I went to the dining room and sat at the glass table with my eyes closed. I cannot tell you how long I sat there without moving, Mr. Markos, only that at some point I heard stirrings from upstairs and I blinked my eyes open and saw that the light had changed, and then I got up and set a pot of water to boil for tea.
One day, I went up to his room and told him that I had a surprise for him. This was sometime in the late 1950s, long before television had made its way to Kabul. He and I passed our time those days playing cards, and, of late, chess, which he had taught me and for which I was showing a bit of a knack. We also spent considerable time with reading lessons. He proved a patient teacher. He would close his eyes as he listened to me read and shake his head gently when I erred. Again, he would say. By then, his speech had improved quite dramatically over time. Read that again, Nabi. I had been more or less literate when he had hired me back in 1947, thanks to Mullah Shekib, but it was through Suleiman’s tutoring that my reading truly advanced, as did my writing by consequence. He did it to help me, of course, but there was also a self-serving element to the lessons for I now could read to him books that he liked. He could read them on his own, naturally, but only for short bursts, as he tired easily.
If I was in the midst of a chore and could not be with him, he didn’t have much to occupy himself with. He listened to records. Often, he had to make do with looking out the window, at the birds perched on the trees, the sky, the clouds, and listen to the children playing on the street, the fruit vendors pulling their donkeys, chanting, Cherries! Fresh cherries!
When I told him about this surprise, he asked me what it was. I slid my arm under his neck and told him we were going downstairs first. In those days, I had little trouble carrying him for I was still young and able. I lifted him with ease and carried him to the living room, where I gently reclined him on the sofa.
“Well?” he said.
I pushed in the wheelchair from the foyer. For over a year, I had lobbied for it, and he had obstinately refused. Now I had taken the initiative and bought one anyway. Immediately, he was shaking his head.
“Is it the neighbors?” I said. “Are you embarrassed by what people will say?”
He told me to take him back upstairs.
“Well, I don’t give one damn what the neighbors think or say,” I said. “So, what we are going to do today is go for a walk. It’s a lovely day and we are going for a walk, you and I, and that is that. Because if we don’t get out of this house, I am going to lose my mind, and where would that leave you if I went insane? And honestly, Suleiman, quit your crying. You’re like an old woman.”
Now he was crying and laughing, and still saying, “No! No!” even as I lifted him and lowered him into the wheelchair, and as I covered him with a blanket and wheeled him through the front door.
It would merit mentioning here that I did at first search for a replacement for myself. I did not tell Suleiman I was doing so; I thought it best to find the right person and then bring the news to him. A number of people came to inquire about the work. I met with them outside the house so as to not rouse suspicion in Suleiman. But the search proved far more problematic than I had anticipated. Some of the candidates were clearly made of the same cloth as Zahid, and those—whom I sniffed out easily due to my lifelong dealings with their sort—I dismissed swiftly. Others didn’t have the necessary cooking skills, for, as I mentioned earlier, Suleiman was a rather fussy eater. Or they could not drive. Many could not read, which was a serious impediment now that I habitually read to Suleiman late in the afternoons. Some I found to be impatient, another grave shortcoming when it came to caring for Suleiman, who could be exasperating and at times childishly petulant. Others I intuitively judged to lack the necessary temperament for the arduous task at hand.
And so three years on, I was still at the house, still telling myself I intended to leave once I felt assured Suleiman’s fate was in hands I could trust. Three years on, I was still the one washing his body every other day with a wet cloth, shaving his face, clipping his nails, cutting his hair. I fed him his food and helped him on the bedpan, and I wiped him clean, the way you do an infant, and I washed the soiled diapers I pinned on him. In that time, we had developed between us an unspoken language born of familiarity and routine, and, inevitably, a degree of previously unthinkable informality had seeped into our relationship.
Once I got him to agree to the wheelchair, the old ritual of morning strolls was restored. I wheeled him out of the house, and we would go down the street and say hello to the neighbors as we passed by. One of them was Mr. Bashiri, a young, recent graduate of Kabul University who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He, his brother, and their respective wives had moved into a big two-story home three houses down across the street from us. Sometimes we ran into him as he was warming up his car in the morning to go to work, and I always stopped for a few pleasantries. I often wheeled Suleiman over to Shar-e-Nau Park, where we sat in the shade of the elms and watched the traffic—the taxi drivers pounding palms against horns, the ding-a-ding of bicycles, donkeys braying, pedestrians suicidally stepping into the path of buses. We became a familiar sight, Suleiman and I, in and around the park. On the way home, we paused often for good-humored exchanges with magazine vendors and butchers, a few cheerful words with the young policemen directing traffic. We chatted up drivers leaning against their fenders, waiting for pickups.
Sometimes I lowered him into the backseat of the old Chevrolet, stowed the wheelchair in the trunk, and drove out to Paghman, where I could always find a pretty green field and a bubbling little stream shaded by trees. He tried his hand at sketching after we ate lunch, but it was a struggle, for the stroke had affected his dominant right hand. Still, using his left hand, he managed to recreate trees and hills and bundles of wildflowers with far greater artistry than I could with my intact faculties. Eventually, Suleiman would tire and doze off, the pencil slipping from his hand. I would cover his legs with a blanket and lie on the grass beside his chair. I would listen to the breeze catching the trees, gaze up at the sky, the strips of clouds gliding overhead.
Sooner or later, I would find my thoughts drifting to Nila, who was an entire continent away from me now. I would picture the soft sheen of her hair, the way she bounced her foot, the sandal slapping her heel to the crackle of a burning cigarette. I thought of the curve of her back and the swell of her chest. I longed to be near her again, to be engulfed in her smell, to feel the old familiar flutter of the heart when she touched my hand. She had promised to write me, and though years had passed and in all likelihood she had forgotten me, I cannot lie now and claim I did not still feel an upsurge of anticipation each time we received correspondence at the house.
One day, in Paghman, I was sitting on the grass, studying the chessboard. This was years later, in 1968, the year after Suleiman’s mother died, and also the year both Mr. Bashiri and his brother became fathers, boys they had named, respectively, Idris and Timur. I often spotted the little baby cousins in their strollers as their mothers took them for leisurely walks around the neighborhood. That day, Suleiman and I had started a chess game, before he had dozed off, and I was trying now to find a way to equalize my position after his aggressive opening gambit, when he said, “Tell me, how old are you, Nabi?”
“Well, I’m past forty,” I said. “I know that much.”
“I was thinking, you should marry,” he said. “Before you lose your looks. You’re already graying.”
We smiled at each other. I told him my sister Masooma used to say the same to me.
He asked if I remembered the day he had hired me, back in 1947, twenty-one years earlier.
Naturally, I did. I had been working, rather unhappily, as an assistant cook at a house a few blocks from the Wahdati residence. When I had heard that he needed a cook—his own had married and moved away—I had walked straight to his house one afternoon and rung the bell at the front gates.