The very air
A short story by Robert Bové (March 2007)
I am working always in this store with lottery tickets hanging row upon row behind me, lottery machine next to cash register in front of me, a constant stream of customers giving me their numbers scribbled on little pieces of paper, giving me their money, which I must give to the state. I see so much money, my love, it would make you dance again like a little girl. Like the girls on magazines I rack every month in row upon row, white girls, black girls, but no Chinese girls. Men come in for their favorites, big boobs, big butts, big smiles, fuck me smiles, legs that spread from margin to margin, please forgive my language. Late at night when I am closing up, they seem to move, a world of beckoning women I see as if through a thousand small windows, through walls into the church next door, the one they converted to co-ops. Then, I brew one more cup of coffee and take a pack of cigarettes for the drive home. Sometimes I am too tired to shower, sometimes I fall asleep on the couch in my clothes, TV still on, laughing and screaming at me while I sleep, until alarm goes off and it is time to wake up and prepare to leave again and open the store.
In answer to your last letter, I do pray at mosque around the corner but my Arabic is no good. I don’t know what I’m saying. I fall asleep when imam begins to preach. It is so restful, if must be the peace of paradise descending.
I promise to send you more money once I pay taxes and utilities and rent. My mechanic, bless him for a thousand years, is even more patient than you. He won’t let me give him free coffee when he comes in to ask for his money. He is a nice man, which is good since he comes almost every day now.
My feet hurt all the time from standing all day, like small hammers on the soles, but I don’t pay attention. My health is good, my eyes still like an eagle’s. When I close them, I can see farther, across rooftops. I see you and our boys. I am closing them now.
Back again. Ahmed came by the store on a break with a couple friends I have not seen before. He is disturbed. He says he must not pick up drunks, especially drunk women. He can not change his shift, late night on weekends, so everybody is drunk, men or women. I ask him where it is written, and he tells me. He is a student—no, not at college, he quit after taking a few courses, I can’t remember what they were—but he is student of Qur’an. Ahmed has never lied to me or to anybody I know. Why would he lie about not picking up drunks? I tell him I will think about it. But I already know what I think about it. Where is it written that I can’t take a drunk’s lottery money? And how would I make money to send you? Ahmed is special in the eyes of Allah, praise be etc. It comforts me to talk with him, but sometimes I think he is already in paradise, and I am in hell. I will sell them magazines. I will take their money. What is the difference between a dog and a drunken dog?
I promised myself to send this letter soon, but forgive me I am still writing it.
Fog was crawling up
I had the nightmare again last night, the one about the store and the coffee merchant next door with his expensive Mexican corpse dolls, supermarket across street that sells unclean meat, half-naked women filling the sidewalks come summer, and boom-boom-boom from traffic jam cars and SUVs with dark windows and nobody inside. So I ask of this dream, Why is everybody smiling like wolves? I try to train myself to smile like Americans but my jaw aches.
Ahmed says not to bother, that the pain is a sign, that to smile would put me in the camp of those whose every action, every thought is an offence to the One. All creation is offended, even the air they breathe. So he says, Ahmed the pious. But Ahmed himself smiles sometimes, and that I do not like to see. The smile is fine enough, broad and forceful, but it does not reach the eyes.
Well, I finally have money for you, as you must be able to see. I will send this letter in a moment, but first let me explain that Ahmed has given me little errands to run for him, usually picking people up in my car and dropping them somewhere in the city I haven’t been before. He paid off the mechanic, too, so I don’t worry so much about using the old car. Lately, I pick up newspaper vendors, the ones who give away free papers on corners near subway stairs. They are all over the city and sometimes I open the store a little late. I think he must be joking when Ahmed says I am doing important work. It pays, that’s all I know.
Soon, my love, soon.
The two swiftly pushed a trolley down to the service elevator, often taking their eyes from the hall ahead. It was risky not looking, but the hall was not so long it couldn’t be scouted at a glance. And though the two young orderlies hated spending any more time than they had to in “hockers,” as they called the acute respiratory ward, neither of them could stifle the habit of looking into open doors.
Not much to see this evening, between shifts; the rooms were all taken, but there was neither doctor nor nurse in sight. It was quiet, too, and that was strange, considering how busy the ward had been for the last week, but this only spurred them forward. When the two reached the elevator, one of them pressed the down button, and each turned his head to the sound of female voices in the last room on the left, the combined wash and supply room. There were three nurses washing up, two with the standard issue bottled soap and alcohol mix which they complained aged their skin, the third with cake soap she’d brought from home. Behind them, piled tightly on shelves were several sealed boxes containing gloves, gowns, eye protectors and uncomfortable N95 masks. When the nurses heard the elevator bell ring they looked up, nodded weakly in recognition, and returned to their washing.
Once out the elevator, the two raced their trolley toward the exit. It was the end of their shift, the beginning of their weekend, and though neither had anything more exciting planned than going to a neighborhood tavern, that was enough to make their hearts race just a bit. Then, there was the game: the doors to the outside cargo bay swung open when an interior electric eye was triggered, but it was possible to get the trolley going fast enough, to give it one last strong shove so that it slammed into the doors before they fully opened.
That didn’t happen this time. One of the two hung onto the trolley for a split second too long and went flying with it out the now-open doors and onto the slick cargo bay surface, covered with dirty December slush.
The trolley struck the dumpster with enough force to loosen the orderly’s grip and send him sliding to the edge of the bay. His friend, now laughing, gave him a hand up and the two carefully trod the slush to their trolley to empty the contents of “little hazmat” into “big hazmat,” as they’d named trolley and dumpster. “You lost one of your gloves,” he said, pulling his sleeves tighter around his own gloves.
They quickly emptied the trolley, sleet having started up again, slapping their exposed faces. The one who had fallen started to walk toward the steps that led from cargo bay to ground. “Not so fast,” said his friend. “You screwed up, you bring the trolley back.”
“But I’ll miss my bus.”
“That’s rich. Miss the
You have not used the money I sent to reconnect your phone so I must write again and I must implore you to do so and call me. I do not understand your silence.
You remember I said my shop was in trouble? Well, I worry no more. Ahmed has made some improvements, and if we are not yet making profit I am confident we soon will. He has found a cheaper source of cigarettes, much cheaper, and he has lent me two of his companions to watch the store while I do more important work. He is paying them himself.
Three weeks ago, Ahmed came into the store and found me on the verge of tears. Business was that bad, and I knew not where to turn. Instead of sympathizing with me he accused me of being passive, sickly, and devoid of conscience. I thought he would strike me, but instead he grabbed one of the magazine racks and tore it off the wall with one hand. I ran from behind the counter and attempted to pick up the magazines and he pushed me aside. “You have sold the last of this filth,” he said.
He then said that I have been obsessed with you, about seeing you again, having you by my side again. I still want you here, of this there is no doubt. But he said that I can still redeem myself in the eyes of the One, his name be praised. He said that a man who places his faith in women is on his way to perdition. Of this he expresses no doubt.
And yet, and yet I still await your call.
I have put more money in this envelope. Use it for the phone connection. Use what’s left to bring my boys out of
But Ahmed is right to scold me for being indecisive as I am now, leaving things once again your hands.
Two orderlies slowly pushed their cart up to the last room on the long hall. Both were weary from working non-stop for three days, each silently worried he was coming down with something. “No coughing in here,” said the older of the two as they entered the room, his voice muffled by the mask he’d been wearing since authorities first acknowledged an outbreak of the virus within the hospital.
“No coughing in any of the rooms we been to,” said the other. “Guess we’ll have to stop calling this ward hockers.”
“Cold. And lame. Don’t you have a heart?”
“Sorry, it’s just that…”
“Just shut up and help me finish the job.”
Inside the room were three beds, illuminated only by diffused light entering through a single frosty window. One was occupied by a woman, each of the others by a young boy, all three silent and unmoving. A nurse walked in, also masked, and told the two to hurry.
“She’s new,” said the younger man.
“We’re all new, or hadn’t you noticed?," the nurse snapped back. "Someone will be by for these poor dears. More’s waiting for these beds, lots more from the city, though I don’t know what good a bed will do any of them.”
The two orderlies swiftly, silently emptied the room’s hazmat bin into their cart and pushed it out the room toward a nearby elevator. A dying fluorescent light bulb sputtered and flashed. The younger man pressed the down button and looked toward the nurse’s scrub and storage room. It was empty.
They arrived at basement level and pushed their car out elevator, down hall and out automatic doors to landing dock where the hazmat dumpster waited. When they opened its side door to deposit the contents of their cart, several items fell out of a now-full dumpster. “Damn,” said the older of the two.
“Now, what?” asked the younger.
“Just leave the trolley. We’ll find a fresh one back inside.”
“Just leave the trolley. We’ll find a fresh one back inside.”
The two reentered the hospital
The two reentered the hospitaland walked down the hall to the elevator, the younger man just a step behind the other. He took off his protective glove and reached inside his jacket, pulling out a bulging letter he had found in a small jacket he had removed from the last room in hockers. It had been opened before he discovered it, the letter inside read, the money, in American dollars, handled, both money and letter then put back into the envelope. He stuffed the envelope back into his jacket, next to the other envelope he’d found in the boy’s jacket. It was sealed and stamped, addressed to the phone company.
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