Picture in the Sand by Peter Blauner: Featured Excerpt

Hailed by Stephen King as "a book that reminds me of why I fell in love with storytelling," Peter Blauner's Picture in the Sand is an epic sweeping intergenerational saga told through a grandfather's passionate letters to his grandson, passing on the story of his political rebellion in 1950s Egypt in order to save his grandson's life in a post-9/11 world. Read an excerpt here!

Prologue

June 9, 2014

To: Bayridgemama475@gmail.com

From: Alexisfire475@gmail.com

Mother,

I’m sorry for what I have to tell you.

Maybe if I was more brave, I would say it to your face. But by the time you read this, I’ll be gone.

I realize this will be a shock. You know me only as the quiet, obedient son you and Dad raised me to be. You dressed me and fed me only too well. You sent me to the best schools. You only spoke English to me at home, so that I barely learned any Arabic. You helped me with my homework. You tolerated the rap and the heavy metal, the mess in my room, paid for my PS4 and the Sony camcorder, helped me take the tests and fill out the applications to the colleges you assumed I would attend. And I know you hoped I would become a big American success story and make you proud like Dad with his office at Chase or Grandpa with his gas station and his Escalade.

I am sorry I’m going to disappoint you.

But the curtain has been thrown back. The dream is over. What happened to Dad last summer woke me up. Yes, I know the FBI agents who arrested him and held him overnight at the jail have officially “apologized” for mistaking him for a terrorist with the same name. I know that you and Dad are ready to accept this and move on. But I can’t.

I now see how easily everything we have can be taken away in an instant. All our savings, Dad’s “customer relations” job, the gas pumps Grandpa owns, the big house on Colonial Road. All our assets could have been frozen, our cash spent on defense lawyers. That American flag we fly on our front porch and the little U.S. Constitutions that Grandpa likes to give our guests? They’re jokes. We never really belonged here. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember. In fact, my earliest memory is being at the Fort Hamilton playground with you after those towers came down and having the other kids call me Osama and tell me to go back to the desert. 

I remember how you tried to comfort me that day. You told me to dry my tears and hold my head up, that we were as American as anyone else. But we both know that was a lie. These people never wanted us here. And they have no business in the place where we come from. The world is what it is, a battlefield. And we must all choose sides. We must fight to be free men and women, or live and die as slaves and prisoners.

I choose to fight. I won’t be going off to Cornell to study chemistry and video production this fall. I’ll be learning more valuable lessons on the battlefront, where, God willing, we will find victory or glory in martyrdom.

My life is meaningless without struggle. How could I stand in line buying sweatshirts at the college bookstore or tossing a Frisbee across the quad when other men my age are risking body and soul to confront the enemy? How can I sit in the lecture halls, taking notes and grubbing for grades, when I know my brothers are marching through deserts and valleys with AK-47s slung over their shoulders? How can I hang out on Facebook or go to the library trying to meet girls or be in a dorm with my roommate playing Grand Theft Auto V when other boys my age are on a desert hilltop with the true power of life and death in their trigger fingers?

Even as I write this, I find myself imagining your reaction. After the shock subsides, I know there will be tears. And disbelief too. You’ll ask yourself what went wrong. What you could have done differently. You’ll ask if you should have sent me to a psychiatrist when I started fighting with you and Dad all the time. You’ll imagine there are friendships you could have encouraged. Or perhaps discouraged. You’ll think I shouldn’t have spent so much time alone, in front of screens, getting “radicalized” on the Internet. And while it’s true that I’ve spent a lot of time watching martyr videos and talking to my recruiters in Syria about joining the struggle, it’s also irrelevant. This journey has always been my destiny.

The soul of a warrior has always been within me, even when my only weapon was the shovel in the sandbox, or the joystick I held playing Call of Duty. I know that the course I’ve chosen must make no sense to you. But the material life of the present is not enough for me. Something further back in the past is calling out to me, telling me that those other kids were right: I should go back to the desert.

Please don’t grieve. I will always keep you, Dad, Amy, Samantha, and Grandpa in my heart. Insha’Allah we will be together again in a better place someday. Please tell Amy and Samantha to stay out of my room—except to feed my fish. No one wants his little sisters nosing around. Feel free to put all my video games and DVDs out on the sidewalk, though I seriously doubt anyone will want them because most of them are really old.

Try not to be too sad or scared. I know I’ve never traveled anywhere farther than New Jersey on my own, but I’m totally doing what I need to do.

Your son, Abu Suror (I looked it up. It means “father of joy.”)

P.S. I don’t want to be called Alex anymore.

 

July 23, 2014

To: Alexisfire475@gmail.com

From: GrandpaAli71@aol.com

Dear Alex (I’m too old to call you any other name),

I do not use the email very often, but there seems to be no other way to reach you. Your mother tells me that your cell phone is turned off and that you have left no forwarding address for regular mail. Whether this message will ever reach you or whether you will respond in any way, I have no idea. I pray, Insha’Allah, that you are still alive to read this.

It has been more than six weeks since any of us have heard from you. Your mother cries every single day. Sometimes several times in the course of one meal. Sometimes your two sisters cry as well. But mostly they just stay in their rooms. Your father is like a zombie. Since you haven’t answered any of your parents’ emails, I don’t know if you’re aware that he left his job at the bank to devote himself full-time to searching for you. He has spoken to every taxi service, every airline, every State Department and embassy official who will take his phone calls. He flew to Cairo and Istanbul, showing your picture and spending thousands of dollars on “fixers” trying to track you down. It appears that you slipped though the fence to Syria to join these so-called militants fighting the government there under the black flag. When your father tried to follow your path, he was detained by the Syrian police, badly beaten, and then sent back to Turkey. Now he is home, Alhamdulillah, and though your mother says she doesn’t blame him for not finding you, they are not happy the way they used to be. Which makes me very sad.

There is no real reason for you to respond to me when you haven’t responded to anyone else. Even though I’ve been part of your life since the moment you were born, you hardly know me. And I am sure you would say I hardly know you, even though we’ve lived under the same roof since your grandmother died and your parents asked me to move in so they could keep an eye on me.

You are a young man who says he is off to fight a battle for his people. I am an old Egyptian with one eye who owns a gas station with a convenience store in Bay Ridge, prays five times a day, roots for the New York Mets, and cries at old movies and misses his wife terribly. You have always played the dutiful polite grandson around me. You have smiled at my tiresome old man jokes, pulled the chair out for me at the dinner table, and covered me with a blanket when I fall asleep snoring in front of the TV. You have shown me respect as the family elder, the father of your father, still working at the age of eighty-five. You have always been patient and said the right things. But I know you have not been very much interested in me.

And why should you be? Someone who has lived what seems to be such a dull complacent life could understand nothing about the great heroic journey you have embarked upon. Except that one thing you said in your letter to your mother caught my attention. You say this journey you have embarked upon is your destiny. You believe that something far back in the past, beyond your parents’ comfortable lives, is calling out to you.

I understand this better than you believe.

When I was your age, I went on a similar journey and very nearly did not come back. It’s a story that I have never told you. In fact, I have told very little of it to anyone in the United States since I came here more than forty years ago. Even your father, my only child, knows just the broad outlines, because I have always cut him off from asking too many questions. I wanted him to be an American, bright-eyed and hopeful, proud of me as his father, and knowing as little as possible about the past.

Because the truth is that your boring grandfather, Ali Hassan—the gas station owner with his leathery skin, his old man cologne and his corny jokes—spent many years in prison for being a violent criminal, and lost his left eye in the process.

I have always been strict about keeping this secret. But after your grandmother died, I found myself starting to write things down. Why, I wasn’t sure at first. But when I was a young man, I was a kind of writer. Or at least I aspired to be. So I began to write my life story. Not because I believed anyone would ever publish it, but because I recognized something of my own restlessness in you when you started having problems with your parents a few years ago. I wanted you to know me. To know that I had this life, so there would be some record to pass on. For a while, I thought I might not show it to you, at least not while I was still alive. But now I feel more urgency to share it. I don’t know if you will have the time or the inclination to read what I have attached here, if God sees fit to have it reach you. But I hope you will. Because I know how this movie ends.

Yours, with love and compassion,

Grandpa (in Arabic, Gedo. But I prefer you call me what you always have.)

 

1

As I start to write this story, you, my grandson, are thirteen years old and upstairs in your bedroom with the door closed, not speaking to your parents. I hear the distant percussion of booms and gunshots through the ceiling. You are playing one of your video games. I am in the den, watching an old movie and making a few random notes to myself.

The film is about a silent movie actress trying to be remembered in a world that has forgotten her. I’m afraid you would not like it or understand it. It’s in black-and-white, and it’s narrated by a dead man. But I wish you would come in and watch a few minutes. Because it would help me begin to explain myself. There is a scene coming up in which the actress goes to see the director who long before made her a star. His name is Cecil B. DeMille. I knew him in real life. He was one of the idols of my youth. And after all these years, it’s still hard for me to believe that I spent such a large part of my life behind bars for the crime of trying to destroy him.

But let me come back to that.

I was born in Egypt, between two wars and two worlds. I grew up just down the street from the pyramids, at the foot of the Giza Plateau. The Sphinx was only a short stroll from our front door. But the magnificent absurdity of my life, which led to all my misadventures and blessings, is that I preferred to go to the movies.

Our family lived in a mud brick house directly across the road from the Mena House Hotel, where all the celebrities of the day stayed. My mother was a chambermaid and my father was a golf caddy for the guests. He was a most excellent golfer himself. He liked to joke that he was the one who broke the Sphinx’s nose with a drive from the eighteenth hole.

I was a happy child, and why not? Every morning I would walk to school with my cousin and best friend, Sherif, past wandering chickens and quail in the road; tin roof shacks and smoldering village blacksmith forges; fragrant bakers’ ovens in the open air; and the souvenir shop where Sherif’s father sold Aladdin slippers, miniature mummies, and crocodile-head backscratchers to the tourists. Every afternoon I would come home to a house full of women: my mother and three older sisters talking gaily to nieces and cousins, conjuring splendid amalgams from room service leftovers, adding spaghetti marinara to traditional kushari, Carr’s water biscuits to mish and bissara, London broil to ful mudammas while songs like “Begin the Beguine” and “Moonlight Serenade” played on the radio.

I knew we were not rich, but my family treated me like a little prince of Egypt, because I was the only son. My mother brought home silk sheets from the guest rooms for me to sleep on and tailored clothes accidentally left in the hampers. My father let me ride in his golf cart and introduced me proudly to his favorite customers. In the spring, I competed in the pyramid races, somehow beating Sherif to the highest peak, even though he was as lean as a jackal and twice as fierce when he competed. My rewards were the shower of kisses and candies I received from my mother and sisters, and my first Yankee dollars from the tourists who cheered us on.

Sometimes I glimpsed famous guests like Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt on the hotel veranda. But I was aware of an older, more uncanny world on our side of the road. In those days, before the Aswan High Dam was built, the flood waters of the Nile would come right up to the paws of the Sphinx. My classroom would be so drenched that I’d have to leap from desk to desk to keep my feet dry and avoid stepping on frogs.

Perhaps you think I exaggerate? Well, I come by it honestly. My neighbors passed down the old legends that had been around since the time of the pharaohs. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, they still believed that the course of daily life was afflicted by jinn and afreet and other invisible spirits in the air, that the evil eye could kill you, that raving unwashed madmen could cure rickets and bilharzia, and that the black cat around the village well transformed into an old crone at midnight who would curse your family if you tried to draw water after sundown. But again, none of those myths stirred me as much as what I saw when my mother started taking me to the movies.

I can still remember settling into the plush velvet seats and looking up at the red damask curtains of the Metro Cinema before the house lights slowly went down, ushering us into the mysteries of the darkness. This was long before TV was common in any Egyptian home, Alex. A celestial white beam shot through a tiny square in the wall behind us, as dragons of cigarette smoke from the orchestra section curled up toward the balcony where I sat with my mother, my two older sisters and Sherif. That first film was Fantasia and, oh, I was overwhelmed, my grandson. It was like watching images from my own unconsciousness being projected onto that giant screen. The wild and florid colors, the cartoon mouse in the wizard’s robes, the marching broomsticks, the silhouette of the conductor, the “Rites of Spring” and the dinosaurs, the rising of the dead and the “Ave Maria.” I forgot the fact that my mother could only afford one small tub of popcorn for the five of us to share. I wanted to stay for the next showing, and the one after that, so we didn’t have to go back to our house, which had no toilet at the time and only intermittent electricity. But Sherif was tugging at her arm and my father was waiting for dinner, so she had to promise we would come back another time.

The next week was even better. We went to a theater called the Avalon. They were showing a British movie called The Thief of Bagdad. It was not a cartoon. It had real people in it, doing utterly impossible things. Flying through the air and coaxing genies from bottles. Even more amazing, one of those real people was a brown boy named Sabu, who was even darker than I was! And he wasn’t just a silent servant in a scene or two but one of the stars of the picture. When he rode the magic carpet at the end to save the sultan and the princess from the wicked vizier who’d imprisoned them, I was carried away with him, imagining I, Ali Hassan, could be the hero rising up from lowly origins to save the day.

After that, I made my mother to take me back every week, so we could hold hands and dream together in the dark. Sometimes we would take my cousin and my sisters. Sometimes it would be just the two of us. We saw everything: Egyptian films, French ones, Italian, English, and Spanish. We saw comedies and musicals, romantic melodramas and gangster pictures. But my favorites were American movies. Especially the Westerns with heroic cowboys and black-hatted outlaws having blazing shoot-outs in deserts that vaguely resembled the one we lived in but somehow seemed to be on another planet. Just the names bring me back to the happy days of my childhood. Stagecoach, They Died with Their Boots On, The Plainsman. The directors’ names would appear big as the columns of the Luxor temples before the action, monuments to be worshipped. Mr. John Ford, Mr. Raoul Walsh, and the most monumental name of them all, Mr. Cecil B. DeMille.

I began to think of how I might rise above my circumstances like Sabu on his magic carpet and eventually become one of them.

But then the house lights would come on and real life would interrupt my dreams.

My village, my city, my country had been spared the worst effects of the war, until after the battles of El Alamein. Then there was an outbreak of typhus. My aunt Amina, Sherif’s mother, fell ill with the fever first. She sweated and could not get out of bed. She complained of horrible pains in her abdomen. Then she shook and closed her eyes, and never opened them again. His father, Hamid, the shop owner, died a few hours after her. The very next day, my sisters, Mariam and Rana, fell into a swoon and passed within hours of each other. Then my dear stalwart mother, who’d been running around trying to take care of them all, and of our neighbors as well, got a raging fever. She curled up and cried out like she was being stabbed by a hundred invisible knives. I stood by helpless, clutching a damp washcloth. The hotel doctor could not help her, nor could the village medicine man. I went with my father to the Al Husayn mosque and prayed as hard as I could, promising Allah I would give anything if he would spare her.

She died anyway.

My world went from color to black-and-white. More than a dozen in our village died. My father and other men retreated into drinking and mournful silences at home. I became withdrawn as well, barely able to pay attention in school. It was Sherif who saved me. My cousin, only six months older, had always been more like a big brother to me. He insisted the problem was not that God had failed us but that we had failed him, by not being devout enough. He started dragging me to our local mosque every day, showing me where to find solace and explanation in the Holy Koran and the hadith. Faith lightened my burden in those places, especially when I saw older men who’d suffered in the plague, praying alongside me.

But that was not enough for Sherif. He always had a talent for pushing things. He declared he was forming a junior Promotion of Virtue society in our village and appointed me as his vice-president. We would spend hours designing handbills with sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and then running around like a couple of mischief-makers slipping papers of hadith under the doors of hotel guests and lecturing our neighbors about the sins of drinking and lasciviousness. To tell you the truth, I rather liked it, because most people received us with tolerant good humor, giving us tea and not reminding Sherif that his father had run a side business selling pornography in the back room of his shop. But then one day, a widow with five children turned on us and started yelling that my mother was to blame for bringing the plague to our village because she supposedly consorted with foreigners as a maid and took us to the movies instead of religious school.

I was hurt and deeply offended, of course. But Sherif actually attacked the widow physically—to the point that I had to hold him back. After that, he became more remote and turned inward. He claimed he was taking private lessons from a local imam, but I suspect that he was just smoking a lot of hashish. He began talking a lot about the need to “do something” to change our country and put us “back on the path toward the one true God”—though I pointed out that our country used to believe in many gods. I was secretly relieved when he went off to join a teenage volunteer brigade fighting alongside the Egyptian Army against the common enemy of the Arab world—the newly declared State of Israel. I paid little attention to the fact that the brigade was organized by the Ikhwan, a religious group that was also known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Many people in our country belonged to that movement and shared its objectives. I thought if they could find some use for Sherif’s restless urges, it was all to the good.

In his absence, I started working as a busboy at the hotel, using my meager wages to help my father pay bills and occasionally take refuge at the Metro or the Avalon movie theater where I’d spent so many Saturday matinees. Except now that I was older, the cinema became not just my sanctuary but my classroom. I learned about love and courage and success. And it was where I found my own path forward. After seeing Mr. David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations, I was inspired to put pen to paper to write a review. On a whim, I sent it to Professor Ibrahim Farid, one of the great literary critics of Egypt, whose name I had seen in culture stories in the newspapers. For reasons known only to God, he read it and became convinced that I had insight and promise. He persuaded the admissions office to accept my application into the King Fuad I University in Cairo.

And it was there that my life began again. I formed a Student Cinema Society. I became an entrepreneur, learning how to rent films from my father’s golf customers who worked in the movie distribution business. I covered the rental costs by charging the equivalent of twenty cents a ticket for the showings I arranged in the university dining hall. I applied myself to mastering the art of marketing and audience research, with posters and handbills made at the same printer Sherif and I had used for the Promotion of Virtue Society. I discovered that silly comedies with Aly El Kassar and the Three Stooges often sold out. Social dramas like Life of Darkness and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, as I’ve heard you say “not so much.”

But most of all, I discovered my true destiny. In my senior year, I took a chance and rented a French film called Children of Paradise. It was a long romantic drama made during the German occupation about four men in love with the same beautiful, unattainable courtesan. I was enraptured by it. My audience was not. People began leaving about halfway through—one at a time and then in droves, until I was absolutely sure I would be alone when the lights came up. I was crestfallen. I’d had a vision and no one else had seen it. I was a fool who would never amount to anything. But when the credits rolled, I heard someone else there, quietly weeping. I turned the lights on and there she was.

She had been sitting in the dark with me the whole time. Just the two of us, sharing le beau rêve.

Her name was Mona Salem. I had already noticed her on campus. She was a very striking young woman. She had the dark eyes and complexion of an Egyptian girl, but her curly hair was spun from pale gold. You knew that her parents had come from great distances to find each other and fall in love. She dressed like a Parisienne in white linen and silk scarves, and she moved like she’d had ballet lessons. She seemed like someone from beyond my class, the other side of the road, where the guests at the grand hotel stayed.

Ils ont coupé ma mère.” She sniffled into a cotton handkerchief.

“Someone cut your mother?” I knew a little French from the hotel.

Non.” She shook her head. “Ils ont coupé les scènes de ma mère du film.” Then she looked right at me and spoke in Arabic. “They cut my mother’s scenes from the film.”

It turned out that her mother was a minor French actress, who’d had a few lines of dialogue that were removed. Her father was an Egyptian diplomat who’d fallen in love while assigned to Paris. We stayed up most of the night talking over tea I made in the dining hall kitchen. The more we talked, the more she seemed like someone from my side of the road. She told me how her mother had left her father for a German officer, like the actress in the film, before moving on to a Swiss industrialist. Now Mona had to look after her father, to try to help mend his broken heart. She spoke of how she wanted to be an actress herself, but felt her cheeks were too round, her eyes were too small, and her ankles were too thick. To me, she seemed as enchanting as Miss Ava Gardner or our own golden Miss Egypt, Dalida. She insisted she should have some higher purpose than entertainment. Yet she was still as drawn as I was to that pure white beam from the projector.

By morning, I had a new vision of paradise, and Mona was at the center of it. I hungered for her with my body and my soul, in a way that I had never hungered for a flesh-and-blood woman before. She lit a fire in me. I decided I would find a way to get into the film business, and I would take her with me. I would get a job and make myself an invaluable assistant to one of the famous American filmmakers coming to our part of the world more often in those days. They would be so impressed by my diligence and ingenuity that they would have no choice but to bring me back to the States with them. I would change my name from Ali Hassan to Al Harrison! Then I would send for my beloved. She would join me in the real-world paradise of California. And there, beside the aqua-blue Pacific, amid the orange groves and abundant yellow sunshine, we would thrive and become full-fledged Americans.

We would buy a Chevrolet so I could commute to my job on the studio lot and then we would acquire a house in this Pasadena place that I’d read about in the movie magazines. It would have an Olympic-size swimming pool, where Mona could swim laps with the lithe grace of Miss Esther Williams. There would be a guest bungalow so my father could come and play golf in exotic places like Glendale and Alhambra. Then Mona and I would raise a family with natural-born American children who would know nothing about typhus, or starvation, or occupying armies, or any of the other direness that movies had helped us to escape.

I became serious about my ambitions. With Professor Farid’s help, I arranged to rent an Arriflex camera. Then I worked extra shifts as a busboy, so I could buy a dozen rolls of Kodak film. I used them to shoot a little ten-minute movie, called After the Revolution, starring my beautiful Mona and Sherif, who by then had come back from the war with Israel and been accepted as an engineering student at the university. I pressed my father to tell his customers in the film distribution business about it. Then I cultivated those contacts to get production-assistant jobs on Egyptian and American films. I painted sets. I wrangled animals. I drove the actor Mr. Robert Taylor when he was in Valley of the Kings. I tried to assist the screenwriter Mr. William Faulkner when he was researching his script for Land of the Pharaohs—though I soon discovered Mr. Faulkner was more interested in researching the hotel bars of Cairo than the course of the river Nile, which he compared unfavorably to his rippling Mississippi.

I put together a résumé and perhaps exaggerated my credits on Egyptian films, on which I was fairly sure the Americans could not easily verify the information. Then finally I got the opportunity I had been waiting for. I learned that in the autumn of 1954, Cecil B. DeMille himself would be coming to Egypt to make what he announced would be his last and greatest picture, The Ten Commandments.

I tell you, Alex, I was such “a fanboy,” as you say, that I would have given up my left eye willingly to be his assistant. He had made silent films, pioneer pictures, sea adventures, cowboy movies, circus films and, most of all, religious epics like King of Kings, Sign of the Cross, and Samson and Delilah—which stirred the mind with their moral lessons and roused other parts with their lavish displays of flesh.

To my disappointment, I was only assigned to the motor pool for the first few days of preproduction, even after I hounded my father to use his contacts to get me a better job. Then on the third night, my father burst in the door with a message from the local studio office that had been left at the Mena House switchboard. I was to show up at ten o’clock sharp the next morning at a brand-new apartment house beside the University Bridge, in my best suit and polished shoes. Mr. DeMille’s previous Egyptian assistant had “not worked out” for some unspecified reason, and I was to be the replacement and his personal driver.

And so it came to pass that on a warm October morning in the year of 1954, I was parked along the corniche of the Nile, humming movie music to myself as if the epic motion picture of my life was about to finally begin. I was twenty-four years old then, and I looked quite a bit like you, Alex: a plump-cheeked, slack-bellied, copper-skinned Egyptian boy with an American wardrobe, greasy pomade in his hair and an eager, welcoming grin.

The glass doors swung open and three men came out onto the sidewalk. One was dark, languorous, and heavy lidded in a white, wide-brimmed Borsalino fedora and a linen jacket that looked like he’d slept in it. His unshaven jowls reminded me a little of Mr. Humphrey Bogart in his rougher roles. But his sleepy eyes, long nose, and crooked half smile suggested a more European temperament. He looked like the kind of person who could ridicule you without actually saying anything.

The second man, who held the door, was a more reassuringly familiar figure. He was tall, slender, and craggily handsome with symmetrical features just starting to develop heavy lines and perfectly coiffed silver-gray hair. I realized it was the English actor Mr. Henry Wilcoxon, whose work I had favorably reviewed in Mrs. Miniver and Tarzan Finds a Son!

The third man was Mr. Cecil B. DeMille.

I once heard a saying, Alex, that great men are the only things in the world that become smaller as they get closer. That was not my experience. Mr. DeMille was seventy-three years old at that time. At fifty paces, he looked like a kindly country doctor. He was bald and wore a blue serge suit with clear horn-rimmed glasses. But he moved with impatient dynamism of a man half his age. At twenty paces, his jaw hardened and the silver fringes around his temples began to resemble a Roman emperor’s laurels. The sun gleamed off his exposed pate and the leather puttees he wore wrapped around his legs looked like the boots of a World War I field marshal. At ten paces, his gentle brown eyes became keen and fierce as they started to form a judgment.

“You’re the new assistant?” His hand was on the passenger door before I could open it.

“Yes, sir.” I smiled. “Ali Hassan, at your service.”

He looked me over. “Going to do a better job than the last one?”

“I hope so, sir.”

He grunted skeptically before he got in the back seat.

“Your predecessor had to be sacked because he failed to have Mr. DeMille’s shoes polished and his chair ready on the set.” Henry Wilcoxon offered a sympathetic smile before he folded himself in after the director. “But don’t worry. Someone always gets fired right at the start of a DeMille picture, just to keep everyone else on their toes.”

 

August 4, 2014

To: GrandpaAli71@aol.com

From: Asur@protonmail.com

Gedo,

Okay.

Here are my terms, nonnegotiable.

I will read your story, when I have time. But you may not ask me anything about where I am or who I am with. You cannot ask me what I am doing or what I am planning to do. You cannot ask me to come home. And above all, you may not tell anyone else you’ve heard back from me. If you do, I swear that I will never communicate with you in any way again.

You will not hear from me often. When you do, it will be from an encrypted email address, like this one. And it won’t always be the same one.

But I would like to hear how you wound up in prison and lost your eye. I’ve always known there were secrets in our family. But did you seriously think I was still such a baby that I couldn’t handle the truth?!

Just hit Reply to this email and I’ll eventually find a way to get it. And by the way, I am no longer “slack-bellied.”

Yours sincerely, in the name of the Merciful and Compassionate,

Abu Suror

 

August 5, 2014

To: Asur@protonmail.com

From: GrandpaAli71@aol.com

Grandson,

How glad I am to hear from you.

I will agree to your terms, for now. Though I hope you will change your mind and at least allow me to tell your mother and father that you are alive and well.

Love,

Grandpa

 

Copyright © 2023 by Peter Blauner. All rights reserved.

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