Friday
Apr132012

Falcons on the Floor

By Justin Sirois


 

Publishing Genius
April 2012
978-0983170648


 

Dusk descended. Suggestions of copper and burned polymer pricked their noses. Twilight filters slipped sepia over their tired eyes. Sal took off the sheet and held its corners, letting it whip the air, and he handed Khalil one corner. They both wanted to let it go.

From her high vantage, the rider stood, saw Ramadi's sparse flickering, and turned straight west, crossing over the road with a thump.

"What's she doing?" Khalil asked.

"Probably knows a safer route."

"My ass hurts."

"Mine too."

Khalil opened his cell phone and turned it on, waiting for the neon screen to brighten. Sand crusted in its hinge. He cleared the dust off with the hem of his shirt, tapping the cheap plastic against his palm. He scrolled backwards through his contacts to Anmar because Anmar was listed alphabetically and he had nothing else to do.

"No reception yet."

"You think he's —" Sal paused, scratching his beard, "he's okay?"

"Yeah, man," Khalil assured. "If anyone's okay, it's Anmar." He turned off his phone. He rubbed his hand over his forehead and cheeks. "Do I have any zits?"

"Huh? 

"On my face. Do I have any zits?"

Sal squinted, surveying his friend's oily face, his hairline, where floppy black bangs hid his brow and hovered above his sharp and sunburned nose. "You're scraggly, but no pimples."

"Good, good," Khalil mumbled, rubbing a finger over his teeth, scrubbing plaque, chiseling with his thumbnail.

Small-arms fire of different calibers cracked in the distance —American rifles, then others, then American again —two groups reciprocating shots. The rider ducked and slowly rose, trying to see. She held a hand out to them to keep seated, but they didn't notice.

Khalil asked, "Can we trade shirts when we get to the city?"

"Why? You have to be in all black?" Sal asked.

"I wanna look good, man."

"Yeah. Okay."

 

Under the cover of a grain field, they approached another farmhouse where empty fences secured parked tractors and a few date trees and a dog, chained, rolling on its back —happy to see its owner. It flipped and kicked. It made no fuss except submissive whines. It crouched with its belly flat on the ground, its front paws paired at the perimeter of a circle worn in the dirt. Parking behind the house, the rider dismounted and pointed at the city, not looking at Sal or Khalil. She untied her suitcase. She popped the lid of the cooler, but left it there, open. She took the bedding and suitcase before walking up a footpath to the farmhouse.

Someone clanged pots together from inside.

The rider never looked back. She disappeared into the candlelit dwelling. Greeting her and taking her luggage, an elderly man shuffled through the fickle glow, eyeing Sal and Khalil briefly before shutting the door. The dog whined with its nose between its paws.

"You think she'll mind if we take some more water?" Khalil asked, nodding at the ice chest.

"I'm not going to stop you."

"She left it open for us right?"

"Sure."

Thick clouds snuffed any starlight there might have been.

They gathered what they hadn't bartered for the ride: another jug, and, along with a hunk of cheese, they collected a few stray grapes hiding at the bottom of the box. Khalil pulled off his shirt first, swapping it with Sal's, and slipped on his windbreaker. In the bashful moonlight he was a walking shadow with a gait more confident than before. He straightened his hair with his fingers and went back to cleaning his teeth.

"Let's go," he said.

A scythe sat orphaned at the edge of the property. Khalil wanted to steal it, but let it be.

Through partitions of hearty grass, Khalil led Sal as if he had used this path hundreds of times, brushing away weeds as high as corn stalks until they came upon open range. An unguarded field stretched between the desert and Ramadi —urban buildings lined that boundary where no towers or checkpoints could be seen —only random streetlamps and a tiny string of decorative lights dotting a veranda. The road faded off to the north. Headlights appeared like low-lying comets as vehicles turned toward and away. The night was peaceful except the random snap of riflefire.

Sal shook with fatigue, hiding his hands in his sweatshirt.

"We're lucky," Khalil whispered.

"Why?"

"Anmar lives around here —if he hasn't moved."

"You think he has? You think he's moved?"

"Naw. He likes his house."

"How old is he?"

"Older than us."

"How old?"

"Twenty five," Khalil said. "Not much."

 

Street lights never looked so welcoming.

They dashed low through the field toward the city. Khalil shooed horseflies swarming in the brush. Stopping every few meters, they scrutinized roof ledges for snipers and moved on. Bypassing a flattened building —a corner of which still stood —they scrimmaged over pummeled walls spilling into streets like clumped porridge. Office chairs and a photocopier mixed into the powered wreckage. Toppled reams of copy paper sprayed with every wind gust. What was once a carpeted lobby was now an open lawn.

Khalil led Sal past the rubble.

Fire-damaged cars lined the block.

Across the street sat apartment houses and the cars parked there were intact —a newly washed van and three sedans, a truck, a motorcycle —as if this block wasn't part of the same neighborhood. They could see where someone swept the street free of debris. Dunes of concrete crowded the sidewalk.

Khalil skipped ahead to peer around corners.

"Do you see any patrols?" Sal asked.

"Only people."

Chatter echoed above them.

Three men on a veranda gawked at a television too large for the card table supporting it. A girl brought them each a saucer with hot tea. They thanked her. Below them, a boy did pull-ups on a pole fashioned between two rafters. He dropped and another boy took his place. A younger voice counted off —1,2,3,4.

Dinner smells permeated the air —spiced vegetables and buttered loaves, stewed meats slow-cooked and stripped of their bones.

"Man," Khalil said, sniffing loudly.

Their stomachs tightened like prunes.

Simple ochre hovels lined the streets tethered by power lines and cables crisscrossing. Hundreds and hundreds of strung cable. Electric wire held canvas canopies like pillowcases. Iraqi flags hung from doorsteps, windows, ledges, rooftop decks, any pole available —red and green and white swishing. 

They stopped. Hundreds of flags circled them.

"We're here man! We did it!" Khalil cheered, grabbing Sal's backpack with both hands and shaking him. "This is amazing, man!"

"I can't believe we actually made it," Sal said.

"Yeah! Wait till you meet Anmar. He's a khosh guy, man. You might not want to leave Ramadi." Khalil did a little jig in the sand, shimmying his shoulders, gyrating his hips.

"Stop that," Sal said.

"Whatever. C'mon."

Down the block, a playground flanked an empty schoolyard. Khalil led them past monkey bars and spiraling slides to a carousel where he sat and dialed Anmar. Sal got on the carousel and pushed off, sending them in a circle, pedaling his foot.

A fire in the distance produced a thick cone of smoke. A gas station sabotaged by rebels or coalition misfire. The incandescent point of the cone flashed sulfur-white, and with every rotation of the carousel, they saw it obscuring and refocusing —the oily plumes smoothing out detail then dispersing. Khalil lay on the cold painted metal and pressed one ear to it, listening to the squeaking axel and the grumbling steel. The phone rang and rang. Sitting up so Sal could hear, he left a message,

"Anmar. It's your cousin Khalil. Uh, I'm in town, man. Me and Sal —give me a call. On my cell. Yeah. Okay. Okay, later."

He looked up at Sal.

"That's it?" Sal asked.

"I guess. He'll call back. He never answers."

"You have enough battery power?"

Khalil flipped open his phone. "Yeah."

"I'm going to have to charge my laptop."

"Okay."

 

Spinning, they watched the fire burn silently. They swung their legs and waited for the phone to buzz and blink. A few kids came and sat on the monkey bars. but only climbed and lounged, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Two sat on bikes, afraid to leave them unattended. One of them kept burping. Another mooned Khalil and Sal, and they all ran toward the apartments except for the kids with bikes who wanted to ride the playground. Everyone laughed.  

"How do you feel?" Khalil asked.

"I haven't been mooned in years. I feel great."

Pedaling madly, the two bikers took turns breaking, skidding out, trying to top one another. The older of the two sped to a stop and sprayed a fan of gravel over a seesaw. Pinging stones chimed like a hundred dinging bells. They both looked to Sal and Khalil for approval.

"Remember that time you wiped out on your bike when you were staring at that girl?" Sal snickered.

Khalil's phone vibrated on the carousel's metal floor.

He fumbled opening it, "Hello?"

Anmar yelled at someone on his end and then yelled hello.

"Hello? Anmar? Yes!" Khalil yelled back.

Sal leaned in to listen but could only hear shouting over the line. Then chuckling. 

"Okay," Khalil said, "Yeah, we're here. Where are you? Okay. Okay. Now?"

"What?" Sal asked, eager to know what was going on. Music and shouting and hooting. The kids on the bikes raced away.

Khalil laughed, "No, my sisters aren't with me man, you're a dick face. I said a dick face! A face made out of dicks! Okay. You too. Yeah. I know." He made mouth flapping gestures at Sal with his hand. "Okay, okay. I know where."

"Ask about the Internet," Sal said.

"Yeah? No!" Khalil jested, laughing harder. "Iché! You're lying. Shut up, man. Okay." 

"What is it?" Sal pressed.

Khalil waved him off, "Alright, see you in a few minutes."

He hung up the phone and turned it off.

"What's so funny?"

"Those guys are seriously damaged, man. Retarded."

"Oh."

 

They hurried through the hushed commercial district on the south end where shops had just closed —an audio store specializing in microphones and megaphones, corner markets with colorful awnings, an instrument seller with empty display windows, its sign covered by a tarp, a photo mart in the same condition, barbers, variety stores, butcher shops, auto part depots —all locked except one late night café crammed with men.

Khalil felt comfortable here. He'd visited often as a child. He had family everywhere. Cousins across Iraq. In every Sunni tribe, it seemed. And he knew that Sal would trust him as they walked through the small town.

A salesman slept in an armchair on the curbside. A book lay, pages-down, in his lap. His shop was lit by a single bulb dangling from the ceiling. They walked between rows of bed frames and mismatched living room sets, stray ottomans, amber-stained end tables paired with corduroy lounge chairs, dining room tables accompanied by three and five chairs. One piece always seemed missing. 

Sprawling tenements, no more than three stories high, overran the market. Khalil ushered Sal down a well-lit main street with bland apartment buildings stamped out as if from muddy molds, each with a simple balcony enclosed by ironwork. More flags waved from railings, everywhere.

Pop shots echoed off brick walls and building tops —just someone disturbing the night —but it was otherwise peaceful.

"It's around here," Khalil said. 

"You sure?" Sal's voice seeped.

Armed squads made their presence known.

Mujahideen strapped with bullet belts and shoulder bags, cradling Kalashnikovs with banana clips doubled together with tape, roamed the roads and cruised in white pickups. They left Sal and Khalil alone. They drove slowly through alleys, backing out for men to peek from the safety of sandbag-lined truck beds with barrels leaning steadily. 

"Don't worry."

"I'm not," Sal said.

Someone prayed. A woman. Her window was cracked and from it they heard her repeating verses familiar and comforting. They didn't linger.

A young man hurried past, heaving, out of breath, holding a plastic tarp in his arms. Something sloshed inside. Another man tripped at his heels.

"It's dripping. It's dripping!" he yelled, running a body length behind with a gas canister in each hand. "Hurry!"

"What the hell?" Sal asked.

"Weird," Khalil said, "Maybe someone is hurt."

Their racing steps diminished down the street until Salim and Khalil heard a door whip open and slam. Cheering erupted from inside. Then arguing and more cheering and one of the men laughed louder and longer than the rest.

"What was that all about?" Sal said. 

"Or not," Khalil said.

Following the drips, they came upon a smaller tenement with a single purple door facing the street. Two men on the rooftop peered down, head scarves tangled around their skulls. One coughed. Their cigarettes made them into two cyclopes, each with a single glowing eye. One of them leveled a rifle.

Khalil looked for an address.

The building was a tired box. Water stains spread from the roof like liver spots. Beginnings of graffiti blotted the brick as if their writers ran out of paint or forgot what they meant to say. Like stretched accordions, sliding metal shutters covered a storefront on the bottom floor. Both were padlocked and dented from forced entry. Several dusty motorcycles, most of them outfitted for off-roading, leaned in a neat row with mirrors cracked and fenders missing, padding picked and pulled out of ripped seats. Khalil recognized one as his cousin's. It was the most well-maintained of the group.

The cyclopes on the rooftop glared.

More cheers shot out of a second story window.

"I think this is where those two guys went," Sal said.

"This is it. Anmar's place."

"You sure?"

"Stop asking that."  

Khalil rang the buzzer.

No response.

The cyclopes tapped their triggers.

Khalil rang again, leaning longer, the buzzer zapping their ears like the school bells. Sal closed his eyes, and when he opened them the men on the roof were gone. Their smoke plumes proved they were sitting close by, listening. In each slot on the intercom's box, names were crossed out or removed and streaks of bubble gum were pulled across the slots like gooey pink tendons. Khalil wanted to touch them. A head appeared from the same window where the laughing had cackled, and it quickly ducked back in.

"Was that Anmar? You sure this is it?" Sal asked, tugging a beard hair with pinched fingers.

"Of course. I've been here before. I think."

They heard stomping on the staircase behind the door, reverberating loose hinges and screws. The door cracked open with exaggerated caution. The man pulling it appeared. Smiled wildly. Another face stacked its chin on the first man's scalp, wearing old aviator sunglasses and a wooden match in its mouth.

He smiled even wider. His teeth were yellow kernels.

"Khalil," the bottom face said.

"Anmar," Khalil grinned.

The top face cackled, letting his match flip out of his mouth, "Yeah!" And he blasted open the door.

Anmar stepped out and gripped his cousin's shoulders with fingerless gloves before drawing him close, hugging tough, slapping his back. They kissed each other on each cheek and then pulled away, palms on shoulders again and hugged and slapped backs and cheered. "Cousin! Cousin!"

"No sisters?" Anmar asked. "I thought you were just kidding on the phone."

"Man, my oldest sister is fifteen, man. C'mon."

"And she is my cousin!" Anmar roared.

For some reason everyone laughed, Sal the hardest, laughing and looking to see when to stop. Anmar pinched and twisted the skin at the tip of Khalil's elbow like he'd done to Sal days before and Khalil swatted him away, laughing, too.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm being rude." Anmar sighed and said, "This is Hassan," who was leaning against the wall with a pint glass of iced tea. Hassan grinned, his smile so wide his cheeks might have been slashed. He postured behind his streaked sunglasses. He hooked his thumb in the strap of a rifle behind his back, pointed downward. It was an American rifle, Sal and Khalil both knew. Taking a lemon slice out of his drink, he sucked it down to the rind and said nothing.

"We were just saying. Hassan's a compassionate conservative," Anmar clarified.

"This is true," Hassan confirmed, exhaling through his nose and pinching the toothpick in his front teeth. "Very." He spit the lemon skin onto the sidewalk.

"Compassionate," Anmar doubled.

 "I have," Khalil paused, "no idea what that means."

"Neither do I," Anmar said, jiggling his shoulders and laughing again, getting everyone else to laugh. "Salim Abid?"

"Ah, yeah," Sal said. "Hey."

"You guys," he said plainly, shaking Sal's hand, glancing left and then right, "look like shit."

"Yeah, could use a shower," was all Sal could say.

Hassan roared. The ice in his glass bucked and clinked. Anmar roared too.

"We've got a Jacuzzi in the back, man. A sauna too. Very nice," Hassan joked as he tapped his fingers on the rifle's long magazine, jingling its staggered bullets.

"And a lap pool if you guys really need a good workout. It's the best exercise in the world. I do about fifty, maybe sixty laps a day," Anmar lied, flexing his arms and looking down at invisible muscles.

"Yeah, yeah," Khalil drank from the water jug and gave it to Sal. "Maybe we'll take a swim."

Hassan rolled the match to the corner of his mouth and managed to drink. When he lowered the glass it clinked again and everyone stared at it, like his cup was filled with uncut diamonds. He kept one of the diamonds in his mouth, chewed it to slush.

"Anyway," Anmar said, reopening the door, "we've got something important to do. Need your help. C'mon up."

"He stays here," Hassan said, staring at Sal.

Everyone froze.

"Yeah. You're right," Anmar agreed. "Salim's gotta stay outside. Won't be too long."

They exchanged expressions —Sal of concern, Khalil of reassurance, and Khalil said, "It's cool. Sal, just wait here."

"Okay."

"Yeah?"

"I'll be fine."

And they left Sal in the street.

The men on the rooftop never looked back down again.