Summer 2008, #15
       "Convenient Acts of Human Behavior"

Queen of the Block

     by Madhushree Ghosh

Her smell nauseates me. And believe me, not too many things nauseate me, I'm not one to use big words either, and nauseate is one of them. But her smell, a mix of greasy pain ointment, bad breath, febrile brain, unwashed flesh, ominous smell of impending death, that's what she's always meant to me. See how many big words you made me use? That's how much she nauseates me.

        Every day when you wake up and we both walk around the block before the noisy birds start chirping in her stupid birdcage on her back patio, you know, the one she hides underneath an ugly green and orange striped bedspread so the birds can sleep, but they usually wake up by six and chirp like their blasted lives depended on their chirping, yes, those. Anyway every day, we go past her house, and you say, you know, Rani, this woman really needs to clean up her backyard, don't you think? I usually ignore that, yes, she needs to remove the rats from the dying dahlias, the voles from underneath her decrepit peach tree, and the damned song birds, but we weren't going to tell them that. And every day, I smell the Polident in her dentures sitting on her nightstand in her bedroom that's next to the fence that I walk by, and I listen to her whistling snores at five-thirty in the morning because that's the kind I am. I notice, I smell, I listen, I know. She nauseates me, and I can't wait to get her.

        When you brought me home, I was little, very little. You brought me in your arms, and wouldn't let me go. There, there, you said. Rani, my queen, my Indian queen, you whispered when I shivered. You said, there, there, you're fierce, my Rani, you'll be big and strong soon, you'll be a wonderful queen. Queen of this block. And you laughed, so I became what you wanted me to be—queen of this block.

        Every day after our walk we come home, you pick the newspaper from the driveway, drop the keys on the table next to the door, politely wait till I get in and go to the kitchen, and you stand at the doorway reading the paper. You hear, Rani, they are bombing my country again. Then you say, water? You need water, here, sorry. And yes, I'll drink too, you mock-complain, like I am forcing you to drink water too. But I know if I drink, you will too, and I wait to hear about the bombing of your country. So you go back to the paper and say, here, look, so close to my town, so close…you show me the pictures, the print and then read it out aloud. But it isn't my country any more is it, Rani? I wait. No, it isn't, you say. The United States of America. That is my country. I took the pledge and I am a US citizen, just like you, my little one, Rani Hosseini, you laugh and I smile back. And then you say, Rani Hosseini, that's a strange name, isn't it? I don't know, I haven't been to your country, but I don't say anything. Then you say, yes, it is, Rani is a Hindi name, and Hosseini, well, it's Afghani, just like mine. But Rani is a beautiful name, right?

        Just like all the Hindi movie heroines you watched when the Russians attacked your town, and you couldn't get any John Wayne movies imported from the US. You and your brothers watched as many Bollywood movies your neighborhood cable operator could get you—Sholay, Ram aur Shyam, Disco Dancer, Hare Rama Hare Krishna…. I wait everyday till you sigh, because I know you are remembering your siblings, the ones who died in the bombings, ones who died during the Taliban, the ones you left behind when you came to Baltimore…and I know you're ready to take your shower to leave for the store. I wait near the kitchen door, and you open it. I go out and hear the water showering on you as you remember the family in the country that isn't yours anymore.

        It's been a few weeks (no, is it months now?) that you've been very quiet. When you get back from work these days, and I watch you drive your car into the garage, and greet you the way I know you like, you just say, okay, Rani, okay. And that means, leave me alone, so I just go back to my place in the kitchen and watch you as you turn the TV on, and stare at it. You say, look Rani, they aren't telling us anything about the war in my country any more; they are attacking the other country. We are not important any more, Rani. I'm not sure what you mean, but if they are talking about another war, maybe your war is over? No? I don't know. My wars end quickly. Start and end quickly.

        Like that squirrel who has been burrowing underneath the shrubs in the backyard. I warned him, don't do that, warned him three times actually, and then I waited till he stuck his silly hairy head out of his hole, and grabbed him. Two seconds of his bushy tail shaking and he hung in my mouth like a gray chew toy. I gave him to you when you returned from work, but you said, no, no, Rani, don't do that again, which confuses me, because I did it for you. I'll try not to do it again, but those squirrels and that old lady down the street do something to me.

        When I was little you took me to your store. I got up every time someone came in. The chimes annoyed me, and the buttons you pressed when the people handed you pieces of paper and metal discs made my head hurt. I sniffed around, and then the police came. I was very angry and it showed. I wasn't sure why they came. They talked to you and said, you can't have her here, she looks dangerous. And you said, no, she's a baby, and she can protect the store with me. No, no, they said, not legal, Mr. Hoo-say-nee. You know those neighborhood kids will do something crazy. Then if she reacts, what're you gonna do, Mr. Hoo-say-nee? You have to leave her home, okay?

        That was that. I stay at home now, and you go to the store.

        I am walking past the old lady's place, because I was chasing the squirrel and he darted to the old woman's backyard. I do want to get to him, but I don't want you to be angry because you said, Rani, never ever get out without me and I said yes because I was supposed to, but I sometimes have to lie because I am not good at these kind of promises. I usually get out by tapping the fence with the rotted wood and am back before you come back home. Today, the squirrel propelled me outside the house. And now, I walk past the old lady's home, and while I go past the window, she gets out and stands on the porch.

        I am waiting near the back yard, watching the squirrel's bushy tail swishing left, right, left, right. The old lady miaows so I listen carefully. No, she has a black kitten in her hand, more annoying than the old lady. There, there, the nauseating woman says, you poor widdle kitty, my doll, look, look at that big goofy thing staring at us from outside the fence, look, she points. I can shoot you, you know, you rabid animal, she stares at me directly, her filmy eyes unable to focus. First these brown people move in and then they bring in their filthy habits, and things. They'll get goats here next, and live with them and god knows what? She stares some more, but I think she is talking to herself. Then she picks up her cane and waves it at me. Go away and take your man with you, you filthy, filthy…but she stops when I try to sniff at her. I am not trying to scare her, but if I do, I don't care. I am the queen of the block and this old hag nauseates me. As much as her stupid cat.

        Morning, you and I are walking as usual. You are talking to yourself because you don't wait for me to agree. You say the kids who come to your store and steal the gum and the Frito Lays, and the Coke cans, seem to come back each time bigger, stronger, louder. You wonder if you should hire someone as a security guard but the profits are so low from the Seven Eleven that if you hired someone to help you, then you won't be able to send money to your family back in your country. You ask me what you should do and I walk along, silent. The grass smells very fresh, summer's coming, I know.

        The birds are bothering me. They chirp too loudly, fly too closely, and exist to bother me. I am exhausted chasing after them in the backyard so when you return from work, I don't want to walk with you but you drag me out anyway. You say, come on, Rani, you're a big girl now, you don't want to be fat. We go past that old lady's house and she has a cloth hanging on a rusty pole on her porch. Isn't that pretty, you say, and I don't see any beauty in a rusty rod and a smelly cloth. She has a flag for her son! And I know she was waiting to hear that from behind the door, because she springs out, her veiny hands waving, her dentures moving awkwardly in her mouth, she says, Oh, Mr. Hosseini, like my flag? My son, he called me last week. He's in Haditha now. That's your country, right, Mr. Hosseini?

        You tense, and I growl, but you hold my collar, so I stay with you. No, Mrs. Oakes, I'm from the other country. She scratches her hair, only a few strands remain, you can see her pink scalp underneath, and says, oh, well, same thing. My son's doing very well there, she tells you. Many raids, all those terrorists, but you should know, right, Mr. Hosseini? It's a good thing, isn't it, Mr. Hosseini? You say, good, Mrs. Oakes. You want to be nice to her, she is alone after all, and you say, Mrs. Oakes, your backyard, I was going to clean out the weeds on my yard this Sunday, would you want me to do the same for yours? It's no bother.

        She looks at you, then me, and then you again. I know she doesn't want us in her house, but her yard is messy. She has weeds, trash, unsightly grass, and smells even I hadn't smelt. She needs help, she knows. She scratches a dark bruise on her old arm, it's been festering for weeks, I know, I can smell it, and then she says, okay, Mr. Hosseini, but be quick about it, I'm not going to pay you. You laugh and say, no, I didn't want anything. Then she says, pointing at me with her crooked figure, and leave your dog behind. I don't like her look, ya think she has a bit of pit bull in her? You tap my head absent-mindedly, and I like that, but you don't protest. People are scared of me, and I don't care, I am your queen of the block.

        You call home, you are on the phone for a long while, you cry after you hang up. I sit next to you and you look at me like you've never seen me before. Then you hug me and ask me never to leave you so I wait because I don't know what else to do. I think you lost somebody in your family but you don't tell me, even when I wait in front of your shower. You say she has visa problems, but what does that mean? I wait, but you don't elaborate. You go to work, and come back late, your clothes are grimy, dirty, I can smell blood on your shin like you fell on the asphalt. You don't tell me what happened, but I think it's the boys who came back to the store and waited for you when you closed it and walked to your car. I am a sand nigger, Rani, you tell me. I don't know what a sand nigger is, and nor do you. You say you haven't seen sand in your life and your customers are Black, but they are not supposed to be called niggers, and nor are you. I am assuming some one, maybe the boys called you a sand nigger and that, in my world is a call, a challenge to fight.

        But you didn't fight, you just put your hands up as they beat you and blood dripped out of your shin. I growl in anticipation, but you yank my collar, no. No, Rani, we can't. But now, I got this, you point at a long steel rod. It ends in a wood and metal end. It smells of oil and something else that I haven't ever experienced. I sniff at it, and try to lick it, but you say no. It's a gun, you say. Ah-ha, no, Rani, you cannot chew on it. I even got the bullets. Maybe I'll keep it home for a few days, practice and get used to it before I take it to the store. You show me the license, a piece of paper, it smells like the newspaper you bring in from the driveway each day—it doesn't interest me. You sit on the couch, switch on the news, but you are admiring the metal, the wood and the box with cylindrical metal pieces in it. It does not interest me at all. I can hear another family of raccoons crossing the backyard. I need to investigate.

        It must be Sunday because you wake me up and we head to the backyard. You pull with the rake, you remove the dead leaves, the dry grass, you have a renewed purpose in life. I sniff at what you move to the barrow, and you say, get away, Rani, you're in the way. Go, sit near the steps. I go, but whatever you dig up is more interesting, more fascinating, so I get up and see what else you dig up. And you say, go away again. We do this countless times. I am excited, and you are happy. You are cleaning your yard, you have a gun. You feel protected, and I have you.

        I wait for you to finish. You sit on the back steps with me. See, the fig tree will have more air to breathe. And the lemon tree, see, it has four lemons now, but should be giving us more soon, right, Rani? I agree. You try to make me promise not to dig up the azaleas, but I cannot. It is in my blood. You drink some water, then you eat a banana. You give me one because you know I love bananas. Then you remember you haven't given me water so we both go back inside through the screen door into the kitchen and you pour water into my bowl and I am thirsty. You let me drink, your eyes on me, and you tell me Mohsina is coming to Baltimore in two months, right before Labor Day. Who is Mohsina, I ask?

        You don't wait for my question, you reply, your mother, silly Rani, the owner of this house, the store, the car. My Mohsina who's been trying to come to the US for four years, ever since the war started, that's who! She's coming, finally, the visa papers are in order. She makes the best Kabouli pulao in the world, and the baironjon, ah, the eggplant, is to die for, Rani! But I only want kababs, I tell him, the ones you put on the fire every Sunday, the only day you're home. I guess Mohsina must be nice, just thinking about her you makes you a different person. A happier man. I finish drinking and go back to the yard. It is too hot to stay in.

        You call home again. I can hear you. There is excitement in your voice, you are talking to Mohsina, I know. I yawn, it's nearly afternoon. The sun's bearing down on us, lulling me to sleep, your low voice talking to her affectionately…I do not know when I fell asleep on the back porch and when you left for that old bag's place. It is only when the birds chirp like brainless idiots near me is when I realize I am alone, and you are gone.

        But you forget I can smell you wherever you are. So, I follow. I go to the left side of the fence where the wood is sagging. I nudge it silently, softly and then I dig some more underneath. It is easy for me, I have escaped many times. I just haven't told you how many. I run down the sidewalk, and our next door neighbor's teenage sons yell at me, Rani, hey, Rani, c'mon, catch, catch! And they throw the ball at me, but I have no interest, I am following your scent. I turn the next corner, cross the street, the cars are moving very fast, it is evening almost. I pant, it's hot and I haven't had anything but that banana because you forgot to fill my bowl I think because you were distracted by Mohsina's news. But it's okay, I know you're right around the corner, and I know you'll be so happy to see me. I race down to the yard and call for you.

        The gate is slightly ajar when I nudge it with my nose. Your back is to me, you're digging something at the end of the yard. I call you and you turn around, your eyes widening in surprise. Rani, now…how…when…bad girl, Rani! You try to be angry, but I am right next to you and you hug me, how can you not? But I smell her too, her noxious breath, her putrid dying flesh filled with sores, her mind so far gone, her intentions so evil, I smell her like she is only a foot away. I swing around and I know she's right next to me. My body stiffens, and my heart pounds really hard, I have to do something about her, so I approach her and she yells at me, at you. See, you Iraqi, you bloody terrorist, you're unleashing your trained killer dog on poor white folks like us, she screams.

        Her voice breaks with the effort and fear. I smell fear mixed with Ben-Gay, yes, definitely fear. Her cat, still tiny, very black with gray eyes, stares at me balefully from the window, and does what any one in my position has to react to. She yawns like she is bored, and this woman who you're helping like a good person is yelling at you and at me, and her cat yawns! I have to do something about it, so I push the lady away, her dress smells of last week's pasta. I bound up the back porch step and push at the wire mesh door. But it doesn't open, so I charge it, again, and again and again. The cat sits still inside the house frozen, yes, I like that. Cats do that, they think they are smart, but I am the queen of the block, I am smarter.

        I break the wire mesh, climb through and there is the sound of glass breaking, the tables move, chairs fall, the cat jumps onto the dresser next to the window where the old lady has her son's photos arranged in his military uniform along with her porcelain doll collection. But I don't have time to notice that, the cat yowls, and I chase after her, the dolls fall on each other, some tinkling before crashing, and some rebalancing onto the photographs.

        I grab a mouthful of fur and she bellows the biggest scream from a feline I've ever heard and I let go. She doesn't move too far so I bite her again, but she doesn't taste good. I like the way she lies in fear but the blood is still pumping in me and I have to do something. I hear the old woman rushing as fast as her fat will let her and she yells, get out, you dirty dog, you bastard, I'll kill you, you sick dog! And I think, I'm not as sick as you are. So, when she comes with her walking stick aimed at my head, what else can I do but bite her diabetic-sore-festered ankle? I do, and even when the blows fall on my back, I don't feel them but I like the way my teeth sink into her and I wish she can also lie down next to her cat, noiseless, silent, instead of generating this cacophony of yowls, growls, abuses, and pleas for help from you, me and the police.

        You stay till the police come. You say, yes, she's my neighbor, and yes, that's my dog. And yes, she has pit bull in her, and yes, I have taken her to the vet. She is very obedient, she was provoked. You say this with a small voice, a submissive voice that you reserve for everyone else but me. The police officer asks you to put the muzzle on me, and I don't like it, so I growl, but you say, hush, so I let you. The officer says, do you realize you have to pay for Mrs. Oakes' medical bills, Mr. Hosseini? You nod, your hands shake as you hold my collar tightly. You realize your dog could have killed her. You nod again. You realize if Mrs. Oakes presses charges, you will have to euthanize the animal?

        You clench your jaw, you smell of fear and you nod again.

        If I were you, I'd keep your dog locked, or better yet, the officer nodded at me, get rid of her soon. You say, thank you. Can I go? The officer nods. The ambulance leaves. Can I take her sir, you ask. He says, yes, for the time being, while the case is pending. This is not good, Mr. Hosseini, you know. You know.

        We are home. You check for breaks in my bones. My left eye feels funny where the lady got it with her stick. You take some ice from the freezer and put it on top, but it feels funny so I shake it off. You are crying silent tears, my body hurts, I want to sleep. You ask me, why did you do this, Rani? Now she thinks we are terrorists. Not all of us are, Rani, and look what you did. Your shoulders sag and you sit with me on the kitchen floor. I put my head on your lap.

        You get up after a long while, and wipe your tears. I look up and then follow you to the living room. You switch on the news. The gun is on the table in front of the couch. You sit down. I climb onto the couch next to you. I put my head on your lap. I stare at the metal bore and the shiny killer stares back at me. It is in your hands.