Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Motor-Scooter

He walked down the street in no great hurry but with definite purpose. The boy went from storefront to storefront, asking shopkeepers if they had what he wanted. He passed by groups of similar teenage boys standing huddled in the shadows, sharing cigarettes, telling jokes, and laughing desperately. There were women standing at the narrow entrances to their houses that opened on the narrow street, they spoke in hushed voices and this combined with their long headscarves - draped around their shoulders, over their hair and across much of their faces  - to lend them on that night a decidedly sinister aspect: co-conspirators deciding what to do with the body of the assassinated King in that moment before they realize there is no further need for discretion. There were children playing games of tag or hide and seek and being generally noisy unless someone barked at them and then they would shut up for a few seconds, only to start again a few feet farther up or down the street. Girls on shadowy balconies overlooking the street, or behind dark windows, played sappy love songs on their cellphones, and it was under these overhangs on the street that older, quieter boys stood conspicuously, heads angled to the side and heedless of the noise of vehicles trudging through the tangle of heat and dust and darkness and perspiration and badly-kept secrets that was this street and countless other streets all over this city and in other cities across the country.

An old man riding what appeared to be a cross between a scooter and a motorcycle put-put-putted past the boy; so close that he would have jumped had not his foot been caught under the front wheel of that contraption. The scooter-cycle moved on and the boy looked at the back of the old man, stopping himself from swearing loudly at his receding tufts of hair; he was sure he was an old man because of the white prayer-cap he wore at a time that was far gone for prayer, the white dress he wore and the walking cane he had stowed on the side of the scooter-cycle. The scooter-cycle slowed down and coasted to a stop a few feet farther down from where the boy had stood transfixed since it had passed over his foot. The put-put-putting noise of its engine died, and the tail light went out suddenly so the boy lost equally suddenly his object of focus and his gaze drifted in the darkness, readjusting and coming to rest on the old man, who was fidgeting with his scooter-cycle, attempting to restart it. The old man leaned to one side and lifted his leg to strike the pedal, he brought it down hard and the motor-scooter sput-sput-sputtered back into life. 

Even as the boy watched, the old man lay on the street and the still sput-sput-sputtering machine lay on top of him. The engine was stoked and was proceeding into a progressively sharper and painful whine, spurred by some torturous mechanism. The old man waved his arms, his cries for help - if there were any - were swallowed by the rapacious din of the motor-scooter. The boy rushed to his side and attempted to lift the old man out from underneath the scooter-cycle. He grabbed the man under the arms, but the dampness there made him uncomfortable so he let go and wiped his palms on his pants while the old man stared into space, his face an amorphous mask of confusion and helplessness. He next tried to lift the still sput-sput-sputtering scooter-cycle, and in this was partially successful. The old man stayed flat on his back as the boy righted the bike and found the landing gear after much probing with his foot. He reached down to help the old man up, grabbing him around the waist this time and raising him slowly. The old man held out a hand and pointed at the ground where the boy struggled to spot the walking cane that had tumbled loose. He bent down to pick it up while the noise from the motor-scooter was cut off: the old man had switched off the ignition. The boy handed him his walking cane, the old man started hobbling towards his house - a few feet away on the other side of the street. His wife - or daughter, or daughter-in-law, the boy could not tell which - stood in the darkened doorway. She stood aside as a young man appeared in the doorway from inside the house. He walked past his father and took the motor-scooter and guided it across the street and into their home. 

The boy took the old man by the elbow: "Are you alright, sir?" The old man said nothing and waved his hand dismissively. "But you're limping, sir," the boy insisted. "Old injury. I'm fine" came the curt reply, and he shrugged off the boy's hand from his elbow. Hobbling, slow and pathetic, behind his son who had now disappeared with the front-half of the motorcycle into the dark doorway. The woman still stood outside, silhouetted against the light-colored paint of the front wall. The old man stopped a few feet from the entrance and said something the boy could not hear. The woman stepped inside and the old man followed his wife or daughter or daughter-in-law, hobbling over the raised doorstep and slamming the door shut.

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