Gulf War Reunion, 1991  |  Angele Ellis



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             My baby brother, Peter, was slouching by the jet fuselage in the lobby of the Syracuse Airport. This symbol of the modern era was split in half for purposes of display, but still pretending to fly—like our family, in the wake of our grandmother’s death.
             “Alex getting the Town Car?” I said by way of greeting.
             “Yeah. Like if he didn’t haul ass to the counter in a frickin’ hurry, they might give him The Beverly Hillbillies’ truck instead.”
             “It’s a possibility.”
             Peter let out a bark of laughter, and then scowled.
             “What’s going on?” I said.
             “Other than the usual? I got frisked at JFK.”
             “They arrested you?”
             “I didn’t get arrested, Leila. We leave that to radicals like you. Airport security got the bright idea to plant some gun-like shape in my bag—that’s what they called it, a ‘gun-like shape.’ Before I realized what was happening, this huge dude had me against the wall. He did such a good job, they should’ve given him a frickin’ medal.”
             “Then what happened?”
             “Then they apologized—not to me, to Alex. He had a shit fit, told them that we were going to our grandmother’s funeral and all. I’m lucky he’s such a solid citizen. They said that they were testing the system for suspicious passengers.”
             “Suspicious, as in ‘he looks like an Iraqi’ suspicious.” I didn’t phrase it as a question. I saw my baby brother as airport security had—mid-twenties, black eyes and hair, thick eyebrows, complexion that looked tan even in winter, prominent nose. Peter was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the image of Albert Einstein under his motorcycle jacket. Perhaps airport security had mistaken Einstein for a Muslim imam.
             “Of course, Alex was pissed at me, too,” Peter continued. “He ripped into me once we were on the plane, told me he knew something like this might happen, that I should have taken his advice and worn a coat and a ‘real shirt,’ and let his wife cut my hair shorter. Christ, I let her trim it—and I shaved, too! But one good thing did come out of it.”
             “What?”
             “Alex gave me such shit when I mentioned I was bringing Sparky along that I left him at home.”
             The original Sparky was a mutt we’d had for three weeks when we were kids. Mother and Daddy took him back to the pound because he kept making messes on the carpet. Peter was five. He’d cried so much that his eyes swelled shut, as if mosquitoes of grief had bitten him.
             “Well, thank God for small mercies,” I said. “But how will you get through the funeral without dope?”
             “Not to worry, dude,” Peter said, smiling for the first time. “Sammi’s bringing Sparky with her.”
             Peter and I started walking toward the car rental counter. I sped up my pace. Peter caught on and grinned at me. It was a childhood game, seeing who could walk the fastest without actually breaking into a run. By the time we reached Alex, we were laughing.
             “What are you two laughing about?” Alex said. He was the picture of respectability in his gray shirt with matching cashmere sweater, black dress pants, and wingtip shoes. A black overcoat completed the ensemble. A suit bag was slung over his shoulder, expensive leather with numerous zippered pouches.
             “We were racing,” I said. What was it about Alex that always made me feel guilty? He must have had the same effect on airport security. If you discounted fashion, he and Peter looked a lot alike, except that Alex was four inches taller than Peter and, like me, had a complexion that Sitti Leila—as we called our Lebanese grandmother—often referred to as fair.
             “May you wish a wall down upon our heads,” Peter intoned. This punch line from one of Sitti Leila’s Maronite Christian proverbs brought the ghost of a grin to Alex’s lips.
             “I don’t have to,” Alex said. “If you two start yukking it up at the funeral, Sitti Leila will.”


♥♥♥


             It was Alex—the eldest—who’d organized our pilgrimage to Bullhead, New York, home of the single frozen stoplight. He’d called me in Pittsburgh that morning, half an hour after I’d come home from the Zone One police station, ten minutes after I’d hung up the phone with Mother.
             “Peter and I arrive in Syracuse at 8:10 p.m.,” Alex said briskly, “and Neena and Sammi will be on Mother and Dad’s flight from Orlando, which gets in at 8:35.” Peter lived in the garage apartment of Alex’s mini-mansion. As long as he had space for his motorcycle, he was happy. Our fraternal twin sisters had followed our parents to the land of perpetual orange juice. Neena lived a block east of my parents, and Sammi two blocks west. They could have used tin cans and string to talk to one another.
             “Your plane gets in at 8:25, Leila. All you have to do is call to confirm. Are you ready to write down the information?”
             I didn’t even have to stretch the phone cord to its limit to step into my office, an alcove off the bedroom in my apartment. The cheap paneled walls were covered with political posters and flyers—Nicaragua, nuclear weapons, South Africa, the environment, civil rights. The oldest posters were faded and coming loose. A battered oak desk I’d gotten at a secondhand store took up most of the floor space.
             On top of the desk was my computer—growing more obsolete by the minute—and an academic manuscript I was editing, work that I did part-time. I enjoyed turning jargon into a first cousin of English. My husband, Sean, an environmental lawyer, earned enough to maintain our lifestyle—retro student, except for our copious alternative magazine subscriptions and donations.
             Page 125, the place I’d reached on the day Operation Desert Storm began, was crumpled into a ball. When I’d heard on the radio that the U.S. had invaded Iraq, I’d pounded on my living room walls and kicked the baseboards until I’d slumped onto my salvaged sofa with my head in my hands. I didn’t bother to wash off the scuffmarks before leaving for Sitti Leila’s funeral.
             As Alex recited the flight numbers twice, I imagined him sitting in the home office in suburban Connecticut he shared with his wife, Patti, a spacious third floor with glass and chrome furniture, a wall of stereo equipment, and three computers, none more than six months old.
             That was when he told me about renting the Town Car. “We’ll have to lead the procession to the cemetery through Bullhead, and I don’t want to look tacky. You know Dad, he’ll rent some piece of crap, and spend the rest of the time bragging about the money he saved.”
             “Fine. I’ll ride with you then,” I replied.
             “You don’t have moral objections to riding in a Lincoln? A big, American gas-guzzler? Sinead O’Connor won’t ride in a limousine, you know.”
             “I’m not as pure as Sinead O’Connor.”
             “Or as bald. You didn’t get a prison haircut when you committed civil disobedience yesterday, did you?”
             “Don’t try to be funny, Alex.”
             “You are wearing a suit to the funeral? Something you bought when you worked in the real world?”
             “Yes. Black. Extremely conservative. Is that good enough for you?”
             “As long as you don’t wear it with Birkenstocks.”
             “I hate Birkenstocks. They won’t stay on my feet. I’ll wear my black dress boots.”
             “The better to dance on Sitti Leila’s grave with, hmmm?”
             “You try it. I’m afraid that her hand would come up through the earth to grab me, like in that Stephen King movie, Carrie.”
             “Sitti Leila doesn’t need telekinetic powers.”
             “No, she has powers of other kinds.” I tapped the bridge of my thick wire-rimmed glasses, out of nervousness or superstition.


♥♥♥


             Suspended at 30,000 feet on the way to Syracuse, I doodled a portrait on the endpaper of the book I’d grabbed to read on the plane—a woman’s profile with a strong nose and flying dark hair, and a swan-like neck to which I’d added a chain with a cedar of Lebanon. An idealized version of the young Sitti Leila. I didn’t really miss my grandmother—I was thinking about my husband, Sean, at a conference in Harrisburg until the middle of the following week. I’d had to leave a message with the hotel clerk to let him know the big news. Not that he could deal with my family anyway.
             Then, I flashed back to the moment of my arrest. Eight of us had sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground floor of the Federal Building, holding hands. The cops had given us three ritual warnings to disperse or to be arrested for defiant trespass. Each time, we shook our heads no, refusing to break our connection. The friends rallying outside had waved their hands and their hand-lettered placards, flashing peace signs and smiling through the plate glass windows in beatific witness. When the cops had finally arrested us, we’d risen—a bit stiffly—as one, and floated to the side door.
             Nothing could blot out my memory of these transcendent moments that briefly suspended ego and time—not the harsh frisking that we women received from a female cop who looked like Big Bird (If I’d known that was going to happen, I wouldn’t have bothered going to the gynecologist yesterday, Sara, my philosophy grad student friend, had whispered to me as we jolted through Pittsburgh’s potholes in a paddy wagon), not our farewell in the wan gray dawn to our warm-hearted, foul-mouthed cellmate, Nia, who’d sat alone in the bleak police station lobby, pretending to be brave.
             My paperback wasn’t something by Noam Chomsky or Thomas Merton—as my siblings might have guessed—but Raymond Chandler’s detective classic, The Long Goodbye. I flipped to the last page, which ended with my favorite lines: I never saw any of them again, except the cops. No way has been invented to say goodbye to them.


♥♥♥


             My sister, Neena, came tripping down the airport corridor in a vintage navy blue coat that had been our mother’s. It fit her perfectly, as both of them had 22-inch waists. Neena’s dark brown hair streamed down her back, topped by a multicolored crocheted cap from the early 1970s, which she wore with matching mittens. She looked like Ali McGraw in Love Story. Because Neena was as pretty as Ali in that wretched movie, her eccentricities struck most people as charming. She was Sitti Leila’s favorite grandchild, even though I was Sitti’s namesake.
             “Mumzie and Dad are waiting for their luggage,” Neena announced. “They decided to bring one big suitcase for the two of them.”
             “Where’s Sammi?” Peter asked in a tone of concern—for Sparky, of course.
             “She’s coming. She brought two suitcases. And a bag for her beauty supplies.”
             “Your coat is passable, Neena,” Alex said, “but could you have chosen a more appropriate hat?”
             “Sitti Leila made this hat for me. And the gloves. She made a set for all of us girls. I guess I’m the only one who kept mine.”
             Neena’s determination to hang on to things was her primary trait. It wasn’t only the winter clothes that she wore once or twice a year. When my mother was about to throw out the set of everyday plates used throughout our childhood—heavy plastic, with a faded rim of blue roses—Neena insisted on taking them. She cherished a plate with a deep scorch mark on the bottom. She’d fought to be served on this special plate every evening when she and Sammi were seven. Poor little plate, she’d croon, after smacking Sammi over the head for it (Sammi always wanted anything that Neena wanted.), I’ll take good care of you.
             “How was your trip?” I said.
             “OK, except they gave Dad trouble about his handgun at the airport. If he’d put it in his checked luggage like I told him to, it would have been all right, but no, he had to carry it inside his jacket. So airport security is screaming, and Dad’s screaming that he’s got a permit for the gun … What’s so funny?”
             “We’ll tell you later,” I said, between gasps. “Finish your story.”
             “So Dad had to put the gun in his checked luggage. After he unloaded it, of course. Now, he’s worried that the airline is going to lose his suitcase, so he’s hanging over the baggage carousel like a hawk.”
             “Or a vulture,” Peter murmured.
             “What?” Neena said.
             “It’s a frickin’ weird culture,” Peter said loudly. “Why did Dad bring his gun along, anyway? Sitti Leila’s dead, for Christ’s sake.”
             “He always keeps it under the front seat of his car at home, and he now has to drive all the way from Syracuse to Bullhead in January, at night.”
             “He’d be better off spending his money on a quality rental car that won’t break down in East Jabip,” Alex put in.
             “Look, Alex, I’m not saying I’d carry a gun, but a lot of people in Orlando do,” Neena said. “Cleve’s mother keeps a nine-millimeter pistol in her purse, along with a sleep mask, her passport, and a wrench set. Oh, and beef jerky.”
             “She should go on Let’s Make a Deal,” I said.
             “Yeah. She’d love the attention,” Neena said.
             Neena’s marriage to Cleve Clayton (whom Sammi—still single—called the whitest of white men) had flummoxed me. I’d always thought that Neena, despite her status as the family beauty, never would agree to marry anyone. But Cleve had wooed her with persistence and a huge yellow diamond that had been in his mother’s family since before the Civil War, or as Big Lou called it, The Wo-ah of No-thun Aggress-shun. Cleve’s ancestors had managed to hide this rock from General Sherman’s marauders, a feat that had impressed even Sitti Leila. Big Lou had been homecoming queen at the University of Georgia in one of the glory years after the Second World War. Her Christian name was Luther. She was part of Neena’s attraction to Cleve, although Neena loved to complain about her. In some ways, she was a lot like Sitti Leila.
             My father then came into view, striding impatiently toward the car rental counter in a trench coat with epaulets that gave him the air of a military officer from an embattled country. My mother trailed behind him, lost in her black mink, dragging a wheeled suitcase nearly as large as she was. Sammi struggled at the rear with two wheeled suitcases, her makeup bag slung across her bronze coat like the football that holds the President’s nuclear death codes.
             Daddy shook hands with Alex, man-to-man, and then gave Peter an almost friendly cuff on the shoulder. He wasn’t quite sure how to approach me. In honor of the occasion, I stood on tiptoe and kissed him three times on his stiff olive-colored cheeks—left, right, left, Lebanese-style.
             “Just as your grandmother would have done,” Daddy said, his mouth twisting wryly. He always referred to Sitti Leila as “your grandmother,” although he had taught us to use the Arabic form of address. No one but Sitti called him by his given name, Samir, which means pleasant companion. To the world, he always had been Sam—as Samira, his namesake, always had been Sammi. (Naming Sammi after Daddy had been Mother’s idea. She named the girls in our family—except for Neena, whom Sitti had insisted on calling after her long-dead sister, Ojinneen. Like a beautiful jinn, a spirit that rise into Heaven, Sitti explained this tongue twister of a name.)
             Mother bobbled forward, releasing her grip on the suitcase to give my brothers extravagant hugs. She embraced me gingerly, her blond hair brushing my cheek like a bird’s wing. I felt the sparrow bones beneath the pelt of her coat and was overwhelmed by her perfume—the intensely spicy Opium, which Daddy gave her at Christmas.
             She cupped my face in her manicured hands and said, “You look nice, Leila, considering all those things you do. You’ve looked nice ever since your skin cleared up. But why must you wear your hair so short?”
             There was no answer to this mixed maternal assessment. I said, “Thank you, Concetta.” Mother also disliked her given name, and went by Connie. She shook her head at me.
             Sammi came up, huffing slightly—too many cigarettes—and favored me with an air kiss, like a socialite. Her hair, this season, was long and auburn, her green eyes heavy with mascara. She wore 24-karat gold hoop earrings that had been a baptismal gift from Auntie Dorothy, Daddy’s brother’s first ex-wife.
             When Sammi pulled away from me, she imitated Mother’s appraising expression. “Mumzie is right, Leil. Your hair is too short. Are you going for the left-wing nun look?”
             “Cut it out, Sammi,” Alex said. “Leila hasn’t said a thing about your rhinoplasty. Good job, though.” I was surprised at Alex coming to my defense, but then I remembered that Patti wore her hair short, too.
             “He hasn’t seen me in over a year, and this is what he says to me?” Sammi raised her voice, as if addressing the question to a higher authority. “Where’s the wife, by the way? Still recovering from that terrible allergic reaction?”
             “Patti is very busy with her accounting practice right now. It’s hell from January first until after April fifteenth.”
             “I’ll bet. Most people don’t even notice that I had my nose done, you know.”
             “Then why did you bother?”
             “Please be quiet, kids,” Mother said. “Your father is trying to deal with a situation here.”
             Daddy was pointing his finger at the car rental clerk, his voice in the danger zone. “What do you mean, my Gold Club membership has expired?”
             “Your card hasn’t been valid since the end of 1987, sir. That’s over three years ago.”
             “So? I haven’t rented a car since 1987. Are you going to deny me the discount because of a minor detail?”
             “The card has expired, sir,” the clerk repeated. He was a skinny kid, and although he was holding his ground, he was sweating a little.
             “How damn cheap are you people?”
             “Sir, I’d refer your question to my manager, but it’s nearly nine o’clock, and he’s gone for the day. The difference in the rental is only five dollars per day, sir.”
             “Only five dollars a day! How long does it take you to earn five dollars?” Daddy demanded. “And what about the gas? With a Gold Card, I’m entitled to a full tank of gas!”
             “Sir, the Yugo gets excellent gas mileage.”
             “What do you care, if you’re not paying for the gas?”
             “Hold on a minute, Dad,” said Neena. She leaned against the counter and gave the clerk an earnest stare. He blushed through his acne.
             “We’ve come all the way from Florida for my grandmother’s funeral,” Neena said, “and it’s late, and we’re tired. Since you can’t get hold of your manager, couldn’t you give my father the full tank of gas—as a courtesy gesture?”
             “Well …”
             “We’re cold,” said Sammi, who had moved next to Neena. “And hungry.” She pouted her cherry-glossed lips.
             “OK, I guess I can compromise on the tank of gas,” the clerk said. “But not the rental. It’ll still be $18.99 a day.”
             “Thank you,” my sisters chorused.
             Daddy snatched the keys and rental agreement from the counter. “Your company will be getting a letter of complaint,” he said. “You people can’t get away with doing business like this.”
             “Yes, sir,” said the clerk, keeping a straight face, even though Peter was rolling his eyes and doing a pantomime of shooting himself in the head—knowing that no one would notice except the clerk and me.
             “Goddamn jackass. Let’s get this show on the road,” Daddy barked. “Alex, I hope that you got yourself a car. There’s seven of us, and with our luggage, I only have room for three.”
             “It’s taken care of, Dad,” Alex said.
             “I’ll ride with Dad and Mumzie,” Neena said.
             “Oh, Neena, I was hoping that Lolly could ride with us. I haven’t seen her in so long,” Mother said. I winced at the childhood nickname. “Please?”
             Peter and Sammi gave each other a significant look. With Neena in the car, they wouldn’t be playing with Sparky—although Alex was hardly more tolerant of their pet habit.
             But Neena said dutifully, “All right, Mumzie, I’ll ride with Alex.”
             Mother linked her arm through mine. Now that Daddy’s tempest over a tin can was over, she was all girlish enthusiasm.
             “If we weren’t going to your grandmother’s funeral, I’d say we were having fun!”

♥ End ♥



Angele Ellis is the author of two books of poetry, Arab on Radar (Six Gallery) and Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook), and a recipient of a poetry fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her poetry and prose recently have appeared in American Book Review, Eunoia Review, Stone Highway, Right Hand Pointing, Blast Furnace, and the anthology Women Write Resistance. She was first runner-up in the 2012 Grey Sparrow Flash Fiction Contest. She lives in Pittsburgh. This story is an excerpt from a novel in progress. [Author photo by and ©2013 Vaschelle André; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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2 comments:

  1. Alf shukran (a thousand thanks)!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are very welcome, Angele! Thank you for letting us have your words!

    -GRYL

    ReplyDelete