See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella. Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15
“Allah is on your side, you never have to hide.” – The Man Mazen
Anything Gold Or Silk
There were neither any Ngäbe nor Chinese names in either sphere. That didn’t shock him. Both populations were secretive and would not be tested willingly. And the only surprise with Nemesio was that he had been tested. Maybe the police had done it, to match his DNA to crimes he’d committed?
But Ivana Soto Serrano was Ivana. Fuad’s wife, Ivana. Although Serrano was a common last name, so maybe it wasn’t her after all. Omar looked at the birthdates: her birth date would make her twenty six years old now. That seemed to match.
So Tio Melo was not Tio Melo, but Abuelo Melo. Omar’s grandfather. And Ivana the maniac was his first cousin? It was impossible. She wasn’t even Panamanian, for heaven’s sake.
He stuffed the papers haphazardly into the envelopes and left, his mind spinning.
In the car, he rubbed his beard, thinking. There was a part of him that was deeply disappointed that Melo was in fact his grandfather, because that meant Melo was the man who’d abandoned Omar’s father. He was a deadbeat dad, a disappearing act. Any man who would desert his family in that way was a loser. A person with no integrity. He wanted to say, forget him. You don’t need to ever see him again.
But no, he needed answers. It felt critically important to know why Melo had done what he’d done. Maybe there was some justification Omar could not think of. And he needed to understand this craziness with Ivana. That part was certainly a mistake, no matter what the woman with the rainbow fingernails said.
He texted Fuad and asked for Ivana’s number. When Fuad didn’t reply right away – he was a doctor after all, and probably very busy – Omar started the car and returned to work, glancing constantly at the rear and side mirrors, looking for any sign of a white Mercedes.
Fuad’s answer came an hour later. He provided the number and added, “I’m so glad you and Ivana are becoming friends.” Omar laughed at that – a mean bark of a laugh that sounded uncharitable to his own ears. He called her.
“Who is this?” Female voices chattered and laughed in the background.
“Oh.” She sounded surprised but not put off. “Is everything okay?”
“Where are you?”
“At the Coronado Club.”
“I thought you quit drinking.” He knew it was a stupid thing to say. He’d been increasingly short tempered lately. It didn’t feel good, but he couldn’t seem to help it.
“I’m not drinking, idiot! Who are you, the morality police? How dare you!”
He sighed. “Sorry. I’m on edge lately.”
“Fine.” She sounded mollified. “What do you want?”
“When’s your birthday?”
She laughed. “That’s more like it. It’s February 20th. I like anything gold or silk.”
Omar pulled the genealogy papers from the envelopes and shuffled through them. He found the one with the three names. Ivana Soto Serrano, February 20th. He stared at the date, printed in black and white.
Laughter and glasses clinking on Ivana’s end. “Well?” she demanded.
“Can you meet me after work? I need to talk to you about something important.”
“I don’t want to say right now. I’ll meet you at your place at six.”
“Oh, a mystery. Sounds good.”
He was about to say, “Don’t shoot me,” but she hung up. Probably for the best.
The Man Mazen
He had a little time before he had to return to work. He drove to the lot across the street from the Centro, where the Venezuelans were camped. Taking a notebook and pen from the glove box, he exited into the brutal afternoon heat.
There was no one in sight but a handful of people in the shade of one of the lean-tos. The tall teenage boy, Chiki – the one who’d thrown mud at him – sat on a milk crate, playing a plastic bucket like a drum, beating it slowly and methodically. One of the little boys Omar had seen playing football – he was maybe eight years old and had wildly curly hair that reminded Omar of his own – was playing a cheap harmonica, the kind you could get in Chinatown for a dollar. Though the instruments were inferior, the boys managed to produce a melody that sounded like tears turned into music.
A handful of younger kids sat around them, listening. There was one woman as well – the thin woman with frizzy hair. She sat cross-legged, swaying back and forth with a dreamy look on her face. The little boy with the harmonica had his eyes closed, and as the music wound down, becoming slower and quieter, the boy squatted and hunched over, as if his own sadness were shrinking him, so that he would soon disappear.
The frizzy haired woman noticed Omar and said, “Hey,” and the music stopped. Some of them waved to him, including the boy Chiki.
“Is your mom around?” Omar had concluded that Chiki’s mom, Graziela, was the leader of this ragtag group.
“Not right now.”
“Don’t you guys know any happy music?”
Chiki shrugged. “It’s what we feel. Do you play?”
“No. I could sing something.” He knew a lot of nasheeds, mostly from CDs Samia listened to in the car. He wasn’t a great singer, but he wasn’t terrible either.
Some of the younger kids cheered.
“You start,” Chiki said, “and we’ll join in.”
Omar chose an English song by one of Samia’s favorite artists, a British singer called The Man Mazen. It was a fast paced song, more like a rap, and as Omar sang he clapped his hands to establish the beat:
Allah is on your side you never
have to hide, whatever
comes your way you handle,
crush it like a vandal,
smooth it down and use it,
heat it up and fuse it.
He is always with you
and will never quit you:
raise your hands up high,
blessings from the sky,
prostrate your head down low,
feel your spirit grow…
Chiki joined in, drumming fast and hard, and the little boy added a lively melody on the harmonica. Kids jumped up and began to dance. People emerged from the other tents and shelters, all smiling.
Omar finished the song and bowed to a hand of applause from the crowd. One young woman asked what the words meant, and Omar translated. She nodded her head vigorously. “You’re right,” she said. “God is all we have.”
“Anyway.” Omar handed the notebook to Chiki. “Tell your mom I’m going to try to help you guys get legal residency. Have her write down everyone’s names and cedula numbers, if you have them. I’ll need that.”
The group fell silent, and Omar saw suspicion on some faces. The frizzy haired woman declared, “We don’t need your help! You want to get rid of us.” She knocked the notebook from Chiki’s hand, so that it fell in the dirt. Chiki jumped up and argued with her, saying that Omar was a friend.
Omar held out his hands. “It’s up to you. I know it seems like everyone is looking for an angle in this world. How to make a buck. Juega vivo, like we say in Panama.” Juega vivo was a Panamanian expression that literally meant, “game of life,” and referred to a belief that a person should seize any opportunity for advancement, even if it meant tricking someone, lying, or engaging in unethical behavior. It was a cultural attitude that was sadly common in Panama. “But maybe,” Omar went on, “there are sincere people here and there? People who act in the name of God? Otherwise this world is doomed, don’t you think?”
He looked around at the watching faces. Some looked distrustful, some were nodding in agreement, and all looked tired.
“I’ll be back on Saturday with supplies, God willing.” With that he waved goodbye and left.
He was tempted to keep the DNA mystery to himself until he solved it, but considering Samia’s emotional explosion yesterday it was probably best not to keep any more secrets. On the way home from work he told her about the results.
“SubhanAllah!” she enthused. “That’s wild! And so exciting. A grandfather and a cousin.” Then, sensing, Omar’s lack of enthusiasm, she added, “Or maybe not exciting?”
“How can she be my cousin?”
“I don’t know. But she told us she got tested, remember?”
“At our wedding. She prattled on about being a beauty queen and descended from Castilian royalty. Fuad explained that he’d tested her to make sure she didn’t have the gene for epilepsy.” (Author’s note: see chapter 8).
Omar nodded. “But if she’s Castilian royalty, she’s no relative of mine. There’s nothing like that in my gene pool, according to the graph.”
“You share one grandparent. She has three others.”
Waiting at the traffic light at a busy intersection, he studied the mirrors, then did a double take. There was a white Mercedes about five cars back, in the neighboring lane.
“It’s back,” he told Samia. “The Mercedes.”
“This is Panama. There are ten thousand Mercedes.”
Which was true. This was a city of rich and poor. Traffic on the roads consisted of multitudinous taxis, diablos rojos (the smoke belching buses) with their packed and weary passengers, beat-up little trucks and cars held together by primer paint, and luxury cars.
“Yeah,” he said. “But this is the same one. Hold on.” He put the car in park, engaged the emergency brake, and leaped out of the car, ignoring Samia’s shout of protest. He dashed between the traffic lanes, trying to make out the Mercedes driver’s face. But the man reversed the Mercedes a few meters, almost hitting the car behind him, then swung a u-turn across the double yellow line and sped off on the other side of the road, going the other way. All Omar caught was a flash of dark skin and medium-length black hair. He actually started to chase the Mercedes before he realized how futile that was, and gave up, panting.
The light turned green. Traffic began to move, but in Omar’s lane the traffic was stuck behind his car. A chorus of cacophonous horns blared, as drivers rolled down their windows to shout curses at Omar. One woman rolled down her window right beside him and startled him by shrieking, “Chicken brains bastard! Move your car before I turn your head inside out like a bad hat!”
A few drivers began to get out, no doubt looking to fight. He hurried to his car, put it in gear and took off. The light turned yellow as he went through, and all those raging drivers were left behind.
What About Us
Samia sat in stony silence all the way home, while Nur was excited, wanting to know why his papá had done that. “I thought I saw someone I knew,” Omar said.
“I would only do that if it was a alien,” Nur remarked.
“Why would you do that if it was an alien?”
“To see what’s in his hand.”
“Why, what’s in his hand?”
“I don’t know. It’s a alien. It’s not anything we know.”
A police cruiser was still parked outside the house, cigarette smoke drifting out through the open window. In the house, Samia made Nur a grilled cheese sandwich, and left him to eat and watch after-school cartoons. Omar was going to join him – he actually liked some of the cartoons, especially Spider-man – but Samia seized him by the arm and marched him upstairs to their bedroom. Shutting the door, she rounded on him.
“Don’t you ever do that again, buster! You left your blind wife and four year old son in the middle of traffic while you did Allah knows what.”
“But the white Mercedes was -”
“I don’t care if it was a red chariot pulled by four black horses with Shaytan driving! What if something happened to you? If it was Nemesio, he could have shot you or stabbed you. What about us, then, huh? What about us?” She sat on the bed and began to cry.
Omar was stupid when it came to women, he admitted that, but even he could see that Samia was badly frightened. He sat and took her hand. “You’re right. I was thoughtless.”
“I need -” she said through sobs, “need you to be more careful. Promise.”
Omar went to Nur’s bedroom to lie on his bed and think about the meeting with Ivana that evening. He wasn’t sure what he wanted from her, except to confirm that the DNA results were genuine. Instead of thinking, he pulled Nur’s blanket over himself, covering everything but his mouth and nose. He imagined he was a small boy again, with no awareness of the dangers of the wide world, and no fear of anything, since his father was strong and could protect him.
What a powerful man his father had been. A convert to Islam in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. An expert martial artist, a stargazer, a kind soul. He’d shaped himself into all those things, because his father – the man who should have helped to shape him – had abandoned him. The man who went by the name Melocoton. Real name unknown, as was so much of his life. And now that man had the nerve to come around to Omar’s house, dropping off gifts for Nur and flowers for Samia, as innocent as pie.
Nur entered and clambered atop Omar. He rocked back and forth and pretended he was riding a horse, saying, “Giddyup!”
“Let’s see your handstand,” Omar said from beneath the blanket. He’d been teaching this in class. While not strictly a martial skill, handstands built balance and upper body strength.
Nur climbed off and performed a perfect handstand against the wall, using the wall for support. He was not yet at the level of doing it unsupported.
“Pretty soon,” Omar told him, “you’ll do everything on your hands. Walk down the street on your hands, go to school on your hands, and forget how to walk on your feet.”
“No,” Nur countered, “because everyone else would remind me.”
True, Omar thought. That’s always the problem. A man tries to rise above, to do something different, to be better and more pure, and the world says, “No. You can’t do that.” And they drive you out of your home, like they did to all the Prophets. Or they shoot you dead on a bus.
The Weapon of the Believer
At Maghreb time the family prayed together, and Samia asked Omar to read a selection from one of her Islamic books. He opened Al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum Ad-Din and read:
Everything possesses a weapon, and the weapon of the believer is his intellect.
He asked Nur, “Do you know what intellect means?”
Nur scratched his head, then tried to do an unsupported handstand and failed, almost falling onto his mother. She pulled him down beside her and said, “Calm down. Do you have an answer?”
“Smart,” Nur replied.
Omar was impressed. “Almost. It means your ability to think and figure things out in a calm way, not getting excited or angry.” Not like me today. From the way Samia pursed her lips he knew she’d had the same thought. He went on:
Everything possesses a mainstay, and the mainstay of the human is his intellect. Everything possesses a support, and the support of religion is intellect. Every nation has a goal, and the goal of this nation is intellect. Every people has a missionary, and the missionary of the worshipers is intellect.
The oven timer dinged from the kitchen. “Think about that,” Samia said, and rose to check on the food.
“Yeah Papá,” Nur repeated. “Think about that.” Again he tried to do an unsupported handstand, and this time managed to hold it for two seconds before he started to tip. Omar grabbed the boy’s legs, stood up and lifted him into the air. He swung him back and forth like a pendulum, saying, “Think about this, you rascal!” Nur shrieked with delight.
He always enjoyed playing with Nur, but his heart wasn’t in it now. His mind was clouded and full of static electricity, like a brewing storm. He set the boy down, collected his things and passed through the kitchen, grabbing a popia basah spring roll off the tray as Samia took them out of the oven. He bounced the hot roll from hand to hand, blowing on it, then took a big bite. She’d made it with shrimp, fried onions and bean sprouts, and it was delicious. He gobbled it up, then tried to grab another, but Samia – again with her Daredevil senses – smacked his arm and said, “Wait for dinner.”
“But I’m going to Fuad’s house,” Omar complained. “I told you.”
“Then take some for them.”
Tea and Flan
On his way out, Omar pulled up beside the police car outside the gate. “Keep an eye on the house, please,” he told them. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
The cop behind the wheel, a uniformed officer with fat cheeks and a shaved head, responded with the barest of nods. He didn’t seem to be enjoying the post. Omar felt a flash of guilt for not sending any food or drink out to the two cops. They were there to protect him and his family, after all. On a whim, he gave them the package of popia basah rolls. The scent was mouth watering, and the men smiled.
He did not stop for French pastries. At Fuad and Ivana’s apartment, Fuad opened the door. Omar hadn’t seen his friend since the day of the shooting, though Fuad had called more than once to apologize. His friend looked far better than the last time he’d seen him. The dark circles under his eyes had lightened, and the perpetual vertical frown lines between his eyebrows were gone. His hair was newly cut and well groomed.
The destroyed furniture had been replaced. Once again the apartment could have been photographed for an interior design magazine as an example of modern luxury decor – with one notable example. Fuad’s brown leather recliner, the one Ivana had slashed like a horror movie victim, had been repaired with duct tape. It was a crude job, and Omar didn’t imagine Ivana would be too happy about this bit of ugliness marring her perfect home. A rare act of defiance on Fuad’s part? Certainly not a complete role reversal, as Ivana’s Catholic statues still stood in the floor-to-ceiling cubby shelf.
The apartment smelled of sugar and caramel. It was a different world from the last time he was there.
Fuad wanted to inspect Omar’s bullet wound. Omar had organized the genealogy papers in a folder, but he set that down, pulling his shirt down over one shoulder.
Fuad was stunned. “This is impossible. It’s totally healed. Even the scar is barely visible. I don’t understand.”
Ivana entered from the kitchen carrying a tray with tea and sweets. She was conservatively dressed – for her – in a yellow summer blouse with mid-length sleeves, and a red silk skirt that fell to her calves. She was actually smiling, though when she saw her husband studying Omar’s shoulder, the smile flickered. Maybe she’d hoped the subject of the bullet wound wouldn’t come up.
Omar pulled his shirt on. “Alhamdulillah. I guess I heal fast. It’s all history.”
Ivana handed him a plate with a perfect flan swimming in caramel sauce, topped with a sliced strawberry. Omar said bismillah and took a spoonful. The egg custard was soft and spongy, while the cinnamon, vanilla and caramel gave it a heavenly flavor.
“Who made this?”
Ivana frowned. “You think I don’t know cooking?” she replied in English. “I make it. Is Cuban style.”
Switching over to Spanish, Omar said, “Sorry. Listen, I have a weird question. Remember at our wedding, you said you’d had your DNA tested, and that you were descended from Castilian royalty?”
Ivana smiled. “Yes. You can truthfully say you’ve met a beauty queen princess.”
“That was one side of your ancestry. But didn’t you also have a grandparent with African ancestry?”
Her smile vanished. “Why, because I’m dark? There are dark people in Spain, you know.”
Fuad cleared his throat and spoke in slow but very passable Spanish. “What is this concerning, brother? This is personal information.”
“Bear with me.” To Ivana, Omar said, “Did your test happen to say that one side of your ancestry was mostly Ashanti, and that one of your ancestors was a Jamaican slave named Samuel Sharpe?”
Ivana’s eyes widened, and her face flushed. She turned on her husband. “How dare you share my private information with him! I’ll show you what it means to violate my trust!” She stood, and Omar had a sinking feeling she was going to grab a kitchen knife, or even worse her golden gun, though if Fuad had any brains he would have confiscated it by now.
Omar stood as well, hands outstretched. “He didn’t tell me anything! Look at this.” He opened the folder, took out the sheet of paper with the spheres, and handed it to her. “I just received my own DNA test results.”
She snatched the paper. She was still breathing hard. He might literally have just saved Fuad’s life.
Ivana studied the paper angrily. “This is ridiculous,” she said finally. “My grandfather was not some clown named Melocoton. And how could you be my cousin?” Her angry expression faded, and was replaced with a sly smile. “This was all a prank to get back at me for popping you, right?”
Fuad eased the paper out of his wife’s hand and examined it.
Ivana nodded. “You got me, Omar. We are empatados now, yes? How do they say in English, even-stevens.”
Ivana and I had been speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, and I saw Fuad struggling to comprehend. Even after twelve years in the Spanish-speaking world he still had trouble with very fast, colloquial speech. But he must have grasped the gist, because he said, “My lovely. I don’t think it’s a joke.”
An Old Photo
“Please,” Omar said, gesturing to the sofa. “Sit.” He took his own seat. “Just tell me please, what was your father’s full name?”
Ivana gave an exasperated huff, then flung herself onto the sofa. “Marco González Serrano.”
“Hmm. And your mother?”
“Lenina Bayano Soto.”
“Bayano?” He stared at her. “That’s my last name. How come you never told me your mother’s name was Bayano?”
Uncertainty crossed her face. “No reason. It’s a common name.”
“In Panama. Not in Cuba, right?”
“Who was your mother’s father?”
She lifted her chin. “His name was Marcos Arron Navarro. A great man. He knew Castro and Che Guevara. He fought in the Bay of Pigs.”
“Why wasn’t he named Bayano?”
Looking annoyed, Ivana shrugged. “It doesn’t have to be. Maybe he only gave my mother that name to honor your Panamanian Bayano. He was a freedom fighter, like us Cubans.”
Omar pressed his palms into his eyes and thought. This was getting nowhere. An idea came and he looked at Ivana. “Do you have any photos of him?”
“A few.” She went to the bedroom, and came back with a photo album with a brown, water-stained cover. She leafed through it, and Omar saw old black and white photos, the kind with the white borders around the edges.
“Aha!” She set the album on the table, pointing triumphantly to a photo. “There he is, with Castro. He’s holding my uncle Eduardo. Look how handsome he is.”
It was a photo of a man meeting Fidel Castro. In it, Castro was young, his head topped with a mass of curls. He wore loose-fitting army fatigues. The other man was short and slightly chubby, clean-shaven and light complected, with European features. He wore what looked like a tailored suit and fine shoes. A businessman, not a soldier. How could this man have fought in the Bay of Pigs? He carried a healthy boy who might have been a year old. Castro was smiling and rubbing the boy’s head.
“What happened to your grandfather?”
“He died of lung cancer when I was ten. I always got excited when he visited because he owned a caramel factory and used to bring us sweets. Although the government nationalized it later.”
“Hmm.” Omar paged through the album. There were the usual family photos. A stunning black woman who was clearly Ivana’s mother; a handsome, blonde man who appeared to be her father; and Ivana herself as a child, along with an older boy.
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“As if you cared. He’s a school teacher in Havana.”
He turned a page and his eyes locked onto a photo that was completely out of place among these family scenes. In it, Fidel Castro, the international revolutionary Che Guevara, and a third man stood with a group of other men crowded around them. The three men in the foreground wore army fatigues with thick black utility belts. All three were bearded and smiling. Che wore his iconic beret with the communist star, and was smoking a thick cigar. One arm was draped around the shoulders of the third man. Fidel and Che wore pistols on their hips, while the third man carried a rifle slung over one shoulder. The clear impression was that the three were good friends. Revolutionary comrades enjoying a moment of victory. It was an amazing, historical photo, and could have been published in any international magazine.
Omar knew the third man instantly. The man was so young in this photo, broad-shouldered and muscular. His hair was styled into a short afro, and the frizzy beard made him look wild. His teeth gleamed as he smiled. But he had the wide-set eyes Omar knew well, and the same shade of cocobolo skin. It was Melocoton.
Omar pointed. “Who’s this?”
Ivana spun the album around and looked. “Oh. He was a friend of my grandfather’s. I think my mother said he was killed fighting counterrevolutionaries. An important man, obviously.”
Now Omar understood the gestalt of what had happened, if not the details. It was just as he’d feared, and worse. It was repellent, in fact. Ivana would not want to hear it, he was sure.
He looked down at the tiled floor, his eyes shifting left and right. He’d discovered the answer to the mystery of how he and Ivana could be related. After abandoning Omar’s father, Melo had moved to Cuba and fathered another child – Ivana’s mother. And maybe others too, who knew? Then, true to form, Melo deserted that family as well, and went – where? That piece of the puzzle was missing. At which point this other man, Marcos Arron Navarro, came along and assumed the role that Melo had abandoned. He’d married Ivana’s grandmother, and adopted the children as his own. Ivana had grown up believing that Marcos was her grandfather.
Why throw a grenade into Ivana’s perfectly good family history? Why diminish the happy memories she had of her grandfather?
Abruptly, he stood and smiled. “You know what? This was all a crazy mixup.” He snatched the genealogy paper from Fuad and slipped it into the folder. “How could we be cousins? I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m just tired from stuff that’s been going on.” He gave an amused snort, realized he was acting deranged, and tried to tone it down. “I better get home. Samia’s making dinner.” With that he hurried to the door and let himself out, catching one last glimpse of Fuad and Ivana looking utterly baffled.
A Figure In the Rain
He found his car listing badly to one side. Both tires on the driver’s side were flat. What the heck? He crouched and studied them. Each tire had a nail in it. What were the odds of that? If it had been only one tire he could have replaced it with the spare. What would he do? The auto repair shops were closed by now.
He decided he’d come back here in the morning and have the car towed to the repair shop. He didn’t want to go back up to Fuad’s place and ask for a ride. Ivana might have questions he didn’t want to answer. For now he’d take a taxi home.
He walked out of the Torre Cielo’s parking lot and onto Avenida Bolívar. In Panama one did not call a taxi – there was no such thing. Taxis were everywhere. You simply stood on the roadside and waved one down. But in this luxury neighborhood everyone had their own cars. There were no taxis in sight – hardly any traffic at all, in fact – so he began to walk, continually glancing behind him just in case some stray taxi came his way. It was dark now, and the clouds overhead were heavy and turgid with rain. Looking back, he thought he saw a dark figure walking along the roadside about thirty meters back, but it disappeared into the shadows of a roadside acacia tree.
The clouds released their burden. The rain came down like a million tiny hammers, uncompromising. It bounced off the road and turned the world into a blur. A cascade of water soaked him to the skin, pouring down his face, filling his shoes and fountaining from his fingertips.
He picked up his pace, taking long, fast strides. He looked back. The figure was there again, closer now, and the man was not trying to hide his presence. He was a short, thick-bodied man dressed all in black, with a hood pulled low over his face. If Nemesio had spent a decade lifting weights in prison, he might possess such a figure. The man was moving fast now, gaining on Omar, coming through the rain like a charging bull, and as the dark figure came closer Omar saw something long and slender extending from his hand. A knife. A very big knife.
Omar began to run.
Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 17: When You Forgive, You Live
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