The Boy the Key and The Big Break
Sunlight seeps between the curtains, lightly touching the corners of the room. The gurgling kettle rumbles. The smell of the cinnamon that must be put in the kettle combines with the dry cleaning chemicals to create a distinct odor. The cups are sitting, waiting for the tea to steep and for the cinnamon to be put in. The hangers are waiting too. Waiting for the boss to come in and stir the place up, put the money in the cash register, open the curtains, and complain about the tea. The boy sits waiting as well. Watching the tea, smelling the smell, waiting for the tea to steep so he can put in the cinnamon. He rearranges the cups as he waits. Playing a game, he assembles a fortress and pretends he is inside, safe from the boss and his complaints.
The boy wonders if he should be doing something else. What is it that he should be doing? Which of his many short comings will be selected for this morning’s battle. Where should he assemble his forces to turn back the attack that he knows is coming? Should he work on the pile of ironing, sweep the dirty carpet, hide the stack of leaflets yet to be delivered? Or will it be just the usual weak tea and lack of money in the till?
He takes out the key and examines it. He holds it up briefly and looks through the hole at the end, imagining it to be a gun sight pointed at the bosses head as he walks through the door. The sunlight bounces off the key, reminding him that the curtains are to be opened. The kettle is whistling as well. The boss will be there soon.
At that moment the door opens. The boss is examining papers, a look of disgust on his face. Without looking up he blurts out:
“Davey, Davey, what are these curtains doing closed?”
“I just about to open em”
“Just about, just about, you’re just about to do everything. You’re just about to be out on your ass”
The boss instinctively goes to the cash register. He pulls a wad of bills out of his front pocket. The boy imagines grabbing the bills and running out the front door. The boss is fat and would never catch him. Then he would have to change the lock on the door. That would fix him.
“I make tea”
“Great, you make tea, I make water, want to see?”
“Forget it, you put the cinnamon in?”
“OK., here’s five bucks, go get us some rolls, and don’t get that cheese filled shit, you got me?”
He made his way down the city streets. The locals were hanging about. The one with the ginger hair smiled as he walked by. That was three days in a row. In the pastry shop he thought about what the boss had said, no cheese filled ones. He couldn’t remember the words for the kind he wanted, they were filled, but not with cheese, what was the word? If he came back with plain ones the boss would be mad. The man behind the counter looked like the boss, the same look on his face, empty, not like his own people.
“What you want kid?”
“Rolls, with something inside”
“Yea? Well your in luck, cause that’s what we sell here. What you want inside of em?”
“I not know”
“Oh, great, you want me to guess? You want cheese?”
“No, no cheese”
“Yes, Yes, that’s it, jelly, I want jelly inside”
The boy was so happy. He had the rolls, they were the kind the boss liked. He would not yell at him about the rolls, not today.
The street was all gold and shining as he walked back. He loved to see the cloud as he breathed. There were little bits of ice in the cloud. He wanted to be on one of those bits of ice. He wanted to ride one through the air to pick up his mother and little sister. They would all ride it back home. But of course, the ice would melt. Then where would they be?
Back in the shop the boss was talking a strange language with Mustafa. The boss spoke many languages, but not the boy’s. The boy did not want the boss to speak his language. That he could not have. The boss did not speak any of these languages well. He would go back and forth between them and English, and occasionally lapse into his native French.
Mustafa had been called in to replace a zipper in a pair of trousers brought in the day before. Mustafa came by the shop most days, but usually just to exchange insults with the boss. The boy could see that Mustafa was no longer following his home ways; the people in the city had done something to him to make him forget. The boy wondered how this was done. Sometimes he imagined the buildings he walked by on the way to work had machines inside them, like the dry cleaning machine but with many more wires, that were used for changing people like him.
Mustafa was sitting in the front of the shop. He and the boss were sipping the tea. They did not notice the boy when he came in and slipped the rolls out onto a plate. The boy knew not to take a roll until the men had theirs, but he was very hungry, he hoped they would stop talking soon.
The boss considered the rolls briefly then continued, “the people in this city are for shit, they know nothing but shit with their drugs and their booze. You see those girls outside? Any one could kill you with the shit in their veins. You know that, Mustafa. You take your money out and piss it away on those girls every night, one day you gonna be dead from that shit in their veins.”
Mustafa was unconcerned, “You know nothing about what you are saying. These girls are under the police, they are very clean girls every one. You visit these girls you must wear something, there is no Aids in Amsterdam, you can count on that”.
A very fat man walked in. His face had small lines on it, little purple lines like the veins of a leaf. The boy liked the way these people looked. They were so funny, almost like a comic book. But of course comic books could be closed. The man was carrying a large bundle of gold cloth. He dropped the bundle on the counter and made a little noise in his throat like the people who were really from Amsterdam made. He was real Dutch, not like the boss, who wasn’t really anything. He was like the boy and his family now. He didn’t have a place.
The Dutch man spoke slowly so the boss could understand. The boy knew this was not necessary but he also knew why the boss never let on. The boss was like the snake; he gave nothing away to strangers. The boy knew this trick as well. Soon he would use it against the boss. Soon, but not yet.
The gold fabric was curtains from the man’s restaurant. The boy knew these curtains. He walked by them every morning on his way to open the shop. They were not beautiful curtains; it was not that part of town. Still, there must have been something about the fabric, as he recognised it the minute the man explained who he was. Familiar. That’s what the curtains were. They were familiar. A little piece of something that he was building here in this place he was trying to learn to call home.
The man said that it was important that the curtains be dry cleaned and back to his shop by that afternoon. The boss put on his best broken Dutch voice. The boy, of course, could not understand exactly what was being said, but the two men talked for quite some time. They seemed to eventually reach an agreement on the price and time of delivery.
After the man left the Boss and Mustafa talked for a while in Mustafa’s tongue. The boy liked the sound of this language, especially when Mustafa spoke, it sounded something like his own people. After a few minutes the boss said to him. “These damn things will never go in my machine, this fat Dutch pig thinks he can come in here and tell me when I have to have his goddamn curtains finished. I will fuck him. I will fuck him good and he will never even know it. Davey, take these down and wash them in the Laundromat.”
The boy was shocked. He should not have been. It certainly fit with everything else he knew about the boss. It made perfect sense. Their was an order to the boss, he was always the same, yet when this thing happened it struck him as a shocking thing to do. It was such a clear glimpse into another world, into the sickness of the boss’ mind. There was no reason not to put the curtains in the dry cleaning machine. It was not true that they were too big, they cleaned bigger loads often. The boss just couldn’t stand this Dutch man, there was something about him that had hit him wrong, perhaps the way he spoke, perhaps his clothes. It could have been anything really. But now the boss had made his mind up, and there was nothing the boy could do. He knew that.
He bundled the curtains up into several bags and headed down to the laundromat. He walked straight past the street girls this time. He didn’t want to think about them now. They were like the boss. These people, they were bad, they were so bad and they were trying to make him like them. It was all so bad. The world was not supposed to be like this.
He walked past the Dutch man’s restaurant. He hoped the man would see him and come out. He would put it all together and stop him, that would put and end to this. Perhaps he should go in and tell him of the boss’ plan, his evil stupid plan. Why shouldn’t he? The boss had never done anything but yell at him and give him stale rolls to eat. He would not even call his real name. Davey, what kind of a name was that for a boy such as him. He should do it. But the Dutch man would never understand him. No, he would go to the laundromat and think of another plan. There must be some way out of this.
He stood watching the curtains go around and around in the big machine. He thought about it all, how he had gotten to the city. He could remember very little of his country now. He could remember the sky, he could remember the sounds early in the morning, as he would stand by the river with his mother and the birds would be in the trees. That was all that was left to him now. This life, this city, these people, they were taking all that from him. The curtains, they were nothing, they were nothing compared to what the city was doing to him, and to his mother, and his sister. What of his little sister, was all this to happen to her as well? No, not to her.
Then he remembered the key. Yes, the key. He had the key to the shop, of course, that was it. He would not go back. He would leave it all, the boss would never find him. He would leave the curtains there, he would take the key, that would get the boss. He would have to open his own doors in the morning, and make his own tea with the cinnamon in. He would have to get a new lock, that would get him. He would be so mad. But he, Rahool Mehanara, he would not do this any more. He would not go back. He would not take those curtains and watch the boss collect a fee for this bad thing.
He walked out of the laundromat, and down the street away from the shop. He didn’t know where he was going. He did not want to get lost, but he knew the city well, he knew where to go. He would follow the train lines out of the city. His mother didn’t expect him till afternoon. The winter was cold, but he would go find a river, and it would be warm like his home.
He watched the city fade as he went down the tracks. Every few minutes he would feel the tracks begin to rumble, and he would stand aside until the massive machine rumbled past. He could see the people inside, eating, drinking tea. It looked like the city, these machines were carrying little bits of the city out into the wide world, it was part of their plan, they wanted to spread it all over the world. He hoped he could find a river, he wanted to go to the river and hear the birds, he wanted his home back.
After a very long walk he finally began to leave the city behind. The river appeared as he had known it would. He left the track and walked down to be by it. He thought of his father. He could almost see him there beside him. The river was not as he expected it. The plants were wrong, the birds were wrong. But there was something about it that he liked. It was a river.
He stood there considering. There was so much to think of, and he was only a boy. What would they do to him? He would not have his rolls and tea in the morning. He would not have the few florins the boss gave him when he thought of it. His mother needed them, she needed every bit she could get. But he could not go back now. He wouldn’t let that happen to him, he would not become like them. They were not like him. He knew what he must do.
He searched the ground for a suitable boat. It needed to be seaworthy and big enough for the cargo. When he had found the perfect stick he took the key out, placed it squarely in the middle, and very gently pushed the vessel out on its journey home.
As the boy traced his way back to the city he hummed a little tune. He knew the song well. It was a song of victory. It was a song he loved. It was a song he would sing whenever he needed to remember who he was, and where he came from, and why he never could be like these people in this city. He was a river boy. He was a boy of the woods, of the sky. He would always be the boy who had lead his mother out of their home when the fires and the bombs came. He was the boy who had held his papa’s hand as he lay dying. That was who he was, and who could fight a boy such as that?