A 9/11 Tale: Reading America
I read American every morning.
That is what I tell my family who are still in India. “I read America,” I tell them over the phone. “I read America in the newspaper in my store on Liberty Road in Virginia every day.”
My wife, Mina, says I read too much.
“This,” she says, waving her hands around our convenience store, “this is not America. That newspaper you read is not America. Out there”—here she points to the parking lot and the apartment houses beyond—“that is America.”
She is right, of course, but I continue to read.
I do not read the world news today, October 3, 2001. The TV reads that to me all day long. Osama bin Laden. The Taliban. America Fights Back. Ground Zero. Terrorists Within. The TV is like a fly buzzing in my ear, like Mina buzzing about inventory, like the refrigerators buzzing because October is still too hot to be October.
The flies are buzzing again outside around the trashcans next to the front doors. The police may visit us again. The things they find there. A gun once. Bloody clothing. Knives. Police tape is bad for business. Few cars without flashing lights stop here on Liberty Road. The ones that do stop are either in a hurry to leave or in a hurry to investigate my trash.
I open the Times and read a story on Muslims in America. A “violent extremist group” one hundred miles from here is collecting canned goods to send to victims in New York City. They do not sound violent. It says there are over twenty American-born Muslim families living like farmers there, it says they are living in fear now after living many years in peace next to Baptist churches and the Amish, it says they have moved from the city to the country to home-school their children in a safer place.
Now they are not safe in their own country.
Customers have accused me of being Muslim though my accent is not as thick as Mina’s is. I answer Mina’s Bengali all day in English. Not well, but I try. The street language gives me trouble, but I am learning. I know that “fat” is a good thing now. Mina's fried chicken is "fat." The voices I hear remind me of Calcutta with its five million accents. My name is Raja, but the name above the register says that I am Roger. Few customers call me Raja. My dark skin and thick black hair and moustache make me look Muslim. My new name and language make me American.
My customers make me American, too. I wear a red, white, and blue ribbon on my shirt. A child gave it to me that horrible day. An American flag I bought at Wal-Mart hangs over the cigarettes, and I only stock American beer. Few of my customers drink foreign beer these days.
The store empty, I drink my tea and read about a seventeen-year-old boy who killed his mother and aunt twenty miles to the south of here. It says he loved them, it says he “snapped,” it says he heard voices, it says he is “remorseful,” it says “ain’t nothing you can do about it because it just done happened.”
It just done happened. So tragic. So much waste. I look at the trashcans outside. The flies buzz, darting in and out.
Mina buzzes about two boys loitering outside by the telephones. “They should be in school,” she says.
“True,” I say, but I am glad at least their mothers and aunts are safe.
“You must empty the trash,” Mina says.
“Yes,” I say, but I will wait until later when the big trucks empty the Dumpster. They are already two days late.
I sip more tea and read about a man who robbed his sister. Robbing your own flesh and blood. I read about a man who stopped to help a stranded motorist, and the motorist robbed the man. A good deed repaid by evil. I read about a house burning down. “No one was hurt,” it says. I would be hurt if my house burned down. I read about a car wreck. Two expensive cars crumpled together like old dollar bills caused as much damage as the cost of the house that burned down. Such strange numbers in America. I read the obituary page and see words written in memory of a young man: “It’s been one long, sad, and difficult year without you.”
So much badness, so much sadness, so much I do not understand about my America.
“Raja!” Mina hisses.
I look up. A customer stands in front of me. It is Mo, who is very tall and wide and tells me tall tales with a wide smile. He has told me he will one day be the heavyweight boxing champion. He, too, should be in school.
“Your moustache is getting thick,” I tell him as I fold my newspaper and slip it under the counter. His moustache is not very thick, but I can tell he is trying hard to grow something there. It is like a thick line of type on his light brown skin.
Mo places two large hands on the counter, two thick gold rings shining up at me. He smiles like the cartoon character on his shirt, his cheeks nearly as full. “Not as thick as yours, Yo,” he says. He laughs, and so do I. He is always calling me this “Yo” person. “Yo,” Mo says, “gimme a White Owl.”
“It is a bad habit,” I tell him, “for one so young.” I reach under the counter and pull out a cigar, placing it into his hand.
Mina buzzes at me in Bengali, something about not discouraging a sale.
I ignore her, and she goes back to frying chicken.
Mo slides me a dollar bill. “Keep the change, Yo.” He picks up the cigar, the plastic crinkling, and then he drops it onto the counter. “Hold onto to this for me, Yo,” he says. “Gotta take care of a little business. Be back in a sec.” He leaves the counter, his smile fading as he pushes through the double doors to the parking lot.
Moments later, I hear two loud pops and see a car squealing away.
I crouch down to grab my gun, but I let my sweaty fingers slide off the cold metal. No. The police will think I did it if I carry a gun outside. I am too dark in these dark times even though it is not yet noon.
I rise and see Mina squatting and whispering into the telephone near the back door. I look out into the parking lot and see nothing. I soon hear rapid footsteps and wild shouts.
Mo has not come back inside.
Mo has been shot. Twice, perhaps. A car has sped away.
Perhaps Mo is still alive.
The police will come but not because my trashcans are full. The flies have left them.
Perhaps Mo is not alive. Flies are like that.
I look down at the counter. A White Owl cigar I will never sell stares up at me.
And tomorrow, the story of Mo will stare up at me as I read America once more while I sip my tea and listen to the flies.