Are you eating? Sleeping all right?
Eating. Sleeping too. Yes. We had lamb last night Maybe it was last week.
When Aziza spoke like this, Laila saw more than a little of Mariam in her.
Aziza stammered now. Mariam noticed it first. It was subtle but perceptible, and more
pronounced with words that began with /. Laila asked Zaman about it. He frowned and said,
"I thought she'd always done that."
They left the orphanage with Aziza that Friday afternoon for a short outing and met
Rasheed, who was waiting for them by the bus stop. When Zalmai spotted his father, he
uttered an excited squeak and impatiently wriggled from Laila's arms. Aziza's greeting to
Rasheed was rigid but not hostile.
Rasheed said they should hurry, he had only two hours before he had to report back to
work. This was his first week as a doorman for the Intercontinental. From noon to eight, six
days a week, Rasheed opened car doors, carried luggage, mopped up the occasional spill.
Sometimes, at day's end, the cook at the buffet style restaurant let Rasheed bring home a
few leftovers as long as he was discreet about it cold meatballs sloshing in oil; fried
chicken wings, the crust gone hard and dry; stuffed pasta shells turned chewy; stiff,
gravelly rice. Rasheed had promised Laila that once he had some money saved up, Aziza
could move back home.
Rasheed was wearing his uniform, a burgundy red polyester suit, white shirt, clip on tie,
visor cap pressing down on his white hair. In this uniform, Rasheed was transformed. He
looked vulnerable, pitiably bewildered, almost harmless. Like someone who had accepted
without a sigh of protest the indignities life had doled out to him. Someone both pathetic
and admirable in his docility.
They rode the bus to Titanic City. They walked into the riverbed, flanked on either side by
makeshift stalls clinging to the dry banks. Near the bridge, as they were descending the
steps, a barefoot man dangled dead from a crane, his ears cut off, his neck bent at the end of
a rope. In the river, they melted into the horde of shoppers milling about, the money
changers and bored looking NGO workers, the cigarette vendors, the covered women who
thrust fake antibiotic prescriptions at people and begged for money to fill them.
Whip-toting, naswar-chewing Talibs patrolled Titanic City on the lookout for the indiscreet
laugh, the unveiled face.
From a toy kiosk, between a poosteen coat vendor and a fake flower stand, Zalmai picked
out a rubber basketball with yellow and blue swirls.
"Pick something," Rasheed said to Aziza.
Aziza hedged, stiffened with embarrassment.
"Hurry. I have to be at work in an hour."