Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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After this life, Bakari was told, he would put on his crown of honor. After this, he and his mother and Declan would be together in Paradise. After the fire and the chaos, the planners said, he would know his God-given name, the singular identity hidden from him all his life. And Bakari Hawass, the public name that even women could call out in the street, that name would be known all over the world after this.

He tried not to lose track of time. Though, really, since leaving London, he felt estranged from time, now waiting to board another airplane, fly to Toronto, meet the driver who would take him to the holding camp. He noticed an odd weightlessness in his arms and legs. The world around him seemed hazy and muffled. He had been warned: these sensations were the first inklings of heaven, though Bakari knew better. This was fear, hesitation, uncertainty, fading resolve. He had already misplaced his airline ticket twice, and the second time he felt a flood of relief. But then it had turned up again, in his backpack, and now here he was, the Hyatt Hotel in Reston, Virginia. A shuttle would take him to the airport later tonight, but until then, he would walk to pass the hours, walk as far as he could from the town center, its flat sprawl of shops and eateries like a huge department store blasted down to the ground. Soon after he left the hotel, though, the streets seemed to turn back on one another, and he was lost in the maze of cement and metal, the violence of nail guns and screaming generators and the bashing away at the past that Americans called renewal. After twenty minutes’ wandering, he came to a small bar called The Body Politic. Absurd: what had The Body Politic to do with the consumption of alcohol? He could hardly understand what the phrase meant: there is no part of the body that is political, except the mind. The body is merely the house or the motor. The body, the planners said, is irrelevant.

All right, he thought, all right. This will be okay. He could find his way back or call a taxi, even after a glass of gin. And he also thought it would serve as a useful reminder about America, its love of all this nonsense inside The Body Politic—mirrors and smoke and insincere greetings from strangers, pickled food in jars, ice, sporting teams and winning, meaningless slogans. The King of Beers. Reassuringly Expensive. And this one, completely incomprehensible: No Matter What What’s-His-Name Says, I’m the Prettiest and Lite’s the Greatest. But also a pool table. Bakari liked pool, which he had learned to play in London. He liked the bright and colorful nature of the game, the green felt, the purple and orange and red spheres in a cluster, the sound they made touching each other, which reminded him of his language.

The very young man behind the bar was called Randy; the metal plate affixed to his shirt said so, though he had put it on upside down. When Bakari pointed that out, Randy shrugged. “What difference does it make?” he said. Bakari shrugged, too. “No one cares what my name is,” Randy said. Inverted that way, the name looked more like a word in Arabic. Bakari wanted to say this but knew he shouldn’t. Randy took off his name tag, turned it the right way round and pinned it back on his shirt.

After Randy brought the first glass of gin, they watched television together. They watched a man talking to Oprah Winfrey, revealing his great shame. Oprah, Bakari noted, did not show this man even a glimmer of her million-watt smile. He would never get even one sentence in her lush and glossy magazine. She occupied her chair like a powerful African queen. She asked the shamed man to please remove his feet from her couch. Randy winked at Bakari and said, “Pussy-whipped.” Bakari knew what he meant, and yet he had no concept of how it would work, the way many people only half-understand why the sky is blue. At least I didn’t jump on your couch, the shamed man said. The audience laughed nervously, but Oprah shook her head in abject sadness. You, sir, she said, are no Tom Cruise. Bakari looked at Randy, who twirled his right index finger beside his right ear. He knew this to be a gesture Americans used when they had nothing important to say on a subject. “Oprah’s everybody’s shrink,” Randy said.

He then began to talk about psychiatry, which wound somehow to his young daughter who had decided she wanted to become a veterinarian, though Randy thought she would make a good therapist. “She’s quiet,” he said. “Not like me.” Bakari knew this was a place where he should smile but not agree. But she was only twelve, Randy said. He thought she would change her mind a thousand times.

“You have a twelve-year-old?” Bakari said.

“Started early. My one regret in life. Not the kid, but the starting.”

Randy’s cell phone rang then, and he turned away to answer. Bakari turned, too, to survey the large room of The Body Politic. Beyond the pool table, a couple sat in a booth. Bakari saw that the woman was crying, leaning forward over the table. She had long dark hair that caught the light, shining as if a cold blue fire burned all over her head. She used a handful of hair to wipe the tears from her face, a gesture that reminded Bakari of his sister. The man sat back against the booth, watching her. He crossed his arms over his chest and uncrossed them, then laid his hands flat on the table as if he were going to stand. He gazed at the woman as if she were a stone or some lesser object. Bakari saw the man’s mouth move and his lips form the word stop. The woman looked up at him and said nothing.

Bakari left his seat at the bar and went to stand beside the pool table. He felt drawn to the game and drawn to the couple in the booth. The gin, the heat of it, made him curious. He wanted to hate them, these young Americans. He wanted to experience the woman’s shallow self-pity and the man’s ugly arrogance. Not experience. Observe. On the wall to his left was an open cabinet of pool cues. Bakari chose one, then twisted the cube of chalk over the tip. He gathered the balls into the rack, removed it, blasted the white ball into their huddled mass. He knew he shouldn’t do this, that someone might remember the man who played the solitary game of pool, but then he reminded himself that soon there could be the remembering, but there would not be the man.

In less than ten minutes, he had won the game. The couple in the booth kept silent all this time, until he shot the black ball and then the white one into the same pocket. Then the man applauded loudly. “You’re the champ,” he said. Bakari stared at the man but did not smile, which seemed to make the man afraid. The man said to the woman, “So.” Then there was silence. Bakari turned his back to them, pretended to study a mark in the green felt, erase it with his fingers. Finally the man spoke again. He said, “Can I drop you somewhere?” The woman answered, “Isn’t that what you just did?” The man sighed heavily. “Here,” he said. She replied, “I don’t want your money.” “Fine,” the man said, and Bakari heard him move, gather a jacket, slide out of the booth. Bakari waited a few seconds and then stepped back purposefully, so that the man would have to touch him in some way. He wasn’t precisely sure why he wanted this contact, but it had something to do with guilt. Bakari thought this man could be the last American he touched, and he wanted the man to bear the weight of it, the humiliation.

He felt the man’s shoulder against his ribcage, then the man’s open palms on his back, a shove. “Look where you’re going, asshole,” the man said, and Bakari turned to face him. He said, “You look.” Bakari wondered if the man perceived, as he did, that there was a kind of enchanted mirror between them, in which each could see his exact opposite and feel the shock of it, this brief glimpse of a life he could never have. Then the man was gone, past the pool table, past Randy, out of The Body Politic’s front door, which flashed a tall, thin rectangle of afternoon light, then darkened again.

Bakari took his seat at the bar. Randy had cleared away his empty glass, and in its place was another, full of ice, a deep red liquid and many pieces of fruit.

“Pomegranate,” Randy said. “Tell me what you think.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” Bakari said.

“I know. It’s an experiment. It’s on the house.”

“How do I know it’s not poison?”

Randy laughed, then shook his head. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

Bakari said nothing, and so Randy took up the glass and swallowed half. Then he reached for another glass from the shelf above them and set it in front of Bakari. He gathered bottles and fruits and a wooden board, stained an alarming crimson. He poured from the bottles into a silver shaker, chopped the fruits, and added them along with a scoop of ice. He crushed pomegranate seeds and slid the mess of them into the shaker and handed it across the bar. “Shake,” he said, and Bakari did. Then he took the shaker back and poured the contents through a small sieve into a glass. “See?” he said. “No poison.”

As Bakari brought the glass to his lips, the room seemed to become as still as a photograph in which he was the only living thing. Randy fell into shadow, the lights and bottles and glasses behind him turned to flecks of white, like snow caught in the act of falling. The liquid in the glass tilted toward him, red anger. He was about to drink it, this fury, this hatred of godless Americans, concocted by people like Randy, out of bounty and ferment. Bakari thought he might slam the glass down between them, watch it shatter into a million pieces. Then he would begin to roar and forget how to stop.

Randy waited, smiling. Bakari put down the glass, pushed it toward him. “You drink first,” he said.

“Jesus,” Randy said. “Okay. Whatever.” He picked up the glass, took a sip, waited, raised his eyebrows, sipped again. “See?”

“All right.”

So Bakari drank it down, the mixture sending him back to childhood, to the fruit juice his mother would give him in the afternoons while she had a glass of tea and tried to discover if he had learned anything in the English school that day.

“Where are you from?” Randy said. “What state of paranoia?”

He had been told to say New York.

“Before that, I mean. Your accent is like  . . .”


“Like London, England?”

“That one.”

“Cool. How’s the Queen?”

“She’s fine.”

“She’s never going to die, is she?”

“She’ll die,” Bakari said. “That’s how it works.”

“I’d like to see her before she dies,” Randy said. “Like she’s always been this picture. I want to make sure she really exists.”

“I saw her once. Going into a theatre. She’s very small. She smiled at me. She has a kind smile.”

“Why was she smiling at you?”

“Because she thought I was a beggar. She told her driver to give me some money.”

“Did he?”

Bakari was tired of talking. His thoughts drifted. “Yes.”

“How much?”

“A twenty-pound note.”

“That was nice of her.”

“She thought money would make me invisible.”

She wanted us to go away. Because we were two Egyptians and an Irishman, and she didn’t understand that coalition, and people are afraid of what they don’t understand.

Some of this conversation Bakari was having with Randy and some of it was in his head. Because he was thinking about the real story, the true story, fifteen years ago, when he was thirteen, just after his mother died, when he had been sent from Cairo to live with his older sister in London. She was very beautiful, his sister Hakima, and this beauty and the family name had got her halfway across the world, to Harrods department store, where she was a manager’s assistant. She had a boyfriend, an Irishman called Declan, who worked in a wine shop but on weekends traveled all over London as a street magician and acrobat. Together they didn’t much care for the Queen. They had asked her driver not to give Bakari the money, but he did anyway.

They lived in a small flat in Spitalfields, the three of them like a family, two parents and their child. Declan made Bakari’s breakfasts and appeared at school every afternoon to walk him home. Bakari thought of Declan sometimes as his brother and sometimes as his father, not always happily. Now and then, he raged against Declan, his insistence on schoolwork before tea, that they go to football matches and play billiards in the pubs when Bakari would rather be wandering in Harrods or around London by himself. Declan wanted to make a man of Bakari—he said so, and Hakima seemed to want that, too. Declan loved her with a mad jealousy, and she seemed to love him, though Bakari was never quite sure why—Declan was thin and pale with red hair and eyes so light a shade of blue that they could seem translucent. He looked as though he might turn into mist and disappear.

What Bakari loved was London, the cold, gray orderliness of the city, so unlike the noise and vivid crush of Cairo. When Declan wasn’t dragging him around, Bakari would roam in a kind of oval from Portobello Road to Sloane Square to St. James Park. West London was like a filled pastry with Harrods in the center, a warm, sweet place to discover. He visited Hakima in her offices, where there were actual pastries and always coffee or tea or American cola drinks and ice to go in them. Hakima shared this suite with the owner of Harrods, who was never in, and one of his nephews, who oversaw the day-to-day operations of the store and never seemed to be out. His name was Chuma Habib, and he was often sitting, doing nothing, behind the largest desk Bakari had ever seen. He wondered if Chuma sat waiting for him to show up so he could practice his frown or his icy stare.

Bakari believed he understood this disposition one Saturday in mid-December when he came upon Chuma in the hallway between his office and Hakima’s. Outside, London had fully, deeply embraced Christmas. The streets rang with the season: bells of some sort on every corner, sweet and smoke in the air, caroling, hands gripping shopping bags, arms full of parcels, lights blazing in the pubs. Bakari had run from Charing Cross to Earls Court along the river—he ran to keep warm—and burst into the manager’s suite to tell Hakima that he had found the perfect Christmas present for Declan. Chuma stood there, scowling. He seemed to be struggling to get his breath. Bakari’s first thought was that something had happened to Hakima—Chuma appeared to be wildly confused and upset. “You,” he said abruptly. “Stop running.” Bakari, frozen in place by the impossibility of this command, said he would. Chuma closed his eyes and shook his head, frowning. “Pardon me,” he said. “Merry Christmas.” He turned then and started back toward his own office, and Bakari took it in with horror and shame, the twist and drag of his right knee, the muffled creak of a brace beneath the trouser leg.

Hakima appeared in the doorway of her office. She, too, had the look of someone who had just been badly frightened. “Come in here,” she whispered. “Right now.” She caught a handful of Bakari’s thin coat, dragged him inside and shut the door. She maneuvered her way past the high-backed armchairs, the marble side table and sat down behind her own desk, which was much smaller than Chuma’s. Bakari saw she had spilled tea on the blotter and was trying to mop it up. “You look like you don’t feel well,” she said. “How about a ginger ale?”

Bakari shook his head. He wondered suddenly if Harrods could afford to stuff him with drinks and snacks. If two of the company’s managing staff were so shaken, what else could it be? Harrods was doomed, Bakari thought. He’d heard talk between Declan and Hakima. Who could really afford these prices? Weren’t lots of shoppers passing by Harrods and stopping instead up the street at Harvey Nichols?

“Are you going to be sacked?” Bakari said.

Hakima stared. Bakari would swear he felt her eyes pierce his skull and make a hot bubble inside his brain.

“No,” she said. “Why would you ask me that?”

“You seem worried about something.” Bakari jabbed his thumb at the closed door. “Him, too.” Suddenly, he couldn’t help himself. He started to cry. “Will we be able to have Christmas?” he sobbed.

Hakima sat back in her chair. “Of course,” she said, but Bakari thought this response seemed to deflate her. “Don’t be silly. Mr. Chuma gets in a mood sometimes. We’re going to have the best Christmas ever.”


And so they did. Declan’s parents came from Belfast, and though Bakari had to give up his bedroom to them, he loved their noise and smells and cookery. On Christmas Eve, Declan’s four red-haired, ethereal brothers appeared, too, with their families, twelve grown-ups and two babies crowded into the kitchen and sitting room. Bakari wished the other two, sisters who had gone to live in America and France, had been there as well, and not because they would have brought more gifts. Declan’s family spoke of the sisters with reverence and awe and envy, how they’d got on with good companies and owned apartments in Boston and Paris. The sisters were called Mary and Denise, and Bakari imagined them as ginger-haired Amazons with skin like milk, as commanding and singular as their brothers were delicate and identical.

Because Bakari was the only child who understood the holiday, all talk of Santa was aimed at him. It seemed impolite to say he didn’t believe anymore, so he kept quiet and tried to enjoy the endless rating of his behavior on the naughty-to-nice scale. Declan joked that Bakari had a load of coal waiting for him, but Declan’s mother protested that Bakari had very good manners and the face of an angel. When she said this last part, Hakima and Bakari looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“What?” Declan’s mother said. “I’m sure some angels are dark. There must be all shades.” She clutched her hands in her lap and stared down at the tangle of pale fingers. “I guess I’ve said something awful.”

“No, no,” Hakima said quickly. “We’re just not used to angels. Or any of that from the Bible.”

“You lot don’t get very good press in the Bible,” Declan’s father said. “Exodus.”

Hakima leaned away from Declan, and Bakari saw another flash of it, that expression from a few days ago in her office. Declan put his arm around her shoulders and drew her back. She seemed to relax. One of the babies cried. Some of the grown-ups rose to cut more slices of pie, refill their glasses. Declan’s mother bent toward Hakima, lifted her wrist, fingered the gold and silver bracelets. “We know a bit about that, too,” she said. “About not being very popular.”

The next morning, Christmas, Bakari lay on the couch listening for the sounds of the breaking day, but there were none. The streets were quiet, Declan and Hakima and Declan’s parents slept, maybe dreaming of sugarplums. Bakari rose and stepped carefully past the bedroom doors to the Christmas tree, found the cord, plugged it in, and then climbed back under the blankets. The lights reminded him of home, specifically the colors of the clothes in his mother’s closet. Bakari missed her with a terrible ache, a stabbing pain at the top of his rib cage, straight through those bones, filling his lungs. He wondered if he thought of her hard enough, would she come back from the dead, materialize before him, like the angel Declan’s mother imagined? The bedroom door opened, and Hakima appeared, crossed the room to sit beside Bakari on the couch. “That’s lovely,” she said, nodding toward the lighted tree. She felt under the blankets for Bakari’s hand, held it tightly. “Happy Christmas,” she said. “We’re going to be okay.” She stood then and went into the kitchen.

“Will you look at this?” he heard her say. “Declan’s mum must have done the washing up.” Bakari went to see. The tiny kitchen was spotless, gleaming, and Hakima stood in the middle looking like a goddess in her shrine. “Right,” she said. “They’ll all be here in an hour. You’re going to get a billion presents. You have to act like they’re all the best one.”

But the absolute best one was the gift Bakari had thought of, Declan’s black leather jacket. When he had unwrapped enough of the box to understand what it contained, Declan’s hands began to shake. Bakari could tell he was trying not to look at Hakima, not to raise his head, but finally he couldn’t help himself, and everyone in the room saw the high color blooming on his throat and cheeks, the tears shining in his eyes. He brought the jacket fully out of the box and held it up for the family to see, kept it aloft in front of his face.

“I don’t really need it,” he said from behind the jacket.

“You do,” Hakima said.

“But I want it,” Declan said.

“Sometimes they’re the same thing,” Declan’s youngest brother said.

Bakari wondered about that at the time, believing this brother was wrong or silly or both. But he knew it was an idea worth remembering, the intersection of want and need and what waits at that crossroads.

Inside the jacket, Declan was transformed. After he shrugged himself into the sleeves, after Hakima rose to adjust the collar, after the zip buzzed through the room like a small but dangerous electric saw, a new Declan stood in front of them, ten times larger.

“Rock and roll,” the silly brother said. “Isn’t it a bit snug, though?”

“To keep out the wind,” the next oldest brother said. “Now you need a motorbike.”

“He most certainly does not,” their mother said, and everyone laughed.

Bakari couldn’t contain himself. “It was my idea!” he shouted from across the room. He wanted to have a piece of that jacket, of this family.

“Brilliant,” Declan’s father said.

“That’s right,” Hakima said. “It was.”

Declan unzipped the jacket and reached into the left breast pocket, saying, “Look what I found.” A magic trick: he drew out a small, gray velvet box, caught Hakima’s hand and folded the box into her palm. Then he seemed unable to speak. The brothers’ wives whistled and cheered, which frightened the babies, so a confusion of shouts and wailing filled the apartment, and no one heard what Hakima said to Declan as she opened the box and slipped the ring onto her finger. But Bakari could read her lips—or at least he thought he could. She said, Don’t do this, Declan. But she was smiling, so he didn’t worry then.

He opened his presents which were both thoughtful and practical: gloves, a scarf, a football, a new book Bakari didn’t want to read. All the unwrapping turned, after a while, into an ordeal. He had so many gifts. It wasn’t possible to summon up that much enthusiasm. Declan’s family drifted away toward the kitchen until finally only Hakima and Bakari were left sitting beside an enormous mound of ribbon and torn paper. The others began to serve the Christmas dinner, and Bakari shoved the unopened gifts back under the tree. Hakima sat still, watching the women arrange a roast beef the size of a small child. She spread the fingers of her left hand and gazed at the ring, a plain silver band into which a tiny chip of diamond had been embedded. She picked at the stone with her fingernail. Declan walked past, touched her hair.

“I wish it could be a bigger diamond,” he said.

Hakima smiled up at him and shook her head. When he’d gone, Bakari heard her whisper “So do I.”

Then they ate for what seemed like hours to Bakari. At regular intervals, one of the wives would remove an empty dish from the table, take it to the kitchen and return carrying another, piled with steaming food. As the apartment settled into the chime of cutlery on plates, it also grew hot. Bakari began to feel flushed and a little sick, and so he left his plate on the low table by the couch and scooped the football out of the tangle of gifts.

Outside, Princelet Street appeared to be expecting him, a boy holding a football, waiting for something to happen. Bakari had the strangest thought: that Christmas hadn’t arrived here yet and he would be the one to bring it. The dazzlingly blue sky was trying to decide what it wanted to be, hopeful or mocking. A cold gust swooped through the street, and then the air was still. Bakari wondered what to do—go back inside, kick the football around and wait for company, or go search out some boys from school. He dropped the football and moved it lazily in a wide circle, imagining the boys he knew cozy in front of fires or towering Christmas puddings, dozing with their mothers’ arms around them. He began to cry and instantly hated himself for being such a baby. He clenched his fists and pressed them against his eyes until yellow suns bloomed inside his eyelids and his head ached. Behind him, he heard the front door open, a huff of breath.

“Getting a bit close in there,” Declan said.

“Yeah.” Bakari didn’t turn around. Declan’s jacket creaked softly, like a rocking chair in another room.

“I’d kick around with you, but Christ, I’ve eaten so much, I might puke.”

“That’s okay.”

“I’d love a smoke.”

“Your mum would smell it.”

“Yeah. And then she’d be raging.”

“I like your mum.”

“She’s all right, yeah.” Bakari could almost hear Declan’s thoughts, Poor kid’s got no mum anymore, so shut up, you eejit. “Well. I just came down to see what you’re doing. Escaping the relatives, just like you.”

Bakari tried to laugh, but he couldn’t.

“Listen,” Declan said. “If you’re worried I’m going to take Hakima back to Belfast—”

A sound escaped from Bakari then—he didn’t want to let it out. He didn’t even know it was inside him, a kind of yell or a sob. Declan stepped closer. Bakari could smell the new leather.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Declan said and very slowly and gently grasped Bakari’s shoulders and turned him around. They were nearly the same height. “We’re not,” he said again, “and anyhow, we’d take you, too.” Bakari bowed his head into the new jacket, thinking how really Hakima should get to cry on it first.


“Money doesn’t make people invisible,” Randy was saying. “It’s just the opposite.”

“That’s for sure.” The woman from the booth had seated herself at the bar, just to Bakari’s right. This close, Bakari could see that she looked only a little like Hakima, but he couldn’t shake the earlier impression, the idea that he knew a great deal about her.

She asked for a glass of water. “That looked unpleasant over there,” Randy said.

“What does it mean,” the woman said, “‘I don’t feel good about us anymore’? What the hell does that mean?”

Bakari set down his glass. That old question. But what did any of it mean? Tastes As Great As Its Name. Sooner Or Later You’ll Get It.

“It probably means he thinks he’s too good for you,” Randy said. “That’s what Susan said. My ex-wife. But what she meant was, I’m better than you. She came from money, and to money she returned.”

“It means his mother doesn’t like me, that’s what.”

“Why not?” Bakari said.

“I don’t know.” She tried to laugh. “My own mother doesn’t like me.”

Randy shook his head like he couldn’t believe how mean the world was. He busied himself by making another pomegranate drink, which he then set in front of the woman.

She took a sip, made a face. “Too much vodka.”

Randy reached to take back the glass, but she leaned forward, laying her arms on the bar, enclosing the drink. “Let the ice melt then,” he said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Always.” She picked up the glass, roughly, and some of the drink spilled onto the front of her shirt. “Christ,” she said, looking down at the stain. “Why does everything I touch turn to shit?”

She was quiet for a minute. Bakari wanted to say something, but he was afraid of the tangle of words in his head: how well I don’t know you. He looked at his watch, then up to find his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, a face among bottles, trying to be lost among cylinders of colored glass. He thought about his flight and what would happen after, or tried to, but in his head, there was only blackness where tomorrow should be.

“I have to stay for a while,” she said. “While he moves his stuff out.” She pointed at the pool table. “Want to play? I have to do something besides sit here.”

“You kids go have some fun,” Randy said.

So the time she was supposed to wait passed. They played three games of pool, and Bakari let her win, twice, even though she had a habit of catapulting balls off the table onto the wood floor, the sound of which was sickening. She went outside to smoke after that, and he was sure she wouldn’t come back. He did not like being so close to her. She reminded him too much of Hakima, her bravery or her way of hiding fear. Bakari didn’t know what this woman might be afraid of—her empty apartment, her life without the man who had left her in the booth. He did know it was time for him to leave The Body Politic, return to his hotel, and think about the future, how one day soon he would prepare himself, his body, for the next life, bathe, cut his hair and pray, make certain of God’s favor.

But she did come back. “One more drink,” she said to him. “I’ll buy.”

“I’m traveling tonight,” he said. “I have to call a taxi.”

She nodded. “I forgot about my life there for a little while,” she said. “Thanks. When’s your flight?”


“It’s early,” she said. “I mean, it’s early now.” She said then that she needed a coffeemaker because the man would have taken the machine in the apartment. It was expensive, with a built-in grinder that made a terrible racket, which she hated, like a plane taking off. You could get a regular coffeemaker just about anywhere. There must be a drugstore around here someplace.

Randy wanted to go with her. His shift was done. He said he hated to go home on the weekends when his little girl was at his ex-wife’s house in the country. He had a car.

“We could get a coffeemaker and go back to—I don’t know your name, doll,” he said to the woman.

“Raye,” she said. “With an ‘e.’”

“Is that okay, Raye? Go back to your place.”

“I don’t know.”

“Or we could just drive around,” Randy said. “It’s kind of a nice afternoon.” He looked at the far wall of The Body Politic, as if he could see out a window. “We could drop you at your hotel—? I don’t know your name either.”

“All right,” Bakari said.

“You don’t have a name, man?” Randy said.

“Declan,” Bakari said.


Bakari believed the American word was joyride. It began that way while they searched for a drugstore, and lasted for maybe ten minutes. The joy. Randy had a pint of vodka under the front seat of his car. He offered the bottle to Raye and Bakari, and she accepted, and then he didn’t offer again. Raye rode next to Randy, so Bakari was alone in the back. He couldn’t always hear what was being said. After a while, he drifted off to sleep, and when he woke, the sun was setting and the car was speeding down a road between two fields.

Bakari stared at his watch. 6:45. “Where are we? I need to get back.”

“Still in Virginia,” Randy said. “Relax, buddy. We’re going to pick up my kid.”

Raye turned quickly to look at Randy. Bakari saw that this was news to her, too. “Hunh,” she said, considering.

“I’ve got to get back,” Bakari said again.

“We’ll get you back,” Randy said. “This won’t take long.”

The fields stretched on, fading with the daylight, to gray. The evening sky lay flat like a painted canvas, or a black-and-white photograph. At last a gas station came into view, and then a small restaurant, a post office, a nursery filled with the shadows of tall plants, standing like people gazing out at the road. The town was called Catalpa, according to the signs. Randy slowed the car and turned right, driving out of Catalpa in a different direction. Bakari thought he should pay attention in case he had to navigate the way back. But then when he came to the edge of town, where would he go? He would have to ask for directions. He didn’t have a driving license.

They traveled a few miles farther, up and down rolling hills, passing clusters of mailboxes and dirt lanes leading to invisible houses. “This is it,” Randy said and turned into a gravel drive. The stones in the road gleamed under the headlights, looking new and polished. Four horses stood at a fence. The car’s headlamps caught their upper forelegs and chests in a way that reminded Bakari of a nightmare, all that ominous waiting force.

“I forget their names,” Randy said. “Except the biggest one is Sprite.”

“That’s funny,” Raye said. “And what’s her name?” She nodded at the house ahead of them and the girl on the porch. The front door stood wide open, lighting the girl from behind.

“Jessica,” Randy said. He rolled down the window and leaned out. “Hi, Jess,” he called.

The girl didn’t move. “Hi, Daddy,” she said. “Mom’s not home. You know what she says about coming in. . . . Who’s that with you?”

“This is my friend Raye, and in the back is Declan.” Randy stopped the car and got out but did not move toward the porch. “Your mom called me. She said she would be home late and I should come get you.”

Bakari leaned forward, tapped Raye on the shoulder, harder than he meant to.

“Ow!” she said.

“Is that true? What he just told her?”

“How would I know?”

“Are you sure?” Jessica said.

“I talked to her a little while ago,” Randy said. “Come on now. Declan needs to get back.”

“Maybe I should call her,” Jessica said.

“You can call in the car.”

“Okay, I guess. Let me get my stuff.” Jessica disappeared inside the house.

Randy drummed his fingers on the roof of the car, then leaned in the window. “I hate it that Sue leaves her alone like this,” he said.

Jessica returned to the front door and stood for a moment framed in its yellow light. Her head moved sharply as if she were listening. For a car, Bakari thought. The mother. Susan. He hoped she wouldn’t appear just now. Randy seemed excited, capable of anything. He was relieved when Jessica picked up her overnight bag, stepped out onto the porch, shut the door behind her. Randy moved forward to meet her. Jessica stopped then and said, “Remember what Mom told you.” Randy froze until she reached him, and then she stood on the tips of her toes to give him a kiss. She opened the back door and got in beside Bakari. Raye started to offer the front seat, but Jessica said no, her parents never let her ride in front. The death seat, she called it.

“Wow,” Raye said. “That’s harsh.”

“Buckle up,” Randy said. He shifted into reverse and backed clumsily out of the long driveway, passing too close to the horses looming at the fence. Bakari wondered if this was deliberate, a show of power. The horses stood their ground, like statues in a museum, but taunting. If Randy crashed through the fence, the horses wouldn’t move at first, but then they’d suddenly rear back and crush the car with their hooves. Bakari felt frightened and sick.

“What are their names?” he said quietly, to Jessica.

“Sprite,” she began. “Okay, in order: Sprite, Shadow, Paul Revere, and Nero. The other two are with Mom, the dressage horses, Diana and Isis.”

“Paul Revere?” Raye said.

“He was already named that when she bought him,” Randy said. “But she likes the whole midnight ride thing.” He sped back through the lights of Catalpa, along the darkened highway. “It’s about an hour and a half,” he said, catching Bakari’s eye in the rear view mirror. “Plenty of time.”

For what, Bakari wondered. He looked down at his hands, saw they were clenched into tight fists, opened them, flexed his fingers. It was all unraveling. If he didn’t escape from these people soon, he would lose his nerve entirely, or miss his flight, or both. But he couldn’t get out of the car in the middle of nowhere. He cursed himself for agreeing to go anywhere with them.

Jessica was staring at him. “Are you English?” she said. “You don’t look English.”

Bakari wanted to ask what she thought English should look like. Her face was dark except for the glistening whites of her eyes. He supposed he must appear the same to her. “I moved to London when I was little,” he said, putting a bit more posh into his accent.

“From?” Raye said.

“Saudi Arabia.” Now he was Declan, the Saudi. Maybe that was a good idea.

“I heard you have something like a thousand words for camel,” Randy said.

“Like you have a thousand words for car.”

“Such as?” Randy said.

“We do,” Raye said, sounding amazed. “Auto, vehicle, van, sedan, carriage, chariot, jalopy, ride . . .”

“My mom would like you, anyway,” Jessica said. “She’s an Anglophile. That means she loves England.”

“I know what it means,” Bakari said.

“That’s why she named the blonde horse Diana.”

“A horse named after a dead princess,” Randy said. “That’s messed up.”

Jessica sighed wearily. Probably her mother’s sigh, Bakari thought. “Really, Dad,” she said. She had lowered her voice in a way that seemed grown up, skillful, practiced. “He loves to say that.” Bakari nodded. “Are you his friend?”

“Kind of.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Meeting some people.”

“Why do you want to come here when England is so great?”

“Why do you think it’s so great?” When Jessica didn’t answer, Bakari said, “Why does your mom think it’s so great?”

Randy turned on the radio, dialed upwards through the stations, pausing whenever there was talk, a silky-voiced man explaining a piece of classical music, politicians arguing over health care, the weather report, advertisements for a weight loss drug and Busch Gardens.

“She first liked Henry VIII,” Jessica said. “And all the wives. After that, I don’t know. Just everything. She’d love to meet you.”

Bakari hoped that would not happen. He didn’t know what to say in response. Americans still baffled him, this idea that a person might want to know you because of your passport, your accent, because you once lived in a country where a king had worked his way through an astonishing number of women in order to produce a son. He felt a kind of pity for this girl Jessica, who was hurtling toward the same thoughtless life her parents led. It might be enough to blow up just one car like this. The rage washed over him again, what he had felt in The Body Politic, fury and helplessness in the face of such profound stupidity.

Jessica stretched forward to lay her hands on Randy’s shoulders. “Daddy,” she said, talking over sports news, “I didn’t have any dinner. Can we get something?” Bakari leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He could feel Randy watching him in the mirror.

“That reminds me,” Raye said. “We never got a coffeemaker.”

“How about it, Declan?” Randy said. “A burger and a small appliance?”

“I’m starving,” Jessica said.

“Me, too,” Randy said. “I could eat a horse.”

“No, you couldn’t,” Jessica said.

There were too many stops. First the liquor store in Warrenton for two more pint bottles of vodka, then the Burger King and finally the Walgreen’s in Bethel. Randy and Jessica stayed in the car, eating. The smell of grease and imitation charcoal was making Bakari sick, so he went into the store with Raye and bought a bottle of ginger ale. Raye called to him, wanting his advice about coffeemakers.

“This one’s not very much,” he said, pointing to a small Mr. Coffee, shining brushed silver.

“Look at this,” Raye said. “It’s the one we had. Do I go with the same, or do I go with different?”

“The same,” Bakari said because it was what Hakima would choose.

“It might remind me, though.”


Raye turned away from the shelf of appliances. “Who are you, anyway?” she said. “Do you just say what you think everybody wants to hear? Your name’s not Declan. I saw your ID in the bar.”

Blow up the car, Bakari thought. Blow up the bleeding jalopy. “It’s a fake,” he said. “I got into some trouble in London.”

“I bet,” she said. “Actually, I figured that. So let me tell you something: this is the end of the line.”

The end of the line? Bakari thought. What does that even mean right now? Was it like I don’t feel good about us anymore? “Here,” he said, pulling the cheaper coffeemaker off the shelf. “We should go.”

“I don’t know,” Raye said, and Bakari couldn’t tell if she meant the box in his hands or the idea of getting back into Randy’s car. She picked up another coffeemaker, a mid-grade model. “I’ll split the difference.”

When they walked to the registers to pay, there were no clerks waiting for them because, Bakari saw, all of the employees and customers stood clustered by the front door. The whipping red of police lights flashed over them. “Oh, boy,” Raye said as she and Bakari pushed into the group.

Randy and Jessica stood by the open trunk of Randy’s car while a police officer waved a flashlight over the contents. A second officer drew Jessica away. Randy stared down the highway. Every so often he shook his head in a slow figure eight. Bakari watched Raye’s head move in the same pattern as she whispered, “Oh, man.” Then a white pickup truck pulled in, hauling a horse trailer, blocking their view. “I bet I know who that is,” Raye said. Bakari nodded. The woman who would love to meet him had arrived in her pale chariot.


They call it Trooping the Colour, a massive regimental exercise performed for the Queen’s birthday in June. That year Chuma’s uncle made it to the second-tier guest list, but he was courting his next wife in Sweden, so the tickets fell to Chuma. “I can’t be bothered,” he said to Hakima, “waiting in the rain for hours.”

Bakari stood listening, drinking a Pepsi.

“It might not rain,” Hakima said.

Chuma pointedly looked past her, out the office window, at the steady rainfall. He held out the envelope containing the tickets, just slightly out of her reach. “I’ll give you half,” he said. “Who will you take?”

“Me!” Bakari shouted. “Please?”

Hakima put her arm around him. “My brother, of course. I’m not sure, but I think maybe he’ll be over the moon.”

“Who besides?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”

“You only have until Saturday.”

Bakari wondered why she didn’t name Declan, but he understood it had something to do with not wearing her engagement ring to work.

“Where’s the bomber jacket?” Chuma said. He looked over at Bakari and tried to smile, but it was clearly an effort. “Why doesn’t he ever wear it?”

“He does,” Hakima said quickly. “The weather’s been warm.”

Bakari said nothing. He thought he should wait for Hakima to explain. He left the managers’ offices and rode the elevator to the ground floor, men’s outerwear. The black leather jacket Chuma Habib had meant to give him sold for £450. He thought looking at the price would somehow make everything clear, sort out the tangle of hurt and amazement in his chest, but it didn’t.

At home, Hakima showed Declan the tickets. She said she felt sorry for Chuma Habib. “I think he would love to go, but it’s hard because of his leg.”

“We could push him in a chair,” Bakari said.

“He’d hate that all right,” Declan said.

“I’m sure he’d rather die,” Hakima said.

“Proud lot, that family.”

“They’ve done all right for themselves.”

“I guess it’s easy when you’re rich already,” Declan said. He paused. “Like if you’re related to the Minister of Culture or something.”

“Antiquities,” Hakima said. “Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs.”

“Bloody hell,” Declan said. “Sorry to be such a moron.” He glanced at Hakima’s bare left hand. “Don’t know how you put up with me. Or why.”

Hakima walked into the bedroom and closed the door.

“My advice,” Declan said to Bakari, “is stick with English girls.” He knocked on the bedroom door and let himself in.

“No, thank you,” Bakari said quietly, thinking of the girls who tormented him all day at school. He despised them, every single English girl, old and young. Well, with one exception: Princess Diana. She was beautiful and kind and shy and brave. She hugged people with AIDS and cuddled diseased babies. It was the baby holding that got to him, really. He liked to think of his own mother holding him like that. Diana used to appear on the balcony with the royal family for the Queen’s birthday, and this year he would be right there. He imagined that Diana might come this year, too. Maybe she would come through the crowd and stop beside him, ask his name. He’d tell her his mother had died the year before, and then she would put her arms around him. Bakari wondered what Princess Diana would smell like. He should ask Hakima to buy him a bouquet of flowers to give her, just in case. Hakima would think he meant to present the flowers to the Queen, and maybe he would have to settle for that. Maybe Diana wouldn’t even be there at all.

From inside the bedroom, Hakima’s and Declan’s voices grew louder. “Just tell me,” Declan shouted. “Just do me the bloody favor of telling me if you don’t feel good about us anymore!”


Saturday dawned cloudy and a bit chilly, though with the promise of a warmer afternoon. The tickets, it turned out, had come from a group called the Board of Green Cloth, who watched the returning procession from a ballroom in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. Inside the ballroom, there was an endless flow of drink, and Bakari observed many young Egyptians, surely Chuma’s friends, refilling their glasses. They grew boisterous and stupidly brave, making vulgar jokes about the royal family and roaring with laughter.

“I don’t care for them myself,” Declan said to a group of men. “But you’re in her house.”

“He’s right, you know.”

Bakari knew the voice before he turned to see Chuma Habib making his slow way toward them.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” Hakima said.

“I wanted to see you,” Chuma said.

Declan looked at Hakima, then at Chuma, his eyes wide like a wounded animal’s, pleading and angry at the same time. Then he walked away.

“You’ve loaned him your jacket,” Chuma said to Bakari. “That was kind of you.”

“He likes it,” Bakari said. “It looks good on him.”

Declan was standing by an open window. The sun suddenly broke from behind a cloud, like a spotlight tuned on. For an instant, Bakari thought Declan appeared to be a kind of god. Here’s Declan, the light seemed to announce, here’s one of my finest creations in the kingdom. Declan turned from the window, and his gaze fell directly on Bakari. A smile opened across his face. “Look,” he called, “I’ve spotted a space we can get through to the front. Let’s go down to the street. We can see her so much better from there.” He grabbed Bakari by the hand and led him through the Pimm’s-soaked Egyptians, into the kitchen, where the staff directed them down a back staircase and out into an alley. “I know these streets,” he said. “If we just go through here.” He turned into another narrow lane. Bakari saw that a group of Chuma’s friends had followed.

And suddenly there they were, just as Declan had said, at a thin place in the crowd, like the worn part of a blanket. “Let the boy see!” Declan cried out and half-lifted Bakari in front of him, a kind of shield. Two men turned, smiled, let them through, and then closed ranks again. The Queen’s Guard was just opposite, the horses’ flanks nearly close enough to touch, the Queen herself about ten meters down the street, approaching at a dignified trot. “What are you doing to the boy?” someone called from behind them. Gently, Declan set Bakari down and turned fully. “You lot?” he said, and Bakari felt Declan’s hands sweep away from his shoulders, one of Declan’s feet knock against his ankles. Bakari wanted to turn, too, follow Declan, but the Queen was almost right in front of him now. This is what he had come to see, he realized suddenly, to find out if she would notice him again, do him some honor he couldn’t name. Bodies pushed him forward. I’m supposed to go to her, Bakari thought, present the flowers. That’s what they’re trying to get me to do. He took a step off the sidewalk, into the street. Then he felt a kind of explosion from the crowd behind him, and heard Declan’s voice screaming his name. Declan’s body dove forward, as if shot from a cannon, and shoved Bakari out of the way. But momentum carried him headfirst into the road, his legs in the air; a gymnast’s stunt, it looked like, some sort of magician’s trick. The riders pulled up sharply on the reins, but the horses could not stop in time. Declan crashed and tangled in their legs, under the hooves, the sound like a billiard ball thudding over a wooden floor.


“You can ride in the trailer,” Jessica’s mother told Bakari when he asked if she could drive him to the nearest Metro stop. The police had gone, after jamming Randy into the back of the patrol car, just like on American television, pushing him down, one broad hand gripping his head, as if he were a spring toy being stuffed back into its box. He had given Raye the car keys and his address, and she drove off as quickly as she could. Bakari felt terror and relief. The end of the line.

“Won’t that bother the horses?” he said. “A stranger?”

“It would bother me to have you up here,” Susan said. “You’re damn lucky I’m taking you at all.”

Jessica winced. “Mom,” she said. “He didn’t do anything.”

“I don’t know that,” Susan said. “He may not want to ride back there, but if he needs to get to the Metro like he says . . .”

“No, she’s right,” Bakari said to Jessica. “She doesn’t know me.”

Susan opened the back of the trailer. “Easy, ladies,” she called to the horses, “Easy there now.” Bakari climbed in past her, wedging himself into the small storage space behind the horses’ bays. “It’s heated,” Susan said, her voice softening, “but you might want this anyway.” She handed him a bright fleece blanket patterned with American Indian symbols, chevrons and teepees. “Jessica likes to ride here sometimes. Don’t you, honey?”

Jessica nodded. In the high sodium vapor lights of the Walgreen’s parking lot, Bakari saw her face was ghostly, her eyes huge, a look he recognized as if he were seeing it in a mirror: someone who had no control over her own life and feared that she would never have any, that she would always be a little moving piece in some adult’s game, that the pain of this was only just beginning. He thought something in her expression was asking to ride back here with him, curled up beneath the animals. But Susan closed the trailer doors and set the hasp. He heard the suck and click of a padlock. He pulled his knees to his chest and covered himself with the blanket. He heard the truck’s doors wheeze open and closed, the diesel rattle. Lights flashed and bent in the trailer’s high windows. The horses made a little whinnying conversation he half-understood as being somehow about him. In a few minutes, they were out of town, and Bakari was lost in pure animal darkness. The air inside the trailer turned warm and sweet—hay, Bakari imagined, or whatever Susan fed the horses or piled in to soften their ride. The clench inside him began to ease. He had another strange thought about time, that really it moved past him, on either side of the trailer, and that he was inside a tunnel, a hollow place where time did not exist. He realized he had not eaten anything all day, aside from a glassful of broken fruit and crushed pomegranate seeds.

The horse closest to him began to shift, restless, huffing out breath as if annoyed or disappointed. A hoof sang against the metal sheet dividing the bays. Then another, like a muffled cymbal. Bakari realized this horse was turning around to face him, that in a moment she would be able to reach down and nip at his hair.

“Diana?” Bakari whispered. He could feel the air change shape above him, as the horse lowered her head. “Is that your name? Or Isis? Don’t bite me, okay? That’s all I ask.” He knew now he would miss his flight. He understood this as if it had been true from the beginning. His name would ring from the loudspeakers all over Dulles Airport, and no one would answer because there was no such man, no such creature. Inside this tunnel of no-time, he could move both backwards and forwards, ravel together the past and the future, make them the same. He could go back to London where Hakima still lived, with Chuma Habib and their son. He could go back to Harrods, to the managers’ offices, to Buckingham Palace, to the intersection of the Palace Road and Eaton Lane, listen for Declan’s voice calling his name. For years, Hakima had been asking him to visit. I’d like to get to know you again, she said. I’d like to know what’s become of you. We think you’re in trouble. We’d like to help. Amma would want this. We’re your family. I’ll send you the ticket. Bakari felt the soft, rubbery horse-kiss on the top of his head, the ferment of the mare’s breath dropped over his face, a humid curtain, brute anointing.  end  

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