Taxi to (the) heaven(s)
by Ron Singer
[ fiction - september 07 ]
In late summer, 1990, I nearly missed a plane with a non-refundable ticket. I was on my way out west to work as a volunteer on an Indian reservation. Over the last several years, something has been happening that has brought back the nearly-missed plane: telephone calls.
In some sense, I may have missed that plane. Whether that would mean I would have forfeited my non-refundable ticket, and whether it would also mean I would not have done the work I did, are also conceivable - in some sense. It all depends on the most recent phone call, or, more to the point, on what I do about it. If I change my mind, as I may, these phone calls will keep coming. My response to the subsequent calls will depend, in turn, on certain changes in me.
Exactly where I was going, to do exactly what, for which Indians, now seems immaterial. These facts do seem material. The plane was at 8:25am from Kennedy airport, and because I had heard on the radio that there were traffic delays, I stepped into a cab at 6:45 for what was then normally a 35- minute ride. (It now takes at least an hour.) At 8:05, the woman at the check-in counter called ahead to the gate to tell them one last passenger was coming. I got on the plane just in time to watch the complete tape of the safety procedures, which broke down twice. I later read in a discarded copy of The New York Times that the same flight from New York on the previous day had been rescheduled after a window in the cockpit cabin blew out and the tires shredded on the runway. (No one was hurt.) My reading material on the plane was The House of Seven Gables, and I discovered as I began reading that I had unconsciously transferred to this book from another one, not by Hawthorne, a bookmark I got from a store called 'Twice Sold Tales'. The day after reaching my destination, I read in a local paper that an Indian I had known 20 years before, but had not seen since, was running for local office. (I could tell it was him from the photo, in which his youthful energy and bravado had aged into the shell-shocked demeanor of a middle-aged desperado.) He won the election. The Indians in question refer to bad, despotic politicians as "mustache sniffers" (after Hitler).
As my caller says, "It is written."
On the way to the airport, there were several serious traffic jams, which provided the background to my first encounter with the man whose name on the posted I.D. placard looked like a misspelling: ABDEL FATWEH. Of course, an Arabic name can be transliterated any way the owner likes, but I think you will agree that it usually comes out ABDUL FATWAH.
Which is germane to one of the many things he said, each time turning in his seat and grinning superciliously, but never swerving (neither he nor the cab). "Many horrible wars have been fought in the name of religion."
"True," I replied, grasping at a truism with which I could agree.
But then he added, "The only good reason to go to war is when someone insults Al-lah."
What was it that made me keep thinking obsessively, throughout the ride, through all the tirades, of asking him if he had ever heard of Salmon Rushdie? The road not taken, the plane not missed, or at least the question not asked that might have made me miss it. But who knows?
He only seemed to speed up and start lane-cutting - he was a good driver - at about 7:45, which was well after I had told him that the flight was at 8:25. Until then, we had sat, I had stewed, he had ranted. Did what I did or didn't say matter? It did!
"Fatweh here. Is this Mr --- ----, whom I drove to the JFK Airport in the year 1990?"
"1990?! Not that I can ...? Why? What is this about?
At 7:45, I had jumped into a crack between harangues: "I have an 8:25 plane to catch."
"Don't worry," and he launched into the next harangue.
My policy of passivity also kept me from asking if he knew that "8:25" didn't mean it would be okay to get there at 8:25. This passivity was reinforced by a sort of contagious, stoic restraint. For instance, during one traffic jam - one of the middle ones, I think - I made a friendly attempt to lighten the conversation (or to turn the monologue into one).
"How long have you been in this country?"
"Oh, a lifetime."
Stoic, yes, but with a rare trace of wistfulness.
And he segued into predictable territory, the inequities of immigration policy: "Israelis and Jews from Russia can get in with no difficulties, but Palestinians must leave their papers behind them."
About a foot to my left, I noticed a slit in the black vinyl seat, through which I could see yellow foam. The vinyl looked as if it had been greased with Vaseline.
Another example of stoic restraint (but whose?): in order to show polite interest in Islam, I asked a question concerning marriage codes, a topic about which I already knew a bit, including the fact that "up to four wives" means "as you are able to support them."
"What if a man can't even support one wife?"
Abdel's sour smile brought us as close as we would come to levity: "He must fast, in order to cool down."
Until he gets old, anyway.
The Koran enjoins good deeds. During one stoppage, a guy in the next lane leaned over and asked how to get to Northern Boulevard.
Shouting, in order to be sure his answer could be heard, Fatweh explained not once, but twice: "Keep left, follow the signs to Triborough, you'll see the sign to Northern Boulevard." His English was pretty good.
Abdel Fatweh knew I was a teacher. Early on, he had asked. But I didn't dare tell him that, as an English teacher, I had been teaching the Bible to high school students at a secular school for nearly three decades. To pass the time in the unmoving cab, although I knew this was unwise, I sporadically asked him questions about the Bible, couching them in terms I hoped would sound as if they could have come from any educated Westerner, believer or not. (I was "not".) From Abdel's answers, I gleaned many tidbits about the Bible versus the Koran:
Jesus will return and smash all the crosses.
The slanderous story of Lot's repopulating the earth with the assistance of his own daughters is untrue and, accordingly, not in the Koran.
Moses killed the (Egyptian) overseer (nationality glossed over) before he spoke to God.
One more: The Biblical account of Moses' impatiently striking the rock, which kept him out of the Holy Land, is inaccurate. (As one of my wise-guy students once riffed, "When they get there, God announces that all deserving believers will now be allowed to enter. As Moses hurries forward, he hears the Voice again: 'Not so fast, Moses!' ") In the Koran, it says that God narrates the previously unmentioned story of the rock to Mohammed, the final prophet. There is also something about nine holes in the rock, out of which various important symbolic substances pour.
I had two characteristically cynical reactions to the revised version of the story: that it was a doubly embedded narrative, and that "nine holes" sounds as if we're moving from swords to ploughshares to golf clubs.
Another diversionary attempt: "What part of Egypt are you from?" (Country of origin having been requested almost as soon as I set foot in the cab and saw the big head, full beard, and the name on the I.D. card.)
"I'm from Alexandria, where the people are shepherds, and get nothing to eat."
I may have replied, "That's terrible."
Through the window high above my head, I saw a gigantic billboard with a male and a female model bulging out of faux-unisex underwear.
Time was a recurring theme during that hellishly slow ride. (Was it a Christian heretic who said, "God controls the universe, Satan, the timing"?) At times, we addressed (or Abdel addressed) the subject directly.
I forget the context - logical sequence is immaterial - but at one point he announced, in his straightforward, sensible-sounding tones: "I know a teacher like you, a very busy man, who has been studying the Koran for three years now."
I realized this statement was meant to forestall any attempt on my part to beg off tending to my soul on the pretext of busy-ness. Abdel had been in this country long enough to know that "too busy" is America's favorite excuse.
When it was clear we would arrive at the terminal at about 7:55, which to him meant I would certainly make my plane, he issued yet another proclamation, with even greater emphasis than usual. This one was the peroration.
"People are in a rush to do their business," he said as we pulled up to the curb, possibly waggling his index finger at me over his shoulder, "but they are in no rush to do the only important business, which is to guarantee the safety of their souls for eternity."
To which I responded, since I was indeed in a rush, by giving him $35 for the $27.90 ride, and telling him to keep the change.
To which ($35) he said, beatifically, "Study the Koran. I hope to meet you as a Muslim. If not here, then in Heaven, my friend. There is still time. What is your name, please?"
To which, I (climbing out, without time to hesitate): "Thank you. --- ---- [my name]. Good luck." (And not, "'Still time'? Yeah, about two minutes if I'm lucky.")
You might say it was kind of Abdel to wish me what he valued most for himself. Of course, that's a Western way of looking at it. From his point of view, he was just doing his duty. But, still ... . And, after all, it was his good work (and that of the airline representative in the lobby) which ultimately, at 8:25, had me airborne, heading, if not toward Heaven, at least toward the heavens.
And (to get this part of the story over with), what are these not-so-mysterious "changes" that have occurred in my life during the years between the ride to the airport and the latest phone call?
One, of course, has involved many more people than me - much of humanity, in fact. This huge change proceeded from an event so infamous that six years later everyone refers to it simply by the date: September 11th. Readers of my story will surely have made a connection - airplanes, Muslims, fatwah - and no doubt wondered why I have not mentioned the connection. I think I preferred to let September 11th implicitly color the whole story. Why? The preference may stem from those personal changes that I will now finally, reluctantly, list:
- anticipated retirement (2002) turns out to be an empty time.
- hobbies no longer of interest, possessions no longer enjoyed.
- onset of old age: stiff and painful joints, ugliness, forgotten names, short-term memory loss, inability to distinguish things I intend to do from those already done.
- loved ones gone or going.
- dogged by an annoying metaphor: I keep thinking of my life as a big pot of soup which, insipid from the start, has by now been reheated many times, becoming less "sipid" each time.
- tired of reading - anything.
- The other day, I saw a hair on the kitchen table that didn't look like one of mine; I immediately counted my money.
- (need I mention?) loneliness, abiding melancholy.
"This is Mr ----, isn't it? Hello there, sir! It's been fifteen years, exactly, hasn't it, sir? Have you thought over what we talked about?"
"I think you have the wrong... Goodbye."
My attempts at accommodation were endless. There was even some folderol about being on my way to sojourn among a people with different beliefs from those of the decadent West, although this "people," of course, live in the (real) West.
"Like Muslims, they dislike greed."
In the mirror, Abdel Fatweh looked as if he smelled a non-sequitur.
"Well, sir. How long has it been by now? I think that neither of us is growing any younger."
Ha ha. But I did say, "That's for sure."
One last, odd detail, which I don't even know why I mention. When he leapt from the cab to help with my bags, I was shocked by how short was Abdel Fatweh, since his beard and head, which had swiveled toward me, say, a hundred-and-sixty times in the past eighty minutes, were both huge. He must have been barely five feet tall. And he wore a faded flannel shirt, this on a hot, muggy day.
The penultimate communication:
"So, Mr ----. Good to hear your voice again, sir. I would like you to meet My Teacher."
I hung up in a flash.
"You should have known about this guy five minutes into the trip," you point out. And you may further berate me with, "Why did you encourage him?"
I did know, I did encourage him, but what else could I do? Useless knowledge, "we in the West" are full of useless knowledge. I've already explained the reasons/ rationalizations.
So. A few weeks ago, he called again. The phone rang. I knew it was him. The C(c)all(s) had become inevitable, as had my - how should I put this? - "submission."
Yes, against my better judgment (to put it mildly), no doubt because of the commonplace life-changes that I have shamefacedly listed, and possibly also because of some predisposition in my character or personality, acceding to a loss of will that, for us in the decadent West, serves as an incarnation of Fate, I finally agreed to meet him.
This the time, this the place, there to meet with ... Abdel Fatweh.
(And with, of course, "My Teacher.")
It is written (and rewritten).