Issue > Poetry
Karen English

Karen English

Karen English is also a children's author. Her fifteenth book came out in December (The Carver Chronicles: Dog Days) with Houghton Miflin. She's had storeis in Constellations, Blue Lake Review, and Clarion. She lives in Los Angeles, California. 

Yusuf's Wife

Her husband had something to tell her. He'd announced this just after he took a call at breakfast. But he wasn't ready to tell her while they all sat there munching away on their own breakfast choices: quinoa for Yusuf; tea and toast for her; Cinnamon Toast Crunch for their son, Omar. If their daughter, Naeema, wasn't doing her junior year in Ghana, she'd be at the table with her dry toast and pink grapefruit half.

He wasn't ready to tell after breakfast either. Instead he went outside to shoot hoops with Omar and that horrid little boy from next door, Coley Bunch. Coley was a thick-set boy with a short neck that implied some kind of pending, unbridled meanness when he grew into his future self.

Whatever it was, it was not going to be pleasant. She knew her husband well enough to know that while he was telling himself he was out there trying to build a bridge between Omar and his tormenter, Coley—he was really delaying the inevitable.

It wasn't long before Omar was stomping through the kitchen, fuming over a deliberate maneuver by Coley that had sent him sprawling. She watched him walk by noting the fragile shoulder blades that showed under his thin t-shirt like folded wings. He was her baby.

Through the window she saw Coley Bunch gather his bike that he'd let drop at the end of their driveway, give himself a running start then hop on and speed away—chunky legs pumping.

Yusuf came in pulling the front of his t-shirt up to wipe his face and expose several inches sweaty stomach. "Whew, I'm worn out," he said cheerfully. Funny how he could remain cheerful when all around him was gloom.

"You didn't see what happened?" Shemsia said.

"What?" He turned on the faucet, leaned down into the sink and splashed water on his face. Eyes closed, he patted around for the dishtowel, found it and dried his face—and the back of his neck while he was at it.

Shemsia made a note to toss the dishtowel in the wash machine. "That boy pushed Omar down. Right under your nose."

"Boys play rough."

"Why are you excusing him? He did that on purpose."

"I don't think so."

"Children shouldn't try to hurt each other."

"Nobody was trying to hurt anybody. That's how boys play. Omar needs to toughen up. The boy's not a baby. He's ten."

An old refrain. Shemsia could tell Yusuf wanted to say much more but was stopping himself. Good thing because Omar was probably off somewhere listening. According to Yusuf, she was making Omar soft. Wasn't it enough that he looked soft with his lingering baby fat?

Still, Coley seemed to target Omar at will, as if there were some fundamental flaw in Omar's very being that rubbed Coley Bunch the wrong way.

Shemsia had spoken to Omar's teacher. What a useless endeavor that was. Such a strange, bland woman who couldn't be cattle prodded into taking some kind of meaningful action, Shemsia soon discovered.

When Omar had reported that Coley grabbed the injera right out of his lunch and held it up at the lunch table, declaring it yucky rubber bread that could be used to mop up spills, Shemsia appealed to his teacher, Ms. Browley. Coley had actually passed it around so everyone could take a sniff.

What had Ms. Browley done? (A woman who was obviously trying to keep her marital status a secret.) She called them all in for a conference: Coley; Coley's mother; she and Omar. For what purpose? Shemsia was at a loss.

The Bunch mother, whose brow seemed to be settled into a permanent furrow, spent the entire conference softly popping her gum and whipping her head around this way and that as if in search of something. Ms. Browley, droning on and on about multicultural sensitivities and the need for more understanding, didn't even seem to notice.

When Ms. Browley paused long enough for Coley's mother to get a word in, she said, "Where's Coley's work? I don't see nothin' that Coley's done." She was referring to the starred math papers and spelling tests displayed around the classroom, with the student's name tag posted underneath written in Ms. Browley's special calligraphy.

"I don't even like injera," Omar said later as they were walking to the car. "Why did you put it in my lunch?" He looked at her as if she'd found this way to humiliate him on purpose.

"What did you want to tell me?" Shemsia asked taking a seat at the kitchen table. She was tired of waiting.

Yusuf got the ginger lemonade from the refrigerator, poured a healthy glass and then sat down across from her. He took what seemed like a long stalling swig.

Shemsia waited, staring at his new dye job. It did not look like anything that would grow naturally out of a human head. Very foolish. Quite a departure from the chestnut color she saw on the box she found in the bathroom trash. Why did men dye their hair, anyway? She thought of some of the old men at the mosque with their white roots relentlessly pushing through.

Now Yusuf sat with shoulders hunched, his eyebrows raised as he rolled the glass between his hands.

He is trying to appear as if it is something he has not already made up his mind about, Shemsia thought. She offered a quick dua'aa for patience and said nothing.

"Marcus has to move in with us." Yusuf said, then sat back and looked out the window. "He has no place to go—he has no money and he is my brother."

This was all she needed.

He took her silence as an invitation to go on. "He's my brother."

"You said that." She let the silence sit between them. She had to be careful here—hold off on her objections for a bit. She didn't want to make him contrary on general principle. She brought her hand up to her mouth to hide it. It wasn't the eyes that gave people away; it was the mouth. Shemsia could still remember the approach of a smile on her childhood friend's face years ago when she'd admitted to a low score on a math exam. Now she leaned her chin on her palm but kept her fingers over her mouth.

Yusuf began a speech on the importance of family and how everyone must pull together—blah, blah, blah—while she sat there hating the way he kept his eyebrows lifted in the middle hang-dog style. She took a big cleansing breath and thought: I will let him talk and talk but he will come to my conclusion on his own. Marcus could not live with them. It was out of the question. She could not be walking around in her hijab, her head covering, in her own house. Shemsia looked at Yusuf squarely so he would be sure he had her undivided attention—then past him at the wooden base of the cup tree. She winced at the fine layer of dust. She'd just dusted it the day before.

Something occurred to her then, as she brought her attention back to Yusuf, something that occasionally wormed its way into her consciousness and caused disquiet. She shouldn't have married Yusuf. They were from two very different cultures. She married him, and by default, had married his whole maladjusted family. It hadn't been a bargain for her—not equal to what she had brought to Yusuf's life.

She was from a good Ethiopian family, of high class. Her father had been in government service. Her brother was an engineer. Her sister had gone to school in England and married a wealthy businessman from an upper class Egyptian family. Sure, they would have preferred their son had married someone with the complexion of cream, but they soon came around when the children began to arrive. And, wasn't that always the case?

What had Shemsia done? Her father had sent her all the way to America to a top university and she'd fallen in love with a man because his African American features had a slight Ethiopian leaning. He reminded her of someone she'd been in love with long ago. Oh—and he was Muslim, having converted on his own in college. That gave him some points in the eyes of her father. But what kind of life did he give her, with his mediocre teaching job and always the family issues, the woes and dramas.

There was his sister, Vicky, and her little Roashon. (And, what kind of name was that, anyway?) Roashon's father? Gone—just as soon as the very brief sense of empowerment he'd gotten from new fatherhood had fizzled. Then into her life came Yusuf's brother, Marcus, and his "a few bad breaks." Then there were stray cousins who showed up from time to time without notice, giving her barely enough time to hide her jewelry.

She brought her attention back to Yusuf and said, "Is Marcus working?"

There was a telling pause. "Harun has promised to find him a little something while he's here."

Harun was one of Yusuf's friends who rarely did what he said he was going to do. "He won't," Shemsia said. "Oh yes, he'll promise, but then you'll have to chase him down. Does Marcus still have his..." She paused before proceeding. "...drug problem?"

"He's supposed to be straight."

"Great. Super. Just one thing, Yusuf... Just one thing he does wrong and then he's out of here. You promise me that."

"Shemsia, we need to give him a chance."

"You're not promising are you?" She almost let go of her earlier resolve to not flat out refuse. "You promise me when this doesn't work, you promise me he's gone."

Yusuf looked down, probably searching for a way not to promise.

"We'll put a time limit on it," Yusuf said. "One month."

"Ya'Allah!" she said as she stumbled over Marcus's duffel bag in the hallway three mornings later. "This is not good," she said under her breath. "Not good, at all. I will not move that bag. If no one moves it, it will sit right there. I don't care for how long. Forever. It's fine with me." She stepped over it and went into the kitchen.

The kitchen was empty. Her brother-in-law was probably still asleep. Of course he'd be. People who worked their way into his kind of life were never early risers. She looked at the closed basement door then out the window at her driveway. Her husband was gone. Yusuf taught seventh grade English. He liked to get to his classroom early, then spend the bonus time puttering about, getting his brain battle-ready for the onslaught of homework excuses, fights over spots in line, and the free-floating heartbreak of his students' lives. He usually dropped Omar off at the bus stop three blocks away before he scooted off to his own separate world.

She noted the Bunch's blue pickup. Only a thin grass median separated their two driveways. The truck's entire front bumper was covered in black primer. And, of course there were the requisite nude silhouettes on the rear mud flaps. A rusted barbeque pit still sat by the back porch steps, long abandoned but with a new purpose: taking up space and marring the landscape.

The kettle began to whistle behind her and when she turned to tend to it, there was Marcus, standing in the doorway, tucking his chin in what seemed to be a show of humility. He was wearing his hair in short dreadlocks that had lightened to a yam color. She noticed a small silver stud in one ear. He looked thinner, a little unhealthy, like someone who'd been putting other indulgences ahead of diet and healthy living.

"Good morning, Shems" he said cheerfully.

She flinched at the shortened version of her name then fingered the end of her hijab. "Good morning."

"Sorry about my stuff in the way. I was so tired by the time I got here, it was all I could do to make it to that bed down there." He glanced back at the basement door.

Shemsia forced a smile but deliberately remained silent.

"You fixin' tea? Can I get some?" He made himself at home at the table.

Shemsia got two cups down from the shelf. She prepared the tea while he drummed the edge of the table and whistled under his breath.

"Did Yusuf tell you about my plans?" he asked after a few moments of driving her crazy.

"Not really." She dunked her tea bag and thought about dinner.

"I'm taking up carpentry."

She stood with her back to the sink. She needed to chop onion for the alecha, but made no move to go to the refrigerator.

He changed the subject. "So how are you doing these days, Shemsia? You been to Ethiopia lately?"

"I haven't been there in ten years." She took a sip of tea to allow him time to make the connection between loans Yusuf had shelled out to him in the past and her long separation from her family, but in Marcus's infuriating way, he appeared not to notice.

"I don't know why it took me so long to realize I needed to take up carpentry. It must be in my blood. Did you know that our grandfather was a cabinet maker?"

Shemsia hadn't heard this and now she wondered if it was even true.

"I'm hoping to get an apprenticeship with a master carpenter or some such." He took up his drumming again but this time with his open hands. Then he did an odd thing. He placed his cheek close to his drumming hands as if there were some subtle yet remarkable rhythm that only his genius could create and appreciate. He stopped abruptly. He had a final, important point to make, she was sure. "But not just yet. I need to cool out a little bit first, get myself together."

Shemsia looked over at Marcus and almost smiled. People like Marcus always had a kind of a grandiose optimism. They always had big, big plans. And, they were quick to announce these plans to whoever would listen. It was as if the announcement itself was the actual doing. She studied him as he leaned into the beat he was making on her kitchen table, with eyes closed looking pleased. He stopped to take a sip of tea through his teeth, holding his lips out protectively. After he swallowed, he said, "But I'm doin it." I'm takin' one step at a time, but I'm gettin' there."

Ya Allah! She thought. This was not a halfway house. She went to the refrigerator for the onion.

The day Shemsia loved most was Monday. It was her market day. She traveled to three markets. First, a big chain market in her neighborhood for canned goods and non-food items like paper towels and soap and garbage bags—then on to Whole Foods across town for her organic fruits and vegetables and maybe something from the deli. There she'd push her cart slowly along the aisles, stopping to read ingredients on the labels of items she had no intention of buying but just wanted to learn about. Her last stop was the small market in Little Ethiopia. It was actually just one street in an area once dominated by Jewish businesses. But as the businesses went farther north, the vacuum they created was filled in by the Ethiopians.

She walked through the door and immediately went over to Almaz to greet her. The store was small enough to allow them to visit while Shemsia put her few things from her list in her basket. Ingredients for spiced butter and some ber-beri for spice paste. Shemsia liked Almaz and her happy round face and eyes that neatly closed, or seemed to, when she laughed. Almaz was always in a good mood even when life was not treating her well. She laughed off her husband's indifference, her only daughter's casual attitude about her home responsibilities, and didn't seem to mind that most of the responsibility of the store fell on her shoulders. Shemsia wished she had Almaz's ease of attitude. How much more pleasant life would be.

Shemsia pulled into the driveway and sat there for a few minutes thinking of the bags of groceries in the trunk. This was the part she hated: the unloading and the unpacking. She looked toward the basement window, then at her watch. Marcus had fallen into something of a routine. When the music started up, she knew he was gathering his courage. Over the last two weeks, some of that initial enthusiasm about his life plans had dulled a bit. Of course, as Shemsia had suspected, Harun's promise had been flimsy at best. It turned out that it just wasn't a good time to take on a new hire. Simply that. Marcus's long shower usually followed—with no concern for the hot water or the water bill.

She entered the kitchen with her arms loaded down with groceries, noting the odd feel of the quiet. She glanced at the closed basement door, then went back out to the car. Perhaps Marcus was out "taking care of business" as he liked to call his forays into the outside world.

Just as she reentered her kitchen, she thought she heard something—a chair scraping. With the bags still in her arms, she went and stood outside the basement door, listening. Silence. She returned to the car for the last bag of the groceries. Just before she set them on the counter she heard the distinct sound of a woman's laughter coming up from the basement. She froze in disbelief. She heard it again. It was definitely a woman's laughter— loud, reckless, and full of abandon—the

laugh of a woman who found everything funny.

As Shemsia stood in her kitchen considering her options, she heard footsteps on the stairs. The basement door opened and Marcus stepped back to allow his guest to emerge first.

"Hey Shemsia..," Marcus said cheerfully.

Shemsia set the bags down, slowly. She watched them in silence as Marcus followed behind this woman with his hands on her waist. "This is my ladylove, Markesha," he said as he steered Markesha to a kitchen chair. The woman covered her mouth and giggled. "She don't believe I'ma cook her some lunch." Markesha quit her giggling and now rested her forehead on her folded arms. Marcus looked over at her and laughed a low drawn-out laugh that sounded, to Shemsia's ears, more like a growl. Then he pirouetted and studied the series of cabinets before him as if he were using some kind of party trick to conjure up what each contained. She watched him search out what he needed for his (according to him) famous chili cheese and black olive omelet.

Back at the table, Markesha had surfaced from her crossed arms and was watching him with amusement. Then she rested her chin on her palm in what she must have thought a sexy pose.

"Let me talk to you for a moment, please," Shemsia said to Marcus as she led the way into the hall.

After a moment of seeming confusion Marcus followed behind her, still smiling.

Shemsia pulled the door tightly behind them. Then she said, "Who is that woman?"

"Whoah...wait a minute," Marcus said with a smile, holding his palms up in a gesture to put a halt to her suspicions. "She's just a friend."

"Why is she here?"

Marcus shrugged and began shaking his head slowly. "She's just a friend who came by to say hello."

"Why does she say hello to you down in the basement?"

Shemsia could tell by the way his nostrils twitched as he tightly pulled in his lips and looked down, that he was struggling to keep from laughing. The sight of him doing this infuriated her. When he composed himself, he managed to say, "She just wanted to see where I was staying. That's all."

Shemsia didn't wait to digest this. She went back to the kitchen and right over to where Markesha had surprisingly fallen asleep right at her kitchen table. To Shemsia this woman did not look like a visitor with her careless t-shirt and tiny shorts. She was barefoot and Shemsia could tell that she was not wearing a bra. Who visits someone with no bra? What woman runs around in public like that?

She poked the woman on the shoulder, but not hard. It was not a hard poke. "Excuse me," she said. Markesha brought her head up, but kept her eyes closed. "What?"

"Excuse me," Shemsia said again. "You are a nice person, I'm sure. But you must leave. You cannot stay here."

The woman now squinted up at Shemsia and seemed to blink in confusion. But Shemsia was done. Ignoring the woman and Marcus who'd crept back in quietly to hold a whispered exchange with the woman, Shemsia quickly put the perishables away and left the room. She had no more to say. She would simply wait in her room for her orders to be carried out, for the woman to be taken out of her house.

In her bedroom, she sat on her bed and stared at the telephone thinking about calling Yusuf. But, call him with what? She pictured him in his classroom sitting at his desk, correcting papers. No, it was too early for that. He'd be trying to teach some lesson to his largely inattentive class. She'd heard his stories and wondered why he didn't try to get hired at a school where he would be able to teach—somewhere in a better part of town. Why didn't he want more for himself as a teacher—more for his family?

Thinking along these lines, it was easy to guess what his response would be to his brother's thoughtless, brazen behavior. He would excuse him. Not directly. At first he would pretend to be on board with Shemsia and while she vented, he'd second each comment with points of his own. Though they would be milder, more open ended, exposing another way of looking at the situation. She'd seen Yusuf do this before, especially at those times when she thought she detected some slight or some unfairness directed toward Omar by a teacher or by the little league coach who seemed to be giving other players more time in the field over their son.

So, what was the use? She would tell him of Marcus's bad behavior and then she'd have to listen to Yusuf's pretense of outrage. He would say the right things, but little by little, his goal would become obvious: convince her to give Marcus another chance.

She felt completely helpless. She needed to calm down before she spoke to Yusuf. She looked at the clock and saw that it was time for her midday prayer. I will pray for guidance, she thought. She went to the bathroom to wash up. But when she came out she sat on the bed again and thought more about her husband's shortcomings. What a sensitive man he'd seemed when they first married, anticipating her every concern, being wholly on board with what she thought was best for their lives. Now, it was as if he'd stepped out of the room but had yet to return. Now she could see clearly that he was not with her.

What would he do now? Would he throw Marcus out or would he make excuses for him until he thought she was appeased. If he threw Marcus out, there was hope. If not, she would continue as she was. She would cook, clean and care for Omar and act as Yusuf's wife. They would pray together, they would attend the mosque and she would be publicly attached to him—as his wife, but in her heart she would leave him. She would get a job, save her money—go visit her family. A nice, long visit. One where she'd take an extra suitcase filled only with presents for all her family. Of course she'd take Omar. Naeema was in Ghana, the other side of the continent, but she might be able to squeeze in a short visit. Her family had only seen her children a few times. She would show them all the magnificent things about her city, Bahir Dar, the tall palms and jacarandas. The magnificent views of Lake Tana. It was their city, too. Why shouldn't they know this? Shemsia thought.

She looked around her small room. There was a wicker trunk at the end of the bed in which she stored extra blankets. She remembered when she first saw it in the small import store she sometimes wandered into. She had imagined it sitting just where it sat now. She had thought of the convenience it would provide and the beauty. Now she saw how all the special purchases she'd made in the past, in which she'd put such faith, soon grew familiar and old and invisible. She imagined the space empty and somehow that appealed to her more.

Shemsia took a deep breath and actually felt calm as her plan began to take shape in her mind. The more details she added to it, the calmer she felt. She heard that woman's brazen laughter filling up her kitchen and it was a sound that had nothing to do with her. Next door, hideous rock started up, music that always sounded to Shemsia, angry and threatening. It had nothing to do with her, as well. She went to the window and looked down onto the Bunch's weeded over yard with the old swing set that their son long ago outgrew. Just at that moment, Coley's mother, with the angry, put-upon set to her face, slammed out of her back door with a big black bag of trash. She yelled something over her shoulder—an admonishment to that demon child of hers, no doubt. The pale woman with a cigarette dangling from her hand flicked an ash at the ground and looked up at Shemsia. Once upon a time Shemsia would have felt caught and would have quickly moved out of sight. This time, she looked at her neighbor right in the eye and their eyes held for two or three seconds. Shemsia smiled but the woman looked away. No matter. Shemsia wasn't smiling at her neighbor. She was smiling at the vision of herself on an airplane, flying over the Atlantic, Omar by her side—far, far away from where Marcus lived in the basement, where Yusuf hid himself behind his comfortable wall of mediocrity, and where people didn't have a clue about the life from which she had come.


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