This story can be read on its own, but is more properly read as a sequel to the previous stories, especially “Kill the Courier”. If you have not read those stories yet, please do so. See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
March 22, 2010 – 8:30 pm
San Francisco, California
Muhammad normally looked forward to Tu-Lan nights, for one thing because the food was so good. This hole-in-the-wall cookery on 6th Street at Market, in a neighborhood overrun by drug dealers, junkies, homeless people and residential hotel transients, was a hidden diamond. Family-run, the chaotically run restaurant offered incredible food at rock bottom prices. Shrimp fried rice, ginger chicken, spring rolls, Vietnamese noodles – all were infused with delicious flavors and prepared totally fresh.
The smiling waiter hurried to their table, bringing Layth his second serving of spring rolls.
“These are delicious,” Layth said to the harried waiter. “What’s the recipe?”
“No can tell!” the waiter replied. “Vietnamese secret.”
In the upstairs room staff were busy cutting vegetables and meat, and here in the downstairs dining room you could watch the chef cooking behind the counter. He had three cast-iron pans sizzling on the flames at any given time. He tossed in fresh ingredients and added handfuls of spices and liquids from bottles – fish oil, soy sauce or whatever the recipe required – and then he handled the hot pans with his bare hands, stirring the food by manipulating the handle so that the food flew up into the air and landed back in the sputtering oil.
Muhammad wondered how the cook could do that without burning his hands. As Shaggy would say, zoinks! A couple of weeks ago Muhammad had purchased the entire Scooby-Doo collection on DVD, and he’d been watching it every night. He saw a lot of himself in Shaggy, the skinny, perpetually hungry character who was fun-loving and chill, but gullible.
Sweat poured down the cook’s face and probably into the food. Above the stove on a shelf sat a bronze Buddha, its belly stained black from the stove smoke. If you sat at the counter you could feel the heat of the flames on your face.
The restaurant door was always open, and occasionally homeless people came in trying to peddle stolen wares. The Tu-Lan waiter would scrutinize the seller’s offerings and sometimes make a purchase after haggling in a combination of hand gestures and broken English.
The other reason Muhammad looked forward to Tu-Lan night was the company. He liked being around his friends, making conversation, and telling jokes. This particular night should have been a highlight, with six people sitting around the large table: Jamilah, Layth, Kadija, Sahar, Alice and Muhammad himself. Hassan had called to say that he was running late and would be there soon.
The women sat on one side of the table, the men on the other, with Kadija at the head. The women carried the bulk of the conversation, chatting animatedly about food, work, politics, and of course the earthquake. The TV in the corner of the restaurant had earlier featured two talking heads debating earthquake science. Now it was back on the sports roundup.
Normally Muhammad would try to liven things up – or just get a rise out of people – with a joke or two, but on this night he didn’t have the heart for it. He ate slowly. The food was delicious as usual, but his stomach felt as cold as the black waters of the Pacific.
In between half-hearted bites he played with his four-inch tall wind-up robot. It was his latest little gadget. When Muhammad wound it up and set it on the table it went marching toward Sahar, its arms moving up and down, red and blue lights on the front flashing. It bumped into a bowl of white rice, altered direction slightly, and continued.
“Hey, I like that!” Alice said. She had a husky but not unpleasant voice that seemed incongruous coming from a woman who could have been a professional model. “When did you get it?”
“Toy fair at Fort Mason last week,” Muhammad mumbled. The robot crashed into Sahar’s water glass, causing it to slosh a little water over the rim, then turned toward the edge of the table. Muhammad thought Sahar might flick the toy off the table in annoyance, but to his surprise she wound it up and sent it back toward him.
Jamilah was saying something about Palestine (of course). “What do you think, Mo?” she said.
“Didn’t you hear anything I said?”
Jamilah rolled her eyes. “I said, there’s a classified Israeli government report that claims Palestinian Christians are being targeted for arrest by the Palestinian Authority.”
“Uhhh,” Muhammad struggled to gather his thoughts. “Why should we believe anything the Israelis say? Wouldn’t they want to divide Palestinians?”
“True,” Jamilah said. “But the report provides details, and was apparently not meant for public consumption. Someone leaked it to the Jerusalem Post.”
“I think it’s a distraction,” Sahar said.
This was the first time Sahar had attended Tu-Lan night. Muhammad wondered who had invited her. In any case, it didn’t seem to be a problem. Sahar seemed to have finally accepted Hassan’s lack of interest in her.
“What do you mean?” Alice asked.
“I mean, even if that is happening, it can’t be more than a drop in the bucket compared to what Israel is doing to the Palestinians as a whole.”
“Oh.” Alice nodded her head.
Muhammad was not surprised to hear Sahar making a cogent point. Everyone underestimated her because she was beautiful, and because she was into fashion and music. But Muhammad knew that Sahar had a sharp mind. He saw her every morning, sitting at her customer service station, reading the Wall Street Journal between calls. When she was done with the paper she’d hand it off to him. Sahar wasn’t particularly religious, but Muhammad was no shaykh either.
He fantasized about Alice sometimes too. Her voice was a bit deep for his taste, but with her flame-orange hair and galaxy of freckles she was like a strangely attractive alien. On any other day he would have to struggle to keep from staring at her. He was a fool for a pretty face. He knew that about himself, and he knew that as a Muslim he should lower his gaze, but it was so hard to control. He did try, and he hoped that counted for something with Allah. I need a wife, he thought. I’m tired of being alone – tired, tired, tired.
But what was the point of such thoughts? He didn’t earn enough to rent his own apartment, and women didn’t fall for him anyway. The Muslim women invariably saw him as the “funny brother”. The sweetie. You don’t marry the funny brother, especially when he’s an assistant dispatcher at a courier company. You laugh at the funny brother’s jokes and then you marry the strong guy with the mysterious past, or the doctor, engineer or software programmer…. Muhammad gave a mental shrug. The world was unfair, and Muslim women were picky. That’s life.
He’d flirted with the idea of dating a non-Muslim woman – not getting serious, necessarily, but just getting to know someone, and seeing where it would lead. At least the American women weren’t so judgmental and superficial. They would give their hearts to a man who appealed to them on a personal level, even if he wasn’t drop-dead handsome or rich. They saw marriage as a partnership where both people put in what they had and made it work. Not a free ride where the man had to do everything.
But how could he marry a non-Muslim woman? Their worldview was too different. And what about the kids; how would they be raised as Muslims? Zoinks! It was too problematic.
Tonight, in any case, the part of him that fantasized and desired had retreated, as if recognizing that it was futile to try. He barely glanced at Alice, sitting across the table, eating her beef noodles.
“Yes, Jamilah said, “but that’s the point.” She turned and looked over her shoulder at the bikes locked up outside. She, Alice and Muhammad had locked their bikes to a parking meter in front of the open door, but Jamilah was paranoid about her bike ever since it had been stolen and recovered last month.
“If there’s any truth to the report,” Jamilah continued, turning back, “then we have to take it seriously. How can we stand up to Israeli oppression if we are divided among ourselves? We can’t be Muslim and Christian, Gaza and West Bank, Fateh and Hamas, PFLP, DFLP. It’s crazy. We have to be one people, one nation, one leadership.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” Alice said, “This conversation seems one-sided. Don’t the Jews have a right to safety and security as well? Look how much they suffered in the Holocaust, and for hundreds of years before that in Europe and Russia.”
A collective groan went up from everyone around the table.
“What?” Alice demanded.
“Honey, don’t get her started, please,” Kadija said. “You wind Jamilah up like that, you’re going to have a full-blown fight on your hands.”
The waiter came to take their orders. Alice ordered her own dinner plus appetizers of spring rolls and fish cakes for the entire table.
“My, my,” Kadija said. “Are you always so generous?”
Alice shrugged and smiled. “Just showing my appreciation to you all for inviting me.”
“I always thought,” Layth said, grinning, “ that bike messengers were a bunch of desperate, penniless pedal pushers.”
“That would be me!” Jamilah chimed in. “But Alice is a gravy dog.”
Muhammad knew a perfect joke cue when he heard one, but he didn’t have it in him. Sahar spoke up instead.
“What’s a gravy dog?”
Jamilah arched one eyebrow. “You mean all this time you’ve been working for HC you never picked up the messenger lingo?”
Sahar shrugged. “I have my job, you have yours.”
“What is a gravy dog, really?” Kadija echoed. “Sounds like a hound that got into the Eid dinner.”
Alice laughed. “Jamilah said it. Ask her.”
“Gravy dog,” Jamilah said. “Noun. An experienced messenger who is highly efficient in the performance of her duties, is favored by the dispatcher, receives the most lucrative tags and whose paychecks make others look like chump change.”
Alice laughed. “That’s a dry definition if I ever heard one. Okay. You want it for real? The gravydogdom rundown?”
Just then Hassan walked in the door. Seeing his condition, Muhammad temporarily broke out of his self-pitying state. Hassan moved stiffly, holding his left arm close to his side. As he came nearer Muhammad saw that the left side of his face was bandaged and swollen, as if he’d been stung by a wasp. Had he been in an accident?
Hassan greeted everyone with the salam and waved hello to Alice. He took the empty chair next to Muhammad, putting his back to the wall. He always did that.
“Gravydogdom rundown?” he said. “This sounds like a good one.”
“Hassan!” Jamilah exclaimed. “What happened to your face?”
“Actually that’s something I want to talk to you guys about,” Hassan said.
“Jamilah,” Sahar interjected. “You haven’t been around long enough to know this about Hassan. One, he’s a big martial arts whoop-de-whoop and he wears his training injuries like trophies. Two, he’s a daredevil. He gets hurt like clockwork every few months. Hassan, we all want to hear about your exploits, but Alice was about to give us something called the gravydogdom rundown.”
Hassan grinned. “Go for it.”
“So speaketh the ultimate gravy dog,” Alice said with a dry nod.
Kadija tapped her glass with a spoon. “Speech! Everyone quiet down for the gravydogdom rundown.”
Alice blushed. “Come on, now. It’s not all that. Okay.” Alice nodded slowly to herself for a moment, then lifted both her arms in the air like a preacher on the pulpit. “Gravydogdom is waking up at 6 am tired and sore, and riding to work in the dark so you can pick up the overnight run that has to be delivered by nine, by which point you’ve made as much money in your first two hours as some guys make all day. Gravydogdom is riding in the rain on the coldest, wettest day of winter, when you know a third of the board is going to call in sick, but you’d never leave your dispatcher stuck in the lurch, so you ride through the rain and hail like you’re rocket powered, and you keep the packages dry.
“Gravydogdom is when you can get from downtown to Golden Gate Park in fifteen minutes. You can climb any hill in this city under your own steam. People gawk and think you’re some kind of celebrity but you don’t care. Cabs try to run you down, buses nearly kill you, thieves go afterl your bike, the wind, sun and rain scour you like an iron pan, but you ride on. You work after dark when everyone but OT dispatch has gone home, running overtime rushes, getting your wheels stuck in the old train tracks on Brannan Street and going head over heels, landing flat on your back and hearing a loud crack – “ Alice smacked her palms together – “thinking you broke your back, but it was just your clipboard, so you get back on the bike and ride. Another day you get doored and break two fingers on your right hand -” she held up her hand and turned it from side to side – “get ‘em casted and get back on the bike. Another time you come down Russian Hill and lose it, and get scraped raw -” Alice lifted one leg to display a huge scar that ran from her kneecap almost to her ankle – “and a week later you’re on the bike, riding.
“Gravydogdom is when your personal heartaches are eating you alive, so you get on the bike and ride. It’s when you see Thompson run over by a bus at 3rd and Geary. An hour later you’re in his hospital room, his head is swollen to twice its normal size, and he dies before your eyes. The next day… You know what. You ride. And you make more money than other messengers, but so what? It’s still peanuts. All those downtown suits who admire you in the elevator and say, ‘I wish I could do what you do,’ they’re getting rich, and they wouldn’t give it up for a cold soda in hell. So why do you do it?” Alice shook her head, looking around as if searching for answers. “I’d tell you if I could.”
Everyone applauded, including some of the diners at neighboring tables. Alice blushed, then stood and bowed. “Thank you. Next performance at 10 pm.”
“You do it because it pays the bills,” Jamilah said.
“Nah,” Hassan said. “There’s better ways to pay the bills.”
“Then why?” Jamilah demanded, annoyed.
“Don’t you know yet, Jams?” Hassan replied. “You do it because it makes you so alive. SubhanAllah, on good days you’re like thunder and lightning out there, haven’t you felt that? You become a cheetah. You slip through the elements and they don’t touch you. You see everything, you vector a dozen moving objects and see where they’re heading before they do. Everything melts away. Your past doesn’t exist. The wind and the sun take away your… you know. Sorrow, doubt, whatever – until it’s just you, the bike, and your muscles. Life is a mess, but when you’re in the zone and riding hard it’s a perfect moment, and no one can touch you except Allahu ‘Azza wa Jal.”
Alice nodded. “That’s it exactly. Except for that last part, which I don’t know what you said.”
“Ma sha-Allah!” Kadija exclaimed. “Even I want to be a bike messenger now.” She laughed. “Uhh, not really. I’m sorry to hear about your friend Thompson, by the way.”
Muhammad felt peeved. He’d been fascinated by Alice’s speech and had even forgotten his own problems for a few minutes. Now here was Hassan, butting in, establishing a connection with Alice. He sighed. What did it matter? Who cared?
“What’s up, akhi?” Layth said. “You’re sighing like a steam engine over there, and you’ve been missing all the best joke cues tonight. Shoo hassal?”
“Sorry dude,” Muhammad said. “I’m not in the mood for jokes. I apologize if I’m bringing you guys down.”
“You’re not bringing us down, Muhammad,” Kadija said kindly. “What’s going on?”
Muhammad sighed. He might as well tell them. He was no good at keeping secrets. “It’s my dad,” he said.
“What about him?” Sahar said. “He lives in L.A., right?”
“He called tonight, just before I came here.” Muhammad flicked a switch on the toy robot’s back, moving it from straight mode to circle mode, then wound it up and set it by his plate. The robot marched in a circle around the plate, as if guarding the succulent shrimp from tiny robot wolves.
“Mo,” Jamilah said heatedly, “If you don’t stop playing with that ridiculous little gizmo and tell us what’s going on, I’m going to stab you with my fork.”
Muhammad smiled halfheartedly. “Alright,” he said, pocketing the robot. “See, my dad and I don’t have a good relationship.” He fiddled with the tab on his Diet Pepsi can, flicking it so that it made a metallic ringing sound. Then he remembered Jamilah’s threat, stopped flicking the tab, and tried to compose his thoughts.
“Go on, Muhammad,” Alice said gently. “Why don’t you and your dad have a good relationship?”
Muhammad snorted and shook his head. “You ever see the Scooby-Doo episode where Fred turns into a monster? Scooby says, ‘Why is Fred in a bad mood?’ and Shaggy says, ‘He’s not in a bad mood, he’s a monster.’ Well, that’s my dad. Just your average monster.”
“Astaghfirullah, brother,” Kadija said. “You shouldn’t talk about your father like that.”
“No?” Muhammad said heatedly. “Then how would you describe him? He used to beat my mom like he was whacking dust out of a rug. I hardly remember seeing her without bruises on her face and arms.”
Hassan reached out and put his hand on Muhammad’s shoulder. “I’m sorry to hear that, bro,” he said.
“Yeah,” Muhammad said, his tone returning to normal. “By the time I was eight she’d had enough. She divorced my dad and fled to Egypt with me. Six months later she married another man and he told her to get rid of me, so she sent me back to my dad. Then my dad started on me.” He glanced up at the others, then returned his eyes to his soda can, as if studying the list of ingredients. “We were perpetually broke. The fridge was always empty so I ate at friends’ houses. Anything I wanted I had to buy for myself. I ran little businesses, like buying candy and reselling it at school. Dad had a masters in civil engineering but for some reason he couldn’t keep a good job. He worked a night-shift security job. When he was home, his hobby was beating me to a pulp. At school they’d send me to the nurse and I’d lie and say I was practicing to be a professional skateboarder.”
“Muhammad, I’m so sorry,” Kadija said. “That sounds awful.”
“Isn’t your dad Muslim?” Jamilah said. “How could he do that?”
“Don’t be naive,” Sahar said.
Jamilah glared at Sahar. “What do you mean, naive?”
“Muslims are like everyone else. They beat their wives and abuse their children, they use drugs and alcohol, cheat on their spouses, cheat in business. Everything.”
“Cut it out, ladies,” Kadija said. “Muhammad, go on please. We’re listening.”
“I’m not asking for pity,” Muhammad said. “I jammed out of there the day I finished high school. I came to SF, got a job as a dishwasher, then a waiter, and put myself through college. Started messengering, and now I’m a dispatcher. I never sat around feeling sorry for myself.”
“So what happened, akhi?” Layth asked. “What did your father say when he called?”
“He’s here.” Muhammad held his hands out in a gesture of helplessness.
“Here in the City. He called from the Transbay Terminal, said he had nowhere to go and could I come pick him up. He was talking weird. He asked me if the line was secure. Said he had bugs crawling beneath his skin and needed a doctor. Crazy stuff.”
“What did you do?” Kadija asked.
“I hung up, that’s what I did!” Muhammad made an effort to get himself under control, but he felt bitter as poison. He had hoped never to see his father again. “He has no right to ask anything of me. You don’t understand what that man did. You wanted to hear a joke? I’ll tell you a joke. When I was a kid I played Little League baseball. I always wished that my dad would practice with me, or at least attend one of my games, but he never did. Instead he’d ridicule me because I was small. He’d say, ‘How could a sardine like you come from my loins? You are an embarrassment. That’s why your mother left, because she was embarrassed.”
“I paid for all my equipment myself, and I’d hide it under my bed because dad would get mad whenever he saw it, as if my playing baseball was an insult.
“When I was twelve I played for the Panthers. We won every game of the season, eighteen in a row. Every one of us got a trophy. I played right field, so it’s not like I was a star, but still, I was part of the team, and I was on top of the world. I went home with my trophy, and I was happy. So dad comes home from work in a bad mood because it’s a crap job and he hates his life, and he sees my trophy. I was hoping he’d be proud, like maybe he’d realize that even though I was small I wasn’t an embarrassment, you know?
“Instead he flies into a rage, shouts that I’m wasting my time on meaningless games, then snatches up my trophy and hits me with it, ten, fifteen, twenty times. I screamed and fell and I guess I got knocked unconscious. I woke up the next morning still on the floor. I had blood in my hair and bruises everywhere, and my arm was swollen. I went to school but they sent me to the hospital. Turned out my arm was broken in two places. I told the doctor I fell off my skateboard. I would never report my dad because I loved him. Even after everything, I loved him. So there’s your joke, is it funny?”
The others stared in shocked silence. Finally Kadija said, “No, it’s not funny, Muhammad. It’s tragic, and now that I know what you’ve been through I think it’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished as an adult, and how healthy you are, ma-sha-Allah.”
“Thanks,” Muhammad said. “But I don’t want anything to do with my father, and none of you has the right to judge me.”
“We’re not judging you akhi,” Layth said. “But what if your dad’s in trouble, or needs help?”
“He can do what he always told me to do,” Muhammad said.
“Which is what?” Layth said.
“Go bang his head on the wall. He used to call me ‘a’la daarib’ – that was his nickname for me. Or sometimes abeet or himaar, but his favorite was ‘a’la daarib’, and he’d say, ‘Your mom must have dropped you on your head when you came out. Why don’t you go hit your head again, ‘a’la daarib?”
“What’s ottla dahreb?” Alice asked.
“I’m sorry, Muhammad,“ Hassan said. “I never knew it was like that for you.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t want to know, right?” Muhammad knew that his confusion and anger about his father was spilling over into harshness toward his friends. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, or laugh it off like he always did, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
“You’re Mister Secret,” Muhammad continued. “Don’t ask and don’t tell. I see you for five minutes at the end of the day, then at Hapkido class and it’s as-salamu alaykum, kayf haalak, hasta la vista. Maybe you take me out for a pity dinner now and then. I don’t even know where you live. Does anyone here at the table know where Hassan lives? Raise your hand if you do.”
“Stop it Mo,” Jamilah said. “I understand you’re feeling down but there’s no need to take it out on Hassan. But yeah, where do you live, Hassan?”
“I’d be happy to show you where I live,” Hassan said. “I’d actually like you all to come over to my place tonight. There’s something important I need to discuss with you.”
Muhammad gave an incredulous laugh and looked up at the ceiling. “You’re a piece of work, dude,” he said. “Do you always have to be the center of attention? Haven’t you heard anything I’ve said? Here I am with this serious problem, trying to figure out what to do with my miserable excuse for a dad, and you want to invite everyone over for tea and cookies?”
Muhammad pointed at Jamilah. “And you,” he said, “you call me Mo like I’m one of the Three Stooges, and you don’t actually say ‘a’la daarib’, but you might as well. And you” – now he nodded his head in Alice’s direction – “You’re like, pffft, I don’t know, like some kind of vision of the perfect woman, but you probably don’t even know my last name, do you?” Muhammad was astonished and aghast at the words coming out of his own mouth. It was if someone else was speaking: someone bitter, reckless and completely uninhibited.
“She’s the perfect woman?” Sahar said incredulously.
“I know your name,” Alice said. “Muhammad Saleh. You’re twenty five years old, you live on Oak Street, and you read the Wall Street Journal every morning.”
Muhammad’s mouth dropped open. “How do you know that?”
“That’s my Wall Street Journal,” Sahar said, annoyed.
Alice smiled at Muhammad, ignoring Sahar. “I pay attention. I think you’re interesting.”
“You do?” Muhammad thought he must be hearing things. This was like having a famous movie actress ring your doorbell and tell you she was a fan.
“Sure. You’re funny and you have a positive attitude. And you’re a dispatch wizard. Those four days when you were out sick or on strike or whatever, and I had to fill in for you – man, I had no idea how hard your job is. I don’t know how you do it. You’re great.”
“Mo, I think a fly just flew into your mouth,” Jamilah said.
Muhammad’s anger came back. “See? You’re doing it again.” In a sing-song voice he said, “Your mouth is open, ‘a’la daarib.”
“Will somebody tell me what ottla dahreb means?” Alice said.
Jamilah sat back in her chair in surprise, one hand on top of her hijab-covered head. “You’re right,” she said to Muhammad. “I’m sorry.”
“Am I a ghost here?” Alice demanded.
“‘Aqla daarib,” Jamilah explained, pronouncing it in the Palestinian fashion rather than Egyptian, “means someone who’s hit his head. It’s like saying ‘stupid’, which Mo – I mean, Muhammad – certainly is not. Muhammad, you’re great at your job – a dispatch wizard, like Alice said – and you’ve been nothing but kind to me personally. I don’t know why I talk to you that way.”
“Maybe because you’re an arrogant little peanut,” Sahar said.
Something let go inside Muhammad and he laughed so hard that he knocked over his Diet Pepsi can. It fell clattering to the ground, the brown liquid pouring out onto the tiled floor. His laugh turned into a cough and he doubled over in his seat as Kadija grabbed a fistful of napkins and wiped up the spill. Hassan patted him hard on the back.
“Have a drink of water,” Hassan said. “I wasn’t suggesting that we ignore the situation with your father,” Hassan continued. “We can deal with that first. But then I need to talk to you all.”
“Hassan,” Layth said, “Whatever it is, maybe we can do it another day. It’s already late and we have to figure this thing out.” He turned to Muhammad. “Akhi, I realize that what your dad did was awful, but you can’t just leave him out there. You’re a Muslim and your first obligation is to Allah, then to your parents.”
“Plus,” Alice said, “It sounds like your father might be mentally ill. The paranoia could indicate schizophrenia, OCD or some other anxiety disorder. The sensation of bugs beneath the skin is called formication – with an ‘m’, not an ‘n’ – and it’s a common side effect of cocaine or methamphetamine addiction or withdrawal. It happens with addiction to certain prescription meds as well – or it could also be connected to mental illness. In any case, it sounds like your dad is in bad shape.”
“Ma-sha-Allah, how do you know all that?” Kadija said.
“I’m not an expert,” Alice said, “But I have a B.A. in psychology, and I did one year toward my masters before… well, before. Plus, I’ve seen it personally.”
“I never knew that about you,” Jamilah said.
Muhammad did feel guilty about hanging up on his father, but the thought of seeing the man again was revolting. “I don’t know what to do,” he said to the group at large. He glanced at Hassan from under his brows, too embarrassed after his outburst to ask the man’s opinion, but knowing in his heart that Hassan was the closest thing he had to a brother.
Hassan must have noticed Muhammad’s look, because he spoke up. “I think Layth is right,” he said. “There are times when Allah tests you in big ways. Those moments can be frightening, but there’s an old Arabic proverb: ‘At the time of a test, a man rises or falls.’” Hassan rubbed his own cheek, as if thinking about his words.
“I don’t know how I’d feel in your situation,” Hassan continued, “But your father is responsible before Allah for his deeds, and you are responsible for yours. If you turn him away in his time of need it’s on you. Allahu a’lam, brother.”
“I think major life challenges are like roundabouts,” Layth said. “If you meet the challenge you exit on a new path and move forward, but if you fail you get stuck going around and around, complaining that nothing ever changes. That’s how it was for me.”
“You don’t have to do this alone,” Hassan said. “Let’s ride to the terminal. Maybe he’s still there.”
“Hold on,” Muhammad said. “You’re all pushing me. Let me think, okay? What would I do with him? I live in a three bedroom flat with three other guys. One in each bedroom and one on the sofa. I don’t have a place for my dad and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
They let the subject drop. Most of them had finished eating, and Layth called for the check. Sahar asked if anyone had purchased the new CD by a British band called the Goose Girls. Layth told a story of a woman who paid him $100 to drive her all over the Tenderloin and SOMA because she suspected her boyfriend was working as a transvestite prostitute.
“We’re cruising down Ninth Street,” Layth said, “and she shouts at me to stop. There’s her boyfriend’s face plastered on a marquee poster outside the Potrero Lounge, but wearing makeup and a wig. She tells me to wait, runs into the club, comes back in five minutes and says, ‘He’s a female impersonator jazz singer, and he’s not bad!’ Pays me and runs back in the club. Only in this town, I’m telling you.”
Muhammad’s thoughts were jumbled. He imagined his father getting mugged at the TransBay Terminal, and felt a mixture of guilt and satisfaction. He thought about Alice calling him a dispatch wizard. Did she really think he was interesting? His thoughts gradually wound down like the toy robot in his pocket until he thought about nothing at all, but only sat on the wooden chair feeling like he was drifting underwater, unable to breathe.
His mind kept going to a particular Scooby-Doo scene. Shaggy wails, “We’re gonna die!” Daphne says, “Think positive,” and Shaggy says, “We’re gonna die quickly!” The most positive thought Muhammad could come up with was that he would go home, get in bed, pull the covers over his head, and his father would magically disappear and never trouble him again.
Suddenly he stood. “I’m going to blow this noodle stand,” he said. “You guys stay. Don’t let me ruin things.” He dropped a ten dollar bill on the table.
“No, I got it,” Hassan said, picking up the tenner and stuffing it back in Muhammad’s pocket.
The man always wants to show off, Muhammad thought. Whatever. Let him pay. That’s my last ten bucks before payday.
“Wait,” Alice said. “I have an idea. Why don’t I get my car and drive you and Hassan to the terminal? You can figure out what to do with your dad when you find him. Maybe you’ll walk away in the end, but at least you’ll have faced him.”
“You have a car?” Muhammad said.
Alice smiled. “Barely. It’s an old clunker. I park it in the Mission near my place. I’ll have to ride there and get it, but it’ll only take twenty minutes. What do you say, Mo? Sorry – I mean Muhammad.”
“You can call me Mo,” Muhammad said. “I don’t mind it from you.”
Jamilah rolled her eyes. “Oh, give me a break.”
“I wouldn’t want to trouble you,” Muhammad said. “Anyway, I’m not going to the terminal.”
“I’d offer you a ride myself,” Layth said, “but our car is up in the Heights. We’re cabbing it tonight.”
“Never mind the clunker or the cab,” Sahar said, putting out her hand as if stopping traffic. “I’m parked right outside. I’ll take you.”
“Take me where?” Muhammad said. “I said I’m not -”
“Iskut,” Sahar said, picking up her jacket. “Hush. I’m taking you.”
“Fine,” Muhammad said glumly. “But I’m telling you, my dad’s a piece of work.”
Hassan addressed the group, his voice louder than usual. “Hold on guys,” he said, frustration evident in his tone, “I need to talk to you!”
Muhammad regarded Hassan curiously. He’d never seen him agitated like this. Hassan was normally unflappable. Maybe he really did have a problem.
“So talk,” Jamilah said. “Who’s stopping you?”
“Not here,” Hassan said. “Back at my place, after we deal with Muhammad’s dad.”
“My shift starts at 4am,” Layth said. “I need my sleep. Can this wait until tomorrow?”
“No,” Hassan said immediately. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Maybe. I don’t know. Okay, fine. Tomorrow evening, 6pm alright? I’ll text you all the address. Until then, just….”
“What?” Jamilah said.
“I don’t know,” Hassan said. “Keep your eyes open, that’s all.”
Before they left, Muhammad turned to the group. “Speaking of roundabouts. A man is driving in Cairo and as he approaches the Talat Harb roundabout he hits a huge traffic jam. A policeman is walking slowly between the cars, talking to the drivers.
‘What’s happening?’ the man asks.
The policeman explains that two young men who are sick of being single and unemployed are sitting on the road in the roundabout, threatening to set themselves on fire.
‘That’s terrible,’ the man says. ‘What are you doing about it?’
‘I’m taking up a collection to help them out,’ the policeman says.
‘How much have you got?’ the man asks.
‘About two liters so far,’ the policeman says. ‘But some people are still siphoning.’”
As he was leaving Tu-Lan, Muhammad stopped and looked back at the table in the corner where his friends sat. Louis and Kadija talked quietly, leaning in close to each other. Hassan was collecting a small box for leftovers. Jamilah was turned toward Alice. Muhammad heard her say, “You’re absolutely right, the Jews have suffered, and they deserve security, but not at the cost of another people’s survival. Everyone knows that the 1967 borders are the only viable dividing line…”
Jamilah droned on, but Alice didn’t seem to be listening. She had turned in her seat, and was staring directly at Muhammad. He met her pale green eyes for an instant, not sure what he saw there. Curiosity, he thought. Some fear. Frustration. And something else, something intense that he could not read. He lowered his eyes and turned away, confused, but feeling a flutter in his chest that might be hope.
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.