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Detainee 717


Chapter 4

Sitting on a stool in the back of a utility van as dull and dinghy as the side street it is parked on, K13 watches Salah Bhatti through the lens of his night vision binoculars. The binoculars are trained on the bedroom window of a one-story house embodying all the popularly mocked cooker-cutter qualities of ranch-style homes: utilitarian, uninspired, a bit dismal, but affordable and decent. One of dozens of similarly styled homes in a working-class neighborhood that strives to rise above its own gray limits, the invisible wall of mediocrity that surrounds it with the palpability of a geographical border – an enclave in a district crumbling at its edges into lower-income impoverishment. Behind its grill of security bars, the bedroom window is opened an inch or two each night, even though the autumn temperature is slowly sinking, nosing lower by fractional degrees, like a submarine crippled by a torpedo. Salah’s wife, Yasmin, is unable to sleep without outside air, and to ensure that nothing impedes it, the curtains are pulled back slightly on either side from the middle, leaving a small unobstructed bell-shaped opening, a gap that welcomes the invasion of the lens. This house is the only one on its block with a thin strip of lawn beneath the front windows that has been cultivated and plays landlord to a tenancy of yellow, lavender and cream-colored flowers, the daffodil, the asphodel, the tulip.

Salah is sleeping on his back, conveying a sense of deceased repose. His joined hands with their loosely plaited fingers, thumb tips touching, are laid atop his chest and resemble a bridge. The structure he has made of his hands hints at something purposeful, as though, like any bridge, it exists to regulate or facilitate traffic – in this case, the traffic of his dreams. How is it possible to look at a person sleeping and decide that the purpose living in his hands must be the remnant of a larger sense of purpose that winds through his waking life? It is possible because even in sleep the essential nature of the sleeper succumbs to scrutiny and becomes nakedly apparent. Which to K13 simply means that everything hidden is ultimately capable of being pried open and exposed to view. For seven hours he has been motionless on his back, never shifting or turning, while his wife Yasmin on her hamster’s wheel of sleep rolls and turns beside him almost constantly throughout the night.

If K13’s bladder fills, he will urinate in an empty one-gallon plastic milk bottle on the floor next to him. He will not leave the van, because surveillance is more than simply sitting and watching. It is a revelatory act and devotion is required, maintaining the rhythm of full engagement is required, entering the samadhi of observation is required, or should at least be pursued as a kind of goal. Even so, there are challenges. After so many hours, the dull movie of monotony that begins to replay itself on the walls of the van threatens to blunt the senses. The only way to combat this is to play games that take the mind off time passing while managing to keep the focus on the object of observation. And so K13 has decided to play a guessing game, establish a wager with himself: he predicts that between 5:30 and 5:34 a.m., Salah, sleeping on his back, will begin to stir. Every night for the past week he has watched him sleeping, and every morning the man wakes some time between 5:30 and 5:45 without fail, roused by an internal alarm. Something tells K13 that today that alarm will go off within a four-minute window. If it does not, he tells himself that he will once again use the box cutter on himself later, on a part of his body he touches as little as possible, the sole of either foot. He hates being touched there and if touched, cringes, as though hearing a fork’s tines scraped across a blackboard. Another game is to imagine that Salah will die soon, that he is someone K13 loves dearly, that this last look will have to last K13 a lifetime.

In the stillness and darkness of the bedroom, Salah appears to be a lesser version of himself, a preliminary sketch for the more complete and substantial Salah Bhatti depicted in the portrait painted by daytime hours. He is diminished by the night, as an ice sculpture is gradually chiseled to liquid by heat, and his sleep is closer to a retreat from what the night holds than an oasis from which, revitalized and refreshed, he awakens to face the long day.

Once his eyes are open he will get up without wrestling with drowsiness; his body and mind will shift, a frictionless gear, almost immediately into synchronization. He will yawn and walk quietly in his pajamas to the closet and stretch to remove the prayer rug rolled on the top shelf. At the foot of the bed he will unroll the rug and kneel while his wife continues to sleep. Imagining that he will pray with a full and resonant heart is not difficult at all. This visceral decency that Salah Bhatti exudes creates for K13 the disturbing tension that derives from balancing on a tightrope strung between two conflicting and coexisting thoughts: Salah the unequivocally decent man versus Salah the middle man funneling ten-thousand dollars to Assad Udin, the senior leader in an up-and-coming Pakistan-based al Qaeda franchise responsible for a number of bombings worldwide, the most significant being the west wing of a U.S. embassy in Berlin, killing 14 people. Salah the man of obvious rectitude versus Salah the recipient of an package sent to him every two months containing a CD At 5:35 Salah opens his eyes, yawns, and goes to the closet. K13 is off by one minute. Falling short of the outcome of his prediction does not disappoint him, just as seeing his prediction confirmed would have failed to trigger the seductive flush of pleasure that comes with being proven right. What he will do to himself for having lost the wager is not a punishment so much as it is a simple consequence.

At 7:00 a.m. Salah goes to the kitchen and treats his family by making them an American style breakfast of eggs and toast with strawberry jam. Sometimes, feeling more ambitious or fending off the homesickness that after five years still has the power to sting his eyes sometimes when he thinks of Lahore – or so K13 imagines – he makes them aloo cholay, potatoes wearing a steaming jacket of chaat masala, garnished with onions, coriander leaves, green chilies.

His family members straggle one by one into the kitchen to watch.

First Jhanda appears, dressed in the Spiderman costume he will insist on wearing until his mother orders him to change into his school clothes; then Yasmin enters the kitchen at a half-trot, the bewildered haste that characterizes her movements throwing the waist-length braid into a zigzag misalignment that sketchily calls to mind a long fire escape jumbling down the side of a building; and finally, Taj, conveyed into the kitchen on the smooth escalator of her stroll, rising above them all with an attitude of mild superiority, of world-weariness, of disdain for her parents’ earnest plans, their stubborn belief that in America everyone can find salvation through hard work, study and determination.

K13 watches the mouths moving around food and words. The boy, who chatters irrepressibly, monopolizes the conversation for minutes at a time, but the mother talks a great deal as well, motioning happily with her fork. Salah turns his head from his wife to his son, adding to the dialogue now and again, but principally following the exchange between them with a look of quiet admiration. He looks to be a good man, a good father and husband, a likely candidate for American citizenship, but that is not and cannot be K13’s concern, because soon, Salah will find himself in the house K13 sometimes lives in with Lamborghini and Audi; he will find himself held captive, a detainee, with a stranger in rooms with ruined and shattered walls. And whether or not Salah will be returned to his family is not K13’s concern either. The Diplomat will make that decision, based on whatever information K13 is able to bring back to him. It all depends on one thing: did Salah at any time assume the role of hawaladar for Assad Uddin, acting as a link in the informal worldwide banking network known as halwala, providing cash for a suspected terrorist or terrorist facilitator?

By 8:30 breakfast is over and the kitchen is restored to order. The day officially begins for each member of the family. Taj, a student at Polk Community College, returns to her bedroom to study for a political science quiz she has at noon. Her desk sits squarely before her bedroom window. With her hair pulled back and tapering in a dark waterfall down her neck’s nape this morning, K13 can see that she casts the dreamy expression on her face beyond the glass as though idly skipping stones on a pond, drifting herself toward Rana, the young man being groomed by his father to take over his family’s business, a restaurant called Pili Pili Indian Cuisine in one of the downtown malls.

Yasmine drives Jhanda and Matt, the boy who lives next door with his methamphetamine-addicted mother, to the public elementary school fifteen minutes away, where the boys will stand in a long line of children like convicts and pass through a metal detector after walking through the school’s front doors. K13 knows that the boy’s father hopes to be able to afford to send Jhanda next year to St. Mary of The Cross, an expensive Catholic school with a reputation for academic excellence and an approach to education emphasizing the value of discipline. A few minutes after his wife has left, Salah, owner of a business named Neighborhood 99 Cents Store, drives to work in the family’s second car, a temperamental Ford Taurus. Their individual and collective hopes and dreams; the obstacles overcome that had foreshadowed those now in the making; their mistakes and regrets, tribulations and trials, triumphs and accomplishments and failures; to an extent, their history in Lahore and how it had led them to this American Midwestern city sliding into a morass of increasingly violent crime and economic stagnation – K13 knows all these things well and has reduced them to a Bhatti family file on a rewritable CD. And as a result of observing them this past month he feels that he knows the family deeper down, too, having descended on a rope woven from strands of fact and intuition into that visceral cavern where a subterranean population of desires live and pulse and breathe, or, if unfulfilled, die.

If circumstances were different he could approach the family with the information he has collected, all the conclusions he’s been able to draw from it. What they are unable to see for themselves K13 could spread before them on a tabletop like a map, plainly showing them the predictable consequences of certain choices they have made or are in the process of making. You did this at this juncture and this happened. You do this here and this is not likely to happen. He could show them but would they believe it? Or would Salah say, Yes, I did A and B, but it is your interpretation to say they result in C?

This amazes K13: that a person is unable to observe his own life and clearly see a pattern. He has sometimes wished for the presence of just such an observer in his own life, until he remembers that he is probably being monitored much, if not most, of the time.

K13 pulls away in the van, following Salah but remaining a discreet distance behind him. To his right a short strip of sidewalk like a panel from an urban comic book glides by with its stereotyped and almost cartoonish fixtures and images. The white-bearded vagrant in the tattered army jacket, the addict frail as a saltine cracker in search of a dealer, the stray dog with Venetian blind ribs, the seedy local strip mall, the liquor store with its riot of cardboard window displays, the beefy cop on apathetic patrol in his squad car.

Suddenly an elderly black woman darts into the street without looking. The van’s tires bite the asphalt, bark as they skid, and the woman spins startled and throws her arms up protectively. After a moment she points frantically to a heavy-set white youth with buzz-cut blond hair on the opposite corner, sitting on a fire hydrant and riffling through a large beige purse patterned with dull red flowers. Taking his time, he turns the purse upside down, dumps everything out at his feet, toes exploratively through the contents. It is precisely this attitude of nonchalance, his contemptuous certainty that fate will render him exempt from the consequences of his actions, even as he leisurely scrutinizes his booty in broad daylight and makes no attempt to flee, that might arouse the ire of an onlooker, prompt some sort of intervention. Even a witness disinclined to become directly involved might find ways to call attention to the crime. Rolling the car window down to yell, leaning on the horn, dialing the police on a cell phone.

“I just cashed my social security check!” she pleads, looking from K13 to the thief. The old woman reminds him in certain tenuous, hard-to-pinpoint ways of his mother, that woman long gone, long dead. When K13 maneuvers the van slowly around the woman and continues through the intersection, she curses him, shaking her fists in the air as though rage could be made to jangle, played like an unseen tambourine. She then shuffles off toward the youth, who stands and stares calmly at his victim, as though the two of them are meeting for a scheduled appointment that is destined and cannot be avoided.

He has no time to dwell on these things and drives on.

Next Chapter

Chapter 5

Article By: dglenn

Arts | Fiction | Novels

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