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Playing the Hand You’re Dealt: A Short Story

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on September 27, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

A cheer from somewhere else in the room snapped Jake back to the world. He had been playing poker, and winning, for approximately five hours and was desperately in need of a short break. That wasn’t in his future because Jake knew, among many other things, that you don’t stop playing when you’re hot. He looked around the room and saw that every table in the poker room was full. He was playing 2-5 no limit and felt so at home. The comfortable chairs, the greenest green of the felt on the table, the dealer throwing cards around in what looked like a storm of cardboard but hitting the imaginary mark in front of each player.

Yes, he was home.

He never felt more comfortable than at a poker table. He looked down at his stack of chips and counted roughly $1,200 worth. Not bad, considering he started with only $175. He couldn’t believe he was only $600 away from his goal of $1,800, enough to pay his past due mortgage and keep the bank off his back.

Before he began this poker session he hadn’t played poker, hadn’t had a drink and was faithful to his wife going on six years. In his mind Jake was a drunk, a gambler and a womanizer, but in his opinion he had put that all behind him. He didn’t listen to the professionals who said that he would always have to fight his addictions because in his own mind he had a stronger will than others who would drift back to their drugs or obsessions of choice. But living the simple life of a husband, a father. Being straight didn’t suit him and his will was tested daily. So much so that he failed at most everything he did and instead of being a good father, a good husband, he was failing to be the provider that he thought he should be.

He got up every morning, went to whatever job he had at the time and gutted his way through it, but it had been a while since he had a job and the bill collectors were looming. It was more than he could take when the mortgage company called and threatened legal action against him if he didn’t bring his mortgage current. By his estimation, if he could get approximately $1,800 he would have enough to get the past due part of his mortgage paid and have a little left over. He had to do it somehow. He was the father, the provider, and he had failed thus far. He wanted to do the only thing he was ever really good at, poker. That is to say he was a very good poker player as long as he didn’t drink. Alcohol and poker never mix, but particularly with Jake. When he mixed the two he generally lost and lost big and then found some casino whore to sleep with to make himself feel better.

He wanted to play poker. He wanted to play badly but he had no stake, no money to get into a game at the nearby casino. Then it occurred to him. The family kept a jar where they all put change in to help a family they had adapted in Peru. He went to the jar, poured the coins out on the table and quickly counted them. He saw maybe $150. He scooped up the coins and put them back into the jar, grabbed it, jumped into his car and headed for the local service station where there was a coinstar machine that would count the coins and give him cash, less the two or three percent that the company took for providing the service. It turned out there was approximately $180 in the jar and Jake netted $175. Not as much as he would like to start a game with but enough to make a run at it. He took the cash from the attendant, got in his car and headed south towards the casino, calling the poker room on the way to reserve a seat at the 2-5 no limit game.

“I am sorry, sir, but only regular players can reserve seats on the phone. Can I get you player’s club card and I will see what I can do?”

The poker room attendant didn’t recognize him and, forgetting he had been away six years, Jake was pissed off.

“This is Jake. I played there so often I could call an hour ahead and get a seat,” Jake screamed. “How long have you worked there?”

“Only about two years, sir. I am sorry if I have upset you. I have to follow the regulations.”

Jake, realizing there was no way this guy could know him, said, “Okay, Okay, I understand. I will be there in about 30 minutes. Ask around and see if someone remembers me.”

Jake arrived exactly 29 minutes after the call. He walked into the casino and directly toward the poker room. When he walked in a large man greeted him with a hug.

“Jake, I can’t believe you are back,” the man said.

“Roberto, thank God someone recognizes me,” Jake said. “Can I get into a game?”

“Sure, I got you a seat. The guy you talked to on the phone is new but he asked me and I told him to reserve you a seat. I have a 2-5 no limit seat on table 15 waiting for you. You need chips.”

Jake handed him the $175 and caught Roberto looking at him funny. “Look, it is my first day back. Get me the chips, okay, Roberto?”

Jake headed to table 15 and Roberto yelled at the dealer.

“Jake’s got $175 behind.”

Jake sat in seat #5 and was immediately dealt a hand. His palms were sweating and his mind was drifting to what his family might think, but he didn’t see any other way.

Now, Jake had been playing for five hours and couldn’t believe his stack was so large. He had confidence in his ability but deep down he wasn’t sure he could pull this off. He was so close but he couldn’t stop. Not until he had the $1,800.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a cocktail waitress, called her over and ordered a scotch. He was hot, playing well, what would it hurt. The scotch was delivered just as Jake won a hand and his stack was growing rapidly. He threw the cocktail waitress enough chips to cover the drink and tip and told her to check with him often. The size of the tip made sure that she would.

Jake continued to win and continued to order drinks. Soon his stack was more than $1,800 and he thought about quitting then, but he was hot. This is easy, he thought. Why did I ever quit?

He was delivered his fourth scotch as a new hand was dealt. He looked at his two cards and took a log pull of his scotch. He had an ace and king, both spades. Big slick is the name for that hand and is one of the best starting hands a player could be dealt.

The bet was checked around to Jake and he bet $25 or 5 times the big blind. All but two of the players folded and then the community cards were dealt. The first three community cards were ten of spades, queen of spades, and eight of diamonds. Jake now had a flush draw and an inside straight draw. With another spade he would make a flush and with any ten he would have a straight.

Jake bet $100. One payer folded and one called. That was weird. That bet should have chased everyone out. Jake thought for a moment and then it hit him. The other player had two spades as well. If so Jake would win the hand big if another spade fell because he, Jake, had the top two spades. The next community card, known as the turn, was the eight of spades. There it was. Jake made his flush and hopefully the other player did as well.

Jake bet $300 and was immediately called by the other player. This told Jake that he was right and the other player had a flush. The next card, known as the river, fell and it was the two of diamonds. That card couldn’t have helped anyone. Jake announced that he was all in. He knew he had his guy. Soon he would have the money to pay the mortgage. As Jake suspected, the other player called the “all in” bet and Jake threw his cards on the table face up with a large smile on his face and looked at the other player. Wait, why was he smiling Jake thought. The other player threw his cards in the air and Jake knew he was beat before they hit the table. When they landed all the players saw two eights, giving the other player 4 of a kind and crushing Jake’s flush hand. Jake had lost it all. Not just the money to pay the mortgage, but the money that was to go to the adopted family in Peru.

Jake was speechless. He looked up and noticed the acoustical tile in the ceiling for the first time. They were dirty and showed the few leaks in the roof. He looked down and saw the player raking all of his chips into his own stack and laughing. Laughing! How could he laugh? Did he know how important that money was to Jake. He pushed his chair out from the table got up and started to walk out of the room. He had nothing left to do but leave.

“Jake, where are you going?” asked Roberto.

Jake’s head turned slowly, or so it seemed. He looked at Roberto and Jake guessed that he looked pretty bad as Roberto ducked his head and didn’t say anything else.

Jake made his way out of the poker room and to the exit of the casino. For a moment he forgot where his car was parked. He raised the remote locking device and clicked it and heard the honk of his car, saw the lights flick and made his way towards his car.

“Fucking idiot,” he whispered to himself.


Dysfunction Always Travels

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on April 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

I didn’t sleep much the night before and awoke early to get ready. It was the first day of spring break of my first year in high school and it had been decided long ago that we would, as a family, drive to South Padre Island, Texas, one of the great southwest meccas of spring breakers, young and old. Specifically, everyone in my high school went to “Padre” for spring break. While I had been there before, this would be my first time as a high schooler and thus was particularly noteworthy, based on what was happening to the girls in my class. Their bodies had seemed to get slimmer, their legs got longer and some more important areas of their bodies were growing faster than I could keep track of. Daydreams of these girls and their new bodies shoehorned into tiny bikinis clouded my night and consumed my days as the date of our departure neared. Now that day was finally here and to say I woke up excited is not to fully explain what was going on in my body.

I hadn’t seen my father before I went to bed the night before and made the assumption that he was out drinking and would be slow to get up to pack the Ford Country Squire Wagon for the long 14-hour drive. I was wrong. He was up early, just after me, and when he saw me awake he yelled at me to come help him. I knew what he was calling me for. As with every other trip we had taken by car, I had to gather up all the bags that were packed the night before. I was one of the men in the house and that was what was expected of me.

As I gathered the suitcases, I pondered a question that has been asked since the first time man moved from place to place: Why do women pack so much more than men? I carried one suitcase after another out to the driveway as I saw my father mixing a screwdriver in the kitchen. He knew that it would take me fifteen minutes or so to get all of them out by the car, so he had time for a little hair of the dog. I reported back to him when I had them all ready for the pack and he swallowed the last bit of his drink, smiled and said: “Orange Juice, great way to start the day.” We both laughed as he led me outside to help him get the bags on the roof of the car. I handed each bag up to him as he placed them like puzzle pieces within the confines of the luggage rack. Sober, drunk or hungover, my father took great pride in packing the car. When he had completed packing for some trip or another he would always get down from the roof of the car to admire his work. It was, in fact, amazing that he could fit that much in that small of a space and have it be so well organized. The load on the car could not have been stacked better by the Egyptian pyramid builders.

“Who else could pack a car like that?” he stated proudly.

Next came the ropes.

“Son, go in the garage and get those tie downs,” my father told me.

We would be traveling on the highway and I was sure at speeds much higher than the limit of the law and possibly of the car itself, so the bags needed, no matter how perfectly they were packed, to be tied down.

I was there and back in seconds, wanting the praise of my father, but he was too busy mixing another screwdriver to get him through the tie-down process to come. After a quick chug of his drink he came back out and first tied one end of the rope to the front of the luggage rack and then, with my help, began to loop the rope though the railings from side to side until the rope was at the back end. He looped the rope twice around the back of the rack.

“Let’s leave the tie down loose for now as the girls might have some more to pack,” he said.

More to pack? More to pack? Were we going to tie granny’s rocking chair down so she could sit on the roof on the way to “swimming pools and movie stars”? The car already looked as if we were fleeing the dust bowl, but he was probably right.

He scurried back into the house for his third screwdriver. It was only 7:30 am. I followed him in and went to watch TV, as I knew, from experience, that it would be some time before the family girls would be ready. After about thirty minutes of TV time, I heard the rest of my family stirring and got up in anticipation of finally beginning our fourteen-hour pilgrimage to Padre Island for a week of sun, sand, and bikinis. In reality, it took another thirty minutes to get everything ready and in the car but finally we were driving out of our driveway, on the side roads and eventually onto I-35 toward the border of Oklahoma and Texas.

Once on the highway, my father handed me his prized doctor’s bag that held his whiskey, vodka, mixes, and glasses, asking me to pour him a small Chivas. I had been the “Keeper of the Bag” for a couple of years so I knew exactly what he wanted. A double shot of Chivas Regal scotch. He was ready to cover some ground and needed to get primed. I poured the drink and handed it up to him just as he accelerated far beyond the legal speed limit, finally feeling like himself again after the long night before.

First hour. First Scotch. At this pace it would not only be a long day, but night as well. I wasn’t concerned about our safety, as I had been mixing drinks for a while and had always arrived home safely. I assumed that he would not need a drink for a while so I dozed off to sleep, hoping that would make me stop thinking about the buxom bodies that would be wearing bikinis. Other than packing the car and mixing drinks, all I could think about was bikinis. It was hard to sit still in the cramped wagon, particularly as I had to shift positions regularly.

About an hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something fly by the back window. I focused on what it was as it slid down the highway and finally came into view. It was a suitcase moving as fast north as we were south. In fact, it looked familiar.

“It couldn’t be,” I thought.

It was.

It was one of my mother’s suitcases and the cars behind us were dodging it as if they were playing some weird game of bumper cars. The last car didn’t quite make its swerve fast enough and clipped the suitcase, causing it to open—well, more correctly, to explode, as clothes flew through the air. Some of my mother’s clothes landed on that car’s windshield and blocked the view of its driver for a moment. I saw him reach out his driver’s window, grab the clothes and pull them inside.

I was panicked. Should I say something or act as if I were asleep? In our family, “kill the messenger” was a sport and I didn’t want to be sacrificed. I quickly put my head down and pretended to sleep. Safety first, I decided. Unfortunately, I hadn’t closed my eyes longer than ten seconds when I heard a loud squeal from my part of the car. I guessed that my sister had seen the bag, so I acted as though I were just then waking up and asked her what was going on.

“All of our bags are falling off the roof!” she screamed.

I looked back and feigned surprise as I saw bag after bag fly off the roof and onto the highway. Some exploded on contact; others were hit by oncoming cars and exploded. Clothes of every sort formed a huge cloud on the highway. As my father looked in the rear view mirror he spilled his drink.

“Son of a bitch!” he screamed more at his crotch being covered in scotch than at the luggage flying off the roof. “What in the fuck is going on?” I continued to stare as each bag hit the highway. I was sure this would be the cause of a huge pile up, but the cars successfully negotiated the flying debris with little trouble.

When my father finally pulled over to the side of the road to assess the situation my mother was screaming, crying and shouting.

“My clothes are all over the side of the road!” she shouted, between her sobs and screams.

Somewhere, somehow, my father was always able to tune my mother out, that is until he wasn’t able to and then took matters into his own hands, literally. My father got out of the car, looked down the highway to see the bags and looked up at the roof of the car to see a tie-down rope flying loosely in the wind.

“God damn it, John!” he screamed. “You didn’t tie the rope tight enough and it came loose.” At that moment everyone stared at me. If they could produce fire from their eyes I would have been incinerated. My brain went into overtime as I searched my memory for what had happened when we were packing the luggage on the car. Then it came to me. My father had not tied the rope off since he didn’t know if everything was packed yet. Happy that I had figured it out and it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t considered that my father didn’t want it to be his fault either. I jumped out of the car to explain.

“Dad, remember when we were packing and you just looped the rope around the back rack to see if there was anything else that needed to go on the roof?” I asked.

“What? Don’t blame this on me, you son of a bitch,” he said as his left hand drew back, came forward, and hit me in the face. I fell on the ground as my cheek stung as though it had been burned in the sun for hours. I had become numb to the strikes but this time I wasn’t at fault. I knew I was right, but to go on would mean that this would get worse. I was so angry but couldn’t express it. All this emotion had to get out somehow so I started crying. That is how I dealt with my anger from that moment on. My father seemed to never hit me when I cried and it didn’t take me long to figure out the pattern.

“Now you get started down the highway picking up all the clothes you can find and bring them here. I’ll get the suitcases back to the car so you can repack everything,” he said. “Stop crying and get up and get moving.”

I got up slowly and started walking down the shoulder of the highway as cars whooshed by me at breakneck speed, some drivers honking and laughing as they saw the clothes and the suitcases. This was going to be embarrassing since I had to retrieve clothes belonging to my older and younger sister, as well as my mother. I was right to be concerned. The first piece of clothing I approached was one of my mother’s bras. I stared at it for a moment and wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. I knew then that this would be the first bra that I touched. Why did it have to be my mother’s? I grabbed it dutifully and went to the next. It seemed as though I were a magnet for undergarments; I soon had a handful of bras, panties and assorted underthings. I started back to the car with my first load and as I got close enough to the car for my sisters to see what I was carrying, they both screamed, ran at me, knocking me down and grabbing their panties and bras, leaving me with only my mother’s undergarments to place in the suitcase. If I wasn’t humiliated by then I certainly was now. I turned quickly to go back for more and saw that both sisters were on their way down the highway to get their own clothes so as not to risk my seeing their unmentionables. Fine with me. I would stick to the clothes and leave the rest for them.

As I arrived with my second load consisting mostly of my and my father’s clothes, I noticed my father sitting in the front seat of the wagon, car started and air conditioner on. He was pouring a drink, and I was pissed. All of this was his fault and yet I had to take the blame, risk my life on the shoulder of the highway and pick up clothes. I stared at him for a minute and then realized that I didn’t want another backhand so I turned to retrieve more clothes. After a couple of hours or so, and two drinks, we had finished collecting the clothes that could be found and had packed them back into their suitcases. My father stumbled out of the air-conditioned car, onto the hood, and up to the roof. I handed him up the bags and when I finished he tied them off.

“Get away from here, boy. You fucked it up last time. I’ll do it right this time,” he said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Go sit in the car with the girls.” I did as I was told and wedged myself into the back vinyl seat. It was midday and getting hot so the vinyl had heated up and burned as I sat. My father got back in the car, mixed another drink on his own, not allowing me to mix it for him, put the car in drive, and we were on the road again. I lay my head down, pissed that I was blamed for something I didn’t do and tried with everything I had to remember the bikinis I had imagined on the beach and in the hotels and, well, just about everywhere, but all that kept coming to mind was the sight of my mom’s bra and me carrying it up the highway.


Review of “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Short Story, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, Writing on November 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

With so many journals and genres available today, the dependable reviewer has a duty to warn off the noble optimists and advise the faint-hearted when a book is not for them.  Obligation thus requires that I caution readers:  Gilbert Allen’s The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a collection of short stories, is intelligent, nuanced, poignant, and distressing—and hence not for everyone.

If you’ve read more than one Nicholas Sparks novel this year, this book isn’t for you.  If you think Oprah is a guardian of culture, this book isn’t for you.  If you believe Fox News and CNN are edifying, this book isn’t for you.  If you think David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, and Sidney Blumenthal are men of letters, this book isn’t for you.  If you prefer Dr. Phil to Jung and Freud, this book isn’t for you.  If Joel Osteen inspires you in a way that Augustine and Aquinas cannot, this book isn’t for you.  If, in fact, any of the aforesaid are true of your case, you might just be the unwitting target of Allen’s satire.

Having dispensed with the stereotypes and requisite preamble, I own that this is, in some respects, a personal review.  Allen was my professor at Furman University and a man I continue to admire.  He cannot be blamed for the way I turned out, and certainly not for my politics.  But he is partially responsible for my love of poetry and aesthetics.

Allen, I recall, loved cats, as well as his isolated, sylvan home in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, which is far from his native Long Island, both culturally and geographically.  His spoken diction was always precise, as was the pencil-thin mustache that grayed above his lips.  Tall and skinny, with belts so long they could’ve wrapped around him twice, he spoke softly and carried a big pen.

He commits poems to memory.  I once heard him recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” to the tune of La cumparsita, a curious performance he allegedly repeats using other poems and tangos.  Ancient or modern, free verse or rhyming, short or long, poetry is his lifework, calling, and passion.  So, I suspect, he suffers, as honorable poets are wont to do.  His suffering will surely escalate as he decides how to mass-market this latest book—his first one in prose—that’s critical of mass-marketing.

The book depicts a self-indulgent American suburbia starved for money and materialism, where people try to purchase happiness and other forms of fleeting satisfaction while fixated on their own or others’ sexuality.  These 16 stories, told in chronological order from the recent past to the immediate future—and, at last, to the year 2084—are not directly about sex.  Yet sexual anxieties, appetites, and insecurities bear a subterranean, causative relationship to the acquisitive urge and cupidity that complicate many of the characters in Allen’s dystopian community, Belladonna, a gated subdivision in South Carolina, probably near Greenville.

Allen’s opening story is a complex portrait of loving and loathing, and the fine line between the two.  A childless couple, Butler and Marjory Breedlove, still in their early 40s, struggle to remain compatible as they degenerate into a life of stultifying domesticity, having suffered through three miscarriages and the abortion of an anencephalic child.  Butler is an insurance salesman and a beer-drinking baseball fan who will pull for an aging veteran against his own beloved Atlanta Braves.  Marjory, the silent, brooding type, obsesses over her luxuriant, blooming flowers, the fecundity and fertility of which contrast with her own barrenness.

Butler, as if to compensate for a sense of emasculation occasioned by his inability to sire offspring, sets out to install storm windows one Saturday morning while Marjory is off visiting her mother.  If Marjory cannot be gratified through sexual activity, he presumably reasons, then she’ll derive pleasure from his dutiful, manly labor.  A client has told him that storm windows are “easier than a second honeymoon” because they require just nine “screws,” so there’s little doubt that Butler’s chore is substitutionary: it fulfills the need for virile exertion that, we may assume, is not met through copulation.

The problem is, Butler procrastinates and leaves the windows leaning over Marjory’s flowers for too long.  Any boy who’s used a magnifying glass to burn ants would’ve known not to do this, but not Butler.  He doesn’t consider what might happen to Marjory’s flowers as he sets aside the windows to pursue booze and television.  He does, however, manage to complete the window installation.  When Marjory returns, he proudly reveals his handwork, announcing, “I did it myself.”

He’s not fully aware of what it is until Marjory, ignoring the windows, says, “My flowers.”  She stares at her garden as if peering into an “open grave.”  The florae that were adjuncts for her lost children, that were little leafy lives she had created and sustained, are now dead.  She can’t bear the loss.  Tragedy compels her to mourn on a closet floor in her nightgown.  It’s an intolerable image—her sitting there, grieved and defeated—that captures the sad inability of two people to live out their most primitive desires.

The seemingly banal agonies in this story of strained marriage are subtly and quizzically meaningful.  What is the significance, for instance, of Marjory’s decision to serve up a scrumptious breakfast for Butler while she munches on blackened toast?  Such a small gesture, but so gravely significant.

With moments like these, impressively numerous in such a short, short story, Allen achieves, I think, the right amount of ambiguity: neither Butler nor Marjory is the “bad guy,” and both seem thwarted from intimacy and happiness by forces beyond their control yet caused by their own deliberate action.  They mean well, mostly, but they’re the same poles on a magnet, destined, it seems, to repel one another.  Even their surname—Breedlove—raises interpretive puzzles, since breeding and loving seem foreign to their relationship.  Whether it’s their childlessness or an accumulation of small disappointments that causes their desperation and despair remains unclear.

Perhaps they recognize, as most of us do at some point, that they’ll never become the people their younger selves wanted to be—and that this, whatever this may be, is all there is.  Youthful aspiration is bound to become dashed hope, and once we’ve made ourselves what we are, there’s no unmaking us.

John Beegle, the protagonist of the following story who happens to have purchased health insurance from Butler Breedlove—each story is delicately linked—faces a different problem, or problems: a growing estrangement from his wife and the incapability to connect with his teenaged daughters, one of whom has grown increasingly flirtatious in proportion to her budding breasts.  John likes “to understand things, piece by piece,” but he can’t make sense of the females in his family.  They move so fast, and he so slowly.

This all changes when he discovers, in the garage of his new house, an “autogyro,” or small helicopter, circa 1961.  This antique machine remains operational, and the more John works on it, the more his daughters take to him.  He even revives his libido, surprising his wife with a “midday tryst.”  The restoration of the helicopter refurbishes his own spirits, and he eventually takes the perilous contraption for a ride, rising high into the air until he can “see everything.”  Like Frost’s wistful narrator who imagines himself climbing a birch tree up toward heaven only to be set back down again, John, hovering in the sky, “begins to dream of his landing, of his own house.”  He thinks of his family and his return to the ground.  Earth is, indeed, the right place for love.

The book is full of characters like these: the widowed Priscilla Knobloch with her twelve-year-old, one-handed daughter; Ted Dickey, whose numerous speed-dating partners represent different social ailments from materialism to decadence; the unnamed hick hair stylist who likes to rear-end Porsches (just a “love tap”) and talk about blow jobs; a thrift store worker and his wife, the menopausal Meredith, who start a non-profit corporation for religious “bedding”; Jorja Sorenson, a painter, and her husband, Houston, who collaborate on the sculpture of a fetus that draws the attention of none other than Marjorie Breedlove; and on and on.

Through these hapless, heedless figures and their goods, interests, and acquisitions—television, cars, homes, designer shoes—certain symptoms of our national condition are projected: greed, consumerism, profligacy, extravagance, melancholy.  It’s not overstating to say that, with these stories, Allen has tapped into our national consciousness and disorder.  The quintessential American, restless and without a past, energetic and democratic, his works and beliefs at once enterprising and derivative—that iconic, preeminently rugged and relatable laborer—has, in our imagination, transitioned from self-reliant and industrious, always ready to “simply, simplify,” to dark and pitiful, burdened by the wealth and joy that forever elude him.

Although Americans once envisioned a vast frontier of possibility, an unknown and ever-widening expanse of hope and promise, imbuing optimism and idealism wherever we went, we now, sketchy and insecure, stumble along looking for opportunities that don’t exist, endeavoring to remain perpetually young and verdant, as if gray hair weren’t a crown of glory and splendor.  We want what we can’t have and have what we don’t want.

Once we were Franklins and Jeffersons, Emersons and Whitmans; today we’re Willy Lomans.  Or Cher Horowitzes.  Or Gordon Gekkos.  Without guilt we can’t identify with Reverend Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne.  Without abstinence, we can’t appreciate the allure of Rappacini’s daughter.  As coddled, perpetual children, we don’t get Ishmael and Ahab, Frederick Douglass, or Jay Gatsby.  We’re so phony that we don’t understand Holden Caulfield anymore.

So Allen has done us a great service.  By mocking us and portraying our ominously recognizable and quotidian depravities, he’s exposed the warring desires to which we’ve fallen prey: extravagance and simplicity, envy and indifference, aspiration and defeat, conformity and revolt.  He’s a spokesman for the disenchanted and disillusioned, for those who still possess the poetic vision about which Emerson intoned.   He sees a double consciousness, a conflict of the mind, that drags us into woeful insipidity and angst.  If reading his book isn’t like looking reluctantly and masochistically into the mirror, or less figuratively into your own split psyche, then you’re delusional or dishonest, or perhaps—just perhaps—the rare exception.

These stories are harsh, biting, titillating, disparaging, and sarcastic, but they’re also funny.  Allen derides us, and perhaps himself, with humor.  He’s a sensitive man, and very quiet.  Who knew that, beneath his silent façade, there was a hilarious personality?

I did.  Because his poetry reveals that about him.

His first collection of poetry, In Everything, was spiritual and serious, a sort of Buddhist mystical meditation on Nature and Being.  As time went on, he eased up and relaxed.  He moved from the intensity of numinous experience to the comic realities of everyday life.

It’s not that his writing became lighthearted, upbeat, or shallow.  It remained pensive and complex and open to rigorous interpretation, sometimes even cosmic in scope.  Yet there was something more playful and satirical about it.  He came to enjoy social criticism as much as he enjoyed, say, the splendor of sentience and the complexities of the mind and soul.

This tendency towards the witty and quirky, as I have suggested, finds expression in The Final Days of Great American Shopping.  It’s evident in a pick-up line: “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month?  As my tax deduction?”  It materializes in unsuspecting places such as the urinal, where a man talks on his cell phone as he pisses.  It even surfaces in the epithet “Confederate Flaggots,” which implies a phallic fascination with flag poles that’s endemic among men “who dress up in nineteenth-century costumes to do unspeakable things to one another in public parks.”

But not every attempt at humor is successful: the narrator of the story “Friends with Porsches” speaks like a redneck, but not a real redneck—just a forced caricature whose colloquialisms and ungrammatical syntax aren’t quite believable as actual speech.

Allen’s sardonic, unpretentious fiction renders a society that’s abandoned the “errand into the wilderness”—as Perry Miller so aptly labeled the once powerful theme of American experience—for the errand into the shopping mall.  Although some of the technology that appears in his stories is already dated—most of the stories were first published before iPhones and iPads made the Internet and email a ubiquitous, hand-held phenomenon—one senses in their representation a renewed and profane scrutiny that’s both subversive and daring.

Are we in the final days of American shopping, as Allen suggests?  If so, is that an apocryphal singularity, the secular equivalent to the eschaton?

Maybe.  Shopping, for Allen, is, after all, much more than merely examining and evaluating retail merchandise with an eye toward a trivial purchase.  It’s systemic and magnificent, a fluid cultural sickness with no immediate cure.  Alike in severity to those idolatrous practices which demand prophetic ministry, it signals a coming destruction that necessitates oracular warning.  Shopping has become the lord and king of us all.

As for the other events of shopping’s reign, those which don’t appear in Allen’s book, are they not written in the records of the Internet, the annotations of our technology, and the annals of our digital media?  Allen buries shopping with its ancestors.  And he buries us, and our endless wants, with it.

“Sojourn,” Part Six, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on June 29, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.


At the end of another of these evenings—there were no other evenings to be had—Neena invited them to linger. “A nightcap. Just the three of us,” she said.

Abu-Bakr had left earlier than usual that night, exclaiming loudly that there were signs the unrest was spreading and he had to attend to business, and then he strode military style out of the bar. To which Joanne had quipped within ear-shot, “Working. Imagine that.”  But with him gone, both Joanne and Nabil could relax and enjoy their moment with Neena.

Behind the bar, Neena poured Nabil a scotch, a cognac for herself.

“Just mineral water for me,” said Joanne.

Neena tilted her head, eyed Joanne for a moment. “I have noticed this before, but now I am sure. My dear, you are pregnant.”

Nabil smiled, nodded.

“Mon Dieu! Félicitations! Mabrouk!””

“Thank you,” replied Joanne stiffly.

“Not exactly planned,” added Nabil.

“A little complicated,” Joanne said.

Neena made a face and shook her head. “How complicated is it? The process well understood, no?” She laughed, said, “Ah oui. Je comprends. You are not together, really together in that way. Not married.”

She poured Joanne’s mineral water. “No alcohol. The hardest part about being pregnant,” she said. “But I still adored it. How far? Can’t be too far?”

“Just barely,” said Joanne. “A few weeks only.”

“My daughter. She is in Canada now. She came back many years ago after her father died, for his funeral. Agreed to see me. Briefly.”

Suddenly the glass panes in the doors to the terrace rattled as if they might shatter in their frames and there was the roar of fighter jets overhead, low and deafening.

Joanne cried out and Nabil gathered her in. For a moment they both looked to the ceiling.

Neena slumped in her seat; her face sank in her hands. “Who knows what will happen,” she said, when the jets had passed. “Will it be better? True, everywhere across the country it is terrible. Getting worse. No freedom. No future. But here in this small corner of the desert we drink, we sing, we dance. A small victory. My only victory.”

Joanne watched her closely. She had told Nabil that she liked Neena. She saw in Neena something of her own restlessness. She reached out and touched Neena’s hand. Neena responded, immediately taking Joanne’s hands in her own. “You could leave,” Joanne said. “Your daughter in Canada. How lucky she would be!”

Neena, who had been taking in Joanne with a warm gaze, threw back her head and laughed. “My daughter would not be feeling lucky,” she said. “I am too careless for her. She is like her father. He comes from a family of masons. They all love laying one perfect brick on top of the other. Careful does it. Careful does it. Doesn’t really matter what is being built, just as long as it’s straight and strong and the pieces all fit perfectly and the mortar isn’t making a mess. No unseemly edges. I am too unseemly.”

She stopped and shook her head, her face suddenly lit up with the urgency to make a point. “Did I tell you my mother was from Paris? I kept in touch with a few relatives there. And yes I thought at one point I might go there. I did in fact. Not for long though. I came back. You think you are from somewhere. Convince yourself of that. But not really. Suddenly you are just where you are. I caught the plane to Paris in Alexandria. I hadn’t been back to Alexandria for a long time, but each time I return I hardly recognize it. No. Seriously. It just keeps getting worse. I keep thinking how can it get worse? How can it get more crowded, more polluted, dirtier, more open sewers, more grime everywhere? How? But it does. It always surprises me. A talent really. An amazing gift for decline. So then I was really excited to leave. And when the plane took off, I said finally out of here. Gone. And I land in Paris and there is cooler air, cleaner streets, order, a beginning and end to the day. Each morning I get up in my little rented apartment. I make coffee, but it isn’t like the coffee I know. It isn’t mud. I tell myself I am sure I can find my coffee. I just have to look and find an Arab or Turkish store. In Paris they must be everywhere. Outside the streets are cleaner, there is no dust, no open sewers. El dinya nadeefa. Al aalam nadeef. No donkey carts pulling an open carriage with wares. But people hardly look at you as you walk past them. And there is the texture and smell of metal everywhere, steel, the glint of it, sunlight distilled to nothing, sharp as a knife, without warmth. That is what starts to strike me. The night rolls in. The lights go off. Each person in their own small cubicle. Their own prison. Isolement. That’s when I start to miss this place. Miss the desert. The smells, the merging of night and day, of water and sand, of past and present. I returned. Je suis revenue. Alone. Hina fee beity. Home.”

Joanne shifted in her seat. “I can see why you love this place,” she said. “Besides, with the restaurant you have no time to feel lonely.”

Neena brought her hands, which had been flying about, back to her lap. “The restaurant is failing. It has been for too long. No one cares anymore about the battlegrounds and the cemeteries. Those that did are themselves dying. I imagine them fading away in nursing homes all over gray Europe. Mon Dieu—but there were so many good years!”

“Your husband,” said Nabil. “How about him? How did he feel about this place?”

“My late husband. No. We lived apart for many years before he died. He stayed in Alexandria, with my daughter.”

A wave of irritation swept over Nabil. “So you just moved out here. One day you said, “I’ll leave my husband and daughter and move to the desert, build a restaurant.”

Joanne threw Nabil a hostile glance, but if Neena took offence at his words she didn’t show it. “You must understand some of this,” she said. “This not belonging. Then also perhaps I was not meant to be a wife to any man.”

She took the empty glass from Nabil’s hand. “Another?”

Nabil shook his head. She walked their glasses to the sink behind the bar.

“But I did not always feel alone here. One summer, soon after I started the restaurant, I met a young woman.” She had her back to them, rinsing the dishes. “She was from Alexandria. She used to stop by the restaurant every summer she was here with her family. She spoke French, which was nice. She was beautiful and lonely and there was a certain understanding. An attraction we couldn’t deny. We became close. I would look forward to the summers just to see her. We’d exchange letters the rest of the year. She wouldn’t let me visit her in Alexandria, but here, here it was different. She hated this place, and I was her reprieve.” Neena stopped, smiled, shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Stories. Too many stories. I could keep you up all night with them.”

Nabil stood up suddenly.  “It’s late,” he said. “We should go.”

Neena regarded him for a moment. “Not so late, Nabil. Mais bien. I’ll see you tomorrow night, though,” she said, then added quickly, “and please, please the cemeteries. You can’t leave without seeing the cemeteries.”

To be continued….

“Sojourn,” Part Three, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on June 1, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.


The resort was running a limited dining service, the disturbances having left the establishment nearly vacant. The front desk directed them to a small restaurant called Neena’s, within walking distance. The path from the beach house curved along the back of the hotel compound, then past a fading parking lot to a dusty road lined with towering, spindly palm trees, their reed-like motion in the sea breeze at once resilient and unsteady.

Neena’s was located a half mile down the highway, barely in town, which wasn’t much—a few miles of low-flung limestone homes and stores, narrow roads. The restaurant was a clean, modest affair; a small dining area led into a dimly lit bar. There Joanne chose a table by the bar and ordered a mango juice. Nabil ordered a Stella, the local beer for more than a century. The bartender drifted between the dining area and bar, straightening out the wrinkles on the tablecloths, and making subtle adjustments to the seating, in no apparent hurry to get their drinks. The decor was simple, mostly paintings of ancient Cairo and Alexandria during the Abbasid period depicting men in turbans and flowing gowns gathered around crowded market-places, or camped in clusters in an expanse of desert outside the Citadel. Scratchy music played overhead.

“That’s the singer Umm Khalthoum,” Nabil said. “I grew up on this. She was my father’s favorite. In New Jersey after we first arrived in America it was all he listened to. Every night when he thought I was asleep. He would sit there in the living room in the dark with the same record playing night after night, filling the place with cigarette smoke.”

“More actual detail about him than you have ever shared, Nabil,” said Joanne.

At home, they lived two hours apart. He saw Joanne on weekends. She was a financial analyst at a firm in San Francisco. He lived outside Sacramento, a technical writer at a civil engineering company. They shared a fondness for books and movies, restaurants, wine. He loved her apartment in the Marina district, the flood of sunlight from the expansive bay window, overlooking the Pacific and a slice of the Golden Gate Bridge.  He would drive to San Francisco most Friday nights, head back home late Sunday.  The distance kept them together, they always said. The pregnancy an accident, both of them momentarily unhinged, relying just this once on a timely withdrawal. Coitus interruptus interrupted.

Their drinks came. “What is she saying?” asked Joanne.

“Love. Despair. A little more love. A touch more despair.”

“Of course he was thinking of your mother.”

“Maybe,” said Nabil.

“What does that mean? His young wife drowns on vacation. Leaves him with a small boy to raise alone. He is devastated. Escapes to America. A new life.”

Nabil sipped his beer. “My mother hated it here. Did I tell you that?”

Joanne shook her head, regarded him. “No. As I recall the official line is you don’t much remember anything about her.”

Nabil looked away, eyed the array of liquor bottles along the glass shelves above the bar. He had kept reminiscence of his time here as a child at a distance, even to himself. Joanne, at one point frustrated by his resistance, had eventually abandoned her forays into the topic. Still, but for Joanne, there would have been no trip here. “You get on a plane,” she had said, and meant that he spare her the drama. She’d been right, and now that they were here, it felt absurd not to allow himself the freedom to give more form and substance to his memories, share more with her.

When his beer was finished, Nabil tried to catch the bartender’s attention, but the man was in the dining area, his back to them. Nabil sighed and leaned back in his seat. “She was from Alexandria, a city girl, private school, French sprinkled in with the Arabic at home. Piano lessons. Marble foyer with ridiculous plaster busts of Beethoven and Mozart. All the pretenses. My father tormented her for it. ‘Why Merci? What’s wrong with Shokran?’ Here he reclaimed his place. Returned to his roots. I’d feel it. Everything harder. Coarser. His language changing. His laugh.”

Joanne said, “All you ever told me is that you came to the U.S. with him. That you picked up and moved every few years after that.”

“We were not close and we rarely spoke of her or of this place.

“You said he never married again, but there must have been someone, another woman sometime along the way?”

“No. Not that I saw. And we never stayed in one place for long.  New Jersey, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis. He avoided everyone.”

“Even other Arabs?” Joanne said. She played with an edge of her napkin, looked up at Nabil.

Especially other Arabs. He kept to himself. Listened to Umm Khalthoum.  He drove a cab, worked night shift as a janitor, manned convenience stores. Anything.”

“Such a depressing childhood, Nabil,” she said. “I thought mine was bad enough.”

Nabil shrugged.  “He was not a bad father. He provided everything I needed. But yes, what I remember most are gray skies, cold winters, run down apartments in random cities.”

A young waitress, hair in a pony tail, dressed in a simple tan skirt and green blouse brought over quarters of pita bread in a basket and small saucers of hummus and tahini and olives. Nabil handed her his empty beer glass and ordered a scotch, but the girl didn’t seem to understand what a scotch was.  He pointed to the bottles of liquor behind the bar, tried again, the girl listening carefully.  “Ah,” she said, nodding quickly before seeking out the bartender who had just come in from the dining room.

Joanne leaned back in her seat, she was wearing jeans and a white button down that left her arms bare. “It’s so peaceful here,” she said. “Was there truly nothing your mother liked about this place?”

Nabil shook his head. “She loathed the summers. Long months of nothing but desert and sea, and the three of us alone.  Even as a kid I’d sense it as she prepared for the trip out here. Each piece of clothing ironed and folded and neatly packed in suitcases. Like she was putting some part of herself in storage.”

Joanna crossed her arms, hugged herself, rubbed her arms gently with each hand.

“Are you cold?” Nabil asked. “I can have them lower the air conditioning.”

Joanna shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Just trying to imagine things, that’s all.” She scooped up a dollop of hummus with the pita bread and offered it to Nabil. He waved it away, and she plopped it into her mouth.

“There was one time I do remember clearly. She was holding my hand, looking back at him.”  His father in the sun and haze, white shirt, sleeves rolled half way up his arms, black trousers. “I was pulling back from her, and she kept holding onto me, tugging, cajoling me to cross the highway with her until she finally just gave up. And we stood there at the edge of the road and watched him approach.”

The bartender brought over Nabil’s scotch. Nabil thanked him, gestured at the empty bar and asked, “Where are your customers?”

The bartender waved in the general direction of the hotel. “People try to go away,” he said. “But airport shut down.”

To be continued…

“Sojourn,” Part Two, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on May 18, 2016 at 8:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.


They drove to the beach house and unloaded. Joanne changed into her one-piece—her body still trim—crazy crimson against her pale skin, her backside like a split peach. If she felt poorly with the pregnancy, she had not mentioned anything to Nabil. She unlocked the French windows, hurried out onto the rectangular tiled patio, rolling desert all around them except for the back of the house which opened to the sea, a crescent of blue.

The desert drifted into the cool expanse of water. “A slow ebb of pain,” said Joanne.  From where they stood it was no more than 100 yards across the white sand to the sea.  The beach was deserted, the midday air uncomfortably dense.

“You should come with,” she said.

I’ll watch you from here,” Nabil said. How beautiful she looked to him, her auburn hair radiant in the harsh sunlight.

She shrugged, turned her back to him, moved briskly across the sandy beach to the water’s edge. She waded in, barely a ripple, water lapping hip level.  He thought of his mother, his father by her side, their bodies leaning into each other, braced against the breaking waves.  His parents had seemed close at that moment, almost intimate.

“Bathwater!” Joanne called.

Unbidden, the foggy northern California coastline came to mind, the place he’d first met Joanne, Steve Pullman’s 35th birthday party at Half Moon Bay.  She was as exotic to him as he was to her, the daughter of a Scotch-Irish rancher from the Oklahoma Panhandle, her hair settling gently against her pale shoulders, which were bare in a strapless dress. You could hear an accent when she talked about it: “I got tired of the red dirt and scrub grass and rednecks and wandered west.”

Joanne cut a path into deeper water past a patch of seaweed.  She twirled and waved to him, dove in, did a flawless breast-stroke parallel to the coastline before turning back to the shore.  Nabil had experienced a surge of anxiety watching her, but it was transient, immediately suppressed.

He jumped at the sound of knocking on the front door: a stranger.  He shielded his eyes from the sunlight to get a better look. The man was short, heavy set, dressed in a loose short-sleeve shirt, embroidery on the sides, gray slacks. Not a uniform per se, but still something official about his appearance Nabil thought.

“I hope I’m not disturbing,” the man said in surprisingly good English. “Sorry for the trouble. A routine security check.”

Nabil, uneasy by the man’s presence, said, “Is there a problem?”

The man laughed pleasantly. He had his sunglasses perched atop his head, a stubbly double chin. “No. No. Please. Not at all. You arrived very late last night. My name is Mr. Abu-Bakr. My security officer didn’t have a chance to do the standard passport inspection at the registration desk, that’s all.” On his face an expression of regret for the tedium of official protocol. “I am very sorry to bother you. It will just take a moment.”

Nabil stepped aside to let the man enter. “If you give me a moment, I’ll find our passports.”

“Please,” said Abu-Bakr.

In the bedroom he peered out the window at the beach for Joanne and didn’t see her. He grabbed the passports from the drawer where he had slipped them under some folded clothes, then hurried back out to the entranceway, determined to finish up with Abu-Bakr as rapidly as possible and check on Joanne.

The man hadn’t moved. He leafed quickly through Joanne’s passport, more slowly through Nabil’s.

“The lady,” Abu-Bakr asked, “is she here?”

“She went for a swim,” said Nabil. “Are we done? I need to check on her.”

“Certainly,” said Abu-Bakr, then peered past Nabil as Joanne appeared in her bathing suit, the material still wet, molded against her breasts, snug against the gentle fullness of her hips. Nabil wished he could wrap the towel which hung from her shoulders around her.

“I think she is now found and safe,” Abu-Bakr said pleasantly, handing the passports back.

“Indeed I am,” she said, looking unperturbed. “And who are you?”

Nabil admired her confidence. So unlike his own untidy emotions. The hardest place is the “in between”—not tourist, no longer native.

“My dear lady. I am Captain Lutfi Abu-Bakr, the head of the police here.”

“Impressive! The hotel has its own police department?” said Joanne

Abu-Bakr regarded Joanne for a moment, impassively at first, then he broke into a grin, said with a laugh, “No, just for the entire city, unfortunately. A much more trivial responsibility.”

“A routine security check,” said Nabil. “I think we’re done?”

Abu-Bakr nodded, his gaze lingering on Joanne, though he spoke to Nabil. “Do you still speak your native tongue or have we lost you completely?”

“Itsharafna,” Nabil said.

“The pleasure was all mine,” replied Abu-Bakr in English, now eyeing Nabil directly.

“Strange character,” said Joanne after Abu-Bakr had left. She roped the beach towel around her hair. “Not sure he wanted to leave.”

“He was enjoying the view,” said Nabil. He pulled her close to him, her swimsuit damp against his shirt, kissed her.

“Well that’s just not right,” whispered Joanne, her tongue sea-chilled, darting between his lips. “I almost feel like I cheated on you.”

In the bedroom she finished peeling off her bathing suit, pressed herself against him. He ran his lips between her breasts, tasted the salty skin down to her navel and below where part of him now resided, the child that he’d never wanted.

To be continued…

“Sojourn,” Part One, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on May 11, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.


In Sidi Abdel Rahman, off the main highway, the roads were gutted with potholes, cracked asphalt. Nabil parked the car outside a cavernous store with wares spilling out onto the broken sidewalk: pots and pans strung together on a frayed rope, plastic soccer balls bundled in torn netting, brightly colored shirts and gowns on a metal rack and below that an array of sandals and cheap toys. Near the entrance stood a bulky, rusted ice cooler, on its front Arabic letters and a picture of a smiling boy holding an ice cream cone. The manager at the hotel had directed them here – the soobermarket he had said, pointing due east.  “A short walk,” he said, but then offered up his old Fiat.

The shopkeeper, dressed in flip flops and a sun-bleached galabiya, was parked on a plastic chair in the shade, smoking.

Nabil turned to Joanne, “OK. You’re sure you know what you need?”

Joanne nodded and swung her legs out the car. She was dressed in a short skirt that had seemed fine at the resort this morning, less so now.

El salam Alaykum,” Nabil said, greeting the shopkeeper.

He was an older fellow, bald, slight of build under his faded gray gown.  He stubbed his cigarette and spoke, a voice smoldered for years in tobacco smoke: “Alaykum el salam.” He eyed Joanne for a moment, gestured them inside with a wave of his hand.

Darkness.  The smell of coriander and cumin, of closed spaces, of spices desiccated in the heat and turned to dust. The shopkeeper followed them and sat in a dark corner behind the counter. A fan whirred loudly on a shelf above his head. Joanne strolled casually down the cramped aisles, her sandaled feet audibly shuffling on the dusty floor.

They had landed in Alexandria yesterday just as the demonstrations were erupting. Their limousine driver skirted the city center to avoid the crowds, but they could see billows of black smoke in the distance, the sounds of sirens piercing the late afternoon. And even coming down the desert highway to this forlorn place, 80 miles from Alexandria, they’d spotted a military convoy heading the opposite direction, towards the trouble. Joanne had smiled bravely when Nabil squeezed her hand. He’d spoken to the limousine driver in Arabic, tried to sound confident of his place in the country despite a surging wave of panic.

The limousine driver glanced at them over his shoulder. “Tell the lady not to be nervous, we are friendly people.”

Out of the city, she rolled down her window better to take in the darkening desert around them, the smell of gasoline fumes and sulfur slowly ebbing, a waft of eucalyptus. She lifted her face to the sky, pulled her hair back, her profile dim in the failing light. At the resort she had slept soundly. He on the other hand remained ill at ease, wandered the sparsely furnished rooms of their rented beach house on the grounds of the resort, unsettled less by the unrest around them than by the fact that he was now back in the one place his father had sworn they would never return to.

Joanne took her time scrutinizing the available goods – canned tuna, rice, beans, coffee, tea, milk, fresh bread – all displayed in no particular arrangement. She perused the vegetable stand examining cucumbers and tomatoes that looked smaller, their skin less vivid than back home. She raised a cucumber to her face and inhaled.

“Nice?” he asked.

“A little ripe,” she said.

“I’m going to step outside.”

No, she didn’t look nervous at all.  He left her looking at a curious array of detergents and cereal boxes, and with a nod to the shopkeeper, who raised a cracked, calloused palm, wandered outside.

He could feel the density of the air lift immediately, a sudden release from the stagnant miasma inside. The store was on the corner of a narrow dirt road that abutted the highway. In the other direction on both sides were high limestone walls, interrupted by the green, orange or blue wrought iron gates of private homes. Across the street, a young girl dressed in a loose fitting gown and a headscarf stood outside an open gate and hosed down a concrete doorstep, her bare feet wet in flip flops. Behind the gate Nabil caught a fleeting glimpse of a dusty front yard, a woman in a darkened hallway.

He strolled uphill to the end of the dirt road. From there he could peer down the desert highway and the heat percolating off the sweltering asphalt. It cut across the desert like a vaporous snake, slicing through a landscape sparsely populated with brightly colored Bedouin homes scattered amidst sand and sky, framed by a dusty sliver of horizon. Just east of here was El Alamein and its lonely mausoleums for the dead—soldiers from all over Europe—monasteries of scrubbed limestone and creeping bougainvillea. To the west was the long drift of sand-swept highway past the seaport of Marsa Matrouh and on into the ancient military outpost of Tobruq in Libya, the sand dunes along the coast like white mountains in the distance.  He recalled how he had described the town to Joanne, as much of it as he could remember. West of Alexandria, white sand beaches, war cemeteries in the distance, grave stones like yellowed teeth erupting from the earth. A remote outpost on a long desert highway, you could drift right past it, a fleeting glance in the rear-view mirror. He had in his mind for years.

Joanne had probed and he had told her about his childhood summers there, his father’s connection to the land, his mother’s drowning, an elusive notion of return, one step out of reach, chasing a shadow.

You get on a plane she said blandly. She was from the unhindered expanse of the Oklahoma Panhandle, steely skies as far as the eye could see. Fearless.

Nabil was startled to hear Joanne calling.  He turned abruptly and saw her outside the store, waving. How simple it now seemed, their transport across geography and memory.  He trotted back down the hill.

“I need to pay the man,” she said. “I can’t understand him.”

Inside, the shopkeeper pondered him. “Masri?”

Nabil replied that he was, yes, Egyptian.

Wah el hanem, Ajnabiya?” the man asked more kindly, handing Nabil the change, nodding his head at Joanne.

Amrikania,” Nabil said. Then for some reason he felt the need to explain, “I live there.”

“My sympathies,” the shopkeeper replied in Arabic.

To be continued….


In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Short Story, Writing on November 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

The following short story first appeared here in Full of Crow.

The man awoke to the chirping of a bird.  He lay listening in his bed for some time before rising, stretching, and gaining the window.  He looked outside.  The sun had risen; off-white clouds unrolled like scrolls across the horizon; wet grass and tall pines punctuated the land below.  Sometimes the man looked out and read the words of the world; sometimes he looked out and read nothing because the world seemed unwritten.  “Not for nothing,” he said to himself.  “Not for nothing.”

Sometimes he would see her standing in the yard, working in the garden, pretty as a sunflower.  Sometimes he forgot her.  She was never there in any case.

The woman was, in her youth, symmetric and vaguely beautiful, like a poem: full of marks and scribbles working in concert, taking on meaning.  In recent years she had become, despite herself, an aging monument to womanhood whose rough topography of face showed traces, however faint, of vigor.  She had been gone five years, but he thought about her, and about her cool, liquid eyes, on many mornings, especially on the cool mornings when the steady, westward breezes tussled his hair and smelled, to him, like memory; the pain of her leaving was stronger in the mornings than in the afternoons or nights.  The earth, the soil, the animals: all were alive, shamelessly, recklessly, gloriously alive then.  The stirring of birds and squirrels and the retreat of nighttime critters—raccoons, owls, opossums—inscribed the world with syllables and notes, sang the world to the world, perhaps even to the universe.  Something happened in the mornings, something tremendous: the soul, his soul, like leaking ink, bled into the world, stained the world, and he, the man, became an artist, and joined the growing chorus of life.

But the man was not happy.  He no longer understood happiness because he could not read it.

This morning was different.  He wondered whether it was the music, the tune, the tone.   Standing before the window, he closed his eyes and listened to the world and turned his head toward the source of the sounds and then opened his eyes.

There it was.

A redbird.

He stared at the redbird, a stranger to him.  He knew the daily visitors to his feeders and birdbaths, knew them as one knows the contours of his hand: mostly bluebirds and robins, but occasionally finches and sparrows.  The redbird, though, was new; its music moved him, drew him out of himself.

The redbird perched on a limb on the old maple tree and turned its beak to the sky, its crimson crest and round black mask both brilliant and threatening.  Its little button-eyes were barely visible beneath the mask, but the man thought he saw the redbird looking back at him.  He smiled and waved.  The redbird bobbed in acknowledgment and then flew off.

The man grew sad.

He gazed as far as he could into the distance: at the brooks and streams meandering down the mountain and terminating into the various fishponds that dimpled the Okmulgee valley.  He could just make out the images of trees covering the foothills; yet when he had stood here as a boy, he could see everything, even the neighboring village, south of the mountain.  How strange, he thought, that the body grows old.

The man placed his hand before his face and wiggled his wrinkled fingers.  He smiled knowing that he controlled these appendages even if they weren’t strong or nimble, even if they wouldn’t touch the woman again.  Then he frowned because the fingers, crusty and bent, seemed separate from him—as if they belonged to a force even greater: God maybe.

It was Monday.  The boy would come today.

He was kind, this boy: a hard worker.  He showed up on time every Monday and Wednesday to till the land, chop the wood, feed the cows, water the plants.  He had been at this routine for two years.

When the boy came, the man was happy. Read the rest of this entry »

What They Left, Part Two

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story, Writing on July 6, 2012 at 8:45 am

A.G. Harmon is a professor at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.  He received his J.D. from The University of Tennessee, his M.A. from The University of New Hampshire, and his Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America.  A nominee for The Pushcart Prize in the essay, he was a 1998-1999 Richard Weaver Graduate Fellow and winner of the 1995 Glen Writers Fellowship.  He received the 1994 Milton Center Postgraduate Writing Fellowship and was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2003. His novel A House All Stilled (The University of Tennessee Press, 2002) was awarded The Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel in 2002 and was nominated for the Virginia Literary Prize and the Pen-Hemingway Award. His novel Fortnight was the runner-up for The William Faulkner Prize for the Novel in 2007. His book on the law in Shakespeare, Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, was published by State University of New York Press in 2004.

The following story first appeared in The Bellingham Review, Volume XXIX, no. 1, Issue 57 (2006) and is reprinted with express permission from the author.

…continued from part one….

“You sell car parts—and shit like that?” the policeman had asked. He leaned against the iron post that held up the front porch.

“That’s right.”

“You own that junk stand? Up there on the road?

He was fat and sweaty and smelled of green after-shave. He chewed stick after stick of gum. Another policeman, bony, with a mustache as thin as a boy’s, sat on the front step. He dug dog shit from the soles of his patent leather shoes with a piece of tree bark.

“I sell parts,” he had answered.

“Must be doing pretty good, if you’re this busy,” the fat one said.

“It’s never too good.”

“Well, must be. You were there instead of here.”

He unwrapped the foil from a white stick of gum—spearmint—and shoved it into his full mouth. “Why’d you leave him, in the state he was in?”

“I have to work.”

The fat man frowned, squinted. “He stays—stayed—here while you were at work?”


“You couldn’t get nobody to stay with him? In the state he’s in?”


The man popped his gum. “How long did he stay alone?”

“‘Til I got done.” Read the rest of this entry »

What They Left, Part One

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story, Writing on July 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

A.G. Harmon is a professor at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.  He received his J.D. from The University of Tennessee, his M.A. from The University of New Hampshire, and his Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America.  A nominee for The Pushcart Prize in the essay, he was a 1998-1999 Richard Weaver Graduate Fellow and winner of the 1995 Glen Writers Fellowship.  He received the 1994 Milton Center Postgraduate Writing Fellowship and was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2003. His novel A House All Stilled (The University of Tennessee Press, 2002) was awarded The Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel in 2002 and was nominated for the Virginia Literary Prize and the Pen-Hemingway Award. His novel Fortnight was the runner-up for The William Faulkner Prize for the Novel in 2007. His book on the law in Shakespeare, Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, was published by State University of New York Press in 2004.

The following story first appeared in The Bellingham Review, Volume XXIX, no. 1, Issue 57 (2006) and is reprinted with express permission from the author. 

What They Left

Each call stood out from the next: a soft moan, a low horn, rising. The man’s head lifted an inch. His eyes wrinkled at the corners. His tongue touched the top of his palate, as if he smelled fire.

There was nothing to keep him from his work except these sounds, and even they only made him pause for a moment—turn small, keen eyes toward the line of hills, colored black in the last orange light, from which the sounds seemed to come. Then he returned to his labor.

A pen-light hung from the raised hood of the car’s engine, where his hands—the knuckles scabbed and some bleeding—toiled inside the motor. His flesh was raw and cracked and chapped from too much wind, too much weather without gloves, too little idleness.

He had lived past his middle age at the end of this tree-lined road. He had cut the way himself, a narrow alley leading from his back door, through the rear of his property, and ending at his store on the highway. There he sold old things, used things, gathered together by function, then by size, then by cost. Besides him, the only people that used the road were those who abandoned things alongside it. He did not know when it had become a castaway point, but it had happened slowly, and he had noticed it, slowly. After a time, as he made his way home, he began to find iceboxes, dishwashers, gates, air conditioners, lengths of fence, rolls of barbed wire. In the end, weeds took them.

Sometimes he would stop to see if he wanted any of the discarded things for himself—to salvage, reclaim, sell. If anything could be saved, he would slip back at night with a pulley and tackle, winch it against a tree, then slide what he wanted up from the ditch. Sometimes people got there before him though, so he had to work fast. Other times people took back what they had left. Once, at his store, a man claimed a tiller that had taken three days to fix:

“This is mine,” the man had said, his eyes bright, sharp. “I can tell.”

He shook his head, widened his stance so that his body stood at an angle to the other.

“I found it on the road.”

“It’s mine.”

“Not now.”

The other had placed his hand on the plastic grip, leaned over the top of the thing, glared: “You stole it. Prove you didn’t.”

So he had learned. He had to be careful of what he touched. He had to change things, just enough.

This time, though, they had worked too quickly, had been interrupted. He himself might have surprised them, coming down the road. He was thin, but tall, so his feet hit the earth hard and loud as he walked, grinding in the chert. They could have heard him a long way off. Nothing else accounted for how much they had left. The stereo had been slipped out, and some of the engine broken free, but he could work with what remained. It lay, piece by piece, cupped inside his hands; cold and slick and greasy; with his tools, it could be made to tick and turn warm.

It was only a day or so there; not even that. It had come to his notice that morning, as he walked to work. He might have overlooked it, had not the first of the sun picked out lights in the black paint. The car had been left off the shoulder, down a bank and beside a stand of pines.

His wrench slid over a bolt deep beneath the battery plate. It was a tight fit, but it caught the bolt’s angles. After several yanks, the wrench fell into the familiar release and give of loosening. If all went well, the engine would start soon, with new plugs and a new fan for the radiator. He would have to decide what to do with it then, though. The law would come into play. He could not say how, but he would have to decide.

His cap made his head hot. He pulled his hands out of the body and pushed his hat’s bill back from his brow. He thought for a moment and ran his fingers over whiskers, three days grown. He raked them back and forth. The bite warmed his face.

There was more to do, but not now. In the morning, then.

It was a small climb up from the stash of trees back to the road. He picked up a bucket of greasy tools, held the light between his teeth, and clawed at the grass with his free hand to keep his purchase. Once there, he took the light from his mouth and shined it in the direction he would take. The beam bobbed before him as he walked—a soft, collapsing tunnel through the dark. The tools jangled in the bucket.

The sounds returned: Two. Three. Silence.

He marched on through three more calls, and rests, and calls, before he stopped and spun toward them, swiveling on his down heel. He stared into the woods for a moment—a gray, ashen blue—then commenced to walk. He kept up the same stride as before, but with the hills facing.

There was no point going on until his mind was free. They might have come back—keys in hand. And he would not surrender his work to theirs. It was no more theirs than his.

He stopped to glance back at the car, then slowly ran his light down its length, fender to bumper, marking the body.

It was almost lost in the dark, now. It would take a man with a light, now.

To find the sounds he would have to crawl down the opposite bank, which fell off at a stiff grade. The light and the bucket together would be too much to carry. He would need a free hand to compensate, so he set the bucket down and drew out a hammer by its claw. He hefted it twice, then once more—once for each sound he had heard—and sat himself on the bank’s edge. He went belly first, sliding, the damp ground pressing through his clothes, kissing at his skin. Read the rest of this entry »

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