The Bottom Is Expanding
“Ismael didn’t come home last night.”
That is the extent of what I know, what Nadeem explained to me on my voicemail, imploring me to stop by at my earliest convenience. He doesn’t specify in what capacity I’m coming over: as a friend, as a police officer, or as a fellow dad.
Around 10:30 AM, I pull up to the familiar corner house on Buckley Street.
It’s strange not having my son with me. He and Ismael were such good friends back in grade school, crawling on their hands and knees through brackish culverts, following the creek out to the junkyard where they liked to play. Strange boys. Once they made a hole—or found a hole, as they claimed—pried into a chain-link fence securing the mythical mounds of trash. Bruno showed it to me years later, their secret entrance, on a long nostalgic walk through his old childhood haunts, at least the ones that were accessible to a teenager and a grown man. By the end of it I was so scratched up from nettle and milkweed that I felt like a kid again, like the next step was to go home and zone out in front of some inane Japanese cartoon, muddying my lips with a glass of Nesquik.
Now here I am arriving at Ismael’s parents’ house alone, like a father who’s forgotten to bring his child to the play date.
Their lawn is steep. All the lawns on the northside of Buckley have a steep incline. On my rounds I’ve seen Ismael helping out his neighbors by mowing their hills one after the other. He never accepts payment. Nadeem has explained to me it’s part of his son’s take on the Muslim principle of Sadaqah, or charity. Maybe it was this religious streak that ultimately drew a wedge between Ismael and my less deferential Bruno.
A concrete staircase with a single iron banister climbs to the front stoop. I ring the doorbell and am greeted shortly by Ismael’s sister, one year his junior, named Khadija—or Katie to her lazy friends. She is headed into her senior year at Judson Bottom High. Since I first met her, she has blossomed into something scornfully beautiful, as if daring you to use the word “blossomed” in her presence.
“Come in,” she says.
She wears low-slung jeans; there is the barest hint of a midriff. I’ve noticed Khadija wears a hijab only during the month of Ramadan, unlike her more observant mother, but then I’m hardly a fixture in their day to day lives. In terms of their attitudes towards conformity, I’ve always thought Khadija and Bruno made more sense as a coupling. I shut the door behind me to trap in the central air, slip off my shoes at the door mat, and line them up alongside the others. I can guess whose the glittery thong sandals are. Nadeem and his wife, Javaria, enter from the kitchen, the latter bringing me a glass of cold lemonade. I shake Nadeem’s hand and nod amicably in Javaria’s direction. In all my years knowing the Mubarak family, I’ve never so much as brushed shoulders with either her or her daughter. Bruno, at around ten years old, informed me that physical contact was frowned upon between unmarried men and women. He’s also taught me a few Arabic phrases over the years. This house, I’ve come to accept, was his real childhood haven, away from the turmoil and volatility of his own home life.
We all take a seat around the coffee table, except for Khadija, who plops herself on the bottom step of a cream-carpeted staircase.
Nadeem starts right in. “He went to Friday services last night like he does every week.”
“In Oostburg,” Javaria adds, her eyes wide and searching under a lovely peach-colored hijab with golden embroidery.
“Javaria and I only join him when we’re not working late,” Nadeem tells me, somewhat apologetic, as if I am his confessor. The insinuation is that Khadija never or rarely joins them. Nadeem works as a supervisor at the power plant whose double-barrel smokestacks loom over Judson Bottom. Javaria is an H.R. rep at a shoemaking corporation headquartered thirty-odd miles away in Port Washington. They are both Afghan émigrés who have realized something of a dream here in middle America. I know little of their early lives. We are acquainted through our sons. Beyond that we are more or less strangers.
“What time does he normally return?” I ask.
“He said he was having pizza last night with some of the other teens in his study group, so he might be home a little later than usual.” Javaria, as she speaks, is clenching something in her right hand. I see a corner of white tissue peek between her fingers. “He often rises early, goes to the gym, then comes back and stays in his room for a few hours until it’s time for him to go tutor the summer school kids. That’s why I didn’t knock on his door until so late.”
“And found him gone,” I infer, confused by my own phrasing. More like didn’t find him? “—You called the school?”
Nadeem nods. “They say he never showed.”
“You have to understand this is very unusual for him,” Javaria urges. “He is a creature of habit. He always has a schedule, because he plans everything around Salat.”
Salat: the five daily prayers prescribed by Islam. Another factoid courtesy of Bruno. “He’s not answering his phone? Is that unusual too?”
“Not all that unusual,” Nadeem replies. “He keeps one with him in case of emergencies, but most of the time I don’t think it’s even turned on.”
“It’s so annoying,” Khadija contributes from the sidelines.
I pivot around in my chair to face her. “Have you checked Facebook? Social media? Has he made any recent posts?”
“He only posts political stuff, not personal.” She props her head on her hand, her elbow on her knee. “Seriously, it’s the most generic, boring profile in the world. He doesn’t even have any pictures of himself. Just the ones other people tag him in. Meaning me.”
“Are you implying your brother’s short on friends?” I ask.
“No,” the parents say in tandem, as Khadija says yes.
“Most of his closest friends he knows through the mosque,” Javaria frowns at her daughter.
“He is very popular with everyone he meets,” Nadeem concurs.
Khadija’s eye roll is emphatic enough that I can perceive it without looking.
I drain the last of my sugary lemonade. “Well, what I’ll do is get on the phone with County and ask for a report of last night’s accidents. But don’t worry,” I’m quick to add, “I think we would’ve heard about anything serious.”
Nadeem thanks me, rising from the couch with such authority that I find myself mirroring him with no forethought whatsoever. We shake again, his knuckles hairy and square like bolts. Is this it? After the trouble I took to remove my shoes? Headed for the doormat, I steal a glance at the staircase, which Khadija has begun to climb. Her back pockets pull tight, bedazzled with hearts. If the Mubaraks’ intention was to assimilate, then Khadija is a stylistic testament to their success, though it’s not my place to ask whether her parents view it that way.
Allusions to their faith are discreet within the house. As I understand it, Muslims are averse to religious iconography, differing from Christian homes I’ve visited, which all seem to display the same dewy-eyed portrait of Anglo Jesus, or in the case of Catholics, an agonizing effigy of him nailed to the cross. Alternatively, Nadeem commissioned an Islamic calligrapher, whose handiwork trails beneath the crown molding, encircling the living room in wine-red Quranic verse. “Keep trying him,” I advise the parents, crouched down and tying my laces. “Phone, email, Facebook. If he’s not back by this evening we’ll go public with a missing person alert. But I really don’t think it will come to that.”
“Neither do I,” Nadeem says with conviction. “Thank you for your time.”
I wave my hand to dismiss his gratitude in a friendly way and let myself out. The front lawns of Buckley are browning under the hot July sun, browning and soon in need of a trim.
Judson Bottom is a town of roughly thirty-thousand located an hour’s drive northwest of Milwaukee. It is perhaps the only region of southern Wisconsin known for its scenic beauty, due in large part to the Kettle Moraine, a glacially-cut swath of rugged landscape plotted with crystal-clean lakes. Okay, so crystal clean is a bit of brochure hyperbole, but you won’t climb out of them sporting any fresh tumors. That much I’ll attest to. Over holiday weekends, the innumerable private and state-run campgrounds of the Kettle Moraine fill up, sometimes a whole year in advance. During these heavy occupations, some of the natural serenity is lost to screaming children, brawling drunks, and blaring music, so anyone looking to connect with Mother Nature would be better off hitting her up in the fall. Should camping supplies grow thin, there are a number of kitschy and overpriced “outposts”—log cabins stocked with dream catchers, firewood, sparkling geodes, cigarettes, and if you’re lucky, a cappuccino machine. Otherwise, Judson Bottom is your more practical option. It is usually abbreviated to just Judson, or The Bottom. For obvious reasons, residents prefer the former.
The Bottom itself is nowhere to send a postcard from (though visitors still have the option). It is an industrial town, strafed and scarred with railroad tracks, service roads, broken-paned warehouses, and the ubiquitous mustardy smog of the coal power plant. Rent is cheap. The past two decades have seen an influx of hapless laborers ejected by the dog-eat-dog competition of Milwaukee. Yes, The Bottom is expanding. Condos are being built. Culture is being introduced into the storefronts. One can now buy a shawarma in Judson Bottom, or have a string instrument maintained by a professional luthier. One can hear poetry being recited at open mic in the town’s progressive coffee shop, while munching on a vegan gluten-free cookie. An entrepreneurial fervor is taking hold of the town. True, many businesses fail, as evidenced by the regular vacancies and foreclosures, but others persist and stay afloat and eventually thrive. Take Gimbe’s Handcrafted Cabinetry & Lumberyard, for example. Been in business some fifteen years now. Established and managed by Judson Bottom’s sole celebrity: former pro wrestler and middleweight champion, Herschel Gimbe, a.k.a. Cronus the Cannibal.
“Did you hear about that nut in Orlando? They say he was queer himself.”
Spencer Wojcik, Chief of Police, likes to sit on my desk, testing its craftsmanship with his prodigious weight, while I pack up my bag for the evening, At least once I’ll have to ask him to move because he is sitting on a piece of paperwork I want to take home. He mocks me for working at home, though I know he does it too, religiously. Anything to keep his mind off Joanne’s manic depression. Woe to the cop who has to answer a dispute at the Wojcik residence. Even though the incident is logged like any other, any officer worth his salt knows if he breathes a word of it he’ll lose his job, or at least be shackled to desk duty until the Chief’s vindictive wrath wears off.
“Jesus. Self-hatred I get,” he goes on, popping half a container of Tic-Tacs in his mouth to mask the day’s coffee consumption. “But why do you gotta take a whole flock of fags out with you? They’ve accepted what they are. They’re living their lives.”
Part of Wojcik’s problem is that he compulsively drinks down Torké all day. He’s having a cup right now at half-past-six, even along with the Tic-Tacs. It propels his brain onward from one free-form tangent to another. He twitches and flushes and chuckles and growls, practically in concert. His hair is buzzed at the sides but left curly on top. I suspect his barber told him it would have a narrowing effect on his bulbous head. He responds to a number of aliases but never his first name, not unless Joanne is reading him the riot act. At work it’s Chief. The guys on his darts league are allowed to call him Flintstone. I’ve even heard him answer to The Two-Ton Jew, but that was only once after a few brandy old-fashioneds at the Endzone’s Christmas party, and the man doing the name calling was a fellow Gulf War vet.
“You checking out the fireworks tonight?” He shifts his girth, and I swear I hear groaning metal, despite his timely cough.
“Today’s only the second.”
“They’re staggering them I guess, night by night in the surrounding towns, so people can drive around and watch all of them if they like. Joanne used to want to do that. We’d spread out a blanket and pack a couple of wine coolers.” He tips me a wink. “Who the hell’s going to write me a citation?”
I return an indulging smile. Some of the old-timers on the force like to mumble that Wojcik has lost his edge, his presence, that over the years he’s let Joanne’s neurosis and the City Bakery’s Danish turn him into a parody of his former self. What they don’t realize is so are they, so am I. That’s what aging is.
We say good-night and I make my way to the employee lot. The sky is tie-dyed by dusk, dripping like candy syrup through the chrome piping on my Sportster 48, which sits propped between the plebeian sedans and pick-ups of my peers. People will be posted with their lawn chairs in Wade Park, the best place to watch the fireworks. The Michoacana man will be pushing his ice cream cart and ringing his silver bell to lure the already-spastic children. Shouldering my backpack, I straddle the bike seat and stomp the starter, gripping the forward controls that are designed to give shorter guys like me a leg-up on intimidation (meanwhile murdering the lumbar of anyone much taller). All 550 pounds buck to life between my legs. With my feet still on the ground, the machine has a way of melding into an organic conduit between me and solid Earth, as if riding were a more natural and ordained mode of transport than walking.
I rev the throttle, and cut out into the painted little town.
It’s easy to idealize childhood. Anyone’s childhood. But back in their heyday, most of the time I couldn’t wait for Bruno and Ismael to grow up. What sticks out in my mind most prominently is the Walmart incident. I responded to a shoplifting call, the third of the week for that particular store, with an almost mechanical sense of routine. Walk in, smile at the old greeter in the blue vest, hook left down a corridor past the bathrooms, knock on a door marked Employees Only, and inside I would find one smug security guard, one petulant manager, and whomever had tried wearing an unpaid-for cardigan past the alarms, or smuggling out a set of earbuds in their jeans. Instead I found a familiar, chubby little Chicano boy and a slimmer but similarly baby-faced Arab seated in computer chairs. Ismael looked mortified by their predicament. Bruno was wearing a look of defiance, as if he had been harassing his captors and promising full-scale revolution. This attitude fractured once he laid eyes on me.
I gave him a passing dark look, but otherwise made no indication that I knew the boys. The manager asked me to watch the footage of them sneaking into a nylon tent that was set up as part of a showcase in the sporting goods department. In their hands they clutched packaged NERF guns. Fast-forward five minutes later, they emerged. First Bruno poked his head out, surveyed the area, and gestured to his accomplice. Then the two of them bolted, wielding the now-unpackaged NERF guns like Special Ops commandos negotiating a tactical strike. I imagined their raw, nubby fingers struggling with the wires that held the guns in place, the hushed curse words Bruno would have used in some clumsy syntax. The security guard was able to track their progress through electronics, footwear, ladies’ intimates, and greeting cards, before finally getting out of his chair and walking twenty feet to the main exit, where the boys were just about to execute one more climactic and futile charge. The manager was lenient, sympathetic, an overworked-looking man with liver spots on his head. He just wanted the parents notified and hoped that the children would know the fear of God after riding in a police car. I said I would attend to it personally.
What led up to this botched heist? Javaria had dropped them off at Marcus Cinema not an hour before to go see a matinee (something Marvel-related no doubt) when one of them conceived the brilliant idea (Bruno no doubt) of crossing a busy intersection, and perhaps busier parking lot, to patronize the local Walmart. When their movie fare didn’t quite add up to the amount needed for a couple of N-Strike Modulus ECS-10 Blasters, they resorted to criminal behavior. I gave them an ear full on the way to Ismael’s house. Javaria was out front weeding her hasta beds, looking very confused as I pulled up. As for Bruno, I didn’t go red in the face admonishing him. I knew I couldn’t do justice to the tongue lashing he would get from his mother, having been on the receiving end of it several times myself.
No one on my street bothers going to Wade Park to watch the fireworks. It is so close that most backyards offer a comparable view of the skyborne spectacle. Kids run up and down the block waving sprinklers, leaving contrails. The lamp posts have just switched on. I watch from my screened-in porch, drinking a beer, wearing only my undershirt and Marvin the Martian boxers. Part of me feels ambitious enough to think about lighting the grill, throwing on some ribeyes I have in the freezer, joining in the general tradition. Besides sulfur, the whole neighborhood smells of smoldering briquettes. Then, after the third beer, that ambition peters out and I figure leftover spaghetti with meat sauce will always suffice before bed. I think about texting Valerie. Think about it a lot. If she can get away. Maybe she is at rehearsal and can duck out early. We’ll meet at some halfway point like we normally do, Grafton or Belgium. Or maybe I should blow my wad into a Kleenex and stop complicating things for her, for both of us.
Some fledgling pyromaniac has connected the wicks on a row of smoke bombs. Soon Hyatt Street is engulfed in commingling plumes, like a dream sequence in a Bollywood musical. The lamp posts add greater vibrancy. This is an obvious driving hazard—the road is completely blocked from view—but I’m off duty, and anyway, the only ones who drive down Hyatt are the ones who live here. A kid bicycles past towing a little red wagon, pedaling as fast as his legs will carry him, while his passenger, a toddler in an oversize Uncle Sam hat, shrieks with delight and grips the gunwales of the wagon. I am so engrossed by the theater of my neighborhood that I don’t even notice a sedan has pulled up to the curb, not until the door slams and a man silhouetted against the smoke comes lumbering toward my house.
The ponytail gives it away. Nadeem.
My gut seizes with panic and guilt and the simple wish I was wearing pants. To be honest, I haven’t thought of Ismael once since this morning. I got sidetracked by, among other trifles, a raccoon den discovered in James K. Polk Elementary’s boiler room. Besides, no news is good news, right? I assume if Ismael still hasn’t shown up the Mubaraks would’ve called before now. Right?
“What’s the word?” I rise and ask him through the screen door.
It’s too dark to read his face. He says, “We found a letter.”
“A letter?” I open the door and let him in. A ransom letter? I think. No, that’s stupid. This is Judson we’re talking about. “He ran away?”
“It was under his pillow. He knew Javaria would find it when she washed the linen. It’s a Saturday night routine.”
Lively place, I can’t help thinking. “I don’t suppose he said where he was going.” Something brushes my left hand. At first I recoil, thinking it’s a great moth, but it turns out to be a sheet of paper Nadeem is extending to me.
“As a matter of fact he did.”
I take the letter and switch on the porch light. Now all my neighbors can see me standing here practically naked, alone with another man.
Nadeem asks, “Do you mind if I sit?”
“Of course! Excuse me.”
We both pull up a wicker chair. I unfold the ruled yellow paper and ask him absentmindedly, “Can I get you a beer?” Kicking myself before the last word is out.
“No, thank you.” It’s eerie to see him so calm, because clearly it is a labored calm, worn like an awkwardly fitting jacket.
I read through a single block of text that takes up nearly the entire page. Ismael’s cursive lopes along, elegantly slanted, the penmanship of a British statesman. When I’m done, I go to the top and read it again, slower, and then again after that, searching for a punchline, something I can point to and say: “See, Nadeem? It’s a prank. He’s probably at home waiting for you right now.” Outside, the banshee scream of a Roman candle makes me jump, accompanied by the mortar fire of a multi-shot cake. Jesus, and it’s only the 2nd. Two more nights of this at least. Nadeem doesn’t so much as twitch. Periodically, I’ll glance up and observe him with discretion. His nose profiles like an arrowhead, his dark eyes appear encumbered by the weight of their lids, his beard is aligned with geometric precision, not a hair out of place, and he sits a bit like Lincoln in his memorial, with an approachable augustness. Shame creeps in, owing to the white-trash tableau of clutter and booze receptacles that is my porch, the Budweiser mirror on the inner wall beside a cracked print of two foxes bounding over a brook. Thrift store art.
After the fourth read, it finally begins to sink in. I finally allow it to sink in. “Nadeem,” I say, snapping him back from wherever he’s gone off to. A million miles away perhaps, in search of his son. “—Nadeem, is this for real?”