”Would you rather prefer the prison or a surgery?” he laughs before he gets a tad bit serious.
“I wouldn’t know because I was hit with both at the same time”, he says as his demeanor remains quiet, almost too quiet as we drive down the interstate heading south.
I am volunteering one weekend at the local crossroads shelter one balmy summer evening. It was Sue the shift manager who points out Aslam to me. He is working with a group of women, talking to them. Around 55, slightly plump for his height, brown mehndi dyed hair cut short just above his shoulders, he seems out of place in that environment. He wears a blue east Indian jacket and has a meditation bead necklace around his neck. As he talks to them, I watch him with almost waning interest. Nothing about him is different, nothing spectacular, and well not until Sue makes an abrupt comment.
“He was in prison for 12 years, I think, till he was in his early 40’s and he is a lung cancer survivor…”
The remark seems out of place but gets my attention. For a second I want to ask her more questions. Instead, I find myself asking her a different one –
“Will you introduce me to him sometime?” I ask before I even understand why.
In the days that I work there, I get to know Aslam a bit better. One evening, as we are heading out, I see him standing on the bus stand outside. I ask him where she is headed and he tells me he is heading back home to Dover, some 15 miles away. More importantly, almost an hour of a bus ride away, two buses away, another half an hour walk away before he makes it to his house — a one-room apartment tucked away close to the northern woods.
“Come on. I’ll drop you off. I am headed in the same direction”.
It’s a lie, well a half-truth. I live a mile away, although it’s in the same direction.
We talk about the weather, the homeless shelter, and how he started to work over there many years ago as an informal women’s counselor. He talks about attending college in his late 40’s to get an undergraduate degree before he started to work.
“Those kids. They thought I was an alien”, he laughs, almost mirthlessly.
There is traffic on the interstate and it takes us almost 30 minutes before we make it to his place. As we get closer, there is a gnawing inside me to ask him what I have been waiting to ask all this while. I resist. Decent people in American culture don’t pry or ask uncomfortable questions, especially not to strangers.
“What was it like in prison?” I finally ask as we pull into the driveway. Curiosity wins, mannerisms are damned.
I immediately regret the question, but he seems serene. Almost like he has expected it. I am waiting for him to paper it over with some banal comment. Instead, he surprises me.
“Would you like to come in for coffee?” he asks without much ado as he rubs his hands over his pants, a nervous tick.
Almost 30 minutes later, we are sitting in his small apartment. It’s a clean one-bedroom place but what’s remarkable is that it’s almost bare. A small well-made bed in one corner with white sheets, a small writing table next to it, a chair with an old shirt hanging on its back, a mirror just above the table. It suddenly strikes me that the bare necessities resemble a familiar layout — That of his prison cell. Comfort is sought and found in the most unfamiliar places.
“I was a much younger guy with a full head of black hair before I was diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer”, he laughs looking on his right directly in the mirror. He seems lost for a second.
“I’d already had 4 sessions of chemo when I entered the county jail. I had my medical records and a bald head from chemo and it was rough. By July, it was 105 degrees and no AC in a dorm with 130 men packed 2 tiers high”.
“And then finally, the day had arrived, Surgery Day. At 5 AM in the morning, I was shackled and handcuffed to 2 other men and led to the bus that takes 30 of us to the courthouse. There we were put in a huge dirty concrete room with one open toilet. The men call it the hell hole. We were up all night, some sitting, and some pacing despite the shackles, some even trying to sleep on the cold concrete. It was a miserable night, 30 men snoring, praying, shivering, and waiting for the dawn.
“At 7 AM when the guard started yelling names, we are frozen stiff and exhausted. They were going to court to face their sentencing hearing decisions and they seemed worn out even before they started. I was worn out too, but I wasn’t not going to court. Instead, I was going to be under the knife…”
He stops for a second to drink a sip and involuntarily touches the left rib, the area where it might have been.
“But no one called my name. I waited all day. I admit I was cold and scared. I had a one-sided conversation with Allah. Allah, this is Aslam Shaikh. You have seen me all my life. My life is over anyway…I have brought shame upon my family. Please don’t make me wake up again. Don’t make me wake up again. Please”
“A long time later I wake up in the hospital, bandaged & sore. But alive. My first thought is disappointment and followed by sheer despair even before the pain of the surgery hits me”
I notice his change from the past tense to the present. He is reliving it, at that moment as a lot of trauma victims do. I have seen it happen to the best, including myself.
“Twenty-five days of hospital vacation. A real bed, pillows, & three square meals a day. Imagine how grim life is when you think hospital food is fabulous. But then it was time to go back to jail. The men there were waiting. For 25 days, no one had touched me except the nurses with their needles and the surgeons with their knives. I was almost invisible. They could not wait to get me out of there.”
“At the jail, those hardened men broke the rules and hugged me. Their hands were calloused but they were careful”, he closes his eyes for a second, his arms involuntarily around himself, if only for a second, before he straightens up and starts again.
“Because I lost lymph nodes too, the surgeon had ordered a comforter as I was at high risk of lymphedema and I needed a pillow to protect my arm. They denied that order. They did not allow pillows in jail and I was not one for who an exception could be made. We all felt helpless and slowly one by one they dispersed and left me alone”.
“A few hours later, they come back with their own law, their own orders”, he smiles for the first time. I have almost never seen him smile, not that I can remember.
“Aslam Shaikh, we made this for you, they said as they brought something wrapped in an old newspaper…”
“I felt something soft. I looked to find the most beautiful pillow I have ever seen. The men there had just contributed their precious supplies of shirts and pants, old clothes, and even their much-needed thread and wove them together to form a tufted square. Then they used the small contraband needles that were banned to punch holes in the ends of the clothing. They shredded thin strips from another shirt to use as the thread to sew it all around. Finally, they fringed it to give it that designer look”, he tries to laugh, but there is none.
He hesitates for a second. A long second. He looks down at the ground, the cheap vinyl flooring, and rubs his feet again and again over a small bumped surface trying to smoothen it out.
As he never lifts his head, I hear him speak, again, but barely — almost in a whisper.
“At the lowest time in my life, homosexual men, junkies, and murderers looked after me and I will never forget them. They cared for me, cooked for me dishes that they embellished with items that they paid for. They took the prison food and made it delicious. I hid that pillow under my bed every day for years and somehow it survived. The guards knew it after a while, but they were kind too. I survived too just like the pillow. That was some 14 years ago”.
He sits there in his chair and looks right into my eyes fiddling with the beads in his left hand, his back straight — Survivor proud.
The coffee has gone cold between us and the sun has set long ago over the window behind him. Here in the bedroom, we do not fit any representation of time, calendar, clock, phone showing the digits.
A shared understanding, is, for a moment like an animal between us, breathing poorly, as if wounded.