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Detainee 717


Chapter 1

He looks like some kind of L.A. freak

Just yesterday, standing in line at 7-Eleven, K13 overheard a trio of slouching teenagers in tribal camaraderie roving up and down the aisles, half-whispering comments about him.

“Who’s that guy in line supposed to be, a Muammar Gaddafi wanna-be’?”

“Dude with the stocking cap?”

“It looks like a kufi.”

“Wait. Who’s Muammar Gaddafi, and what the fuck is a kufi?”

“Damn, son, don’t you watch the news? Gaddafi was known as the strongman or some shit, then they put the greased barrel of a nine millimeter up his rectum and pulled the trigger when they’d had enough of his strongman bullshit.”

“This dude looks more Arab, Egyptian, black or whatever …”

“Dude with, what is it, wearing a skullcap?”

“Yop. Look at him, trying to decide, do I want the Twinkies or should I go all out for the Ho Hos?”

The black pit bull of their laughter leaned against its leash, straining, and they managed a sort of flippant restraint, choking it back.

“Whatever the fuck he is, where does he think he is? This ain’t L.A.”

“This is the fucking great American Midwest, which makes him a long way from L.A. But that didn’t stop him from looking like some kind of L.A. freak …”

K13 knew that the skullcap with its cryptic decorative motif was responsible for painting the definitive bold stroke in the xenophobic portrait the three had composed. It was the epitomizing detail that condoned the low growl of their ridicule.

On the West Coast, among hip hoppers, students, surfers, movie stars and the perennially hip, knit skullcaps had replaced the ubiquitous baseball cap as the standard for urban leisurewear. But in this city – in fact, in this part of the country – a black knit skullcap with a fashionable white border embroidered with gold Aztecan icons invited attention. He was certain that his few colleagues would have seen the skullcap as a strategic mishap with the potential to backfire calamitously. The Diplomat, December and perhaps Lamborghini would advise him, You need to blend in, not stand out. K13’s contrarian theory, though, was that the cap called attention not so much to the wearer as to what the cap evoked, quick-sketching an image of something vaguely Californian in the mind of an observer. He had learned that the mind was an assembly line in a factory manufacturing meaning, and when the conveyor belt gliding by was missing its anticipated parts and pieces, assumptions would be supplied to take the place of the missing components. The teenagers had proven to K13 that his own improvised theories – which after all were the theories of an untutored novice – might just hold a modicum of plausibility. The skullcap had succeeded as the most rudimentary of diversions but there was more to it than that. It was the heat-shimmer that cast the wavering veil over the mirage, the entrancing surface layer that moved with the charge of technically inflected sexuality common to expert belly dancers, obscuring the depth and span of illusions lurking below.

Sitting on a vandal-scarred park bench the next day, once again wearing the skullcap, K13 feigns keen interest in tossing bread crumbs to ducks in a pond on an October afternoon in this once-flourishing Midwestern city that, except for the mosaic of autumn leaves patterning the branches of curbside Sycamores and Maples, cloaks neighborhoods and commercial districts alike in camouflage colors of gray and beige, as though its millions of inhabitants are in hiding. Three mallards in a stately float across the pond's nausea-green surface come right up to the crumbs, but then listlessly veer away. The ducks seem to be involved in a ruse designed to mock K13, or to make him look foolish in the eyes of his unwitting subjects, the Pakistani family organizing a picnic at the fringe of the pond’s far side. The rejection of the crumbs by the mallards prompts K13 to wonder, whimsically, whether something quintessential has been deposited by his touch, communicated to the bread crumbs. Something that transmits raw frequencies to animals, a pulse purely and namelessly himself.

And as he thinks, namelessly, the boy K13 has been watching through a pinch of peripheral vision, a sideways sprinkle of sight, approaches from the left, emerging from a ragged mob of bushes and shrubs at the base of a shallow hillock. The boy’s jacket, a wispy green, has been eroded by excessive launderings that could very well be a frugal substitute for the garment’s replacement. The jacket, combined with his baggy cargo pants, gives the seven year old the worn-out, vagrant look of an escapee. Black as midnight rain, hair spills across his forehead at a 45-degree angle, midnight rain in a wind-raked diagonal. The child's fawny complexion, a shade subdued as K13’s own, encourages synesthesia: coloration, skin tone, suggesting a textured temperature, a sunny surface softened by down.

“Hey mister, what’s your name?” The plaintive current in his voice flows not from any specific traumatic event but from the ebb and swell of general circumstances in his life. K13 can hear it, a drone like the melancholy applause of waves in a seashell’s echoing auditorium. The boy has already come to certain conclusions about the world and his place in it, what he deserves, the caliber of the experiences he will encounter, and accepts it all without question. Though the child was born in this country, K13 imagines he has already been infected by his father’s suspicion that an emigrant from certain regions of the world can never truly belong here, that the unalienable rights and entitlements of U.S. citizenship are extended freely in principle but not wholly in practice. He realizes that he has no solid proof at this point that the boy’s father feels this way, but he frequently allows himself to be entertained by flourishes of speculation.

“I'm mister hook, mister crook, mister book … and now,” he says theatrically, leaning forward and reaching behind the child's ear, “did I say mister crook? Even though I said crook, I meant cook, and mister cook says take a look.” He sits back and holds his fist out, then opens his fingers one by one to reveal the quarter nested in the palm of his hand. Under a lush embankment of lashes delight dilates the boy's pupils and is then eclipsed by a sudden dark realization. “I can't have money from strangers. I'm not even supposed to talk to them.”

“But you already did, Jhanda. It's too late.”

Either the morality play of The Friendly Stranger with its grim mythical themes of seduction, abduction and deathless disappearance has not been vividly enough staged by the parents, or Jhanda is a child whose resistance to wisdom transmitted by parental fiat will sooner or later bring grief to loved ones forced to witness the consequences of an appetite for learning lessons the hard way.

Either way, it does not seem to occur to the boy to wonder how or why a stranger would know his name. Jhanda only glances sheepishly over his shoulder at his family across the pond. Though this is his first time seeing them all in the flesh at close proximity, K13 has studied their photos, seen them from greater distances, and of course knows their names: Taj, the boy’s twenty-year-old sister, with coin-shaped black eyes fed by something deep below the surface and a somber face resistant to its own conflicted beauty; the father, Salah, so thin he seems as fragile as an eggshell; the mother, Yasmin, whose image in the photo K13 had studied managed to somehow convey the air of bustling movement and nervous vitality she now displays while spreading a blanket on the shabby lawn for the family’s modest picnic.

“Okay, you can't take money from strangers. But what if you give me something, too? Then I'm not just giving you the quarter – it's more like an even trade. Right?”

Jhanda also fails to notice that K13's moustache clings to his upper lip by means of an adhesive, or that behind the wire-rimmed glasses with lenses of ordinary glass, cosmetic contacts tint his hazel irises a foggy forgettable grey. But what powers of observation or deduction can a seven year old reasonably be expected to demonstrate? K13’s recollection of years before the age of nine is spotty at best – not because the heel of some trauma had extinguished those years like a lit cigarette, but because they were so unremarkable. Yet he suspects that when he was Jhanda's age, he had shown no more interest in the world as it existed beyond the circle of his preoccupations than this boy does. With an air of grave importance the boy takes a step closer to K13 and thrusts out an empty hand. “Here. I got a hat for you. It belongs to my secret friend.”

He reasons that a typical child would avoid applying complex formulas to quantify the world and instead make sense of it with the simplest tools of division: one world, split two ways, with children on one side, adults on the other. He knows that Jhanda is watching him closely to see just how he will handle the invitation to enter a world of imaginary gifts and friends. The boy is hoping that K13 will prove himself to be trustworthy, that he will reinforce that trust with some gesture of appreciation for the compelling mystery of a child’s magical dimension of make-believe. At the same time Jhanda believes that K13 is destined to violate the trust being extended with some placatory remark that will break the delicate clasp linking the world of adulthood to childhood. “That your friend, standing right there next to you?” he asks, pointing. “Right there, where no one but you and I can see him?”

Jhanda nods in wary affirmation, all the while staring fascinatedly at K13’s black knit skullcap. The Diplomat – “The Diplomat” the appellation he and Lamborghini had contrived because no name or title had ever been furnished by others or offered by the man himself, the man displaying unexpected magnanimity and tolerating the use of the name once he learned of the nickname – the Diplomat explained that there were many reasons he had offered K13 the assignment, but among the most significant was the fact that his appearance was a sort of blank canvas where perceptions of racial or ethnic provenance could be splashed in broadly contrasting or even contradictory colors.

Some kind of L.A. freak.

What he wants is to be seen as a stranger, someone who could have arrived or departed from anywhere, and if others imagine that he has come from or is in transit to California, so much the better. Much of his time is spent angling a warped mirror before the eyes of strangers, one that allows him to cast a distorted reflection. A distorted reflection presents a slippery surface where memory can establish no easy or convenient foothold. He can no longer risk being readily recalled or remembered. Having been born in this city, he is convinced that he can act freely and without inhibition only to the extent that he can effectively live the thin wisping life of a phantom. No, the skullcap that draws the attention and redirects it 2,000 miles westward is no strategic mishap.

“Are you sure your friend wants me to have his hat?”

“He’s mostly sure,” Jhanda says.

Reaching out, he takes the imaginary hat Jhanda offers. He does not need to close his eyes to feel the hat blossom as a ghostly weight in his hand. Holding the hat as an object of the imagination does not prevent him from discerning its texture and meaning. It feels like innocence … it feels like generosity and earnest prayers said at bedtime … it feels like your father looking under the bed to prove no monsters live there … it feels like the sweet all-night anticipation of Christmas Eve … it feels like … the stories your older sister used to tell you before she was ghosted away by leukemia.

“Mister, can you wear it on your head?”

Beneath the skullcap is black hair only recently infiltrated by the lone sniper of a single gray strand taking aim at infinitesimally retreating youth, hair cut so short on the sides and in the back that it appears to be almost grainy. But on the top where, in the style of the day, it has been allowed to grow slightly longer, the hair is a texture meandering somewhere between curly and coarse and, if caressed, would feel like unrefined silk. No one caresses his hair or has attempted to. This fact is not altogether unacceptable to him. Did his former wife caress it? Memory turns its back on him now and walks away down a dark corridor, withholding confirmation. This too is not unacceptable to him. K13 places the skullcap on the bench next to him and with the ostentatious precision of a mime balances the fictitious hat on his head.

Jhanda claps his hands and laughs with a spontaneous delight that, if K13 allowed it to, would prick him with envy or, more sweepingly, break his heart.

“Well? How does it look?”

K13 sends the boomerang of a glance across the pond at the young woman walking from the picnic spot to the parking lot behind it and then to the family’s truck, a tan Mazda pickup a decade old but scrupulously clean and well maintained. She lifts a red plastic cooler from the truck’s bed and carries it to the picnic area, lowering it to the blanket. Her khaki shorts, hiking boots and green denim jacket are an attempt to defy the rapidly changing weather. Autumn is now sending its scouts ahead into the hostile territory of winter, and each day they return from their reconnaissance victorious, having captured colder, edgier winds. While the mother and father, both dressed in traditional Pakistani plain white kurda and shalwar, spread a tablecloth the color of a primal dawn on the decrepit picnic table near the blanket, the daughter, Taj, walks a short distance to the same path her brother had taken and in the time it takes K13 to blinks three times emerges from the same ragged and vaguely vaginal cleft in the shrubs to the left of the bench where he sits.

No one watching K13 would be aware that his eyes have not been exclusively focused on the little boy, eyes that had several times cast a furtive noose of surveillance beyond the boy, the noose each time narrowing more and more tightly around the picnicking family.

Now she stands next to Jhanda with a proprietary arm around his shoulders and says, “It looks like what it is, nothing. It looks like a grown man sitting on a park bench pretending to put on a hat that doesn’t exist. A grown man speaking to a boy he has no business speaking to.”

You don’t know, Taj,” Jhanda says with surprising ferocity, jerking his shoulders away. “He does too have the hat. You’re just mad because you can’t see it.”

A jet arrows across the sky with heedless and savage authority. Jhanda and K13 look up, watching; Taj does not, keeping her gaze fixed on K13. She continues to pin him with her eyes, as though he is a specimen, an insect, a black butterfly of perversion she would do well to preserve for future study.

“I was sitting here feeding those ridiculous ducks,” K13 says finally. “Or trying to, since they don’t seem to be too interested in my bread crumbs.” In a sudden frenzy scooping water, throwing back its head and scissoring its beak, the largest of the ducks makes the pond punctuate the air with exclamation points, while the smaller two with beady-eyed apathy watch the surprised water spangle. “As far as I know, that’s all I was doing. Feeding the ducks. Your little brother – I assume it’s your brother – came up to me while I sat here, minding my own business. I was only trying to being friendly.”

He dresses his face in the enticing garment of a smile, having selected it from among a variety of smiles dangling from hangers in his closet of calculated effects. This one is disarming, the one he most often selects, the one that even his associate, Lamborghini, who seems constitutionally incapable of extending compliments, once grudgingly admitted was one of his more notable and, by implication, useful attributes. “It’s funny,” she had said. “You’re not exactly what I would call a conventional type handsome, but you’ve got this quirky smile that makes women wonder for a few secs what it would be like to fuck you.” She then appended logic to her observation. “I suppose that would go for men, too.” Her brother, Audi, a thirty-eight year old man with the mind of a ten-year-old child, laughed and said, “Doesn’t make me wonder. Makes me wonder what it would be like to NOT fuck you.” K13 sealed his initial impulse to comment sarcastically on the illogic of the remark inside a prudent pause; Audi did not like being criticized or laughed at. “I think I know what you’re trying to say, big guy, but it didn’t quite come out right.” And Audi answered, frustrated, slamming onto the kitchen table the slab of fist that was like something a butcher in a generous mood would carve from the flank of a wild boar, “Just forget it. I always know what I mean, but I never know how to explain it.”

But today the disarming smile is tossed back into the closet, having no effect on the boy’s sister. Even though K13’s explanation might have seemed, on some level, reasonable to Taj, he sees she will not soften, that she never does, never has, never in the foreseeable future will.

“Let’s go, Jhanda. Now.” As he watches them walk away, he wishes he could somehow convince Taj that her kind of strength, the kind capable of turning the tide from defeat to victory in monumental battles, is useless in learning to conquer the real enemy, the banal one without a name that subdivides your life into sixty one-second slices, sixty one-minute slices, and then whispers here, make the right choices, I dare you, over and over again.

“By the way,” Taj calls out without turning back, ”nice skully.”

The fortress of her inflectionless voice makes it impossible for him to infiltrate the remark with a decisive interpretation, detect with any certainty either the presence or absence of sincerity or sarcasm.

Next Chapter

Chapter 2

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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