her schedule, on him and he faulted himself for it. The idea of chasing this aggressive, unpleasant woman around the market loaded down with her bags like her personal retainer made him ill. He sneaked a look at her. Her head was settled into her neck like a turtle's and her eyes were set straight ahead as if she were uninterested in the world passing by. Her stumpy legs were stretched in front of her and he saw that the hair on them was as dense as a man's.
They arrived at their stop. "Come, come," she said, standing. He could hardly look at her anymore--any dark fascination for her had vanished. She'd begun to make him angry. "Come," she threw at him.
They walked the half block in silence. Fleetingly, he considered dropping all her packages on the sidewalk and telling her he had to go to his own apartment. He hated to think of himself acting so ridiculously; and Mrs. Najim was not above hounding him ever after about the time he left her stranded with more packages than she could carry. Americans are disgraceful, he could hear her say. She would tisk at him until he would be driven to make it up to her.
A man the size of a hippopotamus lay on the front steps of the apartment building. Craig had seen him there before.
"Pigs," she said. "Uncivilized. And this is thought of as normal."
They piled around the man then through the front door and waited at the elevator just inside the entranceway. The ancient elevator clacked and whined and descended from above. She didn't look at him; not for any reason, he thought, she'd just come close to no longer needing his services today and had relieved her attentions of him.
The elevator dropped into view through the accordion gate. He slid it open for them and they stepped in. He let the gate close and click tight and she pressed button number three. Between the second and third floors the elevator wheezed and thumped to a stop. It had happened to him before; one time he'd had to wait a long ten minutes before it magically started up again. Darlene had made numerous calls to the manager about it but no one had ever come around to fix it.
Mrs. Najim stared into the exposed bricks three inches away from the protecting gate. She sighed and settled into herself as if these sorts of delays in life were something she expected.
It had come to a point in their morning where he didn't feel like generating any pleasantries. The air was stuffy and hot and any effort to make the situation more agreeable had to come from her. Two or three minutes passed before he put down the bags. Mrs. Najim punched the third floor button with her thumb.
"Ah," she said. "These goddamn machines."
"Try the buttons for the other floors," he said.
She pressed all of them. They could hear the faint straining of a machine, the sound of an engine seizing against a frozen axle. He reached across her and pressed the red emergency button, but its bell was dead.
They both looked into the bricks. Tiny bugs the size of flees appeared then disappeared into the sloppy mortaring, living together, he imagined, in a vast, hidden honeycomb village. Neither he nor Mrs. Najim spoke; the image of them as store mannequins being transferred from one floor to another popped into his head.
"My God," she said. "I want this thing to go."
Stress colored her voice. She rubbed her face and he could see her perspiring. Her discomfort left him unmoved. She had, after all, driven him like a burro this morning and hardly could she ask him for reassuring words.
She dropped her bag from her shoulder and leaned into the corner of the small elevator.
"Please make this thing go up, Craig," she said. The air was not suffocating, but it was hot and stale. Her face had become ashen.
"Mrs. Najim, are you all right?"
"I would like to get to my apartment," she said.
"I'm sure we'll get going in a minute."
He shouted but no one answered.
"Would you like to lie down?" he said. "We could make room if we put the bags over here."
"I am not lying down."
She stood up straight and moved next to him again. She put both of her hands to her face; clearly she was far more distressed than he'd thought.
He put his arm around her shoulder. She was crying. "Mrs. Najim, I think if we just hold on a minute somebody'll come around."
She wiped her eyes with her fingers. He could feel the tension all through her back and he tried to soothe her by lightly rubbing her upper shoulders and acting very calm. She was rigid as an oak sculpture, but after a minute or two her body all at once yielded to his touch and he felt her relax. He was glad he could be of aid to this frightened old woman and he glanced at her to see if she might give him a look of appreciation, even if it were cursory and abrupt. Instead, tears streaked down the middle of her cheeks as if she were a child in a movie.
He was baffled. She cried hard and he decided to just let her be. He took his hand away from her back and while he did so noticed water curling along the floor and pooling at his feet. He stared at it and smelled the odor.
He reached across her and pressed several buttons.
"These goddamn machines," she blubbered. "I am trapped."
"Mrs. Najim, I can't imagine we'll be in here much longer."
Although he took care not to look, he knew the bottoms of the straw bags were soaked. The urine brimmed over the edge of the elevator floor and trickled into the vault of space beneath them, splashing against the basement's cement floor like raindrops.
He yelled loudly and the elevator, as if voice activated, jerked then began to lift. At the third floor it clunked to a stop. He slid open the gate and she walked to her apartment directly across from the elevator, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the wooden hallway floor.
He followed her with the dripping bags and hoisted them into the kitchen sink. She disappeared behind the closed door of the bathroom. He heard the sound of water rushing from the tap.
"Mrs. Najim?" he said. He didn't want leave without telling her he was going. "Mrs. Najim?"
She didn't answer; he stood in the living room waiting for her response, watching the turning blades of her window fan. He stepped toward the bathroom door.
"This place," he heard her say. Her crying and sniffling were muted, as if she had her hands cupped to her face. "This goddamn place."
Craig backed up into the living room and said loudly, "Mrs. Najim, I'm leaving. Better lock the apartment after me." He knew she heard him. He slipped away, pulled the door shut, and tiptoed down the stairs hoping not to disturb.