Judith and Ahmed: A Story of Friendship

You know what … I was proved fucking right. That’s what happened. People who disagreed with me were saying, ‘There she goes again.’ But I was proved fucking right.—Judith Miller
[Chalabi] published three mathematics papers between 1973 and 1980, in the field of abstract algebra. His Erdős number is 6.—Wikipedia

 

And so Ahmed we had our housewarming at last.

You peered out from the bedroom, Ahmed, you told me I should ask my old crony from the Times if she needed anything, anything at all, and I found myself standing behind the teak rocker, fingers just brushing the wood, lustrous red hair stuffing my field of vision, my old crony from the Times rocking before me, the gathered company silent, and you, Ahmed, watching from behind the cracked door.

I crouched behind her, put my lips to her ear and asked if she needed anything, anything at all.

So CBS: and again today.

Deep forest.

She rocked and rocked, not turning her head, still smiling, I had no doubt—that smile, those imperceptible gradations—and I crouched, fingers just at the point of burying themselves in that red tangle, Anything at all, I said, Anything! do you want anything at all, I said, I want to give you anything you want! the gathered company’s coffees frozen en route to mouth, eyes snapping between me and my old crony.

I crouched behind her, my tooth went sharp.

The urge to massage her neck, to push my fingers through her hair—but I didn’t give in to this urge.

My old crony, the Times sex columnist, the Times sex hack, a urologico-political hag, if she could smile the whole night we’d think she had it all, the big picture, the vision that held everything together, but no one has the big picture, especially not her, especially not the Times.

Dark actors! the truest words spoken! I shrieked.

And she swung to face me, mouth puckering grotesquely.

My brother, my Ahmed, you brought out another pot of fine good coffee.

My old crony, her mouth contracted like an aperture, a blood-bitten eye gaping into a frame it can’t understand.

So ABC News: but the brigade’s past performance does not.

She fought for composure and she won the fight, you could see it in her mouth, how she’d won, she smoothed her lustrous hair back in place and rested her hands on the armrests, and I thought: she’s filing it away, just filing away my latest outburst, that’s all the Times is good for, filing away.

And we told the assembled company, didn’t we, my Ahmed, that on 43rd street one runs up against an international file bin, nothing more, the second you step through the revolving door you’re assailed with the stench of moldering pulp from decades of filing, to say nothing of the chemical tang from the silver halide dyes that have flaked into the ventilation system.

43rd Street is a jungle, a file-bin overgrown with scummy roots, corpse flowers beckoning from the file drawers and cabinets, the stench, my god, the stench of all this rotting vegetation! corpse flowers sucking nutriments from countless dead and dying and filed-away words.

At 43rd Street they take living words and kill them, they file them away in that West Side killing jar, the entire staff breathes silver halide night and day and gradually goes mad.

All they can do is smile, I told the assembled company, every morning we read the Times, Ahmed, and why? when the Times can only shove that nonsensical grin in our faces, each day the Times marches thousands and tens of thousands of words up the 43rd Street slaughterhouse ramp, it overpowers us with a grin that grows tighter by the year but nevertheless gulls us, tricks us yet again into the wild belief that the Times knows the whole world when in fact it knows nothing, the Times now even barricades itself behind a quote unquote Select wall to hide itself from a public that would stare in horror at the rictus of these zombies shambling all day and night through hip-deep swamps of semi-coagulated effluent, hundreds of corpsed faces, the 43rd street drones lurching and slogging through their own waste, pressing their faces to the ventilation system to suck on the sylver-halyde dyes that they’ve come to love above all else.

One day we shock the Times with a simple assertion, a few words, and the grin snaps like a rubber band, showing the true face of the Times, a gaping and blood-bitten eye, I told the gathered company.

So CBS News: bodies in the river.

To feel the silence, but we can’t bear it.

We dream of a return to our childhood, to our boxcar in the forest.

We dream of that silence, but we can’t—we simply cannot bear it.

We search for our dark actors, for conspiracy, but it’s always something else, I told the gathered company.

And Ahmed, you told them that it’s always someone different than we’d imagined, we dig up a silver bullet, but it can’t pierce the hide of the bears, the conspiracy always elsewhere, meanwhile our lungs crystallize with silver halyde, crackling with every breath, and the hearts of boys fall to the pine bed, one heart after the next slipping from the intestines strung from the trees, boys forced to cannibalize their friends before they too are butchered.

The bears, the horses, the murdered girls, the boys with eyes like yellow paint.

So ABC News: an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly.

To hack our way out of the forest, to build for ourselves a life of world affairs, O Ahmed, every step of the way fighting.

We had our childhood forest, childhood boxcar, we knew such peace, but also such terror, and we fought our way out of that peace and terror, we set our sights on Lebanon lives and Cairo lives and London lives, on our lives of world affairs, and we fought through to those lives.

Hearts of boys crashing to the pine bed.

Still beating, sometimes.

It’s no longer the Upper East Side we live in, it’s not—for the time—a life of world affairs, it’s public censure, public jeers, an outer borough, this decaying railroad apartment, but you still have your burr wheel grinder, you still make your coffee, we still have your math brain, and I my reporter’s nose, we’ll fight our way back again to world affairs.

Dark actors, many dark actors, many games played, the truest words spoken.

The eyes of the assembled company settled on my old crony from the Times, and Ahmed, you and I kept an eye on her as well, we both kept at all times one eye on the Times crony, the lines of force in our housewarming wholly legible, dotted lines cutting from the eyes of the gathered company to the teak rocker, my old crony there, the just perceptible variations of her smile, the whole room looking without looking, and I told the assembled company that the three articles taken as one reflected my reporting on the ground as doubts among experts grew, all three published in the Times, and all three must be taken as one, I explained slowly and patiently, ignoring the lines of force, lines of calumny, as the eyes flicked back to me, and given more time I would have reflected the doubts, folded them into the story, I said, and, my Ahmed, it’s really true, I would have.

So WAPO: the level of professionalism sought by the Ministry of.

Deep forest, the boxcar, arms pinned back.

The bears ravening at midnight.

They scrape away the layers of our throat with splintered bone, they beat our skulls with pasterns and jam the pasterns down our throats, and here I should say neck-canal, not throat, we’re no longer speaking of functional throats, but rather necks-canals scooped out and hollowed and cauterized and tarred.

Each article an exclusive, I told the assembled company.

We saw horses, they gave us such peace.

Some mornings the horses stood among the pines and sycamores, our childhood horses, we only ever saw them in the daybreak fog, eyes alert, heads raised, each one just like the last, horses spaced 20 or 30 feet apart, our identical horses, you began counting and there was no end, hundreds and even thousands of horses in your field of vision, horses so still, ears pricked, eyes wide, a multitude of horses spaced among the trees, we looked until we could no longer look, no horse moving, no horse blinking, we left sugar cubes, shut the door, we held each other so tight.

Horses so still, all gone now, waivers in our lives where once we had horses, they jam our mouths with waivers and we choke on them, they assault us with alleged uncoerced waivers when everyone knows that no such waivers exist, all waivers are documents of coercion, guts strung from pines, they stuff our throats with the flayed skin of boys.

43rd street an abattoir, one awakens after snowfall to a bright white American scene, all New York clean, all New York new, until you hit 43rd street, until you rear back in horror at the blood-soaked snow freezes is freezing in carmine granules.

They founded hospitals, a handful of broken boxcars strung together, the doctors were the boys, they wore horse heads over their own heads and dispensed medicines that made you better, but you couldn’t go there, not if they suspected you.

You know the best coffee not only in Kuwait, but Baghdad and Tikrit, my Ahmed, the best coffee the east and west and south, the best coffee even in our outer borough, this temporary shelter, this time-out, this stopgap.

Throughout our childhood we came upon the murdered girls in boxcars, arms bound here and here, and meanwhile, strung from the sycamores, loop after loop of the boys’ intestines were pulsing, and meanwhile the gathering crows.

Small skeletons, arms pinned back, Ahmed, my God.

Who are these people! I screamed.

Our old friends, you said, our university friends, and your crony from the Times, and your Lebanon and Cairo friends, the ones who could be coerced to an outer borough.

You said, This is our house warming, remember?

But I didn’t, I hadn’t remembered!

And then, all at once, I remembered.

I sipped my coffee, it was such fine good coffee.

And I told the assembled company, an eye on my old crony from the Times, that the answer to insufficient reporting, or a story that is wrong, is more reporting, preferably by the reporter who wrote the first story.

The bears! I shouted, the bears!

And the gathered company asked, what bears? and you hauled me back to the bedroom, Ahmed, to remind me that there were no bears in our outer borough, I said, well, I should pitch an article about the bears, you pressed the chipped cup into my hand and said, drink.

I thought about our friends, our University friends.

I tried to remember those friends, those years, how I made it out of deep forest, how I’d lived my life those years, and how it had led to a life of international politics, international fame, and why I was in an outer borough now.

I returned to the gathered company, I excused myself, I said, those University years!

I said, University years, while my Ahmed was laying the groundwork for his Erdos Number, I was laying the groundwork for a Lebanon life and a Cairo life, of course also for the three Times articles, my three articles in the head make a single article, 2001, 2002, 2003, a single three-year article which, I told the gathered friends, this gave me a de facto Erdos number of 6, the joke sailed right over their heads, they didn’t know the first thing about Erdos numbers, even the old crony from the Times could only smile, only work her imperceptible modulations, only pray that I didn’t demand she explain the joke to the gathered company, if she thought it was so fucking funny.

The Times tries to shut us up with the modulations of its smile, the Times understands nothing and so the Times is forever watching from a teak rocker, rocking and grinning, a smile to shut down any questions, a smile to mask the steadily mounting terror that someone will demand some proof of an understanding the Times doesn’t possess, has never, will never possess.

Boxcars deep in the forest, roots bursting through the floor, and outside, the eyes in black branches.

Eyes like yellow paint.

Also the man who came at night.

And why not say bear for man? why not allow it was the bears that were killing us? and wouldn’t that make it prettier, somehow.

Our blood pact, our boxcar, the canned pears and cranberries, the tea brewed from grass and pine needles.

I think sometimes of the ads you clipped as you sat cross-legged on the floor of our boxcar, aged eight or nine, my brother, head bowed in concentration, La Pavoni, KitchenAid, Krups, Capresso, DeLonghi, every cut precise, in your hands the magazines gave way to perfect geometric creations, you stapled these creations to the splintered walls of our boxcar, explaining the different merits, stability, range of grind, side-button configuration, pulse-button switches, dust-free operation, grind reduction, you laid out the pros and cons of the various models with mathematical precision, my Ahmed, my mathematician, never doubting that you and I would one day have our own burr wheel grinders.

And we do have a burr wheel grinder.

You brought the gathered company another round of fine good coffee.

Gathering berries, weaving chains of pine needles, darkness dropping, the ease with which we laid ourselves in the pine beds outside our boxcar, you worked your squares higher and higher, 98,596, 99,225, convinced that numbers alone could protect us, could keep the night at bay, and I knelt beside you and traced the shadows that fell across your lips and eyes until the hour the wind came, until it shook the patterns from the trees.

The boys with yellow paint slashed across their eyes.

The boys had founded hospitals, several broken boxcars strung together, but you couldn’t go, not if they suspected you.

We heard stories, also the wailing, the yellow eyes winking out at the first shriek of a power saw, the children pounding the doors, whole wings of the hospital, 30 or 40 boxcars strung together, whole wings emptied out in a matter of hours.

The whimpers worse than the screams, those last whimpers, not knowing if they came from the dying patients, or the patients not yet dying but watching, or not watching but knowing, or from the doctors themselves, boys in horse heads clawing at their own hides, or rather the hides and bones of their own horse heads.

Boys of lower rank didn’t wear antlers, the boys who were doctors—doctor the highest designation known to these crews of feral children—the doctors fashioned antlers of pasterns from the slaughtered horses.

Hairy, stinking antlers elaborated with twine and finishing nails, these antler-constructions fell to pieces as you consulted with your doctor, but that made no difference, either they would murder you or they wouldn’t, it had already been decided.

The only thing I regretted, I said, was that the Times didn’t let me report on our increasing doubts about US intelligence.

And you told them, my Ahmed, that the Times just grins, the Times pays our legal fees, gabbling all day and all night about waivers.

Outside our boxcar were the bears, the wind, the cannibal boys who banded together in a dream of family and ultimately devoured each other, larynx-first.

So MSNBC: a special type of shaped charge that is effective at.

Never to return to the deep forest, our boxcar childhood, I told the gathered company, we never can.

In spite of everything, we would we go back, even today, even this moment, but we can only ever return in pieces, a hand, a foot, we can never make it back whole, we’re not what we were, no longer a part of the silence, the pine beds.

The bears! I shouted. The feral boys!

The gathered company stood to leave, they gathered their coats, I told them to sit back down, I wasn’t done talking.

They sat, coats clutched in their laps.

The slashes of yellow paint, I said, where there should have been eyes.

The deep forest, those waivers, a searing humiliation, we have to fight and fight.

Always wary, always sharpening our understanding, mixing our new understandings with our old ones.

So ABC News: young people who have been shot and hacked.

They slapped a luxuriant red wig on her, my old crony from the Times, I told the gathered company, but look closer and you find a wig that’s moth-eaten and caked in filth, in the end they quarantine her behind the so-called Select wall with all the other unsightly pieces of human wreckage.

And I was glad, my Ahmed, that I hadn’t given in to my urge to massage her shoulders, to run my fingers through the clumped and greasy follicles, and I said as much to the gathered company at our housewarming.

The boys would nibble a hole in a girl’s throat, then hook it with a sharpened incisor and unzip the neck, they would scoop out the larynx and gnaw at the trachea.

The boys would hook it with an incisor and set to work on the membranes and sinew.

We explored the crawl-space under our boxcar, for hours and even days lost in those tunnels, flashlights between our teeth.

Such peace.

We saw horses.

The canopy of trees that protected us from the sun.

The pine beds.

You make the best coffee, Ahmed, I don’t know what I would do without your coffee.

Always the burr-wheel grinder, it gives me the strength I need to go on.

My Ahmed, my brother.

This life.

In the morning we gather the necessary strength, the will to fight the day.

And do you remember?

You say face the day, Ahmed, but I say fight the day, for people like us it has only ever been a fight.

We’ve only achieved what we’ve achieved through constant struggle, and now, simply to go down the stairs, not my old East Side Fifth Avenue but this outer borough, the tire shops and Laundromats, the mumbling crackhead every day in her pink track pants collapsing over and again.

This outer borough life with all its pointless mediocrities, O no, give me a Lebanon life, a Cairo life, but not this.

But I have no more Lebanon life, I have no more Cairo life.

One day I will, one day again, at last we’ll have back the life of the forest, return there, die there, the sun sinking, cradled in the pinebeds, branches of the sycamores like bones high above.

These days to stumble down the stairs, to tumble out into the sun is a fight, simply to make it through this housewarming, to speak these words before the gathered company, coats clutched in their laps, and the old crony from the times, all of this, it’s all such a fight.

Our fists are raised, we beat back the impulse to blow our own heads off, over and over we beat it back, we drink coffee, at last our thoughts turn to children, to kidnapping and murder, and it saves us for a time.

But only you, Ahmed, have been a lifelong savior, that’s a fact, you give me the strength to keep fighting.

You told me, my Ahmed, that Judy Davis would play my part in the movie.

And I think that’s right, I think that Judy Davis will play me in the movie, Judy Davis the only one possessed by our way of living, the only one with the fire in her skull.

You were my teacher, Ahmed, you gave me that fire.

That skullfire.

It was you who taught me that the old criteria no longer apply, the old ways of writing and speaking, you said we must make ourselves into something new, into silver bullets, by writing and speaking in the new ways we must reveal ourselves as silver bullets in the form of people.

Each of us now an Iraqi individual, each of us a scientist, we’ve worked on the programs, we know them firsthand, we call ourselves scientists and we are scientists.

We love where no one expected love, hate where no one expected hate, deform the world with love and hate.

We reach conclusions, we build the world anew, and yes, Ahmed, we’ll be proved fucking right, and oh, Ahmed, my brother, my child of grace, we were, we were proved fucking right.

Ahmed.

Do you remember how I told the gathered company, as they filed out of our housewarming party, that you’d be played by Sidney Greenstreet, or by the Sydney Greenstreet of Baghdad?

Because you are.

You’re the Sidney Greenstreet of Baghdad.

And after they were all gone, the crony, the gathered company, you told me, Shut up! for God’s sake, shut up!

For one fucking second, you said, shut the fuck up!

The burning sun.

You told me we should cut out my tongue, it’s the only way we’ll ever get me to shut up.

No! I said, Not that, please, no.

You said, Yes, it’s the only way.

You took me by the arm and dragged me out down the stairs and out to the sidewalk.

Past a Laundromat, a tire shop.

My head lolling.

And I said, Then we cut them both out, mine and yours.

Yes, you said, mine too, cut mine out too.

Amputate our tongues, you said, and feel again the deep forest, the pine beds.

We leaned into one another and made our way to the Mexican restaurant’s fence, we knelt at a metal box chained there, Sunshine Medical Laboratories, it said, a box chained there, resting on the sidewalk, every day I see that box and it never fails to aggravate me, but only now did I realize why, I knew that I’d find the necessary amputation implements inside, I was frightened because I’d always known that one day I’d have to amputate my tongue, I’d always feared it.

We fear the necessary thing, my Ahmed, I leaned in and whispered in your ear that we fear the necessary thing but at last we embrace it because we can’t, we can’t stand it any longer.

I opened the box and rooted around among the syringes, I fished out a tin snips and started on your tongue.

I grabbed the tip of your tongue and yanked it from your mouth, it was too slick, it slipped over and over from between my fingers, I tore a strip from my dress and grabbed again, the fabric on the tongue let me grip, I snipped from left to right, then from right to left, until there was just a string holding it.

Then I plucked it.

Your tongue flopped on the sidewalk, it tossed itself through the chain link fence, it tried to position itself between the links but kept falling.

It’s looking for lips, I said, poor thing, it can’t talk anymore, let’s give it some lips, this isn’t right.

And you nodded, it wasn’t right, we should give it some lips, and you rooted in the medical box until you found a rusted hacksaw.

I grabbed hold of the chain link fence, the blade hung suspended for an instant over my wrist, then your arm pumped wildly, there was some trouble with the bone but you got through the bone, two walls of red opening, the wall of me and the wall of a hand that no longer was.

The hand clung to the fence for a moment, then dropped to the sidewalk and scurried over to the tongue, it made a fist and the tongue leapt in.

The tongue darted out between these new lips, the hand smiled.

Then it stopped smiling, it tried to roll and fell apart.

Because it can’t walk, it can only sit there and try to roll, and it was true, it was trying to roll away, but every time it flicked its fingers against the sidewalk to gather the necessary momentum the tongue fell out, the hand had to go back and grip the flopping tongue, it tried flicking with only two fingers, but this wasn’t enough to get it rolling, it really needed to flick with all four fingers and hold tight to the tongue with its thumb, but the thumb couldn’t keep hold of the squirming tongue, not as it rolled over, so the hand was forced to recapture the tongue again and again.

And do you remember, Ahmed, how I sawed through your ankle? and how the blade broke on bone, and I had to dig back in the Sunshine Medical Laboratories box for hacksaw blades but there were no hacksaw blades, and eventually I dug out a band saw and a small generator, I primed the generator and the band saw roared to life and off came the foot.

The foot hopped over to the hand and the tongue, and hand and tongue jumped aboard the foot.

The foot hopped a few times, experimentally, it held together quite well and so the foot gave a few leaps and even did a somersault.

Then it stopped, it stopped and looked around and it was sad.

It was sad because it didn’t have a friend.

It wasn’t complaining, nevertheless you knew it was sad, it had no friend, and so you cranked the bandsaw and sliced off my tongue and foot and your own hand, I didn’t know whether to offer my Baghdad foot or my forest foot, we ended up giving it my Baghdad foot and your forest hand, we thought this would be the ideal combination, we braced ourselves shoulder to shoulder and hobbled down the street.

We hobbled in front of a sedan, you dropped me in the intersection and hobbled back to the curb, the sedan honking, I crawled forward and stopped, the sedan rolled forward and honked and I turned myself around, I hobbled back to you, hand and stump, stump and foot, the sedan’s horn blaring, bumper brushing my sleeve, and I turned again and dragged myself to the other curb, and the black woman inside shouted, YOU WHITE ASSHOLE, and a block down the cops pulled her over.

I hauled myself back to your side and thought how all of this would be a great story for our next housewarming, when we had finally left behind this outer borough, though not without certain racial sensitivities, and we hobbled as a pair back to the apartment, turning now and again to watch the tongues hopping past the tire shops and Laundromats, past the chain link fences, the tongue on the left babbling away to the tongue on the right, the two tongues hopping to the forest, the pine beds, the tongue on the left unleashing an endless stream of words, two tongues on a summer afternoon coming to know the sun and sidewalk, the tongue on the left never for a moment letting up, never relenting, and this is what she was saying.

 

|||

 

 

 

 

Mark Doten is the author of the novels Trump Sky Alpha and The Infernal. He was named to Granta’s once-a-decade “Best of Young American Novelists” list in 2017, and his writing has appeared in Granta, n+1, Guernica, The Believer, and Conjunctions. He lives in Princeton and teaches in the creative writing programs of Princeton and Columbia.

Next in TLR: Contents May Shift, Leah Umansky’s “Heart Out”