See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Friday, February 5, 2010 – 9 am
I patrol the city. Eons ago, I am told, there were billions of human beings on Earth, until they destroyed each other in the Eruption. Now, a supercomputer the size of a city runs the planet. Its name is Ai. My orders are issued by Ai each morning at 6 L.T., transmitted in image form to my retinal implant.
People are so difficult. They do not want to follow the rules regarding disposal of off-world materials. Too expensive, they say. They carry swords openly in the city limits. Hardly a day passes that I do not have to arrest someone. I find myself frustrated much of the time, and tired. Still, I try hard not to employ force. I do not want to become like some of the other Ai-garda, abusing people wherever they go.
Today I am arguing with a massively muscular man, his chest and shoulders twice as wide as an earth-bred man. He is one of the chimeras genetically bred for high-g worlds. I am filled with rage because the chimera has tethered his android horse in the center of the city square, tying it to the statue commemorating Ai’s inception. I realize that my anger is disproportionate, but my frustration has reached an incineration point and I cannot seem to control myself. I know that if this chimera becomes violent, he’ll crush me. I draw my cohesion disruptor and hold it next to my thigh, pointed at the ground. My hand shakes.
The creature known as Safaa sees this from her high perch and feels a surge of compassion for me, or so she tells me later. I have heard of Safaa, of course, though her true nature is shrouded in myth. She is an angel, or so most people believe. She has wings and can fly. She is ancient, and may in fact be a construct. She may also be one of the original AI programmers. It is said that she communicates with the computer on a purely machine level.
Safaa rarely interacts with us humans. Mostly she watches from a distance. But on this day she chooses to intervene. She flies down, alights and embraces me, and I feel the anger drain away like helium from a punctured high-atmo township. When I calm down I thank her, as I might have killed the chimera.
She tells me that she must create a child in order to continue her work, and wishes to marry me so that I may become the father.
I begin to weep. This is more than I could have hoped for, but I am afraid. “What if I have the disease?” I say. The Eruption left a legacy of genetic chaos. Most men are sterile.
“We all have a disease of one kind or another,” she replies. “But I know you are pure.”
“Because your actions reflect your inner state. I see that you strive for understanding.”
She cuts me off with a gesture. “You must have faith in Allah.”
“In Ai, you mean?”
“No,” she says. “In Allah the Most High, Creator of all.”
As I am trying to decipher her meaning, the sun begins to grow brighter, until I must shade my eyes. What is happening? Still brighter it grows, until the light penetrates the flesh of my hand, shining pink into my closed eyes.
I woke for Fajr, feeling bruised and sore from head to foot. Forget practicing Kali. I prayed and collapsed back into the cot and slept. Hours later I awoke once again to a ray of sun slanting through the window blinds, shining full on my face. I sat up on the cot in my office, groggy and disoriented, the world of the dream dominating my mind. I was sore all over. My ribs were tender and throbbing, and I could feel my heartbeat in the bruise on the side of my head. Had I fought with the chimera after all?
I chided myself for being ridiculous. I wasn’t so far gone that I didn’t know the difference between dream and reality, at least not yet. That was a weird one. Maybe I’d managed to read some of that sci-fi novel last night after all, and it had seeped into my dreams.
Gradually the real world reasserted itself. The physical pain I felt was a result of the fight I’d had with the three Asian gangsters, not some fictional conflict in a crazy dream world.
I had followed my usual routine of praying Fajr and going back to sleep. I was buoyed now by the knowledge that I could afford – finally – to eat and to pay my bills. Alhamdulillah. If you trust in Allah, he will feed you as he feeds the birds. Indeed, and again alhamdulillah.
I wasn’t worried about the events of last night coming back on me, nor did I feel any shame over cutting and stabbing those thugs. Okay, I had a nagging concern that the leader who’d hit his head might be seriously injured. And maybe cutting the punk’s tendon at the end was excessive. But they attacked me without provocation. All things considered, they got what they deserved.
I made wudu’ and prayed Salat Ad-Duha. I rarely performed this prayer, but if there was ever a Duha moment, this was it. Hadn’t I walked through terrible darkness in my life? Hadn’t Allah found me lost and guided me? Hadn’t he found me poor and made me self-sufficient, at least for the moment? And now here I was, in the morning brightness – the Duha. Yeah baby. It was a Duha kind of day.
Now, to enter the fullness of the light, all I had to do was reunite with my wife and child, Insha’Allah.
It isn’t about me, I reminded myself. Before I became too giddy with my celebrations, I had someone else’s child to find. Anna.
I sent a text message to Jalal, a fellow-Palestinian American who I’d met only a few years ago at the local Muslim community center. He was the middle child of six brothers and sisters. His father had been killed several years ago in a freak highway accident when the branch of a tree that overlooked the highway broke off and fell through the windshield of his car. The family had been struggling ever since. Jalal was trying to put himself through city college – studying geology – and was permanently broke.
“I have work for you,” my message read. “Two hundred cash for the day. Interested? I need you at my office ASAP.”
The response came back almost immediately. “Peeling rubber! On my way.” I shook my head. In his enthusiasm, the fool would have an accident on the way here.
I peered out the window and saw that the burrito truck was already out there. I grabbed my wallet and went outside, tipping my head back and taking in the fresh morning air.
Along with the usual assortment of passers by and workers from local businesses, I spotted a homeless man – not Ghost Rider from yesterday, but someone else – standing on the traffic island out on Belmont, holding up a sign that said something about being a veteran, and eyeing the food truck wistfully. I whistled loudly and beckoned him over.
He was a lean, middle-aged Hispanic man with a watchcap pulled low over gray hair. His bearded face was weatherbeaten and tired.
“You want something?” I asked, gesturing to the food truck. “Quieres algo? It’s on me. Yo pago.” This was, after all, the other part of Surat ad-Duha. When Allah has found you, guided you and made you self-sufficient, then do not repel the orphan, and do not repel the petitioner. In other words, give. Be generous. That’s how you show your gratitude.
“Eh.. sí señor! Se puede un burrito pequeño? Esta bien?”
Having grown up in California I spoke enough Spanish to get by. He wanted a small burrito. I made an expansive gesture with my hand. “Sí, order whatever you want. Lo que quieres. Don’t hold back.”
“Eh.. okay.” He stepped up to the window of the food truck and in Spanish ordered a small breakfast burrito and a small coffee. I was sure he was hungrier than that, but he seemed afraid to infringe on my generosity.
I stepped to the window and instructed Miguelito, the food truck chef, to make the homeless man’s burrito large rather than small, and to add a Mexican apple bread to his order. For myself I ordered a large breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, cheese, pinto gallo, sour cream and avocado. I also bought a Mexican apple bread and a large coffee.
When the food came the homeless man took his meal and thanked me again without meeting my eyes, then shambled off to squat in front of a shuttered gold trading shop two doors down. Some people were so beaten down by the circumstances of life that even kindness felt foreign. I knew what that felt like. I couldn’t do anything about that, but I could at least fill the man’s belly.
As I ate my own food, I mentally catalogued all the things I had to do. Today was Jum’ah. I needed to speak to Tarek to see if he could tell me where Angie had gone. To find Tarek, I had to find Badger.
Badger robbed drug dealers for a living. Not the street dealers, but the stash houses, where large amounts of drugs and guns were stored. In fact the last time I saw him, he told me he’d put together a crew and robbed a distribution center. This was the single hub in the entire city where a particular gang kept their raw product, which would be pure heroin or cocaine from South America. From there it was distributed to local stash houses. Distribution centers also typically held massive amounts of cash awaiting shipment back to L.A. or Mexico, or wherever the particular gang was headquartered.
I knew all this from discussions I’d had with drug dealers in prison. At one point I’d had a high-ranking Colombian drug lord as a cellmate. He liked to describe himself as a business executive, and would point out the parallels between his organization and any other consumer products provider. When I once asked him if he didn’t feel the drug business was immoral, his face turned red, and he ranted about how his company’s product was outlawed for purely political reasons, and how his government had caved to American political pressure in allowing him to be extradited. I was afraid he might have me killed for offending him. I slept with my eyes half open for some time after that, and never asked such questions again.
After Badger robbed the distribution center, I heard a bounty had been put on his head by the gangs. Not that he cared. Badger was a charcoal-hearted killer. He probably had more murders to his name than half the gangsters in south Fresno combined. His name inspired terror among the entire criminal class.
He was wanted by the police as well, but it wasn’t like they had a task force to go after him or anything. All of Badger’s victims had been drug dealers, pimps, sex traffickers, extortionists and the like. What the cops called “NHI” killings. No humans involved. Some cops even felt that Badger was doing their work for them. I knew this from Titus, my buddy and fellow Musketeer, who was now a detective for the FPD.
Titus, who was the most honest cop I ever knew, did not approve of the way Badger had been given an unofficial pass by other cops. “A killer is a killer,” he’d say. “One day he’ll mess up and gun down a civilian, and then the Hall will be falling over each other to cast blame.” He meant Mariposa Hall, where the FPD was headquartered.
What would Titus say, I wondered, if he knew Badger’s true identity? I was probably the only person in the world who knew that Badger was our old friend and fellow Musketeer, Amiri Sulawesi.
Titus would never learn this fact from me, that was sure. When it came to Badger, the old saying held true: “Them that knows don’t tell, and them that tells, don’t know.“ Anyone who started mouthing off about Badger – Muslim or not – was likely to wake up with the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun in his mouth.
I often wondered what Badger did with the bundles of cash he seized. It must have run to the millions. I knew he gave money to the poor and to neighborhood youth centers. He called it “redistribution of wealth from the criminal class, who are capitalist oppressors in disguise, to the proletariat.” That was his mother talking.
Even so, that would only account for a fraction of the money he’d stolen. I had no idea what he did with the rest.
The last time I saw him he asked me to join him. “You got nothing to lose but your self-imposed shackles, Stick,” he said, laughing through white teeth as he paraphrased Karl Marx. It was hard to know when Badger was serious. “Shed your past. It lies like a nightmare upon your present. Shed the heart of a heartless world.”
That was Badger. When he wasn’t talking like a street tough, he was spouting philosophy and quoting thinkers from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Kierkegaard, though always returning to Marx.
Badger was nominally Muslim. His father had been a convert, and his mother too, though his mother was never really into it, I think. Not since childhood, however, had Badger performed any kind of Islamic ‘ibadah or worship – not a single salat, nor a fasted day that I knew of.
“Ain’t no sense in frontin’,” he’d say, slipping into ghetto speak as easily as putting on a pair of shades. “I’m out here rippin’ and runnin’, gunnin’ playas down, and I’m gon’ pray? Act all holy like a busta? Nah.” Thumping his chest. “I’ma keep it real, between me and Allah. He can do with me how He do.”
I never would have predicted this path for Amiri. He’d been a happy kid, a perpetual honor roll student, and the most gifted martial artist out of all of us. When his father was killed, though, everything changed. Though the police never caught the killers, they did find the gun discarded in a dumpster. They ran ballistics and determined that it was the same gun used in two past killings, both of which were attributed to a gang called the T-Town Mob.
Amiri became a different person overnight. A college freshman at the time, he dropped out, adopted the Badger persona and joined a Fresno gang called the Rolling Southside G’s. This made zero sense to me, and I tried to talk him out of it, but it was like talking to the cold steel of a bullet.
The rest I know only apocryphally, from tales told by brother Derby, who used to be a gangster himself. According to Derby, Badger rose to lead the gang, then led the Southside G’s in a war against the T-Town Mob. It was the bloodiest turf war in Central Valley history. When the dust cleared, both gangs were shattered and destroyed. Badger quit the G’s and went solo, preying on the gangs like a lion on wildebeest. I was in prison when all this happened.
When I was released and learned what Badger had done, I was surely the only one who understood the ruthless logic. Badger had used the G’s to eliminate the men responsible for his father’s death.
I chose to distance myself from my former friend. I had not the slightest desire to get caught up in his one-man war against the gangs, and I certainly didn’t need to attract the attention of the police. Badger’s lifestyle was suicidal.
If anyone knew the ins and outs of the drug trade in Fresno, however, it was Badger. Even if he didn’t know where Tarek Anwar was, he could probably locate him easily.
* * *
To find Badger – he continually moved from place to place – I’d have to see his mother Chausiku. I had no idea where she lived, so to find her I’d need to see Imam Saleh at Masjid Madinah.
Aside from that, I had to check in with the Anwars, deposit money in my bank account, pay my overdue bills, and see Safaa.
The warm food in my belly was provision for a long journey, while the coffee was rocket fuel. I was ready to explore the galaxy and crack any aliens right on their green heads.
Yes, I needed a therapist.
Jalal showed up just as I finished my burrito. He was a third year college student with a sunny disposition, except when he thought about his former girlfriend Cindy, at which point he would become morose and weepy. He’d fallen in love with a non-Muslim girl last year and had a brief love affair. She ultimately broke up with him because she couldn’t see herself marrying a Muslim. Of course everyone told him it was for the best, but when it came to that honeypot he couldn’t see straight.
Jalal had a crewcut, green eyes and an athletic frame that had once been quite heavy. Last year he got serious about fitness and began running laps and leaping hurdles at State. His limbs had grown lean and strong, but his belly still bulged slightly, as if he carried a few loaves of Arabic bread in a belly pouch.
He smiled as he came through the door, but the corners of his mouth were turned down.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Oh, you know. Just feeling down about Cindy.”
“Brother,” I began in irritation, before taking a breath and calming myself. “You have to put that aside. I have a lot for you to do today.”
He nodded, straightening his shoulders. “Okay.” He nodded again, seconding his own motion. “Okay.”
Removing the envelope full of cash from my desk, I counted out two thousand dollars and gave it to him. He whistled, his eyes opening wide.
“First,” I instructed, “go to the bank and deposit a thousand in my account.” I handed him a slip of paper with the account number. “Then pay my bills. Go to the PG&E office in person and get my electricity turned on, then the phone company, then the waste management company. I want receipts for everything, not because I don’t trust you but because my office expenses are tax deductible.” I handed him a stack of bills. “Then a grocery trip.” I handed him another paper, on which I’d listed a variety of foodstuffs, including snacks for Hajar when she visited next.
I had a thought. “Hey, when’s the last time you saw Tarek Anwar?”
He frowned. “I mean, I know who he is. But we’re not friends. My mother wouldn’t like it, and anyway what do I need to hang around a junkie for?”
I didn’t like him calling Tarek a junkie. It settled heavily on my heart. “Your mother doesn’t like me either,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but you pay me. And she’s wrong about you.”
Once Jalal was on his way, I packed up my stuff and headed out. Imam Saleh lived in a rented house a few blocks from Masjid Madinah, which itself was just across the street from Fresno City College. I called him first. I asked if I could come over and he said sure, he was reviewing his khutbah but could take a break.
Ten minutes later I parked in front of his home. This was an interesting neighborhood, with stately old homes that were among the first built in Fresno. Large trees shaded the streets. At the same time there was a thriving counterculture and no shortage of homeless people.
Imam Saleh answered the door right away. He was a tall, rangy African-American brother with skin so dark it was almost purple. He typically wore a long Arab shirt over blue jeans, and a colorful Kufi. He met me with a smile and shook my hand warmly.
We were so lucky to have Saleh here in Fresno. He was highly educated, with a degree in international relations from UCLA, and a masters in Islamic history from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. He was currently working on a PhD in Quranic exegesis (tafsir) through a distance program with the Islamic university in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I considered him a good friend, and had tremendous admiration for what he had done with Masjid Madinah. He’d originally been hired by the board of the Fresno Islamic Center, the biggest mosque in the city, to run their center and revive their flagging community. When he tried to implement reforms there, they decided he was too progressive and fired him.
Some of the community members supported what he’d been trying to do, and funded the creation of a new masjid, which became Masjid Madinah. At Masjid Madinah, Imam Saleh had created a community in which immigrants, African-Americans and other converts worked hand in hand. Half the board of directors were women, and women were active in planning events and programs. The masjid held regular “open house” days in which non-Muslims were invited for talks, meals and special events. It was a living community, full of enthusiastic young people. There was a sense that people were a part of something real, something that was changing lives.
Imam Saleh was also not afraid to address contemporary issues. On the one hand he denounced terrorism unequivocally and described it as a plague upon the Muslim world, one that must be eradicated through education, spirituality and social and political reform. On the other hand, he wasn’t afraid to call out the U.S. and other superpowers on their exploitation of the Muslim world and the disastrous consequences of their interventions and misadventures. Lastly, he took a public stand on social issues such as civil rights and violence against women.
The man was a hero to me.
Saleh invited me in for tea, but I told him I was on a tight schedule. “I’m here because I need to talk to Chausiku Sulawesi,” I explained. “I don’t have her contact info. Do you?”
He tipped his head to the side and regarded me. “I think,” he said, “you’d better come in for that tea after all.”
I shed my shoes at the door and took a seat in his living room, which was clean and sparsely decorated with family photos and a few Islamic wall hangings, along with a large framed photo of Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah.
The Imam went to the kitchen and came back a few minutes later with a tea serving on a platter. He poured my tea and his, and sat.
“You’re not on an insurance case this time, are you?” he asked. “It’s something more important.”
“Why do you say that?”
He raised his chin, studying me. “There’s a fire in your eyes I haven’t seen before. Whatever you’re pursuing, you’re committed. You remind me of Salman Al-Farisi on his search for the truth.”
His mention of Salman amazed me. The Persian sahabi had always been a personal hero of mine, which was why I’d called my summer camp kids the Salman Squad. I reviewed what I knew of Salman, trying to figure out why the Imam would say that.
Born in Persia to a doting father who was the town chief and a Zoroastrian priest, Salman was never satisfied with the fire worship of his people. One day he passed a Christian church and heard the sound of prayer. He was impressed, and told his father about it. His father, who considered his only son his greatest treasure in the world, locked him up inside the house to prevent him from learning about other religions.
Thinking of this, I said, “Salman’s father at least loved him.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. It was a childish and petty thing to say.
Imam Saleh, however, took my words seriously. He nodded and sipped from his tea.
“Can that truly be called love?” he said eventually. “He chained his child in a room to prevent him from seeking the truth.”
“His father didn’t see Christianity as the truth. It was something foreign that he wanted to protect Salman from.”
“Perhaps. Or he was simply closed-minded. If you recall, what the father said to Salman was, ‘The religion of our father and forefathers is better.’ That is the classic fallback position of anyone who holds blindly to inherited falsehoods. And Salman, who up to that point had been an obedient and dutiful son, defied his father. He said, ‘No, By Allah, it (Christianity) is better than our religion.’ His thirst for the truth was such that he was willing to discard the traditions of his ancestors, challenge his father, and disrupt his entire life.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Didn’t you tell me once that your father sent you books while you were in prison?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“What kinds of books?”
“All kinds. The complete works of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Poetry anthologies by Palestinian poets, and by American poets like Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg. Philosophy books, a translation of Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, Maudoodi’s tafsir of the Quran, mainstream novels. A lot.”
“Do you think your father read those books himself?”
I’d never considered this. “I doubt it.”
“Then why did he send them to you?”
I sat back in the chair, thinking. “I guess he picked books he thought would help me. Or someone picked them for him.”
“And did the books help?”
I nodded grudgingly. “Yes. Tremendously, actually. Solzhenitsyn’s work made me realize that my suffering was miniscule. The Palestinian poetry gave me a language with which to frame my pain, and gave me perspective. Langston Hughes and Sandburg leavened my hardship with – what do you call it when you approach normally serious subjects with humor?”
“Yes. Irreverence. And Al-Ghazali changed how I saw Islam and opened my heart.”
“So what I see,” Imam Saleh said, “is a father who is willing to venture outside his comfort zone, and to reach into a realm he does not personally understand, in order to help his son. Doesn’t that sound like love?”
“But they hardly talk to me anymore!” I protested.
“Maybe they don’t know how. It could be they don’t know what to say. Maybe they look at you and no longer see the son they knew, and that’s not entirely their fault, is it? Maybe the road life has taken you down lies too far afield for them to understand. Maybe they interpret your past actions as a rejection of their teachings and love, and that causes them pain. Maybe you have to be the one who makes the effort to bridge the gap. Perhaps that’s a part of your penance, or a lesson you must learn. Parents do not simply stop loving their children. Maybe they are hurting as much as you are.”
I sat back and covered my face with my hands. I was nearly overwhelmed by these words. For so long I’d been internally devastated by the certainty that my parents no longer loved me, and that I was nothing but a shame to them, someone best avoided and forgotten. I liked to pretend – even to myself – that this did not affect me, but it had been like an oil slick covering my heart, affecting everything I did.
I lowered my hands and took a shaky breath. “That may all be true,” I said finally. “I don’t know. But I don’t have time to contemplate it right now.”
“Why do you need to talk to sister Chausiku?” Saleh asked. “She’s a very private person. Reclusive, even. She wouldn’t appreciate me giving out her contact information.”
“It’s personal,” I replied. “You don’t have to give me her info. Call her and tell her that Zaid Al-Husayni needs to see her.”
He nodded slowly. Imam Saleh had come to Fresno when I was in prison. He wouldn’t know about my history here, like the fact that the Sulawesis had been a second family to me all through my childhood.
“Hold on.” He disappeared into another room and came back a minute later with a small notepad. He looked surprised. “She’s very excited to see you. Here’s her address.” He tore a sheet off the notepad and handed it to me.
“Before you leave,” Saleh added, “there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Well.” He tapped the floor with one foot. “A brother showed up in our community about six months ago. Khalil Anderson. You may have met him.”
I looked up at the ceiling, thinking. “White guy? About thirty years old? Wears a thobe and a black kufi?”
“Yes. He’s been talking to some of the younger brothers about politics. That in itself is not a problem, but I heard from a few of the youth that Anderson’s been pushing this idea that the U.S. and Islam are waging an apocalyptic battle. I’m concerned that he’s radicalizing them. I want to know who he is. Where did he come from, is he employed, does he have criminal record? What’s his real agenda? If necessary I’ll go to the FBI, but first I want to know what I’m dealing with.”
“Have you asked him?”
“Of course. He says he’s from L.A. and that he converted to Islam five years ago. He says he gets SSI payments from the government because he injured his neck in a workplace accident, and he came to Fresno because his aunt died and left him a house.”
“But you don’t believe him.”
“I don’t know. I’m concerned. I’d like you to look into it. I’ll pay you of course.”
I shook my head. “I won’t take your money. Of course I’ll do it ya shaykh, but it will have to wait. I’m on a time-sensitive case.”
“Jazak Allah khayr ya akhi. When do you think you’ll be able to look into it?”
I stroked my beard. “Give me a week.”
Parking in a huge circular driveway, I stared at the house before me in amazement. This was Chausiku Sulawesi’s house? I doubled checked the address. Yup. It was a palatial home perched on the bluffs overlooking the San Joaquin river, at the far north edge of Fresno. The estate must have covered 15,000 square feet, with towering palm trees all about and wild grasses that grew up to a stone footpath. The footpath circumscribed a perfect expanse of green lawn.
The house itself was a massive modern style home, with stone walls supporting high slab roofs, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows. The path to the front door passed through a gap in a huge waterfall-style fountain, with a semi-opaque wall of water tumbling fifteen feet through the air.
I did not want to see Chausiku Sulawesi. Just thinking of it made my heart race with anxiety. I sat in the car, taking deep breaths, my hands clammy on the steering wheel.
* * *
The last time I saw Chausiku was at her husband’s janazah twelve years ago, before I went to prison. The police had investigated Red’s death, of course. They never caught his killers.
I attended the janazah because I was expected to. I was practically a member of the family. The July sun drummed down onto the mourners gathered at the dusty expanse of the Madera Islamic Cemetery. We gathered beneath a green canopy as Red’s body was lowered into the grave. Amiri and another brother – AbdulWali, the one whose leg was torn off in an accident not long after – lowered the body into the grave and positioned it on its right side. I heard the rattling of the gravel as they arranged it to support the body.
Amiri was one of my best friends and one of the Five Musketeers. I tried to imagine what he must be feeling in that moment but I could not think past the dark, churning foam of guilt and shame that felt like it would squeeze its way out of my very pores and manifest as red ink on my skin.
Chausiku – who wore a long-sleeved black dress and black turban – almost collapsed. A tall, strong-looking African-American sister – whose name I did not know – caught her and held her up.
“Why?” Chausiku cried to the assembled mourners. “Someone tell me why. I want to know why my husband is dead!”
From beneath lowered brows I glanced at Imam Abdus-Samad, who had given the janazah khutbah – the funeral sermon – and led the salat. He stood there like a paragon of leadership, a pillar of the community, supporting the widow in her grief. I hated him in that moment, as I hated myself. I was still overwhelmed – had never stopped being overwhelmed – by the memory of Malik Sulawesi dying in my arms. I remembered the heat of his blood as it soaked into my pants and shirt sleeves. I remembered the wheezing of his breath, the way it sounded like the whine of a failing machine. I remembered the bits of black fuzz from his ski mask caught in his red hair, and the fear in his wide green eyes, filled with the knowledge of his own death.
* * *
Would Chausiku see this memory in my eyes? Would she look through me, recognize my guilt, and know me for what I was – a liar and a hypocrite?
I passed a hand over my eyes and smoothed my beard. My cousin Jamilah’s words came back to me: “I believe in you. I always have.” Just the memory of those words made me sit up straighter and raise my chin. I could do this. No problem.
I got out of the car, walked up the driveway and through the fountain, and rang the doorbell.
The door was answered by a burly African-American man in a too-tight gray suit. He was maybe 6’3”, with a long head and an oversized jaw. He wore an earpiece, and his jacket bulged over what had to be a holstered gun. He looked ready to either give me a massage or break my back – whatever his employer commanded.
“Are you Zaid Al-Husayni?” he asked. When I said yes, he gestured to me to spread my arms. “Sorry chief,” he said. “Gotta search ya.” He patted me down and removed the knife clipped to my pocket. “You’ll get this back.” Then he removed my fedora, turned it upside down, ran a hand along the inside band, and placed it back on my head.
“Zaid, is that you?” Chausiku Sulawesi called from somewhere deeper inside the house.
“Yes ma’am,” I called back. “Just going through Checkpoint Charlie here.”
Chausiku strolled into view. She looked like she had not aged a day. Her milk chocolate skin appeared unlined. Her perfect ivories flashed as she smiled widely.
Aside from that, however, everything about her was different. She wore an olive pantsuit that looked like it cost more than I made in a month, and black high heels. Her hair, which in the past had always been combed out into a big Afro, was now straightened and cut into a short bob. All of this surprised me. The Chausiku I had known used to wear African dashikis exclusively, often paired with a turban, and used to preach at length about how black women should adopt natural hairstyles and not be ashamed of their heritage.
She came directly to me and threw her arms around me in a tight embrace. She smelled of floral perfume, and her arms were as strong as they’d always been. With her heels, she was exactly my height.
She pulled back and studied me. “Little Zaid Al-Husayni,” she said admiringly. “All grown up now. But still too thin! Are you getting enough to eat?”
I shrugged and began to formulate a reply, but she interrupted me.
“I know it’s early for lunch, but let’s get some food in you. Rosa!” she called out.
“Si señora,” someone replied from within the house.
“Bring lunch for two,” Chausiku called back. “Tuna sandwiches and whatnot. We’ll be on the back patio.”
Mrs. Sulawesi took my elbow and led me through an incredible home interior that included a soaring ceiling supported by square-cut timbers. In the main room, a series of ten-foot-tall paintings depicted birds in flight, and a stunning green leather sectional sofa that must have been twenty feet long wrapped around two walls.
The back patio, shaded by a slanted overhang, featured hardwood furniture arranged around a rectangular stone firepit. Beside the patio, a long swimming pool extended to the edge of the bluff, so that it gave the illusion of disappearing over the cliff. These were called, I knew, infinity pools. I’d seen photos of such pools in the Home and Garden magazines that Safaa subscribed to.
This was so strange. The Chausiku I recalled was a card-carrying member of the Communist party who used to espouse the principles of frugality. She’d converted to Islam nominally for the sake of her husband, but I’d never seen her pray, not even at Eid time, whereas I’d heard her quote Marx, Lenin and Mao a thousand times. She used to ridicule the acquisition of material luxuries as bourgeois corruption and capitalist waste.
Now here she was living in a virtual palace, and wearing costly designer clothes? Besides, how could she afford a home like this? She was a seamstress. She used to earn a meager income hand-sewing African outfits, doing alterations, and making prayer rugs that Amiri and Red would sell after Jum’ah prayer.
Malik, I corrected myself. Not Red. I must never refer to Chausiku’s late husband as Red, not even to myself. I’d gotten in the habit of calling him Red during our years on the robbery squad, but there was no valid reason for me to use that nickname. He must always be either Malik or Abu Amiri, as some of us used to call him when we were kids.
I was beginning to think that I now knew where much of Badger’s money had gone.
I sat on a chair with Chausiku opposite. The weather had warmed up a bit but was still cool. Goosebumps rose on my forearms.
She leaned forward with her hands on her knees, studying me. “I’m so happy you’re here,” she said. “You should visit more often. How’s your family?”
I told her about my separation. I spoke about my daughter, describing Hajar’s wit and penchant for arts and crafts. Chausiku listened, smiled, asked a few questions, but volunteered little about herself.
“So,” she said at length. “I hear you’re a private detective now, is that true?”
I shrugged and smiled. “It’s a living.”
“It’s so exciting.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You’re not here on a case, are you? Investigating me, maybe?”
I lifted one eyebrow. What an odd question. “Should I be?” I replied jokingly. “No auntie, I’m not investigating you. But I am actually here on a case. I need to talk to Amiri.”
She nodded. “I thought that might be the case. It will be a few minutes before lunch is ready.” She waved at the pool. “Why don’t you take a swim? I have this beautiful pool and hardly anyone uses it.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m pressed for time, and anyway I don’t have anything to wear.”
Chausiku sat back in her chair. Her expression became hard. “I insist. Amiri has some swimming trunks. Rosa will show you.” She called, and Rosa appeared immediately.
The maid was short and dark skinned, with chiseled cheekbones and straight black hair tied in a pony tail. She wore jeans, a white blouse and leather sandals that looked handmade. Chausiku spoke to her in fluent Spanish, and the maid escorted me into the house. She pulled a pair of neatly folded red and yellow swimming trunks from a hall closet, then led me to a huge bathroom that was perhaps three times the size of my office. Sunlight streamed in from a skylight. The bathroom contained a large, glassed-in shower, a jacuzzi, and a sofa that sat beside a window with a view of the San Joaquin River. A stand of bamboo trees in a massive stone planter towered against one wall.
When Rosa left I took off my clothes and folded them neatly, then put on the swimming shorts. Amiri was shorter than me and his swimming trunks only came halfway down to my knees. How could I go out in front of the women in this? I wrapped a large towel around my waist to cover myself.
Before leaving the bathroom I plucked a single hair from my head and set it carefully atop my folded clothes.
I knew what Chausiku was doing with this whole swimming thing. She wanted to be sure I wasn’t wearing a wire. This precaution, along with the presence of the bodyguard, answered some questions and prompted others. It also stung. How could she think that I would betray her? She was like family to me. Why was there so little loyalty in this world? Why was I the only fool stumbling around, still believing in friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, and love?
Chausiku wasn’t around when I came out. I dropped the towel at the edge of the pool and dove in. Thankfully the water was heated to perhaps 75 degrees of so. Still, the cool shock of it hit me and somehow washed away my anxiety. I swam hard, warming myself up and working the kinks out of my muscles. I completed a lap, somersaulted and pushed off the wall, and swam another. By the time I’d done ten laps my shoulders ached and I had a stitch in my side. I grabbed the edge of the pool and leaned my head against the tiled lip, gasping for breath.
“Come on out,” Chausiku called. “Lunch is ready.”
I climbed out, wrapped the towel around myself again, and squeezed the water out of my hair and beard. Rosa had prepared tuna sandwiches with sliced carrots, pickles, potato salad and what looked like sweet potato chips, along with tall glasses of iced lemonade.
The cold water had revved up my appetite. I ate with gusto. It didn’t hurt that the food was delicious. Rosa knew what she was doing in the kitchen.
“So,” Chausiku said when I’d finished my sandwich. “Is it really Amiri you need to talk to, or is it Badger?”
I paused in the act of biting a pickle spear and stared at her, feeling like a rabbit in the beam of a powerful spotlight.
She tipped her head to one side. “Did you think I didn’t know? My son tells me everything. Including the fact that you know his nom de guerre and what he does for a living.”
Nom de guerre? I thought. Was that what Chausiku told herself, that Badger was some kind of guerilla fighter? Everywhere I turned in life it seemed I was confronted by hypocrisy and self-deception. I was sick of it.
“What happened to you, auntie?” The words emerged from my mouth unbidden. “What happened to your principles? How many times did I hear you say that private property is based on the exploitation of the many by the few? That private ownership of the means of production represents the appropriation of the labor and wealth of the poor by the rich? And look at this.” I waved my pickle spear at the luxury surrounding me. My speech would not help me get the information I needed to solve the case, but the swim had energized me and washed away my self-restraint.
“Is this all from Badger?” I continued. “Where do you think that money comes from? From the poor. I know you know this. The drug industry sucks wealth out of the ghetto like a Hoover vacuum. It’s the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. And what do the rich do with it? They cycle it among themselves. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. It’s against everything you stand for.”
“You don’t know what I stand for!” Chausiku snapped. “You don’t know anything about me. You want to be honest? You want to drop the pretense? Tell me how my husband died!” She slammed a palm onto the glass table. The plates jumped. My sweet potato chips scattered, while Chausiku’s lemonade tipped over and poured across the tabletop, spilling over the side like a small waterfall.
I froze, staring at her. My tongue was a block of wood in my mouth.
“That’s right.” She glared at me as if her eyes could bore holes through my head. “My husband. Your uncle and teacher. Do you think I’m an idiot? His body is dumped on the sidewalk like a week old fish, and the police tell me they suspect he was part of a robbery crew. A year later you go to prison for robbery. You think I can’t put two and two together? And you come in here talking about hypocrisy and values, while you’re lying to my face?” She sneered. “I can see it in your eyes right now. You’re wondering if I told Badger. If I had, you’d be floating in pieces down the San Joaquin River.” She made a motion with her hand like a fish swimming.
“I don’t -” I began, intending to deny everything, but she snapped her fingers to cut me off.
“Don’t even try. You want Badger’s help? And my silence? This is the price. Tell me how my husband died.” Her tone softened. “You owe me that much, Zaid. If you still care.”
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