All The News
"There was only one problem with it."
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"You don't know the first thing about me," Abdul said.
His wife, sitting on her stool, glared up at me with her prim tight-lipped grin, and nodded like a judge over a castigated defendant.
Was she his wife? I was just guessing at that. Christ, the whole thing was a sham.
Unfortunately, he was right. I knew squat. I had picked him as a character for my story, and he had read it, and now I faced the staccato gunfire of rankled pride.
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Abdul's eyes rested on me, seemingly calm, before he looked back at his cart, near the escalator that led down to the Van Ness metro entrance. The cart was filled with scarves, blankets, random hats from meaningless teams, and cheap umbrellas. Abdul obviously was cognizant of the local weather patterns. The gray clouds above us had threatened rain all afternoon.
"Do you want to learn anything? Or are you satisfied with that? Are you comfortable with the world you've created and the character that bears absolutely no fucking resemblance to me?"
His eyes were full on me, piercing me, as he uttered the last sentence. Staring out from beneath his pale blue weathered turban, above his Romanesque nose and full white beard.
God, he really did look like a warrior, who had fought the final conflict and was now trying to find some meaning and sense of balance in a useless activity. An ancient and venerable Muhajadeen who had fought the British and the Russians and just about everybody else who had tried to tame the untamable confines of the Afghan Kingdom. Those stupid enough to try to claim the rugged mountains and valleys of the Kyber pass as their own. Only to be undone by the Taliban movement, the cancer from within.
What was that Rudyard Kipling poem? "When you're wounded and dying on Afghanistan's plains ... and the women and children come to pick at your remains ... roll to your gun and blow out your brains ... and go to your God like a soldier..."
I couldn't have done that much harm, could I? What is writing, if it isn't the appropriation of every random act and sight of life, distilled and edited until some magic of word and phrase rises from the page? Until that significant union, that sense of communication, is achieved with the reader? Something understood by all true poets and artists and stage performers?
"Well, are you?"
I shook myself out of my reverie.
"Are you satisfied with this world, or do you want the truth?"
I allowed that I wanted to listen to what he had to say. That my wrongs could be righted, if he gave me half a chance. Empty words. Placation to satisfy this man's desire.
He motioned to a stool, and I sat down. Actually, it was a milk crate that was turned upside down and covered with a cloth. But then it's all about the details when you're a writer. At least, it was with this detail.
What had been the other story? A subconscious wish, manifested on the pages of a local magazine, sneaked by an unsuspecting editor, perhaps. A childhood longing. An attempt to explore the sharp corners of life's pain, through the corridors of some half-cooked Soldiers of Fortune fantasy?
It had been easy enough. I knew enough history and political science to put it all together. What other use could a college thesis of British-Afghan conflict possibly be in this myopic city of image and bluster? A dash of psychology and sociology, and the human-interest story had coalesced rather nicely. Like a loaf of bread fresh out of the baker's oven of my overactive imagination.
I had alleged that he was this noble warrior, who had fled from the rigors of combat to seek a normal life, only to end up on the streets of Washington, DC amid the driftwood of displaced Vietnam vets and wandering junkies. His brain apparently cohesive enough despite years of unimaginable horror to operate a cheap trinket stand along with his wife, a recovering alcoholic who had turned to Islam as a way out of her troubles, and who tended to her duties faithfully by her husband.
"Number one - this is not my wife," said Abdul. "We've never been married, or even had an intimate moment together ... unless you call tending to this collection of garbage an intimate moment. We're business partners."
The "wife" continued to stare up at me, letting her silence grow heavy.
The story had been a hit in a local newspaper. My feature had highlighted this local couple and their day-to-day struggles at Van Ness. There was only one problem with it. I hadn't bothered to interview them. I had observed them for several days. But I had never actually talked to them. I thought it was a great piece despite this oversight on my part. And the readers had responded with numerous letters.
"I have always noticed those two, and wondered at their story. Thank you for your insightful piece about them" began one letter to the editor several days after the story ran.
"Hello!" yelled Abdul. "Did that register, or are you merely thinking up more lies for your newspaper."
"She's not your wife," I murmured. "Right ... I understand that. A business partner. Does she speak?"
I wondered at my own hubris. I don't know why I had expected to get away with it in a city as urbane as D.C. Even if they hadn't read it, did I really think that some other person wouldn't ask them about it, or shove the article in front of them to autograph, or congratulate them on their perseverance? But, then again, maybe that was the point. Maybe I was tired of the whole racket and wanted my come-uppance, however painful.
"Here. Sit down here, and I'll tell you what you really need to know about us." Abdul wiggled his index finger to another milk crate next to his, in between him and she-who-refused-to-speak.
"And then we'll decide on your punishment for this," he said.
An image of me buried up to my head in sand in some burning hot desert suddenly flashed through my mind. He seemed too decisive on that point.
I sighed, dropping my reporter's bag, and parked myself on the crate, avoiding any eye contact with the woman. Her eyes tasered into the back of my neck. I could feel the hair on my neck smoke and sizzle with her contemptuous glare.
Abdul opened up a fresh bottle of tea – one of the specialized St. John's Wort-enhanced teas. Feeling down from my article? Or just a daily ritual he had picked up from the hackey-sack hitting teens and liberal arts majors who hung out in Van Ness?
A suit passed by us on the way to the metro escalator, which hadn't worked in months.
"Nice article on you, fella," he said, throwing up a poor excuse at a wave. "Sorry about your family and all that back in Afghanistan."
Abdul just stared past the man for a minute, shaking his head almost imperceptibly.
I pulled out a fresh pack of Marlboro Ultra-Lights. Abdul waved off my offer, as I pulled the silvery wrapping from the front of the first row of deathsticks. D.C. - land of egos and people who ignore the connections between cigarettes and lung cancer.
My story had been interesting enough - and well thought-out.
In my story, Abdul was one among the stolid group of fighters who had fought the Russians in that largely unknown war, following a thread of rebel-military tradition that ran deep in his family, and his country. He was also among an unlucky group that was captured by the Russian army after a firefight near the capital city in the final days of the Russo-Afghan war, when an artillery shell landed near his position, knocking him unconscious and killing his two other comrades. Russian infantrymen picked him up, bleeding and helpless, and hauled him off to prison, to face the death squad.
Somehow, he was spared that, as the Russians scaled back their offenses after the war in an attempt to placate the populace and create a sense of goodwill. After languishing for about a year, Abdul was released, and returned to his hometown in the south near the Pakistan border.
He was done with war. Somehow, his capture and subsequent time in prison had subdued his bellicose nature, and he turned inward toward his spirit, emerging from his cell with an idea of becoming a simple farmer for the rest of his days.
The Taliban took care of that. When the fundamentalists began rising from the south, and Afghanistan began splitting into its various factions, Abdul decided it was time to leave. He had family in Pakistan, and through their good graces, and through some money transactions and called favors, he was able to book passage to America.
He landed in Dulles Airport in the winter of 1994, and was lauded at the time as a freedom fighter and war victim, but it didn't take long for him to become yesterday's news. He soon had to seek out employment, and found the going tough, as his experience consisted mainly of fighting and some agriculture. No one was advertising for "old guerilla fighters." He spent time harvesting at some outlying farms in Virginia, before he made a dash for the city and some distant relatives. Through them, he was able to secure lodging and put together a new life. With a borrowed Toyota truck and some change in his pocket, not to mention a home-made seller's stand that he fashioned out of an old agricultural produce stand from his farming days, he set up shop on Van Ness. He was contemplating a return to his home country when love entered into the equation.
He met his wife, Elaine, a year ago, as she was begging for change at Van Ness. He offered her a tea, and love was born. She was a former fast-tracker had lost everything in the 80's, her path to yuppiedom sidetracked forever by years of drugs and alcohol. When he eventually asked her to marry him, she agreed, and as part of the arrangement, converted to Islam, adopting the ways and dress, and had worked the stand with him since. Eventually, the couple had been able to afford a second stand, which became hers. Hers became a stand of sweaters and woven handbags, while he stuck with the t-shirts, sunglasses, and Washington Redskin's hats.
I had it all in that story - the melting pot of America, the grand struggle to succeed in life against overwhelming odds, and two people caught together in the great redemptive net of love.
... If only it was true.
He began to tell his story.
"Here's the deal. My name is William. My family is from Pakistan. At least you got the right part of the world. However, most of us live in New Jersey, and have for some time. We're as American as the next family. This is my friend, Sheila. I met her when I moved down here in 1990, when I took a job at a local law firm. She was a legal assistant there, and we hatched this plan to go into sales because we were so sick of the lawyer scene. We had enough money after a couple of years to give our notice and come out here and enjoy life a bit. I have adopted the clothes of my ancestry and grown out my beard. Sheila is just doing it for effect. Our sales took off once we started doing that. There you go, there's our story."
Sheila nodded her head, and added her own two bits.
"I hardly ever drink, and my only experience with drugs was marijuana at Yale," she said.
I shifted my stance on the milk crate, feeling the plastic gridwork biting through my jeans, and noted that the pair had fixed me with a glum stare.
"I like my story better. I mean, I don't think I could do much with your real stories. I made you out to be a warrior!"
They remained silent. They must have been good at the lawyering business, sweating confessions out of the enemy side.
"O.K. ... so, what's my punishment?" I asked.
William and Sheila glanced at each other, before Abdul spoke.
"You have to quit your job and give up writing, or we'll sue you for libel. You know we have the background. We'll take you for everything you're worth. If we ever see another piece written anywhere, in book, magazine, or newspaper form, you're dead meat. If we see a scrap of paper with some random sexual innuendo on it and your name on it, you're dead meat. And believe me, we're very well read. Right, partner?"
"I love to read," said Sheila.
I remained silent, mulling over the possibilities. They had me over a barrel. They didn't seem to be kidding.
"Also, I've got family all over the country, and believe me, they'll be in on this. You won't be able to go anywhere without knowing who's reading your stuff."
"I'm a writer. I don't know what else to do."
"Oh, you'll find something. You're creative enough," said William. "We'll live with the lie you created about us, but we're going to have to ask for something in return. We don't know what other lies you've written, and frankly we don't care. This is your swan song. We're going to have to ask you to give up what you know and love, and start your life over. It could be a positive experience for you."
As he spoke, a man came up to the pair, bearing a copy of my article. He held it out nervously, like some secret revealed to the world. Sheila sighed, and took the article, signing the corner of it. William did the same.
On the same corner as Sheila he had written the following: "Freedom and truth in the U.S.A. Abdul."
I've started my new life now. I'm a sales clerk in a bookshop in Seattle. I work, I talk, I've got a new girlfriend, and a job that keeps me from thinking too much. A job that at least keeps me involved in other people's writing.
I moved out of D.C. several months after I talked to William and Sheila. Well, I never really talked to Sheila.
On that day, when I left the two sitting at their metro-side stands, I didn't think I could leave my job, but the thought of getting out of D.C. and William's threats slowly sanded my resolve. It was as if a fire had swept through my house. You're sad to lose the bric-a-brac, but there's also a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over.
I walked in to my editor's office at the end of the week, and gave him my notice. I told him that I was done with writing, and that I needed to go clear my head. He wasn't happy with the situation, but didn't probe too deeply. Truth was, my writing had deteriorated over time, and he had noticed. I wasn't all that much into sitting down with people and interviewing. Lucky for the paper and for me that they never found that out. Before my Abdul article, there had been plenty of other fiction. You work at a newspaper long enough, and you know the ways around, and how to make up good quotes if you can't get any on the street. It comes with the trade. Every newspaper is a collection of half-truths and people's opinions. What is news, if it isn't viewed through some lens? There is no objectivity in a human's voice. The imperfection of humanity is as evident on a newspaper's page as it is anywhere else.
I don't mind Seattle. It pisses rain a lot, but at least it's got a life compared to D.C., with people that seem to care about doing more than just working. They get trapped in that world in D.C.
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In my spare time, I mostly go to the movies, and paint.
That's my new artistic release. Painting. I paint portraits of people around the city, and I wonder at their stories. I usually have them tell me their story while I paint them. I think about how much I would like to write some of these stories, but that part of my life is done now.
Abdul and Elaine took care of that
I keep thinking that I could sneak an article in some random magazine somewhere, some small quarterly fiction piece, or some local paper, that wouldn't be seen by their eyes. But something stops me every time, and I go back to my painting, and let my art land on the canvas. In a way, that's best. In my painting, I see clear lines between the truth and fiction. I think I lost that with my writing. I had the applause of the audience, but I had lost the truth. I had lost the message of realness.
You need to be grounded in that realness or you're finished.
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