"Men After All" a short story by Sahar Mustafah

Men After All

by Sahar Mustafah

     Musa stood within the frame of the steel security door, smoking a cigarette and watching the black prostitute who sat on a fire hydrant across the street. He had been watching her for several months now as she sauntered up and down the broken sidewalk on 87th and Halsted. She wore a red halter and black spandex pants, glorifying her wide hips. Her tight ass radiated under the late summer sun like the wet skin of a seal.

Musa kept track of her scanty wardrobe, recycled every other day, and varied only by a faux leather jacket she wore on cool nights. Her hair was cut extremely close to the scalp and dyed an audacious platinum blonde. The contrast against her gleaming brown face was striking to Musa who, before stepping onto American soil two years ago, had imagined white women as the sole beneficiaries of yellow hair and blue eyes. She had a pair of blue eyes, too—an artificial set, deepening Musa’s disillusionment.

Watching the prostitute had become a ritual, like the daily latching and unlatching of locks on the steel guard of the door. She moved shamelessly down the stretch of dilapidated buildings, deliberately slowing her pace in front of a storefront church once a greasy fast-food diner. The fiberglass sign that read “Free Fries With Every Sandwich” had not been removed, but painted below it was a cardboard addition bearing a simple, black painted cross.

Adjacent to the church was a run-down, but cheerfully whitewashed childcare center where young working mothers delivered their children. They threw scornful looks and sucked their teeth in disapproval at the prostitute as they dragged their small children past her. In return, the prostitute clucked at them with hands on her hips like a petulant hen, crooning wickedly at the gawking boys and bashful girls.

The moment she caught sight of Musa from across the street she smiled wide, brandishing large front teeth with a gap between them. This was her lewdest feature—one she worked to her advantage with her tongue.

“Any time you ready, baby,” she called.

“She out there again?” Rodney asked with an amused tone when Musa retreated into the store.

Other clerks came and went—some quietly and others under a torrent of curses and threats, but Rodney was a pleasant fixture in the store. It was Rodney who had Americanized his name to “Moses,” which came to be the only noble designation Musa had enjoyed so far in the States. Rodney’s face was like the color of a tea bag in a cup, soaking just enough to emit its flavor. Musa liked Rodney very much.

“Yes. Very shameful,” Musa said.

Rodney laughed long and deep. “You know, Moses, I think I gone to school with tha’ girl.” He stacked cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli in neat rows on a shelf, talking and dispensing price stickers on each of them. “Believe it or not, man, she turned out better than mos’ of ‘em I used to know.” He sliced through the taped flaps of a second box of cans with his security knife.

Musa sat on a stool and watched Rodney work. Thoughts of his wife filled the vacancy of the long summer days. Hanan lived with his mother in a village called Bir Nabala where he was born. His wife was from a clan of farmers whose original land had whittled down to a few hundred acres when Israelis began settling among them. She was lovely and shy at their first meeting and visions of her holding his first child in her slender arms had immediately overtaken him.

The honeymoon months were filled with quiet happiness.  Each morning his wife woke before him, boiling eggs and shaking loose tea in a pot of hot water. Their first child was conceived in a matter of weeks and he believed it was naseeb—a portent of bliss. When their unborn began to stir, they took turns predicting the location of the next ripple beneath her tautly stretched skin. He looked at Hanan on those nights when the moon cast its soft light across her face and the smell of jasmine floated into their bedroom from the yard of their neighbor, Um Hassan. He pretended to be sleeping and gazed at her as she sat upright beside him, her belly protruding above them like a peaceful summit. He watched her stroke her stomach in small circles soon, widening as the months passed, and he heard her whispered prayers for a healthy boy.

By now Musa had become a stranger to his wife by a distance they had once staunchly promised, amid tears and weak smiles, to bridge with their still-new and delicate love. He had planned to make enough money in the States to open his own imported goods store when he returned. In Ramallah, the rent would be cheap and young unemployed men would jump at an opportunity to work in his store.

Musa got off the stool and stood again at the entrance of the store and glanced at his watch. It was night in his village and his wife would be bathing their young son and putting him down for the evening. He imagined her sipping tea from a small delicate glass with a few fresh mint leaves floating on the surface, plucked from the waist-high stalks behind their beit.

In a few months when autumn weighed down the ripened cluster of grapes hanging from their obstinate vines, his wife and mother would pull the mint stalks from the cracking ground to preserve and dry for the winter. He leaned over the counter and envisioned her holding steady her small glass, its sides beaded with perspiration from the steaming tea while his mother snored on the floor mat.

In their small bedroom each night, Hanan had squeezed a few drops of lotion into the palm of her left hand, slowly massaging her legs and the dry heels of her feet, carefully conserving enough to finish rubbing her hands and wrists in sensuous circles. She loosened her hair from braids she kept pinned beneath her scarf and traces of gardenia emanated from the strands she smoothed back from her face.

“How much?” A young man asked, setting a container of lighter fluid on the counter and breaking Musa’s reverie. His skin gleamed against his starched white t-shirt and his biceps, small but defined, pulsated with large veins as he opened and closed his forearms as though he were lifting an imaginary dumbbell. His fists remained clenched as he stood to pay.

Musa returned to the cash register and rang up the item.

The bell jingled above the door. He wearily looked up at the owner of the store, Hisham Awad, a distant cousin of Musa’s on his father’s side.

Salaam,” Hisham said, surveying the store from the entrance before moving behind the cash register, crowding Musa. He fished around for a carton of Marlboro Lights on a shelf lined from top to bottom with cigarettes. Above the shelf a framed photograph of the Dome of the Rock hung, one of the first things Musa noticed when Hisham brought him to the store. Though the sight of it pleased him, it seemed out of place, irreverently surrounded by the clutter of advertisements for long-distance calling cards and the Illinois Lottery. The protective glass of its frame was covered with a layer of dust so thick it could be peeled off like a strip of adhesive tape. Musa had wiped it clean with several sheets of paper towel. A grimy coating defiantly returned after a week’s time and Musa gave up trying to keep it clean.

Despite the heat, Hisham wore a brown suit with a sky blue dress shirt and no tie. He lit a cigarette and took long drags, exhaling through his nostrils. Blue-gray smoke coiled in and out of itself through the shards of daylight filtering through the open door.

Hisham had lost the immigrant look that clung to Musa like a wet towel on his face—a look aching for belonging and understanding. Hisham’s once sallow face had turned plump and his cheeks were ruddy with wealth. A tidy goatee gave him an indomitable expression. After eight years in this country, he had also developed a proud and round belly. Standing opposite him, Musa dismally fingered the hem of his green apron and the collar of his rumpled button-down shirt.

“My daughter will have a brother soon,” Hisham said, winking conspiratorially.

He had married a girl from El Bireh, arranged by his mother and grandmother. It was cheaper to marry overseas where a bridal gown could be rented and a modest reception hall cost a quarter of the price of a golf-course country club in the suburbs of Chicago.

Hisham stood beaming at Musa as he declared baby’s sex with smug confidence. “Come with me, my brother,” Hisham said.  “Let’s try Ismail’s new restaurant. I hear he’s making a killing. Only in America could hummus be a novelty dish.” He walked out from behind the register.

Musa slipped into the sleek leather interior of Hisham’s car, the third one Hisham had leased since he began working for his distant cousin. Musa sat back and inhaled the new smell. He shifted in his seat and felt something sharp pierce the back of his left thigh. With quick reflex, he lifted his lower body and carefully patted his seat until his fingers grazed a small object. It was an earring made of fourteen carat gold down to its clasp. It resembled the ones Musa saw on young black women who came into the store. When Hisham slid onto the driver’s seat Musa handed it to him.

“Ah, yes,” Hisham said, suspending it between his index finger and thumb like a detective close to solving a mystery.  He turned and looked intently at Musa.

“We are men after all,” he finally said and tossed the earring out his window. He smoothed his mustache in the rearview mirror and turned the key in the ignition.

Musa stared out the window while Hisham offered the latest gossip among their circle of friends. It took much constraint for Musa not to punch his cousin in the face.

*    *    *

       At night, Musa entered his apartment with an unvarying sense of dread. Like his job at the store, Hisham had secured this place for him when he arrived to Chicago. It was in a run-down four-flat building sandwiched between others equally nondescript on 65th Street and Kedzie Avenue in an area that had evolved into the Arab and Hispanic quarters on the city’s south side. A dental clinic with grimy windows like sleepy eyes sat below his flat, always noisy with screaming children and women chattering in Spanish. The owner of the building was an elderly Arab man, thin and frail, who immediately approved of Musa though Musa had not spoken more than a phrase of greeting to the old man when they shook hands.

“I could tell he won’t give me any headaches,” he had told Hisham, and with a trembling and liver-spotted hand, extended a set of keys to Musa without a single inquiry regarding his new tenant.

The living room of the apartment was scantily furnished with a sofa bed and a small screen television which Musa rarely flicked on except to catch the ten o’clock news when he managed to close the store in time to view it.

Two bedrooms remained empty; his clothes were neatly folded in the closet of one, and the only suitcase he owned stood upright in the other. Without those tokens that made a space human—framed photographs and live plants—his apartment was unfamiliar each time he entered it.

He missed the aroma of cumin and cardamom and broiled lamb wafting in the kitchen of his beit overseas. In the States, he cooked meager dishes, eating less than the copious amounts of leftovers he discarded after a few days. He sometimes purchased hearty falafel sandwiches or foil containers filled with fooul—a kidney bean dip saturated with olive oil from one of a countless number of Arab diners down his street. To break the monotony, he occasionally stopped in at a local Mexican dive for a hefty steak burrito. He exchanged pleasant nods with the cook, a burly man with a generous face, who was less fluent in English than Musa.

Tonight, he let himself in, and after a moment, decided not to flick the light switch. He closed the door behind him and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He moved towards the silhouette of his sofa bed and sat down. He imagined his son’s plump limbs squirming in his arms as Musa held him, while his wife stood over them, her hand on Musa’s shoulder, singing a lullaby. Before long he was asleep, his wife’s sweet and soothing voice vanishing into the wall.

 

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