Seven or eight years ago I saw Alex, the Iraqi man who used to own my corner store, chase a neighborhood boy out onto the sidewalk and throw a can of Diet Pepsi at his head. It was an important time. I had just two days before sent off my applications for medical school, and I remember feeling lighter as I walked, relieved I was through (for the time being, anyway) with the paperwork, the staplers, the lost files on my computer, the desperate emails to old professors, pleading with them to send my letters of recommendation, and relieved that I could get on to more important things, like noticing leaves and rescuing farm animals from barn fires.
Life was changing; my mother had died of MS over the summer and I had gotten engaged to a girl I'd met only a month before. Her name was Corinne Jones, and we'd met at a bar called Saxony. By December Corinne was married to someone else, of course, but at this particular moment it was all roses, not a singular dreadful feeling in the mix. When Alex threw the Pepsi she was away in France for six more days, there for some kind of international conference—I knew little about her, and to this day I couldn't tell you what she was doing there, or even what kind of work she did, but I hadn't slept, thinking of her return, and her hair again piled up neatly beside me on her pillow in the night. I loved that girl. That is what I want to talk about.
I had known Alex for two years by then. I was intrigued by his corner store—Windy City Liquors, it was called, with a square blue sign bordered by bright, globular light bulbs, like what you might see on Broadway. The floors were sticky. It was understocked, served homeless alcoholics as much as anyone else, and often contained, instead of customers, three or four members of Alex's family sitting behind the counter, watching a small Zenith television, smoking cigarettes and drinking exotic-looking shots of charcoal-black coffee. Transactions there had a ceremonial air to them involving greetings, nods, and thank yous from both sides, from many different people, consecutively. I knew the family was Iraqi because Alex had once told me proudly that the picture on the wall beside the condoms, the one of the clean-shaven young American soldier, staring straight into the camera, was his son. I asked Alex what country the family had come from, originally. "Iraq," he said, staring at the picture. "Joseph is there fighting Saddam now."
This day Alex was the only one at the store. Maybe he was nervous, and when he saw that a kid was stealing from him, he didn't have his family there to hold him back. I could see, from where I was on the sidewalk, the candy bars spilling out of the kid's pocket as he ran out of the door. He had made it to his bike and had stood up on his pedals to begin his escape just before the barrel-chested Alex emerged, wound up, and released, and the Diet Pepsi hit him square in the temple, and he sort of accelerated and veered into a metal garbage can at the same time, and the front tire hit it with a metal crump, and the bike stopped moving, and he kept going, through the air above his handlebars, and then went down onto the pavement, where he remained, facedown, not moving, for quite some time.
"You don't do that!" Alex yelled at the boy's body.
After no response, Alex yelled, "This is a business! Que hijiste, vendejo?" He liked to practice Spanish with his customers whenever the opportunity arose.
Still no response, and Alex looked over at me. I could see he was surprised by the violence. I shrugged. What was this whole event to me? I didn't know how to be a doctor yet. That's why I was going to medical school.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
"Oh no," Alex said then, laughing. He shook his head, then went and knelt down beside the kid. "I am sorry, boy. Hello?" He shook the kid's shoulder, then looked back at me. He smiled, and his mustache curved up below his nose.
To fill this embarrassing time of unconsciousness, Alex picked up the kid's bike and leaned away from it, as though inspecting the purity of the frame. Satisfied with the angles he saw, he carefully leaned the bike against the side of the building and went back to the kid. "He's fine. Look." He pointed. "He breathes."
A minute later, the kid was sitting against the brick wall that was the side of Alex's store, sipping at the very Diet Pepsi Alex had thrown at him, waiting for Alex to re-emerge with ice for his head. Alex had not requisitioned the candy bars on his way back in, I noticed. Guilt.
The kid stared coolly at me. I was beginning to feel a little too caught up in the incident. I had just been on my way to buy an apple.
"Don't fall asleep," I told him. "You might have a concussion."
"Fuck you, dude," said the kid, shaking his head and pursing his lips at me. "That shit was assault."
"I don't think it counts if you're a robber."
"Fuck you, dude," he said again. "It's still assault."
The farm animal comment requires explanation. I do want, though, a discussion of love, ultimately, and I'm not sure it's important for you to know this part about the fire. But who am I to omit? I've decided that one can't tell about these things, and that the feeling matters more than what happened. This Pepsi incident, and my subsequent date with Alex's daughter, came on a Thursday. The previous Tuesday was the day, as I said, I had sent away my medical school applications. It had been a nightmare of paperwork, more than I ever knew it would be when I first began filling out forms, and honestly, had I understood the amount of work just to get in, I probably would have found a different career. God forbid my future self being able to contact that version of me and describe what it would be like after the school, in residency, or after that. My practice is at this very moment being eaten by an HMO that I think about in terms of PacMan, and the insurance costs alone have cut so far into our cash flow that yard work is looking like a good alternative business. Being a doctor is like being an astronaut; it sounds cool until you accidentally fly the ship into the sun, or you forget to turn on the oxygen before you go to sleep, or your partner forgets to recharge your jets before a spacewalk, and you float off, at three miles per hour, infinitely. It's then—a key moment in all lives—when the optimism of your dreams becomes stupid.
I couldn't quit at that point. I had just spent two years back in college hanging out with 19 year olds who called me Dad because I was 30, getting through the prerequisites, and now there was nowhere else to go but forward. I dropped the envelopes into the blue mailbox on the corner, and to reward myself on that Tuesday, I decided to drive out of the city and to get into the countryside. I didn't know where to go, not really, and so I just got onto the expressway and headed south, deciding I would pull off whenever things looked rural enough, find some field somewhere, and start walking and getting in touch with my deep shit. When I parked at a gas station I was probably forty miles south of Beverly, and there was nothing around but farms, their fields, and a few patches of woods here and there. For no reason I bought a bottle of Gatorade at the gas station, then asked the guy behind the counter whether there were any big parks around.
"What do you mean?" he asked. He was disappointingly American in all ways, and I wished I was back home, in my neighborhood. There are all different degrees and qualities of transactions with anonymous vendors; you can be blocked from the start or you can immediately be pulled in to someone else's kindness, someone else's world, by a look. Not unlike love. A comment about the weather can be a bridge. If I want anything in my life I want bridges.
"I don't know," I said. "Something with trails."
"There's some ATV trails back that way."
"That's not what I mean," I said. "Just for walking."
He started laughing at that. I left the gas station, trying to hold my head up, gripping my Gatorade as though it were a source of dignity, which is in fact the opposite of what a bottle of Gatorade is. Standing beside my car in the parking lot, I looked out at the nearby wall of trees and thought to myself that this was as good a place as any. I went in. There didn't seem to be any sort of path, but that didn't matter; three feet in and I had forgotten the man behind the counter and felt the feeling I had been looking for: the muting of the noises around you, the calm, the trees, each a singular history, a life form and system in and of itself, and then you, silly as you are with your human-being accoutrements, a couple floppy arms and legs and a pail full of wet organs in the middle (how could we not need love?). Trees, I thought. Trees are the things with dignity. I thought of Corinne, and how her body was leaner, and had a tougher edge to it than mine. That if she was an elegant white birch then I was at best a mulberry tree. My softness was embarrassing.
She was, I'd suspected since we met, a better person than me. She hadn't figured it out yet, but I'd known it all along. What was going to happen to us? Could you meet somebody like I had met her, fall in love, and a few months later be together at the front end of a lifetime's marriage? I had taken to thinking about the relationship in terms of months. If it was going to work, it was going to be 480 months. 480. I considered the length of a month, the amount of events that could occur inside of just one, the way a given August could stretch out and feel endless. I tried to multiply that feeling by 480 and could not get a sense of it. I thought about how strange it was that we are given a whole life and not enough brainpower to appreciate even its outline. Then I looked up and realized I was standing in front of a burning barn.
It was an old barn, and red, just like you would imagine a barn if I asked you to imagine a barn, which is I suppose what I'm asking you to do now. The roof was entirely engulfed, and inside I imagined piles of hay going up faster than tanks of gasoline. There was no one around; no Mennonite women running through the fields, their shawls and dresses billowing behind them, no farm families huddled beside a well, the father dumping pails of water over the children's heads to protect them, no stampede of horses, no telling overturned lantern beside a guilty-looking cow. I could see a house a half-mile away, in a haze, but no cars, no trucks, no people anywhere. There were no sirens, no neighbors rushing forward to take charge. Just a barn and flames, and me, small person on a nature hike, watching.
I heard some bleating.
Now I don't want to be thought of as a hero for this. And I have no explanation for why a barn full of hay would contain one small goat. But I will say this: I surprised myself with my ability to not only enter a dangerous situation and to put myself at risk but to do so for no ostensible reason other than the sound of a bleat, the guess at a life. Again, I think of the mysteries of personhood and connection. I have already mentioned the bridges. The goat was crouched low in the corner of the building, and I made my way as quickly as I could, one arm raised up in front of my face to shield me from the waves of cracklingly hot air that whipped through the barn's interior, thinking, as I hoisted it up onto my shoulder and then did my best to run, to actually run from the barn with this thing on my back, its little hoofs digging into my back, through the cotton of my t-shirt, that who this was for, really, was Corinne, the girl I didn't know very well, but who I loved. Maybe there was something here, when I told her the story—I imagined it happening in the car, just after I'd picked her up from the airport, myself cast as hero, her falling in deeper—that we could both inject into those 480 months, and viola, there's a life.
Alex had a daughter named Matilda. Unlike him, she spoke with an American accent, and by all accounts had grown up in the States. She wore sweatsuits, and had a lazy beauty to her; she usually looked like she was either about to go to bed or was just getting out of bed. You would see her because she sometimes worked the counter in the afternoons. Once when I went in I got my milk from the cooler and then pointed at her t-shirt.
"I went to U of C, too," I said. "I didn't know you went there. Don't you miss it?" I had seen her enough times to speak to her like we were friends.
She said, "God, I'm so glad I'm not you."
"Bougie frat-boy college sentimentality," she said, rolling her eyes. "I so know you."
"So you're saying you didn't like it?"
"I studied yeast cultures for four years straight and didn't talk to anyone at that school. That milk is $4.27."
The day of the Pepsi, Matilda pulled up out front in her Toyota Camry a few minutes after Alex had sent the kid away. Alex and I were inside of the store, watching Bob Ross painting on the tiny television. "I love this guy," Alex was saying, shaking his head as Bob Ross worked on the sky. He looked at me. "He is amazing, no?" He patted me on the shoulder, as though I had made Bob Ross.
"He is," I said. "Was. Yes."
Alex looked at me, eyes wide. "Was?" he asked. "He is dead now?"
"Only in America," Alex said, turning back to the television, and I didn't understand at all.
Just then Matilda came in, looked at me and at her father, and said, "What's on fire?"
I had been having some trouble getting the smell out. It had to have been in my hair, but no amount of shampooing had helped.
"I was involved in a barn fire on Tuesday," I offered, deciding that inappropriate honestly might be the best tack to take. I didn't mention that currently, the small goat was back in my apartment, and was engaged, I would find later, in eating my couch. I had a habit of trying to make pets, to rescue things. There were other examples, but you understand.
"You two," Alex said. "Why don't you two go down to hot dog stand together?" He winked at me. Alex had been wanting me to take Matilda out for months. Never mind she had an engagement ring on her finger. It was, I think, an extension of his obsession with assimilation. Yes, he could wear his Cubs sweatshirts and watch his Bob Ross, but the ultimate coup, I think, would have been to marry his daughter off to a product of the American suburbs. The neighborhood white kid. Coup against who or what I wasn't sure—Alex's wife and mother both wore robes and headscarves inside of the liquor store, but no burqas or veils. Considering they spent their days owning and operating a liquor store, their connection to Islam seemed to be, at best, tenuous. I didn't understand the situation, in the end, the situation of Alex's family in America—who had made who move where, who wanted to be here, who did not. Whose life had been destroyed to come. Whose love was fading because of it.
I looked at Matilda, expecting her to be rolling her eyes at me, but instead I saw that she had an amiable look on her face, and said, "Sure. I'm starving."
Alex, beaming, opened the register and gave us four dollars in quarters. "You kids have fun," he said.
We walked down Damen on our way to the hot dog stand. On the way, I told her about what had happened with the Diet Pepsi. She laughed at that. "He hates stealing so much," she said. "He gets insane. But he loves all the kids in this neighborhood, too. He has a temper."
"I wonder if there's a physiology to temper," I said. "I wonder if we can quantify it."
"Nice questions," she said. "Nice investigation of the world."
"I can't tell if you're being sarcastic," I said. "The other person has to be able to tell if you really want it to be sarcasm."
"I do," she said. "I could sneer more."
We walked the rest of the way with her practicing different sneers on me. I would say something I guessed she'd find stupid and she would respond with different sneers and tones of voice and then I would rate the quality of her sarcasm.
"I really like the sit-com 'Wings,'" I said.
"Oh, so do I," she said. When she said the word "I" she bared her teeth and opened her eyes wide and raised her nose up so high she seemed like a pig.
"That was good," I said. "I really knew. Here's another one. They say that for one of the first times in America, the younger generation will not be able to make as much money as their parents' generation."
"That's so interesting," she said, but she said it all without moving her lips.
"That was good too."
Matilda ordered a dog with everything and I felt compelled to order the same. That's the kind of person she was, I was realizing, the kind of person you wanted to emulate but the kind of person you knew would be able to see clearly your ambition to emulate. But I couldn't help myself. She could see and I could see her seeing.
"So who are you marrying?" I asked her, after we'd started in on the dogs.
"A guy," she said. "His name's Faruk,"
"What does he do?"
"Computer," she shrugged, and despite only one non-plural word I understood what she meant. Squinting, tapping at a keyboard, and a lot of money.
"Is he American?"
"No," she said. "That's why my dad wants me to marry you."
"He doesn't really want that, though."
"Yes," she said, "he does."
I ignored this. It couldn't actually be true. I was only the guy who came into the store all the time. I wasn't sure whether Alex even knew my name. Instead I finished eating in silence, wondering what it would be like to marry Matilda. It seemed, actually, possible. I had eaten many jalapeño peppers, and I was sweating—I was in a heightened state, and I wasn't thinking straight. But this is my problem, this has always been my problem—I fall in love all the time. Too easily, obviously.
"Faruk is a hard person to know," she said. "My dad doesn't like him. He reminds him too much of back home."
"So the war," I said, thinking of the most sober, unromantic topic I could come up with. "What do you think of it?"
"I mean I don't want my brother to get killed. But I'm for Saddam being killed."
"What?" she asked. "Too hawkish for you? Coming from a young woman? Of color?"
"No," I said. "I don't know."
"Of course you'd be against it," she said. "Of course you're the young liberal white guy who's against it. How could you not be? But have you really thought about it? It's so simple. Do you want more or less tyrants in power in the world? Tyrants who kill people for no reason?"
"Less," I said, "but that's not—"
"You're again predictable."
"Listen, Christopher Hitchens," I said. "Hold on. First of all, you're allowed to have this opinion because you're Iraqi."
"Allowed. And why are you not allowed?"
"Because I would be an asshole if I had that opinion."
"Because I'm the American."
"I'm American too," she said.
"You know what I mean."
"This country," she said, shaking her head, "is so fucked."
My married life with Matilda had puppies in it, I don't know why. Later, when I would close my eyes and imagine it, even after Corinne was back, and then later, after she'd left me, I'd see Matilda and I owning a suburban house, something disgustingly upper-middle class, and in the back yard we'd have like 800 fucking puppies running around. Bounding, slow motion. All of it. The hot dog date ended in a way that was surprisingly reminiscent of the way things had ended between me and the burglar kid, out on the street—Matilda simply looking at me with a kind of frown, not talking on the way back to the store. No more games about sarcasm. No bridges whatsoever. We'd had, literally, a twenty-second window of what to me had felt like love. That is easy love. It comes and goes, but has no staying power. I don't think of love in terms of relationships. It happens in terms of seconds, but goes away like that, too. I pass a nurse, I love her, it ends when I go around the corner; at a restaurant I see someone at the table next to me, and I love her, and the conversation pulls me back, and it's ended. A patient comes in, and she is sick, and I love her, and then she dies, and I never see her again. This is what I live for. Don't think that it's sad.
Corinne was justifiably confused at finding a goat living at my house, and when she noted this out loud, I remember saying, "I'm also confused by it," and I immediately then drove the goat back south, to where I'd found it, and left it walking around the burned husk of the farm house. We broke up. A few months later I moved to Louisville and started school.
I had more pleasant stops at Alex's shop, leaning against his counter, watching television with him. Sometimes Matilda would come in and not talk to me, which was fine, because I no longer loved her. Joseph even returned on leave before I left town. He was working at the store, and rung me up when I bought paper towels. Who knows if he later died.
Even Windy City Liquors was impermanent. The last time I saw Alex was in February, during a week long below zero snap. It was noon and it was dark already, and I trudged through the snow, down the street, for soup. Out front, I noticed three black Jaguars lined up in a row, all with their hazards on. And inside, I found their owners. Five men, all of them tall, all of them in long dark overcoats, all of them standing in front of the counter, talking to Alex in what I think was Russian, and there was Alex, looking amazingly small, hands on his countertop, listening, nodding his head, complacent and meek, and I thought to myself: okay, this is what the mafia looks like. When it's mad at you. He didn't acknowledge me when I rang up my can of Campbell's, but I thought of it as him doing something good for me, not letting me be involved at all. All the men stepped aside for me, and I paid, and then I was outside again, jogging back to my building. The next afternoon, there was an eastern European man I'd never seen before working behind the counter, and a few days later he was there again, and finally I introduced myself and he nodded and said that he'd bought the store from Alex.
"He wanted to spend more time with his family," he said. "He was overworked."
I have wondered what one does to transplant an entire family from one country to another—from a country where a war is going on to the country the other country fighting the war—and what one then does to get a business, and what one does to make ends meet in the process. It can't be easy.
"Do you see him?" I asked the man.
"Me?" he said. "No. No, I don't know."
"Well if you do," I said. "Tell him I say hello."
I was back at home when I realized this man didn't know who I was.