This is a true story like all my stories. I wrote it in 1995.
As you can see, nothing has changed since then.
It is about a meeting between a narcissist and an ostensible alleged terrorist on a crowded bus.
Be sure to visit the short fiction playlist where there are many additional short stories, poems and film reviews. And here is what has happened really, honestly, so many years ago.
I must catch the city bound bus. I have to change at the central station and travel a short distance, just a few minutes to jail.
The prison walls to the left will shimmer muddy yellow. Barbed wire fence and closing empty watch towers, the drizzle induced swamp, a collage of virile footsteps.
I'm afraid to cross its ambiguous solidity, the shallow looking depths.
After that, I have to purge my tattered sneakers with branches and stones wrenched out of the mucky soil around our barracks.
But there's still way to go. I mount the bus. I sit near a disheveled and shaven man. His abraded pair of horn-rimmed glasses is adjoined to his prominent nose with a brown adhesive. He reeks of stale sweat and he keeps pondering the clouded surface of his crumbling watch. His pinky sports a rectangular engraved ring of golden imitation.
The bus exudes the steamy vapors of a mobile rainforest. People cram into the passages, dragging nylon-robed shopping bags, shrieking children and their own perspiring carcasses. Their armpits and groins are stark, dark discolourations.
I look around and all spots are taken. Their occupants press claret noses onto the grimy windows and rhythmically wipe the resulting condensation. They explicitly ignore the crowd and the centring expectant stares of all the passengers and pregnant women.
As the interminable road unwinds, they restlessly realign their bodies attuned to both seats in neighbors.
Our driver deftly skirts the terminal's piers and ramps. Between two rows of houses shrouded in grimy washing, he hastens towards the freeway.
He turns the radio volume up and speakers inundate us with tunes from the Levant.
Some travellers squirm but no one asks him to turn it down.
It is time for the hourly news edition soon.
Thus wander, gazes introspectively inverted.
Next stretch to glimpse the passing views.
The broadcast screeches to a sickening but familiar halt. Faint cries, the doppler wail of sirens. Air surgically hacked by chopper, roto-roto blades. The voices of authorities grating with shock and panic. The disembodied speech of spluttering witnesses. On-site reporters at a loss for words record mere moments and kines. It is an orgy of smoking flesh.
The breaking news has cast us all in molds of frozen dread and grief.
Here a burly finger poking nose. There a basket petrified in mid-air hole.
My neighbor absentmindedly rotates his hefty ring. The announcer warns of imminent terrorist attacks on public transport. He recommends to err on the side of caution and to exhaustively inspect fellow commuters. Trust no one, exhorts a representative of the law. Be on alert, examine suspect objects, call on your driver if you are in doubt. Pay heed to dubious characters and to old behaviors.
Our bus is trapped in a honking row of cars under a soothing sun. The baking asphalt mirrors.
I'm anxious not to be delayed. The wardens warned us never be late. Make no excuses.
And if God himself comes down, you prisoners, be back on time here. Latecomers lose all privileges and are removed to maximum security in Beersheba.
I debate the fine points with myself. Is mass slaughter amper reason for being tardy or merely an excuse?
No force is more majeure than prison guards. I smile at that. Detention, plexus, slackens somewhat.
And here is a febrile thought. Jailers are ultra right-wing and rabid nationalists. Terrorism must never be allowed to interfere with the mundane, they say.
And I rehearse.
In hopeful genofluxion, you mustn't send a Jewish prisoner to an Arab-infested prison. After all, I was held up by Arab assassins who slaughtered Jews.
I hope this will convince them.
The legalistic side, the big on legalis in penal institutions. So the legalistic side is this.
How can I prove my whereabouts on this bus throughout the carnage? Think Alibi. The inmate always shows that he has complied. The warden always assumes that he is being conned.
But even the warden must prove it somehow. A stalking game with predators and prey, but ever shifting roles.
I rise from my seat, prying my neighbor loose from contemplation. He eyes me wicked.
I pass a soil boot above his clustered knees and place it gingerly between two bursting bags.
Mustachian women wipe milky exudation from upper lips with blotted synthetic handkerchiefs.
They address me in a foreign, gravelling language. They use elephant-eyeing, venous legs to push aside their luggage, a gesture of goodwill more than a decongesting measure.
I feel the clammy, throbbing breathing of another on my trousers. Thrusting my other leg I straddle the passage, two herculean pillars, a sea of Mediterranean groceries between my colors.
To a by hill I get nearer to the stuporous driver, a human ripple in my wake. I am a prisoner.
I inform his beefy neck, his muscles tense, but he does not respond nor does he turn to scrutinize me.
"I am an inmate," I repeat. "Can you please confirm in writing, in this diary, I point at a grey notepad that I am holding. Can you please confirm that I was on your bus, that I have been on your bus at this hour?"
"I have no pen," I add.
He casts a sideways glance at me, monitoring the hopeless traffic jam from the corner of his bloodshot eye, and then emphatically he says, "So, you're a prisoner? What could you have done?"
"You chalky, myopic intellectual," I complete the sentence in my head.
Right behind him there's a woman past her prime, face-coated breasts nestled in a pinpointed bra.
The driver cannot keep his eyes off these breasts. She, on her part, seems to be fixated on his tensile musculature.
They both start at the sound of my voice.
Banks. Banks, the driver carefully slaps his bulging thighs and the woman chuckles, throatily, lips peeled to reveal pink-tainted teeth.
"Come over here. I'll sign it."
In one untrammeled motion he removes a heel-suit end from the oversized steering wheel, takes hold of my jotter and opens it.
Off goes his second hand. He scribbles laboriously, tongue perched on fleshy lips, ending with a flourishing signature.
People are murmuring throughout the bus.
My answer is equivocal. It could imply armed robbery or fraud or counterfeit. I may be violent. They don't know. The innocent-looking are the really dangerous, they tell themselves. I may even be an Arab. Impossible to tell them apart nowadays.
A web of mutters spins from crimson lips to hairy ears.
Banks, banks, banks. From crump's strewn mouths to avid oracles.
I return to my seat, retracting my erstwhile progress, facing the hydra.
With a pad in my back pocket I am calmer. Que seva, seva.
At the edge of my awareness, a shrill, self-righteous female voice.
"Get out now or I'm calling the police."
I open my eyes, trying to pinpoint the mayhem.
Somewhat behind me, the altercation draws closer, a portly woman pushing aside, strap-holding passengers.
She is preceded by a far younger female, scrambling, expression-hunted, to flee the bully. She passes me by.
Her coarse contours defaced by agony, quizzing through luscious lips, one hand supporting heavy bust, the other clutching a sheaf of papers densely written in calligraphic Arabic.
Driver, the mob exclaims, "There is an Arab on board." "Go down. I am not sharing a bus with a terrorist."
A woman screams, and then another, "Maybe she's dangerous. Did you frisk her when she boarded?"
The driver negotiates the dense circulation, maneuvering among a fleet of barely visible compacts. The noise distracts him. Without breaking, he turns around and incires, "What is it? What's the matter?"
"There's an Arab woman here." One passenger volunteers to edify him. She is aboard the bus and may have explosive strap around her waist.
"Get her off this vehicle. She may be lethal."
Another one advises. "I'm not forcing anybody down who has paid the ticket."
The driver and reverts to the hazy windshield.
A stunned silence. They thought the driver was one of them. He doesn't appear to be a Bismik. Someone latches on to the frontal pain partition and expostulates. "It's not reasonable, your decision. Today you never know. Even their women are into killing. I saw it with my own eyes. In Lebanon, they explode themselves like nothing. Not a problem at all.
The woman who spotted the ostensible terrorist now badgers the driver. "Give me your details. I'm going to have a chat with your supervisors. You can forget about this cozy job of yours."
The Arab stands mute, vigilantly monitoring the commotion. A passenger tilts and hisses in her ear. "Child murderer." She recoils from the gathering nightmare and bellows addressing the jam-packed bus. "I'm a nurse. I tend to seek and frail all day long, both ours and yours. Every day there's a flood of casualties. Our injured, our corpses, your injured, your corpses, children, women, shreds, all full of blood.
She pauses. "Why do you treat me this way?"
Her Hebrew is rocky but sufficient to provoke a heated debate with supporters and detractors alike. "What do you want with this woman? She's just an innocent commuter. Look at yourselves. You should be ashamed.
Others are genuinely scared. "I can see it on their faces, the white-mackled way they cling to the metal railings opposite their seats, the evasive looks, the stooping shoulders, eyes buried in the filthy flooring.
She may well be a terrorist. Who knows? It is too late to smother this bargaining conflagration.
"My neighbor exchanges heavy accented verbal blows with someone behind us. Women accuse each other of hypocrisy and barbarism.
The driver, pretending to ignore us, heads slanted, listens in, and steals appreciative glances at his voluptuous fauna. To garner his further admiration, she plunges into the dispute a brimstone diva with words of fire.
Some passengers begin to push Liara and shove her with innocuous gestures of their sweaty palms. They endeavor to avoid her startled gaze. And she tries again.
She says, "What kind of people are you? I'm a medical nurse, I'm telling you. So what if I'm an Arabic? Is this automatic proof that I'm a terrorist?"
My neighbor suddenly addresses me. "You've got nothing to say?"
To my mind, if she were a terrorist, I say, she would have blown us all to kingdom come by now.
I let the impact of this sane reminder settle.
The bus, this bus is bursting. The driver skipped a few stations on the way, I remind them.
She is smack amidst us. She has no bags. She could have detonated herself and demolished us by now.
My neighbor slaps his thighs with furry hands, a sign of pleasure. I'm on his side.
Some voices crow, encouraging me to proceed. "Let him continue. Go on."
But I've got nothing more to add, and I grow silent.
The Arab scrutinizes me doubtfully, not sure if she understood me correctly. Do I suspect her of being a terrorist, or don't I? And who might you be to tell us off, if I may?
Scoffs the woman who started it all. Her voice is screaming hoarse, her face aflame with stripes of lipstick smeared and makeup oozing. Three golden bracelets clang the rhythm of her scornful question.
He's a prisoner, announces the driver's would-be floozy.
She eyes both me and her desired conquest triumphantly. The driver studies her in his overhead mirror, then gives a haunted look. Control is lost, and he knows it.
An inmate shrieks the agitator for all the bus to here. The perfect couple, a felon and a terrorist. Perhaps you're an Arab too?
I am not an Arab, I respond calmly. They are too well-mannered for the likes of me and you.
She blows up. "Son of a bitch! Many up! Look who is talking!" she leans towards me and scratches my face with broken, patchily varnished nails. A prisoner piece of sheet and a whoring stench of an Arab stink on this bus.
My neighbor half rises from our common seat, grabs her extended arm and affixes it firmly behind her back. She screams to her down-founded audience.
They are together in it, this entire group, and they are a menace. Drivers stop this incident.
I want the police. I want it now.
I do not react. It was foolish of me to have partaken in this thief in the first place.
Prisoners involved in incidents of public unrest end up spending a week or more in the nearest squalid detention center away from the relative safety of the penitentiary.
Anything can happen in these infernos of perspiring drug-addicted flesh, those killing fields of hemorrhaging syringes, those purgatories of squeals and whimpers and shaking of the bars draped tight in sooty air. Anything can happen to me there.
I spent a month in these conditions and I was about to return. I felt convinced that I am on my way there now that I have interfered and intervened.
The driver breaks the bus, rises and gestures to the Arab helplessly.
She tries to extricate herself by moving towards his cubicle.
Some women mesh their hands, trapping her flapping arms, flailing about, her cheeks lattices of translucent, reviewless. Her fear is audible in shallow exhalations.
But her captors persevere. They clench her scarf and the trimmings of her coat and they twist them around the Arab's breathless neck.
The driver disembarks through the pneumatically saturating doors. He walks the gravel path adjacent to the highway, desperately trying to wave down a passing car.
Someone finally stops and they have a hushed exchange through the barricaded window. The hatchback cruises away.
The driver hesitates, his eyes glued to the receding vehicle. He contemplates the hostile bus with dread and clives aboard. He sinks into his seat and his eyes.
A patrol car arrives a few minutes later and disgorges two policemen. One elderly, stout and stilted, his face a venous spasm. He keeps feeling the warm butt of his undersized revolver.
The other cop does the talking. He is lied, a youth in camouflage, penumbral moustache, anorectic, sinewy hands, his eyes an unadulterated scion. He swells his chest and draws back, his bony shoulders attempting to conceal his meagerness.
What's going on here? His voice a shocking bus. We are silenced by the contrast between his body and his voice.
The instigator of the turmoil clears a path and fingers his oversized tunic as she volunteers.
She is a terrorist and he is a convict and they were both planning to blow this bus up.
"Twaddle," roars my neighbor. "She is a hysterical, psychotic, panicky woman. Look what she did to his face," he points at me. "And that one over there," he singles out the Arab out with a nail-bitten pinky. "Her only sin is that she is an Arab, a nurse or something. A fellow traveler paid a ticket like all of us."
The driver nods his ascent. "I am telling you the steering helps but the officer is terse. Continue behaving like this lady and it is you I will arrest for disturbing the peace."
Another mock cop, she slurs, but her voice is hushed and hesitant. Perhaps even insulting a police officer on duty, the policeman hints and she is instantly pacified, retreating, crab-like, eyes down cast towards her shopping.
Who is the prisoner? The veteran cop inquires, his paw atop his gun caressing it incessantly.
I raise my hand. "You are coming with us. The rest, continue to your destinations. You too," he addresses the Arab, "is civility offensively overstated."
"I want more problems here," the policeman warns. "It's Friday, the Sabbath is upon us. Go home in peace. The police has more important things to do than to resolve your petty squabbles.
Extracted from my window seat, their fingers vise-like under both my armpits.
The policeman half dragged me across my neighbor's knees, straining all over him the contents of his plastic bag in which I keep my wallet and the weekend papers.
My plastic bag. "And it hurts. We are light and the young one taps the folding exit doors.
The bus drones its way into the snaring traffic jam. I watch its back as it recedes.
The coppers place a pair of shiny handcuffs on my wrists, shackled my ankles too.
I stumble towards the waiting squad car. They unlock the rear and gesture me to enter. They push me from behind and bolt the door.
The gory rays of a setting sun dissect the murk inside.
I see the officers' backs and necks as they occupy the front seats beyond the mesh partition.
One of them half turns and speaks a snarl. "My partner loves you, Arabs."
Only then, my eyes having adjusted, I notice the others in the stifling cabin that I inhabit.
They rattle their manacles and they smile at me wolfishly, a toothy apparition.
"Where are you from, handsome?" One asks and moves to flank me. "His meat is motionless on my knee."
And he has an Arab accent.