FREE Short Story: The Sweetest Things by Matt Rees

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I’ve published a series of nonfiction long-form journalism and short stories for download to Amazon’s Kindle. You can find the pieces here: Meanwhile, here’s a free short story, an immediate reaction to current developments in the “Arab Spring.” I hope you enjoy it. Matt

When I entered the shop, the storekeeper was smoking a cigarette in a ’Seventies chrome chair beside the baklava trays and watching the riots on a small television. He sprang to his feet with a smile as generous as his heavy belly.

“Said Ihab Said,” said Said. “That’s my name: Said I. Said. What do you say?”

Tsharrafna. Pleased to meet you, Said.”

Delighted with himself, he persisted with his joke. “Say! And I’m pleased to make your acquaintance also. Mister…?”

“Swallow. Tom Swallow.”

Said bowed and gestured to the only table in the tiny store. He spoke in Arabic to the frail, old man with the white mustache who stood with his hand in the small of his back in the open shop-front. The old man filled a plate with pastries from the metal cases inside the store and from the wide platters that balanced on copper heating-barrels in the shop’s entrance on King Faisal Street.

“We shall show you the best of Amman’s sweets here.” Said poured a glass of water from a stainless steel jug. “You must drink to keep your mouth moist and enjoy the sweets. People always are stuffing their faces. They forget that the sweetest things are hard to swallow.”

I sipped the water, which was lukewarm. I tasted dust. The feet of the rioters had raised it from the street and it had settled on my lip. Now I swallowed it.

The old man set the plate down before me.

Said extended a stubby finger over the food. “Here we have qanafeh, which is made with sweet cheese and syrup. This pastry is called Syria’s dates. And here is kol woshkor, which means ‘Eat it and thank God.’”

“They look wonderful.”

Said flattened his hand and moved it toward my mouth as though it held one of the sweets and he would feed me with it. He beamed a smile as I ate. I told him the sweets were the best I had tasted. He pointed to the water glass. “Don’t forget,” he said.

“I’d like a coffee, if you have any,” I said, though I knew shops like this never sold coffee. The owners were always too hospitable to refuse me, as if I had been accepted into their home, rather than their place of business.

“Of course.” Said spoke quickly to the old man, who shuffled out of the shop. “This is your first time in Amman?”

“No. But I just came here to live. And to work.”

Ahlan wa-sahlan. Welcome in Jordan.”

Ahlan fik. Thank you.”

Ahlan, ahlan. It is good that people should come from abroad to Amman. The people here are a good people, but people who come from abroad will keep them that way,” said Said. “I have a maid from the Philippines. If I had a maid from Amman, she would cheat me, but this maid from the Philippines is honest and respectful. And so I am honest and respectful to her. This is good for me. You’re here for work, you say. What is it you do?”

“I’m a reporter, a sahafi. For some newspapers in America and Britain.”

“Ah, America,” said Said. “I lived for ten years in New York. I have an export business.”

“You sold the business to buy this shop?”

This was evidently a very funny question, because Said laughed and slapped his leg and patted my shoulder across the table. “You’re here because of all the trouble?”

“The Arab Spring.”

Said rolled his head side to side and gazed into the street with a wistful expression. “You still call it that?”

“I just now went to watch the riots.”

“There are many Syrians and Iraqis here these days. Refugees from the violence of their own countries. They are the ones who make the trouble here in Jordan.”

“I spoke to some Jordanians there.”

Said nodded and smiled as though I had agreed with him. The old man came back with a coffee pot and a tiny cup balanced on a copper tray. For his benefit, Said repeated my question about selling his business in America. The old man poured the qahweh from the battered, long-handled urn and said something to Said in a high voice that sounded as if it had been sandpapered.

“He says maybe we’ll sell you this shop for a million dinars. This is more than a million dollars, you understand.” Said laughed, and the old man rasped a laugh, too. “He is to joke.”

I smiled and took the small coffee cup. The coffee was thick and grainy and good.

“No, Mr. Swallow, he is to joke, because my father owned this shop until he died and it was only the start of my business interests. I keep it open now just to provide a job for Hamad, who is here since my father owned the place.” He said something in Arabic that was too fast for me to follow. He spoke in a harsh tone and the old man waved a hand in acknowledgement and limped back to stand in the sun at the doorway. He put his hands in the pockets of his grey flannels and rocked his hips back and forth.

“The money I make here is nothing.” Said hissed. His lips lifted his thick, grey mustache at both ends as though there were a truly bad smell in the shop. I smelled nothing but sugar, syrup, and the remains of Said’s Egyptian cigarette. “I started here and now have a big business to export sweets like these, but in mass-production form. I have a factory in the north, in Irbid, and also in Elizabeth, New Jersey. You know this place?”

“I’ve been through there on the train, I guess. But I was in Irbid last week. Riots there, too.”

“It’s better to call them protests, not riots, Tom.” Said looked about him for prying ears, as if the shop were not deserted. “Anyhow, do you think the owner of a shop like this would have a mansion in Abdoun? This I have. You know Abdoun?”

Certainly, I knew Abdoun. It was on a hill in the south of Amman. The villas were built in bleached, sandy bricks that were molded to look like unfinished stone. They had extravagant picture-windows and stood in the middle of small, lush gardens with high fences. The Western countries had their neat, modern embassy compounds there. I had been to a dinner in Abdoun a few days before at the home of a Palestinian executive in the Arab Bank. All the guests sat in upright chairs around the edge of the reception room, as if it were a Bedouin tent. Every newcomer had to walk the perimeter shaking hands with everyone else. It took a long time.  I wanted to scream with boredom. The rest of the evening was still less entertaining. Panic made the rich Arabs preoccupied and duller than usual. They could think of nothing but the riots down near the ancient Roman amphitheater, but they refused to say anything of interest about it. I’d been in the Middle East long enough to recognize the censorship that grips the tongue of anyone with enough to lose. They weren’t stupid; they knew what was happening. But they feared more than just a change of government. If the chaos swelled out of the valley and up into their district, they could find themselves beaten and gutted on their marble doorsteps.

“Everybody in Jordan who is important lives in Abdoun, except the king,” said Said. “Your newspaper pays for a house in Abdoun?”

“I don’t have that kind of arrangement,” I said. “I’m freelance. My newspapers don’t have a lot of money these days. I live in Jabal Amman.”

“Come to my house. You will see Abdoun. My maid will give you a good time.”

I choked on a piece of shredded, sugared wheat bound in a tube around a pistachio paste. Said handed me the glass of water and laughed.

“I told you, Mister Swallow. The sweetest things are hard to swallow.”

Said refused to let me pay for the sweets or for the coffee. “Did I show you a good time?” he asked.

I agreed that he had. Then I left, promising to see him at his place in Abdoun.

Over the following month I spent many evenings at his home. His driver would pick me up at my apartment on Othman bin-Affan. The driver always looked at the house and then at me with incomprehension and suspicion, as though I must be living in such insalubrious quarters for some clandestine purpose. Foreigners were supposed to live in Abdoun. My street was narrow and its houses were slathered along the side of the hill like the other neighborhoods overlooking the mosques downtown. My neighbors were neither rich nor poor. The shopkeeper on the corner was always reluctant to change even a five dinar note that was worth about eight dollars.

Said’s driver had been born in Syria. He had a thin black beard and was about 24 years old. He kept his wife and children in two rooms on Jabal al-Alqalaa, the hill opposite where I lived, downslope from the ruined citadel of Marcus Aurelius. It was a rotten place, he said, but the air was good because it was high on the hill. He told me Abdoun was a rotten place, as he drove me there. It was corrupted by Westerners and their money.

“Look,” he said, as we crossed the strange modernist span of the Abdoun bridge. “Do you see the minaret of a single mosque?”

Outside the walls of the luxurious villas, Abdoun was barren. The empty roads were three times as wide as elsewhere in the city and the empty lots between the villas had been churned by construction into ragged stretches of dirt and stone. The place had a desolate quality, despite its luxury. The houses fought against some force more powerful than them, like air-conditioning in the desert valleys of Wadi Rum. It always seemed to be a burning noontime in Abdoun.

The driver was called Nidal and I soon saw that he provided sex for Said. Said was by inclination and training someone who liked to look after other people. Nidal knew it and he would sit languidly in a puffy, square armchair in Said’s big, glittering living room watching Western television channels, as Said fussed over him and giggled and told his maid, Teresa, to bring plates of sweets from the kitchen.

I did not like Nidal for the two-faced Islamic contempt he showed for Abdoun and the arrogant way in which he demanded things from Said and sometimes flirted with him, girlishly. I liked Teresa, but Nidal was never anything less than vicious to her.

One night, we were sitting in front of Said’s enormous television, watching reports of a new massacre in Syria. Nidal came from the bathroom, zipping up his pants. He clicked his tongue, picked up the remote from the glass coffee table, and switched to a game of soccer. The players of the Jordanian national team were being made to look foolish by the Chinese. Nidal read the scoreline, clicked his tongue again, and tossed down the remote. He wiggled his eyebrows at Said and slouched back to the bathroom. A few moments later, Said lit a cigarette and got up to follow him, pulling at the end of his mustache.

I flipped through the channels. When I got to the Jordanian government station, the soccer was over. Each night, the Jordanians ended their broadcasts by showing King Abdullah in some ceremony that had gone on that day. This time he was wearing combat fatigues and a black beret and reviewing his troops. The soldiers were thin and had narrow hips. Abdullah saluted them, his pursed lips moist and red in his scraggy beard. He looked cruel and sybaritic, not like a killer but like a bedroom sadist.

Someone turned on the shower in the bathroom. I turned up the volume on the television and watched a discordant marching band pass the king. Teresa came out of the kitchen to collect the empty coffee cups. I talked to her in Spanish for a while and she told me about her six-year-old daughter who lived with her sister in Manila. She went back to the kitchen and I walked out of the French doors onto Said’s terrace.

Amman was laid out below me along a dog-leg valley. The blue lights in the city’s windows ascended the steep hillsides. A single green band ringed the top of the minarets. There were mosques in the center of the valley and all along the ridges of the mountains. It was quieter here than in Cairo or Jerusalem, because the city had little claim on the hearts of anyone, except some of those who lived there. It didn’t call attention to itself, and that allowed you to see how beautiful it really was. I remembered it before the Iraq war filled it with refugees and Gulf money created a gaudy building boom. It hadn’t been an innocent place, because the proximity of thirst and death remained in the blood of its inhabitants, so recently come from the tenuous existence of the deserts. But it had possessed a simplicity that I had liked. I shook my head. I was nostalgic about this place where I was entirely an alien, but I remembered almost nothing of my own hometown.

Said bustled out onto the terrace, tucking his shirt into his pants. He was excited and spoke quickly. His face was bright and fresh, even under the heavy moustache and the bald head and fat jowls.

“Mister Tom, I am sorry to neglect you like this.” Said gestured toward Nidal and squeezed his fingertips together, as though he held the young man’s chin. “This is such a cheeky one.”

Nidal leaned against the door frame, smoking and looking smug. I didn’t like Nidal, but I was glad that Said showed his friendship by letting me in on the secret of their relationship.

“You must be hungry,” Said said. He clapped and told Teresa to bring some desserts.

She came out to the terrace with a tray of sweets and coffee. She wore a red and yellow sarong and a tight tee-shirt. Her skin was raddled on the cheeks. I thought about her daughter.

Nidal regarded the maid with disgust. He walked to the edge of the terrace and threw his cigarette into the empty lot below. He looked at Said with narrowed eyes and then gazed out toward the hill where his wife and children already would be asleep.

Said noticed Nidal’s sneer. He told Teresa to clean up the bathroom, where there was now a mess. Teresa withdrew with her head and her back bent. Said started to bother Nidal like a worried mother. Nidal, it seemed, did not like the way the maid was dressed and Said was defending it, because this was the way the maid had always dressed.

Their argument became heated. I pretended to be preoccupied by the desserts and the coffee on the table. From where I sat, I could look all the way through the living room to the kitchen. Teresa was not cleaning the bathroom. She sat on a stool in the kitchen with her hands in her lap, looking at the floor.

Said laid his hand on Nidal’s chest, stroking and murmuring soothing words. Nidal pushed him away, looking in my direction. I raised my hands in a gesture of relinquishment. Did he think I hadn’t noticed what went on between him and Said? I wanted him to know it didn’t matter to me. Then Nidal pushed Said’s shoulders and rushed past him. He turned in the doors and shouted. “You can have your little whore and live with her, not me. It will be two women together.”

Habibi, please stay. I will make you happy.” Said called over the balcony as Nidal went to his car. “Haven’t I always promised you, I will make you happy?”

The maid sat just where she had been. Nidal’s car pulled away fast on the road outside. Said smiled at me with wide, wet eyes, wiping his nose and his mustache with his hand.

“I am sorry, Mister Tom,” he said. “I am a foolish old man. Please, eat some qanafeh.”

“I’ve just had some.” I didn’t feel too sympathetic toward Said then, and I was sorry for that later. “What’s his problem? Is he jealous?”

Said pushed out his lips. “I think, a little, but not in the way you think. He says I should not be alone in the house with a woman when we are both not married. This is ridiculous of course, because I…well, I am not of her persuasion, as you say. She is here for entirely different reasons.”

Though it wasn’t new to me, it seemed strange then that Nidal, who chauffeured Western diplomats of both sexes and who was the catamite of a wealthy merchant, would have such strong religious views. Perhaps his opinions and the exigencies of his situation conflicted and his guilt at this compromise made him angry.

“You should hear him, Mister Tom,” said Said. “He blames everybody. He blames the Jews and the American president, he blames the king and Bashar al-Asad, he blames his wife and his sons and his mother and father. He blames the weather.”

“Does he blame you?”

“No, no, no. I know that he loves me.”

The next day I was listless and bored. I had stopped bothering to attend the demonstrations down by the Husseini Mosque, just as I had recently stopped referring to the events of the last year as “the Arab Spring.” But the afternoon stretched before me, as empty as the long, flat road out toward Baghdad, and so I took a taxi downtown. There were a few hundred demonstrators at the main crossroads under the rough Ottoman walls of the mosque. They wore mustaches and loud shirts and polyester trousers. At the rear of the crowd, where I stood, they loitered, joking and smoking cheap cigarettes, while they waited for things to get going. Up at the front, there was chanting and a few rows of riot police in white helmets and thickly padded bodysuits.

At some signal that was not apparent to me, the men outside the mosque crowded in around a couple of men whose faces were covered by checkered keffiyehs. The show was starting. They burned the Stars and Stripes, then they burned an Israeli flag. They burned a Syrian flag. Someone had a Jordanian flag and they might have thought of setting it on fire, too, but on this particular day they were dissuaded by the presence of the riot police. They waved it, instead.

The anger at the front of the demonstration dissipated as it rippled with diminishing force to the back of the crowd. If this had been Syria, they’d have been dead or running by now, and the knowledge that they were getting off easily seemed to drain the crowd of its energy. They looked and dressed like Nidal. Perhaps he, too, was angry because he had no one at whom he could throw stones who wouldn’t also be able to destroy him if they wished. A man came by me yelling about the killing in Syria. He beat his palms against his forehead and his voice was hoarse. His eyes were dry, but he wailed like a man racked by grief. He was calling out for aid from the world, to the UN and the US and the European Union and the Arab states. The first time I had seen such a scene it made a big impression. Then I had understood that he was operating from a script of victimhood in which all responsibility for his failings and the failings of his people was shifted to the inaction of big, faceless international bodies.

I went home. The phone was ringing when I opened the door. Teresa told me that Said was dead. She sounded scared, so I took a cab over to Abdoun.

The mahogany front door of Said’s house was open and the sound of oud music came out into the stillness and heat of the late afternoon. Inside, Nidal lay on the sofa, smoking and eating a deep-fried roll called Palace Bread. He smiled and waved.

“Come in, Tom. Sit. Welcome.”

Nidal lowered the volume of the oud music by remote control. I asked him what had happened to Said and his expression grew grave. He sat upright and looked at his hands as he told me about Said’s death. “It is very, very sad. He chokes to death eating a bowl of Umm Ali. A pudding with milk and fruit. It was from his factory.”

“Where did he die?”

“Here in this room. I was here, but I was in the bathroom and the maid is in the kitchen. And I hear him coughing but I think it is him laughing at the television, because this is how he laughs.” He hacked out a noise half way between a giggle and a choke. “Like this. And when I come, he is purple in his face and his head is back and he is dead with his mouth wide open.”

Nidal held his head. I heard him squeeze out a sob and then he was hammering his hands into his brow. It was the fakery of the demonstrator outside the mosque and I understood that he had put paid to Said. I wondered if he had learned to lie from the transparent fabrications of Arab politics, or if the demonstrators merely employed the melodramatic manipulations of hagglers in the souk. I was sorry for my friend, but I did not want to seem moved in the presence of Nidal, so I spoke to hide the fact that I was upset.

“What will you do now?”

Nidal looked horrified, as though I were offering to take the place of Said as his lover and benefactor. “There is no need for your help, Tom. Said says to me many, many times that he leaves in his will everything for me. It is very sad that he dies, but in his memory I will make this house a place of God and cleanness.”

I knew what that meant for Teresa. The serene expression on Nidal’s face made me sick. I went out to the kitchen. Teresa had a big bruise on her cheek. I told her to pack a bag. Nidal lifted his nose as she sloped past him.

I took Teresa back to my apartment. That night, I heard her crying in the other bedroom, quiet sobs like the intake of breath made by someone who has food in their mouth that is too hot.

In the morning, Teresa got up when the muezzins made their dawn chorus. I slept on another three hours, as usual. The terrible thing was that I always came half awake when the call to prayer sounded from all the minaret loudspeakers and echoed around the valley in its lingering baritones and whining tenors. I would go back to sleep, but inevitably I dreamed about the muezzins and their disturbing, nightmarish sound. It made me wake up nervous and less rested than I should have been. That day, I came awake suddenly in a sweat. I heard Teresa singing softly in the kitchen and that made me feel calmer.

I showered and went to the kitchen. Teresa was wearing her sarong and a tight T-shirt. She looked small and pretty and her wide face was smiling, even though she had been crying all night. She gave me coffee and sweets, but I told her in Spanish that I only ate toast and marmalade at breakfast. I told her that if she stayed with me she might send for her daughter to come and live with her.

I was reading the newspaper and Teresa was by the sink washing plates, when she froze. I went to the window and saw Nidal leaping up the steps to my gate. His eyes were very wide and white in his dark face. He was steaming. Had I not known him better, I’d have thought that the grief of Said’s death had somehow hit him with a delay.

I went out to meet him as he came through the gate. I was casually eating a piece of toast. I wished him good morning. This made him apoplectic. He looked beyond me and demanded to know where Teresa was.

“She’s inside,” I said.

“I must talk to her.”

“I warn you, she’s wearing her sarong. You don’t want you to pollute yourself, Sheikh.”

“What?” He realized I was making fun of him. “No, I must talk to her. There has been a terrible injustice. This is not right.”

He tried to go past me, but I stopped him with a hand on his chest. He hit me, but he was off balance, so he only caught my shoulder. I stepped back and pushed him against the bars of the gate. He slipped down onto his haunches.

“What’s gotten into you?” I said.

“That whore.” He repeated the words until I moved toward him as if to throw him out. Then he told me what had happened.

Nidal had gone early to Said’s lawyer on First Circle near the British Council. The lawyer showed him Said’s will. Said had left his house and all his businesses here and in America to Teresa. Nidal was bequeathed the tiny sweet shop downtown by the Husseini Mosque where I had first met Said. The will obliged him to employ old Hamad.

I laughed with an unaccustomed freedom. Nidal yelled for me to shut up. I told him not to be so angry. “Your life’ll still be better than it would if you’d gone on driving a taxi and sleeping with an overweight sweet-manufacturer. One day, perhaps your son will have a business like Said and a big house in Abdoun.”

“This is mine, this house in Abdoun, Said’s house and all his other wealth.” Nidal shouted toward my apartment, cursing Teresa. “Fuck your mother’s cunt, you whore.”

I advanced a step and he ran down the stairs with a very sour look on his face. I watched his taxi pull away from the bottom of the steps and I went inside. I remembered that Said had told me how hard it was to swallow the sweetest things. I thought that the taste of too much sweetness is really the same as the taste of sickness, but that just a little sweetness would linger in your mouth a long time and give you a chance to savor how sweet it was. Then I thought of the life Teresa had led until now.

I went into the kitchen. Teresa was sitting on a stool again with her small feet together. Her hands were linked on her lap and her head was lowered. I walked over to her. Smiling, I put my finger under her chin and lifted it.

© Matt Rees, 2012

The wait for a successor to Amadeus is over.  MOZART’S LAST ARIA by Matt Rees

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