See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
February 4, 2010
San Francisco, California
There was no doubt. It was clearly Jamilah Al-Husayni. My cousin. I hadn’t seen her in three years, but I’d recognize that uncompromising, sharp-nosed visage anywhere. She looked tousled and weary, with a grease stain on one pants leg, and strands of hair sticking out wildly from beneath her hijab – something I’d never seen her wearing before. And that white splatter on one arm of the chair, was that pigeon poop?
And yet she seemed completely at ease. She crossed one leg over the other and sipped from a large cup of coffee, as if sitting in an armchair in the middle of a busy San Francisco sidewalk was the most natural thing in the word. Her free hand gripped the seat post of a durable looking mountain bike that leaned against the side of the chair. Pedestrians stepped around her, mostly ignoring her.
What on earth? Had Jamilah lost her job and become homeless? No, that was impossible. Her family would never abandon her like that, nor would mine. Jamilah’s father, Yahya Al-Husayni, had been my father’s older brother. I say “had been” because he passed away when Jamilah was just a kid. After that my father made it a point to support Jamilah’s family. She, her brother and mother often visited our home, and even came on holiday trips with us a few times. I had fond childhood memories of riding bikes with Jamilah and Nabeel, visiting the park, and playing rummy and backgammon. Jamilah was a fierce competitor in everything, and always took it badly when she lost, which used to give me a perverse sort of delight.
Jamilah and her brother Nabeel had also been – along with Safaa and Aziz – one of the few who wrote to me when I was in prison. I would always be grateful to her for that.
Jamilah’s mother Sabra had been hospitalized recently, but I’d been out of state on an insurance job and unable to visit. I’d spoken to her on the phone, though.
I studied her as I approached. It was hard to tell with the hijab, but there seemed to be a lean muscularity to her that she hadn’t possessed before, and an air of confidence that – despite her tired eyes – made her almost intimidating.
When I stopped beside her, she thrust out a palm in a “stop” motion without even turning her head to look at me.
“No,” she pronounced loudly.
“No I’m not a hooker or a terrorist, no I won’t buy your drugs, and no I won’t marry you.”
“Jamilah, it’s me, Zaid.”
She sipped her coffee, still not looking at me. “Zaid who? Are you a friend of Hassan’s?”
“Zaid Karim Al-Husayni, you nitwit! Your cousin. What on earth are you doing out here?” I knew she wouldn’t take the insult personally. She and I had always been affectionately abrasive with each other.
Her mouth dropped open. “SubhanAllah!” she exclaimed, looking straight at me for the first time. “Zaid! I don’t believe it. Look at you, rocking that bowler hat like a thirties gangster.”
This was another new thing. I didn’t remember her ever using Islamic expressions like “subhanAllah” before. Not that I minded. Just the opposite. It was good to see her practicing Islam more.
“It’s a fedora, not a bowler,” I said lamely, as if anyone besides myself really cared. “But what are you doing here?”
“What do you mean what am I doing here? I live here, remember? What are you doing here?”
“I’m on a case. I’m looking for a missing girl.”
“Wow, ma-sha-Allah. Good for you, cuz.” She gazed at me admiringly. No one had looked at me with pride in a long time, and I reveled in it.
“So… you live on the sidewalk in a lime-green chair?”
“No, dummy. I bought the chair this morning. I’ve been trying all day long to get it to my apartment. I only have three blocks to go.”
“You paid money for this ugly thing?”
“Yes. And I will get it home, no matter what.”
“You didn’t have to work today?”
“Called in sick. I woke up with an awful headache. After breakfast I popped a few pain pills and felt better, so I decided to go furniture shopping.”
Hmm. I wasn’t about to leave my cousin sitting out on the sidewalk in this grotty neighborhood with night approaching. I shook my head and laughed. It was always something with this girl.
“Come on then,” I said.
Working together, we loaded the chair into the trunk of my car, and I strapped the chair and trunk lid down with bungee cords.
“I don’t know what to do about your bike,” I pointed out. “It won’t fit.”
“No need to do anything. I’ll ride it. I live on Post at Leavenworth. It’s not far. Go up the hill to Post and turn right.”
“But where should I wait for you when I get there? There won’t be anyplace to park.” Parking anywhere in San Francisco required a minor miracle.
“Wait for me? I’ll be waiting for you, cuz.” Jamilah slipped a foot into one of her bike pedals, pushed off with the other foot, swung her leg over and took off. The bike swayed from side to side as she stood on the pedals, powering the bike up the hill, riding faster than I could have managed on flat ground.
Jamilah was indeed waiting on the sidewalk when I arrived. She’d locked her bike to a parking sign. I double parked, leaving my blinkers flashing and ignoring the indignant honking that immediately ensued from the cars behind me. She helped me unload the chair.
“I’ll help you take it up,” I volunteered. “What floor are you on?”
“No way. You can’t leave your car there. It’ll get towed in a San Francisco minute. That’s like ten seconds to the rest of the world. Thanks for your help, Zaid. I mean it.” She shook her head and chuckled. “You have no idea what a day it’s been.”
“You’ll have to tell me the story someday.”
She grinned. “You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
I indicated the chair. “How will you get it upstairs?”
“The manager will help. He lives in the downstairs apartment. If not, my cousin Shamsi can help. She lives with me.” Shamsi was Jamilah’s cousin on her mother’s side, I recalled. No relation of mine.* I’d met her a few times at parties at Jamilah’s house when I was young.
The thought of leaving before the job was done made me feel guilty. I hesitated.
“Go on,” Jamilah insisted. “Find your missing girl. And Zaid?”
“I believe in you. I always have. I want you to know that.”
“Wha…” I was speechless and – just that quick – on the edge of tears. How many times had I needed to hear such words? How many times had I been emotionally starving for someone – anyone – to show just a little bit of faith in me? Jamilah’s words were more precious than diamonds and rubies. I didn’t feel a romantic attraction to Jamilah – it had never been like that with me and her – but I was deeply grateful to her in that moment.
“Hey,” I said finally. “Who’s this Hassan you thought I was friends with? Are you behaving yourself here in San Francisco?” I was only half kidding. I wasn’t accusing her of anything. We outcasts had to watch out for each other, after all – otherwise, who would?
“Oh, just someone I work with. Hassan Amir. He’s a messenger like me. Interesting guy.”
Hassan Amir. Like a fireplace poker stirring up sparks, that name stirred a memory in me. I’d heard of a brother named Hassan Amir when I was in prison. He was a legend in the federal prison system, a Muslim master warrior who singlehandedly took on the white supremacist gang called the Aryan Brotherhood. He tore them to shreds, leaving bodies in his wake.
Nah. It couldn’t be the same Hassan Amir. There were undoubtedly many men with that name.
A parking enforcer pulled up in a three-wheeled electric scooter and took out her ticket book. She was a short, heavyset African-American woman with a tension in her jaw that brooked no argument. As soon as she put pen to paper, I knew, there would be no going back. She would write the ticket even if I leaped into the car, pulled up the wheels and disappeared through a wormhole like the Delorean in Back to the Future.
“Go!” Jamilah exclaimed.
“I’m leaving!” I called to the meter maid. She gave me a baleful look as I ran to my car, hopped in and sped off.
I made a quick stop at a flower shop on Hyde Street, where I bought a colorful bouquet of tulips in a lovely glass vase. It cost me $60. I then drove to the Grace Cathedral garage and parked on the third level. The garage rate was $3 per 15 minutes, with a maximum of $33 per 24 hours. I could afford it now that I had a paying client. I would tack all these costs onto my expense report.
In the trunk of my car I kept a cardboard box full of neatly pressed t-shirts. They were company shirts with the logos of different businesses: air conditioning/heating, electrical, delivery service, plumbing, Indian restaurant, etcetera. I’d purchased them all at thrift stores. I selected a green t-shirt with a yellow logo that read, “River View Flowers,” and put it on. I wasn’t sure if there were any rivers in San Francisco, but it would do. I took the bouquet of flowers, grabbed a clipboard that I kept in the car as well, and set off on foot.
The Crest Royal was a twelve story apartment building at the corner of Jones and Clay. Rents here probably started at four thousand dollars per month for a one bedroom, and went up from there.
There was a doorman, of course. Buildings in neighborhoods like this always had doormen. The rotund middle-aged white man had pudgy hands like water balloons and a nose that had been broken at least once. He wore a black suit with a double-breasted jacket featuring big brass buttons, along with a black cap with yellow braiding above the bill.
“I have a flower delivery,” I announced. “For a-” I studied the clipboard which in reality held an old telephone bill. “Alejandra Rodriguez.” I mispronounced the “j”, making it hard like in “jam.”
With a grunt, the doorman waved me in. I surveyed the wall of mailboxes in the lobby, each with its own little nameplate, and saw that Dr. Rodriguez was in apartment 1120. She must have quite a view.
As I entered an old-fashioned elevator with a metal gate that had to be manually opened and shut, the doorman called for me to wait. Uh-oh, I thought. But no, he simply wanted me to hold the elevator for an elderly woman in a white felt coat. She wheeled a suitcase into the elevator and pressed the button for the eighth floor.
“Thank you, young man,” she said. “What lovely flowers.”
‘I believe they’re for you, ma’am.” I handed her the bouquet. “From an anonymous admirer.”
Her face lit up like I’d just told her today was a second Christmas. “My goodness! I can’t imagine. But if these are for me, why are you going to the eleventh floor?”
“Oh.” I hadn’t thought of that. “I have a second delivery,” I extemporized. “A singing telegram.”
“Why, you must be so talented! You remind me of my grandson Sigmund. He plays tuba in his high school band, though he’s not very good. He was supposed to play a solo after an 84 bar rest. When it came time to play the solo, he stood there. When the conductor asked him later why he hadn’t come in, he said he hadn’t realized the 84 bars were over. The conductor told him he should have counted. And do you know what my grandson said?”
“That wouldn’t be much of a rest!” At this the old woman cackled so vigorously that I saw her false teeth. The elevator stopped and she wheeled her bag out, calling back, “Good luck with the singing!”
Once she was gone I took off the flower delivery shirt and turned it inside out, since I no longer needed to play the part. At Dr. Rodriguez’s door I rang the buzzer twice before a woman spoke from the other side of the door. “What do you want?”
“I’m a private detective. I need to talk to you about your sister Angie.”
“Show me some ID.”
I took out my driver’s license and P.I. badge and held them up to the peephole.
“What about my sister?” the woman demanded through the door.
“She’s missing. I’ve been hired by Tarek Anwar’s parents to find her. Can we please talk face to face?”
I heard the locks disengage. The door swung open about a foot. “I don’t know where Angie is,” Rodriguez said through the gap.
“Dr. Rodriguez, could I please come inside and talk to you? Technically it’s not Angie I was hired to find, but Anna. The Anwars are worried about their grandchild. She’s your niece. I think you should be worried too.”
“Say what you have to say.” She opened the door all the way but still did not invite me in. I saw that she was a diminutive Afro-Latina – which didn’t surprise me since her sister Angie was the same – with dark brown skin, straight black hair that she wore very short, and large, gold-flecked brown eyes. She wore a neatly pressed pair of tennis shorts and a white tennis shirt, as if she were a model in a sports store window. In spite of her small size, she somehow managed to look down her nose at me.
“Your shirt is inside out,” she pointed out.
I looked at the seams on my shoulders as if surprised. “Oh yeah,” I chuckled. “I can be absent minded.”
“Not a good quality in a detective.”
“Yeah, right? Listen, can I get a glass of water? Climbing these San Francisco hills is a workout for a flatlander like me.” In my experience, most people will not turn down a request for water. Offering water to a visitor – friend or stranger – is ingrained in us as the minimum gesture of human hospitality, a sort of universally recognized obligation.
Dr. Rodriguez nodded curtly. “Fine. Come in.” She led me into the living room and left me there.
As she went for the water, I used the opportunity to survey the room. Like the doctor herself, the apartment was tastefully decorated and immaculately clean. She liked white. White shag carpet, white sofas, Renaissance-style wooden chairs with white cushions, a white marble coffee table and a white flower vase on a glass table, containing fresh cut irises. A slender white bookshelf stood in a niche on the back wall.
Someone so obsessed with white, I speculated, was either in love with purity as a concept, or was covering up a sinful past. Dime store psychology, there. Move over, Lucy from the Peanuts. The doctor is in.
I was right about the view. A large picture window looked out over the city as it sprawled to the west. The sun was setting, and from this vantage I could see the twinkling lights of Pacific Heights, the Panhandle, the Richmond, and in the far distance the dark expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Incredible. What a city, perched on these hills like a queen on her throne, shining with elegance and exoticism from sea to bay.
But I wasn’t here for the view. I turned my attention back to the room itself. An assortment of framed family photos stood on a mantelpiece of white wood. I examined them. I recognized Dr. Rodriguez at a variety of ages. In many of the photos she stood with a slightly younger woman who looked strikingly similar. It was Angie, looking far more wholesome and healthy than the Angie I knew.
In one photo, Alejandra and Angie posed with an older couple who were clearly their parents. There was a younger man in the picture as well, a Hispanic fellow with a shaved head and jail tats on his hands and arms. He had an arm draped casually around Angie’s shoulders. Did I know him? There was something familiar about him. Something in the eyes.
There was something different about Angie as well. I bent close, studying her face and body. Yes. The Angie I knew was lean and wiry, but in the photo she was slightly chubby, with full cheeks and breasts, and wide hips. Of course she was young in this photo, still carrying the baby fat that some teenaged girls had.
Dr. Rodriguez returned with two glasses of water.
“That was the last time we were all together,” she said, indicated the family photo. “Our dad died the next year.”
I sipped the water and pointed to the thug in the photo. “Who’s this?”
Dr. Rodriguez made a sour face. “Miko. He was Angie’s boyfriend.”
“You don’t like him?”
“I didn’t like him, past tense. He was a leech.” Dr. Rodriguez set her own glass of water down on the marble coffee table. “So,” she said. “You have information about my sister?”
“The Anwars say she disappeared suddenly. Took all her things. Do you know where she might be?”
“Why don’t you ask her good-for-nothing boyfriend?” Her tone was flat.
“He’s in rehab. I’m pretty sure Angie’s not with him.”
“Rehab.” Dr. Rodriguez spat the word like a curse. “He should have done that before he met my sister and ruined her life.”
“So you don’t know where Angie is?”
“I don’t know where she is now.”
I didn’t fail to notice the “now” she tacked on at the end. Sometimes when you hit a sticking point while interviewing a subject, it’s best to move on and come back to the point later. I strode to the bookshelf and perused the volumes there. There were medical journals, vegetarian cookbooks, collections of poetry by Neruda and Rumi, and a few novels.
The title of a novel caught my eye: “On My Way to Paradise.” I slid it out and showed it to Alejandra Rodriguez. It had a strange cover that featured a pair of aliens – or maybe men in armor – flying a craft across the surface of a planet. “This sounds good right about now,” I said with a smile. “I could use a little trip to Paradise.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I bought that book because I read on the cover that the character was from Panama. Turned out to be a weird sci fi war story. Too violent. Take it. Maybe you’ll like it.”
“Thank you. Why did the mention of Panama interest you?
“Because that’s where we’re from. We grew up in Colon, on the Caribbean side, but we left there when we were kids.”
“Do you miss it?”
She shrugged. “Colon was crowded, dirty, unsafe. I do miss the beach, the warm water, the sun. This city-” she waved a hand to indicate the gray February sky outside the windows -”I can feel the cold settling in my heart sometimes.”
I nodded and let a moment of silence pass. I felt that Dr. Rodriguez wanted to tell me more, but something was holding her back. I just needed to keep her talking until she made up her mind. “I used to know someone from Panama,” I said truthfully. “He was from Colon as well. He used to talk about the rain, the way it would come down so heavily that you couldn’t see five feet in front of you. You couldn’t even talk, he said, because the rain and thunder were so loud.”
I was talking about brother Yusuf Cruz, who I met in prison. He had already converted to Islam when I met him, in order – he said – to escape from the damnation he’d brought upon himself by participating in the idol worship and rituals of a religion called Santería. Before he became Muslim he was a drug kingpin, importing cocaine from South America and wholesaling it to middlemen up and down the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.
He once told me how, after his initial arrest (and release on bail), he’d paid a santera or priestess to perform a protection ritual to keep him from going to prison. With his wife watching, he sat naked in the outdoor jacuzzi at his palatial Miami home, a thunderstorm splitting the darkness and pouring sheets from the sky, as the santera killed a chicken and spilled the blood over Yusuf’s head and shoulders. The santera drank rum from the bottle and spat it in his face, calling out incantations in Lucumí, all while a tall, skeletal Dominican pounded on a conga drum and a teenage girl in a pink bikini danced herself into a trance until she fell to the wooden deck writhing. Lightning lit up the sky above them all, and thunder pealed like an admonition from Heaven.
The ritual failed. Yusuf was given a twenty year sentence.
Yusuf would tell this tale and laugh, then shake his head and say, “Jahiliyyah, no? We were fortunate Allah did not strike us dead with the lightning. But don’t worry, my appeal will free me, Insha’Allah!”
After becoming Muslim, Yusuf resolved to give up crime. His dream was to return to Panama and open a chain of internet cafes. He and I used to lift weights together and talk about Islam, and he taught me some Spanish as well.
“Yes,” Dr. Rodriguez said, snapping me out of my reverie. “That is what it was like. Rain every day, and everything emerald green wherever you looked.” Her eyes were distant.
As we talked I had been scanning the living room systematically. My eye caught on something barely sticking out through the sofa cushions. I strode to the sofa and pulled the object out, then held it up to Dr. Rodriguez. It was a tiny doll, the kind with a plastic dress that clipped on and off. My daughter Hajar owned several of them. They were called Magic-Clip dolls.
Dr. Rodriguez stared at the doll for a second, then turned away and sat heavily on the sofa. I pulled up a chair and sat facing her.
“They were here,” she admitted. When she said nothing further, I prompted her.
She looked at me and I saw indecision and guilt play across her features. “Do you promise you are only trying to help Anna? Swear it.”
“I promise,” I said. “I give you my word.”
She tapped her foot and nodded her head. She began to speak slowly at first, then faster. The faster she spoke, the stronger her Spanish accent grew. “Four days ago. Angie was acting crazy. She had a backpack full of money. I counted it. Forty five thousand dollars. She wanted me to take Anna. She wanted to leave Anna with me, do you understand? I asked her where she would go, what she would do, she wouldn’t tell me. Where was the money from? She wouldn’t say. She was high as a kite. Track marks on her arms. She hardly seemed aware that Anna was there. I don’t know what to think, Mister – Karim, did you say?”
“I don’t know what’s going on. I’m afraid she stole the money. I’m afraid for my niece.”
“What about the child? How did Anna look?”
Rodriguez looked away. “Not good. She was hungry as a wolf. Ate half the food in my fridge. Also, her face was badly bruised. And there were abrasions here…” Rodriguez trailed off as she stroked her wrist. “Like she had been tied,” she finished weakly.
I pursed my lips, feeling anger boil inside me, but trying not to show it. “I see. Do you think Angie did that?”
“No, no, she wouldn’t do that. Angie said they stayed with a friend for a few nights and he became abusive. I think it might have been her dealer.”
“You said Angie asked you to take Anna. So where is she?”
“I can’t take care of a child,” she snapped. “I work sixteen hours a day. In two weeks I’m leaving for Kenya with Medecin Sans Frontieres. There’s simply no way. When I saw the condition Anna was in, I called Child Protective Services. Angie overheard me and ran away before the social worker arrived.”
Unbelievable, I thought. “You would have seen Anna in foster care before taking her yourself?”
“Why not?” Her upper lip curled in resentment and anger. “It was good enough for me. Mom put me in foster care for four years, starting when I was twelve. Said she couldn’t handle me. She kept Angie, though. I was the good girl. I studied hard, stayed out of trouble. Angie was the one hanging out with gangsters. But mom always loved her more.”
She made a classically Latin American dismissive gesture, flicking her fingers over her chest as if to wipe away dirt. I’d seen Mexicans in prison do the same thing many times.
“Anyway,” she added, “I’m a mandated reporter. I had to call CPS.”
“Where would Angie go?” I asked. “Would she go to your mom?”
Dr. Rodriguez shook her head. “She died in a car accident a few years ago. Even if she’d been alive, Angie would not have gone to her. Mom stole Miko from her. He was with Mom in the car. He’s dead too.”
I opened my mouth then shut it, not sure what to say. Just when I thought I’d heard it all. This family was messed up. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said finally. “So where would Angie go?”
She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. We have some family in Panama, but…” She shrugged again.
“What family do you have there?”
“Our father’s father is alive. Abuelo Lenin Rodriguez. He was a great trumpet player. Me and Angie would sit on the porch and he’d play for us. We have an uncle, Tio Trotski. He’s my father’s older brother. Also some cousins. We don’t stay in touch.”
I filed all of this information away. I don’t take notes when I interview subjects. I’ve found that it takes my focus away from the subject’s body language and detracts from my environmental awareness. Also, people tend to choose their words more carefully when they see you writing things down, and I don’t want that. So I’ve trained myself to remember whatever information I’m given. It’s mostly a matter of taking a moment to contemplate the information. Sometimes I also use mnemonic devices, like assigning a picture to match a name.
“You said earlier that Tarek ruined Angie’s life. Are you sure it wasn’t the other way around?”
Rodriguez’s expression grew angry. “I’ll tell you something Mr. Karim, my sister was always a traviesa, but she never used drugs until she met that boy. Angie was a third year student at USC when she met that loser. She was a scholarship student, a Freeman award winner. She spent a semester in Cambodia. All that went down the tubes. Tarek got her hooked on heroin. He dragged her into that whole miserable lifestyle. Whatever trouble she’s in now is because of him. I curse him. I hope he meets a miserable end.”
That was a very different picture than the Anwars had painted. Farah Anwar had insisted that was Angie who had corrupted Tarek. Of course Farah also insisted that I corrupted Tarek, so I was inclined to believe Alejandra Rodriguez’s version.
“Where did the money come from, Dr. Rodriguez? The forty five thousand.”
She pushed her palms toward me and shook her head. “I have no idea. That’s nothing to do with me.”
I stood to leave. “Thank you for your time. If you think of anything else, please call me.”
Alejandra Rodriguez stood and walked to the window. She turned her back on me and looked out over the city. Realizing that she did not intend to show me out, I headed for the door, but something occurred to me and I stopped.
“Dr. Rodriguez, you said Angie spent a semester in Cambodia. So she has a valid passport?”
Still with her back to me, Dr. Rodriguez shrugged. “She did back then.”
I opened the door.
“Mr. Karim,” Alejandra Rodriguez called out.
I turned and looked across the length of the room to where she stood, still facing away from me. The sun had gone down outside, and the evening sky was the color of a fresh bruise. Inside the apartment, a floor lamp in one corner cast some illumination, but the spot where Alejandra stood was shadowed, so that I could see only her silhouette against the window. It was as if she had become unreal, a shadow of herself, without substance.
“I want you to find Anna,” Alejandra said. “I know I’m a terrible aunt, okay? I know Anna deserves better. But I can only give what I can give.”
I let myself out. Alejandra Rodriguez did not turn to watch me go.
* * *
I walked back to the car, carrying the book Rodriguez had given me. On My Way to Paradise. Could I take that as a sign? As I walked I turned in a full circle every ten steps to survey my environment in 360 degrees, not breaking stride as I did so. This was a prison habit I’d never been able to shake.
I was dismayed at how everyone had failed this child. Her mother and father were junkies, and her aunt – the only responsible adult in the family – considered her career more important than helping her abused niece. The aunt’s hypocrisy and callousness made my blood boil.
So Anna was possibly being abused, and getting dragged around by a drug addict mother. Where on earth could Angie have gotten her hands on forty five thousand dollars? What or who was she running from? Was it drug money she’d stolen from her dealer?
Sitting in my car back at the Grace Cathedral parking garage, I took out my phone and called Safaa. It was just about Hajar’s bedtime, and I always liked to call and wish her goodnight. Safaa would expect my call though she wouldn’t talk to me herself. She’d answer and pass the phone to Hajar.
Sure enough, after three rings Hajar’s sweet voice came on the line. Her tone was artificially deep as she pretended to be someone else.
“Hi,” she said. “This is the President. I want to hire you for a detective job.” She tried to suppress a giggle but it squeaked out.
I smiled and played along. “Wonderful, Mr. President! I’m not sure why you’re at this number though. I was calling my daughter.”
“Yes, I was visiting your daughter because she is the bestest kid.”
“Oh, great. Could you put her on?”
“Hi Baba!” In her normal voice now. “I want a real live dinosaur for my birthday.”
“Oh, I would do that for you but the dinosaurs are all gone.”
“But why? Where did they go?”
I explained, in the simplest language I could, how the dinosaurs became extinct as a result of a meteor impact.
There was a pause, then Hajar began to cry. Oh, great going, I berated myself. You get to talk to your daughter once a day, and you made her cry.
“I’m sorry sweetie,” I said. “It’s sad when something amazing disappears from the world, right?” I thought of true love, my own personal dinosaur, struggling on the verge of extinction.
“Uh-huh,” she managed through her sobs.
“But even if the dinosaurs are gone,” I told her, “we can still remember them and draw pictures and play with dino toys. We can keep them alive in our imaginations. So in a way they are still here.”
Hajar sniffed. “Maybe,” she said hopefully, “the dinosaurs will come back one day and this time that thing will not bump the world and the dinosaurs will not died again.”
I smiled. “Insha’Allah.” In Jannah, I thought, where all things are possible. Or in some parallel universe. “Are you ready for bed?”
“Okay. Say your goodnight dua’.”
“Bismik Allahumma amootu wa ahya. Allahumma qinaa athaabaka yawma tub’athu ‘ibaadak. In your name oh Allah, I die and I live. O Allah, have mercy on us on the day when you raise up your servants.”
It had taken her only a week to learn this dua’. Young children have such amazing brains.
“Goodnight sweetie. I love you forever and always. You’re my number one kiddo.”
“I love you forever and always Baba.”
I ended the call and wiped a tear from my eye. Being separated from my child made my chest ache and my throat tighten. It was an ailment no medicine could treat. Safaa, Safaa, why couldn’t you trust me? Why couldn’t you love me as you promised to do?
* * *
I looked up the number for Oasis Rehab in Palm Springs. I didn’t find anything with that exact name, but I found a Palm Springs Oasis Recovery Home, and called them.
“Palm Springs Oasis Recovery, how may I direct your call?” The woman had an Asian accent and a soft, feminine voice.
“This is Zaid Anwar,” I lied. “I need to speak to my brother Tarek Anwar.”
“Just a moment sir.” I heard keyboard keys clacking. “Sir, you are not on the approved contact list.”
“I know. But we have a family emergency. “Our father is seriously ill, and our mother is keeping vigil by his bedside. It’s vital that I speak to my brother.”
“I see. One moment.” I listened to jazzy muzak as I waited on hold. A moment later the operator returned. “I’m sorry, sir. Mr. Anwar checked out without authorization four days ago.”
“But he hasn’t returned home. Did he leave a forwarding address?”
“No sir, he did not.”
I thanked the lady and hung up. Presumably Dr. Ehab had been paying the bill for his son’s stay. Surely he would have been notified that Tarek had bailed. Yet he’d lied to my face with that story about having a job in Palm Springs.
Did Tarek’s escape from rehab have anything to do with Angie’s disappearance? I wouldn’t know until I found him and talked to him.
I took 580 east to Interstate 5 south where I stopped at a rest area, made wudu’ and prayed Maghreb and Isha, shivering as the water on my skin evaporated in the cool night air. In spite of the cold I enjoyed the feeling of praying on green grass. I remembered the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that every spot on which a man or woman prayed would testify for that person on the Day of Resurrection. Had anyone ever prayed on this exact spot before, in all the history of humankind? Would I find myself panicking on that Day, struggling to justify my life, and would I be saved by this little patch of earth speaking up and saying, “He prayed on me. He prayed, and he was sincere.”
I resumed my drive south, cruising along the edge of the foothills, sensing if not quite seeing the sweep of agricultural land down and away to the east. The lights of distant towns twinkled like embers. The California Aqueduct paralleled the highway, the water glimmering like a sequined black ribbon in the darkness.
What a thing it was to be free. To be able to travel the world unobstructed, seeing the beauty all around me, reveling in the knowledge that I was not a slave to any human being, and that my destiny – insofar as the Almighty allowed – was in my own hands.
At one point I glanced in the rear view mirror and found two California Highway Patrol vehicles following me, one behind the other. My feeling of freedom and well-being evaporated in an instant. My breathing quickened and my jaw tightened as I was overtaken by nervousness bordering on panic. I’d been out of prison for years, yet every time I saw a cop car I was convinced this was it, they were coming to drag me back to my cell. Why? Who knew? Maybe they realized they’d made a mistake. Maybe someone set me up for something. Maybe the government would trump up a terrorism charge against me.
I knew it wasn’t rational, but I couldn’t help it. I felt like prison was a huge, ferocious lion that I had barely escaped from. I’d been in the beast’s mouth, its teeth about to crush my bones, claws piercing my skin and muscles, my life blood spilling out, yet somehow I’d gotten free. But the lion would not forget. It would pursue me, and one day it would seize me and consume my flesh and soul as it had always meant to do. It was only a matter of time.
That was why I trained in martial arts daily, why I practiced my stick and knife techniques obsessively, why I went to the gym and lifted weights as often as I could. I had to be ready so I could survive when the lion dragged me back to its den.
The police cars moved into the left lane and sped up, passing me. I let out a sigh of relief and rolled my shoulders, working out the tension.
* * *
It was almost eleven when I arrived in Fresno. My next stop was a place I really didn’t want to go: Masjid Al-Haramain, commonly known as the Butler Avenue mosque. If I wanted to find Tarek, however, then I had no choice, as that was the masjid he frequented when he wasn’t drunk or high. Also, it was possible he was sleeping there. The Butler Avenue mosque was located in south Fresno, on the far side of downtown, amid the projects and homeless shelters. Many of the brothers who attended there were poor, and some were in fact homeless. A few were freshly paroled from prison.
The homeless brothers were ahl-us-suffa. They lived in the masjid, slept in the backroom, and survived on food donations. There was always a good sized coterie of residents there – at least a dozen. It was the place for Fresno Muslims to go when there was nowhere else to go. It was also the center of a vibrant Muslim community in its own right.
I did not mind the neighborhood, and I had friends among the ahl-us-suffa. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was Imam Abdus-Samad.
I had a secret that I kept chained inside a dungeon in my heart. It was a secret I had not shared even with my wife. I never spoke of it, not even to myself. Only one other person knew the secret – that person being Imam Abdus-Samad.
*** Footnote: Discerning readers may have noted that in Ouroboros, Jamilah’s cousin Shamsiyyah also had the last name Al-Husayni, while here she is referred to as Jamilah’s cousin on her mother’s side. This is a change I recently made. I’ll go back to the previous stories and give Shamsi a different last name, Insha’Allah.
(Your comments and constructive criticism are a big part of why I publish here, so please do comment, thank you!)