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Posts Tagged ‘Short Story’

“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.

 

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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.

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…

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