So the cat’s out of the bag. Now that I’ve been made aware of this, thanks to Lloyd and Bruce Jenkins, I decide to check in on the Mubaraks, dumping Trossen with all the bureaucracy of booking our gun-toting, pill-popping rustler.
When I arrive at Buckley Street, my worst gut feelings are actualized. The curbside is teeming with press vehicles. Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Madison news vans with telescopic masts harnessing microwave dishes. Most of the neighbors are conveniently out front doing yard work. I park in the closest space available, in front of a hydrant, and get my kicks barking at reporters on my way up to the house. Stay off the lawn. Don’t crowd the sidewalks. This confines them to the two-foot-wide median between the gutter and the pavement. It’s comical to watch them jumble together, trying not to trip on each other’s cables or bump their expensive cameras together. I know that as soon as I’m gone they’ll flood the sidewalks again, but someone needed to come along and heckle these vultures. This is Flipse’s beat. I wonder why the hell he isn’t over here harassing them.
Climbing the steps to the front stoop, I can’t help but notice there are five bright orange letters spray-painted across the grassy hill: T-E-R-R-O.
Nadeem flings the door open when I knock, looking fed up, wild, ready for confrontation. His expression softens, crumbles really. “Mickey.” The murmur of the press escalates behind me. “Please, come in.”
He nearly catches my heel swinging the door closed. There is a palpable difference here from three days ago. It’s darker, for one, owing to all the ground-floor curtains being drawn. Javaria sits curled up on the couch watching a BBC broadcaster report from Fallujah, a city recently retaken from ISIS control by the Iraqi army. She doesn’t acknowledge me until Nadeem says in a reproving tone, “Javaria. Mickey’s here.”
“It’s alright,” I tell her, as she blinks at me with something between apology and incomprehension in her bloodshot eyes. “Don’t mind me. I only wanted to . . .” Wanted to what? “Wanted to see if I could offer my services in any way.” A little formal, but honest enough.
“Thank you,” she says. The rest is implied. Thank you for not disavowing us. She turns back to her television. Part of being a cop is seeing people at their most pitiful. It’s not as big a deal when you don’t know them, because there is no model of comparison. You are not holding them up to a dignified version of themselves.
“Come into the kitchen,” Nadeem places a hand on my back. “I have the kettle on.” He gives me a lost look regarding Javaria.
“What about my shoes?”
He nods with a mute indifference. When my shoes are off, he ushers me into the next room, asking what sort of tea I drink.
“Anything caffeinated is fine. I’m not picky.”
He pulls two mugs from the cupboard, watching through the small window above the sink. “They’ve been coming and going in shifts since eight o’clock this morning. Someone got a lead overnight, I guess.”
“Honestly, Nadeem, I haven’t said a word. And the only other man on the force who’s supposed to know is Chief Wojcik—”
“I’m not accusing you, Mickey. For all I know Khadija let something slip to one of her friends.” He turns and braces himself against the counter, gripping the edge. “We’ve been telling everyone who asks that he’s on a mission trip with his mosque, but the truth had to come out eventually. Better sooner rather than later, I suppose.” I can’t help but think how accurate Ismael himself would regard that cover story.
The sound of televised gunfire coming from the living room is drowned out by a crescendo of whistling steam. Nadeem switches off the burner and pours hot water from the kettle into our mugs. “Please, sit.” I pull up a chair at the square table and he sets a mug of black tea down before me. I notice a stack of unopened mail. “She never used to watch the news,” he whispers in a frustrated tone. “She never used to care for all that darkness. Now she can’t take her eyes off it. It’s as if she expects them to mention him by name.” He adds bitterly, “She’ll finally get her wish.”
We sit there in a grim, respectful silence, weighing the situation, letting the steam waft from our mugs. I clear my throat and mention the incomplete vandalism defacing his lawn. “If you’d like to file a report, it won’t take long.”
He waves his hand dismissively, as though I had offered to take out the trash. “I caught them right in the middle of it. That’s why it’s unfinished. I couldn’t sleep. I went out and took a long walk. I swear I covered half the town and barely realized it. I was in a fugue state. When I came back, I noticed someone prowling on my lawn. I chased after him, but he’d already heard me coming. Anyway, what would I have done if I’d caught him?”
“Can you give me a description?”
“Not really. He was wearing a hood. I’m more disturbed by the phone calls.” He takes an investigative sip of tea.
“You’ve been receiving threats?” I ask sharply.
He responds by sliding me the stack of mail. “These came this morning. I opened two or three before I more or less got the point.”
“I’ll take these in for evidence. We’ll do some handwriting comparisons on the nastier ones.”
“They do get nasty, some of them,” he nods. “All talk, I’m sure. Trolling, Khadija calls it. Nonetheless, I’m afraid to let her and Javaria leave the house alone. I don’t think I’ve really feared anything since we left Afghanistan.”
“Things were bad over there?” I feel dumb and embarrassed not to know more about this man who has been a casual acquaintance of mine for the past twelve years.
“We left during the Soviet occupation, our families together.” He gestures at the living room to indicate Javaria. “My father and I, we fought in a rebel outfit you might have heard of. Called Mujahideen. They were being backed by the Americans, who of course sided with anyone who hated the Soviets at that time. My father managed to make connections through a Pakistani colonel who knew an American diplomat and so on and so forth. One way or another we were granted asylum. It is who you know, after all.”
“Of course.” I sip my tea and wait for him to go on.
“I guess the reason I’m telling you all this is to convince you, Mickey, that I harbor no ill will toward America. Quite the contrary. I owe America a great deal. I just … I wonder why I didn’t impress that more on Ismael. I’ve been racking my brain, thinking of things I might’ve said over the years, things that could have been … misinterpreted, misunderstood.”
“Nadeem,” I cut him off. “Forgive me, but if you think you had anything to do with radicalizing your son, then you’re way off the mark.” I try my best to sound like an expert, like I have a doctorate in this arena and I’m citing dozens of such cases. I iterate most of what I said to console Khadija in the railyard, explaining how these recruiters are textbooks cyber predators. “They single someone out and earn their trust. They plant ideas, bad ideas, and convince the person they’re being victimized.” I remember what she told me about Ismael being bullied in the past. “Maybe there were instances when he was victimized, and the recruiters were able to latch onto that, blow it out of proportion, convince Ismael he had a moral vendetta.”
Nadeem scratches his beard with slow, hypnotic movements, perhaps pondering my words, perhaps hearing none of them. “His grandfather keeps cropping up in my head. My father. He was a true Sunni republican. He believed in the sharia courts. He died when Ismael was thirteen. We always spoke of that man as a hero in this house. Of course, he could be outdated in his thinking, the way some Americans are today, the way any elder generation is by definition. He never had a kind word to say about Shiites or Israelis for example, but he’d seen enough violence to know what it could solve… Even Mujahideen, the resistance effort we fought for, once it wrested control from the Soviets it eventually morphed into the Taliban. I don’t have to tell you how that unfolded, producing minds like Osama bin Laden’s.” He locks eyes with me, direct and cathartic. “Please believe that this saddened my father deeply, despite his flaws. Please believe that it saddens me to this day.”
What else can I say? I tell Nadeem I believe him, but in reality he’s given me too much to absorb on the spot. It’s hard to picture this man before me, clad in huaraches, sipping vanilla chai, as a twenty-something wielding a Kalashnikov and driving the Russians out of Kabul.
Quite unexpectedly, I hear myself ask whether I might take a look around Ismael’s bedroom. I’m sure the Feds confiscated everything of religious significance, but regardless, I feel like it’s the closest I can get to being inside his headspace.
Nadeem doesn’t seem surprised at all. “You know where it is?”
“Please. Be my guest.” He doesn’t appear to have the stamina or willpower to rise. “You knew him, after all. Maybe you’ll find something those agents missed.”
I have no illusions of this being the case, but I pass through the living room—Javaria is now mysteriously absent—and climb the staircase. This leads to a corridor. Ismael’s door is the second on the left.
The first thing I notice is that his bed is still unmade. Javaria, after discovering the letter, had not found it in herself to return and finish stripping the sheets. A clean rectangle on the dusty surface of his desk adverts where his laptop once sat. The walls are nearly bare, except for a poster-sized conversion chart with the Islamic calendar superimposed over the Julian calendar. Upon his dresser is a plastic display stand, the kind you find in the front windows of bookstores. The stand is empty, but I can guess which book it once contained. Rolled up in the corner is his prayer mat. At first I’m surprised to see it left behind, though I guess it was deemed too large to facilitate discreet traveling. I pop open the disc tray on his stereo. The label is printed in Arabic. There is one family photograph to be found. No sports or music memorabilia. It is about as cold as a military barracks. Anyone perusing through here without context might presume him to be a failed but fastidious forty-something banker living with his parents.
I draw back the curtains to look out at Ismael’s former view, what he might have seen as he ruminated over the upheaval he was about to commit. A maple tree towers within the confines of the picket fence. I can stare directly into its branches, watching a squirrel launch itself onto a distant power line. Beyond that, another house, and the cross-street visible to the east. Looking down, my eyes land on Khadija. There she lay sunning herself, book in hand, wearing a pair of small denim shorts and a bikini top.
What I would like to do is drag the whole of the hawkish media back there and say, “See? Does this look like a draconian, oppressive, Wahhabist patriarchy to you? She hasn’t been stoned, has she, for not being wrapped head to toe in a burka? Admire, if you please, the supple dunes of exposed flesh. Admire the carefree way she drapes her hair over her right breast. And that perfect navel, like an apostrophe proclaiming full ownership of the self. Admire the legs. Can’t be bothered to describe the legs. If you don’t see for yourself what’s so remarkable about them, then frankly you haven’t got a journalistic eye and should retire immediately.”
I envision stripping off my uniform, opening the window, taking a flying leap off the sill, and plunging straight into her.
At the sound of a floorboard creaking in the corridor, I throw the curtain closed and strike a senseless pose with my hands in my pocket, gazing around the room like Colombo. I pretend to be considering the lone photograph. It is of Nadeem, Javaria, and an elderly bearded man whom I presume to be the grandfather. Javaria is flanked on either side by the two men. Standing in front of her is a version of Ismael from before I knew him. He grips his father’s hand. Balanced in her mother’s arms, glancing askew, is a young Khadija. They stand in a sea of teeming bodies. Everyone is clad in the same featureless white garments. Behind them rises a strange cubical structure, immense, made of clean black granite and ornamented in gold motifs of dizzying complexity. Above the photograph hangs a shadow box, the sort bug collectors use to display their exotic moths and millipedes, only this one contains a single vial of water not much bigger than a mini-bar bottle of Dewar’s.
“That was taken at the 2003 hajj,” Javaria’s voice says behind me. I turn, acting half-startled. “We wanted to go as a family while Nadeem’s father was still in good health, but I wish we had waited another year or two. Khadija can just barely remember it.” She stands in the doorway, a morose, conservative, but not unbeautiful corollary to her daughter. I notice she does not cross the threshold, either because it would be improper for us to be alone in a room together, or for less dogmatic reasons. “Mickey. You’ve been such a good friend to us over the years. Nadeem and I were hoping, if you don’t have plans, that you would care to join us for supper tonight.”
I’m more thrown off guard than if she had proposed we lie down in her son’s unmade bed for a quicky. Such a good friend? We’ve barely spoken in the last four years.
Then again, maybe this is more a case of banding together, an instinct to salvage what few allies they have left. After all, we now both fall in the category of local pariahs. By that I mean we are both, the Mubaraks and I, subjects of malign gossip for Judson Bottom. In a way Ismael has supplanted me, the adulterous police officer, as everyone’s favorite scandal and degenerate oddity. For that I ought to be grateful. For that I ought to at least accept his mother’s invitation. But it’s with much hesitancy and second-guessing that I reply, “I’m off work at six.”
At my cubicle I page through the assorted hate mail. I start with someone who at least bothered to invent a satirical return address: T. Jefferson/ 1776 Liberty Lane/ Philadelphia, PN 19106. Unfortunately, this is the extent of any scathing wit. The writer begins a harangue, an emotional screed cut-and-pasted from various right-wing campaign speeches. Casual threats are sprinkled throughout about arriving on the Mubaraks’ doorstep with a well-regulated militia. This first letter is more or less representative of the rest. They could be addressed to anyone from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Dr. Frankenstein, so universal is the torches-and-pitchforks sentiment. One thing is clear and invariable: these people are scared. Terrified. It is so contagious that even I, in the course of my reading, start to feel anxious right along with them. And then I remember, somewhat in awe, that I’ve agreed to dine tonight with the barbarians alluded to in these letters.
I glance up at a wallet-sized picture of Bruno tacked to the gray partition. Seven years old. It seems like a cruel paradox that Nadeem, who is admittedly Father of the Century held up to me, has to grapple with a son intent on blowing up the world, while my own ardently explores every avenue toward self-betterment. Is the difference as trite as one being Muslim and one not? I guess I could sleep a hell of a lot easier if I chalked it up to that.
“You’re either deep in thought or trying to lay an egg.” Wojcik manifests behind me, gesturing at the heap of envelopes. “Going over a little correspondence?”
I summarize my day in about two sentences, from Lloyd’s knowledge of Ismael to the throngs of media congesting Buckley Street.
“Son of a bitch,” he growls. “Someone leaked.” And that’s all I need to hear to know it was him. He let it leak, either to Joanne or someone on the force or, hell, a fellow dart thrower. It’s that clumsy pretense of anger that gives him away. If he had just shrugged and said something like, “It was bound to happen sooner or later,” then maybe I would have bought it. Maybe. Anyway, what’s the difference? It was bound to happen sooner or later. And he starts redeeming himself by promising to increase patrol around their house. “At least till this whole shit storm blows over.”
"If it blows over,” I say. “You know how long it takes this town to forget. We still gossip about Mayor Adderley’s pot-smoking scandal and he retired in 2012. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see a U-Haul parked out front instead of press vans.”
“Maybe a fresh start isn’t the worst idea.”
A fresh start. To word it that way makes it sound so unattainable. Otherwise Valerie and I would be mulling wine in our Washington bungalow, fly fishing in the mountains, making love that echoes across the Cascades.
“Speaking of your rustler,” Wojcik says. “He gave up the name of his girlfriend. She’ll probably get off with a little bit of probation. Her rap sheet is fairly spotless compared to his.”
“Fine,” I say, half listening.
“I think we both could do with a drink,” he discerns. “Fifty-cent wings at Blue Bricks tonight?”
I almost take him up on it, then remember at the last moment: “I have dinner plans. Rain check though.”
“Your brother in town?”
How does anyone become Chief of Police who can’t even affect a decent poker face? Again he gives himself away. He has never directly asked me about the other woman. Instead he fishes around for clues. The fact is that nobody, not even Rhonda, can attach a name or face to Valerie. She is an abstraction, a campfire story among insecure spouses, and I very much aim to keep it that way.
“Actually, Nadeem and Javaria invited me to eat with them.”
A week ago he might have said, who? Now he just gawks and waits for a punchline. “How considerate . . . I suppose they’re keen on ingratiating themselves as much as possible.”
“We go back,” I frown, seated in the tract of his shadow. “You know that. Bruno and Ismael were close.”
He glances around and lowers his voice. In the adjacent cubicle I can hear Flipse squeak his chair as he leans in to eavesdrop. Flipse, who should have been the one evicting paparazzi from the Mubaraks’ front lawn. “Look, I can appreciate that you want to help your friends through a rough patch. I would want to do the same. But we’re policemen, and their son is an aspiring terrorist. Jesus, Mickey, you’re not that dense. Think about public perception. Will people really be convinced we’re combating this sort of ideology when you’re out there chumming it up with the immediate family of a national traitor? Let those words sink in a moment, for Christ’s sake.”
“It’s not an ideology anyone else in the house shares.”
“And up until three days ago, no one knew it was an ideology Ismael shared.”
“I get your point,” I say calmly, believing I can subdue him by example. “I do. But I think it would be a mistake not to try and figure out where this kid’s head was at for the past few years. I consider it police work, going over there tonight. There are bound to be signs when someone is headed down a road this extreme. I want to learn how to read them.” Flipse clears his throat. I feel like snatching Wojcik’s coffee out of his hand and dumping it over the partition. Instead I go on, “I don’t know about you, Chief, but this is a different world from the one I grew up in. Maybe everyone else can afford to bitch and feel bitter about it, but not cops.”
I wear him down with my sermonizing. It’s not a difficult thing to do. He even tells me good work today before heading to the kitchenette for a refill. Seconds later, Flipse gets up and strides purposefully in the same direction.
My second day as a rookie. We got a call to 20th and Bolivar. Some tenant had gazed across the street and seen a man collapsed on his balcony.
It was mid-February, the gutters packed with slush, the pavement entrenched between dirty heaps of snow. Fanged icicles threatened to plummet from the rooftops like desperate embezzlers. Beauford and I were nearby, so we arrived ahead of the paramedics. We checked at the office whether anyone was working who could give us a key, otherwise we would have to break down the door. As it happened, someone was there, a polite black woman so wide she literally had to angle herself through the doorway. She helped us estimate which unit the man must belong to, passing the key to Beauford from an array of them hanging on a pegboard inside a locked cabinet.
Beauford gave the key to me. “Go open the door for the paramedics.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll stay behind and direct them where to go.”
Couldn’t the office woman do that? He was helping himself to a handful of candy from a glass jar on her desk. “Hustle,” he said. “And check if he’s breathing.”
The elevator smelled like mothballs and was the size of a broom closet, its interior scarred with jackknife graffiti. Just wide enough for a stretcher, I thought. I pushed the button for the fifth story and rode up alone, hardening myself for the likelihood that this would be my first body on the force. An indelible moment, but I couldn’t afford to think of it that way, not at the time. The doors clamored open. I stepped out, key in hand, and approached the unit which the office lady had approximated. The hall was wallpapered, dreary, the windows at either end glazed in frost. No sirens had yet drawn the tenants from their foxholes to gather and gossip. One of the units at the opposite end was wide open. I could hear a TV and the tolling of pots and pans. Habitually, I knocked on the door in front of me. When there was no reply, I forced the key into the lock. The brass knob was icy to the touch.
Some movement in the corner of my eye stole my attention. I turned and saw it was a little boy, a toddler wearing just his diaper with a head full of neat little curls. He sucked on his finger and watched me with the same numb amusement of someone watching a squirrel scramble up a tree. Then a woman squawked—“Daniel!”—and appeared to swoop him up in her arms. She cast a wordless look in my direction, returning inside with her baby, and slammed the door. All was still again.
Walking inside, my first impression was of a meat freezer, and it sickened me how spot-on I turned out to be. I was greeted by the occult harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas. The radio was playing. To this day, “California Dreaming” turns me as frigid as if I were back in that apartment. His balcony door was open. A few startled cats darted away under the furniture, like cockroaches do when you flick on a light switch. I didn’t even get a chance to count them.
He lay there, one arm reaching into the apartment, the rest of him quilted in a sheet of fine snow. A white death shroud. I knelt beside the body, shivering as cold gusts blew in off Lake Michigan. His face was crusted with frost, his mustache reduced to wispy gray icicles. The man was hispanic. That much was still obvious, even though his face had waned blue, offering a grotesque contrast to his bloodshot eyes. They didn’t bulge exactly, but they were fixed, with a mixture of awe and submission, on the firmament above. Corrupted by horror movies as a child, I kept waiting for them to blink. If they had I probably would’ve drawn my gun. Ambulance sirens budded in the distance.
I checked for a pulse for decorum’s sake, then walked away to evaluate the apartment. It was a small one-bedroom place. I gathered that he lived alone, even though there were several pictures of him smiling with a wife and kids. In his wedding portrait, he and his wife exhibited late Seventies tastes, e.g. lots of hairspray, her coiffure carefully coiled and balanced like a great buoy atop her head, her white dress studded with rhinestones around the neckline. She held a bouquet of pink gardenias. His tuxedo was cornflower blue with a metallic blue bowtie and cummerbund. I stared at the picture for a long time before moving on. A brown leather jacket was slung over the only chair at the kitchen table. Some empty Modelo bottles cluttered the coffee table. I made the mistake of reading the name printed on a gas bill. Jorge León Echeverría. I tried my best to forget it.
His ancient wood-paneled TV had bunny ears pointing north, fastened with Scotch tape. On the kitchen countertop, through the microwave window, I could trace the shape of something inside, so I opened the door to find a TV dinner in a plastic tray. Salisbury steak, green beans, mac and cheese. The Saran wrap was slit. A steak knife lay nearby on the countertop. Dinner, music, beer. A cigarette out on the balcony? Then what? A heart attack? Stroke?
The sirens grew louder until finally I heard doors slamming five stories below. Take your time, I thought, entering the bedroom, imagining myself as some Collecting Angel. My client’s soul was waiting in a cherub-drawn carriage while I performed a routine audit, compiling details into a first-hand report that would eventually wind up on the Big Man’s desk.
It was a sad, single man’s room with space for little else besides a twin bed and a dresser. No windows. Something very monastic about its starkness, enhanced by a crucifix above the bed, a portrait of Mary on the west wall, and a rosary hooked onto an oval mirror surmounting the dresser. I studied the other odds and ends strewn on its surface. There were cheap black and gold cufflinks, an ashtray piled with butts, a wristwatch with a broken band, a new band that would never replace the old, and a velvety black ring box. I opened up the box to find a set of diamond earrings. A gift never given. Never given to whom? A wife? An ex-wife, in a show of remorse? A daughter? A new girlfriend? They were in the shape of crescent moons and glittered like starlight amid the rest of the drab surroundings. They appeared to be of high quality, despite the man’s obviously meager subsistence.
I looked at myself in Jorge’s—in the dead man’s cloudy mirror. Each jet of visible breath struck me as priceless, something which, if not so ephemeral, could be bartered with or even sold by mortals who subscribed to a quality-over-quantity outlook. How would the free market determine the worth of a man’s life? Would it depend upon the man, and if so, would that negate all notions of equality? Does equality become the x-axis, zero value, with the line of a person’s life fluctuating above and below? Would it depend on current events: the S&P rating of Planet Earth at a given time?
Death can lead to some pretty tangential thinking when you let it. I learned early on not to let it, ill at ease with the conclusions I was drawing.
Soon I heard the elevator chime out in the hallway.
A bottle of wine is out of the question. Normally that’s the standard prop to bring to this sort of thing. I settle for a pie. A peach pie, I think, but what does it really matter, so long as it’s not pork. I try not to dwell on the strange providence. Buying a pie at Ismael’s former place of employment to bring to a dinner which wouldn’t be taking place if he hadn’t—well, gone astray.
When I arrive, the press vans are gone, but there are still two photographers out front, their private vehicles parked at the curb. I put down my kickstand and retrieve the intact pie from my travel bag. Being in plainclothes allows me to abuse these goons however I want. I settle for a seething “Fuck off,” startling them from behind, and climb the stairs, feeling their eyes and lenses on my back. Again, Nadeem answers the door. Again, I slide off my shoes. We act as though everything is perfectly ordinary, but I can’t help wondering in what backwater gazette a picture will appear of me holding a pie.
Apple, as it turns out.
“You’re just in time,” Nadeem takes it from my hands. “Supper is ready and Khadija just set the table.”
We enter the large kitchen/dining room and there she is filling the last of the water glasses, wearing a navy dress and black stockings with a black headband camouflaged in her hair. Javaria, dressed to a similar level of formality but with her trademark hijab, offers me a seat. Nadeem rummages around in the fridge and brings me, of all things, a cold bottle of Spotted Cow.
“This is what you drink, correct?”
“You didn’t have to—”
“It’s no trouble,” he smiles, and pries off the cap. I’m touched, but I also feel like they’re confusing me with someone more important, someone who has the clout to redeem their reputations. Meanwhile, Khadija is doing her best not to look at me. Whenever our eyes meet, it is fleeting and accidental. Were I in her skin, I would probably see my parents as behaving obsequiously, pandering to a great white hope.
We all sit down around a ceramic platter of something called Kabuli Pulao. Before digging in, Nadeem bows his head and whispers an Arabic prayer under his breath that is only a few lines long. I barely have time for awkwardness, or feeling out of place. In truth, I’d been expecting something much more dramatic, uncertain if they would break out the prayer mats and face Mecca as I stood by twiddling my thumbs. The family ends in unison, “Allahu Akbar.” Their heads rise casually, as if nothing has transpired.
From what I can tell, the entrée, the Kabuli Pulao, is rice blended with raisins and carrots, as well as meat cutlets which I’m told are lamb. There is a basket of naan bread and a pungent mint spread. My favorite, though, has to be the dumplings. Mantu, Nadeem calls them. They are bursting with minced onion beef, incomparable to any dumpling I’ve tried before. I shower compliments on Javaria’s cooking, reciprocating with some pandering of my own, trying to remember the last time I ate anything this wholesome, this flavorful. Saffron, coriander, cracked black pepper I can feel in my sinuses. And yes, the beer pairs quite nicely. It reminds me a little of an Indian restaurant in Milwaukee where I took Rhonda on our first date.
We keep the conversation light. Javaria explains to me about halal meat, halal meaning “permissible”. She says the animal’s throat must be slit and that Allah’s name must be invoked during the slaughter. Then it is hung upside down until the carcass is bled dry. Eating blood is not permissible to Muslims, i.e. no medium rare steaks. There are also restrictions on what the animal’s diet must have been during its lifetime.
“I’m sure Mickey finds all this very interesting,” Nadeem grimaces at one point. “But perhaps not when he is trying to eat.”
Javaria blushes and apologizes, but I assure her it’s impossible to curb my appetite. I ask whether she has to seek out a special butcher to find these halal products. “No, nowadays you can buy them at Costco,” she answers earnestly, as if to prove a point: that ease of access signifies successful cultural assimilation.
When everyone has eaten their fill, Nadeem suggests that we wait and let ourselves digest before slicing into my pie. “In the meantime,” he turns to Khadija, “maybe Mr. Fontanel would care to see your diagram.”
Mr. Fontanel. It takes me a moment to realize my father is not in the room. Why does that sound so much older than Detective Fontanel, or Officer Fontanel? I expect Khadija to roll her eyes and make some droll comment. Instead she dabs her lips on her napkin, nodding compliantly.
Nadeem explains to me, “Khadija is applying for a scholarship sponsored by the Muslim Women’s Association. She wants to go to a nice school, somewhere on the West Coast. I told her she had better start raising funds then. We’ll help as much as we can, but . . . of course we’ll see what we can do.” The first instance of dead air prevails. We can all follow Nadeem’s train of thought. How many funds set aside for Ismael’s tuition are now freed up for his sister?
I try bringing back the levity by asking Khadija what she wants to study.
“Law,” she answers. The word drops like a heavy coin, conjuring up some of its original profundity. Lady Justice and her blindfold. The equally balanced scales.
“Any branch in particular?”
She leads me upstairs to her bedroom a short while later. I take it as no small show of trust that her parents stay behind to clear the table and divvy the pie.
Her diagram charts the rise of homelessness, particularly homeless veterans, in the United States, all the way back from Vietnam. It is sharp and professional looking, taking up three whole easels which dominate most of the floor space in her room. She reads me a few cursory statistics in a monotone book-report voice, careful to stay as impersonal with me as humanly possible. (“Did you know, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, an estimated 89,000 orphans experienced living on the street during the 2013-2014 school year?“)
I take a look around her room, satisfied to find it much more representative of an average teenager than Ismael’s. There are picture collages of family and friends. On the dresser by her bed stands a framed senior portrait—always distinguishable by their poise and campiness—of a handsome black male in a baby blue sweater and oxford shirt, leaned against a tree with a football tucked under his arm.
When she is done vomiting statistics by rote, I ask her, “Is this what your sources by the train tracks are all about? Doing some investigative reporting?”
“Actually, it’s the other way around,” she answers stiffly. “They helped inspire my topic. You know,” she goes on, like she is suddenly glad I brought up the matter, “they’ve all experienced a form of police brutality somewhere down the line. Jasper was held down and tasered once for urinating behind a bush. And Hawaii woke up in Indiana to a bunch of cops kicking him half to death.”
“Sorry, did you say Hawaii woke up in Indiana?” The line strikes me as a piece of clever ecological poetry.
“He’s a runaway,” she says. “An orphan, like I cited in my report. He changed his name for safety reasons. He grew up on a Choctaw reservation. His life was terrible there. He says he’s always wanted to go to Hawaii, ever since he was a kid and saw it advertised on the side of a bus. Plus, he just likes the sound of it.” I pick a porcelain figurine off her shelf depicting a panther hunched into a death stalk. Its body is adorned in a genuine silk tunic. “His name’s not really the point.” She grabs it out of my hand, sets it back in place, not betraying any anger on her face, just a fundamental orderliness, a wish that no evidence remains of my visit.
“Have they experienced any abuse in Judson Bottom?”
“Nothing quite as bad,” she concedes.
“If they do, I hope you’ll be my go-between and report it back to me.”
She gives me a sidelong inspection, trying to decide whether I’m being glib or authentic. “—Everyone hates us now,” she states, catching me off guard.
“Not true. It’s not that simple.”
Khadija stares at her poster boards so intently that I half expect her to rip them down and break one over her knee. “My dad went to the sporting goods store today. You know what he brought back for me? Pepper spray.”
“Lots of women carry it,” I say. “It’s not a bad idea.”
“It’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because I’m a Muslim. Can we not beat around the bush?” She stacks the diagram panels neatly and stands them in the corner, then starts collapsing the easels. The method of it seems to appease her, the systematic breaking down of something. “It’s because of Ismael and it makes me sick. Seeing my parents so scared. I actually heard my mom talking about moving last night.”
“Well,” I think back to Wojcik’s words. “Everyone’s entitled to a fresh start.”
“Don’t think I’ll miss this town or anything.” Unsure what to do with her hands now that the diagram is disassembled, she wipes them on her dress, pathologically trying to remove some nonexistent stain. “But my friends are here. He’s over there actually hoping he gets blown up. That’s all fine and good for him, but what about us?” She sits down on the bed.
“It’ll be hard, but you’ll cope. Just like any other death in the family.” I feel overly tall and exposed standing in the middle of the room.
“I can’t help thinking: what if it was a ruse? What if the person who was supposed to smuggle him into Syria actually sold him into slavery or something? That sort of thing still happens, you know. In a way, that would be justice, wouldn’t it?” She looks up, prepared to gauge some abhorrent judgement on my face. “I know it’s a callous thing to say, because he’s my brother. I just… I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop wondering.”
“Thanks for your honesty.” I can’t tell if she means it.
“It will fade in intensity, but he’ll always be there, cropping up from time to time. Until you learn something definite.” Thinking back now to Sonia Matterwahl.
“Nothing’s definite. If there’s a takeaway from any of this, that’s it, isn’t it?”
Someone starts up a weed whacker outside. A warm breeze, redolent of grass clippings, ruffles her peacock curtains. Without warning, her body suffers a kind of twitch. Her face disappears inside her hands, holding it the way a priest holds a Communion chalice. There is nothing for me to say—she has evidently learned the hardest part at too young an age—so I sit down beside her on the bed. “No,” she mutters between sobs, even as she leans into my shoulder. My left arm encircles her, a protective impulse not quite paternal. I let her rest there, feeling her tears seep through my shirt, hearing the secure clatter of dishes being rearranged downstairs. I just sit there and let her cry.