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"While Camden's Arbor Slept"

“While Camden’s Arbor Slept”

 

     Fever woke Kahlil on the tenth day. He rolled over, planted his feet on the floor, stood slowly, and staggered to the shower. Once there he inspected his body for lesions. There were none. Drying himself before the mirror, he turned his thin well-muscled frame from side to side examining the skin along his flanks. He closed his eyes, prayed to Allah for strength, and dressed. 

     The cool fabric of his black and white striped referee’s jersey brushed his hot shoulders before settling at his waist. Leaning over to lace and tie his shoes made him dizzy. Again he prayed. He took three aspirin tablets with a cup of tea before leaving his house.

     The drive to the grocery store, the slow careful perambulation behind the buggy gathering snacks and juices for the children on his team, unfolded like the periphery of a dream. Kahlil, or “Coach Al” as he was known in Camden’s Arbor, was a familiar sight to the clerks and managers of the strip mall. His was a regular presence at the soccer store, the barbershop, the second hand book mart, and the dollar emporium. He made regular trips to the county bank and was a tithing member at the Camden’s Arbor Second Baptist Church. He taught a young men’s Bible class on Wednesday nights. At cover dish suppers, his barbecue was legendary.

     Kahlil placed three packages of red seedless grapes, a dozen navel oranges, and assorted boxes of fruit juice on the conveyor belt, then looked up to smile at the cashier, a pretty grey haired school teacher making ends meet as a weekend cashier.

     “Mornin’ Laura”.

     “How you doin’ Al? You’re lookin’ peaked this morning’.”

     “All right. All right. Late practice.”

     “Catch a chill? Ought to know better than run around with no jacket these cool nights, down in that hollow.”

     “You been watchin’ us?”

     “No. No!” She laughed. “Just know how you boys are, that’s all. No momma. No coat.”

     Laura tilted her head and with a wrinkled brow asked once more, “Are you sure you’re all right?”

     Kahlil sucked his lips into his teeth and nodded as Laura rang up his order. A teenaged boy wearing a long green apron loped in from the parking lot and stuffed the oranges into the bottom of a thin plastic bag and set the grapes on top. Snapping open a brown paper sack, he laid the juice boxes on their sides.

     Grinning at Kahlil and shuffling foot to foot for a fraction of a second, he joked “Need me to carry these Coach?”

     Kahlil shook his head “You ought to be playing ball Jack stead of bagging groceries.”

     “Ball won’t buy no car.”

     Kahlil shrugged and momentarily lurched before regaining his balance and walking out the automatic doors. Laura held her breath, stating softly, “Any car. Won’t buy any car.” She turned to greet the next customer.

     Kahlil loaded the bags into the front seat of his dark green pickup truck, and a frenzy of freezing fingers ran up from his buttocks to seize the nape of his neck. He shuddered, whispered another quick prayer. He clenched the steering wheel, adjusted the volume on the radio, and traveled to the futbol complex. George Jones crooned over the speakers as Kahlil pulled into his parking space. His parking space! It was the only privilege he permitted himself.

     He arrived in suburban Atlanta twenty years before. With a minor in physical education and a business degree from Auburn, he was a shoe-in for his position as general manager for the new soccer complex. He had a genius for fund raising and quickly elevated the profile of soccer in this outlying county where there were too many children and not enough baseball fields. He coached his own traveling team of under ten year olds. He organized skills camps in the summer and over vacation breaks. He trained older players as referees. He encouraged suburban mothers and grandmothers to kick the ball and pass with their small children. He cajoled whole families of adults into coaching. He permitted no fighting on or off the field. He modeled good sportsmanship. He demanded it. His complex and teams excelled, winning championships all over the country. Wearing his black trousers and black and white striped shirt, with his coal black hair combed smartly back, and his deeply olive skin, he was an icon.           

     He claimed Italian ancestry, fishermen from outside Mobile. Everyone knew him in those early days when everyone in Camden’s Arbor knew everyone. Everyone knew him into those days of unbridled suburban sprawl before the crash, when no one knew anyone else. No one thought twice about his swarthy complexion once his speech slid into its gentle coastal Alabama drawl, except on occasion at a Chamber breakfast, to wonder whether there had been an illegal union before he concocted his story about Italians in Mobile.

     He dated divorcees and widows sometimes, but it was clear to all, that this man was married to soccer. He lived alone and was visited periodically by a brother with two children. He kept up with his neighbors. They watched over his house when he took his team out of town for tournaments or when he traveled to Mobile. He collected their mail when they vacationed. They collected his.

 

     Kahlil cracked the driver’s window, gathered his bags, and walked to his office behind the concession stand. He gave up his office at the county services building because he said it was too far from his “real work” at the soccer complex. Instead, he maintained a computer terminal and telephone and fax line in one corner of the storeroom. This was his office. He turned on the floor fan. On metal shelves lined with baskets of uniforms, orange cones, shin guards, netting, and trophies, he placed the bags of fruit and juice. He sat down in his chair and leaned his head back against the cool frame of a shelf. He sighed and blew his breath over his nose. He felt horribly ill.

     Two weeks earlier, he received the date of his directive along with a small parcel. He was not surprised at its arrival. Conditions in the nation and throughout the world were loam, rain, and sunlight for the revolution. He was not surprised at the arrival of the package, however, he did not anticipate his reaction. Jihad.

     He was nine years old when events at the American University in Beirut forced his family to relocate him to the United States. His father and mother’s assassination by Zionist rebels kindled a smoldering rage for revenge in the their surviving son’s gentle nature. At 16 he joined a cell dedicated to nothing less than the ultimate annihilation of worldwide Western influence. Shortly after, Kahlil went underground in Tennessee, disappearing from the home of his maternal cousin. Ten years later he tunneled up in Camden’s  Arbor.

     Jihad. Jihad. Kneeling toward Mecca he sweated and prayed. He expected that his mission would be to explode a thousand miles of poorly protected gas pipeline meandering like a swollen stream through the deep South. Each morning, he topped the hill to the soccer complex and saw the holding tanks for fuel for the southeast sit on the horizon like jellyfish washed in on a beach. They glistened, round and vulnerable; their routes well-marked by orange poles and warning signs as they traveled through subdivisions and under county roads. Their presence so benign to local residents, that folks planted the sunny right of way with tomatos and runner beans. Children raced four wheelers sliding down dusty tracks.

     Inside the package was an enameled tobacco tin wrapped in a silk handkerchief spelling out his directive in Arabic. It contained his roadmap for his part in the destruction. His mission was to infect himself with the virulent stuff in the tin, and leave the rest to Allah.

     Kahlil dropped to his knees and prayed for strength once more as he accepted a suicide mission designed to maim and kill an ever widening perimeter of civilians as it rendered Western corruption ultimately impotent and writhing.

     “Allah! Show me Allah! Strengthen me. Great Allah. Guide me as your humble servant.”

     For three days Kahill carried out his physical life, games, meetings, a short speech at a school assembly, while his spirit on a parallel path, wrestled with its intended journey.  The morning of the fourth day, Kahlil unscrewed the lid of the tin. He rubbed the coarse powder between his fingers before he emptied some of the tin’s contents into his palm. Cupping one hand in the other he inhaled the powder. Again and again. Deep breath after deep breath until it was gone. Then he licked his palm and drank a glass of water.

     “Great Allah. You have restored my faith. Jihad.”

 

     “Mr. D’Aveta?”

     Kahlil opened his eyes and coughed. Leann, the high school senior hired last summer to run the concession stand, leaned in the doorway.

     “Mr. D’Aveda. There’s no soap for the women’s restroom. You want to go get some or’d you like me to go? You look awful!”

     “Thanks Leann. You go.”

     “Need anything? Water?”

     “Yeah, yeah. That’d be good.” Kahlil coughed.

     Leann returned with a bottle of Dasani.

     “Thanks. You’ve been a . . .you’re a great kid Leann, a great kid.” Kahlil coughed again.

     “Mr. D’Aveda, Coach, you should go home.”

     “I will. You’re right. I will. After my team plays at eleven. I’ll go home then. I’ll be okay ‘til then. Go get the soap. I’ll sell candy ‘til you get back.”

     Kahlil braced his arms atop the desk and rose slowly.            

     “I’ll be fine Leann. Run on.”

     Kahlil made his way through the door into the concession stand. He counted the change in the money bag, signed the ledger sheet placing it under the cash drawer, and filled the slots. Emptying new quarters, he sifted through until he found one for Tennessee. On the back was a guitar with a banjo. Kahlil loved the banjo. He fingered the bas-relief, ran his thumb over the quarter’s scored edge, and dropped it into its slot. He opened new dimes, new nickels, new pennies. He straightened the ones, fives, and tens in their compartments. He lined all the faces on the bills in the same direction and smoothed crumpled corners.

     Light filtered under the Dutch doors at the service counter. He heard the voices of the children and parents, car doors slamming, dogs barking. He grabbed a towel and wiped his tears fallen on the speckled formica.

     “Great Allah, I am weak.” The legs of a thousand millipedes grabbed his buttocks again and scampered up his spine.

     Turning, he plugged in the crockpot for cheese nachos. He speared hotdogs onto the rotisserie, started a pot of coffee, put the hot wing sauce in the microwave. He started the lemonade machine before lifting the latch and opening the doors above the counter.

     Chattering girls and boys of various ages and in uniforms in many colors greeted his face with their chorus of ‘hellos’. He stiffened his shoulders and smiled down at them. No one must know. No one must guess. His directive. His Jihad. He winced as he placed ketchup, mustard, relish, pickles, salt and pepper, and napkins on the counter ledge. He handed out snacks and made change until Leann returned. He went back to his office and closed the door.

     Kahlil sat at his desk counting his contacts thus far. He imagined it all like a Recluse spider bite. He was the black dot at the center, a beginning necrosis, a fatally concentric rot traveling ever wider in America’s absurd jiggling obesity until the organism lost its limb. A limping beast, were he the only one. However, Kahlil knew his was the fourth directive delivered that day, the others accomplishing their Jihad wasting the great beast’s three remaining extremities. Botulism surging through the water system in Los Angeles. Anthrax stirred up in the dust outside of Houston. Saron sifted into the giant subway systems of New York and Boston. The great beast, America, writhing. Impotently screaming, wriggling, soiling itself in its suffering.

     Laura. Laura and all the cashiers and bagboys. All the customers passed in the grocery store aisles. The clerks at the gas station. Leann. The children and their parents at the concession stand.

     He needed to cut up the oranges to mix with the red grapes for his team’s snack. He took out his pocketknife, sliced the oranges into wedges, and placed small clusters of red grapes between each wedge on a plastic platter. He scattered his remaining tin of pulverized scab on the fruit and watched it dissolve and disappear. He set the tray on a two-drawer file cabinet by the door. He screwed the lid on the beautifully enameled tin and collapsed to the concrete floor.  The tin rolled out of his hand and under the metal shelving, lodging itself against the baseboard.

     On the other side of the wall, Leann heard the dull thud as his body hit the wall and landed on the floor. Leann called the ambulance while two parents checked his breathing, covered him with blankets, and remarked to one another that the man worked way too hard. While the paramedics loaded him onto the stretcher, children passed around handfuls of oranges and grapes. They sucked on the grapes and wiped their hands across their noses while their parent’s worried whispers faded with the rescue sirens. The high-pitched urgent cries of excited coaches pierced the fog lifting now from the lowland soccer field.

     Reporting a patient with a high fever, racing heart rate, and a grade III coma, the paramedics waited for orders from the Emergency room physician. As they pulled into the emergency drive at the county hospital, two nurses ran to help them unload Kahlil. “My son was on his team last year” one of them declared as she reached over to smooth his forehead and whisper “We’re gonna take care of you, Al.”

`     Albert “Kahlil Omari” D’Aveda was moved to a stretcher in a cubicle surrounded on three sides by curtains, as a team of medical personnel worked to establish a diagnosis. Blood samples were drawn, additional intravenous lines started, x-rays taken, and antibiotics administered. The staff were wearing only masks and gloves when the disease, Small Pox, was certain. Kahlil was whisked into an isolation room as the epidemiologists from CDC descended upon Camden’s Arbor.

     The entrance to the soccer complex was barricaded, and police personnel with foghorns instructed children and adults to sit where they stood. Inside the concession stand, Leann listened while an officer wearing a gas mask asked her to show him where Kahlil had fallen ill. As they entered the storeroom, the league’s secretary looked up in surprise from Kahlil’s desk where she sorted receipts as her toddler crawled around on the floor.

     She scooped her baby into her arms, but did not see the enamel tin tight in his fist until they were outside sitting on the grass. She unscrewed the lid and sniffed the powder before she tossed it into the trashcan sitting by the curb. The officer turned to Leann and repeated the emergency drill script. “Go outside, sit down, and wait until you are called.”

 

     Neighborhoods organized themselves into immunization wards as the trucks of vaccine arrived. Blockades armed with National Guard soldiers cordoned off the northern suburbs. Kahlil did battle in the isolation room. Thousands of weeping pustules sealed his eyes, crusted his ears closed, and glued his nostrils shut. He moaned only once as he rode the back of his demon into the darkness, plummeting his town, Camden’s Arbor, nestled amid acres of apple trees, its pristine vision shimmering on a hillside, into the vortex of a new ground zero.  

   

       

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I sat with several mothers

I sat with several mothers the Saturday after 9/11 on a blanket at a soccer game. One small daughter sat making red, white, and blue hair ribbons as a fundraiser for the survivors. As we chatted softly a man walked by wearing referee clothing. He was swarthy. Middle eastern. We knew it and without even realizing what we were doing, we all froze and watched his back. He sensed it and stiffened for a second before calling out to another referee. His accent was rural and southern. We relaxed and continued our conversation. Before that moment I thought I was beyond racial profiling. I thought it had been bred out of me with years of formal and informal education. I was reared by God fearing liberal conservatives. Yes they exist. I was taught from the earliest early that we take each individual as an individual. We do not profile. We do not judge. Yet out of my control and beyond myself, I watched the back of a man because the darker hue of his skin was not African American or Hispanic but middle Eastern and 9/11 had occurred. I began to wonder what manner of man or woman becomes a terrorist.

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Wow

This is an incredibly touching story, Debra, and just as relevant as it was in 2001. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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 You are welcome.Thank you

 You are welcome.

Thank you for reading.