Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Old Man from Nairobi, Chapter 2

I've started posting the chapters of Resolution 786. I'll post each successive chapter roughly every 3 or 4 days. Here's Chapter 2:

Adam Hueghlomm was eight years old and on school holiday. Every morning he would wake, wash, and put on his favorite gray shorts and red flip-flops. The cool Nairobi air always tasted full of blossoming vegetation when he climbed down the cement steps at the front of their house. A tall, black wrought iron fence surrounded the property. By sunrise, the street outside the gate came alive with dusty cars and busy walkers. The vegetable lady regularly passed along a couple of hours after daybreak, strolling on the gravel sidewalk, her booming voice announcing the day’s produce while she carried a heavy basket atop her head, its content brimming with shiny green, yellow, and red spheres and cones.

Adam’s mother, Fatima, came down the hard steps, drying her hands with a dark blue dishtowel along the way. She wore a long, loose cotton skirt with a gentle floral pattern. Although far from tight, her long-sleeved yellow top held her thin form more snugly than her skirt. Her straight, shoulder-length black hair shone in the morning sun, bouncing softly around her light brown neck as she walked, a burst of color moving against the gray cream of the house.

Fatima shouted over her son, at the vegetable lady, “Aye, aye!” Her husband loved spaghetti and tonight she would make the sauce with fresh tomatoes.

The vegetable lady stopped immediately outside the wrought iron gate, “Ah, mama need vegetable this day.” Her words carried the heavy soak of a Swahili accent. She lowered her basket from the top of her head and held it below her waist, grasping it steady by two side handles, tilting it towards Fatima. She invited Fatima forward with a broad smile, lips stretched across a pristine set of bright, clean teeth.
Fatima leaned into the basket and picked over the day’s produce, culling out the best tomatoes of the lot, picking up this one or that, turning each around in her thin hands, running discerning eyes over the skin, gently pressing her fingertips into the firm spheres, testing freshness. The vegetable lady watched patiently, mentally tallying her total sale. Fatima made her final selections and placed the chosen tomatoes into the blue dishtowel, holding it like a miniature hammock. She began the bartering ritual, wanting to save every possible shilling, more on the basis of principle rather than need. Adam caught fragments of the Swahili conversation.

“These look like they were picked yesterday,” opened Fatima, a subtle British accent woven through her words.

“Noooooo, no, no. They were picked todaaay,” countered the vegetable lady, her words stretched in African inflections, her dark face nodding no, gently.

“But they’re bruised and the skin isn’t tight. They must be from yesterday.”

“The skin is very tight, good lady.” The vegetable lady tilted her head, mentally selecting the most compelling images for her next sentence. “My old, old mother work soooo hard. She pick these todayyyy, no matter how much her back hurrrrrting.”

Fatima decided that she would pay the asking price today, but she continued a token negotiation so that she wouldn’t be branded an easy mark in future transactions. “Yesterday they seemed bigger.”

“Same plant, same plant. Same size.” The vegetable lady nodded her head gently from side to side and made little clucking sounds with her tongue.

“OK, OK. But only because I know you,” said Fatima.

“Madam will like these tomatoes,” said the vegetable lady, smiling, her mind rolling numbers behind her eyes like a cash register.

Paper, coins and tomatoes changed hands.

Amid the bartering, Adam watched the old man on the other side of the road. He was shuffling down the sidewalk, the same as every day, bobbing along, his face the color of eggplants, his torn, dusty khaki pants crinkling and uncrinkling in cadence with his shuffling gait, a mud-caked burlap bag clutched close to his bare, ebony chest.

Fatima and the vegetable lady parted, exchanging smiles, bidding each other goodbye in Swahili, “Kwaheri!” The vegetable lady continued moving down the road announcing and hawking her produce, “Mboga safi na fresh kweli-kweli.” Fatima turned and hopped back up the cement steps, blessing the tomatoes in Arabic along the way, “Bismillah.”

Adam stayed on his side of the unlocked gate, watching the old man. The man had just gotten to where a side alley met the road. He dodged quickly into the hidden path, the same one he vanished into every day. Circumstances fused with curiosity, creating an enticing opportunity to discover the old man’s secrets. Adam buckled under the heavy weight of temptation. He turned sideways and slipped through the gate, glancing back from the corner of his eye at the cement steps to make sure his mother wasn’t looking. Outside the home compound, he stood on his side of the road, waiting for traffic to subside. When it did, he moved forward and across the road, walking in a quick, stilted gait.

Adam turned into the side alley and moved down the hidden, red-soiled path. A blanket of stillness nestled around him. He listened to the sound of gravel crunching underneath his flip-flops. Blossoming African weeds loomed taller than him, beautiful, on both sides of the path. Then he saw him. Around a gentle curve and a few feet off the path, the old man stood with his shiny, thinly muscled purple back facing Adam, his legs slightly apart, burlap bag crumpled on the ground beside him. He was peeing into the weeds.

The gravel stopped crunching. The tall weeds disappeared. Adam stopped thinking. He followed his limbs, walking closer. The old man grew bigger. He had one wrinkled, leathery palm resting gently on his hip, the other in front of him guiding a yellow stream into the weeds, its parabolic curve visible through the thin space between the back of his legs. The button on the old man’s rear pant pocket hung by a thread and was caked in dried blood. He cleared his throat noisily and gasped a parade of deep breaths. His lungs sounded like old newspapers fluttering helplessly in a strong gust. The yellow stream made a final lurch into the weeds like a falling rope. The old man smelled like sweat, urine and salt boiling together in a teapot. He bent his knees and hunched to one side to pick up the muddy burlap bag. He suddenly turned to stone.

Adam froze, icy fear.

Slowly, almost without moving, the old man’s onyx head turned towards the little boy until his tilted visage locked eyes with Adam’s. His wrinkled, leather eggplant face slowly broke into a bright ivory smile, squinting black pupils like bottomless wells drilled into the white snowfields of his eyes. And it was his eyes that then invited Adam to come look into the mud-caked burlap bag.

Adam pulled forward, a reluctant puppet on a horizontal string. The old man’s stance and expression remained unchanged, his wrinkled coal hands holding the dirty burlap bag open by its two frayed loop handles. Adam craned his neck to peer inside. Nothing. No, wait…he heard a faint, muffled tweet, tweet, tweet. He stepped closer, gazing to the bottom of the bag. A gang of bright yellow chicks scurried about inside the bag alongside a worn and sunburned copy of the Quran.

Adam looked back up at the old man, still hunched around his own ivory smile. The old man thrust a deep gaze into Adam’s eyes, silently asking him what he thought of the content of his bag. And then his squinting, ivory-framed eyes grew together into one large eye that absorbed his forehead. Adam blinked and the old man’s face became an enormous dark pupil reflecting scenes of war and death and pilgrimage, like a speeded up old movie reel, oscillating and rushing scenes that eddied into one final peaceful tableau of the giant black cube in Mecca — still, deserted, quiet, bathed in soft blue moonlight.

Adam screamed. He turned and ran, his heart beating hard inside his throat, rushing blood that clutched at his windpipe until he almost couldn’t breathe.

He lost one flip-flop forever.

He never followed the old man again.

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