I stop by the smoke shop down the block. It’s about 6 o’clock. Ali has arrived for work just as Bobby is leaving for the day. I’ve hardly ever seen them here together; it’s either one or the other behind the counter. They are talking about something with great vigor and animation—at least, that’s how it appears to me. I can’t understand a word they’re saying.
“Gentlemen. Gentlemen?” I can hardly get their attention, they’re so enthralled. Finally, I have to interrupt: “Hey! What are you two arguing about? And, by the way, what language are you speaking?”
“Panjabi,” says Ali, ignoring my first question. Bobby has walked away, into the back somewhere. Ali calls after him, as if getting in a final jab. He can’t disguise his delight. He is a cat waiting for the mouse to return to play.
Moments pass. Bobby returns to the counter, as if nothing had happened between them, and I have to smile: Here they are, side by side, these two from whom I’ve been buying Sunday papers and rolling papers and bottles of water and Kit-Kat bars for the past five years: one Muslim man, one Hindu, matching mischievous grins on their light brown faces.
“Yes?” says Ali.
“Mr. Billy, what we can do for you?” says Bobby, feigning seriousness.
Now I can’t even remember what I came in here for, so I change course. “Teach me a word in Panjabi,” I say. “Just one word.”
“Okay,” says Ali.
“All right,” says Bobby.
They stare back at me, waiting for a prompt.
“Hold on, let me think. What is—um, what is..the Panjabi word for beauty?” I say.
They look at one another.
“Sohni,” says Bobby.
Ali nods: “Yes,” then adds, “but it’s ‘sohna‘ if you’re talking about a man—sohna, not sohni.”
Ali: he knows me all too well.
“That is very helpful—thank you, Ali,” I say.
“You’re welcome, my friend.”