The Old Man and the Street Urchin
EVEN AS I recount this story, I’m uncertain why I went along with the batty old boob, Chacha Kakakhel. I don’t doubt if you told me what I’ll narrate now, I’d call you stark raving mad.
The problem is, even though I knew him well, I hardly knew him at all. That fact may have kept my sanity.
Perhaps I agreed to his preposterous scheme because we get so few strangers in Naya Chooran. Or maybe the strength of his convictions struck a deep chord in me. Was it his impish grin framing a row of chipped corn-yellow teeth? Or was it his scraggly beard dipped in lurid henna that allowed me rare chuckles in my bleak life?
His laugh was memorable too, like a whistling train slamming into a honking seal. What’s worse, he had the comic timing of a man with a death wish, or a penniless drunk scheming to get tossed out the bar.
It could also be those blocky shades he wore all the time; black aviators hiding his sightless eyes. What a dope, I thought at first. What’s the plastic protecting? Later, I swore I’d erect a shrine to them.
They were too fashionable for Naya Chooran until you noted the loops of clear tape holding the arms fast to the frame. Beyond that, it’s all a blur now, to be honest. All I remember are the many stink eyes and incredulous stares I aimed his way the moment he shared another ludicrous plan.
No, wait. He repeated a cryptic saying that took forever to register with me. “You can’t drift to the top of the mountain,” he’d say in a serious voice, before breaking into a simper. “Kalia, my little friend. You’re all ingrates, but that’s okay. Moses started that way too.”
Bah, his profound mumbo-jumbo was too much for me at age twelve. My mission in life back then was to roam the sandy streets of my neighborhood selling two packs of cheap hard-shelled candy in a stringy wicker basket. That was my burden as a man.
Years earlier, my father, a struggling stonemason, left our treacherous, ancient dwelling to buy roti from the tandoor and never returned. You can deduce the rest.
Ah, it’s queer how a daffy mossback showed a stubborn street urchin how to view his cold gray world in glorious technicolor. But don’t let the rosy talk deceive you. The first time he crossed my path, I wanted to throttle the codger or bribe the rabid town mutts to fetch me his corpse.
Most days my town resembled a noisy labyrinth for rats set atop pencil-thin pillars of unpainted bricks. And we didn’t mark streets with signs, not us. The murkiness of the skinny open sewers coursing on either side offered all the clues we needed. Hell, there were times I recognized my block by counting the number of cow pies slapped to house walls.
Dust from the quarries outside town hung so heavily year-round it was hard to tell the seasons apart. But I imagine we first met on a dry summer day because my skin felt extra crispy while going about my business.
It must've been a late Friday afternoon, if I recall right, as most shops were closed and street dogs outnumbered the locals strolling through the tunnellike lanes.
Not to say foul weather ever stopped local punks in colorful shorts from blockading the potholed roads to play their blasted cricket. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish to partake, but unlike those wastrels, I had responsibilities. I was a man.
It was an uneventful day as I ambled about my usual route, the wicker basket cradled in the crook of my arm, until a flash of light blinded me. No sooner had I shaded my eyes that a tennis ball taped white scudded toward my chest.
My breath cinched and I jerked away from its path, but in vain. It boxed me flush on my snub nose and threw me backward. My candies flung in the air and flopped as confetti onto the asphalt, but a handful slid into the sewer.
Stunned, I gaped from the sewer to the stout kid frozen in a cover-drive pose some twenty feet away: his sheeny bat and elbows raised high and a smug grin lighting his fishlike lips.
Afi, the local councilor’s son and consummate backyard bully. And the patron saint of hair-gel so his head appeared a slick sable watermelon. Was it his shiny dome or the bat that’d bedazzled me for a twinkle?
While his cronies tittered, my shock swapped for white-knuckled fury. If I were Medusa, my greasy corkscrew curls would’ve shaped into shoulder-length snakes and cast the unholy lot as stone.
I lowered into a duckwalk and one by one replaced the unsoiled sweets. Then I snapped to my feet and jabbed a finger at Afi. “Watch where you’re hitting, idiot.”
He stuck his bat upright on the blacktop and leaned on its handle. “Act a man, runt.”
My teeth bared on their own. “Wah, I work like a mule all day and you have the nerve to question my manhood?”
While his gang chuckled anew, I stepped sideways to set my basket on the top step of a shuttered shop stuck with a for-sale sign. I noted the maple leaf-shaped scar on the lamppost nearby and yanked up the sooty cuffs of my long tunic.
“I don’t care how many limbs I lose today, one of you is going to lose a leg,” I barked and stomped headlong toward them.
Again, the taped tennis ball lobbed my way and I braked to pouch it in my palms. Afi retook his batting stance before wickets made of soldered steel bars and beckoned me to bowl at him.
“Since you’re so poor, knock my wickets back in three tries and I’ll pay you for the sweets. Mere pocket change for me, hah,” he said haughtily.
I glared at him while his posse arranged in fielding positions round us and glimpsed me sidelong.
There’s nothing I wished more than to snatch those stumps and brand the steel on his sneer, but he was a head taller and built as a heifer. And though I’d earlier spoiled for a fight, it wouldn’t bring my sweets back. I must go farther round town tomorrow to make up the sales.
“Fine,” I boomed. A thunderbolt to his kisser was all that mattered.
Retreating a few paces, I tossed back my overlong curls and windmilled my bowling arm. I wasn’t much of a cricketer, but given a slingshot, I could nail a marble on any ledge from ten paces back.
As my ears mightily throbbed, the crows perched on the lattice of naked power lines overhead cawed louder. They must have sensed blood; the heifer’s, hopefully.
The sudden clatter of dhol beats and Punjabi hollers drowned their caws, and as one we peered about for their source.
From up the drive, where the street met a cropland of turnips, an old man sporting a perky turban neared us doing the luddi dance. A lava-gray boombox slung round his shoulder and bobbed in time with his feet. He also waved to an invisible crowd on both sides of the road, beaming.
He pranced to the middle of our pitch and hit the stop button while we gaped at him, speechless. And once the flashing neon lights ringing his boombox speakers died, he cupped an ear. “Eh, where’s the welcoming committee?”
“Who’re you?” Afi blurted.
Personally, I was inches from snatching his bat and whacking the geezer’s gut for ruining my payback.
Chacha pushed his thick shades up his nose and checked his festive red waistcoat; the corners of his mouth upturned in conceit. “Your new councilor, who else?”
The stuffy air round us was still until the ball slipped from my grip and tapped the pavement.
“Ah, you boys play cricket?” he said brightly. “Come now. I’ll open the game like important people do.” He outspread his palm and gestured for the ball.
I tugged on my curl as if it were his leathery neck. Afi though had an unexpected bout of charity, or perhaps his intentions were similarly fatal.
He nodded at me, steely eyed, and lined up before the stumps. “Go ahead then.”
Chacha clapped once with gusto and I palmed him the ball. Then somehow, he set his boombox right next to my basket, and toddled toward the bowling-end where the wickets nearly impaled his crotch.
A brief squeal later, he juggled the ball and coolly glanced round as if he were Imran Khan in his pomp.
The other kids teamed together as wicketkeepers, smirking in wait of the old-timer keeling over mid-stride. But I concluded if he lost control, the safest place was behind his bowling arm.
Meanwhile, a curious giddiness possessed me. I knew mom would belt me later for losing the candy, but this show I couldn’t miss. A delirious blind dude who claimed he was the new councilor and could play cricket? I’d never hear a better punchline.
Chacha shook the ball in his grip as you would a die and muttered to himself. Then he puffed at it again and again like a hot meal. Was he praying he wouldn’t make a fool of himself? That ship had sailed.
His leg lifted and he arched backward in a catapult pose. “Allahu Akbar,” he squawked and let it rip.
I blinked on repeat and rubbed my eyes. The ball was in his fist one moment and then it vanished.
It didn’t ping an electric pole; crash into any house window; thump the drain pipes protruding from every roof; smack any unfortunate sap loafing about the street. How?
Afi and fiends rolled round on the asphalt from belly laughs. One of his red-faced thugs met my stare and pointed to the sky. Chacha had spun round and walked away without comment.
Though I felt for him, the missing ball preoccupied my thoughts. Gravity should’ve made it land by now.
I stood halfway down the pitch and squinted skyward to pry past the fog of dust.
A white dot. It grew bigger and bigger, and its descent brought on a faint whine.
My legs tingled and my pulse galloped. Tennis balls don’t drop like missiles, Kalia.
I made a mad dash away from the pitch; the Shahada gushing out my trembling lips.
Seconds later, right where I’d been standing, a cone-shaped shell the size of a wheelbarrow cratered the road.
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