Time and women – in combine if not collusion – had done him enough in life to add an extra decade to his face, gazing deep into his still eye-balls in the rearview-mirror he imagined, and slowly turned the newly-imported black Cadillac out of the mammoth National Life Insurance Corporation complex, which gave a somber look in the fading twilight of the last weeks of waning autumn.
The exterior resembled the interior in good respects.
“You don’t look happy – leaving the office half seven?”
“I am workalcohlic.”
“Is that all?”
“There are people in the office.”
“Smile is a facilitating tool to avoid denial of a truth.”
“Is that all?”
“Isn’t it a special day, too?”
“You have managed to bring that ugly, haughty, detestible creature down to her knees.”
“I have seen better faces.”
“May be but aren’t you lying?”
“Didn’t she give you sleepless nights?”
“Didn’t she turn you on?”
Women – one after the other – had entered his life and exited – each totting up a few more wrinkles to his face. It was a sweet fall-back refuge for him that the ultimate balance of rejection was in his favor, which meant unto himself that he had rejected more women in life than he had been rejected by. Whatever! The current state of affairs was that he preferred to spend evenings in his office – loosening knot of his expensive neck-tie, eternally holding a cup of coffee in his left hand, flambuoyantly interacting with industry peers, gleefully walking into the staff-cabins and exchanging pleasantries, taking and giving presentations, and meticulously planning for the next day’s meetings.
There is a vindictive grin on his face as he takes a turn towards the Sunset Boulevard.
“What have you made of – your life?”
“Fifty and still single!”
“Folks don’t take it normal.”
“You were never a gutless bloke; were you?”
“No. Of course. Not. I hooked a plenty of them; couldn’t keep any. They slipped from my hands like sand from the palm.”
“You lived in a paradox; consenting women lost favour with you quick and fast.”
He clenches his lips.
“You never took women for playing-partners – but for trophies; were interested only in winning them.”
His face loses complexion.
“Hold it tight next time around – just in case.”
“Ah, time is the key word?”
“You think you are fast losing it?”
“I am not sure if I still have it.”
“Aren’t you still a cynosure – the most dashing man around?”
“A woman who looks at you can’t pan but for a very solid reason – a man back home – may be.”
He smiles, and takes another turn towards the Sunset Boulevard.
He would contemplate that his workalcohlic lifestyle had not worked that badly for him; he had been compensated for failures in personal life with successes in professional life. He enjoyed a tremendous track record in giving turnarounds to dying and hopeless entrepreneurs. It meant any organization he joined, was made to excel a cut above the rest. He had become to be known in the top-notch business circles as “the marketing magnate.”
After attaining the stature of a guru in the world of business marketing, he was often invited to deliver key-note addresses at various celebrated forums. It was his wont to start with his imposing one-liner “life is all about marketing.” Many a times he was tempted to reverse the expression “marketing is all about …”, but then he backed off; just could not complete it. He would not tire repeating himself that if begging could be treated a legitimate profession, and should beggars adopt his prescribed marketing tool-kit, their income would increase manifold in the short term. He would also draw a scenario that if society could be taken for a marriage-market, and that all ugly-ducklings pursued his marketing perscription, not a single girl of whatever luck or looks would remain unwed. These were tall claims, but he would sway the audiance with sheer eloquence supported by an equally strong proven track-record.
Being the first week-day it was only too rushy on the roads. He took yet another turn toward the Sunset Boulevard.
“You have locked your horns rather uselessly this time around?”
“Sure. My platter was already full.”
“Saving the jobs of two and a half thousand employees and salvaging a hundred times larger number of NLIC’s policy-holders.”
“Couldn’t afford to get into an entanglement of zero returns.”
“Are you sure?”
After joining NLIC, he had just started taking this route to and from his town-house located in the newly developed posh subarban locality – the abode of the newly-rich conspicous consumers. Upon leaving his office, as soon as he would hit the Sunset Boulevard traffic light, there would be a mad rush of beggars of all ages, deformations, and descriptions swarming towards his and other cars. It was otherwise a pitiable sight, but their presence would add flavor to the otherwise noisy and jam-packed crossing; the policemen on duty would just watch and ignore them helplessly.
He would keenly observe various beggars pleading for alms at different cars. Some of the alms-seekers would weep, exihibit amputated limbs, mimic pitiable postures, or even sell the neo-natals held half-conscious to their breasts. He would just not stand some of the begging ploys which would neither evoke pity nor be target-specific and earn only shut-ups and scorns in lieu of alms. One day he himself felt like whacking an old beggar who banged his Cadillac’s window as if to break it.
It was hardly a fortnight since he had started taking this route when he noticed that thirty-something, wretched, lean, sallow, and hunger-striken woman begging casually around, who would falteringly appear from behind the signal pole, give him a cursory look and without putting his generosity to test, pass by to other cars mostly of lowly looks. For the first few days, he thought it was incidental, but when she repeatedly acted in the similar fashion, he felt engaged.
An inquisitive brain as he was, he relentlessly tried to explain her behavior. Was there anything so pronouncedly unattractive, uninviting, and unpleasant about his face and demeanor which repulsed her? Was his face visibily uncharitable? Was she anyone of his own trophies who had fallen on bad days? Did she, in any manner, take after Catherine, Shehla, Sushma, Tasnim, Cindy… ? Had he overly spurned or snubbed her in the recent past? Whatever might be the reason, he was now certain there was a definite trend, and no trend could be without the corrospending dynamics. The consistency in the woman’s attitude and its various analytical dimensions started giving him sleepless nights, which the doctor called a state of temporary insomnia.
He took yet another turn towards the Sunset Boulevard.
“Didn’t you try your level best to win her over?”
“No. Just to effect a behavior change.”
“You tried many tricks – or tools – as you call them.”
“You replaced your dark spectacles with transparent ones to establish an eye-contact?”
“You bent forward to give an impression you were taking out wallet from your hip-pocket.”
“You wore an extra-territorial smile to paint pleasant looks.”
“You kept the car-window open and rubbed your elbow against her body.”
“May be but you were turned on. Weren’t you?”
He doesn’t smile.
But none of the ploys had worked. Each time she emerged from behind the signal pole wrapped in her tattered grey shawl, gave him a fleeting deep look and ambled across to another motor mostly of lower worth and value than his – leaving him fuming in angst.
The situtation had turned enigmatic.
One day, as he was reaching the rendezvous, he pulled out a few currency notes of small denominations from his wallet and prominently placed them on the dash-board. The valuable pieces of paper turned honey-pots attracting beggars in hordes – except her. She casually looked at the dash-board, and moved to another car. A cocky teenager in the next lane chuckled: “Hey, hid your money lest somebody tots gun on your temple thinking you were filthy … rich.” He ended up doling out all the money to its other legitimate aspirants.
A couple of days he remained dismayed as the green-light made him push on. He spotted her by the roadside slanting against the king-size portrait of top model Lubna agressively marketing some brand of full-fat milk – like a harrassed feline hiding under a full-blown cow. The magnate and the model had broke up for indeterminable reasons. Before bumping into the woman, he would irresistibly smile and say “hello” to the portrait, and constantly weigh which side of the scale the model would go – “he rejected” or “she rejected.” Not anymore. Unwantingly, he also declined to attend a series of road-shows held in other cities aimed at marketing his own figment “Family-Life Insurance Policy”, which not only covered the life of the policy-holder but his entire family and various factors whcih contributed to the happiness of family life. For the first time, he found himself up against two simultaneous challenges – both equally taxing – one physically; the other emotionally.
On the other hand, the mere idea that the haggard woman was in an egoistic tug of war with him, brought an indignant smirk on his face. But he found himself in a hole. The best of the marketing tools so subserviently at his command could not help him out of the dilemma. He would curse her for her arrogance and pity her for her misfortunes and low IQ as she could not collect the bounty awaiting her while she was begging pennies elsewhere. He was already taking mental notes to develop a case study on the woman wherein one fails to pinpoint his business target.
One day, he took out the photographs of all of his women and compared them to her. He shivered. “Does she in any manner resemble Cathy?” “Cathy is dead for ten years now!” Cathy had died when he forced her to undergo a belated abortion. A handsome amount of of money doled out to her poor widowed mother had saved him. “Cathy’s spirit? Oh. No!” He shook his head in firm disbelief refusing to let the plot thicken any further as more and more similarities between the woman and Cathy started crystalizing in his imagination.
Friday last when he had reached the Sunset Boulevard in the evening, she was not there. He noticed there were no beggars around at all. Astonished, he stopped by to enquire as to what could have happened to her. He was informed that on Sunday morning a foreign visiting VVIP was to pass by the Sunset Boulevard, and since the government wanted to paint a halcyon national image, the police had conducted a clean-up operation and picked up all the beggars to lock them up for the next couple of days.
He soon found himself in the police station.
It might have looked little awkward for a man of his social standing to go bailing out beggars, but he was able to get her freed from the police clutches with some effort under his personal guarantee.
It was a blissful feel.
While he was still affixing final signatures and completing the bail formalities with the police officials, without waiting for an offer of a ride in the black Cadillac, she had vanished in the dark and narrow back alley like a zombie.
He took his final turn to get onto the Sunset Boulevard.
“You look happy.”
“You have eventually created an opportunity to sate your charitable instincts.”
“Finally pinned her down?”
He smiles a victor’s smile.
“I know what you are imagining?”
“Gratified she would take a few pacy steps, lean on you, knock your car-window a few times begging, and then you would look up at her vanquished face, drop the window exultantly, and put out a few coins on her spread out trembling hand.”
“Is that all?”
“Won another trophy?”
“But you must know where to stop – this time – if she stops by.”
“I don’t know – really.”
He reaches the rendezvous.
The Sunset Boulevard signal turned red, brakes squealed, and beggars scrambled towards the Cadillac in droves to cash in on its proverbial munificence.
Drapped in her tattered grey shawl, stumbling and dragging her feet, she also appeared from behind the signal pole, and then right in front of his Cadillac; in front of him.
They were eye-ball to eye-ball for a while – a while spanning into an expanse of eternity – and then she turned to another motor – adding a few more furrows to his foggy face.
About the Author
Muhammad Ashfaq is a Pakistani short story writer who lives and works in Islamabad. He has previously been published in the 2011 New Asian Writing Anthology Mr. Cheng’s Sliver Coffeepot (“Mousetrap“), Million Stories Anthology (2010 and 2011), and Ebiblioteko-2010 US War Anthology titled Battle Runes. He has also been published in a number of online literary journals and websites.