The Cooling Centers

All that summer Muhtadi drove between the simmering buildings with a certain carefulness, stopping at every yellow light. Foreheads shining, feet sinking into the gummy asphalt, sodden clumps of people carried signs that said murderer, terrorist. They chanted into television cameras while he squinted at molten chrome and sun-blurred pavement. You didn’t give anyone an excuse.

He’d parked outside a charbroiled apartment, waiting. Styrofoam scuttled across the complex’s brown grass. Kalil had wrapped towels on his arms to keep the hot trays of food from burning him and when he came out again he’d thrown the towels over his shoulder and was counting his money. Muhtadi turned the key. The van’s motor staggered, caught. Fingers of cool air reached down his collar.

Kalil said the people sometimes cursed, thrust their canes in his face. They didn’t like a black man converted to Islam in prison knocking on their door. But the courts said delivering food was rehabilitation work. At certain doors, Kalil said he left the food outside and tried to call to them in a white voice. They were senile, bitter, racist. And they were dying in the heat.

Sabah el kheer  floated from 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  had commanded. He hadn’t seemed angry or sad. Maybe some small part of him proud at his whip-thin son showing some spine when they’d called him a terrorist at school? He still felt 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 and hit back?

Muhtadi pulled in next to a hydrant. An officer saw him and swung off his motorcycle bellowing something. He rolled down the window. “I’m sorry,” he called and put the van into drive. The cop, wanting an excuse.

“They have power over you in jail,” Kalil said. “You can fight it, but it just gets you deeper.  That’s why I picked Kalil. One who submits. You don’t fight the power, you find another way.”

The food they delivered came steaming from the madrasah near Columbia. Mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, a thin slab of steak. Fruit or jello from a cooler. They started at seven 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 and they turned in the completed sheets as evidence of their service.

If we called it a church, one of the radio callers said, incredulous, if someone said we’re going to build a church near Ground Zero, would they care? Muhtadi drummed on the steering wheel while he waited for Kalil to finish a delivery. Two girls on the sidewalk. White shorts against blonde hair. He tried to look, not look. Then the door opened and Kalil slipped against his cracked headrest.

“You have a cell phone?” he asked.

“No.”

“Got to be dead, with that smell coming out of there.”

“We should go in and help.”

“No.”

“You never let me go.”

“That’s because you drive.”

“We should check on her,” Muhtadi said. He unbuckled his seatbelt but Kalil grabbed his collar.

“You stay in the van unless I tell you otherwise. I don’t want no rag-cutter to get at you.” Muhtadi could see two taxi drivers in his side mirror arguing. Their arms over their heads, jabbing at the sky. Then he picked up the clipboard and scratched a line through one of the names.

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 centers were in gyms, churches, synagogues. They pushed their cart through the rows of chairs and called out names from their list. Kalil passed out registration forms to gaunt shapes in the shadows. Stuttering laughter from a television. The palsied scratch of pen on paper. “There you go sweetheart,” Kalil said as he passed out the trays. “There you go.” He slipped his wallet back into his pocket while Muhtadi crossed them off the list.

“Please stop taking their money,” Muhtadi said.

“What are they going to do with it?”

“It’s disgraceful.”

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. An advertisement on its side showed the inbound plane heading for the second tower. Why here? underneath in red-dipped script.

They stopped at a light, staring as some kind of protest boiling down the street toward them. The signs read Murderers. Terrorists.

Zakah painted in bright green Arabic script on the side of the van. “He who sleeps on a full stomach whilst his neighbor goes hungry is not one of us.”

“Back up,” Kalil said.

But it was too late. A brick sailed through the air. The sound like a gunshot. Spiderwebs fractured the windshield.

“You can’t do that,” Muhtadi said. Humidity like a heavy fist in his lungs.

“Muhtadi, ” Kalil warned, “Get in the van.”

“You can’t do that!” yelling now. Sweat feathering his face.

One of the marchers stopped. Thick legs, flesh bunching at his knees. Around him curious faces.

“Get out of my country!”

The sun hit its peak, freed itself in the sky. A white grinding heat poured down while 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 clattered on the pavement.

“Muhtadi get back inside!”

The air thick and hot. His father a null point in the school’s office. Kalil’s fingers tightened on his shirt while the crowd gathered.

It had been freedom, to break that boy’s face. It had been power.

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2 thoughts on “The Cooling Centers

  1. Thanks Franklin! I’ve been working on my book but I’ve got a few more short ones coming soon. Also checked out your last few words (get it?). Sounds like you’re having an interesting summer being a tourist in your own city.

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