By Pd Mallamo
Discriminate between what gives you peace and what disturbs you. Whatever is better, follow that.
– Papaji, Sri H.W.L Poonja
Fabian rode the bus from his home in Pottsville PA to Providence RI, three hundred and twenty two miles. The bus stopped forty-six times; the trip took thirty-seven hours. He drank a full gallon of black coffee he’d brewed the day before and poured into a pump-jug hidden in his backpack. He made fourteen trips to the abominable toilet at the back of the bus. Except for a three-hour nap, he spent his time working through the first two books of James Elroy’s underworld trilogy while looping Neon Indian’s “Polish Girl” over and over until it became trance music, an enhancement to Ellroy like sex in a hearse. His Pentecostal father, disappointed and distrustful that he had chosen Brown over Calvin or Hope, drove him to the bus station and advised him to be careful with the coloreds, even at Brown, sure there’s some good ones and a few who genuinely love the Lord. Maybe when you’re finished with college you’ll reconsider the Army. These days the Army is loaded with Christians, you’d be right at home, they’re doing the Lord’s work in the godless Middle East. Don’t be out late; half the wicked things in this world happen at two a.m. Beware the evil eye. Discern the antichrist. The woman in the seat next, a window seat, was black, beautiful and from Baltimore by way of Botswana, or so she said, and sporadically, when she wasn’t staring soundlessly and in perfect stillness out that window, began brief soliloquies with the phrase “I remember …” These inevitably became confessions, as if he were a priest or, better yet, a priest she would never see again. At one point she told him she had willingly lost her virginity to a nineteen-year old cousin when she was twelve, allowing that twelve was at the outer limits of consent but that’s how she chose to remember it. This was a week after the heat riots in Houston. At another, that she’d had a boyfriend every single day of her hilariously dysfunctional and now-defunct marriage because one man was never enough, ‘specially if he got no money; at still another, that she used meth and even though meth is considered a white man’s drug she likes it very much but knows it will kill her. Confronting the baleful twilight of a soon-to-be heat-dead universe without the comforting illusion of a loving god she has nonetheless switched to prednisone which is even Whiter and perfectly respectable and makes her feel like an angel but will eventually leach her bone like meth and destroy her liver and kidneys, though maybe not as fast. I won’t lose my teeth, she said, and I won’t look like I got hit by a truck. I’m not exactly a candidate for Celebrity Rehab. Her name was Geneva and she didn’t know who had named her or who her parents were, she’d bounced among foster homes until she was eighteen and then she bounced to the street where she’d taken her lumps, believe me! She was straight out of Ellroy, and little fissures raced through his heart each time she revealed a side of life so bad it was scarcely believable, color of pain, stench of fear, relentless anger, death everywhere. When she spoke she always touched his arm. He switched off Neon Indian, shut the book and twisted in his seat to regard her full on, this stranger he was not supposed to meet. He focused on the center of her eyes when she spoke, peering deep inside to see fire and destruction, evil and light, where erotic capital had soon enough become survival sex and only god knew what else. In her presence he felt his leaving home in the muscles of his bottom and thighs, interludes of fear, giddy joy, anticipation, premonition, dread, dark confusion – then, finally, deliverance and Amen, the entire limbic cycle compressed into hours instead of months, amplified by caffeine and bus motion, by the strange being sitting next to him, by the memory of the abrupt bewildering almost ex-nihilo call from Providence. Smelled briefly from somewhere in the back an aroma like pot-roast his mother made on Sundays; later, a voice, also from the rear, that sounded like his father, but half-drunk, unlike his father who was drunk only on the Lord. He comprehended that his brothers and sisters, all younger, were now permanently deprived of a secular advocate and would have to fend for themselves, resist the programming or dive right in, he’s gone to make his small way in the big world, fantastically lucky because first he’d been turned down cold by Brown as expected, a single-page form letter signed by the copy machine and mailed to nobodies; then, inexplicably, another letter admitting him provisionally but only if there were room and the gods did not continue to ignore him; turned down cold again two weeks later with another single-page form letter sent first to the wrong address; then informed by phone forty-eight hours prior that a place had unexpectedly opened, come immediately if you can tear yourself away from Pottsville, there is a scholarship because even though your high school grades suck your SAT is stellar and you maxed the math. Someone high at Brown had reached down down down and pulled him up up up as if his or her hand were the very hand of God, pulled him in one clean lift above religion, Republicans, patriotism, coal mines, KwikStops, little gray houses, four-hundred pound women, listing Pontiacs, television, girls who couldn’t read, bullies and dolts and drunken veteran’s parades. On cream-colored tile by a urinal flush-handle in a Wilkes-Barre men’s room at a Gas ‘n Go where the bus had stopped to offload three passengers a urinator had scrawled “This may be your day.” The final stop was still three miles from the campus. Geneva took his face in both hands and said with breath that smelled like Trident, I ain’t no white man’s dog, then wished him luck and blessed him, a soft wet kiss on his lips. She said Fabian was a lucky name unless you happened to be a Pope. Never forget me, she said, I will live in your mind even when I’m dead, that’s god for you. Exhausted but too embarrassed to call Brown for a pick-up from the bus station he lugged two suitcases and a duffle bag nearly the entire way until a family from Massachusetts with a van and another Brown freshman gave him a lift.
Fabian met his advisor Monday afternoon at two p.m. in Archibald Hall. He knocked a door upon which the words A Cooper were printed modestly in gold leaf and when he heard a noise inside walked through. He closed the door carefully and turned around to see a very old man leaned way back in a swivel chair looking him up and down through half-lidded eyes.
Judas Priest, the old man said after a long moment. When did you drag in?
Last night, sir.
You the Pottsville boy?
God almighty. He shook his head. Fabian is it? – nice name unless you’re the Pope.
So I’ve heard, sir.
Pottsville P-A. Wooo-E! You musta blowed the ROOF off that test! A Cooper dropped his chair forward and rummaged through papers on his desk until he found a green file.
As I thought, he said. Maxed the math. Well well well. Play ball?
Cooper plopped the file on the desk, turned around, leaned again back in his seat. You want the good news or the bad news?
I’ll take them both, sir.
Which one first?
The good news I guess.
By the way, I AM the Brown Department of Journalism.
Brown doesn’t have a Department of Journalism.
Not quite, sir.
In reality I am the Brown University reality consultant – the Consultant on Reality, as it were. Journalists deal in reality. You follow?
People come to me to make sure it makes sense.
What makes sense, sir?
Whatever. Two point five billion dollar endowment people tend to pull all sorts of things out their ass. It’s a self-reinforcing system with no actual referent to the real world. This is why they need a reality consultant. Follow?
Kind of, sir.
To Brown’s credit, they understand this – unlike Harvard with an endowment ten times bigger.
Yes sir –
So the problem’s ten times worse.
The claptrap that comes out of that place…
Very interesting, sir.
You a Pollack, son?
Yes I am.
Oh, I –
Your name’s Jarosinsky for god’s sake
Of course, sir.
The most beautiful women in this world are Pollack.
Did you know that?
Chiseled features. Statuesque. I saw Zsa Zsa Gabor once with her clothes off. Of course she’s Hungarian, but what the hell –
I’ll tell you about it sometime.
I’ll look forward to that.
You don’t know Zsa Zsa Gabor from Lyndon Baines Johnson.
I’m sorry, sir.
Is your mother beautiful?
A bit overweight, I’m afraid –
Of course she is. She’s a Pollack.
Actually, she’s Hungarian.
The old man slapped his knees and hooted at the ceiling. Well played, young man! Well played!
Thank you, sir.
Anyway, here’s the good news: You’ve done the hard part.
Which part was that?
They jump you through hoops?
They sure did!
A goddamn dog circus?
A dog circus it was, sir!
Sixteen letters, twelve phone calls and they still can’t make up their goddamn mind.
And if your daddy had two hundred fifty million dollars like Mitt Romney?
No dog circus?
One goddamn letter, one goddamn phone call, they meet you en masse at the airport – but you’re just a Pollack from Pottsville –
Smarter than Mitt Romney’s sons put all together –
Thank you, sir
Want the bad news?
I’ll take it, sir.
No underwater basket weaving for you, I’m afraid.
Sir – ?
He pulls a volume from a bookshelf above his desk, ostentatiously closes his eyes and flips pages. He chooses a passage at random, then opens his eyes and reads aloud: But this emphasis would be lavished in vain, if it served, in your opinion, only to abstract a general type from phenomena whose particularity in our work would remain the essential thing for you, and whose original arrangement could be broken up only artificially.
He tosses the book back on the shelf. Is this comprehensible?
Not to me, sir.
We’re off to a good start.
Thank you, sir.
He holds up his hands: I’m not saying no wine, women, song –
No sir –
Without wine and women not to mention song old Brown is just not Brown. You may as well be back in Pottsville –
I’m just saying a Pollack from Pottsville has got to make this goddamn place PAY! What’s the major?
Don’t have one yet.
We’ll work on that.
Will you listen to me?
Will you trust me?
Fabian hesitated and the old man laughed again.
Son, he said, here’s the bad news. Here’s the reality from the Brown University Consultant on Reality: You have to come out of here knowing something very few people know. And – he jabbed his finger for emphasis – people have got to pay GOOD money for this something. You follow?
Otherwise go back to Pottsville.
That junior college on the hill –
Oh Lord –
Now, you don’t want to be a goddamn dentist or something – ?
Lawyer, MBA – ?
Heaven forbid, sir.
This is the golden door, boy. For you it opens ONE time.
Sir, I swear on a stack of bibles I will study my Pollack ass off!
A Cooper slammed both hands on the desk. That’s the goddamn spirit!
Thank you sir!
You’ve made me a happy man, son!
I’m very glad, sir!
Your people religious?
Not quite, sir.
We can set that little fable aside for now can’t we – ?
We can establish veracity in the present tense here at old Brown – ?
Allow Saint Philomena be who she actually was, etcetera – ?
I’m not sure I –
Fabian thinks a moment. I think you’ve got me there, sir.
Who was E. Howard Hunt?
I know I’ve heard that na –
What’s tardive dyskinesia?
… I ….
He pointed to photographs on the wall opposite. Do you recognize these people?
That’s Earnest Hemingway. Speaking with Fidel Castro.
Who’s this? He pointed a shaky finger to a sitting man with dirty boots and an open shirt, laughing like he didn’t have a care in the world.
Don’t know, sir
A Cooper pulled another book off the shelf, Che by Jon Lee Anderson. I knew all three, he said, handing him the book. Fidel was sane, the others were artists. Sense the dichotomy? So of course Fidel’s still alive, Hem and Che long gone. Goddamn it, I’ll be dead soon, too. Wife passed five years and I miss her every day. Get as much from me as you can, I won’t last forever. First assignment: read the goddamn book. He reached out, tapped the cover. Second edition.
If I may ask, sir, why him?
Because you’re from Pottsville. Got a dictionary?
I’ll get one, sir.
A Cooper pulled forty dollars out of his wallet. Brown Bookstore, he said. Get a good one. Make sure you get the Cooper discount.
His joy was whole and perfect when Fabian chose Arabic. He said Beirut women were the most beautiful women on earth. They met for lunch every week for three years. Look deeper, he said, always deeper. The summer before senior term Fabian went to Damascus with a professor of Mideast languages for a conference on Islamic verse during the sway of Suleyman the Magnificent. Cooper died on an August morning sitting at that same desk in Archibald beneath the photographs of Fidel, Hem and Che Guevara. He left Fabian his cat and two boxes of books with explicit reading instructions penned in precarious handwriting. He also left him thirty-five thousand dollars. Fabian considered giving half to his family but knew most of it would go to the church. He bought a red almost-new Ducati, clothes, shoes and boots, a MacBook Air and the best electric shaver money could buy. When he graduated in May he joined the army as an Arabic linguist. He called his father, who shouted for joy. He sent his mother A Cooper’s cat. He stood mournfully at A Cooper’s grave wishing mightily he’d heard the story of naked Zsa Zsa Gabor. Then, after three month of basic training, he blasted his red Ducati across the continent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California for a year of Pashto.
And, suddenly, Afghanistan.
One hot two a.m. at the end of summer he is inserted with a Ranger squad four miles outside an eight-hut hamlet midway between Qila Abdulla and the Afghan border. They tramp silently to a rocky overlook and wait for drones – and, if the night is a bad night, the Taliban or, worse, Pakistani commandos. A tap on the head means flip down your IR goggles and all-at-once he sees a Ranger’s arm extended skyward where three simultaneous exhaust trails from high orbit lance into the hamlet from different angles blip/blip/blip/STARBURST/STARBURST/STARBURST……………………………………
BOOOOM/BOOOOM/BOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh………… detonations so deafening, fires so intense he knows the entire settlement is smashed and burning. Double-time to the site, sifting quickly through flaming debris and clothing attached to body parts for anything of intelligence value, papers, rings, watches, talismans, hard drives, phone bits, photographs, medicines. These are stuffed quickly into zipper bags along with DNA samples from dead men and unmistakable dead women and dead children he emotionally blocks as he works, dogs, he thinks (and knows he will later unthink) little dogs, when you kill the master you kill his dogs, these are the rules of war. A ranger jerks him by the arm and they run through flames to a man drenched in blood without feet frantically crawling into darkness at the perimeter, small intestines dragging out ten feet behind. The ranger flips him over with his boot and shines a light in his face/over his clothes and Fabian leans/looks/declares: Arab, take him! From the darkness a child crying and another ranger sprinting to the sound, emerging moments later with a small girl in his arms. Then the Blackhawks descend, the footless man and girl heaved in with the medics and all hell breaks loose AK’s/RPG’s east and north. Fabian runs and leaps for the hatch, hears the captain bawling GO GO GO/rounds splattering like raindrops against the hardened hull/screams/smell of blood. He digs for the seat restraint as the pilot hits full throttle, g-force hauling him so hard his legs buckle. He covers his head with his hands and shuts his eyes tight in the shuddering black cabin.
NATO Hospital, Kandahar
When Fabian walks into the ward the man is craning his neck to see Walker, Texas Ranger on a television set across the aisle in the nurse’s station. When he sees Fabian, he first addresses him in Arabic:
Just a minute, he’s almost got the filthy criminal!
Fabian backs up to the door and shuts it.
What the fuck? I can’t watch Texas Ranger shoot the feet off the bad guy?
The footless man adjusts himself in the bed, sips water through a straw, and says Here’s the problem, buddy: I can’t find my feet! Where did you put my feet?
I think you are a man called Aamir, disciple of al-Awlaki. Or you are a disciple of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab –
The footless man laughs. That idiot. Your attempt at humor, maybe? But what have you done with my feet? My guts you have found – but what about the feet?
We will give you new feet.
Like the feet God gave me? Or by the hand of the devil, the same that makes your drones?
Feet that work.
Not even Chuck Norris would do this to another man. No, not even to the criminal! With these false promises you hope to woo me?
You are a murderer and a fanatic. What could I hope to gain?
Such hypocrisy! Cities of infants and grandmothers cooked with your atom bombs, but only I am the murderer.
An orderly wheels him outside to a porch shaded with camouflage netting. With a pushbutton-remote he moves both mattress and man to sitting position, then leaves. Fabian offers him a pack of Marlboros. He leans forward, takes them gently without a word or look, opens the pack to tap one out, closes his eyes while Fabian lights it. He inhales deeply and falls back into his bed..
The devil’s cigarettes, says Fabian.
Give the devil his due, the man laughs. Blackhawks roar overhead and he strains to see them.
All this – with the cigarette in his hand he motions around himself and to the sky – is Southeast Asia without the jungle. Why are you so stupid? Your human projects are an affront to God. This is why they fail.
We didn’t come here. You came to New York.
New York, he spits, that sewer. We did you a favor. Now look what you have done. Will you destroy the world for a filthy place?
We are anxious to learn the whereabouts of any captured American or Allied service member.
Of course you are.
If you will provide names and locations we –
If you will provide my feet.
Your feet are gone.
So are those men. This law is plainly written. You speak well the language of The Word yet you are ignorant of it. Where is your excuse?
I suppose it is time to move on with my life, he said. Isn’t that the Anglo-Saxon way?
Fabian has brought him another pack of Marlboros. Aamir holds his cigarette up to Fabian’s face.
At least with these I can talk, which is a relief for me also. It is up to you to judge the value of what I say.
Everything you say is valuable, Aamir. I am sorry about your feet. Actually, you should be dead.
Are the rest dead?
Who is alive?
By God! He will grow to fight you!
She is already in California.
Aamir falls back into his bed-chair and flicks the cigarette away.
About the waterboarding, he said – let’s get it over with. Maybe I will remember something to tell you.
Shall we do it here, on this bed?
If not, you will have to carry me. Plus the bed moves up and down. Very convenient.
If you cooperate we will send you back to Thadiq.
Is this before or after you make the devil-feet?
Whichever you prefer.
I don’t want your devil feet. I would rather crawl. I was crawling when you caught me. That is good enough.
You don’t want to go home?
Of course not.
You want to stay here?
California! In Los Angeles you will find blond women with blue eyes and massive breasts. Bring one to me. Then maybe I will tell you everything!
I had a teacher, a wise man. He told me to work as hard as I could, then let it go, like a balloon to the sky. If it is the will of god, the rains will come and my orchard will grow.
An American said this?
Well, by god, that is good advice!
Here’s the rest of it: He did not believe in god.
Aamir took a long drag on his cigarette and looked above himself. He sighed and took another long drag.
This is my world, said Fabian.
So it is. But I, too, have been to many places – Europe, Africa, once to Brazil and Venezuela – yes, the life of sweet fruits. A friend graduated from the University of Wyoming School of Social Work and lived with the hills-billies in Hardeman County, Tennessee. Yes, I have seen many things and heard of more but the Word of God is always within me. When I read a newspaper or book, or watch something on the television, or meet someone new, The Word is there. It is my focus and reality. How can you live? How can you think? How can you create these vast machines without consulting the true Creator first? If there is no center it will all crumble to nothing, yes, even your machines.
I am finished with the feet. All flesh is consumed. My feet just got there first. Insha’Allah
He is watching another episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Fabian pulls up a chair and tosses him a pack of Marlboros.
Shall I now roll over and bark? He taps one out and Fabian lights it. He motions to the screen where the Texas Ranger endures a savage beating.
Walker is hurting for certain-ing, he says. Those cruel Anglo-Saxons! I see them on South Park.
Hurtin’ for certain. That’s how it’s said.
Hurt-ing for certain-ing?
Drop the first “g” – Hurtin’ for certain.
By God, even your language is corrupt. Who can understand this? Where is this written? There are no rules!
It is the people’s rule. It is the people’s language.
The people who watch Walker, Texas Ranger.
What kind of people are these?
Less simple people do not watch Walker, Texas Ranger?
As a general rule, no.
Do they say “hurting for certain-ing?”
They do not.
And why is that?
Their language is less precise – a language of deception.
And the show?
The plots are predictable and the outcomes sure.
Less simple people cannot agree with this? Do they not find this comforting?
Is life like that, Aamir? Here you are eight weeks later with no feet in an American hospital talking to a man in the intelligence service you think wants to waterboard you.
If you waterboard me I will be hurting for certain-ing, just like your countryman, the patriot Chuck Norris.
Fabian motions to the television. Maybe they should waterboard Chuck Norris.
Aamir slaps his knees and throws back his head. If God should allow this, he wheezes through gusts of mirth, I should like immediately to die! For how can life get any better? Only if they showed this on Cops.
One cannot live without God. Did your father not teach you this?
You did not listen?
I did not agree.
Then it was the false god
That is certainly possible.
Not all gods are the false god. This is the error in your thinking.
This, too, is a possibility.
For obedience the True God gives us many wives. Therein lies great joy.
In my country it’s called something else.
Does your father wish for many wives?
Fabian laughed. After my mother, I doubt it.
There are many lovely flowers. No two are the same. But in America there is only one wife. In frustration the husband watches filth on the computer or divorces his wife and makes lawyers rich. This is not the way of God. How then do you think you provide answers for the people of this world? Pimps and the ho’s on television. Drugs in your children and old women. People so fat their faces look like the pig face, millions of them. This is madness. You have got everything backward, everything wrong. You have nothing to teach anybody.
At least let me have a good-looking Ukrainian nurse like that shitbag Gaddafi.
Wish I could.
Then tell me a story from your American life, a story of justice. But tell me in my own language so I understand better.
Fabian thinks for a moment. Texas Ranger justice?
Of course, the real thing!
I will tell you a story about my great-grandmother.
Yes, the best story of all – but I must tell it in English, the language of justice.
I will hear it. Wait, wait! He fishes around for cigarettes. Let me light another Marlboro. Marlboros are the cigarettes of justice.
My great-grandmother had six children – five boys and one daughter. That daughter was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.
- What happened?
The five sons all grew up and became coal miners. My grandmother was the only girl and she was the baby.
- What happened?
Her name was Hattie. When she was fifteen she ran away and got married.
Fifteen was too young?
Her mother thought so. And, she didn’t like the young man.
What did he do, the young man?
He was a farmer’s son. He worked on the farm. That is also where they lived. He was a drunk. When Hattie’s mother saw her, she always had bruises and black eyes.
This man he would beat her?
He did not need a reason.
He was a piece of shit?
What year was this?
- What happened?
One day Hattie’s mother heard that her daughter was hurt. She took a bus to a little town thirty miles away called Moline, near the husband’s farm.
- What happened?
Hattie’s face was swollen and she had three broken fingers. He hit her with a pipe.
This piece of filth!
Great-grandmother found a doctor, then went to see the man’s father. He wouldn’t do anything.
Because he, too, was a drunk?
You learn quick.
- What happened?
Hattie refused to leave because she was pregnant – with my mother, actually. Six weeks later great-grandmother went back to Moline. Alone, at night.
How did she go there, this woman, thirty miles at night alone?
She borrowed her brother’s car, a Studebaker. Today my mother has it. I played in it when I was young.
Nobody saw her?
- What happened?
Right down the road from the farmer’s house was a hay barn. You know what I mean?
Yes, food for the horse.
Well, she set it on fire.
Everybody ran out to see this fire, including my Hattie. When they did, her mother circled back to the farmhouse.
The farmers did not go because they were drunk. This I can tell. OK. What happened?
Great-grandmother had a little revolver.
What kind was it?
Smith & Wesson Hammerless .32. Nicknamed the “Lemon Squeezer” because it looks like a kitchen appliance. My mother has it now, too. It is a family heirloom. Do you know this word?
Something passed down generation by generation.
Yes yes, we have knives. In America you have guns?
So she took that hair-moon in there? Ok. What happened?
She shot them both.
By God! The Woman did this?
They were killed?
- What happened?
She went back home. Dark of night.
And did they find her? Did they catch her?
No. And since Hattie was at the fire and other people saw her there, the police couldn’t blame her.
Did people hear the shots?
Why did they not come running?
People shoot skunks all the time, even today. Do you know the word “skunk”?
A stinking animal?
Thereby this mother saved her daughter?
And how did you come to this knowledge? It is in your family of course.
Secret knowledge passed down.
Your mother told you.
Do the American police know?
They do not.
To this very day?
Have you told anyone else?
You are the first.
By God, you do me great honor!
Why shouldn’t I?
Because we are adversaries. But you are very interesting. And your great-relative was perhaps an Arab.
Your life in America – it is what I heard?
What did you hear?
Baseball and the apple pie?
No pie or no baseball?
My father worked for a poultry processor. My mother worked at a dry cleaner. The big event was paying off the house. They’re still in it, that house.
What do they do in there?
Watch television. Take pills.
But you left that place – ?
One day I applied to Brown University. It was a class assignment, apply to a college, here’s a list. I chose one at random. Someone at Brown actually decided to let me in. It took a while but they did it. If not for that person I’d still be in Pennsylvania pulling chicken guts at the processor. I’d never have learned Arabic. We wouldn’t have met.
God helped you. He answered your prayers. Now you have fresh life in a new world!
I don’t pray.
We all pray. Even if we don’t pray. Here is the proof: You got into Brown University and learned my language.
How many have you killed, Aamir?
By God I have killed no one – or I too would be dead.
How is that?
I will not send a soul to heaven unless I can guide him to the gates of paradise. I promise you.
Why haven’t you done this, then?
Don’t you know? I am just like you my almost-friend! I speak the language of the enemy. We are both too valuable to die!
Fabian’s commander, a black bird colonel named Cornelius Monk who graduated West Point and has general written all over him, makes an unannounced visit to the intel shack. He does not seem to notice a poster on the wall hung by a long-gone linguist featuring Richard Nixon shaking hands with an obviously-high Elvis Presley in the White House above the caption “Two Great Americans.” You’ve had that piece of shit three weeks, he says. You got him because you two go way back (he makes quote marks with his fingers) but so far it’s been all relationship (he makes quote marks with his fingers). Your terms, right? Knock yourself out. Well here’s our status: Current? Zip. Corroborating? Zip. Directionals? Zip. Timeline? Zip. You’re all I’ve got Jarosinski, since Rumsfeld kicked out the queers – but real soon soldier, and I mean real soon, I render Abdul here off to Egypt. They hand out Marlboros, too. Then they shove them up his ass. When did you get to be so stupid? This happen on my watch? I’ll tell you this – Monk points a finger at him – he sings in Egypt we got a problem you and me. I’ll haul your ass up for dereliction. Or worse.
He sings in Egypt, says Fabian, you’ll see Christ Jesus fly over the desert at sunrise. Then we’ll really have a problem.
He tosses a pack of Marlboros on the bed. Enjoy them, he says. They may be your last.
Aamir slowly unwraps the pack and taps one out. When Fabian leans over with the lighter Aamir catches his eyes and holds them until he inhales first smoke.
I have a confession, he says. For you and for God. I will whisper.
Fabian leans again.
I am afraid. And therefore I am ashamed.
He smokes for a moment. Soon they will give you shit. They will say, Make him talk or we will send him away. He will be tortured and thrown alive from the helicopter over the Red Sea. This is reality.
Take the deal.
Either way I’m a dead man, even in Thadiq, one side or the other. Of course you know this. The only question is how do I die – like a man beloved of God and the Prophet, or like a dog – your dog. I will tell you. I will die like a man. They will burn me and cut me, then bind me with steel and drop me from great height into the sea. Insha’Allah
He pulls thoughtfully on the Marlboro and again seeks Fabian’s eyes but Fabian’s eyes are far away. Fabian leans in close and whispers, I knew a man who would do exactly the same.
As do I. Walker, Texas Ranger!
Suns in their multitudes seethe and cry upon the boundless plane of the night. Within this very firmament Aamir With No Feet has lately tumbled, somersaulting in clear air through flocks of gulls and Boeing drones and fiery Mohammadan angels shouting praise and courage. Though he unquestionably soiled himself and was abused for that, too, he found his voice and screamed the name of God over and over until the instant he struck the sea.
Onward and downward, says the colonel. How do you say “grunt” in Pashto? I hope you kissed him goodbye. We all need pleasant dreams. You will too, Jarosinski. Boots on the ground, troop! Welcome to the real Army. You know what I said to the last interrogator? – So be a bum and a dope addict for a while. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just remember who butters your toast.
He spends six months in El-Aaiún advising rich old men with coffee eyes and breath of cloves on the thrifty procurement of mail-order brides from Kazakhstan, sometimes three and four at a time, who are happily quarantined for the first three months against the possibility of herpes and HIV. The old men, paprika magnates, not only pay him well but treat him like a son, which is to say they love him. Don’t feel guilty, the girls whisper; you are not actually “procuring” because anything is better than Kazakhstan. These old men are harmless, they have let foxes into their henhouse, we will steal their desert jewels and flee to Madrid, come with us! Then another six months in Beirut where he begins a master’s program in Arab literature & language at American University. There he sees a countryman with green circles tattooed around his eyes, chain-smoking and talking to himself. On his backpack is a message scrawled on the bars of a childish representation of Old Glory rendered upon a dirty scrap of cardboard: SAY “HI” TO COMMANDER NAGASAKI SPREADING ACTIONS OF PEACE ACROSS THE WHOLE WORLD NOW JOIN HANDS!!!! In Cairo he meets a psychiatrist come from Boston for a conference on addictions who said he almost went crazy working with the obese – diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension. Crackheads meth-freaks my freakin’ ass, they die because they won’t stop eating, it’s just that simple, I have four degrees from three good schools, I should know. Next week I’m doing a presentation at Johns Hopkins: “Pizza, A New American Religion.” Fabian estimates the psychiatrist weighs three-hundred pounds. A full year in North Africa learning Arabic dialects Hassanyya, Touareg, Juba, Nubi, Dhofari, Najdi. Outside a Riyadh mosque one day a woman with her white-blond hair covered along with part of her face so one saw only dark eyes surreptitiously took his hand and slipped him a note. She was a Polish journalist on her way to Western Sahara for a Der Spiegel piece on Mariem Hassan, so back he goes to El-Aaiún where they present themselves as a married couple and sleep together. At some level this is incest, she says, but at least it stays in the family. When something good happens is the universe functioning or malfunctioning, I can’t tell – but the gall of deity throwing us upon this senseless earth crawling with charlatans in His name then damning us when we can’t figure it out, that’s why we’re all atheists in Europe. Are you atheist? Will I ever see you again? When she returned to Poland he hired on with a food entrepreneur from Baltimore blessed with ardent Alewite relatives who convinced him that Damascus was ripe for a string a Taco Bells, then threw in all their money. After only one presentation to a preposterous Syrian version of an American chamber of commerce he is beaten half to death by outraged Islamists who also threatened to bomb any and all Taco Bells he might be so unwise to construct. Fabian later learned that both the man’s Alewite and American relations, who had likewise invested and lost everything, beat him yet again – an unforeseen risk of fast food capitalism in the Arab world. Another month with the Polish journalist who came to Jordan for a Paris Match story on Iraqi refugees, who, in some places, now outnumbered Jordanians. She revealed her intention to draw parallels with persecuted Mormons in nineteenth century America who also migrated and engendered resentment and bigotry when they outnumbered Missourians in parts of Missouri.
Do you think your readers will understand this, he asked, a Mormon-Iraqi parallel? It wouldn’t even fly in my country.
Sure, she said, the older generation reads books, they don’t give a shit what Lindsay Lohan is up to, they’ve been interested in Mormons for at least a hundred years, do you know any?
I’m Pentecostal, he said, somewhat lapsed.
I’m Roman Catholic, she said, the same. What do you get when you put those together?
A Mormon? he laughed.
She’s The Sherriff starring Suzanne Somers is on the hotel television, dubbed into both Hassanyya and Berber. My god, she says, your country is taking over the entire world one television set at a time. Meanwhile the reefs are dying because everybody in America has a constitutional right to air conditioning. You are burning coal to generate electricity to run machines that cool your houses, so the earth gets even hotter and the oceans acidify, does that make sense? Soon you reach a point of no return and then what will you do, jump in the ocean to stay cool? It will eat your skin and you will die like the reefs and fishes, which is what you deserve stupid capitalist pigs. He lunges and catches her ankle and she laughs so hard she pees herself, then blushes upwards over alabaster shoulders and long alabaster neck, which lovely rose, he observes, compliments those black eyes. Watch out, she says, or I will call the mutaween and tell them you want to build Taco Bells in El-Aaiún. Next morning in the bazaar they find Sudanese selling Taco Bell out of a freezer in the back of a spice store. The Polish woman shakes her head as if to say If you can’t beat them… and kisses his ear. Will I ever see you again? she asks.
One day, in the middle of the Sahara, Monk calls literally from out the blue to ask if he has overcome his crippling obsession with Stone Age religions because if so there is a place for him at NSA where Monk is a section chief. I made general, he says, and the next year they packed my token black ass off to the Pentagon. NSA made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’m doing the same for you, Jarosinski, don’t ask how I got your phone number.
Thanks, says Fabian, but how sick and desperate would I have to be to even consider something like this?
Sick and desperate, well that’s interesting. Aamir took that dive for your sins if that’s what you’re getting at – and yes, by god, even California if he’d given us something to work with, but all he served up was horseshit and you ate every bit. Here’s a chance at redemption, think about it, that’s all I’m asking.
What about your redemption, Monk, how’s that going?
Hard to believe, kid, but I’m working on it, I really am.
Two days later still in the desert another call, this one from Red Cross in Tunisia telling him his parents had died in a car-truck accident the evening before in West Virginia where they’d gone to see his mother’s sister, Aunt TerriLois, who weighed nearly a quarter-ton and was in the final stages of congestive heart failure and had actually heard the accident report on her police scanner while working through a colossal bowl of Hostess Zingers. A semi driver hauling feminine products for WalMart had fallen asleep at 9 PM and crossed the divider. TerriLois herself died next evening reaching for her cigarettes, toppling from bed with a thunderous crash and puncturing a lung with a rib shattered by an oxygen bottle on the floor. After he’d settled his two youngest sisters with an uncle in Pottsville for the rest of middle school he rode the bus to DC and lunched with Monk in a jam-packed NSA cafeteria. Then he flew to Warsaw.
The Polish girl was more beautiful than he expected or hoped or, he knew absolutely, would ever in ten lifetimes deserve. She met him at the gate with her family, almost fifty people. Half of them are Catholic, she says, the other half still Communist, I don’t know which side’s worse. Only god knows.
I thought you were atheist.
No one’s an atheist, not even the Communists. They just think they are.
Some things you have to take on faith, Fabian. Even me. Especially me.