By Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Waiting for his assignment, Wally was pulled to the newsfeed. A teenager in Jackson Heights went to a roof, jumped to her death. The minute he saw the name—“Jyoti Krishnan”—he knew that even as a rookie reporter, he would be given the lead. Just from the name he knew how to pronounce. He’d write a lead for the suckers to run—him, barely a month out from a modest undergrad, a cheap one. None of the brand-name schools of the white boys who served at the beck and call of the Grey Lady. He, Wally, would have his whole name on the byline. “Wallyudin Nusrat Remtulla.” But this was 1988, summer. Ethnic journalism. What was it worth? “Some kind of ethnic, PC bullshit” was what Wally often overheard.
The last time he’d heard this, outside a classroom, Wally was standing in the lobby of the Times building, catching the phrase from two brand-new Ivy graduates who looked like stockbrokers but were actually reporters, coming out of an elevator, post-Hamptons weekend.
Sure enough, Wally heard the words from a boss coming up behind him, coming to his cubicle, without knocking, “Well it’s you, bud.” Felt the back-pat. Then the white boss went on his way, merry. The man was fed up with the ungrateful, murky mass of brown troubles, all the white journalism folks “volunteered” Wally for assignments. It was a Friday, early afternoon.
But what did it mean that Wally himself no longer minded that the articles he wrote were considered ethnic? Every day he felt caught up, complete, in this one place, this little India. Jackson Heights, Queens, and all its satellites. His world. Beloved world. Jyoti killed herself the morning after her uncle was revealed as a trafficker. Now there were other girls to think of, other children. Where had Jyoti’s uncle taken them? Lead article in the Sunday Times, maybe even the magazine: “Model minorities revealed as underworld gangsters.”
“Those Indian crooks.” Wally walked quickly, ignoring all the jibes. He left the lobby sure of where to go, heading toward a garage that stood before the Whitestone Bridge. Searching for clues, to find the girls. To learn things that would make his words matter.
Till very recently—some weeks ago—an Indian woman worked full-time in the toll booth of this very Whitestone Bridge, this contraption, a bridge over the watery grave of the East River. He didn’t know her name, resolved to look it up on microfiche, in stacks of paper arrayed on his desk. The woman—girl? He’d never met her, and there was no photograph, yet Wally could see her as clearly as one of his long-ago teachers. The Indian lady, the one he’d been convinced, in second grade, might never need to go to the bathroom. Diamond stud in her nose, delicate bones, mahogany skin, her black hair streaked with grey and pulled back neatly the same way every single day, a red batik scarf tied around her neck and her large eyes outlined carefully. She blended in enough in what she wore, including faded Jordache jeans. No one had known, let alone pronounced, the woman’s name until she made the news one day for rescuing a dark child from the backseat of a car. That child with kidnappers who weren’t even Indian.
The afternoon she became a hero, there were two loud rednecks up-front, in her line, who hassled the dark woman in the toll booth, cat-calling and shouting at her "Polly Hindoo.” They kept telling her to hurry up, like they were trying to get her to drop their change. The child huddled in the backseat looked frightened, familiar. Taking her time, she nudged the half-empty milk carton that she’d kept there for her coffee just enough so she could see the photograph. There it was. The same face on the back of the carton. Slowly, without alarming the two men, she pressed a button for the police but kept the two men there, stalling patiently, saying from the safety of her locked station that she couldn't let them through without their coins. That somebody was getting it and they had to wait, or else risk being fined. The woman saved a life by looking, by thinking.
"You see, journalism is worth something, Baba," Wally told his father, when the story broke out on the news. “Especially if it’s about desi community. If by writing, we can help our people.”
"Hmmph," his father said. "What was a forty-five-year old Indian woman doing working in such a place alone, exposed? Why wasn't her husband looking after her? These are the important questions. And also, may I ask: kaunsa ‘our people’? Desh is what desh, tell me? That woman had a bindi, she was Hindu, wasn’t she? Beta, Hindu log don’t even talk to us. Believe me, better they don’t. They came for other Muslims during Partition. They burned mosques. They murdered millions even if it wasn’t our millions. They tried to murder the Quran. Never forget what the Agha Khan said about our responsibility: ‘'Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah.'” Wallyudin—never forget who you are."
Wally’s father himself worked in a store, but he was semi-retired now, ever since two armed robbers came in and threatened to shoot him when he was fifty-two, leading to a serious heart attack and dire warnings not only from his doctor but from the family's trusted astrologer. After that Wally refused to ever fight with his father; he would just contemplate his Baba silently and as much as he could make himself: obey. His father would have said not to investigate “this human trafficking business. You are not the police or the government.” But the Bridge could be a stop along the path that the sex trafficker in Jackson Heights took girls on, once they’d been taken. By that prosperous, congenial Indian businessman, whose niece committed suicide.
That Indian trafficker of lost girls, underage prostitutes, practically-enslaved domestic servants, nannies, massage girls, that man whose evil met daylight. He didn’t have the common shame to do his business in the night.
That man whose plans were scribbled on the greasy napkins of North Indian greasy spoon diners. Chuckled about in back room phone calls. Assumed to soon be reality, by the trafficker and all the people, men and women, so grateful to be in his employ. The ones who only saw girls getting into cars and vans. Not taking off their clothes, or lying down. Change-overs, one van to another, gas stations, normal-looking shopping trips were used to transport girls, according to the files Wally had started reading through. He was deep inside the files when his white boss, all fatherly, took him aside and told him gravely, “The problems of the Far East have come here, Wally. That’s why we need you to write this.”
Walking fast now, from the bus stop toward the Bridge, Wally reached the gas station. Neither packed, nor empty, this station. A decent place. Diesel fumes mixed with incense. Always that burnt, holy, smell; clean smells, purified smells that Wally would associate with Friday prayers, somehow, though more likely it was the smells of burning fossil fuels, contaminants.
In other places: bodies.
Now Wally saw the familiar faces who resemble his father, small Pakistani men with sharp brown teeth, spitting out paan and sitting in between two pumps marked “FULL”, shouting to each other in Urdu and telling the drivers in the line waiting for gas where to pull up. One of them always wore a loosely-wrapped, stained turban around his head.
These two men, Tahir and Hasan, were solely responsible for the survival of Wally’s Chevy Nova, through timing belt break-downs, sputtering transmissions, burnt out engines, and brake pads worn dangerously thin. To them, the old orange car was an awkward, adopted son.
On seeing Wally, the brothers beckoned a lanky brown boy working in the garage, Tahir’s son Zia, instructing him to take over the gas pumps. Hasan took a dirty rag from his waist and wiped his face and forehead with it, beaming at Wally with a gap-toothed smile. Tahir reached up and with difficulty, because of the vast difference in their heights, salaamed Wally, guiding him toward the brothers’ auto store where there were more folding chairs, a small, not-entirely-clean water cooler, and a hotpot for making tea and coffee. Gracefully, Tahir poured out three small glass tumblers of Turkish tea, which the brothers drank all day long, in between chewing paan, smoking, cursing and laughing at what struck them as lewd but enjoyable images on the TV that was on at all hours of the day—talk shows and women with searing red lipstick, plump blond girls tearing at each others’ hair on Jerry Springer or talking about their stripper pasts. Any and all of the Madonna videos, the brothers’ favorites. In the course of an average day, they’d change position only occasionally and with reluctance get up and deal with a customer, or look under the hood of a newly-arrived car and deliver a prognosis, invariably dire.
The brothers settled in their favorite chairs, content. Hasan turned on the tape player and a dimly riotous stream of Qawwali music began, subdued as he turned the volume low so they could converse over the sounds. As usual Tahir swayed and raised his hands in the air, as if it were a live concert. Their garage was where Wally first learned about his heritage, the Hashshashins, the Ismailis who, on being expelled from Egypt and later, running from persecution by Mongolian hordes, became highly skillful assassins. The brothers were as proud of Wally as if he were one of their sons; and as mystified as Wally’s own father had always been about the notebook he carried, the writing, since the assassins were known for never leaving a written trace.
As a rule, the brothers avoided writing anything. From memory, they prayed five times a day on a rug scented with diesel fumes, with grease from carburetors, with drops of Turkish tea spilled in the excitement of a soccer match on TV or the especially devilish gyration of a semi-naked girl.
“There was a grey van earlier today,” Hasan says then. He’s taken up the photographs of missing girls that Wally brought from the rescue mission. Liberating girls from trafficking. Led by a task force and an agency, police.
“I think that this poor girl was in it. Plus, another.”
It wasn’t a coincidence, Hasan remembering a suspicious grey van. Always, like their Hashshashin forbears, the brothers kept a quiet, tensile vigilance that never wavered.
Thanks to the Indian woman in the toll booth who had called the police before it was too late about the two white men who had kidnapped a little girl from El Salvador—those uncouths driving her in a such van. The brothers knew of her bravery, silently thanked Allah. Now they helped Wally. Alhamdullilah, now end to the traffickers, white and Indian and who-knows-what, all traveling on the BQE, all stopping for gas at this station. Why this station, why the brothers’ orbit? Why this earth?
The white men traveled in large vehicles, with bats and alarming signs in their pick-up trucks—Get Out Towelheads! Accelerating in that rude burst of laughter wherever there are any brown people. In Bensonhurst, only six months before, two boys were beaten nearly to their deaths, whites holding signs and chanting Niggers Go Home. “Next they will be saying, sand niggers,” Tahir had murmured, his eyes on the TV.
Ugly postcards sometimes came to the gas station mailbox; hateful letters, with their misspellings too. Tahir’s son said they should show them to the police, but the brothers agreed: silence was the cure. Silence was power. What else could they be but silent? When cars from New Jersey came over the bridge, Bust the Dots! Bumper stickers announced the passengers’ hatred, but also their strong desire. To crush what was colored, alive. They wanted to live instead in comforting whiteness, without smells that might at any point quicken the senses.
But what could explain Indians, who kidnapped and raped their own? Wally thought. “I remember even more,” Tahir said now. “Both men in the van were rude and impatient. They wanted extra change. When I said no, the older man, wearing a white tunic and topi, he threatened me like this with his hand! The younger one wore Western clothes and had a goat-like, goatee beard, like an American. European, even. I took out the hose and told them to be off. The fellow drove away but the girl was looking out the window. There was no family resemblance, but she was too young to be his wife. She was a child.”
“Did you see which way they went?” Wally asked, mobilized.
“Whitestone Bridge. Definitely. After that, don’t know.”
The other brother added: “From us, you didn’t hear anything.”
The Whitestone Bridge led directly to the Bronx, to five other freeways leading everywhere, to Westchester, upstate New York, the Adirondacks, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey. They could have taken the kidnapped girls they were probably holding anywhere, but there was hope.
Tahir, sharper than Hasan, pointed Wally to the video surveillance of the gas station van’s license plate number, and Wally wrote it down. Then Wally excused himself hurriedly, not forgetting to salaam the brothers, who were pleased by the small religious gesture every time, would have been grievously insulted if it was ever forgotten. Wally called the Hindu police officer, nicknamed Robbie by white classmates, nickname that stuck. Made sure the cop listened, then planned to go home and keep writing it up. To make deadline. Earlier than deadline, even.
“This work of yours, good luck with it, eh?” Tahir said in parting. Je and Hasan walked with Wally back out, in the space between gas pumps. Hasan patted the back of Zia’s head and sent him inside, so he wouldn’t breathe in the gasoline too long.
Hasan watched, anxious, as Wally sped away, praying he would stay away from thugs, and not chase after such people armed with nothing more than a pen. Wallyudin, an extra son. And always, one needed an extra, ‘heir and spare’ because who knew what could happen? He and Tahir counted at least seven times they could have been killed by white people. Young white boys, most of all, reeking of all unsavory habits. Including a sick fascination with dark girls.
Sickened, remembering the little girl in the backseat, all of the unknown and the lost girls, Hasan said a prayer under his breath, Sahebaji tun more man bhave, a ginan. A kind of hymn. Know that my heart is fond of you.
He and Tahir often had reason for such prayers. There were boys the same age as Hasan’s only son, who lingered around the gas pumps, trying to smell oblivion, but they always shooed them away, appealing to common sense, though they knew common sense was rare, in this country. Rare and precious.
Tara Isabel Zambrano talks to Chaya Bhuvaneswar about “Gas Station.”
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer and PEN American award finalist for her debut story collection White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books) whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere. Her work was recently selected for inclusion in Best Small Fictions 2019. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. You can find her on Twitter @chayab77.
Nahal Hashir is a poet and an artist from Islamabad, Pakistan. While currently pursuing a Bachelors in Dental Surgery, she also works in a non-profit organization that helps to educate underprivileged children. Her art has a strong focus on social issues such as women's rights, body positivity and rape culture. Her spoken word poetry was featured at the Women International Film Festival and her artwork is forthcoming in Young Activists Republic Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @NahalHashir.