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Authors: Alia Yunis

The Night Counter

BOOK: The Night Counter
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To my family, especially my parents and my brother.

I see their traces and with longing pine
In their empty dwelling, and my tears flow.
And Him who has their loss decreed
I beg That He may on me their return bestow.

The Arabian Nights
as told by Scheherazade

had lasted much longer than Fatima had expected, longer than the two funerals she had attended the previous week. She could only hope that when it was time for her own burial in ten days, her guests would not leave so exhausted. Her other wish for her impending goodbye was that her children would not bring Ibrahim with them. An ex-husband should be spared having to walk in his former wife’s funeral.

Despite her memorial service fatigue, Fatima managed to let her dentures smile at the bus driver when he stopped for her.

Hasta mañana, sí?
” he said as Fatima got into the bus with her cane.

” Fatima nodded and adjusted the waistband on her black skirt.

was the only word of Spanish she had acquired since arriving in Los Angeles from Detroit 992 nights ago at the age of eighty-two, and everybody on the bus seemed to expect her to use it—so she did. If she had known that she would be alive and well in Los Angeles this long, she would have tried to learn more Spanish.

On her hundredth night in Los Angeles she had asked her grandson Amir, in whose arms she planned to die, why everyone on the bus ended everything he or she said to her with a questioning
. She took pride in how she could make her frailties—including her sight—come and go as needed, with the help of two different eyeglass prescriptions, a cane, and a hearing aid.

is yes’ in Spanish,” Amir had explained.

“Do I look like I speak Spanish or something?” Fatima asked. Before Amir could confirm that except for the size of her nose, she did look Mexican, Fatima interrupted him, as she usually did.

“Well, of course Mexicans look like me. The Arabs were in Spain for eight hundred years, and then we left Spain and went to Mexico. Appearances travel across oceans, you know. If only we’d made the Spaniards learn Arabic, then they would have made the Mexicans speak Arabic instead of Spanish, and my conversations on the bus wouldn’t be so boring.”

Amir’s answer had been to look at both his watch and the chrome clock above her dresser.

“There is still plenty of time for you to get married before I die,” Fatima said, looking away from the clock.

“Jesus Christ, when that day comes, Tayta, I’m still going to be ga—” Amir started to tell her before Fatima put up a hand to prevent him from finishing.

Today, 894 days later, Amir still was not married and still was using that awful word.

Fatima waved goodbye to the bus driver and walked home down Santa Monica Boulevard. West Hollywood, according to Amir, was a fashionable neighborhood, but Fatima mostly saw the homeless men and women with their shopping carts piled with plastic bags and bottles. Some days they waved, but mostly they ignored her, and so she didn’t have a chance to ask why they didn’t go back to their families. She especially wanted to ask the homeless young man with the dimple on his chin, just like the dimple her son in Las Vegas had. Instead, she glared at him the hardest, and sometimes he smiled back, just like her son.

Fatima walked up the steps to Amir’s duplex and let herself in. Her head hurt instantly. All the loud chrome Amir decorated with never allowed her to relax.

She went straight up to her bedroom. When she had moved in, she had made Amir remove all the chrome from that room. The only chrome he had insisted on her keeping was the clock on the wall to remind her when to eat; her appetite had gone too long ago to serve as a guide.

The chrome clock said 5
, but time was marching even faster. Nine days left on this earth. She redid the math on her fingers, just as she used to add up the price of the groceries in case the cashier hadn’t been properly trained on his machine. Yep, nine days. Her math was never wrong.

Fatima already had had 992 days to prepare for death, but the two most important things still had not been done. It was not that she was a procrastinator. No one who had raised ten children could be a procrastinator. However, in dying, Fatima had been given something she had never had at her disposal before as she prepared for an event: time. She did not know how to manage such a luxury, and so she had languished in it. Now she no longer could afford to do that any more than she could have when her children were children.

In the last 992 days she had attended enough condolences to know exactly how she wanted her funeral to go. She would leave those instructions with Amir. More importantly, she could no longer put off finding him a wife, preferably before she had to give him the funeral instructions. Equally seriously, she had yet to choose a child to inherit her home in Lebanon, a home she had not seen in seven decades. For years she had been haunted by these two vital matters. She absolutely had to take care of them in the next nine days if she wanted to rest in peace, which she did.

Her children, all somehow having ended up with their own thoughts and ideas, did not make easy heirs. Still, she would have liked to have seen them—and the house—one more time. Alas, life was now too short. She was sound in mind and body at the moment, but a debilitating disease could strike her down at any moment and incapacitate her for her remaining days. One never knew. After all, everyone had a cause of death.

Fatima took off her black skirt and black sweater and pressed out the creases with her hands. She left her bra on, although it did nothing to hold up her shrunken breasts. She noticed an olive oil stain on the skirt from the tabbouleh served at the condolences. Dry cleaning was very expensive in this Los Angeles of Amir’s, but perhaps she would not need it again before her own funeral.

Fatima had purchased the skirt when her third daughter had graduated
from medical school in 1972, and it still looked brand new. She had bought the bra at the same shop on the same day because there was a storewide 70 percent clearance.

“A good bargain never goes out of fashion,” Fatima said to the skirt as she tossed it into the laundry basket.

The skirt she could leave to any one of her daughters, although they were all American size, bigger than she was. But which one of them was most worthy of the one thing of value she possessed? All across the vanity were framed photos, some black and white, some full color, covering many long-gone days. No one seemed to grow up much in those photos, grown up to be the adults who troubled her, adults who might not be responsible enough for such a precious gift as her house in Lebanon.

Fatima put on her baby pink robe, sat down in front of the mirror, undid her thick purple hair, and watched it cascade down her back.

I might have to color my hair one last time, she thought as she brushed it out. She had been coloring it four times a year for thirty-nine years, since the February after the birth of her youngest child, when her hair had looked too much like the Detroit snow out her living room window, gray with dirt and age. She didn’t know exactly when her hair had stopped being black. Ibrahim had never said anything about the change. Politeness had been the foundation of their marriage.

Fatima picked up a strand of her hair and began twirling it. She forced herself to let it go, shaking her head to release the worry, a feeling she often got when she remembered Ibrahim. If only I could relax, she told the photos of her children. Maybe if I took up smoking. But cigarettes were smelly. Expensive, too.

No, nothing she hadn’t had a chance to do in this lifetime in America still interested her, not even eating cookie dough right out of the tube as her American neighbor in Detroit, Millie, used to do while she watched
The Guiding Light
. Fatima used to watch both Millie and her soap from her kitchen window while she peeled garlic, chopped onions, or washed diapers. At first, she thought Millie was disgusting for eating raw eggs mixed with God only knew what. Then she started to notice how every crease in
Millie’s face would iron out and how her shoulders collapsed more and more with each bite, as if she had found paradise after a long journey. Like being in love with the person you’re having sex with—that was how Millie had explained it. Fatima had blushed then, but today she missed the filthy jokes Millie told in hush-hush whispers. They were funny, she admitted now, and with less than two weeks to live, who cared if she had acquired Millie’s dirty mind. At her age, Fatima found that most people didn’t care a whole lot about anything she had to say.

“Even though I’m always right about everything,” she said to the children in the photos. “I can’t help it.”

Her hairbrush caught on the tattered sleeve of her robe. She plucked away an unruly thread. The robe was still in pretty good condition considering that she had worn it for thirty-one years. When her children still had a sense of humor around her, they used to laugh at her frugality. But how else did they think she and Ibrahim had paid for their college—or rehab and bail, as the case may have been?

She lifted the robe closer around her drooping shoulders. It was still stylish enough to die in, right? She would ask Scheherazade. That woman had been going to funerals far longer than she had. For hundreds of years, in fact.

Fatima looked at the chrome clock and turned on the television to catch the baseball highlights. Watching sports was a habit she’d acquired during her first marriage, when she was searching for things to talk about with Marwan, her first husband.

An hour later there was a knock on the door, and Fatima sat up straight and turned off ESPN. A smile worked its way across her face as the door squeaked open, and she got her first look of the day at her favorite grandson, a face not in any way her own but more breathtaking than any mother could hope to look upon. She put on her bifocals—or nearby glasses as she called them—so that she could catch the dancing hazel sparkles in his eyes better.

“It sure was a beautiful day outside, Tayta,” Amir said. “After the fog lifted, that is.”

Fatima ignored Amir’s weather report, just as he had ignored her years of sage marriage advice. But there would be no gentle wisdom from her today. Instead, she was prepared with a one-two punch. In Las Vegas, where her son Bassam had spent too many years, people got married in less than twenty-four hours, as Bassam had himself—several times. Surely, she, Fatima Abdul Aziz Abdullah, the granddaughter of one of Lebanon’s greatest matchmakers, could marry off Amir in nine days. Once married, he would not be able to use that terrible word, and therefore he would be respectable enough to inherit the house in Lebanon. Kill two birds with one stone, as Millie used to say when she had a cigarette with her sandwich.

Amir placed a pill tray on her lap. There were so many to take. She didn’t need them anymore, but she didn’t want to alarm Amir, and so she swallowed them dutifully.

“I just found out today I’m doing Shakespeare in the park this summer,” he announced. “You’re going to have a front row seat.”

She couldn’t tell him she wouldn’t be there in July. “Shakespeare was really an Arab,” she said instead. “Sheikh Sabeer. A British man stole all the great Arab plays—
Qais wa Laila, Abla wa Antar
—and took his name.”

“Many say the reason Shakespeare liked men in tights so much was that he liked men period,” Amir replied. “Just like me, Arab and—”

Fatima held up her hand. “Trying to be a comedian now? Acting isn’t a ridiculous enough hobby? A natural-born engineer just wasting away time.
. Sacrilege. Neda Namour’s granddaughter is visiting from Detroit. Nice girl. I saw her today at the funeral of Selma Haddad,
Allah yerhamha
, God rest her soul. The girl is not much to look at, but she is honest. Listen to God, son.”

She pointed to the mother-of-pearl-inlaid and leather-bound Koran on her nightstand. Amir pointed back at it.

“Tayta, there’s nothing in the Koran about it being a sin to be gay,” he said, getting the word out before she could prevent it.

“First of all, I’m sure you’ve never read the Koran,” Fatima retorted.
She lifted her hand to stop him from saying what she knew was coming next. He would say that she had never read it, either. However, she had good reasons. He didn’t. He wasn’t illiterate.

Although Fatima was sure that awful word was a sin, she could not ask anyone, not even Ibrahim, to find a Koranic passage banning it because she rarely acknowledged in any language that she couldn’t read for herself—nor would she want anyone questioning why someone as virtuous as herself was asking about such a topic.

Amir handed her two pills and waited for her to swallow them. “Stop this nonsense and it will be the last thing I’ll ever ask you to do,” she vowed, hand to her heart.

“You’ve been making me that promise since I was seven years old and I had to read you the instructions on the box of the new L’Oreal semipermanent Midnight Black,” he reminded her.

“This time I really mean it,” she said, and began twirling a strand of purple hair around her index finger as he helped her with the bedcovers. She let him think that she was going to go to sleep because that was what she always let him think at this time of night, ever since she had moved in with him two years and 255 days ago.

BOOK: The Night Counter
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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