The Assistant Manager by Michael Magnes

The violent blue of the Florida Chicken sign woke Farhan up at three a.m.—an hour and a half before his alarm went off. For the past three months, a bowling chicken in blue shorts with a purple question mark above its head had shaken him from sleep. He imagined that the chicken rose with the same nightmare as his, and that they both wondered why Farhan stayed in this country despite the warnings to leave. The buzz paralyzed him under his blue fleece blanket, his feet anchoring him to the bed. His grandfather had told him, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending.”

In his dreams he flew in a blue sky, words swirling around him. He’d pass a building and the words would be illuminated with the vocabulary of the city. Skyscraper, ledge, birds, custody, deposition, and toothpaste were all translated from Urdu into English. Phrases like “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” swam into him. The dream made his job easier because he knew what the customers at the drugstore were talking about: the twin towers falling, the toothpaste on sale, or the birds shitting on their cars. But last night a wind had scattered the language and torn him apart, causing him to wake up in a cold sweat.

A hot shower would have shocked him awake, but the super had never fixed the boiler. Farhan weighed his options as he buttoned up his work shirt. He could run the tap, heat up the water, and then sponge himself clean, but that would take too much time and effort. He was used to stinking, running into the deodorant aisle as soon as he got to work, rubbing it on. Without a wife there was no one to present himself to anymore.

On his way out of the apartment, he tore his shirt on a nail. He had meant to hammer it down when he moved in. The blue shirt, sold to him by Eckerd Drugs, tore just above his ribs, cutting through his undershirt. A thin line of blood trickled out.

The N23 bus, which went from Queens into the suburbs of Long Island, was due. The morning routine had been easier for him when he still had his wife’s car, before the divorce. Her elbow had glistened in the early morning light as she gently tried to nudge him awake. A little poke at Farhan’s sides, her warm flesh indenting his, was all it took to wake him. And if she couldn’t get him up, his ninth month old son’s cries would have. Every morning, before showering, Farhan stared at himself and smiled. It was the few minutes he needed, to remind himself why he was in America, working. If his wife had seen the way he looked at his son maybe she would have told his father-in-law how Farhan centered his world on their son, and then those two would have never made up that story about Farhan abusing his son. No one, even in the American court system, would have believed that story, if they could just see the calm on Farhan’s face.

Just before seven a.m., Farhan walked up to the doors of Eckerd Drugs, its blue letters still pulsating. It was company policy to keep the beacon on all night even when the store wasn’t open, making it a mirage for the homeless midnight wanders. Farhan imagined coming to the store at three a.m. to find people gathered outside, assuming that it would be open so that they could buy their Snickers and Charmin.

The Sunday newspapers were stacked in front of the door, dropped off predawn. Farhan stumbled, nearly falling through the glass. Scooping up the papers, he entered and wiped his forehead with the headlines. The acne he’d had as a teenager had come back. Someone pounded on the door. A hand grabbed him; the old man’s fingers made Farhan’s body vibrate, his thoughts bouncing around in his head like the wind had gotten a hold of them.

“Are you open yet, son?” the old man said.

The brim of a faded VFW hat rested just above the man’s eyebrows. What could he possibly want? The store wasn’t open. A thin band of flesh stood out above his sunglasses, which took over the rest of his face. The old man’s opaque lenses shot back an image of the disfigurements under Farhan’s eyes. Farhan traced the bags, flicked the crow’s feet, and stopped at the boils. He squeezed one of the pimples hiding in the shadows under his eye, letting the warm pus drip down to his lips. Farhan spit the saltiness out onto the sidewalk and the old man took a step back.

“That’s disgusting,” he said.

“Eight,” Farhan said. “The doors are opening at eight.”

“You know,” the old man said, “when this store was still called Genovese they would have opened for the first customer. We’re always right. The Italians knew how to treat people.”

“I am not Italian.”

“I goddamned well know that,” he said, jabbing Farhan in his ribs. “We take care of our own.”

“Actually, sir,” Farhan said, winching as blood from his nail wound trickled out, “this has been an Eckerd for almost nearly two years when Genovese sold. Since I work here.”

“I expect to be taken care of.” The old man pushed his finger harder. “After my coffee, you better be open.”

“Sir, my apology,” Farhan said, knocking the finger away, but the finger came back, insisting. “Come back in one hour.”

Farhan balled his hands into fists, ready to protect himself at all costs. When his wife packed up and left, he got into a fight with his father-in-law that had ended in his front tooth getting chipped from a fall. How dare he accuse Farhan of abuse? His father-in-law’s parting gift was a black eye. Farhan wasn’t going to let his elders bully him anymore. The courts had already sided with his in-law, taking his son away on child abuse charges that his father-in-law had lied about.

“I can only follow the rules,” Farhan said to the man.

“The rules are: you do what I say, when I say it, capiche?” The old man started the walk toward the neighboring Grand Union and yelled, “You take care of Sydney, and then we won’t have no problems.”

“Who is Sydney?” Farhan yelled.

“Yeah, who is?” Mike Grey said, appearing out of nowhere.

“Man,” Farhan said, “you scare me. Sydney is an old man and a jerk.”

“You’re too jumpy,” Mike said.

“Mike man,” Farhan said. “You see person?”

“No, but you know what?” he said, grinning like a Persian cat. “Fuck this sheet, man.”

“Fuck this shit,” Farhan echoed. Mike was a college student who had worked at the store since high school. He was about to transfer to an art school in Brooklyn, leaving the store and Farhan behind. Farhan slapped Mike on the back, returning the grin.

“Mike man, how you doing? How you been?”

“Work man, fuck this shit.”

Fuck this shit was Farhan’s comfort phrase. It was better than screaming in the store. The soft F sound, followed by the U that he could slide around in, and ending in that harsh K. It was a sound that could protect him, hard-shelled and stubborn, because it lulled the listener into a false sense of security with the softness before it. If only this weapon were admissible in court.

“Mike, I hear that today is your last day?” Farhan said.

“Moving into the new dorm in Brooklyn next month.”

“No man,” he said. “You must stay. It is mandatory.”

“Farhan.” Mike tried to enter the store, but Farhan pushed the door shut. “I just want to put the sale signs up. Get it over with, you know?”

“No, if it is your last day,” he said. “In this condition you must not work.” He paused. Business was so slow on Sundays that the main office was thinking about keeping the store shut.

“Not work, eh?”

“Hard,” he said. “Not work hard.”

“Fuck you seriously.”

“What kind of movie you write when you go to college?” Farhan asked.

Mike was always talking about wanting to write and direct his own film, fantasizing about what he could use the stock room to double for, either a funeral home because of the gray walls, if they could get a metal table, or a warehouse, but that would have been too easy.

“Comedy,” Mike said, pulling the door open. “I just watched this show called The Office and…”

“Man, I see movie last night,” Farhan said, pushing it closed. “Let me tell you. I need expert opinion.”

“Whatever,” Mike said, lighting up a cigarette. “Our uh, door seems to be malfunctioning.”

“I see Spider-Man.” Farhan opened the door. “And this man, who is a spider, he have these powers that make him fly around Manhattan.”

“He swings. Spider-Man can’t fly.” Mike ran up to the Manager’s office, the small enclave perched above the entrance, and looked for the sales signs. “He uses his webs to connect to buildings, and then he swings from them.”

“Like the Twin Towers?”

“Yeah,” Mike said, “but not anymore.”

 

 

Farhan had just finished compiling the newspapers. Every Sunday he had to take each section—arts, business, sports, weather, etc.—and place them in the correct order to create the Sunday newspaper. Even though he thought it was mindless busy work, sliding the pamphlets together wrapped tight with the Sunday comics made him feel like he was a part of the publication process. Farhan mattered because he bound information.

He was trying to decipher the 9-11 committee’s findings. It had happened three years ago, the city mourned, and Farhan got called a terrorist more than usual, but nothing in day-to-day life had changed. He squinted at the cover art: an American flag proudly waving amid rubble. Errors from state immigration offices were to blame for letting the hijackers into the country. Farhan came to New York as a newlywed in 1999 and worked his way across Long Island from stock room to stock room, emigrating to Eckerd when they offered him the assistant manager position.

“Why didn’t you put the music on yet?” Mike said, pointing up. “Music makes the work go faster.”

Farhan turned the knob and started to bounce in his chair. “Is Chop Chop Song.”

“It’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

“Chop Chop Song.”

“It sure is,” Mike said, tearing up the sales signs. Farhan knew that Mike only put about half of them up and threw the rest away because it was easier. He looked the other way because he could trust Mike. Mike manned the store when Farhan went to the back at five to pray, taking on the guise of manager for the duration. And he never once grumbled. The customers would just have to grope blindly in the dark for the sale items, which meant complaining to the two of them, but Mike and Farhan countered that by making fun of the customers. No Ma’am, Mike would say. Only the toilet paper with the dog on it is on sale, and that means it’s for dogs. So don’t use it.

Sydney entered, walked straight up the manager’s office, and coughed.

“What is the meaning of chop chop?” Farhan asked Mike

“It means go faster,” Mike said, brushing passed Sydney. “I need a smoke.”

“You have a problem,” Sydney said.

“What?”

“Me.” He pointed to himself. “I’m your problem.”

“What is the matter?” Farhan fiddled with the radio knobs, raising the volume as high as possible to drown out the cantanker and the accusations that he didn’t know how to perform his duties. The job was simple, but the customers complicated things. They always wanted what they couldn’t have.

“I’ll die without my medication,” Sydney said. “Do you want me to die?”

“Yes. Sorry sir,” Farhan said, lowering the volume. “Because the business on this day is not so good the pharmacy is closed. I call in prescription for you in store five miles away.” Farhan grabbed a sales sign, drawing a map straight down Hempstead Turnpike, where the closest Eckerd was.

“Can you even understand English?”

“Farhan, man,” Mike said, cookie crumbs tumbling out of his mouth. “The back door is locked. Also, these cookies are stale.” He raised one up to Farhan. “Breakfast? Just gonna send ‘em back to the company anyhow.”

“Buncha hoodlums in this store,” Sydney said. “Hoodlums. I will die without my m-e-d-i-c-a-t-i-o-n.”

Farhan tried his best to speak properly and clearly, but Americans had a tendency to not listen, never wanting to hear no for an answer. Fuck this shit. No one rolled with the punches here. Americans were inflexible steel, only reacting with bullying and violence. There was an old Urdu saying, “A bad cat deserves a bad rat.” The solution was simple: shut up, listen, and let the customer vent. After that, point to the complaint number. Nothing could come of it. The main office didn’t care: it only existed so that the customers could have something to yell at.

“You call the main office.” Farhan pointed to the sign. There was a picture of Farhan, smiling above the number, encased in the blue plastic and looking outward to nobody in particular. The old man took out a notepad and wrote the number down. He groaned with each stroke of his pen, gasping out loudly, like he was on his deathbed confessing a great lie he had told his wife. Maybe her mother had pushed him into divorce, Farhan thought. Great secrets were always about husbands and wives, and more often than not, in-laws were involved.

“Farhan, man. Pay attention.” Mike threw a cookie at  Farhan’s head as Sydney left. “The back door is locked. I need to smoke.”

“I want to work in Manhattan, you know?” Farhan said. “Make lots of money. Get new girls. Like Spider-Man.”

“Man. Bullshit,” Farhan said, grabbing the box of cookies from Mike. “Smoke out front.” He jammed his hand into the box, tearing the packaging. “Only when we get delivery can doors be open.”

“So what?” Mike said. “Yesterday you let that asshole pharmacist smoke out there.”

“He give me advice,” Farhan said, walking with Mike to the stockroom.

“What do you need that asshole’s advice for?” Mike said, kicking the doors open. “I can give better advice.”

“Don’t kick, man,” Farhan said. “Yeah. You listen to my problem?”

“You know what he told me when he heard that I was going to art school? He said, ‘Aren’t you just going to end up with a shitload of student loans that you’ll never be able to pay off? Just go to a community college. Take writing classes there.’ Man. I can work the rest of my life. I want to write. The Brooklyn Art Institute has the connections and the professors. Some guy who wrote forSaturday Night Live. The first season. I’ve got dreams, you know?”

“Yes, exactly.” Farhan pointed at Mike’s temple, sliding his key into the lock that disabled the fire alarm at the top of the loading door. Technically, it was illegal to open the doors without a delivery. “I want to work in Manhattan, you know?” Farhan said. “Make lots of money. Get new girls. Like Spider-Man.”

“What did you want to do?”

Farhan had worked with Mike each Sunday for the last year, but he’d never told him about his life before America. His past didn’t even seem true anymore. Mike knew that he was married since his wife had come into the store once, but that was it. Farhan felt too ashamed about the abuse accusations that came out during the divorce proceedings to fight for custody. But now Mike was opening up the conversation and today was his last day. Who would he tell? The store manager? The customers? “What is the English word?” he said. “Stock Breaker? At stock exchange. That was my dream.”

“See man. It’s possible,” Mike said. “Do you think I have a chance to make my own movies?”

“In Karachi University. Very prestigious school in all of the Muslim countries. Economics major.”

“I was always shit at math.”

“Math is not shit. It is the only universal language in the world. Everyone know numbers. Words needlessly complicate.”

“Film is like that,” Mike said. “Images are the same way.” He stepped outside and kicked the dumpster. The clang echoed in the empty employee parking lot. “What happened to your car?”

“What?” Farhan said. “You study movies?”

“Sort of,” Mike said. “Screenwriting. But I want to direct my own films. Anyway, John told me to tell you that a customer has been complaining about your, uh, smell.”

“I smell,” Farhan said. He’d had to sleep on the bus the night his wife left him three months ago.

“Just watch out for that,” Mike said. “Okay?”

“Yeah man.”

Farhan went to the deodorant aisle, toward the front of the store. He pointed, gently moving his index finger in front of each label, guiding him to the name of each one. Axe. Arrid. Secret. Old Spice. Secret sounded like the strongest. He untucked his shirt.

“Excuse me,” a woman carrying a package of Charmin said. Her U’s were elongated and sharp, accusing Farhan of something. He imagined darts coming out of her mouth and piercing his ribs. “You’re not supposed to be doing that in the store.”

“I am sorry.”

“Ring me up,” she said. “Isn’t there a break room or something for you people to do that in?”

 

 

At ten o’clock a buzz came from the stockroom. The fire alarm Farhan had disabled for Mike was going off. Farhan was reminded of a fire in his old grade school. It was after classes, so only three or four children were killed, with twelve severely injured. No one had known the cause, so blame was spread around to the janitor, who had been famous for smoking in the basement; the principal, for not keeping the building up to code; and the fire department, for not responding quickly enough. Everyone had a different opinion about why it happened, and that was all the town talked about for the next few weeks. After that, no one said much of anything until it was time for the yearly memorial. A group of concerned citizens had been looking into the issue and found nothing. Flags were displayed at half-mast and there was a moment of silence for the dead.

Cigarette butts, smashed and stranded, littered the stockroom floor. Farhan kicked a milk crate over, stood on it, and touched the alarm. He screamed and was zapped. He saw the exposed wire, smoke rising out of it, and covered his ears from the sound still shrieking out of the malfunctioning electronics. He could call John, the store manager, but would get yelled at for his lack of problem solving skills. The only other option was the fire department, and they might shut the store down.

Mike grabbed the broom handle by the desk and whacked the metal box, just missing Farhan’s head.

“Man, are you crazy?” Farhan said.

The buzzing continued.

“A customer has a question up front,” Mike said. “There’s a line. I said Code Nine. Didn’t you hear?

Code One meant that the register was nearly out of change. Code One One meant that the register was out of change, and that a manager needed to run up to the safe ASAP. Code Nine meant that more than four people were on line and another register needed to open. Code Eight meant that it looked like someone was stealing. And a Code Eight Eight meant that someone was definitely stealing. Farhan used to have a note card in his front pocket as a cheat sheet to remember the codes.

“All right,” Farhan said. “We get rid of customers. Problem solve.”

 

 

It was store policy to issue rain checks for out-of-stock items so the customer could get it at sale price when it was back in stock. Farhan had spent the last fifteen minutes writing Dr. Pepper rain checks while Mike rang up the customers. Mike had directed all of the customers who wanted something out of stock to Farhan. After the line died down, Mike went to the back to smoke. Farhan, stomach grumbling, heard Mike screaming “Fuck this shit.” He ran down the food aisle to grab two cans of tuna and tell Mike to get back up front.

Farhan kicked the stockroom doors open. The drone of the alarm continued, burrowing into the back of Farhan’s head, overwhelming the rest of his thoughts so that the noise swam around in the back of his brain. He tried to spit it out, but his throat made a buzzing of its own, a gurgle that sounded more like anger than the mindless white noise from the box.

“Stop,” Farhan said, spotting a wire coming out from the alarm box. He unplugged it, and the buzzing stopped.

“Shit, you did go to college,” Mike said. “Should you have done that?”

“John’s problem now.” Farhan juggled the cans of tuna. “You like?”

“You,” Mike said, “are one talented Farhan.”

Farhan recognized the look on Mike’s face. When he was a kid, the school bully would gather a group of kids around Farhan, ready to fight him and steal his pocket change. Farhan would juggle or backflip or somersault to entertain them. The look of astonishment glowed on their faces because he could do something that they couldn’t. And as soon as Farhan was done they would beat him, but those few minutes between were incredible. Farhan felt high and free.

Farhan rolled the cans across his shoulder, shifting side to side, up and down, so that they would end up in the opposite hand from the one they started in. He could have won the court judge over if he’d been able to perform tricks. There was so much that he could do now. His son had been amazed at how he juggled bottles.

“John,” Farhan said. “He do this to the fish. On his boat. And you know what?”

“What?” Mike’s pupils darted, following the cans.

Farhan smiled and let the anticipation build. Winning over Mike meant that he would have someone to confide in. The older pharmacist laughed at Farhan’s pronunciation and misplaced words: sheet instead of shit, “some door is okay to open.” Mike had never made fun of this and he became the only American Farhan trusted. If you could make someone laugh then you could trust them with your secrets. The pharmacist never laughed.

“He fuck the fish,” Farhan said. “And then he scream: ARGH! Like this.” Farhan mocked falling down and writhed on the floor for a few seconds. He was a fish that had gotten caught in a tsunami, water crashing down and drowning him. “And he throw the fish into the water,” he said. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess,” Mike said, laughing. “But I’m gonna need a minute to recover.”

“Fine,” Farhan said. “Good good.” He tapped Mike on the back. “You regain some composure and then see soda pallet?”

“Good old soda pallet,” Mike said. “Everyone loves a good old soda pallet.” Mike paused. “You know, I met someone from Guatemala. She said that they called Coke the dark waters of Yankee imperialism.”

“Dr. Pepper,” Farhan said, pointing. “You make display so customers stop complaining.”

“You’ll man the register?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll build a display in the back,” Mike said, rolling the hand truck, “by the pharmacy.” The soda boxes needed to be stacked neatly, like blocks. Farhan wondered if you could stack them into the shape of a house, one large enough to walk into and rest.

The man nibbled on the woman’s ear. She shuddered, her body moving in unison with his mouth—he bit down gently, released her, and then carefully swept his tongue out to caress her earlobe. Each time his tongue slid across the flesh, her knees tightened. She grabbed her unattended lobe, tugging on it.

Farhan walked out of the stock room, passing a man and a woman—a couple. They held hands and pulled each other in closer. The man nibbled on the woman’s ear. She shuddered, her body moving in unison with his mouth—he bit down gently, released her, and then carefully swept his tongue out to caress her earlobe. Each time his tongue slid across the flesh, her knees tightened. She grabbed her unattended lobe, tugging on it. Farhan watched from behind a display of cat food.

The couple put their arms around each other, hoods up, and leaned in, their faces disappearing into each other’s shadows. They were dressed in the same blue jeans and black hoodies, melting into one mass. Farhan wanted to breathe in their airspace, figure out the secret of how two people could turn into one, and remain that way.

Farhan’s wife had been able to persuade her father to sponsor Farhan for citizenship when he emigrated. Her family had owned a gas station in Westchester for the past ten years, and were against their marriage. They said that Farhan was a deadbeat, dropping out of college to be a common factory worker. They wanted their daughter to marry up, moving to the middle class because the poor did not know how to take care of their children. She was only able to convince them after she said Farhan’s sister would agree to marry her brother—the one who rarely left the house. Farhan was angry at first, but didn’t think that the arrangement was serious. But his wife’s family kept insisting so Farhan had sent his sister away, and his wife began to grow colder.

The couple pocketed a box of Mallomars each, hiding the yellow boxes deep inside their hoodie pockets.

 

 

An hour later, a middle-aged woman rattled the metal bars over the pharmacy counter. Her black hair was wispy on top, patches of flesh shining through. She looked like Farhan’s father-in-law, but thinner and taller, unexposed to the saturated fats that he sold at his gas station. Farhan jumped back at the sight of her, and then ran over, grabbed her hands, and said, “What are you, crazy?”

“Are you the manager?” she said. Her voice shook from nasally to deep, the “are” fluttering in the air until the “manager” sank her words like a stone.

“Yes,” Farhan said. “What is some problem here?”

“Is your boss here?”

Farhan closed his eyes and watched the words that he needed to say slowly dance out in front of him. Little yellow dots fluttered over the vowels and consonants, blinking, telling him how each letter should sound. They surrounded him like the exclamation point orbiting the Florida Chicken sign. “What is the nature of your problem, ma’am? Perhaps I may be of some assistance.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Those,” she said, pointing to a rack of sunscreen behind the bars of the locked up pharmacy, “are on sale.”

Farhan thought to tell her that there was a whole aisle that brand of sunscreen on sale in the store, but knew that the tubes she couldn’t have were the ones she wanted. That was how capitalism worked. Customers came in, looked for what was on sale, and immediately found some situation in which they couldn’t buy what they needed. The store was out of Dr. Pepper so the customer couldn’t buy five cases for nine dollars as part of the general Coke product sale. The mint toothpaste was sold out, and the wintergreen would simply not do. The customers were a mob and it was easy to predict their movements.

“I’m sorry misses,” Farhan said. “But I can write you a rain check.”

“I’m going on vacation,” she said. “I need that.”

“What did he say?” Mike said, pointing at Farhan.

“Are you in charge?” she asked.

“What did he say?”

“He said that I couldn’t have it.”

“Then I guess you can’t have it,” Mike said.

The woman left in a huff. Farhan grabbed Mike’s arm and pointed upward; the Red Hot Chili Peppers song from the morning was playing. The music looped all day, replaying after the song cycle had run its course.

“Is Chop Chop Song,” Farhan said. “What do we do in this condition?”

“I came back here,” Mike said, “because I needed to piss. Can you watch the register?”

“In this condition, we dance,” Farhan said. He looked down, his feet moving in a kind of square pattern. When he was a teenager he had read about how Americans liked to square dance, and this seemed as good a song as any. The rest of his body followed his lead, his feet diligently following the imaginary polygon, and his neck swayed from side to side.

 

 

At five o’clock Farhan went into the stockroom to pray. At home in Pakistan, he had never made a point to stick to the traditions he had grown up with, but here it was different. Tradition was all he had. It was the last slice of his identity. He knew that prayer hadn’t helped him win his last court hearing and it wouldn’t help with the next, because he didn’t actually believe in God, but he believed in the tradition. The act was more important than the belief, the last piece of culture he had brought over with him from his motherland. His clothes, books, and furniture were all in his wife’s basement.

Mike puffed on a cigarette as Farhan reached into the pile of collapsed boxes in the baler. You had to take the boxes apart, flattening them, so the machine could do its job. Farhan liked to watch the slab come down, slowly destroying the cardboard. The baler was big enough that he could fit into it if he wanted.

“Sorry man,” Mike said, exhaling.

Farhan laid the box on the ground, smoothing it over with his hands. Kneeling down, he said, “Are there any customers up there?”

Mike nodded and left.

Farhan tucked his tie into his shirt and began. The first time his head touched the cardboard he thought of how much he missed the music that the mosque his wife belonged to played. The second time his stomach grumbled. After that, his body was on autopilot, completing the prayer just as he had been taught to as a kid. Farhan finished, put the cardboard back into the baler and pressed the button. The machine came down and crushed everything inside of it.

 

 

“So,” Mike said, “did you like Spider-Man?”

“I’m hungry,” Farhan said, staring out from the manager’s office. “You get us some foods?”

Mike left. Farhan and Mike had been trading off on buying dinner on Sundays. They ate whenever the first one announced that he was hungry.

A woman dressed all in back entered the store. Farhan scrambled, jumping over the counter to sign in to the register. The collar on the woman’s coat was pushed out, enveloping her neck. She was dragging her son by a leash into the store. His feet shuffled, trying to keep from falling to the ground as he was floated along like driftwood. He left scuff marks in his wake as they disappeared into the shampoo aisle.

Farhan imagined that the son would suddenly stand up and cut the cord. He would scream in defiance, kicking the broken leash away, telling his mother that he didn’t want to be walked like a dog. The mother would tell her son that the leash was a present from her father, that she was led on the very same rope, so that the father could control her and this was how families worked where they came from. The son would spit on the ground and run away.

 

 

Mike dropped a bag in front of Farhan.

“You see lady?” Farhan asked.

“What lady?”

“The one in the shampoo aisle.”

“Are you all right?” Mike took out his sandwich.

“No man,” Farhan said. “Not all right.”

“Well I can’t try to help,” Mike said. “But I can try to try.”

“Told you about my university dream, like your dream to become a writer.”

“The one thing that I’ve ever wanted to do,” Mike said. “It’s like I only feel like I’m being myself when I’m writing.”

Farhan took out his wallet, flipped through receipts and the number for the new lawyer the court had appointed to him, and showed Mike a picture of his wife and son just after she had given birth. She was gripping the blue blanket her son was wrapped in.

“This was my dream.” Farhan tapped his son’s face. “Her father is bad man, understand? I get American citizenship because my wife want to come here, and her father sponsor me. And the only reason she do this is because she want to take over family business and she can only do that with husband because of our customs. Only man can run things. It’s stupid. And her father only let marriage happen if my sister marry his son.”

Farhan expected Mike to walk away because the whole business of arranged marriage sounded absurd when you said it out loud. But Mike stayed and had that same look the bullies had when Farhan performed tricks for them—enraptured.

“And she cannot say no because she is afraid. It would be bad honor to my family.”

“Dishonor.”

“She didn’t want to,” Farhan said. “So I help her get into law school. And now, as a result, I never see my son because my father-in-law lie to the courts about child abuse so they keep him from me.”

“Jesus,” Mike said. “What does your lawyer have to say? That’s not legal.”

“I need help,” Farhan said. “Old lawyer too busy, so I get new one, but he talk too fast and I can never understand what he says.” Farhan paused. “Can you come with me to some meeting, to translate?”

“Uh,” Mike said. “It’ll be hard to get back out here once I move.”

Farhan tapped Mike on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. No trouble.” He pointed at the ceiling. “Song is good sign. Is horsey song.” He had taken his son to see the movie that the song was from—a story about a horse running wild and free and not being tied down to anyone or anything. His son was an infant, unable to understand, but Farhan figured that he could absorb the message. Farhan sang: “Here I am. It’s a new day. It’s a new life. Here I am.”

“Phil Collins is shit.”

“My son liked it.” His son Mirza had wailed all through the film. The people in the audience screamed, louder than his son, for quiet. A couple of other babies had joined Mirza and formed a chorus. Mirza stopped as soon as that song had started. He had smiled and bounced on his father’s knees in rhythm with the music. “So that makes it good thing,” Farhan said.

“Kids are,” Mike said, “special. It’s a dumb song.”

“No way, man,” Farhan said. “You are wrong!”

“Whatever.”

Farhan watched his father-in-law walk into the store. He pushed against the automatic doors that moved too slowly and marched up the register. His daughter followed a few paces behind. Farhan hopped to them intercepting them before he could reach Mike.

“Shit,” Farhan said, waving them over to the pharmacy.

“Farhan,” his father-in-law said. The way he pronounced his name made it sound like a command. That hard F sound, the A shortened and skipped over, ending in that dire N.

“I don’t have anything left,” Farhan said, in Urdu, craning his neck to make sure that Mike couldn’t hear. Farhan knew that he might not be able to understand a language, but the timbre was universal. “What do you want?”

“What we agreed on.” His father-in-law father folded his arms, pressing the wild hairs on the sides of his bald head down.

“I want to see my son again.”

“They say you hit your son,” he said. “We are in America now. Your word versus hers. And I will back up your wife’s story.”

“Story?” Farhan said. “I have the truth.”

“Truth.” His father-in-law huffed. “We honor contracts in our culture. You would do well to remember that.” He paused. “And my voice, as your father-in-law, is sacred.”

“Get out,” Farhan said, pushing him.

“If we abandon our customs,” he said, “we are animals, thrashing around in the wilderness. Do not deny your blood. Without it you will waste away.” He walked away, waving for Gaeti to follow. “We’ll see you at your deportation hearing.”

“What was that all about?” Mike asked.

“Shit man,” Farhan said. “You sneak up like cat.”

“Who was that?”

“No one,” Farhan said. “No one.” He paused. “You need some cigarette?”

“You know it.”

The fluorescent light beamed down on Farhan, heating the top of his head. He knew how to make things right, how to make his problems go away. He was comfortable with the warmth, however brief it was.

 

 

Farhan fell asleep as soon as he got home, shoes still on. In his dream he floated in a gray sky, ensconced in a small circle of blue. The blue zone extended to the ground, lighting up a building that he wasn’t able to recognize just yet. A great wind shook the air, scattering the blue. For a few seconds, a cool breeze of knowing washed over him, and he melded with the cerulean cocoon. The currents became increasingly violent, thrusting him back and fourth. His limbs broke and detached, calmly settling at his sides as he screamed. The gusts bellowed and sucked his voice away. The grey enveloped him, the winds stopped, and he fell. He could see the ground and the Karachi building coming into focus, but he woke up before the ground met him.

At his window, the blinds fell onto his head as he stuck his face out to suck in the air. The neon chicken light reflected off of the water stains on the peeling strawberry-colored wallpaper. The question mark blinked. Farhan let the cool wind calm him as he stood on the ledge.

 

© 2014 Michael Magnes

Image “A neon blue swallow” © Flickr user Peer Lawther


Michael Magnes earned his MFA at Portland State University. He lives in Portland and is currently writing a book about a comedian stumbling through her life and her country. His work has appeared on such sites as The Awl, Hobart, Imminent Quarterly, and The Newer York.