See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
The man on the floor stared up in obvious fright at the three strangers standing before him. He clutched his green backpack tightly and reached into it, bringing forth a folded buck knife. He opened it and pointed the blade at them. “Stay away!” he said in a hoarse voice. “I have a knife.”
Muhammad was overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t want to acknowledge. Anger, pity, confusion… He felt like he had to work to draw his breath up from his chest. His eyes watered and his jaw clenched.
“It’s me, Baba,” Muhammad said. “Your son.”
“My son?” The man peered at Muhammad’s face. “You look different.”
“I’m older now.”
Muhammad’s dad struggled to his feet, still clutching the backpack in one arm. He moved toward Muhammad.
“Stop,” Hassan said, putting his arm between Muhammad and his dad. “Sir, please put the knife away.”
“You’re not my bodyguard,” Muhammad snapped. Why did Hassan never think that Muhammad could handle things on his own?
“Knife?” Muhammad’s father said. He looked down at his hand. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He folded the knife and returned it to the backpack.
“These are my friends,” Muhammad said to his father. “You don’t need to know their names. Friends, this is Anwar Saleh.”
“Ya halaa,” Hassan said. “Ismi Hassan.”
“Forsa saida,” Mr. Saleh said.
“This isn’t a tea party,” Muhammad said. “Baba, what are you doing here? I don’t have a place for you and I don’t want to see you. Go home.”
“Muhammad!” Sahar exclaimed. “You can’t talk to your father that way.”
Mr. Saleh’s face darkened with anger and for a second Muhammad prepared to defend himself. He would never be his father’s punching bag again. He’d been learning martial arts from Hassan for two years and no one would ever beat him up again.
The color faded from his father’s face and his shoulders slumped. “I have no place to go. I lost the house.”
“How?” Muhammad spat the word out like a bad seed.
“I’ve been… having problems. I lost my job. The house was foreclosed.”
“Well. That’s too bad. But I don’t want anything to do with you.”
“I’m your father!”
“My father? Do fathers get drunk and use their children for punching bags? Do fathers beat their children with whatever they can find, and break their arms?”
His father’s face seemed to sag, and tears welled up in his eyes – a deeply disconcerting sight. “I’m sorry, my son. It was the alcohol. It made me do crazy things.”
“How convenient,” Muhammad said. “Why should I trust you now?”
“I started having problems,” his father said. “Sometimes I imagine things. I went to a treatment facility. They helped me quit drinking and they gave me medication. Please, son. Please forgive me. I have no one else.”
Muhammad didn’t know what to make of this pitiful scarecrow standing before him. This was not the imposing, raging figure that he remembered. But his own anger and shame ran too deep. He wanted to banish this man from existence. If he could have waved his arm and made his father disappear forever, he would have.
“Do you remember how I used to hide from you?,” Muhammad said bitterly. “And you would find me and beat me just to hear me scream? All I ever wanted was for you to be proud of me, but all you ever wanted was to humiliate me.”
“That’s not true, son. I – “
“You don’t have the right to call me son.”
“I loved you,” his father said. “I felt very ashamed of myself, even back then. I couldn’t control myself. I’ve been ashamed for a long time.”
“Please son – … Please Muhammad. I need help. I need to see a doctor. I’m in bad shape.”
“Go back to Egypt. You have family there.”
“Muhammad!” Sahar said.
“Back to Egypt?” his father said. “Anta ghabi? Idiot. I told you I lost my job. I have no money. How can I go to Egypt?”
“You haven’t changed at all,” Muhammad said. “I’m out of here.” He turned and walked away, his friends following after him, protesting. He sped up until he was jogging. The last thing he heard as he exited the terminal was his father calling, “Please, son! Don’t leave me!” Muhammad ran, wanting only to get away and forget that this day had ever happened.
“It’s over, Ronnie,” Alice said angrily. “I want you out of here.”
“What are you talking about, babe? If this is about that chick from Speedway, there’s nothing going on, I swear on my daddy’s beard.”
“I don’t care.” Alice snarled. “Look at this place. You know I’m a recovering alcoholic, but you leave liquor bottles everywhere. You’re a pig. You think you can whore yourself out to every pretty face you see, then come back here and eat my food, trash my place, and leave your laundry for me to wash? Get your stuff and get out.”
Ronnie went into the bedroom, and began stuffing his things into a large duffel bag. Alice followed him to make sure he didn’t steal anything of hers.
“You know what?” Ronnie sneered. “It’s all good. I don’t need you anyway. Look at you, you freckled freak. I’ll be cribbed up with some rich broad tomorrow.”
He left, cursing Alice all the while.
Alice entertained the idea of making a batch of soap, but the truth was that Ronnie’s words hurt. She couldn’t focus, and when it came to making soap you needed focus. Lye was highly alkaline; if you weren’t careful you could be badly burned.
She looked around at the apartment. Ronnie must have had someone over while Alice was at work. A score of empty beer bottles were scattered across the coffee table and sofa. A half-drunk bottle of vodka lay tipped on its side, a good portion having spilled onto the hardwood floor. Ronnie’s dirty underwear lay on the floor near the bathroom. And oh, look at that! A woman’s nylon stocking – Alice didn’t own any stockings – protruding from beneath the sofa. Alice had never met Ronnie’s father – he was from down south somewhere – but she’d bet her life his old pappy didn’t even have a beard.
She began tidying the apartment, collecting the liquor bottles in one trash bag and all of Ronnie’s remaining possessions in another. When she was done with the living room she started on the bathroom.
Alice looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. In her company t-shirt and cycling shorts she looked like an adult pretending to be a child. She wondered if she appeared as ridiculous to others as she did to herself. Yes, she was in the best shape of her life, and she loved her muscles. But that purgatorial decade of addiction was detectable in the thinness of her skin and the lines on her face.
Would Mo care about that, or about the fact that she was a decade older than him? She didn’t have the courage to approach him. In spite of everything, she was a traditional small-town girl at heart. It was ridiculous, she knew, for someone so tainted to describe herself that way.
Alice guessed that Mo was a virgin, just because he was so shy around women. She’d certainly noticed the way Mo looked at her, but she didn’t think he’d ever get up the courage to talk to her. That was sweet, not like the lecherous jerks who came on to her at the Wall or at parties.
Alice had told Mo a little bit about her past once – at that birthday party, out in the garage. She could tell that he was shocked, but she also sensed a lack of judgment. That touched her.
She had an idea. She would ride down to the Transbay Terminal and see how Mo was doing with his father. Why should she let Sahar push her out of the way? She could still be a friend. Even if Mo didn’t need her, simply being there was an act of support, right?
Her mind made up, she carried her bike down the steps and sped down Mission Street.
Alice remembered reading that the Transbay Terminal was considered an architectural wonder, but the weather-stained grey hulk reminded her of nothing so much as a troll’s cave. There was no way she was going to leave her bike unattended outside the terminal, even locked up. So she rode in, thinking that the ground level entryway with its four square openings looked like the gap-toothed grin of an ogre.
She weaved her way through the terminal on her bike, steering around the homeless with their garbage bags and shopping carts. She breezed past the panhandlers, pickpockets, scammers, and the late night travelers who were their common prey.
Alice knew that many of the homeless were mentally ill and were self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. With the proper care, some could live normal lives. But their families were out of touch, dead, or unable to handle them, and the government had cut funding for treatment centers back in the Reagan era. How was it possible that a nation rich enough to spend hundreds of millions on a single fighter jet could not bother to care for its own mentally ill parents, siblings and children?
She didn’t see Hassan, Mo or Sahar anywhere. An elderly security guard shouted that riding was not allowed in the terminal, but Alice ignored him, dismounting only long enough to haul her bike up the stairs to the upper level.
The upper level was another theater of poverty and loss. Alice was about to give up and go home when she saw a man sitting on the floor in the corner, weeping. He was tall but malnourished, and darker than Mo, with curly black hair and mahogany skin. He might have been another of the homeless, but there was something familiar about his eyes and the set of his mouth. Alice stopped and studied the man’s face. He was Mo’s father, she was sure of it.
Had Mo not been here yet? But he had left Tu-Lan an hour ago. More likely he had missed his father. Perhaps the man had been in the bathroom, or in a dark corner somewhere.
Alice didn’t have a cell phone, and didn’t know Muhammad’s number in any case. She wasn’t sure what to do. Well – I’ll talk to the man at least, she thought. Then we can figure something out. She dismounted her bike and approached the gaunt figure.
“Are you Mister Saleh?”
He stared at her with wide eyes. “Who are you?” he said in a hoarse voice. “I don’t know you.”
Alice tried to sound reassuring. “My name is Alice. I’m a friend of your son Mo.”
“Liar!” the man said, his voice rising. “That’s not my son’s name. You don’t know my son at all. Get out of here! I don’t have any money.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice said quickly. “I meant Muhammad. We call him Mo sometimes. I work with him. Are you Muhammad’s father?”
The man pressed his palms to his eyes. “He doesn’t want me. He won’t help me. I have no one, no one. Please God, take me, come and take me.”
Alice didn’t know if Mr. Saleh was mentally ill or a substance abuser, but there was clearly something wrong with him. If she left him here, he might be beaten or robbed. He might wander into the streets and get lost, or be arrested.
She made a decision. She would take him to her apartment and call Jamilah – she was sure she had the number written down somewhere. Jamilah would know how to get in touch with Hassan or Mo. Alice wasn’t crazy about the idea of taking Mr. Saleh to her home, but she could not leave the poor man here. It wasn’t like he was a complete stranger, after all. She knew that Muhammad had described him as an abuser, but the man sitting on the floor before her didn’t look capable of abusing a fly.
“Mr. Saleh, please come with me. I’ll take you to your son. You’ll be alright, I promise.”
The man looked up at her, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “You will take me to Muhammad?”
“Yes,” Alice said. “To Muhammad. I’ll take you to Muhammad.”
The man stood slowly, still clutching his backpack to his chest, and together he and Alice walked out of the terminal to find a taxi.
Muhammad slowed to a fast walk once he’d put a full city block between himself and the terminal. This part of town was surprisingly dark at night, though he could see the lights of the Bay Bridge through the gap between the buildings. Lit windows punctuated the surrounding office towers. From a distance he heard the sound of the streetcars rumbling down Market Street.
“Alright, stop,” Hassan said. “You can’t do this, bro. No matter what he did he’s still your father, and you can’t leave him there.
“Leave me alone!” Muhammad shouted. “I told you this was a waste of time. You should have listened.”
“I’m sorry. But that’s your dad. One time a man came to the Prophet – sal-Allahu alayhi wa-sallam -”
“I don’t want to hear that,” Muhammad said. “This isn’t about religion. Where was religion when I was a kid and needed help?”
“Can I say something?” Sahar said. She was panting, out of breath from their short run.
“No.” Muhammad couldn’t imagine there was anything Sahar could say that would change his mind. They just didn’t get it. They were treating him like he was the bad guy here.
“Let me catch my breath at least,” Sahar said, bending over and putting her hands on her knees.
Muhammad stopped walking. The three of them stood on the sidewalk in the cold night, their breath condensing in the air like smoke. A wintry wind flowed up Muhammad’s legs and ruffled his hair. The low blast of a ship’s horn echoed off the bay. Hassan kept turning his head, looking up and down the street, as if expecting someone. He was acting awfully strange lately.
“I know Hassan approaches life from the religious perspective,” Sahar said. “And that’s fine. But for me it comes down to love. What do we have in this world if we don’t have love?”
Muhammad shook his head. “That jerk doesn’t love me.” Sahar didn’t understand. How could she grasp what it was like for a teenage boy to hide from his own father, then to be dragged out of concealment and beaten with a belt or a bottle? How could she know the shame and humiliation?
Perhaps Sahar saw something of Muhammad’s thoughts. “I’m sure it must have been terrible for you,” she said. “But even if it’s true that your father doesn’t love you, what I meant was what about your love for him? In spite of it all, is there a part of you that loves him?”
Muhammad did not answer.
“A tiny part?” Sahar said.
Muhammad’s mind drifted to a sweltering summer day when he and his father had been on the freeway, stuck in one of L.A.’s infamous traffic jams. It was a Sunday and they weren’t doing anything important, just traveling to visit a friend of his father’s who lived in Pasadena. For some reason Baba was not angered by the traffic jam. Maybe because he was sober. The traffic was totally stopped, so they sat on the front hood of the car where they could at least catch a little breeze. Baba spoke to Muhammad about his own childhood, telling him about how he’d played tennis in high school and was almost good enough to join the national team. It was one of the few times that Muhammad had truly felt he had a father. He’d been happy that day, and had been disappointed when, after an hour, the traffic jam had been cleared.
“Yes,” Muhammad whispered. “There’s a part of me that loves him.”
“Then be true to that,” Sahar said. “Do it for love.”
“I don’t have a place for him to stay!”
“Right,” Hassan said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he had just arrived at a decision. “Okay. Let’s go back and get your dad, and the two of you can stay at my place.”
“Your place?” Muhammad said. “Are you serious? I don’t even know where you live.”
Hassan sighed. “I was going to text you the address. You’re all coming over tomorrow, remember? I live at 640 Mission.”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Muhammad said dryly. “And I thought you were being honest for once. What is your deal, Hassan?”
“I am being honest.”
“Come on, dude.” Muhammad shook his head. 640 Mission was the Palisade. The tallest residential tower in San Francisco. Jet-set living. Luxury condos in the sky. Well, let Hassan have his silly jokes. But why did he have to lie? I’ve never lied to him, Muhammad thought. I always thought he was a true friend. Just goes to show, you can’t trust anyone.
“Why, what’s at 640 Mission?” Sahar said.
“Let’s talk about this later,” Hassan said. “Right now let’s go get your dad.”
Muhammad shrugged his shoulders in resignation. “Fine.”
When they returned to the spot near the lockers where Muhammad’s father had been, he was gone. Hassan went to check the restroom. In his absence, Sahar turned to Muhammad.
“If we find your father,” she said, “I’ll help you in any way I can.”
Muhammad nodded bashfully and studied his feet. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
A moment later, Hassan emerged from the restroom with a grimace on his face. “I feel like I need to wash my eyeballs,” he said. “There was a naked homeless man giving himself a sponge bath from the sink.”
“Eeew!” Sahar said.
“Don’t judge,” Muhammad said. “Life on the street doesn’t leave any good options, I’m sure.”
They proceeded to search the entire terminal, traipsing up and down the steps twice. There was no sign of Muhammad’s father.
Muhammad thought. “He said he needed to see a doctor. Maybe he decided to walk to a hospital.”
They left the terminal and hurried to Sahar’s car, scanning the surrounding streets as they walked. When they reached her car, they found the driver’s side window smashed, and a hundred small pieces of glass scattered across the seats like tiny gems.
“I told you!” Sahar exclaimed. “I knew this would happen.”
“Zoinks!” Muhammad exclaimed. “Did they get our bikes?”
Sahar opened the trunk, and Muhammad let out a sigh of relief. The bikes were untouched.
They picked the glass out of the seats carefully, making sure not to scratch the leather. Sahar checked the glove box. “They took my Arabic music CDs.”
“If we see any belly-dancing thieves, we’ll know it’s them,” Muhammad said. His heart wasn’t in the joke however, and no one laughed.
“You know what?” Sahar said. “It doesn’t matter. Seeing those homeless people back there in the terminal… how they live. SubhanAllah. Sometimes I forget how much I have.”
“Idiot thieves must have been stoned,” Muhammad said, “or they’d have checked the trunk. Hassan’s Krypton would have would have kept them smoking crack for a month.”
They drove around the neighborhood in progressively larger circles, checking even the back alleys. The cold night air blew through the broken window and turned the car into a refrigerator. Muhammad zipped up his company windbreaker and crossed his arms tightly.
Sahar stopped at two different all-night drugstores and put on her blinkers as Muhammad dashed inside each to look for his father. Finally they drove the route he might have taken to SF General Hospital. They parked in the visitor’s lot at the hospital and Muhammad checked with the admissions clerk, but his father was not there. He returned to the car with a sense of dismay and shame. He’d done the wrong thing and he knew it. What if his father was attacked or hurt? Muhammad would never forgive himself.
“Guys, I’m done,” Sahar said. “Sorry but I’m freezing.”
“I know.” Muhammad rapped his head with his knuckles, as if trying to knock some sense into himself. “It’s not your fault, Sahar. At least he has the knife if anyone tries to mug him.”
“The knife is what worries me,” Hassan said.
“Let me get my bike out of the trunk,” Muhammad said. “I’ll ride home from here.”
“Don’t you live across town?” Sahar objected. “Let me take you.”
“No. I’ll look for my dad along the way.”
“What about you, Hassan?” Sahar pointed at Hassan’s swollen cheek, waving her finger. You don’t seem to be in riding condition.”
“You take off, sister,” Hassan said. “There’s someone here in the hospital I want to check on.”
After Sahar drove away, Muhammad turned to Hassan. He was tired of Hassan’s secrets and lies. He had no one to turn to. His mother had rejected him, his father had used him as a punching bag, and his friends couldn’t be trusted. He needed the comfort of a woman’s arms – a wife. But again, no one.
“I need someone I can count on,” he said. “I feel very alone in the world.”
“You don’t have to feel that way,” Hassan said. “You have friends.”
“What about love? Why can’t I have that?”
“You can, bro. Alice is obviously crazy about you. I personally wouldn’t marry a non-Muslim woman, I’m just saying… then there’s Sahar. She’s obsessed with you.”
Muhammad gave a short, barking laugh. “You are so full of it, Hassan. What is with you lately, dude?”
Hassan shrugged. “Think what you like. She’s head over heels for you.”
What game was Hassan playing? Alright, Muhammad would play too, until he caught Hassan in an obvious lie.
“I have eyes,” Muhammad challenged. “It’s obvious that she’s pursuing you. What about last week when she followed you to Layth and Kadija’s place?”
“She didn’t follow me,” Hassan said. “She followed you.”
“Oh yeah? Then why were you two arguing in the kitchen?”
Hassan sighed. “I didn’t mean to get into all this.” He shrugged. “We were arguing because Sahar wants to talk to you about marriage, but Adel won’t allow it because you have no money. Sahar wants me to pressure Adel to change his mind. I refused because it’s not my place to tell someone else how to run his family.”
“Hassan, none of this makes any sense. Why would Sahar be interested in me?”
“Maybe because you’re handsome, intelligent, educated, funny, and independent.”
“But why would she think you could exert any pressure on Adel? What would he care what some messenger thinks?”
Hassan rubbed his forehead. “I don’t want to discuss it here. I need to get everyone together to talk about some things, including this.”
Muhammad peered at Hassan, trying to determine if this was all a poorly timed elaborate joke. But joking was not Hassan’s style. He was secretive, but Muhammad had never known him to be cruel. He’d always been someone Muhammad admired and looked up to. Could it be true that Sahar was in love with him? Muhammad didn’t know how he felt about that. It caused some stirring in his chest, but did not necessarily excite him.
“Why don’t you come back to my place? We’ll talk things out.” Hassan said.
“Can I ride the Krypton?” Muhammad asked reflexively.
Hassan shrugged. “Sure.”
Muhammad shook his head. “You know what? I don’t even want to. I need to find my dad.” Turning away from Hassan, he cycled out of the parking lot and into the night, his thoughts as turbulent as the winter wind that gusted through the sleeping city.