To God Belongs What He Has Taken

Marie buys her morning coffee at the convenience store on the corner of her block. One of the men who works there is named Ahmed. He is Iraqi. When he laughs, which he does often, his enormous belly shakes. She likes Ahmed. She’s been buying her coffee from him since she’s lived on this block, almost two years. In a week, the sale on her apartment, her first, will be final, and she and her daughter Tove will move in with Lennart. Marie has been marking this change by counting down the days until she will no longer buy her coffee from Ahmed’s store. Lennart’s grandfather died two weeks ago, and Lennart inherited the big apartment on Kungsholmen. There was room for all of them. Sometimes Lennart says he wants children of his own, but Marie isn’t sure she wants to go through raising another child. Counting the years she was traveling and Lennart was abroad with work and they were not together, she and Lennart have been in love, more or less, for fifteen years.

It’s a very cold Monday in April. She goes to the store to buy her coffee on her way to work. She purposefully avoids the pastries aligned in neat rows in a glass case near the register. Her hands are cold and her fingers ache. She wraps her hands around the warm cup.

There is a new man behind the counter, whom she has never seen before. This new man is not as old, nor is he as fat, as Ahmed. He does not have the same kind eyes or funny, toothy smile. “Where is Ahmed?” she asks the new man.

“You haven’t heard,” he says.

“No,” she says.

“Ahmed died on Saturday,” he says. “To God belongs what he has taken.” He points to his chest. “Heart attack.”

Marie touches her fingertips to her throat. “Oh no,” she says. “I’m so sorry.” Just above the man’s left nipple, the outline of which she can see very clearly beneath his shiny red shirt, he is wearing a nametag that reads, Ahmed. Below that, the name of the store in tight embroidered circles. This must be Ahmed’s son, she thinks. “Were you,” she says, “I mean, are you related to him? I’m so sorry,” she says before he can answer.

“No no no,” the new Ahmed says. “I only work here.” He smiles. Marie smiles back. Then the man turns serious. “He appreciated all his customers,” he says. It’s a strange thing to say, and the way he says it sounds rehearsed and stiff.

“I liked him too,” Marie says. She tries to pay for her coffee but Ahmed puts his hands, palm down, on the counter. “A thank you,” he says. The doorbell jingles and a new customer enters the store. It’s another regular, a woman Marie recognizes. Marie is struck by a sentimental jolt. He’s dead, she nearly says, nearly takes the woman by the arm. He’s gone. It’s the sort of tidy, packaged emotion one sees on television or in films, nothing more than a suggestion of real emotion. The feeling darts through her and passes quickly.

Maries sees the woman daily at the store. And they often take the same train into the city. The woman gets off one stop before Marie, at Odenplan. She’s never talked to the woman, though once they sat across from each other on the metro and shared a smile when a young man sitting next to Marie said loudly into his telephone in a voice almost spilling over into a sob, “I don’t want to fuck you and forget about you either!” Marie also sees the woman some evenings at the park near the shopping center, where the woman often comes with a dog, a large one, a Great Dane, Marie thinks, that trots along obediently behind the woman. She has seen the woman buying cards and flowers at the florist in the square close to the metro station. She’s never seen the woman with a man, nor another woman for that matter, but she has seen the woman arm-in-arm with a much older woman at the pharmacist, at systembolaget, at the post office, once at the supermarket. Marie has imagined a life for the woman, of course. Aging mother, no children, good job, civil servant perhaps. She travels frequently to places Marie has always wanted to visit, countries that are warm in winter—Chile, Vietnam, or Papua New Guinea.

Marie is standing in the way of a third customer, who, she sees as she follows Ahmed’s gentle nod, is trying to pay for a bottle of water. “Excuse me,” this third customer says. “Sorry,” he says and pushes, politely, past Marie to the counter.

Perhaps they even look alike, this woman and Marie. Marie watches the woman at the coffee station. The woman turns to retrieve the milk from the cooler. In profile, they are different. The woman is far more delicate-faced than Marie is. She is taller, broader across the shoulders, but even in the coat she is wearing, obviously thin. Thinner than Marie. The woman is pretty, and in spite of herself, Marie feels a little embarrassed to compare herself to the woman.

The third customer takes his change from Ahmed. He stiffly places the bills in his wallet and the coins in the coin pocket on the front of his wallet. By the time he has finished this, the woman has approached the register to pay for her coffee. The train Marie has planned to take leaves in ten minutes. It’s an easy walk to the station, and she prefers to wait here, where she can shorten her time spent in the cold. The outdoor platform is raised, and the wind, directed by rows of tall apartment blocks on either side, whips and stings its way from one end of the platform to the other. Marie moves close to the door but does not leave. Outside, there is still ice and a thin dusting of snow in the shadows. She’s going to miss this neighborhood. It has been good to her and to her daughter. Her father thinks she’s making a poor decision moving in with Lennart. She’s crazy to sell her place and get out of the real estate market. Every time they speak he tells her this. Reinvest whatever money you make on the sale. Buy a new apartment with Lennart, a house maybe. It’s silly to work so hard for something and then give it up just like that. He often frames his concerns for her personal life in economic terms. In truth, she appreciates his advice, though she tells him, as often as he offers it, that she is old enough to make her own decisions. This is what she is supposed to say, and so it is what she says, though she wishes she more often did what she wanted rather than what was expected.

Marie hears the woman say, “I’m sorry to hear that. Ahmed was a sweet man.”

“He appreciated all of his customers,” Ahmed says, and as he did with Marie, refuses to take the woman’s money.

As the woman passes Marie, they share a crisp smile.

Marie steps out into the bitterly cold morning after the woman. It’s a bright clear day, a winter day even though it is already spring. Marie slows her pace to follow the woman. There is a fast-moving line at the turnstile, and they arrive at the same time. Marie indicates with a hand that the woman should go ahead. The woman retrieves a Metro newspaper from the vending machine and continues down the platform until she stops near the midpoint. It’s crowded here in the mornings, at the middle of the train, and not ordinarily where Marie waits. Today she does. The woman unfolds the paper and begins to read. It shakes in the wind, the top of the pages folding over her hand. She tries to snap it back into shape but finally gives up and tucks the paper tightly between two slats on a wooden bench.

“That was very tragic,” Marie says, surprising herself. She wants to introduce herself to the woman, lay bare the wonder between them, the way their lives have orbited so closely for so long; and now, tragically, but not overwhelmingly so, they have met here at the occasion of the death of such a kind man. This is something they share. She wants to talk with the woman, ask about what sort of life, if any, the woman might have imagined for her. Would the woman have conjured up Lennart, or Tove? By some indefinable ability to see patterns and cause and reason where there may be none, would she have guessed at any of the details of Marie’s life? How much of another’s life can we rightly assume when it is seen only in passing?

The woman looks at Marie, and it occurs to Marie that the woman does not know that she has also been told about Ahmed’s death, and also that she may assume that Marie was referring to the newspaper and the wind and the paper’s current place on the wooden bench. “I’m sorry?” the woman says.

“Ahmed,” Marie says, “the man who owns the shop. He died.”

“Right,” the woman says. Marie feels her disappointment in the woman’s lack of sadness plainly in her chest. It’s a hollow feeling, not physical exactly, but tightly woven inside her body. “I was sorry to hear that. Do you know how it happened?”

Marie hesitates, brightens at the opportunity of the woman’s question. “Heart attack,” she says a little too hopefully and takes a step closer to the woman.

“That’s terrible,” the woman says. “He can’t have been very old.”

“To God belongs what he has taken,” says Marie.

“I suppose,” says the woman, blinking. “I guess I don’t know what that means.”

Marie picks up the woman’s newspaper and puts it in her purse. She does this loudly, deliberately. The woman looks at her. “I’ve seen you,” Marie says. She feels her face flush with embarrassment but cannot control herself.

“I beg your pardon,” the woman says.

“With your mother,” Marie says. “I’ve seen you with your mother. That woman. Is that your mother?” Once, when Marie was a child, she pinched her sister as hard as she could until her sister began to cry.

The woman looks at Marie with a strange expression, turns her body to face Marie and says, “My aunt, actually.”

“She looks like you,” Marie says. “Or you her, rather.”

The woman stares at Marie. In the woman’s face Marie can see as clearly as if the woman had spoken the words out loud that the woman is scared of her. Marie smiles at the woman and turns away from her. This is the polite thing to do, she thinks, the proper thing.

A man pushing a baby carriage is pacing back and forth along the platform. He has passed twice already. The baby is crying, and the man is obviously nervous about this. He stops, not far from Marie, and puts a hand in the carriage, firmly rocking the baby side to side. “Shhhh,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong, be quiet.” The baby is not crying loudly, and with the wind and the murmur of conversation and the static of the approaching train it is hardly possible to hear the baby at all.

Jensen Beach is the author of the forthcoming Swallowed by the Cold, as well as a previous collection of stories. His work has appeared or soon will in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and online at N +1 and Tin House, among many others. He teaches in the BFA Program at Johnson State College, where he is fiction editor at Green Mountains Review. He lives in Vermont with his family.

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