Issue 17 — Massud Alemi, Fernando A. Ojeda, Chris Tusa
Chapter 1 taken from Interruptions a novel
Farhad Rouhani would remember the last day of spring 1981 as the first time reality warped. He would recall that Tehran’s air was so hot and immobile a dropped feather fell like a rock. By then he had developed the habit of going over to see Bijan in his apartment halfway across town. Farhad had the route memorized by then. Turn the corner from Vali-e Asr onto Shaheed Beheshti Avenue, and he would be five blocks away from wicked bliss. Only on June 20th, 1981, the baking street indulged more people than usual, and the sun staked sharp streaks of pain into his skull. The heat was treacherous, dry, and scorching. He shielded his eyes with his hand in an army salutation, frozen in time. Shaheed Beheshti lay barren and treeless, while buildings shimmered in the heat rising off the softening asphalt, stamped by tire tracks every which way.
Just before Farhad decided to leap over the open curbside gutter, a youthful swarm of men and women, numbering in the thousands, came into his full view. They had sprung up from nowhere like mushrooms after warm summer rains. Holding placards and banners, women chanted slogans while around them patrols of stone-faced youth with armbands formed a human chain. At the outer edges they held hands, determined as organized workers at a May Day parade. It was a juvenile crowd, restive and militant. The Counterrevolution?
Backing off, Farhad waited for a gap in the long procession, but there was no end to it. With every fresh surge there was a man or a woman leading the chant, “Censorship, oppression, freedom-” Then, out of the blue, a mob of bearded motorcyclists, dressed in black, appeared from the opposite end of the street, their engines at full throttle. They bore green banners, a sure sign of the Hezbollah, the uncompromising arm of the Revolutionary Forces, wailing a chant over and over again, “Only one party — of Allah; only one leader — Ruhollah.” The bearded men were intent and purposeful as they moved, in unison, like a black mass, swinging chains and clubs. They threatened the marchers. No sooner had they arrived when the harrowing screams began. The black mass dealt with the unarmed demonstrators, now to the right, now to the left like a giant bulldozer.
An edge of terror in the air made Farhad’s scalp crawl. Vanguards of the cyclists chased the crowd, which at this point pushed towards the pavement, thrusting Farhad backward until he felt the coarseness of the wall behind him. At the center of the roaring mob was a middle-aged man. He sat on the back of a Yamaha with one hand around the driver’s waist and one hand holding a powerful megaphone. In the middle of gas fumes and the whacking of clubs against softer heads he loudly and unapologetically urged the cyclists on, saying, “Hypocrites are doomed; Islam is victorious.” His followers repeated after him, “Hypocrites are doomed. . . Islam is victorious.”
Farhad lingered on the perimeter of the swarm, avoiding the cyclists, attempting to wade through. He had left home early to drown himself in Bijan’s understanding embrace. And he was now just five blocks from his place, and if he could bypass this drama, he could be there in no time at all. He felt the dampness of his palms and rubbed them on the sides of his pants.
The circle closed in. One of the cyclists, wearing a full beard and a green army overcoat, dismounted. Though clad in army boots, his wispy bangs hinted this was no soldier. Farhad watched him lock up his bike and stand with his feet apart, a hand in his pocket. Directly across from him, a man was standing just as confidently on the other side of the street. They could have almost been twins: same boots, same bangs, and the same focused look in their eyes. Both appeared to be searching for someone.
Farhad turned around, debating the wisdom of even attempting to cross the street at this point. Perhaps he could find a different way, or chart a different route to Bijan’s house. The trouble he had to go through for Bijan was worth it. This mess would give them something to discuss later. He looked back but the man was no longer there, although his bike was. Farhad was anxious and suspicious as he stepped into the street. At that same moment, he felt hands touching his waist and upper torso from behind. It was the kind of touching that people might do when passing each other in a crowd — only more intimately. The hands were rough but trained, and vanished just as quickly as they had appeared. Farhad wondered if someone was checking him for weapons –- but why? The cyclists were still chanting, “Get lost, bastard hypocrites. Enough. . . Enough whoring for the West!” They threatened, “Go home, or we’ll do to you what will make the birds weep!”
Momentarily, Farhad caught site of a cyclist who disembarked from his vehicle to pick up a brick from the gutter. His intention was all too obvious. Within seconds the brick was airborne. Soon, others followed. Flying bricks slowly twisted and turned as though self-propelled. Occasionally they were accompanied by rocks that flew high and far into the march. Farhad pulled back, not knowing which way to turn. But even at the perimeter there was no safety. Fists and feet danced in a hysterical flurry and, in response to them, clubs rose and plunged with merciless whacks. The human chain finally broke. There was a pattern to the Hezbollahi club-wielders’ attack like the dance of bees — an unmediated, impulsive animal reaction to an irritant.
The march coiled upon itself like a cobra; the rhymed chants merged into a timorous bellow, as the floating anxiety peaked thumping footsteps joined the cries and shouts. The motorcycles’ parade ended in a full-throttle fury of fumes. Abandoning their vehicles, bikers gathered double-file on the skin of the march, cutting across the crowd, still shouting belligerent slogans: “When my leader commands, blood I will shed.”
With Bijan still on his mind, Farhad cursed his entanglement in this mess. Meanwhile, war clubs clattered on the roofs and sides of parked cars, and slammed against soft flesh. It was beginning to seem impossible to cross through the mayhem. The bearded man in the green army overcoat had managed to wade through to the other side though. Farhad watched him playing with a tooth-pick in his mouth, leaning sideways against a yellow phone booth. How had he crossed the street? As the bedlam neared a crescendo, Farhad found himself in the middle of the demonstration, at the heart of the action. Air and the sky, all became one angry song. Now the marchers began to form demands, broken and rhythmic: “Oppression, tyranny. . . People, you must rise. . . Rise.”
This was Tehran at daggers-drawn. Even in the days of the revolution, Farhad had not been this fearful; there had been some order to it, then. You could part with the demonstration and go home anytime you fancied.
A single gunshot rang out: then another reverberating against the buildings. The demonstrators held on steadfastly as a barrage of shooting began in a wild cacophony. Farhad found himself being hustled along by the throng that swayed this way and that. It became impossible to differentiate the Hezbollah members from the marchers, motorcycles from knives, smoke from dust, clubs from kicks, and blood from sweat.
It was at this precise moment when for the first time Farhad had the odd and inexplicable sensation of the world turning syrupy and slow flowing. To be sure it was to repeat itself twice more, but on June 20th it was the first time and nothing that was happening made any sense. As he looked about, reality warped in no uncertain terms, and time slowed to a crawl. People were still certainly marching, but took their steps gingerly, their dance-like effort now an exercise in vanity. Even the cyclists whose bloodshot eyes spewing hatred raised their fists as if under water. Silent fury oozed from them.
Pamphlets whitewashed the asphalt. A swish of a shining blade slashed the heat. Farhad only caught a glimpse of steel before it buried itself in a woman’s chest, slowly, ever so slowly, slitting her body open right before his eyes. He looked at himself to inspect his own reaction, and noticed his body exhibiting the same languor as its surroundings. He returned his attention to the young woman. The vertical wound administered with the skill of a butcher was in display in vivid detail, but caught as he was in the slowness, he could not escape the imposing dynamics of the world around him. He followed the hand holding the switchblade; it belonged to a boy with the silky beginnings of sideburns, looking horrified and nearly as baffled as his victim. Blood soaked the woman’s clothes and stained the pamphlets strewn about her. Farhad stood less than eight feet away and could see beyond the fat of her bosom, the red of muscles, and the white of her ribs. He was so close he could smell the blood gushing to the beat of her pulse. Two steps and he could touch her. Instead, he stared at her trembling figure, which seemed at first glance resisting the temptation to fall. People noticed but kept their distance, trying to carry on the struggle. The young woman certainly understood that she would have done the same. Trembling, she raised her hands and held her fingers outward to display her chest spewing as if her lodged spirit were struggling furiously to be set free. "Look at me! Be warned that only blood will nourish the struggle." They understood.
There was a sudden and reverent silence in the street now. It was as if people were watching an asteroid or a car crash –- an incredible event over which they had no control. The only reaction worthy of the incident seemed to be to clear away, leaving her standing in the middle of a circle. She closed her eyes on her stunned peers, as if to focus on an internal tug of war. An irrepressible fright released itself into the noon swelter, percolating to the edges of the march. Farhad’s eyes were fixed on the deep cut in her chest. She took one step his way, half-stumbling, half-resisting, and he saw her chalk-white face twitching with pain and her right hand, stained crimson, trembling as she tried to cover her wound. Then, just as she slumped to the ground like a bundle of newspapers, Farhad quite inadvertently stretched out and grabbed her sweat drenched head preventing it from crashing onto the bone-dry asphalt.
The young woman’s fall also marked the end of the dreamy sequence of events. The world sped up to its normal velocity and the noises were heard again at the chaotic levels of moments ago. Farhad noticed all the eyes staring at him holding the drenched head of the assaulted woman in his hands. He slowly laid it down and backed away a step as he rose to his feet. He felt as though he had awakened from a deep slumber. The woman’s body jerked once but her eyes were closed. The cyclists had started again behind the gathered crowd.
Out of the ensuing devastation a skinny youth with a long neck, a bulging Adam’s apple and an armband came forth and examined the young woman like a doctor. He produced a checkered cloth from his backpack. Hastily he wrapped her in the sheet, first the legs then the chest and head. Her eyes moved under half-closed lids. Gathering her in his arms, like a groom carrying his bride on their nuptial evening, the skinny fellow disappeared as Farhad watched — a fait accompli; she had played her part, now was off stage.
In a fleeting second, as he gained his full composure, strong grips tightened around Farhad’s arms and wrists. He felt the poking of a hard object in his back, and a sinking in his heart. An imperious voice warned him against the very thought of fighting back. Not that he would have otherwise.
Copyright 2007 by Massud Alemi.
Massud Alemi was born and bred in Tehran, Iran and went to a Catholic school that was run by the Vatican. He came to America in 1977, not prepared for what was going to happen in his country of birth. As a result his family was thrown into a whirlwind, scattered all over the globe. It took us years to pick up the pieces from here and there to become whole again. All his family is in the States now and have made it home.
He graduated George Mason University with a degree in history where he met his wife and they are raising two daughters. He admires fiction and especially like Peter Carey, Marquez, Kundera and Salman Rushdie. He is attracted to the issues of homelessness and hybridity in literature.
E-mail this author at email@example.com
Fernando A. Ojeda
It was cool coming to the mall when I was real little. Buckled to the car seat in back, I was an astronaut coming to a galactic station where we could buy provisions, and where we made contact with aliens from other planets or other galaxies. That’s what I imagined whenever a group of people walked by us speaking a foreign language. Our mall had many aliens. Some wore clothes that were very different from ours. And some were very colorful. I’d get real excited those Saturdays when my parents announced, through imaginary loudspeakers made up of their fists, put to their mouths like trumpets, something like this: “All aboard the Spaceship Saturn 1992 for departure. Destination: Oakridge Mall. Commence countdown.” Then, we started counting down from 20 while making our way to the garage. My father knew just how to time it so that the garage door would open completely as we were getting to our departure time of 0, and then the car lifted off to the driveway and we made a final ascent towards the mall.
My parents talked to each other a lot then, on our way to the mall. Sometimes the conversations were serious, you could tell by the long pauses and the low, yet comforting tone. Other times, they talked about the future and my mom’s eyes gleamed when dad assured her that they’d grow old together. Then, there were those days when they talked silly talk about silly things. Boy did they use to talk. They also laughed out loud and playfully slapped each other’s legs or punched each other’s shoulders whenever one got the better of the other. I also remember how the car radio was always on, and they seemed to know all the songs. They sang to each other, they sang to me, they sang to passing cars, and they sang especially to dogs sticking their heads out of other car’s windows. The dogs looked back confused, with sagging, and dazed faces that my mother often found to be sad. Yeah, there was excitement in the car, a little like electricity bouncing off the windshield, and the car windows, and the car walls. I think I bounced up and down on the car seat from the excitement. Those were really happy days.
The best part was when we got to the mall. The three of us: mom, dad, and I, used to walk hand in hand across an endless parking lot. I was always in the middle, arms high, holding-on to my parent’s hands and looking like a ref calling a touchdown. They would count to three, and I knew that they would pull me high and swing me towards the sky… My face felt the breeze and all I could hear was: thhrrrreeeeeeeee…. Those were the fun days… Once inside, we window shopped for a while as we scouted stores that might hold a treasure or two for us to examine on our second orbit of the mall. I liked the stores that my mom said were called specialty shops. That’s a good name, specialty shop. The stuff there was very different; my dad once said that it was xotic stuff, or something like that. All I know is that it was different stuff. Stuff like shrunken heads, wooden masks, incense holders, mobiles, crystals, carved tusks, colorful kites, and other neat stuff.
Back then, mom and dad went into the stores together and looked at clothes, furniture, and appliances that might be just right for our home. They usually didn’t buy anything at the mall, but almost everything they looked at seemed to be just right to them. Mom even mentioned with excitement the precise spot where everything would go and how it would match the color or pattern of some other appliance or piece of furniture. We always went into lots of stores. But, we saved the best for last: the food court. At the food court, aliens had mini-stations from where they served the special diet that was specific to the planet they had come from. I pretended that each cubicle served the food that gave the aliens just the right energy and protein to reach their destination safely. So, the aliens who came from the most distant galaxies, like from the planet Chinee (a word I made up), had to eat very healthy food with lots of minerals and vitamins to make it home ok. We tried food from every planet even though we lived about 20 minutes from the mall.
Dad said that time changes everything. Mom didn’t say much after a while. She cried a lot, in silence. Little by little, she had started changing. She wasn’t as happy as before, and they stopped talking about the future. Whenever they talked then, in the car, the pauses were real long. Sometimes they sighed, each looking out the window on their side of the car. I sometimes wondered if mom’s face was confused, dazed, and sad. I wanted to sing to her to make her happy.
They also stopped pretending that we were going on galactic missions whenever we went to the mall. They stopped pulling me up by the arms to swing me like before. I thought it was my fault; I thought I had grown too big for that. I knew things were changing for sure when they stopped holding my hands as we walked from the car to the mall. I don’t know why, but I realized that I had started walking with my hands in my pockets…I didn’t know what to do with them, and I missed holding their hands…
The last time we went to the mall, we didn’t go. My parents had been arguing in the car and I had tuned them out. I learned to do this by humming the songs from the radio to myself to erase my parent’s voices; sometimes it helped to put my index fingers in my ears at the same time. I hummed a lot those days. And I looked out the window a lot without seeing anything specific. I hummed and looked at the blurs that flew by the window like ghosts in daylight. That day, we came close to the mall but my dad hit the brakes, turned the car abruptly, and headed back home in a rush. Two or three cars beeped at dad, and some men shouted and made faces at him from their cars. But dad ignored them; he also ignored mom who was staring at him with a tight jaw and a different gleam in her eyes. He held the steering wheel tightly with both hands, leaned his hunched shoulders close to it, and glared at the windshield. I looked back and caught a glimpse of the mall and noticed black birds circling around in lazy swoops, I had never noticed them before. That was the last time we were all together again in the car. Nobody said a word all the way home.
That was a while ago. Now, mom and dad meet at the mall to hand me over, from one to the other, whenever I have visitation with dad. Dad doesn’t want to drive all the way to our house to pick me up, or to drop me off, since he now lives on the other side of the mall from where we live, and he says that it doesn’t make sense to drive all that way when we can meet half way, especially when we can meet at the mall, where I always liked to go. Sometimes, my parents just go to the mall for that, they don’t shop there anymore, they don’t eat there anymore. They just meet at 5:00 sharp, in the afternoon, “and don’t be late”, to make the exchange. We meet at the food court on one of the tables closest to the main walkway of the mall and the whole thing takes about 2 minutes. Sometimes they don’t even talk to each other. We stand up, mom says: “come on honey, let’s go,” she turns in the direction from where she had appeared and we walk out of the mall. Dad pats me on the shoulder and nods with a half smile. Sometimes he just nods.
That’s why I’m here now and thinking of all this. Dad’s sitting across from me with his legs crossed and looking away. From time to time, he looks in the direction where mom comes, even though we still have about 20 minutes left. He seems happy at the moment. He just hung up the cell phone. He was using the voice he used to use with mom whenever they talked about their future together. He also laughed heartily...when was the last time I heard him laugh like that? His head was moving slowly and he stopped momentarily when facing me. I let out an awkward smile and thought I might be looking goofy. Good thing he really wasn’t looking at me though he was facing me, because I didn’t want him to see me looking goofy. I turned my head and realized that I was still holding on to that goofy smile on my face. That’s when the top of my forehead started to sweat a little. He just kept talking into the phone a bit longer. I decided to take a good look at dad. Boy had he changed. Now he wears cologne that you can smell from a mile away. I think it’s pungent. And he has an earring, which is strange because we used to laugh at guys with earrings, tattoos and piercings… I wonder what’s next for him. Then again, he also let his hair grow and puts it in a pony tail when he’s all dressed up. He also seems to have a phony smile plastered on his face; and he stares at girls when they walk by, his head follows them even though he may be talking on the phone or talking to me. I don’t think he realizes it. I think he’s trying to be younger than he is. But it’s not working; all those changes make him look a little uncomfortable, like someone wearing a shirt that is too big and too starchy and the guy who is wearing it seems to be swimming in it and lost…or something like that.
I see mom coming. It’s a relief because Dad and I were bored and time was passing so slowly. It isn’t cool to come to the mall anymore, especially the time I spend sitting here in the food court with dad; it’s endless. We stand up and wait for mom to reach us through the crowd of strangers. Mom walks with her eyes down, it’s a wonder she can get around without bumping into people. “Come on honey, let’s go.” She turns around and I begin to follow her. Dad pats me on the shoulder and we exchange little, fake, smiles. I catch up to mom and walk next to her. She suddenly looks at me and points with her chin up ahead of us. “Look, honey, aliens from another planet.” A family of four: a father, a mother, a daughter of about my age and a younger son of about 10. The father is holding his son’s hand. The mother is doing the same with the little girl’s hand. Their father is speaking a foreign language to them, and the children answer him in English. “It looks like a hybrid species,” I say. “Commence countdown,” my mother offers. And we begin to countdown from 20, slowly, because we still have a long way to go before we exit the mall to get to our car. She reaches over and takes my hand. I look at our hands confused because it has been a long time since the last time…I look up at her and we both light up in a huge smile…”15, 14, 13, 12…”
Fernando A. Ojeda was born in San Jose, Costa Rica in 1955. At the age of nine, his family migrated to the United States and settled in Miami, Florida. He attended Appalachian State University in 1975 on a full soccer scholarship. He received his B.A. in Spanish Literature and his M.A. in Spanish Literature with a minor in Jr. College Education from A.S.U. He taught Spanish Language at Chapel Hill High School before moving to Nice, France where he and his wife Jeanna would study the French Language for approximately one year. They lived in Costa Rica for 6 months where his wife studied Spanish, and where they both continued their French studies through the Alliance Française. Upon returning to the United States, Fernando secured a post at St. Petersburg College where he has been teaching Spanish and English ESOL since 1989. In 1996, he and his wife moved to Gainesville, Florida for two years in order to commence their doctoral studies in applied linguistics at the University of Florida from which they both received their Ph.D. They currently teach at St. Petersburg College, and they live in Palm Harbor, Florida with their two children Adriana, and Carlos, and his parents.
Maybe it’s Emphysema, a shiny black jewel of phlegm
humming like a clump of bees in my chest.
Perhaps a tumor crawling in the crook of my armpit,
a blood clot opening like a tiny red flower in my brain.
Maybe it’s too early to show up on an X-ray,
a kind of cancerous seed planted deep
in my intestine, something like Leukemia’s ghost
haunting my hollow bones.
The doctor says I’m fine.
But even now, deep in the dark holes of my eyes
I can feel the cataracts spinning their silver webs.
Even now, in the bony cage of my lungs
I can feel the heart attack’s prologue,
the opening words of some prolific pain
like a bird stabbing its incessant beak
into the ripe red meat of my heart.
Copyright by Chris Tusa (originally appeared in Caduceus)
Kindergarten Portrait of My Mother at Mardi Gras
She looks rather pathetic, really,
leaning against the black air,
the three mangled fingers of her left hand
clutching a yellow purse,
her right arm raised over her head
as if to shield herself
from the silver shower of stars
raining down upon her.
Her mouth is a crack
growing beneath her nose.
Two dimples open like holes
in her cheeks. A pink ear
dangles from her chin.
Looking at it now, it's clear.
But who could have possibly know then
the dark shades of meaning
lurking in the shadow of her face,
the quiet relevance of the pearl necklace
swimming around her neck,
the orange birds drifting above her
like question marks?
Or that twenty years later
it would all make sense-
the way her eyes roll toward the sky,
the way my father stands behind her
in the crowd, arms waving
in the wind, as if he's slowly drowning
in the black sea of faces.
Copyright by Chris Tusa (originally appeared in New Delta Review)
Ode to Cancer
Imagine a tiny black flower,
the nurse says,
blossoming in your spleen.
Already, I can feel the radiation
burning in my bones,
the CAT SCAN machine
like a shiny white coffin.
A sky purple as a bruise
drifts outside the hospital window.
Lights blink on the wall
like tiny red eyes.
Day after day the doctor waits,
for my face to fall off,
for my eyes to roll out my head
while you slowly short-circuit
the wires of my brain,
chewing through the meat of my days
with your beautiful black mouth.
Copyright 2007 by Chris Tusa.
My grandmother’s teeth stare at her
from a mason jar on the nightstand.
The radio turns itself on,
sunlight crawls through the window,
and she thinks she feels her bright blue eyes
rolling out her head.
She’s certain her blood has turned to dirt,
that beetles haunt the dark hollow of her bones.
The clock on the kitchen wall is missing its big hand.
The potatoes in the sink are growing eyes.
She stares at my grandfather standing in the doorway,
his smile flickering like the side of an axe.
Outside, in the yard, a chicken hops
through the tall grass, looking for its head.
Copyright by Chris Tusa (originally appeared in Caduceus)
Chris Tusa was born and raised in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Connecticut Review, Texas Review, Prairie Schooner, The New Delta Review, Southeast Review, South Dakota Review, and others. With the help of a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, he was able to complete his first chapbook of poetry, Inventing an End. His debut collection of poems, Haunted Bones, was published by Louisiana Literature Press in 2006. His debut novel, Dirty Little Angels, is currently agented and under consideration. He holds a B.A. in English, an M.A in English, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. Aside from teaching in the English Department at LSU, he also acts as Managing Editor for Poetry Southeast. Samples of his work can be found at the following address: www.ChrisTusa.net