I only know two things for certain. Her name is Mandie and I am her father. If I hold that thought, I can get through anything. Time means nothing in this box. I’ve lost track of how old she is. But soon she’ll be a young lady. Even though I’ve never seen her, I know she’s as beautiful as her mother. Her birth certificate said her eyes were hazel. She got that from me, poor kid. Her mother’s eyes were intoxicating. Gold flecks floating in deep sable -- framed by long, dark lashes.
“Duello?” Lyle’s voice sniffled from the speaker. How I hate his nasal drip.
“Yeh. Is that Lyle?” Lyle was one of the four on my pit crew who watched me day and night. Bob, Mac, Loch and Lyle. It’s always important to know which one was there. Bob is not so bad but the rest are dickheads and I have to be on my guard.
“We have the Seattle lawyer on the phone." Lyle sniffed. "Before I patch you through, I need to warn you that your conversation will be taped. Do you understand Duello?”
“Screw your tape. That I und’stand.” My voice broke. The idea of talking to someone from home was almost too much.
I’m nervous and antsy. The skin on my face crawls with nervous energy. Sweat is pouring down my forehead, stinging my eyes. I stepped out of my briefs and dried my face. Are they messing with me? How long has it been since I’ve talked to someone in the real world? I stood completely naked, kneading my briefs into a ball. My eyes were fixed on the speaker as if it could transport me to Seattle.
The speaker crackled. I heard a faint “Hello.” Then a little louder, “Hello?”
I can't help yelling. “Hello! This is Brad Duello. Hello?”
“I think we have a bad connection but I’ll speak up. This is Francis Taynen. Is that you, Mr. Duello?”
At the sound of my name I remembered I was naked and hopped around to get my briefs back on.
“Yes, Mr. Taynen. Thank you for taking my call.”
“They, whoever they are, woke me out of a sound sleep, Mr. Duello. I’m pretty groggy. It’s 3:00 A.M. in Seattle. Where are you?”
“Oh hell, I don’t even know. I can’t tell you. But it’s afternoon here. Mr. Taynen, I’m being held against my will and I don’t know why. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I’ve heard from no one.” My voice was quivering. I was losing it. The room began to spin. I took a deep breath and tried to get a grip.
“Mr. Duello, you have been gone for five years.” When he said 'five' my knees buckled and I ended up on my hands and knees. “Mr. Duello? Are you there? Mr. Duello?”
“Your connection is still operable Mr. Taynen. Stand by.” Lyle snuffled.
At the sound of Lyle’s voice, I focused my entire hatred on the scum that spawned him. He’s a leach sucking away memories and dreams. I shoved myself up from the floor and roared. “Mr. Taynen can you get me out of here? I want to hire you to get me out of here!”
“Well Mr. Duello if you put it that way, how can I refuse?” His voice sounded distant like he had jerked the phone away from his ear.
With real concern in his voice, he asked. “Okay, Mr. Duello. Tell me, are you well? Are you in comfortable quarters?”
“I am healthy. The food is tolerable. But I’m completely alone. I see no one. I only speak to four voices – they aren’t human that I can tell. My cell is all concrete. The furniture’s concrete. There is one opening to the east. The sun rises over the ocean every morning when it’s clear. Jets take off and land at all hours of the day and night. The weather is always the same, hot and humid. Sometimes it rains for days on end. I have no clothes except a pair of briefs.”
“You aren’t allowed outside for exercise? How would you describe your mental state?”
“I’ve never been outside this cell. Five years, Oh madonn. I’ve nothing like books, TV, radio, newspapers, music -- nothing except a soccer ball. I get down sometimes during the long rainy spells. I’ve thought about slitting my wrists but they don’t give me anything sharp.”
“Have they been interrogating you all this time?”
“Yes, but I’ve cooperated the best I can. I love my country, Mr. Taynen. Change the subject or they will disconnect us.”
“Is the questioning rough?” I can tell he’s being careful now also hoping they won’t cut us off.
“No, they play mind games. Salivating dog stuff. Withholding food. Describing malaria fever and how it will be if they take away the quinine. Spraying whiskey like air freshener. Stuff like that. I’m just so God awful bored and sick of it all. I want to go home. Seattle, after five years. Mr. Taynen, why has it taken so long for anyone to notice I’m gone?”
“Well, you disappeared so completely. The authorities thought you drowned.”
“Drowned. Dead? My family thinks I’m dead?”
“Yes. Until the insurance company. Remember the life insurance policy that you took out? The one I arranged.”
“Excuse me Mr. Taynen, let’s talk about getting me out of here before they cut us off.” I started pacing. I couldn’t let this guy spill anything about Mandie. These jerks don’t know she exists. Taynen set up her adoption. I had to get him off this insurance talk without alerting the crew. Fuck. This must be why the dickheads set up the phone call. Just another trick. Just another mind game. Get my hopes up, so I’ll let things slip.
“I have a brilliant civil rights lawyer on my staff. Her name is Erica Blair. She will assist me. You will hear from her. We will submit papers to secure your release at the Federal Courthouse in Seattle. But this may take time. So try not to get your hopes up for getting home in the next week or two. But, we will get you more freedom while you wait. Things like more comfortable quarters, outside exercise, mail, TV.”
“Mr. Taynen, Mr. Duello, your time is almost up.” Lyle snuffled.
Then my lawyer addressed Lyle and his recording. “I want to formally protest the fact that this organization has breached the attorney-client privilege of myself, Francis Taynen, and Brad Duello by electronically monitoring this conversation. You have also refused to reveal to me the location and condition of my client, Mr. Duello. This organization has incarcerated Mr. Duello while inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. It has denied Mr. Duello counsel for five years. All these facts will be made known to the federal judge in a formal complaint and request for redress. And you, Mr. Frank, may be held personally liable for denying my client his basic civ...”
Total silence. I moved closer to the speaker to check, but it was dead. With any luck Lyle had only cut me off. I hoped Taynen would be reading Frank the riot act for a good while longer. Well now, Lyle Frank. Now I have your first and last name. Something good to go on. Some way to find you later. Maybe give you a dose of your own medicine. Let you know how it is to have all you are, all you love, at someone else's mercy. There will be no mercy, Lyle Frank. I’ll find you and you’ll spill everything you know about the other three.
“Duello?” Lyle’s voice sliced the silence. He must have blown his nose. “We arranged for your lawyer to call again. It will be early morning so we don’t get him out of bed. Duello, do you hear me? Capeesh?”
“No gratitude at all I see.” Lyle snuffled. I looked into the camera and gave him the finger. Lyle chuckled. “I’m goin’ to miss you too, you gutless wonder.”
I must have looked surprised. He said. “Yep, our time together is drawing to an end. Tomorrow you’ll get up early, shave and shower. We’ll have a pair of khaki shorts, a T-shirt, flip-flops and a ball cap for you. You will be decked out like you’re on vacation. There will be a tube of sun screen – use it everywhere exposed to the sun. And remember the top of your ears. And brush your teeth. Have you got all that?”
“Am I leaving this shit hole for good?”
“Absolutely.” Lyle snuffled. “These luxury accommodations are reserved for High Value Occupancy. Your status has slipped to 'nobody of interest'.”
“Best news I’ve had in years.” I hoped he was through. Just for once, let it go. Let me get a nap before dinner. And for a while it was quiet. I relaxed and unbraided my hair. Itched my scalp hard all over then rebraided it.
“Life insurance.” Lyle brightened. “Someone’s going to be mighty sorry when you show up alive and kicking. Aren’t they, Duello? No payout for Sisy. Nothing to show for the bruises. No good times toasting the dearly departed.”
Quiet again. Good. Maybe he’ll just let it go. I started to nod off. “Duello?” Lyle snuffled. “Is that why you didn’t ask the guy to contact your wife?”
“I think you cut us off before I could ask him.” I replied as calmly as I could. “You cut us off about the time Taynen used your last name, Mr. Frank. Frank the fucked. Sounds like you’re a Jew boy. Maybe even a miserable Israeli. That’s good. That’s real good. I’m glad. Now leave me alone.”
He shut up and so did I. Lyle had paperwork to finish before going off duty. I slept until the buzzer woke me. Mac was up and my last supper in Cell Block ISO had arrived.
On my last night in that pit box, the full moon pushed up out of the ocean just at sunset. It was beautiful enough to break your heart. I wondered about Sisy. Was she somewhere looking at the moon and thinking about me? Somehow it didn’t seem likely. Lyle was right. It was odd that I had not asked Taynen to contact my mother or Sisy.
For five years they have believed I drowned in the Green River. I guess everyone thought I fell off the bridge. But Sisy wouldn’t. She knew better than anyone else that I would never slip and fall. During our first year married, she called me such silly names. Like Rope Master or her Love Knot. I know she was as proud of my agility on the rigging as I was.
Once when she came to the job site, I pretended I didn’t know she was there, faked a fall and hung limp at the end of my rope. Sisy screamed; convinced I’d broken my back. Then I’d righted myself and she got so mad that she’d been taken in. She said I would make her lose her mind. Sisy’s brother, Juan, told her it was just a dumb Italian courtship display and she’d better ignore it or end up with a nest full of bambinos.
Sisy and I should never have gotten married. I think we both knew that when we got to our first anniversary and there was no sign that kids were on the way. Kids are a big deal in both our families and I was getting a shit-load of grief from my brothers. They asked me if I was shooting blanks. They reminded me of the ‘impotance’ of being potent.
My grandmother and her knowing sighs really got to me. She’d slip me packets of old Italian love potions and whisper, “It worked for Nonno and me in the old country. Just look at this hoard?” Then she’d sweep her hand toward the wall of family photos. Fifty direct descendants made up her Italian brood.
All the family pressure was one of the reasons I went after the job with the Canadian construction firm. They promised good money for work in foreign countries. Iran was in the middle of an industrial boom. They needed painters who could paint oddly shaped industrial structures. That was my expertise and Iran had some of the oddest shapes I’ve ever seen. I could rig ropes, hang by my heels and draw myself under an overhang 50 feet up in the air. Then I’d start up the spray pack and paint a surface that hadn’t seen paint since the place was built. My rope suspension let me move back and forth to get every last square inch.
But when I got back from Iran, our marriage was rocky. I put in a lot of hours trying to start my own business as a paint contractor. The business should have been a sure thing but I started drinking, a lot, to bury painful memories.
Sisy signed us up for marriage counseling. He told us to rev up our sex life. Sisy suggested bondage to me because of the ropes. I have to admit, I liked tying her up like a Christmas package. I could lace the ropes so they would hold her tight but then they’d easily pull away as if by magic. But she wasn’t really impressed. “You know Brad,” she complained, “you can’t substitute rope tying for foreplay.” That hurt, I was never very good at that. Too much of a hurry all the time.
I can’t believe it. Only one more night. It’s going to be a long one. I hope I’ve kept myself in tone after five years in this eight-foot box. All the calisthenics, stretching and balance exercises I’ve done just to pass the time and stay sane. And the soccer ball they gave me a year or two ago. I can do things with that ball that would make the pros sit up and take notice.
Taynen was shocked to hear that the cell and furniture were concrete. It’s actually the best thing in this hot house. Anything else would rot out in a couple months. I can keep the concrete clean. No problem with bugs. The surface stays cool to the touch and that’s a blessing. And my lower back pain was history after a month or two of sleeping on that concrete ledge.
My only link to the outside is a strange opening facing east. It’s like a large, open tunnel that drains the box. There’re bars on my side of the tunnel. Just beyond my reach is a fine screen that keeps out most bugs and mosquitoes. Then beyond that is a ledge where birds, insects and moths sometime land and rest. I can’t name them but I bet that bastard Vladimir could clip off the name of every one.
Vladimir is the reason I’m here. I’m sure of that. After years of looking at every angle and possibility, it’s the only thing that makes sense. The Russian shit. No that’s wrong. He was from Azerbaijan. Baku, Azerbaijan. But he was born in the old USSR so he’s a fucking Russian.
He’s some kind of hot shot chemical engineer. PhD. A couple of years younger than me, I think. We both lived at the Foreign Worker Housing Unit in Arak, Iran. A strange place that reminded me somehow of a Star Wars movie. Our paths would have never crossed but he was looking to improve his English. He didn’t want a British accent. When he found out I was from Seattle, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. American Motley, he called it. The holy grail for foreigners learning English. But he was never grateful. He was a fanatic and a mean drunk. He put away Vodka like I drank beer.
It was his fault that I had to cut short my stay in Iran. I was making good money and having the time of my life. It was September 1994, my first time outside the U.S.A. Vladimir was in my room one night grilling me about colleges. He wanted to be a university professor. I told him the only thing I knew about college was that you went there to find jocks and jills. I only graduated high school. Then, right out of the blue, he demanded to know how much money I was making. I told him, and tried to change the subject to football.
He narrowed his eyes and hissed, “You are just a wanking tradesman. You piss-head. I should earn more.” Without any warning, he just went berserk. He charged me, shoving the top of his head into my gut. I was gasping for air as we went down on the floor together -- ass over elbow. We were both too drunk to keep this up long. Vladimir shook me and said in his best British accent, “Give way, enough I tell you.” He staggered to his feet, then stood there wobbling with his arms out to steady him.
“Balance, balance is the most important thing in my life and Annia will be my wife. I am a poet, Seattle, and you are a shithead.” He grabbed my wrist to help me up and at the same time stomped down squarely onto my ankle. I squalled in pain and tried to topple him off me. But he ground his boot heel into my ankle bones and pulled all the harder on my arm. I don’t know why the bones didn’t crack.
Was it an accident? Hell no. Vladimir hated me for a lot of reasons and he wanted me gone. He didn’t break my bones. But, the pain and swelling were so bad I wasn’t going to be doing any aerial work for at least a month. I taped up the joint and the foreman put me on a wall and ceiling crew, but that only lasted about three hours. I couldn’t stand any longer than that.
As a last resort, the company sent me to a facility several miles away and put me to work in some tunnels. I could lie back on the roof of the rail tram and easily paint the overhead arches. It was ideal duty for a gimp. If I’d been able to do that for a month, I would have gotten back to the aerial painting.
The crew boss gave me a fancy respirator and something in a square envelope to keep in my shirt pocket. He told me to guard the envelope and respirator filters as if they were my pay check. If I did not turn them in for new ones, I wouldn’t get paid for the shift.
I got used to the tight spaces and was doing really well. But after a week, the crew boss came by my room and said he was sorry but I’d maxed out my dose. I asked what that meant, but he just shrugged and handed me a large envelope. I was out of the tunnels and the company wasn’t about to let me lie around waiting for my ankle to mend. That would be a violation of my work permit. The envelope held a report in Russian, a pink slip in English, termination pay in Canadian, and a one-way Griffin Air ticket.
It was Bob who laid things out clearly for me. Bob never played games. According to him, each square envelope held a dosimeter that measured my exposure to radiation. And here I thought I’d dosed out on paint fumes working in such tight, airless spaces. He said that reaching my monthly dose level in just 40 hours was hard for the nuclear experts to explain. Bob said that whether I knew it or not I held the answer to an important riddle. He said we’d work together to figure it out. Solving it would give the USA enough warning to stop a nuclear war. Then I’d be a hero like Paul Revere. But I didn’t want to be a hero, I just wanted to go home.
For a long while I worried that being in isolation had something to do with the radiation exposure. I was afraid I might be dying. But that was an idea for Alice’s hole. I’d walked around Seattle for seven years before getting here and no one had dropped dead around me. Finally, I figured out that Bob was asking the wrong question. Vladimir held the answer to the riddle not me. I never reached any kind of maximum radiation dose. Vladimir ran the Physical Chemistry Lab at the Arak facility. He must have been in charge of testing the dosimeters. The bastard could have faked my results. He wanted me gone in the worst way.
But that’s water under the bridge. I spent months, years pouring over maps, diagrams and aerial photos. There were lists, invoices, memos, and reports to think about. Bob even resorted to analyzing Freudian slips, ink blots, word associations, and dream analysis to get inside my head. All of this just trying to ferret out what I’d seen in the tunnels and what it meant. Then we mapped out how the tunnels were laid out and just where they went. I felt I was becoming some kind of expert on one of Iran’s nuclear facilities. At least an expert on arches and how to tell if they’re “hardened” or “shielded.”
I struggled trying to decide if I should just tell them about Vladimir. I even fantasized about making up things about the asshole so the CIA could use their license to kill. But in the end, I never said anything. I just couldn’t take the chance. On the other end of his dog line was Mandie.
Bob was damn good at his job. He knew I was holding something back. So while Bob stayed square, the other three started the fucking mind games. Good cop/bad cops. It should break anyone but I grew up where it was pounded into you to keep your mouth shut. A squeal would be silenced.
Mac almost caught me out. Now Mac is no brighter than me. So I tend to let down my guard with him when I shouldn’t. My screw up happened about a year after I got here. The powers-that-be wanted to explore my memory using word association. Real scientific like. Random words were generated by a computer using numbers that I picked out. Then the computer would look for patterns in my answers.
“Okay, Duello, you know the drill. Don’t think. Just answer. Give me two numbers between one and fifty.”
“Two, ten.” I said as I looked at my hands.
“Okay, I have the list. Get comfortable. Don’t think, just say the first thing that pops into your head. Ready?”
And then he was gone. He had switched off his mike. There was no telltale static in the speaker. But, I had screwed up when I said Polonius. He’s going to know that’s not something a working stiff would know about. And I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Annia and our death scene on the balcony. But now I have to give my best performance; the cameras are still on. He can still see me fidget.
The static was back in the speaker. “Duello are you awake?” Mac was trying to sound calm and in control but his voice had that higher pitch that said he was pissed.
“Are we done?” I said hopefully.
“No, I need to check something. What did you say after I said FATHER?”
“You told me not to think. Check your tape.” I taunted him.
“The tape was too close to the end when we started. It didn’t catch the last words.” He confessed. This is what I liked about Mac; he would own up to being human.
“Well it can’t be that important.” I said relieved that he had lost my slip up.
“Probably not.” He said hoping I’d think he really didn’t care. “But I have to put something down. Any idea at all?”
“My mind is a blank slate. Just like you said.”
“Okay. Well, I’m going to make a guess. It sounded to me like you said ‘polonium.’ Was that it?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re right.”
"Boy, I don’t know. What’s the connection between polonium and father? Can you help out with that?”
I was sweating now and stalled for time. “What is polonium?”
“It’s a particularly lethal byproduct of uranium decay. It’s one of the radioactive elements. Help me with this Brad.”
I looked up at the ceiling. Where’s the bastard, Vladimir, when I need him? Please, help me protect Annia. Then as if it came out of thin air, I had the answer: “It’s not connected to father; think beer.”
“Beer? Beer? Oh, I sad ‘bud’ and you said ‘beer.’ Just before I said ‘father.’” He backtracked.
“Yeh, it was my 21st birthday. I was all primed to go out and celebrate legally.” Now I decided to lay it on thick. “But, my mother went berserk. She’d heard there was radioactivity contaminating the beer. She just knew I’d die and never reach my 22nd birthday. Cancer. Painful death, huge debt. You know how mothers are. Sure ruins a party when your mom gets that scared. I guess you never really forget something like that.”
“Yeh.” Mac said, not entirely convinced. “I guess so.”
Mac was ready to let it go. The snoops analyzing this factoid could spend the rest of their careers following the rabbit track I’d given them. I realized I could mess with their minds and that made my day.
There are happier ways to while away the night. I’m still too excited to sleep. I’d give anything to know how Jess Gardner was doing. He did real well on the NASCAR circuit in ‘93 and was riding high into1994 when I went to Iran. From there, he was a contender for the Winston Cup more than once. Gardner grew up in Tacoma. He’s almost a hometown boy. I wish I knew how he’s done over the last five years. These lunks around here could never tell me anything. They don’t know NASCAR from kiddy car.
I got to Iran in August 1994. It was hot and dry in Arak. Dust clouds sometimes whipped up off the salt flats and made painting impossible. Completely different from cool, wet Seattle. It was a real body shock. The Canadian construction company understood and spent most of the first week orienting my crew of rookies. The air-conditioned trailer gave some relief from the heat and wind. Along with the standard employment jingle, we learned the 101 ways to get your ass booted home. Little did I know I was going to discover the 102nd way. Or was it really just a variation of #80 – an Iranian woman thinks you’re funny.
My crew would be putting the finishing touches on an industrial complex. It was a bonzer set of curved surfaces. The designer must have been on steroids. Surfaces were either round and bulging or strung out and torqued. It was a big challenge to lay down the paint and I loved every minute. I’d be there yet if it weren’t for the devil heat.
Our housing wasn’t air-conditioned. The walls radiated heat until after midnight. You could hang out at a small canteen that had a swamp cooler or take a shuttle into town. I liked town. It was laid out on a flat plane with mountains in the background. The main bazaar was full of goods and people from Turkey, Russia, India, China and, of course, Iran. Soon, I developed a shrewd eye for the carpets. I couldn’t get enough of looking at them and they were everywhere. I finally chose the best one I could afford and sent it home to Sisy.
I found the Arak library about two weeks after arriving. Its white, thick walls made it noticeably cooler when I stepped inside. I walked through the stacks of books, all in Farsi of course. On a magazine rack, I found a NASCAR issue. I picked it up and went looking for somewhere cool. I came across a stairway that went downstairs. At the top of the stairs was a bulletin board full of hand written signs that I couldn’t read. But one of the signs had a word I knew in large block letters, ENGLISH.
I could see several young men joking around with each other at the bottom of the stairs. Then I heard several girls giggle behind me. They drew their veils across their faces as they passed me and floated down the stairs. The young men greeted them and they all moved off to a place I couldn’t see.
“Are you looking for the English class?” A man asked.
“Well no. I’m looking for a cool place to read.”
“You sound like an American?”
“Canadian. Vancouver. Ay?” I was being overly cautious because Iranians are taught to hate the USA. And, Way #99 for getting your ass booted home was “being an Ugly American.”
“Oh, too bad. But the English class would fancy your participation. We don’t often get to hear English from a native speaker. And, the class is in the cellar where it is cooler by far.” He grinned at me and looked hopeful.
“Fancy? Cellar? By far? What kind of English is that?”
“British, of course. You colonials must hate it as much as I do. I’d give anything to meet an American I could learn from. An American accent would help me secure a professorship teaching Chemistry at an American university.”
Right then, I should have walked away. But the word “cooler” caught my attention in the stuffy air.
“How long is the class?”
“Oh, no time table. People go to and fro. You would not have to remain long. There are also Russian and French classes you could attend. I oversee the Russian class but when the English group meets, not many blokes want to improve their Russian. All the different languages in one place creates a real Babel at times. Latch on and I’ll introduce you. By the way, my name is Vladimir Sarashanoff from Azerbaijan, I’m not from Iran. I’m here with a scientific team.” He held out his hand and I shook it.
“I’m Brad Duello. I’ve spent a good part of my life in Seattle.” I wonder to this day why I said that. Why did I want to be what he was looking for?
“Bravo, bravo.” He said as I followed him down the stairs. There in a circle of folding chairs were the young people who had passed me earlier. There were also others I hadn’t yet seen. Most were in their late teens, probably in high school or college. I was obviously the oldest one there.
“Vladimir, Hello.” Several of the young men called out. “You are late. Whom did you bring?” They used short sentences but they said them well.
Vladimir and I dragged some chairs over. The others scooted their chairs back so we could fit in. Vladimir introduced me and I asked the group to call me Brad. Then each of the young people introduced themselves.
It turned out to be a fun way to spend a hot evening. The young men asked me to correct them if they used the wrong word or if their accent could be improved. The young women said very little. But there was a lot of back and forth that the young ladies found funny. I repeated what the young men said so they could hear the accent. Everyone, including Vladimir, tried to mimic me and get the right sounds. I liked being the center of attention.
One boy asked me. “What do you have Brad?”
I showed everyone the NASCAR magazine and pointed to the car on the cover. “How do you say it?” I asked.
“Machine.” Most of the boys gave the Farsi term.
“English.” I demanded.
Everyone, in unison, said. “Ca.”
“Car.” I growled. “Snarl.”
“Carrrr. Snarl.” They all exaggerated the “r” and laughed at the wrinkled noses around the circle.
The faces of the young men suddenly went slack and gaped at something behind me. Vladimir and I turned to see a beautiful young woman framed in the arch of the door. She had come down the stairs quickly and her golden silk scarf had slipped to her shoulders. Her eyes impishly flashed and twinkled as she found a chair and came toward us. She was carrying a note pad with a white, furry bit of something draped over it.
Vladimir pushed his chair hard into me. I shoved mine back to get out of his way. She put her chair on the other side of Vladimir and sat down. A scent filled my nostrils. Not quite a perfume, but spicy and sultry.
“Annia, you are late. We set out without you.” The comment came from one of the young men who hoped Annia would notice him. I thought about suggesting, “We started without you.” But Vladimir cut me off to introduce me as if I were his glorious find.
“Annia,” Vladimir greeted her happily. “I think you know everyone here except Brad Duello from Canada.”
Annia leaned out so she could see me. Her long, sable hair swept down off her shoulder. She gently moved it back into place. The men in the room, except for Vladimir and me, rarely have seen a woman’s hair in public, especially hair that was this sensual. Her charms threatened to ruin us all, even me. We all tread very carefully around this gorgeous mine field. The other girls picked up on our plight. They made no effort to hide their scorn.
As Annia looked at me, she was still breathing hard and her skin was moist from hurrying. She gave me an impish smile and lifted the limp paw of the furry thing, waving it at me. She said nothing; just gazed at me trying to catch her breath. I was awestruck. Her eyes gripped me like an anaconda. They were dark brown with golden flecks that glittered as she breathed. My mind was numb: she could do whatever she wanted to me. I was hers. As were all the men in the room, including Vladimir.
Then Vladimir broke the spell and I started breathing again. “Brad. This is Annia Sassan. She is from Sarakhs. An oasis on the Silk Road in Iran. She is visiting her family here in Arak.” I nodded at her and resented his superior tone that said in no uncertain terms, ‘She’s mine. Get used to it.’
“How is your mother, Annia?” Vladimir asked.
“She is happy. Thank you for asking.” Annia said. Her voice gave me the most pleasurable feeling at the top of my spine. I relaxed for the first time since she had come into the room.
Then she leaned out again and looked at me. “Did I say it right?” She asked.
I couldn’t look at her because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the words out. “If Vladimir had asked me about my mother, I would have said. ‘She is well. Thank you for asking.’” Everyone repeated, “She is well. Thank you for asking.”
“Why would you not say ‘happy?’” Annia probed boldly.
“‘Happy’ says how she’s feeling. ‘Well’ says how she’s doing, how her health is. Her health is more important than her feelings. It’s why people ask, ‘How is your mother?’” I was sweating now. I wished I could crawl under a rock. The last thing I wanted to do was make this young woman feel stupid.
“You are kind to explain. Thank you, Brad.” The others echoed her. “Thank you, Brad.”
We went back to the routine of speaking, correcting and repeating. I was exhausted and wondered if I should leave. Then Vladimir asked. “If there is a single thing that will help us, what would you recommend, Brad?”
I had no idea what to say. I swallowed hard and said the first thing that came into my head. “Let the sounds slide out from under your tongue.”
Two of the college men tried out my suggestion. They launched into a lively conversation. Their pronunciation sounded natural. We could have been sitting in Starbucks. Their classmates clapped and urged them on. Suddenly their exchange grew heated. They were arguing about politics. As they lost their tempers, they lapsed in and out of Farsi. Now their classmates hooted and booed. Then one of the men jumped up and said. “You cannot do that in a pubic place.”
I sucked in my breath sharply. Everyone turned and looked at me. The one who had spouted off asked me in a smart-ass tone, “What?” A Tacoma punk wouldn’t have said it better.
Everyone was staring at me so I said. “You cannot do that in a public place.” Everyone repeated as they glared at the young man. “You cannot do that in a public place.”
Annia looked around Vladimir. “What did he say that was wrong?”
Vladimir was also looking as if he didn’t get it. They both held my gaze.
“He used a word similar to public. But the word has a very different meaning and would offend.” I could see that one of the Muslim girls was searching her dictionary. She gasped and poked her neighbor. The girl leaned over to see the offending word. Then they showed the third girl. All eyes were on the three. In unison, the girls stood, folded their chairs, hauled them away and rushed up the stairs without saying goodbye.
The punk wanna-be turned on me again. “What? Just tell me what I said wrong.”
I was intensely aware of Annia’s eyes on me. Before anyone could say anything else, I jumped up, folded my chair and stammered. “I-I’m late for my ride.” I was up the stairs and into the cool evening air in record time.
The Muslim girls from the class were talking in a tight group. When they saw me come out, they quickly moved off down the street. Giggling.
I never went back to the English class. There was too much danger there. For several days I didn’t even go into Arak. I didn’t want to run into any of the teens. I wanted to give them time to forget me. I spent several nights in the canteen. The beer was cold and there was a cribbage tournament going on. I played pretty well until there was no one left I could beat. I had put plenty into the pot just for the right to drop out half way through. Each game cost more to enter than the last. By now some big money was riding on the winner. It was the kind of thing I liked and I was sorry when the last hand was dealt.
When it was over, I found myself daydreaming about Annia. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Finally, I thought I knew what the white furry thing was. It had to be a stuffed rabbit skin. A toy that a young girl would have. I shuddered and wondered just how old she was. As I thought about her, I swung back and forth between delight and despair. She was Vladimir’s girl. I was a married man, probably 10 years older than she was. There was no reason I should be thinking about her. Yet I was thinking of her and couldn’t shake off her memory.
The next night I drank too much trying to exorcize her from my head. I told a table full of crew mates about the English Class. Soon they were hooting, pounding on the table and holding their aching sides. Most agreed with me that Vladimir was begging to be thumped. They speculated about where he might live in the Foreign Worker Housing Unit. It was a fairly large facility. Everyone vowed to keep an eye out for him.
An older man said. “Ya know what the Russkies are doing here? Nuclear reactors. You’d think with all this oil the Iranians wouldn’t need to fool around with nuclear energy. I’ve heard they have a string of foreigners here as advisors. Koreans, Chinese, French, Germans.” Everyone vowed to keep an eye out for the Koreans, Chinese, French, and Germans. We were all getting soused. It was great fun for a Saturday night.
None of us needed to go looking for the Soviets. The damn Az found me, knocked on my door, got me out of a cool shower. “Braaaad” he said. “You missed the English Class. Everyone was sorry.” He was swinging a bottle half full of Vodka. “Can I enter? I brought something to preserve us. I am an expert on the chemistry of alcohol you know.” I stepped back, holding my towel around me as he poured himself into my room.
“You are the last person I thought I’d see. Give me a chance to get some clothes on. What are you doing here?”
He looked at me quite surprised. “I told you I want to learn American Motley. It is very important to me so have a bash. If you refuse to come to class, I will come to you for private lessons. I am even willing to pay you.”
“Look Vladimir, there are about 30 men here who speak American. Why pick on me?”
“Do not play the country bumpkin with me, Brad. You were magnificent the other night. You are a natural teacher. Ever consider that? I’m sick with envy."
“I barely made it out of the basement alive.” I muttered.
He looked at me to see if I was serious than began to laugh uncontrollably. “Hey Seattle, do you have a glass? Or, do I have to consume this all in one go?”
I found a glass for him and beer for me. We sat outside where it was cooler. The beer loosened my tongue. I rattled from one topic to another while the Az emptied his bottle. “Seattle, are you out of lager?”
“Beer.” I corrected him.
“Beer. Beer.” He wrinkled his nose to get the sound right. “Annia is someone special. What you might say, da bomb?”
“You haven’t said that to her, have you? You’ll be bombing out of her life, you stupid Az. Don’t even think slang where she’s concerned. Someone will snatch her away from you. She’s special. Anyone can see that.”
I was disgusted with him and clammed up. After a while, he stood up to leave. “Walk with me, I’ll show you where I live.”
I walked with him. My crew mates and I would never have found the Soviets. They lived in a gated compound that required a password to get in. The walk had sobered up the Az but he still had trouble punching in the password.
“Want to take the lift to my flat?” He offered. “I have more vodka.”
“Want to take the elevator to my apartment?” I corrected.
“Do you live here too?” Was his lame try at being funny.
“No, you don’t need my help. You’ll make it to your lair okay.” He looked at me trying to decide if I’d insulted him. He must have decided I hadn’t because he stepped forward and hugged me. He wobbled and I held him steady.
“Duello, we are friends. No?” He said tearfully as I growled in disgust. Then he kissed my cheek and pushed away from me reeling toward the door.
“You filthy bastard.” My skin crawled. “Leave me alone.” But he didn’t hear me. I wiped my cheek as I looked around to see if anyone had seen us. I’d seen Iranian men do this and it was no big deal but he had smeared me with more than just his spit. His sweat and tears were noxious.
Now there was no choice but to get out of the compound after work. I did not want another drunken session with the bloody Az. I decided to just stay away from the library and spend some time at the bazaars close to the foreign worker housing. These hucksters knew where the money was.
It took several evenings to explore all the stalls. Each night new vendors came replacing the ones who sold out their stock. I found back alley stalls where beer, drugs, women and boys were on display.
The Canteen had all the alcohol I could want. But, I was surprised to see alcohol for sale in a back ally. I walked over to see what they had. An older woman with a black veil eyed me as she tried to figure out my nationality. She smiled and said “Ciao.” I dropped my eyes to look at the bottles and shrugged my shoulders. “Privet? Merhaban? Salaam?” Now I could tell she was flirting so I smiled and said. “Hello.”
“Ahhh,” she said as if I had told her my complete life story.
I looked around and saw that everything she had on display was nonalcoholic. There was beer, wine, champagne, mead, vinegar – but no alcohol in any of it. “Shirazi wine?” I asked.
She looked up then down the alley. Then she lifted a lid on a box and showed me dozens of dusty wine bottles with stained paper labels. It was obvious that what the bottles held would be either very good or very bad. She pointed to a business license and said “we take.” And then she pointed toward the Foreign Worker Compound. Then she put her finger to her brow and said. “Think.” She handed me a business card with “$20 a bottle” written on the back. I smiled at her as I put the card in my pocket and walked away.
After walking several blocks, I wandered into a manufacturing area. There were large buildings with stacks of supplies in fenced yards. The largest and newest seemed to be making carpets. The carpet factory was closed and black dogs were loose in the yard. Across the street was a welding and blacksmith shop where the workers were putting out the fires for the day. Then I saw large spools of twine in a yard about a block away. When I got to the fence, I could see that some of the twine was brightly colored – scarlet, purple, gold, and white. I followed the fence around the corner and saw an open gate. There were men leaving but others were coming in with dinner pails. It looked like a shift change.
I followed a group into the foreman’s office and watched as they punched their time cards. When the others left, the foreman looked up to see what was wrong with me. He said “Salaam.”
I said “Hello.”
“British?” He asked.
“Canadian.” I lied.
“Ahhh.” The foreman said. “Can I help you?”
“Can I watch how you make the rope?”
He blinked as if I would vanish. When I didn’t, he stood and came around the desk. I stepped back thinking he was going to show me out.
“We do not have tours like the carpet factories. But our shop man injured his back. I could use someone to clean out the lint bins and sweep up tonight. You would see everything including how we reset the spindles in about two hours. But I cannot pay you.”
“Can I take my pay in rope?”
Now he blinked like he had something in his eye. “We are starting the variegated rope tonight. It is our finest product. I doubt that your work will equal the price of a coil.”
“Then I would like to buy it.” This convinced him and he put me to work. He showed me what to do and how to keep from getting hurt. It was hot. I wondered how the day crew stood it. Fibers drifted in the air and soon I was blinking too.
I followed the lead of several of the seasoned workers, wetted my handkerchief and tied it over my nose. No one took notice of me even though I was taller than most of the men. I moved around sweeping up the floor. After two hours the machinery was shut down and the workers took a break. A special crew reset the spools with the variegated twine. This was skilled work. I could see that each color of twine had different properties of size, weight, elasticity and strength. This was the kind of special rope a mountain climber would want.
I finished clearing out the bins about the time they restarted the machinery. The finely tooled rope began to fill the spool. It was not as thick as standard rope but the foreman said it was three times stronger.
After four hours I turned in my broom. I asked if I could return tomorrow to buy the rope. The foreman smiled and said I had earned it.
As soon as I ate supper the next night, I was out the door and down the street. I found the back alleys of the bazaar without any problem. But I didn’t see the Shirazi woman. Finally, I found where her stand had been the night before. A used book seller was there tonight. By now I had my bearings and I walked along the street that led to the industrial area. I found the big carpet factory. But I couldn’t find the rope factory. Finally I stopped and listened. I heard dogs barking and saw groups of men walking. I walked toward them. When I passed them, I could see the colored spools several blocks away.
The foreman had a coil of rope on his desk. When I came in, he asked me if I was ready to go to work again. I shook my head and said I had already painted for eight hours. He said he had noticed the petroleum plant was looking better every day. He stood and said his name was Gudarz. After I told him my name, he offered me a cup of coffee.
The coffee was the blackest I've ever had. As we sipped the brew, he bragged about the rope and encouraged me to put it to the test. "You will like it. It has amazing qualities. Under tension it sticks to itself and won't slip a knot. But when it's loose, it easily slides past itself and won't twist or tangle. It's like Chinese handcuffs. Struggle and it holds tight, relax and there's no problem."
I was buzzing on caffeine and jogged for a few blocks. It was too hot. I looked around and wondered how I had found my way home so easily the night before. I came to a park with trees and bushes. The thick foliage made it 10 degrees cooler than the street. I sat on a bench and uncoiled and recoiled the rope looking at every inch. The workmanship was extraordinary.
I became vaguely aware of someone singing.
“There once was a man with a rope,
Who failed to heed his horoscope.
His stars said to stay.
But there’s paint to spray.
So he left discarding all hope.”
It was definitely a girl or woman. I couldn’t see anyone in the park. But it was hard to see anything through the leaves. I stood up and realized the sound was coming from above me. I stepped out from under the tree and looked up at the wall of a tall stone building. About three stories up was a row of balconies. On the balcony nearest me was a woman with a golden veil.
She waved her rabbit’s paw and laughed. “Do you like my jingle?” Her voice, her hair, her rabbit – it was Annia.
I smiled at her and nervously struck the rope against my leg. “Ah, Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair.” I teased her.
She silently mouthed what I had said trying to work out the meaning. “Oh! Please wait.” She called down. Soon she was back with a skein of yarn tied to the rabbit. She lowered it to me. I caught the rabbit and tied the yarn to the end of the rope. Then she pulled up the rope and tied it to the railing. I tested the knot then easily climbed up bringing the end of the rope with me.
When I reached the railing, her veil had fallen to her shoulders. She curtsied and said. “Please enter my humble balcony.” I swung my legs over the railing, coiled up the rope and put it on the floor. Then I turned to face her. She was even more beautiful close up than she had been with Vladimir’s mug stuck between us.
“There is something special I want you to see.” She said and I smiled as I looked at her. “No, turn around.” She ordered.
I was happy just to look at her but I did what she wanted. When I turned, I was looking out above the treetops. There were the towers of the petroleum plant that I was painting. In the background were the mountains.
“I have been watching you. It is so fascinating. You do such daring things. Sometimes I am very much afraid for you.” She admitted.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. So she said. “Can you stay a few minutes? Would you like to sit down? Would you like some water?”
I sat down on a bench. “I’d love some water.”
She poured a glass of water from her pitcher and handed it to me.
“Thanks, I can’t stay long.” I felt exposed in the sunlight and realized this is not the smartest thing I’ve done today. It was probably covered by one of the 101 ways to get your ass booted home.
“I should be studying but I cannot seem to think.” She admitted. “Before you came by, I was feeling lonely and homesick for my sister. She married and moved far away two years ago. Her name is Rushna, but I call her Shana. Did your brothers give you a pet name, a nickname?”
“No. Well everyone calls me Brad now. When I was a boy, my brothers called me Gilly. We went fishing a lot and used a net to catch bait for our hooks. It was called a gill net.” I explained.
“Is that why they called you Gilly?” She said and I could see that she was confused.
“Well no. They called me Gilly because of my ears. They were too big for my head when I was about seven. I’ve grown into them now.” I hoped this satisfied her.
“Your ears are perfect now.” She assured me.
I could feel my ears getting red and I was itching to get back on safer ground. “Thank you for the water and the view. If I see you out here tomorrow, I will wave. I should go now.”
We both stood. I looked at her and could see tears welling in her eyes. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“The setting sun is hard on my eyes. It will pass.”
I sat on the railing and saw that she had tied a constrictor knot. It would be almost impossible for Annia to untie even with this rope. I retied the knot as a slipped constrictor, then looped the rope under my boot. “Goodbye, it was wonderful seeing you again.” I said.
“You can visit again if you like.” She said this as I quickly lowered myself to the ground.
When the tension was gone, Annia easily released the knot and the rope dropped to my feet. I coiled it up as I stepped away so I could see her better. I blew her a kiss. She smiled, waved and slipped into her room.
The next day, I told the crew boss about seeing the towers from a high spot near the plant. From the balcony, I’d seen an area on the central tower that looked like it hadn’t been painted. I offered to climb up and take a look. The crew boss thought it was just a trick of the light but told me to go ahead.
The central tower was the highest in the complex and gave me a good look at the building where Annia was staying. A park full of trees bordered three sides of her modern building. There was an older, larger building to the north. It faced the street. Annia’s balcony was on the south side. No wonder it was so warm and isolated. The buildings didn’t look like a hotel and it didn’t look like a family residence. The older building must have been a fortress. It had structures along the top of the walls that looked like spear points.
I found the section of the tower where the paint was peeling. The crew might not have washed off the grime well enough for the paint to stick. The touch up crew could quickly fix it. But if this had been here at final inspection, we'd have been shorted on bonus money. I’m glad Annia invited me up where I could see it.
Late in the afternoon, I noticed Annia was on her balcony. I didn’t let on I had seen her. It’d be dangerous to get distracted. Once when she thought I was looking her way she waved. I still pretended not to see her. When the shift was over, I sent down my equipment.
I attached the end of the rope to my climbing harness and set the rappel for fast feed. I looked over at the balcony. Annia waved. As I lifted my hand to wave, I released the rappel and dropped like a stone. The force of hitting the end of the rope spun me like a pinwheel. Then I hung limp while I released the harness. I dropped to the ground just as the crew boss showed up.
“Damn it Duello, quit horsing around.” The crew boss said. “I came over to say thanks for catching the peel. We reinspected the whole tower and think you caught the only bad spot. Some of the washer’s bonus will find its way to your account.”
Of course I had to climb back up to untie the rope. Annia was not on the balcony so I couldn’t wave and show her I hadn’t died. I climbed down, put my gear away and headed home for a cool shower.
After the shower, I stretched out my thigh muscles. The ones in the right leg were complaining about stopping me at the bottom of the rope. I may be getting too old to provide cheap thrills for the girls.
I had just gotten a beer, bag of chips and the NASCAR magazines that had stacked up when there was a knock at the door. I decided not to get it, but then the knock became pounding. I went over and opened it. There stood a very sober Vladimir.
He stared daggers through me and asked. “Why aren’t you dead?”
“I’m glad to see you too. Come on in.” I said casually and returned to the table.
He followed me in and growled, “Why is it Annia rang me up, nearly hysterical, begging me to find out what happened to you?”
“Why is it Annia called?” I corrected him.
“Shut up with the English lesson.” He pushed my shoulder.
I didn’t want to fight with him so I said. “Sit down. Want a beer?”
“Don’t trifle with me, Seattle. She thinks you are dead. I am willing to make it so.”
“Our first row. Tsk, Tsk.”
Finally, he sat down and rapped his finger on the table. “I am going to marry Annia. She means everything to me. You are not going to interfere in any way.”
I opened a couple of cans of beer. I handed one to Vladimir and sat with the back of the chair in front of me. If he wanted a fight, I’d clobber him with the chair. But, I couldn’t help but needle him and asked, “If she is planning her wedding, why is she so unhappy?”
Now, he slammed his fist onto the table and I grabbed hold of the chair. “How would you know how she feels? Where have you been talking to her? Answer me!”
“I spoke to her for only a few minutes in a park, not too far from here.”
“You are a liar. She would not talk to you without a family escort.”
I ran my fingers through my hair. This guy is the most arrogant son of a bitch I’ve ever met. You can’t talk to him. It’s his way or no way.
He drank his beer in two long swigs. I got him another can. This time, I let him open it. He seemed to be calming down.
“Look,” I said. “When you call Annia, tell her I’m sorry for making her worry. I just slipped. It looked much worse than it really was. I’m not hurt at all.”
“She believes she caused you to fall.” He said sadly. “When she calmed down, she spoke of you with such tenderness. It is not right. I long for her to speak that way about me.”
Oh God I didn’t want him to start crying again. “Wasn’t she talking to you when you heard the tenderness in her voice?”
He looked at me, then down at the table. I watched him replay the phone call from this new point of view. He stood up. “I’d better call her so she can stop worrying about your stinking hide.” But he was smiling now. He picked up the unopened beer and went out the door.
I picked up my beer and toasted his back. “Ta, Ta. Old chump.”
After work the next day, I cleaned up, picked up the coil of rope and went out the door. I was hungry and thought I’d get a burger at the canteen. I wanted to see what the fellows would think of my Iranian rope. But I hadn’t gone far when I spotted Vladimir with his head down like he was walking into a head wind. I didn’t want to meet him so I turned into an alley. Soon, I was in a maze of paths in a part of town I hadn’t been in before. I thought about going back but I’d have been just as lost.
Finally, I walked into a park and realized these must be the trees by Annia’s apartment. The foliage was so thick only dogs and rabbits could move through it. I circled along the edge and found the bench that I had sat on two days ago. I scuffed my feet, whistled “Dixie,” and tossed the rope onto the bench. It wasn’t long before I heard Annia’s sweet voice.
“Have you returned from the dead? I’m not supposed to talk to a ghost.” From beyond the tree I saw the rabbit twisting at the end of his yarn.
I stepped out from under the tree. “A ghost wouldn’t need your hare.” I tied the yarn to the rope. Annia pulled it up and knotted it onto the railing. Soon I was on the balcony. I coiled the rope and put it in the corner.
“Have a seat. Would you like some ice water?” She asked as she poured me a glass from her pitcher.
“Thank you” I said as I took the glass. I noticed there were some leaves at the bottom of the glass and thought they were mint. When I took a sip, it wasn’t minty but musty. But it was cold and that was the main thing. “I’m sorry I scared you yesterday afternoon.” I said.
“Maybe I’ll forgive you but I do not think Vladimir will. He lectured me about talking to you without my mother being present. But, I have many friends at home who are boys. We study together all the time without my mother being present. Vladimir didn’t say so but I think he was also angry because I was so worried for your welfare. His attitude made me very angry.”
“He just doesn’t want you to reward bad behavior.” Why am I defending him?
“Your bad behavior, Brad?” She asked.
“Yes, it all would have been a funny trick if I had climbed back up the rope to take a bow so you could see I was okay. But my crew boss came by to talk to me and when I climbed back up you were gone. Please forgive me. I promise -- no more bad behavior.”
“Why are you showing off like a small boy?”
“To test you I guess. To see if you like me.”
She laughed as if it were all a silly joke. And I laughed with her.
“I should be reading my lessons, but it is so hard to study. School starts as soon as I get back home. I’m going to be in a play. I will be the Queen of Denmark in Hamlet. I’m starting to learn my lines. That is so much more fun than dry religious tracts. Would you like to help?”
“Sure, what should I do?”
“See I have my lines highlighted in pink. You should read the line just before.” She handed me the script.
“Ay, madam, it is common.”
She smiled strangely at me and said. “If it be, why seem it so particular with thee?”
“Did I do it wrong?” I asked.
“You didn’t start with my first line. But that is all right. Did I say it right?”
“Yes. Should I start over?”
“Yes. It’s easier that way.”
We got through Acts I and II. She knew her lines very well. But she stumbled through the lines in Act III, became discouraged and decided to try something different. “I want to try out ways of acting the lines.” She took the script from me and refilled my glass of water.
“OK, this is the scene. My grown son, Hamlet, accuses me of taking part in the murder of his father, my husband. I, the Queen, believe he has lost his mind. I am afraid that my son might kill me in his madness. Instead, he kills my trusted friend and advisor, Polonius. So I need to show intense fear at first, then terrible sorrow.” She put the script down.
She experimented with several poses trying to look frightened. I tried very hard not to laugh. Then she looked out over the trees, her skin became pale, her mouth dropped open and she clutched her hands in front of her throat. She looked like she would scream if she were able to make a sound. Now I thought that something was really wrong. I leaned forward and she relaxed.
“Are you okay?” I asked feeling a little shaken.
“Yes, I thought of you falling. Did I look frightened?”
“Yes, your look made me feel frightened. You did what a good actress must do -- make the audience feel what the Queen is feeling.” I said. “And I know you can do sad. You can do sad well enough to break my heart.” I felt confused, hungry and light headed. I should leave soon to get something to eat.
“Thank you, Brad, for your encouragement. I will remember to be happy around you always. Your heart is a treasure to me.” She confessed. “Do you want to look at the end of the play? I’d like your opinion on being poisoned.”
“Okay, then I probably should go.”
“The son of dead Polonius has dared my son to a fencing match with sword and dagger. The King has wagered on the match and treats it like a drinking game in order to poison my son with the wine. But I drink from the cup before my son does. My death has to steal the show from two dueling actors who are both bleeding.”
She set the script aside and suddenly went rigid in the chair. Then she relaxed, began to slide to the floor, then caught herself and sat up straight. “No, my dress will get pulled this way and that. How is this?” Now she just draped herself over the arm of the chair.
“How long will you need to hold that pose before the end of the play?”
She sat up and said. “About 15 minutes. Three more actors have to die after me.”
“Then you better die comfortably on the floor. Try standing up then falling as if you are fainting.” I said as I was gripped with an intense pain in my guts. I sucked in by breath and stood. Annia did just as I did. I pushed both wrists into my gut and bent over slightly trying to ease the stabbing pain. She did the same. I opened my mouth to tell her I had to go, but a jabbing pain took my breath away. She did the same and moaned.
Our heads were very close. She noticed the beads of sweat on my forehead and my grimace of agony. She realized I wasn’t acting. “Are you okay, Brad, or is this more bad behavior?”
“Annia, is there a bathroom? I’m going to be sick.”
“Oh. Oh! Yes.” She led me quickly through a sitting room and into a sleeping alcove. Behind a screen was a portable toilet. Now she was confused and couldn’t decide to go or to help.
“Go, I’ll be okay.”
I undid my belt and pushed my pants down just in time. I sat down – right onto the lid. “Shit.” I fumbled and got the lid up just in time to be hit with another clawing cramp. But now I could allow it to pass out of me. I felt a cold sweat all over my body and put my head in my hands. I didn’t want to fall off this pot and knew I wasn’t going to be able to get up soon.
Finally, my head began to clear and I looked around for toilet paper. The screen and toilet looked temporary. Things were pushed to one side to make room. In front of me was Annia’s small cot lined with stuffed animals. All of them were looking at me. I gave up on the paper, found my handkerchief and cleaned up. Gingerly, I tried to stand and that seemed doable. I pulled my pants up and left them unbuttoned in case something more developed. I buckled my belt loosely.
When I turned, I was startled to see my fluffy tan shit wrapped around Annia’s dark deer-like pellets. A kind of wonder stirred in me. I felt a need to protect Annia with more than just the lid. I opened my handkerchief and laid it over everything. As the cloth absorbed the moisture and masked what was below, I reverently put the lid down.
I walked carefully through the sitting room and noticed the circle with wings on the wall above the couch. It also filled me with a sense of wonder. Just like it had when I saw it in the ancient ruins in the mountains. Annia stood watching me from the patio door. The moon lit her hair. Her worry and relief were touching. She stepped back as I came out the door.
“I need to go while I can, Annia.” I said softly, almost afraid to breathe.
“I think you’ll be all right now.” She said. “I did not remember about the herbs being in my water. Senna is effective but short lived. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it could have such a strong effect on someone not used to it. It only barely works for me.”
I had the rope ready and carefully moved over the rail and down to the ground. Annia released the knot and dropped the rope. She watched me as I moved out of sight.
Annia was wrong about her herbs. They weren’t that short-lived. I had just left the south edge of the park when the cramping pains crumpled me over again. By now it was obvious I wouldn’t make it home. I returned to the trees and looked for an opening into the thicket. I found one, moved into the foliage, threw down the rope and let the herbs have their way with me. Again the cold sweat followed. I used the leaves to clean up. The strange awe stirred in me again. I let the feeling guide me back to my apartment.
I vowed never to return to Annia’s balcony. I don’t know anything about these people, what they do, what they believe, how they think, nothing. There is just too much chance to stumble into trouble. Although I had to admit; Annia’s purge did me a world of good. I had such a feeling of well-being and it lasted for several days. I wondered how I could get the herbs.
My vow had lasted for a couple of weeks and I probably would never have seen Annia again but for Vladimir crushing my ankle. The ankle kept me inactive and gave me a lot of time to think. I had time to decide on shipping a consignment of climbing rope to Seattle. It was a lot of money but I was sure I could make a good profit. By now, I was good friends with Gudarz, the factory foreman. He made sure the shipment would get around the embargo by being off loaded in Vancouver then trucked to Seattle.
I began to wonder where I put my original coil of rope. I looked around the room and tried to think where it was. Then I remembered, I left it in the park. It was out of sight in the bushes but who knows if it would still be there. I decided to get cleaned up and go look for it. I hadn’t shaved in days, so cleaning up took awhile. Then I realized I was hungry and put a frozen pizza in the microwave. I burned my fingers on the cheese trying to eat it too fast. I dipped them into the glass of beer to stop the burning, sucked off the beer and cheese, then ate the rest of the pizza more carefully.
I used a walking stick to keep my weight off my ankle. I just took my time. When I got to the park, I had to try to retrace my path home so I could find the opening in the bushes. I had remembered only one opening. But this evening, I saw several that I had to search. None held the rope. Someone must have found it, I thought. But then, I saw one more opening. A lucky find, my rope was there. By now, my ankle was aching enough that I needed to sit down and elevate it.
I hobbled to my familiar bench. Put up my foot and looked over the rope to see if anything had gnawed on it. Finally, I looked over at the wall and there hanging from a strand of yarn was the white hare. I hobbled over, smiled up at Annia and attached my rope.
Annia pulled it up and tied the constrictor knot to the top rail of the balcony. I yanked on the rope and laid my walking stick down next to the wall. Getting started up the rope without the use of both legs was tricky. After struggling up a few feet, I wrapped the rope around my good leg and extended out my bad ankle. It took my arms to make the climb. I grabbed the railing, breathing hard and heaved the bad ankle over first. Then I gingerly got the rest of me over. I smiled at Annia as I coiled up the rope and laid it in the corner.
“Are you hurt, Brad? I watched for you on the towers every day but have not seen you for weeks. I was so worried and now here you are with a wrap on your ankle. Please sit down. I’ll get you some water.” She went inside for the water even though she had a pitcher of ice water on the table by her chair. I hobbled to the chair opposite hers, eased myself down and propped my foot on the bench.
When she returned, she handed me a tall glass of ice water with a lemon slice.
“How are you Annia? It’s been so long since we’ve talked. I’ve missed you. Really missed you.” Our eyes met. She smiled and seemed very pleased.
“I am well. Thank you for asking.” And we both laughed with shared memories. “And now I am also happy. Tell me why you have stayed away. How are you hurt?”
“Vladimir didn’t tell you?” She looked puzzled. “He was visiting me where I live. I’ve been helping him with his English. There was an accident. He stepped on my ankle trying to help me up.”
“Vladimir said nothing about you being hurt. How strange.” She wondered. “He can be so exasperating.”
We sat silently for a long while. I fidgeted a little to take the stress off my ankle then I toasted her with my glass. “What did you give me the last time I was here?”
“It was Senna. Mother gets it from India.”
“And tonight. What herbs do you have in your water?” I asked.
She gave me a shy, guilty smile. “Mother has given me something to cool my frayed nerves and help me sleep. Tomorrow I will be confirmed. I have been studying so hard and not getting much sleep. I am afraid I will not be able to remember all the history I must know. But, you have only lemon water. You are safe.”
After a few moments she added, “I have been reading about the destruction of the Persian Empire. Back in 630 A.D., the Romans invaded and conquered my country. Brad, I was wondering, are you a Roman?”
“Italian, maybe.” I laughed. “My grandparents were all born in Sicily, the island at the tip of the boot. Like a football getting a swift kick.”
Now she laughed. “Our people know who is related to the kings of old by the gold flecks in our eyes. How do you know the sons of Caesar?”
“That’s a very strange question, Annia. Let me see.” I took a drink of water to stall for time. The rim of the glass touched my nose. I put the glass down. “Probably by our noses.” And I showed her my profile. Then I dug around in my pocket and found an old Roman coin I carry for luck.
I handed the coin to her and said. “That’s Caesar. One of them anyway.”
She turned the coin in her hand then said. “Your noses are very much like those of Iranian men.” Then I heard her slight gasp of understanding. I said nothing and hoped she’d change the subject.
“My mother thinks Vladimir has a few gold flecks in his eyes.” She bounced her rabbit on her knee nervously. “She says all my gold flecks show the inbreeding that happened because so few of our line survived the Roman invasion. Vladimir does not show that inbreeding and my mother thinks that is good. Related but not too much.”
As I tried to grasp the meaning of her words, I imagined a host of beautiful people living in Eden, each one with golden glints in their dark eyes. Then I felt a crushing responsibility for a nation of Roman noses. I shifted to relieve the pain in my ankle. Damn you Vladimir.
Then Annia stiffened and dropped the coin. I watched it fall into the folds of her skirt. She made no effort to find it but put her finger to her lips. She cocked her head and listened intently. I held my breath and looked to see that the rope was safely out of sight except for the knot on the railing. I thought of the stick near the wall. But if anyone saw it, the worse thing would be that they’d take it away to keep things orderly. Now I heard what alerted Annia, footsteps on the path below. Then there were voices talking quietly in Farsi.
Annia stayed still long after I could no longer hear the people below. Then she stood and opened the door to her room. From the darkness inside she beckoned to me. When I cleared the door, she closed it quietly. “I think they have gone to the fountain at the back of the garden. That’s the place my people go to discuss important family matters.”
“Is it far to the fountain? Maybe I could leave before they return.”
“No, they might also just stroll along the garden paths and return this way.”
“Can I sit down and prop up my ankle?” The pain was throbbing.
“Oh yes. I’ll get pillows.” I sat on the floor near the door and leaned my back on the couch. She brought the pillows from her bed, carefully lifted my shoe, set her rabbit on the pillow, then my ankle on the rabbit. I was so touched by her generosity that tears came to my eyes. I’ve never loved anyone as much as I loved Annia at that moment.
We sat on the floor in the darkened room and talked for a very long time. We shared our hopes and dreams for the future. I confessed that I wasn’t Canadian. We compared Seattle to Sarakhs. Then we weighed the possibility of our countries ending the embargo and becoming friends.
Out of the blue, Annia asked. “Are you a Catholic Christian Brad?”
This is her toughest question yet. “Yes, but only by birth. Religion is not an important part of my life.”
“That’s also true of me and my religion. I’ll be confirmed tomorrow and sometime in the next year or two I’ll be married. My most important religious duty will be to have babies. Life is funny, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Having babies is also the most important duty of a married Catholic.”
She was quiet now and I could hear her even breathing. Her herbs must have taken hold. I thought now would be a good time to go. I leaned over and pushed the curtain open. The dark sky had cleared somewhat and the moon was shining brightly. It looked like the clouds would not cover the moon again for a half hour or so. The warm, airless room made me sleepy. I let my head drop back and fell asleep.
I woke with a sharp pain in my ankle. Annia had stretched out and kicked my foot. The moon was still shining into the room where I had drawn the curtains back. But now the moonlight fell on her hair. I noticed that a loose stand of fringe from the rug clung to her hair. I gently pulled it away and tied it around my wrist. I leaned back and watched her sleep. Then I reached out and caressed her curls. She stirred, smiled a little than slept again. She was so lovely. All I wanted was to be near her.
I slipped down beside her, took her in my arms and kissed her on the forehead. She nuzzled me sleepily and kissed me on the cheek. Again, the feeling of intense pleasure lit up the top of my spine and tears filled my eyes. I tenderly cradled and soothed her with “I love you so much, my little one.”
Then I buried my nose in her hair and breathed deeply. Elation and the feeling of pleasure poured down my spine. I was lost, we were lost. I pushed up her blouse and cupped her breast. She drew up her hands and caught mine. She moved my hand over her heart. I could feel it throb and see the moon reflected in her eyes. Her moonlit eyes filled my soul. I pulled my hand away from hers and ran my hand up her thigh bringing her skirt up to her waist. Then I pushed my knee between hers.
She seemed startled but said nothing. Now she stared all the more deeply into my eyes as if she were trying to focus, to understand. I felt breathless, congested, undone. I unzipped my pants and pushed them down.
Then I moved my hand to the warmth between her legs. I found her maidenhead, closed my eyes and forced it upward. She flinched when it gave, let out a tiny yelp, and went completely limp. I lifted her hips to me and entered her.
It was over too quickly and I slide off to her side. I smoothed her skirt back into place and felt the panic rise in my throat. I looked at her and whispered, “Annia, Annia are you okay? Please say something, Annia.”
She moaned, opened her eyes and looked at me with distress. She started to move her hand toward her legs. I caught her wrist, raised it to my lips and kissed it. She pushed away from me and I saw real alarm in her eyes. “I must go for a minute.” She looked at the moonlight coming through the window and grimaced with irritation. “I’ll be back. Maybe the moon will have disappeared.”
She hobbled awkwardly to the door and slipped out very quietly. The bare bulb in the hallway lit up the room and I was horrified to see I hadn’t pulled my pants back up. I got them up and zipped them. Then I looked around to see if I had brought anything of mine into the room. Surely I hadn’t.
I endued twenty minutes of pure hell wondering if she was alerting the authorities. Wondering if this was the end of life as I knew it. Agonizing and trying to remember how old she was. Then I thought of Vladimir and panicked. I started to pray with a fervor I didn’t think I had. I was actually up on my knees. The pain in my ankle was excruciating but I prayed an Our Father and seven Hail Marys.
Then I heard a noise in the hall. I held my breath as the door handle turned slowly. Why was I such an idiot, why hadn’t I locked it? The door opened and the hall light illuminated a blue blob of cloth. A groan escaped my lips. I was still on my knees and I prayed to the apparition. “Ave Maria, gratia plena. Pray for us sinners. Now and in the hour of our death.”
The blob vanished when the door closed. Then I heard the most blessed sound – Annia’s voice. “Brad, be quiet. What’s the matter with you? Look the moonlight is gone. You must go now.”
I was so relieved that I could only blubber. I couldn’t move or talk. I just stared into the darkness still on my knees.
“Brad, do you hear me?” She came closer and I grabbed the hem of the blue cloth.
“Annia, I have wronged you. Please forgive me. You must forgive me. I’ll do anything. We’ll get married. I’ll have to go home to Seattle for a while but I’ll come back and I’ll marry you. I love you. I’ll do anything for you. Just please forgive me. Say you forgive me.” I started to sob, racking sobs.
She pulled the hem from my grasp and assured me. “I forgive you. Now you must leave. Hurry.”
“Is someone coming? Are the authorities looking for me?”
“No, Brad, you are scaring me. Stop babbling at once. You must go. You must go now.” She spoke like a mother to a naughty boy.
I felt her hands through the cloth clinch my upper arms and lift me. She was incredibly strong and determined to push me out. When I tried to stand. I put some weight on my ankle, groaned and reached for her.
She stepped back and I fell back to the floor. “Do not touch me, Brad. It is taboo. No man can touch me now.”
What was she saying? Was it some kind of nightmare? I hobbled, painfully toward the balcony. The moonlight was gone. My hands trembled so much I fumbled the rope before I could toss it over the rail. I turned to the blue blob in the door and saw she was wearing an Afghan burka. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Annia,” I whispered. “We’ll make wedding plans. I can’t live without you.”
“No, do not come tomorrow. Wait a week. Oh Brad. My time of the moon has come early. No man should come near. It’s our greatest taboo.” Suddenly, the balcony took on a blue-green glow. There was the faint sound of a lullaby coming from the rooms above us. Startled, we both looked up but it passed as quickly as it had come.
I turned back to Annia. “I’ll do anything you want.” I said with wonder beyond belief. Then I slid down the rope and hobbled over to retrieve my stick. In the meantime, Annia had not untied the rope. When I looked up, I saw why. She was trying to untie it without touching it. Trying to keep the blue cloth between her hands and the rope. I could hear her crying in frustration.
“It’s all right, use your hands. I don’t believe in taboos.” Finally, she flipped the cloth away from her hands, untied the rope and let it fall.
“Brad, you must cut off the end that I have touched. You must burn it without touching it. Please promise me.”
“I promise. I’ll do anything for you.” It was almost impossible to see her when she stood completely still in the burka. I rolled up the rope, leaned on the walking stick and hobbled down the street like an old man. I felt like I’d aged ten years.
By the time I reached my room, all I could do was throw down my things in the bathroom, sit on the side of the tub, draw water and soak my ankle. The pain was agonizing and my ankle was swelling again. I draped the towel over the edge of the tub and slipped into the cool water, still in my clothes. I put my foot up on the towel. The pain began to ease and I fell deeply asleep.
The water around my crotch reddened slightly as I started to dream. From the end of the rope lying on the bathroom floor, a purple speck grew and lengthened into a filament. It rolled off of the rope and stretched into a bright, yellow worm. Now it inched up the towel to my foot. On the rim of the tub, it stopped and sampled the air. The foot repelled while the water beckoned. Asp-like, it moved through the water to the red tinge. It lazed peacefully above my crotch, lost all color and merged with the water.
I shifted my weight and the water rippled to reveal a small gold viper. It flicked its tongue and recoiled at the taint. It darted to my chest and slithered onto my shoulder. There it writhed as it pushed out of its skin. Blind and minute in size, the larva climbed into my hair and circled over my ear. It balled itself up and clung to my sideburns. Half asleep, I reached up to scratch my head. The action swept the tiny ball into my ear. It struck my ear drum, stretched out, lodged itself into the wax and began to burrow.
I was groggy but awake now. I slid under the water and tried to push water in and out of my ear with my palm. Then I sat up out of the water and shook my head trying to dislodge whatever was making it itch. The thrashing around made my ankle hurt again.
I pulled off my clothes while still sitting in the water. Then gingerly I got out of the tub and toweled off. I badly needed a beer. But I had drunk my last with the pizza. I laid on the bed and propped up my ankle. It ached as much as I ached for Annia. I looked at the string around my wrist and felt bound to her for eternity. I rubbed my neck and came away with a yellow membrane. Suddenly, I remembered the dream and I shuddered. My body was gripped in a cold sweat. I felt cursed and too terrified to sleep.
I had nothing to do except keep the weight off my ankle and wait for the day of my flight. I called Sisy and told her I’d be home sooner than I thought. She was so happy; she started planning a homecoming party with family. How could I tell her that a divorce was in our future? It was going to be a very bad time.
Each day at dusk, I hobbled to the park. Annia was not on her balcony. But it looked like her things were still there. The doors were closed and the curtains drawn. I sat on the park bench in the cool of the evening and wondered if Vladimir had warned her not to talk to me. The place was deserted. I never saw anyone.
The day before I was to fly home, I went to the park in early afternoon. Everything had been cleared from the balcony. But the door was ajar. I found some pebbles and threw them at the window. Within moments Annia was at the railing. She beamed a smile that melted my heart.
“I was praying that you would come. I know you have been here each day. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t talk with you. You know why.” Now she was embarrassed and her cheeks colored. She was so beautiful.
“Annia, I have to go home tomorrow. Give me an address or phone number so I can get hold of you.”
She disappeared into the room. In several minutes she was back with a square packet attached to her yarn. She sent it down. When I grabbed the packet, she let go of the yarn. I stepped back and wound the yarn around the packet.
When I looked up again, she said. “I am leaving too. I will be staying with family in Tehran then going home. My mother will be here any minute.”
I put my hand on my heart. “I love you, Annia. I will come back for you.”
She was about to reply when we both heard a sound from her room. She turned to the door as if startled. I stepped back under the leaves of the tree.
“Are you ready Annia? Who are you talking to?” It was a woman's voice not Vladimir.
“Just my bunny, we are saying goodbye to the garden.” She turned back and whispered. “Goodbye. I will always think of you and love you.”
"Come child, the car is waiting. What a trip this has been. I’ll be so glad to get to Tehran.” Annia stepped into the room and closed the door.
I slowly hobbled around the building to a place where I could see the front street. Vladimir was waiting in a car. I wondered what he’d do if he knew, he’d already bombed out. Annia loved me.
I stepped back as Vladimir jumped out of the car. Annia and her mother were coming out. He took the luggage and put it into the trunk. Mrs. Sassan was busy telling Vladimir how each piece should fit with her luggage. Annia looked around, saw me in the shadow of the trees, and smiled. I blew her a kiss and Annia moved the white rabbit’s paw as if it were blowing me a kiss.
Everyone got into the car. I stepped back even further into the cool, shadow of the trees. Vladimir made a U turn, squealing the tires, and drove Annia away from me. It was the last time I would see her. If I’d known, I would never have let her leave with him.
Back at my room, I unwound the yarn and put it into the side pocket of my luggage. I searched the cardboard packet for a phone number or a Sarakhs address. Instead, Annia had written firstname.lastname@example.org. I felt completely hopeless. This meant nothing to me so I put the packet into my shirt pocket. I tried not to think about Vladimir taking Annia and her mother to Tehran. All that mattered now was catching the plane home. The cook at the canteen told me I couldn’t get lost if I followed the blue griffin signs. It’s the pits not being able to read even simple directions in Farsi.
I caught the bus and followed along the same route Mrs. Sassan and her daughter had taken to Tehran. At the airport, I got off at the blue griffin bus stop with plenty of time to hobble to the gate. I went through security and boarded the plane. After settling in, I stared listlessly at the griffin logo on my boarding pass and gave in to exhaustion. I slept like I was drugged and didn’t even wake up when the food came around.
When I changed planes in Tokyo, my head was a lot clearer. I settled in again, had a couple of beers, watched the movie, then slept until we landed in Honolulu. Soon I was on the last leg into Vancouver. Sisy would be getting ready to drive up to meet the plane. Suddenly I felt very cold and closed down the air vent.
The plane was full and a kid, maybe 17, sat next to me. He had the smallest computer I’d ever seen. He plunked away all the time except for when the food came around or the pilot announced it may interfere with operations. Then he’d close the lid and leave it on his lap. He had a black book with a long list. As he made progress, he checked off the items he’d finished. I read a magazine and tried to ignore him.
We were about an hour out of Vancouver when passengers started to get up, stretch and use the bathrooms to get ready for arrival. I hobbled down the aisle and waited my turn. When I got out, the kid was standing in line with his computer. As I slipped over to my seat, I knocked his book onto the floor. Picking it up, I noticed columns of the strange codes like the one Annia had given me. I left the book open and put it on the kid’s seat. Then, I fished Annia’s packet out of my pocket.
When the kid returned, I introduced myself and apologized for knocking his stuff around. He seemed friendly and said his name was Jess. His family lived in Hawaii but he was going to school at the University of Washington. He’d gotten a cheaper fare into Vancouver and would try to hitch into Seattle. I offered him a ride. I guess he’d been worrying about hitching because he thanked me several times.
I showed him Annia’s packet and asked if he knew how it worked. For the next half hour he talked nonstop about the love of his life – computers. He told me everything would be so easy once I had my own computer and something called a modem.
When we got off the plane, Jess found Sisy in the crowd while I waited in the shuttle. The two of them hit it off and they found a million things to talk about on the drive home.
The first and most important thing I had to do was make contact with Annia. I bought equipment just like Jess had. He coached me every step of the way and didn't give up when I cussed him out in frustration. Soon, he had me up and running even though my ankle still ached like hell. My e-mail address was email@example.com. I was visiting Jess when Annia's first email popped into my Inbox. “Look at that. See, I told you. It’s easy.”
Annia congratulated me for entering the twenty-first century. She had just gotten home and would start school on Monday. She wrote about several funny things that happened on the ride to Tehran. Some involved Vladimir. Jealousy sideswiped me. She had put in an attachment. It was a photo of her rabbit with a blue yarn bow around its waist. I felt like she’d slapped me.
“Hey Dude, you look SOL.” Jess wanted to know what was up.
“Not me. Luck is my middle name. Let’s celebrate.” Jess and I drove to the nearest store. I bought a case of beer. We drank most of it as I drove around and showed Jess the Seattle attractions. I stewed about the photo until I was too stewed to care.
The second thing I had to do was settle things with Sisy. She was so happy to see me at the airport. With Jess to talk to she didn’t notice I wasn’t saying much. The next evening was the homecoming party at Mom’s with all the family. Everyone thought I was clever to hurt my ankle so I could come home early. The beer helped me through it. I didn’t deck any of my brothers who ragged me to start my engine and start my family.
I’d been sleeping in the spare bedroom so Sisy wouldn’t kick me during the night. She took it in stride but I could see it worried her. After that first email from Annia, I set Sisy down at the kitchen table and told her I wanted a divorce. She was strangely calm. I was wound up tight and ready to fight with her, to argue. But she said nothing. She just looked at her hands. I hated her and wanted out. Even if Annia chose Vladimir, I wanted out.
I found an efficiency apartment that rented by the week and moved out. I forgot to get the damn marriage license before I left and that screwed me up.
The next day I drove to the courthouse and learned what I could about getting a divorce. The clerk was very nice. She smiled -- even flirted with me. She filled me in on what I’d need and gave me the forms to fill out. She told me there was a 90-day cooling off period after filing the paperwork. On average, a divorce took six months to a year. But then, she gave me a great piece of advice.
“You got married in Las Vegas. You should go back and end the marriage there. If your wife cooperates, you’ll have a Las Vegas annulment in about two weeks.”
Would Sisy cooperate? I drove to the apartment and waited for her to come home from work. She drove up and gathered up her things before walking to the door. When she saw me in the truck, she stopped to see what I wanted. I got out and walked up to her. “Would you like to come in?” She asked.
“Would you like to go for a walk?” I asked.
The worry on her face disappeared and she smiled, “Let me change my shoes.”
We drove to the park and walked slowly around a small lake without saying a thing. She had brought bread for the ducks. She tossed it piece by piece making the ducks fight over the crumbs.
“Want to sit on the bench, Sisy?”
She sat close beside me. “Won’t you come home, Brad? You can still sleep in the spare room. I won’t bother you.” She promised. “I’m so lonely without you.”
“I’ll only be in Seattle a short while. I’m going back to Iran as soon as I can work.” I said. “You didn’t say anything yesterday when I told you I wanted a divorce. We need to talk about it.”
“Divorce is not an option for us. We were married by a Catholic priest.”
“No Sisy, Catholic weddings that took place in Las Vegas can be annulled if there are no children.” At that, she hunched over, her body wracked with sobs. I wanted to rub her back but didn’t. I didn’t want to give her hope. When she recovered, she swallowed and said. “What is it you want?”
“You could file for divorce here in Seattle. Set it up anyway you want. The grounds would be desertion. I will agree. I will sign the papers.” I said as she shook her head.
“Or I could go to Las Vegas and get an annulment with or without your cooperation. But I want your cooperation. I’d like for us to be friends when this is over.”
She stood up. “It’s impossible, completely impossible.” She walked to the truck. I sat there and wondered if there was anything I could say to change her mind.
As we drove back to the apartment, I tried again. “Sisy, I know you are worried that you could be deported if you aren’t married to a citizen.”
“What are you saying?" She snapped. "Don’t ever say anything like that to me.” She began to cry again.
I parked, turned off the engine and said. “If you fight me on this, I’ll divorce you on my terms and I’ll see that you are deported back to Guatemala where you belong.”
She looked at me in horror and sobbed, “No, no you can’t do that.” She was trembling and couldn’t open the truck door.
“I can do it and will do it.” My shouts echoed in the truck cab. She turned back to me alarmed by my anger. I grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her hard. Her head banged on the window. She found the door handle, opened it and twisted away from me. In seconds, she ran to the porch rubbing her arms where I had held her.
Annia sent emails almost every day now. Always with that damned photo. Her message was reserved but full of funny stories of high school life. Someone must have been reading over her shoulder, maybe her mother. Annia was being careful.
I answered each email and watched what I said. I even asked about Vladimir a time or two to see what she would say. She never said anything about Vladimir and I was on cloud nine.
I told Annia how my ankle was healing and that I was on schedule to finish my important business. I’d return to Iran in about a month. She replied that she looked forward to my return.
If Annia loved me, wanted me, I would take on the world for her. I even found the nerve to tell my mother I was going back to Iran. After listening to her tongue-lashing for 30 minutes, I walked out and spent the rest of the evening at the local tavern.
The next day, Jess showed me how to hook up and use my computer in Vegas. He also showed me how to get on something called the Internet. Wow, I could get all the sport scores. I was beginning to like the Computer Age.
Within a few days, I was back in Vegas. I found the priest who had married me to Sisy. His news was mind boggling: he wasn’t ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. Sisy and I were not married in the eyes of the church. He helped me fill out the annulment paperwork and said I should send it in with the original marriage license. Then, he told me the annulment might be denied so I should get an address in Clark County and establish residency. He gave me an address in Blue Diamond – a kind of cheap boarding house. The landlord gets the tenants' mail and sends it on to wherever they actually lived. It sounded like another Vegas scam.
I found a phone booth and called Sisy at work. “Sisy, this is Brad. I’m in Vegas.” Sisy tried to say something but I cut her off. “I’ve just talked to the priest who married us. He says he’s not ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s some offshoot. Would you find out from church records if that’s true? I’ll call you back in a few days. I’m going to the races.”
“Why are you doing this, Brad? Don’t ever call me at work again.” She hung up. But I knew she would check out this news ASAP.
It only took twenty minutes to find Blue Diamond. I pulled up to a house with a sign in the front yard: Setting Sail Inn, Berths for Rent. A grizzled man answered the door, showed me to the kitchen, and offered me coffee. He said he didn’t want to set me up with a mail drop because he had too many tenants. Several of the divorces had hit snags and the tenants hadn’t moved on soon enough to suit him. He didn’t want to draw too much attention to his business by having more tenants than there were rooms in his house.
I let him sit and think awhile. Gave him time to change his mind. He stared at me as if he were looking right through me. “Are you a sailor?” he asked. I hesitated but nodded yes.
“Yes.” He repeated. “I can see you in a brig, piss ‘n puck. But why? You ain’t done nothing wrong. Well. Oh. Yes, I see.” There was a long pause as he stroked his beard.
I jumped when he boomed out. “Want a place or not?”
“You got it.” I said and put a hundred dollar bill on the table.
“You’ll be renting a mail buoy. A way to become a resident without living here. I like my privacy and don’t want to see your cursed face after today. Once you jettison your alpha unit, send me a note and a bottle of Scotch.”
His naval jargon and weird questions spooked me. But I handed over two months rent and gave him my Seattle PO Box. As for his second sight, he had it pretty much right.
For three weeks, I hung out at the NASCAR tracks. I’d always wanted to watch the practice and qualifying runs. I talked to the pit crews, the spotters and some of the rookie drivers.
One of the spotters took a liking to me and invited me onto the grandstand roof during practice laps. What a sense of power the spotter had; he could talk to the pit crew, the owner of the car, and the driver. All three at the same time using his electronic gear. He wrangled race strategy with the owner and relayed instructions to the pit crew and driver.
From the grandstand roof, the spotter could see any problem developing on the track and talk the driver through it. The good driver/spotter pair merged into one unit that was greater than the two of them. Seeing this teamwork made me feel like I was walking on air. I have never felt so free.
I was thankful to Annia for being the inspiration I needed to break out of a humdrum life. She has been so good for me; even though, her emails didn’t come every day now. She had started rehearsals for Hamlet and told me they changed the location from Denmark to ancient Persia. Annia was playing a Persian queen just as she should. I hoped I could get back to Iran in time to see how she handled the death scene.
Back in Seattle, I went straight to the post office. There was a letter from Nevada; the annulment could not be processed without the original wedding certificate. My second stop was our apartment. Sisy was at work so I let myself in.
I looked for the framed print of the Wedding at Canaan that held our wedding certificate. It was not hanging on our bedroom wall. I should have known, Sisy wasn’t stupid. I went back out and waited on the porch for about twenty minutes. Sisy drove up, parked the car and got out with some packages. She didn’t say anything until she was at the steps. “Hello, Brad.” I could see she was wary of me.
“Do you have time to talk, Sisy?” I tried to appear harmless.
“Sure, let me get this into the fridge.” She said. I thought it was progress when she didn’t ask me in.
A good fifteen minutes passed before she came back out with a couple of cans of beer. She handed me one. “Thanks, that’s just what I need. Did you check with your priest to see if the church thinks we are married?”
She leaned on the porch railing. “Our marriage license was properly issued in the state of Washington and filed in the state of Nevada. Both states say our marriage is valid.”
“Then you’re telling me that the church does not think we are married.” I said and she did not reply. I handed her the letter from Nevada. She read it and was relieved at what it said. Then she handed the letter back to me.
I swallowed some pride and tried something else. “I’m sorry about the last time. Blind rage. I don’t know where it came from.” She didn’t look forgiving. “Sisy, I’d like to have the license. Will you give it to me?” She shook her head. It was useless to follow this rabbit track any further. She’d more likely burn it and bury the ashes. Sisy had won the first heat and I was in 'limp in mode.'
So much for Mr. Nice Guy, it's time to change my game plan. “I’m going back to Vegas next week and file for a divorce. Nevada will grant it after they know what we want to do about splitting the property and alimony. All I want is my personal things and the truck. I know it’s not much but you can have everything else. I’m not working, but you are. We should just let the alimony thing slide. You don’t want to be sending me a check every month. I filled out these forms. All I need is your signature.” I held out the envelope.
Sisy took it but did not look at it. “I’m not supposed to sign anything until my lawyer reads it.”
I was shocked. Who would have thought she’d get a lawyer? “Sisy, this is the way it’s going to be. Divorce or no divorce, I’m going back to Iran. It’s no use having a marriage that cheats us both out of being happy.” I stood, crushed my empty can and handed it to her. “I’ll be back to get the signed forms on Monday.”
My ankle was better. But the muscles were weak from not using them. I spent a lot of time stretching and flexing the joint and walking with a weighted strap around my ankle. Physically, I felt good. I’d soon be ready to go back to work, go back to Annia.
I visited Jess to make sure I could e-mail from Canada. I mentioned that the attachments from Annia were bugging me.
“Can I.C.?” Jess asked. I slid the laptop over to him. “Well peep this, a photo that’s not stored as a jpeg or PNG. Whoa Brad, what a little geek you found. You’re gonna need a text editor. Go buy me a soda and I’ll install the soft.”
I had no idea what he was talking about but when I got back with the soda, Jess greeted me with a shit-eating grin. “She’s astounding. But you, Mr. Newbie, fried the code by opening the attachment. Next time save the attachment to your C: drive. You know how to do that?” I nodded yes and Jess continued. “Now, double click this icon for your new software and open her bunny file. Voila, there’s the code from the attachment.” It opened as a mess of hyphens, numbers, and slashes.
“That’s what is left after you fried it. But there are fragments. Scroll down. Words you’ve been pining for, you old sonofa-byte.” He was right, she wrote “‘miss you des,’ ‘other is a tyrant,’ ‘hurry back, I’m counting,’ and ‘ove you.’”
“Jess, you’re a genius. The picture was screaming ‘come to me’ but I was too dumb to get it. Now show me how to answer this and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Not so fast, padrone. She wanted something beside your swift return. Her request survived the scramble. She wants you to put the e-mail in PGP mode. It will slow things down. Should I do it?”
“Sure, if she wants it. What’s PGP?” This talking in code was wearing me out.
“Pretty Good Privacy. It protects your e-mail from snoops.” He explained.
The next day, I drove up to Vancouver to touch bases with the construction company. But, the Canadian border patrol stopped me and sent me back to U.S. Customs. Customs ran a full inspection on my truck while an FBI agent sent my name through at least nine different government databases. He asked me questions and got paranoid about my stint in Iran. Customs took apart and reassembled the interior of my truck. After two hours, the agent gave me a pass that told the Canadians the FBI had no interest in me. I guess they were looking for evidence of a crime but no one was interested in my laptop.
When I gave the Canadian border guard the FBI pass, she said. “So you’re not the goombah who made that gangland hit in Seattle. Isn’t it a bitch gettin singled out just cus you’re Italian? Here you go.” She handed back my paperwork. “Well, drive carefully and have fun in Vancouver.” She said as she waved me on.
What a trip. But, by the time I returned, I had filed to reactivate my work permit and visa. The construction company attached me to a work order for Mashhad. It was only 100 miles from Sarakhs. The crew was going over in December to paint the interior of a tunnel and several industrial buildings. I was sailing high and emailed Annia a simple message. “Hello, how is the play going?” All my good news and plans for our future were hidden in the html code for my photo of the Iranian Flag.
Annia’s reply said simply. "Hi, better late than never. Your programming will get better, keep trying.” But in her attachment, Annia said.
<!-- I am so happy that you will be so close. My family goes to Mashhad about once a month to shop, but there’s also a train. I hate to say this but I’m plumping up. Hope you will still like me. I’ll look like a real queen mother. Did I tell you our Hamlet will take place in Persia? You will not recognize me without my rabbit. I had to give it up because I could not carry it in the play. But my sleeves will be trimmed with fur, so I think I will make it without dying of stage fright.-->
On Monday afternoon, I was back on our porch. Sisy didn’t show up till six p.m. When she reached the steps, she sighed. “I guess this is what you want.” She handed me an envelope. I took it with a smile. I didn’t want to read it because I didn’t care what was in it. Nothing was going to keep me from Annia.
“Thanks Sisy, I know this is hard for you. I will call to let you know how things are going. I’ll probably go to the races again.”
“Brad, call your mother. She is so upset.” Sisy said as I turned to leave.
“You got it.” I waved as I strode across the yard to the truck.
At a nearby restaurant, I ordered a hamburger and fries then I opened the envelope. It contained two documents that I half expected and one I didn’t. The petition for divorce was there and it was unsigned. A note was attached that said “Sisy, I do not advise that you sign this.” The second document was a copy of citizenship papers for Mr. and Mrs. Vincente Flores. Maria Cecilia was listed as their daughter and naturalized along with her parents. So Sisy won the second heat and I had spun out.
The third paper was a surprise and serious. It was a Notice of Attempt to Deliver my consignment of rope. The transport company had tried to bring it yesterday. It was too late to call the outfit tonight so I’ll just have to be at their door when they open tomorrow.
After I finished eating, I called my mother. She jumped right into a lecture about my responsibilities and obligations to her and to God. I tried to slow her down. “Mom if Sisy and I are not married in the church, we are not married. Case closed.”
“We will arrange a wedding, a proper Roman Catholic wedding. I never wanted you to elope.” She shouted. “Brad, come to see me. We’ll talk. You’re more precious to me than the air I breathe and this is killing me. I can help you work this out.”
“I’ll come tomorrow morning. How’s that? Now just calm down.” I pleaded and she seemed surprised she'd gotten her way. “I need a favor, Mom. Is the shed in the backyard still full of Bruno’s stuff?”
“You’re in luck, he cleaned it out last month -- finally.”
“I brought some rope back from Iran. It’s kind of special and I hope to make some money selling it. Can I store it in the shed? No one will want to buy wet rope. I could bring it with me tomorrow if it’s okay.”
“Sure Brad. That would be fine. Do you want me to cook you breakfast? We’ll talk.” She wheedled.
“Sure Mom, but don’t start cooking until I get there. I don’t know how long it will take to get the rope loaded. See you tomorrow. Love you Mom.”
At dawn, I ate some cereal wetted up with beer. I swung by the filling station to get gas and check my tire pressure. Then I drove to the post office and pulled out a stack of ads and mail. I threw the mess on the truck seat. I'd deal with it later.
When I found the trucking outfit, the office was open. The dispatcher said he'd load the crate onto my truck when he could free up a fork-lift driver. He offered me a cup of coffee and we swapped lies for about an hour. Then, he apologized for the delay and said he needed to get back to work. He pointed me toward the crates in the yard and told me to go inspect my goods.
As I moved out into the cold drizzle, I pulled up my collar and wondered if the rope was protected in plastic. I found the crate in a maze of shipping containers. It didn’t seem to be damaged. But, there was a white crust coating one side. I wiped some off and tasted it. It was salty. So the crate rode the deck. Well the rope was designed to be out in all weather.
“You Duello?” A forklift operator yelled.
“Yes, my truck is at the office.” I yelled back.
“Meet you there.” He said. When I got to the office, he had the crate loaded. The old shocks and springs were taxed to the max. This was going to be a slow, careful drive. I hoped my own weight in the truck wouldn’t be the straw that broke the axle.
It was late morning and raining when I backed up to the storage shed. Mom was glad to see me and set out brunch. I love her cooking no matter what she calls it and ate like a condemned man.
The rain relented back to a drizzle. I limped out, opened the crate, removed three rope coils and tacked the crate back together. I brought them in for Mom’s inspection. She liked the colors, softness and flexibility. I spent the afternoon unloading all the rope, moving the crate into the shed, then reloading the rope into the crate. As I was finishing, Sisy drove up, waved at me and went to the kitchen door. Mom greeted her like her long lost, favorite daughter. They hugged and gaily chattered as they went into the kitchen.
Decision point, I could just leave. I got into the truck and pushed at the mail to see what was there. Nothing much was there but ads. Then I uncovered the letter. It was from the Attorney General of the State of Nevada forwarded by the Setting Sail Inn. Maybe they had reconsidered the annulment.
I had to read the letter through three times before I could figure out what it meant. There had been a year-long investigation of fraudulent practices in the marriage/divorce industry in Clark County, Nevada. Prosecution of cases had begun. The business license of the Setting Sail Inn had been revoked pending trial. As a tenant, I was advised to vacate the property immediately. Any personal property left at the premises after 30 days would be forfeit and auctioned.
The bottom line became clear; there wasn’t going to be a quick divorce. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. Might as well pay a lawyer and start the ball rolling here in Seattle. I can still go back to Annia in December and just let things play out in their own good time.
“Brad. Are you okay?” I opened my eyes and tried to focus on the face through the rain smeared window.
Sitting up, I rolled down the window half way. “I’m just resting my ankle, Sisy.”
“Your mom has supper on the table. Are you hungry? It’s almost 7:00.”
I slowly followed her into the kitchen. Both Mom and Sisy acted as if the elephant in the room, named Divorce, was no more than a stuffed toy. I was sullen and short with them but they just ignored it. I ate, kissed Mom goodbye, locked up the shed, and left the two to stew.
Now I was in a financial bind. I’d had to raid every bit of savings and cash to pay off the rope. My brother came through with the last couple hundred to make up the difference. He was betting that I’d make some real money selling the rope.
I couldn’t afford the apartment and asked Mom if I could stay a few weeks with her. She refused saying I had a home to live in. So all I could do was ask Sisy if I could move back into the spare room. She hesitated, then agreed.
That night we had our first serious discussion about money. I spelled out my finances to her and told her I had to focus on selling the rope to get back into the black. She wanted to help and in the end she sold about a fourth of the consignment herself. She got all the profit on what she sold after subtracting cost and shipping. Funny, I never knew she had so much business sense.
I focused my sales pitch on my friends, especially those who were divorced. I moved about half of the consignment this way and in doing so found out about the cheap but good divorce lawyers. I chose one of them and made an appointment for the following week. The first hour was free so I could afford it.
Then the worrisome e-mail arrived from Annia. I saved the attachment then looked through the html code.
<!-- Oh Brad, at play rehearsal, I fainted during the death scene. It took a while for the cast to realize I was not acting. Please don't worry. I am fine, but shaken. I do not want it to happen during the performance. I guess I am just overwrought with school, the play and wishing you were here. I wake up at night thinking of you and cannot get back to sleep.-->
Even though she tried to be reassuring, I couldn’t shake the feeling of doom. The only thing that helped was to look at my plane tickets to Tehran and e-mail Annia.
<!-- Just a few more weeks. I’m coming.-->
Thanksgiving came and went. At the end of November, a sporting goods store bought all the rope I had left and I was able to pay off my brother with interest. I had money in my pocket again and a ticket to fly. Then the floor fell out from under me. In the morning, the final e-mail came from Annia. It said simply “Goodbye.” But inside the code:
<!-- Dearest Brad,
My mother has forbidden me to contact you anymore. I never thought I would disobey her but I had to let you know why. I beg you to stay calm and do nothing, nothing at all after you read this. Especially, DO NOT E-MAIL ME!
I am going to have a baby, your baby. I don’t completely understand how it happened. But Mother is so angry, she is threatening legal action. I don’t know if she will do this but you must take no chances. You must not return to Iran.
I have spent the last three days arguing with her because she wants to force me to have an abortion. Then she threatened to pull me out of school immediately unless I followed her wishes. This is so cruel, my heart is broken.
My beloved sister and her husband came to my aid and helped me stand up to Mother. They are childless. They want to adopt our baby and give it all their love. If Mother finally agrees, I will go to live at my sister’s home. I will live in seclusion until the baby is born. We will tell others that I am caring for my pregnant sister. That she needs special care not to lose the baby. Everyone will think our baby is her natural child. You must do nothing to interfere with these plans.
You must not try to find me. I have given my word that I will never see you again. I did this for the sake of our child. You must agree also. Pray for me and our little one. Pray, but do nothing more.
I’ll love you always,
My hands and feet were like ice. My guts rolled and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I curled up on the bed and lay there senseless for seven hours. When Sisy came home, she tapped on the door and said I should come to dinner. I snapped, "Don't tell me what to do. Go away. Leave me alone."
When I finally got up, I went over to the calendar and counted out the months. July. Okay, I can wait. But in July, I will find you Annia. Then I sat down at the computer to plan our future. I now had a goal far more important than any other in my life. So, I buckled down and started working my plan. Within a week I landed a good job, told the lawyer to start the paperwork for a divorce and moved to Bruno's flat. I lived on next to nothing and squirreled away money in a bank in Vancouver.
Surprisingly, the time flew by. At the end of April, I met with my lawyer for a progress report. Sisy’s lawyer was stalling. I asked him if he could finish himself. He said a hearing was scheduled for late July that I had to attend. The rest he could do without me.
In mid July, an attorney called me and asked for a meeting. I agreed quickly hoping this was Sisy’s lawyer wanting to cut a deal. On the day of the meeting, I took off early from work, cleaned up and put on my best suit. After looking in the mirror, I thought. This won't do. I need to look like a pauper.
The building was a high-rise with ZIAA on the sign. I walked slowly up the steps in faded jeans and a flannel shirt. My ankle was acting up today.
The attorney’s name was Francis Taynen and his office was in the penthouse suite. I took the elevator.
The receptionist showed me to a waiting room with leather furniture. Everything in the room reeked of money. Only one of the magazines was in English. I wished I'd worn my suit.
After ten minutes, a distinguished man greeted me and introduced himself as Francis Taynen. The refection off his shoes, the tailor-made pinstriped suit and his stiff handshake screamed shyster.
In his well-appointed office, he showed me where to sit and then told me he represented the Sassan family. I was so shocked that I could barely get through the preliminary chitchat.
I sat there wringing my hands just like my mother did so often. Then I thought I understood. This must be about child support. I willed myself to keep my hands still.
“I can see you are uncomfortable with this interview Mr. Duello. Can I offer you something to drink? Scotch whiskey perhaps?” Taynen offered.
“Thanks. Do you have a beer?” He brought me both. Well a Boilermaker might be just the ticket to see me through. Annia must have had her baby. Pride welled up in my chest.
“Is Annia okay, Mr. Taynen?” I asked. “I haven’t heard from her for over seven months.”
“She is very well. She has sent you a letter. I’ll give you time to read it in private.” He stood and handed me the envelope. Then he left. My hands shook as I opened it. I smelled the paper and there was the same sweet, sultry scent that I fell in love with. Tears came to my eyes and I had to put the letter down to avoid getting it wet. I found my handkerchief and used it, then read the letter.
My mother has explained to me the offer she is making you. It is my wish that you do as she asks. I also will follow gratefully the path she has set for me.
My mother obtained a sigheh to protect me. It cost her dearly to have it pre-dated. She has also accepted Vladimir’s proposal to make me his wife on my 18th birthday. She told Vladimir that I was prepared according to ancient Persian customs to assure blessings on our married life.
Vladimir’s drinking was the reason I wasn’t sure he’d be a fit husband. He has vowed to never again drink to excess. He is an honorable man and I believe he will keep his promise.
All of my family have been good to me during these past months. Our baby is a girl and my sister named her Mandie. I am fully recovered and well.
My sister and her husband are anxious to legally adopt Mandie as their own. She is with them now. Mandie will grow in wisdom and joy as the sole heir of a religious scholar who is revered by our people.
It was hard for me to leave her but my sister will always love her as I would. I will become Mandie’s doting auntie – though her home will be so far from my future home in Baku.
Please put me out of your mind and make no effort at all to contact me. I find the thought very hard but it is best for Mandie’s happiness and security.
I hope you agree. My brother-in-law and sister have assured me that Mandie will be told about her biological parents when she is old enough to understand the meaning of our ancient texts and prophecies. She alone will decide if her path leads back to you.
I ask you not to keep this letter but put it with the adoption papers which will be safeguarded. Perhaps in 15-20 years Mandie will come to return the letter to you.
Be well Brad, my heart is breaking. When you read this I will be Mrs. Vladimir Sarashanoff.
At first, I sipped the whisky then knocked it back in one gulp. Following on, the beer was cool and comforting. I had known all along that Annia would likely end up with Vladimir. I could accept that. But, how can I give up my only child? Then Taynen tapped on the door and came back in.
I looked up at him and said wearily. “So, what do the Sassans have in a store for me and my daughter?”
“The Sassan family has asked me to draw up adoption papers. In order to do that, you must freely give up your parental rights. I have Mandie’s birth certificate here. Would you like to see it? It’s in Turkmen I’m afraid.” He said as he handed it to me. “Annia asked me to tell you that the baby’s eyes are hazel like yours.”
I looked at the document but could make nothing of it. Even the baby’s name was in their blocked-up letters. I handed it back to Taynen and asked. “There must be a way that my wife and I could raise the baby. We do not have children.”
His answer was swift as if he'd practied it. “Since I represent the Sassan family, I can’t advise you. The family would ask me to oppose your attempt to gain custody. I would do that by telling the judge that you have been trying to end your marriage ever since you returned from Iran. Also, you are not now living with your wife and can’t offer Mandie a stable home. I would also point out that you took advantage of an under-aged school girl. But let’s drop the legal arguments. You would be taking the baby away from Annia. With the suggested adoption, Annia would remain in Mandie’s life as a loving aunt. All the important family members have agreed that Mandie will be told about you when she is older. She would be likely to seek you out then.”
“Do you have any more beer?” I asked and he got another can from the cabinet. I reached for it, popped the top and beer sprayed over his polished desk. He didn't react -- just watched me closely.
“How do you know so much about me?” I demanded.
Now Taynen set his jaw. “It’s all easily available via a computer search of the legal records of Nevada and Washington.”
He watched me sip my beer. I eyed him back, licked my lips and asked. “Tell me, what is a sigheh?”
Taynen folded his hands on his desk and reluctantly said. “It’s a curious Persian arrangement. Something like a trial betrothal or engagement. In essence, it gives Mandie a degree of legitimacy.”
“What rights does it give the father?” I asked with interest.
“As I said, Mr. Duello, I represent the Sassan family and cannot advise you.” Taynen was tired of me, but then again, he was stuck with me. “If you’d like, Mr. Duello, I can outline the offer that the Sassan family hopes you will accept. Should I continue or would you like to retain an attorney?”
I was completely seduced by the idea of being betrothed to Annia and I knew my divorce lawyer would be blown out of the water by this guy. “It can’t hurt to hear the offer.”
Taynen opened a file and began. “Annia’s mother is prepared to make you a generous offer in return for your acceptance of the adoption and your agreement never to initiate contact with any member of the Sassan family especially Annia. I have prepared two documents. The first one relinquishes your parental rights. The second is a contract that transfers half a million dollars to you less $100,000 which you will use to purchase a $500,000 life insurance policy on yourself. The beneficiary will be the Sassan Trust of which I am trustee.” Then he stopped and looked at me.
“The Scotch is going to my head. I thought you said half a million dollars.”
“Here look at the figures on paper.” He said handing me the contract. “The net amount is $400,000. You can consider it a loan, only you don’t have to repay it. The insurance policy will pay off the loan for you. It’s good business and a very handsome offer, Mr. Duello.”
I took the contract and snapped out of my daydream. As I looked at the figures, something was pissing me off. But what? Then it hit me. “Now wait just a minute,” I growled. “Aren’t we selling a baby here?” I tossed the contract back onto his desk.
“No, Mr. Duello, the Sassans are purchasing privacy.” Taynen stood and loomed over me. “This entire episode has been very upsetting to the family. They have dealt with the consequences of your act with compassion and now wish to resume a peaceful family life. I hate to be blunt but their religious beliefs are all that stood between your freedom and criminal prosecution.”
He had me there. I finished off the beer then talked again about Mandie. “What about education? I want to be sure my daughter goes to a good school.”
“You can provide for that today.” Taynen sat down. He was back on familiar ground. “For instance, the boarding school where Annia was staying in Arak provides a superior middle school education for girls. Annia went there when she was a girl. Mandie’s great-grandmother and her large, extended family live nearby in Arak.”
I shook my head as I tossed the empty can from one hand to the other. “I don’t know if I would trust Mandie there. They really need to get rid of those balconies.”
Taynen leaned back with fingertips touching as if in prayer and said thoughtfully. “Yes.”
I looked up and could see that Taynen must know how I was meeting Annia. I dropped my eyes and groaned. Taynen made a muffled snort. I looked up again to see he was barely able to control himself. Then Mr. Cool lost it and drug me along into a fit of uncontrolled laughter.
Taynen said almost to himself. “Stop, just stop. This is unprofessional.” I bit my lip and straightened up. Taynen took several deep breaths. But when he picked up the contract and looked at me, we both cracked up again. Finally, Taynen rolled out of his chair and headed out the door. What a relief it was to be able to laugh again. But, I've got to sober up and think. Annia was right, she and I didn’t matter. Mandie is the one who’s important. How can I tell what’s best for my daughter?
When I left the office an hour later, I could still taste the milky liqueur that Taynen had offered me when we sealed the deal. I was poorer by a lover and a daughter but richer by $375,000. To repay it, all I had to do was die. Things like this only happen in the movies. They never happen to a guy like me.
So Sisy and I stayed married. You might say she won the last heat. I didn’t want to see half the $375,000 fall into Sisy's hands through a divorce decree. I bought a new truck and a modest but comfortable house in Federal Way, paid off Mom’s mortgage and started a business. But things didn’t improve much.
Sisy and I were better at business than at marriage. Highwire Painters did really well for three years and might have been a real success but the booze got hold of me. In the end, we couldn’t hold it together – we failed. I wanted to run a business not wade through government red tape. We ignored immigration rules and got caught. We paid the fine, shut down and salvaged a bit of our investment.
Things after that are confused. Nothing was connected anymore. Memories floated in and out. I felt empty. When someone asked me about something I’d done, I gave them a silly answer that made them laugh. When being funny didn’t cut it, I got pissed off and stomped out.
But there’s one thing seared into my mind – the attack on the twin towers and the war in Afghanistan. I panicked when the Taliban and the Northern Alliance were fighting for Herat. Herat is about 100 miles from Annia’s hometown and I had no way of knowing where Mandie was. Herat was so important that the Iranian Special Forces co-operated with U.S. Special Forces. Gudarz, the factory foreman in Arak, had a son in this fight and he e-mailed me details of the action.
One afternoon, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I walked off the job covered in paint and drove directly to ZIAA. I demanded to see Taynen. He was just coming back from lunch with one of his wealthy clients. Taynen pointed his client toward his office as he grabbed my arm and steered me off to an empty meeting room. He urged me to sit and told me I had one minute.
“I’m just so worried about Annia and Mandie.” I said. “The fighting is close to them. I feel like I should go.” There was a catch in my voice. “Go find them, protect them.”
Taynen rocked my chair back and loomed over me. “You will do no such thing.” I could smell the gin he’d had with lunch. “Even coming here like this could be a violation of your contract. You read the contract, I presume. If you attempt to contact any member of the family, you will have to repay the money you received. Do you understand?” Suddenly, he jerked the chair. I grabbed the arms, afraid he’d push it over. “Do you?”
“Taynen, just tell me. Are they okay?” I begged.
He straightened in exasperation. “The danger right here in Seattle is far greater than in Sarakhs. You, Duello, are more at risk of losing your life, liberty and property than Annia and Mandie. Look what’s happening around you right here and you’ll find plenty of danger.” He looked hard at me and I believed him. “I don’t ever expect to see you in this building again. Am I clear?”
I had been wringing my cap but now I felt relieved. He had told me all he could. “I’m sorry, Mr. Taynen. I’ll try not to worry about them and I won’t come back.” I stood and suddenly he was shaking my hand. Then he dropped it and just stood there. We looked at each other and I said. “I can find my way out.”
At the door, I turned to thank him. But Taynen was standing at the table with his back to me. I’ll never forget how he looked. He was leaning over the table with his fingers splayed apart on the wood -- just staring into its polished reflections. I knew I should go quietly. The torment he was feeling was even worse than mine.
I never thought I was an alcoholic. I held down good jobs and didn’t call in sick -- even when I had a doozy of a hangover. Mainly I drank on the weekends. Okay, every weekend and holidays and when I watched a ball game. But I could go days at a time without drinking. I almost never drank hard liquor and didn’t hide bottles in the house or truck. I had a pony keg in the fridge. But everyone does.
The only thing that still confused me was how Sisy got so bruised up. I don’t remember ever hitting her. And, she never accused me of it. But she moped around and played the long-suffering martyr. I hated that.
The worst happened the night we both tumbled down the stairs. The EMTs told me that I had called 911 but I don’t remember falling or calling. They took us both to the hospital. I went into the Addiction/Recovery Ward and Sisy into Surgery. My doctor said that Sisy had three bruised ribs. He was worried that one might be cracked. But that’s not the reason they operated on her. Sisy had a miscarriage. I shook my head and told him I didn’t know she was pregnant. The doctor got mad and said I was totally in denial. He droned on that my liver was diseased and the blackouts would continue. He guaranteed I would drink myself into an early grave.
The panic rose in my throat and I needed a beer to calm down. The doctor wanted me to stay in the hospital, dry out, then join AA. All I wanted to do was find Sisy. But, he wouldn’t let me see her. No one believed it was an accident and I didn’t know what was true. Only Sisy knew and I couldn’t ask her. The next morning I raised hell with the staff, signed myself out and went to work.
At the same time, a social worker talked Sisy into believing that I would kill her if she didn’t leave me. The social worker frightened her with gory stories about spouse abuse and helped her file for a temporary protection order. My own mother hoped that if she refused to let me stay with her, I’d go into detox. But Bruno rescued me again and let me stay with him for a few weeks.
When Sisy was back on her feet, she asked me to come home. I was so relieved that I proposed we get married by a priest. It was a fairytale, a dream. We honeymooned in Flores Guatemala. We met all kinds of her cousins – first, second and third. I loved Guatemala except for the heat. This is where we first noticed Sisy’s bruises. They seemed to appear for no reason.
Back home, Sisy got a thorough medical check up. The doctors ruled out everything else and called it an autoimmune response. Something in her skin was attacking the capillary walls. It was not life threatening.
But for me it was more serious. Everyone, even my own mother, believed I was the cause of the bruises. In their minds, I beat my wife. There came a time when I almost believed it myself.
Soon Sisy quit her great job. She couldn’t face people at work with the way she looked. Then her migraines started again and she would lock herself into a darkened room for days. Our lives were a disaster.
Sisy and I did not celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary together. Instead I was drugged, pushed into a trunk, taken for a ride, then moved into a cargo container on the docks. I could not move a muscle and felt like I was shedding my skin. I couldn’t see anything but I felt every vibration.
When the two who had snatched me left, they told me I had food and water, spare clothes, and a portable shower and toilet. They said I’d be fine if I kept quiet. If I got noisy, they couldn’t vouch for my life. And then they said “Good luck” and left. Within moments the vibrations increased and the container was hoisted onto the deck of a ship. The drugs began to wear off. I was thirsty and gulped down the water. The food did not look interesting. I used the toilet and laid back down on the cot.
I slept for a very long time. I could tell because my back was aching when I woke up. Getting up and stretching out the kinks, eased the pain. I could feel the rhythmic swaying of a ship in open water. There was twice as much food as had been there the day before. The water bottle that I had emptied was gone and a full one replaced it. I listened but heard only sea birds calling. There were several mystery novels, an old NASCAR magazine, paper and pencil, and a Gideon Bible. I decided to do some exercises then settle down and wait for Room Service to come again.
It was several hours before I heard footsteps and something being rolled. A motor started. Both the table with the food and the portable toilet left through the wall. Then partitions dropped down to cover the holes that had swallowed up the fixtures. I could hear two people. One was emptying out the toilet and cleaning it; the other taking care of the food and water. The ingenuity of the devices amazed me. The motor came on again, the partitions went up and everything reappeared complete with food and water.
“Hey, listen to me. Can I ask a question?” I shouted at the door.
From a slot high in the door a piece of paper fluttered to my feet. It was a list: Behaviors That Will Be Rewarded. One item said: All requests must be in writing. We will do our best to promptly comply with each request or we will explain why it is not possible and suggest an alternative. Please allow us 24 hours to fill a request.
I snatched up the paper and pencil and wrote. “Why am I here?” I folded it, reached up and pushed it through the slot. It sounded like someone took the paper from a ledge. Then the footsteps and cart moved away. I shouted, “Wait, don’t go.” But they soon were out of earshot.
A short while later someone walked up to the door and a piece of paper dropped to the floor. “We are sorry that we are unable to answer your question. We also do not know why you are here. However, we can tell you that you will be our guest for three weeks.”
“Fuck it.” I said in disgust. The rest of the day, I paced back and forth like a caged animal. They had given me some snack crackers. I broke open the wrapper and ate them all. The saltiness made me ache for a beer. Instead, I guzzled the water. I found the paper and wrote a request for a six pack of beer. Why hadn't I done that first thing?
Within an hour I was much calmer, even sleepy. I slept and woke when the motor started. I jumped up and pushed the note through the door. “Wait I have another note.” I quickly wrote, “What are you putting in the water?” and pushed the second note through the slot. The motor started and food and water appeared with the table. I looked to see if a person could get out when the table moved but it was sliding into a tunnel.
It only took a short while to get the reply. “The ship physician has prescribed a mild sedative for you. It is standard procedure to help our passengers get through the first two days with minimal stress and seasickness. We are discontinuing the medication immediately. If you wish the sedative in the future, please supply us with a written request.”
Doctor. Oh, I’m fucked. They think I’m an alcoholic. There isn’t going to be any beer. I had my head in my hands when the motor that moved the table revved up. I stared in disbelief when the table rolled back with a six pack. Snatching up a bottle, I opened it and sucked down the cool liquid. But, something was wrong. I looked at the label. It said nonalcoholic beer. I put the cold bottle to my sweaty forehead and realized I’d just have to show them that they were wrong. Three weeks and I’ll be back home. Three weeks. I can do this.
After I finished off the six pack, I was stabbed by a feeling of dread. I sat on the cot and rocked while I held my gut. I had to control the panic that pushed bile into my throat. By sheer willpower, I kept myself from screaming and crawling the walls. I just rocked and rocked for hours. Then I fell asleep, but slept fitfully.
The sound of motors woke me and I could smell bacon. I was hungry and ate everything. The coffee tasted great. How long has it been since I had a morning without a hangover? I wanted to walk in the sunlight. I got the paper and wrote out the request. Then I explored every square inch of the floor, walls and ceiling. The lights were recessed and always on. I found two cameras and made faces. Everything was covered with rigid foam insulation. It was a padded cell or sound proofed, both probably.
It had a box car shape with plenty of room to pace. The ceiling had barred openings that let in lots of fresh air and day light. I jumped, grabbed the bars and pulled myself up but I could not see out. I couldn’t hold the position for long. I was sure getting out of shape. In the distance, I could hear an alarm bell. Soon there was the sound of running feet. I dropped to the floor as a piece of paper fluttered down. I grabbed my note and pushed it through the slot.
“You are forbidden to touch the bars.” It read. “We are electrifying them. You will receive a severe shock and set off alarms in the office. To reinforce that you must comply, we will automatically deny your next request.” I heard footsteps walking away.
Well there goes the walk in the park. I spent quite a while in a funk. Then I took a shower and changed clothes. I picked up one of the mystery novels that was set in Palermo. The time passed quickly as I read and soon lunch arrived.
I spent the afternoon reading. I was just getting to the good part where the hero was going to slaughter his tormentors, but I couldn’t concentrate. The words were blurring on the page. I wrote a request for real beer not near beer. When supper came, I put the note through the slot.
I ate a little of the supper but it wasn’t good. My skin was itching and I felt edgy. I wondered what kind of water was in the shower. Sea water I supposed. Then someone walked up and the table disappeared. The same beer as last night came back with a note. “I’m sorry but there are no alcoholic beverages on the ship. We have again substituted the nonalcoholic beer.”
I drank all six bottles. Something flickered in my head and the itching started to ease. But I was still angry and agitated. I began to pace. I had to get out.
Standing in front of a camera. I promised and pleaded. I coaxed and begged and did everything I could to reason with the lens. I groused and wheedled. I lied and bargained. I brooded and confessed. Was anyone listening? I blamed and threatened. I babbled and blubbered until a note was pushed through the slot. I opened it. “In order for us to hear you in the office, please depress the button below the camera. Thank you for your cooperation.”
I sat down on the cot, put my head in my hands and began to rock. Everything was hopeless. Dread swept over me again. After a very long while, I thought of my daughter. I put every fiber of my being into picturing her face and imagining what she was doing. By holding on to the thought of her, I got through the night.
I slept late the next day, woke up feeling pretty good and did all the things a normal person would do. I even cleaned up the paper and dirty clothes. What did the old guy at Setting Sail Inn call this place? Brig. Piss and puke. Did he really see this coming? He said he didn’t think I‘d done anything wrong. I agreed. But then, he seemed to change his mind. Ugh. I wish it would cool down. I have at least two more weeks of this. I’m sweating out more than I’m taking in. I took another swig of water. This must be what my drinking buddies called drying out the drunk.
Then my stomach lurched. I hugged the toilet and wretched up the water I was drinking. Fifteen minutes of dry heaves. When it finally stopped I was exhausted and just sprawled out on the floor. The last thing I remember was a sweet smell.
I awoke on my cot and felt pretty good, considering. When I sat up, I noticed tape on my arm. I peeled it off and saw a puncture mark made by a large needle. They must have pumped something into me. Rather than resenting it, I was glad and hungry enough to eat everything in sight.
I had no idea of time now. When daylight next appeared, I went through another bout of dry heaves. Breakfast was out of the question but I was able to eat lunch. Then I read through the NASCAR magazine that I had totally forgotten. The afternoon was very hot. I was itchy and irritable. When supper came, I sent out a note, “Bring something very cold to drink.” These mute guys were always prompt. By the time I finished the magazine, the table was out and back with a six pack of frost covered near-beer. They must have put it in the freezer for a while.
I poured one of the beers into a glass and it foamed up all over the place. The bottle was too cold to hold. Was Sisy behind this? Probably not, my mother and brothers were more likely to put me away like this. I began to feel an intense loneliness for everyone in my life. Even Vladimir. My god, I was completely alone and hopeless.
I spaced the rest of the beer out so it would last. When it was gone, I rested my head in my hands and cried. Without warning, my head whipped back and an excruciating pain radiated from the base of my skull, down my spine. I was staring, wide-eyed at the ceiling. The spasm eased but I was afraid to move. Then I saw it. A spot on the ceiling pulsed and grew.
Soon, I could make out Sisy’s face. She was so sad. I called to her. “Sisy, please, get me out of here. Please take me home.” Her answer was drowned out by loud crunching. She was gnawing on something -- something like broken pottery.
She loomed over me. I could see her scars and bruises. My eye caught a movement in her hair. A snake rose up and hissed about to strike. I jerked my head back in horror and the searing pain radiated through me again. The snake struck out at me, missed and sunk its fangs into Sisy’s face. We both screamed in pain. Tears rolled down Sisy’s cheeks. Her face began to swell as the snake writhed to free its fangs from her skin. More snakes appeared and the air filled with hissing. Soon they were writhing all over her head like worms. They struck at me but always hit her.
Sisy moved closer as if to kiss me. She opened her mouth and blood dripped onto my eyes from a slit in her tongue. The smell excited the snakes and they struck, hitting me this time, pushing behind my eyes and deep into my brain. I was paralyzed and could not pull them out. The snakes gorged on my brain. I had only one chance. I had to rip out my stony heart or die.
Sisy's blink released me. I fell to the floor then scrambled for the corner and flattened myself against the wall. The skin on my arms was chalky pale, bloodless. I could see and feel insects crawling over and under my skin. I tried to scrape them off begging for help. Sisy cooed in sympathy and moved toward me. Mercifully the snakes had drawn back into her hair. Hands grabbed me, forced me down and wrapped me into a straight jacket. Sisy drove a thorn deep into my thigh. It sucked the pain out of my body. But I was so torqued, nothing could quite put me under. She fished snakes out of her hair and tied down my ankles to the cot. Then, she wound a boa constrictor around my chest. She found a garden snake, attached one end to a puffer fish then pushed the other end into a vein in my ankle. She adjusted the dribble. I screamed. Finally, she found a deadly asp, attached it to a blowfish and pushed it up my dick.
As she cleaned up to leave, she sang, “What do you do to a drunken sailor? What should you do to a drunken sailor? That’s what you do to a drunken sailor, e’r-ly in the mornin’.” Mercifully, I passed out.
Slowly, I began feeling like my old self again. My head was clearer and my hands didn’t shake. For the first time, I understood what the beer was doing to my body. I didn’t know how much time had passed but I hoped I’d soon be home -- clean and sober.
It took awhile before I noticed the ship had stopped riding the waves. I could hear motors churning and people yelling. Jet airplanes screamed overhead. Seattle? No, it’s too hot. Then I noticed a sweet smell.
I woke up here and knew that the snatch was not about alcoholism or my family. It was about Iran. It was about Vladimir.
Now after five years, I’m about to walk into the sunshine and its heat. Always the same even heat. I smeared on the sun block and found the sunglasses. I hope they will let me walk out and not gas me again.
Someone tapped on the door and a feminine voice called. “Are you ready Mr. Duello?”
“Yes, I’m ready.” I was shaking, afraid to believe I was actually leaving. A woman opened the door and said. “Hi, my name is Jane. I manage the apartments where you will be staying while they process you home.” I nodded, put on my sun glasses and followed her through a maze of hallways then out into the sun.
“I-I’m glad to meet you, Jane. Are your apartments air conditioned?” I asked hopefully.
“Of course, all the modern amenities: phone with answering machine, wireless Internet connection, TV, DVD, microwave, fridge, swimming pool, and hot tub but the tub doesn’t get used much. Your rent is paid and you can charge things at the cafes and shops including the barber.”
“Where are we?”
She was shocked. “Why, you’re on Freedom’s Footprint. This is the island atoll of Diego Garcia. It only takes about an hour to see it all. But don’t leave the base. The areas off-base are restricted.” Just then a fighter jet with engines screaming climbed over our heads and into the sky. We shielded our eyes and followed its path until it was out of sight. “Scuttle butt is there is another offensive in Afghanistan.” She said. “Sorry but the noise will likely get worse before it gets better.”
“Can I jog?” I asked her.
“Sure, go out to the athletic fields at dusk or, better yet, go at dawn. Drink lots of water. Stick to the roads and don’t go through any gates.” She warned.
We walked several more blocks. Jane pointed out the library and medical clinic. We stopped at a boat launch to look at the lagoon in the middle of the atoll. On the east side, a military freighter was moored. It was offloading containers and taking on cargo. The containers made me shiver.
“Goodness, Brad, are you okay? You can’t be cold in this heat.”
We walked on and when we were at the apartments she pointed out her office, then stopped at a door, and handed me a key card. She said it opened the door and was also a guest pass for the base facilities. I could charge anything to the room. Her cell phone rang. She waved goodbye and walked toward the office.
I put the card in the slot and unlocked the door. The cool air welcomed me in. It was like a miracle. I spent an hour stretching and breathing in the coolness. Then, I called my mother and woke her up. When she realized it was me, she started sobbing hysterically and I had no idea what she was saying. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to hear her voice. Finally, I was able to ask her if she had seen Sisy. “No. When your lawyer promised to repay the State of Washington the widow’s benefit, the State canceled the warrant. So no one is looking for her anymore.” I told Mom I thought I could find Sisy so she shouldn’t worry. Before we hung up, I promised Mom I’d call her each day instead of the middle of the night. Then, I called Ms. Blair. She wasn’t burning the midnight oil in her office. I left my new phone number and location.
Next I headed for the barber, the clothing store and the little grocery. When I came to the dock, I set my packages on a bench. I tossed my severed pony tail out into the lagoon. The breeze slowly pushed it toward the middle. Then it began to bob. The fish were investigating.
I gave the bars and cafes a wide berth. My brief conversations with Jane and the store clerks had been very hard for me. I wondered when I would be comfortable talking face to face with another person? On top of that, the stammer I had as a kid was back. I put the key card in the door, but it didn't open. I sat on the chair by the door and looked closely at the card. It was thick like a package of baseball cards. There was an area of raised letters and a circle of holes. Was it a key? Guest pass? Recorder? Bug? Transmitter? Phone? Homing beacon? What if this freedom was just another trick. I sat there trembling and thinking I'd be thrown back into a cell.
I calmed down and tried the key again. The door opened. Inside, I had a message. Jane called to tell me the time and place for my medical and dental exams. I let myself relax in the cool air and tried to imagine I was a normal person on vacation. I switched on the TV. It was my lucky day. The Sports Channel was showing highlights of the NASCAR races. They even had a recap of Jess Gardner’s career. I leaned back in the lounger with a glass of ice tea. I’d forgotten how sweet life could be.
I slept well with the air conditioner full blast to dampen the roar of the jets. At five in the morning the phone rang. Ms. Blair apologized for getting me up. She was glad that I was being treated better. She had demanded the dental and medical exams and was glad they had scheduled them promptly. Other than that she had nothing new to report. She suggested I call her in two days when she thought she’d have good news.
It was light out. I opened the curtains to a brilliant sunrise streaked with red, crimson, pink, orange and salmon. What a morning to be free.
I filled two water bottles and headed out. As I jogged, I used the bottles as weights to get my upper body back in shape. The third time around the track I had a runner’s high like never before. I loved the world and everyone in it.
When I started my cool down lap, four dark haired, wiry young men kicked a soccer ball onto a field. I stopped nearby to stretch and watched them for awhile. One of the players was very good. The other three basically passed the ball and set it up for him. The shortest reminded me of someone but I couldn’t figure who.
I walked back to my room and took a cold shower. I went to the library and used a computer to check my email. What a mess of spam. There was only one message from Sisy reminding me of our dinner reservations on our anniversary. But Nora Narus, Sisy’s best friend who lived next door, had sent several asking me to contact her. I wasn’t surprised. She had a lot of faith that computers could solve problems. Then I found what I wanted. Jess, my e-guru, had sent an email last year announcing his latest e-business start up.
It took two hours to type out my story with two fingers. How Sisy had disappeared and the authorities couldn’t find her. This would definitely grab his interest. He always liked Sisy and it was a badge of honor to do what no one else could do. I asked him to help find Sisy. I titled the email “Finding the Lost” and sent it off. I sent a shorter version of the email to Nora.
The next day was about the same. I went out for a run in the morning. The soccer players were there again. The short one nodded when I went by him. He looked so familiar. Wish I could place him. When I got back, I cleaned up and was at the library door as soon as it opened. I had two return emails.
Jess wrote. “Oh the joy!!!!!!! Brad, I knew the waters would spit you up eventually – but onto Diego Garcia? Someday you’ve got to ask me to do something hard. Maria Cecilia Flores who was 33 on January 1st lives in Venus, Florida 33960. PO Box 1995. 863-299-9626. She’s a dispatcher for the Everglades Search and Rescue office in Venus. Been working almost a month. And, get this, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. It sends shivers up my spine to think there are 26,672 people out there who want to be black widows. Next time I'm in Seattle I'll look you up and get the detailed story. Good luck and be careful man.”
Nora wrote. “Brad I cried tears of happiness for two hours after getting your email. I sent it to Sisy. She is just fine but has told me not to give out her address. She left because of the debt to the state. I’m sure she is relieved that she no longer needs to worry. If she replies, I’ll relay it to you immediately. Please come visit me when you get back. ☺ ☺ ☺ ☺ ☺ ☺ ☺”
In the afternoon, I got both the doctor and dental appointments out of the way. I asked the Doc to tell me how much damage the drinking had done. He said my liver showed damage but I had liver to spare. If I stayed dry, he predicted I’d live to see my grandkids marry. He said he had nothing that would help with the cravings. He said the best thing was AA and offered to meet me at the AA meeting the next evening. I promised to show.
The next morning, I woke up very early and practiced what I would say to Sisy. Then, I dialed her number. I was so nervous I had to dial three times before it rang through. I was taking deep breaths when someone picked up and said gruffly, “Hello.” It was a man’s voice. I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth. Then he said loudly. “Where the hell you calling from?” I hung up. It hadn’t occurred to me that Sisy would be living with another man.
The phone rang. I hesitated and let the answering machine take the call. A man said. “Brad, pick up.” It was the same voice. “This is Juan, you fuckin’ bastard, you should have stayed dead. Maybe the Green River couldn’t do you but the Everglades can. Stay away from my sister. She’s finally come to her senses and filed to divorce you.” Click. Juan could always put a real damper on things. I wondered if he was bluffing about Sisy getting a divorce.
I called Ms. Blair. She answered but said she didn’t have any good news today. I filled her in on what I had learned and she was impressed. She confirmed Juan’s claim. “I have a fax from a lawyer in Florida who was referred to me by the Worker’s Compensation Office. The fax was an e-filling for divorce in the state of Florida.” Then she added. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s probably for the best and should have happened years ago.” I said goodbye. I had to hustle to beat the heat. By the time I was at the sport fields, the soccer players were finishing their practice. One left with the ball and the other three started running the track. Each one of them easily lapped me and left me in the dust. They were thoroughly enjoying trashing the old man. Life did not feel good today.
At the library, I had an email from Sisy. She titled it: “I never believed you had drowned.” “I’m so sorry I missed your call this afternoon. Juan told me he’d run you off. I hope that’s not true. Once you told me that we could divorce and remain friends. I hope you still believe that.”
“I have fallen in love. He is an older man as so many are here in Florida. He loves me dearly and treats me better than I deserve. I think we can be very happy together.”
“So, I’ve done what you’ve always asked of me; I have filed for divorce."
"I sold your truck years ago when money was tight. Recently, I sold the house for a large profit. I am willing to split it with you and repay you for the truck. That should help you get on you feet when you get home."
"Thank you for taking care of the debt I owed the state of Washington. Sorry I don’t seem very grateful. E-mail or call me about any decisions we need to make.”
I stared blankly at the screen. How could I feel so bad about something I’ve wanted for so long? Five years gone from my life – every minute focused on Mandie so I’d come through sane. I often thought about Annia; but, it was rare that Sisy crossed my mind.
I moped away the afternoon and met the Doc at the AA meeting. He was divorced and we commiserated over coffee. Back at the room, I was wide awake.
After watching late-night TV, I woke in the chair the next morning with Big Bird belting out a song. It was too late to jog so I found the gym and worked out on the weight machines. I ran the small track in air conditioned luxury.
I noticed two fellows at the gym that I’d met at the AA meeting. They invited me over for poker. I tossed the key card in the air and said. “This is all I have in the world.”
“No problem.” They laughed. “We know how to charge to a room.” I'm glad I went. Lady luck smiled on me and I walked home with money in my pocket. I almost felt normal.
Next morning, the run wasn’t easy. So I sat on the bench and thought about going to the gym. The soccer players were taking it easy, passing the ball around the field. One of the passers missed his kick and the ball rolled right to me. When it got to me, I casually raised my foot and tapped the ball to a stop. I rolled my foot around the ball and tipped it up onto my toe. All the while I watched the fellows who all faced me with their hands on their hips. As a tease, I bounced the ball gently with full control. Almost in unison they beckoned, “Come on.” I snatched up the ball, ran toward them and drop kicked it into play. I played hard but I was no match for them. They seemed to enjoy that I was game enough to try.
When I was completely winded, we sat on the ledge of a small wading pool that had a few inches of scummy rainwater in it. It felt good to soak my feet. Three of the fellows spoke no English. The smallest translated for me. The good player was talkative and obviously boasting about something. The short one boiled it down to “He hopes to make the Olympic team for Lebanon.” The translator explained they were all cousins but he had grown up in Texas. It dawned on me that these guys were probably like me – detainees finally scheduled to go home. Then, I knew where I had seen this short fellow. He was in a photo with his arm around my neighbor, Nora. I’d seen the photo many times in her kitchen.
We stood up to leave and I shook the short one's hand. Then I stupidly said. “I think I know you. Aren’t you....” But, before I could finish with "...Nora Narus' brother?” he jumped and drove his forehead into my throat. Then he gave me a swift kick to the groin. He yelled something to his friends. All, except the soccer star came at me. I caught a foot and flipped one kid back. I tried to punch another but they kicked my feet out from under me.
I sprawled out in the water and reflexively obeyed something in my head. "Curl! Shield your neck!" I lay helpless in the water. My forehead and knees pushed tight to the side of the pool. I protected my neck and jaw with my hands and arms. The onslaught intensified. One of them jumped on my chest and I heard a rib crack. I yelped in pain and moved to defend myself. The command came again. “Freeze! Stay curled!” Now my ass was taking the brunt of the punishment. I could no longer feel my knees being rammed into the concrete. Then again a command said, "Hold! Help is here." My mouth was full of blood and I could barely breathe. Someone grabbed the key card out of my pocket. Then those brutal feet ran away in all directions.
I stayed put. In a few minutes, I heard a dog panting and lapping up the water. Moments after, there were voices. “Oh my God. Is he dead?” Someone reached down to feel for my pulse. “He’s alive. Call 911.” Within minutes, I heard the sirens. The paramedics ran to me and checked me over without moving me. “Multiple and I mean multiple blunt object contusions, possible back injuries, broken ribs, likely a punctured lung. Rolled up like a pill bug. It probably saved his life.”
The paramedic patted my pockets. “Damn, where’s the key card.” Then a woman's voice. “Maybe he’s lying on it.” An authoritative voice said. “Forget it. Transmit a retinal scan.”
Someone pulled my eyelid open and shined a light in my eye. I flinched and he yelled. “Well there’re still reflexes. Read me his stats.”
The woman relayed the data transmitted by the emergency room technician. “He’s Brad Duello. Forty years old. Just had a full medical exam. Showed liver and pancreas damage. No known allergies. A civilian detainee. Scheduled to go home in two days.”
“Well cancel those tickets.” Her partner replied. “Let’s strap him to a back board and lift him as he lies.”
The authoritative voice boomed out again. “Shit. What do you mean the tracking beacon is compromised? Hold it! All you gapers stay where you are. I’m deputizing you all. The base commander will give his okay -- I’ll see to it. Organize into teams of three and search the area for a key card. You must find it. It is vital to National Security. Report back at 0900 with anything you find. It may have been smashed, burned. Use your imagination; how would you destroy a keycard. Sketch a map of the area you’ve searched. Get busy. Move! Now, people!”
As they lifted me, I heard the same voice again, but now it was directed at me. “First, your damn encrypted e-mail messages and now the key card lost. Damn if I won’t stick a probe in your ear and defy you to lose your fucking head!”
The emergency room doctors knocked me out and sent me into surgery to repair the punctured lung and broken rib. The following day, the surgeons removed my spleen and salvaged most of the mangled spinal nerves.
Later the Doc told me it was a miracle that my back wasn’t broken. He said the medical team was still arguing about what was used to cause such damage. Being drugged to within an inch of oblivion, I was in no shape to tell him.
The rest of the week was spent in a morphine haze surrounded by women. Nurses? But one was just a girl about twelve. She had a lean, tomboy look about her. Suntanned skin, hair pulled back in a pony tail, hazel eyes. No smile, no fear, just curious. I watched her for hours hoping she'd talk to me. “Mandie?” I finally whispered and at the sound, the girl vanished. I closed my eyes and endured the pain that was not quite masked by the drugs.
Moments, hours, days passed. Time meant nothing. Three women stood close by my bed. I knew Mom at once. She was crying and I tried to touch her hand. Let her know I was all right. Would be fine. Just stop crying. I can't take it.
But she didn't stop crying and I couldn't stop staring at the two women with her. They looked like twins. One came forward and lovingly put her hands on my mother’s shoulders. “Annia?” I moaned and all three vanished. I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling lost and so alone.
Two women appeared across the room. They both had dark hair and dark eyes. As I watched her, one walked to my side and knelt by my bed. For five years, I vigilantly protected Mandie and Annia from the goons. Nora’s brother was just doing the same for her. I looked at her and said. "No grudge." She faded away leaving me there with the last figure.
She stood sentinel at the foot of my bed. She was imposing, like the white queen on the chess board. I did not call her name. I wanted her to stay, my wife.