The Bawa, by Finley J. MacDonald
A chapter from Angels, Delirium, Liberty
As the half-noon shift siren wound to a scream like some robbed giant woke in the frozen city, Clerk pushed the broom under shelving and between bins, gouging for garlic husks and kernels of red pepper.
He swept round canisters of dried fish and pickling spices, pulling dust and spilled tea into his path on the wood floor. In glittering window light, he stooped for a coin. Heads raised, the turtles in their tub ogled the bobbing, funnel sleeve. The last moan of the siren trailed and expired. The reed broom handle creaked. Outside, voices were piping within a clamor of grating snow shovels.
Shadows of chill ghosts played across ranks of oil, vinegar, and salt. He turned around. Between mullions, bicycles and motor carts were gliding beneath elms nestled like sponges. A biretta and a bear-lined tippet dangled beside the window frame, and clumps of snow trailed off to a curtain of beads that ticked and swayed while a fat beard and head shifted behind.
“Oh, good day, Bawa.”
A hand came up to tip a hanging mask.
“Where is your mother?”
“She’s not in right now.”
“She was in the street not a half hour ago, coming here.”
“She went to pick up an order of tea, Bawa.”
The chasuble rocked.
“Can I help you find anything, Bawa?”
“And what should I find, pray?”
“Oh! I’m not sure. Something you like.”
The Bawa emerged, beads dragging over his shoulders, a long-toothed smile stuck in the icy wires of his beard. The teeth vanished. The fingers pried a half-peeled orange.
“Something I like. Wouldn’t that be nice.”
The Bawa slid along, ripping and dropping. As he towered above, pulling the fruit open like an accordion, the tirelessly wiping, bumping turtles hesitated at the walls of their prison. The hand popped up.
“And you, sir.”
The lips munched and fumbled, and a seed dropped.
“You’ve been keeping up with your edification?”
“I am trying, Bawa.”
The Bawa mashed a third of an orange under his mustache. Juice dripped off his lip. His nails, near a lodged pen, chafed scruffs of gray hair.
“Recite from the second book.”
“’No true statement outside generality—‘”
“’No true state outside generality!’ They are quite different!”
“’The liberty we covet is ultimately generality! In everything, while keeping in mind the eternal feminine, we perform in accordance with higher generality.’ Is it difficult?”
“I—shall study more diligently, Bawa.”
“By all means, study more diligently.”
Leaving the Bawa turning up wicks and cupping lamp mantles, Clerk bent over, rowing within a tightening ring of fragments and dust. He drew a pile and looped back in the Bawa’s path to round up orange peels, and then he tipped the broom against a canister.
He strode past goat-hide jackets, folded rugs, and fur muffs on squat tables pushed end to end. Behind the cash desk, he lifted his teacup for a sip. He pulled open a drawer stuffed with piano wires and clapped it shut. Along bookshelves, the floor groaned with the Bawa’s heft as Clerk went rifling, pulling drawers on dry slides. He glanced up. For a moment, mink-dark eyes broadcast some terrible knowledge—and then the eyebrows were pointing down at the pages of an open book.
“Customers this morning?”
“No, Bawa. It is too slippery out, I think.”
Clerk stared at the splatter of brown dots on the bald pate and then reached for a lower handle. He pulled open a drawer, scraped dry, wooden spoons, and closed the drawer. Bending into the space below the register, he slid cans of scissors and chalk, and a dust pan fell out flat. In a crack, a patch of fur and then a mouse’s tail and eye showed and vanished. Clerk spun the dust pan out behind him. From a tobacco can, he picked out a cold statuette and turned it. A chapped, winged figure with a broken-off stub of an arm rotated in gloom.
The base settled to his knee. Into the hollow of the desk echoes came drifting: a rubbery machine that clunked, gasped, and muttered. He pulled himself by the top of the desk, laid the statuette on a stack of ledgers, and plucked the feather duster from behind the register. He turned and ran it along the wall, and bicycle wrenches and gears clicked under passing feathers. Over the door to the next room, wind chimes spilled a joyous cluster of notes.
Clerk watched the bells wander, peal, and go still. He turned to the desk, laid the duster behind the register, and set the statue up straight. Out beyond the desktop, tasseled lampshades, spreading bugles, and cord-wrapped sewing machines peeked over a tranquil swatch of window-lit floor. The area behind the bookshelf creaked.
He picked the dust pan off the floor and ventured out again between the clothing barricade and bric-a-brac jungle to the now-strewn dust pile. Taking up the broom, he stroked together orange peels and grit and shoved the pan full. On his path to the rubbish can, he stooped to pick up fallen earmuffs. A hawking noise issued from the bookshelf. The Bawa was standing, one hand to the shelf, bulging in his chasuble.
“How much for the headstone?”
“I’m not truly sure. Do you want it, Bawa?”
“I do not. I am only curious why in heaven’s name you would keep a solitary headstone.”
“Mother got it when Pappi was ill.”
“She’s pragmatic, your mother.”
“I think so, Bawa.”
Clerk arranged the ear muffs with his free hand as the Bawa creaked away, mumbling of a necessity to encounter Clerk’s mother.
At the rubbish can, Clerk tipped the pan and rapped the metal edge. He hung the dust pan from a hole in its handle, and the broom, upside-down between two nails. He lifted an orange crate from a disordered stack and carried it back through a doorway.
Near a drum stove with holes that beamed out at boxes and tires, he dropped the crate and stepped into the center. The wood slats, cracking loud in the tiny room, splintered and broke under his heels. He shuffled up a pile beside the stove, drew his hand into his sleeve, and knelt to pull the wire handle. Fishing slats through, he assembled a crooked lean-to over feathered coals. A pool of fire flew out, and flames shuddered up wood. From a dented pail, he took a hand-scoop and dug it into a heap of crumble-soft coal. He pushed the scoop over the flame and shook it empty. He closed the stove door, dropped the scoop into the bucket, and left the room.
Back in center of the shop, the Bawa was slouching: one palm on the cash desk, knees crossed under the heap of his belly, book tilted to the light. A heavy eyelid lifted as Clerk rounded the cash desk.
“Sorry to keep you, Bawa.”
The book cover fell closed. Under a forehead like blown desert, the Bawa’s eyes hunted Clerk’s hands on the desk. They traced his buttons and stabbed finally at his forehead.
“You are taller, now.”
“I grew five inches last year.”
The Bawa laid down his book. In a blue, silver-flecked, belted shirt, the soldier-god jabbed his stub over the cover. A dot-eye winked at him from the red pool at the bottom of the teacup.
“How much?” said the Bawa.
“Just the book, Bawa?”
Clerk lifted the battered cover.
From within his collar, the Bawa pulled a velvet purse. He loosened the drawstring and shook it over his palm. A thumb came out stirring coins, and several dropped onto Clerk’s palm. The rest clicked into their purse. Clerk tapped the register keys and divided the money over the drawer.
“Wrap it,” said the Bawa, stuffing down his purse. “I don’t want it to get filthy when I fall on my face.”
From a box under the desk, Clerk drew a sheaf of newspaper. He spread it beside the register and smoothed a headline that read, ARMY ADVANCES SLIGHTLY. He covered the headline with the book, and his hands went across: folding, creasing, unscrewing a bottle of glue. He dotted a margin. He pressed the seam over the dress of a woman arching for a sailor’s kiss while concealing a knife labeled “disease”.
“For some time now, I have missed you at Services,” said the Bawa.
“Yes, Bawa—I will try to make it more often.”
“I suppose you practice.”
“I do go to the Central Conservatory almost every evening.”
“It seems your future is decided, gratis to your mother.”
“We hope so, Bawa.”
Clerk held out the wrapped book. The coil-oil spaces of the Bawa’s eyes lightened a little. The hands drew the book from Clerk’s hands.
“A father wouldn’t be ashamed. All in all a straight, civil lad.”
“Did you know him?”
“Did you know my father?”
“I cannot say that I did.”
Clerk leaned forward.
“He was in the revolution, Bawa.”
A blast of air shot out the Bawa’s nostrils.
“Was he indeed.”
The Bawa tucked the book under his arm.
“Tell your mother I will be back this afternoon. Have her hold me some of that—tea.”