Derek Green writes in a wide range of genres. His short fiction has received many awards and nominations and has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He has published dozens of articles and in-depth investigative features on topics ranging from politics and medicine, to the war on terror, and the arts.
In addition to his journalism and artistic work, he has nearly twenty years of experience as a corporate consultant with specialties in international business and the automotive industry. On the following pages are just a few samples of his wide-ranging body of work.
Travel Essay, Between Song and Story
by Derek Green
Mohammed called to tell me a friend of his knew someone who knew how to get to the Tree of Life. I’d arrived in Bahrain, the tiny island state in the Persian Gulf, earlier that week, and since, I’d been asking around about the Tree. The closest thing to a helpful answer I’d gotten so far was from the Filipino bartender in the Diplomat Hotel’s Skylight Lounge. “It not too dangerous to find, but somehow very difficult,” he told me. “I think you rather visit a nightclub.”
Now my luck appeared to be on the mend. Mohammed’s friend, a native Bahraini raised in the capital city of Manama, was getting directions to the Tree even as we spoke, and admitted that he himself wouldn’t mind “having a look at the thing.”
“How is it,” I asked, “that this friend of yours hasn’t seen the Tree of Life if he grew up here?”
“Haven’t you ever heard,” Mohammed replied, “of those people who live in New York and have never seen the Statue of Liberty?”
I supposed I had.
“We’ll meet you in the lobby in ten minutes,” he said.
I had first heard of the Tree of Life a few years earlier. In the middle of the desert, the story went, stood an old, old tree surrounded by nothing but vast stretches of sand. Various writers had made controversial claims pinpointing the historical location of the Garden of Eden in Bahrain; the theories differed widely, but almost all of them made mention of the lonely old tree. Even my trusty Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit: Arab Gulf States was in on the act, calling the Tree of Life the “centerpiece of the ‘Bahrain-was-the-Garden-of-Eden’ theory.”
At home in Michigan, during the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d become something of a leisure authority on all this Garden of Eden speculation. (Okay, I’d gone on-line a few times to read articles about ancient Sumer and visit some university archaeological websites.) This was my opportunity to see for myself whether these theories—far-fetched as they seemed—actually made sense. And anyway, I figured, when you’re from Detroit and you get a chance to see Eden first hand, you go.
When I arrived in the hotel lobby, Mohammed was watching the coffeeman work. A small, ancient man in traditional Sunni clothing, he sat brewing coffee that smelled vaguely of cardamom and earth over glowing coals near the entrance to the lobby’s Lebanese restaurant.
Mohammed was a trim young man, born in Yemen, educated in Great Britain, and now living in Dubai. He was my principal contact in the Gulf, and over the last few years we had become friends.
He walked with me to the modern revolving doors. “So this Tree of Life you’re so eager to see,” he said, “I guess it turns out to be, like, superhard to find.”
“That,” I said, “is what everyone keeps telling me.”
Outside waited a Jeep Cherokee. “This is Saeed,” Mohammed said. The Jeep’s owner wore khaki slacks, a shirt and tie, and a wide smile. I shook his hand Western-style from the back seat as Mohammed climbed in front. “You do not mind, I hope,” Saeed said—he’d obviously been practicing the sentence for my benefit—“that I am having some errands to do in the city before we go to discover the Tree of Life.”
I thanked him profusely and assured him I’d be happy to accompany him. At worst, I figured, we’d be seeing a pretty cool tree, and at best—who knew?
We turned away from the coast on Sheikh Hamad Causeway and headed past the diplomatic sector, with its glass business towers and modern traffic signs. Saeed pointed out the building where he worked as an IT computer specialist for a bank. He and Mohammed bantered back and forth in Arabic.
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Bahrain is called Dilmun. Gilgamesh journeys to Dilmun in search of—get this—the Tree of Life. When he arrives, he meets a suspiciously Noah-like character who tells the story of a great flood. Though I had read Gilgamesh in college, till now my own experience of Dilmun had been limited to meetings at the Diplomat. As we passed through the Bab Al Bahrain—the entryway into the city built by the British in 1945—that changed. The streets grew narrower, the buildings shorter, with odd-shaped alleys and irregular street corners that served as informal gathering places. The old streets teemed with men and women in traditional garb. It wasn’t hard to imagine the place as it must have looked 5,000 years ago, when Dilmun was the burning center of the universe and Eden not such a distant memory.
In the souk—the traditional market-place—the old and new blended in strange ways. A man in traditional clothing, seated on a stool over a pile of smoking incense, was selling Persian kilims from a canvas tent; across the street a brightly lit KFC restaurant did brisk late-afternoon business. The roads were hardly the width of a car, and we crept along looking for a spot to squeeze through. We stopped to buy a snack of shawarma and again to get some CDs at a record shop. Our last errand was to pick up Saeed’s son from soccer practice.
The boy climbed into the car in his soccer jersey, a little taken aback by all the strangers. “Say hello in English,” his father said with gruff affection. “This man has come from America.” The boy turned bashfully to watch the scenery through the window. After dropping the boy off at his mother’s apartment, Saeed grinned at me in the rearview mirror. “And so now we go to see your old tree that stands alone in paradise.”
We left the city and drove south into the desert. The scant vegetation we had seen in town—kept alive by expensive irrigation or plain hard work—gave way now to stretches of gravelly, salt-flat wasteland. I asked the name of the road we were on, thinking of recording once and for all the directions to the elusive Tree of Life, but got only a laugh from Saeed. “Forget names,” he said. “A few years ago there were not even roads here.”
The farther from the city, the farther back in time we went. On either side of us grew rocky mounds of earth that looked like giant sand moguls or the humped backs of dinosaurs. I watched the shapes roll by for a while before it occurred to me that I was seeing Bahrain’s famous burial mounds, dating to the second century B.C.
The mounds caught the slanting sunlight, making odd geometric patterns of light and shadow. It would have been a pleasantly mythic touch, I thought, if the Tree of Life had obliged by presenting itself at the end of this protective city of the dead. Instead, we came upon a ranch where a few lazy camels and their herders lounged beside a chain-link fence, and then, of all things, a sandy golf resort. Late-afternoon golfers under tall parasols like beach umbrellas dotted the course.
The road looped through several turns, following a series of massive pipes that sprawled like tentacles from Bahrain’s central refinery. At the edge of a stony outcropping—the highest point in Bahrain, Saeed told us—we stopped to gaze over the barren land.
White refiner’s fire lit the pile of steel and massive pipe works that made up the central petroleum processing plant, giving it the look of a small burning city. Behind it in the distance shimmered the capital, Manama. There was still no sign of the Tree, not to mention Eden, and I was beginning to wonder whether my day trip to the Tree of Life might be turning into its own Gilgamesh-like epic.
“It’s an amazing sight,” Mohammed said. He turned to his friend. “Of course, you’re lost, aren’t you?”
“Well. . . .” Saeed said. He frowned and rubbed his neck. “I am not lost. I am just not sure where I am.”
Even on this high spot, pipes had been laid to bear up the underground river of oil. “Imagine,” I said, “laying down these pipelines in the sun.”
Mohammed gazed out silently and shook his head.
“They’ve been here as long as I can remember,” Saeed said. In this part of the world, mention oil and soon enough you’re talking about politics. As the road veered away from the pipe fields, Mohammed turned in his seat to look at me. “And what do you think of your new president in the United States—Mr. Bush?” he asked.
I told him the verdict, as they say, was still out. “We’re still barely sure he was actually elected,” I said. “It was a strange fall.”
I turned the heat onto Mohammed by asking what people in this region of the world thought. Saeed answered. “There is a lot of concern,” he said. “No one knows, for instance, how the new administration will look on the problem of Palestine and Israel. And then there is the old feud between the Bush family and the Iraqi rulers.”
It was not hard, here in the desert—separated from southern Iraq by a stretch of sea not much more than the distance from Detroit to Chicago—to imagine these disagreements as feuds between ruling families in separate lands. “In a way,” Mohammed said, “the details don’t matter. What is worrisome is that Bush and his family come from the American oil industry. There are many who believe that any hostility in the region benefits the administration and its friends. They can say, ‘See, there go the Arabs, fighting each other again. So now we have to drill for oil in Alaska.’ For them, whatever happens in our world, it seems they win.”
A silence threatened to engulf the cab of the jeep. But then Saeed lit up with a smile. “Do you see?” he asked. “There, on the side of the road?” He pointed. A solitary green American-style road sign announced simply, in two languages, Tree of Life. A white arrow pointed ahead.“ You see,” Saeed said. “I told you I knew where I was going.”
There were two more signs before a final one directed us off the paved road and onto a hard gravel track. We passed a scrap yard and a goatherd with his flock. Then, at end of the road, we made out the shape, sure enough, of a tree.
The tree itself wasn’t so remarkable—it looked like a tall acacia or maybe a mesquite tree, with a thick, gnarly trunk and a flat, tiered canopy of dusty leaves. As the guidebook had said, the remarkable fact was the thing’s existence here in the middle of the otherwise barren landscape. No desert weed or hardy spinifex, no American-style theme park with a Tree of Life Lounge and bathrooms marked “Adams” and “Eves”—just this tree. We stopped and looked from the Jeep.
“Is this it?” I asked.
“It must be,” Mohammed said. “It’s the only tree I see.”
“It looks quite old,” Saeed observed.
We piled out and stood beside the Tree. Maybe it was just anticipation, or the way the sun fell aslant on the dusty leaves, but there was something a touch unsettling about this place and the tree, which managed somehow to struggle on, alive, in the middle of so much nothingness. A pair of black desert birds glided on updrafts far overhead.
Was this the Garden of Eden? Could there once have been a paradise here of which only this tree remained, a lone artifact for the ages? If the Tree of Life held such secrets, it wasn’t bothering to reveal them to us that day.
We got back into the Jeep, Saeed took another turn around for one last look, and we headed back down the stony trail. A cloud of dust rose and obscured the tree behind us. We passed the goats, who watched us with studied indifference, and then turned back onto the road beyond the dusty junk yard.
Short Fiction, Keeping the Wolves At Bay
by Derek Green
Heeber checked his watch again.
People were walking past the flickering tiki torches and on into the restaurant. Laughter came from inside and music, yet here he stood out front, alone in the muggy night air. The valet, a hungry-looking kid with a baggy uniform and kinky hair, had twice approached him. Heeber waved him away. He’d been warned that they were going to try to try to fleece him down here and he’d been on his guard since the move. They were all beggars of a sort, even the fancy jewelry-toting ones passing him now. Why else would they need men like him to come down and help them run a factory, right in their own country?
He looked back at his watch. You expected this of locals. But his own boss, Ellis, an American, had told him to be here at a certain time and here he was. What really got Heeber was that he’d wanted to go shopping, buy his wife a souvenir (she lived stateside, he missed her) but Ellis had said there was no time before dinner. This was earlier, at the golf course. Heeber had dutifully rushed home, showered and changed, and rushed back here by taxi only to wait alone like a fool for twenty-five minutes
Tears stung his eyes. When the valet approached again he growled that he didn’t want any help.
Eight-and-a-half minutes later Ellis’s Grand Cherokee pulled up, tiki flames dancing in the windows. The valet hustled to the door. Ellis poured himself out, followed by Luciano, a junior engineer—local personnel. Both were beet-faced and laughing. They’d been off drinking somewhere.
Heeber hand came up to wave.
“Hi, Mr. Ellis,” he said. “Isn’t Simons coming?” Simons, Ellis’s friend from sales, had rounded out their foursome earlier.
Ellis walked a step ahead of Luciano, palms upturned, like some Mafia boss on TV. His smile was fading away. “Heeber,” he said. “Jesus Christ, look how you’re dressed!”
Heeber looked. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, sandals. It was hot. He looked back up.
“You’re wearing a damn Tigger T-shirt, Heeber!”
“But you said casual, Mr. Ellis. I—”
“Casual, Heeber, not kindergarten. God damn.” Ellis had cruel blue eyes, pale, and animal-like. Heeber often found it hard to look at the man.
Luciano leaned toward Ellis. “I do not believe they are allowing him without the collar-shirt.”
Ellis regarded Heeber for another unpleasant moment, then turned to the valet, snapping something off in Portuguese. The kid looked at Heeber, then turned back in the direction from which he’d just come.
“I don’t have to go in, Mr. Ellis, I mean, if there’s a dress code or something.”
“Oh, Christ, you’re here already. Just wait.”
Ellis himself wore black slacks and a golf shirt, hardly dressy. What got Heeber was that the T-shirt had been a present from his four-year-old boy last Father’s Day. He’d worn it out of homesickness, a way to feel closer to his wife and son.
The Grand Cherokee came rolling back up. Ellis opened the liftgate and rummaged around in back. He came out with a wadded up Hawaiian shirt.
“Here,” he said. “Wear this.” He threw it Heeber’s way. “Consider it a gift.”
The place was called a churrascaria and here you ate Brazilian-style. An army of waiters cruised the dining room with skewers of meat, fish, chicken, sausage. Heeber liked his meat and potatoes but some of the food here was scary. Last time he’d seen a cart being pushed around with a fish on it the size of a man, toothy head still attached. You could lose your appetite. Crossing the dining room, Heeber was aware of eyes on him in the rumpled Hawaiian shirt. The thing reeked of Ellis, his musty cologne and stale sweat.
They were seated.
“Isn’t Simons coming, Mr. Ellis?”
“He’s coming, Heeber, he’s coming.” Ellis studied the menu without look up. “He had a couple things to take care of, is all.”
So. There was time for Simons to take care of things before dinner. Heeber made the mistake of glancing at Luciano, who wore his usual dumb grin. At the golf course there had been no one else for Heeber to talk to and now the guy thought they were best friends.
“Did you find for your wife the gift you were looking for?” Luciano asked.
Heeber inspected the silverware in front of him. They used weird forks down here with only three prongs. “I’d rather not talk about it, Luciano,” he said.
Ellis’s head bobbed up sharply. “Answer the kid’s question,” he snapped. “Don’t be such an ass.” The cold blue eyes were all over him again.
Luciano smiled. “The souvenir? The CD of the samba music?”
“I didn’t get them yet,” Heeber answered, eyes shifting in Ellis’s direction. “There wasn’t enough time.”
A waiter appeared pushing a bar cart, the way they did here. Ellis pointed at each man in turn. “Caipirinha?” he asked. “Caipirinha? Três caipirinhas, por favor.”
“Not for me,” Heeber told the waiter. “Coca lite, no ice?”
The waiter placed the warm can before Heeber. He wanted to make a joke of not drinking, as his wife had taught him. But Ellis sat still in his seat, jaw set hard. The three of them watched in silence as the waiter sliced limes with a sharp-toothed knife.
Simons materialized, rubbing his hands together.
“Hello, boys,” he said. “Everything’s lined up for later.” He collapsed into the seat beside Ellis and stared across the table. “Jesus, Heeber. Aloha! Check out the shirt on you.”
“You think that’s bad?” Ellis said. “You should’ve seen what he had on when we got here. A goddamn Tigger T-shirt! I had to give him that thing so we could get in.”
“You know, the cartoon. ‘The wonderful thing about Tiggers’—”
“— ‘is that Tiggers are wonderful things!’” Simons turned back to Heeber. “Grrrr!” he said.
Everyone, including Heeber, laughed. Then Ellis kept laughing, so hard that tears swam into his eyes. He had trouble ordering another round of drinks. Heeber thought: it’s not that funny.
Waiters arrived bearing meat. Heeber was just starting in on a piece of salt-encrusted roast when Luciano came to life. “Ah, look,” he said. “Coraçao! You must try here the coraçao. Is in all of Sao Paulo the best.”
“Hey, let’s try the coraçao,” Simons said.
They waved the waiter over. He carried a skewer studded with lumps of meat that looked like old blisters.
“Ah,” Luciano said, “espectacular!” He kissed his bunched fingertips like a Frenchman. “This you must try, you must try.”
The waiter bowed toward Heeber. Ellis nodded, grinning. He said something in Portuguese. Heeber smiled. “What are these, Mr. Ellis?”
“They’re chicken hearts, Heeber.” The waiter scraped off half a dozen. Heeber gripped the edges of his seat as the things plopped onto his plate like the droppings of some small carnivorous jungle beast.
They were packed into a tiny taxi. You never knew where you were in this city, it was so big and poorly planned. Simons beside him and Ellis up front were singing—awfully, out-of-key. The Girl from Ipanema, a song Heeber had liked till now. On the other side of him Luciano stared from behind his dumb grin. It was a workday tomorrow yet they were showing no signs of slowing down.
They passed through a scary park which opened into an area of sagging buildings and bright neon lights. Heeber squirmed in his seat and asked where they were going. No one answered. They sang another song. Finally the taxi stopped and deposited them in front of a bar with a blinking sign that read BLACK’S.
Heeber paused on the sidewalk as the others started toward the door.
“What are you waiting for?” Simons asked.
In the window was a neon girl with breasts like bananas. She blinked and her hips moved from one side to the other then back again.
Heeber forced a smile. “I think I’ll just grab a taxi home, guys.”
“Come on,” said Simons, “we’ll only be a couple hours.”
Ellis watched in silence.
“No, that’s okay, you guys go on.” Heeber retreated a couple steps. “I have to work tomorrow.”
There was some mumbling, then Heeber heard Ellis say, distinctly, “Fuck him. Let him go.” He and Simons headed for the door.
Luciano, a pained look in his eye, touched Heeber’s elbow. “Mr. Heeber, do come. Is fun to look. You don’t have to fahk the womans.”
Heeber snatched his arm back. “I said I’m not going.”
Now the cab was gone. Heeber stomped away with no clear destination in mind. Why had he agreed to go out with Ellis and those guys in the first place? What had he been thinking? One thing he didn’t get was why Ellis hated him so much. He worked hard, he did what he was told. But that wasn’t enough. You had to drink and chase women with the man. Ellis!
Just the name made Heeber tremble. He kicked at some loose pieces of pavement; he spat on the sidewalk.
That was when he heard the voice.
Heeber looked around, then down. Shadowing him, a little off to the side, was a boy, short-haired, barefoot, brown as a nut, hands stuffed in the pockets of dirty pants. It suddenly occurred to Heeber this might not be the safest place to go for a walk. The boy scuttled along beside him, a watchful eye cast down the street. A patrol car waited at the curb down there with swimming green overhead lights, and Heeber let out a breath.
“Go away,” Heeber said. “I don’t have any money.”
“Ah, Mérican. You need the money? Change from dollars to reais?”
Here we go, Heeber thought.
“No change?” the boy said. “How about souvenir. You like the souvenir?”
The kid brightened. “Yeah, man. Souvenirs. Real nice, man. Nice deal.”
Heeber peered down at the kid. “Where?”
“Very near here. Tudo bem, man. Real nice. Follow me, you.”
Heeber glanced again in the direction of the patrol car. He licked his lips. “Well,” he said. “Okay, let’s go.”
The kid led him along for another couple blocks and then into an alley. About half way down, right there in the alley, they came to a storefront. The word Bodega was painted on the window and beneath that, Umbanda. The boy opened the door and beckoned Heeber to follow.
Potted palms sagged in the corners and oddly-shaped bird cages dangled overhead. Heeber bumped into a wicker rack of outdated postcards. Behind the smell of dust and disuse was something else—something strange. Smoke, maybe, or incense. The boy told Heeber to wait, then vanished into a back room. A minute later he returned with a woman in tow. She was taller than Heeber, dressed in a flowery African skirt, strong-looking, and black as lava. A hemp blouse was stretched tight over her huge breasts—an Amazon, Heeber thought, amazed. Not bad-looking, either, though not his type.
“May I help you?” This she said in plain English.
“I guess so,” Heeber said. “This boy, he said something about souvenirs?”
“We have souvenirs,” she said. “We have works of art. Also we have animals: piranha fish or the pet monkey. How about a tarot reading? Your fortune told? Ouija, talk to the spirits?”
“Just souvenirs,” Heeber said. “Something for my wife, you know, something really Brazilian. Maybe a woodcarving of a parrot, I saw one of those at the airport once, or some Brazilian music CDs if you have them. I don’t want any garbage that’s gonna fall apart or not work, though.”
The woman turned and left for the backroom. The soles of her feet were cracked and almost white. The boy stared from behind the counter. Heeber thought of the pet monkey the woman had offered.
She reemerged and to Heeber’s surprise placed just what he’d been looking for on the counter—a small wooden parrot exactly like the one he’d admired at the airport, and a stack of three CDs. But Heeber knew that to show satisfaction with these people was to invite swindle.
“Do these even work?” He turned the CDs over in his hands with a frown. There were beach scenes on each, the writing in Portuguese, unreadable. When he saw the word samba, he relaxed a little. “I wanna hear them. Play them for me.”
The woman shook a finger in his face. “You remove wrapper, you bought CD.”
He picked up the parrot and examined it. “This isn’t even hand-carved.” He shrugged. “How much for everything?”
About eight bucks—less than he was actually willing to spend. “Too much,” he said.
The lady raised her shoulders. “Is late,” she said. “Fifteen reais.”
“Better.” Heeber took care not to let them see how much cash he had in his wallet.
“Would you like,” she asked as he paid, “to have a spell cast?”
“A spell. Good, bad. Perhaps to bring luck to a beloved one. Or to place the evil hex on some enemy for sweet revenge.”
What was this mumbo jumbo? Heeber smiled. “Boy, do I ever know someone I’d like to put a hex on.”
She made an accommodating gesture. “Costs only six reais to place the evil hex on an enemy. Is on special this week! Makes you feel real nice.”
Two bucks. Now there was a bargain. “How do you do it?”
“First, you provide to me a personal item of the enemy. Then at midnight I call on a demon to place the evil hex.” She waved a hand. “Is all very simple. You don’t even need to be here.”
“Well,” Heeber said with a laugh. “There’s not much chance of me getting my hands on—” He stopped short, fingering a button on the Hawaiian shirt. Ellis’s cold blue eyes stared out at him from the dark. “Okay,” he said. “What the heck!”
The African woman seemed confused as he passed her the Hawaiian shirt. “But this is yours, no?”
“Trust me,” he said. “Hex away.”
She brought the shirt to her face and breathed in deeply. “Ahh,” she said. Her voice went low and greedy like a man’s. “Sweat. They adore sweat. Is very precious to them.”
“Keep it,” he said, surprised by the bitterness in his own voice. “Consider it a gift.”
“I am required to warn you. Exu of the Seven Crossroads, the dark being on whom you are calling, is in evolution and therefore restless and unpredictable. Once called upon to perform evil he is not easily controlled.” She shrugged as she said this. “Is just the fine print, though. Almost never there is trouble.”
Heeber was upset. At first he’d felt real nice. The souvenirs were a bargain and the hex was a good gag, a couple bucks to rid himself of the Hawaiian shirt and have a laugh at Ellis’s expense. But there was something about the African woman’s warning that bothered him now. Riding home in the taxi he decided he’d been fleeced after all. Worse yet, he’d done it to himself! In front of his building he quibbled with the driver over the fare. Upstairs there were no messages from his wife. He put the souvenirs on the table beside the bed and tried calling her. The phone rang and rang. Finally, feeling abandoned, he gave up.
In bed his mind raced. Ellis was in the room, insulting him, ordering him to do humiliating tasks—polish his golf balls, press his wrinkly clothes. The African woman was there too. She had thrown off her skirt and was straddling Heeber, her great breasts in his face, the cracked soles of her feet beneath his calves. They made love as the bed rocked and groaned to pulsing samba music. Ellis, squatting in the corner, wagged his tongue, taunting them. The music grew louder and more frantic. Heeber smelled blood and heard the panicked beating of wings. There were flashes of light, like bulbs exploding in his face. Someone cackled with laughter. Someone else screamed.
Heeber sat up with a lurch. The salty meat, the Diet Coke—it had him all worked up. He warmed some milk in the kitchen but drinking it he had an ugly thought. What if Ellis wanted the shirt back in the morning? It was his style. Heeber could imagine being teased mercilessly for not having the thing, a fresh torment. He poured his milk down the drain and began to pace. Now he wanted to find the African woman and demand the shirt back. For a long time he walked back and forth in his little kitchen, telling himself to calm down, and cursing Ellis and the power the man had to make his life miserable.
He was late to work and poorly rested. He slipped past some locals gossiping beside the cafezinho cart and ducked into his office. There was a rap on the door and Heeber looked up as if he’d been behind the desk for hours.
“Mr. Heeber?” It was Daniella, the office secretary. “Are you well, sir?”
“I’m fine, thank you. I’m actually quite busy, however, so if you don’t mind…”
“It is just that…you see, I was wondering…have you not heard?”
Heeber’s eyes narrowed. “Heard what?”
“Oh, my God. You have not heard!”
“About Mr. Ellis. That last night he is assaulted by robbers in the city?”
Her eyes grew round like coins. “No, I am not. His car was, how you say, hi jack?” She touched her forehead. “When he is trying to fight they hit him against the head by a pipe.”
“Is he okay?”
“I do not know. I believe he is alive. But no good.”
Something scaly ran down Heeber’s spine with icy feet. Was it possible?
“Simons from sales,” he said, “and what’s-his-name? Luciano. They were both with him last night. Were they involved?”
She was shaking her head. “No, sir. Mr. Ellis, he is alone now going to home when he became assaulted.”
After work Heeber took a cab to the American Hospital. It was a small place, clean and modern, near the diplomatic sector. Ellis’s room was on the third floor, a private suite looking out on a leafy park. There was a little a conference room by the door walking in. Ellis. Even sick he got all the best perks.
The man himself lay beneath beige sheets. He was attached by wires to a bank of machinery. Clear liquids dripped into him from a constellation of hanging bags. Ellis’s eyes were ripe plums and he had a knot on his forehead like a finger poking up from under the skin, something out of a cartoon. Heeber had never seen anything like it in real life. There at the bedside was Ellis’s wife. Blonde-going-gray, pearls, a company wife.
She looked up as he came in. “Oh, hello,” she said. “You work for Hank, don’t you? Matt, right?”
“Rob,” he said. “Rob Heeber.” He cleared his throat. “Not Matt. How is he?”
She shook her head. “At first he seemed fine. He was joking, teasing everyone. You know how playful Hank is.”
Heeber knew all about it.
“But then this afternoon he had an awful fit of some kind. He’s been out of it since. The doctors say it happens like that sometimes with, you know, closed head injuries.” Her hand came to her mouth. “We’ve never had trouble here before. Never. Just last night Hank had dinner with friends then went back to the office to work late. You know how hard he works.”
“Yes.” Heeber cleared his throat again. “Hard.”
Ellis’s bruised eyelids fluttered. “Claire? Are you here?”
“Don’t leave,” he said, “okay? Who were you talking to?”
“It’s your friend, dear. David Heeber, from the office.”
The feral eyes turned toward him. “Heeber? What the fuck are you doing here?”
Heeber felt sweat break out on his forehead. “I came to visit when I heard about your—your accident, Mr. Ellis.”
“Accident? Jesus Christ, this was no accident. Just what the hell’s going on here? Why are my eyes black? Where’s all my money? Heeber, what in hell did you do with the goddamned shirt?”
Heeber glanced at the wife. She looked stricken.
“Heeber, you hear me? I want it, bring it to the office or to the golf course if you have to.”
“You see,” she whispered, “he says crazy things.”
“Like, all mixed up,” Heeber said.
“Claire, are you here? Don’t leave me!”
“I’m not leaving, dear. I’m right here.”
“Heeber,” he said. “Heeber!”
“Yes, Mr. Ellis?”
Ellis sat up in his bed. “Listen to me, you—” Without warning his head jerked back. Veins stood out like blue cables in his neck and he made strangling noises; spit sizzled across his lips. The machines beside his bed chirped like startled birds as Ellis bucked and kicked. The wife gasped. A doctor rushed in, a nurse. Heeber fled.
In the taxi he muttered his address then stared out at the hellish cityscape. What was going on? It was a gag, a harmless joke! True, if anyone deserved to be hexed it was Ellis. He was a hateful, lying man. But Heeber hadn’t imagined him jerking around like that in bed. And what, by the way, was he doing—Rob Heeber, a decent, God-fearing American—believing in the hocus pocus of foreign people?
On the dashboard the driver had a small cloth doll outfitted with feathers and plastic beads—a voodoo shrine, a little pagan altar, right here in the cab. It was this place, Heeber thought, these people. They were to blame! Ellis was to blame! Heeber’s head felt like it would explode. Forget the hex, Heeber thought. Ellis was an American—he was corporate. This made his mugging newsworthy. The African woman would see the news, put two and two together, figure out who Heeber was. She and the boy would track him down, blackmail him and ruin him at work.
He rocked in his seat; he groaned.
The driver glanced at the rearview mirror. “You okay, Mister?”
“Just drive,” Heeber said. And then: “Wait a minute. Do you know where Black’s is?”
The driver grinned. “Ah, Black’s.”
“Take me there.”
“Is real nice, Black’s. Real nice.”
“Just shut up and drive!”
He wandered the streets. Nothing ever looked the same way twice in this city, as if the place shifted and changed its shape nightly. He walked up blind alleys. Where was the little boy now that Heeber needed him? People would take notice—a white man with money walking these streets, lost. He began to sweat. He stopped and looked around, walked a few more blocks. He was ready to give up when he stumbled into an alley. Halfway down was the sign: Bodega. Umbanda. Was it the woman’s name?
The place was different this time, shimmering and strange. Candles. There were candle flames flickering everywhere now. It was hot. The boy was perched in his place behind the counter staring out, a wicked imp. The African woman listened to Heeber’s story with a look on her face like he was the weirdo here.
She shook her head. “So, you ask me to place the evil hex. The evil hex it works, and now you ask me to undo it?”
“That’s right, reverse it. Call the whole thing off. It was just a crazy mix-up.”
“Is not so easy. Exu of the Seven Crossroads is very, very powerful. Didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I tell you that when you ask for evil to be done, you—”
“Yes, yes, you warned me, you warned me. I don’t want to hear it again!”
She rubbed her chin and Heeber found himself staring at the awesome swell of her breasts, his dream coming back now, embarrassing and arousing at the same time. The woman said something to the boy in Portuguese; he grinned at Heeber annoyingly. He replied at length. The woman turned to Heeber.
“There is one possibility. To undo evil hex, first you must retake possession of the shirt, buy it back from me. Then at midnight in your home—it must be your own home and it must be at midnight—you must destroy the shirt by fire as an offering.”
“You mean burn it? I live in an apartment. I can’t set a fire there.”
“You asked me to undo the hex. If you’re going to tie my hands…”
“All right, skip it.” He took out his wallet. “How much to buy the shirt back?”
“Is one hundred reais.”
“One-hundred? That’s almost forty dollars!”
“To reverse hex is a different story. Costs a little more.”
“So that’s how it works, huh?” Heeber bitterly counted out the bills. “You charge four dollars to place an evil hex but forty to take it back. Pretty clever.”
The woman showed her palms. “Is the going rate, mister.”
The little boy disappeared into the backroom. A minute later he scampered back with the horrid shirt.
At the door, Heeber turned. “What if it won’t burn?”
“Don’t worry, is polyester. It should burn real nice.”
Heeber downed three warm milks, one right after the other. Then he climbed a chair to remove the battery from the smoke alarm on the kitchen ceiling. He opened the windows in the living room. In the bedroom the wooden parrot stared from the shadows with an evil countenance. He slapped the thing behind the nightstand and hid the Brazilian CDs in a drawer. The bathroom window was jammed shut. Heeber seriously considered breaking the glass, going so far as to wrap his fist in a towel. But what if the neighbors heard? In the end he used a heavy book to pound the jam until the window gave. Damp tropical air flooded the little bathroom. Now he waited.
Music from the next apartment bled through the cheaply constructed walls. It was heavy on the drums, tribal and crazy. It played on and on. When his watch read five till midnight, Heeber placed the shirt in the sink basin. Then he realized that that he had no fire—he didn’t smoke, he didn’t have a lighter. He scrambled to the kitchen and opened empty drawers looking for matches that weren’t there. How much time did he have? The African woman hadn’t said. He panicked, then looked at the stove. He rolled up a paper towel, held it to the hot coils.
Back in the bathroom he touched the flame to the shirt and the nasty thing began to move in the sink, squirming, alive with tiny rivers of fire. Soon tarry smoke filled the bathroom. Heeber realized it had been a mistake to open the windows—the neighbors would smell the smoke. He closed the bathroom window then turned on the fan. The shirt struggled, writhed like something in pain, dying in the sink basin.
When he left the bathroom the phone was ringing. It was his wife.
“Rob, is that you?
“I’ve been trying to call all week,” he said.
“Rob? Are you okay?”
“Are you sure? You sound strange.”
“Strange, why should I sound strange?” He gave a strangled laugh that seemed to come from someone else. “I live in a third world hellhole full of insane people where you can find a witchdoctor on every corner but you can’t eat dinner in a fucking T-shirt. I have a boss that treats me like crap. I hate my job. I hate my life. How could any of that possibly bother me?”
“Rob, you’re scaring me. You’re not making any sense.”
He paused. “It’s been a strange couple of days. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“It’s this place,” he said. “I hate it.”
“I hate it, I hate it!”
He skipped work and went straight to the hospital. Stepping from the elevator, he ran into Simons. The man’s face sagged under its own weight. “Hey, Rob,” he said quietly, “how’s it going, buddy?”
Rob? Buddy? Since when was Simons treating him almost friendly? Heeber asked how Ellis was doing.
Simons shook his head. “It’s not good.”
Well, there it was. He’d been fleeced again.
“It’s the damndest thing, isn’t it?” Simons asked. “How everything can change overnight?”
In the room the wife waited beside the bed. Now a tube ran from Ellis’s nose around to the back of his head. He seemed to be asleep.
“You’re back,” Ellis’s wife said. “He’s been asking about you.”
“He’s so close to the men who work for him.”
The doctor entered. He was tall and brown, Brazilian-looking, yet spoke English like an American. He nodded at Heeber without curiosity and told the wife he wanted to speak to her. Heeber said he would leave.
“No,” the wife said, “stay. I’m sure Hank would want you to.”
They followed the doctor to the little sitting area, where he described Ellis’s condition and explained to them how it had worsened overnight. The tube in his head was called a shunt and it was draining fluid off his brain. The wife held a hand to her mouth as the doctor talked about things Heeber knew nothing about: left temporal seizure disorder, epileptic fugue, post-ictal disorientation.
The shunt was only a short-term fix, which was why they were recommending an operation. It wasn’t exactly a lobotomy, the doctor said, just something to stop the seizures and relieve pressure on the brain long enough to fly Ellis home safely. Head injuries were like that: they could take a turn for better or worse at any time. For now, the doctor said, the important thing was to keep him calm and avoid upsetting him. He did, however, warn that there was a chance the procedure would fail.
“Fail?” the wife said. “Oh, my.”
“I’m confident everything will turn out well. You might want to call any friends or relatives in the area, though. The nurse will let you use the phone in my office.”
She thanked the doctor. She turned and touched Heeber’s hand. “Will you stay while I make a few calls? You’ve been such a help.”
Heeber agreed and she left him with the doctor.
“This operation,” Heeber said, “you really have to do it? There’s no other way?”
“It’s very likely that he wouldn’t survive a flight home without it.”
“Doc, tell me the truth. Is it risky?”
He considered the question. “Quite,” he said finally.
The doctor left and Heeber returned to the bed alone. Ellis was awake now, stirring. “Claire? Is that you?”
“No. It’s me.”
The eyes rolled toward Heeber. They were different now, strawberry-speckled, weaker—no ice there, no cruelty. Ellis was scared, you could see it in his eyes. “Heeber? Where’s Claire?”
“She had to go make some phone calls.”
“You won’t leave till she gets back, will you?”
Heeber promised to stay.
Ellis had become old overnight. He was shriveled, unmanned by injury. The word chickenhearted came to mind. He did, however, seem much nicer this way.
“Why did Claire have to go make phone calls, Heeber?”
“Because,” he said, “they’re going to do an operation on you.”
“Yes. On your brain. They’re going cut your head open and do a lobotomy on it.”
“A lobotomy?” Ellis clutched Heeber’s hand. “On my brain?”
“The left lobe part,” Heeber said.
“Is it dangerous?”
Heeber leaned over slowly, close enough to feel Ellis’s warm breath, close enough to kiss the man. “Quite,” he said finally.
The eyes grew wide with fear; Ellis actually began to sob.
“Don’t worry,” Heeber said, wrenching his hand free in disgust. “I’ll be here with you the whole time.”
Investigative Feature, The Ann Arbor Observer
by Derek Green
What people think about Rabih Haddad has a lot to do with who they are. If they work for certain government agencies, he’s an international man of mystery—a dark-bearded enigma with no visible means of support and close links to scary-sounding places like Lebanon and Pakistan. To members of the local Muslim community, he’s “Brother Rabih,” a beloved cleric, teacher, and family man whose fate smacks of ethnic intimidation and religious persecution. To Ann Arbor’s peace activists, Haddad is the newest cause célèbre, the I-told-you-so victim of a reactionary Justice Department run amok in the wake of September 11.
Haddad, forty-one, was arrested on a minor visa violation at his home in Ann Arbor on December 14, 2001, by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In secretly conducted hearings later that month, he was denied bond. Though yet to be charged with a crime, Haddad has been imprisoned ever since.
Haddad’s case has received national and even international coverage. Yet in most ways his story remains as shrouded in mystery as it was the day he was detained last December. In that information void, Haddad has become a sort of post–September 11 Rorschach test: liberals see a gentle, devout man swept up in a heavy-handed governmental witch hunt, while conservatives offer ominous-sounding lists of false statements and questionable associations, suggesting a shadowy figure with much to hide.
No one can fully judge which picture is more accurate until Haddad is brought to trial—if that ever happens. Under an executive order issued last fall, there appears to be little limit to how long a person may be held without charge. However, because much of the government’s case has been leaked to the media or revealed in transcripts of Haddad’s detention hearings, the Observer was able to investigate at least some of the claims made about him—both against the public record and with Haddad himself.
Warned by INS officials that a face-to-face interview would not be granted, we prepared a list of questions for Haddad and mailed them to him at the Monroe County Jail. He responded with two letters, providing previously unreleased information about his detention and replying in detail to the allegations against him.
CONNECTIONS TO TERROR?
Haddad’s arrest came at the end of a dramatic day. Early on December 14, 2001, FBI agents raided the of-fices of an Illinois-based Islamic charity, the Global Relief Foundation (GRF). The U.S. Treasury Department, meanwhile, announced that the charity’s assets had been blocked and records seized on suspicion that the group had been funneling funds to terrorist organizations. The same day, NATO operatives raided GRF branch offices in Albania and Kosovo.
Rabih Haddad is a cofounder and board member of GRF. That afternoon he was discussing the day’s events by telephone with a GRF lawyer when a knock came at the door of his Scio Township apartment. Haddad opened it to find three INS agents, their weapons drawn.
Salma al-Rushaid, Haddad’s wife, had been visiting a sick neighbor. She recalls the scene when she returned. “I opened the door to my apartment, and there were three men dressed in black standing in my living room,” she says. Her husband was sitting on the edge of the coffee table, looking up at the agents. “I was trying to understand what’s going on. The agents were silent for the longest time. They were staring at him, not speaking.”
According to al-Rushaid, the agents asked Haddad a handful of questions, occasionally exchanging asides in Spanish. Then one of the agents approached her husband and told him he was going to be arrested. Haddad was cuffed and led away. “He had this look on his face like, ‘Where did this come from?’ ” says al-Rushaid. “The children were crying. I was crying. We had no idea why they were taking him.”
Two days later the INS informed her that her husband was being held in the Monroe County Jail. Even then, “it was a continual struggle to get to see him,” says al-Rushaid. “We heard that normally, especially for wives, you can visit after twenty-four or forty-eight hours. For over a week I couldn’t even get in to see him.”
The INS maintained that Haddad’s detention had nothing to do with the federal investigation of the Global Relief Foundation. The timing of his arrest, the agency said, was purely coincidental. This response suggested that he had been detained for a relatively minor visa violation: though Haddad had applied for permanent U.S. residency in 2001, his previous tourist visa had expired.
GRF’s attorney, Ashraf Nubani, based in Washington, D.C., immediately petitioned INS district director Carol Jenifer for Haddad’s release. It’s the normal procedure in such cases—but this time the director refused to consider the petition, saying the matter would have to be resolved in INS court.
Nubani filed an emergency motion for bond with the court in Detroit. Haddad was granted a hearing for Friday, December 19. Minutes before it began, INS judge Elizabeth Hacker announced that all proceedings regarding Haddad’s case would be held in secrecy.
Ten days after the terrorist attacks last September, chief INS judge Michael Creppy had instructed judges to close all hearings for immigration cases deemed “of special interest” by the attorney general. Citing the “Creppy directive,” Hacker barred Haddad’s family, the public, and members of the media from the courtroom. They were told that no official record of the case would be released.
Hacker ordered Haddad to be held for two weeks without bond and scheduled a continuation. When he returned to her courtroom in early January, Hacker again refused bond and ordered him to be held indefinitely. Though Haddad had been charged with nothing more than a visa irregularity, the implication was clear: he was suspected of something much worse.
The atmosphere darkened further the following week, when Haddad was transferred from the custody of the INS to the U.S. Marshals Service and disappeared. The marshals would say only that he had been transferred to “an undisclosed location.”
VEIL OF SECRECY
Opinions on the case hardened quickly. Barely a week after Haddad’s arrest, the Ann Arbor News ran a pair of letters from readers that typified the emerging camps. One decried the arrest as a “brutally insensitive act which brought tragedy and trauma on an innocent person and his family.” Another concluded that Haddad had “simply ignored our country’s laws and must be punished. . . . We must take every precaution to avoid a repeat of the September 11 tragedy.”
One group that quickly got involved was the Ann Arbor Ad Hoc Committee for Peace, a group formed immediately after September 11 to promote “civil liberties and nonviolent responses to terrorism.” The group began leafleting and faxing press releases to local news organizations, fanning the flames of a growing controversy.
Detroit congressman John Conyers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and several newspapers filed suit, challenging the closing of Haddad’s immigration hearings. Making no comment on the merits of the case against Haddad, the suit argued only that the “blanket closure” of his removal hearings was in violation of the Constitution.
Haddad’s mysterious transfer had deepened anxiety within the local Muslim community and caused further outcry from his supporters. They eventually learned that he was being held at the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center. GRF’s headquarters are in the Chicago area, and a secret federal grand jury was being convened in the city—a combination that led many to believe that Haddad and GRF were finally going to be charged with something. But on February 14, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald surprised everyone by informing both GRF and Haddad that they were not targets of the grand jury’s investigation. Nonetheless, Haddad would still be required to answer questions before the panel.
Attorney Nubani says that neither he nor Haddad was ever informed how his case might be linked to the grand jury’s investigation. Citing these and other concerns, Nubani asked for immunity for Haddad from federal prosecution in ex- change for his testimony. When that was denied, Haddad exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
On April 3 Detroit federal district judge Nancy Edmunds issued her decision on the lawsuit challenging the closure of Haddad’s INS hearings. The government’s arguments for secrecy, Edmunds concluded, failed “under even the most deferential standards of review.” She ruled that future hearings must be opened to the public and ordered the release of transcripts of all the proceedings to date.
The government requested the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to stay Edmunds’s decision pending appeal. The appellate panel refused, saying it saw only a “slim likelihood of reversal” of Edmunds’s decision.
On Friday, April 19, the government released over 1,200 pages of court documents. In one last odd turn, associate attorney general Jay Stephens said that the Justice Department had concluded that their disclosure would not “cause irreparable harm to the national security”—a seeming contradiction of the government’s position since the case began.
The release of the documents lifted the veil of secrecy that had shrouded the Had- dad case for months. Haddad’s supporters had won an extraordinary victory—but at a cost. Some of the released documents painted a chilling picture of Rabih Haddad.
THE GOVERNMENT’S CASE
The released documents are a curious, sometimes confusing assortment of transcripts, legal briefs filed by the opposing lawyers, and letters and petitions submit- ted on Haddad’s behalf. Reporters sorting through the pile, however, soon zeroed in on a single document: a terse, six-page memorandum by INS judge Elizabeth Hacker. The memo—in which Hacker ex- plains why she rejected Haddad’s request for bond—succinctly outlines the government’s case against Haddad.
The memo summarizes the testimony of several character witnesses, Haddad, and the arresting INS officers. Noting that the “Board of Immigration Appeals has held that an alien generally should not be detained or required to post bond . . . un- less there is a finding that he is a threat to the national security, likely to abscond and/or a threat to the community,” Hacker then lays out her reasons for keeping Haddad in jail.
Hacker begins by questioning Haddad’s claims that he has deep ties to the local community, saying that “the witnesses who responded in his behalf have either no long term knowledge of the respondent or by their testimony demonstrate the lack of any in depth knowledge [of him].” Haddad himself, she notes, had “testified that he resided in Pakistan between 1988 and 1992” and had visited the country on two occasions after that. He also had lived in Kuwait, his wife’s homeland, in 1992. And five times since then he had traveled to Lebanon, his own native country.
Noting that Haddad told the INS agents who arrested him that he had a gun in his apartment, Hacker says ominously that Haddad “faces the possibility of criminal charges relating to possession of a firearm” and adds that “the possession of a weapon does represent a danger to the community.”
Hacker states that Haddad lied about his income on an apartment lease form and falsely named GRF as his employer. “The respondent has testified that he has not been employed in the U.S., yet when he filed an application for an apartment, he stated he was employed by Global Relief Foundation. Indeed, that foundation filed an employment verification form on respondent’s behalf! The respondent now claims that he has never been employed by this foundation.” She adds grimly that the “foundation has had its assets, business accounts and funds blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department pending investigation of its possible support for terrorism.”
Haddad’s lack of verifiable sources of income looked especially bad in light of another widely reported disclosure in Hacker’s memo: arresting agent Mark Pi- lat testified to seeing what he described as “four to six ‘bricks’ of cash about two or three inches high” in the briefcase where Haddad kept his and his family’s passports.
Hacker even challenges Haddad’s familial ties in the United States. In addition to his wife and four children, the memo observes, Haddad claims to have numerous family members living here. But, Hacker writes, Haddad “has presented no evidence of familial ties other than that of his own testimony. Respondent’s wife and three of his children are also illegally present in the United States. He claims to have a brother who is a United States citizen, but there has been no evidence of this relationship.”
Hacker’s suspicious tone was amplified in a March 1 reply brief by INS district counsel Marsha Kay Nettles. The memo was presented to the Board of Immigration Affairs (BIA), an independent board that has the authority to reverse INS court decisions. In urging the board to uphold Hacker’s bond denial, Nettles calls almost everything about Haddad’s character into question.
Nettles accuses Haddad of “providing false testimony” in his attempt “to paint himself as a law abiding longstanding ‘resident’ of the country with substantial familial, community, and religious ties.” Neither Haddad’s cousins nor his brother appeared in court, Nettles points out, and “the record is bereft of evidence that these people even exist.” She even seems to question that one of Haddad’s children is American born, describing the boy only as a “purported United States citizen.”
At the end of the brief Nettles springs a surprise. If the BIA does find in favor of Haddad, she writes, the government re- quests Haddad be remanded into INS custody based on “previously unavailable” information: a classified FBI memo known as the “Potter declaration.” According to Nettles,
the declaration describes how in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the respondent has been directly linked with and observed at multiple overseas locations that housed and sup- ported terrorist organizations associated with the Al-Qaeda Network. Moreover, the declaration describes how sources place respondent in the company of leaders and members of Al-Qaeda related terrorist organizations.
The declaration itself was never entered into the record; Nettles simply mentions its existence and suggests the government might use it at some future date. Consequently, Haddad and his counsel (and of course the public) never got to see it. But her summary cast an even longer shadow across the case—and sealed Haddad’s po trayal in local and national media. “U.S. Files Link Founder of Charity to Al-Qaeda” announced an April 21 Chicago Tribune headline. “Ann Arbor Immigrant Traveled Extensively, Had Briefcase Full of Cash in Home,” wrote the Detroit News. Newspaper reports and TV news- casts across the country somberly repeated the long litany of allegations against Haddad—overstayed visas, false income statements, bricks of cash, possession of firearms, dubious connections to political hotbeds.
A July report in the Detroit Free Press further deepened doubts about Haddad and GRF. Under the headline “Detained Cleric’s Account Has Gaps,” the Free Press repeated many earlier allegations— but also reported that “new questions have emerged about [Haddad’s] candor and the overseas programs of the Global Relief Foundation.”
In addition to lying about his employment when he rented his Ann Arbor apartment, the Free Press discovered, Haddad had similarly falsified a 1994 lease application in Justice, Illinois, near GRF headquarters. Haddad had claimed to earn $40,000 a year from GRF and had submitted a letter on the foundation’s letterhead as confirmation. As the Free Press ob- served, “Before September 11, such discrepancies may have been overlooked. Now, small fictions take on a darker cast.”
The Free Press’s most damning allegation, though, concerned GRF. In a “winter 2001 Global Relief newsletter,” the paper wrote, foundation donors were told that GRF had a signed contract with the UN World Food Program “to distribute $380,000 in wheat to Afghans.”
But according to the Free Press, UN officials “flatly deny the claims.” The allegation called into question the fundamental legitimacy of the organization Haddad helped found.
A PRESUMPTION OF SOMETHING
By July the story had come full circle: Haddad and GRF were more entwined than ever and now cast in an even darker light. But how accurate is this portrayal? The Observer’s review of the record suggests that the case against Haddad isn’t nearly as black-and-white as it appears. Consider, for example, Haddad’s “purported” relatives in the United States. Contrary to INS counsel Marsha Nettles’s brief, Haddad had in fact provided the court with affidavits about his family members who are U.S. citizens—including the information that his younger brother, Bassem, lives in Omaha, Nebraska. Even if the INS for some reason chose to disregard the affidavits, how hard is it to find someone and ask whether he’s a citizen? Getting a phone number for Bassem Haddad turned out to be as simple as searching in the white pages.
“I assure you, I exist,” Bassem says with a laugh when I call. “I think Judge Hacker can swear to the fact that I’ve mailed her more than a few letters.”
Bassem explains that he went to Ne- braska because that’s where Rabih, his elder brother, was studying in the late 1970s. He and his wife have two children—Rabih’s U.S.-citizen nieces.
What does he think of his brother’s incarceration? “I’ve read the reports,” Bassem says after a pause. “Judge Hacker’s arguments, and the government’s innuendo and rumor and ‘evidence’—I feel like they haven’t given him a chance to respond. There was no contact with family for some time; he’s been placed in solitary confinement. They’ve treated him like a criminal when he’s not.”
A phone call isn’t incontrovertible evidence that Haddad’s brother is a citizen, of course, and the burden of proving his existence doesn’t fall on the government’s shoulders. Yet the government bases much of its argument that Haddad is a flight risk on his purported lack of familial ties—and his alleged dishonesty about them.
The government’s suggestion that one of Haddad’s sons is not actually a citizen is outright disingenuous. In her memo, Nettles herself points out that only three of Haddad’s four children have been placed into INS removal proceedings—presumably because the INS knows the fourth, Rami, was born a citizen.
How about the possession of a firearm? The government’s entire case that Haddad represents a danger to the community rests on the weapon found by INS agents, and Judge Hacker initially justified holding him because of possible criminal charges relating to its possession. According to court records, however, what Haddad turned over to the INS agents was a shotgun for hunting small game. He had a valid permit for the gun and a current small-game license as well. More than eight months after Judge Hacker raised the possibility, no weapons charges have been filed.
It’s as if the government has assumed Haddad was a terrorist and then interpreted everything he said or did to support that view. By comparison, the Free Press story was a model of dispassionate clarity. Even fair-minded observers, however, can make mistakes—which is just what the Detroit paper did in its exposé of GRF.
The Free Press quoted UN representatives in Afghanistan as denying that GRF had any contract with the World Food Program there. Yet the GRF provided the Observer with a copy of a food-distribution agreement between the UN program and the Canadian Relief Foundation that clearly identifies GRF as one of the participating agencies. WFP spokesman Khaled Mansour, who was quoted in the Free Press story, says the misunderstanding arose because the Canadian foundation, not GRF, was listed as lead agency. GRF, he admits, “did do UN work distributing food in Afghanistan.”
LETTER FROM MONROE COUNTY JAIL
Some of the charges against him can be addressed only by Haddad himself. After his appearance before the Chicago grand jury, the U.S. marshals returned him to the custody of the INS, who again confined him in the Monroe County Jail. Told that the INS wouldn’t permit a face-to-face interview, the Observer prepared a list of detailed questions and mailed them to Haddad there. He replied with a pair of letters that give his side of the story in his own words.
Haddad readily admits to having over- stayed his visa, but he contends, “I was out of status and in violation of my visa because the INS itself had put me in that situation. I had applied for a visa extension two months before it expired, but by the time the INS sent me the extension, it had already expired two months earlier, which put me in limbo until the LIFE Act [the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act of 2000] was passed in December of 2000 I believe.
“I applied for permanent residency in April 2001 under the LIFE Act. By doing that, I was basically telling the INS that I was out of status and I would like my status adjusted. I was not hiding or even trying to conceal my status.”
Asked how he supported himself since moving to Ann Arbor in 1998, Haddad writes, “I made it clear in my testimony in court that I had different sources of in- come. The major source was zakat, which is something like tithing in a church or love offerings. Only in Islam, zakat is specifically 2.5 percent of accumulated and unused wealth to be taken from those who can afford it. As someone who did charity and religious work, I was entitled to receive zakat which came from individuals mainly. My family and my wife’s family helped a little too.”
Is this a plausible answer? Nazih Hassan, president of the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, basically con- firms Haddad’s description, adding that “the closest word to zakat in English is alms.
“It’s different from regular donations,” Hassan continues. “It has to be spent in specific ways, enumerated in the Koran.” One of the ways it is spent is to support people who “work on collecting donations, on encouraging others to give. Sometimes these people do have other in- comes, sometimes they don’t. It’s easily misunderstood, but Islamicly, it’s very legitimate and very common.”
What about the bundles of cash reported by the INS agents?
“It was actually ‘bricks’ as they put it and the agent claimed I was trying to hide it from him,” Haddad responds. The agent “later admitted on cross examination that the denomination of the money was ‘ones’ which makes one wonder how he was able to determine that if I was trying to hide it from him, and having determined they were singles, why portray it in such suspicious light? The fact of the matter is that December 14 was one of the last days of the holy month of Ramadan. ‘The month of charity’ as Muslims call it, the cash I had was donations given to me during that month which totaled $600 as I was later told. So yes, I had six bricks of $100 each of single dollar bills which constitute, by far, the majority of cash donations.”
Hassan of the Muslim Community Association finds that easily conceivable. “Every Friday at our mosque alone we collect seven to eight hundred dollars, most of it in singles and fives,” he says. “It’s counted out in the office. Then a specific person takes the money and deposits it, usually the next day or on Monday.” During Ramadan, he adds, for a Muslim cleric, “having six hundred dollars, a thou- sand, even more, is not uncommon.”
Admitting he has no way to be sure, Hassan suspects the “bricks” of cash were nothing more than singles bundled for de- posit. “It sounds to me like much ado about nothing.” The government appears to have reached a similar conclusion: the money was never confiscated as evidence.
Haddad admits that he claimed to be employed by GRF when he rented his apartment. “The false documents they refer to is a letter issued by GRF that was meant to be used as a proof of income asserting my ability to meet the rent required every month,” he says. “The letter used the word ‘employed’ which is technically not true and I regret that deeply.”
Under provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act passed by Congress last fall, GRF has been closed since the December raids. Yet the foundation itself, Haddad notes, “is not accused of anything. The government claims it suspects GRF of funneling funds to terrorists. GRF was shut down on that suspicion only. The government says it’s had GRF under surveillance since 1997 and here we are six years later and the government still has not produced a shred of evidence. That is so simply because there is none.”
If GRF and, by extension, Haddad are innocent, then why did he ask for immunity when faced with going before the federal grand jury in Chicago? And when immunity was refused, why did he invoke the Fifth Amendment?
“Prior to my testimony before the grand jury in Chicago there was no talk of immunity,” Haddad responds. “My attorneys felt that it was merely a perjury trap and that I should not say anything until I had immunity. Taking their advice, I exercised my 5th amendment rights and have not heard from the government since. . . . Other than that I was not concerned with any other potential charges.”
The most chilling allegations against Haddad—and the only ones that mention terrorism—are raised in the FBI’s “Potter declaration,” which is said to link Haddad with groups connected to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. I asked him what he thought that document might refer to, whether he had ever been interrogated by the FBI regarding its contents, and whether he has ever had contact with groups or individuals who were later connected to terrorists.
No one outside the government, Haddad points out, knows anything about the Potter declaration beyond the description in Martha Nettles’s summary. Noting that “the grand jury investigation is still open and on-going,” he says that on advice of counsel, he “cannot speculate on the contents of that declaration one way or another.”
That said, Haddad continues, “I have never been involved in any activities that can be constituted as ‘a danger to the national security.’ To my recollection, there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda in the late 80s and early 90s (I permanently left the ‘overseas locations’ that I think they are referring to in mid 1992).”
During his humanitarian work in Pakistan, Haddad writes, “one of my main accomplishments (I like to think of it as such) was opening channels of communications and cooperation between Muslim and non-Muslim relief organizations working in the area.” If the FBI believes that effort brought him into contact with present or prospective terrorists, it some- how reached that conclusion without ever talking to him: during his long confinement, Haddad says, “I was never approached, interrogated, or questioned by anyone.”
Haddad has now spent more than eight months behind bars. “I was put in solitary confinement in Monroe County Jail three days after my arrest, for my own protection they said,” he recalls. “On January 11 I was turned over to the U.S. Marshals without notifying my attorney, my family or anyone else. I was taken to the federal facility in Milan where not only I was put in a solitary cell, but in a solitary ward. I had a video camera fixed on my cell 24-7 and the only other soul I saw was the guard making his rounds. Prison staff members dropped in every morning when making their rounds.
“On the morning of January 17, I was taken to the Willow [Run] airport with my hands and feet cuffed and they put what is known as the ‘black box’ on my hand- cuffs for further restraint. I was getting quizzical looks from other prisoners who told me that this box is usually used with the most dangerous criminals. This was later confirmed by one of the guards in Chicago who was taking it off and shouted in my face with 30 other inmates looking on: ‘What’d you do? Kill somebody?’ and then burst out laughing.
“I was humiliated and ‘cussed-out’ by many of the guards who later on came to respect me and adjusted their attitude. The temperature that day was 20 below (wind- chill) as I heard over the bus radio. Once the U.S. Marshal jet arrived we were ordered to exit the bus and subsequently made to stand and wait in 20 below weather on the airport tarmac for 15–20 minutes. Our only attire was Hanes T-shirts and light cot- ton khakis while everyone else around us was bundled up in down-insulated jackets.”
After his return to the Monroe County Jail, Haddad says, “[I] was not allowed to make phone calls, send or receive mail for a week, and have been the subject of harassment and discrimination by at least two of the guards. I have made many requests to see the INS officer who I’m told is the only one who can authorize anything in my case. My mail is intercepted and I’m denied receipt of it because it has material related to my case which other inmates should not see ‘for your own safety,’ again. This I find disturbing since one of their own, a guard, was telling other inmates of the unit that I was a terrorist supporting Bin Laden!!”
THE WRONG PROFILE?
If nothing else, the guard’s statements demonstrate the staying power of the rumors that surround Haddad. But if the government has any evidence to back them up, it appears to be in no hurry to provide it. On August 5 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the government’s appeal of Judge Edmunds’s decision to open Haddad’s INS removal hearings. No immediate decision was made. Beyond that, this strange case has not moved very far forward since the day Haddad was arrested.
Haddad is not a United States citizen. By his own admission, he was a foreign national in violation of his visa at the time of his arrest. Should anyone outside his family even care about his fate?
Nancy Chang, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, thinks so. “Around a thousand noncitizens have been arrested and detained behind a wall of secrecy since September 11,” Chang says. “Many were picked up in dragnets or during routine traffic stops or on the pretext of minor immigration violations. Many have been imprisoned for weeks and even months on end without being told of charges against them. Many have been placed in dangerous conditions while they have been denied access to counsel.”
In effect, Chang argues, these people are being held in a form of “preventive detention” while the government tries to figure out whether they might be dangerous. “Preventive detention” is a chilling phrase to civil libertarians and history buffs alike—it was a euphemism used by the federal government to justify placing over 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.
Chang believes the analogy isn’t far out of line. “The fact that . . . since September 11 only a few of the one thousand or so detainees has been charged with a terrorist crime strongly suggests that these individuals were profiled based on their religion, ethnicity, and political views rather than on actual ties to terrorism,” she says.
Chang points out that two different methods of investigation have traditionally been used by law enforcement. One is built around the careful gathering and impartial interpretation of criminal evidence, as demanded by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The other relies on racial and ethnic profiling, guilt by association, and inferences based on political views.
Authorities, she says, are always tempted to “take a shortcut around the Constitution” and fall back on the second approach. But not only does that invite police and prosecutors to “disregard the Fourth Amendment,” Chang argues, it also doesn’t work. “While you might get an occasional lucky catch,” she says, “racial profiling and guilt by association are inefficient and ineffective ways to catch criminals.”
Chang is especially critical of cases tried in closed hearings. “The government and its prosecutors are not being held to account to the public,” she says. “This means the public and the press cannot know whether justice is being done.” Secrecy, she continues, “breeds mistrust for law enforce ment at the precise moment when it’s essential that we have the full trust of and cooperation from the Muslim Amer ican community in fighting terrorism.”
The handling of the Haddad case certainly hasn’t won the government any friends among local Muslims. Nazih Hassan is among those who suspect that Haddad is being detained not because of anything he may have done but simply be- cause he’s a Muslim from the Middle East. The irony, Hassan says, is that not only is the government guilty of profiling, but it’s also gotten the profile wrong.
“These people they’ve identified as real terrorists—the September 11 murderers and so on—they were instructed to avoid mosques and gatherings of Muslims,” Has- san says. “The government is looking in the wrong places and finding the wrong people and spending their energies doing it.”
Hassan says that the detentions are “definitely hurting the government’s reputation in the legitimate Muslim community and ruining a critical source of assistance. If the government had not cast an indiscriminate net against Muslims in general, then more Muslims, if they thought they could help, would come forward and help.
“Right now there is so much distrust at a very basic level—a distrust of government—that I doubt many Muslims would dare be willing to assist the government. That’s understandable. The government now can use secret evidence. They can prevent you from meeting with your lawyer. What assurance do people have that if they come forward, they won’t be arrested, denied a lawyer, and disappear?”
To Hassan, the case against Haddad says as much about the people investigating Haddad as it does about the target of their investigation. “They want to show they’re doing something. They can say, ‘Look, we’re fighting terrorism. We’re making progress.’ But I’ m afraid they’ re incompetent. They’re typical bureaucrats covering their rears so that if something else happens they can say, ‘Hey, we were trying our best.’
“I’m a practical person,” says Hassan. “There might be something to the charges against [Haddad]. You can never know anyone one hundred percent. But then, if there is evidence, the government has to show it. If there’s something there, tell us! We’ll review our position. As of now, we’re one hundred percent supporting this brother and this man, because we’ve seen nothing from him but decency and good humanitarian work.”
Short Fiction, New World Order
We decided to go to the desert, the Empty Quarter, and try out a scheme we’d come up with for making money. This was in Dubai, a westernized city where you can play golf on real grass and have burgers and beer downtown at Thank God It’s Friday. The grass is kept living by a vastly expensive underground irrigation system, and it took two years of haggling to get a beer license from the Arabs for a place called Thank God It’s Friday. But there they were. In Dubai you could almost forget you were in the Middle East. But at twilight, when the sun lit one side of things and cast narrow shadows on the sand, it was different. Wind swept in from the Saudi Desert and blew sand into the American-style highways where there were always a few lazy camels lounging around or a lonely figure waiting in flowing robes at the side of the road.
Then we remembered. We were in the Persian Gulf, in another country, an Arab land with different rules that none of us truly understood.
We called our company Desert Adventures. You get the idea: load some Land Cruisers with a few harmless souls, drive around in the sand, pitch a night camp. We charged a few more dollars or marks or pounds for beer and wine, for arranging private belly dances.
My partner was Assad Massoud, Kenya-born, raised in Egypt, educated in Great Britain. He’d come to Dubai a few years before to race in the desert rallies. Now he was responsible for leading our trips, keeping the vehicles in shape and managing the Pakis—the local worker-ants who did the heavy lifting. I’d come to the region with an oil company from the States to help put out fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War. By the time the fires were out I’d made enough money to stay in the region. I headed south. I’d learned about the desert and Desert Adventures was my idea.
We were planning a new excursion package, a dangerous expedition for rich adventure clients tired of climbing Mount Everest—an orientation tour with limited supplies and animal caravans skirting the off-limits Saudi frontier. We wanted all the trappings of local danger but nothing too dangerous. A scouting trip was in order.
We packed a Land Cruiser with tents, logistics equipment and a desert box with enough food for a couple of days. At the last minute I invited someone else along--the wife of a friend of ours, Carolyn Thomas.
Right away Assad had a problem with it.
“What’s wrong with you, mate? You invite a girl without consulting me? To the fucking real desert?”
We both knew and liked Carolyn and her husband, Barry, who choppered oil executives back and forth to off-shore rigs. He was on assignment for two weeks, I told Assad. I told him I didn’t think it would be a problem for us to do him a favor and keep his wife company for a couple days.
Assad’s smile came and went like smoke. “Whatever you say, pal. You’re the brains of the operation, right?”
To get to the Empty Quarter you take the Madinat-Zayed Road west, a three-and-a-half hour trip to the edge of the desert. On the way we stopped to pick up Carolyn. She and Barry had a nice place in the city--a courtyard, a few acacia trees, a pair of date palms to give it the oasis look so popular around town.
Carolyn was one of those women—British, married to a Brit—that you found occasionally among the expats. She was refined and funny. She could discuss whatever book you happened to be reading. She knew, for instance, what had to be done to cap a blasting rig fire, and how dangerous the work could be. Carolyn was tall, fair-haired, freckled. Men stared. But she had the kind of self-possession that women, especially western women, needed to survive in the Middle East. And she knew and respected the desert.
She loaded her gear and climbed into the back seat. “Hello, boys. How are you today?”
“We’re fine,” Assad said. “Although we did have a small row earlier. My intrepid business partner here didn’t bother to inform me that you were coming along until five minutes ago.”
Carolyn laughed. “Advanced planning? Martin, aren’t you the logistics expert?”
At least, I pointed out, I’d gotten around to telling him before we picked her up.
Carolyn frowned. “Oh, my. Well, Assad, I hope at least you’re happy to see me.”
Assad pulled out into the traffic. His eyes flicked up to the rear-view mirror. “Why, Carolyn,” he said, “You know I’m always happy to see you.”
We drove. First there was the city with its glass towers and lunch-hour traffic. To the east on the Creek loomed the huge Burj Al-Arab tower. It was a mountain of blue glass in the shape of a billowing spinnaker, the tallest hotel structure in the world, a testament to the city’s wealth and ambition. Leaving town the land went gravelly. Refineries, like small burning cities, spewed smoke over vast stretches of salt-flat desert. We passed trucks loaded like cattle cars with Pakis—leathery, bent men who had been imported from the Indian sub-continent as laborers. They could be seen toiling in dirty overalls across the city in a form of legal servitude. These men lived in contrast to real citizens, people of Arabic descent, who sped by in Benzes with smoked windows at 150 kilometers per hour.
Carolyn said, “I saw the most horrid thing the other day, just inside the city.”
“This place,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know.”
Carolyn had been walking in the city near the gold souk when she came upon a commotion at an intersection. It was one of those scenes you see in the Middle East, the kind of thing growing up in London or the Midwest of the United States—or Mombassa, for that matter—doesn’t prepare you for. Traffic was backed up, a crowd had gathered at the side of the road, and Carolyn heard what could only be described as wailing.
“At first I thought someone had been run down by a car or a lorry. Another worker or child--you know that area. Got a surprise though. It wasn’t a person who’d been struck.”
Assad, who’d lived here longer than any of us, said, “Let me guess. A camel?”
“It was awful. The poor beast was struggling there alone in the road.”
“Hurt bad?” My addition.
She nodded. “Its legs had been broken. You know how tall the silly beasts are. Well, the car understruck it. Just awful. Someone said it looked like its back was broken too. Some teenagers were trying to give it water but of course the owner, a citizen, wouldn’t let them near it. It was bleeding from the ears and moaning like a bloody human and trying to stand up again.” She shuddered. “A veterinarian turned up before the police and offered to put the poor thing out of its misery. But the owner just let it lie there in the sun, gasping in pain. Had to settle the blood money first.”
Blood money. This was payment—legal restitution—that had to be paid for injury or for death. It was harsh and ancient and real. If you hit someone in the road, killed or maimed someone in any way, then you were responsible for that person’s responsibilities. You paid. If the person had a family, you supported the family for good. Couldn’t come up with the money? You went to jail. Or worse. There had been plenty of problems. Men were known to throw themselves in front of cars, a quick exit to misery, a way to provide for the family. Insurance companies would cover you for exorbitant sums. But even then you were really at the mercy of the ruling families-—you might be held responsible anyway. There were different prices depending on who was injured. If you killed an Arab of status, forget it. Next came a camel. Then came western men and then women. Lowest was the working class, the true outsiders. But even hurting one of them could ruin you.
We listened to the air conditioner blowing. I said, “How long did the thing lie there?”
“Pretty bloody long. Took the police forever to arrive and the owner just stood there hovering over the poor beast and barking at anyone who came near it. I guess it finally just died and the driver, some Indian fellow, got carted away.”
Assad shook his head. “Now there’s the bastard I pity.”
But this was the place where we had chosen to live. “That’s the way it is here,” I said. “We’re in their country, not ours.”
“Correct, Martin,” Carolyn said. “But that doesn’t make it any more pleasant.”
We drove on, south past Abu Dhabi and west toward the open desert. We listened to music on the radio until the stations faded to static. We ate some sandwiches from the desert box. Toward late afternoon wind picked up from the west, blowing veils of sand. By most standards we were in the desert but we still hadn’t reached the Empty Quarter--what Assad called the real desert. There were still tiny villages, police outposts, a scattering of goat and camel ranches.
A steady desert wind was blowing by the time we reached the great dunes just beyond the Liwa Oasis. We stopped and Assad climbed out of the Land Cruiser to let air out of the tires for our drive into the sand.
This left Carolyn and me alone in the car.
I said, “I’m glad you came.”
She looked at me in the rear-view mirror for a long time then she looked away. She seemed uncertain before she finally said she was glad to have come as well.
Assad climbed back in saying he hoped the wind would die down soon. We drove out of Liwa and headed into the deep sand. There are trails out here even in the shifting dunes. You orient yourself by permanent things—a ridge to the east, a flat plateau on the northern horizon. But with the wind blowing hard it became difficult. The storm showed no signs of letting up—if anything, seemed to be getting worse. The Land Cruiser’s long shadow ran beside us and the desert was becoming orange and strange.
“I can’t fucking see too well,” Assad said. “Damn it.”
We had hoped to pitch camp just into the Empty Quarter but it was looking bad.
I said, “How do we feel about sleeping in the car?”
Carolyn laughed and said, “If we want to get bloody buried in sand.”
I turned on the radio but all we got this far out was static.
Assad said, “Martin, isn’t there a place a few kilometers ahead? A research outpost, I think. Do you know it?”
I remembered an odd little place—a last stop for oil researchers or soldiers on their way into the Empty Quarter. We decided that if the wind got much worse we’d try to reach this place.
Half an hour later it was dark and the wind was driving as in a snow storm. Weather was notoriously difficult to predict out here. Wind patterns shifted without warning and mountains of sand moved with them. We decided against setting up camp and made for the outpost. I took a GPS reading. I could only guess at the coordinates of the little outpost.
For a while it was unclear whether we’d be able to find the place. None of us was frightened exactly, but I admit we were relieved when we finally saw light—soft and diffuse, a London fog hovering in the darkness ahead. It was impossible to see the camp until we were at the edge of the natural dip in which it was located. The camp itself was a dozen or so small barrack-like huts clustered around a larger central building. A pair of lamps glowed forlornly, greenish light seeping into the darkness.
“How thoughtful,” Assad said as we descended into camp. “They’ve left lights burning for us.”
We parked. Carolyn and I followed Assad through a scouring wind to the central building, where an office light glowed. The camp’s caretaker spoke for a while with Assad in Arabic. He was a small man in traditional clothing—leather sandals, a plain white dishdasha, and the brimless embroidered cap worn by the Omani people. He greeted Assad and me, kissed us on both cheeks. He ignored Carolyn.
I told Assad that we would need separate quarters for each of us.
Assad translated. The caretaker finally acknowledged Carolyn. He frowned but didn’t say anything.
Assad’s eyes gleamed unpleasantly. “Shouldn’t the three of us board together? Save some money?”
“Tell him,” I said. “Separate quarters.”
It was still early. We dropped off our gear then met at the mess in the central building. It was a small room with a low table surrounded by hard flat pillows in the Arabic style. There was a collection of coffee urns on the wall, some rugs hanging beside them, an ornate shisha pipe in the corner. And there were two other men, a peninsular Indian, it appeared, and an American, already seated at the table. They looked young to my eye, a pair of backpackers maybe, the type you see bumming around Bangkok or Sydney. But they turned out to be researchers—geologists they said. We chatted. We told them about our scouting trip. They both looked at Carolyn, then away.
The caretaker was called Hazem. He brought a dinner of roast lamb, lentils and brothy soup.
The American, Pete-something, from Cal Tech, said he sure could use a cold beer. Desmond, his partner, had grown up in Goa, he told us, on the coast, and studied in Mumbai. This was his first trip to the Empty Quarter and the pair was planning to meet up with a research team some time later that week.
Carolyn said, “And what do you think of the desert so far, Desmond?”
The Indian smiled. “I could use a cold beer.”
We all laughed. The wind howled outside. Sand pelted the windows.
We ate and afterward we talked.
Pete the American said, “You know, our cell phones don’t work at all out here.”
Assad said, “You’re out of range of everything, mate. There’s really not much to be covered way out here.”
Desmond nodded. “We have computers, fax machines—and nowhere to connect them.”
Carolyn tipped her head toward Hazem near the kitchen. “Perhaps you could ask the concierge for a high-speed connection.”
We laughed again. On the pillow beside Desmond was a fancy-looking camera. I nudged Assad, nodded at it.
“That yours?” Assad said.
“I’d get it out of sight before the caretaker comes back around.”
Desmond’s dark eyebrows went up.
“The Arabs, they can be funny about cameras, especially way out here.”
He shrugged as if unimpressed, but put the camera back in his backpack.
Hazem brought cups of bitter green coffee. We talked some more. After more coffee we decided to turn in—there was nothing much else to do.
We stood. We said good night to our new friends. At the door of the main building we listened to the raging desert wind, a violent and desolate sound.
Assad turned to me and Carolyn before we left. He said, “Let’s make it an early day tomorrow, yeah? I’d like to get the fuck out of this place and into the desert.”
We agreed and went out into the night.
Our barracks were cane structures with thatched roofs, sturdy desert shacks of a type we all knew well. The temperature had been dropping the way it does in the desert. My hut was cold inside, remarkably quiet. The floor was covered with rugs and the bed was made of piled pillows and loose blankets which absorbed sound and light, a padded tomb.
Back outside wind shrieked over me and sand pelted my skin like tiny needles. I found Carolyn’s hut and she let me in without a sound. The camp generator had been shut down for the evening. There was no light to be had and no heat. The darkness was absolute. My hands went to Carolyn’s body. I could hear her breathing. I touched her face. The wind outside now seemed like small rain. In the dark I thought of Carolyn’s face with its thin tapering nose, the dusting of freckles, her blue eyes. It was a craving I felt for her as if for food or water—a consuming desire that seemed to communicate itself to her through some subtle chemistry of nerve or sinew.
It was cold. The blankets and rugs were rough and smelled of desert. It was difficult after a while in the darkness to tell which way was up or down; the small room became a mile wide. I cupped my hand over Carolyn’s mouth. I choked my own voice against her throat. We lay there together without sound in the dark and desert cold.
Sunlight blazed down. I had left Carolyn before dawn and slept briefly. Then I’d gotten back up, washed in the basin in my hut, dressed. I left my hut.
The wind had stopped hours earlier but the landscape was changed, wild and rich and strange. It was as if there had been a snowstorm the evening before. Sand had piled up against the west walls of the huts, their rounded backs hunched toward the open desert for just this reason. Our vehicles were beneath a shelter, not buried but well-scoured by sand. This was what most people thought of when they thought of Arabia--loose white sand that rolled like waves, the Empty Quarter, what the Arabs called the Rub Al-Khali. This wasn’t the gravelly wasteland of the Gulf coast. This was real desert.
I walked through the dazzling light toward the central building. Inside it took my eyes a minute to adjust. Carolyn was already there, sitting with Desmond and Pete over steaming tea. She was laughing, waving her hand. She too had thought of snow.
“Good morning, Martin. A fine storm we’ve had outside, don’t you think? A proper Yankee blizzard.” She smiled. “Can you believe our young friend Desmond here has never seen snow?”
“This is true,” he said, in that sing-song Indian accent.
“Well, you have now,” I said. “Basically the same stuff. Snow’s a bit lighter in color.”
“And a hell of a lot colder,” Pete added.
Sun burned in through the small window. Already it was hot and I suspected the wind might become a problem again.
Desmond poured tea.
I said, “Here’s the plan, Carolyn. We’re packing up, digging out, and heading back to the city. We’ll come back when the weather’s a little more forgiving.”
“Leaving?” Pete sipped his tea. “Just when the fun begins?”
I laughed. I said, “We’d love to hang around with you folks. But we’re out of here.”
“No we’re not.”
This was Assad. He was coming in through the door. Behind him the caretaker, Hazem, wore a grim expression.
“What do you mean we’re not leaving?” I asked. “You’re the one wants to get into the desert so bad.”
Assad shook his head. “It seems that we have a little problem.”
We were crowded around the table. We looked at him now and waited.
“There’s a pair of border guards out there, they showed up earlier this morning in jeeps. They say they’ve found a dead man back in the road. They want to know how he got there.”
I shook my head as if to clear it, as if Assad were joking. “What?”
“You heard me,” Assad said. “They’ve found a body.”
“A body?” Pete said. He looked at Carolyn, back at me. His friend Desmond was watching us as if we had the answer to some riddle. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
This was not precisely true. We were on the edge of the middle of nowhere. But there were enough people who might have been out yesterday or the night before--herders or local villagers less than a two-day walk from this spot. There was us.
Assad seemed to read my mind. He said, “There’s this place, isn’t there, mate? So we’re not all that far from civilization.”
We followed Assad outside. The soldiers were standing beside a pair of boxy, air-conditioned jeeps. They were dressed in fatigues with big pistols hanging from garrison belts. They stopped chatting to look us over as we walked up. Their eyes fell on Carolyn. One of the soldiers was wearing mirrored glasses and appeared to be in charge. He spoke in Arabic to Assad.
Assad said, “He wants to know what we’re all doing here. And he says they’re going to want to talk to each of us separately.”
The soldier kept his hands in his pockets. He jerked his head toward Carolyn and said something else to Assad.
Assad responded, “Na’am.” Yes.
I said, "What's he asking?"
“He wants to know whether she’s married.” There was a silence. “I told him of course she is.”
The soldier must have assumed one of us was her husband. But he never once took his eyes off Carolyn, who stood to one side with Desmond and Pete, looking steadily back from behind her own dark glasses.
It was decided that Assad and I would go with the man in charge while his partner stayed with the rest of our group. We climbed into the back of his jeep which he directed up and out of the bowl, plowing through drifts toward the dirt trail. I looked back toward camp. There was the cluster of buildings below us and in front of that the smaller cluster of people huddled around the second soldier’s jeep.
We rode for a while in silence. Assad thought the men must be from a border patrol unit. Probably military, though they were being cagey about it. Our soldier had perceived us to be the men in charge of our odd little group and was taking us to the scene. The sand was deep in places and it was slow going. We drove for nearly an hour before we stopped. I opened the door. Heat struck like a blow.
A few meters off the roadside lay the crumpled body. The soldier gazed down, legs apart, fists on his hips. I saw how the dead man was dressed. The long white dishdasha and ghutra, both blood-stained--an abomination. This at least explained the fuss. The body belonged to a citizen, an Arab.
Assad took off his hat, wiped his forehead. “Christ,” he said. “What a fucking mess.”
The soldier spoke to Assad, who translated. The soldiers, he said, believed that the body had been here only a short time, had very possibly been dumped here after the windstorm, some time very late in the evening or earlier this morning.
I said, “Dumped?”
They spoke some more. The guard told Assad it looked like someone had run over the man after he was dead--the amount of blood, the way the man lay. This meant to them that someone must have left him here.
“So they think someone killed him on purpose?”
“Looks that way, mate.” Then Assad said, “Of course, we’re all under suspicion.”
The guard was watching us from behind his shades. A smile lurked beneath his thick mustache.
“Suspicion? What the fuck of? They think one of us killed this guy? This is ridiculous.”
The guard surprised me by lighting a cigarette. He spoke for a while, letting smoke stream from his nose and mouth. He had an eerie smile as he spoke. Assad answered him. He spoke again. This went on for a while.
“Now what’s he talking about?”
Assad shook his head.
Assad said, “Actually, pal, he was asking if it was possible that this dead man might be the husband of our woman friend back there.” Assad waited for my reaction. “I couldn’t tell whether it was his idea of a joke or not. I told him no, I did not believe she was this bastard’s wife.”
“This is a bunch of shit,” I said. “Tell this asshole to go to hell.”
“Shall I tell him you’re an American while I’m making demands? That should set things straight, yeah?” The guard watched closely, amused. Assad spat; he shook his head. “He wants to know where we all were last night.”
I said, “We were all at camp.”
“Yeah?” Assad said. “And where at camp were you, mate?”
The sun and heat were unbearable. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I was in my hut.”
“Is that so?”
I said, “Did you come to check on me?”
Assad gazed off toward the distant horizon. The guard went on smoking his cigarette. When he finished, he threw the butt at the sand and then walked to the back end of the jeep. He pulled out a plastic bag, said something to Assad and motioned with his head.
He wanted us to help get the body out of the sand. We understood: the man was testing us, watching our reactions. This was the local way. In his mind we were responsible for this dead fuck until proven otherwise. He bent over and started trying to move the corpse. I once saw a man killed on an oil derrick by a burst of gas and fire; his body had come apart like a paper doll in front of us. This reminded me of that. The body had lain in the cold through the night, then baked beneath the sun since daybreak, had become stiff and unnatural in some places, soft in others. We worked for a long time in the heat, breathing through our mouths. I sweated my shirt through. The soldier finally had to go back to his jeep for a shovel. A while later we were shoving the bag into the rear of the jeep. Then the three of us headed back toward camp.
It was afternoon by the time we arrived and the wind was starting up again, lashing at the camp, like some giant animal licking fresh wounds. Everyone had gathered back in the mess room. We sat off to one side with our little group---Desmond and Pete were there with Carolyn. Sunlight angled in through a window. The soldiers stood across the room talking in a corner with the caretaker, Hazem.
Carolyn said, “How was your little excursion, boys? Enjoyable, I’m sure.”
Assad mumbled under his breath and sat with his back turned.
I said, “It appears that our friends here think one of us might have killed a man.”
Pete and Desmond exchanged unhappy glances. Carolyn said, “Lovely.”
The guards spoke in hushed tones to the caretaker Hazem. He nodded and looked our way occasionally in a very non-committal way.
Carolyn said, “Well, I guess that explains why this policeman chap was so rude while you two were gone. Grilled us in Arabic the whole time and then got angry that none of us could understand.”
Carolyn was tough and she wasn’t going to show anyone what she was feeling. But I knew her and I knew this talk meant she was nervous. We all were nervous now. We watched as the soldiers spoke with the caretaker.
Pete from Cal Tech said, “Listen, what can these guys do to us, I mean, really? We haven’t done anything, right? We were here all night last night.” His partner Desmond looked on.
I said, “Actually, there’s quite a lot they can do to us, Pete. None of us are citizens. None of us are Arabs. They can hold us here as long as they want. They can take our passports. They can arrest us and take us to whatever border unit they work at and hold us there indefinitely. They can exact payment, blood money, from us for that dead man out there. We’re a long way from home.”
Assad laughed. “Consider yourself lucky, mate. If this were Yemen or Saudi, they’d just try us and execute us on the fucking spot.”
Pete licked his lips. His blue eyes darted toward Desmond, then away.
The soldiers appeared to have reached a decision. They called Assad over and started explaining something. The guard we’d gone to the desert with, the one with the mirrored glasses, did the talking. He pointed our way, he jabbed Assad in the chest, he pointed back at us. Assad listened, then came over.
He said, “The caretaker is free to go; he and one of the cops are leaving. They’re taking the body away now because they’re afraid another sand storm is coming. The rest of us are staying here with our friend in the dark glasses.” Assad paused then. He pointed at Desmond. “Except you. They want you to go with them, too.”
Desmond actually smiled a little. “Me? What for?”
Assad’s jaw was set tight. “They claim to think you were spying on something out here. Our man Hazem appears to have told them about your photographic hobby.”
“What are you talking about?” This was Pete. The soldiers watched silently. “He’s here on legitimate research. What do they mean, spying? Tell them he’s not going anywhere.”
Assad said, “Feel free to tell them that yourself.”
Desmond was scared now. Pete said we couldn’t let them take Desmond.
I said, “Look, Pete, so far all they seem to want is to ask some questions. Resisting them wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Carolyn said, “Is it any better to let them split us up?”
I asked what the hell she thought we should do. She just looked on, impossible to read behind her dark glasses.
The first guard was ready to go. He spoke to Hazem, who disappeared behind some curtains. The guard pointed at Desmond, made a beckoning gesture.
Desmond looked at us, frightened. “What should I do?”
Assad suggested he do whatever they say.
The guard approached Desmond, took him by the elbow. Poor Desmond was wearing that friendly grin of his. “Please,” he said, “can’t you help me?”
Pete stood. The guard in dark glasses took a menacing step toward him. His gear--the pistol, a black truncheon--rattled on his belt. That stopped Pete. We all just stood there as the guards left with Desmond through the front door. Hazem appeared from behind the curtains with a bag. He avoided looking at us, followed the other men.
We watched through the small window as they went to the jeep with the body in it. Desmond got in and disappeared behind the dark smoky windows.
I said, “He’ll be all right.”
No one responded. We watched through the window as the guard in dark glasses went over to where our Land Cruiser was parked beside Pete and Desmond’s own vehicle. The man shouted something to the other soldier in the jeep, jimmied open the hood of the truck, reached into the engine compartment. He walked to the Land Cruiser.
Pete said, “What the hell is he doing?”
Assad said, “They’re disabling the vehicles, mate. They don’t want to make it easy for us to get away.”
Carolyn said, “Even I could figure that out.”
Huge eddies of sand danced in the wind. The guard in dark glasses went to the jeep and stood by the window. He spoke for a while to the other guard. Then he adjusted his belt and started back toward us. The jeep lurched into the gathering clouds of sand.
Pete said, “This makes no sense. It makes no sense.”
I sighed. “What makes no sense, Pete?”
“Why are they leaving us here with just one of the soldiers? Especially if they’re so afraid there’s another storm coming? What’s the idea?” Pete paused to watch the guard in dispirited silence. “What’s he going to do now?”
Soon the sky would flame out and then go stone dark. We watched as the guard stopped, took his time lighting another one of his cigarettes in the wind, then resumed his trip toward the central building.
Assad said, “My guess is he’s coming up here to fuck with our heads.”
I was hungry. The soldier entered the main building in a cloud of smoke. He threw his cigarette on the floor, crushed it beneath one of his boots. He sat in the only real chair in the room and looked at us through his dark glasses, a large man--huge actually. For some reason this hadn’t occurred to me until we were alone with him in the small room.
He spoke to Assad at length.
Assad translated without enthusiasm. “He says he’s going to be asking us questions, one by one. He’s going to start with me and then use me as a translator. Mostly he wants to know about where we were last night and what we know about the body they found.”
Pete said, “Mostly?”
The guard watched, expressionless.
“He says he has ‘a few other matters’ to raise as well.”
I told Assad to ask when we could eat something. He did. The soldier responded.
Assad said, “He’ll let us eat if he’s satisfied with our answers.”
I said, “If?”
Assad nodded. “Till then, everyone stays right here.”
The soldier said something else to Assad--something that made Assad respond sharply. You didn’t have to speak Arabic to know there was a dispute. The guard would say something with that smile of his and Assad would shake his head, no. I was unhappy with Assad and didn’t believe it was good idea to give the soldier any trouble.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just wait,” Assad said.
They argued more and the soldier leaned to rest his elbows on his knees. Whatever he said was decisive, because Assad gave up. He looked at us, then looked away. He said, “Carolyn, this fellow wants you to stand up.”
The soldier was still leaning forward--the whole scene mirrored back in warped refection by the lenses of his shades.
“All right,” I said. “ This is enough.”
Carolyn said, “No, it’s okay.”
She stood. The guard watched. Through Assad, he told her to remove her dark glasses. She did. For the first time her composure wavered. There was something vulnerable about her without the dark glasses hiding her thoughts. Her light hair was pulled back, her head uncovered. Her blue eyes seemed to shine in the darkening room. Assad stared down at the floor. Pete had his eyes closed and was rubbing his forehead.
For a long time the soldier just looked. Finally he said something to Assad, never once directing his gaze away from Carolyn.
“He says give him the glasses.” Carolyn did as she was told. The man leaned forward to take them. Assad said, “He wants to be able to see your eyes.”
The wind was raging again and darkness had fallen. We were hungry and with the sun down it would soon grow cold inside the unheated hut. The guard had taken Assad into a side room to question him. We could hear their muted voices, the harsh and unsettling tones of spoken Arabic. I was sitting with Carolyn and Pete around the little table where we’d had tea that morning.
Pete said, “Look, there’s got to be a way out of this place. A back door or through a window or something.”
Carolyn said, “And then what? Run through a sandstorm to a bunch of cars that won’t start? To drive off on a road that’s covered with sand and leave Assad back here alone with that scary chap?”
Pete said, “There’s the soldier’s jeep.”
I said, “How far do you suppose we’d get in an Arabic military vehicle, Rick? Besides, do you have the keys?”
Pete was rocking back and forth on his knees, looking at the table. He shook his head. “Well, we’ve got to do something. Just sitting here isn’t making things any better and I sure as hell don’t trust that soldier out there.”
His slow unraveling made me anxious. I told him the best thing to do was just sit tight. We had no reason to mistrust the guards or think this was anything other than routine questioning. I didn’t believe it myself. But it sounded better than panicking. I suggested we simply wait until this thing played itself out.
“Wait? For what? Do you really think they’re going to bring Desmond back safe and sound in the morning, tell us this was all just a crazy mix-up and send us off on our merry ways? Do we wait till they decide I’m a spy or that you’re a killer and cut our goddamn hands off or some crazy shit like that?”
I said, “Come on, Pete.”
He looked at me with an unpleasant smile in the half-light. He said, “You know, I can’t even remember your fucking name, man.”
I said, “I’m Martin. This is Carolyn. We’re friends. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Pete.”
There was a strained silence.
Carolyn said she was hungry. Then she laughed. “I’d have eaten a larger breakfast had I known we’d be taken hostage this afternoon.”
I was thinking about the food we’d brought in the desert box in the Land Cruiser. I thought maybe we could have Assad tell the guard we were hungry. Take a time out, a snack break from all the fun. I mentioned this. Carolyn shrugged. Pete wasn’t listening. I said, “Also, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
Pete stood up. “Look,” he said, “I don’t know what you people are doing out here. For all I know you did dump that body out there. I don’t really give a fuck. But what I do know is that we’re in serious trouble, all of us. As far as I’m concerned, it’s that guy out there against us.” He said, “Just listen to me.” You had to feel for the poor guy--a million miles from home, his pal marched off to God-knew-where. If the room had been large enough he would have been pacing. But he couldn’t even do that.
I said, "Pete..."
He stared at me. “There’s three of us here, man.” He pointed at Carolyn. “Four if you count her and just one of him. I don’t care what kind of weapons he has, we’ve got him outnumbered.”
“Please, Pete,” Carolyn said.
He waved his hand. “He’s gonna finish talking to your friend out there and come through that door for one of us. When he does that, we’re rushing him.”
I said, “No we’re not.”
Pete said, “Yes, we are.” We glared at each other, him standing, me sitting on one of the huge pillows beside the table.
Carolyn said, “I feel like I’m in the sort of movie I wouldn’t care to see.”
Pete was tall and athletic, had probably played some aggressive sport in college. Thinking that there was some action to take, however ill-conceived, made him feel better. One-hundred-percent all-American.
He smiled. “If I rush him, get him down on the ground, you and your friend will jump in. I know you will. Then we can go get the cars started and we’ll be out of here.”
Now I stood up. “Are you out of your fucking mind? If we do anything to that prick we really will be in trouble. All you’ll manage to do is get yourself or one of us killed.”
Carolyn said, “Boys...”
We turned. Assad was coming in through the doorway looking at us. The guard stood behind wearing that scary grin of his.
Assad said, “What’s all this?”
I looked steadily at Pete. “Nothing,” I said. “We’re just having a discussion. About food.”
Assad looked weary. “He’s done with me. I told him why we’re here, but he doesn’t seem very convinced. Seems to think we’re all up to something together.”
Pete nodded as if this confirmed what he’d been thinking all along. The guard was leaning against the door jam watching from behind his shades. He hadn’t taken them off once and I got to wondering what was behind them--empty black orbs perhaps or just smaller versions of the dark shades? Then for some reason I got it into my head that he had eyes like a lizard, double-lidded, with vertical slits for pupils--some kind of desert-man, not human in all his parts. I found myself choking back dark laughter.
Behind me Carolyn said, “Doesn’t this fellow ever get hungry?”
I said, “Or need to pee?”
Assad ignored us. “Look, he’s going to talk to each of you now and I suggest you just tell the truth. Don’t try to say anything fancy or clever. Just tell the entire fucking truth and we might get out of this in one piece.”
I took this little speech to be aimed at me and was about to respond when a blur leapt before me. Assad was frozen in surprise as Pete landed a blow to the soldier’s jaw, knocking the dark glasses askew. The solider raised his truncheon in one practiced motion and struck Pete near the throat. There was the sound of a melon being dropped from a height, then another and a third. Pete dropped the way a fighter does, straight down, head first. Then the guard had his pistol drawn, pointing it at Assad. He said something in a low growling tone, then turned the gun on me.
He stepped toward me. The barrel of the pistol almost touched my face. I’d never had a gun pointed at me before. My nose and lips went tingly; my mouth dried up and my knees felt watery. A twitch, a whim and my life was over. I stood there alive at the pleasure of another man, a strange soldier whose eyes were masked behind mirrored glasses. I had no idea what was going to happen next. I could think only of getting the gun out of my face.
Carolyn said, “Is he breathing?”
Assad said, “He bloody well doesn’t deserve to be.”
Carolyn had placed one of the pillows beneath Pete’s head. She was leaning over him trying to figure out whether he was still alive. The wind was blowing as hard as it had been the evening before and the darkness outside was a velvety black shroud. A bulb burned in the anteroom of the mess hut, where the guard was drinking something from a canteen he’d brought in from his jeep. I wanted something to drink.
After the soldier had finally pulled the gun from my face, I’d felt a strange elation, a surge of gratitude that made me want to thank him or cry. He told me and Assad to tie Pete’s hands behind his back with plastic cuffs. We did it. He watched us work, telling Assad he would shoot all of us as if there was another incident like that. Assad translated. We assured him there wouldn’t be any more incidents. The soldier waved more cuffs in our faces. I could imagine us lined up beside Pete, hands lashed behind our backs, shot in the head one by one. Pete lay in a heap, motionless.
I said, “It smells like tea.”
“What?” Carolyn said.
“What the guard’s drinking. It smells like tea.”
She said, “I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“He’s alive,” I said. There were nasty trickles of blood from both his ears. “I think I saw him breathing.”
Assad was sitting on one of the pillows, eyeing Pete as if he were a heap of laundry. “This idiot might well have handed us our death sentences,” he said. “I’m tempted to finish him off myself.”
The curtain separating the rooms parted. The guard stepped through, wiping his mouth. He nodded toward me. He said something to Assad.
Assad sighed, climbed to his feet.
I said, “Now what?”
Assad said, “It’s your turn, mate.”
We went through the curtains into the side room. A single chair was pushed up against the wall. The guard told me to sit. I could hear the wind behind the wall and imagined drifts of sand piling up, hiding things. If only the body had been hidden for another day, I thought. If only the soldiers hadn’t happened by when they did. If only we had gone ahead into the desert or had just stayed back at home. Carolyn was in the mess room behind us all alone.
Circles had grown beneath Assad’s eyes. His stomach growled. The guard lit another cigarette. Smoke curled from his nostrils. He spoke.
Assad said, “He’ll be watching you close to make sure I’m not coaching you. Answer naturally. He’s saying he wants to know what we’re doing out here.”
I explained about our tourism business--that we were on a harmless scouting trip, something we did frequently. Two men and a married woman in the desert on a scouting trip. It sounded outlandish, as the truth often does. The guard smiled as he listened. I said it was all very legal, we had all the necessary permits.
The guard responded---you could see he didn’t believe a word we were saying.
“He doesn’t care about our permits,” Assad said. “He says he wants to know why we crossed over the border into Saudi..”
“Saudi?” The word sounded exotic even as I said it. I shook my head for the guard’s benefit. “We never crossed into Saudi. We know the limits, we stopped at this camp to avoid getting lost and going over the border accidentally.”
Assad translated. The guard cut him off before he was done. Assad said: “He thinks you’re lying.”
“So, tell him I’m not.”
Assad did. “He says they can prove we went over the border into Saudi.”
I had no idea why he was asking these questions about crossing the border--to scare me and Assad? I told him it wasn’t possible that he had proof because we hadn’t gone there. I wondered why he wasn’t asking anything about the body they had found. I wondered what he knew that we didn’t. I said, “We never crossed over into Saudi. That’s that. Maybe he’s thinking of that guy Pete and Desmond.”
The guard was leaning against the wall watching me. He said something. Assad said, “He wants to know where you were last night.”
I told him I was here, in the camp. Just like everyone else.
Assad spoke but the guard was shaking his head. He didn’t mean that, he said, through Assad. I knew what he meant; he meant where was I, precisely.
“In my hut. Sound asleep.”
The guard spoke. Assad looked at me. “He says that’s funny. Because Hazem claims to have gone to your hut last night after lights out with some questions about the vehicle.”
I said, “Then I must have been so soundly asleep that I didn’t hear him knocking.”
Assad just smiled. “According to this fellow, Hazem let himself into your room. He claims the bed set was still made up and you were nowhere to be found.”
I smiled tightly. “Then Hazem must be mistaken. Or lying.”
“For God’s sake, he was with me last night.” Carolyn was standing in the doorway, watching. Her face was slightly drawn but she looked calm enough. She said, “He didn’t cross the border and he didn’t go out and kill anyone. We were together.”
Assad looked at the floor. “You fools,” he said, as if to himself. “You fucking bloody fools.”
The guard understood. But he made us explain ourselves through Assad anyway—that we were not husband and wife, where her husband was. He enjoyed it, and when we were through he sat back in judgment to finish his cigarette. No one spoke. None of us looked at each other. We might not have been guilty of murder. But we were admitting to something that to him was nearly as bad. And we had come to this frontier, to his land, to carry out the deed.
Finally he spoke with Assad. He listened without looking up, as if had decided he was no longer involved in what was taking place. He said, “This man says he will expect us to make some kind of restitution.
I said, “Tell him to let us go so we can get some money.”
Assad shook his head. “He doesn’t want blood money.” His raised his eyes to indicate Carolyn. “He wants her.”
After a pause I said, “Tell him he can’t have her.”
“You don’t think I already thought of that, mate?”
The soldier’s hand was resting on his holstered gun. Carolyn was off to my side, her face was obscured in shadow.
I saw that Pete had been right. We were going to have to fight him--all three of us. It was us against him. I began to explain this to Assad with the guard standing right there in front of us.
Carolyn interrupted me. “Assad,” she said, “I want you to ask this man something.”
She said, “After we pay—after I pay—is he going to let us go?”
Assad said, “I’m not going to ask him that.”
She told him to ask the question.
“We can’t bargain with this man,” I said. “We can’t trust him, Carolyn.”
She ignored me. She said, “I don’t believe he’s going to let us go unless he gets what he wants, Assad. I believe that we’ll end up like that poor man out there.”
There was a silence during which to think about this.
I said, “Carolyn, I’m not letting you go with him. I don’t care whether we do get shot.”
She exhaled sharply, a sound bordering on laughter. Her face was still hidden in shadow. “I do care,” she said, “so please, Martin, shut up. Assad, ask him the question.”
The guard made Assad and me sit back-to-back then lashed our wrists together. We didn’t speak or offer any resistance.
When he opened the door the wind roared and sand blew in. He slammed it shut and was gone with Carolyn. The plastic cuffs dug into my wrists. My hands went numb. I imagined them turning blue, then black like the night outside. I said, “We can’t let this happen, Assad. We can’t let this happen.”
Assad said nothing.
I struggled until I couldn’t struggle any more. My wrists felt bloody. After a while, I cried. I thought of Assad’s words over and over: bloody fucking fools.
Outside the wind blew. More time passed and it began to get cold. I could no longer feel my hands. Assad and I were joined together like a single pathetic animal. He spoke only once in the night and I was shocked that when he did he woke me from a dark sleep. “I’m thirsty,” he said.
The wind stopped some time before dawn, leaving a mournful stillness as it had the day before. I thought of having left Carolyn’s hut that morning, going back to my own following the storm, now a memory from years ago. My shoulders were on fire. I tried to move my fingers but couldn’t.
Morning arrives suddenly in the desert. The first rays of sun came through the window, blood-colored, then full daylight broke so bright it hurt my eyes. My mouth was parched, lips chapped and swollen. From where I sat I had a clear view into the other room where Pete lay. I could see the bottoms of his legs and his boots. He hadn’t moved all night.
Soon it began to get hot. After what seemed to be a very long time I heard some sounds at the door, then I heard the door pushing open. The guard walked in with Carolyn behind him. At first they were just two dark figures, silhouetted before the blazing light. Then the guard scraped the door closed. I said Carolyn’s name but she didn’t answer, just hovered somewhere near the door.
A tool in the soldier’s had became a knife. After everything, I thought, this was what it came to: he was going to cut our throats right there in front of Carolyn.
He bent over us. When he did, I finally saw her. She was dressed as she had been the day before in her khakis and boots; her hair was pulled back again. Her hands were buried in her pockets, arms pressed tight against her sides. She looked at me for a moment, then away. A trickle of blood had dried at the corner of her mouth, and he jaw was deeply bruise. I felt as desolate as the desert outside.
The soldier cut the restraints from our wrists then stepped back.
Assad climbed to his feet. The guard spoke to Assad, who nodded his ascent, then spoke to us without raising his eyes.
“He says we’re free to go.”
The soldier made us put Pete into his jeep, our second body in two days. But it was true--we were free to go. The man looked on as Assad reconnected the Land Cruiser’s distributor and we got in. The desert was still, like a lake back home in the hot mid-summer. Assad sat rigidly behind the steering wheel as he directed the car away from camp, deep blood-toned marks on his wrists. Some time later we passed the spot where the body had lain the day before later still we passed the tattered carcass of a camel resting against the side of a great mound of sand.
For a long time no one spoke. Then Carolyn asked what time it was. I looked at my watch, answered her.
“Somehow,” she said, “it seems much later than that.”
She wondered aloud what time it would be in London. Then she said she wondered where Barry, her husband, was right then. She doubted whether he would even be awake yet.
There was a silence.
I said, “We’ll have to make them pay somehow. They have to pay.”
After a long time Assad said, “Yes, Martin. We’ll go directly to the authorities.”
Carolyn had turned to the window. Her reflection hovered in the glass, a ghost gazing back at her.
She said, “It’s strange in the morning, the desert, isn’t it? It’s really the strangest place.”
I followed her gaze outside to the lonely landscape--sand, then blue sky, blank and pitiless, stretching upward before fading into something darker. We sat in silence on the long drive back to the city.
Political Feature, Reason Magazine
by Derek Green
For many years, Michigan was like most other states when it came to public-school reform: There was a lot of talk, a little legislation, and no real progress on the issue. Even after the Kalkaska School District in northern Michigan made national headlines in 1993 by going broke and closing its schools partway through the academic year, legislators still couldn't find the wherewithal to overhaul the state's inefficient and widely despised 100-year-old system of funding education through property taxes. Property taxes were a major problem in their own right: They increased three-fold from 1972 to 1992. And because there were no assessment caps in place, local governments could raise property taxes with relative ease.
"You can't imagine the level of frustration in this state," says Bob Wittmann, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, Michigan. "The frustration was felt by everyone. No one liked the status quo, but every time someone tried to do something about it, something went wrong."
The frustration--and desperation--in the governor's office was especially keen. First-term Republican John Engler had squeaked through his 1990 election with a victory margin of one percentage point, campaigning on a platform loaded with tax relief and school reform. But after three years in office, Engler and company had nothing to show for their efforts. And with re-election worries on the horizon, few believed that education or tax reform would come to Michigan any time soon.
Last July, however, everything suddenly changed. In a 24-hour blaze of lawmaking, Michigan legislators stunned even themselves by passing a controversial bill abolishing the practice of funding schools with property taxes. By the end of December, a bipartisan package of school-finance plans and education-quality reforms had passed both houses and gone to the governor's desk for signing.
Somehow, in less than six months, Michigan's leadership had managed to reverse a quarter century of bitter partisan gridlock, dramatically changing the way schools will work in their state and, many are saying, providing a model for public-school reform across the country--one that includes a charter-school provision incorporating significant elements of school-choice logic. It's a story of political hardball and genuine bipartisan achievement that provides a lesson for every state faced with education reform.
Described by The New York Times as "the nation's most dramatic shift in a century" in public-school funding, the new plan essentially transfers the burden of paying for schools in Michigan away from local property taxes to an increased state sales tax and other existing levies. In addition to changing funding sources, the plan addresses the amount spent per student. Every district is guaranteed funding no lower than its 1993 budget, and all districts will now spend at least $4,200 per student, a $1,000 increase over the previous minimum.
A more controversial--and ultimately more significant--provision of the plan allows the creation of "Public School Academies," or charter schools. These "schools of choice" can be established by various entities, such as parent-teacher associations, school boards, departments of state government, and non-profit organizations.
Michigan is unique among states experimenting with charter schools because it has set no limit on their number. Supporters say the move will provide "borderless options" for parents and students unhappy with their own school districts, and spur much-needed innovation in a school system overgrown with regulation and bureaucracy. And because it introduces a significant element of competition into the state's public schools, the charter-school provision acts as a hedge against the spread of uniform mediocrity. When local property taxes largely determine the amount of money spent per student, there are typically good, well-funded schools and bad, poorly funded ones. But state-level funding often means running the risk of losing the good districts where taxpayers feel they are at least getting what they pay for. Competition for students means that good schools will continue to be rewarded and bad schools will either improve or go out of business.
"The system was in desperate need of improvement and flexibility," says state Treasurer Douglas Roberts who, as the official charged with rewriting the state's tax code, was greatly responsible for shaping the reform plan. Michigan's schools, by the state's own reckoning, were doing badly. Per-student school spending in real dollars had increased over 100 percent between 1982 and 1993, but there was little to show for the extra money. District spending per student varied by as much as $7,000, but students statewide scored abysmally on proficiency exams: 62 percent of 10th-graders were found to be deficient in reading; 77 percent performed below grade level in math; 54 percent of 11th-graders did not have acceptable science knowledge. "Not only did the issue of [funding] inequities have to be addressed," says Roberts, "but we had to find a way to inject market-like competition into the system. Something simply had to change."
That change finally came as the result of the toughest political struggle in recent Michigan history. It was a fight that had been brewing for more than two decades, drawing in politicians who had run out of places to hide, citizens fed up with one of the most burdensome property-tax systems in the nation, and powerful lobbying groups determined to protect their interests in the educational status quo. After the first few rounds, the fight became a showdown between an increasingly desperate governor and a deeply divided state legislature.
The level of discontent in Michigan over property taxes and education financ-ing can be gleaned from the number of ballot proposals dedicated to reform. Between 1972 and 1992 there were 11 state ballot proposals either to reform school finance or to reduce or abolish property taxes. Although all of the ballot initiatives failed--some by margins of 60 percentage points or more--there was continuing resentment at Michigan's disproportionately high tax burden: The state ranks eighth-highest in taxes in the country, even though it ranks only 15th in income. Most political observers attributed Engler's 1990 gubernatorial victory to his strong anti-property-tax stance.
But after taking office, Engler had come nowhere close to making good on his ambitious promises to cut taxes. His administration had proposed two more ballot measures, both of which had gone down at the polls. The second defeat, in June 1993, was especially alarming for Engler because prominent Democratic and Republican pols had supported the measure, which would have cut property taxes by 20 percent. In fact, even the Michigan Education Association, the most powerful state teachers' union in the nation and Engler's bitterest enemy, had offered lukewarm support.
But while voters desperately wanted tax reform, they weren't willing to sign on to any plan put in front of them. Deputy Treasurer Nick Khouri notes that the ballot proposal addressed neither the issue of lost revenue nor the cause of school reform. Voters were afraid that any cut in property taxes would simultaneously destroy the schools and be replaced by a huge boost in the state income tax. Khouri says voters were telling their representatives, "`We aren't going to decide this for you.' It was an unsustainable situation."
With elections looming in 1994, the Republicans decided to play rough. In July, backed by Engler, Michigan Senate majority leaders introduced a statutory bill to cut property taxes 20 percent across the board. Even though no provision was made to recoup the lost revenue, Republicans had the votes to ram it through the upper chamber. But since the House was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans (each party held 55 seats), it was not expected to survive there.
After a series of dead-end talks between the governor and Senate majority and minority leaders, the Democrats made a surprising offer: They wouldn't support the 20-percent tax cut proposed by Republicans, but they might consider going along with an amendment that abolished all property taxes. Debbie Stabenow, a Democratic state senator who is challenging Engler in Michigan's gubernatorial race this fall, proposed the new amendment on July 19.
Why would a Democratic senator introduce such a Republican-sounding proposal? Stabenow says she did it because someone had to "break the issue loose. We had incredible inequities in schools and we had the knowledge of how to fix the problem--but we didn't have the political will."
Stabenow believes it was "the lesser of two evils" to abolish all property taxes rather than to go along with the 20-percent cut proposed by Republicans, even though neither plan made provisions for replacing lost revenue. If the legislature completely dissolved the tax base, says Stabenow, they would have to admit the need for a complete overhaul of Michigan's out-of-control finance and education situation. To force the issue, the Democrats' plan set a deadline of the 1994-95 school year for implementing a new way of funding schools.
Others question Stabenow's motives and suggest that pre-election year posturing and political one-upmanship might have played their own large roles. "Maybe in her heart of hearts [Stabenow] thought abolishing property taxes, even given the risk of anarchy, was worth it to get the legislature moving," says the Mackinac Center's Wittmann with a smile. "In a sense, you can commend her. But is that what she was really doing?"
One reason the question nags people is the enigmatic, behind-the-scenes role played by the Michigan Education Association, Michigan's powerful branch of the national teachers' union. Few can imagine that Democratic lawmakers would propose such a radical piece of education legislation without first seeking the group's approval. In Stabe-now's own account, the MEA's chief Michigan lobbyist, Al Short, was kept apprised of developments on the night the Democratic leaders came up with their counter-proposal.
But Short denies that he supported any tax-cut plan that didn't provide back-up revenue for the schools. "In the Senate they took up the 20-percent [property tax] reduction with no replacements," he says. "Then Stabenow says maybe we should cut all taxes, also with no replacements. No one wanted replacements. I was caught off guard." The MEA's role is clouded further because of remarks Short made on July 20 to a Lansing news service that suggest he indeed approved of the plan. Short's waffling strengthens speculation that Stabenow's cloakroom strategy was a ploy to out-shine Republicans on the tax issue.
Julius Maddox, the MEA's charismatic president, forcefully rejects the suggestion that his organization signed off on Stabenow's plan. "I was not there that day," he says. "What I can tell you is that prior to that time, our position had been clearly articulated to the legislature. Our position did not change. If [state legislators] thought there had been a radical change in our position, it would seem to me that they would have checked with the president. This literally happened overnight."
For a few hours that night, it appeared that Stabenow's proposal had checkmated the Republicans. They could reject it and appear to have voted down a more comprehensive tax-cut measure than their own. Or they could support a Democratic initiative and run the risk of falling short of votes from their own party. Worse, if the proposal passed, the issue of replacement school funding--which most likely meant some very unpopular tax increases --would blow up in the Republican governor's lap.
But to everyone's surprise, Engler championed the offer. Meeting with Republican leaders, he developed a strategy in which Senate Republicans would support the bill in the Senate, and House leaders in both parties would expedite its passage in the lower house. If there
was any lingering confusion on the MEA's position, it disappeared as soon as Engler made it known that he would accept the Democratic plan. Early on the morning of July 20, a note personally signed by Julius Maddox appeared on every desk in the house, urging legislators to reject the plan. But by then it was too late to stop the proposal.
"It's a game I've seen all too often since I arrived in Lansing," says Rep. Lynn Rivers, who as party whip was one of only 35 House Democrats who resisted the plan. "It's the game of giving you what you want. It's like playing chicken on the highway. Except you don't play chicken with someone who's willing to crash and burn. John Engler is just that kind of politician."
The proposal opened the way for reform and provided wide tax relief--a big score for Republicans in general and John Engler in particular. But it presented them and their Democratic counterparts with another, more serious problem: No one had yet proposed, let alone conceived, a back-up funding plan for the schools. That meant that the state's lawmakers had less than a single school year to find the $6.2 billion they had just removed from the public-school revenue base.
"It would have been impossible for the Republicans to get something like this through alone," says the Mackinac Center's Wittmann, summing up the strange episode. "Everyone would have claimed they were nuts for not proposing some alternative way to finance schools. But when a Democratic senator proposed the legislation, then they were part of it too. They had all gone nuts."
Editorials across the state criticized the governor and the legislature for the unprecedented move, accusing them of enacting a cynical, politically expedient compromise that made hostages of the state's children. One political cartoon showed a portly John Engler falling from an airplane while frantically knitting himself a parachute. On September 1, The Washington Post criticized the Michigan plan in an editorial called "Honey, I Blew Up The Kids!"
In many ways, John Engler is the last governor you'd expect to be at the center of so much controversy and behind one of the most revolutionary pieces of state legislation in the country. A bland career politician (asked why he personally dedicated himself to education reform, he begins, "I've spent a lot of years in public service"), Engler doesn't exude the sort of charisma that inspires either blind loyalty in supporters or fear in opponents. In an age of MTV politics and jogging presidents, Engler's bulky frame and slight lisp cut the figure more of a 19th-century pol than a 21st-century policy wonk.
Detractors are quick to criticize Engler for what they see as a slash-and-burn approach to policy making. Provoking legislative crises is "a silly way to run government," says James Agee, a first-term Democrat in the state legislature. "Is that the way we ought to make our laws? Let's close the hospitals tomorrow, create a crisis, and then solve health care."
But the governor's supporters claim that beneath Engler's jejune exterior is one of the shrewdest political minds in the United States. By way of example, they point to his handling of the July property-tax showdown, a deft move in which he simultaneously neutralized his primary political rivals and created a windfall for himself and his party. Engler also understood that the legislative crisis gave him the chance to address not just how schools were funded but also how they might be remade.
State Treasurer Doug Roberts says Engler emphasized those two points when formulating the plan. "We had a vast amount of money to recoup," he says. "But that was just one part. The governor kept saying that wasn't enough. He stressed that we had an opportunity to fundamentally change the system. He said over and over that he wanted something that would change itself over time."
Engler's original goals for school reform were even more far-reaching than the plan finally enacted. They included the charter school provision; inter-district public-school choice, with funding following each student; new discipline measures and report-card procedures; multi-tiered school-accreditation procedures; the development of a core curriculum in math, reading, and science; and the implementation of a fast-track teacher certification program.
The governor himself describes his strategy with a typical lack of animation. "When we put [everything] on the table, it brought everybody into the room," says Engler. "We swept the slate clear so no one was in a position to defend the status quo, because there was no status quo. It was gone."
No status quo also meant nowhere left to run. So in August, Engler created a task force to draft a legislative proposal that had to rewrite the Michigan tax code, create a system for the state-wide allocation of school funds, and improve the fundamental quality of public education. The governor also set a tight deadline for this proposal: October 1.
In retrospect, says Deputy Treasurer Khouri, drafting a plan in two months was the easy part. Passing the bills was infinitely more difficult, taking until the very end of 1993. Time was of the essence, however, because of the legislature's "immediate-effect law." That law specifies that any spending bill not passed by the end of a year must get a two-thirds vote to be put into effect. The supermajority requirement would have meant a small minority could control any revenue-replacement legislation that went into overtime. Neither Engler nor legislators relished the prospect of raising taxes or repealing their own summer legislation to keep schools from becoming insolvent.
"They would have looked ridiculous," observes the Mackinac Center's Wittmann. "Election time was on everybody's mind. And it's always easier to get votes for a tax cut than for an increase. In the end, they were in the boiling pot together and no one wanted to get cooked."
In the history of Michigan, the state legislature had never met after December 15. But session for the school finance and reform bills began at 10 a.m. on December 23 and continued through the entire evening and next morning. When it finally ended shortly after noon on Christmas Eve, 22 new bipartisan bills had been drafted, debated, and passed.
"I'll never forget it," says Dick Posthumus, Senate majority leader and a close ally of Engler's. "It's probably the hardest work I've
ever done in my life. For about two weeks everyone had been getting by on three or four hours' sleep, and for the last two days we went something like 48 hours straight to work out the most complex issue we'd ever faced. It was difficult but very, very successful."
Deputy Treasurer Khouri agrees. "It was a long all-nighter," he says. "The culmination of a lot of long nights. But that's probably how it should be. We knew we were doing something historic. We didn't know whether history would think it was smart or dumb, but we knew it was history. That makes it worthwhile."
Some recall the evening less warmly. "In many ways it was a joke," says Democratic whip Lynn Rivers. "We had no staff, there was no analysis of the bills--people were voting in some cases on legislation they hadn't had time to read. After 26 hours, all people were talking about were their plane tickets home."
Rivers, who is running for Congress, believes that a last-minute vote should have been avoided. "The main reason it came to this," she says, "is because the governor understands that the tighter the time line, the more leverage he has. Unfortunately, good public policy might have been lost in the shuffle." Rivers worries that legislators did not have adequate time to fully read the legislation they passed, much less consider its long-term implications.
Engler signed the legislation that came out of the marathon session on the last day in December. The compromise that had been reached offered two different plans, both of which reinstated a small portion of the property taxes eliminated in the summer. The first plan, introduced by the Republicans, sought to increase the state sales tax from 4 percent to 6 percent. Under the Democratic-supported alternative, the state income tax would go from 4.6 percent to 6 percent. Although not as ambitious as Engler's original proposals, both bills included nearly identical school reform measures, such as charter schools and a standardized core curriculum for all publicly funded schools.
Since Michigan law requires a constitutional amendment to raise the sales tax, there was one final dramatic gesture to be made: a statewide vote to decide the matter. If voters turned down the Republican-backed sales-tax increase ("Proposal A" on the special ballot), the Democratic income-tax proposal, which was a statutory amendment, would automatically go into effect. In the words of one Michigan representative, the voters got to choose between being shot or being hanged.
Still, many observers credit Engler with perceiving that the only way to pass a piece of legislation this sweeping was to force voters to choose between a sales tax and an income tax. He believed all along they'd opt for the sales tax. "I felt that for 20 years, people in this state have proposed higher income taxes and higher property taxes," says Engler. "People always said they would consider trading [lower] property taxes for higher sales tax. I thought it was a good bet."
On March 15 this year, Michigan voters went to the polls to decide on Proposal A, which was essentially the Engler plan. It passed by a margin of nearly three to one. The new law raises the sales tax by 2 percentage points, increases the per-pack tax on cigarettes from 25 cents to 75 cents, and hikes the tax on international and interstate phone calls to 6 percent. It also implements a 0.75 percent tax on all real-estate transfers. While stopping short of actually abolishing property taxes, the plan reduces them by between 70 percent and 80 percent, enacts a property-tax assessment cap of 5 percent or inflation (whichever is less), and allows local communities to use a percentage of property-tax money for new school construction and building maintenance.
Just as important to the plan's authors, a number of school-quality reform measures also passed, including the legislation allowing charter schools, additional money for at-risk students, and an increase in the minimum number of school hours required of pupils from 900 hours a year to 1,080 hours. State Treasurer Doug Roberts says the reforms accomplish Engler's goal of setting a new course for education in Michigan because they give parents more options than the old system. "With something like charter schools," he says, "parents will have a choice."
Whether the reforms work out in the long run, the plan is a complete break with tradition in Michigan. Engler and many others believe that such a drastic change was the only way to effect change at all. The governor feels the schools had become too rigid and inflexible, too controlled by unions and the tyranny of the status quo, to cope with the educational needs of students and the instructional interests of parents. "The problem with education [reform]," says Engler, "has been that when you try to approach it piecemeal, to bring about incremental change, the inertia of the status quo is just so difficult to overcome that it really does wear you down."
But while Republicans and a number of Democrats are basking in their success, plenty of difficulties loom on the horizon. Chief among these is the problem of revenue shortfalls in the years to come. Opponents of the reform plan charge that the plan is seriously underfunded and that within the next few years legislators will have to slash school funding, raid the general fund to keep schools open, and enact huge tax increases to make up lost revenue. The MEA claims that when the legislators approved the plan, they knew it was underfunded by $500 million dollars--a figure boosted to $1 billion because of concessions to various interest groups. Other detractors worry that relying on sales taxes, which drop significantly during economic downturns, fails to ensure a steady, predictable source of revenue.
Deputy Treasurer Khouri, whose newest job is to start implementing the plan he helped author, disputes the doomsday claims but admits that the new plan doesn't mean that schools will have ever-growing budgets. "Will there be tough decisions to make when we set spending levels in the future?" he says. "Will spending have to be brought in line with economic realities? Of course." Khouri believes that there will be steady revenue increases in years to come--though not on track with the booming increases of the 1980s.
While the fiscal soundness of Michigan's reform remains to be tested, it seems likely that the plan will serve as an inspiration for similar experiments in other states. More than 40 states are currently mired in lawsuits over inequities in public education, placing Michigan at the forefront of what promises to become a national trend toward massive school-funding reform. As Time notes, "The Michiganders' decision...has tremendous national resonance. It presented itself at a moment when property-tax funding of education had become a multistate catastrophe."
This is not to say Michigan will serve as a model. Although education analysts believe that a few facets of the state's plan--especially the charter-school provisions--will travel well, they are quick to note that Michigan's political and economic conditions were sui generis, making it unlikely that other states will implement the same quick, sweeping changes in education.
"There were a number of political convergences that make Michigan unique," says Chris Pipho, spokesperson for the Education Commission for the States in Denver. "The property taxes were very high but the sales taxes were low. The governor put his weight behind a radical idea to solve the problem. And some people would say the legislature put voters in a guillotine to decide [the issue]." Instead of telling states what they should do, says Pipho, the Michigan experience tells them that something can be done to reform education.
And even though Michigan's reforms have yet to prove themselves, opponents and proponents of the plan agree on at least two points. The first is that John Engler has demonstrated a powerful political acumen that may well propel him to national office. Although he denies that he's gunning for executive positions beyond the governorship of Michigan, Engler has been a conspicuous presence on the national circuit lately, appearing before the National Press Club and co-chairing the National Governors' Association Task Force on Welfare Reform. He is on virtually every handicapper's list of likely GOP presidential or vice-presidential candidates.
The other point that adversaries agree on is more specifically related to Michigan's recent legislative battle: Other states contemplating an educational overhaul face long, hard fights.
Automotive Technology, Interface Magazine
One of the best selling features of the Jeep® brand is its wide range of four-wheel-drive (4WD) options. In fact, with over sixty years as the undisputed off-raod leader, Jeep offers more 4WD chpices than any other brand in the business. Here's how you can understand them all.
(Click on image to view article in PDF.)
Lifestyles Feature, The Ann Arbor Observer
by Derek Green
In many ways Kelly Fisher has the ideal Ann Arbor life. She’s attractive, highly educated, and upwarly mobile. A recent transplant from out of state, she holds a high-tech job at a salary pushing six figures. She reads, travels, and shares a recently purchased condo on the city’s southwest side with her cat, Arlo. At twenty-eight, she seems to have time very much on her side. Yet she admits that something’s missing—“some form of a serious relationship,” she calls it.
“I’m not necessarily talking about getting married or living with someone,” she says. “But it would be nice to have a guy to go out to dinner with.”
Kelly Fisher is one of thousands of single men and women in Ann Arbor hoping to find Mr. or Ms. Right—“though sometimes,” Kelly says with a laugh, “you’re willing to settle for Mr. Right Now.” If you meet her and she introduces herself as “Kelly Fisher,” however, you’re neither. It’s an alias that she asked me to use—and that she herself uses if a too persistent or “just plain scary” male wants to know more than she’s comfortable telling him.
I met Kelly on my recent wholly unscientific exploration of the local singles scene. Many of the men and women I met were not willing to talk with me at all. Others, like Kelly, were willing to talk as long as I promised to never, ever reveal their true identities. Some were surprisingly open and thoughtful about the state of singledom at the start of the new millennium.
SANGRIA AND SINGLES
Dave Polkowski is thirty, single, and proud of it. He works full time as a bar- tender at Cooker off Plymouth Road, a job he says he loves “because it fits my lifestyle and lets me see the whole human parade.” Gregarious and obsessively out- going, Dave’s a disarming and generous talker who isn’t afraid to move fast and take chances when it comes to meeting people. After we’re introduced by the friend of a friend, he immediately invites me on a “guys’ night out” with him and his constant companion on the local singles scene, his younger brother, Tim.
“Let’s meet tomorrow night at Dominick’s at seven,” he says with a jaunty smile and a clap on the shoulder.
Should I schedule in anything particular after that?
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll drink a little sangria. We’ll chat and relax a little bit and see where the night takes us. It’s all about spontaneity, dude.”
Dominick’s does a roaring business on a warm Tuesday evening, and from the look of things, Dave, Tim and I are not the only people at the beginning of a week- night out. Entering the open-air courtyard out back, the brothers have hands to shake and waves to return. We grab the close end of a picnic table; the other end is al- ready occupied by a group of women none of us know.
￼￼Over a rapidly disappearing half gallon of sangria, we discuss life and the single guy in Ann Arbor. According to the brothers, there’s a certain protocol to a successful night on the town. “First of all,” Tim says, “you don’t go out looking for a woman. You go out to have a good time, to meet new people.”
Dave agrees. “I love women,” he says, “I love meeting them. But that’s not why I go out on a night like tonight. If I meet a woman, well, that’s a great bonus. But if that’s your goal, then you’re gonna end up disappointed.”
When it comes to singles scenes in general, both brothers know whereof they speak. Each spent the better part of a year at hard-to-come-by bartending jobs in St. Maarten. (“Now that was an awesome singles scene,” Dave says.) Both have traveled widely—Dave all over the United States and Tim, through Europe, Russia, and Central America. By their lights, the Ann Arbor singles scene rates somewhat above average, though by no means stellar when compared to some places they’ve seen.
“There’s a lot of students here,” Dave says, “and a sort of snobbishness in general. The first thing a lot of women want to know is how much you make, how big your house is, what kind of car you drive. That’s a normal thing to want to know. But it can be a big turnoff when that’s all that matters.”
Do they ever want to get married? “I almost did!” Dave recalls with a smile. “When I was in college. We were dating for two years. We started looking for rings. I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing? This isn’t for me.’” So I took off and moved to Arizona. When I called back a few weeks later, my ex-girlfriend was al- ready dating someone else!”
Another half gallon of sangria arrives, and soon enough Dave and his brother have struck up a conversation with the women at the other end of our table. The brothers are masters of small talk, all winning smiles and breezy gestures. It’s not long before everyone’s laughing and, I must admit, having a pretty good time. The topic turns to our next stop, which the women insist should be Conor O’Neill’s on Main Street.
“Now that’s what we’re talking about,” Dave says, after the women have left. “We’ve struck up this conversation. We’ve met these cool people. Now we’re going to Conor O’Neill’s, and you know what? I bet they won’t be there when we get there. That’s okay. They’re having a good time, we’re having a good time, and if we see them, we see them, and if we don’t, we don’t.”
Dave turns out to be right—the women from Dominick’s are nowhere to be seen at Conor O’Neill’s. It doesn’t matter, because the place is packed.
Conor’s is ground zero of the Ann Ar-bor bar scene. The atmosphere couldn’t be more different from the hippie-dippie mood at Dominick’s. Here the age is more uniform—mid-thirties with a smattering of forty-somethings—and the dress code registers several ticks higher on the sophistication meter. These people are likely to have the right sizes of incomes, houses, and cars. You feel a smoky buzz walking in as people coolly check each other out. When I mention this to the brothers, they smile and reply with a single phrase: “meat market.”
Though they say they’re not trying to “pick chicks up,” Dave and Tim definitely seem intent on meeting as many as possible. While Tim cruises the room, Dave leans against one of the tall tables on the floor and gives me an Ann Arborite’s run- down of the Ann Arbor bar scene. “This is where medical residents come to party,” he says. “There’s a bunch over there. The medical students go to Rick’s.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t know where the real doctors go.”
In short order we’ve downed a couple beers and a shot each. It registers with me how much of the singles life, at least this version of it, is fueled by alcohol. I start scribbling more quickly, while I can still see straight enough to read my notes.
Tim reappears to tell me he’s found a whole group of single ladies for me to write about. I follow him to a table where he introduces me as “that reporter friend I was talking about.”
Three middle-aged women regard me ￼￼with sincere distrust. But they seem single, so I explain what I’m doing. Uneasy glances are exchanged. “Sure you’re a re- porter,” says their spokeswoman finally. “Like we’re gonna believe that line.”
As I retreat, Tim drops his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, man. I al- ready got shot down a couple times tonight myself.”
The hour has swung to nearly one o’clock, but the night isn’t quite over yet. As we walk out into the warm spring air, Dave announces that we have one more stop.
The drink of choice at Mitch’s, a second-floor student hangout at the corner of South University and Forest, is the Long Island iced tea, served in a plastic cup. Entering the crowded, smoky space around the main bar, you see a lot of empty plastic cups lying around. After a glance at the crowd on the dance floor, I suspect the reason I was asked for my ID (and three of my bucks) at the door was to make sure I was young enough to get in.
If Conor O’Neill’s suggests sex, Mitch’s is awash in it. It appears that only two people over twenty-five are there be- sides me: Dave, and the singer–guitar player banging away on stage. A sort of yuppie-Goth style predominates: students bound for law schools and M.B.A. pro- grams dressed up in leather and moody, dark makeup.
Word gets out there’s a reporter in the crowd. Weaned on reality TV and nourished by shows like The Real World and The Osbournes, the college crowd isn’t shy around the media, even in the dubious form of me. They practically line up to be interviewed. (“Hey, I wanna be in your article,” says one young woman with a leather push-up bra and a purple stud in her tongue. “Who’s gonna play me in the movie?”)
Closing time is at hand, so I just dis- tribute my card to a handful of prospective interviewees and head downstairs and out into fresh air with Dave and Tim.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Tim asks.
I consider the question and have to nod. “More and then some. How about you guys?”
￼￼Dave smiles and holds his arms open as if to embrace the empty street. The hour is approaching three o’clock. “We didn’t meet our future wives,” he says. “But we sure did have a good time.”
Celeste B. and her friend from work, Allison R., are both twenty-one, recently graduated from the U-M, and, in their words, “totally” single. Both are willing to meet and chat. It’s the morning after my night out with the brothers Polkowski; sangria fumes and lack of sleep have left me with a nasty little headache. On the phone I give Celeste my standard research line: I’ll meet her and her friends wherever they normally meet and follow them doing whatever they normally do.
“Great,” Celeste says. “We usually meet up at Dominick’s for sangria, and after that we’ll take you with us to a couple bars.”
Arriving later at Dominick’s, that singles-scene launching pad, I find Celeste and Allison seated with a large group. (Men tend to barhop in twos and threes, but young women seem to find sanctuary in numbers.) Their dress is stylishly casual. Both wear a dusting of makeup, and both have plenty to say about how it feels to be young, single, and a few months out of college.
Celeste points out that one result of the sexual revolution begun in the decades be- fore she was born (in 1981) is that women her age are no longer passive agents in the sexual arena. “If I meet a guy I like and I want to sleep with him, I can do it. It might end up in a ‘committed’ relation- ship, as you call it. It might just be for fun. And if someone has a problem with that, then screw them.”
Allison agrees and believes that young men are different these days as well. “Guys are more fearful. It’s not so clear cut what they’re expected or supposed to do [in dating situations]. So do I give a guy my phone number? Do I ask him out? A lot of men are intimidated nowadays, so women have to take the initiative. But when you approach them, they can find that intimidating.”
Celeste holds up her phone to under- score the point. “Matt, the guy I met last
￼night, told me he’d give me a call today. Of course he hasn’t called. Now I don’t re- ally care if he does—he’s the one who said he would. But if he doesn’t, is he blowing me off? Is he chickening out? Who knows!”
To describe Celeste and Allison as liberated is to put it mildly. Neither is currently in a serious relationship. Both de- scribe themselves as sexually active though not promiscuous. When asked about the future, they describe graduate school and career plans in great detail. The names of places they plan to visit figure prominently. Men are mentioned only vaguely, or not mentioned at all.
“I’m just not into ‘finding’ a husband,” Celeste says. She points out that gender roles have changed over the last two decades and that women her age no longer are locked into the role of “finding a man that will make me not single. I hope never to have that kind of life. For some women, that’s great. Personally, I would find it de- grading.”
Does she believe her attitude might change in years to come?
“Are you asking me if I think this way just because I’m young?” she asks with a canny smile. “I don’t know. Check with me in fifteen years. It’s pretty hard to ‘have it all,’ and I value my independence. If it’s a choice between that and some man, or getting married—well, the choice is pretty obvious.”
Allison believes she’ll get married someday but not anytime soon. “I know some girls who have it all planned out—a husband in two years, two children in five. And they haven’t even met a guy yet!”
“I wouldn’t mind having a kid one day,” Celeste says. “It’s the husband I see no need for.” Allison counters that she could see having a husband but would rather do without the kids.
Both women say they’ve been in serious relationships in the past, and both have dated men considerably older than them- selves. Allison dated a man ten years her senior, describing the experience as “a li tle weird, but not because of his age. He was a little weird.”
Celeste admits to having “dated” two of her teachers at the U-M. “One broke my heart,” she says with a shrug, “and one didn’t. You live and learn.”
Her cell phone rings and she takes a call. It’s the better-late-than-never Matt. She chats for a minute and then hangs up. “It looks like he didn’t chicken out,” she says. “He’s going to meet up with us later at Rick’s.”
When we get to Rick’s the scene is reminiscent of Mitch’s the night before. In fact, some of the faces are familiar. I feel a bit like Dave and Tim, waving as I cross the floor. The drinking-dancing-dating scene, at least on campus, is something of a nightly affair.
The bar quickly fills up. Soon it be- comes evident to me why so many singles spots in town—from the lowly Rick’s to the high-end Studio 4—offer ladies’ nights during which women are admitted for a reduced cover charge or for free. Men, even those as outgoing and carefree as Dave and Tim, are peripheral figures in the bar scene—the “ladies” are the main attraction.
From out of the maelstrom of faces twirls a convivial young woman named Jackie. “So you wanna know what twenty- one-year-old single girls do? You get drunk, then you go to the bar, you find a cute guy to buy you drinks, you dance with him, and you take him home and you do him.” She disappears back into the crowd, presumably in search of Mr. Right This Second.
“Great,” groans one of Celeste’s friends. “Now everybody in Ann Arbor’s gonna think that’s what we do.”
Soon enough, Celeste hooks up with Matt, and Allison runs into a guy friend she knows from college. They disappear onto the crowded dance floor. Here, as at Mitch’s, the youngish crowd is carrying on a certain sort of exhibitionism. On the dance floor more than one pair of young women are making out, not with their smooth-faced dates, but with each other, bumping and grinding, cheered on by sur- rounding groups of young men. According to the bartender, who declines to give her name, it’s a pretty common sight.
“The little lipstick lesbians?” she says “They’re just having a good time. They’re kids. They’re drunk.”
She laughs at the thought that they might be gay.
“Hell, no!” she says. “They’re just showing off for the boys.”
I catch a glimpse of Celeste and Matt on the dance floor. Judging by their smiles and proximity, things are going well. Allison is nowhere to be seen. I strike up a conversation with the couple next to me, friends of Allison and Celeste, who’ve tagged along for the night. Juanita and Hector (as they wish to be called) are both twenty-six. They’ve been dating for three years and living together for two and thus represent yet another facet of the Ann Arbor singles world.
“We’re in a committed, monogamous relationship,” Juanita explains. “I won’t violate that. But I also think of myself as a single woman.”
With a sly smile, Hector declines to comment. “I like to keep my cards close to my chest,” he says.
Juanita continues. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it. It’s an important distinction to being married. I guess it’s about staying individuals. We’re not married. We’re not looking. But we are single.”
Unexpectedly, Celeste reappears, no Matt in tow. “I’ve got to work early in the morning,” she says. “I’m ready to go. Will you walk me to my car?”
What about Allison? What about Matt?
She shrugs. Allison is safe with other friends. “Matt’s turning out actually to be a nice guy, sort of sweet and sincere. We’re planning to see each other next week for dinner.”
We head for the stairs. Outside the air is warm and humid, filled with the promise of summer. On the way to the parking lot, I ask Celeste whether tonight was typical for her corner of the singles scene.
“Sure it is, in most ways,” she says with a shrug. “I don’t always meet nice guys, though,” she adds, smiling. “Maybe it’s good luck to have a reporter follow you around!”
Debbie K. recently troopered through a “really odd period” of dating during which she met, more or less in order, a business consultant, a cardiologist, and a construction worker. The business consultant was intimidated when she offered to take him out and pay for dates, so when that connection ended, she decided to let the cardiologist take her out. But he became of- fended on their second date when he realized she was willing to let him pay for dinner and a movie. So after that, when the construction worker started hinting around that he’d like to see her, she decided she’d take the initiative and ask him out to a hockey game. He agreed but then began to hem and haw. Not long afterward she dis- covered it wasn’t shyness that made him hesitate—he was living with another woman.
“I mean, you can’t figure out what the hell to do nowadays,” she says. “Dating is just really strange.”
Thirty-nine and the owner of her own personal training and fitness company, Debbie is one of the many professionals in town who, in the middle stages of successful careers, find themselves still single and looking. She’s thoughtful and good-humored about the puzzlement of being a modern-day single. When I meet her at a local sporting event (not at a bar), she laughs at the prospect of putting her thoughts about singledom on the record and even volunteers to invite a friend along.
I meet Debbie and her friend Andrea, thirty-four, at a local restaurant a couple days later. Like Debbie, Andrea is financially secure (she’s a rep for a drug company), owns her own home, and feels satisfied in her career. Also like Debbie, Andrea has never gotten married or had children, though she says she would like to do both.
“I personally don’t mind being single,” Debbie says over a glass of red wine. “I definitely wouldn’t mind getting into a longer-term relationship than the ones I’ve been in lately, though. You get pretty tired of the bar scene.”
“I do mind being single,” Andrea says. “If you have to be, I suppose Ann Arbor is a good place to do it in. But who really wants to be?”
Both say that their jobs take up a lot of time—time that in their twenties might have been spent looking for people to meet and date. Both tend to go out less now than they did when they were younger.
“I think there’s so much to do around town, and I mean to get out and do more things,” Debbie explains. “But then there’s work, or you’re busy or tired.” It’s the Catch-22 of being single: to meet new people you need to get out and about—but doing so is much a more attractive prospect when you have someone to get out and about with.
Andrea believes it’s harder for a professional woman to be single than for a professional man. “There’s more pressure on a woman,” she says. “You have to have a good job and a marriage and kids. Men can stay single and it’s cool, or they can let a woman take care of the home and that’s cool.”
“Now that I disagree with,” Debbie says. “I know plenty of men who find it very difficult to be single, too. Some are much less comfortable about it than I am.”
One thing the women do agree on is that the dating scene is hopelessly fraught with confusion. Debbie points out that men and women are equally at a loss. “No one’s sure who’s supposed to ask who out for a first date. Then no one’s sure who’s supposed to ask for a second date. Do you call him, does he call you?” Debbie laughs. “And then there’s sex.”
“Right,” says Andrea. “So who initiates that? Some men are willing to say any- thing to get laid. Other men won’t even bring the subject up.”
Both women find singles terminology less than helpful. “Dating” someone seems to be more advanced than simply “seeing” someone, though not quite as significant as being someone’s “significant other.” At what point does a casual relationship cross the line into a serious one? That’s any- body’s guess.
“Let me ask you another question,” Andrea says. “Who’s supposed to pay for the first date? Can anyone answer that one?”
I respond by outlining a theory I’ve been hatching. Much of the confusion surrounding dating, I propose, stems from the fact that there’s no longer any clear proto- col. The old patriarchal system was straightforward: when a boy liked a girl he asked permission to court her, which he did under the watchful eye of a chaperon. Later, people dated, perhaps got “pinned,” and then became engaged. As for sex, if you wanted that, you were expected to take the final step and get married—or at least be prepared to go there if pregnancy resulted.
Whether the rules were actually followed is another matter; at least the culture offered some norms from which to deviate. But that’s no longer the case. The patriarchal protocol came under attack in the 1970s, died in the 1980s, and was buried in the 1990s. Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with a new one.
There’s a moment of silence while we all sit, surprised at my soliloquy. “So,” Andrea asks finally, “who pays for the first date?”
“THE DEFINITION OF THE SWINGING SINGLE”
As Terry McClymonds points out, it’s technically not possible for a gay man to be anything other than single in the state of Michigan—unless for some reason he wants to marry a woman. “Of course, it’s sort of ridiculous to say there’s no such thing as gay marriage,” he says, “because there is, in every but the most technical sense. Still, as a gay person you’re often seen as the definition of the swinging single.”
I met up with Terry on a recent Thurs- day evening at the \aut\ Bar, where he tends bar part time after finishing his day job at Borders. Fifty-three, he’s a polished and engaging conversationalist, an incisive observer with a keen wit. Terry was born and raised in Pennsylvania and graduated from Yale. (“The same class as George W.,” he says with a laugh. “I have the picture to prove it.”) He arrived in Ann Arbor intending to stay “for about six months. That was almost twenty-two years ago.”
Though Terry has had what he de- scribes as “longish” committed relation- ships—including a live-in boyfriend—he admits to being something of a lifelong single.
“When I arrived Ann Arbor was the town that time forgot,” he remembers. “There were still men in hippie beads. There were the last of the hippie bakeries and hippie cafes. There was a thriving youth culture and it was still sort of a dope-smoking, rock ’n’ roll town.”
In those days, Terry recalls, there were more places that catered to singles of all stripes, including gays. “Main Street had a sort of nexus of singles spots. There was the Flame Bar, the Rubaiyat, Mr. Flood’s Party. You had all the facets, the wide spectrum of the gay social scene—the Flame was a neighborhood bar, the Rubaiyat played disco. Then the Nectarine Ballroom opened, going for the flashy sort of Studio 54 thing. It was a great time.”
Most of those places are long gone. Did the thriving singles scene of the late 1970s just dry up and blow away? To Terry’s mind the situation is more complex than that.
“A lot of things in the culture at large have become fragmented” in recent decades, he says, pointing out that there’s no reason to think the singles scene should be different. “The AIDS crisis certainly put a damper on the swinging singles life, in gay and straight culture, and made promisuity a less-than-valid lifestyle. There’s also been a sort of yuppification of Ann Arbor across the board. People drive Porsches instead of VW buses nowadays.”
Even events as recent as September 11 make their effect felt. “Maybe it’s just the people I know, but it seems like people in the gay and straight community long for seriousness. Suddenly it seems important to be ‘less single.’ There’s more of a premium on leading a more settled life, even in the gay community.”
Same-sex marriage is a subject of controversy not only in the straight world but in the gay world as well. I ask Terry his thoughts on the question. “Lots of people [in the gay community] oppose it because it’s like gay culture or the gay lifestyle is somehow being co-opted by the main- stream culture,” Terry says. “I suppose I can see the purity of the logic.”
Still, he believes that most people, deep inside, dream of settling down with some- one. One valuable contribution from gay culture to straight culture, Terry points out, has been an expanded definition of family. “A lot of gay people, both gay men and lesbians, are adopting children,” he says, “and there’s this notion of the ex- tended family, the idea that your friends are part of your family and they’ll be there for you. It’s not this rigid Eisenhower-era family unit.”
As his middle years play out, Terry says he feels the same pressures and concerns as any other single person. “Who’s going to take care of you when you get old?” he asks with a laugh. “I’m fifty- three, and after a certain point you ask yourself whether you’re going to find someone. It can be difficult, especially for a gay man.”
Terry disappears to do some work. A man standing at the bar waiting for a drink tells me he couldn’t help overhearing our conversation. “I suppose,” he says, “that you’ve noticed there’s not too many single women here.”
I had sort of noticed. I ask why he thinks that is.
“Know what lesbians do on their second date?” he asks. “They move in together. What do gay men do on their second date?” he chuckles. “What second date?” He howls with laughter as he disappears into the bar’s busy outdoor seats.
When Terry returns, I ask what he feels about Ann Arbor and the singles life, having lived here all these years. He considers the question. “I think what I’ve always thought. It’s always been a very healthy community—diverse and respectful of diversity. It’s a very family-friendly town, and it’s a very yuppie town. But it’s also single friendly. The two do coexist, I think.”
He pauses before going on. “It’s the kind of place where no one thinks you’re nuts if you believe you can be single, you can have a sex life, and still lead a valuable and productive life.”
Craft Essay, Aspen Summer Words
By Derek Green
Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach, is said to have begun each season by gathering his players together and holding a football aloft. “Gentleman,” Lombardi liked to say, “this is a football.”
The lesson here: if you want to teach something, even to seasoned pros, start with the basics.
I thought of this story not long ago when I opened a fiction-writing workshop for advanced graduate students by asking a simple question: what is fiction? There followed the painful kind of silence that makes public speakers squirm. I repeated the question, just to prove I meant business.
“Fiction tells a story,” offered one student. “No,” countered another, “fiction is character.” The hand of a particularly shrewd young woman rose into the air. “Narrative fiction,” she said, “is a sequence of events that tells a story about a character.”
Of course, all three students were partly right. Fiction usually features characters taking part in events arranged to tell a story. Unfortunately, so does creative non-fiction. (Further complicating matters is the fact that some poetry contains these elements as well. But that’s another essay.) So what distinguishes fiction from other literary arts? What, at its core, is fiction?
The answer: fiction is a lie. This may seem obvious or even clichéd to experienced fiction writers. But it often hits initiates with the force of revelation. (Consider that staple protest of the fiction writing workshop—“But that’s how it really happened!!”—which proves how easily student writers forget this basic principle.)
It bears repeating: fiction is a lie. The characters (even if they once existed), the events (even historical ones), the locations (even when actual) are all made up. Fiction is deception, plain and simple.
In fact, the entire compact between writer and reader (as Henry James famously observed, in slightly different terms) depends on an improbable arrangement, which can summed up thus: “I am going to tell you a lie. You know that it is going to be a lie. Yet it is going to be so skillfully told—so convincingly rendered, with such nuance and detail—that you will experience an intensity of emotion equal to or greater than if these events had actually taken place.”
Now, fiction is lying of the highest order, a mode of fabrication so complete that, in the hands of a master, it can capture and preserve emotional truths more precisely than almost any other method yet devised by culture. But it’s still a lie.
How can we use this as writers?
Not everyone write fiction. But all of us lie. For anyone interested in learning or teaching the techniques used in writing fiction, it’s useful to consider some of the ways in which fiction, that most sophisticated lie, resembles any other fib.
Like any good lie, fiction is often best when founded on a grain of truth: Many, perhaps most, story ideas come from the real world—an argument overheard in a café, an item plucked from the newspaper, Grandma Gladys’s story of meeting Grandpa Harry on Ellis Island. Any time an anecdote or real-world observation sustains a would-be writer’s interest, it’s a signal that a short story or even a novel might be lurking in seed form. Confecting convincing make-believe from such germs is the fiction writer’s craft.
Lies follow to their own logic, which differs from the logic of fact: While actuality may provide a useful starting point, it can also block a story’s development. Too often beginning fiction writers are hindered by a wish to remain true to their story’s initial inspiration. This is almost always a mistake. Writers, like good fibbers, must ruthlessly adhere to the logic of the fictive web they are spinning. Fidelity to reality (or anything else) has no application in writing a story or a novel beyond creating a believable illusion in the reader’s mind. In short, fact does not always sound convincing. But good fiction must.
A good fib requires just enough detail to convince: Detail is the life-blood of deception. But everyone has seen the comical results when someone over-details a lie. (Does the boss really need to know exactly what procedure is being performed on which molar at what time and in whose office when you play hooky from work?) The lesson: too much of a good thing can ruin the illusion a writer is trying to create. Good fiction writers, like good fibbers, always strive for absolute economy of detail.
Good fibs are well thought-out: Only the most reckless or desperate of liars will fabricate a story as they go along, a method that’s about as effective as knitting a parachute after you've jumped from the plane. Similarly, good fiction is usually carefully planned or at least thoroughly revised. Like good con artists, good fiction writers almost always think up more material than they actually use. Moreover, they show great restraint in deploying this material—not every character history, outlined scene, and location researched makes it into the story. Like economy of detail, economy of material is essential in spinning a believable yarn.
Confidence is persuasive: One hallmark of weak fiction (and poor lying) is apprehension or coyness on the part of the story-teller. Persuasive fiction writers assume an attitude of supreme authority: characters are described as if they exist in flesh and bone, place is established by boldly invented detail, and the most unlikely developments are rendered as ineluctable events. Effective fiction writers strike a confident tone even—perhaps especially—at the points in their work most likely to strain credibility. It is no coincidence that professional liars are referred to as confidence artists.
Of course, there are countless differences between common lies and good fiction. Most fiction writers are not intentionally malicious, for instance, while many liars are. Also, a whole lot more money can be made from conventional conning than from the elegant deceptions we commit when creating novels and short stories. But the similarities are important.
The idea of fiction-as-lie is not new. Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, that most enduring of literary fabrications, is said to have observed the as much over five-hundred years ago. “Facts,” he wrote, in defense of his new invention, the novel, “are the enemy of truth.”
Like Lombardi with his football, shrewd writers and writing teachers grasp this basic fact about fiction and use the knowledge to their benefit.
Copyright © 2011. Derek Green. All Rights Reserved.
Short Fiction, The North American Review
by Derek Green
My sister Mary was crossing the parking lot after work at the Showcase Cinema when a guy with tattoos on his arms picked her up: I mean, he put one hand on her shoulder, the other in her crotch and lifted.
Like I told my father later, it’s not the kind of thing you believe when you’re seeing it and I didn’t know what to do. I flashed the car lights on and off. I hollered Mary’s name. She pushed the man and whacked him on the ear. She didn’t scream.
By the time I was out of the Volvo, he’d run back to a gray van and peeled away beneath the street lights. I was thinking, What a way to start summer vacation, when suddenly I realized my knees were watery. Mary was dressed in her usherette uniform---a white ruffly blouse and black slacks. She said she was all right, except that her knuckles hurt from hitting the guy. Then her hands started shaking and soon she was shaking all over.
At the police station Mary told three different policemen that she’d never seen the guy before. They showed us pictures of men. “Did he look like this one,” one of the detectives asked. “Or this one?” I told them about the tattoos. I tried to describe the van but all I could come up with was gray. “A gray van,” one cop said, looking around the room. “Lotsa help.”
By the time Mom and Dad got there Mary was sick of the story. She told Dad that nothing had happened, really. He took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. I’d never seen him swear in public, but the detectives didn’t seem very surprised. They just went on writing in their pads. They told us they’d keep us informed if anything happened.
“That’s all?” my father asked. “That’s everything you can do?”
“That’s it,” the detective said.
My parents never get mad over the same things, which is one reason why their marriage works. If we get bad grades at school, for instance, my father will lecture us on the value of appearances and my mother will tell us stories about flunking algebra at college. When the principal of our school found a pack of cigarettes in Mary’s gym-locker last fall, Dad grounded her for a month. Mom wrote a letter asking by whose authority the principal had searched my sister’s belongings. I have a picture of Mom carrying a picket sign for animal rights on the diag at the University of Michigan; in the background stands our father, shy as a hummingbird, with an embarrassed look on his face. Last Thanksgiving when my father left the table early to take care of some important business, Mom shook her head and told us that he takes life too seriously.
But as Dad likes to say, love is a triumph of compromise, and in the end he and my mother complement one another. For a week Dad was angry about what had happened to Mary. He called the police twice, complained about their inefficiency, and insisted on driving Mary to work. Mom urged patience. On Thursday Dad said he’d seen a gray van driving around our neighborhood and asked me if I’d seen anything strange. I told him I hadn’t seen any gray vans. The next night none of us knew what to say when Dad came home with a small gun in a wooden case.
Mom refused to look at it. “You’ve blown this whole thing out of proportion,” she said. “Have you lost your mind?”
“We’ve become complacent. The world is not the place we’d like it to be. We have to be realistic. We live in an insane time.”
“That thing,” Mom said, pointing at the gun, “is disgusting. I don’t want it in the same house as my children.”
She left the room. We heard a door slam.
Dad has always been honest with Mary and me. He sat down with us at the round table in the family room. He popped open the gun’s cylinder, spun it once like Russian Roulette, and showed us where the bullets went in. He called it a weapon and explained to us about powder, the compression of gasses, and the propulsion of a bullet. He handed me the gun. It fit in my palm like a carpenter’s tool, felt heavier than it looked, and smelled oily. I gave it to Mary but she shrugged and gave it back. Dad said we were nearly adults and so were to be trusted and that by understanding a weapon we made it less mysterious and thereby safer. He put the gun in its case and told us where he would keep the key and the ammunition then took us upstairs to the closet where he planned to keep it.
“I never, ever want either of you to take this from here, unless someone breaks through the front door. If you think something’s wrong, get me. If you’re alone, call the police. But don’t ever use this thing,” he said.
Mary always agrees with Mom. She said that guns make her sick and went off to her room. Dad turned to me. Once, before I was in school, Dad took us to a zoo and held me on his shoulders to look in the alligator pit. I clung to his hair because I was afraid of falling in and Mary made a face and said all reptiles disgusted her. A few years later I was in the backyard using a stick to poke a salamander. Dad came up behind me and poked my ribs and asked me how I liked it. Then he told me that all living things were precious and that I had no more right to injure a small animal than some stranger had to injure me. This was years ago but he looked at me now with the same steady gaze. When he set the gun on the top shelf I poked him in the ribs and said, “Hey, Dad, I thought all life was precious.”
“It is,” he said, moving aside some old towels. “But your life and Mary’s are more precious than anyone else’s.”
I love my father. I respect him. I’ve never feared him or doubted anything he’s said to me. When friends at school complain about their fathers---that they refuse the money for a spring-break trip or take away the keys from their cars---I shake my head and wonder at the lack of gratitude some people can have. Of course, I’ve done some stupid things in my life. I once sold a bicycle of Mary’s to an older boy for three dollars and the winter I turned ten I brought home a family of puppies and hid them in my room for two days. Just last year---against my father's wishes and to my own regret---I spent a whole summer’s earnings on a worn-out dirt bike that now leans unusable against the wall in our garage. I've learned to listen to Dad. In our family, Mary is the one who learns lessons the hard way.
So when Dad said, at dinner the week after he brought home the revolver, that Mary should quit her job I could have predicted the way she would react.
“Mom!” she cried.
Mom set her fork down. “There is no way,” she said, “that you’re making her quit her job.”
“There are plenty of jobs during the day,” Dad said. “Safe jobs.”
“I can take care of myself,” Mary said. “I’m eighteen years old.”
“It’s a rotten part of town, Mary. Who knows what would have happened to you if your brother hadn’t been there when that man attacked you?”
“Dad, nothing happened!”
Mary is two years older than me and most people say she’s smart. But she doesn’t understand how to handle our parents. Mom was clearly on her side and Dad always likes us to make choices on our own---he would never force her to do something against her will. But Mary like drama. By throwing her napkin on her plate, she forced Dad to defend his position. She never sees the pattern. Dad began, then, to state facts. He told us that sixty-seven percent of violent crimes were committed against women, that in a case like Mary’s, odds were one-in-three that the assailant had observed her movements, had stalked her, for more than two days. Dad repeated the word, stalked. Further, he said, there was a good chance the man would try again. That last part might have been something made up---always a possibility when Dad fails to supply numbers. But we all got the point. Dad works in insurance, heading a team of people who predict how many catastrophes a company will have to pay on in a given fiscal period. He had investigated the matter, and for our father, there was no seriousness like the seriousness of statistics.
Mom turned to Mary. “Honey,” she said, “go upstairs and lock yourself in your bedroom where you’ll be safe.”
“You can be as sarcastic as you like,” Dad said. “But there’s enough danger in the world without inviting it. Anything can happen out there.”
“I wonder,” Mom said, “what the statistics are on accidents in houses with guns.”
Dad glanced my way, sucked on a tooth. “Everything comes back that.”
Mom suggested that we discuss the matter later, not at supper. We passed the dishes around, avoiding each other’s gazes.
Later, when I could tell from the silence downstairs that my parents were having an argument, I stopped at Mary’s room. She was lying on her bed looking through a magazine that smelled like perfume.
“What do you want, Jeffery?”
“What do you think they’re talking about down there?”
I sat down on her desk-chair, which is rickety, unstained and too small, and seems to me a perfect example of how Mary’s personality is reflected in her belongings. The desk itself, for instance, is covered with frivolous things, photos and magazines, and her little ceramic bunny collection takes up more space on her bookshelves than her books do.
“It’s none of my business what they’re talking about,” she said. She turned page. “People around here should mind their own business.”
“Dad’s right, you know. You should quit that job of yours. It’s not very safe.”
“Goodbye, Jeffery,” she said.
“If I hadn’t been there that night, there’s no telling what would have happened to you.”
“Your problem is that you have no mind of your own. You have to do everything Dad does. But you’re just a little kid. You’ll grow up one day.”
“You’re just mad because you have to quit your stupid job.”
“No matter what he says, you agree. If Dad told you to jump off a bridge, all you’d want to know is which side to jump from. You’d kill someone if he told you too. You’re such a suck-up. It makes me sick.”
None of this is true, of course, but there’s no sense in trying to explain anything to Mary. There’s no sense in trying to get her to read a newspaper, for instance, or listen to the news. You can’t explain to her that on the radio you heard about a teenager being snatched from her car on Middlebelt Road one week and being found the next in a burlap bag in the back of a pickup with her mouth still taped shut. I know what Dad means. But Mary believes whatever she wants to believe.
I told her there was no reason for her to insult me just because she knew she was wrong. I told her the truth: that she might surprise herself and learn something by listening to Dad every now and then.
“Close the door on your way out, Jeffery,” she said. And she rolled over on her back.
I was so mad I almost knocked the stupid bunnies off her bookshelf. But I stood up and went back to my room quietly. I sat at my desk and looked out at the afternoon light, which slanted down onto our back yard. Behind the trees there’s a little brook where I sometimes sit when I’m angry or feel like thinking. I tried to spot the water behind the trees and told myself that some people won’t listen to you even when you’re worried about them and that my sister was one of these.
A couple days later, Saturday, my father asked if I felt like going to the firing range. The parking lot was crowded, surrounded on all sides by tall pine trees and oaks. The range itself was a long row of men and women standing in stalls and shooting across a field at targets. Some of the targets were shaped like animals, some like men. A large woman in a camouflage cap sold us ear plugs and led us to our firing stall. Our target was the silhouette of a man in a stocking cap, aiming a pistol our way.
Dad handed me our gun and leaned over my shoulder to show me how to hold it. I’d pulled the trigger before, when the gun was unloaded. But now I was afraid the recoil would snap my wrist. Dad told me to aim at the intruder’s chest and squeeze the trigger smoothly. I did this but nothing happened. Then, just as Dad leaned forward to help me, the gun went off, kicking my hands over my head, just like in the movies. There was the smell of burned powder, and I’d felt the force of the shot all the way to my shoulders, but I’d missed the target completely. I tried a couple more times without much luck.
Dad took the gun. He’d been practicing. He lowered the gun and, without hesitating, without even aiming it seemed, he pumped three rounds into the intruder’s chest, right in the middle of the bull’s-eye. He kept his eyes on the target as he lowered the gun, and I thought of the man with the tattoos on his arms.
Dad reloaded and handed the gun to me again. It was fun, the way riding a dirt bike over a new course is fun---thrilling, a little dangerous---and I was already looking forward to the next time I could practice shooting.
I aimed and fired again. A hole popped open in the upper-right hand side of the cardboard, above the intruder’s shoulder. Had this been some man crawling in through the front window at home, I would have shot out the glass and put a whole in the elm in or front yard. Dad laughed but I aimed again and this time I got lucky and blasted a fist-sized piece of cardboard from the silhouette stocking cap. It wasn’t on the bull’s-eye, but made me feel better anyway.
Late that afternoon, Mom came home from work. Dad was outside in the utility shed and Mary was already at her job.. Mom went upstairs and then came back down in her stocking feet. She sat beside me on the couch and I closed my book.
“I am beginning,” she whispered, “to worry about your father.”
“Why?” I whispered back.
“Where is he?”
“Out back,” I said, “We don’t have to whisper.”
“He’s been anxious lately,” she said. “I don’t know. Afraid of things.”
Mom is a professional designer and works long hours in the summer, builder’s months. She had circles under her eyes. She was tired.
“I think every time he looks through the window he imagines a stranger. He looks down toward the end of the driveway, past the trees, and sees some strange, unshaved man lurking there, watching. He should get rid of that pistol.”
Sometimes I don’t understand Mom all that well and this was one of those times. I didn’t know why she was telling me these things, or what she wanted me to say. I told her I thought Dad knew what he was doing.
“Does he, Jeff? He can be wrong, you know.” She smiled. “You can be wrong sometimes, too.”
“I never said I couldn’t” I said, feeling warm around my ears. “You and Dad are fighting about his gun, aren’t you?”
Mom smiled again and touched the side of my face. I had asked the question matter-of-factly, but she took it sentimentally. “We’re not fighting over it,” she said. “Just discussing it. I told you, sometimes he can be wrong.”
The back door opened. We both shut up. Dad walked in from the dining room, looking at the two of us. He was dressed in blue jeans and an old sweatshirt. “What are you two talking about?” he said. “Me?”
“You seem even more paranoid than usual,” Mom said.
He climbed the stairs without answering.
“See what I mean?” Mom said. “He jumps to conclusions.”
“Mom. We were talking about him.”
“Yes,” she said. “But that’s beside the point.”
For a few days nothing happened. Dad called the police a couple times to check on developments on the man with the tattoos and the gray van. There weren’t any. He quizzed Mary about the parking lot at work. Was it well lit? Had she seen any strange characters? He remained unconvinced when she said everything was fine.
But even Dad seemed to have calmed down by the end of the week, nearly a month after the parking-lot incident. Saturday evening I was sitting in my bedroom with music turned up loud on my ear buds. The lights flicked on and off. Dad stood in the doorway and I pulled the ear buds out.
“What the hell time is your sister supposed to get home from work tonight?”
Mary has a deal worked out so she can leave work by eleven at the latest on weekends. I explained this to Dad. According to the clock on my desk, it was almost one-thirty. Dad said he’d called the Showcase. Mary had left work two hours earlier but hadn’t come home, and hadn’t called. This sounded typical of her. But it was dark outside. Tree branches clicked on the windowpane. A picture came to my mind of Mary in the back of a van with duct tape over her mouth. Dad’s anxiety was contagious and I followed downstairs to the dark living room.
The blinds were open. The shadow of a tree was cast by moonlight onto the carpeting. The window lattice cast the shadows of bars. Dad said he was going to the Showcase to look for Mary. He told me to let Mom sleep. He left through the front door. I watched the red lights move down the driveway until they disappeared behind the trees that hide our house from the road.
I sat on the couch. Upstairs a door opened then closed. My mother descended the stairs.
“Did he leave?” she asked.
“Yes. He went to look for Mary. She’s not home yet.”
“I know,” she said. “He didn’t tell me he was leaving. What are we going to do?”
“About what, Mom? Everything’s okay.”
“I hope you’re right.” She said she was going back to bed and that I should do the same. At the top of the stairs, she stopped and turned. “Jeffery,” she said. “Do you know where he keeps that gun?”
She must have known where he kept it and I thought she had some reason for asking my this question. I didn’t know how to answer, so I told her I wasn't sure. She nodded, then disappeared upstairs.
I sat in the dark, listening to the loud ticking of the living room clock. Then I got up and walked quietly up the stairs to the hall closet. The hinges squeaked as I opened the door. I reached up to the top shelf, felt around, took down the gun case. The key was downstairs in kitchen cupboard, but I didn’t need it. The box was unlocked, empty inside. I replaced the box on the shelf and went back downstairs to wait for Mary and my father.
Soon lights from a car’s headlamps shined through the front window and swept across the far wall. The car pulled into the driveway and stopped. I heard loud music, giggling, a bunch of girl-voices calling goodnight to each other. The car sped off. Keys rattled behind the door and the door opened.
Mary’s smile faded when she saw me sitting in the dark. “What are you doing up?”
“Waiting for you.”
“He's out looking for you.”
“Why can’t he just leave me alone?” She dropped her things on the floor and ran upstairs to her room.
Usually I found it amusing to see Mary getting herself into trouble. But when I heard Dad’s car coming down the driveway, I didn’t think it was very funny. He walked into the living room. He looked at Mary’s things on the floor. He asked if she was home. I nodded and he marched upstairs. I heard the hall closet door opening, a pause, then the hinges squeaking closed again.
Then Dad knocked on Mary’s door.
“Who is it?”
“Where the hell have you been, Mary?”
“What difference does it make to you?”
“Open this door.”
There was a long pause and Dad told her again to open the door. I went upstairs as Mom was leaving her bedroom. “Leave her alone,” Mom said.
Dad ignored her. He shouted for Mary to open the door. He shook the knob, the hit the door hard with his fist. “Leave her alone, Robert,” Mom said again.
“Mary, I told you to open this goddamned door!”
Dad let go of the doorknob. He held his fists at his side and I thought he was going to knock the door down. “All right,” he said. “Then you stay in there, Mary. Because you’re not leaving this place. Do you understand me? You’re through with that job of yours, too. You’re not going out at all, not for friends, not for anything. You can’t call home? You run around God knows where? I’m not letting you put us through this! Do you hear me, goddamnit?”
Mom was telling him to calm down and to get away from Mary’s door. He hit the door again and I said, “Dad, it’s okay, she’ home. We’re all home.”
He spun on me and I didn’t recognize him, he was so furious. “You shut up,” he said. “Do you hear me? Everyone shut the hell up!” He pounded down the stairs, shouting the whole way. “I don’t want to hear any of you talking to me!”
I started to follow but Mom held my arm. Dad slammed the front door behind him and we heard the car race back down the driveway.
Mary’s door opened. Tears streaked her face. “Where did he go?” she asked. “Where do you think he’s going?”
“I forgot to call,” Mary said. “That’s all I did.”
“I know,” Mom said.
We stood there a while in silence. Then Mom went back to her room, Mary went back into hers, and I went downstairs to wait for Dad. I dozed off and a long time later my mother was there, leading me upstairs to my bedroom.
I woke up as if from a nightmare---heart pounding, voice trapped in my throat---though I couldn’t remember dreaming a thing. It was not quite dawn. I went to get a drink of water, and passing my parents’ room, I saw a light shining from below the door. I heard voices---Dad must have returned---and I paused to listen. All I could hear was the muffled sounds of an argument.
I got my water and returned to my room. I wondered what the man with tattoos on his arm was doing exactly at that moment. Instead of going back to bed, I pulled a pair of jeans over my underwear, and put some running shoes on my feet, then went back into the hallway.
Wind moved through the branches of the trees as I walked down the hill in
our back yard. I slipped now and then on the pine needles, whose scent filled the air. I looked back at our dark house with the single light burning on the second floor. I wondered what the neighbors would make of a young man trudging across our back lawn at this hour, but no one was awake to notice.
I walked until I heard the small brook that ran behind our house. I smelled rain. There was now just the briefest hint of daylight to the east. I paused at the bank of the stream and hoped I was doing the right thing. I tossed the fun case and ammunition straight into the water. They were heavy, made a plopping sound, and disappeared into the water without a trace. I started walking back up the slope as the first few drops of a pre-dawn shower began coming down. The rain grew stronger and I asked myself what story I would tell my father in the morning, wondered whether or not I’d tell him something true.
Short Fiction, The Fourth River Review
by Derek Green
Why did Eddie love his grandmother, his abuelita, so much? It might have been because she gave him candies and bizcochitos, because she prepared French Toast and other exotic breakfasts whenever he stayed at her house, or because they shared a language---a strange homespun Spanish that even Eddie’s mother had a hard time following. Abuela’s money helped pay his tuition at St. Mary’s Elementary School, where he was member-of-highest-standing in the first grade. Of this financial arrangement his parents liked to remind him. Her house smelled of garlic and of clean linen. In her bedroom she kept the articles of faith: a rosary on the night stand, a bust of the Blessed Virgin on the dresser, a palm frond behind the mirror. She ground spices in a pilón, crocheted doilies and did other strange things that no one else did. He was her nenito, a Michigan-born Puerto Rican, an unlikely thing to be, her Michorriqueño. Christmas vacation arrived and it was decided that Eddie would spend his days---the hours during which his parents worked---with his abuelita at her small house downtown.
In her neighborhood there was a park, a party store and a boy one year older than Eddie called Tom Binsack. Tom was allowed to visit the park alone, he attended a school that didn’t require a tie, and his friends all lived right there in the same neighborhood. When Eddie mentioned St. Mary’s School (not failing to cite his status as member-of-highest-standing) Tom had shrugged and said, “My whole family is atheists.” Eddie had been almost dizzy with admiration. Eddie’s mother was from Puerto Rico. And, yes, it was true that Tom believed this small island to be a city in Mexico. But that sort of ignorance was common and it didn’t matter to Eddie. He was shy and without siblings and it seemed to him that Tom was the perfect companion for sliding down the icy hills at Loomis Park or watching the cartoons on the TV in Abuela’s overheated living room.
On the third day of Christmas vacation, Eddie dressed himself at home and with eyes still puffy with sleep, followed his mother to the car. A short time later snow was whirling around his feet as he made his way up the icy steps of Abuela’s porch. Inside, she led him to the sofa where he slept without dreams.
Some time later—the sun was now in the sky—Eddie heard a thump rattle the front window. He sat up, and heard the thump again. His abuela walked to the window, sighing like his mother, and looked through the blinds. “It’s him,” she said in Spanish. “Tell him not to throw snow at the windows when he comes here, please.”
Eddie went to open the door; frosty air swirled around him. IN the front yard, Tom nibbled a snowball. He wanted to know what Eddie was doing.
“Invite him in to eat if you like,” Abuela said beneath her breath. She had pulled her sweater tight across her shoulders to look outside. “But you’re not going out into that refrigerator until you’ve had a breakfast.”
“Tom!” Eddie called. “You hungry?”
Tom dropped the snowball in the yard. He began trudging up toward the porch. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m always hungry.”
At the kitchen table they ate bowls of hot cornmeal cereal—finickiness was not one of Tom’s faults. Afterwards, they relaxed for a while in front of the TV in the living room. But Tom couldn’t think of anything more boring. Eddie wanted to take the sleds to the park, but Tom pointed at his wet socks and pantlegs; he was tired of sledding. They brought out board games, they flipped through all fifty-five channels on the TV. But it was no good. They were bored. Eddie’s grandmother passed by on her way to the basement with laundry, but had no ideas for little-boy games.
They seemed to be out of ideas when Tom said, “I wouldn’t mind going to the store.”
“Then let’s do that,” Eddie said.
“Nah,” Tom said. “I don’t got any money.” He glanced over at Eddie. “I’d ask my Mom, but she won’t give me anything; she hates me.”
And so it was decided that Eddie should ask Abuela for the money. Eddie knew his grandmother was generous in all things, but she didn’t like to give him money to waste; especially she didn’t like to give him money for running all over creation with that americanito, Tom. Still, Eddie had to give it a try, so he walked to the top of the basement stairs. He called down to where Abuela was working on the laundry: “Me puedes prestar dinero?”
“No,” Abuela said.
No is no in any language, but she went on in Spanish all the same. “You just ate and I’m not the mother of that child upstairs to be giving you two money for garbage.”
Eddie made his way back into the living room.
“I heard,” Tom sighed. “So much for that idea.”
And that should have been that. But Eddie was a boy who could not stand to disappoint anyone, especially a friend, of which he had few. He told Tom there was one more hope, and Tom rolled over on his stomach. “Yeah? What hope?”
Downstairs Abuela could be heard humming, shuffling around while she worked. Eddie turned up the TV and beckoned Tom to follow him upstairs.
In the top drawer of her dresser, Abuela kept a jar of quarters. While Eddie removed the lid of the jar, Tom Binsack kept lookout at the door. Eddie’s heart beat so hard that he heard the blood in his ears. His hands were sweaty. He had meant to take a few coins, but these were under a wad of bills and his haste to be done with the theft, he made off with a fist full of bills and change.
Eddie was sure his abuela would be waiting at the bottom of the steps, but when he got to the living room he could still hear her working in the basement. He called down that he was going to the park with Tom; she said to be careful.
Then they were outside and on their way to the store.
“Doesn’t she speak any English,” Tom said as they walked down the sidewalk. “None?”
“Not much,” Eddie said.
“She’s a nun, right?”
“No,” Eddie said. “My grandpa died. She lives there alone now is all.”
Tom nodded. “What are you going to buy, Ed?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “How about you?”
“Candy,” said Tom. “I am buying candy.”
Eddie thought he would too.
He handed two dollars to Tom, and kept two for himself. The air smelled cold and felt good on his bare face. He thought of all the things he could buy with two dollars. It felt good having two dollars, even considering that he’d stolen them from his own abuelita.
Each night in bed Eddie said prayers. He didn’t do this so much out of training or even a love of God, but mainly because he feared for his family’s life. He had worked out an elaborate and tedious nightly prayer that included a mention of his entire family by individual name, three Hail Marys, an Our Father, The Creed of the Apostles, an Act of Contrition, and another mention of his family, just for good measure.
Then he did something he had invented. He squinted at the slats in his bedroom blinds, through which he could see light from a street lamp outside his window. When he squinted just right, the light expanded before his eyes, and he then gave a portion of this light to his mother and father, and to his abuela and his dead abuelo. He had used this system for a long time with good success, and it seemed only logical that he should go on appeasing God—who in Eddie’s mind was a cross between the principal at St. Mary’s and a hit man—if he wanted his family to live.
But that night at home in his dark bedroom, Eddie could not get through his prayers. He tried more than once, but each time it seemed to him that his prayers had turned useless. He could hear the voices of his parents downstairs, and he knew that a Christmas tree glowed in the corner of the living room where they sat. But it seemed to Eddie that he was more a part of the wind that howled through the dead trees outside than with the scene in the living room. He closed his eyes and tried praying one more time. But it occurred to him that he might actually damage his family’s reputation with God and he finally gave up.
He fell asleep hoping that his family could be spared from whatever hot place in hell was waiting for boys like him.
The next morning, Tom arrived at Abuela’s, and Eddie knew he would steal again. He and Tom waited in the living room, with the TV turned up loud to drown out their crimes. When Abuela was gone from the first floor they made their move on her bedroom. This time they came away with another couple of dollars and more silver change. They dragged their sleds behind them to the store, where they spent everything on candy and gum and sodas. Then with full and upset stomachs, they went to Loomis Park and slid down the hills for a long time.
Much later that afternoon, not long before Eddie’s mother was due to pick him up, his abuela came into the room with his coat in one hand and candy wrappers in the other. Eddie thought that he’d been discovered. But when his abuela asked where he’d gotten the money for candy, it was if his lie were supplied by the Devil himself, it came to him so quickly—he told her that Tom’s mother had given it to them.
“Yo no sé,” she said, shaking her head. “Why you want to run around so much with that snow-colored candy-eating little boy all the time, I don’t know.”
That night when his mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas—para la Navidád—he said he wanted nothing and he went alone to his bedroom. His mother followed him, asking if he felt ill. He said no.
When she left, he lay there thinking of his work—the learning of prayers, the timely completion of homework, his rise in first grade to member-in-highest-standing. All of this he had thrown away. He had stolen, he had lied; and yet, even in his wretchedness, he was thinking about the money he would steal the next day. He wondered how many other Commandments he’d willingly break before he was in the second grade.
Outside his window the thin branches of a tree scratched the glass like fingers; it was snowing, and no matter how he squinted he couldn’t get the light from across the street to expand into anything. It remained a streetlamp on the corner glowing through the snow.
The next day Tom and Eddie breakfasted on Abuela’s food, and then waited until her daily business took her into some safe part of the house. Tom followed Eddie up the steps as usual, but this time when Eddie reached into the top drawer of the dresser, he found no jar. He began to feel hot around the ears and looked through the next drawer and then the next—still no money jar.
Tom licked his lips and asked what was wrong.
“It’s gone,” Eddie said.
“It’s not there.”
Tom blinked. “I think we better leave.”
Downstairs, Eddie suggested they slip away to the park for a while. But Tom said he thought he should be getting home.
“Why?” Eddie said.
“Because I think I should, is all.” Tom was pulling his coat on, and putting his head into his stocking cap. What could Eddie do? He stood by the windowpane—through which he felt the cold against his face—and watched his friend walk through the snow toward his safe home.
Eddie expected punishment at any moment. For the rest of the afternoon, each time his abuela entered the room his heart raced. He tried to think of pleasant things to say—asking her what she wanted for Christmas, offering to help her with the housework. An hour or so before his mother picked him up he developed a cough. When Abuela checked to see if he was all right, he said he didn’t know and began coughing so hard he had to stop speaking. She decided to make chicken soup. She took Eddie to a spare bedroom. He lay there coughing every now and then, until his mother arrived to pick him up.
The sun was a thin strip of yellow beneath the endless dark when Eddie saw his mother’s car arrive. He watched her walk up the steps. Downstairs the door opened then closed. Eddie listened to the greetings, and the hushed rapid Spanish that followed, the kind they spoke when they didn’t want him to hear what they were saying. It felt as cold inside the room as the night outside. Sure enough, Eddie heard footsteps on the stairs. The door to his room opened.
“Mira, nene,” he heard. “Estás bien? Can you come downstairs to where your mother is waiting?”
He pulled himself out of bed. He followed his abuela, with his hand in hers, down the steps. He forgot to cough even once on his way down.
In the living room, his mother was sitting on the couch. On the coffee table Eddie saw the money jar. A cool wave pass through his stomach. He knew he must be careful or he would begin to cry like a baby.
“Hi, Mamma,” he said.
“How are you feeling?”
Eddie coughed, sniffled a little. His mouth was turned down and he couldn’t move his gaze from the money jar.
“You’ve gotten yourself into some trouble, I see.”
Eddie nodded, but still his mouth would not stop lying. “What trouble, Mamma?”
“Why do you take money from your own abuela? When all you have to do is ask, why do you steal?”
Eddie shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you know what a terrible thing stealing is?”
Eddie nodded; tears were not a long way off.
“So then you’re the one who stole money? From your own Abuela’s bedroom. You did this thing?”
Eddie’s kind-hearted abuela, with a look of great pain, said, “Ana.” There followed a brief burst of difficult Spanish, from which Eddie gathered that his abuela believed Tom Binsack—el maldito—had put Eddie up to it.
“Is this true? Your friend put this idea in your head?”
“Well then you are not to see that boy anymore. He will not come here, you will not go to his place. Your grandmother brings him into her house, and this is how she is repaid? You should be punished for having listened to him. Do you hear?
Eddie nodded. But it wasn’t punishment he feared—it was his family’s disapproval of him and the things he’d done.
Eddie followed his mother to the car.
“You cannot let bad people influence you like this Eddie,” she said. She belted him in the backseat. “You should always be careful who you choose as friends.”
“I know Mamma,” he said.
“You should not let friends lead you into trouble.”
“I’m sorry, Mamma.”
The car rolled down the street. Passing Tom’s house, Eddie reflected on what kind of boy he had become. He wondered what kind of maldito—what kind of little devil—would betray a friend.
That night Eddie didn’t dare offend God with a prayer and sure enough he had a bad dream. In this dream his abuela was trapped outside in a blizzard, snow flying everywhere. She was trying to get into her house, but couldn’t get the door open. Eddie was inside the house, watching this, but for some reason he didn’t get up to help her. He had sandwiches stacked in front of him on the coffee table, and on the TV he was watching a game show. When he finally got up to let his abuela in, he opened the door and a small whirl of snow blew in through the door, but his grandmother was gone. Only then did Eddie realize he was too late. He woke up from the dream with his heart racing in his chest. The covers were twisted around him like a snake. He was too afraid to call out for his mother and father. For a long time he studied the oddly shaped moon-shadows on his bedroom wall before falling back into his restless sleep.
The next morning was Friday, the day Eddie’s mother didn’t have to work until nine. This meant she had time to come in and have coffee with Abuela. The three of them sat in the living room with their coffee, Abuela in her rocking chair, and Eddie beside his mother on the sofa. Eddie kept nodding off to sleep, he’d had such a dreadful night before.
“Miralo,” Abuela said. “Look how tired he is.”
“He has been very busy lately,” his Mamma said, and then Eddie had to endure another discussion of his sins. He listened, half awake, as his mother reminded him not to play with Tom. Then she said that she was considering paying a visit to Tom’s mother down the street and telling her what her Tom had done.
Eddie’s head came up; he blinked. “Don’t do that, Mamma,” he said.
His mother looked at Abuela, back at him. “Oh, I think I will,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because,” he said. “Please, Mamma.” And then all of the remorse welled up inside him and, like a doorway being opened into a bright room, he realized what he should do. “I took the money, Mamma.” He said this in English because he could not bear to have his abuela hear it. “It was my idea to steal the money.”
“You have a kind heart, Eddie,” she said. “But you shouldn’t try to protect your little friend.”
Eddie was shocked; his confession was being rejected. “No, I did it,” he said. “I made Tom take the money. It’s me you should be mad at.”
“Please don’t lie, Eddie,” she said. “Not even for a friend. Don’t worry, I won’t tell his mother.” His Mamma reached out and touched his face again. “You’re a brave little boy, with a good heart.”
Eddie was about to protest. But his mother was standing up, saying she would be late if she did not hurry, and with a kiss on his cheek, she blocked his confession once and for all.
After his mother was gone, Abuela asked Eddie what he wanted for breakfast; he said he was not hungry.
“I heard what you told your mother. You, not the other boy, took the money?” Then she said, in her accented English, of which she was very shy: “You see, I understand some English.”
Eddie nodded. “Yes, Abuela,” he said. “After I did these things, I thought God would make you die because of me.”
“Pobrecito!” she said. She laughed, rolling her eyes. “You poor little boy. I hope He should not kill me.”
She laughed again, and drew him close to tell him a story of something she had heard during her girlhood in Puerto Rico. It was told of an old woman who in youth, and in her grief at the death of a child, had denounced God and the Holy Spirit. She had spoken madness, blasphemed the names of Christ and the Holy Virgin herself, to the people of the pueblocito in which she lived. One day this woman was talking against God, when she was visited by Jesus Christ Himself—and not just any Jesus either, but the real thing, the Latin kind with a burning heart, and such compassion in His eyes that it made the woman’s soul weep.
Here Abuela raised her bony finger. “And do you know what He said? After she had spoken against him, hurt Him daily? All he asked was why she injured Him so. She had no answer except her pain. And then he created a miracle. The Lord revealed to her lost child, clouded in brilliant light, and in her time of grief He stayed with her.”
She nodded sadly. “In this world, these things can happen, little boy. And do you think this is the God who would let me die because you took money?”
Eddie shook his head. But he was very tired and soon he was in the spare bedroom taking a nap.
Much later that afternoon he asked to go outside. He walked to Tom’s house and rang the bell, but according to his mother, Tom was at the park with his sled.
Eddie trudged through the snow alone. He entered the park from the street, high up on a hill, from where he could see Tom playing below. The slope sparkled in the bright sunlight and Eddie had to squint to see. He approached the edge of the steep hill, waving to Tom—but suddenly Eddie’s feet slipped out from under him. The world tipped, then the ground rose up from behind and whacked Eddie in the back of his head like a frozen fist. Dazed, staring into the blue sky, he began sliding down the hill, turning slowly so that his feet were aiming up toward where he had fallen. All the way he slid like that, gazing into the sky.
He lay still for a moment when he stopped at the foot of the hill; then Tom’s face appeared above him.
“Eddie?” he said. “You okay?”
“I cracked my head,” he said.
“I saw.” Tom helped Eddie to his feet. “You’re lucky you didn’t knock yourself out.”
“I think I did,” he said. “My head hurts.”
Tom slung one of Eddie’s arms over his shoulder, and they started back up the hill. “I’ll help you get home.”
At the top Eddie said, “I’m not supposed to hang around with you any more.”
“Got busted, huh?” Tom said. “They found out?”
“They found out.”
“They always find out,” he said. Then he shrugged. “well, it’ll blow over. These things always do.”
That night his mother picked him up at eight as usual. He kissed his abuela on the cheek and walked to the car. There was the smell of exhaust on the cold air and the steady noise of the engine. Snow squeaked under his boots. On the way home, the dying sun cast orange light on the snow; the homes glowed with festive Christmas light in windows and in trees. Eddie gathered this light in his eyes and then parceled it out—some for his mother and some for his father, some for Tom Binsack, and some for his abuela, and a portion for the eternal soul of his abuelo. He even saved a small sliver for himself, so that his family should not be without him in the light.
Feature Profile, The Ann Arbor Observer
by Derek Green
In February of 2001 Keith Orr received a disturbing e-mail: Fred Phelps was coming to Ann Arbor to protest a U-M gay rights event. While he was here, Phelps announced on his website, he also planned to picket the \aut\ Bar, Ann Arbor’s only full-time gay and lesbian bar. Keith Orr is the bar’s co-owner.
Protesters come as no surprise to members of the gay community. But the Topeka, Kansas-based Phelps is especially inflammatory. His website--godhatesfags.com--once offered the following comments about Matthew Sheppard, the Wyoming college student who became a gay-rights martyr after being beaten to death and mutilated in 1998: “Matthew Shepard has been in hell for 910 days...All the fag caterwauling, candlelight vigils, court orders, etc., can’t buy Matt one drop of water to cool his tongue.”
Phelps delivered his message of hate in person when Sheppard was buried. He also carried picket signs at the funeral of Randy Shilts, the gay journalist and author of And the Band Played On before dying of AIDS in 1994. Now Phelps was bringing his show to Ann Arbor.
“I thought, ‘Great, like we really need this,’” Orr recalls. Phelps is adept at adding insult to injury by provoking confrontations with gays, then using the resulting conflicts to mount law suits against individuals and city governments. Orr worried that someone in his own community might be baited into playing Phelps’s game. “It’s easy to do,” Orr explains. “He’s so foul-mouthed.”
That’s when he struck on an idea. Wondering whether it might be possible to turn the tables on Phelps, he began e-mailing friends and customers. Orr wrote that he intended to pledge $1 to a local AIDS-awareness organization for every minute Phelps picketed the bar. Would anyone else be willing to do the same?
“Within minutes pledges were pouring in,” Orr remembers, and not only from members of the gay community. By the time Phelps arrived on February 17, word about the pledge drive was everywhere.
“The bar’s usually slow on a Saturday afternoon,” Orr says. “But that day we were packed.” While Phelps and a handful of followers carried signs reading “AIDS Is God’s Curse” outside, Orr and partner Martin Contreras pedaled “Phreedom from Phelps” martinis to a cheerful crowd inside. An hour later Phelps left—but not before raising over $7500 for local AIDS charities.
According to Keith Orr, NPR radio talk show host Todd Mundt was the first to reply to Orr’s the email pledge solicitation. “I immediately said count me in for a buck a minute,” Mundt recalls. Though he had been a pa-tron at the \aut\ Bar since just after his arrival in town, he had only recently publicly come out as a gay man---at a rally sponsored in part by the \aut\ Bar. He was there the day Phelps protested outside.
“It was just one of those cool seminal moments where you see the community come together in a relatively simple way but a way that matters,” Mundt says. “The event demonstrated [Orr and Contreras’s] organizing ability, but also their commitment to keep the message positive---not to at-tack in the same way people attacked them.”
‘A DIFFERENT KIND OF GAY BAR’
Even before Phelps came to town, the \aut\ Bar had become a focal point for Ann Arbor’s gay community, providing a venue for everything from handing out AIDS awareness literature to hosting fundraisers for gay-friendly politicians. But the witty brand of counter protest Orr and Contreras devised catapulted them to national prominence. The pledge-drive strategy they invented has been picked up by gay as well as straight organizations across the country and even has a name: Every Minute Counts. Contreras and Orr were featured in the gay and straight press alike, turning them into Ann Arbor’s most visible gay couple, and making their little bar into some-thing of a local landmark.
“It’s strange,” jokes Contreras, “to find yourself to be sort of a cult figure. A friend asked us, ‘Are you ready to become community leaders?’ It wasn’t something we planned for or anticipated.”
In some ways, neither was the bar’s success. Since opening in 1995, Orr and Contreras have created a space that not only brings together the of-ten contentious subgroups of the gay-and-lesbian world, but has also become a bridge to the straight community. It hasn’t always been an easy task.
“We wanted a gathering place for, as we put it, men and women of the gay community, their friends, and family,” Orr recalls. But what attracts one of those groups doesn’t necessarily work for another. “We’ve learned by trial and error, we listen to our customers,” Orr continues. “Even we’ve been surprised with the degree to which the bar appeals to people of quite different backgrounds.”
Their success owes a lot to the ability Orr and Contreras have to walk the tightrope among the very different constituencies that make up their clientele. It’s an art they manage with charm, surprising shrewdness and an al-ways-present sense of humor. The \aut\ Bar, in fact, is largely an extension of its owners’ own tolerant and open personalities.
“We knew that we wanted to open a different kind of gay bar,” says Contreras. “Historically, gay bars have been gathering places for the gay community. But for a lot of reasons, they’ve also been dark and dingy. You become your environment. We wanted something with a gay sensibility but with openness and light.”
Their hopes were complicated by an almost non-existent budget and the fact that they weren’t starting with a blank slate. For many years, they had operated a Mexican restaurant, La Casita de Lupe, in the same space. And the location itself was unusual: Braun Court, a tightly-bunched cluster of homes across from the Farmers’ Market that had been converted to small restaurants and boutiques.
“We knew that we didn’t want to close La Casita, give it a new paint job and open a gay bar the next day,” Contreras says. Something similar had already been tried in the early 1990s, when a local Chinese restaurant was converted overnight into a gay bar and immediately failed.
They also didn’t want to imitate the town’s long-standing gay bar, the Flame. Toward the end of its life it had been so neglected by its straight owners that bar stools lacked seat tops and portable kerosene space heaters had been brought in to warm the place in winter. “We knew a whole lot about what we didn’t want,” jokes Contreras.
Late in the spring of 1995 fall of 1994 he and Orr contacted architect Betsy Williams to help plan the makeover. She and furniture designer John Baird spent hours with the partners, discussing their vision for their bar and drawing up preliminary sketches.
“They kept saying over and over that they wanted light and open-ness,” Williams recalls. “A place where they could gather with friends--not only gay men, but the entire community.”
The collaboration resulted in an elegant design with a different feeling on each floor. Downstairs there’s a jaunty surfboard-shaped bar and fixtures with soft edges. The idea, Orr says, is for the space to be “intimate and inviting” for customers who want to talk over dinner or drinks. Upstairs is for dancing and mingling. Materials are hard-edged and the layout is more open, with bar tables that appear to float over a connecting stairway so that “even sitting at the bar or a table you’re at eye-level with someone standing next to you,” says Orr.
Perhaps the most unusual feature is that the small building has three separate entrances, one in front, another near the back, and a third that opens directly onto the club-like second floor. The result is a sort of three-dimensional in-and-out scheme that lends a feeling of openness and free-flowing traffic—with none of the front-door bottlenecks that plague other busy bars.
“People feel free to come and go as they please,” Orr says. “We’ve never charged a cover, so we don’t need to monitor who’s coming and going. That’s how we want it. We figure only something like 10 percent of our customers come in through the official front entrance.”
The partners couldn’t afford to stay closed long, so the timeline was tight: just three months from closing gutting La Casita de Lupe to completion opening \aut\ Bar. Orr recalls returning one night to what was then still La Casita de Lupe to find that Martin and a few friends had begun demolishing the upstairs dining room. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s real. We’re really doing this now.’”
No one had really ever done what they were proposing to do: offer a single establishment to accommodate the vastly different groups of the gay-lesbian world. “Most gay bars are niche businesses in big cities,” explains Contreras. “There are leather bars, there are dyke bars. We were something new.”
The name the gay community in general has adopted in recent years, LGBTQ, gives a clue to the uphill battle facing the partners. The initials stand for Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-and-Questioning. Each group is separated from the others by different styles and sensibilities and even political agendas. Could a single venue appeal to them all? “Don’t forget,” Orr adds, rolling his eyes, “we also planned a place where people could bring their straight family members and friends!”
The problem was reflected in their struggles to find a suitable name for the bar. By June of 1995, demolition of La Casita de Lupe was already done and renovation for the bar well underway, yet no one had been able to decide what to call the new place.
“My God, we had so many ideas,” says Contreras, “almost all of them bad.” He laughs as he lists some of the early frontrunners: Dog Day After-noon, the Anvil, the Torch. “One thought we had was: ‘Queers! Where everybody knows your name.’ Of course, we knew there would be some kind of copyright issue.”
“It was already time to start advertising,” Orr says, “and here we were without a name.” So one night, when he and Contreras had been invited for dinner at the home of close friends, “I took this list of 200 names to the table and said, ‘Tonight, no more brainstorming. We’re going to settle on a name.’”
The friends, graphic artist Jim Mimnaugh and U-M hospital patient relations specialist Dave Clark, pick up the story. “They had all these names,” says Mimnaugh. “They were really agonizing over it. One Martin liked was An Evening by the Park. Really awful stuff. We were going crazy with this. Then David came out of the kitchen with a platter of fried chicken.”
Clark continues. “I put the platter on the table and said, ‘It really sounds like what you’re doing is trying to capture the whole concept of be-ing out. Why don’t you just call it the Out Bar?’”
A stunned silence followed. “We knew right then that was it,” Orr says. But nagging doubts remained. Would there be complaints from other gay ventures, like Out Magazine, for example? Contreras was driving to De-troit a few days later when he cell-phoned home with a final brainstorm. He asked Orr to find a dictionary and look up the phonetic spelling of the word ‘out.’
“There it was,” Orr says, “aut, complete with the diacritical markings and everything. One of the definitions listed was ‘into the open.’” Within hours, Orr had designed a logo, and the ‘aut-speak’ concept was born.
Throughout the renovation, the windows had been papered over so curious passersby could only guess at what was going in to replace the old Mexican restaurant. Now Orr began to run teasers, mostly in the gay press but in some straight venues as well, full -page ads printed with the single word Aut. These were followed by full page ads of ‘aut-speak’ in tiny washed out letters, reading ‘coming soon to Ann Arbor.’
“No one had any idea what ‘aut’ meant,” Orr says. “By the time we actually started running ads saying we were a gay bar, there was this great buzz going. When we finally opened there was literally a line out the door for people waiting to get in.”
An incidental effect of the name is that since its opening the bar has held a bit of mystique even among the general population. The \aut\ Bar, for instance, offers a Sunday brunch, a holdover from La Casita de Lupe days, that has a downright family feel to it.
“We describe our place as ‘straight-friendly,’’’ Contreras says with a smile, “and that’s fine.” But, he says, the \aut\ Bar is “first and foremost a gay bar. It was something we intended to be for and of our community.”
Their policy of inclusiveness hasn’t gone untested. Orr and Contreras recall the time they were approached by the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, the national organization of gay Republicans, to host a fund-raiser. “We were like, well…,” Orr says. But they decided to stick to their concept and the event went ahead. “Just the fact that they exist is a good sign,” Orr says. “Not that many people showed up, but the ones who did said they had a good time.”
Now that it’s established, the bar’s success seems to have been almost inevitable. But Contreras and Orr’s personal story is another matter. It’s a tale ups and downs and last-minute comebacks, often in the face of staggering adversity, played out against the dark years of the AIDS crisis.
In 1977 Contreras move to Ann Arbor from southwest Detroit to study in threat U-M physical therapy program. He and his three sisters two siblings had been raised in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood and had grown up working in the kitchen of a pizzeria sub shop owned by his their mother, Guadalupe. By the mid-1980’s, Guadalupe was ready to ease up on her workload. Martin decided to help her open a small restaurant in Ann Arbor so she could be nearer him in semi-retirement. They settled on a space in Peter Allen’s then-new development, Braun Court. They decided to use a Spanish diminutive of his mother’s name, calling the new restaurant La Casita de Lupe.
Earlier, 1979, Contreras had met a woman and become en-gaged to her. But he found himself “dragging my feet about getting married. Even I wasn't sure at the time, why.” Over time he came to grips with the fact that he was gay. Then he had to tell others.
“My fiancé had a lot of courage,” he says. “She wished me well and we remained on friendly terms for years afterward.” His mother took it harder. “She had never been religious,” Contreras recalls. “But when I told her I was gay, she actually went to see a priest!
“My mom blamed Ann Arbor and the University for making me gay,” he continues with a laugh. Was telling the truth difficult? “Of course,” he admits. “But so was living a lie. It’s a strange thing, because you can hide being gay. I couldn’t hide being a Hispanic male, for instance. But being gay, you can. I just decided I wasn’t going to pretend anymore.’”
By the time his mother moved to Ann Arbor to open La Casita de Lupe, she had come to terms with her son’s sexuality. The restaurant opened in May, 1986. But that August the day before opening the doors, Guadalupe Contreras was diagnosed with cancer. She died the following January.
“I inherited a lot of loans and promissory notes,” Martin says. “My mother had invested her whole life savings” in the venture. Contreras decided to leave put <check> his physical therapy career on to hold to take over run the restaurant full time. Any other decision, he says, “would have wiped out her legacy. It was very melancholy opening.” [
Difficult as it was, the death of his mother wasn’t the only pressure on Contreras: he was also being sued. According to Contreras, Allen had reneged on several promises to his tenants, including a common liquor license. In response, Contreras had begun to escrow the monthly rent due on La Casita, prompting the lawsuit from Allen. Contreras (and several other tenants) filed a class action countersuit.
“We were a young business,” Contreras recalls. “We had $20,000 in legal fees alone.” Eventually the bank foreclosed on Braun Court—but La Casita de Lupe, as the only tenant that had actually escrowed rent, stayed in business. What’s more, the partners had the opportunity to buy their space at foreclosure rates---if they could execute their first-right-of-refusal option within two weeks.
“The problem was, we had no money,” Contreras says. “But we had put in all this sweat equity and we put a business plan together” to buy the building. In what he describes as a Hail Mary deal, Contreras found an investor who had money to buy the who
Eventually, he managed to put together a deal in which a friend bought the space and then turned around and sold it back to Contreras--all within a two-week period. It was the first of several shrewdly seized opportunities that mark his somewhat accidental business career.
MARRYING INTO THE BUSINESS
By the time the law suit was resolved, Contreras and Orr had met and were a couple. “I married into the business,” Orr deadpans.
He had come to Ann Arbor to study performance at the U-M Music School’s well-known classical bass program. Unlike Contreras, Orr says he had understood he was gay for most of his life---though he wasn't always aware of the actual name for it. He recalls being eleven and reading an a Newsweek article about the suicide of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles. The article used the phrase “avowed homosexual” to describe Epstein. “I read it and I realized, well, that’s what it’s called. That’s the word for it.”
At sixteen, he told two of his closest childhood friends he was gay. When he did, he remembers, their reactions were surprisingly cold, and the subject was quickly dropped. Years later, he found out, both of his friends had come out as well. “You find that sometimes, the worst homophobes are gay people,” Orr remarks.
According Orr and Contreras, most men and women ‘come out’ in phases: first they admit it to themselves then friends, then family, and finally the rest of the world. Both agree coming out is a sort of “rite of passage” for gays; it’s also an ongoing event. “When you walk up to the front desk at a hotel together and they ask, “Two kings or two full size beds,” Contreras says, “and you say you just want a single bed, you’re sort of coming out all over again.”
Orr and Contreras steered La Casita de Lupe through its best years in the early 1990’s together. But Contreras also makes a point to mention an-other friend who was “very much a part of the creation of La Casita de Lupe” before he met Orr—even before his mother had died: his first gay partner, Mark Brigance.
Contreras and Brigance met in Kalamazoo in 1982 and moved in together in Ann Arbor later that year. At about the same time a mysterious disease had begun infecting gay young men, first in San Francisco and New York City, then in other major urban centers and finally, it seemed, every-where.
In 1982, the mysterious killer was named AIDS—acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Two years later researches announced that they had isolated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as its cause. The first di-agnostic HIV antibody test was introduced in 1985.
“It just jumped out of nowhere,” Orr remembers of the dark early 1980’s. “There was this disease out there. No one seemed to know any-thing about it—whatever was known was disseminated through the gay community.”
Both Orr and Contreras agree that the disease had a “galvanizing effect” on the gay community. “We started looking out for each other,” Contreras says. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone knew someone who was sick or dying.
“Buddy systems were formed” to care for the most critically ill, Orr recalls. “This was kind of unique to the gay community. When other diseases hit it was usually the family that took care of you.” But often families hadn’t faced the fact that one of their members was gay, let alone dying of a terrifying disease no one understood. “Often it was friends or lovers who ended up caring for someone,” Orr continues.
When the victims died, though, the surviving partners got a fast education in their legal rights: they had none. Often, “family members would come in and sweep away a body,” Orr recalls. “We probably wouldn’t even be talking about gay marriage today if it weren't for the AIDS crisis.
“All of us lost countless friends,” he goes on. “There were so many. Sometimes, you would run into someone you hadn't seen in a while and it would be a surprise—‘You’re alive!’—because you just assumed other-wise.”
He recalls the day as a teenager when he and his mother visited an elderly friend of the family with news of the death of one of his contemporaries. “He was in his nineties. When he heard [this friend], my grandmother, who was his contemporary, had died, he smiled a sad smile and said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ Almost all of his contemporaries were gone. I thought of him years later. When your twentieth or thirtieth friend or acquaintance dies, you don’t feel it exactly the same way. We became schooled in death.”
As understanding of AIDS spread, Contreras says, he became a “big advocate of safe sex.” But that hadn’t always been the case. In 1985, soon after the test became available, he and Mark were tested for the HIV anti-body. Martin’s results came back negative. Mark was positive.
“I had a sense of guilt,” Contreras says, “at the same time there was this dread—of waiting for the other shoe to fall, for me to find out I had it.”
For a long time, Mark remained in reasonably good health. Though they had been drifting apart as a couple for some time and had already stopped living together, he and Martin continued together to take care of friends who fell ill. Contreras also made a promise: he would take care of Mark when he became sick.
Contreras and Orr began their relationship in August of 19881986. According to Contreras, Mark was being treated with an early version of AZT therapy at levels considered toxic by today’s standards. “He had periods of illness,” Contreras says, “but he would come back. He enjoyed life. Then he got really sick.”
Mark developed full-blown AIDS, Contreras says, in the fall of 19881987. “I went and scooped him up from his apartment and took him to the U-M hospital [hospital].” When he was released, Martin moved back in with him back into the townhouse they had shared earlier. “Keith and I sort of put our relationship on hold,” Contreras says. “He took care of the day-to-business at the restaurant while I took care of Mark.” When Mark died in December of 1988, Contreras was twenty-nine. Mark himself was thirty-one.
Asked how they account for having survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic themselves, both shake their heads. “Just dumb luck at first,” Orr says. “No one knew what the disease was or how it was transmitted.” But that’s not the case now, he says, adding that he never takes being HIV-negative for granted.
“Due diligence,” he says, “you need to protect yourself and your friends.” It’s a message he and Contreras preach regularly. “The younger community didn’t experience the early years of the AIDS crisis,” he says, pointing out that that’s true for both gay and straight young people. “They sometimes think of it as a problem that affected “older” gay men.” It’s an attitude, he believes, that no one can afford.
A NIGHT AUT
It’s Thursday night at the \aut\ Bar and the main bar downstairs is crowded with patrons. There’s music playing down here but it’s hard to make our exactly what over the conversation and laughter. Like most nights at the bar, Contreras and Orr are somewhere in the crowd, meeting and greeting, helping out their staff during rushes. Everyone seems to know them and stops with an anecdote or handshake.
It’s a decidedly mixed crowd. At the far end of the bar from where I’m sitting, a group of men and women—some seated, some standing—order drinks and listen as one of their party tries to tell a presumably funny story over his own loud laughter. Beside me a man has settled down over beer and a Mexican dish that’s tempting me to order food myself. The man somehow manages to read out of a paperback book despite the din.
“Oh, this is pretty typical for this time of night,” says Terry McClymonds. It’s just after 10 p.m. McClymonds been the regular Thursday night bartender for 8 years. “There used to be a time when I knew almost everyone” frequenting the bar, he says, after I ask for his take on the bar crowd—gay-lesbian, straight, in- or out-of-towners? “It’s pretty mixed tonight. Of course we haven’t even started to get really busy.”
In the dining room behind me most of the tables are filled with a lateish dinner crowd. It’s a warm night; in the courtyard fronting the bar, another group sits at outside tables under torch lighting. A wait staff of mostly young men covers the floor.
McClymonds has put out the word that I’m hoping to interview a few customers. One of the women at the end of the bar calls down from a few seats that she’ll talk to me. She identifies herself as Sherry and we carry on a truncated interview across three or four other patrons.
“Why do I come here?” she asks. She holds her hands up in an all en-compassing gesture. “It’s fun. Why else would I come?”
I wonder whether she identifies herself as a lesbian. She—and a couple of the men and women with her—get a laugh out of the question. “Well,” she says, “what do you think?”
That’s as far as we get, though, because one of the men between us, Jim, is telling me that he has just returned from a trip out of town with a friend. The friend went home, but Jim stopped by “to see the boys,” he says. “The place has evolved quite a bit over the years.”
I say the crowd seems fairly tame tonight.
“Well,” he says, almost apologetically, “give it some time. It’ll get a little wilder.”
I’m thinking of his words when I head upstairs an hour or so later. The lighting up here is a few notches lower than the mellow dinner glow downstairs with the smoky atmosphere of a nightclub. The crowd up here seems more intent on meeting each other, not a reporter. Couples---men and men, women and women---dance to disco music pumped loud from a wall-mounted jukebox in the corner. In an attached room, a group of men crowd around a pool table where a game of eight ball is underway, giving the feel of an urban pool-hall bar.
Back downstairs Orr and Contreras have left for the night but the bar has become even busier. Terry’s found a couple of people who I might want to interview. Tim Wojnar and Julie Bross have driven from just outside of Cleveland to visit the bar. Isn’t that sort of a long drive for a straight couple to visit a gay bar?
Though neither lives in Ann Arbor, Julie explains, they happened to meet in town a year before and came to the \aut\ Bar for a date.
“To be honest,” Tim says, “we didn’t know it was a gay bar then. We just came because it looked cool.”
“Occasionally,” Julie adds, “we come to Ann Arbor just for fun. We always stop here for dinner.
“Of course you can see it’s a gay bar,” she continues. It’s cool and it’s friendly. So why would we go anyplace else?”
INTO THE FUTURE
With the \aut\ Bar established and their own star rising, many people in town wonder what direction Contreras and Orr will head next. A hint came in June when the pair announced that they had bought Common Language bookstore on xx Street.
Previous co-owner Linda Kelly had built the store into the one of the region’s premier gay and lesbian bookshops, but had become burned out and was looking around for possible buyers. “When Martin and Keith expressed interest,” she says, “it was like, I couldn’t think of anyone better. It was a perfect match.”
Orr and Contreras don’t plan on turning Common Language into an \aut\ Bar, pointing out that the store already has a strong brand identify and a national reputation. According to Contreras, one thing that will carry over to Common Language is the \aut\ Bar’s marketing approach, aiming to serve the entire GLBTQ population and even some mainstream offerings for straight readers. They also plan to turn the bookstore’s lower level into a performance space for readings, poetry slams and the like.
“The only physical changes we’ve made,” he adds, “have mostly been to move bookshelves to improve traffic flow and to open up the window so you can see in.”
In recent months there has been some rumors that the pair maybe be thinking of taking the \aut\ Bar concept beyond Ann Arbor. Should friends of the \aut\ Bar be getting ready for a visit to Madison, Wisconsin or Berkeley, California?
In unison, Contreras and Orr roll their eyes. “Not in the immediate future,” says Orr. Then he smiles quickly and adds, “But I wouldn’t rule anything out.”