Guest Editor for Short Fiction, Issue 137
Jeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated (Press 53). His debut novel, Prague Summer (Counterpoint), received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.
Ides of March
by Jeffrey Condran
On the Ides of March, my friend Harouk took me to Boca Raton to play tennis. He’d had to exercise all of his persuasion and charisma, because Crystal was still pissed about the last time we’d taken a trip together, where we had admittedly gone a bit far, flying all the way to Indian Wells for what amounted to three sets. But that was Harouk.
He was relentless. Sweet talking her, calling her love names in Arabic—not that she understood them—and swearing absolutely, “ya allah, woman,” that he’d have me home for dinner. Crystal did not like him. He was too foreign, too rich, and she simply couldn’t understand why we were friends. So it was not until Harouk explained that he, too, had to be back, that he was compelled to “register his existence” with the INS office downtown or face God knew what penalty, that she relented and gave her consent. As we were driving away he looked at me and smiled. “You, my friend, have got to do something about that woman.” But we were free, the road was before us, and nothing mattered.
Harouk hadn’t played on a clay court in years and the novelty of it had gotten the better of him. I’m not sure what it was, but I felt it too. Perhaps it was sliding across the loose clay or the way our game changed to fit the surface. Everything is slower on clay, with much more play from the baseline, and this favored me. Harouk was a little frustrated, if pleasantly so. “You,” he said, waggling his racket at me and laughing after a point where I’d pulled him around the court and finished things off with a particularly crisp passing shot, “you are really some kind of person.” The truth was that we could play ten sets together and Harouk would consistently win eight of them. I had just enough game to keep him mildly challenged. Taking the first two sets in Boca was significant. “We can’t stop now,” he said. The sun beat down on us hot and wonderful. Harouk smiled, showing his white, white teeth and dimples. I looked at my watch. “Time for one more,” I said.
Our third set was epic. Every amateur enthusiast has at least one set like this, where the level of play is so high, the competition so intense, that time seems to graciously pause, the rhythmic, “pock, pock, pock” of the ball flying from the racket strings replaces all other sound save the scraping of shoes across the clay, and your body feels so perfect you forget that it exists, a nearly meditative state. When the set ended, Harouk winning 7-6 (10-8) in a tie-breaker, we shook hands—as you do—and I felt like I was clasping hands with a brother, a man I’d taken an important journey with, and whom I would know now and for all time. By the look on Harouk’s face as we packed our rackets and the spent balls into our bags, I thought that he felt the same. Then I looked at my watch.
His gaze had traveled away from the court and toward the club bar. “You want a drink?” he asked. “I’ve become addicted to gin and tonics.” When I tapped my wrist, he saw the time and, for just a moment, his eyes went wide. Then he smiled again. “No problem,” he said. “We are the owners of a fast car, right?”
“We are,” I said, but my heart had started to pound at the thought of Crystal’s wrath and then nearly exploded when I remembered Harouk’s appointment. I imagined the climate controlled INS office, all concrete and steel and glass, governed by enigmatic secretaries and populated by neat rows of case officers in their furry cubicles.
The car was a silver Porsche 911 Turbo, a faster, bolder grandchild of the car that James Dean had gloriously martyred himself in. Harouk had let me drive it twice, and each time I’d felt like a child being pulled behind the leash of an angry German Sheppard. If making it home in time was a roll of the dice, this modern-day Silver Ghost was worth risking some money on.
What neither of us had considered were the exigencies of I-95 or the siren song of self-destructive behavior whose soundtrack had been playing in the background all day—though I’d been too stupid to hear it. An hour away from Boca we saw flashing lights ahead of us in the distance and lines of traffic. “Shit,” Harouk said.
In a little while, people got out of their cars and stood with the doors open, chatting over hoods and rooftops. Finally, the state police rolled by along the berm and Harouk walked over to speak with him. There’d been an accident. He was waiting to escort the ambulances to the scene. Harouk should get back in his car and be patient.
“Can’t they clear even one lane?” Harouk said. “Or maybe you could guide traffic along this lane.” He pointed at the berm where the squad car sat with its lights flashing. Apparently “berm” was a term that had not made it into Harouk’s nearly flawless English.
The officer gave him a more pointed look. “This,” he said, “is not a lane and is only for the use of emergency vehicles.” Their conversation was at an end.
Harouk closed the car door and blasted the air conditioning. He sat for a long time with his arms crossed over his chest and stared at the black and gold Porsche shield device fixed in the center of the steering wheel. Then he muttered something in Arabic that I didn’t understand and made a gesture in the direction of the police officer. “I am dead.” He turned to me. “You might as well get a shovel and start digging.”
“We shouldn’t have played that third set,” I said. “Why did we play it?”
Harouk didn’t answer me, didn’t do anything for a long while, until he seemed suddenly struck by inspiration. Then he leaned across and pulled a silver flask out of the glove box. “Our good friend, Johnnie Walker.”
“What’s going to happen if you don’t make it to your appointment,” I said. “Tell me.”
He waved his hand, pretending it didn’t matter.
“Tell me,” I said. I pulled the flask from his hands and took a long drink.
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing,” he said. “Or maybe they will make me leave the country. They might arrest me.”
“They won’t do that,” I said, but I knew it wasn’t true. Arresting him might just be the beginning. “Can you call them?”
“The letter was very clear—I have to appear in person.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Look, I’ve got to do something. I don’t want to leave this country. My life is here. I am happy.”
“What are you going to do?”
I passed him the flask and he drank. Then he smiled and drummed his knuckles on the dashboard. “Let’s find out.”
Harouk replaced the cap on the flask and handed it to me to put away, then he found his cell phone and called someone. For two or three minutes he spoke to a woman in Arabic. I heard her voice rising in panic as Harouk explained things. Or at least that’s what I assumed he was doing. He soon hung up, but offered no explanation. He shifted the car into first and looked around. The ambulances had rolled by a few minutes ago and, from where we sat, the coast was clear. “I heard an expression once that I liked very much,” he said. I knew I had only to wait and Harouk would deliver his line. “’Be bold’ the saying goes, ‘and mighty forces will come to your aid.’”
“Mighty forces, huh?”
“Yes,” he said. “Be bold.”
It was now firmly mid-afternoon. The sun was still hot and bright, but mercifully less blinding and direct. Harouk began to nose the Porsche into the narrow berm, but the line of traffic was so tightly packed that he couldn’t quite clear the bumper of the Dodge SUV in front of us. “Go ask him to move up,” Harouk said to me. When I hesitated he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll think of something.”
I got out and knocked gently on the passenger window of the Dodge. The driver was in her thirties wearing one of those black power suits favored by a certain type of corporate woman. I had interrupted some important operation on her Blackberry. I wished, suddenly, that Harouk were a woman; I could have pretended he was in labor or something. Instead I said, “My friend is going to be late for a life-altering meeting with an unforgiving government agency. We’re trying to get through. Could you roll up just a couple of feet?” When she smiled, I bowed to her and blew a kiss.
Harouk grinned at me like a crazy man as I buckled my seatbelt. “You see?” he said. And then solemnly, “Mighty forces.”
For the first quarter mile or so, my attention alternated between searching the distance for flashing lights and holding my breath as the guard rail glided by just inches from my door. But soon I was diverted by the sheer cosmic weight of the humanity looking, staring, gawking. There were gawkers in convertibles, in family sedans, in Beemers; old gawkers, child gawkers, fat gawkers, thin. It was as if hundreds, perhaps a thousand people had, without a word between them, decided to stare and to disapprove. If I had not previously been a believer in the unseen power of the Force, I now felt myself only moments away from conversion. Harouk pretended to be oblivious. He’d put in a CD of Mozart’s Requiem and began to sing along in tuneless faux contralto, making up his own Latin and throwing in a kyrie eleison when the moment seemed to call for it. When we passed over half a dozen rumble strips, I felt suddenly as if I’d swallowed the wrong pill.
Harouk half snorted and said, “I do not recommend this as the optimal way to drive a Porsche 911.”
“Ah, you say this too easily. It is a question of ownership. Of course, I own the car. No one would deny it. Here I am, after all, behind the wheel. It is my name on the registration in the glove box. But to drive this beautiful machine at 20mph for more than a breath or two, well, this is a sin. Ask anyone, any of these motorists”—here Harouk gestured wildly toward the traffic and nearly scraped a coat of paint off my door—”they would be well within their rights to say that I did not truly own this car at all.”
“No one would say that.”
“Not true. You do not understand, but I am very familiar with this kind of argument—it’s one of a handful of arguments the Israelis use to justify taking Palestine. Do you see? A question of utility. Apparently we weren’t using the land properly, while they have made the desert bloom. It is an idea of ownership I wish I didn’t know anything about. In any case, it is a wonderful car. Listen to that engine!”
Harouk put the car in neutral and revved the engine so that I might be awed by the constrained power that we possessed if only we could find some open road. It really was a wonderful car. The stuff of teenage dreams. I knew I’d never be able to afford one.
I said, “I still don’t see any flashing lights.”
“Do you think it’s getting too cold in here?” He adjusted the air so that it blew at our feet. Then he gripped the wheel again and we glided forward. For a decent stretch, the guardrail ended and Harouk was able to shift into third. Even this slight increase in speed seemed like a revelation. I allowed myself a glance at the pine trees and wildflowers that lined the highway on my side. In a perfect world they’d have been nothing but an Impressionist’s snapshot—a fantasy of movement and color. In a perfect world we’d be weaving through the traffic at 110mph. I felt my patience break a little and slip. I might have sighed. Harouk just kept on keeping on, all stillness and concentration.
“All right. What else don’t I understand?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t want to play this game.”
“You have something better to do?”
”Fine. You don’t understand why, if I love your country so much, am happy and want to stay, that I did not appear at the offices of your Immigration and Naturalization Service this morning at 9 a.m. dressed in my very best suit and tie, all my documents in order, a grateful smile upon my face.”
I nodded. Following the rules came naturally to me and I had a healthy fear of authority. I always paid my taxes before Valentine’s Day and parked my car in its designated spot outside my apartment building. If I had run into this traffic by myself, I’d still be waiting patiently, just as the police had told Harouk to do. I followed the rules because I liked my life enough to be terrified of the consequences. And for this reason I knew, absolutely knew, that we would be caught, that Harouk would be detained, his beautiful car towed away and all his chances in America crushed. What I did not know was that being crushed might have been the point all along. It was this thought that kept me from despair.
There might even be, for Harouk, a silver lining. Here would be a story to tell his children, to build a life upon. A great tale. A legend. We rolled along in the Porsche, the chastising stares of my fellow citizens looking down on this rich foreigner, this Arab, against the backdrop of the Florida spring. Yes, here was Harouk, twenty-nine years old, handsome, rich, artfully self-destructive, suffused with the blossom of personal protest and martyrdom. He was bold. Full of grace and charisma. I was proud to be his friend, proud to be a witness to this slow-motion suicide. It’s possible, I’d later tell Crystal—uselessly, of course—that if you’re not prepared to destroy your life, you’re not prepared to live.