Third Prize (2016/17) - Fences by Christopher Allen
by Christopher Allen
Hal’s skull is round and friendly. It slopes to an improbably slight neck. Says this person will never hurt you, but it also says HIT ME. Hal was roughed up last year in the subway. As he lay unconscious on the crowded platform, the attacker took his money, his sunglasses, his shoes.
Hal’s quieter now in public. I know it’s so we don’t look like a gay couple. He’s new to New York; I was born here.
The train pulls into the Canal Street station. I’m thinking about falling under its wheels. The A uptown local will slice my body into arbitrary slabs, no regard for convenient places: through my face, my hips, my—“Trace?” I look around. Some guy’s playing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ on a badly tuned violin. Hal’s all misty. “Got a dollar?” he asks. He’s nervous, afraid to be so close to me, so I dole out two. He gives it to the man—hugs him of course—and we board the train.
“Where troubles melt like lemon drops,” I croon in my drunk-Judy voice, which sends Hal to the other side of the car, cowering under his hoodie.
When I come out of the backroom with my tea, there’s a man hovering in the blue spectrum of the saris. “May I help you?” My voice is unsure. I stand behind the counter near the door to the back, the one that leads to the alley and the safety of the crowds on Ninth Avenue. Asif insists I keep a baseball bat under the counter. One hears stories. Maybe the young man is only lost; or maybe he’s come to rob me and, finding only five dollars and some change in the till, he’ll go berserk. My tea is trembling.
“I just love royal blue,” he says, which makes him sound rather mad. “We were in India last year. Cochin.”
“How nice,” I say. He’s made the same assumption other customers have made. The shop looks and sounds Indian. There’s Indian music on a CD and a rampart of cushions out front with Ganesha and Shiva sewn in sequins—all made in China of course. They were Asif’s idea.
“We live in the Gregg building on the corner,” he says and keeps admiring the sari he’s holding.
“So do—” A momentary lapse. He is such an elegant little man, so inviting of trust. “Were you interested in a sari for your wife?”
He laughs. “No, I was thinking of buying one of these to make a throw.”
“Or I could make curtains, I guess.”
“Look.” Hal tosses a piece of blue silk on the sofa. “They’re saris, but we can make throws out of them. She has this great British accent, and she’s never heard ‘Dancing Queen’. Is that even possible? I sang almost the whole song for her. Nada. Niente.”
“Poor woman. How many did you buy?”
“She needs the business.”
I glide a hand over the silk. That’s my Helping Hands Hal. If I don’t change the channel the second a charity organization slaps an African kid’s fly-covered face on the screen, I find a 100-dollar charge on our Visa at the end of the month. All the cancer, leukaemia and MS foundations send us brochures every month. And we’d have an apartment full of stray dogs and cats if Hal weren’t allergic to animal hair. “I married Mother Teresa,” I say, but I’m thrilled he’s singing to people in shops. It’s almost like the old Hal.
“Not fair,” says Hal, “and kind of racist since she’s Indian.”
“If we had a few more of these”—I hold one up to catch the afternoon light—“we could make curtains. They are kind of beautiful.”
“Local? Where were they made? Bombay, Indiana?”
“Not exactly local. And not even Indian.”
“But she’s local. I just know her shop’s in trouble. She can’t possibly be making a profit.” His eyes widen, eyebrows lift: his we-have-to-help look.
“Bailing out the Titanic with a teacup.”
“We have to try.”
“Three,” I say and wish Asif could be happy for me, but I would settle for less. Putting down the bloody newspaper would be a good start. His parents are transferring funds from Lahore every two months to pay for medical school and the rent on the sari shop—though they don’t officially know about the latter. It is no secret that Asif wouldn’t be bothered if the shop went, as the Americans say, belly up.
“The profit from three saris will hardly pay the rent, will it?” This lilts pleasantly from behind The New York Times and an article about yet another suicide bomber in Pakistan. “I hope you at least tried to sell this man a salwar. You do have clothing appropriate for men in your shop, you know.”
“I should place an advert.”
“Changing the subject will not pay the rent either. You should give it up.”
“And do what?”
Asif lowers The Times from his smiling, round face. “You might learn to cook.”
I come from a liberal family in which the women become lawyers. We have employees who are excellent cooks and who are grateful for the work. We are religious of course, though progressive. And we wear saris. They are in.
“It’s possible,” I say, avoiding the subject of cooking, “that this young man thinks I’m Indian.”
“Just as well. You sell cushions with their deities on them. What do you expect?”
When I opened the sari shop last year, all things Indian were in vogue. Every bestselling novel was by an Indian author. Restaurants with names like Taste of India, Bombay Palace and Delhi Deli started popping up on every corner. They were all run by Bangladeshis, but no one cared or asked. No one could tell the difference. Brown was brown. Then, I stocked a few Ajraks, salwar kameez and chaadar, though customers rarely went near them.
“The cushions were a mistake,” I say.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Asif. “They keep you safe from the prejudices of ill-meaning people.” He lays the newspaper in front of me demonstratively. Below a photograph of shouting, red-faced Americans a headline reads NO TO GROUND ZERO MOSQUE.
Hal’s sewing saris together to make window treatments. They aren’t really curtains. He’s sitting between two Ganesha cushions on the sofa—Shiva’s fallen on the floor arms down—and sporting stretchy pants he keeps calling a salwar, so we’ve officially started converting our living room into a Calcutta tea shop. He looks happy. He’s my God for all good things.
“Wouldn’t it be cheaper,” I ask, “to buy the shop and move in there?”
“Two gay white guys,” he says, “running a sari shop in Midtown—that would actually work in this city.”
“You have invited a complete stranger into our home?” Asif is wiggling his head in a figure eight.
“Ridiculous, I know. It slipped out, and there it was: ‘Won’t you come to dinner?’ I haven’t the slightest idea what got into me. But he’s such a dear man. And not a complete stranger really. He’s called round almost every day this month.”
“You can’t even cook.”
“And they’ll be expecting something Indian at that.”
“They? There’re more?”
“I might have told him to bring whomever he liked.”
“It only gets worse. You’ll simply uninvite him and whomever.”
“And how do you propose I do this?”
“You’ll say you should have spoken to your husband first. This will not be a lie. And besides, these Americans are accustomed to empty invitations which evaporate into the ether.”
“The sari lady’s invited me to dinner,” Hal says. “Friday night in two weeks.” He’s rolling t-shirts and laying them in his carry-on like neat, enormous rolls of quarters.
“Great! It’s been ages since we had a good curry.”
“You didn’t tell her about me.” I pitch a few wrinkled shorts into my carry-on. “Fine.”
“She didn’t mention bringing a guest. It’s rude to invite people to other people’s homes. Isn’t it?”
“It’s OK, Hal.”
“I keep meaning to mention you, but she starts talking about the Taj Mahal or something, and I forget.”
“Is four ounces too much for carry-on?” I’m holding up my travel-sized mouthwash with a big, fat expression of fuck-you on my face.
“It wasn’t intentional.” Hal hates more than anything being caught in a lie. He’s a crap liar.
“I don’t want to go anyway. If she asks where your partner is, tell her I have PMS or that I’m allergic to cardamom.”
“I’m sorry.” He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a t-shirt roll as if he’s forgotten we’re packing for Puerto Vallarta.
“I know why I’m not invited,” I don’t say. I know he’s still afraid of haters blindsiding him. It’s a small miracle that he has the guts to make a new friend outside our gay ghetto. A sari shop with silk cushions and a woman who speaks with a gentle British accent is the perfect place to find someone safe, but you never know how people will change when they discover you in your entirety. “It’s fine, really. Will we even be back by then?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Hey,” I say. “It really is OK. Pack.”
I dread opening the shop every day for two weeks. Every morning I’m certain Hal will pop round to buy a trinket he doesn’t need so I can uninvite him, but he never does. I haven’t even planned a menu or cleaned the flat. A stone has grown in my stomach, now as large as a melon. He’s never told me his last name or given me a telephone number. I scour the mailboxes for anything resembling the name Hal, but to no avail. Friday comes, and I still haven’t uninvited him and his guest, whom I assume is his male partner. Though he’s taken great care to edge around his sexuality in conversation, I know he’s gay. I’m from Pakistan, not the moon.
In the last two weeks, I’ve sold one cushion and a pull-string purse. My saris might as well be a mural. Last week our lease came up for renewal, and Asif terminated it. I’ve ordered the GOING OUT OF BUSINESS signs from Craig’s List. There are dozens of used ones for almost nothing. Most of the shops on our street are empty.
“You look stunning,” says Asif. I have had no other choice but to prepare for our guests.
I blush. He rarely compliments me. From the sale I’ve saved a royal blue and green sari. It will be a reminder of Hal’s fondness for blue and his kindness, futile as it was. We were expecting them at seven o’clock, which has come and gone.
“Perhaps this Hal person has died?” Asif says from the living room.
“Don’t be awful, Asif. They will pitch up any minute at the door with a bottle of wine—which you will at least try—and it will be an unparalleled disaster. At some point during the evening it will click that we are Muslim. Someone’s brother will have been killed in Iraq or a cousin in the twin towers, and we’ll be blamed. They’ll start ranting about that mosque at ground zero. He’ll change. That sweet little man will turn into a monster. You’ll see.”
“He’ll not have the courage,” says Asif.
“I do hope you’re right.”
We’re on our third guacamole and chips and who-knows-how-many margaritas when Hal rolls his blistered face to me and says, “White flag. I can’t be skinny anymore.” His hairy belly’s pouting over his new gay swimwear. We both know we’ve grown out of the uniform. “I think I’d look better in a sari. I’m sure they make them for . . .” His sentence drifts out to sea. “You’d really like her,” he says finally. “I’m sorry, Trace.”
The sun, behind Hal’s face, gives him a halo, reducing him to silhouette. Friendly shaped, I think. “It’s OK, Hal, really.”
“No it’s not. Actually—and please don’t get mad at me—she said I could bring whomever I wanted. I love her accent. Whomever.” He’s turned away from me now. He knows I’m angry, but he also knows how forgiving I am when I’m drunk.
“Well, maybe I could find time. What floor do they live on again?”
“Sixth, I think. No, twenty-sixth. Sixteenth? We can look at the mailboxes when we get home to make sure. Their last name’s Ali.”
“You know, like Mohammed? Sting like a butterfly?” He waves his margarita, dappling our legs with bits of ice and salt.
“And, like, not Hindu but maybe Moslem?”
“No.” Hal laughs but then goes quiet.
“Did she tell you she was Hindu?”
“She runs a sari shop.” Hal laughs but then looks sideways as if every conversation he ever had with Abha is on the table stacked up next to our battalion of empty margarita glasses. He squints into the sun for quite a long time. “I’m getting more booze, and when I get back we’re not going to talk about . . .” His voice trails off with him to the bar.
As the ice machine roars our margaritas out, Hal’s face grows cold. I shouldn’t have outed her. Hal would never care whether Abha was Hindu or Moslem or, I don’t know, Zoroastrian. He loves me, and I’m an atheist. He feels lied to, or maybe he just feels stupid for not figuring it out. And now I’ve ruined his dinner invitation. Instead of resolving to have a good laugh about this over lamb vindaloo, Hal’s standing at the bar trying to figure out how to disappear from Abha’s life altogether.
“I’m not going,” he says when he returns with the drinks. “Happy?”
“No. Hal . . .” I start to say something but decide to wait until we’re on the plane back to New York. When we’re buckled in at 30,000 feet, I’ll tell him how he needs to learn to let people lie, to leave them their ramparts.
Earlier in the afternoon, I ordered Indian from the Bangladeshis down the street and had it delivered. Graciously, they don’t laugh as they set down the bags and bags full of the random dishes I shouted into the phone, but their complicit smiles say they know what’s afoot. As I’m showing them to the door, one of them leans in to me and says, “Don’t worry, ma’am. All our meat is Halal.”
At eight o’clock, I put the naan bread back in the oven to keep it warm. Then at eight-fifteen I take it out to keep it from drying out. And then, as I’m throwing it in the rubbish bin at nine, Asif puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Well, that’s that. Shall we eat?”
“I’ve no appetite.” I’ve gone to the door ten times. I’ve even walked through the building on the off chance they were wandering around lost in a desperate frenzy. “Something has happened to him. My dear little man.”
“Just as well,” Asif says.
“It is not just as well.” I despise Asif’s pragmatic view of things. Hal is the only person who’s ever reached out to me in this city, and there is nothing pragmatic about him at all. I feel sick. “There will be a perfectly good explanation.” I begin to clear the place settings from the table: I can’t bear to wake up to a room decorated for a disaster. “You’ll see.”
The refrigerator is a solid wall of food, so I leave the curries in the oven and simply turn it off. Asif can warm them up for breakfast and lunch. I switch off the light in the kitchen—it feels like an official capitulation—and join him in the living room. He is engrossed in his newspaper again.
“You still look stunning,” he says.
“Surely you mean stunned,” I say. Ridiculously overdressed, I sit across from my husband and gawp at our quiet, spotless flat. At least this failed dinner party has forced me to clean it. I’m drained, too tired to cry. If not for the abrupt swish of newspaper pages every few minutes or so, I could fall asleep.
“You should go to bed,” Asif says. “You are wrinkling a perfectly good—” The doorbell interrupts him. “Do not answer it,” he says loudly enough for anyone in the corridor to hear.
I hop up and sort myself out like a girl waiting for her first date. “I told you.” I take a deep breath to resuscitate my hospitable nature, but as I reach for the door I hesitate. Opening this door two hours ago would have been something natural and cheerful; opening it now feels tragic like those scenes from American movies where the police come to tell you your dinner guests have been killed in an awful accident. I turn to Asif. Maybe he is right: maybe no good will come of this friendship. Maybe good fences make good neighbors. Nonsense, I think. Asif is rarely right about anything.
I turn the knob, and there stands Hal with his partner, a taller cross-looking fellow. “Our plane was late and we didn’t have your number,” Hal says and hands me a bouquet of the most beautiful blue flowers.