Sly had reddish brown hair, was skinny as a toothpick, and wore jeans and a black T-shirt with the Nike symbol.
The cigar band showed a heart wreathed in curlycues but without any recognizable brand name.
The Five Cigars Of Abu Ali|
by Eric Schaller
"Tell Abu hello from me when he gets here. Tell him I'm sorry that I couldn't stay." Elizabeth wore her heaviest winter coat and a woolen hat, concessions to the season rather than to style, and stood beside our Volvo, its engine grumbling even though she had already allowed it to warm up for fifteen minutes. Our two kids, Mark and Mary, were strapped into the back seat, from where they scratched designs into the frosted window interiors. Elizabeth's breath hung in the air, but it was such a cold Januaryonly the masochists had gone outside for the First Night Celebration the previous weekthat I half expected her words to crystallize and fall to the pavement as snow.
I nodded and chose my words carefully: "I'm sure that he'll be equally disappointed." I knew that Elizabeth had no desire to see Abu. I knew that she had in fact contrived the visit to her mother in Exeter only after we discovered the message from Abu on our answering machine giving notice, or warning as Elizabeth would have it, of his impending arrival in Boston. I shuffled my feet and rubbed my shoulders. Before going outdoors, I had grabbed the first coat that came to hand, a canvas jacket with a flannel liner, figuring that anything was good enough because I would only be outside for a few minutes. Now I knew why I only wore that jacket in the fall.
Elizabeth fumbled with her mitten for the handle of the driver's side door. "Dinner's in the oven," she said. "Don't forget to take it out."
"I'll keep an eye on it. How long has it been in?"
"It's cooked. The oven's just on warm."
"I love you," I said and leaned forward. Elizabeth kissed me good-bye but missed my mouth by an inch that was as good as a mile.
I waved as they drove off into the dwindling daylight and took some pleasure in the faces of Mark and Mary framed like twin moons in the rear window. They watched me as their mother took them away, and waved their small hands in return.
Then I hurried back inside to wait for Abu.
As it happened, Abu did not arrive until after ten o'clock. By that time, I had taken the dinnerchicken sautéed in wine, roasted potatoes, and asparagusout of the oven, the food had gotten cold on the counter, and I, having finally given up on Abu's arrival, had reheated a portion in the microwave and eaten it at the kitchen table. The food had even settled in my stomach so that the low-blood-sugar headache, which had been threatening all evening long, had retreated back into its neural lair.
The taxi that brought Abu double-parked outside the condo, and I watched him crawl out, clearly drunk, preceded by one woman and followed by another. The woman in the rear carried a small suitcase that I assumed was Abu's. I met them at the gate and helped Abu maneuver up the steps and then shuck his cashmere coat in the entryway. Even when drinking, Abu knew how to keep up appearances. Perhaps he used more cologne than I appreciated, but not one of his moussed hairs was out of place. He wore a red silk shirt and a gray Armani suit, the same suit he had worn the last time I saw him eight months ago. The difference between then and now was that previously I had worried the suit would soon be too small for him. Now it was loose on his frame.
Abu's weight loss took me by surprise. He had been thin when I first met him, lithe as a jaguar, and had played midfield on our intramural soccer team at Boston University. But he was also a man who fell easy prey to his passions. Not surprisingly, given our youth, women were one of his passions, and he had a string of love affairs all destined for heartbreak. Food was another passion. And wine. And song. I could go on. But suffice it to say, even at the most formal dinners he licked his fingers rather than use a napkin. He gained a good thirty pounds while at college and continued to add to his girth over the years.
"Looking good," I said. "How're you doing?"
"Just fine." He made a sweeping gesture that took in both women. "This is Ann," he said, laying an arm across the shoulders of a woman with dark hair, blue eyes, and a tailored blue dress set off by a strand of ostentatiously large and obviously fake pearls. "And this lovely lady insists upon being called Sly." Abu pulled the second woman toward him with his free arm. "Short for Sylvester, I believe, but I suppose it could be for Sylvia. She won't say, although I've been buying her drinks all evening." Sly had reddish brown hair, was skinny as a toothpick, and wore jeans and a black T-shirt with the Nike symbol.
After making Ann and Sly comfortable in the living room, I dragged Abu into the kitchen and shoved a glass of water into his hand. "What do you mean by bringing two women here with you?"
Abu giggled and raised a forefinger. "The company of women without men is a melancholy thing, but the company of men without women is enough to make one cry."
"But Elizabeth will kill me."
"I should also add that a table might as well be empty except that it be seating four. In short, you should be thanking me, for without my forethought we would simply be two lonely men weeping into our glasses of whisky." Abu emptied his water into the sink and set the glass upon the counter, the clank containing more conviction than I hoped he intended. "You do have scotch, don't you?" he asked.
"What about dinner? I have some chicken. Elizabeth prepared it before she left."
"No thanks. Although I appreciate the offer, I can think of no worse accompaniment to whisky. Besides we already ate." Abu placed a hand on his belly as if he still thought it a monument to his gluttony.
"If you supply the whisky," Abu continued, "I have everything else we need right here." He patted his suit jacket at heart level then frowned in puzzlement. He patted the other pockets of his jacket then those of his pants. "Where in God's name
" He chomped furiously at the ends of his mustache. This was not enough to jump-start his memory and soon his whole face contorted in thought like a bar rag being wrung dry. He finally emitted a loud sigh of relief and said, "My suitcase. I have everything else we need in my suitcase."
The whisky was in the dining-room sideboard. "I was at a conference in Minneapolis last fall that had a whisky tasting in the bar." I handed Abu two sherry glasses, keeping another two for myself. "You could sample shots of three different whiskies for one price. Cardhu is what a fellow from Scotland recommended. He said that this was his favorite whisky. It's not as smoky as Laphroig, but it has a nice body to it."
"So I hear, but I have always preferred to taste with my tongue, not my ears."
Back in the living room, Ann flipped through a home-decorating magazine. Sly manipulated one of Mark's toys: a transformer, capable of being converted between a Porsche and a robot but right now stuck in an intermediate stage of metamorphosis.
"Where did you find that?" I asked. Mark had been searching for his transformer up until the last minute before he left.
"It was here between the cushions." Sly set the car on the end table by the couch, upside down, arms protruding upward, where it rocked back and forth like a turtle trapped on its back.
"Enough about toys," said Abu. "We are all grown-ups. My good friend George has supplied the whisky, just as I assured you that he would." He made a short bow in my direction. "I will now supply the cigars. My suitcase, if you please?" This last was directed at Sly, who merely arched one red eyebrow to indicate that the suitcase in question was directly in his line of vision, leaning against the couch, and he could damn well get it himself.
Abu unzipped the suitcase while kneeling on the floor, pawed through a tangle of socks and underwear, and pulled out a ziplock bag. The bag contained four oblong brown folders of cardboard and a tube of ivory-colored plastic. "I bought these at the Duty-Free in Heathrow," Abu said. "They spray inside the bag with a mister to keep the humidity up for when you travel. Basically it's a twenty-cent humidor." He handed us each one of the cardboard folders. "Open it up," he said, seeing Ann peer inside her folder. "That's a Cuban, a Punch corona. You can't buy those with U.S. dollars." He took his cigar out and ran it beneath his nose. "Oh, that's good."
Soon we were all sitting back, the smoke from our cigars twisting and turning on the way to Heaven like the robes of a Renaissance angel, our sherry glasses within easy reach and knuckle deep with whisky.
"Hey Abu," asked Ann, "you're a Muslim, right?"
"Mmmm." Abu smiled at her, his eyes half-lidded.
"Well, then how do you drink alcohol? Isn't that against your religion?"
"As phrased, I can only answer your question by saying: with a glass, my sweet. With a glass." Abu took a long, drawn-out sip and smacked his lips. "But I know what you mean. I'm sure that my parents toss and turn at night, unable to sleep, thinking about where they went wrong in raising me. They spend all day lecturing me whenever I visit them in Pakistan."
"You're not supposed to smoke either," I said.
Abu turned toward me, and I was surprised to see the wounded look on his face. "That's right. A good Muslim is supposed to avoid anything that poisons the system. But, as I said, I'm not a particularly good Muslim. I would like to blame the corrupting influence of the U.S., but I'm afraid that it is my own weakness that is at fault."
"Hey Abu," Sly asked, "what's in the bag?" She pointed to where Abu had set the Zip-Lock bag on top of his suitcase. It was empty now except for the capped plastic tube. "Another cigar?"
"Now, that question is harder to answer than you might think. I'll tell you one thing though: I haven't drunk nearly enough to try. Ask me again in about this long." Abu held up his glass and, by jiggling his hand, made a small whirlpool of the whisky remaining in it.
Sly smiled and waited politely, but it was clear from her silence over the next half hour that she was not a woman who appreciated delayed gratification. Meanwhile, Abu told how he got the nickname Wicky as a kid because, while playing cricket in Lahore, he had diverted a throw from midfield into the wicket to put the runner out and he hadn't even flinched. "It was more of an accident than skill on my part," Abu said. "I didn't see the ball coming because I had my eye on a cutey, a real tomato who had just moved into the neighborhood."
When Abu drained the dregs from his glass and leaned forward to help himself to more from the bottle, Sly said, "I thought we had a deal?"
"I have not forgotten our earlier conversation, and I think I am now ready." Abu spoke carefully, enunciating each syllable. "You were partially right when you guessed that there is a cigar in that tube. You may be completely right for all I know. It certainly looks like a cigar. It also feels like a cigar and smells like a cigar."
"Remember what W. C. Fields said about cigars?" I asked.
Abu paused, and the two women turned toward me.
"He said that a woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."
Both women laughed at that, braying like donkeys.
"Believe me," said Abu, "I've done everything with that cigar except smoke it. Still, I'm not sure that's all it is. Maybe your friend Mr. Fields is only partially correct, and a cigar can sometimes be more than a smoke. But that's a long story, and, if you are interested in listening to the ramblings of a poor, drunken Pakistani, I suggest that we all refresh our glasses before I begin."
We did so, and he then told the following tale.
· · · · ·
The Tale of Abu Ali
I return to Pakistan once or twice a year to buy rugs. Sometimes I travel from there to Iranyou know, Persian rugsbut I do most of my business in Pakistan. This past year, I was up in the northern mountains with Major Khan and his driver. The major is an old family friend, now retired from military service, but in his day he fought bandits in the Karakoram and the Indians in Kashmir. He lost the tips of his ears and nose, two fingers from his left hand, and several toes from frostbite up near the Khyber Pass. Like any old man, he remembers his youth with great fondness, and he was happy to travel north and spend the afternoons drinking tea with his army buddies. Meanwhile, I searched the bazaars and went door to door, looking for families willing to part with rugs that had been in their homes for generations.
We followed a course through the mountains dictated by the Indus River. Sometimes the road was wide and paved where the Army Corps of Engineers had blasted away the mountain slopes. In other places, the road was so narrow that we couldn't take a curve without one wheel hanging over the edge, spinning in air, with nothing but that air between us and the river glinting hundreds of feet below. Once we met a bus coming down the road from the opposite direction, passengers riding on the roof as well as in the seats, and we had to back up for miles before finding a place wide enough to pass.
There were villages in each of the mountain valleys with fruit trees and green terraced fields running as far up the mountains as people could irrigate or carry water. Do you know of Hunza? From the yogurt advertisements? That's the region we were in. That's where everyone is supposed to live to be over a hundred. In Pakistan, they talk about the magical properties of Hunza water. Dannon marketed the idea that the longevity of the inhabitants was due to eating yogurt. You travel through the villages though and the first thing you notice is that everyone looks old, even the little kids who hang out, smoking cigarettes, and watch for any traveler to whom they can sell apricots and cherries if in season, or beg for money and cigarettes if not.
We would buy a large bag of apricots, stick it in the back of the Land Cruiser, and eat nothing but fruit all day as we drove from village to village. If you wanted to, you could probably trace the route we traveled by the apricot trees now growing from the pits we tossed out of the car windows.
Most of the villages lacked petrol stations, so, to be on the safe side, we carried jerry cans with us that we filled whenever we had the chance. One day, we stopped at a petrol station in a town shadowed by the granite spires of the Karakoram mountains. The major and his driver talked with the attendant while I went inside the neighboring shop. It was a ramshackle affair that could have been knocked over by a sneeze, and the owner of the shop had long ago given up trying to keep the dust off his wares. On the shelves were bags of sugar, flour, rice, and tea, various odds and ends like cigarettes, matches, and soap, and some cheap but colorful plastic toys and sunglasses. I bypassed these and made for a chest cooler in the back emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo.
I lifted the lid on the chest, which exhaled a cool breath of air that reminded me just how hot it was outside. Inside the chest were row on row of soda bottles, green and black, Seven-Up and Coke, standing vertically like soldiers at attention.
I extracted three bottles and was about to close the cover when there was a shudder and the clank of glass against glass. I paused. Several bottles in the rear of the chest were shivering like Pakistanis in a Boston winter.
I picked up a bottle, but in my hand it was calm. I removed another bottle from the same corner and found it also motionless in my hand. I leaned over the suspect corner, peering into the space vacated by the bottles, and saw that beneath the top layer of bottles there was another layer, as if one battalion of soldiers were standing on the heads of a second battalion.
It was one of the bottles in the lower layer that was shivering, its motion transferred to the bottles above it.
When I pulled that bottle out, it continued to pulse in my hand, alternating between a slight vibration, barely noticeable, and a vigorous shudder that caused my whole hand to torque. The bottle was covered with hoarfrostwho knows how long it had been in the coolerand when I rubbed aside the fine white powder, I saw that the dark interior flowed more like smoke than any liquid, but a smoke thick and dark as molasses.
I bought four bottles of Coke, one for each of us to drink, and that curious fourth bottle to hide in my luggage until I had the opportunity to investigate its contents alone.
We stayed that night in a government rest house, and later, after everyone was asleep, under pretext that I had to go to the bathroom, I stole outside with a flashlight, my penknife, and that bottle of Coke. Standing in the dust on a sticky carpet of mulberries, I popped the cap and turned the bottle upside down. To my surprise, nothing came out. I then set the bottle on the ground and shone my flashlight upon it, and I saw, in the light of my flashlight, a thick smoke pour upward from the bottle.
The smoke continued to flow out for several minutes, forming a mist that surrounded me and rose above me to obscure the stars. When the smoke was all out of the bottle, it reunited and began to condense. For a moment, it seemed that I stood in the shadow of a hideous giant, half-human and half-animal, for I had the impression of bristles, curling tusks, and eyes as large as saucers. But when he had finished coalescing, I saw how mistaken I had been in my first impression. The djinnfor such this creature must be, I realizedwas the size of a child, one that would barely reach my waist when standing on tiptoe, and he looked entirely human.
"Free at last," the djinn cried and pumped his fists into the air. He then began to dance on his bandy legs, leaping from one foot to the other. "Free at last. Free at last." Although of childlike stature, in all other ways the djinn appeared to be a man. He had, for example, a handsome mustache and, if you will pardon the observation, prodigiously large genitals such that, as he danced, his penis slapped like a fish against his thighs.
Having given vent to his glee, the djinn twisted his head from side to side, doing so to an inhuman degree such that he faced almost backward. He then bent his fingers back each in turn so that they touched the wrist. "Oh, that is much better. You cannot imagine what it is like to be trapped in a bottle and to never know when or if you are to be released."
He bowed deeply and extended his hand toward me. "You, kind sir, are undoubtedly my benefactor, to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude, a debt which you can be assured I will be most happy to repay."
I reached down and took his small hand in mine. His palm was warm and dry and slightly dusty; his handshake was seemingly firm, but it gave a little to applied pressure.
"Ah, but where are my manners?" he said. "Here you are dressed like a prince, while I look like the man who played at cards and, finding that he had lost all the money in his pockets, made one final bet in which he risked the clothes off his back. You know how that bet transpired." In truth, I was only wearing a pair of light cotton pajamas, hardly the robes of royalty. Nevertheless, the djinn ran his hands lightly over his own body, sliding them down from his neck along his arms, chest, and legs. His body, where his hands touched, became blurred and then reformed so that he was no longer naked but wearing a suit of the finest linen.
Needless to say, I was amazed at all that I had just witnessed. If questions were bees, then my head was a hive. "Who are you?" I asked. "Where did you come from? How did you get here?"
"That is a long story, a long, sad story of a trusting heart and of its repeated betrayal by those that it trusted the most," said the djinn. In thinking about this troubled history, the djinn's lower lip trembled and it seemed that he might burst into tears. "But perhaps this is not the best place to tell my story."
It was only then that I remembered my own manners and invited the djinn to accompany me into the house. The djinn thanked me for my hospitality and begged my indulgence for just a moment. He picked up the Coke bottle in which he had been imprisoned and threw it with all his strength into the night. I heard the bottle shatter in the rocky field behind the house. "That takes care of that." The djinn brushed his hands against each other and a broad smile crept across his face.
Back in the house, I made a pot of tea in the kitchen and piled some books on a chair so that the djinn could sit comfortably at the table. We sat across from each other, cups in hand, and the djinn told me the following tale.
· · · · ·
The Tale of the Djinn
Many years ago, Solomon, the great prophet, called all the djinns before him to submit to his will and to acknowledge his mastery over their domain. Those rebellious spirits that did not appear at the appointed time in his court were to be apprehended and imprisoned. Now I, having inadvertently consumed some fermented grapes the night before and fallen into a deep slumber, did not answer the call of Solomon. Awakening well past the appointed hour and realizing my error, I debated what gift would excuse me in his eyes. But Solomon had by this time already sent Asaph, the son of his chief minister, to find out the reason for my absence.
"What is that?" demanded Asaph upon entering the valley where I made my home.
I bowed deeply before him. "That," said I, "is my gift to Solomon on this special occasion, and its preparation the reason for my tardiness in appearing before him. I have built a statue of Solomon that is taller than me, and I am taller than fifteen men."
"I can see that it is a statue of Solomon," said Asaph. "But what is that smell?"
I bowed again, my nose scraping the earth before Asaph's feet. "That smell is goat dung," said I. "The reason you smell the goat dung is because the statue is newly made and has not yet had time to dry in the sun."
"And why have you made a statue of Solomon out of goat dung?" asked Asaph.
"I seek to show," said I, "that the form of Solomon can bring beauty to even the basest of materials."
But neither Asaph nor Solomon believed in the truth of my words. As a result, I was imprisoned in a copper vessel, and, to make sure that I should not escape, Solomon himself stamped his seal into the lead stopper on the vessel. He then gave the vessel to one of the djinns that had submitted to him and commanded that I be thrown into the deepest part of the sea.
I do not know how long I languished in my underwater prison. At first I kept track of my sentence in years, and then in tens of years, and then in hundreds. I counted fifteen hundred years, but sometimes I counted backward, thinking that perhaps it would make the time pass more swiftly. For your information, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, counting backward does not make the time pass more swiftly. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Eventually, a fisherman, casting his nets into the sea, caught my vessel and dragged it onto the shore where he freed me from my captivity. You will not be surprised to hear that the first thing I did upon being released was to kick the vessel that had been my prison back into the sea. You can also imagine my relief and the gratitude I expressed toward my benefactor. He was a poor man, and I made him rich. He lived in a shack of driftwood, and I built him a palace grander than that of the sultan. He was alone, and I brought him the sultan's youngest daughter to be his bride.
What may surprise you is that even after I made the fisherman wealthy beyond the dreams of most men, he still went out each morning to cast his nets into the sea. He undressed, offered a prayer up to God, and waded into the sea just as he had done when a poor man. He did not even accept my assistance and said that a fisherman's luck was the provenance of God. But upon completing his work, he was happy to share the food and drink that I prepared. In the afternoons, we engaged in various sports and tests of skill. Sometimes, when bored with these activities, I carried him on travels to distant parts of the land. What he enjoyed most on these journeys was simply floating in the sky high above the domes and spires of the strange cities and watching the citizens move about their tasks like ants.
But my good nature was to prove once again my downfall. Unbeknownst to me, the fisherman's wife had become jealous of the camaraderie that existed between the fisherman and myself. Perhaps this could not be avoided, for our relationship predated her entry into his life and it may have seemed that I surpassed her in his affections.
One morning, while the fisherman was casting nets upon the waves, she came to me dressed in her best silks. It is wisely said that when standing in the garden one should be doubly on one's guard for snakes, but, at the time, I suspected nothing.
"My husband," said she, "has told me how he discovered you in a small vessel. He has also said that he freed you from this vessel in which you had been imprisoned for many hundreds of years."
"That is so," said I.
"Now, when he told me this story I was sure that he told me a lie," said she. "But now I see that you are in collusion together, for you have just told me the same lie."
"That story is no lie," said I, "and you dishonor us all to call it such."
"It is no dishonor to speak the truth," said she. "A vessel such as you describe would not be sufficient to hold my foot, and you are much greater than me."
"If you like," said I, "I will demonstrate the proof of my assertion. Bring me a suitable vessel and all shall be made clear. Then this argument may be put behind us."
Whereupon she fetched a small pot in which she normally kept cosmetics. I then made my body take the form of smoke, as you saw previously, and entered the pot in a smooth and constant motion, continuing to do so until nothing was left without. She then covered the pot with a lid, apparently to demonstrate that I was contained completely within the pot. Having thus satisfied, to my knowledge, the point of the argument, I popped the lid loose and flowed from the pot to reform before her. "Are you now convinced?" asked I.
"Hardly," said she. I was surprised to hear the anger in her words, and, although she wore the veil, it seemed that her eyes flashed fire. "It is apparent that you can enter a vessel, said she, but it is just as apparent that a vessel cannot contain you, for you exited the vessel as easily as you entered. How then could you have been imprisoned in such a fashion as you claim?"
"That is simple," said I. "Solomon stamped the vessel in which I was imprisoned with his seal, and his seal contains the great name of God engraved on it. Even I, with all my might, cannot break such a seal."
But once again she refused to believe me and would have me prove the truth of my words. I reentered the cosmetics pot in the same manner as before. She again covered the pot with its lid. But this time she scratched the name of God upon the lid with one of her diamond rings. Try as I might, I could not open the lid from the inside, although my efforts made the pot dance about the floor.
Seeing me now trapped, rather than freeing me as we had agreed, she instead gave the vessel to a servant. She told the servant that it contained a poison that would destroy the person that opened it and instructed him to deliver it secretly to her father, that he might lock it away so as to preserve the health of his peoples.
This servant joined a caravan heading east, but he never reached the sultan for, in his journey, he and his fellow travelers were set upon and killed by bandits. The bandits took his possessions, including the vessel in which I was imprisoned, and hid these inside a cave where they and many generations of bandits before them had stored their ill-won goods. I remained inside the cave for years, all the time seeing the treasures increase, with many more treasures brought in than were removed. Eventually the secret of the bandits was discovered and my vessel removed with a load of treasure. I thought that my release was now at hand, but I was to be disappointed. The new owner, finding my vessel to be made of base metal, not of gold, and certain symbols on the vessel that indicated a dangerous poison was contained inside, disposed of my prison by tossing it into his latrine.
I only had worms for company for the next 653 years. I know this number as a fact because I did not make any mistakes in counting this time.
My next benefactor was a laborer who, while digging the foundation for a new home, unearthed my vessel. He too I made rich so as to express my gratitude for the part he played in my release. The source of the wealth I bestowed on him was the same cave used those many centuries ago by the bandits. The men who once knew its secret had all died, taking the secret with them, and none had rediscovered the cave, so well was it camouflaged, its entrance hidden behind a great boulder.
My benefactor became a well-respected businessman and the owner of many companies, including a real-estate company, a sporting-shoe manufacturer, and a soft-drink distributor. Having achieved great wealth and seeing his businesses continue to grow in value, he reached a point where he considered that he had more to lose than to gain. Furthermore, because his good fortune was owed to me, he considered me the most likely agent for its loss. He therefore hatched a plan to rid himself of me.
One evening he asked me to take him to his bottling factory in Lahore, where he believed that the overseer was embezzling money from him. It is wisely said that one can recognize a dishonest man because he trusts no one, not even himself. But at the time, I suspected nothing.
Finding the books in good order, we then explored the factory to determine if all else was as it should be. My benefactor seemed distracted during this enterprise and more interested in discussing matters of philosophy or, to be more accurate, the physiology of djinns.
"I have seen you become as smoke," said he, "such that you can flow and take on different forms. Do you have all the properties of smoke, or are you limited in ways that I do not appreciate?"
"I confess that I have not given the matter much thought," said I. "Indeed, owing to the extensive periods of my incarceration, I have not always had the opportunity to test the limits of my capabilities. In what property do you find interest?"
"Smoke can be divided but still retain its essence, "said he, "such that even one small part of the whole is like the whole in form and substance."
"That is true," said I, "but I fail to see the relevance."
"If you have this same inherent property," said he, "you should be able to divide yourself into multiple smaller selves, each like you but capable of acting independently. For example, I have seen you enter a single vessel, but, if I am correct, you should be able to divide and secrete yourself in multiple vessels." He pointed to a case of empty Coca-Cola bottles seemingly located near us by chance.
I was intrigued by the experiment that he set forward and only too happy to oblige, thinking that I might learn something to my advantage. Indeed, although my benefactor had only lived upon this earth a small percentage of my years, he proved correct, and I found myself able to do as he proposed. But no sooner had I divided myself into the two-dozen bottles than the man I had hitherto called my benefactor placed the bottles into a machine where they were immediately capped. Moreover, I soon discovered that the bottle caps were printed with the name of God, so that each of my selves had no more power within the bottles than the smoke that they resembled.
Finding myself thus trapped, I knew that I had been betrayed and my benefactor become my jailer. But God is great, and I commended myself to his mercy. I do not know if I have God to thank or simply the vagaries of machines, which are built by man, but it so transpired that, after being capped, not all the bottles were placed into the same case. Moreover, my jailer did not apparently notice the absence of the bottle you discovered until after it had been shipped to Skardu. By then it was too late.
In concluding, I must apologize for my lack of potability, but I believe that you will come to consider yourself well recompensed for your act of charity in freeing me.
· · · · ·
"And that," said Abu, "is how I came to be drinking tea at one o'clock in the morning with a midget djinn." Abu took a sip of whisky and ran the pink tip of his tongue across his lips.
Sly cleared her throat. "You still haven't told us about the cigar."
My own cigar, balanced on the edge of a saucer decorated with blue forget-me-nots, tenaciously clung to over an inch of ash.
"What about the reward?" asked Ann. She ran a fingernailclick, click, clickacross her faux pearls. "How were you 'recompensed' for freeing the djinn?"
I said nothing. As far as I was concerned, Abu was just playing games with the ladies, the same thing he had done for as long as I had known him. It was getting late, the house smelled of smoke and cheap perfume, and I knew that I would have a lot of explaining to do when Elizabeth returned with the kids.
Abu pointed a finger at Sly and then at Ann. "Each of you has just answered the other's question."
"The djinn gave you the cigar?"
"That was your reward?"
"That's right. After telling me his story and thanking me for the hundredth time, the djinn told me that he had only one regret, that he could not immediately reward me in so grand a fashion as I deserved and he desired. The being that spoke to me, he explained, contained his essence but was greatly diminished in power. He asked leave to search for the bottles that contained the rest of himself, so that he could return to his full size and power. After that, he promised to return and reward me in suitable fashion.
"I could do nothing but agree. He had asked so politely.
"The djinn then reached into his jacket and handed me a cigar. 'Accept this as token of my esteem,' he said. He explained that if I smoked the cigar, it would transport me to the cave of riches. This was the same cave used by the bandits from which the djinn had rewarded his previous benefactor. He assured me that the cave of riches had been forgotten for so long that anything I brought back would be mine alone."
"So what did you find there?" asked Ann.
"I never went."
"You mean that the cigar didn't work?"
"No, I never tried. I never smoked the cigar."
"I can't believe that," said Ann. "If I had a treasure cave, you can bet I'd go there every day. You'd see me wearing so many pearls that I wouldn't need clothes."
"So many gold rings that my hands would drag on the ground." Sly giggled at the thought.
"If you don't believe me, have a look." Abu went over to his suitcase, undid the ziplock bag, and opened up the plastic tube. A cigar slid into his hand. "Take a look at it, but please don't touch." He cupped the cigar lightly in his hands and showed it to each of us in turn. It was about the same size as the coronas we were smoking, the wrapper a little darker, and its tip twisted into a pigtail. The cigar band showed a heart wreathed in curlycues but without any recognizable brand name.
I don't know where the cigar came from, but Abu was telling the truth when he said that he had not smoked it.
"Don't get me wrong," said Abu. "After the djinn left me, I was ready to smoke the cigar then and there. But something held me back. At first I couldn't figure out what was bothering me. Maybe it was that the djinn seemed so polite. There was something too polished about the way he acted. If he was really such a good friend, then why was he always getting locked up? Or maybe it's because his history seemed familiar but distorted, like a story my ayah used to tell me as she tucked me into bed, but with the hero switched for the villain. Or maybe it's just because people in my homeland have learnedit may have taken centuries, but we have learnednot to trust the lure of easy money. Here, of course, it's different. Americans fall asleep dreaming of the lottery and lawsuits.
"Finally, it came down to one simple question. Even assuming that the cigar transported me to the cave, and that the cave was full of all the riches that the djinn promised, how was I to get out of the cave once inside? As far as I know, the cigar may be the only way to gain entrance, in which case I would be buried alive."
"But isn't there always a magic lamp or a ring or something inside," Sly said. "No one ever stays trapped in those caves."
"Would you take the chance on that?"
"Or what if it's just a cigar?" Sly asked. "Maybe that's the whole joke. Why don't I smoke it and you watch. If I disappear, I promise to come back. I'll even give you a percentage of the treasure."
"A small percentage," said Ann.
"If you don't believe there's something special about the cigar," said Abu, "then consider this: although I have had the cigar in my possession for months, and I have never kept it inside a proper humidor, it is still in perfect condition. There are no cracks in the wrapper, no unraveling, no nothing."
"So that's the end of it?" said Sly. "You have a magic cigar, but you're afraid to find out if it lives up to its reputation."
"You looking for a money-back guarantee?" said Ann.
"Well, that's not quite the end of the story. I did see the djinn one more time. If you'll freshen my glass, I'll tell you about that."
I did the honors and also topped off the ladies' glasses, draining the last few drops from the bottle. The initial giddiness brought on by the alcohol had left me, and now all I felt was tired. I hoped that, with the whisky gone, the party might soon break up. "Drink up," I said.
"You should have seen the major and me when we returned from the north," Abu said. "We had so many rugs that I had to hire a bus to follow us with them. We traveled in tandem the whole length of Pakistan, from K2 to Karachi, rugs tied to the top, stuffed in the aisle, and laid across the passenger seats of the bus. The bus still took on passengers at a reduced ticket price, fitting them into whatever room remained, and that posed its own problems. Once the major hopped out of the Land Cruiser while it was still moving and chased down a passenger, forty years his junior, who had disembarked from the bus and tried to make off with a rug across his shoulders. When we got to Karachi, I had the rugs crated and shipped, downed one last Coke with the major at the airport cafe, saluted him for old time's sake, and then flew to London.
"Now, all the time I traveled in Pakistan, all the time I waited in London for my rug shipment to arrive, I never let the cigar out of my reach. At first, to protect the cigar, I kept it in an emptied biscuit tin cushioned with my socks. Later I bought a cheap cigar in a protective tube and exchanged one for the other. I carried the djinn's cigar with me at all times during the day, and I slept with it at night, tucked inside my pillowcase.
"In London, a month or so after I got there, I returned one evening from a pub dinner, unlocked the door to my apartment, and saw the djinn seated on the couch waiting for me. Although his features were still the same, he was larger than when last I saw him, such that he could no longer be confused with a boy.
"'Congratulations,' I said, 'I see that you have had some luck in your quest.'
"'A little,' he said, 'for my former benefactor kept one of the bottles on the dresser in his bedroom, perhaps to gloat over when alone.' The djinn wore a beautiful silver-gray suit of a quality that only movie stars could afford. He also looked more muscular than when I saw him last. Almost unbidden came the thought that he was not actually so much stronger but that, as with his clothing, he had adjusted his appearance for maximal effect.
"'But the other bottles?' I asked. 'Did you find them?'
"'Unfortunately,' said the djinn, 'my former benefactor was not in condition to answer my questions, having taken sick and become enfeebled. Thus does God punish those who seek only their own gain. But I now fear that he has buried the other bottles or cast them into the sea for I could not find them in his house or on his grounds. I still hope, however, that some of the bottles escaped him and exist beyond his control.' The djinn spoke calmly, but I saw his fists clench and a look of raw hatred sweep across his face.
"'I have faith,' I said, 'that your perseverance will be rewarded.'
"'But enough about my troubles,' the djinn said. 'How are you? I am surprised to find you in this apartment. I would have thought that, with the treasures from the cave, you could now afford something more in keeping with your deserved place in society.' The djinn fingered the couch fabric. He then rose from the couch, sidestepped the coffee table, and came to stand beside me.
"'In truth,' said I, 'I have been so busy that I have not had time to take you up on your kind offer.'
"'You should not consider this an offer based solely on kindness,' said the djinn. 'It is what you deserve.' He placed a hand on my arm in an apparent attempt at reassurance.
"'Indeed,' said I, 'it seemed presumptuous of me to take advantage of my good fortune when you were still not satisfied with your situation.'
"'It would give me the greatest pleasure,' said the djinn, 'far outweighing my personal misfortunes, to see you justly rewarded for your efforts on my behalf.'
"While speaking, the djinn gripped my bicep with increased vigor. His forcefulness, if nothing else, convinced me that I was correct in my earlier fears and that he could not be trusted. My thoughts were now focused on how I might rid myself of him. To this end, I conceived a plan that had some chance of success but might not reflect too badly on me if it failed.
"I went to the cupboard in the kitchenette and got down a bag of potato chips, which I poured into a wooden bowl. 'Help yourself,' I said, offering the bowl to the djinn. In an apparent act of clumsiness, I sloshed chips out of the bowl, letting them fall upon the carpet where, to compound the error, I stepped on the chips, again apparently by accident, and ground them into the nap. 'Damn,' I said and went to the hall closet to get the vacuum cleaner.
"'Do you mind?' I asked politely, running the vacuum cleaner across the carpet in front of the djinn's feet. I don't think the djinn had ever seen such a machine before, and, from the way his mouth twisted in distaste, he did not enjoy the noise that it made.
"In response to my request, he floated several feet up into the air. When he did, I turned the vacuum cleaner on him."
"You did what?" Ann asked.
"I sucked him up."
"Just like that?"
"I don't think the djinn realized what was happening right away. The vacuum cleaner pulled at his suit jacket. I begged his pardon. He tugged back. I apologized again. He twisted and turned, hands wrapped around the tube of the vacuum cleaner, and bobbed about in the air like some demented balloon. He then cried out, perhaps in pain, perhaps in anger. It was obvious by this point that something was very wrong.
"'Release me,' he said. 'I will make it worth your while.'
"I pretended not to hear. I also pretended not to notice the changes taking place in his features. His face turned red, his brows and mustache bristled, and his eyes enlarged until they were the size of boiled eggs.
"'Release me,' he repeated. Several of his teeth now protruded like tusks, deforming his mouth so that spittle flew with his words. He snorted like a wild beast.
"Still I pretended to be lost in confusion and unable to understand what was happening.
"He then screamed above the roar of the vacuum cleaner in a language that I didn't recognize and struggled with increased energy, flinging himself madly about the room. I was literally dragged across the floor. Then, his legs braced against a corner where the walls met the ceiling, the djinn ripped himself free and hurled the vacuum cleaner down at me. The wand hit me in the head, opening a large gash, and I fell to the floor in the coils of the hose.
"The djinn floated above me. He seemed about to speak but broke off in a fit of coughing. His chest heaved and his throat rolled, and then, hacking like a cat, he expelled some small white fragments that clattered on the floor beside me. I glanced at the nearest one: it was a tooth. Seeing that, I knew what had happened to the djinn's former benefactor.
"'I will kill you,' said the djinn. 'I will grind you up and I will eat you.' He wiped some drool from his lips with the back of his hand and then stroked his tusks with a long, pointed fingernail.
"Lying there on the floor, at the mercy of that evil creature, I thought that my time had come at last. But I was saved by a smell, a stink of eggs and burning tires so horrible that even shaking with fear, still I wrinkled my nose in distaste. The stench originated from the djinn, from a rip in his jacket, a rift just above his waist where a grayish smoke now leaked out to dissipate in the air. His suit wasn't so much like clothing as like a skin, and, where it was ripped open, I could see inside, and inside he was all black and swirling like a swarm of flies.
"The djinn had been wounded. Knowing that, I knew that I could win our battle.
"I grabbed the vacuum cleaner up again and thrust the tube through the hole in his side. He screamed, but by then it was already too late. The vacuum cleaner sucked greedily. His suit became more and more wrinkled. His face contorted and creases opened in its surface. Then his face caved in: his nose collapsed, his brow settled down over his great yellowish eyes, and the dome of his forehead disappeared altogether. As his insides got sucked into the vacuum cleaner, his skin suit deflated and flopped around like a wind sock. Then it shredded and got sucked up too.
"I ran the vacuum cleaner over the floor for several minutes, and, when I was sure that every last bit of the djinn was inside, I pulled out the vacuum cleaner bag, wrapped it in duct tape, and wrote the name of God on it with a black marker. I then bought a small safe, stuffed the bag inside, spun the dial, and dumped the safe from Blackfriars Bridge into the Thames.
"But, yes, basically I sucked the djinn up
Abu grinned so broadly that his teeth lit up the room.
· · · · ·
I wish I could leave the story there, at the moment of Abu's triumph. We all laughed and toasted him, not necessarily believing his words but happy to share in the illusion that such stories could be true.
"Put that djinn in the bin," said Sly, laughing like a hyena.
"Wouldn't you just love to have been there," said Ann, laughing with equal intensity.
"I'm not a hero," said Abu. "I'm just a simple rug dealer from Pakistan, more handsome than most I'll grant you and gifted in the arts of love, but just a man nevertheless. I'm sure that any one of you would have done the same if put in my position." Abu raised his glass to take a drink but, finding it now empty, looked mournfully into its bottom.
"I'm afraid that the whisky's finished," I said.
"Do you have soda? Or juice?"
"I'll take a look."
Abu followed me into the kitchen. In retrospect, I don't think Abu really had soda in mind. I think he wanted to talk to me in private, but I didn't give him a chance. Something had been building up in me all night, but I didn't recognize my anger until it boiled over.
"What a load of bullshit," I said.
Abu's mouth fell open.
"Do you think for one minute that I'm going to sit and watch you drink up everything in the house? And stink up everything in the house with your stupid cigars? All so you can get into the pants of some girls you picked up in a bar."
Abu opened and closed his mouth, gulping ineffectually like a fish on the line.
"I used to think you were a friend. I used to admire you. But I was younger then. We both were. Maybe you were different then, but I don't think so. I was just too young to recognize you for what you are."
I was surprised to see a tear start down Abu's cheek. But that didn't stop me.
"You're a user," I said. "You were a user then, and you're a user now."
Abu broke down completely. He attempted to reach out for me, to place his hands on my shoulders for support. But when I stepped back to avoid him, he just stood there, arms hanging loosely at his sides, tears and snot running down his face. "I have nothing," he said. "Nothing."
I stared at him, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"None of my shipments of rugs made it. They never arrived in London. That's why I waited there so long. I waited and waited. When they didn't show up on the ship I thought was carrying them, then I waited for the next ship in hopes they would be on there instead. And the next ship, and the next. But nothing. No records either, as if the rugs never existed."
"Is that why you came to Boston?"
"I sent a rug shipment here from Karachi but was told it hadn't arrived either. No records for that one either. I want to go down to the docks myself and check on the shipping and receiving. That was my plan for tomorrow." Abu glanced at his wristwatch. "This morning." He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his suit.
I had never comforted a grown man before, but, rightly or wrongly, my natural inclination was to do the same as I would with my kids. I held him tightly, patting his back, and murmured what I took to be comforting noises.
"It was the djinn," Abu said, whispering into my ear. "He was trying to force me to use the cigar. By taking away my wealth, he figured that I would have no choice but to use it. When I didn't, he showed up at my apartment." Abu made a valiant attempt to control himself, which brought on a fit of hiccups. "I still don't know what would happen if I smoked it."
"Oh, give it a rest," I said and pushed him away. "You and your stupid genie. For a moment I believed you, but I should have known it was just another trick. Another play for my sympathy. Well, save it for someone who cares."
He pleaded with me, but I was out of patience, and, after listening to his babble for a few minutes, I stalked out of the kitchen. He padded along behind me, his hands empty, having never received the soda that I promised him.
In our absence, Ann and Sly had been conferring in the living room, foreheads pressed together and murmuring in the cryptic tones of those that understand each other so intimately that only part of a thought need be voiced. They immediately separated upon our return and smiled. "Everything all right?" asked Ann. "I hope you boys found what you were looking for," said Sly. She ran a finger around the rim of her empty glass. "It's been a wonderful evening, but I think it time we were going. Abu, you with us?"
I followed them to the entryway and helped Abu on with his coat. Then I pawed through the closet looking for the coats belonging to Ann and Sly. I didn't remember what their coats looked like; I didn't even remember putting them in the closet. But Ann and Sly already had their coats on, having apparently grabbed them while I was helping Abu.
Abu stumbled down the steps, supported by his two lady friends.
"You sure that I can't get you a taxi?" I asked.
"The night is young," he said. "A walk in the night air will clear my head."
"We'll take care of him," Ann said.
"You can count on us," Sly added.
Then the door slammed, and they were gone.
I watched them for a little while from the window of the condo. They moved slowly down the street, Abu weaving so that he was sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes on the pavement. The streetlights are spaced at some distance apart here, small oases of light, and this makes it difficult to know what I saw as they moved away. At first, everything seemed normal enough, just Abu meandering along and the two women trying to maintain contact with him so that they could guide him. But in his drunken state, Abu didn't want anyone's help. He threw off their arms and insisted upon following his own chaotic sense of direction, which led him back to the middle of the road. He was lucky there was no traffic at the time. Thankfully, Ann and Sly caught him and forced him to walk on the sidewalk. I breathed a sigh of relief and, seeing that they were almost out of sight, dropped the curtain back into place. I would clear away the glasses and ashtrays from our late night and then go to bed.
But even as I turned, I realized that something about the final image wasn't right. Thinking back on what I had just seen, replaying the image that had burned itself into my mind, it seemed that I could still make out the shape of Abu quite clearly but that the shapes of the two women had become indistinct. It seemed that Abu walked in the company of two wraiths, hazy in outline like wisps of smoke.
I pulled the curtain open again and rubbed away the condensation that had collected on the window from my breath. By then it was already too late. The two women had escorted Abu arm in arm beyond the range of the streetlights and into the Boston night.
I thought little of it at the time, marking it down to the tales that Abu had told and an active imagination. But it has been six years now and I still haven't heard from Abu. I can't help but wonder what happened to him and what exactly I saw that night. It's not just me and my sense of guilt. Two months after Abu disappeared, Elizabeth discovered a notice in the newspaper with which she was lining the cat litter box. A body had been dragged from the Charles River, a man with no identifying documentsperhaps these were stolen from him with his wallet, perhaps he did not want to be identified. The man had a mustache but no beard, and may have been of Indian or Pakistani or Middle Eastern descent. Two witnesses, women, although not identified by name, reported seeing a man jump off the Longfellow Bridge that night.
But that man was not Abu Ali.
I contacted the newspapers and found out that the dead man had been subsequently identified as Mohammed Aziz, a stranger to me, who had been involved with the heroin trade in Boston.
Whatever happened to Abu remains a mystery. I like to imagine that he started a new life, even if I am not part of that life. Maybe he's back in London. Or Pakistan. Anywhere. Given how we parted, I can understand why he would not contact me. I hope that's why he hasn't contacted me. What still strikes me hard is just how easy it is to lose one's friends. One misplaced word or glance and they disappear, and you don't realize that they're gone until it's too late.
· · · · ·
The cigar did not disappear with Abu. Before he left me that night, he pressed it upon me. "Take it," he said, "no matter what you think of me. Hold it. Keep it. There's not a day gone by that I haven't thought about smoking it. But when I reach for it, my heart beats faster and my palms get sweaty. I just stare at it, and I don't know what to do. If I come back for it, don't let me have it, no matter how I might beg."
Now the cigar lies in the top drawer of my desk, hidden behind a pile of paperwork, in the same plastic tube in which Abu brought it into my house.
Sometimes I pull open the drawer and look at that slim torpedo. Abu was right: it doesn't need a humidor. I run my fingers lightly across the leaf wrapper and smell the faint peppery aroma that clings to my fingertips. I wonder how the cigar would smoke and, if I were to smoke it, would I find myself still in the familiar surroundings of my study or transplanted to the fabled caves of Ali Baba, my overhead light replaced by hanging strands of pearls, the rug gone and the floor knee-deep in gold coins, and, instead of my desk, a massive treasure chest spilling forth gems, gold chains, and jewel-studded crowns and swords rather than papers, pens, and pencils.
The cigar band is decorated with the tiny image of a heart and, flocked around it, the graceful curves of the Arabic language. At first I didn't think much about the writing, treating it simply as a decorative motif. But then I got to thinking about what the genie, if the genie truly existed, might inscribe upon the cigar. Through a friend, I contacted a professor in the languages department at Boston University. That professor was unable to translate the copy that I made of the cigar band, but he had contacts overseas. Distance means little in this age of faxes, and a professor at the King Faisal Center for Islamic, Arabic, and Asian Studies in Saudi Arabia came up with an approximate translation. He said it was written in Kufi, sometimes known as the character of Cleopatra, an early form of Arabic writing that dates back to the Middle Ages. The language can be translated but the true pronunciation of the words is lost in the sands of time.
In its simplest form, the cigar band reads: The heart of the seed.
But it can also be interpreted as a question or a riddle, in which case it reads: How does one reach the heart of the seed?
I know the answer to that riddle.
I can't forget it no matter how hard I try.
Sometimes, when working late in my office at home, like tonight, I think about the choices I have made and how I came to be where I am. I think about my wife, my kids, my job, and my receding hairline. I think about everything I have gained and everything I have lost. I think about the night that Abu Ali stumbled into my apartment and then stumbled out, leaving nothing but this cigar behind him. Then I become aware that all the time I have been thinking these thoughts, all the time I have been handling the cigar, that I have been muttering the same words over and over again, as if two words could change everything and allow me to reclaim the possibilities that I saw when I was younger.
When that happens, like now, I push my chair back and leave my office, the cyclopean eye of the computer staring at my retreating back, to wander through the rooms and corridors of our condo. I see where the four of us sat that night six years ago in the living room. I see where I argued with Abu in the kitchen and where I helped him on with his coat in the hallway. I see the window through which I followed the progress of Abu and the two women down the street, and I pick out the streetlight that marks the last point I saw Abu before he disappeared.
Climbing upstairs, I slip quiet as a ghost past the bedrooms and the sleepers within. I pass Mark's room. I pass Mary's room. They're not little kids anymore and sleep with their doors closed. No nightlights for them either. At the end of the hallway is another closed door: our bedroom. Elizabeth is in there, having gone to bed hours earlier.
I stand in front of the door and repeat those two words once more, this time knowing full well what I say: "Open Sesame."
The door seems to swing inward of its own accord.
Elizabeth lies in bed, curled on her side, face pressed into the pillow. Dark hair cascades in curls across the pillow and across the sheet that she has pulled up over her shoulder. She snores softly. I listen to the intake of her breath, catch the silence that lurks after each inhalation, then the barely perceptible popping noise that her lips make when they part, and finally the exhalation that leaves her lips and sounds almost like a sigh.
"Open Sesame." She stirs in bed, drawing her breaths more deeply, so that the air whistles through her nose.
"Open Sesame." The third time I say those words to her, she wakes. She turns her head, rakes the hair from her eyes. She squints up at me and, seeing me, frowns.
"What the hell," she says. "What's happening?"
Hearing her speak, it's like I'm the one waking from a dream, stepping out of someone else's story and into one of my own. I just stand there and smile. "Nothing," I say, finding my own words. "The door was open. I thought you might be awake."
"Well, I am now."
I take that as an invitation.