All that summer the heat dogged him. Muhtadi drove between the simmering buildings with a certain carefulness, stopping at every yellow light. You didn’t give anyone an excuse. Sodden clumps of people on every corner. Foreheads shining, feet sinking into the gummy asphalt. They carried signs that said murderer, terrorist. They chanted into television cameras. The sun-blurred pavement. Molten chrome. The heat he could not escape.
The van’s motor staggered, caught. Fingers of cool air reaching down his collar. Outside the city charbroiled. Brown grass. Styrofoam drifts, scuttling in the hot breeze.
Kalil had wrapped towels on his arms to keep the hot trays from burning him. When he came out the towels were over his shoulder and he was counting his money. Grimed bricks in dozens of stories. Broken glass glittering in the courtyard.
They cursed, sometimes. Thrust their canes in his face. A black man, converted in prison. A thin brown boy with a taqiyya on his head. The courts said delivering food was rehabilitation work. Community service. Certain doors Kalil left the food outside and tried to call to them like a white. They were senile, bitter, racist. And they were dying in the heat.
Kalil liked Sabah el kheer on the radio. The station played English songs, but the hosts switched to Arabic for the callers. The city was opening cooling centers, a man said. He was roasting, a goat on a spit, but he was uncomfortable going because they would see him at prayer.
A pothole swung the wheel. Muhtadi wrenched the van back in its lane. “That’s the way,” Kalil said. “You doin’ good.” His eyes were closed, peaceful.
“The judge tells you to do community service, and you will do your service.” Muhtadi’s father not angry, or sad. Maybe some small part of him proud at his whip-thin son showing some spine when they called him a terrorist? The feel of the other boy’s nose breaking against his knee. The sweat-greased hair in his fist. Was that what the Imam wanted from his son? To abandon his books for the teaching of the world? To hit back?
The tops of the buildings, hazy and indistinct. The seat’s black plastic stuck against his back. “One who submits,” Kalil said, “that’s why I picked it. They have power over you in jail. You can fight it, but it just gets you deeper. You don’t fight the power.”
Muhtadi pulled in next to a hydrant. An officer saw him, swung off his motorcycle. Knee boots, bellowing something. The boy rolled down the window. “I’m sorry.” He picked off his oven mitts, put the van into drive. The cop, wanting an excuse.
The food came steaming from the madrasah near Columbia. Mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, a thin slab of steak. Fruit or jello in a cooler. They started at 7 in the morning, and by noon the trays were the temperature of the van. They had a list of names and addresses. Ethel Guthman. Mirna Kelchner. Chaing Wu. Muhtadi checked them off when he saw Kalil leaving the buildings. Small black boxes, evidence of their service.
One of the callers, incredulous. If we called it a church, if someone said we’re going to build a church near Ground Zero, would they care? Muhtadi drummed on the steering wheel, waiting. Two girls on the sidewalk. White shorts against blonde hair. He tried to look, not look, while the heat grew murderous.
Kalil leaned back against the cracked headrest. “You have a cell phone?”
“No one missed her.”
“Got to be dead, with that smell coming out of there.”
“I want to see.”
“You never let me go.”
“I want to see.” Unbuckling the seatbelt.
Hard hand on Muhtadi’s shoulder. Kalil glaring, prison-hard. “You stay in the van unless I tell you otherwise. You don’t want no rag-cutter to come get you.” He took the clipboard, scratched a line through one of the names. Two taxi drivers in the side mirror, arguing. Their arms over their heads, jabbing at the sky.
It was Muhtadi’s idea to deliver to the cooling centers. The madrasah’s administrator fought a yawn and nodded. They would save on gas.
The van door banged shut. Kalil silent for blocks. “You need to find a way to get ahead in this city,” he finally said. “That’s all. That’s all I’m after.” A bus roared past, clouds of shimmering turbulence in its wake. A placard on its side showed the flaming towers, the inbound plane. Why here? in red-dipped script.
The cooling centers were in gyms, churches, synagogues. They pushed their cart through the rows of chairs, calling out names. Muhtadi passed out registration forms to the gaunt shapes in the shadows. Stuttering laughter from a television. The palsied scratch of pen on paper. They came for their food and Kalil crossed them off the list. “There you go sweetheart. There you go.” He slipped his wallet back into his pocket.
“Please stop taking their money.”
“What are they going to do with it?”
Through heavy doors out into the heat. Clinging humidity like a first to his lungs. The crowd pushed through the weather with sweat-dark lakes across their shirts. Some kind of protest, dozens flowing down the street. Somewhere a bullhorn buzzed. Murderer. Terrorist.
Zakah painted in bright green letters on the side of the van. “He who sleeps on a full stomach whilst his neighbor goes hungry is not one of us.“ The brick tangled in the windshield wiper. Spiderweb of glass. This was their power, their freedom.
They served turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce. Every night Muhtadi turned in the roster and went home feeling like some difference had been made. He’d been stupid to believe.
“You can’t do that,” Muhtadi called into the flushed faces, raw from the sun.
“Muhtadi, ” Kalil warned, “get in the van.” His shirt plastered over his potbelly.
“You can’t do that!” yelling now. Feathers of sweat blooming.
One of the marchers stopped. Thick legs, flesh bunching at his knees. Above them curious faces in the windows, gravid clouds.
“Get out of my country!”
The sun hit its peak, freed itself in the sky. Everything, everywhere a white grinding heat that burned at him. Muhtadi circled the heavy man. His throat was dry, tense. Bullhorn chants filled the streets. Impossible to hear, to think. A few more marchers pointed out the van. Their signs clattering on the pavement.
Back inside, get back inside where it was safe. One who submits.
The thick air. His father a null point in that room.
More of the crowd gathering. Kalil’s fingers tightened in his shirt.
It had been freedom, to break that boy’s face. It had been power.