Cell

by

J Eric Miller

You come here on a student visa, supported by a scholarship.

The Americans want you to be their engineer, their dentist, their computer programmer, some participant in their accent-kid cliché.

Still, you’re not angry. None of this has anything to do with animosity. Everything will be over someday. They said that to you before they sent you from their world into this one, and you know just because they were the ones that told you doesn’t mean it is not true.

You also know there is no Allah, no God, nobody. You know it is just us against them in a world whose nature is war. A person takes a side. It doesn’t really matter which.

In a dream, you fire on Johnny instead.

Johnny is his American name.

At the health club, you wear an orange shirt that says “CLEAN TEAM.” You wipe down and mop up. You gather trash and towels.

People here think that Beirut is in the desert, but that is not so. Las Vegas is in the desert. Americans associate Lebanon with camels, but you’ve never seen one.

You lift the weights after or before your shift.

Mama always wanted you to be bigger, to be like the Marines and the UN soldiers. She wanted you to be lighter of complexion and taller and clearer in the way you speak English. She doesn’t think about taking sides. Perhaps she doesn’t even think about how this causes her to be stuck between them. Mama’s focus has always been on surviving.

And that you have made it to a land of more promise is all she knew to ask for.

You lift weights not because you think you’ll ever see Mama again, but because this is what an American does. He tries to make himself better. Now there are lines dividing your belly. Your back is like the hood of a cobra, your arms and legs like parts of a machine.

When it comes to beauty, this is a start. The way you are positioned, it is also the end.

You stand by your mop bucket with the wooden handle in your fingers, and you watch the blond American do shoulder shrugs facing the mirror; he seems just as fascinated as you are by the triangles of shadow that appear between his collar bones and the trapeze muscles, as he jerks the weighted bar up and lets it hover before lowering it.

He is very white and very blond, his hair cut military short, and he has nothing to do with your position in the order of things.

You come here with your own American name.

You come here from the American University of Lebanon, the so called pearl of Middle Eastern education.

Nobody thinks to remind you that this is a rare opportunity, but you know that you have made it across an almost impossible border for a poor, young man from Arabia.

Johnny says there are twelve other boys in your city. He says that all of you will be men when you complete your missions.

For each boy, there will be a day. Out of these, you will be aware of only a few. Each of you is a messenger, and each act, a message; individually and cumulatively, they will create what Johnny calls a necessary fear.

He hands you a toy pistol and tells you to pretend you’re firing.

You hold it at arms length and sight it and pull the trigger and listen to the click.

“They taught you well.”

You’re in the desert at dusk, and there are no targets for your imaginary bullets. There is just the horizon, on all sides, with the light of the city in the distance.

“You know what you’re doing.” Johnny smiles and smokes. “Still, watch Western movies, shoot out movies. And play the games.”

Before you came to Las Vegas, there were many people telling you what to do, but now, it is only Johnny.

“Make American friends.”

“Pray in private, only.”

“Stay away from other Arabs.”

“Get a normal job, an American job, at a video store, something like that. Stay away from restaurant work, Mediterranean restaurants especially.”

“Call yourself an atheist. Convert even to Christianity.”

“Don’t sleep with girls.  You’ll want to tell them everything.”

You’ve been reading in English since your were five. The Marines, until they left, gave you comics. They stood in the sun with their muscles. They didn’t look like men who would ever know what it was like to be afraid.

Your sisters were born of Mama’s husband, but he was killed by a sniper; with which side this shooter was affiliated, it is impossible, and probably unimportant, to say. Eventually, men were shooting people just to keep them still.

You were born after that, after everything had been left behind, the house, the cars, the life that barely shines in Mama’s eyes.

You were born during something like calm, in the little place on Hamara. Your apartment in Vegas is not by comparison to others here expensive, but the water always runs, the electricity is always on.

Before you left Beirut, there were almost continually Americans, the Marines until the embassy went, then later, when things settled, the professors at the American University, just as they had been before.

Mama has never told you, but you imagine your father might be one of those.

Johnny puts out his hand for the return of the toy gun. In the back seat of his car are other plastic weapons. Knives, grenades, pistols, batons, all in little packages showcasing big cartoon characters engaged in battles, Wal-Mart price stickers.

“We can’t be seen together more than a few times,” he has said. “Two Arabs together in this country is a cell.”

Johnny says his alternate American name is Las Vegas.

He says there are others. There is a Los Angeles. A Seattle. Minneapolis. Dallas. Boston. And so on.

Maybe there are thirteen boys in every place.

You don’t know what it is about for them, why they want to be messengers of fear. You can’t say even what it is about for you, except for that it is necessary to carry something.

Johnny says he should not tell you about other boys and other cities, that he should only tell you your particular part. But he is fond of you, he says, putting his arms on your shoulder and driving you back into the city, and that to want to share is human, and that though all of you have very particular parts to play, you must also be a person, at least as much as it can be fit in around your duty.

“It’s going to be soon, I think,” he says. “You are third. You wait for the word from me, like I wait from the word from somebody, and maybe he too is waiting for the word. I don’t know how many levels down the message must travel. Such concerns are beyond me.”

There were often American faculty members in your tiny Hamara apartment, drinking tea with Mama, eating her humus and fruit.

There was the American Dean of Students, who began to take a special interest in you when you were ten or eleven, giving you book after book, until you had more books than anybody in your family had of anything, eventually getting you on scholarship into the University, taking you sometimes to the Mayflower Hotel, where he’d strip off your clothes and his own, and lay down with you in a bed.

You study cellular biology at the graduate level, and you could have achieved your degree a year ago, but Johnny said that he needed you to make it last until the plans were ready.

“You only have your part to worry about, but I have thirteen parts, and there are more; it takes a long time to organize in a way that makes all the parts work together.”

When a professor meets you the first time, he thinks you are simple and that some mistake has been made to place you before him. Your tongue has never worked properly. And your face—they always told you in Beirut, what else can you do with a face like that but be a martyr? You look as if you were just born, a traumatic birth.

But you’ve been reading English most of your life, all of Shakespeare before you were twelve, all three volumes of the Norton Anthology of American Literature directly after, the writings of Mann, of Proust, of Dostoevsky; you read science texts and technical manuals; you read two year old newspapers and discarded magazine collections, everything you could find.

The professors might not have much faith in your stupid looking face, but your work is always perfect. They quickly learn how capable you are, especially in response to direction.

Despite how clumsy you look, you are also good with your hands. You play XBOX 360 first person shooters, virtual guns on the screen before you, usually the RT and LT buttons to fire. In some games, the enemies are Arabs, but that does not bother you.

If you are quick and sure, you can get maybe a dozen before the people lose their panic and begin to figure out how to escape.  The results don’t interest you that much, but you can’t help but think about the entire picture, the city of Las Vegas in its fear, the other cities in their own. Sustainable terror, Johnny says, is a tricky business.

The busy times are from six to seven thirty in the morning, and from five thirty to seven at night.

There is a back door that can be locked.

You are resting between sets on the pec-deck and the blond American leans on it and asks you, “Hey man, give me a spot?” This is the closest you’ve been.

Something, maybe it is fear, almost makes you say that you won’t.

Then you look at his thighs.

He lies beneath you on a declined bench, so that you can study him as he stares at the bar to place his fingers. His nose is broad, his teeth uneven, his whiteness marred by freckles and shadows of scars. His forehead turns red, and veins rise at his temples, and his lashes meet, and his cheeks suck in as he lifts, the edges of his pinky fingers touching the edges of your forefingers. The bar lowers, and then his breath comes out, and you straighten away from it at first, but then you lean down to feel and smell him, whatever the feel, whatever the smell, whatever he is.

When you kill something on the table, the blood is alive long after whatever it is that organizes a functioning body is gone.  Though the death wound will never be mended, an army goes about its mission of coagulation; throughout the cooling body, each cell continues to perform its duty, hanging on to its own little bit of vital information, carrying its own precious supply of nutrient, dashing forward to take its own place in some little war of infection, ignorant of the greater picture, even now as the whole of it disintegrates.

He is not so beautiful, not up close, not his face—but the muscles stand out in his chest, on his arms, his belly.

The heat shimmers through the windows and you say to yourself that it doesn’t have to be exactly how you intended it. The rituals of intimacy are ancient, their purposes inconsequential. You want to touch because that is in your nature, and what forms that nature, what prime mover set it the world, is so far away it is no longer important. You will go forward just the same; what else is there to do?

Afterwards, in the booth at the adult movie store, you watch on a little television as men suck each others penises, and you masturbate until you come.

Then you feel a stranger to the world, and your own body in it.

In this moment, you to understand the end of everything, and for you, this is what it is really about.

The package comes DHL, a heavy box. The man is middle aged, blond, and he watches you suspiciously as you sign. He hands you the package as if he doesn’t want to give it over.

But this is his job, and he leaves you with your parcel, just as he is supposed to.

Inside, handguns.

Johnny calls and says he hopes you are well, and that he won’t see you for a long time, and that the coming days will tell the whole of your part of the story.

The Dean never actually touched your penis. You never actually touched his. He would cry sometimes when he came.

You stand in your apartment with the shades all drawn and the hand guns held out at arms length. You remember a Marine letting you hold his rifle when you were very little. His friends stood around, laughing and smiling, as you tried to heft the gun.

The men in Beirut who eventually told you how to contact Johnny took you out at least a dozen times and let your practice shooting Coke and 7-Up cans with a handgun not unlike the ones that have been delivered.

You put the guns down on your couch.

Mama’s is red and small with a sagging middle, someone’s discard, and you knew long before you left that there would be a last time you’d see it.

Two days after you receive the package, an Arab-American with an unspecified gun and a knife kills eight people and wounds three others in a casino before he is shot to death.

Nobody knows yet if it is an act of terrorism, or just of somebody who simply lost his mind.

“When it starts,” Johnny once said, “you have to be careful. Everybody will be looking around, on edge. We’re lucky here. You might just be Mexican. It is easier to blend. Learn to say ‘Meester’.”

The day after the killer in the casino, it is a sniper from a hotel window, shooting people on the strip, seven of them. The news describes him as a quick and precise shot, a man who got away. It hadn’t occurred to you that that is possible.

That night, at fifteen minute intervals for an hour, your phone rings a single time—the signal that your turn is next.

You see it as a blueprint, the health club with its front entrance and the fire escape back door. Walls as lines; weight machines as circles with initials in them; tiny boxes for desks in the membership sales area.

You see it as a flow chart. At first, some people might come at you. Most will probably run away. Their options narrowed, they bulk of them will end up in the locker rooms.

Big, windowless, cinderblock cages.

You work your cleaning supplies, not saying “Meester” or anything else, silent as you always are.

The man is there, but he does not ask you for a spot. When you’re shift is over, he follows you out.

“You like working here?”

“Yes.”

You were weaned while rigged cars exploded and snipers haunted the upper windows of bombed out buildings. On your way to the grocery store to see if they had bread, you ran from the dogs that had learned to live off the scattered dead. The idea of a country unafraid would have once struck you as odd.

You remember the Marines, Mama telling you that you’d be big and beautiful like them. They were gone in a single day, or that is how you remember it, some people cheering on the Corniche as boats took the soldiers out to ships that themselves would turn away.

You will not see your mother again, but you think you probably always knew that.

He’s close to you, and you are less afraid then you were the first time.

You remember the Dean standing above you in the Mayflower Hotel, his hand shaking as it hovered without touching you, his other hand stroking his penis until it came.

You are not certain what the health club man wants. Up close again, he is again not beautiful, staring into your face.

“I see you,” he says. “I see you there and I know.”

And it occurs to you, as he takes you elbow, that he could be one of them—rather, one of you. That it is possible Johnny has sent him.

“I’ve gotta get some protein,” he says.

For some time, there were no Americans in Beirut. The embassy was gone and Americans were being kidnapped and then they all left. After awhile, they were back. Mama cooks and cleans for anybody, but mostly it is Americans. At your apartment in Las Vegas, America, you make the foods as she taught you.

You watch the man from the health club eat humus with his spoon, ignoring the flatbread you buy from the Mexican market down the street.

“Why is there a couple of guns on your couch?” he wants to know.

He puts your penis in his mouth first. He has taken a shower and wrapped a towel around his waist and now sits on the edge of your bed. He has told you not to shower. He wants you a little dirty as he works your penis between his lips and teeth.

Why the Dean never did this to you or asked you to do it to him, you don’t know.

There is something missing in the pleasure of it, and your mind goes distant, as if you are watching this unfold on a screen in the booth at the back of the adult store. Then you think that what you really want is to feel his penis in your mouth, but soon you will finish and then you won’t want anything, and then you’ll never know what it is like to do that.

Some people say that when you die some god will tell you everything, but you are aware that the moment after you die, whatever you’ve known disappears like the oxygen from blood that is freed of a body.

How much can it matter?

There are your circumstances and then they are gone.

His face is twisted as he pulls his head back. You think he’s going to spit, but he doesn’t; he closes his eyes tightly and jerks his head and swallows.

“You should have told me,” he says.

Both of you are ugly faced, but you have bodies like statues.

You step away from the bed, and he lies back on it, saying, “Hey, we gotta do something for me here, you know what I mean?”

And you understand why the Dean never went this far with you. He must have known this emptiness. Somehow, you, also, have always known it.

The phone rings.

He leans in the doorway of the bedroom, his towel off, his penis erect, and he gives you an aggressive smile.

You stop him from speaking by raising one of the guns.

You can see the little muscles to either side of his chest, four of them, one beneath the other, separating the pectorals from the laterals.

You raise the gun higher, so it is pointed at his face, and you fire.

Then you put on your work clothes and place the handguns into a gym bag.

You don’t know if the other parts will do what they are supposed to, if your mission will be complete, and if the grander mission will also be complete, but you know that doesn’t matter.

It’s five o’clock in the afternoon, the dry heat of Vegas unlike the humidity of Beirut.

You’re waiting for the bus, the gym bag on your shoulder, the city around you, the country around it, the world around it, everything like you, a small part of some whole thing that is itself a small part of some whole thing, that is itself some small part of some whole thing, spiraling up into something so grand that nobody will ever understand it.

A naked man is dead in your apartment, and you don’t know if this will make your act more or less terrifying, but that is not really for you to ponder.

And you tell yourself that fulfillment of your tiny role, like any role, is the only thing you have.

And you are not angry. And you are not afraid.

§

An assistant professor of creative writing at Metro State College in Denver, J Eric Miller is the author of two books, Animal Rights and Pornography and Decomposition, both of which have been translated and published abroad.  His stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, and he was recently a featured author at the Festival America in Vincennes, France.

Read Jennifer Escalona’s interview with J Eric Miller, Writing on the Edge of Controversy (here).

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~ by jwoodall on September 20, 2009.

2 Responses to “Cell”

  1. […] The Cell Writing on the Edge of Controversy: An Interview with J. Eric Miller by JenniferDunn Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Jane HertenstienTomer KonowieckiDallas Woodburn […]

  2. […] Read J Eric Miller’s work of short fiction, The Cell, (here). […]

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