Clank clank clank clank. Clank-clank-clank-clank-clank. That damn noise. He could hear the clanks coming from the kitchen downstairs, like they did every morning. The early day battle with pots and pans; it never failed to wake him, his hands covering his ears, his body shrinking into the mattress. The smell of toast, burnt, and coffee, caustic. They couldn’t function without multiple cups a day. Rehana bumbling around, spilling milk into cereal for the kids, half awake and rubbing sleep from her eyes. Nothing like Saima. What kind of breakfast was cereal? Sugar in colored shapes. Kasim breathed out heavily. Saima had made fresh, hot meals every morning for seven children. Inevitably, once he made his slow way from the bedroom to the bathroom to the dining room, Rehana would read his pained expressions staring at the cereal bowls, a mess, half on Meena and Asma’s pajamas, and ignore him.
“Baba Jaan!” A pounding of the door, the shrill repetition of his name as a reprimand. “Baba Jaan, hurry! I need to use the bathroom!”
The mix of diarrhea and vomit in the toilet bowl vanished with a flush, the odour hovering. He zipped his pants and washed his hands in pink, soapy residue before the water had a chance to turn warm. Beads of sweat migrated to his forehead and upper lip, dripped from the tip of his long nose, as he opened the door.
The squeaky, mouse-like little girl, Meena, didn’t look up as she ran in. Unsteady, Kasim grasped at the wall. He teetered in the direction of his room, the dull ache in his lower back elevated to a roar. He gripped the doorknob, his swollen wrist screaming, and twisted it open. Sank into the desk chair in the corner of his room. His Lemair typewriter, the old portable from Lahore, on the old nightstand he used as a work desk. The sun had vanished from this corner of the house and the cold set in through the un-insulated window. Kasim had slipped fresh sheets of paper under the roller last night but the only thing he had written was Astaghfirullah, Astaghfirullah, Astaghfirullah over and over again. The rest of the page stared at him.
Sometimes his writing was a journal, a memory holder. It used to make his stories momentous. A young man about town, going on adventures with schoolmates. A young army secretary, newly married, working for his country. Little wisps of the people in Islamia Park, the woman with the twisted back who made the wheat for roti, the fat man with dimples who sold wrinkled propaganda papers and yelled at you when you wouldn’t pick one up, the chemist uncle who left his wife with five crying children. He had written on scraps of paper for the longest time, until at 25, he bought his first typewriter. Saima had thought it was a waste of money. Now the words on the pile of pages under his bed mocked him. They were jibberish— drivel anyone could have written. But still, he waited for more of those words to come— in Urdu, or in Punjabi, with which he had no one to speak, his son Imran never having learned. It was almost a secret language now. He sat and waited and waited and then was asleep.
Kasim woke at noon, starving, his bottom lip and chin slippery with saliva. Two and a half hours until the children returned, their school bus gasping by the front gate, the girls screeching for their snacks and juice boxes. He stood in the small, square, white room that was closing in on him, the ceiling that barely missed his fingers if he reached up, and carefully chose an outfit from the closet. He slipped on hand-me-downs from his son; a faded navy cardigan over a long sleeved pinstriped dress shirt. The sides of the sweater were pilling and he tsk-tsked at the sight. Strange to wear his son’s clothes, a lifetime away from when everything his son owned had come from him, from money Kasim had earned, every mouthful of food.
The clothes felt loose against the slack in his skin and his skin felt sluggish and like it no longer suited him. The shirt had fit him well a few months ago. In the army, he had looked impeccable. Punjab regiment, fifteenth battalion, army secretary. A handsome soldier, though he had no pictures to prove it. There must have been a small black-and-white lost somewhere in the ruins of his old life. Kasim cut a hanging thread from the cardigan with his teeth. He had a small breakfast of tea and buttered toast on a stool at the kitchen island, pushing the ornamental clay pots to the side. Afterward he cleaned up, and left the house with three recycling bags tight in his fist.
“Hi there Ka-sseem. Ka-sseem!” The neighbour, a bright young woman waving to him, with a baby latched onto her breast. He nodded politely. Her curly hair bounced in the breeze, much like her voice. He gave a small wave as he walked, so as not to be drawn into conversation. In his scurry to the street corner, he peeped into the garbage and recycling cans on the curb to see what they had, but didn’t stop until he was far outside the sturdy neighborhood of colourful block houses. In his methodical, arthritic fashion, with his bent wrist, he fished out cans and bottles in the garbage cans of other residential divisions, where he was less likely to know anyone. He kept his nose plugged with one hand while placing the cans neatly into bags with the other. He stopped in between streets to readjust his shirt, to rub a scuff mark off his loafers, and in his wallet he carried wet wipes to wash the sticky residue from his hands. The leather wallet inscribed with his name, from Imran last Eid: “So you don’t have to carry that junk in your pocket.” Meaning his piles of receipts and stubs. Kasim liked to keep records.
He made it to the recycling center off of Harbour Drive, out of breath. He felt a bit like a child or a beggar holding out hands for his change. A young man dropped four dollars and seventy-three cents into them which Kasim would count again outside the center doors. At least he still made his own money. The building seemed all windows with the rays of September sun washing over black and brown and blue bottles, spraying the young man with refracted light. The end of September always made Kasim feel sad, the slow death of another year. He watched the people moving his bag down an assembly line, and others sorting the bottles into plastic and glass. Maybe he could get a job here.
As he pushed the door to get out, the blustering wind changed direction and hit him with full force. Kasim staggered forward. His cardigan was too thin. “Ya Allah.” He buttoned it up but still shivered and the wind whistled underneath, exposing his back. A pebble rolling around pinched his right heel. With nothing to lean against, he half-fell, shaking his shoe, without successfully removing it. From the corner of Water Street and Ayres Cove, he watched how orange and grey shipping boats at the port filled up the ocean landscape. The wind picked up more as he climbed the hill, passing men and women in suits on their lunch breaks downtown. A man in a blue suit shouldered him off the sidewalk. He passed splashy shop windows and a chocolate store handing out samples, which he refused. In the constant gusts, his hair flopped against his damp scalp.
He was sure he smelled of sweat when he arrived at the credit union. And when he stood in line, he became embarrassed at the state of his nails, folded fingers into his palms to hide them. But as he waited for person after person to go up to the teller, he couldn’t help himself and began ripping at the white ovals, wishing he had filed them at home.
Each time he ripped, he noticed a nail that was shorter or one that was still too long.
“Next! Over here!”
A large man behind him tapped him on the shoulder and nudged him forward. Kasim closed his hands into fists.
“Did you know that you can receive your Old Age Security payments by direct deposit, Mr. Kasim?” The teller smiled with a too-wide smile, fuchsia-stained lips jarring against a backdrop of blinding white wall. “It would save you the trip down here next month. Would you like to change it?”
He shook his head no. He liked waiting for the mail and receiving something with his name on it.
“All in twenties?”
After an interminable moment, the teller returned. She passed him the bills and a brown paper envelope, her fingers flashing long, deep red nails. He folded the bundle of twenties into the envelope and then placed it delicately into his wallet, made sure no one in the bank was looking at him. The teller smiled again as she waited for him to leave. Saima had worn only a pale pink lipstick on special occasions, like weddings.
“That’s a nice cardigan, m’love. Sears, right? I think I saw it there.”
The banter was the worst part of coming to the credit union, of going anywhere. He found it demeaning to both of them. The way the women were forced to… And the large man behind him who kept eyeing her up. Why couldn’t men serve men and women serve women? He was cautious as he left, checking to see if anyone had followed him from the building. Striding over the crosswalk, he continued to pat his wallet in his right pocket to make sure it was there.
In the mirrored reflection at the back of the liquor store, his last stop, Kasim froze when he saw his hunched shoulders, like a hump on the back of an ancient man with sparse weedy hair. He straightened up. It came more and more these days, the bending of the spine. Hold your head up high, keep your shoulders straight and back. Don’t round them! Army position. In the end, there was no way to resist the slouch that came over by the evening.
“NooWildTurkey?” He tried to keep the lisp of desperation out of his voice.
“No Wild Turkey.”
Kasim pushed the panic back down his lungs. “What about— out back?” The young man with the long, wiry hair should know better. Kasim often saw him working there on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and every now and then on a Friday. He always had what Kasim needed.
The young man looked annoyed. Kasim had never noticed the clump of pus-filled pimples on his nose. “We’ll get some more in a few days,” the man said, his face flat and unconcerned, scratching at his red plastic-looking store vest. “Late shipment. Here, I’ll find you something else you might like.” He led Kasim to a far corner of the store.
It was only a few weeks after arriving in Canada that he had had his first sip. Imran had taken him to the bowling night at the retirement villa. Maybe he had hoped that Kasim would make friends with other old people. They still allowed some of the residents drinks on occasion. Beer mainly. One beer each. But they often snuck more. He didn’t like the taste at first, or the smell.
The young man was passing him two bottles to look at, as they stood in the cold refrigerated room, lined with hundreds of kinds of liquor. An amber label and a jade. Kasim felt the heft of the bottles in his hands and liked it. He said he’d take one of each.
“Baba Jaan!” Rehana’s voice took on the familiar scolding tone that they all used when they called for him. She was standing at the front door, leaning into the warped frame of the blue-green duplex. “Where have you been?” Exasperated.
“Khana taiyaar hai,” she told him in her halting ungrammatical Urdu, chastening him, implying he was late for dinner. That everything had had to stop while she worried about his whereabouts.
He followed her to the kitchen through the small and dark front hallway.
“I was out for a walk,” he enunciated, in English. He leaned against the green and pink wallpaper with the hen and the baby chicks. The chicks all wore tiny pastel shirts.
“Where did you go?”
“Oh, around the block a few times.”
“I didn’t see you on my drive home.”
Kasim had forgotten she took a half day on Wednesdays. His body flushed, realizing that if she had not been home, the girls would have been alone for hours. He was meant to watch them in the afternoons until she came home.
Rehana picked up a small ball of dough on the counter, rolling it out and tossing it on the tawa as she talked about a work conference that was coming up, then adding it to the unstable pile of roti on a blue-flowered china plate. Her fingers pressed lightly against the soft white dough, and she flipped it over to reveal an abstract brown face. She must have been running back and forth from the stove to the window, watching for me, Kasim thought. He wasn’t a child, to be followed and criticized. He answered her questions about his walk abruptly.
While Rehana was talking about her day, Kasim felt himself turn in slow motion to see Meena reaching up her small arm toward the roti on the stove. He moved to grab her. Kasim’s body moved at a funeral’s pace, his limbs lethargic and his tongue trying to shout.
Rehana turned, scooted Meena out of the room, patting her behind, and left faint remnants of flour on the seat of Meena’s jeans. Kasim’s arm swayed back to his side and he exhaled. He leaned back against the wall, exhausted.
When the rotis were done, Rehana spooned large ladlefuls of palak aloo into a big bowl. She was everywhere at once, setting the table, calling out to Asma. When she turned, Kasim could see that her satin dress shirt was stuck to her lower back with sweat. He followed her into the dining room.
“Everyone sit down at the table!” She ate her own food, head heavy, while popping small roti-filled palak aloo bites into Meena’s mouth, who chewed them loudly, her gap-toothed smile opening wide. Kasim found Rehana’s outfit unflattering, and found himself wishing she would wear something more modest. He preferred shalwar kameez with dupatta, but only a few women in the community wore them. They tended to wear them only on holidays or at the St. John’s mosque.
Meena descended from her chair and climbed onto his lap, a pleasant weight. He put an arm around her stomach to hold her in place. She had been the first to call him Baba Jaan, dear father, parroting Imran. Asma, their eldest, thought this was hilarious and soon she and everyone else in the community used the moniker. He would have preferred Dada.
Asma was seven and an expert on everything. She pinched Meena’s arm, and Meena began to cry, a loud piercing cry as much for attention as it was to bore holes in Kasim’s brain. “Say Bismillah, Meena! Isn’t that right, Baba Jaan?” Asma asked in a supercilious voice. “Say Bismillah before you eat.”
“Bis-meel-ah,” Meena sounded out. “Your breath smells funny, Baba Jaan,” she commented and slipped off his lap.
Kasim burrowed into his meal and did not respond. After a few bites of the bright green spinach and soft potatoes, he retreated to his room and locked the door.
From underneath his bed, he removed his chest of homeopathic medicines; aconite, gelsemium, ferrum phosphoricum… Small bottles of magic he had used on his children growing up, a few drops for earaches and congestion, a few rubs for stuffed noses, for peeled and rough with blood scrapes of the skin. Little candies as placebo. Imran and Rehana didn’t fancy these remedies for their girls.
“What, did anything bad ever happen to you?” he had said to Imran, scoffing.
He removed the top tray of the chest, unearthing two bottles of Wild Turkey, one half finished. He took out the half-empty and replaced it with the new Glenfidditch. The one with the amber label. The jade-labeled bottle he hid under some papers in his nightstand drawer. Then bourbon whisky was poured into his glass on the bedside table, filled it to the brim. Once, twice, a third time. He went to his Lemair to write a story about the man in the park near Choburgi, the University Grounds. All along the playground ran power lines and the man would stand underneath and start to crow. The crows would flock to his shoulders, and fly above him, leading Kasim and his young friends to view the man in awe. They believed the crows could do his bidding. In his story, the crows did. They flew the man to far-away lands. Got him anything he wanted. Saima appeared, looming in front of him, her hair thinning. A fourth glass was poured and drained.
He found himself sprawled sideways on the floor, his chest and pants covered in a thin layer of vomit, with no idea of the time. He had dreamed of leaving Saima in Lahore. In the overcrowded Miani Sahib graveyard, her small white stone pushed up awkwardly, next to strangers, no grass, only weedy olive-colored plants in the graveside garden plots, his sons and daughters vanished.
Well, that’s what had happened, wasn’t it? Except for Imran, the kids had disappeared into the woodwork… but they wanted her wedding jewellery, the tea sets she collected. When she was in hospice, Faria and Usman both said Kasim should stay with their families. Nothing had come of it, of course. Imran locked away anything that had not been divided up like scraps of meat among wolves. Anything that could remind him of his mother. A scarf that they had forgotten made Imran cry like a child, before he got angry at whoever had let it out, and locked it back up in the basement closet.
“Baba Jaan? Baba?” Imran at the door.
The blue wooden clock ticked 7 pm. Kasim kept quiet.
“Aap soni lagi ho? Chai chahiye?”
“Haan. Nahi.” Yes, he was going to sleep, no, he did not want any tea. When the slippered footsteps moved away from the door, he took out an army of wet wipes to clean the dried throw-up. He took a towel and wiped down his chest and changed his pants. It was the third time in the last few weeks. He would do his laundry once Rehana left for work the next day and no one would know. A pile was stacking up in his closet.
But Friday morning, he woke to a start. Rehana banging on his door. Frightened, he jumped out of his bed, and opened the door a sliver, hoping she wouldn’t notice the smell.
“Baba Jaan! Are you there?...
Can you pick up Meena from the doctor? 11 am. My friend June will take her there from school.”
He could see one ear through the gap in the door, could see her putting on a gold hoop earring.
“I have a meeting that my boss doesn’t want me to miss. Ever since I stayed home with Asma when she had strep throat, he…” Rehana continued to sputter.
“Okay,” he said. He opened the door and she moved toward him as if to hug him, and he stepped back, but she was just passing him a slip of paper. “The number for the clinic and for my work.”
Afraid to be late and have Meena wait for him, Kasim spent the morning in his dress clothes, sitting in the brown checkered armchair in the living room. He would only have one drink, and he filled it to the halfway mark, with a bit of ice. Out the window he watched the postal worker drop a package at the neighbours and a few cars move slowly by. The postman waited at the door for five minutes, ringing the bell. Imran’s newspaper sat on the coffee table and Kasim read the obituaries and retreated back to his drink.
His head was pushed into something rough, which made it ache. To relieve the pressure, he leaned the other way, and felt that he was no longer supported by the arm of the chair. He twisted in his seat, and the stench and paroxysms of pain were a brusque clue. Then the chill of the breeze.
His seated body was by a fence. An off-white wooden post had been creating the pressure in his temple, digging into the side of his head. A clearing: muddy, sparsely covered with grass. His eyes opened halfway and then fully to see the fence was partly disassembled, so that they seemed to be just sticks strung together, as if it had been used in another life. A road, maybe a hundred meters away, could be seen from this side of the clearing.
“Meena,” he murmured. “Meena, Meena.”
How had he gotten there? He remembered watching the clock tick, waiting for 10:20, to catch the bus to the clinic. Kasim struggled to his knees, and then sat back down. He looked up to the grey nothing of a sky, and looked down to his right pant leg which had a small hole, through which a thick trail of blood was seeping. There would be no way to fix the pants, too much blood and mud. Hands in front of his face, he blocked the few rays of sun that appeared once the clouds trudged to the right. His fingers, and his tongue too, felt thick. His wrist naked; the watch gone.
He used the pole to lean against and pulled himself up, and he tried to walk in the direction of the road, stopping and starting from the throbs in his leg and right arm.
Kasim didn’t recognize this area. There were a few residential houses spread apart and a bitter smell of barbecue trailed from one of them. He puked a small stream of greenish water. The lights on the streets had not yet been lit. As he turned a corner, the smell of the charcoal intensified.
At Imran’s barbecue a couple of months ago, their backyard full of neighbours, Kasim, happily eating his second serving of grilled chicken, had bumped into Henry-the-dentist. New to St. John’s, Henry stood in front of him as they filled their plates. He’d been drinking a glass of red wine and tried to pour some for Kasim.
Have a little, he prompted, as he wobbled.
Oh no, Kasim had replied. We don’t drink, he said. He had made eye contact with Imran.
Yes, thanks so much Henry, Imran interjected, we’re Muslim, we don’t drink alcohol.
Too bad, Henry said. He winked at Kasim and Kasim smiled.
Imran had been wearing a black apron that read ‘BBQ Stud’ on the front and had a cowboy hat on it, which everyone seemed to find funny.
Like with horses? Kasim had asked.
It’s a joke, Baba, Imran said.
Kasim stood, puzzled.
Never mind, Imran said, and returned to flipping burgers.
His third serving tucked away, Kasim had then sat on a picnic blanket in the backyard next to men who lived on their street. Both patio tables decked out in red checkered cloths were full. People were moving in and out of the house, streaming between the side dishes Rehana had laid out in the dining room and the backyard. It was almost 25 degrees, hot for St. John’s.
Such authentic food, one of the men said to Kasim. And I’ve been to about a million Indian restaurants, he added.
So you know, Kasim said, balancing his plate on his lap, while eating his corn on the cob. You’re an expert, he told him.
Nothing’s like the real thing, the man said.
Afterward, Rehana was in a state of bliss. She bragged about what a success the barbecue was, how it went so much smoother than Mr. Welling’s dinner party. To Kasim, her smile looked distorted. Only hours earlier, she had expelled him from the dining room for spilling apple juice on the new silk damask tablecloth before the guests arrived. She shooed him away, and he had wrung a few hot, angry, tears in his bedroom.
At the barbecue, the other guests had sat around Kasim, had passed over a gurgling baby that smiled up at him. Two engineers ceded to his views on the Middle East, because that’s where they believed he was from.
The sun was bleary, or his eyes were bleary and the loss of blood was disorienting. He couldn’t believe it was his blood, there was so much of it. He walked down one street and then another. Laughing out loud, Kasim ran through the long yellow grass which scratched and tickled his ankles and legs, chasing after his friends who would not let up. Who would win? He gasped for breath as he passed by Chaubourji, passed the rusted iron gates of what had been a Mughal garden before any of them were born. His friends all ran further, Akmal in the lead, past the milk man, nearly knocking him down. They scrambled over the stone wall as the milk man screamed at them. They could smell the musky guava scent before they saw the trees, and he and Akmal climbed up high to pick out the softest ones and threw them down into open arms. His friends roared with laughter watching him eat amrode even with the seeds. “Pagal!” they yelled. He dug a hole in the nonexistent garden and they threw their rinds in. The road in front of him shifted, the old gate cracked and deteriorated before Kasim’s eyes, his legs shaking, and in its place a small road materialized. Cool air and cool cement. His friends had disappeared and so had the cuts on this ankles.
“Akmal?!” What remained— blood on his right leg, and exhaustion. “Akmal!”
The skin on his hands was thin and liver-spotted within the creases. What route had he been following? The way to his childhood home in Islamia Park, walking down Poonch Road. Each step hurt and he had to stop.
The hours faded. Words felt funny in his mouth— he had often mixed up his words with Punjabi, when conversing with the Hindu couple down the street, and watched their confused nods. The heat and dust of evenings in Samanabad blended into freezing rain and torturous winds in St. John’s. What was real and what wasn’t?
If he didn’t remember how nervous he was after sending the proposal, if he didn’t know how many days Saima stayed up with Fatima when she had malaria, then it was like they hadn’t happened at all.
A young man passed him on the street, and then an older one, and then two women. An old woman on a bike. He wanted to ask the way to his home, but he let them go by. His right leg dragged against the sidewalk. Maybe, like Saima, his body had become brittle. No longer useful.
The street lights flickered on, glittering and vivid like beacons. The temperature continued to drop. He couldn’t stop shuddering, like his body was vibrating. He saw something in the distance, but then felt it would be stupid to hope. And then a few minutes more. His legs stopping and starting. What was it? A landmark. The McDonalds up ahead and the gas station. He could have kissed the yellow sign. He limped closer until they were in full view. A left and then two rights. To breathe in the air of a familiar street was incredible.
The young woman was raking outside when he arrived on his street. His granddaughter Meena was peeking out the living room window. Another relief.
“Hello there, Ka-sseem!” the woman, was her name Lucy?, called out brightly. “You’re out late today.”
She hadn’t heard. Which meant that Imran hadn’t called the neighbours to look for him. It wasn’t that bad. He nodded to her and opened the unlocked front door. His son was exiting the bathroom in the hallway at the same time.
At first Imran looked angry, his eyes dark, until they focused on the rolled up pant leg. His face softened. “Oh Baba,” he said softly.
Weeks later, when his body refused to heal and he finally let them take him to the clinic, the doctor would say it was a fracture below the shoulder of the right arm, a torn ligament in the leg. Presently, however, Imran took his other arm very gingerly and brought him to the couch. Rehana ran for the first-aid kit. Antiseptic, gauze, tape, water. She cleaned and wrapped, while Kasim tried not to recoil.
“Hai-Allah!” he couldn’t help but exclaim.
“We can’t let him go out on his own,” Rehana said, quiet, and then Imran said it out loud.
“We worry about you Baba.”
They think I’m old and unbalanced, he thought. He didn’t correct them, but he worried about how he would get by without being able to leave the house by himself.
“I made chicken karhai,” Rehana said, to break the silence. “Hungry?”
“No,” he said.
“You should eat,” she insisted. She went to warm up a plate of food, in a microwave and not on the stove. Imran cleared away the garbage and put the kit back in the kitchen. Be gentle, they told Meena and Asma. The little girls in their matching striped cotton pajamas stared at him with big eyes.
“What would you like to watch?” Imran asked him. Meena and Asma curled up on the floor in front of the television, Rehana and Imran sprawled on the leather couch behind them. They had arranged Kasim on the old brown checkered armchair and pulled out the footrest so he could lay back while they watched Jeopardy. They gave him an extra strength Tylenol and a tall glass of water. The lamp in the living room illuminated the four of them, their shadows overlapping. He could see them so clearly. They were like one.
 I seek forgiveness from Allah
About the Writer
Mona’a Malik completed her MA in creative writing at Concordia University. She has published poetry in Paragon IV and Landwash, fiction in The Fiddlehead, the Coming Attractions 15 Anthology, Matrix Magazine, and Joyland Magazine (forthcoming). She adapted her short story “Dead Pumpkin,” through the Young People’s Theatre Grant- A National Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) Play Creation Initiative. Dead Pumpkin will be produced for Theatre New Brunswick's 50th anniversary season (2018-2019).