by Jéanpaul Ferro
TWO MASKED MEN with machine guns strapped over their shoulders drag the body of a man across the city square. His lifeless arms flop about in front of him like a drugged bear. He is a farmer, Farid Nasry, the seventh born of seven brothers, a farmer accused by ISIS, an al Qaeda splinter group in Syria fighting for the militia, of stealing one of his neighbor’s sheep. Under the heat of a searing Middle Eastern sun they tie the dead Syrian farmer to a pole like he’s Jesus Christ. A crowd of sundry looking old men begin to gather around. A boy is standing there among them. A smell of bitter almonds hangs in the air.
Over the head of the dead farmer one of the two killers posts an ominous message:
"This man was killed by Syrian Muslims. Others. Beware!" He draws a crude skeleton with blue marker after the word ‘others.’
Alvar Silvstedt knows a little Arabic. He is a Swede with tousled blond hair and sunken gray eyes. He thinks he’s safe from the dark politics of murder because thugs like ISIS love publicity. He works for Reuters. His father, Ingmar Silvstedt, once worked for Mossad. His mother was a great jazz singer in Södertälje before she ever met his father. His brother, Yitzhak, was killed in a biking accident in the French Alps in July, 2004. He left behind a wife and two infant sons. Alvar is no fool. He knows there are no more sheep left in Salamiyah. This excuse is getting old now, even to the Syrian Mujahedeen. What meager rations of sheep there had been got slaughtered long ago. He knows the story of the dead farmer won’t play back in the U.S. or in Europe—after all it wasn’t one of their own who was getting crucified that day. Nonetheless, Alvar decides to cover it. This is who he is. He is more than just a blond haircut.
At forty-one Alvar is single. His passport is stamped from all over the world: Mogadishu, Ciudad Juarez, San Pedro Sula, and Karachi, Pakistan—any place bad stuff happens. He starts snapping photographs of the crucified man. He notices his sad countenance. His almond colored eyes. All Syrians have the same sad countenance now. It looks almost artful. Alvar sees one of the killers looking back at him. His palms become damp with sweat.
The two al Qaeda wannabes pull their machine guns from behind their backs. They begin to circle around Alvar. One of them grabs him from behind by the neck. They begin to shout at him.
“An American?” one accuses him. He pulls a shiny knife from the back of his saroual.
“CIA,” says the other.
A wide grin comes to the face of the man holding the knife. He is a natural born killer. His face is haunted by death. He’s got croc eyes. This makes Alvar think of Michael Hastings. Back in the day Michael and Alvar worked together at Newsweek. The kid was always smiling. Mike had more guts than any firebrand he ever knew. He always dug deep to find out the truth. It was his article in Rolling Stone that forced the resignation of Obama’s top commander on the ground in Afghanistan—General Stanley McChrystal. Alvar has always been searching for the truth, too. He seldom writes the truth though. The truth cuts and slashes like a knife. He feels a knife begin to cut through the sinews of his neck. It takes several minutes for a man’s head to be cut off with a knife. This is the last thing he remembers.
A flash of sun, splinters of spectral sunlight really, curve around the white bark of an art-deco hotel. This is near Miami Beach. This is where Alvar finds himself standing only seconds after he is snapping photographs in Syria. He isn’t really sure where he is. He has only been to Miami once, and this dates back to the late 1990’s. He came here for the only reason a man goes anywhere besides a war. Her name is Lila. Lila is the only woman who ever gave him the thane-devouring pleasure he always imagined someone could give him. His thoughts of Lila become like rapturous words wrapped in orgasm, each motif, each turn of a phrase he thinks about her is ordered perfectly in the synapses of his brain, all of it without forethought, without warning. He can’t stop smiling as he thinks of Lila. He hasn’t thought of her in years. He hasn’t let himself.
Smiling, he slides across the cool leather seats of the white Lincoln Town Car that pulls up at the corner. All he remembers for a second is Lila. He can the smell the scent of her perfume wafting around. It is as though she has left only seconds before. This makes his heart ache for her again. All he feels is his desire for her. Oh, to only hear her laugh again! He wants to trade everything to go to breakfast with her. See her smile. Hear that funny laugh of hers. He misses her green eyes. He misses her touch. The inappropriate jokes she always makes. He misses her more than he wants to admit. He realizes only small things matter.
“I was in your shoes once,” says the voice of the girl driving the Town Car. She is a young woman. She can read his mind. It unsettles him. Her long brown hair is pulled up neatly under a white sailor’s cap. Her hair is the same color as Lila’s. The color of cognac. It is striking.
Alvar looks down at his clothes. He is dressed inappropriately. A way he would never dress himself. He looks like Tom Wolfe in one of his patent white suits. He looks ridiculous! He knows this would make Lila laugh. He can feel her all around him still. This makes him feel like insulting someone. He always holds back. He feels no one likes him, not the guy hiding behind the mask every day. But in that moment he wants to punch someone in the mouth. He wants to punch Norman Mailer in the mouth. Norman Mailer deserves a good punch. So does that Hugh Jackman! He’d punch both of them in the mouth if they were around.
He stares down at his white two-tone shoes. It makes him laugh. He thinks of candy-apple colored penny candy at a store near his childhood home. A store his father, Ingmar, never lets him go to. As a boy he blames this on Mossad. Mossad is at fault for everything. Now he realizes his Jewish-Polish grandfather probably forbade his father to have penny candy as well. God, he feels like his father never lets him smile. This makes him dream of his parents. He never gets to know his dad. There is a wall between father and son. His father is an artist. He paints on the side. He knows Jackson Pollock. Alvar feels regret he never saved any of his father’s paintings. He wishes he can show his dead father’s paintings to his two surviving nephews. There is nothing to show them now. Only bitter memories of this upside-down world. He remembers how no one is allowed to visit their house as a boy. His mother, Heléne, locks herself in the bathroom each day. Sitting there in the back of the Town Car he wonders about his father. He is such a bastard! Was he born this way? Did he have no say in the matter, as though it is all up to quantum mechanics, all his problems originating from inherited DNA? How convenient. Every soul comes from a lottery? Some are lucky. Others are not.
Alvar watches the crystalline intra-coastal float beautifully alongside his Town Car. All the seaside skyscrapers of Ocean Drive look taller than normal. Their tops scrape the underbelly of cloud. Everything he looks at seems made out of glass. People look like they are made out of jellybeans and glass. He can see their bright blue and bursting yellow colored bodies float inside the windows like ghosts. He sees some of them jump off their terraces. They unfold and wind down in beautiful apple-greens. All of this is set amid a black setting sun. He sees all of them land on their feet. He knows most people don’t land on their feet. He imagines this is what Aleppo looks like before the war. His thoughts of Aleppo quickly fade. All his thoughts come and go like this. His mind makes him feel like he is plied on wine. It is a good feeling. A rich, intense sensation. A smile comes to his face. He thinks of playing with American Hot Wheels as a boy with his brother Yitzhak. The cars are magenta, icy blue, and rose color. They glitter like jeweled scarabs moving along the wooden floor. Every thought flies by like images moving outside a fast train, but it is he who is really moving. Any freely associated pain quickly vanishes. He forgets about his mother, Heléne, locked in her bathroom. She is forgotten. Aleppo is forgotten. Lila is still here. His thoughts of candy-apple colored penny candy is still here. He can smell the scent of star anise and caraway seed and cinnamon.
“Pain is all centered in your mind,” his driver tells him. Her voice is breathless. Her vanquished blue eyes stare only ahead. He thinks he wants to see that long brown hair of hers beneath her cap. But the sight of the ocean catches his attention. It is ablaze in golden waves.
“Haven’t we met before?” he asks the girl. “I think we have. The summer Olympic games. In Atlanta. I’m sure of it. I am walking by a Starbucks and you are standing there in the doorway. You are dressed in a red and white striped skirt. You are fixing your high heels. Yes, I remember! You are wearing cerise colored lipstick. You smile at me. Lila has just left me for another man. A doctor. Someone with prospects. He’s a good man. A bore. Probably lousy in bed. I’m sorry. My bitterness is talking again. You know we writers and journalists don’t have any prospects. It’s just who we are.”
“Perhaps we’ve all met in a past life,” she tells him. “Maybe all lives are just bigger parts of a loftier dream.” He can see her smiling from where he sits in back. It gives him comfort. Smiles are always this way for Alvar. He loves the smile on someone else’s face. It disarms things. He never gets to smile. He makes his living covering where things get smashed.
Outside the Town Car he thinks he sees his childhood dog, Bruno, a black Labrador with one brown eye and one blue. He stands there calmly at the corner of Collins Avenue and 96 Street. He looks like he is waiting there for Alvar to return. This haunts him.
“Bruno?” he pleads as they go past. He never forgets the day Bruno slips off the shores of Lake Mälaren and gets swept away toward the Baltic Sea, lost forever. This happens on June 7th, 1982. It is a beautiful, hot summer day. It happens at six thirty-six in the evening.
Right before they enter a cavernous tunnel, it looks like the Holland Tunnel in New York, he remembers the turquoise colored lights of Rio de Janeiro—the way they light up at night like something magical is happening, all the blood thirst of daytime disappearing. He remembers playing soccer on Ipanema Beach right before twilight. It is with a group of svelte young men led by a twenty-something named Paulo. He remembers the tawny brawn of Paulo’s torso as his muscles shimmer and bend as he plays soccer amid a golden twilight. Alvar has always thought of the male body as ugly, but not this night in Brazil. Muscle and sinew twist and turn in the fading light of the hot sun. He understands the perfection and the imperfection of the human mind, the human body.
They are now in the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. It is cool inside the darkness. The faint hymn of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George scars the air. On a cold October night in 1985, Alvar’s is taken to Booth Theater by his Aunt Rosbeth. It is Saturday, October 12th in NYC. His parents ship him off to New York for him to get some culture. There is no culture in Sweden. Not since the war. But this does not work. Alvar resists. Only one night really works for him. All the other nights are lost in despair. He feels like a golem in New York. The music of the play haunts him. Sunday by the blue purple yellow red water on the green purple yellow red grass as we pass through arrangements of shadows towards the verticals of tree. It will be his favorite music for the rest of his life.
As they move quickly through the tunnel he sees sparkling portals in blistering red patches, each portal a fleck of boysenberry, a fleck of a memory. There is Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev together in Reykjavík. He remembers being stirred by this event. Journalism becomes everything to him. He goes to the University of Gothenburg. He remembers going on assignment, seeing the bodies of Tutsis float down the Kagera River, a river full of dead souls, murdered upstream along the sunny banks of a river. He covers the story for Reuters. It is June, 1994. Men are the cruelest of all God’s creatures. He learns this fast. Passing through Heathrow in London he runs into Ted Turner. Turner tells him about Gorbachev and his legacy. His next thought is that of a plum crazy colored Plymouth Barracuda. He stares at its purple fenders in a park in Södertälje. It is the summer of ‘97. He hears Robyn’s Always Be Around on the radio. The purple Barracuda is one of the most beautiful automobiles he will ever see. He wants to own one. He never gets to. He thinks of Lila again.
… Laughing together with her as they eat the best meal they’ve ever had at Joe’s Stone Crab. Watching Awakenings with her in an empty movie house in the middle of the night, a hot night when neither of them can sleep. On a nameless beach near a hotel Lila wears a purple one-piece bathing suit. She’s a bit of a showoff. Everyone looks at her. The girls look at her too. They drink mango colored apéritifs and lie together down near the sandstone waves. No one else is at the beach. It is near sunset. It is still 91 degrees. There is the aroma of coco butter stuck in the air. The imprint of footsteps caught in the sand run in every direction.
Exiting the tunnel he sees the blue orb of earth set perfectly at 23 ½ degrees. It hangs in the air on nothing. A brilliant moon swoons around it. He feels confusion. He looks up toward his driver. He can see her waning smile. He thinks of his friend, Theo van Gogh, assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim of the underground Hofstad Network. What a waste. All human death is a waste. All human hatred is a waste. It’s ironic. He thinks of his mom. His dad. Bruno his black Labrador with the two different colored eyes. Yitzhak and their shiny Hot Wheels. A grey skirt of sky caught against the horizon in Södertälje on a late day summer afternoon. The first time he tastes lime and cilantro. The fantastic Key Lime martini an old Italian barkeep makes for him down near the Keys. He loves to try new things. He doesn’t look so. This is the one thing he learns from his father: to never be afraid. He thinks of northern lights he sees from a plane window on the loneliness night in the world. He has no one to confide in. No one at all. He thinks of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George again. Alvar is no Sunday. He is a bright, clear Saturday afternoon. Everyone thinks he is a non-descript Tuesday. He wishes they wouldn’t think of him this way. He dreams of gorgeous sunlight captured within a Vermeer painting. The Astronomer. Vermeer starts to paint The Astronomer on a Saturday.
“Yes, that’s it,” his driver says as they begin to float by the orange colored surface of Jupiter outside. He and Yitzhak like to look at Jupiter as kids. They use the telescope their grandfather gave to them. It is the only thing he ever gives his grandsons. Jupiter is the eye of God. Yitzhak makes him feel this way.
"Yes, that’s it, Alvar. Yes, that’s it. It’ll be only be moments now,” his driver says.
Outside, he watches the hollow red storm swirl in urgency across the lower half of Jupiter down along its surface. It is a magnificent salmon-gray, as big as Earth and Mars combined. This makes him think of Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea. He thinks of Aleppo before the war. He thinks of justice. He thinks of Campbell’s tomato soup. He thinks of the lolling of pigs off a beach in Big Major Cay, all of them oinking away. He thinks of Lila again. It is lost in a singular moment. He’s traveling alone now through a canopy of trees near his childhood home. His mind is filling in all the dots: sallow, blue, and gray. He feels a part of him still lost somewhere back in Salamiyah. He longs for his camera. Oh, his beautiful camera! It is lying there on the dusty floor of the square. Only moments left now. Bruno. His two different colored eyes. Lila and Yitzhak. The opulent springtime colors of popular trees. The way the sunlight is defusing down through the valley, turning everything bright red before a sun begins to set. It is a warm Saturday evening now. He can smell the scent of yesterday’s rain. Saturday is always the best day after it rains. Saturday always has the most possibilities. Huh, Yitzhak?
“Yes,” he says with a bright smile like they’re still both twelve-years old, back in those old days when every day had a map, everything was a possibility.