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"California Market, by Patty Somlo

 

             The morning Ali Mansour’s mother arrived, Catherine Crawford stepped into the California Market. Bells attached to the door jingled. The television screen was dark.

            “Is the t.v. broken?” Catherine asked.

            “Broken?” Ali responded. “Oh, no. I prefer it quiet.”

            Catherine studied Ali’s face. The lines framing his mouth seemed especially deep today.

            “Has one of your lights burnt out?”

            “No. The lights are all working,” Ali said, shaking his head.

            “Seems kind of dark.”

            When Catherine looked at Ali again, he was leaning his head toward the window.

            Catherine turned in that direction. Though that corner of the store was dark, Catherine managed to make out a woman sitting there, her head covered by a dark maroon scarf, her shoulders draped in black cloth.

            Catherine moved her gaze back to Ali, balanced on a high stool behind the counter.

            “My mother,” Ali explained. A modest, elderly woman, Ali’s mother made her son keep the aluminum blinds shut. With the window covered, the California Market was dark as a cave.

            “Hello,” Catherine said, turning toward the shrouded figure and projecting her voice, as if the woman might be deaf.

            “She doesn’t understand English,” Ali said.

            Ali might have been tempted to tell Catherine the story, if they were better acquainted and his mother wasn’t there. In the silence Ali usually avoided by keeping the t.v. on, he wondered where in the complicated tale he would begin.

            “Are you out of Half and Half?” Catherine asked, breaking into Ali’s thoughts.

            He needed to think. Hadn’t he unpacked a carton of small waxy containers earlier this morning? Or was that chocolate milk?

            “Let me take a look.”

            As soon as he reached the end of the counter, Ali remembered that he hadn’t unpacked the Half and Half. He’d been about to do that, when his mother had turned and glared at him.

            “I have some fresh back here,” he said, hurrying to fetch the blue plastic crate from the walk-in cooler.

            Catherine returned to the front of the store. She stared at the old woman’s head. Who would have thought Ali’s mother would be so foreign? She looked like women Catherine saw on the news, in Afghanistan and Iraq, except she wasn’t wearing one of those pale blue burkas that only exposed the eyes.

            Ali wasn’t from Iraq or Afghanistan, Catherine remembered. He was Palestinian. Palestinians owned the markets that sat on practically every corner in this part of town. Out close to the beach, the markets were owned by Chinese.

            Though a bit more formal and polite than other men Catherine knew, Ali seemed completely American. He was friendly to everyone. In fact, Catherine and the people she knew in the neighborhood shopped at Ali’s store because the Palestinian who owned the market across the street was so cold.

            “Here we go,” Ali said, as he made his way to the counter. “I am sorry for making you wait.”

            “That’s okay. I’ve got the day off.”

            “Oh? It’s not a holiday, is it?” 

            Ali dropped the Half and Half into a small paper bag.  

            Catherine leaned over the counter.

            “I called in sick,” she whispered.

            Ali smiled.

            “Everybody deserves a little time off,” he said, then lobbed his gaze like a grenade at his mother.

            The door bell jingled as Catherine stepped out. Once she had left, the air felt heavy, as it did when Ali had no customers.

            Every morning, Ali unlocked the market’s front door at ten minutes before six o’clock. Cartons of milk – whole, two percent, chocolate and skim – waited outside the back door, along with a crate of Half and Half. Next to that was a cardboard box filled with flavored yogurt and plain cottage cheese. Ali busied himself those first fifteen minutes, filling the coolers and removing containers with expired dates.

            When he was done, he carried the half-full boxes and set them inside the walk-in. Then he filled the register with bills – ones, fives and twenties – and rolls of nickels, dimes and quarters, after which he picked up a pink feather duster and brushed the merchandise and shelves. As he did, Ali made sure there were no gaps in the candy racks, the gum shelves, the cereal or dishwashing liquid that needed replenishing.

The whole business took Ali a half-hour to forty minutes, including a sweep of the scuffed wooden floor. At seven o’clock, he turned the t.v. on. The news commentator’s voice kept his mind from too much brooding. When customers came to the counter, they raised their gaze to the screen that hung over the register. Whatever was on the news made its way into the conversation.

            Ali asked his mother if she might like a cup of tea. She didn’t respond. For a moment, he thought his mother’s hearing had gone, though she’d had no trouble understanding his words the last time he called. That’s when she informed him that his sister had eloped. This wouldn’t have happened, she continued, if after his father had passed away the previous year, Ali had moved back home.

            Against his better judgement, Ali had invited her to come stay with him, since she had no one at home with her now. He had given her instructions on where to go when she got off the plane. Though he would have preferred sending an e-mail, his mother didn’t know how to use a computer. He could have taken the old-fashioned route and mailed a letter. But his mother, it pained Ali to acknowledge, had never learned to read or write.

He walked to the window, stepped around the dark brooding figure and stopped.

“Mother. You must eat something. You must drink. I will make you a cup of tea and some toast.”

At last, his mother turned from the window and looked at him. She had large, deep-set brown eyes that in the low light appeared dark as a raven’s wings. Beneath her prominent cheekbones, shadows formed narrow ash-colored triangles. Her thin lips were pinched into a frown and her slender chin ended in a point.

            “Mother, you must eat. Starving yourself will not change anything,” Ali insisted.

            The shrouded head made a small nod.

 

            That evening, after Ali convinced his mother she would be safe sleeping in his apartment alone, he walked the three blocks back to the market. For the first time in years, Ali was tempted to keep going, past the California Market’s red and white sign, crossing the street at the corner, noticing that his competitor had his door wide open and the lights in his market bright. He would keep walking beyond the popular sushi restaurant, where eager customers waited outside in line, and continue on, past the bars and cafes, and the gym, finally reaching the supermarket with its vast parking lot.

            When he arrived at the California Market, though, Ali realized that even if he kept walking, he wouldn’t have had any place else to go. His whole life was contained in this store. Yes, he wanted to tell his mother. This is what happens when a person denies love.

            Though he hadn’t continued past the market, Ali didn’t go inside. He lingered on the sidewalk, leaning his head back to get a glimpse of the stars. There were so many lights in this city and, of course, the ever-present fog. When Ali looked up, all he could see was a flat blanket of white.

            Back home he had loved driving out beyond the city, to a place so dark the sky spilled over with a thousand crowded pinpoints of light. He had taken her there and he realized now that the moment she stretched her neck back, he fell in love.

            She was the first American girl Ali had ever known. Karen had come to Israel for her junior year abroad. An undergraduate student, Ali planned to go on to medical school. How easily they walked together that morning, after Ali had run straight into Karen in the hall.

            Ali had a terrible urge for a glass of wine, a snifter of brandy or a shot of bourbon. He’d given up drinking long ago and had all but forgotten the taste. It was crazy to feel this much about a girl he hadn’t seen since he was young.

            “Hi, Ali.”

            The voice startled Ali out of his reverie.

            “Oh,” Ali said, and turned in the direction of the sound.

            “What are you doing out here, Ali? It’s cold.”

            Ali realized he hadn’t put his jacket on. It was hanging on a hook in the storage closet.

            In the light filtering out from the store, Ali saw that Catherine Crawford had on a long black coat. His eyes fell to her feet. She was wearing a pair of shiny black high heels.

            “You are all dressed up,” he said, and then felt his cheeks grow warm.

            “Went to a party. Forced myself to go. You know, you’re not gonna meet anyone if you don’t go out, Catherine. That’s what I always tell myself. I go and stand around and watch other people talk. Then I head home.”

            Ali didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t been to a party since college.

            “Where’s your mother, Ali?”

            “I have taken her home.”

            “Is she enjoying her visit?”

            “No. I don’t think so.”

 

            When he went back into the market, Ali locked the door, even though it was too early for closing. He just needed more time. Her hair, Ali recalled, was a pale, shiny blond. Ali imagined he could feel its smooth softness now against his palm.

            Spring term, he saw her every day. They walked and walked – along the beach, around the city, and at night under the stars.

            Ali then made the mistake of his life.

            As if it had happened moments ago, Ali recalled his mother’s face. At the sound of the doorbell, she quickly pulled up her scarf. Her hair at the time was beautiful and dark.

            Sitting in the living room mending, his mother had a light blue shirt spread across her thighs. She held the threaded needle up.

            “I’d like you to meet my mother,” Ali said, and turned to look at Karen.

            Ali realized his mistake right off. The girl’s lovely blond head of hair was uncovered.

            “Mother,” Ali said, his mouth dry and his throat aching. “This is my friend. Karen.”

            The needle in his mother’s right hand stabbed the cloth.

            Ali waited. When the silence had endured too long, he said, “Mother, I’d like you to meet my friend.”

            He stared at the top of his mother’s head, covered by a brightly flowered scarf.

            His mother forbade him to see Karen, claiming no good would come of an involvement with a girl without morals. At first, Ali argued with her. But in the end, he agreed to give Karen up.

 

            A half-hour was left before closing time. The pain Ali felt even now seemed too great to fit in the crowded market, where every available space was filled with products. One of the first things Ali had been taught by the seasoned Palestinian grocers was to keep the store well-stocked.

            “No empty spaces on the shelves or your customers will think something is wrong,” the head of the grocer’s association advised.

            Ali was given a last bit of advice.

            “Americans like to feel that they can have whatever they want. To be successful, a businessman in America must offer many choices.”

 

            Ali had failed to notice that it was twenty minutes past ten o’clock. Normally by this hour, he would have finished closing up. At 10:30 when he finally checked his watch, he realized he couldn’t possibly go. It would have been different if his mother hadn’t been in the apartment. Sure, she might be asleep, but if not, his mood would be shattered. It pained Ali to be thinking of Karen after all this time.

 

            By the time he went to look for her, Ali had owned the store for three years. Until that day, he had never risked closing the store, even for a few hours. The pamphlets he’d received from the grocers association had contained a stern warning.

            Don’t close the store, except for an emergency that can’t be avoided. You must establish a loyal customer base before taking even a week off. Otherwise, your customers will shop at your competitors’ markets and you’ll never get them back.

            Ali didn’t know if he’d waited long enough. But each message he left for Karen that wasn’t returned made him more determined.

            He drove for twelve hours. He’d spread the map across the passenger seat of his car. The street names were so tiny, Ali needed to pull over and hold the map up close to his eyes.

            The road curved gently up a hill, until reaching a neighborhood where larger new homes started. Each house looked like the one next door, with an oversized garage and a narrow front yard. The streets wound around and eventually he found the right one. Desert View Court. He drove the car slowly until he came to number One Thirty-One.

            He hadn’t expected to see her. She had her back to him, as he parked the car. The long blond hair. The slim figure.

            He’d been driving on the side of the street with even-numbered houses and looked across. From where he sat, he thought she was carrying a bag of groceries. Then she turned around.

            Not a single cloud moved across the flat blue Arizona sky. Sunlight danced across the perfectly tended lawn.

            Ali sat in the car, the radio turned off. He watched Karen lean down and kiss the baby in her arms.

            A man stepped onto the sidewalk leading from the front door. He had hair the color of sand and wore a pale blue tank top. He must have said something to Karen because she suddenly turned around.

The last thing Ali saw before heading back to the highway was the man leaning down and kissing Karen as she cradled the baby.

 

            Ali raised his eyes to the clock. Nearly midnight. The time had flown.

            He walked into his office at the back of the store. Instead of adding up the day’s receipts, as he usually would have done, Ali grabbed a clean cup.

            He did not fill the electric pot with water or pull a teabag from the box. He carried the cup to the front of the store. There, he set the blue porcelain mug on the counter.

            The bottle felt smooth against the dry chafed skin on his thumb. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d indulged, least of all with brandy.

            Before taking the first sip, he moved the cup back and forth under his nose.

            “Brandy must be savored,” he said out loud.

            Like happy memories, he thought, recalling the feeling he once had watching a beautiful woman mesmerized by a sky bursting with stars.

Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations and has been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award. Her essay, “If We Took a Deep Breath,” was selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, her second book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, is forthcoming from Cherry Castle Publishing (cherrycastlepublishing.com) in January 2017. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, The Flagler Review, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, among others, and in sixteen anthologies. www.pattysomlo.com.