I was sitting with my older brother in the living room of my Uncle’s apartment when a man lumbered through the hallway. People and candles and incense were lingering all day, pungent and conspicuous. I knew very few of the people, but I recognized the hard, bloated face in the hallway as a friend of my Uncle’s, Professor Joseph. He was once a lecturer in law at the American University of Beirut. Supposedly an eloquent speaker with a powerful grasp of language, the Professor was disgraced after a recently widowed colleague made comments implying an affair between the two. As the war sputtered out, so too did his job and marriage. Now, he wrote rambling, vindictive opinion pieces under a pseudonym for some obscure newspapers and radio stations. As was her usual stance regarding all her brother’s old friends, my mother ordered me to avoid him.
“Come here. Your grandmother is about to die,” said Professor Joseph.
We were led to the end of the crowded hallway in order to witness the death. There were tall needle-like men with broad shoulders in loose Frank Sinatra suits whom I had never seen before. I saw squat, barrel-chested men too, with gold chains and images of the saints glittering through every stretched gap in their clothing. Most were smoking idly. They whispered in each other’s suntanned ears, glancing at other characters in the hall.
There was one I recognized as Abu Pierre, who was wearing a tarboosh that stood red and proud above his rounded face. It was beautiful; his bald spot accommodated it magnificently. I remember asking for one once, but my mother told me only grown men may wear them. I still wanted one, so I could take it back to America and show my friends. Even if they spat on me, I thought to myself, I would still wear it with pride. Even if I did not have a bald spot.
“How are you, boy?” Abu Pierre stopped me to ask.
“You are a strong boy, like your Uncle. God bless you.”
“How does your tarboosh stay on your head?” I asked.
He grinned and waved his finger down at me, the tassel on his cap bouncing jovially, “It takes years of practice, dear boy.”
The women were sobbing loudly and had large breasts that reeked of rosewater. When we walked by, the men nodded solemnly through their moustaches, and the women suffocated us in their breasts and called on God to bless us and our family.
I entered the room, my eyes first falling on the priest by her bedside, his rosary poised like a scalpel above a festering tumor. A smear of gray light spilled out of the window directly behind him, projecting a massive shadow of the hanging crucifix in his hands over me and half the room.
The smell reminded me of going to the nurse’s office at school. I had been in there shortly before the end of the school year. Eric Stevens was sitting there in the waiting room, waiting to take one of the little black pills his parents brought him every day before lunchtime. “If it smells like shit and you’re not in a bathroom, then you’re probably in a place for sick people,” he said. He was staring at his untied shoes, fidgeting with a button on his shirt, twisting and pulling at it until it snapped off with a puff of air.
I saw her body, lying on the bed in a blue nightgown, her face the color of olives.
I remembered my father taking us out to view the sea the week before. He asked if we had ever seen it, and we said no, but we wanted to. Our ancestors mastered that water. So, after mezze and Coca Cola and shawarma sandwiches, we went out to a floating dock belonging to a friend of my Uncle’s. Despite the sun and the heat, the wind was aggressive and choppy – the lingering remnants of a storm yet to break. The dock rocked up and down, the waves striking the wood violently, and the rotting boards creaked and leaned on each other as we stood there idly, tossing dough to the skittish fish.
Now he was holding the gray wrist of my grandmother’s ancient hand. The room was packed with people I had never seen before, but they all seemed to know each other, and maybe even my grandmother. My arms moved up and folded over my chest, but I felt too stoic, standing there at the foot of the bed like that, so my hands stuffed themselves in my pockets.
A man with a chimp-like face put a hand on my shoulder. My Uncle introduced him to us a few weeks ago as Marcel, a friend of his from the Civil War and now a clerk in the Department of Justice. The first time I saw him, he and my Uncle went out on the balcony and talked for a long time, in hushed tones, arranging a bouquet of cigarette butts in the tray on the table. My mother did not allow me or my brother to go out there with them. After a while, they came back inside and spoke to us.
“Your uncle, he’s like the Godfather in this town. Al Pacino.” Marcel exposed his jagged gray teeth, clapping my uncle on the back. “A phone call from him is as good as a pardon from the president,” he said.
My Uncle shook his head, “You know I’m this boy’s godfather?”
“It’s true?” Marcel looked at me, “I see why. Your uncle is very religious.”
“He took me to St. Charbel’s a few days ago,” I said.
“Yes, I took him to Malouf’s and Khouri’s graves.”
“They were good men.” Marcel crossed himself. “God rest their souls. They saved my life.”
“Were you involved in it also?” I said, knowing the answer.
“Yes,” he nodded, “with your uncle. Back when we were young men.” Two trails of smoke drifted out of his nose as though he were a leering bull. “Young men join reckless things when they are lost and angry. The thirst for violence grips them. It’s a sickness. You’ll understand what I mean one day.”
I looked down at my shoes. My Uncle tried to interject, but Marcel stopped him.
“No, Micho, he’s old enough. Everybody was lost and angry in that time, and we are Christians, so we joined the other lost and angry Christians. It gripped us. Everybody was lost and angry. And sick. They still are.” He looked at me. “Are you a Christian?”
I said yes.
“Then you are lucky you are an American.”
“Are you a Freemason?” my brother asked him. “My uncle said you were.”
“Yes. Look at this,” he showed my brother his ring. “The G stands for God.”
My brother said that he heard Freemasons had to denounce Jesus, and Marcel said that this was false. I remained silent the rest of the conversation, embarrassed for being an American.
Two weeks before, when we had first arrived at this apartment, I was drawn to my Uncle’s mantlepiece in the living room. Hanging over it was a cavalry sabre with a golden scabbard. He said it was gifted to him by a dear friend who was an officer in the military, but he never told me which one. I would carry it around the apartment all the time, pretending to be a valiant soldier, and my mother would curse at me until I dropped it.
“How old are you?” Marcel asked me now, drawing me out of my memory. He said this casually, as if we were in a café and not at the side of a woman’s deathbed.
“Have you ever seen anyone die?”
“It’s quite a sight.”
I looked at my Uncle. He was holding several rosaries and praying over his mother, placing pictures of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ in her limp hand, which still knew to grasp them.
“Who are all these people?” I asked Marcel.
“I hardly know half of them, boy. Probably after an inheritance. Bastards. Every disaster I have ever known is from someone claiming inheritance. If they only knew she doesn’t have a lira to her name.”
I looked up at him. Before I could ask, he sighed, and said, “What a sight, the poor woman. This is a soldier.”
We watched her. Her slow, pained breathing sounded like popping gravel. The rosewater ladies were shrieking, announcing that these must be the last breaths. I thought of my mother’s coffee she made on the stove every morning. The bubbles rumble up, the kettle is lifted away, and they settle down again with a sigh. Just like the coffee on the stove, my grandmother repeated this two, three, or four times, and then it was done.
Except for the honking in the square below, for a moment, the apartment fell silent.
Suddenly, whether it was the firing of the last synapses of the brain or the departure of the soul, she began to convulse violently, sucking in jagged air as if being riddled with bullets – then, all at once, it was silent again.
“She resuscitated herself,” my father would say later, comforting my mother, “Those last moments were entirely her own.” I remember thinking this was rare and noble, but wondered what that meant for all the other moments, and who else they could possibly belong to.
After most of the people slowly trickled out, I went back to the living room, not sure where my brother was. He had rushed out of the room just before the death. My mother was sitting on the sofa, her eyes red and glassy. I wondered how my eyes looked to her.
“I’m an orphan now,” my mother told me, “My parents are dead.”
I sat next to her for a long time, wishing that I was older, so I would have the vocabulary and the understanding to comfort her.
“Why didn’t you cry?” she asked softly.
“I don’t know,” I said. I looked down and felt very juvenile and naïve for having my hands in my pockets. I looked like a careless little kid. They moved to my lap, tugging at my shirt. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she hugged me, “You didn’t know her very well. Did you love her?”
“Do you love me?”
“A lot or a little?”
“A lot,” I said. We smiled and sat for a moment, listening to the traffic in the square far below and the undertakers in the hallway.
“She always hated her name,” she said.
“It’s not a real name, nobody has her name,” she said. “Munzar. It means ‘what a sight.’ She used to curse about it all the time.”
I wondered what was so bad about that name. It seemed fitting to me.
“Have you ever been to the Mediterranean?” I asked instead.
“Oh, of course,” she said. “My dad was a very graceful swimmer, your grandfather Nassif. Once he took me out while I was on his back and he swam all the way until I couldn’t see the shore anymore, and the whole time I was yelling at him to go back, go back, until he finally did.” She paused, wiping her face with a tissue, “I don’t go back. I’m terrified of the water.”
She reached for her purse on the coffee table and pulled out a faded photograph that looked like it had been clutched tightly many times before. “Look, you look just like him. You have his complexion.”
I saw a portrait of a young man in a sharp suit. I could tell by the shade of gray on his face that his skin was the color of figs. At the time, I couldn’t see how this monochrome mustachio could look like an eleven-year-old boy, but I agreed anyway. I hadn’t yet realized that children could ever resemble adults.
My mother spoke of my grandfather often. He had died in the throes of the Civil War, of a heart attack in front of his family. She was seventeen, and my Uncle fifteen. The last time we visited, two years ago, my Uncle and grandmother were still living in the same apartment he had died in. The building has since been torn down.
“He fell right there,” said my Uncle as he pointed to the floor in the old living room, “I was standing where you are now.”
When my mother was asked to help change the clothes on my grandmother’s dead body, I went to the kitchen, not wanting to be alone in the empty room.
In the kitchen, Professor Joseph was making coffee and eating from a bowl of olives. He moved the kettle back and forth over the stove, letting it bubble up to the rim before pulling it away, where it settled, then putting it back over the heat again.
“How do you know when to stop moving it?” I asked.
“When the bubbles stop rising.”
He performed this movement several more times before he placed the pot on the table. He sat down.
“Do you drink coffee?”
“No,” I said, sticking my hands in my pockets. “They say I’m too young.”
He cussed and poured two cups. I watched the steam curl off the mouth of the cup like the barrel of an empty machine gun. I drank. It was hot and bitter and hard to stomach. I drank again.
“You come to like the flavor once you have enough,” he said.
We sat in silence for a while. The coffee must have been harsh on my stomach, and I felt sick.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked me, spitting an olive pit into his hand.
“I wish I was a soldier in the war.”
He looked at me, “What? Why? That’s a stupid thing to say. What the hell is the matter with you?”
“I don’t know,” my hands moved down to my lap, tugging at my shirt. I stared past my shoes into the green tiles of the floor, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why.”
“I haven’t even seen you shed a single tear for your poor grandmother. No wonder you want to go shoot people. God help this boy…”
“But I don’t want to shoot people,” I said.
He squinted at me. His moustache curled on his heavy face, “You are a confused boy.”
He picked a newspaper up off the table and flipped it up in front of his face, leaving me to silence. I took a sip of coffee.
For the rest of our time in Lebanon, my parents forbade me or my brother from sleeping on the bed my grandmother died in. They slept in it instead while we shared a bed on the other side of the room. That night, I turned over in the dark and saw my father and mother there, breathing slowly, soaked in blue from the moon spilling through the window. Every day after her death, my Uncle laid out a different set of my grandmother’s clothes on her spot on the couch, as if she had peacefully vanished, rather than getting eaten alive by her own body.
I went out into the living room, listening to the city down below and far away. I flinched at the echoes of bombs, but it was only fireworks. They launch fireworks all the time in Beirut. I wondered what they were celebrating. The red and green and silver in the sky sliced through the night, throwing color on the many rooftops and towers sprawling beyond the window. I saw the shadows cast by bullet-holes and craters. I saw my grandmother’s empty clothes on the sofa. I saw my reflection considering me through the glass.
As the tears fell I tried reaching for the shape of the sword hanging over the mantlepiece, but I couldn’t see, and I was left reaching there alone in the dark for a long time.
Christopher Alam is an undergraduate at the University of California Davis. He spends much of his spare time reading and writing, and in 2018 he wrote and produced a feature length film. He aspires to become a full-time writer or journalist for a living after university.