Chapter 1: The Mission to North America
from Relics of America, available through https://www.createspace.com/3332917
As he disembarked from the train at Penn Station, Cheikh Anta Cheops tried not to look like a man on a mission. Wearing jeans, sunglasses, and an “I Y Montreal” t-shirt, he gripped his carry-on bag and walked casually towards the main concourse. Two other New Liberians followed him, wheeling enormous suitcases and struggling to keep up.
Passing a newsstand, they stopped dead in their tracks, as this headline from the New York Daily jumped out at them:
TERRORISTS KILL BLACK TEENAGER
NEAR NEW BEDFORD
NEAR NEW BEDFORD
A color photo showed a young boy’s body, his t-shirt stained with blood, sprawled next to a gas pump.
“Isn’t that where we’re going?” asked Cheikh Anta’s servant Mahmoud as he wiped the perspiration from his face.
“We’re just passing through New Bedford,” replied Cheikh Anta. “We’ll be at the Cape before dark, inshallah.”
He glanced at his watch: 12:57 PM.
“It’s time for dhur,” he said, referring to the midday prayer required of practicing Muslims. “Meet me in ten minutes at the car rental place. And don’t dawdle.”
“I hear you, brother,” replied the other servant, named Hussayn, a short, stocky man with a round face and prominent belly.
Cheikh Anta winced at Hussayn’s tone. Even though it was part of the plan, Cheikh Anta did not enjoy being addressed so informally by a subordinate. He was, after all, Cheikh Anta Cheops, an envoy of Commander Suleiman.
Once his servants had left, Cheikh Anta was faced with a difficult question: where to pray?
Prayer is not obligatory for traveling Muslims, but considering the dangers of this mission, he felt a need for the comforts that prayer can provide.
Catching sight of an information booth, he decided to ask the attendant if there was a place where he could say his prayers.
“Yes, we have a small mosque in area B, just down that corridor,” explained the woman at the desk. “It’s right next to the rest room so you can perform your ablutions there.”
Cheikh Anta was surprised, and impressed. Such mosques were common in airports and train stations in New Liberia. He hadn’t expected to find one so easily in New Canada.
After performing his wudu, ritual washing, he entered the mosque where a few of the faithful were praying. He removed his shoes and placed them on a rack. Then he reached into his traveling bag.
His hand immediately encountered something cold and hard. A gold-plated pistol that had been given to him by Commander Suleiman himself. The feel of the cold metal repulsed him and he shivered.
Then he found what he was looking for. A lightweight traveling prayer rug made of finely woven silk so soft it caressed his fingers. He unrolled it and breathed a sigh of peace. It was beautiful—intricate patterns in green floral design suggesting a mosque beneath which a tree of life spread out white branches.
“Bismillah rahmani raheem,” he intoned,“In the name of God, most caring, most compassionate.”
His hands uplifted and his eyes half closed, he said his prayers in Arabic, the language of Allah, the language of his soul. After he prostrated himself and completed his prayers, he felt relaxed and ready for his jihad in North America.
He hastened to the rental car area, where he began looking for his servants.
Tall and thin as a reed, Mahmoud stood out in a crowd, especially when telling one of his jokes or stories. Cheikh Anta found him holding forth to Hussayn, who was listening attentively.
“Is everything set?” Cheikh Anta asked curtly.
“Not exactly,” replied Mahmoud. “It’s a very interesting story…”
“Cut to the chase,” said Cheikh Anta irritably.
“Then the short answer is: the van we ordered is not of the right type,” replied Mahmoud. “They’re looking for a more suitable model. A hybrid.”
“Why can’t we just use what they have?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“It’s electric,” replied Mahmoud. “Up there, they may not have recharging stations. They are a bit primitive. They still use ethanol in some places.”
“So we must wait,” said Cheikh Anta, rolling his eyes heavenward. “For how long?”
“Maybe one hour,” replied Mahmoud. “Or two at the most, inshallah. They have a hybrid in New Jersey. In Hoboken. It’s being sent for.”
“What about the other rental places?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“It is everywhere the same story,” replied Mahmoud. “No one has this type of old-fashioned vehicle.”
“That means we won’t reach Hyannis Port before dark,” said Cheikh Anta.
“It’s five, maybe six hours from here. If the road conditions are decent and we don’t run into any problems at the border.”
“Or in New Bedford,” Hussayn added nervously.
“It’s all in Allah’s hands,” remarked Mahmoud, shrugging.
“Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], they have a good sports bar here,” said Hussayn hopefully, rubbing his ample belly and smiling.“And the New Liberians are in the playoffs for the World Cup. Shall we go watch it together?”
Ordinarily Cheikh Anta would have been interested in the game, especially since New Liberia was playing, but he strongly disapproved of drinking and didn’t want to set a bad example for the servants.
“Go to your sports bar, my brothers,” said Cheikh Anta wearily. “But stay away from alcohol. It is forbidden to good Muslims. And it would hinder our purpose.”
After Mahmoud and Hussayn left, he took out his laptop and reviewed the reports about North America.
North America, established by the Community of Nations (CN) in 2022, after the fall of the American Empire and the Great Partition.
Current leader: Rahman Jones, b. 2005 in Amherst, Massachusetts; elected governor of Massachusetts in 2048; became first African American Muslim to be elected to the Presidency in 2056.
Current international status: Quarantined by the Community of Nations until it agrees to relinquish all armaments.
What a dreary place, thought Cheikh Anta as he studied the stats. North America’s median income is one of the lowest in the world. Its infant mortality rate is one of the highest. Its life expectancy one of the shortest. Violent crime and drugs are rampant. How the world’s greatest empire has fallen!
As Cheikh Anta studied North America, he looked up and noticed someone who seemed to be studying him.
A middle-aged white male, wearing a white shirt and gray slacks, was standing ten meters away, holding a guitar case in one hand and a black, leather-bound book, evidently a Bible, in the other. He averted his gaze when Cheikh Anta noticed him.
“Could he be some kind of Christian terrorist?” wondered Cheikh Anta, feeling a surge of fear. “No, this is New Canada. They haven’t penetrated this far south. Yet.”
The sinister white man disappeared into the crowd, and Cheikh Anta went back to his reading with a shudder. There was nothing he could do but wait. Time passed slowly—one hour, then two, then three—before the hybrid van finally arrived. It was almost time for asr, the late afternoon prayer, when they started on their way.
Much to their chagrin, they hit rush hour traffic, which slowed them further. Cheikh Anta reflected on how much easier this trip would be if they’d taken a train or plane. But Commander Suleiman insisted on their using a van, which he felt would attract less attention. In the Commander’s view, which it was unwise to question, agents of the CN were likely to be present on planes and trains entering North America, checking the IDs of passengers. For reasons that he chose not to reveal, Commander Suleiman did not want the CN to get wind of his plan.
When Cheikh Anta and his entourage finally reached a clear stretch of road near New Haven, he called Hyannis Port by cell phone and explained that they would be late and might not arrive until ten o’clock, perhaps later. The agent thanked him and said she would pass this information on to “the Boss.”
Cheikh Anta found this expression a little impertinent, especially coming from a woman, but then remembered that North Americans liked this sort of informality.
After a slow start, they zipped through Connecticut. The roads were excellent, thanks to the New Canadian administration. Mahmoud and Hussayn talked about the soccer match and listened to “blues rak,” a fusion of blues and Middle Eastern dance music to which the lower classes of New Liberia were fanatically addicted.
Cheikh Anta studied up on local sites and history. He clicked onto the travelogue program of his computer as they whizzed past places with quaint names like Thames View, Watertown, New London, Quakertown and Mystic.
We’re making very good time, thought Cheikh Anta. We might even make it to Hyannis Port by 10 PM.
Cheikh Anta’s hopeful mood changed as they reached the border. The sun was beginning to set. In the deepening darkness he saw an enormous wall made out of concrete pillars, corrugated metal, and barbed wire—like an immense incision that had been cut through the hills and forests all the way down to the ocean itself. The land had been cleared for a hundred yards on the southern side, with klieg lights mounted on towers to enhance visibility.
Ahead of them loomed what appeared to be a vast prison. Cheikh Anta’s van took its place in a line of cars waiting to be admitted. What possible reason did they have for going into this hell hole? he wondered. But then he remembered—drugs, women, and God knows what other forms of vice.
The North American border guard grinned pleasantly as he poked his head through the window of Cheikh Anta’s van and said, “Nice van.” He hadn’t shaved for a day or two, and his uniform was somewhat frayed around the edges. But he seemed genuinely friendly—much friendlier than the guards on the New Canadian side, who looked deadly serious and were checking cars for contraband.
Cheikh Anta offered to show him their papers, but the guard waved them on without looking at them.
“Have a good time,” he said. “And watch out for them Fall River girls.”
It was only fifty miles from Mystic to Providence, but it was like entering another world.
The highway fell into disrepair, at times degenerating into a dirt road, and human habitations sprang up out of the most unlikely materials: packing crates, box cars, old automobile parts, even the flotsam and jetsam from boats and barges.
They reached Providence just as the moon was beginning to rise over its ragged skyline. The stench of factory smoke, mingled with burning plastic and human excrement, became oppressive, yet the natives seemed oblivious and even happy.
Cheikh Anta noticed families and couples heading towards an amusement area—a dusty field with relics of carousels, helter-skelters, video games and various games of chance. He was surprised at the diversity of peoples that he saw: Africans, Asians, Arabs, Hispanics, as well as the pale, spectral folks he associated with this region.
As they came closer to the center of the city, he noticed women of the night who were dressed, or rather undressed, in ways that would shame New Liberian women. But they, too, seemed cheerful as they called out to potential customers in various languages.
As they headed north along the coast towards Fall River, Hussayn asked to make a pit stop.
“Is this absolutely necessary?” Cheikh Anta asked.
“Yes, brother, I’m afraid so,” replied Hussayn. “I’m ready to explode.”
They pulled over to a roadside gasoline station whose logo was a tyrannosaurus grinning with comic malice. The interior was plastered with pictures of big-breasted, scantily clad blonde women displaying themselves in front of antiquated automobiles from the twentieth century.
As Hussayn and Mahmoud headed for the men’s room, a couple of middle-aged men in cowboy hats and plaid shirts eyed Cheikh Anta suspiciously. Both had guns strapped around their shoulders. They began talking loudly, as if wanting to be overheard.
“They’re lettin’ all kinds of folks come up here these days.”
“I know just what you mean.”
“I think it’s time to go coon huntin’.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Cheikh Anta’s heart began to beat wildly.
Don’t show fear, Anta thought, it will only encourage them. He glanced casually at his watch: 8:13 PM. Still plenty of time to get to Hyannis Port by 10 PM inshallah.
“Let’s go,” said Anta to his companions, as if nothing had happened.
They pulled out of the station onto the dark highway. Everything was going to be fine, Anta told himself as he switched on his laptop, it was just a couple of old-time bigots trying to shake up the tourists.
After several minutes, Mahmoud turned around and said, “I think we’re being followed.”
“What makes you think so?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“Look at the car with one headlight,” replied Mahmoud. “It’s too close for comfort.”
Cheikh Anta turned around and saw a convertible with only one headlight, like a cyclops.
“Maybe they just want to pass. Pull over and give them room.”
Mahmoud pulled over slightly and the convertible roared ahead. As it pulled alongside them, Cheikh Anta noticed that the men in the convertible were wearing cowboy hats. One of them pointed a pistol in their direction and grinned a grin not unlike that of the dinosaur at the gas station.
“Hee haw,” cried the man with pistol. Then came a blast and the sound of broken glass. The rear window of the van had been hit.The shot barely missed Cheikh Anta.
“Oh shit,” said Hussayn as Mahmoud revved the engine and accelerated.
“Damn these hybrids,” muttered Mahmoud. “They got no pickup...”
They lurched forward, veered to the left, and barely missed sideswiping the convertible. With his quick reflexes, Mahmoud had managed to pass the convertible and was barreling down the road at breakneck speed.
“In case you’re wondering,” said Cheikh Anta. “I wasn’t hit.”
“Alhamdulillah,” said Hussayn.
The van swerved to the left, then back to the right.
“Fasten your seat belts, my brothers,” Mahmoud cried out. “This is gonna be a bumpy ride.”
Mahmoud floored it and the van squealed as it raced down the pitch-dark road. With each pothole, Cheikh Anta almost hit the roof. Now and then he heard hee haws and the sounds of gunshots. He didn’t dare raise his head to look behind.
Mahmoud drove like a madman, but there was method to his madness. He kept swerving erratically from one side of the road to the other so that the convertible couldn’t pull up alongside, and so that the shooter would have trouble aiming his pistol.
As the tires screeched and the engine squealed, the bumps grew more frequent and jarring. Cheikh Anta felt sick to his stomach and his head throbbed. To relax his body and calm his mind he repeated a simple prayer: Allahu akbar. God is greatest. Allahu akbar. God is greatest. Allahu akbar. God is greatest. After a few dozen repetitions, he felt energized and reached instinctively into his traveling bag. He felt for a copy of the Qur’an to give him more strength.
Instead, he felt the cold metal of his pistol.
Pulling it out, he clutched it in his hands. The barrel flashed golden. It was loaded and ready.
The van began to slow down as it approached a particularly sharp curve.
Cheikh Anta unbuckled his seat belt and pulled over to the window. Turning around, he saw the headlight of the convertible behind him. Aiming at the bright eye of the cyclops, he said a prayer and fired.
The recoil of the gun was surprisingly strong and jerked back his hand. He tightened his grip, squeezed the trigger, and fired again into the white eye of his enemy. He squinted and fired again and again. Five shots in rapid succession.
“Did I hit anything?” he asked, his heart pounding.
“I don’t know,” replied Mahmoud. “I can’t see anything. Let me slow down and look.”
As the van slowed almost to a stop, Cheikh Anta peered out of the window. He couldn’t see anything either. The convertible was no longer following them.
“Stop the van,” said Cheikh Anta.
When the van pulled over, they all stared at the road behind them, which was illuminated by a nearly full moon.
“I see it,” said Hussayn. “Look over there, at the side of the road.”
“Alhamdulillah,” said Mahmoud. “You hit that bastard!”
It was then that Cheikh Anta saw the convertible pulled over to the side of the road. Its lights were out and its engine was smoking.
“Let’s get out of here before they see us and start shooting,” he said.
“Good idea,” replied Mahmoud as he started up the engine. The van had not escaped unscathed, however. One of its tires had been hit, and a squealing sound was coming from under its chassis. Mahmoud reduced speed and did his best to avoid potholes.
“Pretty soon we will have to stop,” said Mahmoud. “We need to change that tire and check out that strange noise.”
“I think we should drive a few more miles and put some distance between us and those cowboys,” said Cheikh Anta.
Mahmoud did as requested. He drove slowly and carefully, trying not to rattle the van or damage the rims too badly. No one spoke until Hussayn broke the silence.
“Why do they hate us?”
There was a long pause.
“I don’t know, my brother,” replied Mahmoud.
“It is a disease of the heart,” said Cheikh Anta.
“Yes, brother. That’s what it says in the Holy Qur’an,” said Mahmoud.
“That’s right,” replied Cheikh Anta, “and that’s what Dr. Hathout says. It’s the disease of infidels.”
“And white guys with cowboy hats,” added Hussayn.
They all laughed. They continued their bumpy ride, peering anxiously into the darkness, until they caught sight of a dimly lit garage with the sign: Ye Olde Yanke Shoppe.
They pulled over onto the gravel driveway to assess the damage to their van and to see if they could get help. When they got out, they could see an old man framed in the yellow light of the garage. He was sitting on a stool, listening to the radio. When they approached, he didn’t budge. Cheikh Anta wondered for a moment if he were a man or a manikin.
“Are you open for business?” he asked.
The old man didn’t reply. He was glued to his radio, which crackled with static and was broadcasting in a language that Cheikh Anta didn’t understand.
“Our van is damaged. Can we get it repaired?”
The old man didn’t bother to look up. Cheikh Anta had never seen a face so wrinkled, leathery and disfigured with pox.
“Can’t you see we’re closed? Come back tomorrow,” said the old man in a voice so deep and hollow it sounded as if it came from the bottom of an oil drum.
Cheikh Anta glanced around the dark, dingy garage that reeked of poverty and hopelessness.
“We’re on important business,” he said. “And we’re willing to pay whatever you wish for your services.”
The old man looked up and smiled. His teeth were yellow and stained, and several were missing.
“Then you are welcome here,” he said, slowly rising from his stool. “Come, let’s see what we can do for you.”
The old man picked up a flashlight and walked over to the van where Mahmoud and Hussayn were studying the tire.
The old man flashed the light at the rim and said,“There’s a hole in the rim, and a dent. It will have to be straightened.”
He aimed the light a little higher where a hole could be seen in the panel of the van.
“That’s not good,” he said. “Looks like bullet hole.”
“That’s right,” said Cheikh Anta.
“That could be bad,” said the old man. “I will have to check the battery, see if it’s been hit.”
“What about the squealing sound?” asked Cheikh Anta anxiously.
“Loose belt. It will have to be replaced.”
“How do you know?” asked Cheikh Anta.
The old man raised his arms, thrust his chin upward, and made a “tsk” sound.
“What else could it be?” he asked, as if talking to a child.
Cheikh Anta ignored the man’s impertinence and asked: “Will it take long to fix?
“Not long,” replied the old man, rubbing his face. “One hour, two hours tops.”
“That’ll have to do,” sighed Cheikh Anta. “When can you begin?”
“As soon as I get a new belt,” replied the old man.
“When would that be?”
“Maybe tomorrow morning.”
“Maybe tomorrow morning?” groaned Cheikh Anta. “Is there no way you can get one tonight?”
“What’s your hurry, mister?” asked the old man with a shrug of his shoulders.
“There are plenty of places where you can spend the night here in Fall River, and have a good time, too.”
Hussayn and Mahmoud looked at each other and smiled knowingly. The old man winked at them.
“I’m not interested in having a good time,” insisted Cheikh Anta irritably. “I have an important appointment tonight.”
“Ah, an important appointment,” said the old man with a chuckle. “Well, in that case, how much is our express service worth to you?”
Cheikh Anta pulled out a roll of euros and began to peel them off.
“Two hundred,” he said.
The old man thrust his head upwards and made the “tsk” sound again.
“It’s so late, I don’t want to disturb my friends...”
“Okay, three hundred,” said Cheikh Anta. “That’s my best offer.”
“Your best offer?” said the old man. “I guess your appointment is not so important.”
“Okay. Five hundred.”
“Five hundred,” said the old man, rubbing his hands together. “That has a nice ring to it. Very nice. My friends will not mind so much to be disturbed by such an important customer.”
“Let’s get going,” said Cheikh Anta. “The sooner we get this fixed, the better.”
“I hear you,” said the old man. He shuffled back to the garage and got on the phone. After making several calls, he returned.
“I’ve got what you need,” said the old man. “But my friend wants some up front money.”
“How much?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“Okay,” said Cheikh Anta, handing him three bills.
“There is one other thing,” said the old man. “I need your drivers to tow the van to my friend’s shop.”
Cheikh Anta rolled his eyes.
“Mahmoud and Hussayn, you heard the man. Let’s get started.”
“No need for you to go,” said the old man. “Let your drivers take care of it. You can stay here and relax. I will call Yoryee. He will guide your drivers.”
“Can’t Yoryee drive?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“Sometimes,” said the old man, “but not tonight. He needs to be repaired.”
Cheikh Anta frowned. Was this old man crazy? How could you repair a person?
“Yoryee, come out, we have some customers,” shouted the old man. “Important customers.”
Out of the shadows a tall, gangly man lurched forward. His long hair streaked with gray, he seemed dazed by the light, or perhaps had just awakened from sleep. He staggered forward, a little off balance, and it was only then that Cheikh Anta noticed his arms were prosthetic. Not the modern version that looks almost real, but the old-fashioned kind, with gears and pulleys and electronic components all visible.
“Yoryee,” said the old man, pointing to Cheikh Anta and his traveling companions. “These men here need a new belt for their van. and the tire fixed, and the battery in the back needs to be checked. You know Pedro’s place, near the Casa de Magdalena. Guide them there, okay?”
“Pedro is waiting. He’ll fix the van and these men will give him the cash.”
“Wait a minute,” said Cheikh Anta. “Why don’t I just deal with Pedro directly?”
“Oh, I see, Pedro is a friend of yours, too,” replied the old man sarcastically.
“So, just go to him. I don’t mind.”
“I get your point,” said Cheikh Anta, barely able to control his anger. “You have me over a barrel.”
“Siga, siga. Take it easy, my friend,” said the old man, patting Cheikh Anta on the shoulder. “It’s not so bad as you think. Come here, Yoryee. Give this gentleman your hand.”
Yoryee slowly raised his arms. He was able to raise them only half way before they fell back uselessly to his sides.
The old man turned to Cheikh Anta and explained, “As you see, the arms need some repair work. A couple of hundred will do it.”
“I understand,” said Cheikh Anta quietly, feeling ashamed.
“Now hurry up,” said the old man to Yoryee in a businesslike voice. “We have an important customer here with an important appointment.”
When Yoryee walked over to the van, Hussayn opened the door for him and helped him in. He and Mahmoud then climbed into their seats and drove off into the night.
After the van had disappeared, Cheikh Anta turned to the old man and asked what had happened to Yoryee.
“The disarmament virus,” said the old man, spitting. “One of them designer bugs.”
“I don’t understand,” said Cheikh Anta.
“You know how them hackers are always experimenting,” replied the old man. “This bug destroys the muscles in the arms so soldiers can’t fight no more. It got loose and my Yoryee got it. Eventually they had to cut off his arms and give him mechanical ones.”
Cheikh Anta was so moved that he was at a loss for words. After a pause, he said quietly, “Your Yoryee?”
“Yes, mine,” said the old man brusquely. “Yoryee is my nephew. He works for me. A damn good worker, too, when his arms are fixed.”
The old man turned around and began to walk slowly back to the garage. Cheikh Anta followed him in silence. All that could be heard was the sound of crickets and the crackle of static on the radio.
After a couple of minutes, Cheikh Anta remembered that he needed to call Hyannis Port and tell them about the delay. He glanced at his watch and was surprised to find that it was only 9:15. It seemed as if hours had passed since they had left the garage with the grinning dinosaur. So much had occurred in only one hour!
“How far are we from Hyannis Port?” Cheikh Anta asked the old man, who was back on his stool listening to the radio.
“An hour, maybe an hour and a half,” replied the old man.
Cheikh Anta pulled out his cell phone and called the compound in Hyannis Port. He explained that he had had an accident—he didn’t elaborate on the details—and would be not be arriving until around 1 AM, maybe later.
The agent said not to worry; the Boss generally stayed up and partied until 2 or 3 AM on the weekend. The agent offered to send a car, but Cheikh Anta declined. He was pleased, however, at the agent’s graciousness. Maybe the North Americans were not as bad as they were reputed to be.
After clicking shut his cell phone, Cheikh Anta turned to the old man and began to wonder about his life. In Cheikh Anta’s early days he had interviewed many such old men in New Liberia to find out more about their histories.
Cheikh Anta had a gift as an interviewer, an ability to draw people out. Since he had an hour or two of free time on his hands, he decided to find out as much as he could about the old man and about North American culture.
“Interesting name for your place, the Yanke Shoppe,” said Cheikh Anta. “Is Yanke short for Yankee?”
“Nah,” said the old man. “It means recycled car parts. You know, yank.”
“I see,” said Cheikh Anta, who was always fascinated by etymology. “How long have you been in business?”
“I been working in the yank business since I was a boy. My father was a yank man. That would be forty some years ago, just before the Partition.”
“Do you mind if I sit down?” asked Cheikh Anta, pointing to a rusted metal folding chair whose seat had been repaired with duct tape.
“Go ahead,” said the old man. “It’s a free country.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been very polite,” said Cheikh Anta. “My accident was very stressful. I really appreciate your help.”
“Forgedaboudit,” said the old man.
“My name is Cheikh Anta Cheops. What’s yours?”
“Greek, is it?”
“Yeah, Greek. My father was from the Islands.”
“Pleased to meet you, Demetri. You can call me Cheikh Anta. I’m an immigrant, too. I come from Senegal.”
“Xairete,” said Demetri, extending his hand. “Gladda meetcha.”
“I was wondering,” said Cheikh Anta, “would you mind telling me a little about what life was like here after the Partition? I’ve read about it in books, but sometimes books don’t tell the whole story.”
“You want my story?” replied Demetri. “What the hell, why not? This damn radio isn’t working for shit. Let’s have some coffee and talk. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to an Outlander.”
Demetri got up and began heating up some powdered coffee in his vreeka, a small pot made of brass. When it started to boil and froth, he poured the coffee into demitasse cups.
“How do you like your coffee? Sweet or metrio or no sugar?”
“Metrio, I guess,” replied Cheikh Anta.
Demetri poured the syrupy black liquid into the cup and handed it to Cheikh Anta.
“So whaddya want to know?”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning,” said Cheikh Anta. “Where were you born? What was your family like?
Demetri, it turned out, was a lot younger than he seemed. He had been born at the turn of the century,around the same time as Cheikh Anta, in Rhode Island. His father was a Greek fisherman named George who had come to America to make his fortune. George had fished for a while off the Cape, then opened up a small restaurant in Fall River. Demetri was celebrating his tenth birthday when the Great Pandemic struck.
“I remember we were having a party in our back yard,” recalled Demetri.
“My aunts and uncles and cousins and everybody was there, and somebody said something to Aunt Evangelia and she began to cry. It was something bad, very bad. Two of her best friends had both died on the same night. And there was more, much more. Nobody wanted to talk about it in front of the kids. But they couldn’t help it. We turned on the news and listened. Nobody could believe it. They said it was spreading through letters. My momma grabbed all my birthday cards and made a fire and burned them. I still remember those cards going up in flames. I started to cry. ‘Why are you burning my birthday cards, momma? Why?’”
Demetri shook his head. “I was so little. I didn’t know how much worse things were going to get.”
Within a matter of weeks, people started to die off by the hundreds, then the thousands, and then the tens of thousands and then the millions. The numbers were so big that they made no sense to a little boy. All he knew was that every day the phone rang with news of some relative or friend who had died.
“Aunt Irene, Cousin Ethel, Uncle Frank, our neighbors Mr.Thomas and his wife, my best friend Mark and my schoolmates,” recalled Demetri. Name after name surfaced in his memory and he covered his face. “One by one they all died and soon we stopped going out of the house because we were afraid we would get it and die too. Kids stopped playing outside. It was terrible.”
But no matter how careful people were, they kept dying. Demetri’s father sold the restaurant—no one went out to dinner anymore—and went into the yank business. Demetri dropped out of school to help his father and to avoid catching the plague.
“Was there anything hopeful during this period?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“Oh yeah,” replied Demetri bitterly, “President White said not to worry. It was just terrorists, foreign terrorists. We will fight them and win. They will never stop us. We’re the greatest. The usual crap. My father called him the ‘All American Asshole.’ We all knew better. We knew that the pox had come from an American lab, and that everyone in the world blamed us for it and hated us. My father was so pissed off at America that he wanted to move the family back to Greece. But it was too late for that. No one was allowed to leave the country.”
Cheikh Anta could feel the old man’s rage, and shared it. Like most people in the world, Cheikh Anta had grown up hating the United States, especially its benighted leaders.
“How did you feel about President White?” asked Cheikh Anta, remembering the intense emotions he’d felt as a boy.
“I wanted to kill the SOB,” replied Demetri. “Didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did,” confessed Cheikh Anta. “Especially after the things he said about Dr. Hathout.”
“You mean about calling him a quack?” said Demetri, spitting on the ground. “What fucking nerve! President White couldn’t stand it that an Egyptian had found a cure.”
“We were all so happy,” recalled Cheikh Anta. “A Muslim had saved the world!”
“We didn’t care what religion he was, as long as his cure worked,” said Demetri. “I still remember I said to my Daddy, ‘Does this mean we’re saved?’ And he goes, ‘Maybe. We’ll see what the prick in Washington says.’”
The “Prick in Washingon” responded predictably: he said that Hathout was an evil doer who wanted to control the world. Most American politicians agreed with the President, as they tend to do during times of crisis. Demetri vividly recalled his conversation with his father.
“Why is he so bad, Daddy?”
“He wants people to give up their weapons.”
“Is that bad, Daddy?”
“For us Americans, it’s impossible. Our Constitution says we have a goddamn right to bear arms. We refuse to give them up. They will have to pry our guns from our cold, dead fingers.”
“Why, Daddy? What good are guns? Why can’t we give them up and get our medicine like the rest of the world?”
“Who the hell knows?”
Demetri’s father didn’t like guns and never owned one until the plague struck and then he had to buy one to protect his family from gangs and criminals and sickos that roamed everywhere terrorizing people.
Things went from bad to worse. The President kept saying that American scientists were on the verge of finding a cure. Then Washington, DC, had to be evacuated. The President said that he would never give in to the United Nations. Then he died of plague.
“Nobody gave a fuck,” said Demetri. “Nobody went to that asshole’s funeral.”
“Of course not,” said Cheikh Anta. “He deserved to be thrown into a common ditch with the others he killed with his stupidity. What happened to your family?”
“Most of them died,” replied Demetri with bitterness. “And they were thrown into ditches and covered with lime and dirt, just like you said.”
First, his sister, then two of his brothers. There were no more family gatherings. Demetri lived in the garage with his father and mother and his surviving brother. Then his parents got the plague and died.
Demetri lived in terror that he would be next.
His brother Phil moved to Boston, which had become the capital of the United States after Washington, DC, had to be evacuated. Phil got married and had a baby, a boy he called Yoryee after his father. Then his wife died.
As Cheikh Anta listened to this dreadful, but familiar, story, powerful feelings surfaced along with memories of his own past. Growing up in Senegal, he had lost numerous family members to the plague. He had grieved and despaired and vented his rage against the “white devils” of America. He’d often asked himself: how could they kill off half the world’s population, and deny that they were at fault? Now, to his surprise and amazement, Cheikh Anta felt pity for this poor devil of an American who had suffered so much because of his government’s sins.
“How did you manage to survive,” Cheikh Anta wondered, “after all these losses?
“I just lay on my cot and waited to die,” replied the old man. “I didn’t care anymore. There are worse things than dying. Much worse. I lived on canned food. I didn’t even bother to cook it up most of the time. I figured when the cans ran out, I would just starve. I didn’t care. Fuck it all. Then one day I started to get feverish. Good, I said to myself. It’s coming. Let it come. I was so tired. I didn’t get up to eat any more. I just lay on my back, listening to the flies and waiting. I could feel it coming.”
The old man stared into space as if he were reliving this moment. He began talking to the shadow cast by his own reflection on the wall.
“Phileh mou, you’re finally here. Come on, do your work, get it over with.”
Snapping out of his trance, the old man turned to Cheikh Anta and grinned.
“Shit, dying ain’t so bad. It’s like watching a movie of your life. I saw my old school friends. My relatives. My Mom and Dad. They all came back to me. ‘Come with us,’ they said. ‘We miss you. We want you with us.’
“Then I saw this man in blue. He was so clean he glowed. So I go, ‘Are you the angel of death?’ He laughed and said, ‘No, I’m the angel of life. I’m here with the cure.’
“‘Please, go away,’ I said. ‘I don’t want you. You’re not my friend.’ And he goes, ‘Yes, I am. I’m here to give you life.’
“‘Leave me the fuck alone,’ I said, but that bastard wouldn’t listen. He stuck something in my arm and I fell asleep. When I woke up I was in a hospital tent with hundreds of others. I was alive.”
The old man spat on the ground and said, “It was a fucking miracle.”
Then the old man wiped his face and Cheikh Anta could barely hold back his tears. Gradually the old man pulled himself together, blew his nose, and smiled.
“Shit on that plague and all the plague makers,” said Demetri, “From that day I was finished. I was an old man. I never married. Never wanted kids. Why bring kids into this fucking hell hole? But when my brother died of a hacker bug, I took his son, Yoryee, and raised him as my own. I guess I’m lucky. Some poor bastards had it worse than me.”
Cheikh Anta reflected that the “man in blue” was undoubtedly one of the medical workers from the Community of Nations, as it was now called. The CN had struck a deal with the president of the United States. Americans destroyed their weapons of mass destruction and were given the cure. They were allowed to keep their small arms as long as they stayed quarantined in New England, which was called North America. The rest of the country was turned over to the Canadians, the Mexicans, Native Americans and African colonists.
So this is how the American Century ended, thought Cheihk, not with a bang, but a fever.
“Now you know what it was like in the old days,” said Demetri, blowing his nose. “Things are a little better now, but….”
“But what?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“I still envy the ones who died,” he replied.
Just then the van pulled up along with the tow truck. Cheikh Anta was pleased to see that the tire on the van had been fixed and there was no squealing noise.
Mahmoud jumped out of the van and walked over to the tow truck. Hussayn got out of the truck and opened the door for Yoryee, who was smiling broadly as they helped him out.
“I know that look,” said Demetri as he approached his nephew and gave him a friendly pinch on the cheek.“You’ve been over at the Casa de Magdalena.”
Yoryee shrugged and grinned. He then looked over at his companions and winked.
“You rascals,” said Demetri. “Where did you get the money? Oh, never mind. I don’t want to know.”
Cheikh Anta frowned. Something peculiar was going on and he was deter-mined to find out what. But first things first. He glanced at his watch: 11:43. Two and half hours had passed. How was it possible that the time had flown by so quickly?
“Thanks for everything,” he said to Demetri, shaking his hand, “but I must hurry.”
“Yeah, I know,” said the old man shrugging. “You have an important appointment. Yasou. Be well!”
Hussayn opened the side door of the van and Cheikh Anta climbed in.
Soon they were speeding towards Hyannis Port. After they had traveled a few miles past Fall River, Cheikh Anta asked Mahmoud and Hussayn to explain what had happened at the Casa de Magdalena.
“It was nothing, my brother,” said Mahmoud. “Just a little recreation while we waited for the van to be fixed.”
“Yes,” said Hussayn, “It was Yoryee’s idea.”
“Explain, please,” said Cheikh Anta.
“Yoryee told us that his uncle had cheated you,” said Mahmoud.
“I know that,” said Cheikh Anta.
“But do you know how big a cheat he is?” asked Mahmoud. “Do you know how much it costs for a woman in Fall River?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” Cheikh Anta replied irritably.
“Twenty euros,” said Hussayn. “That’s all. To fix your car, Pedro would have been happy with twenty euros.”
“So Yoryee asked Pedro for a little commission,” said Mahmoud, “for bringing him the business and driving the tow truck. Two hundred for him, and one hundred for us. Pedro said that was highway robbery. ‘I will give you sixty euros, not a cent more.’ Yoryee said, ‘Okay, it’s a deal.’ So while the van was being fixed, we took our ‘commission’ and went over to the Casa.”
“They have some excellent entertainment there,” said Hussayn. “The women are very nice.”
Cheikh Anta shook his head and sighed, thinking, What can you do with these people? No wonder they end up as indentured servants.
After a long pause, Hussayn said, “While we were at the Casa, Mahmoud promised to tell us a Sufi story about two young men who went to a house of prostitution. Would you like to hear it?”
“Why not?” replied Cheikh Anta. They had a long drive ahead, and he needed some amusement, especially after hearing the old man’s grim story.
“These two young men went to a house of prostitutes on the holiest night of the year,” said Mahmoud. “As they passed by a mosque, the imam saw them and said, ‘Come in and pray,’ and they said they couldn’t. They had an important appointment. ‘I know you boys,’ said the imam. ‘You’re going to those prostitutes. If you go without praying, you’ll end up in hell. Come here and pray first. Maybe Allah will forgive you.’
“One of the young men thought this sounded like a good idea. ‘Why not pray first? The night is long.’”
“So is your story,” said Cheikh Anta.
“I will shorten it for you,”said Mahmoud. “The impatient young man went to house of the prostitutes and was greeted by the madam who knew him very well. He asked for his favorite lady, but when he reached for his wallet, he realized that he had left it at home. But the madam she was a very nice lady. She said that he could have her daughter, but he must wait, because she had several other customers to take care of first. So the young man waited and waited. And as he waited, he thought to himself, ‘How foolish I am, waiting here and risk ing hellfire when I could be in the mosque praying. That’s where I should be right now.’
“Meanwhile, his friend was in the mosque, praying and praying. It was very boring to him and he was thinkin‘I should have gone with my friend. If I did, I would be in the arms of a beautiful woman right now instead of praying this boring prayer.’
“Just then an angel of death came and took the souls of both young men to be judged by Allah,” concluded Mahmoud. “The question is, which of the young men did Allah pardon—the one who was praying but wanted to be with a prostitute, or the one who was waiting for a prostitute but wished he was praying?”
“Interesting question,” said Cheikh Anta. “Who told you this story?”
“I heard this from my uncle,” replied Mahmoud.
“And what answer did your uncle give?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“He didn’t give me an answer,” replied Mahmoud. “He said that I must figure it out myself. So I asked my father and he didn’t know either.”
“Did you ever learn the answer?” asked Cheikh Anta.
“No one but Allah knows the answer for sure,” replied Mahmoud, “but I did hear a very good answer from a Sufi guy back home.”
“But the Sufis have been banned from New Liberia,” said Cheikh Anta.
“This was many years ago, before Commander Suleiman’s order,” said Mahmoud. “This old Sufi guy told me that in one of the Hadith of Mohammad, peace be upon him, the Prophet says that if you want to do a bad deed but don’t do it, Allah gives you credit for a good deed. Good deal, eh? And if you wish to do a good deed, but don’t do it, Allah still gives you credit for a good deed. So both of these young men were pardoned by Allah because Allah is a very compassionate accountant.”
“No wonder Commander Suleiman banned the Sufis!” said Cheikh Anta, laughing.
In his youth, Cheikh Anta had often gone to visit a Sufi teacher, a wise old man who told stories like this, played on the drums, and loved to chant the ninety-nine names of God. Thinking of those days long past, Cheikh Anta felt what his old teacher called a “splash of warmth in his heart.”
On the way to Hyannis Port, Cheikh Anta changed out of his t-shirt and jeans into something he felt would be more appropriate for a foreign dignitary: traditional Senegalese clothing—baggy trousers and a boubou, or long gown, with elongated arm holes. Cheikh Anta’s boubou was made of damask and embroidered with elaborate designs that were indigenous to the village where his father was born. Before slipping it on, he strapped on his gold-plated pistol, in deference to Commander Suleiman.