Above the too-short couch, the curtainless window exploded in white light, the winter sun flooding the small living room. In the other room, a parlor with a set of French doors dividing the space, he heard Gordon rooting through his possessions, cursing. Francis buried his face in the cushions.
"Stop making so much goddamn noise."
"I'm looking for my satchel."
"Americans don't carry satchels."
Francis burrowed beneath his Marine-issue "All-Weather" coat—like the trench coat Bogart famously wore as melancholy cantina owner Rick in Casablanca. He'd been using it as a blanket since his discharge the week before. Gordon flung open the French doors and suddenly loomed over the couch, a scarf around his neck, like some B-team poet.
Francis removed the coat from his face, took in Gordon and his satchel. "They make those for men too?"
Gordon ignored him. Instead, he said, "Would you mind heading over to Lily's this morning? The guy who runs the halal cart on Eighth and Twenty-Third has been harassing her."
Francis sat up.
"Last week, she's leaving for work, he follows her, making this sound with his teeth—a sucking sound." Gordon demonstrated. "Some Egyptian. Or something. Anyway, the other day? He cornered her in the doorway of her building."
"Call the cops."
"Because he's Arab?"
"Because he's harassing her."
"As if the cops would do anything. Welcome to New York."
"Have a little talk with him then."
Gordon made a sound midway between a laugh and a snort, as if this were the most preposterous suggestion in the world.
"I have to be at Pratt by 7:30. I'm teaching. Anyway, I can't just threaten everyone who looks at Lily funny."
"Ah. You want me to threaten him."
Gordon sighed with a practiced exhaustion.
"No. I didn't say that. You were just in the Gulf. I thought you might have some…expertise, whatever."
"I have no expertise."
Francis lay back and squinted at the blank sky. A not unpleasant image of Lily in her junior partner uniform appeared: pinstripes, stockings, heels. Professional. Just this side of brusque. Brains too. The "whole megillah" as his father would say. Gordon's voice, infused now with a theatrical impatience, interrupted Francis' vision.
"I have to go. I'm late."
Francis stretched as the junior partner uniform dissolved into sparks of light.
"He speak English?"
"Don't you speak some Arabic?"
"Yeah. I can say 'Hands up.'" Francis raised his hands in mock surrender. "Erfah edak." The image of Lily crackled stubbornly in Francis' head, a campfire refusing to die.
"Maybe I'll head over there." The bony finger of a tree branch tapped against the window like an accusation.
The wind struck Francis as he stepped onto 8th Avenue, leaving him momentarily dazed. He looked for the World Trade Center to orient himself; the buildings sparkling and wavy-bright through tear-filled eyes.
The halal cart, somehow smaller and more pitiful than he'd imagined, rocked in the gusts, perfumed with bacon grease and river bottom. The sidewalks were choked with New Yorkers, grimly getting where they were going. Francis marched toward the surprisingly delicate cart, wondering how it survived such an environment. Covered in pictographs—chicken and rice, lamb and rice, lentils and rice—like modern hieroglyphics, it glowed fluorescent in the sober gray. He rehearsed possible speeches in his head, stopping suddenly: Why was he doing this? That Gordon had been manipulating him crossed his mind. It wouldn't be the first time. And then he thought of Lily, thrilling at the promise of her gratitude.
Inserting his face into the small window, Francis startled to discover not the leering reptile he'd imagined, but a youngish woman, an expectant look on her face.
"May I help you?" she raised a perfect eyebrow. This woman was beautiful. Struck dumb, Francis managed to point at a coffee and bagel combination, studying the pictograph as if it held meaning beyond "Enjoy a cup of Good Morning!" She poured his coffee. Handed it to him. No-nonsense. Matter-of-fact.
"Very hot. Be careful." Her English precise; her warning vaguely maternal, affecting in a way he couldn't quite place. He imagined her studying a book of English grammar between customers She turned her attention to the bagel.
He held the cup and took a cautious sip. The caffeine hit, giving him the confidence to rest a proprietary elbow on the small counter. He watched her work, her movements graceful in the snug cart, with just enough room to turn slightly left and right. She worked quickly, efficiently, infused with a New York specific hustle, the ancient enterprise of the immigrant.
Her face was a sovereign bronze, eyes large and impossibly black, of seemingly endless depth, spaced wide, somehow serious and welcoming at the same time, their undeniable intelligence lending a certain nobility to the mundane task of toasting a bagel for a stranger. Aware of his attention, she smiled politely and thrust it at Francis. He flushed and placed his coffee on the counter, as if building a wall to hide behind, and dug his wallet from his pocket: a collection of credit cards and small pieces of paper, bound by a thick rubber band. He placed the wallet on the ledge, next to the coffee, as he searched for cash. She watched without expression, the picture of patience. He finally looked up, smiling blankly:
"I'm out of cash." Francis searched the cart for something—a sign of some sort, a solution. "Credit card?—got plenty of those." He laughed to signal his unconcern. Behind Francis, another customer joined them. Great, Francis thought. An audience. Wall Street type. Finance douchebag.
But instead of joining Francis' laughter, she merely pointed to a hand-lettered sign: CASH ONLY.
Behind him, Francis heard an exhale of frustration. He turned. The man looked off, annoyed. Francis turned back to the woman. She continued to stare at him, unyielding as brick. Any hint of compassion or empathy or even hope lay stillborn on the sidewalk.
"Well, we've got a problem then."
"Can I just order?" Francis pivoted to face the man. "Can you just hang on?" The man stepped back.
"Get a job."
"Fuck you," Francis spat and stared at the man, daring him to continue. The man gave a final exhale and huffed off.
Francis felt everything speed up, like a car with a bad gas pedal. He took in the cart's name: King Tut Halal. Beneath it, a mocking parade of cartoon Egyptians danced stoically. Eyes of Horus watched him, unblinking and judgmental. His thoughts careened to a checkpoint on the Coast Highway. The Saudi guard had smiled at the WM, or "Woman Marine" truck driver. Instead of simply waving them through, he made a crude V with his fingers, a "reverse peace sign" as she later described it, simulating sloppy cunnilingus with his swollen tongue—he felt his anger swell.
"Where's the King?"
"The bossman," he said carefully. "King Tut. He around?"
"It is just the name of the cart. King Tut. From Egypt." She cocked her head. "You have no money?"
"No. Did you not understand me? Bt'ekhkee Englisi?" Do you speak English? He took in her face, her anger giving way to confused hurt. He'd not soon forget that look.
"But where's the guy? Who works here?"
Her hand tightened on the bread knife.
Her face hardened into an unexpected toughness. In it he saw the past of her Cairo girlhood, her present overflowing Queens apartment, and a future of heartbreak and disappointment that would've snapped Francis in two, like a dead stick.
"My cousin? You have business with him?" She appraised him coldly.
Francis looked away, down Eighth Avenue toward the World Trade Center, unable to withstand her eyes. He briefly thought of apologizing, fleeing to the safety of Gordon's couch. Instead, he plowed forward, like a good Marine.
"My friend's fiancé…" Again, a vision of Lily exploded to life. "She lives in that building over there…"
He nodded toward a colorless deco building, maybe eight stories, with clean lines.
"…your cousin, or whoever, has a habit of following my friend's fiancé down the street…"
She cut him off. "He is in Egypt. The money?"
Francis dismissed her. "You tell him: stay away. Because if I hear otherwise, that he's harassing her? Well, I don't know…." He stopped just short of making an actual threat. "That apartment right over there…" Francis aimed an accusing finger toward the building.
"Understand?" He sipped his coffee. It was cold.
For a long moment there was silence. In the calm, Francis sensed her growing, like a mighty tree, roots taking hold in the cement. And from deep within, something terrible arose, the very fullness of her spirit. Francis retreated into his coat.
"Oh, I understand," she said. "Very well." And smiled.
His cowardice laid bare, he felt dizzy. A kind of drunkenness took hold, almost thrilling in its disregard. Without thought or logic, Francis raised the paper cup in mock salute, pouring the coffee on the sidewalk. He flung the cup with a snap of his wrist. It fled with the wind, down Eighth Avenue. Without any idea of where to go, Francis executed a muddy right face, heading in the direction of the coffee cup. He felt her eyes on him, hating him.
The following day, as he'd awoken to roaring daylight, the tree branch tapping against the window, the previous morning replayed in his mind. At best, he was an ass. At worst, a bully. Also, his wallet was missing. And it could only be one place.
Francis walked with what he hoped was confidence, down the same loveless sidewalk, past the same trash pirouetting hopelessly, the same impassive buildings, towards the now familiar cart. In his mind, he'd rehearsed apologies; justifications for his behavior, abandoning them as he approached the small window. She looked up from the sink where she washed a cutting board. If she was surprised to see him there, her face didn't show it.
"I was here, yesterday morning…" Francis paused, absorbing her stony silence. "I wanted to apologize." He looked at her expectantly. She fixed her head, as if trying to place him.
"I have your money." He held up a five-dollar bill as proof.
She shook her head, wiping her already spotless work area. Then, as if surprised at his still being there, said: "It must be nice. To think so well of yourself. To have everything so easy for you." She indicated her workspace. "Now please."
Francis shifted, removing a small piece of paper from his coat pocket, carefully pronouncing the Arabic words written in pencil: "Ana aasef giddan." I'm sorry.
She looked at him with something resembling pity in her eyes, her laughter filling the small cart. Followed by something in Arabic; something needing no translation. He nodded in agreement, raising his hands in surrender. "Erfah edak."
Francis placed the money on the counter, beneath a napkin dispenser and turned to leave. She watched him go, then leaned out of the cart, waving his rubber-band wallet.
Francis stopped and looked up at her. She towered over him, her quiet courage now a kind of beauty in itself. With elbows placed primly on the small ledge, she regarded Francis, shivering before her: "You meant to say: Ana bastaslim—I surrender."
Francis' heart beat against his chest. He felt vaguely bound; a rabbit caught in a snare. But Francis was no prisoner, for she had unlocked the cage.
All he had to do was walk out.