7. The Inquisitor

Apart from having to go the long way around with some of the furniture, the rest of the move went like clockwork.  They kept their voices down and the cops did not, in fact, come. Gulnaz and Aaliyah came back into the house after the last box and lamp was gone and found Jesse sweeping.

“You keep this place really clean,” Jesse said. “I don’t think your landlord knew how good he had it.”

“That asshole. He’s ruined six months of my life. He’s totally insane. I’ve never seen anybody like him, he’s a scary scary guy, way worse than those two brothers of his,” Gulnaz said.

“Yeah, thanks for the heads’ up on that,” Jesse said, using a piece of cardboard to hold the dust he’d swept up.

Aaliyah said something in her birth language, and Gulnaz made an exasperated sound.

“We should leave. George said you’d drop Aaliyah at her door. You will, won’t you?”

“Absolutely,” Jesse said.  He took the improvised dustpan out the door and carried it to one of the trash bins, with Aaliyah following him like a duckling. The security lights blazed as they triggered them.

Jesse said, dreading what was coming, “Get in the truck, you’ll feel safer if you’re up high.”

In a hoarse whisper, Gulnaz said, “Aaliyah, get in the truck!” finally re-admitting Jesse to the conversation.

“Safer?” Aaliyah said to Jesse.  “We could die tonight! They’re Sikhs, they probably went to get guns.”

“If they were real badasses – of any racial variant! – they’d have guns in their cars, o great perturbed one,” Jesse said. “Thanks to George they’ll still have to wait a couple of hours to sober up before they shoot my heinie all to widdy bits,” — here Jesse adopted a cartoon voice — “so quit worrying.”

Aaliyah was unconvinced. “Others could come.”

“Wow.  You need a life,” Jesse said.

Aaliyah stared at Jesse and didn’t say anything. Jesse shrugged and walked to the truck and got in. Gulnaz and Aaliyah slowly walked away from the apartment one last time and slowly got in the truck; Gulnaz because she’d rarely been so exhausted, and Aaliyah because her adventure was about to end and all that remained was the ritual humiliation of the joint and several scoldings her parents would administer, especially if they caught her re-entering the house.

“Where to?” Jesse said cheerfully.  Thank god, it’s almost over and I’ve already been paid.

Gulnaz and Aaliyah started a quiet dispute, not in English. After a bit, Gulnaz, who still had to help empty the truck and was one eye-blink away from melting down, said, “Fine. Aaliyah wants to help us unload.”

“Which would be —?” Jesse said encouragingly.

“A storage unit on Griffiths,” Gulnaz said. “You can drive the truck straight in, it shouldn’t be long. Take 14th.”

She slouched and brushed up against George.

“God, you’re freezing!” she said.

“He is kinda clammy,” Jesse said.  He didn’t normally have to sit squished into George but there was an extra person in the cab. Aaliyah, of course, had been placed as far from Jesse as possible.

“I’m really uncomfortable,” George said. “Can I ride in the back?”

Wordlessly, Jesse got down, let him out, watched George scramble into the back with the furniture and boxes, re-secured the tailgate, and got back in the truck. With a ghastly screech and clatter, they were off.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” Aaliyah asked.

Gulnaz made a protesting noise.

“What makes you think I’m straight?” Jesse asked.

“Are you and George a couple?” Aaliyah asked, eyes wide.

“I only met him a couple of days ago,” Jesse chided.  “I haven’t decided if he’s the man for me yet.”

George could be heard guffawing. Jesse mentally added ‘sensational hearing’ to George’s list of attributes.

Jesse slapped the steering wheel with both hands in mock annoyance. “Well, that does it.  We’ll have to just be friends.”

“You’re teasing me,” Aaliyah said.

“Yeah, and I’m enjoying it, too. I’m curious to know how you two are related.” He took his right hand off the steering wheel long enough to poke it in their direction.

“Half-sisters,” Gulnaz said. She was asleep but still able to talk.

“I have a half-sister too,” Jesse said, “but she’s three months older than I am.”

“Your father had more than one wife?” Aaliyah said, trying to work out what had happened.

“Not to my knowledge,” Jesse said. “In fact, I don’t think he ever even managed one.”

Aaliyah abandoned Jesse’s ancestry as a conversational wellspring and returned to a much more pressing issue. “Are you really gay?” Aaliyah said.

“Who cares?” Jesse said.

“Do you work out every day?” Aaliyah said.

“Four days a week,” Jesse said. “Plus moving.”

“Why do you have this job instead of a proper job?” Aaliyah said.

A well-crafted intersectional takedown of the previous sentence was simply more than Jesse could manage, the ethics of verbally whacking a tired child aside. So he replied, “Cause I’m allergic to the sun.”

“Nobody’s allergic to the sun,” Aaliyah said. “Darwin wouldn’t let that happen.”

Jesse hooted with laughter, startling Gulnaz out of her doze, and said, laughing his response into unintelligibility, “I’ll legally change my name to Nobody, then.”

Jesse straightened up. “Here’s Griffiths, where’s the… oh, I can see it.  Good thing there’s nobody else on the road to get mad at me for turning from the wrong lane. Gulnaz, do you have the passcode so I can get in with the truck?” She fumbled in her purse and gave him a piece of paper. Jesse drove through, located the storage unit and tried to return the code and unit instructions, but Gulnaz was now deeply asleep. He handed the piece of paper to Aaliyah and said shortly, “Put it in her wallet.”

George jumped down like an acrobat when Jesse opened the tailgate.

Aaliyah said, “Let her sleep.”

The three of them finished the unloading. When she woke up, Gulnaz cried in Aaliyah’s arms from sheer relief.

“Let’s get you home, kiddo,” Jesse said.

“She was going to stay in a motel on 6th,” Aaliyah said. “You should come home with me,” Aaliyah said.

“Your mother won’t let me in,” Gulnaz said.

“Oh, yes, she fucking well will,” Jesse said. “Rather than embarrass herself in front of two strange white men.”

Gulnaz made a sound. The two women laughed wildly for a few seconds, and then Aaliyah leaned forward and said, with a much more adult intonation than previously, “Thank you, Jesse.”

On the return trip to drop off the truck, blissfully client-free, Jesse said, “I sure hope they’re not all like this.”

George, who’d had quite enough of the peaks and lows of human ambition and emotion for one day, said, “Me too.”

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Born when atmospheric carbon was 316 PPM. Settled on MST country since 1997. Parent, grandparent.

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