In life, Mr. Mohammad had been 5’3”, though death, he was 5 inches even. Mr. Ajaz had been taller, almost 5’7”, with vehement mustaches and a wife who washed cotton shalwarz and kurta pajamas and yellowing undershirts ($3 the pack on Kings Highway) every Tuesday and Sunday afternoon at the Tel Aviv Coin-Op on CI Avenue, both of which survived him. Both Messrs. had lived in Karachi for two-dozen-years before that dream tore into their hearts, burrowing between the left and right ventricle, the longing to emigrate like a piece of fine silver wire threaded between the fibers that tugs, feather-light, at the mortification of la vida cotidiana. A wire whose far end is tethered to the Made-in-India manhole covers of New York, the city that will do and make and be everything, where the Crown Vic yellows and boxy Islamic centers of moldering brick replaced the dust and turrets and the goat curry that describe post-card Karachi.
Or at least, that’s how I imagine it.
From Queens and Brooklyn, they end up here, in the New York City morgue, where I found myself with a packet of Curry-in-a-Hurry bindi masala in a sweating pink plastic sack slung over my arm, waiting for a medical examiner who was not my second cousin. This after the Islamic center in Brighton Beach, and grand tour of our Brooklyn laundries (after all, one never knows), followed by a four hours at the back of a windowless CI apartment, the block lined with hacks like yellow hearses. And after that, an utterly useless visit to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which—one learns— is nearly almost always closed. I enjoy difficult people, but I would prefer bleach loads, even ironing with the steamer giraffe, to bureaucracy.
“Mr. Mohammad (in whose 7th floor apartment window leans a dusty blue placard stamped “HOPE”) ‘s remains have been released.” The examiner snapped on a violet Nitrile glove from a box behind the counter. All this after I wore my heels, the ones I carry in my purse to the 33rd St. office. They cannot determine cause of death, more than to say it was almost definitely the result of that explosion. They cannot determine the cause of the explosion. Whatever they can determine, they can’t say. Imams and dispatchers and the women who tear their clothes in anguish in the back room of Mrs. Ajaz’s West 33rd Street apartment (that’s West 33rd in Brooklyn, between Mermaid and Neptune), attest to the unflagging American goodness of Mr’s Mohammad and Ajaz, all of which amounts to nearly dick.
“I didn’t know the gentlemen personally, no,” the taxi-worker president said in her impossibly high Minnie Mouse voice. There was a Medicare jubilee at the JFK hold, where several hundred drivers kick soccer and drink milky Tata and Taj Mahal and watch novelas and Bollydrama waiting for their turn at $45 plus toll and tip and the Dream. “But this city’s taxi workers live with an impossible burden…” her cell phone cut out, and I promptly stopped listening. “…and act as ambassadors of New York’s hundreds of thousands of working class immigrants.”
“Uhuh,” I myself am terribly self-conscious of my voice, the way it spills over itself, inevitably small and bright, like some certain Disney song. I grew up speaking in shrieks and whispers, as though the volume might disguise the pitch. In temple, I sound like Chitra.
The official voice of New York’s taxi drivers is unperturbed by her own Madras Boys Choir thrill. She thanks me for my continued interest with “immigrant workers rights” and dislodges the call.
One Police Plaza cannot say whether they suspect terror, but they don’t deny it either.
“Anytime, Ms. Rom.”
And then there was on one left to call.
No one is ever alone at the Press. Yet there it was, the loneliness creeping up under my fingernails and into the roots of my teeth, and all at once he appeared in the blackness behind my eyelids, locked in carnal embrace with a suicide belt or swallowing a hand grenade or—and all at once I felt myself exploding.
I sat in the cubicle that was not even a cubicle the way I am not even a person, but only nearly almost half of one, and thought about cricket. Tried to remember my last bowel movement. Read the M section of the style manual. And then the R section. I counted out the number of backspaces it would take to erase him from his file photos. (D-U-B/A-U-S-C-H-W-I-T-Z/R-A-V-A-A-N-A//A-S-S-O-C-I-A-T-E-D/P-R-E-S-S)
But he was still there.
Today alone I got hit with 3 missed from the same 917 number that is not his. Each time, my heart leaps past my tonsils, the burn of my longing for him, no, for us, like indigestion up to my eyebrows, or a bouffant full of kerosene, or your eyelashes on fire. Like him in effigy at Diwali. This is the way that I love him, that I have loved him. Like smoking in bed with an oxygen tank.
And yet, I am compelled to record the brief and unremarkable lives of Mr. Ajaz and Mr. Mohammad, (a picture of the Lubavich Rebbe held between my ring finger and bird) and file anyway.
The end is coming, whispers this man who our neighbors, the ones who shepherded us to this country, believe might be the Messiah (or possibly not). By flood and by fire, by earthquake and by tsunami, by drowning, stoning, hanging, stabbing and blunt force trauma, among others. By Thor Equities, proud new owners of Astroland Amusements, by an exploding New York taxi or Sidr in a Speed Queen, and you will not be remembered afterwards.
“Good work, Rom.” Sammy Kohen leaned his hairy elbows on the desk, the monogrammed sleeves of his shirt folded nearly into his armpits.
And even then, in the New York headquarters of truth, the barometer of my own borrowed religious fatalism repeated it’s filmi chorus: Tomorrow may not be.