See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
February 4, 2010
“Wow.” Dalya stared at me, seemingly at a loss for words. I saw a turbulent concoction of emotions in her gaze: attraction, fear, and maybe a wish that I would turn around and walk away. “It’s been a long time,” she finally managed. “What are you doing here? Do you need dental care?”
“Can we speak privately?”
Her eyes traveled quickly up and down my body, taking in my worn jeans, surplus army boots, button-up shirt that came off the rack at Walmart, and last of all the fedora. She frowned, deepening the lines in her forehead, then she gazed around the lobby of her office as if she’d find the answer in the potted plants or the flat screen TV that was showing an animated movie.
“It’s important,” I said.
She flashed a practiced, artificial smile, displaying pearly white teeth. “Sure. Come to my office.” She led me down a corridor to a small office across from a treatment room. There was little in it aside from a lovely wooden desk, a computer and framed diplomas on the wall.
“So,” she said when we were seated. “Prison, huh? You were in there what, ten years?”
“What was that about? What happened to you, Zaid? You were one of the smartest kids in school. I thought you would, you know, be somebody.”
I gazed at her without expression. “I follow my own inner starlight, and I don’t bother to hide the madness. Allah watches over me, as he cares for all lunatics.” Paraphrasing Ginsberg there.
I enjoyed the look of consternation on her face, though later this entire conversation would probably bother me. “I am somebody, Dalya. I’m me, and I’m okay with who I am.”
“Yes, of course.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t mean anything, I just… they said you robbed banks. Is that true?”
“It was a long time ago.” Subjectively that was true, if not chronologically. In any case it was an easy answer.
“Yes, of course.” The fake smile again. “What can I do for you?”
I explained the situation.
“Wow,” Dalya said again when I was done. “My parents hired you? That’s unbelievable.”
“Yeah, right?” I knew she wasn’t trying to be unkind. She was baffled by everything that had happened to me, by the choices I’d made, as were many in the community. But I wasn’t here to explain my past or justify my present. “The thing is,” I went on, “I need to talk Tarek, but I can’t get ahold of him. Your father says he doesn’t have a phone.”
“Yes, they confiscated it for the duration. Standard practice.”
“Oh, you mean the people at, uhh…” I removed a small notebook from my pocket and pretended to study it. In reality I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Oasis Rehab in Palm Springs,” Dalya prompted. “It’s standard practice in drug rehab to remove the patient’s connections to the outside world.”
“Right,” I said, thinking, I should have known. “So he’s not working?”
She frowned. “Well, no. Like I said, he’s in rehab.”
“Uh-huh. And how long does Tarek have left in the program?”
“I have no idea. Didn’t my parents tell you?”
“They were less than forthcoming.”
She waved a hand. “They’re embarrassed. It’s supposed to be a big secret. They babied that boy, you know?” Bitterness crept into her voice. “Me and Mina had to study, work, behave ourselves, but Tarek could do anything and they’d say, ‘boys will be boys.’ And now look. His life is a disaster. You know, I still can’t get over the fact that they hired you. My mother detests you. Sorry.” She gave a nervous chuckle.
“Your father told me they wanted someone who cares.”
“And do you?”
“Yes, I do. I care about Anna… about Tarek. I even care about you, Dalya.”
“That’s generous of you, considering.” She pursed her lips. “I’m sorry I never wrote to you. None of us did.”
“No, it’s not. Mom forbade it. But I’m sorry. I heard you married Safaa Al-Yasiri.”
I smiled, thinking of my beautiful wife. “Yes. She’s a good woman. I’m crazy about her. We have a daughter, Hajar. And you? How’s your family?”
She glanced at her wedding ring, then looked away, blushing. “I’m divorced actually. No kids. I don’t know why I still wear this thing.” She twisted the ring back and forth on her finger.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Look at you, ma-sha-Allah. You have a successful business, you look amazing… Alhamdulillah, right? You still have your whole life ahead of you.”
She gave me a grateful smile. “Thanks. Uhh… I think Safaa made a good choice.”
There was a lot that wasn’t being said. When Safaa and I married, Dalya and her husband were invited to the wedding. Not only did they not attend, they didn’t have the courtesy to RSVP. More than that, the same community that had ostracized me had punished Safaa for marrying me. She wasn’t invited to parties, weddings or even Islamic halaqas. Dalya was a part of all of that. As a result, aside from Safaa’s relatives, most of her friends were non-Muslims.
Though Dalya and I had once been close, I felt nothing for her now. I didn’t hate her. I just wasn’t impressed by her success or the size of her diamond ring.
Safaa was worth a thousand Dalyas, a million even. I thanked Allah for making her my wife. I believed in my heart that she and I were written on the face of the sea and in the mist of the highest mountains. We were chosen for each other before we even thought to choose. There was no one for me but her.
I didn’t know what to say to Dalya’s comment, so I brought the subject back to the case. “I understand Angie has a sister? Do you know where she works?”
“No. I was never close with Angie or her family. We weren’t supposed to-” She looked away, embarrassed. “We weren’t supposed to be nice to her. Mom wouldn’t stand for it.”
There was little else to say. I stood, thanked Dalya for her help, and left.
* * *
Driving away, I shook my head in frustration. Dr. Ehab had lied to me. Tarek didn’t have any job in Palm Springs. He was in some ten thousand dollar a month resort rehab facility doing group therapy with junkie celebrities. I mean, good for Tarek. I was glad he was getting help. But I was disgusted at the Anwars’ unwillingness to tell the truth. Was it more important to the them to protect themselves from shame than to find their granddaughter? What else had they lied to me about?
It didn’t matter. I would do my job. When I stopped at a red light I took the photo of Anna from my pocket and gazed at it. She was not smiling, but there was a twinkle in her eyes, as if she were thinking of a joke she’d heard, or a secret she knew.
Angie was Anna’s mother and had a right to go where she wanted and do as she pleased. Dr. Ehab was right, however. There was no telling what a drug addict might do, or what danger Anna might be in. I’d promised to at least find Anna, and that was exactly what I would do.
Now that I knew how to find Angie’s sister, maybe she could provide useful information.
Taking out my phone, I googled Alejandra Rodriguez but found no listing in San Francisco. In the past I would have used LexisNexis, a private, subscription-based information service that provided complete reports on anyone in America. The last time my subscription had come up for renewal, however, I’d been too broke to afford it. I could have renewed it right then if I’d deposited some of this cash in my bank account, but I hadn’t had a chance to do that yet.
I tried a few other search engines, including Bing and even Yahoo – a desperate measure, that – and finally got a hit on an old news story about a doctor Alejandra Rodriguez who had spent a year in Kenya, working for Doctors Without Borders. The article mentioned that she was a neurosurgeon with the Sequoia Surgical Center. I looked that up and found an address in San Francisco’s expensive Pacific Heights neighborhood.
I drove west, leaving Merced behind. The weak afternoon sun broke through the clouds and shone palely on the almond orchards and tomato farms. The almond trees were in bloom, each tree bursting with hundreds of white blossoms. I’d read in the Bee that some farmers, unable to pay the rising costs of water, were abandoning their crops. If I came back here in a few months, I might find acres of unharvested almonds rotting on the ground.
I passed fields of dessicated grasslands grazed by sprawling herds of sheep. Lambs trailed after their mothers and gamboled about. In places the farmers had laid out lines of feed to supplement the dry grass. The Eastside Bypass was a wide, dry gulch, and the San Joaquin and Fresno Rivers were thoroughfares of parched sand. I had not seen water flowing in those channels since I was a teenager. It was – once again – a dry winter in California, and all living things were struggling to survive.
I thought of the last ayah of Surat al-Mulk: “Say, ‘Have you considered: if your water was to become sunken [into the earth], then who could bring you flowing water?’”
SubhanAllah. Here I was in the richest state of the richest nation on earth. Yet if Allah chose to withhold his blessing, who could speak a word in protest? The American government, with all its power, all its aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles, could not produce the water to irrigate one tomato plant. We were all dependent on Allah’s mercy in the end.
As a child of Palestinian immigrants, I had to believe the reverse was true as well. My people, the Palestinian nation and diaspora, were a defeated, oppressed and demonized tribe. Our nation was stolen, our very homes occupied by strangers. We were prisoners in our own land and refugees in the lands of others. But if Allah chose to help us, if He sided with us and marked our path to victory, then who could stand in our way?
I would pray Dhuhr and ‘Asr – the noon and afternoon prayers – by the side of the road, taking advantage of the Islamic dispensation for travelers, allowing them to combine prayers for convenience. I should arrive in San Francisco by sunset, Insha’Allah.
I missed my wife and child. I missed having a home to return to. I missed the presence of someone – anyone – in my life who genuinely cared about me. Someone I could talk to, someone I could love.
The desire to be with my family, to see them and hold them, expanded in my chest so hard and fast that I had to choke back a sob. I needed my wife: the clean scent of her black hair, her lean and dusky arms, her warmth, her ready laugh… It had been a long time since I’d heard her laugh, and a long time since I’d held her in my embrace.
Hajar too I needed. She was my darling, my sweetheart. Big, looping brown curls, and light brown eyes the color of the irrigated earth of my native Palestine, or so I imagined my homeland, since I’d never seen it and likely never would. Hajar liked to make up jokes and stories, could create her own dolls and doll furniture out of anything handy – from popped balloons to twigs from the yard – and loved to run toward me and throw herself at me like a roller derby queen. I needed the way she wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed so tightly I could hardly breathe. The way she’d lie on the floor, idly kicking her bedroom door so that the stopper bounced off the wall, no matter how many times I told her not to.
Her love, her stubbornness and even her tears – they were all precious to me.
I glanced at the clock: 2:30 pm. Safaa would be teaching the second grade class at Fresno Islamic Academy. Hajar was at preschool.
I took my cell phone out of my pocket, plugged in my ear piece and hit 2 to speed-dial Safaa. I knew she didn’t want to talk to me. Her instructions were to call only in case of emergencies. Anyway she’d be busy in class and her phone would probably be off. I just wanted to hear her voice on the voicemail, and leave her a message.
To my surprise, she answered after three rings. “What? Is something wrong?”
Her voice was a clear mountain spring. It was sweet to me, and pleasant. I smiled.
“As-salamu alaykum sweetie. There’s nothing wrong. I just miss you, that’s all. I have some good news. I’m on a job. I received-”
She cut me off with an exasperated sigh. “I’m in the middle of class. You can’t just call whenever you feel like it. And don’t call me sweetie. Phone one of your other women, why don’t you?”
“Honey, there are no- “ Dead air. She was gone.
I’ve known Safaa since we were little, when she saved me from a schoolyard bully. I was eight years old and my family had moved to Fresno from Santa Cruz two years previously. I was in third grade at Caulfield Elementary School. During recess period one day I was playing a ball game called three flies up. I kicked the ball but it went wild and struck a big, beefy sixth grader squarely in the back. The next thing I knew he was charging toward me, his face red with fury. He tackled me and began to pummel me, striking me in the face ruthlessly. I’d been practicing Kali for a year at that point, but this boy was twice my weight.
The next thing I knew the bully yelped and fell back as a dark-eyed little girl in a blue jacket, her long black hair tied in a ponytail, landed on his back with a shriek and sunk her fingers into his florid cheeks. She’d bought me a moment of respite. I leaped to my feet. As the bully turned to smash the girl into the ground, I kicked him squarely across the jaw, knocking him out cold. The girl and I ran away, she giggling madly, and me holding a hand to my nose, which was pouring blood. The girl, of course, was Safaa.
I was suspended for a week. I was utterly mortified that a girl – a first grader! – had saved me. Why did she have to interfere? I’d seen her around – for example at a Quran reading my family attended, a memorial service for one of the elders at the local Shiah mosque. The little girl was there with her family, and she kept smiling at me then looking away whenever I met her eyes. But I thought nothing of it at the time. Just some weird little kid.
The other boys teased me endlessly about being saved by a girl, even my best friends Aziz, Amiri, Tarek and Titus – the other four of the Five Musketeers, as we were called. I did my best to avoid the little girl after that, but it was difficult because anytime I played a school sport she was always there on the sidelines, watching me, embarrassing me with her presence.
When I reached middle school my family moved from California to Qatar. I’d already been bumped up a year, from 5th to 6th, as I was considered gifted. The private Islamic academy that I attended in Qatar kicked me up another year. So I effectively skipped two years of school and graduated high school a month before my sixteenth birthday. I had applied to several U.S. universities and received letters of admission to two Ivy League schools. My true desire was to study at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, but my parents were adamantly opposed. My father felt that the pursuit of Islamic studies at a university level was a waste of intellect. I think they also feared that without supervision I might run off to Bosnia to join the fight against the Serbs. They were right, I might have.
In the end, my parents – who remained in the Middle East themselves – pressured me to attend university back in Fresno. They had friends there who could watch over me, and of course I had friends there as well.
The next summer I attended a Muslim youth camp that was held in the mountains every year. I was invited as a counselor and given a cabin of boys to guide, ages nine to thirteen. Some were dedicated Muslims, while others knew nothing, not even the shahadah.
For one month I tried to teach my boys about Islam and prevent them from getting lost in the woods, getting hurt or missing home too badly. I woke them for Fajr and took them on morning hikes. One of the kids taught me “Mighty Mighty Muslims,” so we’d climb gray boulders the size of buildings, ford icy streams and march through the tall trees chanting, We are the Muslims / mighty mighty Muslims / Everywhere we go / people want to know / who we are / so we tell them / We are the Muslims – and repeat.
I named them the Salman Squad – after the sahabi Salman Al-Farisi – and taught them about Salman’s lifelong search for truth. During the day they attended prayers and classes. After sunset the entire camp attended a campfire. With the flames warming the night and sparks rushing up like laughter, the kids told jokes and stories and performed plays and skits.
One evening I was approached by a boy named Jihad. A ten year old with sturdy shoulders and curly black hair, he was captain of the cabin baseball team. He’d give the other kids pep talks, urging them to show that Salman Squad was the best. It made me laugh, how seriously he took it.
He confided that he was forced to work in his father’s liquor store every day after school. He was his father’s only son. He knew that alcohol was prohibited in Islam. He wanted to be a good Muslim. He’d been telling his father that he didn’t want to work in the store. But his father, who was diabetic, insisted that he could not manage alone.
Though Islam considered selling alcohol a sin, how could I advise a boy to abandon his struggling father? I told him I’d think about it.
Meanwhile, I was shut out by the other counselors, maybe not deliberately but the result was the same. They’d been attending the camp since they were kids. They formed a tight clique. I was a stranger. None of the other five musketeers – my old friends – had wanted to attend, and I knew no one there.
During classes, when the counselors had free time, they’d have group discussions, go for hikes, or drive to the nearby mountain town of Shaver Lake for burgers or pizza.
Alone with nothing to do, I’d sit with my back against a lightning-scarred oak tree at the camp’s high point, with a sweeping view down the mountain, and memorize Quran from a small, zippered mushaf with a green leather cover.
One afternoon I was surprised to see a teenage boy and girl climbing the hill toward me. I recognized the boy as Ishaq, one of the other counselors. We’d spoken a few times, but never about anything of substance. They greeted me, and sat on a fallen log. They looked nearly identical, and were obviously brother and sister.
The sister was slender, with rich brown skin and mesmerizing black eyes that were flecked with blue, like stars in the night sky. I’d never seen that before. I had to work to control my gaze. Her demeanor was reserved but warm, like a fireplace burning low, ready to blaze up if one added wood. Her hair was concealed beneath a blue hijab over a black skullcap. She had long fingers and the kind of grace that only a few young women have. She was very beautiful, and I found myself suddenly self-conscious about everything: my scraggly beard and skinny shoulders, even my beat-up sneakers.
The sister was also vaguely familiar. I tried to think of where I might have seen her. At some Islamic event maybe? I couldn’t pinpoint it.
The three of us spent the next hour talking. I was tongue-tied before this beauty, but she was articulate and interesting. I found myself blurting out my worry about Jihad’s situation (I didn’t mention him by name).
Ishaq said I should counsel the boy to refuse to work at the store. The sister disagreed, saying that it would create conflict in the family. She suggested that I speak to the boy’s father and advise him to look for another line of work. Maybe they could open a gas station or a restaurant.
I thought that was a smart suggestion. I thanked the two of them, and as they rose to leave, the sister said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Uhh… I was just trying to think of where we’ve met. Have I seen you at some Islamic event?”
She shook her head and grinned, then shaped her hands into claws and let out a sudden shriek that nearly made me fall over. I stared at her like she’d gone raving mad. She laughed and shook her head. “Caulfield Elementary,” she said. “Remember? I dragged that big bully off you. What did you do to make him so angry, anyway?”
My mouth fell open and my face turned beet red. This ravishing young woman was the same annoying kid who I’d found so embarrassing back then?
She grinned. “Anyway, my name is Safaa. We’ll see you around.” She and her brother walked off down the hill.
Oh, and as for Jihad? When Jihad’s parents came to pick him up, I spoke to the father discreetly. He was a short man with rough skin and a heavy accent.I told him of Jihad’s anxiety. He in turn accused me of being an extremist. He said that the people he sold the alcohol to were not Muslims, so it didn’t matter. Lastly, he snarled at me to stay out of his family’s business, and that he would not bring Jihad back to the camp.
He was right about that last point. Later that winter I heard from Ishaq that two men had gone into Jihad’s father’s store to rob it. Jihad’s father reached behind the counter for a weapon; the robbers shot him, then shot Jihad as well. The father survived; Jihad did not.
* * *
I think I started falling in love with Safaa even back then, though I didn’t recognize it until later. Between the two of us she was always smarter, and still is. A few years later, when I went to prison, almost everyone I knew cut me off. I received Eid cards from Aziz twice a year, and my father frequently sent me books. About a year after my incarceration I received a letter from Safaa out of the blue. She said she’d just returned from camp, and it made her think of me. She thought I must be lonely, and wondered if I needed a friend.
That letter was like a bluebird swooping out of a gray sky into my cell and singing a song just for me. I couldn’t stop smiling for days. Safaa and I began a correspondence, and by the time I came out of prison at age twenty five, I loved her like the sea loves the sky. And like a blessing on the wing, she felt the same. Three months after my release, we were married.
Now, five years later, I love her more than ever. There is a stretch of countryside north of Fresno, along 41 as you near the tabletop mesa, that turns bright with poppies every spring. As soon as the rains fall, the entire area becomes a bright sea of orange and yellow. You can’t look at those flowers without feeling hope rise in your chest. That’s how Safaa is to me.
The kindness that brought Safaa to me was one of the things that I loved about her, though it exasperated me at times. She never passed a homeless person without emptying her pocket change; she never held a grudge against a friend; and never tolerated cruelty in her presence. She taught me to talk about my problems rather than shut people out. She taught me that family never stayed angry with each other.
Why could she forgive everyone else, but not me? Why had the well of her kindness run dry? What could I do to reach past the thicket of thorns that surrounded her heart?
It’s said that we always hurt the people we love, and that such wounds are the hardest to forgive. Driving west beneath the gray winter sky of the Central Valley, leaving Dalya’s office and the city of Merced behind, I hoped that Safaa would disprove that aphorism by taking me back into her life and her arms.
I pulled up beside an almond grove and used the cool, clear water of the irrigation sump to perform wudu’ – ritual Islamic washing for prayer, where we wash everything from the hands to the face to the feet, letting the sins of the day be carried away with the water. Then I prayed Dhuhr and ‘Asr in the soil. I stood, bowed and prostrated on the dirt and leaves, feeling my connection to all living things under God.
When I was done I brushed the dirt and leaves from my forehead, put my hat back on, and found a large yellow farm dog sitting on its haunches several paces away, watching me with its head cocked, trying to decipher what manner of creature I might be, kneeling here in the dirt.
“As-salamu alaykum doggie,” I greeted it.
“Whoof!” Its single bark was loud but not unfriendly. It turned its head and looked at me sideways. As I drove away I looked in the rear view mirror to see the dog still sitting there like a sentinel, guarding its owners’ almonds.
The road was straight as a ruler, passing through mile after mile of farms growing corn, cotton, tomatoes, almonds and grapes. I took out my phone and called San Francisco directory assistance. The automated system gave me the number for the Sequoia Surgical Center.
I didn’t want to talk to Dr. Rodriguez on the phone or at her office. I wanted to meet in her home. People in offices maintained professional, reserved demeanors. They were on their guard. In their homes, however, people tended to relax. They were more open to sharing personal information. It was as if, just by virtue of being in their home, you were given the status of a friend.
Also, people’s residences could be revealing. Were they ordered or messy? Modern or old fashioned? What pictures did they have on the walls, what artwork, furniture, technology, pets, decor? Put these together and you could learn almost everything about a person.
I called the surgical center.
“Ma’am,” I said to the hospital operator when she answered, “This is Ben Bova with the SFFD.” I’ve found that posing as a fire department official creates a sense of urgency that fosters compliance and gets me through bureaucratic barriers quickly. “Put me through to Dr. Rodriguez’s personal secretary immediately please.”
I knew that many hospital doctors did not have personal secretaries, but considering this was a private surgical center, I was betting that Rodriguez did. As for Ben Bova, I chose that name at random from among the roster of science fiction authors whose work I enjoyed.
“Oh! Yes sir,” she replied. “Transferring you now.”
I’ve been told by some Muslims that my occupation is haram because it involves lying and spying, two activities that are forbidden in Islam. I’ve wrestled with the morality of this myself. Yes, my job requires a certain amount of deception. Whether I’m trying to find a missing person, catch an insurance fraudster, or even find out who committed a murder – and yes, I’ve done all the above – the job requires me to obtain information that people will not give out willingly. That’ s why law enforcement agencies everywhere consider deception to be an acceptable investigative technique.
I once spoke to a shaykh who told me that lying is not sinful in and of itself, but that it depends on the reason for the deception. For example, if a man’s wife says, “Do you think I’m attractive,” that man had better say yes, no matter what!
I reason that since my intention in telling a lie is to promote good and prevent evil, I’m okay.
Maybe this is all just rationalization. Maybe I’m a bad Muslim. I don’t know. What I do know is that when a child is missing and possibly in danger, if I have to tell a few harmless lies to find her, then I will. Allah knows my intention and my heart.
“Dr. Rodriguez’s office, Katherine speaking.” The secretary’s tone was clipped, making it clear that she had no time to waste.
“Hello Katherine.” I tried to sound authoritative and solemn at the same time. “I’m afraid there’s been a fire at Dr. Rodriguez’s residence. We managed to save the building, but the residence has been badly damaged by smoke and water.”
“Oh my gosh! That’s terrible. Did anyone die?” All trace of professionalism was gone from Katherine’s voice. She sounded more fascinated than horrified, in my opinion.
“No ma’am. Though the building manager – who apparently lives next door at 2525 Union – was taken to the hospital with chest pains.”
“Wait a minute. Did you say 2525 Union?”
“That’s not Dr. Rodriguez’s address. She doesn’t live on Union Street at all.”
“Ma’am, I’m calling all the residents of the building, and it clearly says here on my paperwork-” I rustled a newspaper on the passenger seat beside me – ”Dr. Rodriguez, 2500 Union Street, apartment 5C.”
“You must have the wrong Dr. Rodriguez. Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez lives at 1310 Jones Street.”
I rustled the paper again. “Dr. Alejandro Rodriguez is what I have. Chiropractor.” I drawled the “o” in Alejandro so she couldn’t miss it.
“Mr. Bova, you’ve made a mistake.” Katherine reverted to her clipped tone, with a measure of annoyance mixed in. “This is the office of Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez, not Alejandro. And she is a neurosurgeon, not a chiropractor. Check your facts more carefully next time.” She hung up.
A bit of social engineering there, as the hackers say. If it seems strange that a secretary would simply give away her boss’s home address, keep in mind that she believed me to be a person of authority, carrying out municipal business. She trusted me and therefore thought nothing of telling me whatever I needed to know. I looked up 1310 Jones on my phone, and found that it was an apartment building called the Crest Royal, right up on swanky Nob Hill.
A few hours later I was heading over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco when my phone rang. The timing was awful, since driving on the Bay Bridge scared me enough. It was windy up there, there were no shoulders, and some drivers sped by like their seats were on fire. A few minutes ago a red Porsche had come roaring through traffic, changing lanes faster than a pediatric nurse changes diapers.
I’m not a great driver anyway. I only drove for a few years before I went to prison, and when I was locked up I got used to life moving extremely slowly. Speed makes me jittery.
So I let the phone ring and heard it go to voicemail. As I descended from the bridge onto Ninth Street, however, it rang again. I shot a glance at the screen. It was my friend Saleem, the young Pakistan-American brother who ran the homeless shelter.
San Francisco driving – with all those one-way streets – is tricky, but Saleem was a good friend. He wasn’t one of the Five Musketeers – he was several years younger than the rest of us – but he and I just seemed to sync.
I greeted him with the salam and he started up right away, pitching yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes. I could see him in my mind, a short, chubby brother with a curly black beard like a Pakistani leprechaun, waving his hands animatedly in the air.
“Listen to this. Prison insurance! Have you heard of that?”
“You mean insuring prisons? Like, the buildings?”
“Naw, man. Insuring people against prison. If you go to prison, we pay the settlement to your family, so they can support themselves.”
I laughed. “You’ll have burglars and gangsters signing up.”
“No way. They’re high risk. No pre-existing convictions allowed.”
“That’s a problem. Ordinary citizens don’t see themselves going to prison. They wouldn’t want your product.”
“You’re missing the point, bro. I want to sell it to Muslims. You know every Muslim in America is terrified of ending up in Guantanamo. Tell me you haven’t imagined yourself kneeling on the floor, wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
I craned my neck, reading the street signs as I took Larkin Street through Civic Center Plaza, flanked by the massive stone edifices of City Hall on one side and the Asian Art Museum on the other. I was pretty sure this street would lead me right up to Nob Hill, but I didn’t know where to turn from there. I was familiar with the broad outlines of San Francisco’s geography, but actually getting around this city was like navigating a maze.
I’d made good time coming here, and the sun was just beginning to set. San Francisco was a city of working class immigrants side by side with wealthy entertainment and technology types, topped off with an endless stream of tourists from all over the world. Pedestrians bustled on the sidewalks, waited in line in front of restaurants, and passed by the invisible panhandlers that manned the corners like silent members of a jury, holding up the handwritten signs that pronounced sentence on us all.
This particular neighborhood seemed run down. I saw street people sitting in the doorways of shuttered buildings and calling out to each other on the sidewalks. In some places they clustered in groups where they talked, shouted and – presumably – bought drugs.
“You with me?” Saleem demanded.
“Yes. I don’t have to imagine being locked up and wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
“Your idea is like life insurance,” I observed, “except you’re covering people against life sentences. Anti-life insurance, you could call it.”
“Yeah man. The Guantanamo plan is the most expensive. If you can’t afford that, you could opt for the maximum security plan, or just start with the Club Fed. You wanna invest?”
“What makes you think I have any money to invest?”
“‘Cause I know you, bro. If you don’t have money now, you will soon. You’re sharp. You could have a mountain blocking your way and you’d chop right through it with one of your Kali moves. Kaboom! Then you’d moonwalk through the debris and tip your fedora. You’re the man. You’ll always come out on top, ma-sha-Allah.”
I smiled, then saw something that made my eyes open wide. I swerved into the right lane, eliciting loud honks from other cars, and parked in a loading zone. I hadn’t reached my destination yet, but I’d seen something unbelievable. “Thank you, akhi,” I said quickly. “I have to go. I’m on a job.”
“See! What did I tell you. Think about my idea. Prison insura-”
I hung up the phone and stepped out of the car. I didn’t mean to be rude with Saleem, but I was staring at something so unexpected that if my family tree had contained any history of mental illness, I’d have thought I was hallucinating.
An old stuffed chair sat in the middle of the sidewalk just past Geary. A young woman relaxed in it, looking bedraggled but utterly confident, as if she were the queen of Larkin Street holding court over her domain. Pedestrians flowed around her as she ignored them, unperturbed.
The young woman was my cousin Jamilah.
(Your comments and constructive criticism are a big part of why I publish here, so please do comment, thank you!)