The Unessential by Robert Cely, Jr.
Alia tried to flatten her t-shirt out. It was black at least, so most of the stains wouldn’t show. She had to slide the cuff of her leggings up so they would bunch up and cover the holes in the knee. Most importantly, she kept her back straight, eyes ahead, and acted like she belonged.
Most of the time Alia felt she could pull it off. With her frizzed out hair pulled back into a pony tail it might just look like she had been exercising. That’s what women did on this side of town, after all..
Alia dodged the other bodies in the street. Most of them hardly looked up, eyes on their phones. The only time they seemed to notice is when someone drifted too close for too long. Then, some developed instinct kicked in, telling them that another body was hovering dangerously close.
Turning on to Main, Alia quickened her pace. The smell of fried chicken drifted down the street. She was always surprised how quick you could tell if the grease wasn’t burned already. Her mouth watered thinking about it. When was the last time she had enjoyed something like that?
For now, she had to ignore the churning in her stomach. Maybe something good would present itself for the taking. It was the fourth time she had walked up the street. Mingling with the suits for a brief moment she would make it up to the State House, then circle down to Assembly and start the circle all over again.
The smells began to get to her again. They always did. Nothing stood out more in her life and the life they lived here than the smells. Grease that hadn’t been burned. Fresh fruit from the stand she passed by. Chicken salad sitting on a bed of lettuce on the outdoor table, that woman almost ignoring it for smartphone solitaire. The sweet, doughy smell of the waffle cones that wafted out every time the ice cream door opened, sent sprawling out into the street by a gust of cool and conditioned air. You could definitely tell life was better here, because it smelled better.
Alia neared the little Greek café called the Agora. A couple was getting up from their table: polo shirt and khaki pants on him, a little sundress and white strapped sandles for her. The obligatory sunglasses came up to the head.
“You’re not going to eat the hummus?” she asked as they stood to leave.
Alia’s eyes darted to the plate. Her heart quickened at the site of an untouched mound of hummus surrounded by a fan of pita chips. She knelt down, pretending to tie her shoe until the couple moved away.
Before anyone could see her, Alia darted to the plate. She smiled to herself, seeing the appetizer nested in wax paper. She wouldn’t even have to risk stealing the plate.
With practiced speed Alia swooped in and wrapped up the wax paper as she lifted it off the plate. None of the diner’s looked up to notice her as she had not broken her stride at all. She didn’t even lose a single grain of salt that crusted the bread.
The wax paper ball went deftly into the leather bag over her shoulder. Four trips down Main and she had struck gold. Alia smiled, feeling good about herself. This might turn out to be a pretty good day.
Her luck increased again in only another half block. A man in a grey suit (sunglasses, of course) took a pull on an almost whole cigarette and threw it to the sidewalk before slipping into a taxi.
Alia froze, her eyes taking in the thin smoke tendril that snaked from the smoldering end. This was better than good luck. This was downright blessed.
Reaching down, Alia grabbed hold of the cigarette and stubbed it out. She opened her bag again, this time reaching in for the ziploc that held her stash. She dumped the cigarette in with the collection of scavenged tobacco, already savoring her after dinner smoke.
Something hovered nearby. Without even turning, Alia knew she was caught. The cigarette did her in. But damn, it would be worth it.
“Identification please,” the voice asked from behind.
It was two cops, one male, one female. The guy, a little big for a policeman, looked at her ID as she handed it over. The woman looked at her. She eyed Alia’s clothes and in a moment had already tried, judged and sentenced her without even having to look at her credentials.
“You’re unessential,” the male cop said, handing her back the ID.
A red stamp blazoned across the picture always gave her away. Bright letters made sure everybody knew what she was. UNESSENTIAL.
“C’mon, you know you’re supposed to be in quarantine.”
The word still stung. Even after all these years, it hurt hearing it.
When it first came up, everybody was eager to stop the virus. Everything has to shut down, they said, except for the essential jobs. If you are unessential, you must quarantine.
That was ten years ago. Still, the quarantine. Still, the clear lines had remained. You were essential, or you were like Alia.
Alia trudged back into the shadows of her section of the city, that word still echoing in her head. She walked up the dark streets, shadowed by buildings that had the windows broken out all the way back during the Beef Riots. The smells that greeted her here were more familiar: old, greasy food, mildewed air condition units, cheap beer, stale smoke and fear. It was the smell of the unessential.
In another life, one that seemed forever ago, Alia had felt like it was all looking up for her. She was twenty years old with a voice that could turn any broken down and out of work melody to pure, hip hop majesty. Crowds would sway as she sang. The men would smile up at her. The women would close their eyes and nestle up to the men. They would sing along and cheer and chant her name. And the club owners, standing next to their black Benzes parked in the alley, would peel off the hundred dollar bills and slide them into her hand and try to talk her into going back to the hotel with them.
She always made sure to smile as she took the money. Sometimes she would even kiss the club owners, smelling rich of champagne and high-dollar weed. But she never went anywhere with them. She was on what the experts called a trajectory, and she wouldn’t see that piledriven into obscurity by some dance hall hustler who was probably up past his neck in debt.
Then, unessential came.
The world decided they didn’t really need singers. The whole world agreed. Especially the talking heads on twenty-four-hour news. “Do we really need to go to concerts?” they would ask. “These things are not essential. We need to shut them down. At times like this we need to put aside the frivolous activities that we may love, like concerts or movies or dancing, and focus on saving lives.”
It all kept getting bigger and bigger. They even decided we didn’t need the talking heads either. And they were all pushed into quarantine. It was to stop the disease, you see. To save lives. We get rid of everything that isn’t essential.
Climbing through a broken window, Alia ducked into the abandoned warehouse. She wove past the rusting pallet jacks and the molding boxes. Back in the corner, beneath an old stairwell, she fished out the box she kept there.
Inside were the most precious possessions she owned, all fitting in an old cigar box. She reached past the mementos and cheap jewelry and pulled out her Bible. Laying it down she pulled out the ziploc and looked greedily at the tobacco. The cigarette came out, and carefully suqeezing it she rolled it through her fingers, the tobacco spilling out into her bag. It was the most she had in a long time.
Next, she opened her Bible. This always stung a little bit. She used to sing some in her Aunt’s church, and she knew the Bible was sacred. Still, the pages of the thinline NIV were perfect.
Opening up at random, today it was 1 Peter, she tore the thin page out of the Bible. Pinch by pinch tobacco came out of the bag and sprinkled onto the black letters originally penned by the Apostle whom Jesus had nicknamed the Rock. She rolled the pages up tight and licked the edge, then held it up to admire her work. It was as perfect a cigarette as she would find.
Alia savored every bite of her hummus. She never had been big on Mediterranean food, but this was exquisite. The pita bread, buttery with crunches of coarse salt played music to her tastes buds. She even found herself humming a little as she ate.
The cigarette was even better. Much of that new tobacco had not staled, unlike most of the butts she picked up. This stuff was fresh, no bite at all, and it had a hint of menthol from something she must have scavenged earlier. It was as classy as she would get these days.
Taking a slow drag she inhaled and then reached down to put the Bible away. She glanced down, the words on the page drawing her eyes, suddenly jumping out.
The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
The words took her in. She picked up the Bible and scanned the page.
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but precious to him
She threw the Bible down as guilt came back to her for lighting up and inhaling the word of God. That trickle of guilt began to resemble fear, a superstitious fear that haunted every mind when faced with something that shouldn’t be.
A thick and heavy presence began to build up in the little space beneath the stair. It felt like something was moving in, surrounding her, weighing in on her, suffocating and powerful.
Alia threw the box back in its hiding place and ran from the warehouse. Outside, the night air was cool and her head started to clear. But the presence seemed to follow her, even as she hurried. She felt it clinging to her, like the smell of perfume and smoke from the clubs. It was everywhere at once, in the ground, the air, the sky above.
Fear turned to panic and Alia ran down the empty and derelict streets of the quarantine. No one was out. No one needed to be out. They were unessential. They were rejected.
Alia ran until her feet couldn’t carry her anymore. A new fear emerged as she slowed down and leaned against the brick wall of another old building. The curfew said she couldn’t be out this late. She was, unessential, after all.
Looking up to get her bearings, Alia decided to head home. When her head came up she noticed a sliver of light coming out of the window next to her hand. If you just walked by, you wouldn’t notice. But her head, just as it was, could see the papered-up window, made to block the light inside. And right there, where her head leaned in, was just the right place to see the seam, starting to come unpeeled.
Sounds echoed in through the window. Enthusiastic and joyful sounds. Sounds that were confident and pure. It sounded as warm as the light.
Alia walked around, looking for a way in. She pulled at the glass doors of what used to be office space. It opened soundlessly.
She stood at the threshold, deciding what to do. Then, as if pulled by an invisible force, she made her way down the musty, dark hallway. The sounds of voices, one powerful and clear, then others, echoing an inaudible chorus, drew her further down, the corridor feeling like something she remembered from a dream.
No one turned to look at her as she stepped into the room. At least fifty people sat there. Candlelight burned warm and clear, casting shadows over the walls and ceiling. A lone figure stood up, facing the people, an open Bible in his hands.
“The Lord tells us, we are rejected by humans,” the preacher continued. “But to God you are precious and chosen.”
The crowd hummed with amen. A few clapped. One voice began singing. It was off key and it hardly held the note, but to Alia, it sounded like paradise.
“They call us unessential. Rejected. The world doesn’t need us. But what does that really mean? It means we are the stones for the temple of God.”
“Unessential. Rejected. Outcast,” the preacher cried out, waving his arms as Alia sat down. “Rejected they say. Unessential they say. But what does the Lord say? The stone the builders rejected will become the cornerstone. You hear that? The cornerstone my brothers and sisters. The Lord is building a new world. Hear me and believe me he is. And what is he going to build it out of? He’s going to make it from the unessential.”
A song began to build in Alia. It was a song that she had thought forgotten, buried under the weight of broken hopes. She listened and at first she hummed. But the song wanted to get out. The hum turned to a whisper, the whisper to quiet melody. It rose, little by little until Alia was singing again.
She wept as she sang. Unessential songs rang out of her, clear and clean as an undiscovered sea. She felt a breeze on her face, and a joy that had hidden itself for nearly a decade. This was Alia, she knew. This was what she was made for.
She was the unessential.