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Playing the Hand You’re Dealt: A Short Story

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

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

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

Yes, he was home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jake’s got $175 behind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fucking idiot,” he whispered to himself.

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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 Ten, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on August 3, 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.

 

That evening, they had dinner on the veranda of Neena’s house overlooking the beach. They drove through the narrow, dirt streets to a small villa a few blocks from the restaurant.

The front of Neena’s house was hidden behind high limestone walls; the back opened to the sea. A stray dog poked around near a rubbish pile on the edge of the road, chased the car, barking furiously as they passed. A sulfurous odor of sewer wafted their way and dissipated.  Neena unlocked the gate, then her front door, and showed them in.  The small living room was crowded with overstuffed furniture, spilling over with a haphazard array of trinkets, figurines, ornaments, and the air of something bygone. The carpet was threadbare and the curtains frayed at the edges. Neena sighed, straightened her shoulders, suddenly relaxed.

“Come,” she said and led them out onto the veranda to a table already set for dinner. “A traditional Egyptian meal!” she declared. “Even if Maman was French, I am as Egyptian as they come! And I have prepared the meal myself!  Green peppers and zucchini stuffed with rice, ground beef. And even moulokhiyah!”  The traditional Egyptian soup, Nabil knew, in a colorful ceramic bowel, and of course other smaller bowls of steaming rice on which to pour it, fresh pita bread cut in quarters, a rack of lamb, a bottle of wine, then another, this one red, and yet another, white.

“Local wine,” said Neena. “Not especially memorable, but at least our very own.”

She poured Joanne mineral water, didn’t stop talking, directing her words mostly to Joanne, who remained attentive.

“So quiet?” Neena said to Nabil finally.

“He’s often quiet,” Joanne said.

He said, “I’m still thinking about my reaction at the cemetery. I’m embarrassed about it. Everything here is so alien to me.”

Neena laughed and threw up her hands. “A man you don’t know holding a gun – even if he is just the night watchman and the gun a toy. Très compréhensible.”

Joanne nodded.

Nabil shrugged and said, “The driver mentioned to me there’s word the president will step down tonight.  Rumor is, he’s already left Cairo.”

“Maybe he’s in his beautiful palace in Alexandria,” suggested Neena. “Or the other one in Sharm el Sheikh.  Never enough, darlings.  Same goes for all his cronies and lackeys—palaces, cars, fancy clothes. A gang of thieves.” Abruptly, she rushed to the railing, peered out onto the darkened beachfront.  “Well, speak of the devil!” she said with a laugh. “Out for a stroll are you?”

Abu-Bakr emerged out of the shadows.  “Beautiful evening, no?” He said, leaning his bulk forward against the railing, smiling broadly.

“It certainly was,” said Joanne.

Nabil caught Joanne’s eye, an admonishing glance. Joanne leaned back in her seat, looked over her shoulder at the stretch of beach behind her and the few darkened homes that lined it.

“Such a coincidence,” said Nabil. He wondered how long Abu-Bakr had been lurking in the shadows. He pushed his seat closer to Joanne, threw an arm around her shoulders.

“Please. I do not mean to intrude. Just an evening stroll.”

“A beautiful evening!” declared Neena. “We spent the afternoon at the mausoleum.”

Abu-Bakr nodded and followed Joanne’s gaze across the beach front. “A beautiful country,” said Abu-Bakr wistfully to no one in particular. “I imagine you will be leaving us soon.”

“Too soon!” said Neena. “I don’t know what I will do without my new friends.”

“Zerouni kul-i-sana mara,” said Abu-Bakr.

Neena laughed.  “It is a famous song,” she said by way of explanation to Nabil and Joanne. “She is begging her dear friends to visit her even if just once a year.”

“I know the song,” said Nabil.

“Abu-Bakr, I would invite you to join us, but I’m afraid my friends might object.”

Joanne said, “No objection here. It is the very least we should accommodate for all this security.”

Abu-Bakr smiled again. “How considerate of you. Well, only if you insist.”

“Of course we insist,” said Joanne coolly.

Abu-Bakr gave a half bow before settling himself in an open chair across the table. He reached to accept a bowl of the moulikhaya from Neena, tore off half a loaf of the pita bread, dipped it into the soup and bit off a large chunk.

“Bil hana wa el shifa,” said Nabil.

“Thank you,” said Abu-Bakr. He smacked his lips and wiped them vigorously on a napkin. “You know more Arabic than I would have thought, for one gone so long. And the song, how did you know that?”

“My father used to play it,” said Nabil.

Abu-Bakr shook his head. Smiling almost to himself, he looked up at Neena. “Amazing, no? The way the world works. The father leaves only to have the son return, speaking the language, knowing the songs. Hah!”

“What’s so strange about that?’ said Nabil.

“Not strange. Not strange. Just fate. Fate. You try to get away. You get away. You move half way across the world, maybe you never return. Then years later, there is a return. The circle complete.” He spooned up the moulikhaya rapidly, inhaling it.

“My father immigrated to America,” said Nabil. “Not so unusual an occurrence.”

“Yes. Yes. I understand. It is a figure of speech only. Get away from Egypt, one’s past, a fresh start. It is an old story.”

He paused and regarded Nabil. “Please understand, the present is even more unsettled than the past, no? So many troubles.” He shook his head as if in distress. “Alas. The police can’t be everywhere.”

“From what I hear the police aren’t anywhere,” quipped Neena.

“Some would blame the police for anything, of course,” replied Abu-Bakr, unfazed. He took in Joanne and then Nabil. “Listen. You are the last remaining foreigners here.”

“We will be leaving soon,” said Nabil stiffly.

“Of course. That is expected. But all else, so unpredictable. As for your safety, I do what I can.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” said Joanne.

Abu-Bakr shrugged. “My dear, there is chaos in the cities. People shot dead in the street in Cairo.  Even in Alexandria. Alexandria – just a short drive from here!”

He stood up abruptly and turned to Neena.  “Your food is as delicious as ever, Madam Neena.”

Neena nodded an acknowledgement.

He trotted energetically down the steps. “Safe travels to both of you,” he said to Nabil and Joanne from the bottom of the veranda. “Maybe we will see you here again next year. A regular pilgrimage to one’s past, one’s home, I hope.”

They watched him as he moved past them down the beach.

“What a creep,” muttered Joanne.

Neena sighed and shook her head. “The poor fool. He’s been stationed here for years, keeping an eye on all of us and the tourists. Entirely forgotten by his paymasters. But still such a hopeless chien fidèle.”

“You sound deeply sympathetic, Neena,” said Joanne.

Neena smiled and shook her head. “How can I not be just a little? In the past he has proclaimed himself my protector. I think he is a small bit in love with poor old Neena.”

Joanne shook her head. “You deserve so much better than that.”

Neena looked at Joanne with mock deliberation. “Perhaps I could see it as my penance. A punishment of sorts. Tolerate his heaving and sweating and pawing in that way.” She threw her head back and laughed. “The dog image again!” She put her face in her hands, laughing even more, Nabil and Joanne with her.

After that, for a few minutes, they all sat quietly, a moment of tranquility settling in with the sound of the waves lapping the shore. Eventually, Neena stood and started to clear the dinner table. Nabil got to his feet to assist her, but she waved him down. “My guests don’t do my work,” she said, scolding. “Anyway, let’s go inside for coffee.

Neena emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with tiny cups and a brass kanaka with the Turkish coffee. She set the tray down on the living room table by the couch and poured the coffee, thick, black, an aroma of cardamom.

“You are too alone here, Neena,” Joanne proclaimed, resting her head on Nabil’s shoulder.

“That is why you must not leave. Ever!”

“What about your friend. The woman who used to come by the restaurant. Someone you grew close to. Whatever happened to her?”

Neena started to hand Joanne her cup but paused for a moment. “Will this be too strong for you, darling?”

Joanne shook her head. “It’s fine.”

“It was such a long time ago. But I have never forgotten. She was killed. A tragic accident.”

“An accident?” said Nabil.

Neena passed Nabil his coffee. She paused a moment and then settled herself in a chair across from them.

“Her husband said he was teaching her to swim. He said they got caught in the undertow.” She sighed. “I never met her husband. She talked about him.  She was unhappy. And of course I had grown to love her madly. It is my way, no. The desert always seemed like the safest place for secrets, but this town, this town…”  Her voice drifted off. “And my love always too loud.” Neena stopped and shook her head. “I knew she wanted to get away. She told me and so we devised crazy, desperate plans. Impossible plans – we would leave together for Alexandria, disappear there for a while, and then catch a ship across the waters to France or Italy or Spain.”

“Did you?” said Joanne.

“We didn’t get very far. Not very far at all. Not even out of town. He stripped her, shackled her to the bed. Left her like that the whole night. She called me after that. She said she loved me.”

Joanne leaned forward towards Neena. “Did you ever see her again?”

Neena shook her head. “No. Never.” She stopped, gazed blankly at the space in front of her. “There was a young boy,” she said finally. “One time she brought him with her to the restaurant. We sat in the dining room talking and the boy slipped into the kitchen, made friends with the chef, stuffed himself full of desserts and sweets. She was so upset when she realized what had happened. Then she was furious at me when I couldn’t stop laughing.”

Nabil stood up. He was suddenly tired of Neena’s company, claustrophobic in her cramped living room.

Will I see you again?” Neena cried. There was something wild in her eyes. “Will I see you? I must see you before you go.”

 

*

 

Nabil dreamed of a head of thick, black hair gripped forcibly under water. A sudden frenzy, a burst of movement, in a choppy ocean on a sunny day.  He woke gasping for breath, got out of bed and dressed hastily. The house was silent, in darkness. He called out for Joanne but got no response. Outside on the patio the beach stretched before him, a crescent of silver merging with the blackness of the sea. In the moonlight, he could see fleeting white caps in the distance, an illusion of still life rolling in the small waves that breached the shoreline. He peered again into the water, called her name as he rushed out onto the sand, searched for a shadow in the waves, and then scoured the moonlit dunes in the distance. Abu-Bakr’s words preyed on his mind.

“Joanne!” He was shouting now, his voice hollow, toneless, an echo.

“I’m here,” she called finally from somewhere on the stretch of dark shore.

“Where?”

“Here,” she called again. “Are you afraid? Don’t you recognize me? The faded cotton dress. Miles of nothing. I won’t move until you can see me.”

The End

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 27, 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.
On the third evening they received a note from Neena by way of the front office. Nabil tore open the envelope – a smell of lavender, the writing in fountain pen, sloping unevenly in a loose cursive down the single page.

“Mes chers, il est  inimaginable to leave without seeing the cemetery. It is where worlds collided. What is left,” said Nabil reading out loud. He stopped. Shook his head. “I don’t trust her,” he said.

“She’s just a lonely old woman,” Joanne said.  “How can we refuse?”

They were sitting on the patio, a simple dinner of a green salad, a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese, half consumed, the sea a black vastness before them, a bite to the late evening air.

“We just say no.”

“One day that could be me. Alone on my father’s ranch. Chasing chickens across a dirt yard. Staring out onto miles of nothing.”

“Barefoot,” added Nabil.

“Of course, barefoot.”

“Faded cotton dress.”

“Yes and still pregnant,” said Joanne. “A very, very long pregnancy. A fossil.”

She paused for a moment. “What do you want to do Nabil?”

“I don’t know. I’ve not wanted to think about it.” He stood and started picking up their plates.

“It’s not a decision I will make alone Nabil. I could but I won’t.”

 

*

 

Chérie, I have missed you so,” Neena said.  Joanne climbed into the car next to her.  They embraced as Nabil climbed in on the other side.  Neena hugged him tightly.  Suddenly she groaned and said, “It’s only been two days, but it feels like an eternity. How quickly I have grown in need of your company. It is truly frightening. Mon Dieu!”

“Frightening,” Nabil said.

“Be nice,” Joanne said lightly.

The driver, oblivious, guided the gray Fiat down the long road to the highway.

Neena slipped on her dark sunglasses and said, “When you didn’t show the other night, I thought, oh dear, I have scared them away. I can do that you know. I get so involved in the moment I forget how uncomfortable I can make people. That’s why the desert suits me—fleeting contact—no chance for the crazy Neena to be too crazy. But then I got so sad. I thought, “But I may never see them again, never set eyes on their sweet faces again.”  She laughed and squeezed Joanne’s arm. “Or in Nabil’s case, never see those moody, black eyes.”

Nabil smiled briefly at her.

The driver, a withdrawn, gaunt man in his mid-thirties whom Nabil recognized as one of the restaurant workers, drove faster, speeding down the deserted highway, west towards Alexandria.

Nabil gazed out the window as they passed a desolate tract of land beyond the edge the town, a few limestone brick homes dotting the arid terrain, a man in a donkey cart urging the emaciated animal forward with a stick. On the side of the road, a child ran past an empty school ground, propelling a bicycle wheel ahead of him with a metal rod. Nabil leaned back slightly and tried to catch Joanne’s eye, but she was peering out her window as the driver slowed abruptly and edged past a parked row of military vehicles on the side of the road.  A cluster of soldiers in green fatigues stood idly by, one of them waving them forward with his rifle.

Shortly they turned off the highway onto an older dusty road for about a quarter mile to the cemetery and came to a stop at the edge of an empty gravel parking lot. Joanne stepped out of the car and stretched in the sunlight. Nabil helped Neena climb out of the backseat.

“Thank you, darling,” she said, pulling at her black dress. “I always wear black when I come to this place.”

The driver stayed behind smoking a cigarette by the car while they walked together down a gravel path to the front court of the cemetery. They climbed a broad flight of steps to the limestone mausoleum, some 200 feet wide, and then passed through three arches into the marble interior. There they were shielded from the sunlight and could look out at an unimpeded view of the immense cemetery and beyond that the desert. Their footsteps echoed on the Travertine marble floor.  Neena pointed out the bronze words memorializing the dead. And on the walls more names on Portland stone.

Below them lay the dead; row upon row of neatly spaced headstones, over 7,000 in all. From England and France, Poland, Greece and Australia. At the far end of the cemetery, Neena pointed out the towering Cross of Sacrifice.

They descended the steps into the cemetery proper. There was little vegetation around them, nothing but desert between the rows of headstones.  A breeze off the coast brought with it the sudden scent of eucalyptus and jasmine. Neena led them past the white-washed headstones. “There are other, smaller memorials,” she explained, “the Italian and German sites are a few miles down the highway. But this place is like no other. Le plus grand, le plus dévastateur.”

“All these young men!” she shouted over the wind. “Could they have ever dreamed they would end up here, miles and miles and miles from anything that resembles home?” She put her hands to her face, shook her head in expressive despair, the breeze tugging her simple black dress. She wore a scarf over her hair to protect it from the sand and wind.

Nabil noticed her sandals, noticed how pale her feet and calves were, fragile blue veins traversing the sides and back of the exposed skin, as if she had never been in sunlight. She stooped to pick up random litter blown there off the road, and he saw her suddenly as a homeless woman, one of the small army wandering the streets of San Francisco.

Joanne took Neena’s arm and they strolled back through the deserted, sprawling cemetery, bending to read the inscriptions, conversing in private, hushed tones.

Nabil noticed that the driver watched them from the top of the steps, leaning as if casually against the back wall of the mausoleum. The driver lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the golden light.  He caught Nabil’s eye and gave a half salute.  “Natural enough,” thought Nabil, but it made him uneasy. The sprawling cemetery was deserted. The hot wind kicked up dust devils in the paths between the maze of headstones.  Nabil shielded his eyes. A second man had joined the driver, this one dressed in a brown galabeya, a rifle strapped over his shoulder.  The two of them were chatting comfortably. The driver offered the other man a cigarette, struck a match for him, cupped his hands to protect the flame.

Beyond the cemetery, Nabil could see a thin, blue strip of coastline. Everywhere else was the vast, brooding desert, impenetrable. He knew how they all must appear—foreigners in a foreigner’s cemetery.

Joanne and Neena laughed, far away.  They’d walked as far as the Cross of Sacrifice.

Joanne waved.

Nabil glanced back up towards the mausoleum. The driver was not in sight. The man in the galabeya with the gun was alone, watching them.

“Let’s go,” Nabil cried out to Joanne and Neena. He started to run towards them. “We should go. We should leave now.”

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 13, 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.

 

For the next two days they stayed in the hotel compound, cooked their meals in the beach house and ate there. In the late afternoon as the heat abated they made love before dinner and then again after, the windows to their bedroom pulled open, the smell and sounds of the sea wafting through.

“I showed you my past,” she said, propping herself up against the headboard. “I figured that gave me the right to barge into yours.”

“You were a little relentless,” said Nabil with a smile. From the beginning Joanne had pursued him with a self-confidence that at first alarmed him, but which eventually he accepted as emblematic of her. “You know, I had people vouch for your sanity.”

“Of course I knew that!” She laughed. “But I was sworn to secrecy; the Flemmings, the Castillos, Steve Pullman and his ridiculous fiancée who kept looking at me with this awful expression dripping with fake sympathy. Well, I honestly didn’t care what you thought. So polite. Reticent. Please. I grew up with a bunch of tobacco chewing rednecks. You think I was going to be so easily turned away?”

One Thanksgiving, he’d driven with her into that very epicenter of her childhood memory: Hooker, Oklahoma. They’d flown into Oklahoma City and then driven their rented car across miles of flat land, then rolling hills, plenty of scrub grass and red dirt, and finally funneling into the narrow strip of panhandle to her father’s ranch. The John Lee Casey homestead was announced with its own towering wood archway emblazoned with the letters JLC, and then Nabil was in front of John Lee Casey himself, all 6 foot 3 inches of him, Wrangler jeans and checkered western shirt and, of course, alligator boots and a silver belt buckle that looked like a weapon.

“Your father sized me up as if I was some exotic life form.”

“Well, you are.  And so’s my mother, because she’s from Tulsa. Anyway, he’d never seen an Ayrab before.”

“Imagine that!” Nabil laughed.

“Now he asks after you all the time.”

“You got laid under his moose heads and embalmed squirrels.”

“You got laid too, towel-head.”

Nabil had been given his own bedroom, graciously adorned with various hunting trophies and other memorabilia of formerly living creatures. Joanne had climbed into his bed and mounted him, and he had willingly bucked and heaved and groaned and came and yippeed his way into the early morning light, ascending on the glorious town of Hooker.

Far away Nabil thought he heard a muted thud. A faint boom.

“You had a home, a place to show me, my hillbilly,” Nabil said trying not to sound too serious.  But he was.  He was very serious:  “That’s the difference. There is no such place for me.”

“This is that place,” she said emphatically.

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 6, 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 Australian took his chances at the airport. The German couple decided at the last moment to go with him. The Chinese tour group was gone, too, piling into a minivan which appeared one morning outside the hotel lobby, the driver cross-checking the names with a printed list on his clipboard.  Even most of the vacationing locals packed up and headed home, although a few families remained in the beach houses on the hotel grounds. Nabil would pass them as he walked along the stretch of beach leading up to the hotel proper, hearing fragments of Arabic. There remained a scattering of families from around Egypt, the parents drinking coffee quietly on the small patios overlooking the beach, watching their children play by the shore.

Every afternoon Nabil  saw more army convoys rumbling west down the highway; at night he and Joanne heard the percussive whomp whomp of military helicopters overhead, and the shriek of fighter aircraft flying low. In their isolation, these random bursts of mechanized rage were Nabil and Joanne’s connection to the unrest in the cities. The country was in turmoil; the police had disappeared from the streets; in every major city the violence was escalating. Cell phone coverage was intermittent at best, the Internet cut off entirely. Joanne got through to the American embassy in Cairo and requested advice. She was informed that if she could get to the consulate in Alexandria, perhaps something could be done to get her out of the country. But there were no guarantees beyond that. The prospect of making their way into Alexandria seemed terrifying especially to Nabil. He imagined them caught up in the tempest, their American passports a liability, his place of birth an added vulnerability. The thought that he could somehow be separated from Joanne only heightened the anxiety. They agreed to wait things out. Another week of vacation ahead of them, after which they could reconsider. An eerie quiet had settled over the resort premises. A skeleton crew of staff remained, and the service dwindled to non-existent. In the hotel proper the halls were deserted. When Nabil and Joanne wandered through one morning, the marble foyer echoed with their footsteps.

They availed themselves of long walks on the beach. In the distance the white sand dunes merged into the expanse of desert. The sky was a diaphanous blue and unyielding. By midday the glare of the sun was blinding. As they ambled west across a stretch of dunes, away from the shoreline and further into the desert, a lone hawk circled overhead, hunting, unnerving Nabil, escalating the feeling of emptiness around them.

Joanne laughed at his trepidation and said, “I’m entirely at peace with this isolation.”

“It’s the plains in you,” Nabil said defensively. “Space for the sake of space. But even you left.”

“I loved the space,” she said pensively. “I hated the emptiness. I’m not empty here. I imagine you as a little boy. It’s incredible to me that you were once here.”

“I don’t remember much.”

“You choose not to remember much.”

“I told you what I remember. One day she was here, the next she was dead. I was a kid. I remember a funeral and sometime later, weeks, months, I’m not sure, leaving. Flying across the world to a new country. All this put to rest. No pictures saved. Nothing.  A clean break. What would you remember of your childhood without stories and pictures?”

He pulled up suddenly.  His eyes scoured the empty skies as the screeching of a fighter jet somewhere in the distance shattered the still air.

To be continued….

“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 Five, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on June 22, 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.

 

Nabil stood by the French windows and gazed out onto the beach. “We’ll stay put for now,” he said. “We’re safe here. Who knows what it will be like in Alexandria.” He imagined the airport shut down, the pressing crowds at the terminals.

“I don’t know,” said Joanne. “We’ve come all this way. We can still travel around like we’d planned. The whole country can’t be shut down.” She paused. “Besides, who knows when we will have this time alone together again? Just the two of us.”

Nabil said nothing.

“Nabil. You know we’ll need to decide soon,” she added hesitantly. “By the time we get back to the States.”

Nabil nodded. His eyes tracked the turbulent wake of a police motor boat, flag fluttering furiously in the head wind, as it cut through the waters off the hotel, then disappeared behind a swathe of massive sand dunes along the coastline.

They were at Neena’s every evening, something to occupy the long nights. They had come to recognize the few remaining tourists from the resort.  Abu-Bakr would always swagger in late, perch on his barstool and survey the scene. He never touched alcohol, just ordered a steady stream of coffee, tea, and water.  Neena made her grand entrance, the same every night, stopping by each table, lingering with Nabil and Joanne. At the end of one evening, struggling to sustain the mood amid her dwindling clientele, she set up a microphone at the far end of the bar, and sang along with Edith Piaf, Frehel, Jacqueline François, Gilbert Bécaud. She had a nice voice, swayed to the music as she sang, and seemed to lose herself for a while. By closing time she was clearly drunk, steadying herself against a chair, propping her wispy frame against the bar, pouring another glass of her favorite red wine.

But both Nabil and Joanne looked forward to the nightly stroll to Neena’s, the sun low on the horizon, the searing white bleakness of the desert in midday now transmogrified by the setting sun into a tumultuous blaze of red and orange, and a turquoise hue coalescing in the distance.  And once there, his first drink ordered, Nabil would feel the weight of the day’s anxieties lift slowly.  He was secure in the cool depth of the bar. Even Abu-Bakr – his way of imposing himself into their midst – ebbed into the shadowy recesses of the bar.

“This is what happens when you stay and stay and stay, so long that you can’t imagine leaving,” Neena confided to Nabil and Joanne. She was tearful, her face distorted in the dim light. “I am going bankrupt. Soon I will have nothing! Nothing!” She said this holding her arms out to them, a moment later clasping her hands to her chest, a broken sob escaping her lips, her head hung despondently.

“My dear Neena! What’s all this?’ said Abu-Bakr, dislodging himself from the bar stool and pulling a seat up to their table. “Why the tears. Always tears. Then too much laughter. Then tears. It is always one or the other with you, no?”

“The country is on fire,” she snapped at him. “And what are you doing? You the big police chief. You and your friends who got us to this point.”

“We each do what we can. Why I am here every night, no?” replied Abu-Bakr curtly. “Keeping a close eye on everything. Everything! Keeping chaos from swallowing us up. Making sure no trouble-makers hiding here or there. Provocateurs. Destroyers of our country.”

Joanne laughed out loud. “Really?” she said. “That’s your job? That’s what you’ve been doing?”

Nabil glared at her and shook his head sharply.

Abu-Bakr smiled. “We adapt with the times, no? Just like our friends in America. They dance with us when the times are good, waltz away when the times are bad. Proclaim their innocence. Always their innocence.”

Neena shrugged, stood up abruptly, and said to Abu -Bakr “Vous m’ennuyez!” Then she brushed past him. She changed the CD.  Tempo now fast and furious.

“The Gypsy Kings.” Joanne exclaimed happily. “Bamboleo. I love that song,”

Abu-Bakr rose, held a fat paw out to her. “So a dance?” he asked. “Nothing cheers old Neena up like the sight of good friends dancing.”

“I think we are all too tired for dancing,” Nabil interjected.

Joanne didn’t respond; she kept her arms folded in front of her.

Abu-Bakr ignored Nabil and persisted, “Or are you afraid? Will you run away?”

Joanne stared at him.

“Maybe another time,” said Nabil.

Joanne laughed, rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “Why not?”

She swung past Abu-Bakr, and he turned on his heels after her, caught up to her and pulled her close  He tried to spin her around the small open area in front of the bar, moved jerkily with her across the floor, his glistening face almost touching hers. She rested her hands gingerly on his shoulders, avoiding the two large stains soaking his shirt.  Like a songbird on the back of a lunging rhinoceros, Nabil thought.  He started to get up, but Neena waved him down, took it upon herself: “Let her go you buffoon!  Dégoûtant! She’s drowning in your sweat.”

Abu-Bakr pulled up short, let his hands fall off Joanne’s waist and stepped back. He turned to Joanne, palms up, and offered an exaggerated bow.

But Joanne glared at him, turned on her high heels, and strode straight to Nabil.  “Air,” she said.

“Perhaps I am not a good enough dancer,” said Abu-Bakr as he followed Joanne back to the table. “I am, as they say, self-taught.”

“You are, as they say, a fool,” said Neena sharply. “Take her out to the terrace Nabil. A nice breeze. Away from all this.”

“Let’s go,” said Nabil. He tried to put his arms around Joanne’s shoulders, but she shrugged him off.

On the terrace, in the moonlight, Nabil turned his back to the sea and leaned against the wooden railing. He said, “That fat fuck.”

“Oh please,” Joanne said. “I could give a damn. Just with all of you sitting around it felt like a spectacle.”

She turned away from him and clicked to the end of the terrace. Nabil followed, stood behind her, neither close nor far.

She peered out over the Mediterranean, white caps out there.  Finally, she said, “I don’t mind staying here.” She held herself tight. “I don’t mind one bit. I don’t need to go anywhere else.”

“Let’s see how things go,” Nabil said.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Maybe there will be trains out of Alexandria and we can get to Cairo. Figure things out from there.”  He put a hand on her waist.

She shook her head, brushed windswept hair from her eyes. “It’s just fine with me to stay for now. Can’t imagine that it’s any better anywhere else.” She took a deep breath and peered out at the water that was dappled in the moonlight.  “Let’s go back in.”

In the bar the German couple was sitting at a table in the back and talking with worried intensity. The Australian hiker had dozed off in a corner, his sunburned legs and scruffy boots stretched out in front of him, his chin on his chest. A small contingent of Chinese tourists had stood up from their table to leave. Neena was nowhere in sight.

Abu-Bakr was sitting on his stool at the bar and waved them over. He looked at Nabil and then Joanne, a contrite expression on his face.  “I’m very sorry. Very sorry. I did not mean to upset. Truly. Please sit a while” The television was broadcasting images from Cairo, where traffic was moving smoothly across the Kasr El Nil Bridge. At the bar, Nabil placed himself between Abu-Bakr and Joanne.  “Nothing about the protests?” Nabil said.  “Never a word.”

Abu-Bakr laughed. “This orchestrated coup against the government will never work,” he said. “They like to bark; they like the sound of their own barking. When did you say you were last in Egypt?”

“I left when I was ten. A long time ago,” said Nabil.

“Yes, you have been gone too long. You don’t understand Egyptians anymore. I, sir, have lived here my whole life. I have been in this town for more than two decades! I know police work and I know people. These people you see demonstrating on television, it means nothing. Anyway, believe me, people are fundamentally cowards, even here in Egypt. They say a lot of things. Yes, sometimes they even do things. Sometimes terrible things. Then they run away. They pack up, they take their daughter, their son, whomever, and they run away. Sometimes to America, no?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at,” replied Nabil.

Abu-Bakr adjusted his rear in the stool, which groaned, and he gazed past Nabil at Joanne, who was sitting stony faced. “My dear Joanne, my dear, All-American Joanne.  I am not the enemy. Please understand, I speak the truth. We here are complacent. Of course we are. We have been tamed by the whip, by poverty, by the centuries, by the cattle prod in the rectum. We are a hollow shell of a people, the detritus of history. There is nothing we won’t accept. Beat us and we will crawl. Yell and we will scuttle away.”

Joanne waited a few beats and said, “I think that’s pretty pathetic.”

He yawned and stretched his arms out in front of him. He seemed pleased with his monologue.

“Well,” Nabil said.  “It’s getting late.”

Abu-Bakr looked at Joanne and a sleepy smile crept over his face. “You are a believer, no? You believe in human energy, in the transformative ability of the human spirit, in the capacity of man to alter his fate and the course of human events. A can-do spirit! Manifest Destiny! The western frontier! How precious. How American. Here we have been slogging the same slice of narrow terrain for thousands of years. That is our frontier.”

The cleaning lady came out from the kitchen carrying a large rubber container for the dirty dishes. Abu-Bakr waved her over. “An example,” he said to Joanne.

“No,” Nabil said. “That’s enough.”

“But please,” Abu-Bakr said. “It is important I make things clear.  Mounira—come over here.”

Mounira approached hesitantly, a wavering smile on her face. “What! You think I am going to bite?” Abu-Bakr said to her. “You speak a little English, yes. I just have a question for you.”

Mounira nodded.

“My friends here are visiting from America. You know USA! USA! USA!”

Mounira nodded again. “They want to know the way to the Statue of Liberty. You know the famous one I’m talking about. Where is it exactly? Down the highway somewhere?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Before Marsa Matrouh?”

“A few miles before. A couple of towns before.”

“Thanks Mounira,” said Abu-Bakr. “Now that wasn’t so bad!”

After she left he turned to Joanne and said, “See what I mean. Statue of Liberty. She has no clue. Just, yes sir. Absolutely sir. Anything you say sir.”

“That’s absurd,” said Joanne. “She’s probably thinking you are an idiot. She’s humoring your stupidity.”

In the shadows by the kitchen entrance, Nabil saw Mounira staring back at them.

Abu-Bakr wagged a finger at Joanne. Under his breath he chanted: “USA!  USA!”

“That’s enough,” Nabil said.

To be continued…

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on June 8, 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.

 

By the time the food came, kabobs for Nabil, chicken for Joanne, the bar had filled up slightly.

“Not so good about the airport,” said Nabil. “I’m thinking this was all a mistake. We shouldn’t have come.” His mood turned dark. He stared at his plate, a worried expression settling on his features.

They recognized some of the faces from the hotel – Joanne pointed out a German couple they had met briefly in the hotel lobby, also a young man with unruly sandy hair and an Aussie T-shirt.  A comforting handful of others sat in groups of two or three; most looked like tourists from Europe and Asia.

Nabil’s food was mediocre; the kabobs too few and too lean. Joanne had chosen well, her chicken perfectly regal on its bed of puree. But the atmosphere had picked up with the chatter of customers and soon a more comfortable air had settled in, the events moving across the country momentarily receding into the background.  Nabil, relaxed, his fears abating, found he could eat. Joanne dug into her food, stopping only to watch as a woman they had not noticed before strolled through the dining room and chatted with a few of the guests. Behind her, Nabil saw, to his surprise, the police chief, Abu-Bakr. He had stepped back from the woman once she started conversing with the diners, and made his way to the bar counter, settling himself on a stool, a few feet away from their table. His trousers, taut over each substantial thigh, looked more than uncomfortable, his girth spilling over his belt as he sat hunched over on the barstool. He glanced over at Nabil and Joanne, nodded his head in acknowledgement. Joanne regarded Abu-Bakr briefly, waved a few vague fingers in his direction, turned her attention back to her dinner.

The woman walked into the bar. She was older, slender, small, clad in a black evening gown, silver hair tied up in a bun, a string of pearls shimmering across the pale skin of her throat. She looked overdressed for the setting, but somehow comfortable in her presentation, as if in her mind she was somewhere else, presiding over a different kind of clientele in a different kind of place.

“Neena in the flesh?” Joanne said.

They watched her move around the tables and greet patrons.  Soon, she stopped at their table.  “Hallo,” she said, in French-accented English. “How do you like your meal?”  Her face was a perfect oval of carefully placed eyeliner and shadow, blush and lipstick, nice but still failing to hide her age.

Joanne said, “The roasted chicken is divine.”

“Very nice,” Nabil lied. “Looks like things are picking up a little.”

“You must be American,” Neena said. “We get so few Americans these past few years. British, French, Italian, German, even Canadians, everything. But no Americans. It’s a shame. Malheur de la politique.” She had a throaty voice, a habit of stretching out certain words for emphasis, her mannerisms a little too expressive, as if this were a speech she had practiced and delivered countless times before. “Le monde est vraiment petit n’est-ce-pa? No need for all these problems.”

Abu-Bakr overheard the exchange, laughed, leaned over in their direction and said, “Neena, perhaps our American friends could inform us as to why in god’s name they hate us so much?”

Ignore him,” said Neena. “Unfortunately I have to tolerate his presence.”

“We are American,” said Nabil to the woman. “But my father’s family was from around here. Used to own land around here.”

Neena nodded distractedly. She placed a hand lightly on Nabil’s shoulder, smiled warmly at Joanne. She assumed a faraway expression, two fingers floating momentarily across her temple as if to smooth out the fine worry lines. “Well I was raised in Alexandria, but I vastly, vastly prefer this place. I’ve been here so, so long now. Fell in love with the desert. Madly. The terrible, wonderful emptiness of it all. And then history of this town. The wars that raged.” She pointed east in the direction of the old battlefields of El Alamein.

She stopped, ran a finger absent-mindedly across a loose strand of hair. “What’s the family name?” she asked.

“Awad,” replied Nabil.

Something like recognition passed briefly over her face.  She covered with more verbiage. “You should come back. You should come back every night. There is nothing else to do around here. We can talk more. Nous pouvons parler toute la nuit! I need to understand more why you are here.” And with that she bade them a good evening and paused for a moment by Abu-Bakr at the bar.

Joanne saw her exchange a few words with Abu-Bakr, and both glanced quickly in their direction. Then Abu-Bakr rose from his seat and followed her back into the dining room.

Nabil was looking around the bar trying to catch their waiter’s attention.

“When did you say the airport closed?’ Nabil asked the waiter after he finally brought them their check.

“Just few hours ago. Tonight.”

“Any news on when it will re-open?” Nabil said trying to sound more nonchalant than he felt.

The waiter shrugged. “No one knows,” he said. “No one knows anything.” He nodded, looked past them into the dining room, his attention focused there where it was busier.

When they had stepped outside the restaurant, Joanne said, “What did she mean by that comment?”

“Who? By what?”

“Neena. Understanding why we are here?”

Nabil shrugged, “Who knows. Just her English turned around.”

A few cars were parked at odd angles in the small dirt cul de sac at the front of the restaurant. There was something that felt especially familiar to Nabil about this place. He’d sensed it the moment they’d first come upon the restaurant. It was more pervasive now, perhaps the alcohol, the quality of the light approaching dusk. He stood for a moment looking around him. Behind them was the sea, the sound of waves breaking on the shore. Before them, a dirt path, bordered on either side by a barren terrain of sand and scrub grass, led back to the highway. Joanne held herself close to Nabil as they ambled along.

“Somewhere here,” Nabil said. “It looks different now. I think we were standing near here. She was trying to cross.”

They’d stopped at the edge of the highway.  The sun was low, and Joanne shielded her eyes from the dusky red glow off the desert.

“It’s more built up now. I remember an empty road, desert, lots of open space.”

Joanne looked around. The small storefronts on either side of the highway, the few scattered homes nearby, the level road ahead. She laughed and said, “built up?”

They doubled back down the highway away from the town and towards the resort. Nabil spotted the convoy first. “Look,” he said.  The armored vehicles, at first hazy in the distance, were rapidly approaching them, then passing, throwing up clouds of dust. Green tarp covered the beds, but the back flaps were open, revealing rows of seated soldiers, rifles at hand. The last vehicle stormed past with a heart-seizing blare of its horn. They froze and watched until the convoy was out of sight, speeding in the direction of Alexandria.

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…

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