by Iddhis Bing
I had the apartment to myself Friday night and a bit of what passed for work: a long list of apartments to tote up, new ones to add, calls to make. I was going to trawl through the newspapers to see if there was anything buried beneath the small type. Saturday would be a busy day. And I had to lay claim to the leather sofa, my plush dinghy, from anyone, teenager or dog, who tried to take possession before I arrived.
Kahlil was in his element behind the counter, talking to a small crowd of Puerto Rican women. They gathered around the register, middle-aged and portly, yammering away in Spanish and their best Nuyorican. Kahlil was beaming, as happy as a man in a harem. The ladies were going on about the bananas from their island, how they tasted unlike bananas from anywhere else in the world. They said it so passionately you had to give in: the ones from the other islands, they weren't real bananas. Laughable. A shame to eat such a thing. Why, what you got from Martinique was certainly better than St. Barts or Anguilla but then rich people have no taste. Put a price tag on it and they'd eat anything! As for Central America... the bananas grew in factories, not on trees. But in Puerto Rico, ah Puerto Rico, the bananas grow in your backyard, no one picks them for you. You let them ripen on the tree as long as you liked. Sweeter that way.
“In the Dominican, too,” one of the ladies said.
“Oh, really.” The other women raised their eyebrows.
“I have relatives there,” the first woman said a touch defensively.
The air was ringing with their jovial insults. Kahlil listened intently, his eyes dancing. I leaned back on a shelf a few feet away and watched, transfixed. Far better than a movie. He finally excused himself from the ladies.
“Buy what you need because I close soon.”
He smiled. “What you are doing?”
“As you can see. Up to the shack with some grub and a beer. I've got work. An article to put to bed.” I wondered if he had a clue what I was talking about.
“You drink by yourself?”
I looked around. “So you're closing the bodega and opening a bar? What about tables, señor?” As if there were room.
“In back, in back. One minute only.
The women strolled out Indian file, tossing “Adios, Kahlil” and "Hasta luego, Arabe" over their shoulders as they vanished in the gathering gloom. Kahlil stood in the doorway and watched the twilight carry them off. Night was coming on. The all-day, human watchdogs had gone home too. The street was deserted, and the metal gate came crashing down.
“Just now,” he said. “Come. You have nothing to do. I know.”
He waddled to the back of the bodega, gestured for me to follow, pulled aside the dingy yellow curtain to reveal a claustrophobic little alcove full of crates and boxes with a tiny water closet and a sink. The fur of the bodega cat brushed my arm as I walked past. He was perched on a wobbly stack of Brillo, listening to the water drip.
Kahlil pulled the door at the back of the alcove, and stood there, his eyes lit up like a man showing his secret gaming parlor to a new mark.
“Here is, Sayyid. My MacSupermansion. Triple size.”
The backroom extended some forty feet, crowded with boxes and sacks full of foodstuffs on pallets under a high ceiling. It made the front of the store seem puny and a little more comical than it already was.
“Sit down, sit down.”
I took a seat on crates of Goya's best garbanzos and looked around. Kahlil came from behind a tall pile of boxes with two beers. He leaned back, threw one leg up on a sack of rice as if he were leaning back on the royal divan. He quietly stared into space, his eyes adjusting to the near dark. A smile flickered across his lips. His hands cradled his large, round head like a gigantic walnut while his eyes slowly assessed the room. Was he counting boxes, worrying about stock, making notes, or perhaps brooding about the windowless room stocked with rice and sliced pineapples, the constituents of his kingdom? He looked far away, immersed in a dreamy nostalgia.
Kahlil returned to the surface of the water like a species of rare, speckled fish that can hold its breath for a hundred years. He took a long sip of beer, made a show of smacking his lips ostentatiously.
“Welcome, welcome... You are the first white man to come back here ever."
"Does that surprise you?"
He leapt to his feet and wagged his finger a few inches from my face.
"Surprise! What can surprise me! White people do not talk to me, they are too busy. You are what the Spanish call gringo, no?"
I nodded. I had permanent membership in that club.
"Well, I don't talk to so many gringos since I come here." He said it green-goes.
"The man in the government office is black, my customers are Spanish, and my neighbors in Queens never say a word.” He clicked his tongue and teeth together.
Silence. Kahlil stared at me while he took another sip.
“But I am happy. I never expect to stay here but my family and the store…” The cat was scratching at the door. “Drink, drink. I don't poison you.“
The evening proceeded like that, awkward and speeded up at the same time. I wanted to leave, to get back to the all-important tasks at hand but the first beer was gone, and then there was another and when that one was gone, there was another in my hand and the talk, the dozens of infinitesimally small gestures men make as they let down their guard, flowed between us. He asked me about myself and I told him: born in New York, raised in New York, left New York and came back. Except that now I was homeless, and had no place to live for reasons that remained mysterious. All of which made me a much more interesting character to someone like Kahlil. And in truth I would never have been there except for a whole series of events beyond my control… If I hadn't stumbled into a labyrinth when I was looking for something else.
Conversations like this between strangers are utterly dependent on one question, one question which when answered, answers nothing. “Where are you from?" or "How did you get here?” Kahlil and the stranger seated across the narrow aisle on pallets both knew the answer and very much else. But how to tell it? Two little bugs cowering in the semi-darkness, having crawled over the face of the earth, their feelers vibrating, asking questions, painting impossible pictures with words, seeking in the turbulence of life to understand how the fragile being two feet away came to be where he was.
There's one exception, of course. If it's America, if they come to America, then it's America, one and only! The end all and be all. Everyone wants to come here, don't they? The final port on all journeys. We cannot imagine anyone who keeps going, who wants to live among them. “Where are you going next?” Heresy to ask.
I had no idea if Kahlil had been in New York for a year or an eon. Maybe K. wished he'd landed in France or Patagonia with papers neatly stamped and approved. Maybe he was going to ship out for Reunion or Kuala Lumpur next week. Why not? He could set up his smile and sell anything.
What was Lebanon really like, I wanted to know. Beirut? The Paris of the Middle East. So I'd heard. The geniuses who run the world had put paid to that. I strolled around between the pallets, in and out of the corners of the storeroom as if I were making my own special inventory of hours and expectations.
We were both silent and shifting uncomfortably on our cardboard thrones when we heard something — a sound without a name. We listened to this sound and tried to decipher it: a body moving around outside the storeroom, on the other side of the back door; it could have been any size or shape. Then it seemed to be a man, finding his steps hesitantly, pulling out a keychain and fumbling with keys. One of them slipped into the slot in the door, rattled around, moved back and forth. The passage swung open. A rail thin man, teeth flashing spectral white, stood on the lintel, squinting into the darkness.
“We are here.”
"Aleikum Salaam!" Kahlil said boisterously, empty glass in hand, like a teenager caught with his hands in his pants.
The man leaned over and placed a large, well-worn briefcase on the floor against the back wall. He took four steps into the crowded room and stood there, getting his bearings before he crossed the fifteen feet to where we were sitting. The two men greeted each other, first in Arabic and then in French. The newcomer turned to me, grabbed my hand gently in both of his, flashed those sharp white teeth that belonged on a tiger and sat down. Kahlil turned the lights in the storeroom up a bit and stood between us, between two rows of boxes. There was a bottle of wine in his hand now.
The newcomer's name was Adib Boueiry. He wore a decent double-breasted suit with a cravat and he carried himself with a distinguished air, as if he were a count from some very old family. It was probably complete pretense — the very opposite of Kahlil.
The session began in earnest.
Kahlil lead the way, talking non-stop while his friend hunched over and listened. His stories began with "Do you remember?" Fragments of an encounter on a street corner in Lebanon. The two men imitated the facial tics of the mayor of their small town, talked about the widow they had both lusted after when they were teenagers, described the little store on the corner where they pocketed candy because their allowance did not cover the price of pears from Iran. Adib leaned forward, prodding Kahlil to tell me about his arrival in America.
"Tell him, tell him." Adib Boueiry looked at me. "It is a good story, it will take all night."
Kahlil and Boueiry both came from old Muslim families rooted between Khiam and Tyre. They were Lebanese before Lebanon, from a country whose name is lost, Kahlil born into a family of sheepherders who crisscrossed the central highlands on foot. He left that life behind because once he had seen it, he could not resist the sea. The Mediterranean sunk its claws in him, threw him into every kind of adventure and romance — marriage to an underage Egyptian girl — and journey after journey, if he was to be believed. Boueiry was from the town and a prosperous family.
Their voices echoed nostalgically across the hills, chattering, laughing, two middle-aged men recalling the long-lost dream of childhood, the fragrance of cedar clinging to their fingertips as they took shelter in the midst of a spring downpour.
Kahlil stood up and lurched towards Boueiry.
“E! Halla!” he blurted, and crouched in a playful, fighting position.
The two men began wrestling like children in a neighbor's backyard, goofing around in the tiny spaces between stacks of food, yowling like cats. A minute later they were sitting down, breathing heavily, slapping each other's thighs. I took it all in.
They lay back on the canvas bags. Boueiry unbuttoned his jacket, the two men grew quiet. They got comfortable on the rocks, the waves roaring in, lapping at their feet, they stroked their bellies and chattered on about the sea, about stealing a small fishing boat when they should have been in school.
"Here you are in a city surrounded by water, and you refuse to confess it!" Adib Bouery yelled at me. “Water is just something in your way!” He held my hand again and squeezed it. His face was five inches from mine, and his ears were covered with dark hairs that were slowly turning white. “And yet, my friend, if it were not for water, none of us would be here.”
Kahlil started in again on his epic, the hegira that had brought him from Lebanon to Egypt, Italy and Spain via the ports and the jails.
“And here you see me now!” Kahlil leapt up from his seat on a sack of rice.
They struggled to understand this strange place where there is everything and nothing, this island full of automatons who hurry from one appointment to another. Their fury overwhelmed them as they blurted out stories of being shown the heel of the boot, treated contemptuously by cops or government officials. They could not comprehend it. No stranger was treated like that where they came from, their own small slice of earth. There is always room at the table, isn't there? Especially when the roof is caving in. So they said.
They turned and looked at me, the Stranger who could explain.
What could I say? I hid inside a forest of words. The discussion went on and on. Adib Boueiry drank sparingly, leaving the heavy work to Kahlil and myself.
“I am here, you see that. It is ……” Kahlil trailed off, and stepping gingerly between the crates and boxes, went looking for another one of his hidden bottles.
I pressed the point but what was there to gain by forcing the revelation that Kahlil was different from what he was saying? He was separated from his native land and the proud owner of a bean and banana dispensary, more or less. And here he was, sitting upright, his round bulk resting on a canvas sack, his feet resting on a box of canned tomatoes.
A rajah of canned goods! He was just a small shopkeeper, a nobody — that was the way he looked to most people. Why had I taken a liking to him, anyway? Because I was at loose ends, because I had time to stick my nose in latitudes rarely visited by my kind.
"So is this what you really want? I mean, is this the end after all your journeys, after — ?”
“You do not understand,” Kahlil broke in gently. “We accept these things, and you do not.”
I looked at him closely, and shrugged. I had no idea what he meant.
“What he is trying to tell you,” Adib Boueiry said, as he motioned to Kahlil to move closer, so that our knees were almost touching. “What he is trying to tell you is that nothing happens unless we will it. We come into the world and initiate it piece by piece. Action by action. Every one of us. If we did not, the world would not exist.” He delivered his next line with all the swagger of an Oxford don.
“It is an argument that admits of no refutation.” He smiled fulsomely. I wondered where he had picked up that juicy morsel of elocution.
The room went quiet again.
I asked myself why I had insulted Kahlil. Adib Boueiry I didn't give a fig about, but Kahlil, yes. It's the alcohol talking, I said. I didn't mean to put him in his place like that. But Boueiry was waving a red flag in front of a bull.
“You mean, don't you, that all of our catastrophes we bring on ourselves. You mean that, don't you? A fated universe, predestined, that's what you're saying.”
“It is not so cruel,” Boueiry said.
“Predestined,” I repeated. “No forces outside of ourselves, a world sealed up tight.” I was trying to be coherent. The whole idea irked me. “It's no good.”
“It is the eye that brings the world into being. Be patient and I will explain.”
Each man looked outward but he only saw the world he could imagine. The eye was as great as the world because it was the eye that created the world: God hallucinated, and his hallucination created the world — many of them. The eye created what was in front of it before a word was spoken. Kahlil, his closest friend, was proof of that: each step further away from Lebanon he became another, based on what officials, policemen, jailers, accomplices saw. His store in New York was a manifestation, nothing more. He had been carried across the waters by a terrible gust of wind. There was another world, a spiritual plane somewhere far off and yet right here...
“What you mean, if I understand you,” I said, trying to pull my thoughts together, “What you mean is, if I walk down Third Street towards Bowery and see a bundle of rags, a heap of God knows what tossed in front of a building and then that pile of rags stands up and becomes a man, because I had not looked closely and was wrong about what I saw — ”
“Yes and no, “Adib Boueiry said, as if he were leading a child by the hand. “What did your mother read you when you were small? Did she never read to you from a Thousand and One Nights? Did she not tell you about the djinn, the wandering spirits?”
I stared at him balefully.
“Well, Kahlil is a djinn, my American friend. The djinn manifests what we dream and cannot confess. He brought us together, yes?”
And with that the two men broke out laughing. Kahlil lifted his arms over his head, clapped his hands and spun around dancing. I didn't respond to Boueiry's question. I was serious now.
“But is each man responsible for what happens to him? It's impossible. There are outside forces.”
“Yes, of course. The two together. All manifestations are reciprocal, I believe your word is. Kahlil you conjured out of your limitless imagination, as he with you. Both found what they were seeking, seeing without knowing. So says our Holy Book.” Boueiry said. The two men went back to dancing and ignored me.
Adib Boueiry looked me up and down like a tailor eyeing a stretch of fabric.
“Either you walked into this room of your own free will, or you did not. Which?”
The night went on, and the drinking went on, and one bottle of wine followed another. The two men tried to explain their ideas to me but as we drank more and talked more, I understood less and less of what they were saying. Adib Boueiry watched us, stole an occasional sip and seemed to be getting drunk by association. He was acting tipsy and jovial and kind. Confreres of the bottle, we sat close together on the piled-up cartons and sacks, Boueiry touching my arm as he explained some obscure point, dancing a few steps from one of the old dances in the valley where he was born.
“And with our prosperity it is incumbent upon us to help others. Our relatives, our friends. Do you agree?” Adib was looking at Kahlil as he said this. I don't know if Kahlil understood what Boueiry meant by those big words.
“Yes, that's very true!” I said enthusiastically. Perhaps saying it made up for the fact that in my current state I could help no one.
“You would like Lebanon,” Boueiry said like a diplomat.
“I'm sure I would. I'm sure it's nothing like they say.”
“That is true,” he said. We were all being very agreeable now. “And you would have no problem getting in and out of the country.”
“I'm sure you're right,” I said, laughing in Boueiry's face.
Adib Boueiry had somehow arrived in America with very little difficulty. Unlike Kahlil, bouncing in and out of every jail between Cairo and Cadiz, if his stories were to be believed. I still had no idea what Boueiry did.
“If you went to the Lebanon —” he pointed into the darkness, looking towards the back of the storeroom where his briefcase sat on the floor, as if all of Lebanon were hidden in that dark corner — “I am sure you would be rewarded. Insha'allah.”
“I have absolutely no bloody idea what you mean by that,” I said. I liked the sound of the word bloody. I was going to use it more often.
“Travel broadens, isn't that what they say?”
“What are you driving at?”
I stood up and turned to Kahlil. I was completely bollixed by this late sally out of the blue. I waved my arms at Kahlil.
“What he means…” Kahlil did not get the chance to finish.
“What I mean is, if you were to deliver a small package,”Adib Boueiry said.
“A small package — Is this why you brought me here?” I looked straight at Kahlil.
K. was effusive in his denials. He hadn't planned to introduce me to Boueiry - it had just happened. It was all slightly unbelievable. Kahlil crimsoned and was pleading frantically with his hands. It was not a bad thing to meet Mr. Boueiry, was it? He was a good man - the whole story came tumbling out.
“So what is this about, exactly?” I leaned on the tall stack of boxes and faced Boueiry. I could barely stand up but I thought I could perhaps count the hairs on Boueiry's ears if I had to.
''You would be bringing money and plans for a school building,” Adib Boueiry said patiently, attempting to defuse the situation.
“And what am I going to receive for this stupendous effort to build a school for you?” Boueiry winced at my tone.
“Whatever you want. I collect from all the store owners.” He gestured again towards his briefcase, resting against the wall at the back of the storeroom.
I sat back down on the garbanzos and looked directly at Adib Boueiry.
“What sort of crazy idea is this? It's a suicide run. A surprise attack. I hardly know you. Let's change the subject.” The whole thing was mad.
“But why? Where do you live? What do you do that you make so much money as to turn this down? I am not offering what you call chump change. You will be rewarded.”
“I am in point of fact homeless. And drunk, and none of this makes sense. You want me to go because you cannot. You can't. That's it, isn't it?”
Adib Boueiry's shoulders rose and fell in a concession of defeat.
“We cannot go, due to the laws in your country. It would raise suspicions. We cannot leave with assurance we will be able to return. We are trapped… so to speak. But an American can go wherever he likes.”
“And to you, I am foolish enough —“ I turned to face Kahlil. “You understand I cannot do such a thing. Especially now. School or no school, if that's what it is. I —”
“It is not bad what he is offering you.” Kahlil looked ambushed. “I would go but what if the Americans do not let me back in?”
“You'd have to go through the whole bloody odyssey twice, with no guarantees. Stuck inside of Beirut with the East Coast blues again.”
Kahlil smiled, but now it was that radiant, liquid, come-what-may smile, at exactly the moment it was least called for. But perhaps not, perhaps he would embrace being thrown on the waters of chance a second time.
None of this, I suspected, was Kahlil's doing and yet there I was, impossible to resist, sitting in front of them like the embodiment of an idea they had: the white man who would carry out their charitable rescue. I had appeared out of nowhere, I listened and could perhaps be prevailed upon to make the journey. They could hardly resist making a stab at it.
I stood up and began to peer around the room. It was time to go but I had to find my windbreaker first.
What was my life now, I asked myself, that I wanted so badly to hold onto it? Nothing. I would be exchanging one uncertainty for another, more spectacular one. I hated myself for not taking the risk. Tell me everything, give me all the details. What did I have to lose? Tell me about the package, the passport, where I was headed, the cover story, the risks. It was the perfect solution: I wanted to get out, to go somewhere, and Lebanon was definitely there. To bring the money if that's what it is. I'd even bring bombs, if I knew who it was for. Or not. Sure. My head was spinning. Bloody hell. I had become a coward, worse than a bull who sees the red cape - and does nothing.
I sat back down.
“All right, gentlemen, lay it all out for me.”
“Very well then. No need to pursue,” Boueiry said at last and shot a knowing look at Kahlil. It had been raining for some time now, a cool October rain come early, falling on the flagstones in the courtyard and bouncing off the fire escapes. Under the old iron lattice it rained twice.
Silence reigned. We avoided each other's eyes, looked here and there, pretended to be intrigued by a half-visible object or a scratching noise on the far side of the room. We were isolate and trapped, each in our own fashion. We had tried to connect, had gone a little way, given into a mad dream, an irresistible idea — knowing it would be rejected. Knowing that in advance, we brought it out anyway — so the other person could admire the idea, turn it over, refuse. We ended up taking each other for fools.
Adib Boueiry was staring at his shoes, pulling on the press of his pants to make sure they fell just so. He looked around, said something in Arabic to Kahlil and turned to me.
“I am sorry. We feast on memories and send others on our errands, whether out of love or malice. It is true, is it not?”
I searched again for my light coat and the groceries in the semi-darkness and could not find them. I stumbled around, crashed into things and nearly fell over. But then I did find them. I hugged Kahlil and told him I was going.
“Why you don't sleep here? You are drunk. Don't go to the street,” he said as if the world outside the storeroom were crowded with vultures and angry rattlesnakes. He gestured to the very limits of his kingdom.
"Kahlil, I live right here. Upstairs, next door."
"Too far. I have a bed for you."
The two men were sitting close together, discussing some matter of great importance as I slipped out the back way.
© Iddhis Bing 2012
All rights reserved.
The first of three excerpts from The Apartment Thief, a novel by Iddhis Bing, copyright IB 2012. New York during the Boom years, while the narrator desperately searches for a roof over his head. Many thanks for reading.