By T. Richard Williams


And then came May 2, a very warm evening, even by Long Island standards. Nearly 80 degrees at 11 o'clock. It felt weird wearing shorts so early in the season with one of my summer T-shirts. As I turned the bend, there he was on his break, leaning against the wall, black slacks and brown shirt, one foot propped behind him. Smoking.

But the face was different. Darker. Perplexed. No smile. He looked up.

"You OK?" I asked.

He winced, and I swear he looked like he could have cried. "Yeah." He didn't volunteer anything, but he didn't give me the "please don't bother me" look either.

Ever considerate, I said quietly: "May I ask?"

Then he thumbed to the TV set in the corner. It was on only at night, after the boss left. Sometimes it was a soccer match — maybe basketball — sometimes an action flick. It was perched on a wall shelf near the front window, so I could see it was tuned to CNN. A reporter in her khakis stood in the middle of debris. I quickly turned to Rashid. "What's happened?"

"An earthquake."

Then I heard: "The death toll may reach as high as ten thousand, government officials said." She clearly looked dazed. Her jacket was covered in soot. As she spoke, jumpy, handheld video played and replayed — bold letters in the corner saying "Earlier Today." Collapsed homes, shattered office buildings, animals running through dusty streets. "Whole villages in the northwest, where I was filming a special report on the war, have been wiped out. We've heard that larger towns like Chital a little further south of here have been devastated. There's hardly a building..."

Once I heard the town's name, I went back outside. "Have you heard anything?"

He shook his head. "My cousins live in the south. They haven't heard."

"But Chital's a fairly big town? There's no communications?"

"It's maybe about twenty thousand people. We've got a few hotels and shops and small buildings, but everything was knocked out, even their satellite dishes." As if on cue, his cell phone rang. He grabbed it from his shirt pocket. Giving him privacy, I went back into the store, got my potato chips, and paid the other night worker, an older guy named Aziz.

"Are you from there, too?"

"Pakistan, yes, but south, along the coast. My family's OK."

"Good." I took my change. "What about him?" I noded towards Rashid, who was now pacing in front of the store, talking in a clipped dialect.

"That's probably his cousin here in New York. Maybe his sister in California. They've been talking since the news came, about three hours ago."

I hung out by the newspaper rack until I saw him flip the phone shut and shove it in his pocket. I went back out.

"I'm really sorry."

Half smile. Red eyes.

I risked it — I reached up and put my hand on his shoulder. "Do you want to talk?" Somehow that surprised him. I'd stepped over the invisible chalk line I'd drawn — or maybe I thought his culture had drawn — I don't know which. Anyhow, whatever it is, the line's crossed, but he didn't back off. My hand stayed on his shoulder. He didn't move and said simply, "Thanks. I'm OK."

I let my hand drop away but stayed close. Those eyes.

"Who's in Chital?"

"My mother. My father, too." He looked down and choked back a sob. He didn't know how to handle the moment. He started walking out into the parking lot. I followed him a few steps. I didn't want to upset him any more. Maybe he really needed to be alone. Hey, who hasn't been in that spot?

"I'm really sorry," and I made to walk away.

But he called after. "No, that's OK. You don't have to go." And added, "Unless you have to?"

"No, I don't." I turned.

He came over to me. "Maybe I should get back to work." It was more of a question, like he wasasking my permission.

"I think your boss will understand. Besides, he's not here."

"I can't leave Aziz doing all the inventory." I think he was trying to be practical, trying to push the feelings away.

"You know it's not like there's a million customers here tonight. I'm sure Aziz isn't going to mind you making a few phone calls and talking." By that point we were back in the store, and Aziz had heard the last bit.

"He's right; I'm fine. Go make your calls. This is an emergency. The boss won't mind." Aziz, about my age, spoke in a fatherly way that had an immediate effect — someone giving an unexpected gift.

"You sure?"


Rashid walked back outside and got on his cell. I followed. I mouthed words: Should I stay? He nodde, Yes. Those eyes. Then the smile.