It is Friday afternoon and Henri is anxious to leave his post at the Electricity Company. He is restlessly standing near the time clock waiting for three-thirty to log out and head home to his aging desktop computer. The walk takes him a laborious 1383 steps, except for Mondays when he walks an additional 157 steps for his ritual bakery detour, depleting the allowance his brother gives him each Sunday evening.
Passing the bars and shops, he collects the bits of conversations drifting past him. A lifetime of double-dutching his way into conversations has fine-tuned his misanthropic survey of the people around him. His quiet curiosity about their lives is an atavism to his social nature.
Henri is difficult to look at for long drags of time. Small pieces of food and nasal residue cling to his thick moustache against the jolts of air that pass through his nostrils. His bristly eyebrows seem desperate to reach up and help him replace the hair missing from the space above his forehead. His shirt is often stained with a mishmash of colors unrestricted to the spectrum found in natural foods. When he was eight, Henri began looking down at his feet after a schoolmate told him he walks like a pigeon. The habit, and a dawning hunchback, now accompany his awkward gait.
Between steps 686 and 689, Henri passes the stand where Ms. Azar is buying her daily fruits and vegetables. The trip takes her upwards of thirty minutes as she bogs down herself, and other shoppers, with her happenings.
“George called me today, you know. Yes, I think it was at about eleven-thirty. He called me just to say hello, isn’t that sweet?” Five peaches are assessed, two make the grade.
She looks around for the next available ear. Two cucumbers for her salad, drop, drop.
“You know, my son George has a very high position in his company but he always...” One head of lettuce that will last her a week and Henri is out of earshot.
At around his 980th step, Henri reaches the mechanic shop where the man who talks to himself is employed. On the rare occasion he is not conversing with whatever keeps him company, he is arranging, then rearranging, the tools in the shop. Each day when Henri passes, he stops, the men stare at each other in silence, and then Henri moves on. It’s been this way for years. Neither of them knows why.
Step 1371 and Henri has reached the landing of the stairs leading up to his house where he lives with his brother and a maid. Those twelve steps are the most dreaded part of his walk, and so he stops after the sixth step, at the turn, feigning interest is the loquat trees that line the stairwell; an unsuccessful ploy to cover up his exhaustion. He reaches the threshold and walks into the house. With each passing year the doorway inches closer to his rotund stomach, an issue that will not concern him with until the opening will no longer have him.
Henri walks into the kitchen as Selam is placing his afternoon snack on the table: two pieces of chicken escalope, one bag of potato chips, one chocolate donut, and one pitcher of lemonade. He quickly acknowledges her before sitting down. She intentionally leaves the room, no longer able to tolerate the sights and sounds of his gorging.
As soon as she gets to her bedroom, she remembers that she had forgotten the ketchup and heads back towards the kitchen. With escalope as the snack of the day, the mistake is punishable by death, or at least with the risk of having a finger mistakenly bitten off as she places the bottle on the table.
She walks back to her room, fiddling with a hang-nail on the way. Her thoughts are clouded by what Amanuel proposed to her the night before, about going back home. She is certain his infidelity is prone to resurface if she doesn’t go with him, but if she agrees, what will her parents do for money? She must convince him to stay.
Back in the kitchen, Henri is washing down the last bit of donut with the remaining lemonade before heading to his bedroom. His after-work routine used to involve napping, but that ended as soon as getting back up became too difficult. He has tried, and failed, on several occasions to forgo his bakery trips to start a lap-top fund.
Henri finally arrives at his desk and turn on his computer. Waiting for his machine to boot, he presses on dust and crumbs with his middle finger, waits for them to stick, then cranes them over to the trashcan in a single motion. As he rubs the pieces off with his thumb, he is thinking of Maya. What excuse he will give her when she asks him, yet again, when they will finally meet? He is not ready. She is not ready to meet Henri, either.
As the computer prompts for a log-in, ‘PhillipetheMan’ is ready to start his day.
This short story is part one of four which will unfold to completion in the coming three issues of The Outpost.