by Patty Somlo
Khaled Jaboor hated winter and this was one reason why. He had to open the store long before the sun came up, when the entryway was still dark. Maybe he had gotten too soft, he thought, after circling the blocks around the store, widening the circle each time, before spotting a space nearly too small and squeezing his compact Japanese car into it, then hurrying along the empty sidewalk, his eyes flitting from side to side, while he listened for footsteps coming up behind him. Maybe I am too old for this life, he thought, breathing a little hard now that he’d practically started to jog.
He noticed, as he always did, that the lights in his competitor Wilson Wong’s store were turned off. Wong was smart, Khaled thought, not trying to grab every dollar. Wong wouldn’t open his store on the opposite corner until nine o’clock, over four hours from now. Khaled catered to the early risers, stopping to pick up the paper for their streetcar ride or a cup of coffee Khaled would get brewing soon after he stepped inside or one of the fresh donuts delivered every morning at six o’clock. To succeed in America, Khaled knew he had to go the extra mile, providing services the competitors didn’t offer. Khaled’s small crowded store, the California Market, with its prices nearly triple and in some cases four times that of the nearest supermarket, thrived because Khaled took the word convenience to the next level. He made sure to be open late and early, especially in the hours when Wong’s market was closed.
By the time Khaled reached the store, he was nearly out of breath. As was his custom, Khaled spun around, taking in the length of the sidewalk from left to right, the street in front and the sidewalk opposite. He did not, oddly enough, notice a dark lump on the ground.
As soon as his survey of the area was done, Khaled whipped around, slid the key into the deadbolt, heard it click and then moved the key to the bottom lock and felt the tumbler turn over. Before stepping inside, Khaled glanced over his shoulder, assuring himself no one had quietly snuck up behind, then hurried in and bolted the door.
After flicking on the lights, Khaled caught his breath. He had only been mugged once, moments after he’d locked up, in the middle of the night. Even so, he feared being assaulted at every hour. Over the years Khaled had owned the market – and he was nearing his thirty-fifth – the store had, thankfully, never been robbed. Khaled attributed his good fortune to the fact that he paid exorbitant rent to be located in a high traffic area. Neighborhood restaurants and bars kept people out late and into the early hours of the morning. Plus, the market was on a busy streetcar line, a block from a major thoroughfare that went downtown.
The day brightened slowly, because of the fog. It was, as Khaled sometimes liked to tell his sister back home in Lebanon, so thick you could cut it with a knife. His sister often gasped when he described the weather this city was so famous for. And then Khaled would tell her, “I can hear the foghorns from my apartment.” He would follow this with an imitation of the low, base, two-part groan the foghorns let out to alert ships but that mostly gave San Francisco another romantic aspect for residents and tourists to adore.
The fog was so thick you could see drops swirling under the streetlight. Khaled looked out the front window, in between the signs advertising beer and cigarettes and vodka, his bestselling products. Buildings softened in the fog, including Wong’s store, giving the structures a serene, quiet quality.
“That’s what fog does,” Khaled enjoyed telling his sister over the phone. “It can also make people feel frightened, like something bad is about to happen.”
Then he would add, “It’s hard to explain.”
That last line was one Khaled used a lot with his family, whenever they asked why he stayed in the United States. They saw the news. Nearly every day, some man walked into a store or school or office building and started shooting people he didn’t even know. It was hard to explain why these things happened, Khaled said, and also why he stayed. But the truth was something he couldn’t tell his family. After so many years, he liked being alone.
The body lay crumpled a few feet away from the store. A narrow space separated the California Market there from the sushi restaurant next door. Even after the sun came up, hidden behind swirling layers of fog, and people were making their way down the sidewalk, women’s heels clicking the concrete hard, no one bothered to give the body more than a glance out of the corners of their eyes. Along this sidewalk and the one on the street’s opposite side, bodies appeared all the time. In fact, bodies lined the busiest walkways throughout town. Sometimes it seemed that an entire city lived on these walkways. With rents soaring, the sidewalks had become the poor people’s neighborhood, as if they were living in Calcutta.
Read the full story in the complete inaugural issue of The Bleeding Lion.
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations and has been nominated for story South’s Million Writers Award. Her essay, “If We Took a Deep Breath,” was selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. She is the author of From Here to There and Other Stories. Her second book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, is forthcoming in January 2017 from Cherry Castle Publishing. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, The Flagler Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, among others, and in fifteen anthologies.