Mister Mohammed

When he heard the loud pock!, Si Mohammed knew right away the tire was blown. He didn’t flinch, but glanced into the rearview mirror to find the Superintendent of the Maryland State Police clutching his wife in the backseat. They seemed to be jittering along with the rest of the van. The lady’s shoulders were high next to her ears. Her eyes darted from window to window.

Si Mohammed knew the man was the Superintendent because there was going to be a law enforcement convention at the Hilton over the weekend, and the front desk had informed him, like they always did, that the Superintendent was VIP. Apparently the man couldn’t stay though. He’d only just arrived in the morning and already had to rush back to Maryland. An emergency, the front desk had said.

Mary-land, but people pronounced it Merrilen. One of the thirteen original colonies. Si Mohammed had never been there, but he knew it was close to D.C. All afternoon the valet guys had been watching the reports of the manhunt on their phones and the replays of the bombings. The Fox newscast chattered from one of the televisions in the hotel lobby. Surrounded by a group of hungry journalists in Maryland, the boy’s uncle was saying, “We’re Muslims!

Si Mohammed deftly steered the hotel van over to the side of Interstate 110, hit his hazards, and turned off the engine. They were about fifteen minutes from the Baton Rouge airport, and Si Mohammed could see the late afternoon traffic starting to pile up where the highway arched into the distance, not far from the refineries.

“Tire shot?” said the Superintendent, his wife still in his arms. She fanned herself with her hand as the Acadian heat seeped through the windows.

“Yes, sir,” Si Mohammed answered him in the rearview mirror. He wiped his palms on his black pants, part of his uniform, which his wife had purchased on sale at Walmart, two pairs for $7.99 each. Under his fingers, he felt the light cotton clean and starched; he sent out his pants to be dry cleaned once a week with the rest of the Hilton uniforms even though his wife said it was foolish.

Si Mohammed called the hotel dispatch to tell them about the flat tire, and Ms. Kameera, the gigantic woman who worked the radio desk, told him to stand by. They’d send another van for the guests and a tow truck. Company policy.

“10-4,” replied Si Mohammed, feeling the heat swell up around his collar.

“Over and out, sugar,” Ms. Kameera responded.

The tire wasn’t the problem; it was the time of day. It was nearly rush hour on a Friday—the weekend Live at Five show was about to kick off downtown. On campus, there was an LSU softball game and a track and field event. The hotel was filled to capacity, and Si Mohammed knew it was going to be a while before anyone arrived to help them.

When he looked back in the mirror, he saw the Superintendent and his wife had wilted. It may have only been April, but it was already hot, even by Louisiana standards.

“Sorry,” he said, and turned on the van to let the A/C run.

Still intertwined, the Superintendent and his wife didn’t say anything. Instead, with their pale faces turning yellow, they studied the endless lines of pick-up trucks and SUV’s. In the southbound lanes, the18-wheelers thundered toward the I-10 junction where they’d head out to Lafayette, then Houston, Tempe, and eventually the California coastline. They, too, were slowing down.

“Excuse me, sir,” said Si Mohammed. His voice was deep and gravelly as if it were lined with charcoal. He was aware of how thick his accent was, but he talked through it. He had the attitude that in order to learn English, or any language, you just had to speak it. Speak it, and the people will understand you. In America, especially, the people will understand you.

When he caught the Superintendent and his wife in the mirror again, their light eyes were wide with uncertainty.

“Excuse me,” he repeated. “When is your flight?”

The Superintendent jerked up the sleeve of his red-checked button-down to look at his wristwatch. It was one of those gold-and-silver watches like in the Macy’s display cases. Si Mohammed noted how well it clung to his forearm.

“‘Bout an hour,” he said.

Si Mohammed nodded and again shifted his attention to the highway. He could feel the anxiety churning in the back seat. His own stomach felt tingly—the same way it did when he drank too many espressos.

“To tell the truth,” he said, “it’s gonna take a long time to get somebody out here.”

In the mirror, the old couple still clutched themselves together as if they might fall to pieces should one of them let go.

“I’m just gonna fix it myself,” said Si Mohammed.

It took a beat before the Superintendent understood.

“You mean the tire?”

“Yeah, I fix it myself,” said Si Mohammed. “Otherwise, you gonna miss your flight. It’s gonna take these guys a while. A lotta traffic.”

The Superintendent nodded and finally loosened his grip on his wife. They both leaned closer to the front seat of the van. Si Mohammed saw them studying his nametag, which he wore fixed to his gray Hilton jacket among the various pins that proudly displayed his awards for good service and hospitality. He had, in fact, just recently been awarded a Red Stick Ambassador pin for his extensive knowledge of touristic places in Baton Rouge: The Old State Capitol, the Farmers’ Market, Bobby Jindal’s House, LSU’s Mike the Tiger, and even some old, haunted plantations on the way out to Natchez.

“See Ma-ha-mad,” said the Superintendent’s wife. She pronounced the last syllable like the word mad, like angry.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, “Si Mohammed.” He tried not to emphasize the aspirated “H”—one of the many telltale signs that English was neither his first language, nor his second nor third. A lifetime of speaking Arabic had left indentations on his throat and tongue that he was sure would never wear away no matter how long he lived in America, speaking English.

But still, he bulldozed through conversations no matter how chaotic the result of his sentences, with dropped articles, garbled letters—sometimes slippery-sounding or crunchy, popping, chirping, clipped too short or running too long—tumultuous modifiers landing this way and that.

“Just call me Si Mo if it’s easier.” He smiled back at her in the mirror. It was a small smile because he knew his teeth were brownish and off-putting, stained with tea and nicotine.

Suddenly the woman starting wheezing, and Si Mohammed watched her mouth fall slack as her face contorted into panic. With his mind racing, he unclicked his seatbelt and turned toward the backseat. She was digging through her enormous purse, hyperventilating. Her husband seemed helpless, asking her if she was all right, until she pulled out an inhaler, shook it, and sucked down a dose of medicine. Briefly, she seemed to catch her breath, but her eyes were pinched. She swallowed another dose of medicine.

“Are you okay?” Si Mohammed asked before long. He handed the Superintendent his bottle of water, which the man placed on the floor.

They both sat still for a moment while the lady coughed and cleared her throat.

“Is she okay?” This time Si Mohammed asked the Superintendent, who nodded. He held his wife again and soothed her shoulders.

“You know how to change a tire?” he asked.

Si Mohammed winced, but quickly tucked away his annoyance. After all, the Superintendent and his wife looked older; even in the dimness of the van, Si Mohammed could see their blond hair was checkered with gray.

“Yeah, no problem,” he said. “It’s okay with you I fix it?”

“Yeah, okay,” said the Superintendent.

Scowling, his wife elbowed him in the stomach. She whispered something that Si Mohammed couldn’t quite catch, except for the word “tip.” She huffed and put her inhaler away.

“I gotta ask first,” he tried to explain to them. “I can’t just fix it. You’re the guest, you’re the boss.”

The Superintendent pulled away from his wife and waved his okay.

On the highway, the heat was the first thing to hit Si Mohammed. The newscasters had said it was only 90 degrees, but the air was pulverizing. Exhaust sizzled off the cars, now creeping by in traffic.

Si Mohammed took off his Hilton jacket so he was in his white undershirt, dutifully tucked and belted into his $7.99 pants. He quickly scanned himself to make sure it wasn’t one of his old shirts more yellow than white, with holes under the arm or in the seam—where the tiger bit him, he liked to tell his son at home. Luckily that morning, as he’d stumbled in the dark to get dressed, he’d chosen one of his newer shirts.

“Oh sorry,” he said, poking his head back in the van. The Superintendent and his wife were quietly discussing something. She shushed her husband out of the corner of her mouth, which she wore in a straight tangerine line. “I have to turn off the car and the A/C. You want the windows down?”

They stared at him as if they were utterly confused, as if he were speaking to them in a foreign tongue. Si Mohammed replayed his question in his head, and it sounded okay to him.

He paused for a moment, hoping they would say something, but they didn’t. Instead, the temperature ticked up another notch and another long minute passed. Finally, Si Mohammed rolled down the front seat windows all the way so they’d get some cross-ventilation.

“I fix it quick,” he said, slamming the door.

He got the jack from the rear of the van and removed the heavy tire, the vehicle springing back with the sudden shift in weight.

At this curve in the highway, the shoulder barely existed—just clumps of haphazard asphalt, cracked with crabgrass and dandelions. Common weeds, he knew, but still he found their puffy white seeds pleasant. He kicked away some broken glass, crusty nails, and a dirty diaper, then kneeled to remove the hubcap. It was the front passenger side, the same one he had told Management about months ago when he’d taken the van for an oil change and the mechanic had told him the tires needed to be replaced. Si Mohammed had even double-checked with a penny and found Lincoln’s head fully visible above the worn tire treads.

While he was inserting the jack, the Superintendent slid open the door and stepped out of the van. He beckoned for his wife to follow.

“It’s no problem,” said Si Mohammed. “Let her be comfortable.”

“It’s gonna be a lot heavier with us in the van,” said the Superintendent, “and dangerous. You need any help?”

Si Mohammed felt the Superintendent’s eyes on him again. He knew what the man was thinking: He’s too skinny, as long and as thin as a wire. Sometimes he thought he must be the skinniest man in Louisiana, especially because most people were heavy down here. His clothes hung on him like hangers. His wristwatch—a knock-off he’d bought from a Bengali grocer on Gardere Lane—flitted up and down his forearm like a bracelet. He had to poke a hole through his belt to fasten his pants tight. It was all true, but it wasn’t his fault. For months, he’d eaten McDonald’s chicken biscuits for breakfast, hoping he’d get fat. That’s why Americans were so heavy, he’d reasoned—McDonald’s—girth in a box with hash browns. That’s how their backsides became so broad. But not for Si Mohammed. Even with all those chicken biscuits, he’d never gained one pound.

He’d often tried these experiments since he’d moved to the States several years ago by way of the Visa Lottery. When he’d been working construction, after studying the compact and muscular laborers swinging sledgehammers over their heads to drive pilings into the earth, he insisted his wife fix him beef and rice every day in hopes of adding stock to his lanky frame. Nothing. Not even an ounce.

After that, it was Wendy’s fish meals. Then, Taco Bell Doritos tacos. For a while, it was fried shrimp po’boys, which were awfully expensive, so that experiment hadn’t lasted long. And still, nothing, not even a tiny gram. So he settled on just being skinny. Nearly two meters tall, 65 kilos, 143.3 pounds, according to the converter on his phone. That was it.

“No, no problem,” said Si Mohammed, straightening momentarily, his skinniness on full display. It didn’t matter what the Superintendent and everyone else thought: He knew he was as strong as a wire, too.

Si Mohammed crouched down again and cranked up the van without a hitch.

The Superintendent scratched his head, then his neck, then his trousers, and studied the traffic now at a standstill. When he went back to scratching his head, Si Mohammed offered him a cigarette.

The man looked embarrassed, but took one from the extended pack of Marlboro’s. He waved to his wife inside the tinted windows.

“I really shouldn’t,” he said, lighting up and inhaling deeply. “My missus is always badgering me to quit.”

Si Mohammed nodded. “Me, too.” He looked up to find the Superintendent watching him. “But the truth is,” he continued, “I just like it. I like to smoke. That’s it.”

The Superintendent barked out a laugh. Shaking his head, he exhaled into the heat and fumes.

“What kind of name is See Ma-ha-mad?” he said. “Is that different from just regular Ma-ha-mad?”

Si Mohammed was busy with the lug nuts, carefully placing them in the hubcap next to him.

“No, it’s the same. But, Si is like in Moroccan Arabic. It means, like, Mister.”

“Mister?” said the Superintendent. “It says Mister Ma-ha-mad on your birth certificate.”

“Yeah,” said Si Mohammed with slight amusement tugging at the corner of his mouth. After all these years, he’d never really thought of it that way. “Yeah, something like this.”

He removed the busted tire and replaced the new one on the hub.

“My daughter studied abroad in Spain her Junior year.” The Superintendent pulled on his cigarette. “She visited Tangiers.”

Si Mohammed squinted up at him. Something sliced into his eye, but he didn’t want to smudge his face with grease so he left it alone.

“Tangier is nice,” he said.

He didn’t mention how Tangier was only a tiny piece of a vast kingdom; how CNN was going to air a special program on Moroccan food, but Si Mohammed had already guessed that they’d only showcase Tangier, hashish, and piecemeal Islam.

With one eye closed, he replaced the lug nuts in a star pattern and gently lowered the van. Throwing all his weight behind the socket wrench, he tightened each of them until they squealed.

When Si Mohammed returned to the driver’s seat, he peered behind him to see if the Superintendent and his wife were settled again. He found them both sweating. The Superintendent had dark circles beneath his underarms, and the ringlets in his wife’s hair had already lost their bounce. Perspiration dripped from her hairline by her ears.

He turned on the ignition and immediately blasted the A/C. From the glove compartment, he pulled some baby wipes, which he always kept with him ever since his son was an infant. To him, baby wipes were one of America’s greatest inventions; used properly, they could rub out almost any stain. He cleaned off his greasy fingers and finally poked out the debris stinging his eye.

“The air conditioning is better, yes?” he said to them in the mirror when he had finished. He saw the wife’s hair blowing. He offered her a baby wipe to cool off her brow, maybe behind her neck. She took it, but only clutched the sheet in her hand.

“You’re not sweating at all,” said the Superintendent as Si Mohammed pulled on his Hilton jacket, a polyester blend, a wearable toaster oven for most of the big guys.

With his long hands, he gestured to his concave chest as he nudged the van forward on the highway. “Air-conditioning on the inside,” he said.

He called Ms. Kameera again to tell her he’d fixed the tire. “You did what?” Her laughter bounced back over the static. “Si Mo, you’re so crazy…”

In an effort to calm his guests, he turned on the radio, but it was the same report he’d been hearing all day—about those Russian boys in Boston. That terrible, terrible thing. He tuned past it to a classic rock station and raised the volume slightly.

“Bruce Springsteen,” he said. “The Boss.” He tapped his hands on the steering wheel.

He was taking the bumpy shoulder all the way, careening past the traffic.

“Will we get there in time?” asked the wife.

Even though he felt she was suspicious of him, he enjoyed the clarity in her voice. She sounded like one of those green tree frogs, particular to Louisiana, the tiny ones that sometimes made their way into his kitchen to spend a few days under his refrigerator or in between the mismatched plates on the drying rack.

“Oh yeah, we gonna be fine,” he said.

“You better merge,” said the Superintendent. “Not worth getting a ticket.”

Si Mohammed blinked his eyes at them in the rearview mirror. “No problem…I know all these police.”

The Superintendent’s face fell. Through his window, he watched all the steaming cars, stacked one behind another on the interstate.

“They eat breakfast at the Hilton every day six, seven in the morning.”

The Superintendent seemed to mull this over. “How long have you been here, uh, Si Mo?”

It was the same question all the guests asked him. They were always asking about his life, and after all these years, it fatigued him. He wished he had something new to tell them, something interesting, like maybe he was a chemical engineer for Albemarle or a doctoral student at LSU, something that would always lead to a new conversation. But his brain was tired; he’d been driving since daybreak and he’d offered to cover the night shift since the new hire hadn’t shown up.

“Six years,” he said. “I am American citizen now, just this past November.” His eyes were still on the road, but he pointed with his thumb as if the year was stowed away in the back of the van.

“That’s great!” said the Superintendent.

Si Mohammed looked into the mirror when he heard the surprise in the man’s voice. His eyes seemed to have brightened.

“Oh yeah,” he said, taking his hands off the steering wheel to count on his long fingers. “I get all the questions right on the test: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? Name three American Indian tribes. Who wrote the Federalist Papers? I know it. American history.”

“That’s really great,” said the Superintendent again. He leaned toward the front seat. “You must have known a lot of English before you came here.”

Si Mohammed let out a long whistle and gestured to his throat as if he were chopping off his head.

“English? No, nothing,” he said, leveling his hand along the dashboard. “I couldn’t read English letters when I came here.”

When he looked in the mirror, he saw the Superintendent and his wife transfixed by his story, which he’d told so many times he was bored by it. He gripped the wheel.

“Well, how’d you read the street signs then?” asked the wife. Si Mohammed was beginning to like her.

“I just learn to read English with my memory.” He threw up his hands again and laughed to himself. “I copied the newspaper every morning in a notebook. I just have to learn it. Even my head is like a stone, I learn it.”

When he looked back to see the wife, he found the color had returned to her cheeks. She was smiling with large, straight teeth, which he could tell were not her own. False teeth, like George Washington. He liked that, too.

As they approached the airport exit, Si Mohammed merged back into the traffic much to the annoyance of the other drivers who honked their horns and waved their fists at him. He waved back and heard the Superintendent chuckling from behind.

It was after six when he pulled over to the only door at the tiny Baton Rouge airport. They still had time to spare. In one fluid motion, Si Mohammed leapt out of his seat, then hurried to open the van door for the Superintendent’s wife.

She gripped his hand as she stepped unsteadily from the height of the van.

“You got it,” he told her, and when she was fine on the sidewalk he offered his hand to the Superintendent, who quickly batted it away.

“I’m not that old yet,” he said.

Si Mohammed retrieved their luggage and walked them to the entrance.

“So what’s next for you?” asked the Superintendent before entering the airport. A rush of cool air escaped from the automatic doors.

“I’m gonna get my GED and then do something. Maybe manage something.”

Their eyes met again, this time face-to-face. They were the same height, though the Superintendent’s paunch hung slightly over his belt.

“You’re a good man,” the Superintendent said. “Wish all immigrants were like you. You learn the language, you work hard, you take initiative.”

Si Mohammed had heard this before, too, on a thousand occasions, but every time he felt embarrassed. He knew what the man meant. He even appreciated it, but still he dropped his eyes and studied his shoes. He’d polished them with a lemon rind in the morning, and they were still shining.

“Thank you,” he said, looking up again. “God willing.”

The Superintendent slid a roll of bills into Si Mohammed’s palm and gripped his hand tightly. “Best of luck, son.”

Taking hold of their two bags, the Superintendent strolled through the doors. His wife lingered for a moment and offered Si Mohammed an awkward hug, which made him smile. She smelled like all the old American ladies smell—like talcum powder and hairspray.

“Some people could learn so much from you.” When she let go, she winked up at him and then followed her husband.

Si Mohammed waved after them until the sliding doors closed. Without looking at the cash in his hand, he stuffed the bills into his jacket pocket.

Turning back to the vehicle, he scanned the drop-off to see if he knew any of the drivers lingering there. He saw the Radisson van, but those guys were pricks; the Crowne Plaza, but he didn’t recognize the guy—must be new; L’Auberge Casino, but that old-timer never spoke to him. Si Mohammed took out a cigarette, knowing there was an airport pickup scheduled at 6:20, like every Friday. The flight crew from Houston—stiffs, who never tipped him.

Ahead, he spotted his friend’s yellow taxi. Taking a long drag on his cigarette, Si Mohammed strolled over and shook hands with Aziz, another Moroccan whose fate had landed him in Baton Rouge. They briefly embraced.

“Salaamu alaikum,” said Si Mohammed.

“La bas?” said Aziz.

“Alhamdulillah. Bakhair?”

“Hamdulillah.”

Aziz was shorter than Si Mohammed and much wider with a face as broad as a bull’s. He was a former royal police officer from Casablanca who’d followed the woman he loved to Louisiana. She was a local belly dancer, an Irish Catholic girl.

“How’s your work?” said Si Mohammed, switching to English.

“Stiffs,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “A lotta stiffs.”

Si Mohammed shook his head to commiserate.

“And your son?” said Aziz.

Si Mohammed’s smile opened his face. “He’s starting on a soccer team tomorrow. He won’t wear the…the…” He gestured to his shins. He couldn’t find the word. “Schnoo smeet-ha…?”

“The shin guard,” said Aziz.

“Yeah, the shin guard. He won’t wear the shin guard. Cries every time my wife puts them on him.”

Aziz coughed and laughed in a cloud of smoke.

The sun dipped behind the arches of the airport, leaving a pockmarked sky in its wake—fluorescent orange and pink. Beyond, the refineries were still billowing white plumes of smoke along the Mississippi. The shadows grew long, and finally, it seemed the heat had abated.

Waiting for their next passengers, Si Mohammed and Aziz puffed in silence. The taxi’s window was open and through it, a newscast chattered from one of the local radio stations. In Boston, they had the Russian boy surrounded. Chechnya, Chechen—wherever it was, Si Mohammed wasn’t quite sure.

Aziz nodded to himself, smoke steeping from his large nostrils. “This is not Islam.”

Si Mohammed cracked a stiff joint in his neck. He could feel the smoke penetrating the fine wrinkles he’d started to notice around his eyes.

“This is animal,” he said, taking a long pull.

The United flight crew emerged from the airport doors, and Si Mohammed recognized the pilot—a guy from Jordan—spoke good English, but he was still a stiff.

Si Mohammed slapped Aziz’s hand again and promised to catch up soon. Dinner at his house; he’d make a tajine. His wife had just preserved some lemons with hot peppers and cardamom. Better than anything anyone would eat in Tangier.

Stubbing out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and tossing the butt into the trash, he jogged over to the Hilton van. He shook hands with the pilot and greeted the flight attendants, their eyes heavy from the back and forth of it all. Carefully, he stacked their bags in the rear, all the while thinking about Scenic Highway and Chippewa Street by the refineries. At this hour, there’d be less traffic out that way.

Alison Grifa Ismaili’s work has been published in Fiction International, Litro (UK), and Bartleby Snopes, among others. Currently, she resides in Red Stick, Louisiana, with her two little boys and her very patient husband.

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