Podium: Online Literary Magazine > Issues > Issue 8 > Fiction > Chapter One: Accounting

Chapter One: Accounting

Elizabeth Shah-Hosseini


Ali Ramazani was not a count-your-blessings kind of person. Count your blessings. It seemed to him the people with the least to count were the biggest believers in the concept. At the hospital over the years, it was always the most haggard, the most downtrodden, the most woe-begotten he’d hear it from, the women with kids and no husbands or worse, lousy husbands, the women working God knew how many double-shifts. This phrase pulled out like a wrinkled, expired, lottery ticket found in a pants pocket, held up with pride as though it were worth something. The nurses and the desk clerks, pouring that chemical cream into their two a.m. coffee, leaving pink kisses stained on the lips of their Styrofoam cups, shrugging their shoulders and exhaling so sadly and saying to him, “you know, what can you do, I’m grateful for what I have. You gotta count your blessings in life.” They’d push back their hair and straighten their crucifixes on thin gold chains while looking at him unblinkingly, wanting Ali to assure them they did in fact have blessings to count. What could he tell them? He was their friend, their doctor’s lounge confidant. He’d smile and nod, try to think of something to say as they smoked their cigarettes down to the filter. That’s right, it’s true, he’d say to them, it’s a good attitude you have (ashamed even now just thinking of it), when what he really wanted to ask them was if they truly believed any of that nonsense about counting their blessings and looking on the bright side, or was it just something they’d been told so many times they thought it was a good thing to say.

What Ali did believe in—though he’d never tell anyone­—was keeping track, adding everything up and being honest about what was good in his life and what was shit. A straightforward and obvious thing to do, just like knowing how much money was in his wallet when he walked out the door, so he knew how careful he had to be. Still, it seemed that most people did not operate this way. How many times had he wanted to tell the ladies at the hospital—the smoking and the high blood pressure. And don’t even tell me you’re on the pill too. The husband and the lien on the house with the gambling. Christ, even Bob Miller with that degenerate son. Stop counting the fucking blessings and pay attention. But of course, Ali always said nothing. It would be seen as cruelty to criticize, and he did not want to be cruel. He’d just wanted sometimes to explain, to show someone his way. He’d been so good at it, once. Smart. He’d paid attention in just the right way, like a policeman driving a squad car, keeping one eye in the rearview mirror trained on the bad guy in the backseat while the other eye looked out at the road ahead of him, thinking about what was next, the dinner on the table waiting for him when he got home. For years like this. He’d gotten the rhythm down perfectly—it was delicate, he couldn’t press too hard on the worrying, the watchfulness, couldn’t hold back on it too much either, but he’d managed it right and he’d sidestepped all of the calamities that could have, at any moment, come down hard on his head. The malpractice lawsuits. The heart attack. Daughter breaking his heart and running around with a scumbag.

He wasn’t getting it right these days, though. There was no rhythm about him now, no touch, just a clumsiness in his fingers and a dread that never left, like walking around in permanently wet, ice cold socks. And his eyes—his eyes could no longer be relied on. He looked now at everything in a stuttering, paranoid way, dumbly glancing everywhere, but taking nothing in.

Now, at a quarter to six in the morning, an hour before he had to leave for work at Women’s Health, Ali walked the upstairs hall again, entered the bathroom, went over to the window that overlooked his front yard. Look out. Look outside, see what you have. Come on. Of course, he knew what he was lucky for. He knew what was good. He didn’t need to remind himself. Of course. Their house, for example. A four bedroom colonial in Crestview Farms on an almost two acre plot of land, appreciating almost forty percent since they’d bought it six years ago in ’79. He’d had to stretch a bit, a lot really, to get the down payment together when they’d bought it then, but he’d done it, written the checks and signed the papers and silently crossed his fingers, and now look. Forty percent in six years. It was set on a small hill, which gave it a slightly grander appearance than its neighbors on Cardinal Way, even though its dimensions remained identical to the other homes on the street. His house was comfortable, not ostentatious or fancy but… graceful. Yes. Graceful. An American word not for him to use, but he could think of it privately and be pleased. His home was graceful, a well-maintained gray and black shuttered clapboard with a two-car garage, and when he looked up and down the street, the homes were lined up in silent accord for miles in either direction.

Standing straight and still, with his hands resting on the windowsill, Ali imagined, (for a second like a kid, so childish,) he were a captain of a ship. Alert, yes, calm and clear-headed. The roads of his neighborhood curved so gently, so imperceptibly, so beseechingly, newcomers often found themselves cresting the same hill two and three times before realizing just how labyrinthine the layout of this place really was. Ali had seen them, these passersby, behind the wheel, slowing down as they passed the same stretch of houses again and again, their heads darting nervously around as they tried to get their bearings, feeling so foolish, and curious too, as to how these simple streets could get them so mixed up. Ali didn’t get lost here. He’d been here five years and he knew every side-street, every dead-end, or cul-de-sac as people liked to call them here, as well as anyone else, maybe even better than most of his neighbors. He was one of the few who liked to walk the back woods path deep behind his house, the one place the developers couldn’t raze and build on because of the Millstone River. He went there with Christie in the afternoons, taking off her leash and letting her jump around in the water, the river so shallow here it was little more than a brook.

This early in the morning, there was no one on the street, and when he looked around, he saw green everywhere, and this made him happy for a moment. The lawns and the leaves on the oak trees and the arborvitae planted in rows up close to the houses. Good for the eyes to look at so much green. It was quiet enough here to notice things, too. The wind moving through the leaves on the trees sounded like a waterfall; across the street, his neighbor’s hanging flower pots moved back and forth, ever so slightly in the breeze, responding to the wind with their own elegant dance.

Ali realized if you were a sophisticate, you were supposed to hate it here. The dizzying repetition of the houses, the green lawns again and again and again, the constant re-tarring of the driveways, everyone with the same rhododendron bush planted just so to hide the eyesore of the air-conditioning unit, all the attention paid to Halloween decorating and the fall wreaths and then the Christmas lights and the shining of gold knockers and the coordinating of planters with the appropriate season, the re-painting and the clearing out of gutters and the power washing of windows, all of it was supposed to make him feel dead inside, or brain-washed, something to this effect. He understood this. He had seen the movies. But this was life, this was work. His family had a house, a well-built house and they took care of it. The land was solid underneath their feet and the ground was fertile and untroubled by flooding or swampy backyards or weevils or locusts or any other plague he had heard of.

Of course, Ali didn’t love everything about this place. He was certainly not good-natured enough for that. The property taxes so goddamn high for that second-rate public school Katherine didn’t even go to anymore—they shelled out seven thousand every year for her private school now, so at least Ali would know she’d be using that brain of hers during the day. That miserable Fourth of July block party where every year, there was warm beer and endless plastic bowls consisting of mainly mayonnaise, prepared by his neighbors and set out on long folding tables to sweat in the sun. He was sure that the landscaping guy was cheating him out of money, brazenly, every single month, on every single invoice. But the way the houses on his street lined up so neatly, so perfectly, no, this was not something that bothered him; he found this so pleasant to look at, so soothing. In fact, it felt like something, a real feat, to see so many people in quiet agreement on how to live. There was an elegant symmetry to this place, and Ali liked the feeling that he had one thing, at least, in common with his neighbors: they both shared a mutual respect for the solitude, understood, he liked to think, their good fortune.

His good fortune. There it was, right there for him to consider, his house, his street, the early sunlight streaming down through the poplar tree on his front yard, casting dappled patches of light on the grass. Pulling the bathroom blind back down again, he clicked his teeth together and rubbed his face and thought about what a fool he was.

He was squandering it, everything, all that he had—the sleepy streets, the slightest breeze pushing past his cheek, the hypnotic quiet and peace of his neighborhood, one wasteful minute at a time. Ten after six in the morning now. Five whole minutes of peace to enjoy before his alarm sounded. He could have been blissfully unconscious, lying flat on his back in his own bed with his mouth open like a baby’s, not needing to worry that the buttons on his pajama top were misaligned, revealing his freckled hairy chest in patches. He should have been next to Patricia, his hands uncurled, no fight in him, dreaming childhood dreams. He was fifty-two years old and he needed his sleep, needed this time to be blank and dreaming and innocent again.

Instead, he paced and sighed and moaned, already at war. He walked down the hallway, quiet, quiet past Katherine’s room, she wouldn’t be up for school for another hour today, late because the class had their end of the year field trip—good, let Katherine sleep, she needed it. His babies—one in college, the other sixteen, almost done with high school. Impossible to understand.

Back in his bedroom, he batted off the alarm and slid into bed, snapping up the sheet and letting it fall over him slowly, like a gust of wind moving through him. Then came the most torturous part, the most betraying: now, when he was supposed to get up and get ready for work, would he be able to sleep again. If he let himself, he could simply lift the covers over his head and burrow in and fall away, all in a matter of a minute or two. Better than that, even, slide over, and in one perfect motion bring one arm tight around Patricia’s waist, his cheek finding the back of her lovely neck, get hypnotized by the rise and fall of her chest. It would be so easy, so comforting, he had to pay attention to make sure his body wouldn’t mutiny and overtake him and do it anyway despite himself. But her back to him so indifferent, not even the faintest movement there from her end when he got back in bed, she might shrug him off if he got too close to her, or worse even, grow stiff at his touch, enduring him until he got up. Well, he could hold himself back too. She could be so selfish about her sleep.

It didn’t matter anyway. Now it was time to get up, time to go to the clinic, and he had no more patience for this horrible trick his body had been playing for over two weeks now. Two weeks of no sleep because he was thinking of them again, had been for hours now. What to even call them: just one, just one of the thousand and one troubles Ali had with these people, and yet somehow, this one cut at him the most.

He refused to call them protesters. There was something too legitimate, too reasonable in the word, a civic respectability to it he could not abide.

Pro-lifers were an absurdity. The nobility in this, the martyrdom. The lie in the word. No.

Ali had settled on harassers whenever he had to refer to these people in any official capacity, but it was not how he really thought of them. The first time he had seen them, blocking the entrance to Women’s Health on the first warm day of spring, he’d known what they were. They called themselves the Mission Saviors, but these people were nothings and nobodies, not just harassers but hayfehnoons—good for nothings, literally, not worth their bread, a word Ali’s father had once liked to use, rather often, it seemed to Ali, in his assessments of other people. They had arrived at his clinic’s door that day in March and for the past three months had been there every day, screaming at him, frightening his patients, littering the sidewalk with the unspeakable things they liked to eat.

And his mind was malfunctioning like this, stopped up and sputtering, because of them. Fucking goddamn hayfehnoons. All night long, their faces had lined up in his head, one after the next, like endless cars in a terrible, crushing traffic jam. They came to him so clearly, so easily now, it felt less like he was simply brooding, pressing down as if on a bruise to feel the precise ways in which he hated them, and more like they had found him once again, even here in his bedroom where he lay next to his wife between the ancient green flowered sheet set they’d received as a wedding present one million years ago.

It was supposed to get hot out today; Ali supposed they’d bring the cooler they’d begun to cart with them now that it was June and warm by late morning. That cooler—it was big enough that one of the guys had to carry it with both hands, leaning back a little as he walked it over from the back of one of the vans. Ali had sat in his car at the red light last week, waiting to make a left into his parking lot, and watched as that sonofabitch with the cooler was careful to find the sole spot of shade on the sidewalk, setting it down on the corner pressed up next to the chain-link fence, where the gingko tree cast a comforting shadow in the mornings. They kept orange sodas and Pepsis inside of it, ice cream sandwiches and popsicles. He knew exactly what they brought with them because by noon, their garbage was strewn across his sidewalk and had begun to drift across the street and down Fountain Avenue. The sight of all their leftovers, the silver potato chip bags with that rainbow tint he saw in oil pools, empty and shining with grease, the soda bottles still half-filled with liquids that seemed more suitable for car batteries than human ingestion, all of this waste floating down the street in the afternoons, touching down and then picking up again in the breeze, sat in his throat like a swallowed bone.

God Almighty—the thought of eating anything standing up on the sidewalk was as appealing to Ali as eating dinner in a train station bathroom….and the shit that they ate… It didn’t bother them, though. They stuffed their faces on the sidewalk as they breathed in gasoline and exhaust fumes, wearing their vacation t-shirts: Virginia Beach, Honolulu, Old San Juan, sunsets and beach chairs and parrots and waterfalls on their chests, wish you were here! written in cheerful script, these people an inexplicably well-traveled group considering none of them were gainfully employed. Their t-shirts were most likely souvenirs from someone else’s trip, or perhaps they’d been purchased themselves at the Goodwill in Pawtucket, these people too stupid to realize the t-shirts should have depressed them, reminders of all the places they wouldn’t go. But of course, they wore them shamelessly and dumbly, just like everything else they did, standing on his property in their scuffed high-top sneakers, their doughy white knees gradually, obscenely revealed to Ali as the weather warmed over the past few weeks. They were maddeningly relaxed in almost everything they did, dressed for leisure, ready for a picnic, but they held their red painted signs high and straight above their heads and when they called him murderer, their eyes were large and serious and filled with their belief.

Sometimes, they called him the abortionist, when they wanted some variety, Ali guessed, when they were bored maybe, or when they wanted to sound old-fashioned and righteous. The protestors surely envisioned themselves in some kind of made-up old West town: he was the heathen Indian and they were the missionaries, although Ali doubted they had any real interest in saving him, these loiterers in their vacation t-shirts who stood in front of his clinic with no shame, as though they paid the mortgage every month and scrambled when the taxes were due, calling him abortionist when they were feeling ambitious, though mostly, they preferred to call him baby killer.

He opened his eyes, closed them again. It was Thursday, usually Bob Miller’s day at Women’s Health, but Ali had been covering for him this whole week, which meant he should leave the house by 6:45 at the latest if he wanted to pick up coffee beforehand. Five more minutes, just five more minutes to sit there with his eyes closed, then maybe five more minutes after that, and then he would push off the bedcovers and gradually open his eyes and just get on with it. He’d get in the shower and think about what to eat for breakfast, then line up the things he had to do one after the next, bringing an order to his day with the thought of each task like a brick to hold in his hands.

He looked over at Patricia, sleeping with her back to him, one long, pale, freckled leg over the comforter, just as she’d been all night, as still as a statue. He stared at her for almost a full minute, coughed, cleared his throat, coughed again. If she woke up at just that moment, he would tell her what had happened, everything— how he’d slept until 1, and then that giant, miserable hand had lifted him out of sleep again and after lying in bed for hours, his body twisting in the sheets like a kite caught in a tree, he’d given up and had gotten out of bed sometime around four. He’d wandered the house like a forgotten old man, walking around the rooms of the first floor, living room to kitchen to family room and back again in a line, sometimes meandering around to the dining room and main entryway. Stopping to pick up the objects he passed and considering them a moment before putting them down again, just for something to do. There was the stopped-up saltshaker, the television remote, the Providence Journal with the crossword half done and the jumble completed. This month’s landscaping bill on the counter, the JAMAs and Obstetrics and Gynecology, all his medical journals waiting to be read in a pile by his recliner, all of this stuff his to claim, but regarding it all in the middle of the night just made him more aware of himself—problem-riddled, ever-failing. Even Christie was asleep, picking her head up once incuriously to look at him before dropping her head back down dramatically to her paws, where she resumed her snoring in the span of a few seconds. He had one pathetic minute where he considered waking her up, giving her a biscuit, taking her for a walk with him just for something to do, but he hated the sad cowardliness in this and put the idea aside. He stared out the family room windows into the dark backyard; the new in-ground pool they’d just built for the summer seemed so sad to him then, sterile and lonely and cold. The black water gleamed mournfully at him, looking treacherous, offering him none of the happiness he’d thought it would bring. Then, finally, with nothing more to do, he sat in his recliner, and stared straight ahead into the darkness of the family room, listening to the dog snore and sometimes cry in her sleep until the first hint of light slid in through the front windows. Really, it was more like the darkness had been slowly lifted away, a gray veil pulled up to reveal the sunlight that had always been there.

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