In this country, if one isn’t descended from the land’s indigenous people, or from those who were brought here in chains and sold into slavery, then one is an immigrant, or, as I am, the descendant of immigrants. Many, of course, are a combination of one with another, and sometimes all three. And still there is hatred, still there is prejudice. “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Is there anything more preposterous than such a belief? I never hear it said by the squirrels or robins; I grew up among mockingbirds, jackrabbits, and toads, and they didn’t say it either. Only humans say such things, and fight and kill over them, wave flags over them, lynch over them, administer beatings over them, and fill prisons as a testament to their greed. I do realize that some members of the animal kingdom fight and kill to protect their territory and to ensure the survival of their kind. It’s abundantly clear, though, that for humans, such behavior is unnecessary — unless one believes in the superiority of this or that dogma, or color, or strain, or race; unless one believes he or she is the patriotic member of a certain nation or nationality; unless one believes that the beauty of this world really can be divided, conquered, and owned. Our cemeteries are full of such. But once underground, we own nothing, claim nothing, desire nothing, protect nothing, cling to nothing, are proud of nothing, are angry about nothing. We mingle as freely as when we first came to breathe. And me? When I hear another language spoken, or meet someone of a different shade or hue, which is everyone, I don’t feel threatened. I give thanks.
A Threat to Security
Vee mezznum treskoopah, he said in their newly invented language. Laroonum skeld. Abatarnee bleenopahb. Interesting, his wife said. But there’s a word I didn’t understand. What is bleenopahb? Bleenopahb, he said, is another way of saying krez. Why not just say krez? his wife said. Why complicate things? It’s no different than English, he said, or any other language. There are shades of meaning. Ah-ha, his wife said. Doonum busill? I wouldn’t go that far, he said. Maybe doonum perb, or nerb, but not busill. Busill is pretty harsh.
They finished their coffee and started getting ready for work. Since neither had a job, their main task that day would be trying to find one. As usual, they planned to look everywhere, even though they had already done exactly that, and been turned down for being either overqualified, underqualified, or somewhere in between. It was frustrating. Each had an extensive background in computer programming and the preparation of fast food, not to mention degrees in veterinary medicine, nuclear physics, and astronomy. Linguistics was only a hobby, albeit an engrossing and satisfying one.
Tesmernum, he said when he got out of the shower. Okay, she said. She opened the door under the sink and got out a fresh bar of soap. Norsahm bild? Plenty, he replied. He knew his wife liked to use a lot of hot water. That’s why he never stayed in for very long.
While he shaved, his wife undressed and got in the shower. Her partly blurred image behind the frosted glass door made it difficult to concentrate, but he managed to finish the job with only a minimum of errors. His left sideburn was approximately half an inch shorter than his right and his earlobe was bleeding. Other than that, he looked ready to face the world. Sizz, he said, mypelia dro. I am hurrying, she said. Delebia sro. Zee trenum deeb? They both laughed. Fine with me, he said, but you might be arrested for indecency.
Finally, they were both dressed and ready. They picked up their list of places to go and locked the door behind them. Since their 1962 Volkswagen wouldn’t start without gas, they were obliged to take the bus. They walked off down the sidewalk, holding hands and speaking to each other in their new language.
When they reached the bus stop, they found several people waiting. There were two young mothers with big-headed babies, three gang members, and an off-duty policeman. They knew he was an off-duty policeman because the gang members were friendly and he used their nicknames. Either that, or he was an on-duty drug dealer and they were off-duty eighth-graders. It was hard to be sure.
The bus arrived and everyone clambered aboard. Hehrbodahl, he said, pointing to an empty seat. His wife sat by the window and he beside her. They began to study their list. Dreenum? he said. Or dranum? Dreenum is closer, she said. Or we could warm up on pelb. He looked at her and smiled. She always managed to be so pleasant, even under trying circumstances. Beb narbosill arn, he said. Leb rezzen, teb foob. I’m sure it will work out, she said. We’ll find something. Don’t worry.
Thus encouraged, he began to study the scenery. For their trip downtown, it was first necessary to drive through an industrial area that looked like a war zone. There were fences with razor wire, rotting piles of equipment, dead animals, oleanders, and signs that said Your Highway Tax Dollars at Work. Amidst it all was a foundry where they had once applied for work. The foundry sprawled over five acres, three of which were heavily graveled for parking. On the day of their visit, they learned the welding jobs they were after already had four thousand applicants. That was a lot of welders. Of course they didn’t get the job, never having welded in their lives. So they applied in the janitorial section, more specifically the toilet-cleaning division, but it turned out the foundry was only interviewing toilet cleaners with twenty years’ experience. Not only that, to even be considered for an interview it was necessary to score ninety-five or above on an essay test that involved the names of several dozen chemicals.
Closer to town, they passed an assortment of bowling alleys and restaurants, all of which had turned them down at one time or another. Then there was the university, which had recently closed its astronomy, nuclear physics, and computer science departments in order to offer profitable training courses in court reporting, medical transcribing, and dishwashing. As it happened, they were both experts in court reporting and medical transcribing. But when they tried hanging their shingle, they soon discovered there were already eight thousand court reporters and nine thousand medical transcribers operating in the city. Dishwashing was even more competitive. For a time they made a living playing speed chess in the park next to the main library, only to be informed one day that they were in violation of several ordinances and would have to pay a substantial fine.
Marbofeeb, musill jelb, he said when they neared their stop. Mobe? As ready as I’ll ever be, his wife said, putting on a smile.
At that moment, a woman sitting across the aisle gave them an angry look. I’ve listened to this long enough, she said. Why don’t you speak English? This is America.
Drahznoofib, he said to his wife.
We do speak English, she said, politely addressing the angry woman. As a matter of fact, we both minored in English.
Even him? the woman said.
This is my husband. Yes. Even him. He speaks perfect English.
Well, he sounds like an Arab to me.
Tarn kooblefriz, he said to the woman, smiling. Essonob foozem dahb.
See? the woman said.
I assure you my husband isn’t speaking Arabic, his wife said. She could feel herself losing patience.
The bus stopped and the door opened. Be that as it may, the angry woman said, I’m going to report him — and you, young lady. I don’t appreciate being mocked. I’ve lived in this country all my life. Sir, she said, addressing the bus driver, would you please place a call to Homeland Security? These people are exhibiting some very strange behavior, and I’m afraid to get off the bus with them.
The driver closed the door and told everyone to sit down. Now, he said. Are you sure? Because there are a lot of people onboard, and I do have a schedule to keep. We all do, someone yelled from the back of the bus. Let’s hang ’em and get on with it.
There, the woman said. See?
Hoograhb, he whispered wearily to his wife. Yahroon mobbl kern. I know, she said. Pubzahm neeb.
The bus driver called headquarters and explained the situation. It’s hard to tell, he said into his cell phone. Yeah, I’ve seen them before. He looked back at the couple. I have no idea, he said then. What does Arabic sound like?
Sebheb wooz, he said. Aroonabab.
Soon there was a siren, and then another, and another. Six policemen boarded the bus, their guns at the ready. Thank God you’re here, the angry woman said. There they are.
The policemen placed handcuffs around his wrists, then his wife’s. As they were escorted off the bus, everyone cheered.
During their interrogation by the experts at Homeland Security, it was determined the language they were speaking wasn’t Arabic after all, but rather something that had been made up. It was also determined that the man, especially, was in need of psychiatric help. His wife, who kept saying she was hungry, wasn’t far behind. Since there was no reason to hold them, they were each given a small paper cup filled with water and released.
Exhausted from the ordeal and afraid to ride the bus, they began the long walk home. Neither spoke. There were no words to describe what had happened, and none to say how they felt.
No Time to Cut My Hair, Author’s Press Series, 2009
Story 16 of 70 written in 90 days, 1,334 words, August 25, 2002
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Categories: No Time to Cut My Hair
Tags: Books, Cemeteries, Fiction, Gratitude, Hate, Ignorance, Injustice, Language, Nationalism, No Time to Cut My Hair, Patriotism, Prejudice, Short Fiction, Short Stories, Slavery, The American Civil War, War