You, JL, part II
You are stripping the beds when your phone rings. It’s Lori from the airport calling to say that, “only three of four came through.”
You can feel the sweat beading at the base of your hair follicles. “Who’s missing?” rasps out of your throat.
“Thank you.” You hang up.
Out the window, nuthatches, pigeons and squirrels are noisily competing for the feed you spread on the ground to attract their company. It can be lonely after a group leaves.
The first thought that lands in your mind is that Mahmoud has been caught. You have some serious and reasonable doubts about that possibility, but still, something has gone wrong and you don’t know what so you are imagining. Police on the train maybe? Did he do something to draw attention to himself? He knows how important it is for things to go smoothly if he wants to stay in this country where things are safer and quieter. He understands, presumably, the importance of getting to a town where it is safer and quieter still, to a less major port where he can work the respectable, quiet job you found him, where he might blend in less, sure, but where fewer people are without papers so fewer people are looking for people without papers.
What has gone wrong? The men all knew where to disembark, which bus would get them to the airport.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
You take a deep breath, hold it for a five count then exhale, attempting to push all the bad air out. Keep cleaning, you decide. Keep cleaning because you can’t keep from worrying, but you don’t need to stop working, should never stop working.
You find a map in the bathroom garbage. Hand drawn, the dashed path leads from a house beside a stick-figure man with bulging muscles and stripped shirt (you), down a few neighbouring streets and into the great urban park a few blocks from your apartment. There is a heart sticker overtop of the X that marks the spot. In the top right hand corner, you can see that it had been stapled to another sheet of paper. You dump the contents of the garbage can onto the floor. The other sheet of paper is not there. You put the dirty Kleenexes and clothing tags and clumps of hair back into the bin. There is a trashcan and a recycling container in the kitchen. You bring them both to the bathroom and empty them there because the floor is already dirty. No letter.
You sit on the medicine ball by the window and look at the map. Someone gave it to Mahmoud, someone who knows where you live and knows when Mahmoud and the three other men were there. It did not arrive in the mail. Someone must have slipped it under the door.
The beautiful day clashes harshly with the discord in your guts. Normally exercise brings your thoughts, feelings and insides all into pulsing harmony, but today, with the birds singing and the wind and leaves whispering together, your furious, desperate pedaling is doing nothing for you. Following the dashed line through the park, you pass the castle playground, the animal enclosures and an obelisk honouring the dead from some “Great” war. You arrive at the foot of a large statue of a striding Nikola Tesla erected by the local Serbian community. The artist has managed to convey electricity in the up twisting of Tesla’s short hair, the intensity of Tesla’s expression and the torment in the wrinkling cloth of his pants and jacket.
After resting your bike against a tree, you sit down on the bench across from Tesla. “Did you see anything?” you ask the mute metal.
A tiny white dog leaps onto the bench beside you, his whole backside wagging along with his tail. Someone claps loudly and calls, “Jack.” The dog shoots off the bench, his body stretched out. You notice a fresh carving in the wood of the bench back.
SP ©’s M
You close your eyes. It is not your habit to monitor the movements of the men who pass through your place. This has nothing to do with your disposition: you believe that freedom from scrutiny is a dignity you are compelled to provide.
Mahmoud’s smile. You remember Mahmoud’s smile. Easier at your place than in the photo used in the passport. Still beautiful, still noteworthy in the passport photo, though. The passport photo taken in a studio in a foreign city you could only imagine. You remember wondering, actually, the effect this man had on the photographer. Did the photographer have time to appreciate Mahmoud, or was there a lineup distracting him, forcing him to work too quickly to appreciate the moment, the expression that he had just fixed, the man whom he had helped save?
It was the type of photograph a person could fall in love with.
You hop onto your bike and hurry home.
You are so out of breath from the ride and taking two stairs at a time, that T.J.’s partner asks, “Is everything alright?” when you ask to speak to T.J.
“Sorry, I’m— I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“T.J.’s not here. It’s Saturday, Jack.”
Your chest is heaving. “I know.”
“He’s at the ponies.”
“Usually gets home after dinner.”
You have a few hours.
“Should I have him call you?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Does an S.P. work for T.J.?”
“Uh,” T.J.’s partner hesitates. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s nothing. Thank you very much.”
“You sure I can’t have him call you?”
“It’s alright. Thanks again. Goodbye.”
The whole way there, you are watching for Mahmoud. Each subway stop you change cars looking up and down the platform for any sign of him, then, between stops, walking though the new car looking at each person and making eye contact with anyone who happens to look up, smiling as reassuringly as you can muster—Don’t worry, it’s not you, but hello, nice day isn’t it? And those few times that the train emerges from its subterranean route, you scan the roads that run parallel to the tracks, hoping to catch sight of the escapee.
Man. Not escapee. He is not your prisoner, but there are arrangements that have been made. For Mahmoud, for the three others, for the others that had come before them and the ones that will come after, for their safety and happiness and wellbeing. For their benefit.
For you. For your sense of security because, after all, it is you and your associates who are doing something against the law.
You get on a bus. As you get closer to the racetrack and its neighbouring amusement park, there is increasingly heavy pedestrian traffic. The children going to the park are leaping with excitement, their parents turning nervously towards the vehicles racing by. The children leaving are less buoyant and bouncy than the balloons they are tethered to, and they have trouble keeping up with their parents who walk quickly despite carrying large or small stuffed animals or bags of garish, useless products they purchased after they or their children failed to hit the bull’s-eye or knock the cans over or throw the ring over the neck of a bottle. There are teenagers going both directions, holding hands or slowing down to kiss awkwardly as some family passes them. On the bus, there are four young men dressed in their finest tracksuits and team jerseys and talking about which scary rides scare them the least.
None of these people are Mahmoud.
An airplane passes low overhead and you check your watch, wondering if the plane is carrying one of the other men to some haven deeper in the interior of this relatively safe country.
The racetrack’s grandstand has its back turned to the road. An outline of a jockey on a horse, rendered in blue neon lights, covers four stories of the structure, glowing strangely in the daytime. The amusement park’s Ferris wheel rotates lazily just beyond the racetrack.
You traverse the vast parking lot and enter the grandstand, surprised no one is there to sell you a ticket. There is a wide set of stairs. You take them two at a time. When you see the lineups of people placing bets, you think, yes, of course, that’s why there is no admission fee—a different economy drives this show.
T.J. is under a straw fedora in the third section you trawl looking for him. Mahmoud is in none of these sections.
“Hello,” you say.
“Huh?” T.J. clears his throat and works his expression into something welcoming. “Well, if it isn’t Jack from the company.”
T.J. smiles briefly, exposing a rainbow of pastry sprinkles stuck on the border between his teeth and gums. “This business related?” With his middle finger, T.J. starts rapidly flicking the white betting ticket he has pinched between his index and thumb.
“One of our boys didn’t make it to the airport.”
His lips recoil from his teeth tellingly, the sprinkles now fully visible; there is a reason T.J.’s gambling spirit has found a home at the track and not around a poker table.
He places his betting slip in the breast pocket of his leaf-print shirt. He sucks air in through his nose, then abruptly bends in half. Your heart pauses before bang bang banging so hard that your hearing is affected. You tense, ready for anything. T.J. tries to say something, but the words get lost somewhere between his constricted diaphragm and his open mouth. He comes up holding a box of donuts. “Want one?” His fumbling fingers struggle to open the lid.
You are shaking your head, but he doesn’t notice so you say, “No, thank you.”
He keeps working the lid until it comes open, maybe determined for his own reasons to perform this simple act, maybe deaf to your refusal.
“No. Thanks,” you say again.
“It’s a new business,” he says. He looks at his hands, so deft at forgery, now struggling to close a donut box. “I bought a donut shop. I’m hoping to make that my primary—my only—business.”
Nodding, you think, Fine, fine, though finding a new counterfeiter will be an added challenge. “Is there an S.P. who works for you?”
“I’m using some of my Company staff at the new place,” he says, nodding.
You wait for him to go on. Down on the track, a jockey in shiny blue and grey satin leads a skittish horse with a shining coat back and forth in front of the grandstand.
T.J. stands up abruptly. “It’s nearby. The new business. At the amusement park. I think you should follow me.”
You lead the way out of the row of seats. T.J. hands the box of donuts and his ticket to an old lady sitting at the end of the row. She is surprised, but thanks him. T.J. leads you up the stairs and out of the grandstand.
Near the main gate to the amusement park, there is a small building marked SECURITY that interrupts the perimeter fence. You follow T.J. through its metal door. A woman wearing a navy blue uniform, her hair in a tight bun, looks up from a series of T.V. screens showing black and white images of the fence. “Hello, Mr. J.”
“He’s with me,” T.J. says.
“That’s fine.” To you, the woman says, “Hello.”
You walk out the glass door at the other side of the building and into a crowd of people hurrying left or right to some tempting amusement in their near future. T.J. finds a gap and you follow him into the flow. Soon you are lined up to take the gondola lift, its colourful cars carrying people to and from the castle on top of the iconic man-made mountain whose silhouette is the logo for the amusement park. You and T.J. don’t speak to each other, which is fine. A beautiful young boy and his lovely little sister are chasing each other between the fences keeping everyone else in line. You watch the boy notice a small garden growing on a raised platform beside the snaking line-up space. He stops and looks at the flowers. When his sister notices that he is no longer chasing her, she walks to where he stands. You watch him select and pluck two flowers, one yellow, one red. You watch him hold the red one out for his sister. Then both children flinch and turn abruptly towards an older woman who is bending towards them. The boy’s smile morphs into something pained, guilty, his eyebrows dancing anxiously. You watch as he drops the flowers. You watch as he cuts slowly back through the line towards his parents, crying, his sister following behind him and looking back towards the woman who is now standing straight up, her chin forward and her lips pressed tightly together, eyes fixed at some point past the heads of the people in front of her in line.
The girl and boy are still quiet five minutes later when they follow their parents into the yellow gondola and start up the mountain. There is room in the next gondola, orange, for you and T.J. The operator, his bright blue amusement park coveralls ironed and buttoned all the way up, says, “Hello, Mr. J. Nice to see you, sir.”
T.J. grunts something and holds his hand up in what is probably meant to be a wave. The operator looks at you like this rudeness is probably your fault and, you suppose, in some way it is. “Hi.” You offer a conciliatory smile, which the operator turns away from.
The gondola sways as it makes its halting progress above the crowds and amusements. T.J. stares off towards the racetrack. You catch a glimpse of the thoroughbreds with their tiny riders rounding into the final stretch. “Ah,” T.J. says.
You take a deep breath.
The gondola goes through a gate into a courtyard on top of the manmade mountain. T.J. steps out before you. “This way,” he says, walking towards the castle.
You follow him through two large wooden doors propped open with cinderblocks and into a food court. He walks towards a donut shop. “Hello, S.P.,” he says to the person in the bright red apron.
“Hello Mr. J.,” S.P. says.
“I’d like you to meet Mr. J.L.,” T.J. says.
“Hello Mr. L.” S.P. holds their hand out over the glass counter.
You take S.P.’s hand and shake it.
“Mr. L. is from the Company,” T.J. says.
S.P. immediately withdraws their hand and stares at you angrily. Actually, angrily, is too mild an adverb.
“Where is Mahmoud?” T.J. asks.
S.P. turns their head towards T.J., opens their mouth then, without uttering anything, brings their eyes back to you.
“Mr. L. knows Mahmoud did not make his flight.”
S.P. bares their teeth. They open their mouth, like they might say something, before they close it again and inhale, their nostrils whistling and chest swelling. You are unnerved by the feelings behind the eyes S.P. fixes you with.
“Mr. L. is a reasonable man,” T.J. assures S.P. as he lifts up a section of countertop then opens a gate for you and he to pass through. “We can sort this out.”
Mahmoud is under a cowboy hat in the back room. He is reading Lonesome Dove. He drops the book and removes the hat when he sees you. “Hello, Jack. I’m . . .” He bows his head.
T.J. leads you, Mahmoud and S.P. to a tiny office. “Make yourselves at home, everyone. I’ll go work the front.” T.J. grabs an apron off a nail near the door. “I just want to say, Jack, obviously I was involved. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything, but I think that these two— Well, you’ll see. I think they make a strong case.” He runs his tongue nervously over his lips then turns to go.
You sit on the top of the desk and listen to S.P. explain how they had felt when they saw the photo of Mahmoud; how their love for Mahmoud grew as they spent time carefully placing the small picture in the fake passport; how S.P. had mustered the courage to ask Mr. J. for your address, a secret he guarded honourably; how once S.P. began to cry Mr. J. offered to bring the envelope with the letter to Mahmoud at your apartment; how Mr. J. asked where S.P. planned to meet Mahmoud, then made the map himself. Then Mahmoud explains how much he liked the city right away; how the letter—“This letter,” he says, pulling it out of his pocket—made him smile and laugh and feel at home; how he had followed the path through the park; how the birds had sung and flown about; how the chipmunks had scrambled between last fall’s leaves. How he and S.P. had held hands. How S.P. had given him the hat and Lonesome Dove, because S.P. thought Mahmoud would love the book and that the hat, they laughed, could act as a disguise. How they wanted, they do want to give things a try, to have a chance together, not because they know what the outcome will be, but because they want to and why not? Mahmoud does not want to move again and how is staying here, in this city, any different anyway?
They look up at you then. You stand. You crouch. You fold your hands as if in prayer and hold the tips of your index fingers between your teeth. You nod. You nod emphatically.
“Yes?” Mahmoud asks.
“Yes?” S.P. asks.
“Why not?” you say, nodding still.
They jump and hug and shower you with, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
Before you leave, before you accept the box of donuts T.J. insists on giving you, before you ride the gondola down the fake mountain, before you navigate through the crowds and board a bus, then a train, before you go home to your apartment, empty of Mahmoud and the three other men who had traveled so far to you, you make sure that you take S.P.’s hand and look them in the eyes and thank them, make sure that you take Mahmoud’s hand and look him in the eyes and thank him, make sure you thank them both, thank them both sincerely, and wish them good luck.
Toronto, Dec. 2015
Emoji sequence: Nolan Dubeau
Story: Lee Sheppard
If you liked this story, read "You, JL, Part I"