In his only morning ritual of fall and rise, Haaruan Ali Maye kneeled to unlock the shutters of the Oasis Café. He was the only Somali in Lewiston who didn’t pray — not the five times the Koran prescribed, not even once to save his failing business.
Looking down, Ali Maye saw his new “Air Humaras” had come untied again. He fumbled with the mercury blue “Snake Laces” the store clerk had pawned off on him. (He’d fallen for the line about urethane coating.) Ali Maye never thought they’d be so stiff and hard to tie, but a Maine winter could freeze anything.
Ten years earlier, an athletic scholarship had plucked Ali Maye from the outskirts of Mogadishu, and dropped him in Atlanta, Summer Olympic hosts from the year before. In the frenzy for all things track and field, Georgia Tech sought to capitalize on one of those quirks in evolution, that east Africans could run very fast very far, but not quite far enough away from starvation and civil war. Or so the board of trustees saw it. They loved the idea of Haaruan Ali Maye: half rah-rah sports, half white man’s burden. In the end, chronic swelling at the tibial tuberosity cut off Ali Maye’s funding. He hadn’t run since. Or, really, couldn’t.
Yet somehow, despite the cold of that bitter January morning, as he stood, lifting the metal slats that barred the entrance to his Oasis Café, Ali Maye couldn’t help but bounce, his legs fresher than they’d been for over a decade. His calf muscles responded, taut and sprightly, his knees again like Davidian slings, each ball poised in socket.
Ali Maye tapped the ground with his right foot, heel to toe, then his left, as if warming up for a race. Then Ali Maye did something else he hadn’t done in years. He smiled his tight gummy smile, the one that cradled the pencil mustache on his plump upper lip, which people so often mistook for a sneer. You’d never know by the way he hid them, but Haaruan Ali Maye had the kind of teeth that should be shared with the world. No stain could stick — his bones, if exhumed millennia from now, might be yellow with age, sinews desiccated and marrow leached away, but those teeth would still be white. At 29, a Somali man with no wife, no kids, those teeth were going to die with him.
Ali Maye entered the Oasis and flicked the light switch. During fatter times, a muted saffron warmed the place in a soft oriental lambency, but Ali Maye worked from a different set of colors then. Now, just a solitary bulb hung strobing above the register. Ali Maye walked over to the far corner and turned on the wall-mounted television. Underneath, a spider swayed in timekeeping from its dustless hammock.
Ali Maye unearthed a starchy Kleenex from the inside of his breast pocket. He wasn’t used to shirts with pockets, but that morning had put on his finest. After a hollow apology to other spiders elsewhere, he squeezed till it popped, and walked down the hall to flush it away. Inside the bathroom, Ali Maye lifted up the toilet’s lid by its red shag cover. He pulled down on the wooden handle. Water seeped in. Again he pulled, the water level rose, and started to overflow. The tissue spun in place, turning clear as it sucked in water. Ali Maye stared at the black spot in its middle.
Meanwhile, on the TV the WMTW morning news blared, the anchor smugger than usual, though Ali Maye was out of earshot:
City officials in Lewiston, Maine, are confronting a problem straight out of a 1950s horror flick as a mysterious blob has taken over a major sewer line. According to city officials, the doughy, 90-foot mass is comprised of grease, flour and rags, and has been blocking a stretch of 48-inch pipe under Main Street.
Ali Maye reentered to learn the following, out of context though it was: City officials say they will replace the section of sewer line, at a cost of between $40,000 and $60,000, beginning this week…
“That explains the toilet,” Ali Maye sighed, and in the same breath wondered how feckless a man he was to have followed the thousands of real displaced Somalis up to Maine, hoping for some charitable windfall. The way he saw it, he’d diced away his integrity for a do-it-yourself kit of refugee blackface.
And that’s how Ali Maye’s run of misfortune began, some eight years earlier, in late ‘99, after Georgia Tech cut him loose. By the fall of 2001, he was no longer a student, in part or in full. And after that particular September, maybe Ali Maye was a refugee of sorts, a brown-skinned Muslim in the South. Whatever the cause, he fled, northward bound, finding work at the L.L. Bean Factory in Freeport, Maine, where he was soon let go for “overuse of the employee discount.”
But Haruaan Ali Maye had no fleece to show for it on this boreal January 13th seven years later over in Lewiston, just a half-hour north of Freeport on Route 136. Ali Maye wore nothing at all over his gray dress shirt, the left breast pocket now slightly misshapen, having lost its tissuey spine.
Still, L.L. Bean had been right to fire him, quantitatively speaking; no one man could need that much Goretex™. But like some Cushitic Robin Hood, Haruaan Ali Maye had given it all, more sold really, at remarkably below wholesale prices, to those realer Somali refugees, who were otherwise unprepared to survive the brutal New England winter.
And so life went on as a filler of gaps in Lewiston, Maine. At first, Ali Maye taught English lessons to the refugees — he could never seem to escape them — and who he soon found weren’t even real Somalis at all, but Bantus, whose Mozambican forebears had been enslaved to his own back in the 1800’s. They looked nothing like him. Due to the tincture of Arabia at play in his light skin and aquiline nose, Ali Maye was singled out by the good people of Lewiston, who rarely took him for a Somali, not when the other thousand were so clearly from the same stock.
It wasn’t until the third knock on the door that Ali Maye caught himself standing in front of the Café freezer, sliding his hand over his wrinkled left breast pocket, for what reason or for how long, he did not know.
Ali Maye made his way to the front entrance, where he imagined a nine-headed repo-man-hydra was awaiting him. Instead, it was Nima Dubed, the girl with the olive pit eyes. Nima Dubed, whose Jansport bulged with tabut and kuchey, the leather pouches which preserved cooked butter for several months.
“Mr. Maye, would you like to try some of my mom’s ghee?” she inquired with a sweetness both hard and hard to see through, like clarified honey that had begun to crystallize.
“It’s really popular, in several flavors now, maybe you could add it to the Café menu? The Halal Grocery Store carries it, and even…”
“I’m sorry Nima, but I can’t. I’m closing the Oasis, leaving Lewiston, I think, for good.”
Nima crinkled her nose in a pout. Just like her mother did. Her brown eyes shone brightly, contrasting with her dull red veil.
“But we need you Mr. Maye, you’re part of the downtown revival. That’s what my mom says. She even throws henna parties for the old white ladies. Henna, Mr. Maye!”
Haaruan Ali Maye could not believe little Nima Dubed now lectured him on “downtown revival.” Had it really been five years? She must have been eight or nine then.
January 11, 2003. The date was etched in his memory, full of promise and letdown, like a botched Lasik procedure. That morning, no thanks to L.L. Bean, Ali Maye had started his first shift as janitor at the Lewiston Armory. As unluck would have it, a group of white supremacists planned to assemble there that same day under the banner of “The World Church of the Creator.” The cause célèbre? To put an end to the toxic influx of Somali immigrants. Since crackpots eat their own, only thirty-two came to support the World Church. Meanwhile, across town at Bates College, the “Many and One Coalition” returned fire with a counter-demonstration 4,000 strong. It should have been four thousand and THREE, but the Dubeds had mistaken one protest for the other, ending up at the Armory, where they were soon handed signs touting “RaHoWa!!!” by a bearded Hell’s Angel named Coma.
It didn’t take long for Nima’s mother Leila to decide “Racial Holy War” wasn’t for the Dubeds. About as long as it took the 32 World Churchgoers to surround “the three niggers sent to spy on them.” And so Abdulrazak, husband to Leila, father to Nima and potential man of the hour, puffed out his concave chest, crossed his arms until his elbows thrust out like sharpened doorknobs, and with blind faith in some Lewistonian sense of fair play, proclaimed, “It’s a free country and we’ll leave when we’re ready!”
Abdulrazak then spat on the ground, marking his territory with body fluid in the way mammals do. You’d think with a name like Abdulrazak he could hold his own, but no.
And so Coma let fly a lazy haymaker, anchored by a wurst-sized thumb, that knocked Abdulrazak onto his back and out cold. As blood pooled next to the spittle of his one-time defiance, the jeers came out, slowly, then altogether:
“Shouldn’t have married such a pussy!”
“What do you expect, it’s simple genetics…”
“A true Caucasian triumphs against the horde!”
The vitriol spewed, harsher and harsher, until the mob set to detailing Leila and little Nima’s future lives as sex slaves. And though Abdulrazak had since regained consciousness, he stayed down on his side, like a fetal pig partway dissected. Besides, from his view on the blacktop, he could see someone approach, in uniform, presumably the authorities. Or at least a security guard, baton atwirl.
Across the Armory courtyard, Ali Maye adjusted his Nabber Grabber to the shortest setting, and fished his name-tag out of his right cargo pocket. Looking up, he noticed the crowd, in all likelihood the “Allies of the Armory.” Seeking to make a strong first impression, Ali Maye swept up a trail of cigarette butts as he made his way towards them.
As he approached, a fiery woman with mottled-gourd skin began the obligatory, “GO BACK TO AFRIC––” until she saw Ali Maye in uniform, and hiccupped.
Ali Maye seized on the hesitation. He saw these were no “Allies of the Armory”, and that on his first day, he had a man down and a spill to clean up. He dropped to one knee, took out his rag, and used it for the first time to mop up Abdulrazak’s bloodspit, popping little air bubbles as he went.
From the ground, Ali Maye dusted off the Uncle Tom impression he’d learned watching standup in his Atlanta days. With a fake stammer and a flash of white, he disarmed the World Church.
“Oh don’t you worry about this mess here, these folks are just the cleaning crew, fresh off the boat, we don’t even pay ‘em. The little one too. What’s the point sending her to school?”
And as he rose, he swooped young Nima into his left arm, yanked Abdulrazak up with his right, and nipped at Leila’s long, graceful heels as he led them out of the Armory Courtyard and into the safety of the maintenance closet. He locked the door from the inside before calling the police.
Ali Maye saw himself a damnable coward, though the WMTW evening news sure didn’t. Do all employers videotape their janitor’s first day? In any case, the Armory averted a certain P.R. disaster and race riot on their hands thanks to “Lewiston’s newfound cult hero, Haruaan Amy.” The offers for interest-free loans started coming in the very next day.
Nima Dubed kept tugging on Ali Maye’s sleeve, harder and harder, until she tore his cuff like it was parchment paper.
“Mr. Maye! Are you listening to me? If you’re not gonna buy anything I have to go.” As she turned to leave, Ali Maye pressed a hand onto her overfull backpack.
“Oh, I’m sorry Nima. It’s a hard day. Tell your mother, if she’s free, to stop by and help herself, before it all spoils.”
He shut the door behind her and started a pot of spiced tea on the lone working burner. Ali Maye looked at his watch— a quarter to noon. For Maine in January, this was midday, and the weak sun had passed its zenith. For a Muslim man of faith, it was time to pray.
Instead, Ali Maye shook open a black trash bag and began to empty the industrial freezer. He stared at the last gray lump of gol — fat from the camel’s hump — once so popular with Bates students, in particular those black-jeaned hipsters who wore their culinary queerness like an ironed on badge. Into the bag he tossed the icy clod of camel fat, wilted lettuce sticking to its sides.
For the last three years, the Oasis had survived more on Lewiston’s commitment to racial harmony than Ali Maye’s skill in the kitchen. Besides roasted gol, only his laxoox was even passable. That he didn’t serve pork might have doomed the Café from the start, as most of Lewiston was strongly French-Canadian.
Ali Maye had actually considered adding a ham panini to the menu, that is, until 4th of July weekend 2006, when Brent Matthews, a local depressive, threw a frozen severed pig’s head into the Lewiston mosque. Of course, Ali Maye wasn’t there at the time, not being a religious man. Matthews shot himself in the head six months later; it was all a misunderstood joke, he had said. Ali Maye never bought the panini press.
The spiced tea was now ready. Ali Maye slid the freezer door closed and rubbed his hands over the steaming pot. Still numb from handling the frozen gol, Ali Maye’s right nipple showed through his dress shirt, his left ever obscured by the added thickness of the wrinkled breast pocket.
Another knock, different from Nima’s, broke the silence of pensive failure with a TACK TACK TACK.
“One sec Leila, I’m coming,” Ali Maye shouted, as he dusted a second cup of tea with ground cardamom.
Then all of a sudden, with a sprayshattering of glass, a cinder block crashed through the palm fronds on the front window display, and careened across the Café floor, upending two chairs and a table before pinning them against the far wall.
“Hey Sand Nigger, why don’t you come outside and play?” a deep voice taunted. Leila Dubed it wasn’t.
With the gritty crunch of boots on glass, three men hopped into the Oasis through the new hole in the window. Even through their thick down jackets — not L.L. Bean — Ali Maye could tell they were rail-thin, which meant meth-heads. The scrawniest had a vice-grip on an ash Louisville Slugger, but it was the one with red hair who spoke first,
“You mud coffee motherfucker! The blob is your fault! Lewiston never had none of this bullshit until you Arabs came!”
Ali Maye looked down to avoid eye contact, focusing instead on their Redwing steel-toe boots. Each wore the cheaper buckskin model but had spray-painted it black.
“No disrespect,” Ali Maye shot back, “but that’s Ethiopians who drink coffee. We’re Somalis. It’s totally different.”
“I don’t give a shit. All I know is you broke the sewer with your mud coffee and your camel hump and you flush it down and clog the drain and the sewers and now there’s A GIANT MONSTER BLOB on the loose and it’s your fault cause you made it! T, Billy-Mac, hold this fucker down!”
“Blob, what blob? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ali Maye tried to tell them, but the time for talking was past. T and Billy Mac braced Ali Maye against the kitchen counter, smiling at him with their yellow mountain range smiles.
“This’ll teach you to make a Muslim voodoo blob, you sonofabitch!” Red snarled, pummeling Ali Maye with left hook and right.
Like chimes, Ali Maye’s white white teeth fell to the floor, tinkling softly against the tiles. Nauseous from swallowing blood and pulp, he stayed conscious only by counting the fleshy grooves where his teeth had been. Ali Maye flashed to his skinandbones childhood in Mogadishu, to a time of much pummeling and toothlessness. Never again.
He clutched blindly at the countertop, for a butcher knife, a rolling pin, a garlic press, anything. His wet fingers slipped on plastic. The gol. Ali Maye wrapped the black trash bag around his free hand like ribbons of taffy.
He grinned a toothless grin and spit red onto Red, who wiped his face as he licked his lips, blood and spit miscegenating inside his mouth. Billy Mac eased his grip as he looked to Red.
Ali Maye torqued his right arm back, then swung it across his body, connecting the gol with Red’s left temple, shattering it like a November pumpkin. Red crumpled in a heap, T went for the bat, and Billy Mac just stood there, shredded by what he saw.
Ali Maye rose slowly, twisting his right arm in jerky figure eights until the bag of melting gol fell to the floor. Light from the loss of blood and bone and camel fat, Ali Maye sprinted to the hole in the window, and jumped through it, slicing his head as adrenaline lifted him too high. T started to give chase as Billy Mac helped Red to his feet.
Ali Maye landed on the sidewalk, where he skidded on the hard packed snow. T hit a softer patch, and sunk in, weighed down by his Redwing boots. Hand pressed to his left eye socket, Red pushed Billy Mac out the front door, and yanked the bat from T’s nailbit fingers.
Like three steel-toed hellhounds weaned on Big Gulps and bathtub crank, they took after Ali Maye. All in vain. No man alive could have run Ali Maye down that day.
Past junkyards and empty car parks, Ali Maye sped up and slowed down, teasing and taunting them. He turned around and jogged backwards, laughing to the indifferent sky as he ran. To the banks of the Androscoggin Ali Maye took them, jutting back and forth through silent pines. Red, T, and Billy Mac followed him for hours, until the winter Maine sun went down.
Then, for a long while, Ali Maye just stood there, before lowering his gaze to his Air Humaras, now icy and brown. Dull flecks of snow began to fall on him, commingling with the dried blood that had formed a second skin.
The wind started to pick up, cutting through his cheap dress shirt like he had none. Snow now drifted onto the backwoods road, where all was clear moments before. Ali Maye was going to freeze to death. He lifted his eyes; his head hung in the quiet.
There, thirty yards off, barely visible in the fading twilight, were three jets of steam heat rising up like rope. Ali Maye limped over to the source, then kneeled to wipe away the snow, revealing the cross-hatched ridges of a manhole cover. He had found the road back to Lewiston proper. His hands traced the cover’s edge: “Etheridge Foundry — Portland ME.” In the middle, stamped with the pride of industry, read the letters “S-E-W-E-R.”
Ali Maye stuck his fingers in the three holes, and tried to pry the cover loose. Nothing. He gathered sticks for leverage, and placed them around the cover like candles, but they all snapped, four at at a time.
Ali Maye clutched at his waist, no belt. Though his feet were numb, he remembered, dimly, he was wearing shoes. Ali Maye screamed as he untied them, succumbing to that mad frostbite of the mind. Snake Laces! He held his shoestrings gingerly as he wound them into and out of the two closest holes of the manhole cover. It weighed about as much as he did. The iron disk vibrated, dislodging flakes of rust from around its rim. One inch. Two inches. Ali Maye kicked his sneakers underneath the lid just as the shoelaces frayed — then snapped.
Rung by rung, Ali Maye descended into the Lewiston sewer. He walked barefoot through the dark tunnel, blind like a mole with a frozen nose. If he could smell, burnt frying oil and a laundromat dipped in mold would have assailed him. But Ali Maye could only feel the dryness of it all. The dirt on the rounded walls crumbled to the touch. The sewer didn’t drip. Pipes ran empty, or sounded like it.
After a time, either his eyes adjusted or there was a light in the distance. Ali Maye marched on into delirium. The light grew brighter and sharpened into a freestanding lamp with a checkered green shade. He drew nearer, and made out the silhouette of a hunched man sitting in a striped lawn chair. The man was old, with a craggy face and rheumy blue eyes. He wore a sheepskin coat and warmed his hands over a portable generator. The old man didn’t acknowledge Ali Maye at all, except to point to the wide mouth of sewer pipe at his left. Ali Maye turned, stopped. Eyeless and inert, the Lewiston Blob seemed to stare back at him, a concrete belly button full of lint. Ali Maye stumbled towards the blob. He dug his hands into its warmth. By the time he made his bed in the grease and flour and rags, Ali Maye was already asleep.