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Seated in my favourite corner, alone as usual, I entertain myself by reading – gaining as much satisfaction from that as from my beloved coffee. Dreams bear me aloft till I touch the clouds, and cares pull me down into the dark recesses of devastation. All this and more I experience by reading what is between the covers of a novel and then projecting some of those contents onto a reality that is anything but reassuring. It is lovely to live vicariously and to be swept along by a writer who is crazy about literature and who frees your imagination from all reins, with no limitations or boundaries. But does creativity have any boundaries, does literature have limitation zones, and does pain have its own special flavour?
I frequently become confused about the matter. So you find me responding to one question with another question as my face takes on the expression of a child punished without prior warning.
The waiter, who used to recognize me as an earnest, regular customer, smiled at me each time he brought me coffee, and I responded in kind. On the day in question I was my normal self, but the waiter wasn’t: he didn’t smile at me. Why should I care about a phony smile from someone whose living depends on them?
I tried to busy myself with something else, turned to another page in the novel, and started to read it again and again – but to no avail. My mind had become bogged down back there. So I closed the book, pushed the half-drunk cup of coffee aside, and started to get up – determined to solve the mystery of the missing smile.
I thought I heard someone call out the name of the hero of the novel I was reading: Don Faulker, who took part in crazy police capers. But a single glance around squashed the idea of both him and the person I thought was calling his name. I was hell-bent on learning the truth about the missing smile and walked over to the area where the coffeehouse staff took their breaks. Not finding that person among the staff there, I asked after him and was told he had just slipped out of the back door for some fresh air and to escape the patron’s boasts.
He was squatting with his back against the wall, holding a hand to his forehead as if something had hit him. His other hand clutched a piece of paper. No, no – it wasn’t paper, it was a photo. Yes, a photograph – but I couldn’t see the image. When he noticed someone watching, he made a pretence of being nonchalant, but the hand holding the photo curled into a fist, making it impossible for me to distinguish any details of what was in his hand.
Not surprisingly, his behaviour disturbed me as from the outset I had been motivated by curiosity. All the same I did not let him see my annoyance. I walked closer and squatted down beside him, not caring whether anyone saw me in a posture that was inappropriate for a person of my status. From my grandfather I had learned this renowned dictum: “To guarantee that people listen to you, my boy, you must be an excellent listener. And to be an excellent listener, you must get down to the ground.”
Back then, I had not understood precisely what my grandfather had meant by this – not until I saw him demonstrate it with one of his students, whom he referred to as “my children”.
I pulled a pack of cigarettes from my pocket, opened it and held it out to him, but with a jerk of his head he declined my offer. Here was my opportunity to break that silence and speak: “Of course, of course – you came out here to get some fresh air.” And I smiled at him.
“Sir, look around you. Don’t you see,”’ he asked in a miserable voice, “how much filth there is surrounding us?”
“Mmmmm, you’re right. I don’t believe in the saying that it’s always possible to find fresh air, especially not at this dusty time and with all the pollution.”
“That would all be easy to bear if we weren’t polluted on the inside,” he remarked without looking at me.
“What? Polluted on the inside? What do you mean by that?” I asked sharply.
As he stood up, the look in his eyes was very expressive, and I thought I saw a tear. He only added to my certainty about this by abruptly turning his head away as he apologized for rattling on. He headed over to a large dumpster opposite us and tossed into it what he had been concealing.
Do you suppose he noticed me following him? Why did he throw the photo in the dumpster? More important than all this is how far my curiosity will push me.
My brooding was interrupted only by a pat on my shoulder as he excused himself with what appeared to me to be a phony smile. Then he disappeared.
I stood there at a loss, not knowing which of two approaches to follow. Was it inevitable that I should adopt one of them? I pulled a coin from my pocket and tossed it into the air as my eyes followed it. The decision to pursue the truth about the photo lost out.
I muttered crossly: “I don’t want to know. Curiosity will be the death of me.”
Then a voice inside me replied: “But you resigned yourself to accepting what destiny would bring you. No one forced you to do that.”
I protested: “Destiny? It’s destiny that has motivated me from the start. Why should I stop now, at this point?”
“Yes, destiny moved you in the beginning and also now wants you to stop,” commented the same inner voice.
I yelled: “But why now?”
“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . ?”
My curiosity was at its ultimate peak, I could not stand any more of this. Destiny was not going to keep me from knowing what I wanted. I kept thinking of my grandfather’s words: “We determine our destiny; it is not the other way around.”
I angrily flung the coin far away and resolved to proceed with the project that had begun and ended with the eclipse of a customary smile. Mmmmmm, I’m sure the man is only a few steps away and will show himself once I take the picture from the dumpster.
This dumpster was really big and filled with rubbish. Ufffff – I don’t know how I convinced myself to leap inside it.
I am usually obsessive about hygiene. I remember a friend who is a psychiatrist assuring me once that I suffered from some obsessive-compulsive disorder. That was after he observed me wash my hands with soap a second time, merely because I hadn’t felt satisfied that I had washed them thoroughly enough the first time!
I do that a lot, but now, especially at this time, some unconscious forces seemed to drive me to disregard all that in favour of what I would achieve by satisfying and slaking my curiosity.
At first sight, inside the dumpster, I seemed to be searching for a needle in a haystack, but as the minutes passed, things escalated until I felt I was searching for a needle in a whole field of hay.
Disappointment and a sense of failure become like a disease spreading through a patient’s body, which still tries to ward off the infection even when he is exhausted and sustained only by his Lord’s compassion.
I don’t know how much time had elapsed when I stopped. All I know is that I stopped for two reasons. The first was to catch my breath after my taxing effort, and the second was the return of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, which commanded me to search again in the same place that I believed I had finished searching. To hell with these compulsions!
I had not anticipated that a matter like this would be so complicated and daunting. I was ready to climb out of the dumpster by piling the garbage bags and boxes inside it on top of each other to create a pyramid that I could climb. While I was working on this, though, I heard footsteps approaching the dumpster. I froze in place, stopped what I was doing, lowered my head, suppressed my breathing and heart beats – to the extent a person can do that – and listened intently. The footsteps stopped near the dumpster. Only its side now separated me from them. Should that be removed, my dignity would disappear along with it, at least in the eyes of the person standing there, whoever it was. Seconds later I saw a bag fly through the air and land a few centimetres behind my back.
Looking closely, I repressed a shout: “Yaaaaaah!” that almost exploded spontaneously from me as I thought I saw what I had been looking for next to the bag! Was this destiny, too? That did not matter. What mattered now was that I had found what I had been seeking and come that much closer to uncovering the waiter’s secret.
After reassuring myself that the person who had tossed in the bag of trash had left, I moved the bag out of my way and picked up the crumpled photo. With extreme care I began to flatten it out – for fear I would tear it and lose some of its details and therefore some of the data. I slowly, slowly began to reveal the photograph and its image to myself – the wretched face of a beautiful girl hugging a headless doll.
I wondered: Is this all there is to the story? Was this worth all the trouble I’ve suffered?
I was seized by an even greater curiosity and tried to discover something more than that little girl who was heartbroken about her doll. I searched the back of the photo and found only an eight-digit number: 28042003. Because I am an expert in the language of numbers and in decoding their talismans, I scrutinized it some more, attempting to find a logical explanation – totally forgetting where I was and not realising that I hadn’t climbed out of the dumpster after achieving what I wanted.
The only explanation I came up with was that these numbers were simply the date: 28 April, 2003, in other words a year ago. Yaaaaaah! Today was a year since it was taken. Questions rushed out. Is this his daughter? Mmmmmm – must be. But why would he throw his daughter’s photo in the dumpster?
The matter became more vexing – how could it not – and my curiosity only increased.
Moreover, what was the relationship between the photo and what he had said – “Polluted on the inside”?
I won’t keep still about this. I must replace doubt with certainty. I will go straight to him, in person, and ask him all these questions. That was the solution I arrived at. So I started to execute my plan.
I was jumping out of the dumpster when I heard a shot from inside the coffeehouse. I hastened toward the noise and was appalled by what I saw. That waiter had collapsed on the floor, motionless, and blood formed puddles around his head. One of his hands held a revolver and the other a piece of paper. His colleagues surrounded him, overcome by tears, and one had rushed off to get help. The patrons of the coffeehouse were in a state of extreme shock, and the manager was attempting to calm them. He ordered them to leave quietly without worrying about what they owed. Their drinks were on the house, he assured them.
I wanted to know what had happened. What was the secret of the revolver in one hand and the piece of paper in the other? But I was ordered to leave the coffeehouse with the other patrons.
I know I’m not the only one wanting to know.
What about all of you?
Hameady Hamood has another short story, Refugee, also translated by William M Hutchins, in Banipal 47 – Fiction from Kuwait
Click to go back to Banipal 47 online contents page