Mike Maguire CC
The traffic light was still red. He had time. Iman pushed the cart down to the zebra cross, heavy with its gas tank and the food nobody would buy tonight. The light turned yellow halfway. Headlights glared at him accusingly. He pushed harder, drivers honked at him, and then green shone down. They honked again.
Fuck you, someone shouted, just loud enough to be heard over the din of the Jakarta traffic roaring past. The cart seemed heavier with every push. With a struggle, the wheels finally climbed onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians looked on.
It’s okay, Iman thought, wiping the sweat with the towel on his neck. It’s nobody’s fault. Everyone’s just tired after work--
Pain came without warning like knives and needles in the kidney and knocked him down on his knees. He gritted his teeth, grasped at the air and found the handles of the cart, and with a shaking hand clawed into the searing pain in his left side. Ears ringing, cheeks numbing, the thought of his little girl flashing by and burning behind his eyelids.
Iman found himself out of breath and leaning on the cart when it was over, shivering either from the pain or the cold. It’s gotten worse, he thought, then tried to think about something else.
He gripped and re-gripped the handles with sweaty palms, and pushed on.
Above the plaza, clouds began to disappear from the darkening sky. The colors of sunset crept back to the horizon. Must be around seven by now, Iman thought. He lit a candle for the flies, then placed the wok on the stove, tossed in the oil and garlic, then eggs, rice, salt, hissing and popping. Smoke rose up in the glow of the lamppost.
Who was this for? Nobody had stopped to sit down and eat in a long time. Everyone’s getting their food online or something now. Sekar would’ve explained it better than this old man, he thought. Iman wondered silently what his daughter must be doing right now, somewhere in one of those bright little squares in the faraway towers adorning the skyline.
From behind the cash register, Sekar watched the flood of salarymen pour into the tower lobby. Ding, ding, the elevators rang over the murmur and shuffling. A beep through the turnstiles, another beep through the metal detector and a forced smile to a coworker while hurrying to the glass doors. Might as well close up early.
Her manager wouldn’t know. The barista was missing again along with his bike helmet. Didn’t need him anyway. The tables were all empty save for the sticky brown stains from lunch time. This corner of the lobby was invisible to the suits and ties whose only thought was to get away.
They looked like sardines, white and silver and pale, with sunken eyes, a dead look on their faces, and their silk ties, shiny bags, gadgets, sitting there, legs crossed, sipping coffee that could’ve fed her for two days. Must be nice, she thought, to be someone. To do something real. What do they do up there? Some kind of work beyond the concern of small people. Must be nice— She didn’t need this.
Two taps on the glass counter pulled her back, blinking. It was one of them. He was smiling, and she almost smiled back until she saw something plugged in his ear.
“Ha-ha. Alright brickhead, you want it with ice or without?” He spoke into the wireless — “No ice, got it” — then slid a credit card over the counter. He tapped on the menu under the glass and threw up two fingers.
In the hiss of the espresso machine Sekar’s thoughts drifted away. Making calls without looking, throwing credit cards at some other cashier, going home to a big apartment where you wouldn’t be woken up by noises through thin walls. But then the steam dissipated and she was still on the wrong side of the counter.
The office worker grabbed the paper bag and held it up to his phone screen, muttering something — not to her — and laughed. Sekar slid back to the cash register as he walked away.
The credit card was still there. It took some tries to pry it from the glass surface. Sekar felt the sleek plastic slide between her fingertips, the black finish glittering under the lamp. He walked slow. She could shout. But the card felt so smooth in her hand, and the things she could do, the things she could make happen, the semester and the hospital--
No. Even a high schooler knows credit cards don’t work that way. She let the card fall between her fingers, into the mouth of the register. He’ll come for it tomorrow, she thought, and I’ll still be here, behind the counter.
Through the rising steam Iman saw someone approach and he thanked God silently. He’d been cooking for a while, hoping the savory smell would reach someone in the night. A big green fly skirted around the melting candle.
“Boss!” The figure waved in the dark, making a small arc with the glowing phone screen in their hand. Iman knew that voice. The office worker took a plastic stool and set his paper bag on the ground. “I know that smell anywhere,” he said as he unfastened his tie and collar.
“Evening,” Iman said, turning down the heat. “Just got off work?”
“You bet. Oh,” the worker spoke to his phone, “this is who I’ve been telling you about. Best fried rice in town.” He turned the phone around.
“Uh, hello, evening,” Iman said awkwardly, unsure how to talk to a screen. The grainy image waved back.
“My kid brother. Hey brickhead, so you want it spicy or what? Really sure this time? Fine.” He unplugged his ears. “Two of the usual, boss, but make one not spicy.”
“One spicy, one not.”
Iman dumped the failed rice onto another plate and squirted fresh oil into the blackened wok. He would make that one his dinner. Instincts moved his hands to the chili peppers in the plastic bag and put the knife to work.
“I’m glad you decided to show up tonight, boss,” the worker said, still glued to his phone. “I’m nearly broke here ordering from these overpriced deliveries the past few nights.”
Iman laughed. “Sorry about that. I haven’t been feeling very well.”
The worker put his phone down.
“Right, that. Over here, right?” he asked, tapping on his own left side. “You should get it checked out, you know. My granddad was lucky we discovered his kidney stones early.”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that.”
“But yours is a kidney thing too, isn’t it? Better safe than sorry.”
Chili and garlic sizzled and stung the nostrils.
“I… don’t really like hospitals.”
“The needles, something like that?”
“No I mean,” Iman said, searching for the words in the burning oil, “gas prices went up again and—”
“I’ll drive you there. I’ll even cover the bill first. Come on, I got an extra helmet.”
“Oh no, please.”
“No, seriously. It’s just nearby.”
“Please, thank you, but please no.” Iman pressed the spatula down and made the rice hiss. “I’ve been feeling better. The pain isn’t as bad as before. I’ll be fine, really, and thank you.”
With his chin in his hands, the worker watched Iman skillfully tip the wok and send rice rising and crashing with grace in a glossy brown wave. He wouldn’t have known what to do if the old man had actually said yes.
By the time Sekar had put the chairs up, the tide of corporates was down to a trickle. Ding, the elevators chirped between brief silences. Clacking heels and shop-talk echoed in the bright hall.
She zipped up her jacket and walked to the lobby, her balding rubber soles silent on the marble floor. The glass doors slid open and a warm gust of sour air rushed over, then she found herself standing outside, with a few blazers waiting for their cars: hair bunned up, hips wrapped in linen, glimmering at the ears, standing one head taller than her.
The skyline glowed pale against the night and the tallest peaks blinked white and red. She’d made it up there once. She remembered the elevators pulling her cheeks down, the book-smell of the men’s suits, the soft carpet floor and ringing phones in level 22 — three computer screens before you, sit down and work on real problems, say something smart and hear the meeting room roar with applause. Of course nobody ever ordered any coffee and she was lucky the security guard let it slide.
A car pulled up and opened its doors. Sekar closed her eyes as the pristine air of the interior came to her, trying to remember this scent for the rest of the night. Then the doors slammed shut and she walked home.
Iman wrapped the fried rice in paper and snapped rubber bands on them, red for the spicy one and green for the other.
“Damn. Sorry, I forgot I don’t have cash on me tonight. Do you accept Visa?” The worker laughed.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is okay.”
“Cross my heart. But, I got this,” the worker said, handing him a cup from the paper bag. “For you, boss. You look like you could use the energy.”
“Why, thank you very much,” Iman said, accepting the cup with both hands. “What’s this?”
“Hot coffee. Turns out my brickhead brother did want ice after all.”
“How old is he, your little brother?”
“Seventeen. Ready to get packed and shipped for college. Can’t get rid of him soon enough.”
“That’s good. To study, I mean.”
The worker chuckled. “Lucky brat. He better not get wishy-washy halfway, though. We had to sell the car for this.”
“Well, children can be very tricky around that age.”
“You got kids, boss? Someone to call you Ayah at home?”
Iman opened the lid and blew on the tepid coffee. He could use a break before the dinner rush would come, eventually.
“Knew it! You really seem like a father. Gonna continue the family business? She can set you up online. I’ll give five stars every time, haha.”
Confused, Iman smiled out of politeness and hid behind the cup. He was surprised to find it so sweet that it stung the roof of his mouth.
“She… wanted something different. A good office job with a big company, like yours.”
“And she’s smart, too. Top for her class, I tell you. Science was her favorite, then it was maths, then something else.” Iman stared at the ripples in his coffee, the candle flame dancing on it upside down. “We get blackouts at home so I loved listening to her telling me all these big ideas, like sun panels, things she read about in books. The best I could do was just a few candles, though. Even then she kept her head down on her studies, straining her eyes in the dark. She really wanted that, you know, a good college, a good job.” He smiled weakly.
The worker listened intently from the plastic stool, holding his paper cup with both hands. Looking up at the old man under the lamp of the cart, he suddenly realized how deep the creases were on his face, how pale his vein-cracked skin. The flame of the candle stump flickered in his milky eyes.
“But that’s a long time ago.”
“Where is she now?”
“Somewhere up there, I suppose.” Iman gazed at the towering skyscrapers in the distance, glowing in the night and blinking at the peaks. “She left to find work in the city.”
“Really! Which tower is she in? We might be neighbors!”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“We haven’t talked since she left home. She really wanted that college. See I started selling things, getting extra money, and we got so close but I— I made a mistake.” Iman returned his gaze to the bottom of the cup. “I just wish she’d pick up sometimes.”
A wind sent the empty paper bag rolling to the middle of the street. Iman watched it get crushed by a passing car. The coffee was a cold, wet spot in his guts.
“Shit, ah, I’m sorry I asked,” said the worker, breaking the silence. “Look, I might be able to help if you can tell—”
Coffee splashed onto his leather shoes. He looked up. Iman lurched forwards, bent down, groaning in pain that tore into his left side as he slowly fell to his knees. The worker jumped from his seat and grabbed Iman by the shoulders, so bony and slipping in his hands. The old man clawed at the air for something to hold on to, his breath short and gasping like sobs hissing through grinding teeth.
Wide-eyed, the young man froze. Iman’s body was cold with sweat and it felt so light and so limp and the seizures wouldn’t stop. Help me, he thought, then screamed, and screamed again into the empty plaza. Please don’t die, not with me, not with me. He screamed again. Footsteps, running, then whispers and voices around him. What’s wrong what’s wrong? Hospital, hurry hurry I can’t I got a bike! Get him to my car, is he breathing? I don’t know, yes maybe. What happened? His his kidney I think I don’t know. What’s his name? I don’t know.
The cart was towed away by security before dawn.
Sekar groped her way through a pitch-black corridor, stepping on the dead winged bugs that littered the floor. The landlady still hadn’t done anything about these blackouts. Moonlight peeked into her bedroom through a slit of a window in the wall. She tore off her jacket and fell on the mattress, feeling the metal springs dig into her back.
The mosquito mesh cut the moonlight into little grids on the ceiling. The squares warped around the brown damp spots, just like in their bedroom back home. She would stare at it, dozing off, until she heard the familiar tack tack tack of the cart and rushed outside to see her Ayah after a long day.
They got blackouts a lot so she would watch Ayah eat his dinner in candle light. Sekar would shower him with all the things she learned in school that day: she told him to stop reusing oil because it gives cancer, showed him a trick to count change quickly, even taught him some words in broken English.
Ayah listened and nodded, chewing his cold leftovers, laughing every now and then. And he would always say the same thing: work hard on your studies, because God willing you will be rewarded.
It wasn’t much of a choice. She turned to the books because she didn’t have anyone at school. They were too different. Their shoes, their branded bags, their confidence and the way they brushed things off; the holes in her socks, the dust in her hair, the same lunch of fried rice wrapped in paper. She felt afraid and ashamed to stand next to them, so she made herself small and they ignored her.
This dream again, Sekar thought. I hate these dreams I can’t control. My limbs rise and fall with fate’s strings as it reads my mind, searching for that one fear. Ah, I know just what you’re looking for, my mind stupidly says. And there the dream takes me — back home with the envelope in my hand. Fine. Let’s get this over with.
I show it to Ayah. The word “partial” in the scholarship offer tells me not to get my hopes up. I certainly didn’t when I sent my application, but here it is. Proof that I am good enough, that I am something, God’s reward for my hard work, a way out to a better life for us.
I read and reread their brochure until it crumpled and faded. In candle light I tell him what my major is going to be, what clubs I want to join, when companies usually scout for recruitment, how I’ll come back home every weekend from my job in the city. All this I tell him knowing that we can’t even afford electricity, and he listens quietly with a twisted look of pain in his face. No, he was smiling, I remember. Dreams can be cruel with their illusions.
It’s midnight. Ayah finally comes home, much later than usual, but with the rare luxury of a McDonald’s meal. The cart is cold and he looks tired, but relieved, and he tells me not to worry about the tuition. I try not to believe it, but I do. Everything I’ve dreamed of. I run to him and hug him tight, but he pushes me away and winces in pain like I just punched him in the stomach.
He tells me it was just gastric, that he ate late. Then he starts vomiting in the mornings, telling me it’s just bad food. But when I find him on the floor, I finally bring him to the hospital despite his protests. I remember the doctor shouting at him. Ayah tells me where he kept the money at home, buried under old newspapers. Every day I take more and more of my future to pay for his room. I listen to the doctor and ask him to repeat it. If I had brought him in sooner would it make any difference? I see the scar on his left side when I clean him with a wet sponge.
The day he got out was the deadline for the scholarship offer. The kidney he had sold turned back on him in a huge, mocking circle.
Enough. Let me wake up now. But this isn’t a dream, is it?
Maybe we can still make it. If we really save up, if I don’t use any electricity at all, and I bathe with half a bucket instead, and you make the cooking oil last, can’t we make it? Yes yes I know it’s useless, I know it’s stupid. Grow up, you idiot. Ayah’s hooked on drugs for the rest of his life.
But he got better, right? One kidney is enough to live on. And I send him money every month, and there’s one less mouth to feed and the bills are cheaper without me there. Is it so wrong to be brave and strike my own path? The path of being stuck in two dead end jobs and leaving behind the one person who only tried to give the best for you since you were born. Does he even remember how to use the ATM? What if he can’t afford his medicine? What if he faints again, who’s gonna find him?
I’m sorry for making you do this. I know you’re trying so hard. I’m sorry I called you a failure and left you alone in the dark and in pain. I’m sorry I never returned your calls and changed my number. It’s not your fault but I am so angry and I feel so stupid for keeping my hopes up and we were so so close. I’m sorry I keep on thinking how a funeral would be cheaper instead.
Sekar woke up to her eyes sticky and her heart beating fast in the dark. She rose up, head pounding and back aching, and sat cross-legged on the cold floor. The candlesticks in the drawer clicked together as she groped for the matchbox. The little flame in the wick danced and flickered before the wall clock: fifteen minutes to twelve.
She hadn’t had a dream like that since the first few nights she came here. Maybe he’s worried about me, Sekar told herself, knowing it was the other way around. I hope he’s not worried about me.
Hot wax spilled onto her finger. She stuffed a supermarket uniform into her bag, blew out the candle, and watched the last embers die in the wick. When her eyes had adjusted to the dark again, Sekar stepped out into the night, slowly. She was almost late for her shift.
Only after they took Iman away did the worker realize where he was. There were cracks on the walls of the emergency ward and some of the lights had burned out. He sunk into a metal chair and buried his face into his hands. The guy with the car had probably gone home. The worker didn’t even remember what he looked like.
Paper wraps, rubber bands, coffee, seizures, cold skin, bones. All of these raged in his mind like endless pages fanned one after another, rapidly burning image after image into his eyes. His head felt so heavy and his ears started ringing.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up. Color returned to his surroundings. The nurse was standing over him, blocking the light.
“Sir, I need you to fill up this form.”
He took the sheet with shaky hands. “I can’t read.”
“You can’t read?”
“Wait.” He blinked and found the nurse’s face. “Sorry, what?”
“The form,” she said, slower now, and less patient, “please.”
“I don’t know his name.”
“The sooner you make the payment, the sooner we can make arrangements for the body.”
“I don’t— what?”
“He had a kidney surgically removed. The other one had been failing for a long time. Did you know anything about this?”
“No but I thought—”
The nurse thrusted a pen.
“Fuck off!” He slapped it away.
“Sir,” her voice stern and loud, “we have policies and we expect guests to honor it, especially guests who almost ran over hospital staff in the loading bay!”
Her hands fell on her sides and she took a deep breath.
“Forgive me,” the nurse said, “I shouldn’t have acted that way. And I’m sorry for your loss.”
I don’t even know his name, he thought, he was just someone I talk to sometimes. But instead he said, “Thank you.”
“I know this is difficult,” she said in a softer voice, “but we can’t move forward with the arrangements until the payment is finalized.”
“I don’t have cash on me.”
“Credit cards are fine.”
The lobby sparked to life at lunch hour. The ding of the elevators floated like birdsong around the false chandelier and over the rush of footsteps and conversation. Two blazers had the cafe all to themselves, sipping and laughing between the hiss of the espresso machine. Sekar was fidgeting with her flip phone when she spotted a figure tumbling against the flow of lunch traffic.
She recognized him — the officer worker from last night. As he approached the counter, Sekar noticed how out of place he looked in the lobby: backpack slung and tangled over one shoulder, the tie missing from his wrinkled collar. The worker stared through her with tired eyes. He’s late, she thought, probably overslept.
“I don’t know, just give me something.” He slammed both elbows on the counter and buried his face in his hands.
Sekar turned to the barista who gave her a shrug. “Um, how about tea?”
“Green tea, no ice,” she said, unsure which one she was speaking to.
Sekar stole glances at the young man slumped on the counter as she pretended to be busy with the cashier. His hair was shabby and he was wearing yesterday’s shirt, crumpled and with a large damp spot on his back, rising and falling with shallow breaths.
She remembered the card.
“Sir,” she said, half whispering, then a bit louder, “sir.”
He woke up with a jolt.
“You left this last night.” She slid the black card towards him.
“Your credit card. You left it yesterday.”
The confusion in his face slowly dissipated, then twisted, like something hurt. He shook his head, muttering to himself, “God damn it.”
“It’s safe here all night, nobody touched it.”
“God damn it.”
Sekar fell silent. He ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath, hissing through his teeth. She didn’t understand why he was so distressed about it. The card was safe.
“Sorry, but— cancel that.” He grabbed the card, failed, then finally pried it from the slippery glass surface. Without another word, he turned his back on her and stumbled against the crowd, slowly dragging himself towards the elevators, and disappeared.
When the lunch rush was over and only two half-empty cups were left on the table, Sekar flipped her phone open once more. Childhood memory guided her thumb to a series of familiar numbers. She pressed dial and listened to the tone, still not sure what to say when her father picked up.
Yehezkiel Faoma grew up in Jakarta and its rusty skies grew on him. His work has appeared in Variant Literary Journal, Flashes of Brilliance, and Down in the Dirt. At night, you can find him learning Japanese, or writing.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.