You can read part one “Pieces of a Dream | Part 1: Cabbie” here
That next Friday afternoon, Kadija called. Louis could not have been more surprised if she had leaped onto the roof of his cab and done a jig.
“I’ll be down in the doorway at 20 Jones,” she said.
Louis was there in a flash. “How are you today?” he asked once Kadija was comfortably seated in the cab, “I didn’t think you’d call me.”
“Well,” Kadija said, “I couldn’t let you go on with your silly stereotypes, could I?”
“Hey, I apologized for that,” Louis said.
“I know,” Kadija replied. “But you don’t get off that easy.”
Louis turned on the radio and the sounds of smooth jazz came flowing out like a cool stream. He imagined his cab was a kayak, working its way down the asphalt rivers of the city, leaving the past behind.
He drove in silence for a while.
It was October, and though fall in San Francisco could sometimes chill you to the bone, the weather was pleasant today. He didn’t need the A.C. He had the vent open, and the whisper of the cool air was the only sound in the cab, along with the occasional muffled car horn and streetcar bell. He was determined to sit back this time, and not pester his passenger.
When Louis was younger, his family had gone down to the animal shelter and adopted a cat they’d named Osiris Shiny Sides (his younger sister Gillian had been a budding Egyptologist). Osiris was a sleek black prowler with a white chest. But the cat had apparently grown up as a stray, and had never gotten over whatever terrors she’d experienced as a kitten. She was a great mouser, but skittish around people. If you approached her, she’d run away. But if you sat quietly and waited, Osiris would come and settle in your lap.
Kadija reminded Louis of Osiris. Not that he expected her to run to him and purr – he almost laughed out loud at the thought – but she had her guard up. So let’s see what happens if I sit and wait.
As they approached Stockton Street, Kadija said, “Can I ask you a question, Louis?”
“Sure,” he said. “Anything you like.”
“What was it like for you when you came back from the war? Were you depressed? Did you have nightmares?”
Louis paused. He didn’t like to talk about the war. He preferred to listen to easy jazz and old school R&B, and talk about cooking.
He worked long hours. At home he kept a journal where he wrote little vignettes about life in the city. Street scenes, overheard passenger conversations, and little poems sometimes. He had a CD player that he’d bought at Goodwill. He’d put on some Fourplay or Pieces of a Dream, or maybe the Isley Brothers or Bill Withers, and let everything slip away.
He didn’t have proper cooking facilities in his studio apartment – just a hot plate and a microwave – but he liked to collect recipes and save them in a binder. He’d flip through the binder, reading the recipes and imagining the flavors. Between the recipes and the music, he’d lose himself like butter on hot toast. He’d forget. And do you know how precious it is to forget?
“Sorry,” Kadija said. “You don’t have to answer.”
“No, it’s okay,” Louis said. The scars on his side itched badly, but he resisted the urge to scratch. “I’ll tell you something, and maybe it answers your question, and maybe not. Those three terps I worked with, the translators, I mentioned that, right?”
“Well, their names were Hassan, Adil and Riyadh. They were friends. I never met their families, but I knew the names of all their kids. They gave me birthday presents and Christmas presents, and I gave them Eid gifts. We were together almost every day for two years. They never spoke of their personal fears, but we all knew the danger. They drove different routes to work every day, they lied to their friends and even their families about what they did for a living, they checked under their cars for bombs before getting in. We – the U.S. government, I mean – promised them special visas to the States when the war was over. We said we’d get them out, and their families too. And we lied.
We betrayed them. The war is over, and almost none of the Iraqis who helped us, who put their lives on the line, have been given visas. I’m talking thousands of people. And many have been killed. Riyadh got waxed right in front of his house. His daughter saw it happen. Assassinated. Hassan arranged a janitorial job for his son on the base. The first day, the kid comes to the wrong entrance. Some idiot private, never been off the FOB, thinks the son is an insurgent and shoots him dead. And Hassan kept on working for us. He forgave the guy.
And yes, I dream about all that, but I don’t dream about them getting dead. I dream that I’m having a dinner party in a beautiful house, and they’re all there. We’re sitting on the back patio, beside a yard full of fruit trees, and we’re eating kibbeh, these delicious Iraqi meat balls, and drinking Ceylon black tea. The birds are singing, and the breeze smells like oranges. Hassan is there, and Adil, and Riyadh, and Sergeant Hall; who got torn to shreds by an IED, and others who got waxed whose names you don’t need to know, and some who were just my friends, and we’re all there, telling stories about the suck and laughing, and having a good time… and I’m so happy, I feel like my heart is expanding to fill my entire chest… And then I wake up, and I realize it was a dream, and I remember that I’ll never see any of them again, and it feels like I’ve been shot in the belly. I’m sorry for telling you all this, because I know you didn’t need to hear it. I haven’t told anyone about this, actually. Not even the counselor they assigned me when I returned.”
Louis shrugged. He didn’t know why he had shared all of that. Though it was a long sniper’s shot from being the whole truth, it was true enough. He kept his eyes on the road. The scars burned like lines of fire on his skin.
Kadija was silent for some time, looking out the window. Louis wondered if he had said too much. Did she think he was a lunatic now? A dangerous, shell-shocked vet? Then she leaned forward in her seat and said, “I lost someone… He never spoke of the war. I’ve often wondered what was in his head at the end. Thank you Louis. You’ll find happiness again one day, don’t worry. I’m sure of it. God is good and He has good in store for you.”
She sat back in the seat. Louis felt curiously light, partly because he had shared one of his deepest secrets and partly because it had been accepted without judgment. There was something about this woman. If anyone can get me unstuck, she can, he thought, and immediately dismissed the thought as ridiculous. He took a deep breath.
“How about if we talk about something else?” he said. “How about cooking? Do you like to cook?”
“Why?” Kadija said, “are all women supposed to know how to cook?”
Louis laughed, and rubbed his eyes vigorously. “You are something else, ma’am,” he said. “No, I’m asking because I like to cook; and I like reading cookbooks.”
Kadija smiled. “Sorry,” she said, “we do seem to apologize to each other a lot, don’t we?”
“That’s alright,” Louis said. “Tell you what, next time you call me for a ride, bring an old family recipe – I don’t care what kind – and I’ll accept your apology.”
“I don’t know about that, Louis. My grandma would turn over in her grave if I gave her recipes to a stranger.”
“Come on, we’re not strangers,” Louis protested. “I know your name, you know mine. You know I’m a cab driver war vet, I know you’re a Muslim and… well, I guess that’s all I know.”
Kadija chuckled, “and what, that makes us besties?”
“You know what I do for a living,” Louis said. “How about you?”
“Fair enough,” Kadija replied. “I moved across the country to be a publishing editor. So far all I’ve managed is receptionist at a publishing firm. I can barely pay my rent, and I’m living on rice and canned beans, and the occasional bag of potato chips – my one vice. But I’m not going back to North Carolina. I’m here, and I’m going to make it no matter what, Insha’Allah – you know what that means, right?”
“Sure,” Louis said. “It’s what Arabs say when you ask them to get something done and they don’t ever plan to actually do it. And I thought you didn’t speak Arabic, by the way.”
Louis glanced in the rear view mirror and saw Kadija with her head tilted to the side and one eyebrow raised.
“Ha ha, very funny,” Kadija said. “It means ‘God willing’, but I suspect you already knew that. When I say it, it’s not a cop-out, it means I’m going to do everything in my power to make this happen, but the end is with God. And no, I don’t speak Arabic, but I know the standard Islamic phrases.”
They had arrived at Kadija’s stop. She handed Louis a twenty dollar bill. “Keep the change.” She began to climb out of the cab, then turned. “I’m sorry about what happened to your friends,” she said. “But I’m glad that you made it back. My brother fought in Iraq. That’s why I asked you about it. Maybe I’ll tell you about him sometime.” She got out of the cab and walked away.
Louis’ hand stole to his side, and he scratched until his fingers came away bloody.
After work, Louis visited a used bookstore in Bernal Heights, just down the street from his apartment.
The Heights was a working class district tucked away on the southern edge of San Francisco’s Mission District. Tourists never saw this part of the city. But Louis liked it because it was affordable, and was close to the Yellow Cab lot on Cesar Chavez.
This was a family neighborhood, a humble urban village hidden from the bustle of the city, and that suited Louis fine. He wasn’t a partier. The club scene struck Louis as small and meaningless. Silly people in artificial worlds. The real world was unpredictable and unforgiving, and all that mattered was protecting yourself and the people you loved.
At the bookstore, he found himself drifting to the religion section. He picked up an English translation of the Quran. In all his years dealing with Muslims, Louis had never thought to actually read their holy book.He had heard it recited of course.
Some of the mosques in Iraq had broadcast their prayers over loudspeakers, and Hassan had been quite religious, especially after his son was killed. He used to carry a small Arabic Quran with him, a sacred and mysterious pocket-sized book with a green leather case and a zipper, and he’d read it on his breaks. The sound of the Quran had captivated Louis from the start. It was like a strange but holy symphony, with dips and crescendos, and certain notes repeated over and over. Louis understood very little of it – it was nothing like the colloquial Iraqi Arabic that he had learned – but the sound of it was deeply soothing.
Still, he had never seen a copy of the English translation. And he didn’t know why he was suddenly interested. Okay, maybe I do know.
He opened the book to the first page:
“All praise is due to God, Lord of the Worlds. The Compassionate, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment…”
Huh. No fire and brimstone. And nothing about killing unbelievers. What did that mean, “Lord of the Worlds”, Louis wondered. Did that mean other planets, like aliens? Or maybe it just meant different cultures, as in, “We’re from different worlds, you and I…” And we are, aren’t we? His mind abruptly made up, Louis took the book to the register.
At home in his tiny studio apartment, Louis put on a CD, and sat in the stuffed chair that was his primary piece of furniture. The only other furnishings were a cheap writing desk, an old office chair patched with packing tape, a bookshelf that doubled as a CD tower, and a futon on the floor. The bottom drawer of the writing desk held his army medals, his old uniform, and a handful of photos from Iraq. The army had wanted to promote him again – they had plans for him, they said – but Louis had been done, done, done.
The chimes and beats of Mt. Airy Groove by Pieces of a Dream came marching into the room, surrounding him and carrying him along. Like a parade, he wanted to say, but instead he thought of a funeral procession.
He’d had a sour taste in his mouth ever since telling Kadija about the war. He’d omitted a lot from his self-righteous little rant, hadn’t he?
Those first two years as a platoon leader – before the brass had noticed his aptitude for languages – going house to house and mosque to mosque through the warrens of Baghdad, killing insurgents, arresting suspects, terrorizing innocents, losing friends. Blood and death, jokes, alcohol, hardening himself like baked clay, but baked clay shatters, doesn’t it? Pieces of a dream indeed, he thought. Like his own dreams – what had they even been?
Something about writing a best-selling novel. Getting married, having a couple of kids. Now the thought of being touched was repulsive. He thought of Kadija, then shook his head quickly. She was out of his league in every way. Still, he thought of her hazel eyes, and the small mole beside her mouth.
He’d given up the alcohol because he knew he’d drown himself to death if he didn’t. It hadn’t been as difficult as he’d expected. It seemed he had some undiscovered resources. Jazz, work, writing and cookbooks had kept despair at bay, at least partly. But alcohol wasn’t the only way to die. Pieces of a dream, he thought, but even the pieces had been shattered beyond repair.
Lying to Kadija had bothered him, which was strange because lying had become second nature. Louis put his palms on his temples and squeezed until it hurt. He hardly knew the woman, and she had no right to his past; and talking about the war had brought everything up, like bodies rising from flooded graves.
His eyes wandered to the spine of the book he had bought earlier that day, sitting now on his bookshelf. He was strangely reluctant to read it.
Did that book have answers?
Could it tell him how to put his dreams back together, or how to make new ones?
You can read Part 3, “How’d You Get That Scar?”, here.