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Archive for the ‘Short Story’ Category

“The Watcher,” A Story by Yasser Y. El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story on July 30, 2019 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. Has has a forthcoming short story collection with Red Dirt Press, The Alexandria You Are Losing. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.

 

Highway 280 was Sara’s preferred route to the community college whenever Wissam, like today, was able to drive her. Otherwise, she rode the bus which took a different route through the inner streets of Redwood City. Except with the bus she didn’t get to glide past the panorama of green mountains. An imposing terrain of Northern California foothills separating the peninsula from the ocean. Nor could she soak in the golden haze of morning sunlight flooding those very same foothills, illuminating the sullen density of verdant terrain into something brighter and more welcoming. That’s how she always perceived the morning sunlight against the face of the foothills—a welcome of sorts.

She asked about those foothills the day she first arrived in the Bay Area of San Francisco, peering at the mountains through the car window before they pulled off the highway onto Farm Hill Boulevard.

“What are they called?” She asked Wissam.

Wissam shrugged and said, “they’re not called anything.”

But she knew they had to have a name. What beautiful mountains like these don’t have a name she thought? Even the hills of the Red Sea had a name—the Red Sea Mountains. Unremarkable but still something. Not wanting to argue with Wissam after so many months apart, she said only, “What’s behind them?

“The ocean,” Wissam said.

“The Pacific Ocean,” Sara added.

Wissam laughed, reached for her hand and raised it to his lips. “Yes, the Pacific Ocean.” Then added, “Sara, I have missed you so much.”

They lived in a one bedroom apartment on Roosevelt Avenue, a couple of blocks from downtown Redwood City. A quiet street with an off-white stucco front, Mexican palms on either side of a narrow concrete walkway that led to the entrance of the apartment block. Indoors, the building had a stale, tired smell; a thin sheen of air-freshener thickly infused by a percolating aroma of cooking oil and mildew. Sara had emailed her mother in Alexandria her first impression of their home.

I see rooftops from our bedroom window,” she wrote. “And imagine their gray against the sky is an ocean. Although that makes me miss our small apartment in Alexandria and the view of our sliver of the Corniche.  But Wissam says the ocean is just a short distance away. He will take me there this weekend. Half Moon Bay. It is peaceful here. And lonely. I wish you could all be here with me.

#

She would have preferred the America of Barack Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. She had lingered on that middle name when she had first heard it in Alexandria. Marveled that this man could be the president of this faraway land. Even felt a connection through that name to this vast and mysterious continent. Her perspective on the country changing, softening. Towards the end of that presidency Wissam had received a grant from the Egyptian government to spend a year at a biotechnology company. She had been excited to join him, although less so now that the new occupant had settled into the White House. No sense of connection there. Rather anxiety and trepidation over what she saw on the television. So much so that she had called Wissam from Egypt worried if it was safe for him to be there, and safe for her to join him. Wissam had teased her on the phone, said that the surveillance cameras around the apartment and even the ankle bracelets were really not so bad. Something he had gotten used to.

“But I wear a hijab,” she had persisted.

“Many of those around here too,” he had said, and then added with a chuckle, “This is San Francisco. They’ve turned it into a fashion item.”

So she had come. Tearfully hugged her mother Fayza and sister Lubna farewell in the darkened lobby of their apartment building, drove with her Uncle Malik, her mother’s brother, through the still empty streets of the city, the dawn light gray and filtering, to the Borg El Arab airport an hour outside Alexandria. She had been on a plane twice before. Once to the Hurghada on the Red Sea for a cousin’s wedding, and once to Istanbul as part of a college course on verse and poetry in Ottoman Turkey. But she knew enough to know she disliked air travel. The utter loss of control. The knowledge that the chances of surviving a technical mishap were virtually nil. So Sara had muttered the fatha on each of those lift-offs and landings, and did the same this time as the plane ascended above Alexandria, then as it landed in Frankfurt, and a few hours later again on another plane to San Francisco.

#

Near the end of Sara’s first week, Halloween, and the incessant knocking on her apartment door. She peered through the eyeglass at the ghouls and angels, bloodied corpses and little girls dressed as butterflies. She wondered what kind of place she had come to. Wissam stayed late at work that night, and she had telephoned him trying to keep the anxiety from her voice. She described to him what she was seeing, and he had started to laugh uproariously before settling down and explaining that this was an American tradition. They were just children who lived in the apartment complex. But, yes, best not open the door because they had no candy to offer.

The Sunday after Halloween, Wissam drove them down Highway 280, merging onto Route 92 over the foothills to Half Moon Bay. Sara knew he was watching her out of the corner of his eyes, and that he was amused by the way she pressed her face against the glass pane of her car window, trying to peer into the lush green valleys and steep canyons formed between the mountain range. The landscape huge and pressing, dream-like in its scope and immediacy, a source of fascination and fear for Sara. One ill-considered turn of the steering wheel could send them both hurling into the darkening abyss below. She pulled back with that thought, head tilted up on the headrest, eyes looking straight ahead.

“Dizzy?” Wissam said gently.

“Keep your eyes on the road, please, Wissam,” Sara muttered.

“We’ll be on the other side before you know it,” Wissam replied reassuringly.

And so they were. Descending into green farmlands, broad swathes of pumpkin patches, quaint wineries and small horse ranches, a business with strange clusters of life-size woodcarvings of animals: bears and dinosaurs and elephants. And across the road from that, a cemetery, ragged, dilapidated, abandoned, except for an old woman, hair pinned up in a bun, dressed in a gray raincoat and black boots, and peering down at a tilting tombstone. Past that into what looked more familiar—a gas station, a small supermarket and fish restaurant—then a right turn onto the Cabrillo Highway and the chalky grey sea in full view.

“Half Moon Bay,” said Wissam, smiling up at her.

Sara reached over and burrowed her hand under Wissam’s thigh. They had made love earlier that morning. He had stirred against her when she first awoke—waiting for her. She had been restrained in lovemaking during the early months of their marriage, but had felt restraint dissipate with time. Then had come the bloody miscarriage in the ragged Shatby Hospital labor ward, and for months after that Sara had refused any physical intimacy.

“Now I’m getting excited again,” he said looking over at her, her hand still nestled under his thigh.

But Sara was looking out beyond the Cabrillo Highway, the dark bodies bobbing in the water on surfboards, wondering who these people were and what they were doing?

“It’s called surfing,” Wissam explained. “They stand up on these boards and let the waves carry them along. But the water is cold here year round, not like back home. So they have to wear these black outfits.”

Wissam pulled off the narrow highway at the dusty entrance to the Miramar Beach Inn. He had told her about the restaurant the night before, relaying a story he’d heard from an acquaintance at work.

“It used to be a house of prostitution and where illegal alcohol was stored years ago.”

“Alcohol was illegal here?” Sara asked, perplexed.

“Apparently so. A long time ago.”

“Hmm,” she mused. “Why would we eat there? A house of prostitution.”

“It’s a restaurant now,” he said laughing.

“Still,” she said with a shrug.

The restaurant was a one story squat structure next to a parking lot and across a gravel path from the ocean. When they had parked the Honda Civic and stepped out of the car, Sara stood facing the open water, the sea breeze whipping up against the edges of her hijab. She tucked a loose strand of hair back in place.

“It’s beautiful Wissam,” she said. She was gazing out at the tapered stretch of sand, the crescentic curve of the bay, billows of fog against the surrounding mountains, the water gray and foamy merging with the pewter tinged sky. But for the mountains, it was Alexandria on a stormy November morning with the Corniche curving along the shore.

“Here,” Wissam said, reaching for her arm, turning her to face him, her back to the sea. “Let me take a picture of you. We can text it home.”

They found a window table. Sara ordered petrale sole on a bed of saffron rice and a coca –cola. Wissam selected the house burger, French fries and a beer.

Sara regarded Wissam, her expression a mix of dismay and alarm.

“I’ve fallen in love with American burgers and fries,” he said evasively.

“A beer Wissam?” She hissed in a low voice leaning into the table.

“Just one,” he said.

“Since when?” She whispered angrily.

“I don’t know Sara,” he sat back in his seat, forcing a distance between them. “It’s different here. It’s not all about heaven and hell and haram all day long from every loudspeaker 5 times a day.”

“It’s our faith, Wissam!” She said, this time her voice louder. She pulled back, turned her face to the window and the bustle outside, a scatter of people ambling down the gravel road, or pausing to take in the view.

She knew she had always been more observant. Had always felt in him a careless attitude about religion. His adherence back home only because it was safer than rebelling. He would never have ordered alcohol in public in Alexandria. But of the two of them it was only Sara who kept regular prayer each day, facing Mecca. If she missed a prayer, she would assiduously make it up by day’s end. “Do you think God really keeps that close a count,” he had teased her once.

When the beer arrived he set it aside. “Truce?” he said with a hopeful expression.

She sighed, said nothing, distractedly spread butter on the open half of a bread roll.

“A truce?” Wissam said again, reaching for her hand.

She nodded, “Yes, Wissam. A truce”

They were quiet on the drive home. It was not until they were descending the last stretch of Route 92 that she said, “We will not be here so long Wissam. We are only visitors here. We will be home again soon enough.”

He nodded but kept his gaze straight ahead. “That’s the plan,” he said.

“A year and we will be back,” she said.

“A year or two at the most,” he said gently.

“A year that will pass very quickly,” she persisted.

#

Sara had studied Arabic literature at the University of Alexandria, and had completed the first year of a master’s program, before taking a year of absence to be with Wissam. Her thesis was on the influence of the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, on the structure of stories and novels of subsequent generations of Arab writers. That in defining the Arab novel to the degree Mahfouz did, he both facilitated and hindered the development of Arabic literature. It was a struggle for younger writers to break out from his influence into new forms. She could tell that her thesis, while still nascent, was not what her advisor, a great admirer of Mahfouz, had wanted to hear. Although, to his credit he had not outright dissuaded her, only challenged the premise, pointing to the flourishing of diverse literary themes among Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi writers.

“Mahfouz put Arabic literature on the world stage,” Professor Khalil had argued. “Without him no one would have heard of it or cared. He opened the door for all of us.”

Sara had planned to spend this year in America developing the arguments around her thesis. She brought with her a suitcase filled with her books. But somehow an inertia had settled on her. An inability to imagine in this foreign place the intricacies of the landscape she was trying to navigate from a distance.

“Perhaps you need to step away from all this a little,” Wissam suggested when she raised her frustration with him. “A different perspective. Something totally new.”

“Such as?” Sara asked doubtfully.

“How about a course in American literature?” Wissam said.

Sara had studied English in high school and college, was fluent enough, could read and write with relative ease. She had read the British authors—the staple of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens. Even some Thomas Hardy—her favorite being Return of the Native, and the character of Eustacia Vye for whom she had always felt an inexplicable kinship. But of American literature she knew next to nothing. Nonetheless, Wissam’s idea intrigued here.

The winter semester was starting soon, and so Sara looked into courses at a community college, a short bus ride from their apartment. It was a hilltop campus, green and sprawling, overlooking the foothills that she loved.

“They are so expensive, Wissam,” she complained as she scrolled through the online course catalogue.

“I’m not sure how it all works here,” he said peering over her shoulder at the screen. “Can’t you just sit-in and listen?”

The course that had caught Sara’s attention was “An Introduction to American Literature.” The instructor was Elizabeth A. Pederson, and her office hours were listed at the end of the course description.

Sara debated whether to call the college and ask to speak with Professor Pederson or stop by and make the request to sit in on the class in person. She decided on the latter. If office hours were anything like in Alexandria, there would be sure to be at least some gaps, and perhaps she could wait and ask for a moment of the professor’s time.

 

Elizabeth Ann Pederson had not expected any drop-in students given that the winter quarter did not start for a few more days. That of course had not curtailed the usual flow of college business emails. And with her husband, James, gone at a board meeting in Vail the last few days, leaving her alone with their young son Brendan, she was already behind. She had just settled at her desk perusing the diarrheal email stream populating her inbox—a repulsively apropos term concocted by her associate Brett Callahan—when Janet King, the department administrative assistant, knocked and stuck her had past the door.

“Young lady asking for a moment of your time,” said Janet.

“A student? Already?”

Janet stepped into the small office and pulled the door shut behind her. “Hmm. Not clear that she is a student here. Wants to talk to you about the American Lit course.”

Elizabeth sighed, nodded, and swiveled away from her computer screen. Janet ushered in a slender woman in a turquoise raincoat and matching hijab. The woman stood silently by the door as Janet closed it behind her.

“Please,” said Elizabeth pointing to the chair across from her desk. And when the woman had settled into it, added, “how is it I can help you?”

Sara cleared her throat. “Professor Elizabeth. I’m sorry for coming like this,” she said hesitantly. “My name is Sara Fahmy. I read about your course. I would like to take it. To listen.”

“Which course is that?” said Elizabeth. It was not the first time an international student would add the professor before her first name rather than her last. It always struck her as peculiar, and a touch too familiar.

“The course on American writers,” answered Sara.

Elizabeth noticed she had beautiful eyes. Almond shaped, black against the dark mascara of her lashes. She had blush on as well and red lipstick. For her part this morning, Elizabeth was comfortably bare faced, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, dressed hastily in a Friday administrative day outfit—a simple green sweater and blue jeans.

Elizabeth observed Sara for a moment more. So much effort to stay covered and then all that added make-up. Elizabeth had seen this among some other young women around campus—one half-formed impulse clashing with the other, is how it seemed to her. Except this woman was older, late-twenties at least, and there was a reserve and poise about her that appealed to Elizabeth.

“I think there are still one or two seats available. You can check with the registrar,” she said.

Sara eyes dropped to her lap. Before she could say anything, Elizabeth added, “You are a student here, aren’t you?”

Sara shook her head. “No. I am doing a master’s degree in Arabic literature back home. In Egypt. I am here for a year only with Wissam, my husband. We thought I could learn something about American literature while I’m here.”

Elizabeth nodded her head. “It’s an undergraduate course. You realize that. That’s all we have here are undergraduate courses.”

“Not a problem,” said Sara quickly.

“OK then,” said Elizabeth. She was curious about the woman in front of her, intrigued by her circumstances. But she was also eager to end this meeting and turn to the work needing her attention. “You can stop by the registrar and enroll.” She stood up.

Sara rose too. “Professor Elizabeth. May I just sit and listen to the lectures? It is very expensive for us. I will buy the books, read everything, and not say anything in class. Just listen. Please?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sorry Sara. I misunderstood. That’s not how we usually do things here.”

“It is very expensive for us,” Sara repeated.

Elizabeth thought how straight the woman held herself and how uncomfortable this situation must be for her. Those almond shaped eyes were bright and intelligent. Determined. “I will need to check Sara,” Elizabeth said finally. “Leave your email with Janet at the front desk and I will check and get back to you.”

#

It was not that Sara had never heard of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway or John Updike. She had heard the names, even vaguely recognized the titles of their works, but she had never read them, and until now they had remained as foreign to her as this new country she inhabited.  Granted permission by Professor Pederson to sit in on the class, Sara was struck by the recurrent echoes of dislocation, conflict and turbulence. It was not what she had expected in such a powerful and wealthy nation. But then Sara was not sure what she had expected.

“They are lonely people,” she told Wissam one evening after class. “They have so much but they seem to struggle alone more than anyone else. Rootless in a strange way.”

“It is a big country,” Wissam said. He was half-distracted, lounging on their couch, his eye on the television evening news. “And always in motion.”

Except Sara was thinking of a poem Elizabeth Pederson had given her to read one day during office hours. Sara had expressed to her professor the impression she now shared with Wissam. Elizabeth had nodded as if she understood exactly what Sara was referring to. She had rummaged through a stack of literary journals on her desk, and pulled out one. She leafed through the journal, found what she was looking for, placed a stickie on the top of a page and handed the journal to Sara.

“Read this tonight,” Elizabeth said. “We can discuss it during office hours tomorrow.”

The poem Professor Pederson highlighted for her was Edward Hopper: Hotel Room 1969. Opposite the poem was a painting by the artist Edward Hopper. A woman in a short negligee seated on the edge of a bed holding a piece of paper. The painting was rough edged and stark, something hollow, and gutted out about its presentation. No softness in the contours. Bold edges and a center that faded and then reconstituted itself in the figure of the silent woman. The poem was by a man named Larry Levis and for Sara its stanzas resonated with what she had been struggling to express. So struck was Sara by the way the words captured her thoughts, that she began to write an exuberant late night email to Professor Pederson, before changing her mind and instead settling down at her small desk in her bedroom to pour repeatedly over the painting and the poem. She mouthed lines out loud.

. . . . And outside this room I can imagine only Kansas:

Its wheat, and the blackening silos, and, beyond that,

The plains that will stare back at you until

The day your mother, kneeling in fumes

On a hardwood floor, begins to laugh out loud.

When you visit her, you see the same, faint grass

Around the edge of the asylum, and a few moths,

White and flagrant, against the wet brick there,

Where she has gone to live. She never

Recognizes you again.

 

. . . . You think of curves, of the slow, mild arcs

Of harbors in California: Half Moon Bay,

Malibu, names that seem to undress

When you say them, beaches that stay white

Until you get there.

 

“I have been to Half Moon Bay,” Sara said to Elizabeth as soon as she had stepped into her office the next day. “And the poem. It is so beautiful. It resonates with everything I have felt since coming here. How did you know?”

Elizabeth laughed. “It is a famous painting and a famous poem. I knew you would like it.”

The relationship between the two women had become increasingly warm over the course of the last few weeks. Sara had availed herself of open slots in Elizabeth’s office hours, and as the class composition were mostly undergraduates obliged to take the course on their way to some other career plan, there was always time available. For Elizabeth, she had missed this kind of organic interest in literature amongst the community college students. Here in Sara was someone deeply engaged in the field and pursuing an advanced degree. She found herself looking forward to Sara’s visits. They would at times choose to meet at a small outdoor café on the campus grounds, and over a cup of coffee Sara would describe her university experience in Alexandria.

“There are hundreds of students in each class. Students standing in the doorway, lined up against the back wall. The whole lecture hall overflowing. And this just the students who bother to attend the lectures. Professors barely engage. Everyone just going through the motions. Getting through the day.” Sara paused. “Awful. It is better in graduate school. A little better anyway. But nothing like this,” she added, waving an open hand at the campus.

Beyond them stood the foothills. The sun brilliant in the afternoon sky. The air warm even in January. Elizabeth peered around her. “I lived many years in New York City, Sara. I know crowded classrooms well. What you see here is also not the norm.”

“My husband. Wissam. He loves it here,” said Sara.

“And you?” asked Elizabeth. “Do you love it here?”

Sara shrugged. “I am growing used to it,” she said. “The beauty of the place is unquestioned. But I miss Egypt. My family. Our culture.”

“And your husband?”

Sara shrugged. “It is different for Wissam here,” she said.

“In what way?”

Sara paused a moment then said, “I have known Wissam since we were children. We grew up in the same neighborhood. We fell in love as teenagers. Secretly. He is Christian. Coptic Christian. He converted to Islam for me. He had to convert to marry me. He was ostracized by his family for it. It has not been easy for him. He abided by everything that was expected of him. For me. But I imagine he felt constrained. So it is different for him here.”

Elizabeth nodded. She tried to imagine Sara’s situation, and in her mind contrasted it to her own life.

“My husband, James. He is Jewish. My family is Episcopalian. In fact, my father is a minister back in New York. Upstate. James is from Chicago. His father is a cantor in their temple. Neither side were excited by our relationship.”

“What do you practice at home?” Sara asked.

Elizabeth laughed. “My dear we are not religious at all. Maybe our experience contributed to that. But growing up in religious families, ending up with each other the way we did, religion is not a part of our lives.”

Sara sighed. “Wissam would like that, I think,” she said. “He would want us like that. Like you and your husband. Except I hold him back.” She looked up defiantly at Elizabeth. “I cannot imagine a life without God at its center.”

Elizabeth took in her words and smiled gently back at Sara. “There is nothing wrong with that Sara,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

#

The following week after Elizabeth and Sara had finished their coffee, Sara said, “Wissam is getting off work early today. He will be picking me up shortly. Can you stay for a little?” She paused for a moment noticing Elizabeth glance at her watch, then added. “I would love for you to meet Wissam.”

Elizabeth had an appointment back home, interviewing a new au pair for Brendan. The last young woman from Krakow had completed her 6 months approved stay in the United States and was returning to Poland. This new candidate was referred to her from a friend. She was a U.S. resident and Elizabeth hoped to avoid the rigmarole of immigration and visas.

“Just a few minutes,” she said hesitantly. “I have to get going. We are interviewing nannies for Brendan.”

Elizabeth saw Wissam approach before Sara did. She noticed a man striding towards them from the other side of the small esplanade where they sat at their table. She guessed it was him by the way his eyes were fixed on Sara. He was medium height, slender, dressed in pale blue Levi’s, neatly pressed, a crisp white shirt, a black beard, carefully trimmed against his olive skin.

“Hello,” he said as he came up to them. He put a hand on Sara’s shoulder, kept it there. “I’m Wissam.” He extended his free hand to Elizabeth.

He had a warm smile, and a comfortable way with himself. His easy-going nature in ready contrast to Sara’s more serious demeanor.

Elizabeth reached over and shook his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you Wissam,” she said pleasantly.

“And I about you, Professor,” he replied. He looked down at Sara who was watching both of them with pleasure and interest. “You have gotten my wife fascinated by American literature. I think she is giving up on her thesis entirely!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Elizabeth with a laugh. “I have so enjoyed having Sara in class. It has been a pleasure.” She stood up, smoothed a few wrinkles on her skirt front, adjusted the purse strap over her shoulder. “Unfortunately, I have to leave for an appointment, but it has been wonderful meeting you Wissam.”

“And meeting you,” replied Wissam.

Sara stood quickly and hugged Elizabeth, then she and Wissam settled back down at the table. They watched Elizabeth stride across the esplanade, her figure trim and supple, hair falling loosely at her shoulders, her purse swinging by her side as she moved.

“You like her don’t you?” Sara said.

Wissam chuckled. “Now why would you think that?”

“She is beautiful, intelligent, successful.”

“And you my Sara are all those things and more.”

He was smiling at her, a kindness in his gaze that she loved. Although, she couldn’t help this nagging sense of defeat. It seemed to come to her from nowhere, percolating inside her. Perhaps it was something about Elizabeth’s stride. Its air of confidence. An assertiveness about it that she felt she lacked, especially here, especially now, and in this country. Or maybe it was the mention of Elizabeth’s son.

Wissam was still studying her. A hint of concern in his gray eyes.

“Sara? Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she said with a small laugh. “Of course.”

“What is it, Sara?” Wissam said.

“She has a young child. A boy. It just made me think. He could have been with us now.”

“We will have children, Sara. I promise you. We will have an apartment full of them.”

It had been a year since the miscarriage. But the thought of the loss still stabbed at her core like something raw and new. The bleeding and the pain. The rush in the back of Uncle Malik’s car to the county hospital, the closest facility to them. The dingy corner of the labor ward they had put her in as she pushed out a fully formed baby boy, but too early. Too early. The nurse roughly wiping away at the blood streaks on her legs and at the clots in between. They had given him a name before his burial. Marwan.

“Come on Sara,” Wissam said and reached for her hand, raised it to his lips.

Sara looked awkwardly around her at the milling students on the esplanade. The trickle of traffic in and out of the coffee shop. How did she appear, she wondered, in her conservative dress, sitting in a public space, her hand at a man’s lips, even if it was her husband? How would they know it was her husband? Wissam would not do this back home, she thought as she gently pulled her hand away.

He had seen her fleeting gaze, recognized it for what it was. “Sara,” he said. “We are not in Egypt anymore.”

In the evening Sara emailed her mother—it is a vast country and beautiful in too many ways to recount. I am taking literature courses and have become friendly with my professor. She is bright, lovely, and attractive. She is married and has a little boy named Brendan. And she is a respected professor. She is in so many ways everything I want to be and but am not, or at least not yet. Wissam has met her and I can tell he likes her too. I do not really know what she thinks of Wissam or even of me. I am not sure why that matters so much to me. Maybe it is because I know so few people and it is easy to get lonely here. I miss the way we used to sit together on the balcony that overlooked our small street and watch the people and traffic below, and sip your wonderful mint tea, mama. I miss the light of late afternoon, haze filled and warm. Our call to prayer. I miss the smell of afternoon cooking from Amr Bey’s little falafel shop, the first thing I smell when I walk out of our building and onto the street. Most of all, I miss all of you so much.

#

“I’m curious about something,” Elizabeth said later that week as they were walking together out of the class. It had become Sara’s habit to busy herself at the end of class, rifling through her handbag or flipping through a text, until the students had left and Elizabeth was departing.

“Yes?”

“Would you want to stay here, if you could?”

“Here?” asked Sara. “You mean America?”

“That’s right. The United States generally. Even California.”

Sara was quiet for a few moments. “No Professor Pederson,” she replied finally. “No. I don’t think so. I would miss home too much.”

They passed a group of students idling in the hallway. Young and chatty, their voices raised in laughter.

“Honestly,” Elizabeth said, “I just don’t get it.”

Sara noticed for the first time a tone of exasperation in Elizabeth.

“You are educated and smart and yet I can’t believe you would have close to the freedoms, much less the opportunities, back home as you would here. For a woman, I mean,” said Elizabeth, her voice trailing off.

“It’s not Saudi Arabia,” said Sara. She tried to keep the defensiveness she was feeling out of her voice.

“Yes. Not Saudi Arabia. And maybe I am speaking out of line. God knows this country has so much still to do to level the playing field for women. But it’s just that few places in the world still treat women with such universal disdain and disrespect as so many countries in the Middle East.”

Sara was silent. The words, expressed so directly, jolted her. Although had she been asked in a different circumstance, in a more sympathetic and gentle manner, she would have engaged with the discussion.

“And I just don’t understand why the women of these countries don’t rise up,” continued Elizabeth. “Demand their rights. Insist on them. To be treated as equal to men. Instead generation after generation of creativity and intellect and energy squashed and dissipated under a suffocating patriarchy.”

“It is my country,” Sara said finally. “There are many problems. We have done many things with the limited freedoms legally bestowed on us. But look how much protection you have here. So much legal protections and yet you too struggle, no?

Elizabeth sighed and said, “I am sorry. I really am. I was just reading about a young woman stoned to death in Syria, imprisoned for driving in Saudi Arabia, vilified for dancing in Egypt, and it angered me. Where else in the world do these things happen to women. But yes, as I said, we have much work to do right here at home. Please forgive me Sara. I can only imagine how arrogant I just sounded.”

Sara breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. “Your concern is well placed,” she said in a conciliatory tone. “We have fallen behind in Egypt and everywhere in the Middle East when it comes to women’s rights. Some of this is internal to our societies, others imposed or sustained by outside forces and influences not easily in our control. But no matter the cause, we will never reach our full potential until women are free to reach theirs.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I couldn’t agree more,” she said. “True here and true everywhere. You will go back to Egypt and lead that struggle, I am sure.”

Sara smiled, “I will teach like you teach!” she said emphatically.

Elizabeth laughed aloud. “No,” she said. “You will teach much better and at a higher level than I ever could. At a real university.”

Sara shrugged. “I would be happy teaching no matter where. But we need the money and yes a university salary is better.”

They had reached the academic offices, and Elizabeth stopped and said, “so is money an issue now? Would extra money help?”

Sara nodded, the thought coming to her mind that perhaps her professor could see a role for her as a teaching assistant. “Money could always help,” she said.

“OK, then,” Elizabeth replied. “I’m still interviewing for Brendan’s nanny. But in the meanwhile James and I need to attend an event in San Francisco this Saturday. It’s not something we can miss. It’s James’ company event. Would you mind watching Brendan for just this time? I would pay you well.”

Sara raised her hand in protest. “I would be happy to of course! But you don’t have to pay me.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Of course I do and I will,” she said. “So Saturday, then?”

“Saturday,” said Sara.

“How about you come a little before 6 pm. That way I can introduce you to James and spend some time with you and Brendan before we head out. I will email you the address.”

“Certainly,” said Sara. She was eager to relay the news to Wissam. Excited to be allowed this access to her professor’s personal life.

#

Elizabeth Pederson lived in Los Altos Hills. A lush landscape of pastures and rolling hills and widely spaced estates with high walls and elaborate wrought iron gates and manicured lawns. Sara had never been to this community before, and as Wissam drove her there, she was awestruck by the opulence. That people lived in these surroundings seemed surreal to her. She had seen the mansions dotting the foothills, and had wondered about them. But to be in the midst of it all, traversing the green and gold terrains, was a completely different experience. She was captivated by the glimpses of cobble stone driveways, imposing balconies and Mediterranean style terraces that commanded striking vistas of the foothills.

“I can’t believe Professor Pederson lives here,” murmured Sara.

Wissam kept his eyes on the curving road, but stole a look at Sara. “Well, someone has to,” he said with a smile. Then added, “maybe one day we can too.”

“I don’t think we belong here, Wissam,” Sara said softly.

“And why not, Sara. I can see you on one of those terraces in the morning looking out at everything, coffee cup in hand!” He chuckled and squeezed Sara’s knee.

Sara said nothing. The car slowed as it turned a bend, and descended into a tree lined cul de sac at the far end of which stood two stately homes, separated by exquisitely manicured lawns, an array of queen of palms, fronds shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight.

“We have arrived,” said Wissam with a chuckle. “Maybe not quite a mansion, but still who would have thought a professor was paid so well!”

“I think it’s her husband,” replied Sara, eyeing the two cars in the driveway—a golden Lexus sedan she had seen Elizabeth drive out of the college parking lot, and a shiny black Porsche SUV. “He is a successful businessman. Travels a lot.”

Wissam parked in front of a bulky bronze standing mailbox. “Do you want me to come in with you?

Sara shook her head, briefly clasped Wissam’s hand, and then climbed out of the car. “No, that’s alright. Just pick me up around 10:30. I’ll text you if anything changes.”

Wissam nodded, watched as Sara made her way to the front door, her body slim in tan slacks, a pink sweater, the tail of her hijab dipping between her shoulder blades. He watched as she knocked on the door, saw the door open, a glimpse of Professor Pederson and the shadowy interior of the house, huge and airy, then he drove off.

The house was magnificent, high ceilings, crown molding and lacquered mahogany floors, an expansive staircase, white and spiraled, curved elegantly from the large foyer to the second floor. In the center of the foyer hung a massive crystal chandelier, at its base a sculpted ceiling medallion. Late afternoon sunlight danced off the chandelier candle tubes and prisms.

Elizabeth Pederson greeted Sara with a warm embrace before shutting the door behind her.

“I hope you found the place easily enough?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” replied Sara. “Wissam had no trouble at all.” Then added, “I will text him to pick me up later.”

Elizabeth was dressed in a strapless black evening gown, which left her shoulders and upper chest bare. Her hair arranged in a bun, a thick strand of blond hair loose against one side of her face. The gown flowed down to her ankles, her feet ensconced in black high heels. Sara thought how beautiful Elizabeth looked. Although she also felt a certain discomfort with the attire, the degree of public exposure it heralded, the ease in which Elizabeth displayed herself in this way.

A man appeared on the staircase, dressed in a black, double-vested tuxedo. He was around Wissam’s height, but stockier, bigger in the chest. His face was rounder than Wissam’s too. As he approached, Sara noticed pockmarks on his face, partially covered by a trim brown beard. His hair was cut very short, so that Sara could see the white of his scalp beneath the glistening fibers. He held Sara’s gaze with his own as they shook hands.

“My husband, James,” Elizabeth said. “James this is Sara, the student I have been telling you all about.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you Sara,” James said, relinquishing her hand, his eyes steady on hers. “Elizabeth speaks so fondly of you. In all her years at the college, I have never heard her speak with such enthusiasm about any of her students. You have made quite the impression on my wife.”

“It is Professor Pederson who has made such an impression on me!” Sara replied enthusiastically, hardly able to contain her pleasure at this validation. “I am so fortunate to have met her.”

Next to Elizabeth in her high heels, James was noticeably shorter. He slipped an arm low around his wife’s waist, pulling her close and she leaned towards him for a kiss.

“Well, I happen to feel the same way about myself,” he laughed.

A moment of silence passed between them as they stood in the foyer, then James said, “have you met Brendan, yet?”

“No, not yet,” said Elizabeth, adjusting an earring. “We need to do that now.”

Sara followed Elizabeth past the foyer and down a hallway towards the back of the house. The walls on either side of the hallway were lined with family portraits, and Sara caught a quick glimpse of them as she hurried after Elizabeth. A blur of faces, too brief for recognition. Brendan, 6 years old, was sitting on the floor of a playroom in his pajamas pushing a miniature train along a wooden train track. He had his mother’s blond hair and fair skin, his father’s dark eyes.

“Brendan,” Elizabeth called out to the boy. “Honey this is Sara. She’s going to be your babysitter tonight while Mommy and Daddy go out for a little bit.”

Brendan looked at up Sara, his dark eyes uncertain, his little boy gaze resting on her hijab. He looked down at this hands and the toy train he was holding.

Sara fidgeted with her hijab, a forefinger tucking in an imagined loose strand of hair under the scarf.

“Brendan,” Elizabeth said again, her tone laced with a thin edge of sharpness. “Please be polite, stand up and say hello.”

“Hello,” said Brendan, eyeing Sara again.

“Hello Brendan,” said Sara and stepped towards the boy, a hand extended.

Brendan fidgeted with the toy train, switched it to his left hand, and extended his right to Sara for a handshake, still squatting on the floor. “What is that on your head,” he said.

“Young man,” Elizabeth said, and this time there was no missing the irritation in her voice, “I want you to stand up, apologize and say hello properly!”

At that, Brendan stood up. “Hi,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK,” said Sara, reaching out to ruffle the boy’s hair, but he darted under her arm and ran out the room.

“Dad,” Brendan said, his feet pattering down the hall.

“I’m so sorry for his behavior Sara,” said Elizabeth. “He is usually a very well-behaved boy. I think the loss of our last nanny affected him more than we realized.”

“I can imagine,” said Sara. “I promise you Brendan and I will be best of friends by the time you return.”

Elizabeth laughed and said, “yes. I imagine you will be. Let me show you Brendan’s bedroom upstairs. He can watch a half hour of a children’s show on TV in the family room before bedtime, which is 7 pm sharp.”

Elizabeth led Sara to the bedroom upstairs, then back down the stairs to a spacious kitchen, larger than Sara had ever seen, with a massive black granite counter at its center, stainless steel appliances, everything spotless. The kitchen opened up into a spacious family room where, on a loveseat, Brendan sat on James’s lap leafing through a picture book. Bookshelves lined the room, and a large couch and armchairs were arranged in a semicircle facing a fireplace and above that a widescreen TV.

“Sara, there’s water in the fridge for Brendan if he gets thirsty, and snacks and beverages in the fridge for you, so please help yourself,” said Elizabeth.

“That’s very generous of you, Professor Pederson,” Sara replied. “I will be fine.”

“James,” Elizabeth called to her husband. “We should be heading out.”

James lifted Brendan off his lap and settled the boy back into the loveseat. He turned on the TV with a remote and flipped through some channels until he found the children’s show he was looking for.

“Thirty minutes only Brendan, then bedtime,” Elizabeth said to the boy, leaning down to plant a kiss on his forehead. “Mommy and Daddy will be back in a couple of hours. You behave and listen to what Auntie Sara tells you. I don’t want any bad reports when I get back.”

Sara followed Elizabeth and James to the foyer.

“You have my cell Sara if you need anything at all,” said Elizabeth before stepping out the front door. “I’ll also text you to check in.”

“Please enjoy yourself,” Sara said. “Brendan and I will be just fine.”

Sara watched from the door as Elizabeth and James walked down a gently curving gravel path and climbed into the Porsche. She stayed there until they had pulled onto the street. Elizabeth waved to her one last time before the car sped off and Sara waved back.

Inside Sara could hear the TV playing down the hall. But despite those sounds, she felt a surging emptiness about the house press down her, and so she hurried to the family room to check on Brendan. The boy was still curled up on the loveseat watching TV.

Sara sat down on the edge of the couch. Brendan kept his eyes glued to the TV screen. Three puppets danced across a makeshift stage, and gathered around a miniature bicycle. Their shaggy exteriors gyrated to a musical jingle.

“Hi Brendan,” Sara said. “Are you enjoying the show?”

“Yes,” Brendan said not shifting his gaze.

“Can you tell me a little about the show?” Sara said, doing her best to engage with the little boy.

“Uhmm,” Brendan started, “it’s about who gets to ride the bike to school.”

“Oh,” said Sara. “So who do you think should get to?’

Brendan shrugged and said nothing. A purple haired puppet got on the bike, and the other two puppets, orange and green furry creatures, chased him wildly across the stage. Brendan laughed. Sara laughed too, pressing for a connection, but the boy’s attention stayed on the screen. After a few minutes, Sara stood up and wandered around the family room perusing the bookshelves, which were lined with atlases and encyclopedias, books on World War I and II, the Vietnam War, The Iraq War. There were also self-help books and inspirational books, books on how to be more productive and more efficient. The few novels that Sara saw were from authors she did not recognize—James Michener’s Hawaii. Louis L’Amour’s Showdown at Yellow Butte. Stephen King’s The Shining.

“I want to go to bed,” Brendan said suddenly, flicking off the TV set and climbing out of the loveseat. He stood there in his pajamas, looking uncertain and lonely.

Sara’s heart suddenly ached for the little boy.  “Of course,” she said and held out her hand.

To her surprise and pleasure, Brendan took her hand and she walked him up the stairs to his bedroom.

“Brendan,” Sara said when she had tucked him under the covers, turned off the ceiling light, the bedroom suffused in a soft glow from the bedside lamp. “Would you like me to read you a story?”

Brendan shook his head, but now he held Sara’s gaze, in his eyes something more trusting and peaceful. Inexplicably Sara felt a rush of happiness.

“OK, then,” Sara said. “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”

Brendan turned on his side and wordlessly nodded his head against the pillow.

Sara walked out the room, gently closed the bedroom door behind her, but not all the way. She stepped downstairs, passed the photographs in the hallway again, but now took her time looking over them. Elizabeth and James at their wedding, the bride beautiful in white. In the backdrop a lush, green vista. In the foreground the backs of seated guests. Another with Elizabeth holding a newborn Brendan. There were others too, without Brendan. A younger Elizabeth in a pale blue bikini with James and another man, her arms around their shoulders, the sea behind them. A photo at the same location, but this time with Elizabeth scooped up in the arms of the man who was not James, and James looking on laughing. Who was this man, Sara thought? And what could it mean for Elizabeth to let herself be held in this way, the man’s hands pressed into her bare thighs below her bikini bottom? Sara concluded it would have to be Elizabeth’s brother. She must have a brother. Nothing else would make sense.

Done with perusing the pictures on the wall, Sara found herself at the far end of the hall, past the kitchen and family room, outside of a small but cozy office, cluttered with books and papers. She stepped inside with some trepidation as if afraid she was being watched. Books in small piles on the floor and spilling out of the bookshelves. Here is what she had expected to see in the family room. Books on literary criticism, and theory, books on poetry, short story collections and novels, and she knew this was Elizabeth’s office. This was the Elizabeth she had connected with, the one she had been so immediately and intensely drawn towards. There was a stack of papers on the desk, essays from another of Elizabeth’s classes. She would be like this one day, Sara thought. Her own classes, her own students. Maybe even a home office. Although not a home like this. But she and Wissam would be happy in their small apartment off Abou Eir Street in downtown Alexandria.

The thought of Alexandria reminded Sara of the sunset prayer, Salat el Maghrib, and she considered for a moment deferring the three rakat here, and combining them with the night prayer when she got home. But the house was quiet and Brendan asleep, and so she made her way to the family room and an open space in front of the television set. Facing Mecca she began the prayer, head lowered, hands clasped in front of her, murmuring the words to the fatha before genuflecting, standing straight again, then kneeling on the carpet, her forehead lowered to the ground. The words of the prayer murmured between the motions. It was towards the end, still deep in prayer, that Sara sensed a motion, something fleeting out of the corner of her eye, a glimpse of Brendan at the far end of the kitchen. But when she looked in that direction, there was no one.

She rushed through the last few seconds of prayer and jumped to her feet. “Brendan?” she said to no response. “Brendan, is that you?”

The hall and foyer were empty. She looked up at the staircase half-expecting Brendan to be peering down at her, but he was not there. As she climbed up the staircase, she wondered if she had imagined things. Brendan would be in bed where she left him. She made her way across the upstairs hall to his bedroom, and gently pushed open the door. The bedside light was still on, the room bathed in its soft light, but the covers had been pulled back and the bed empty. Sara suppressed a wave of panic as she stepped out of the boy’s bedroom.

“Brendan,” she called trying to keep the worry out of her voice. “Brendan, where are you?”

She hurried down the stairs again calling Brendan’s name. No response. She rushed back into the family room, the kitchen, and adjacent to the kitchen, an airy dining room and living room. She strode down the halls calling for Brendan as she peered back into Elizabeth’s study, Brendan’s play room, and into the room next to it –an exercise room with a treadmill and stationary bicycle and a hanging TV monitor. And the room next to that, a tidy guest bedroom and bath, and finally at the end of the hall what she surmised was James’ study, a large oak desk, its surface wiped clean except for the darkened screen of a desktop computer and keypad. Next to the desk a thick revolving leather chair with deep cushions. Along the opposite wall, and running its length, a wood file cabinet and on it a framed photograph of Elizabeth in a hospital gown, a sheen of sweat on her forehead, an exhausted smile, the skin on her upper chest exposed to Brendan who was pink and naked and curled up against her.

Something about the Spartan feel to the room, the picture of Elizabeth and her just delivered son, brought the image of Marwan’s body, lifeless and bloody, flooding into her mind and tipped Sara into a panic.

“Brendan!” she called and she was shouting now as she lurched back up the staircase, her heels clattering on the steps, hands grasping the railing, propelling herself upwards. “Brendan! Please! Where are you?”

Brendan’s bedroom was as empty as it was before. This time Sara got on her knees, looked under the bed. No Brendan. She rushed down the hall, peered into a bathroom, and then to the master bedroom at the far end of the hall, with its king size bed, majestic windows looking out onto the darkened Northern California hillsides, an expansive bathroom with a shower stall, Jacuzzi, a marble counter with a few scattered toiletries below a massive framed mirror. It was there that she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her face flushed and stricken, her hijab awry, loose strands of hair falling out from under the hijab, a thin line of perspiration beading along her upper lip.

More rooms down the other end of the hall, but she did not venture there. Rushing back down the stairs to the family room, she reached for her purse on the couch and digging into it pulled out her cellphone. She located Elizabeth’s cell number in her contact list, agonized for a moment over whether she should call now or keep looking. Imagined what Elizabeth would think of her. Without quite intending to, her finger tapped the screen and the call went through. Sara groaned and instinctively ended the call. Elizabeth called back immediately.

“Hi Sara,” said Elizabeth. “Is everything OK?”

Sara could hear laughter and the chatter of voices in the background. She imagined Elizabeth in her strapless evening gown, and behind her other finely dressed men and women in a chandelier-illuminated ballroom. A scene from a movie she thought. A horrible scene from a movie. “I can’t find Brendan,” she blurted.

“What?” said Elizabeth, the swelling anxiety in her tone was unmistakable and only added to Sara’s distress.

“I’ve looked everywhere,” said Sara no longer trying to control the alarm in her own voice. “Nearly everywhere. I can’t find him.”

“OK,” said Elizabeth. “We will be right there. Keep looking OK? Just keep looking?” There was a crack in Elizabeth’s voice, a choked off sound and Sara heard her say to someone, perhaps to James, “she can’t find Brendan,” before she hung up.

Sara’s next thought was to call Wissam. But again she hesitated. She should be able to handle this situation on her own. This had nothing to do with Wissam, and there was no reason to drag him into it. Except she ached for his support and to hear his voice. Sara took a deep breath and made the call.

“I was praying,” she sobbed, her voice failing her. “I think he saw me praying. Maybe it frightened him.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Wissam. “I’m coming over.”

“No please don’t,” said Sara. “They’re coming back now. It’s best that I’m here by myself.”

Alone, Sara stumbled through the house pleading to Brendan and taking Elizabeth’s repeated calls.

“We’ve called the police,” Elizabeth said to her over the phone. “Just keep looking please!”

She kept looking, frantically traversing the same ground over and over, running up and down the beautiful spiral staircase, pausing only when she heard the grind of car wheels on the driveway. Sara ran out the front door and down the long driveway as James pulled the car to a stop and Elizabeth clambered out and rushed towards her.

“Have you found him?” Elizabeth cried.

“No. I’ve looked everywhere,” Sara said, wiping away tears. “I put him to bed and then I went downstairs and I was praying and I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eyes and when I finished my prayer, it was just a minute, even less, he was gone.”

Elizabeth stopped in her tracks and glared at Sara. “Praying?” She said. “You saw my son but you were busy praying?”

“It was less than a minute. Even less. I wasn’t even sure.”

“I did not pay you to pray,” Elizabeth shouted as she and James rushed past her into the house. And then again, “I didn’t pay you to pray. I paid you to take care of my son!”

Sara followed behind hearing them call for Brendan. She had just stepped into the foyer when she saw the boy emerge seemingly from nowhere and throw himself into his mother’s arms.

Sara gasped felt the room spin around her, heard Elizabeth say to her son, “it’s OK. She didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s OK.”

Sara tried to lower herself slowly to the floor, saw James reach out to steady her, heard Wissam shout her name, and everywhere the sounds of police sirens and flashing blue lights.

 

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….

Communitas

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?”

“Yes.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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