This is part 2 of a multipart series; you can find part 1 here
Louis slid a Bill Withers CD into the player and the music came flowing out like clover honey. Several days had gone by since he had read the Quran, and his mind kept returning to the verses he had read, but he didn’t want to think about that right now. He turned up the music louder.
He found himself spending less and less time at home. He couldn’t stand to be in the house. He offered to take longer shifts at work, and in his off-duty hours he ran in the neighborhood, tiring himself out. He did not read the Quran again. In fact, he pushed it to the back of the bookshelf and stacked books in front so he wouldn’t see it.
Kadija called him for the usual pickup on Friday, but he told her he couldn’t make it. He didn’t want to answer questions about whatever it was he was going through, and he didn’t want to ask questions either.
His scars had been itching badly all week, and he worried that he might have picked up an infection. He wore bandages on his cheek and neck to prevent himself from scratching. He told his dispatcher – and the customers who asked – that he’d accidentally walked into a sliding glass door. As for the scars on his side, he’d already stopped at his apartment once that day to change his shirt because the blood was seeping through. When the scars continued to itch, he slapped them instead of scratching.
“Mosquito,” Louis said to a customer who started in surprise. “Damn things are in season.”
On Saturday he picked up three white girls in their twenties who wanted to go to Stonestown Mall. As Louis drove, the women gossiped about who was dating whom, who got drunk and made a fool of herself at a party…
“Can you believe Casey is dating a black girl?” one of the women said.
“Thass wack,” another woman said. “Prob’ly gonna get HIV.”
“You know what?” Louis said. “I don’t want to hear this racist crap. Get out of my cab.”
He was on upper Market Street crossing over Twin Peaks. He stopped on the side of the road. He knew that the cabbie’s job was to drive, not tell people how to talk. And he knew that this was probably the most inconvenient location in town to drop someone off. Not dangerous, just inconvenient, up here on top of the hill. But he didn’t care. He kept thinking about Kadija. She was as far above these women as the sun was above the earth. To allow these trashy women to speak that way in his cab would betray her.
“You can’t do that!” one of the women protested. “Thass against the law.”
“Out!” Louis shouted. The women got out, cursing Louis, telling him that they would sue his ass.
Louis pressed the fare button on the dashboard computer to indicate to dispatch that he was on a call. He drove down through the Avenues to Ocean Beach, parked the cab, and walked onto the beach. He sat in the sand and watched the waves roll in. The sky was overcast, and the cold wind smelled wonderfully of salt. The beach was clean and uncrowded. A jogger ran along the waterline with his dog. A windsurfer in a wetsuit braved the frigid waters and flew off the top of a wave. Nearby on the beach, an Asian couple huddled together under a blanket, cuddling. The fog began to roll in, until Louis could not see the breakers.
I’m losing it, Louis thought. What he’d done with those three women was against company policy, and against the law. He’d felt so hopeful after helping Kadija with her problem, but now he was in the worst shape he’d been in since returning from Iraq. He had descended into a pit, and he didn’t know how to climb out.
That night the dream came again. He was running from something that shook the ground with its roar. He ran to the trees atop the hill. When he reached the summit he found a sheer cliff. A freezing wind kicked up, making Louis’ eyes water. Far below he saw the Mission District, people tiny as ants. In the ocean to the west a tsunami approached, a massive wave five hundred feet high. The residents of the city went about their business, unaware of the doom bearing down on them. “Run!” Louis shouted, but his voice was snatched away by the wind.
From behind him, a vibrato voice hummed. “No onnnnne can runnnnnn from himsssssself.” Louis spun around and there, in front of the trees, stood a figure that shined so brightly Louis had to shade his eyes. He had a vague impression of many wings, but he wasn’t sure if he actually saw the wings or only felt the vibration and hum of their motion.
“Lifffffe after lifelessnessssssss,” the figure said. “No onnnnne can runnnnnn, Llllll -” Louis didn’t understand that last word. It was a name, and it might have been Louis, but he didn’t think it was. The deafening roar came closer. There was nowhere to hide. Louis fell to the ground and curled into a ball.
When he awoke, the sheets were wet with sweat and stained with blood from his scars. It was 1am, and he’d have to be awake for work in a few hours anyway, so he stayed up. Instead of the smooth jazz he normally listened to, he turned on his small portable radio and fiddled with the dial until a loud heavy metal song blasted out. He changed the bandages on his scars. It wasn’t time to go to work yet but he couldn’t stand to be in the apartment a moment longer, so he rode his bicycle to work anyway, riding hard, feeling frightened and angry and not knowing why.
“You look like crap,” Bernie said.
“Thanks,” Louis said. “I love you too. Just hook me up with a good ride today, alright? Working CD player and no strange smells.”
“I’m sorry Louis, I can’t do it. You need time off.”
“Listen,” Bernie said. “I know you’re a vet, and I hate to do this. But customers have complained. You’re bleeding, you’re scratching, you’ve been short-tempered with some of the fares. It’s bad for the company, man. You need to take time off and get yourself under control. You’ve still got a job here. Just take a week off and get some help. Go to the free clinic on Seventh Street if you don’t have insurance.”
Louis felt a sense of panic. His job was the only thing keeping him sane. It was the only real-world thing he had. “Bernie, dammit, don’t do this. I’ll be cool today, alright? If this is about those three birdbrains I tossed out of the cab, that was because – ”
“Save it, Louis. It’s not debatable. Come back in a week.” Bernie shut the dispatch window and turned away.
Louis stopped at an all-night convenience store and bought a twelve pack of beer. He wanted something harder, but the liquor stores weren’t open yet. He hadn’t had a drink since he returned from Iraq, but what difference did it make now? He didn’t care anymore.
He went home and drank all twelve beers in an hour. He needed music, but none of that soft-boiled, smooth jazz pabulum. He turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial, cursing at the self-centered 90’s rock and NPR feeble-mindedness that littered the radio bands in this town. Finally the bone-shaking sound of Crusher came rattling out of the tinny speaker, Paul Prince shrieking, “I’m on the road to self-destruction / Pain my only function / I leave the pavement hot / and I’m not gonna stop.” Perfect, Louis thought.
Louis looked around the apartment until his eyes came to rest on the framed poster of a field of California poppies. The poster hung above his writing desk.
“What was I thinking when I put that silliness up?” he said to no one. He lifted the poster from the wall and smashed it on the ground, taking satisfaction from the way the broken glass scattered across the apartment floor. More beer. What he needed was more beer. He grabbed his wallet and keys and slammed the door on his way out.
Five days passed, with Louis drinking more and more heavily, passing out and sleeping his days away. He didn’t even consider going back to the cab company. He was in worse shape than he’d been last week. No way would Bernie take him back.
Kadija called on Friday, presumably for a pickup. Louis ignored the phone. He’d set the phone on vibrate because he his head felt like a split melon. When he didn’t answer, she texted him: “What’s up, Louis? Are you alright?” He did not respond. A few hours later she texted him again: “What’s your address?”
Louis found that amusing. Miss, “I can’t be associated with a non-Muslim man” was going to come to his apartment? How would she react when she saw the state of the apartment and its occupant? Trash overflowed the kitchen wastebasket, the futon sheets had not been washed, and the apartment stank. Broken glass from the poster frame still decorated the floor. Louis had been scratching badly and looked raw and beaten, like a dog after a fight. He had a week-old growth of beard, and his nails were too long. Maybe when she saw his condition she’d leave him alone and he’d be done with her. I can’t be what she wants me to be anyway.
He texted her his address, then went out to buy a bottle of wine. What he wanted was whiskey, but he couldn’t afford it now that he wasn’t working. A cheap wine – an alkie’s wine – would get him drunk just as well.
Hours passed and Kadija did not come, and Louis fell into an even fouler mood, if that were possible. He felt bad, bad, bad. He was so deeply tired. He felt his bones would come apart at the joints and collapse into a pile of sticks; and his flesh dissolve into pink slime.
He was awakened by a loud knock. He had been sleeping in the armchair, shirtless and cold, an empty wine bottle in his lap. The radio blared heavy metal music. Louis’ tongue felt like it had grown fur, his mouth tasted foul and his head ached. He swung the door open, prepared to be angry with Kadija and not knowing why. But it wasn’t Kadija.
A powerfully built man stood at the door. A courier, judging by his company t-shirt, helmet and messenger bag. He had shoulder length hair, wide shoulders and a handsome face. He could have been a sports model. Some kind of San Francisco pretty boy gym rat, no doubt.
“Who the f*** are you and why are you pounding on my door?” Louis demanded.
The man smiled and extended his hand. “My name is Hassan,” he said. “I knocked quietly at first, but I think you couldn’t hear me with the music.”
“You got a problem with my music? You gonna call the cops?”
“No. I’m a friend of Kadija’s. She asked me to come by and check on you.”
“Check on me? What for?”
“She’s worried. You haven’t picked her up in a few weeks. She called Yellow Cab and they told her you were on vacation.”
Louis laughed, a barking laugh that sounded like a cough. “Oh, that’s what they said?”
“Can I come in?”
“No you can’t come in.” Louis slammed the door shut in the man’s face. He needed more wine, that’s what he needed. He pulled a dirty t-shirt from the laundry basket in the bathroom and put it on. Where were his damn shoes?
The knock came again, insistently. I’m gonna knock this fool’s block off, Louis thought. He strode to the door and yanked it open. The pretty boy was still there, holding out a paper bag.
‘I forgot to tell you,” Pretty Boy said. “I stopped at Specialties and bought two spinach cheese breads. One for you, one for me. What do you say?”
“Man, I don’t even know you,” Louis said. “I should slap you silly for pounding on my door like that.”
“Okay,” Pretty Boy said. He shifted one foot, angling his body away from Louis slightly. His manner was calm and unafraid. If Louis had not known what to look for he’d have been clueless. He’s blading his body. Turning sideways to present a smaller target profile. It was something you learned in combat.
Curious, Louis stopped raging and examined the man. He saw that he had misjudged him. This guy had the look of a fighter. Louis could see it in the way he held himself balanced on his feet, back straight but shoulders relaxed. He could see it in the man’s semi-focused gaze, and in that unnameable glint behind the eyes that spoke of a past best forgotten. Louis had seen it many times in combat soldiers.
He felt his stomach gurgle and he realized that he had not eaten since yesterday, and even then he’d only had a cup of Ramen noodles. He took the bag with the cheese bread, and turned away. “Fine, come in then,” he said. He sat in his stuffed chair, and watched as the man looked around the apartment, then sat in the cheap office chair next to the writing desk.
The cheese bread was warm and delicious. Louis tore pieces with his fingers and felt the warmth radiate from his stomach to the rest of his body. “What did you say your name was?” Louis asked.
“Hassan,” the man said.
Louis looked at the man. “I had a friend named Hassan once.”
“Where is he now?”
“In Iraq. Alive or dead, I don’t know. His son was killed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“So Kadija’s worried, huh? Why didn’t she come herself?”
“I don’t know,” Hassan said. “But I assume it’s because it wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Yeah, yeah. How do you know Kadija?”
“I don’t really, at least not on a personal level. Our mosque has an outreach committee to organize food giveaways for the poor. Kadija and I are on it. Anyway, she approached me after prayer and asked if I could check on a friend of hers. She said you helped her out and that you’re important to her.”
“She said that?”
“So is that why you’re here? Charity work?”
“No. I came as as a favor to Kadija. Can I be frank with you, Louis?”
“I don’t know, can you?”
“Are you on drugs?”
“What the hell kind of question is that, man?”
Hassan waved his hand to indicate the slovenly apartment. “You’ve got liquor bottles all over the place, your apartment stinks, you have sores on your skin like a speed freak. I’m just saying, it’s your life, but if you’re a junkie then I’m out of here. I have no patience for it.”
“There’s the door, pal,” Louis said. He didn’t need to be judged by this stranger. And if this was Kadija’s idea of being a friend, then he didn’t need her either.
“Okay.” Hassan moved to the door. “But get yourself some help, brother. You’re in bad shape.”
Please Continue to Part 3
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.