See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
“You’re out of my league, hermano.” – Halima
Hundred Watt Smiles
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Omar sat on a plush stool as an oddly muscular fortyish woman with pencil thin eyebrows applied makeup to his face.
He’d been picked up that morning by a chauffeur driving a black town car, and delivered to the TVN studio, located on the 40th floor of a Calle 50 high rise. His mother was at work. He was alone on what felt like the biggest day of his life.
He’d worn his school uniform of blue pants and white cotton shirt, having nothing at all “dressy” to wear, but another lady came by – the wardrobe lady, young and skinny with a tight expression on her face. Fingering his sleeve, she said, “this won’t do,” and gave him a blue dress shirt.
He took it into the green room’s exotic bathroom, outfitted with magnifying mirrors on jointed arms and real orchids growing in wall sconces. His face was flushed with nervousness, and he wanted to splash some water on his cheeks, but he’d been warned by the makeup lady not to do so.
Someone knocked: “On the air in ten!”
“Okay,” Omar called back. “I’m almost done.”
In reality he was doing nothing but standing at the sink, looking in the mirror. He looked like a clown. But the makeup lady assured him that it would not show on camera and was necessary to reduce the glare of the set lights.
A giant, he told himself. I may be short, but I’m a giant. I can do this. Noticiera Estelar, starring Omar Bayano. He chuckled at his own stupidity.
Pretending a confidence he did not feel, he limped onto the set with his head high. He saw the two hosts – a 20ish man with spiky blond hair, and an older woman with angular cheekbones and a polished smile – take in his cane and scars. Their hundred-watt smiles flickered, then returned as bright as ever.
The five minute segment went well. The hosts dispensed praise like candy, and while the young man cracked corny jokes (“You’ll be famous now, the ladies will love you”), the woman asked surprisingly relevant questions about Omar’s injuries, and even about Samia, since she was the other person injured in the attack. She’d done her homework.
When they asked how he was spending his summer, he replied, “I’m helping my mom with her organic makeup company, Puro Panameño.”
When it was over they chauffeured him home (and let him keep the shirt). It was strange, returning to an empty house after that. He scrubbed off the makeup and ate mango ice cream while watching football.
His mother came home and asked about the interview. It bothered him a bit that she’d missed it, but he knew it wasn’t her fault. If they’d had a VCR they could have taped it, but they were too poor for that. But couldn’t she have taken a few minutes off and watched it in the Arrocha break room or something?
Say Hip Hop
Around 6 pm the door knocker sounded. He limped to the door, opened it, and there – to his astonishment – were the Muhammad sisters, with Nadia and Naris in their colorful traditional clothing, and Nabila in jeans and a tennis shirt, wearing a backpack and bobbing her head to music only she could hear. Nadia held up a VCR tape and exclaimed, “You’re a celebrity!”
“You did well,” Naris said unsmilingly. “I was impressed.” She carried a VCR machine with the cord dangling to the ground.
Omar’s mouth fell open. “You taped it? How did you even know?”
Nabila kept time with her hand as she rapped, “Your mom gave us the lowdown, because we got the know-how, we’re bringing it on like Motown, we’re three at a pop and we don’t stop, all the Muslims in the house say hip hop-”
“Heep hope” said a heavily Spanish accented voice from behind the girls, and here came Halima, with her father waving goodbye from the family minivan. She looked amazing in black slacks, a black and white checkered top and a gray hijab that set off her green eyes. Before Omar could say anything a pizza delivery car pulled up and a young man trotted up with three large pizzas.
“Let your friends in,” Omar’s mother said. Nabila unslung the backpack and opened it, pulling out an Adidas shoebox that she handed to Omar.
“Sponsor swag. These look like they might fit you.”
They were brand new Adidas hi-tops. All black, except for the trademark Adidas stripes, which were white. Omar fingered the leather. They were beautiful shoes, better than anything he’d ever owned. And they were his size! “I don’t know what to say, Nabila.”
“No worries, bro. I get plenty.”
Soon they had the machine hooked up and were all settled in front of the TV, Omar on a folding chair and the ladies crowded onto the love seat and sofa. The doorbell rang again. Mamá went to the door and returned with Hani, followed by Samia and her younger brother, a fifth grader named Nuruddin. Omar was especially happy to see Hani, but the boy seemed reticent, and avoided meeting his eyes. Was he still tripping over what had happened?
Samia did not look good. Her hijab was pulled very low over her eyes, almost like a hood, maybe to hide the few scars that were visible just below her hairline. She’d already been chubby, but she’d gained more weight, and her breath was an audible wheeze. Beyond that, her eyes were troubled somehow, as though an unseen shadow was playing over her features.
They watched the interview three times, and each time the kids cheered when Omar was announced. It was so strange, sitting in his own home surrounded by – friends? – was that what these were?
Then Nadia said, “movie time!’ and popped in another tape. Omar was afraid it would be a chick flick, but to his surprise and excitement it was a Bruce Lee film.
A horn honked outside. Three short blasts. Hani rose. “That’s my ride.”
“Come on, hermano,” Omar pleaded. But Hani insisted, saying he had things to do. Omar started to stand, using his cane to lift himself up, but Hani put up a hand.
“No, man, don’t get up. Please. Just…” He shook his head, walked to the door and let himself out.
Down the Rabbit Hole
\After the TV interview, the trickle of orders for his mother’s products became a stream. So did the interview requests. They came pouring in from all over the world, by email and by phone. Every day he did three or four phone or webcam interviews, with TV shows and newspapers from as far afield as Bogotá, Lima, Mexico City and even New York, and some in person as well, when the media sent people to see him. He did not travel. Some paid him, some did not.
It came to a climax when President Juan Carlos Varela invited him to the Palacio de Las Garzas, where he was given the Manuel Amador Guerrero award, the highest civilian honor in Panama.
The day the call came, Omar and his mother stood gaping at each other. It felt like he was living in a strange reality that was half nightmare – with his injuries and pain – and half marvelous dream. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to wake up, or keep dreaming.
This time his mother took the day off and came with him. Omar wore the blue shirt that TVN had let him keep, and a pair of new black slacks, dress shoes, and a tie. Every Panama news station was rolling tape as President Varela placed the medal around Omar’s neck, while Omar’s mother stood beside him and beamed like the tropical sun. The medal was shaped like a white cross surrounded by golden rays, and was heavy around his neck. Omar accepted the cross solemnly, unwilling to say, “I’m a Muslim, I can’t wear this.” When President Varela asked how he was coping since the attack, Omar smiled at the cameras and said, “I stay busy working for my mom’s makeup company, Puro Panameño.”
Now he had definitely tumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole and was looking at the Cheshire cat coalescing into being before him. First the glittering, toothy smile, then the rest, bit by bit, ending in the tail. But he never let the attention go to his head. He sensed that this particular cat was one that could either curl up at your feet and purr, or eat you alive, leaving nothing behind but your bones.
The orders flowed in like the Chagres River, until their small kitchen was filled with shipping boxes, and Mamá was working fourteen hours a day.
The stadium, Estadio Armando Dely Valdés, held 4,000 people, and was packed to the rafters. People chanted, cheered, and blew horns. Mamá had surprised him with tickets to an Árabe Unido game for his birthday in late July. He had not been to a game since Papá died. It was the semifinal match against Tauro in the Liga Panameña championship.
Omar wore his number 58 jersey, along with a blue and white striped Árabe Unido hat from the concession stand. The concession lady recognized him, as people sometimes did, and insisted on giving him the hat free of charge.
Their seats were all the way down near the field. Making his way down the stadium steps, Omar had to be careful. His left calf had been badly damaged in the dog attack, and his left shin had been fractured by a dog’s tooth. Neither wound had yet fully healed. He held tightly to the railing with one hand as he descended, and with his other hand gripped the cane that he used to take weight off his leg.
Still, he was so thrilled by the scene before him that he hardly noticed the pain. The field was brilliant green, the sky so blue he imagined he could dive upwards into it and swim. The air smelled of cotton beer and french fries, and was so thick with humidity that Omar had sweat spreading out all over his body, even on the backs of his hands.
As they made their way toward their seats in row A2, Omar spotted a tall young man with curly hair sitting in A1. His parents were with him, as well as his younger sister. It was Tameem, and Omar remembered that this was one of the few things in the world that he and Tameem had in common. Tameem was an Árabe Unido fan.
Tameem happened to glance over his shoulder. The older boy’s face went blank as he spotted Omar, no doubt taking in Omar’s scarred face and arms, mangled left ear, his limp, and the cane that he needed to walk. Tameem turned to his father and spoke in the man’s ear. The father looked up at Omar, and the two of them – father and son – appeared to argue. Then the entire family stood up and began to leave.
The only thing Omar could think was that Tameem was ashamed. Tameem had bullied him all through their childhoods, but somehow the situation was now reversed. Omar had become the strong one, sure of himself. It wouldn’t have mattered to him if Tameem had suddenly hollered, “Punching Bag!” or “Patacon.” Such things seemed petty now. He would have laughed it off. But Tameem couldn’t face him.
Omar had hated this bully for so long. In school they’d learned about Argentina’s guerra sucia, their “dirty war” of the 1970’s and 80’s, when right-wing government death squads would fly their enemies out over the ocean in helicopters and drop them in. Omar remembered wishing he could do the same to Tameem.
Now, though, he found himself wondering what it must be like for the older boy, reviled by their friends as a coward. What did Tameem have left now? He’d never been a good student. Omar suddenly perceived the older boy as a mask of arrogance worn by a mannequin. An empty thing. The thought gave him a chill, and he experienced the curious sensation of pity, not for himself but for his tormentor.
He called out, “Tameem!” He was going to say, “You don’t have to leave.” But the older boy didn’t look back.
At halftime, the stadium announcer said, “Give a hand of applause to Omar Bayano, recipient of the Manuel Amador Guerrero award for bravery.” The crowd roared. Omar looked up and there he was on the jumbotron, wide-eyed, his mouth hanging open. His mother lifted his hand and waved it, and the crowd laughed.
Árabe Unido won four to one, and by the time the game was over Omar’s throat was sore from cheering. The blue express had done it again. If only his father had been there it would have been the best day of his life, bar none.
Heroism Befitting a Believer
Returning to school, all Omar knew was that he wanted no pity. He had, at some point, stopped caring about people’s reactions to his scars. He did not regret what had happened to him. He’d done the right thing, trying to save Samia. If he could do it over again, he’d make the same choice. So what sense did bitterness make?
It was true, he still had nightmares. And on the rare occasions when he went out walking, he was nervous, constantly looking over his shoulder. Not that he blamed the dogs who’d attacked him. They had only reacted to Tameem’s provocations. He wished they had not had to die, but he told himself that the dogs’ deaths were not his burden to carry. Like Surat An-Najm said: no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Even so, they had been living creatures, with minds and hearts. Omar knew violence well, and would not wish a violent death on any living thing.
Tameem did not return to IIAP, nor did Basem. Strangely, Hani did not come back either. That first day back, the principal called him up in front of the entire school at morning assembly and gave him a trophy. Inscribed at the base were the words, “For heroism befitting a believer.” Omar found the attention embarrassing.
The other kids treated him with deference, parting for him in crowded hallways, and holding doors for him. Some of the little kids even called him ustadh, which he found hilarious.
Strangely Colored Hope
The first Saturday after school started, he decided to walk to Hani’s house, on the southern end of Panama Viejo. He wanted to know what had happened to the boy. Had he transferred schools for some reason? He put on his number 58 jersey and new Adidas, grabbed his metal cane, and set out.
Panama Viejo, true to its name, consisted of a slum of dilapidated houses that sprawled along the waterfront, within sight of the skyscrapers of tony Punta Paitilla on one side, and towering Costa del Este on the other. Being on the waterfront did not mean beach access. For one thing, Panama Viejo was cut off from the sea by the taut line of the Corredor Sur highway. Furthermore, there was no beach. Just smelly mud flats that bordered a bay polluted with effluent.
Omar walked through the muddy streets, doing his best to keep the new kicks clean, and pulling his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth whenever a diesel-fueled diablo rojo rumbled by. He detoured around potholes, sometimes stopping to rest his arm, which tired from supporting his weight on the cane. Occasionally he switched the cane to the other hand, angling it to relieve his left leg. Hani’s house was normally a fifteen minute walk, but Omar had a feeling it would take a lot longer today.
The working class inhabitants of this neighborhood drove taxis and buses, cleaned floors and toilets, worked as cashiers, cooks and servers, styled hair and nails, or simply peddled goods on the street. Some did what was called in Panama, “mata el cameron” – killing the shrimp, which meant any odd jobs that paid the rent. And some walked the wrong side of the law, robbing, extorting, and selling drugs or people.
Many lived in fear in this barrio. But Omar had never been afraid. When his father had been alive, and they’d sat on the front steps at night watching the stars, Omar had always felt supremely safe. Papá could handle anyone. But Omar had been wrong about that. Papá was not superman. He could not defeat any bad guy. And if he couldn’t rely on that, then what could he rely on? The world might as well be jello, for all the solidity and security it offered.
After Papá died, Omar was still not afraid, but now it was because he didn’t care what happened to him. What did it matter? If he died in an accident or a mugging, a few people would fill a few thimbles with tears, and the world would roll on, turning inexorably into the horizon like a celestial bulldozer.
He still felt that. He’d been lauded in the media and given awards, but a big part of him felt like he could disappear right now, fall into a bottomless pothole, and there would be no butterfly effect, no tiny ripples as Samia liked to say. His absence would not save the life of a stranger in China. And… he wanted to say that he himself would not care. Living or dead, what was the difference?
He’d felt that way for so long that it felt strange to feel any different.
But he did feel different. Somehow some stray light beams had slipped into his Stygian interior. Some strangely colored hope. It was an odd feeling, almost uncomfortable, but it made him lighter on his feet in spite of his injuries. He stopped walking and gazed up at the moisture-laden afternoon clouds coursing in from the south. He might get rained on. For so long he’d wanted to be anywhere else but here, in this decaying barrio, living this ramshackle life. Today, though – it amazed him to think this – he was okay with existing right here, right now.
At the moment this thought flitted through his brain, he was standing beside a house with a chain link fence. Suddenly a dog ran up to the fence and barked. It was not a large dog. Some sausage-shaped breed, maybe a dachshund. But its approach frightened Omar badly. He broke into a run purely out of instinct, driven by a pointless but overpowering dread. He managed a half dozen steps before his injured leg gave out. Planting the cane to check his fall, he missed the mark, the tip sliding into a pothole. He fell heavily in the rutted, dirty road. Only his karate training saved him from injury. At the last second he turned in the air and took the fall on his side, as he’d been taught.
He looked up to see two women striding briskly toward him. They were in their mid twenties or early thirties perhaps, and had the angular, used-up look that some women get when they’ve lived too hard. One, a wiry woman with mahogany skin, wore cellophane-tight jeans and new sneakers, and had blue braces on her teeth. The other was white and very thin, and wore a tank top and red shorts that exposed sores on her pale legs. “Hey little brother,” the one with the braces called out. “Are you okay?”
As they neared, the blue braces lady reached out a hand to help him up. Veins that stood out beneath the skin of her muscled arm, and a tattoo of a dandelion covered the back of her hand, with the seeds blowing away up her forearm. A perpetual wish for a better life, Omar supposed.
He reached out to take her hand – and her other hand swung out from behind her back. Omar caught a split-second glimpse of the object she gripped – a large, rough-edged chunk of cement – but didn’t even have time to cry out before it struck him across the face with the force of a sledgehammer. He tumbled back onto the road. Pain seared his face, and his head rang like a gong. One of the women kicked him in the stomach and he folded in over himself, all the breath expelled from his body.
Hands rifled through his pockets. One found his faux leather wallet, pulled it out. Omar knew there was nothing in there except five dollars, a miniature copy of Surat Yasin the school had given him at graduation last year, and a clipping of a newspaper article about him. He had twenty dollars on him – a bit of his newfound wealth from the paid news interviews – but it was tucked inside his sneakers.
Blue Braces rolled him onto his back, then slapped his face with his own wallet. He was still gasping for breath, trying to force air into his lungs.
“Where the money at, puto?” the woman demanded. “I know you got some. Look at these sick kicks. Fancy football shirt, walkin’ with a cane like some kinda gentleman. And this.” She pulled his copper bracelet off his wrist and slid it onto her own. Pulled his little flip phone out of his pocket and took that too. Then she opened the wallet, pocketed the five dollar bill, and flicked the copy of Surat Yasin into the street.
Omar went cold. To disrespect and abuse him was one thing. But there was no world in which he would tolerate someone disrespecting the Quran in his presence. And as for the bracelet, his father had given it to him. His FATHER.
Breath came into his lungs. The pain in his face and stomach vanished, and all emotion fell away. He knew what was happening to him. He’d seen Sensei Alan switch into this state of awareness when sparring. It was frightening, sparring with Alan. Something inside the man would change and you’d see it in his face, which would go as flat as a marble slab. Omar had once kicked Sensei in the stomach while sparring, a hard snap kick, connecting with the ball of his foot. It should at least have driven him back. But the man walked right through it.
He understood now. Cold descended upon him, and he felt as calm as a glacier. A roaring sound filled his ears, and though his eyes were wide and unblinking, his vision narrowed so that he saw only the two women.
Blue Braces pulled a screwdriver from her pocket, took a handful of Omar’s shirt in one hand and pressed the tip into his cheek. She shouted something, her spittle striking his forehead. The screwdriver should have hurt but he felt nothing, and did not hear her words. The two muggers were little dogs, yapping. Dogs again, always dogs, coming at him, attacking him. But he knew how to deal with dogs, didn’t he? He didn’t back down to dogs.
“No,” he said, responding not to any particular thing Blue Braces had said, but to the entire situation.
Blue Braces screwed up her features, said something.
Omar heard only the sound of ocean waves crashing in his ears. “No,” he repeated more loudly.
Blue Braces spoke over her shoulder to Skinny Legs, who hauled back her foot to kick again. Her foot flew at Omar’s thigh. He pulled up one knee and let the woman’s toes impact his kneecap. A common sparring technique. She cried out soundlessly and turned in a circle, hopping on one foot. Blue Braces gripped Omar’s shirt tighter and drove the tip of the screwdriver into his cheek. He felt it break the skin and sink into the flesh. Yet there was no pain. Only pressure.
Enough of this.
“I SAID NO!” He shrimped to the side, seized the wrist that held the screwdriver, then struck Blue Braces in the throat with the web of his hand, using the L-shaped part of the hand formed by the index finger and thumb. This was not a sparring strike, but a technique from kata – the set forms he had practiced thousands of times. It was called the tiger’s mouth.
Immediately Blue Braces released the screwdriver and clutched her throat, gagging. Omar shoved her and she fell away. He stood and faced Skinny Legs. Her green eyes were wide now, her hands up in a placating gesture. Omar kicked her in the stomach, not a snapping kick but a powerful thrusting kick that drove deeply into her abdomen. She flew backward, literally coming off her feet, and crashed to the ground, moaning in agony as she rolled in the dirt.
Omar turned back to Blue Braces, who was still clutching her throat. Her face was turning blue. If he’d crushed her trachea she would die without medical intervention. He took his bracelet back, then dug into her pockets and recovered his phone and cash. A handful of crumpled bills spilled from the woman’s pocket, maybe a hundred dollars, but Omar left that. He found his wallet and surah in the street and wiped the surah on his shirt to clean it.
Reymundo is My Guide
He picked up his cane and began to walk away, and was nearly overcome by a wave of nausea, dizziness and pain. He pushed through it and kept on walking, leaning heavily on the cane, barely aware of his environment. If someone else tried to rob him in that moment he’d be done for. When he’d covered two blocks he came to a small store with a sign that said, “Reymundo is My Guide Panama Viejo Snacks and Lottery.” He’d seen this place before and had always noticed it because Reymundo was his own father’s name. But he’d never actually stopped here.
The shop had a little wooden bench out front, one leg chained and locked to an eye bolt in the ground. Omar sat, took out his phone and dialed 911 for the ambulance service. A woman answered and he gave her Blue Braces’ location and condition, then hung up.
“Hey son,” the shopkeeper called. “Are you okay?” He was an old man with wide Indian features and gray hair, and wore round spectacles.
Omar stepped up to the shop’s small window and looked over the goods. What could he get for $5? He settled on a bottle of Coke and a cheese empanada. The shopkeeper refused Omar’s money. “I know you,” the man said. “I knew your Papá. He was a great man.”
Omar returned to the bench and began to eat and drink. The shopkeeper emerged with a box full of medical supplies. Omar started to protest but the old man ignored him. As Omar ate, the man cleaned Omar’s face with a hot towel, applied alcohol with a cotton swab – that hurt badly, making Omar flinch – then applied three bandages.
“Your father help me build this place,” the man said. “You know that?”
Omar shook his head.
“Oh yes. He was very handy. I buy a big pile of bricks and mortar, and we put this place up in a week. He used to come here, help me move boxes, do repairs. My name is Melocoton.”
Omar gave the man a quizzical look. He was named after a fruit? He had a thought. “Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “The Reymundo in your sign?”
The old man grinned, showing teeth that were yellowed but intact. “Your Papá. Is a story. I tell you someday. Anytime you come here, no charge for the son of Reymundo Bayano.”
Omar thanked the man and decided he was ready to head for home. He’d try the trip to Hani’s house again tomorrow, if he was up to it. Right now he just needed to rest.
By the time he was close to home his face and body were drenched in sweat, and his arm trembled from supporting his weight on the cane. He was exhausted and sore everywhere, and his face ached. As it turned out, the sweat at least was not a problem, because when he was one block from home the sky unleashed its torrent, and the rain came down like the curtain at the end of a Greek tragedy.
Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 7: The Underground Dream
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.
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