Just had this piece published in the Chicago-based literary magazine, Literary Orphans. My thanks to Scott Waldyn, the editor. The idea for this story came from reading about Italian immigrants’ return to their homeland in the 1930s after finding the US not to their liking. I’ve updated the tale by focusing on an Egyptian family sometime in the present. Below, the full text and a link to the magazine.
Anwar has worked three years to make it happen. He’s saved everything from the convenience store, slept in the back room until two months ago, worked every day, except for the odd afternoon when his cousin covered. Today his cousin minds the register while Anwar drives to the airport in a car his cousin borrowed from a friend.
At the airport he waits. The flight is delayed. An hour. Another. Anwar is unconcerned. He’s waited this long, he can wait a little longer. Then the Arrivals board flashes. He waits more. Soon he sees them coming down the stairs. His wife Yadira seems thinner, smaller. He feels her in his arms, doesn’t have time to think, because his two boys can’t wait, they’re six and eight, he hugs them, feels their wiry bodies. Hugs his wife again, and she melts, how many nights he’s longed to hold her.
He takes them to his apartment. Just two bedrooms, the boys will share, but the place is far bigger than anything they could have had in Cairo. He’s painted, installed a new toilet, bought a used refrigerator. Everything clean and tidy. Tomorrow he will show his wife the store, show Yadira how well he is doing. They’ve discussed it. At first Yadira resisted, then seemed to come around. She will help with the store, and when the boys are old enough, they will do the lion’s share of work.
The first night in bed with his wife is awkward. Their bodies don’t seem to fit. Breakfast with the boys is awkward. Anwar can’t quite put his finger on the problem. Are they different people now? Yadira is still sweet, but more within herself. What does she think of him now? And his boys, they smell different. No longer babies.
They go to the store. His wife sees rows of potato chips, bread, insect repellant, candy bars, hand sanitizer, cookies, air freshener, pretzels, ant traps, chewing gum, combs, soda, milk, antifreeze, canned meat, windshield washer fluid, vegetable juice, toilet bowl cleaner, breath mints, motor oil, beef jerky, peanut butter, dog and cat food, mustard, paper towels, sunglasses, sanitary napkins, canned soup, mayonnaise, bottled water, sunscreen, sardines, brake fluid, mouthwash, soap, hairbrushes, energy drinks. She looks at Anwar with surprise when she sees a cooler running the length of the store stocked with beer and wine. She frowns when she sees cigarette cartons under the counter. Anwar blushes when she notices racks of pornography behind the register. Anwar, she says, that too? The American way of business, he says. Something for everyone. Convenience.
Anwar’s cousin comes by. Yadira remembers when he was a small, shy boy. Now he is grown, a gold chain around his neck, shirt open at the collar, smell of cologne like a ghost enveloping him. She notices his teeth are near perfect. She avoids opening her mouth when she smiles.
His cousin will take over tomorrow afternoon again. Anwar has a family trip planned, to the zoo. He has the bus route. If they leave the store by noon, they will have most of the afternoon.
The bus is late, traffic snarled, when they arrive it’s mid-afternoon. Anwar buys the boys ice cream and cotton candy, the youngest gets sick, throws up, splatters Anwar’s new shoes. They must catch a return bus by five, otherwise wait two more hours. They transfer once, and when they arrive, Anwar’s cousin is frowning, they’re forty-five minutes late, he has things to do.
Anwar’s family stays with him at the store until closing at nine. The youngest boy still feels weak and lies down on Anwar’s old army cot in the back room, which smells of dumpsters from the alley. Yadira watches Anwar sell beer to young men wearing t-shirts and baseball hats turned backwards. She watches him sell chewing gum and soft drinks to teenage girls wearing short shorts. She sees an old man, his clothes gray and tattered, stop at the entrance to the store, push the glass door open, look at Anwar, frown, shuffle off. Trash, says Anwar to Yadira, who chews her fingernails.
A month goes by. Anwar has to mind the store, day in day out, his cousin is busy, there are no other relatives or friends. He teaches Yadira how to ring up sales, how to use the popcorn machine, how to sell lottery tickets. With each new task she seems to shrink.
It’s July, the hours drag, the boys won’t start school until late August. They’re bored, they fight, the youngest is forever pilfering candy, getting sick. The older boy misses his friends, watches wide-eyed as men come in the store wearing holstered pistols. Anwar tries English with the boys, but they get frustrated and speak only Arabic with their mother.
Anwar tells Yadira she should buy some new clothes, he’s saved money, but she is reluctant. I like my clothes, she says, at least I don’t wear the hijab any more. She is modern, it’s true, thinks Anwar, but there is modern and there is modern.
Crying, Yadira calls her mother every night. Yadira worries about mass shootings and robberies and pornography. She worries about how the boys will do in school. She tells her mother Anwar keeps a revolver under the counter.
Anwar and Yadira sleep with their backs to one another.
Yadira gets even smaller.
One day Anwar tells Yadira he has to step out for a while. A small matter, he says, when he sees concern in her brown eyes. His cousin will cover for an hour or so—Yadira’s not yet ready to mind the store on her own—long enough for Anwar to walk four blocks to a travel agency.
It’s a great time to buy, says a blonde woman at the agency, haven’t seen prices this low in, like, forever. Three tickets, then, she says. Roundtrip?
No, says Anwar, pulling at his gray-flecked beard.
See Literary Orphans here.