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Posts Tagged ‘Short Story’

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on June 8, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Neena in the flesh?” Joanne said.

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

Joanne said, “The roasted chicken is divine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awad,” replied Nabil.

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

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

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

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

“Just few hours ago. Tonight.”

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

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

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

“Who? By what?”

“Neena. Understanding why we are here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

Yasser El-Sayed

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course he was thinking of your mother.”

“Maybe,” said Nabil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

Yasser El-Sayed

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

 

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

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

“You should come with,” she said.

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

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

“Bathwater!” Joanne called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” said Abu-Bakr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Itsharafna,” Nabil said.

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

Yasser El-Sayed

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice?” he asked.

“A little ripe,” she said.

“I’m going to step outside.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside, the shopkeeper pondered him. “Masri?”

Nabil replied that he was, yes, Egyptian.

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

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

“My sympathies,” the shopkeeper replied in Arabic.

To be continued….

Communitas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There it was.

A redbird.

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

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

The man grew sad.

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

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

It was Monday.  The boy would come today.

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

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

What They Left, Part Two

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

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

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

…continued from part one….

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

“I sell parts,” he had answered.

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

“It’s never too good.”

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

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

“I have to work.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“No.”

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

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

What They Left, Part One

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

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

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

What They Left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I found it on the road.”

“It’s mine.”

“Not now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sounds returned: Two. Three. Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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