Read “A Bag for Nicholas,” Hirsh Sawhney’s story from New Jersey Noir
South Haven, the debut novel from author Hirsh Sawhney, has been named a Summer 2016 Pick in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers Program and has received phenomenal praise from the likes of Jayne Anne Phillips (“bold, accessible, funny, and heartbreaking”), Nadeem Aslam (“an intelligent and beautiful novel”), Pankaj Mishra (“Sawhney writes with wit and tenderness”), and Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, who calls Sawhney “an incandescent voice in fiction.” To celebrate the book’s release, we’re pleased to feature Sawhney’s story from New Jersey Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
A Bag for Nicholas
by Hirsh Sawhney
Jersey City, New Jersey
Shezad Ansari—or Shez to his customers, fans, and friends—had once been a successful musician. He’d played keyboards in a psychedelic grunge band called Cold Warrior, which released a Billboard Hot 100 single in ’98. The next few years were good to Shez. Sandra, a film editor, finally agreed to marry him. He went to parties with distinguished actors and directors. He acquired a taste for champagne, caviar, and cocaine. But those days were long behind him. He was now thirty-eight and living, once again, in Jersey City.
He lived alone in the one-bedroom Newport condo his father had bought in 2001 and bequeathed him just two years later. Shez had two sources of income: royalty checks from Cold Warrior’s first album, which covered his property taxes and utilities, and cash profits from the three-and-a-half- and seven-gram baggies of marijuana he sold to the local bourgeoisie. This side business took care of his grocery bills and bar tab.
An unexpected phone call from his ex-wife Sandra made Shez decide it was time to stop selling pot. She called him on a Monday in late February and said she had a real job for him, playing the Hammond B-3 organ on a soundtrack for an independent film. The film’s director, who’d won a Sundance grant, owed her a favor. All Shez had to do was show up to a meeting in Brooklyn that Thursday, and the job was practically his. He told himself that Sandra’s phone call was the start of a new leaf. He grew excited for his renaissance. Life as a normal, functional adult suddenly seemed possible.
Thursday came, and Shez hadn’t sold a bag or restocked his supply of bud in three days. He woke up at noon and entered the bathroom. Mildew clouded the transparent shower curtain, and balls of hair and dust littered the floor. Shez powered up his father’s old transistor radio. WBGO was playing a Lou Donaldson song. He’d fallen in love with the track during his first and only year at Rutgers. He placed his hands on the sink, confronting his hangover in the mirror. The bags under his eyes were puffy from last night, and from countless other solitary nights. A tight ball blazed in his stomach. He was no longer inspired by the thought of a new beginning.
He tugged one of his thick black curls toward his cheek. His hair didn’t need cutting, but his beard was another story. It was unruly, a black and gray bird’s nest, and it made him smile with a mixture of disgust and pride. He looked psychotic, like the shoe bomber. He opened up the medicine cabinet and reached for his stainless steel hair clippers. His father’s expired beta blockers rested beside them though the man had been dead for five years.
Shez was trimming his beard when his phone began to vibrate. He pulled it out of his sweatpants pocket. He recognized the number but ignored the call. Then a text message arrived. Shez, it read, this is Nicholas. I need a favor.
Nicholas was a novelist who lived in Hamilton Park with his corporate-lawyer wife and toddler. Shez sold him a quarter-ounce every six weeks or so, and Nicholas sometimes invited him in for a glass of single malt and a conversation about jazz or the Grateful Dead. Shez didn’t text back. He was done with that game.
The phone buzzed for a third time while Shez was using a razor to shape his mustache. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. He pressed a button and brought the device to his ear. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t help you out.”
“Shez, hey,” said Nicholas. “How’s it going, man?”
“Fine, but I’m in the middle of something.”
“I really need one of those hats, man. The situation is, like, desperate.”
Shez smiled. The covert words people used to talk about weed amused him. In fact, so many things about the trade were pleasing. It was more than just a way to earn his spending money. It was a pastime. It was a pursuit. It was the way in which he interacted with the world. “No more hats,” he said. “Not one left.”
“Really?” Nicholas sounded skeptical.
“That sucks, man. I’ve got this old buddy coming to town and—”
“Look, I can’t help.”
“He really wanted to meet you,” said Nicholas. “He’s seen you play live before.”
Shez sighed. He was softening. “How much do you need?”
“A quarter-sized hat.”
“Just a quarter?”
“Yeah, but I can give you a lot for it.”
“How much?” Shez asked. He had a number in his mind: two hundred.
“Two-fifty,” said Nicholas.
“I don’t know,” said Shez. “I have a real busy day.”
“Three hundred,” said Nicholas.
“Okay. I’ll be there before five.”
Shez hadn’t touched his keyboard in several weeks, and he’d been gearing up to practice whole tone scales the entire afternoon, like Monk used to do. But now he had other plans. He had to get out to Sardul Singh, his oldest and best friend. He had to score a bag of herb for Nicholas. He put on his green, holey cargo pants and his blue hoodie. He stuffed Nirvana’s Unplugged CD into his backpack and left the apartment.
In the elevator, a pretty Indian woman rested her ringed fingers on a baby stroller. He tried to smile at her, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. The building was filled with so many fresh-off-the-boat Indians. Most were in their thirties and here to crunch numbers for a year or two. He often saw them on the roof deck, getting loud and laughing without even drinking anything. They reminded him of junior high school students.
It was Shez’s father who’d relished conversing with these “bright-eyed youngsters.” He was born in Delhi but migrated to Pakistan in ’47. He loathed Pakistan with every atom in his body but had an undying love for all things Indian. This attitude had always struck Shez as simplistic.
He stepped out into the winter afternoon. Sunlight leaked through a few fissures in the sky, reflecting off the sooty, crystalline snow. He squinted, and his wrinkles deepened. He began to walk toward Newark Avenue, where his car was parked. After clearing the gaggle of skyscrapers, he passed the old power station, which looked like the orphaned offspring of a dilapidated factory and the gothic German castles he’d admired on his only European tour. Trees grew inside the building, and birds nested in them during springtime.
“Fuck,” he said out loud. He had reached his turquoise Corolla, and a boot was clamped to the car’s front wheel. A ticket rested underneath its windshield wiper. It was already two o’clock, and he had to be in Brooklyn at seven-thirty sharp. He knew what he should do: get the boot off his car, tell Nicholas to go fuck himself, and get ready for his meeting.
A number 80 bus turned onto Newark. Shez remembered that the 80 would take him right to the courthouse, just a block or two away from the old neighborhood. He imagined Sardul’s house and the pungent odor of marijuana. He didn’t want to smoke it, he just wanted to weigh it. To place it in a sandwich bag, then roll, lick, seal; roll, lick, seal. The baggie would become a tight cylinder, ready for purchase, for a new home.
He turned around and bounded up Newark, making it to Jersey Avenue a few seconds before the bus. His blood was pumping, and he was wheezing. His anxiety about tonight had disappeared. The vehicle opened its doors, and he boarded. The bus charged up Newark Avenue, clearing downtown and rising toward William H. Dickinson High School, his alma mater. Shez had recently Googled himself and discovered that he was listed as one of the high school’s notable alumni on its Wikipedia page.
He got off across from the courthouse and started walking down Oakland Avenue. He was home, back in the old neighborhood. The route to Sardul’s house didn’t pass his old house, which his parents had sold when they moved to the Newport condo. It did take him by the shop, though. He paused in front of the place for just a few seconds. It hadn’t changed much. It was still called Courthouse Convenience, and the same bail bondsman sat to the left of it. A Peruvian restaurant had replaced the beauty salon on the right.
His father had bought the store from a distant cousin when Shez was six. It was 1980, and the family had been in the country two years. Running the shop was boring for Shez’s dad, who’d been an up-and-coming barrister in Lahore. He sat behind the register six days a week, rereading treatises by John Stuart Mill, listening to talk radio, and constantly sipping liquor from a coffee mug.
The business’s only bad year was ’87, but that was a bad one for everyone. Bands of disgruntled white men were beating brown immigrants with baseball bats and kicking them into comas. The family lived in fear, and they were right to be afraid. Shez’s father went to open up the shop one morning and found a swastika painted on the metal gate. They’d also sprayed the words Dotheads go home in red letters. “Ignorant idiots,” said his dad. “We’re Muslims—we don’t wear dots on our heads.”
His father agreed to pay Shez and Sardul ten dollars each to clean the graffiti every time it appeared, but the first time Shez cleaned it up himself. He spent a couple of hours slapping on a coat of metallic paint and then walked into the store to find his dad on the floor behind the register. His father’s mug was cracked, and an almost empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label rested on the counter. Shez crouched down and propped his father up against the wall, convinced more than ever that he had to get far away from this place.
He climbed up the steps of Sardul’s detached Beacon Avenue home. The place was a standard two-story abode, encased in aluminum siding. An American flag swayed beside its front door. Shez and Sardul used to drink wine coolers on the house’s roof, staring out at the blinking tops of the Twin Towers. They were in junior high school and dreamed of living in those towers one day. Shez rang the doorbell and looked at his watch.
It was a quarter to three. If he was quick, he would have time to hand over the bag to Nicholas and even change his clothes before his meeting. He decided he’d put on one of his father’s tweed jackets, and a little excitement began to pulse in him again. He imagined sipping a glass of red wine and expounding on the history of the electric organ. Sandra’s movie director friend, whoever he was, would be impressed. His ex-wife’s lips would form an amused, wistful smile. These thoughts reignited the tight ball in his stomach. The anxiety returned, and with it, shame. Why was he back here? For money he’d blow at the bar by Sunday?
The door opened, and Sardul’s aunt greeted him. “Welcome, son, welcome.” Aunty was a slender, tall woman with a striking dime-sized nose ring. She dyed her hair jet-black, though Shez could make out her silver roots. “You look good,” she said, “nice and clean cut.” She always spoke to Shez in Punjabi, and he responded in English.
“You’re the one who looks good,” he said. “You couldn’t be a day over forty.”
“Always a charmer,” she said, smiling. “Like your father. How’s Mom?”
“Good, Aunty, I spoke to her just last week.”
“Sardul’s parents love being back in Delhi, and your mom seems happy in the Gulf. Me, I couldn’t do it. This place is my home.”
He followed her into the family room, which contained plush pink sofas and a high-definition television, all purchased by Sardul, all paid for in cash. Shez noticed that Aunty was wearing her burgundy nurse’s aide uniform. “I thought you quit,” he said.
“Your friend says I shouldn’t work. But I need my independence; I need something to do.” Aunty grabbed a glass from a granite counter and took a long gulp. She drank a mixture of ginger ale and beer every afternoon. “Have a shandy,” she offered.
“No, Aunty, I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “Your friend’s in his quarters.” She got close to Shez and gave him two loving slaps on the cheek. “I have to go do some shopping.” She put on a coat and walked out the door.
He climbed the carpeted staircase and arrived at Sardul’s door, which had two stickers on it. One was from the previous year’s presidential campaign and said the words, Got Hope? The other said, 9/11 was an inside job. Shez wasn’t very political, and he had little patience for Sardul’s conspiracy theories. He knocked on the door and opened it before getting a response.
His friend was sitting on a pink recliner that matched the downstairs sofas. He wore a plaid flannel shirt, and baggy, ironed jeans fell over his construction boots. He was playing Rock Band, and the Beatles song “Get Back” was on. He was leaning into a solo. “What’s up, fool?” asked Sardul. “Wanna play?”
“Nah, I’m cool.” Shez loved “Get Back,” especially the Billy Preston keyboard solo. He couldn’t desecrate such masterful music.
Sardul pressed pause and put his toy guitar down. He got up and gave Shez a one-armed hug. Sardul was at least six inches shorter than Shez, and a few patches of adolescent acne still blemished his round face. A long black braid streamed out of the back of his Yankees cap.
“Want one?” asked Sardul. He nodded at the handblown glass bong on his coffee table.
“I can’t,” said Shez. “Got a job interview tonight.”
“In Brooklyn. It’s for a movie. A soundtrack.”
“Let me guess. Sandra set it up for you?”
“So you need to stop dealing with that bitch.” Sardul reached for the bong and filled its chamber with smoke.
“Watch it, man. I used to be married to that bitch.”
Sardul extracted the bowl from the bong and cleared the chamber. Water gurgled, and a stream of smoke shot into his lungs. “She’s not a bad person. She’s just bad for you.” Smoke escaped from his nostrils and lips as he uttered these words.
“She’s trying to help me out. She’s trying to do me a favor.”
“You ever ask yourself why? She has a new man. She’s pregnant. She just wants to be able to enjoy her co-op and her nanny without feeling guilty about your drunken ass.”
Shez sighed and shook his head. “I guess I’ll have a small hit.”
“It’s good shit,” said Sardul. “From BC this time.”
Shez smoked, then licked his lips. “It’s like fruity or something.”
“Exactly. It tastes like fruit, and it’s got blue hairs. We’re calling it Blueberry Bud.”
“Yo,” said Shez. “I need a little of this Blueberry Bud.”
“Yeah, no kidding. You only come by when you need a re-up.”
“What’s so funny?” asked Sardul.
“Nothing,” he lied. He was amused, though. Sardul was imitating the TV again. These days it was The Wire. It used to be Goodfellas or Scarface.
Sardul walked toward a door on the wall behind his television. “Whatever,” he said. “You laugh like a little girl.” He opened the door and, like a gentleman, motioned for Shez to pass through first. Sardul followed, closing the door behind him.
Sardul’s office was more of a large closet. An imposing metal desk hulked against a wall and a filing cabinet stood next to it. The cabinet contained time sheets and invoices from his roofing business, which didn’t function during winter. Sardul sat down on his Aeron chair and reached for the safe underneath his desk. Shez stared at a framed photograph of him and Sardul at the 1999 MTV Music Awards. Both of them were wearing tuxedos, and Sardul dangled an arm around Shez’s neck. He was holding up two of his fingers, as if to say, Wassup, homie? not Peace.
Sardul had rung Shez’s doorbell when the boys were nine, just a few weeks after Sardul’s family had moved to America. He had on one of those little-kid turbans and asked if Shez wanted to play. Shez taught him how to play stickball, and they became best friends.
Shez took some distance in high school, when he wanted to cease being just another dorky Jersey dothead. His walls stayed up until he got his first whiff of success, when he realized he needed a friend he could trust. He needed someone who would be happy for him, not envious. Sardul didn’t hold any grudges. He held Shez’s hand through the divorce. He was in the hospital when Shez’s dad was on a respirator, and when he died.
The safe door swung open, and Shez’s heart started pounding. He admired Sardul’s penchant for neatness. Wads of tens and twenties were neatly stacked at the bottom of the safe. Then came four large Tupperware containers of high-grade marijuana and a digital scale. Shez always flinched at the sight of Sardul’s Glock, but Sardul promised him he didn’t keep it loaded.
“So what you need?” asked Sardul. He took out the scale, and then the pot. The room began to smell skunky.
Shez was about to answer, but Sardul cocked his head toward the door.
“What is it?” Shez asked.
“You hear that?”
“No. I don’t hear anything. You’re just stoned.” Shez listened and did hear footsteps, though.
Sardul took his gun out of the safe. The doorknob began to rattle. The door opened.
Sardul’s aunt was standing there, smiling.
Sardul sighed and shook his head. “Jesus, you scared the shit out of me.” He put his pistol in his pocket. “What is it?” he said, switching to Punjabi.
“I need money,” the woman answered.
“To feed your big belly.”
Aunty held her thumb and index finger a centimeter apart. Sardul opened his safe again and handed her a wad of twenties. She put them in her coat pocket and walked out the door.
“Knock next time!” Sardul screamed after her.
“I don’t need to knock in my own house,” she called back.
Sardul closed the door and locked it this time. “So, what do you need?” he said again.
Sardul handed Shez a Tupperware container filled with a quarter-pound of pot.
“Not a QP,” said Shez. “A quarter-ounce.”
“I thought you said you were done, by the way.”
“I am. I’m just doing someone a favor.”
Sardul pushed his scale in front of Shez, and Shez placed marijuana on it until the number 7 appeared in red. He closed the Tupperware and handed it back to his friend, but Sardul began to scowl and shake his head.
“What?” said Shez.
“I always tell you—round up, not down. I’ve got a rep to maintain.”
Shez threw on another bud, and 8.2 grams now rested on the scale.
Sardul nodded in approval. “You’re a talented man,” he said. “But business just isn’t your thing.”
Shez stood with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie at a bus stop near the corner of Newark and Central. The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped. Two Filipino women in high heels emerged from the nearby probation office and lit up cigarettes next to him. They shivered and linked their arms together. A bus arrived and carried them away. He was waiting for the 86, but it never came. He looked at his watch: 4:45. Shit, he thought. He was cutting it close.
The reality of his day and decisions suddenly became clear to him. He wanted to play music again, but his simple life of pot and royalty checks was cozy. He wanted to change, but just thinking about change was draining. He had sabotaged himself. Again. He felt ashamed.
An 80 bus pulled up, and Shez asked the driver if something was wrong with the 86. The driver told him the 86 didn’t stop here. Shez decided he would take the PATH to Grove Street and walk to Hamilton Park from there. He could deliver the bag and get right back on the train. He would make it to his meeting with time to spare. He took the marijuana out of his backpack and slipped it underneath the elastic of his boxers. They often searched Shez’s bags on the train because of his beard and skin tone, but they never searched his body. The baggie chafed his penis as he walked toward Journal Square.
He entered the terminal and waited on the platform amidst a crowd of tired brown and black faces. Everyone stared up at the TV screen streaming outdated weather reports and incorrect train times. Trains heading to Newark arrived and left on the other side of the tracks, but all trains to New York were behind schedule. Shez tensed up again. Time wasn’t on his side.
A train bound for the World Trade Center finally arrived, and he got on board. It was one of those new trains, the ones with shiny blue interiors. A couple of seats were empty, but he stood by the doors. A man standing across from Shez stared at him. He was wearing a suit and had a silver stud in his left ear. He had wide shoulders and a leather briefcase. Shez put his backpack on the ground, and the man’s eyes followed the bag.
Shez’s phone began to buzz. He removed it from his cargo pants. Nicholas had sent him an SMS. You coming or what? it read.
The shame Shez had been feeling suddenly turned to anger. He was angry at himself, and pissed at Nicholas. He looked at his watch. It was 5:12. Maybe he could do everything—drop off the bag and even pick up his tweed jacket. But what was the point? He didn’t owe this customer—ex-customer—anything.
The train barreled toward Grove Street, and Shez started punching in a message. Sorry man, can’t help you. No more hats . . . Ever! He pressed the send button, but the phone told him his message didn’t go through. He noticed his signal strength was low—only one bar left, and even that bar began to flash. He held the phone up toward the ceiling of the train, hoping for a stronger signal. He noticed the businessman with the earring was still staring at him.
He tried sending again with his arm closer to the window, but the text refused to go through. His arm dropped to his side, and he sighed. He felt eyes bearing down on him. He looked up and saw the businessman glaring at him. The man’s green eyes were wide. The man’s face was clenched.
“Do you have a problem?” Shez asked him.
“Yeah, I do, actually,” said the man. “What were you just doing?”
“Why?” Shez wanted to unleash his anger, but remembered the pot in his crotch.
“Because it looked a little suspicious.”
“It’s none of your business what I was doing.”
“Yes it is. My safety is my business.”
“What?” said Shez. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m not kidding, and I wouldn’t mess around if I were you. What do you have in that bag?”
Shez began to sweat. The train pulled into Grove Street, and he was relieved. He disembarked, but the man followed him onto the platform. Shez saw the man walk toward a cop, and he headed for the staircase. He began to climb the stairs, the seven—no eight—grams of pot pressed against the skin near his groin. He was almost at the turnstiles. If he could make it through, he’d be free. He was on the last step when a voice called out.
“Excuse me!” it shouted. “Sir, hold up. Sir, stop where you are. Police!”
Shez froze. Then he slowly turned around.
“Get back here,” the cop said.
Shez obeyed him.
The cop, a black guy, made Shez stand beside a door at the far end of the platform. The businessman waited a hundred feet away from him talking to another cop, a white guy. The black cop searched Shez’s backpack. He pulled out the Nirvana CD, and then a couple of old issues of DownBeat. “A jazz fan,” he said.
His words comforted Shez. Things might end up okay. They might not find the pot. If they let him go, he promised himself he would never sell a dime of pot again. He would get this job and move on with his life. His hopefulness vanished, however, when he saw a third cop walking a German shepherd down the stairs. The burning in his stomach made his moistening pits feel particularly cold.
The new cop and the canine walked toward Shez.
The black cop asked Shez to put his hands against the wall and widen his legs. He patted him down thoroughly but didn’t touch his groin. The cop with the dog instructed the animal to give Shez a sniff.
I’m fucked, Shez thought. If this fucking dog barks, I’m busted.
The dog sniffed his shoes, his pants, then his hoodie.
Shez tried to send it subliminal messages. Don’t bark, doggie. I’m your friend, doggie.
The dog didn’t bark.
“Looks like this one isn’t carrying any bombs,” said the black cop.
“Come on, boy, let’s go,” commanded the dog cop. Man and canine went back up the stairs.
“Does this mean I can leave?” asked Shez.
The black cop shook his head. “You’re going to have to wait for just a few more minutes. It’s your name. It’s similar to one that’s on a watch list.”
“You think I’m a terrorist?”
“No, but I’m sure as hell going to check.” The cop took out a key and opened the nearby door, which led to an office with a crappy computer and an old phone.
Shez looked at the wall clock. It was six-thirty.
“Have a seat,” said the cop.
Shez obeyed him again.
The cop started playing solitaire on his computer. Shez stared at his feet and thought. He thought about asking whether he should consult a lawyer. He thought about asking if he could use the phone to tell Sandra he was going to be late. His father wouldn’t have been afraid to do one or both of these things, but Shez knew the best thing was to stay quiet.
The phone rang at 7:34, and the cop answered it. “Okay,” he said, “that’s what I figured.” He put down the phone and looked at Shez. “You’re okay; you can go. But I’d think about changing that name if I were you.”
Shez surfaced in front of Grove Point. He walked toward the Dunkin’ Donuts and pulled out his phone. His meeting should have started fifteen minutes ago. He dialed Sandra.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m going to be a little late.”
She asked him how late.
“I can get there in forty-five, an hour max. You’re never going to guess what—”
“Forget it,” she told him. “I don’t want to know.”
“Should we reschedule?” he asked, but he knew the answer before she responded.
“I’m done, Shez.” She ended the call.
He walked down Newark Avenue and entered his bar. He held up a finger, and the bartender poured a Jameson. He called up Nicholas and told him he’d be there in a little while. Tomorrow he’d go back to Sardul’s and get a full quarter-pound.
© Copyright Hirsh Sawhney 2011
HIRSH SAWHNEY’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, theGuardian, the Times Literary Supplement, theFinancial Times, Outlook, and numerous other periodicals. He is the editor of Delhi Noir, a critically acclaimed anthology of original fiction, and is on the advisory board of Wasafiri, a London-based journal of international literature. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and teaches at Wesleyan University. South Haven is his debut novel. Visit his website at www.hirshsawhney.com.
Posted: May 31, 2016
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