Monday, September 3, 2007

A Chapter from a Novel I'll Never Finish...

My roommate Sheed was back in town all of a sudden and desperate to talk to me. He'd called from the subway as it emerged over Dyckman Street to let me know he was on the way home and wondered if I could meet him down in Marble Hill. I agreed and took what I figured would be my last look around the place since eviction was almost certainly imminent.

Sheed greeted me at the bottom of the steps to the 1-train with a broad smile on his face as though he'd desperately missed me. He offered to buy me some food from one of the many street vendors on 225th, but then eyed them suspiciously and hurried us away toward the waterfront.

Manhattan sat across the Broadway Bridge taunting Sheed and I for being too cheap or too weak to live in the city's most celebrated borough. I remembered staring out at it from the Brooklyn Bridge a few years back with the same contempt, perhaps disappointed that no planes would be careening toward anyplace I was likely to live.

Sheed stared down at his five dollar Times Square designer impostor watch and shivered slightly. He looked fairly disturbed, but I didn't feel that sorry for him since I was sure he was about to make me homeless. He looked up at me with a slight pathetic smile and began speaking softly.

“Keith...there are things people who share a roof should not keep secret,” he said. “In some cases, because of emergency. In others, because they are friends. I haven't been a friend to you.”

He paused and glanced up toward the sun as it prepared to crash into New Jersey.

“There are men who are looking for me,” he blurted. “I have done nothing wrong, but they think I did because...because of someone I know. Have you noticed anyone? We have had any visitors or the super been by or anything strange?”

“Nope.”

“Oh. Well, that's very good. It's a relief. Listen, I must tell you all about this thing that they want to do to me. I don't know why they want me or I do, but it's crazy!”

“Yeah.”

“Very crazy. I think we should have dinner or better we should go somewhere and talk it all over because this is not...you have been to Shea Stadium?”

“Not for a long time.”

He looked up and over my shoulder nervously. Something must have caught his eye because he got very agitated. I glanced around to see what he could possibly be looking at, but there was nothing except the usual pedestrian traffic.

“I am sorry. I don't think we can talk here now. Perhaps later this evening at Yankee Stadium?”

“I thought you said Shea,” I asked.

“A mistake. The place where the Mets play is Shea? Yes, the Yankees ballpark.”

“You have tickets?”

“No, no. Let's just meet inside the train station and we can figure out what.”

“Okay.”

“I see you there in one hour my man.”

Sheed ran out to the street and thrust his hand out to hail a gypsy cab. He caught the second one passing and waved absently in my direction. The car took off down Kingsbridge with Sheed doubtless feening for a hit in the back.

I processed what Sheed had just told me, though I hadn't really understood it. More pressing at the time was that I'd stepped in shit. Whether the shit was dog or man made was distracting me as I struggled to decipher Sheed's rambling. It was clear that Sheed was in some shit of his own, but who wasn't? Zenobia's laugh echoed in my ears.

An hour and a half later, I was at the Yankee Stadium subway stop. I was late because I'd been trying to air dry my pants after they'd gotten soaked from attempting to bust open a fire hydrant so I could get water to clean my shoes. Kids are geniuses.

Sheed was impatiently pacing back and forth on the platform. When he saw me, he grabbed me roughly by the arm and started to tug me toward the escalator. I punched him in the stomach and kicked him in the shin with my wet shit covered shoe. I didn't know what had come over Sheed, but it wasn't my fault. No one objected because he didn't fall down. If he had, the typical New York “he's had enough” looks would've started shifting my way, though it was unlikely anyone would have interfered. Even Samaria is drenched in blood these days.

Instead of falling down and causing alarm, Sheed started laughing hysterically. The platform cleared off except for a couple kids who thought a fight worth watching might be breaking out. Once I unclenched my fists, the kids disappeared. Sheed didn't stop laughing though. He walked toward the end of the platform. I followed at a slight distance wondering if he wasn't testing me somehow. In plain view was an opening in Yankee Stadium where you could see some of the cheap seats, but none of the action on the field. As a roar from the crowd buffeted us, Sheed began to speak between giggles.

“I am sorry buddy. I am so sorry. It's okay?”

“It's okay.”

“I am sorry buddy. It's so silly. I am very sorry buddy.”

“What's going on?”

“You don't know? You wouldn't know buddy. Ah, I am not what you think, but I am not what they think either. I thought you might be with them, but you're okay, buddy. The first day I knew you I said you were going to be good.”

“Sheed, you okay?”

“I am not that...not Sheed. Oh, my buddy, I am a shit head. I am a shit head.”
At that, Sheed let out a monstrous cackle that actually made me jump back. He rubbed his shin and spit over the railing onto the street below.

“Buddy, you're okay. You know why I never gave you the mailbox key?”

“No.”

“It's something so crazy. It's only in America. At home, my mother said I am someone special. In America, I am covered in shit.

He looked me in the eyes.

“Buddy, let me show you something. Only the bill collectors know this bad truth. Here, look at this.”

Sheed produced a crumpled Con Edison envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. I stared inside the little plastic window at the familiar address. The bill was made out to a “Shithead
Haxhaje.”

“Shit head?”

“Yes! Yes, I am a shit head. By name and by nature, I am a shit head!”

Sheed broke down in tears. Lacking anything else, I offered him a cigarette, but he dutifully pointed to a no smoking sign on the wall. I felt bad for him, but it wasn't my fault. I supposed his mother had done it.

“There's more buddy,” he said. “I am a shit head, but it's more than that. It is...well, I like marijuana.”

“I know shit head.”

“No, it's Shithead. Shih-Theed. It's Mauritanian.”

“I see.”

“It's okay buddy. Same mistake everybody makes. Anyway, I am smoking a lot. I smoke at least, like...a bag a day.”

“No wonder you never offered me any.”

“I am sorry buddy. No, I never knew you might want it. I am also...what is it? Stingy, I think?”

“That's okay.”

“But there's more. I smoke and to smoke, I have to sell sometimes too. So I sell, but only to friends and friend of my friends.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yes buddy, it's safe, you know? But the guy I buy from, he is also Albanian.”

“I thought you were African.”

“On my mother's side, but my father is a Kosovar Albanian. They met in Mecca.”

“I never knew.”

“It's okay buddy. His mother's sister--my grand-aunt--she was the one who lived in our home. Anyway, I go down to Sheepshead Bay every week to get a new supply because it goes fast. But this guy, this Albanian, he is not only into the weeds.”

Sheepshead Bay was down in Brooklyn, but it wasn't part of my Brooklyn. It was actually one of few affordable neighborhoods left in the borough, but that was because it was so remote and out of the way that the only people who lived there were Russian mobsters and hipsters who'd gotten bad directions. If Sheepshead was the source of Sheed's troubles, it was no surprise.

“Is that why you're always gone for so long,” I asked.

“Sometimes, buddy. It's that and smoking. You never know where it's going to take you.”

Or leave you, I thought, as a pop fly cracked loudly off of a bat in the suddenly silent evening air.

“So, is that your only job?”

“With our rent, is it a great surprise? No, I just buy and sell, like a Wall Street guy. I was even employee of the month once.”

“You get a plaque?

“No, I got arrested.”

“You were caught?”

“The FBI! They came for me three days ago. I was on my way home and they got me. It was right outside our apartment. I went right along though and they didn't use handcuffs. It would have been very bad if they had used handcuffs. Now I'm thinking the FBI don't even have handcuffs. Do you know?”

“I don't.”

“Of course. Why would you know buddy? You don't have to be arrested by the FBI. They got me good!”

“So what, was it for the drugs?”

“No, that's nothing. The Albanian was a liar.”

“Was he a mob guy?”

“No. He is al Qaeda.”

Sheed paused to blow his nose as I attempted to take it all in. My roommate knew a terrorist?

“It's not really al Qaeda, but it's like that. He is a Wahhabi. They are extremists who go around trying to get every Muslim into jihad. They say his group has ties to al Qaeda. Like that. The FBI said I was helping fund a terrorist group! I don't know about terrorists! Then they say my mother's cousin I only ever met one time was deported to Mauritania on suspicion last year, so that proves my connection! What I do now buddy?! I sat there and they said these things and I don't know what to do! They say they take my green card now unless I tell them something, but it's all nothing to do with me, man! I don't even know! So you see Keith, I am a shit head after all...”

He began sobbing uncontrollably, muttering in some strange tongue. His English had deteriorated as quickly as my lack of sympathy. Poor Sheed. He thought I was one of them and I thought he was one of them, but neither of us were anyone. Just shit heads maybe.

“Perhaps...” he mumbled through tears. “Perhaps you could say a word for me?”

“To whom?”

“The federals. When they come again, you could say I am all right.”

“I don't know.”“Please, it would go far. You are a citizen?”“Of course, but the thing is, I don't know anything about you. I mean, we live together, but I can't give you an alibi because I never see you. How do I say anything about you when I've only seen you about six times? I don't want to get locked up for perjury.”

“This is true buddy. I am sorry. I didn't think.”

“It's okay. I'm sorry too. I wish I could help.”

Sheed had composed himself. He searched the Stadium's upper deck for answers, but none were available, leaving his eyes glazed over with worry. I felt bad for him. I wasn't sure if he thought my unwillingness to help was legitimate, but he must have known I couldn't really do anything anyway. Even if he did think I was holding out on him, it must have been clear that I didn't owe him a thing. As I'd said, we barely knew each other, so why would he be worth going out on a limb for? What set Sheed apart from all the other protect me/fix me types a person runs into? Nothing, it turned out. He would get what he had coming like everyone else. Diagnosis: Patient inoperable.

The downtown express train rumbled to a halt in front of the now crowded platform. I shook hands with Sheed and told him I hoped to see him at home. He nodded then slunk toward the turnstiles without looking back. The train doors slid closed and Sheed and the Doppler roar of the Yankees' fans receded into the night. I stared at the faces around me, all in need of some remedy or another. There was no guilt. If we all had to suffer, how could there be any guilt?

No comments: