The watching, it seeps into everything in our neighborhood. It’s like weather, the barometric pressure lowering. Before the monsoons came in Bangladesh, you could feel the air thicken and squat on your head. A constant ache behind your eyeballs.
For the past few years there’s been another kind of pressure: a vibration around us, the air pressing down, muffling our mouths. We see the men, coming down the metal stairs from the elevated subway, or parked in cars for hours on end: clean-cut guys, creased khakis, rolled-up sleeves. The breath of Manhattan steaming off their clothes. They aren’t from around here—that we can tell. Not like the young couples with their big padded strollers. Or the girls with peacoats and holes in their black tights, who moved to the nice part of Jackson Heights, carry yoga mats in cloth bags from stores I’ve never heard of. No, these people are different. They stroll into stores, finger the edges of the newspapers in their racks, check out flyers taped to the side of the fridge.
One day two of them came into my parents’ store, pretended to buy some gum, and then asked a few questions about the travel agency upstairs. Where is the man who runs the place? Mr. Ahmed? How often does he come in? Does he stay after hours?
Abba shook his head. “I do not watch my neighbor so much. He is from Pakistan, that is all I know.”
“Yet you hold packages for him?”
“Yes, but that is because they are not open all the time. It is favor.”
The man consulted a tiny notebook. “You attend the same mosque? Al-Noor Masjid?”
At this, Abba froze, fingers resting light on the register, staring at the door. “No, we are praying at different place.” It hurt my heart, hearing this. Abba’s English, when he spoke to strangers, was halting, yet proper. He’d studied some English in Bangladesh and hated sounding uneducated to Americans.
“Abba?” I whispered after the detectives left, and touched his arm. “You okay?”
He stirred and blinked. “I am fine.” But his voice was rough at the edges.
It’s his accepting, his hemmed-in air, his giving up that makes me crazy. The way he makes that sad gargling noise at the back of his throat, just stands here, rocking on his shoes. Or shuffles to the back of the store to pray. Lets those men scare him. It’s in Allah’s hands. Nothing more to do, he says.
Fight them! I want to cry. Fight me!
But he doesn’t. He’s too tired. Tired of his own years, first doing construction in Dubai, then in Brooklyn, long days up on the scaffolding scraping cement, a new wife and son, now the store, where every month he and my stepmother lean their heads together, write the rent check. One more month, he sighs. Then maybe we close up.