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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Short Story #1: Tried & Tested (part two)

Tried & Tested - The Makings of Faith part 2
by Umm Juwayriyah © 2014

The cab stopped by the curb and I got in. An East Indian man with fair skin sat in the driver’s seat. The strong aroma of spicy curry filled my nostrils. “Where to Miss?” he asked softly.

“ Webster Ave , please.”

They say you never forget where you come from, and I hadn't, but where I had come from had changed. Was this really Hill district? It couldn't be. The streets were in the right places and yet they looked completely different. The houses and the people –  what had happened here? I know when I lived here it wasn't the best neighborhood in Pittsburgh . By my time it had been several decades since Hill district had been the cultural center and playground for such Harlem Renaissance greats as poet Claude Mckay and the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson. By my time, Hill district was a "poor but we got just enough" type of neighborhood. I knew I grew up in the hood and yet I still remembered the grass being green, the tress being tall and alive, sidewalks that were clean and people, happy, with somewhere to go.

Funny thing was though,  back then I didn't like it. I couldn't see the beauty in what I had. Nothing was enough for me. I hated the Hill.  I hated Pittsburgh . I hated my life and all the can't dos. I felt trapped like a royal letter written with a fountain pin and then stuck inside a dirty, nasty beer bottle with a corkscrew. I always planned to get out by any means necessary…

“ Would you be needing help with your bag?” The cab driver asked.

“No, that won’t be necessary, Sir. I just have this one bag,” I said as I looked down at the wide mouth Tuscan Italian leather duffle bag I had with me. “…but thank-you anyway.”  I grabbed my bag and pulled the shoulder strap over my body and opened the door.

As I rode in the back seat, I recited surah Al Fatihah to myself over and over again. The cab driver kept looking in his mirror at me. I am sure he thought I was deranged or perhaps, pious. I was neither, but I had
 faith in the Qur'an. On dark nights after Mateo would beat me up and leave to go hang out with his side chicks or home boys, I lie on the floor reciting Fatihah or surah Ar Rahman or An Nas. I would recite all night long until the throbbing stopped or my mind stopped thinking about about my family. 

I wanted to run away back home so many times, but something always stopped me. That something was...Me. I got in my own way each and every time. What would Abu say? Would he refuse to talk to me? Would he tell me he hated me? Would he called me a kafir? I'd wake up in cold sweats with an empty heart, black eyes and reached for the bottle of Vodka. Living was worst than my dreams.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked and the cab driver turned away and looked at the monitor in front of him.

“$25.00,” he said.

I wanted to gawk at the price. Had I even gone a good 10 blocks? I knew not to say anything though. I reached in my purse without showing any facial expressions and pulled out one twenty dollar bill and a ten dollar bill.

“Keep the change.” I said.

 After the cab pulled off, I stood in place breathing hard and deep like some wounded animal. I had purposely told the cab driver to stop a couple houses down from my mother’s home. I knew I would need these last moments to just reflect and muster up the last drops of courage that I had to be brave enough to squeeze out of my soul. Then I took one step. Then another and another. Soon I was walking up the old worn, rickety  gray steps to 459 Webster Ave as my heart thumped with fear.

The porch looked the same but so much smaller now that I was a full grown woman. There was two old lounge chairs right in front of the bay window. They were dusty and looked worn from nothing but time. A stack of old newspapers and grocery flyers were in the right corner and a couple of bikes and a basketball were over there too.  As I looked around the rest of the porch and the tore down neighborhood that surrounded it, I wondered who the toys belonged to. A tear dropped from my eye as I pondered over the fact that my older brother or even one of one of my younger siblings could indeed have had children. My nieces or nephews.

“What you looking for? You lost or sum’thing?” A tall, lanky brown-skinned boy standing in the doorway asked me. I hadn’t even heard the screen door open. When I used to live here, it would always squeak. “We don’t want to buy nothing you selling and we already know who Jesus really is, if you with them Jehovahs,” he said not giving me any chance to reply.  I pulled my hijab down further over my forehead and neatly wrapped the loosened ends across my neck before walking over to the door. I didn’t know who the boy was and he obviously had no idea of who I was either. More than likely, he was a relative I'd never met before.

“Is this still Muneera Johnson’s resident?” I asked.

“Why? Who want to know?” he replied with mean looking furrowed eyebrows. And that’s when I knew I wasn’t going to get any where with him.

“O-kay. Well, is your mom or dad in for me to speak with?” I said trying my best to politely end our conversation. The boy looked me up and down and without any notice shut the door, screen and all, right in my face. I was so unnerved. I knew my mother couldn’t now be tolerating disrespectful grandchildren. Good adab was a given for everybody who walked through our doors, including our friends. Black sheep were swiftly handled and put in their rightful place. ‘Reverence the womb that bore you or your hard head with make a soft behind’, Ummi had always recited to my brothers and sister and me, remixing a verse of Qur’an with an old school threat. Neither one of my parents had ever hit any of us. But then again, we knew better than to really test them too.

I dropped my bag over to the side of the proch, opened the screen door and started banging on the door with my fist. I saw the boy peek out the window briefly, but he wouldn’t come back to the door.  I couldn’t believe this. Some child had the nerve to shut me out of my own mother’s home.  I got so angry while banging on the door, I hadn’t notice the car pull up in front of the house. But I saw the woman rush out and she run  right up to the porch. We met on the bottom step.

“As salaamu alaikum.” I greeted the young woman politely trying my best to regain my composure and not
scare her. It was too late for that though. She had a look of pure freight written all over her face.

“Wa ‘alaikum as salaam,” she replied with a petite extended hand. “ – Um, is there a problem, Miss? Are you looking for someone here?” She asked me as she placed a bag of groceries onto the porch. She looked young, under 25 for sure. She was dressed in conservative Muslim attire; a dark emerald-green outer jilbab and a black cottony, circular type hijab that came to her waist and swallowed most of her small body’s frame up. But she was still visibly pregnant.

“Yes, I’m looking for Muneera Johnson. Is this still her residence?” I asked and the young woman smiled, now relaxing the tension that had been in her face.

”Of course it is. Are you a friend of ummi’s?” She asked me as she walked up the rest of the steps. We both reached down for her groceries at the same time.

“Yes,” I responded and she let me take the bag. “I guess you can say that. I’m Iman… her eldest daughter.” Before I could say anything else, the young woman gasped and pulled me into a tight embrace. 

Yasmeen, as I learned the sister’s name was, welcomed me back into my home and made me feel more comfortable than I had ever felt when I actually lived there. But then again, I was happy to be there now more so than I ever was before. Inside the house everything was the same besides the new paint on the walls and the new curtains in a couple of the rooms. Maneuvering around the house again came like second nature.

Yasmeen had instructed me to settle my things in my old bedroom. She said Ummi was out at a doctor’s appointment and that Masud, my youngest brother and her husband would be bringing her home later. Masud was only 10 when I  ran away with Mateo and moved to Atlanta. He was a little kid in all aspects and a geeky one at that back then. But the way Yasmeen swooned with newly wed joy every time she said his name; I couldn’t help but think that the geeky, pesky little boy that I once knew well had matured into a dependable man and husband that I knew absolutely nothing about.

After praying the afternoon prayer with Yasmeen and devouring  my Ummi's leftover breakfast like I was reincarnated by Goldilocks , I headed upstairs to my room to finish unpacking. Thirty minutes later I heard the floor outside my room creaking back and forth in the same position. I knew someone was out there, so I cracked my door open.

“Would you like to come in?” I asked with a good idea that it might be my young but rude nephew, Hasan. The door opened further and just as I suspected, Hasan, my oldest brother Shareef’s son stood before me. “You can come in, if you like.”  I suggested, but he didn’t move.

“Are you really my aunt Iman?” he asked me bluntly as he leaned against the door’s frame.
“Yeah, that would be me, aunt Iman, I guess.” I replied while I continued to hang my clothes.

“How we know you not just some fake pretending to be Aunt Iman? Auntie Ameera said you were dead. There’s no such thing as ghosts. So whatchu' doing here?” He questioned me. For ten, I had to give the boy credit, he was swift. He asked me a question that still left me puzzled. The life I lived before coming here felt like a dream, a really bad dream. But the truth was it had been very real. Ironically though, I actually did feel like a ghost, just a fragile shell of my real self wandering through the night and day. How could I explain to a ten year old that I was tricked by a conniving old man into giving him total control of my life? How could I explain that I turned my back on my whole family? How could I explain that I walked away from my faith? I didn’t have any answers to those questions  myself, let alone answers for Hasan. Ameera had never been more right, I had been dead.

“I tell you what, why don’t you ask me something – anything that only your real Aunt Iman would know?  You can ask me five  really tough questions. If I know them, then you’ll know I’m not a fake.” I said sitting down on the bed facing him in the door way.

“And if you don’t know – you leave.” He said snidely and shifted his body to an upright position. “Question number one:” he started without giving me any notice. “hmm…where was my real aunt Iman born and on what day?”

“Those are actually two questions, not one.” I informed him.

“Ennnnnn,” he said sounding like a game show buzzer. “Wrong answer. Strike one.”

“Okay, okay, have it your way. I was born in this house, in the kitchen to be exact. January 11, 1971. In fact, your father and I have the same birth date. What’s the next question?” I asked while I watched Hasan roll his beautiful almond shaped light brown eyes at me.

“Question number two: Does aunt Iman's brothers or sister have middle names and if so, what is it?” he asked me and started humming the Jeopardy theme music.

“I got this. No. None of them have middle names, just me.”

“Ennnnnnnnn” he said again, much louder this time with a wide smile. “Wrong answer. Strike two.”

“Huh? I’m not wrong!” I protested bouncing up on the bed and stomping my feet on the weak wood beneath me.

“Yeah, you are,” he teased.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are. You’re a fake.” Hasan yelled.

“No, I’m….you little rascal. You tricked me.” I said getting off the bed walking towards him.

“No, I didn’t. You got it wrong fair and square.” He said standing toe to toe to me, only a foot shorter with no signs of fear.

“You didn’t say dead or alive.” I yelled, completely frustrated now.

“You should know!” He yelled back at me powerfully with the same frustration and an anger that frightened me. Did he just not like me or did he have a legitimate problem with me?

“Khaleel – his middle name was Hasan. He died….in a car accident a week before I was born.” I managed to say through a whisper. It had just dawned on me that Shareef had named his son after his first brother and friend.  “What’s your next question?” I asked returning to sit on the bed much more composed.

Hasan continued to question me game style until he finally gave up around Maghrib time. He had gone way beyond the agreed upon five questions, but I didn’t oppose him. For some reason, I think we both needed it. After he left, I made ablution, prayed and then fell asleep.

I awoke to the sound of light tapping on my door. I had to blink my eyes several times just to get them adjusted to the darkness. The room was pitched black now. It had to be after Isha – about ten or eleven at night. Realizing that I had missed a prayer, I rose from the lumpy twin-sized bed slowly, stood and walked to the door. Pausing, I quickly ran my hand through my chin length hair and pushed my bangs away from my eyes as I opened the door.

“Ya Allah! Laa illaahah illallah,” my mother shrieked. “It is you, Iman, my baby is home,” she said and then reached out and grabbed me. We hugged and cried. I wanted to tell her I was sorry and how much I hated the way I treated her and my father all these years, but she just kept shushing me silent. Abu was dead though. I had run out of time with him.  I couldn’t afford to let that happen  with my  Ummi. Some how, some way I was going to have to find a way to make real amends. 

The first couple of weeks home hadn’t been as sweet as I thought it would be.  I didn't feel like I belonged in their world. I didn't know what to say or how to sit or eat. Some times I didn't even know how to talk to them. Ummi was still that kind and giving woman she had always been, but something was missing. I didn’t feel connected to her. Some days I would catch her staring at me like I wasn't her child. When I would look at her, she’d smile coyly and turn away. But I could tell she was probably wondering about why I was back too. I had intended to tell her everything that first night in my room, I couldn’t form the words though. I’d said sorry over hundred times since then, and yet I knew it just wasn’t the explanation she deserved.

Mas’ud was as handsome as they came. He looked just liked my Abu did; tall, athletically lean, clear café au lait skin, broad shoulders and dark, fearless eyes and curly brown hair and a big ol' big. He was polite with  the best of manners, except he had few words for me. When ever I was near, he’d make sure to keep his distance. I’d often stare at him though in amazement as he played around or joked kindly with Yasmeen. Mas’ud had definitely taken all of Abu’s good traits. He was a hard worker, working as a mechanic during the day and attending Allegheny's Community College at night. He helped Ummi out with her bills and in return he and his Yasmeen stayed in the attic's three rooms. I could see now why Yasmeen was always smiling. Her husband treated her like a delicate rose. Mateo had said nice things to me when we first met, but as soon as I got on his turf, around his people, I was treated like nothing more than the hired help. Well, I did get perks; the Lexus SC300, the large vacation home in the Hamptons and of course  the countless shopping sprees. But what’s wealth without faith, safety, and trust?

I spoke with Ameera, my younger sister, earlier in the week. She called and Ummi had broken the news to her. Although, I think Hasan or Mas’ud had already told her. She didn’t seem surprised or shocked or anything. Infact, she was cold as ice. Ummi had told me prior to our brief talk on the phone that Ameera was married with three children and lived in North Philadelphia . Ameera basically repeated the same and hung up without asking me anything about myself or where I'd been all this time.

I don’t know what I expected from her.  I guess she gave me what deserved. We had once been close though. Two years apart, we slept in the same room, some times in the same bed right up until I disappeared.  It was her that I thought and prayed the most for when I left. I wanted Ameera to get out of the Hill and do well. She had always been smart. I hoped she was using it and not wasting it away. 

When I had asked Ummi about Shareef she changed the subject and acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about. It had been days and Hasan was still here but I hadn’t seen his father once. I got the feeling that she was hiding something from me. I didn’t press her. I knew my mother well enough. Hiding other people’s faults was what she did best. 'If it don’t concern you, don’t stick your nose it', she’d always told me growing up.  Shareef did concern me though. He was my brother and I wanted and needed to see him. So I did the next best thing. I talked with Yasmeen, who was fast becoming my closest relative, while we were out washing clothes Sunday morning at the laundromat up the street.

“How long has Hasan been here with Ummi?” I asked while putting coins in a washing machine.

“Oh, hmm, let’s see. He probably moved in with her right along the same time me and Mas’ud did. So that’s about a year and a bit of change.” She said putting a load of dirty clothes into a machine.

“That’s a long time.” I replied sitting down watching my two machines spin my clothes around.

“Yeah, I guess it is. You want a orange or lime pop from the vending machine?” she asked walking towards the back of the small store.

“ I’ll take lime.” I said taking out some quarters from my waist bag to give to her  as she came back towards me. She waved it away though. “When’s the last time anyone heard from Shareef?”

“At the hearing.” Yasmeen said in between sips of her drink.

“A court hearing?” I asked shocked. “What was he doing at a court hearing?”

“Being sentenced,” she replied indifferently. I almost choked on my own drink. My big brother was in incarcerated? That didn’t sound right at all. Shareef had been Abu’s rock. It was Ameera and me who tested the waters and made the water splash. Shareef was our aide, always a call away to steer his two mischievous sisters back home unharmed. “You okay? You need to stand up and get some air?” Yasmeen asked me while I coughed.

“Fine. I’m fine,” I finally managed to say. “Where is he – where is Shareef now?” I asked standing up to allow more air in my lungs.

“ Astaghfirullah! I am so sorry Iman. I didn’t know you didn’t know. I assumed Ummi or Mas'ud had told you by now. Shareef is at facility down in Chester,” she said much more warmhearted. She swung her legs in a different direction. She was dressed, as usual, conservatively in a long, loose black overgarment, a long beige hijab, and dark leather sandals that she insisted on wearing with beige socks. A real overkill for me. 

“No – it’s okay. I guess I knew something was up. I just didn’t have all the information. What’s Shareef in for?” I asked scared of the answer, like I always was.

“Aggravated assault, parole violation and a suspended license, I think. I’m not absolutely sure if he was charged with the license part. But I know it was suspended alright.” She said. I sat back down next to her. We were both silent for about five minutes until I spoke again.

“Where’s Hasan’s mother?” I asked out of the blue.

“You know what, I don’t know where she is. I’ve never met her. I don’t think anyone has ever met her, besides Ummi of course. Hasan was living with Shareef over in East Liberty until he got into the trouble last year.”

And there I had it. Not the whole story or even half of the story. I just held enough pieces to see a small part
of it.  I had my issues that Allah knew I was busy struggling to try to work it out, but Hasan, at the age of ten already had his too. By the time Yasmeen and I finished washing and drying all the clothes and then driving home, I knew what my first task would have to be. I had to connect with Hasan. I was in debt to his father.

© 2014

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