Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Steel Dog-18


The Immigration offices were sprawling and barren, officious and confused.  A nervous couple could check in forty minutes before their appointment, then sit on two hard chairs for an hour, occupying their little corner of a waiting room barely large enough for the hundred patrons.  Vietnamese faces were common.  Incans wore bright colors, speaking a brilliant mix of Iberian and mountain languages.  Four Bantu girls gathered beside the only window—tall slender black beauties thrilled by this experience.  Married people remained focused on one another.   The wives looked foreign-born and Quentin found an unsuspected pride in Farah being as exotic as the other brides.  Occasionally some functionary would shuffle out of the back to mangle names.  But there wasn’t much anticipation.  Patrons were ready to endure more hours of thankless waiting, and if called, they didn’t act especially pleased to abandon the chairs they had defended all morning.

For sixty-seven minutes, Farah and Quentin sat together, making a minimum of small talk, and that enforced patience made them married.  Then Farah’s name was read aloud, and as two people with a common goal, they rose.

Quentin expected them to be dragged in separate directions.  Perhaps Farah thought the same.  But they were told to find a nearby office where two steel chairs stood before the tiniest woman Quentin had ever seen.  The most important person in theirs lives was a midget, a midget sitting on a tall chair.  Some vanished circus must have left this woman behind, and now she was making her way in life to the best of her abilities.  Her abilities included an ample chest displayed with the help of two unbuttoned buttons. Those breasts were a revelation of smooth flesh, and nothing else was inside Quentin's head. He nearly laughed, fighting to keep his face stiff and stern.

The woman greeted them with a warm smile and Farah’s full name.  After glancing at the husband, her eyes dipped.  His name was lurking on a form, and she memorized it long enough to repeat it once.  “Quentin Maurus.  Yes.”

Quentin had kept his family name.  It was a perfectly legal choice, and he was ready to defend that decision to all complainers.

Yet just like that, he was forgotten.

The tiny woman—Barbara Stains, the nameplate read—studied his wife.  “How are your studies coming?”

“Fine,” Farah replied.  “My studies are good.”

“Opal Green.”

Farah blinked.  “Yes?”

“She still teaches, doesn’t she?”  The interrogator used a smile, trying to trick everyone into relaxing.  “I was at Warner, the class of ’61.”

Farah sighed softly.  “Dr. Green teaches English.”

“Have you taken her classes?”

“Classical poetry.”

“Oh, I adored that one,” the woman said.

And then she asked for Farah’s address.

Farah replied with a careful, practiced tone.

A string of equally innocuous questions followed, each answered without incident or important misstep.

Quentin stared at Madam Stains, his combustive imagination picturing her naked, surrounded by giant, severely stimulated young men.

Unaware of secret sex parties, their interrogator returned to the important forms.  Face down, she mentioned, “There are questions I can’t ask.”

Farah stiffened.

“Perhaps you know.  There’s a Maimun Temple three blocks from here.”  One of the miniature hands pointed.

“I don’t know it,” his wife said.

“And I’m not supposed to ask if you do,” Barbara replied.  “Your homeland is rather prickly about possible harassment of its citizens.  Particularly citizens trying to leave them behind.  You might call home, mention my harmless questions, and as a result some Western citizen in Persia instantly suffers similar abuse.  At least that's the fear, supposedly.”

“I converted,” Farah said.  “Last year.”

“Well, that’s entirely your choice,” Barbara said.

“I don’t belong to any church.  But I worship with Christians on campus.”  She looked at Quentin, adding, “With a Bible study group.”

She wanted her husband to verify her story.

But it would look bad, the agnostic defending the new convert.  So he changed subjects.

“What was your major, madam?”

“Business administration.”  A nest of happy memories teased a smile free, and the lady sat back.  “I loved my teachers and loved living in the dorms.”

“Harp Hall,” he guessed.

“Do you know Harp?”  Then with a subtle downward glance, she added, “Mr. Maurus.”

“I’ve been inside, once or twice.”

That earned a long, raucous laugh.

Farah sat quietly while the official and Quentin traded knowing winks.  Then he mentioned professors that he didn’t know well, but whose names made this powerful soul happy.

Madam Stains eventually tired of old days.

“Look at the time,” she announced.  Without rising, she said, “Here,” and handed a fresh document to Farah.  “Fill this out, Madam Fakoor.  And leave it with the girl at the front desk.  We’ll see both of you here in six months.  And if you can, enjoy what’s left of your day.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Steel Dog-17


A thick voice said, “Come in.”  His wife was crying behind the door, and after blinks and sobs, she added, “Sit.”

Farah wore a sober rust-colored blouse, black trousers, and tall dress shoes that gave her another two inches.  The loose hair was just long enough to brush against her shoulders, and she was pretty despite the sloppy black mess around her eyes.  Quentin sat on the sofa, the same place as last time.  Farah claimed a hard wooden chair pointed at him, not so much sitting as perching on its edge.  She looked exhausted, but the audience obligated her to stop weeping, a string of soggy tissues scraping off the wasted makeup.

Quentin didn’t speak.

“No,” she said.  “This is nothing.”

“All right.”

She sniffed hard.  “I want to do this.  No second thoughts.”


“You don’t believe me.”

“I do.”  He hadn’t tried to sound doubtful.  “You want to live here.  Fine.”

“And become a citizen,” she reminded both of them.  Elbows on knees, she said, “Any smart woman would want to live in the West.”

“Because she’s free,” he said.

Yet those were the wrong words.  Red eyes refused to blink, staring at a point above his head.  Then quietly, fiercely, she told him, “It’s not as you people think.  We aren’t slaves in Persia.  I can vote and own property and hold any opinion I wish, and if I were there now, I could read more books than you enjoy in your world.”

It was safest to silently nod.

“Freedom is not one simple shape,” she assured.  “It’s never pure or finished.  Freedom exists as a matter of degrees.”

Another nod.

She mashed the tissues into one gray ball and stood abruptly.  “My mother called this morning.”


“Shiraz,” she said.

He waited.

“My home city.  Shiraz.  It’s ancient and beautiful.  In case anyone should ask you, which they won’t.  Tell them Shiraz is in the heart of the hated nation, and it’s famous for its splendid gardens.  I miss those gardens, by the way.  Nothing here is half as lovely.”

“Your mother called from Shiraz,” he said quietly.

“My mother.”  The young woman refused to cry again.  Resolve took hold of the face.  “Sometimes I love her, and I miss her.  But love is like freedom.  I think.  Measured in degrees, refusing to remain constant.  Do you know what I mean?”

Quentin gave what he hoped was a confident nod.

Farah didn’t notice.  What mattered were events and faces thousands of miles removed, years in her past.

“Does she know?” he asked.

“About what?”

“Your recent marriage.”

A weary sigh bled into laughter.  “I think, yes, she does know.  But only because she’s clever.  I haven’t volunteered explanations for my lingering here.  Our relationship, hers and mine, is difficult as it is.”

Quentin pointed at a framed photograph on the bureau.  “Are those your parents?”

As if she hadn’t noticed that portrait before, the picture needed to be lifted, examined in detail, and then carefully set on its face.

Saying nothing, Farah walked into the bathroom,

Quentin turned the photograph on its back, studying an elegant man and the beautiful young woman standing before a bed of roses.

“Shiraz,” he repeated.

“Nobody will ask,” she said.

“But a husband should know.”

Rebuilding Farah’s face took a long while.  Quentin was reading a random chapter in an economics textbook when she returned, offering a careful smile before saying, “It won’t hurt to be early.”

He stood again.

“You are good to do this,” she told him.

“Like you say,” he countered.  “It’s really not much.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Steel Dog-16

Not Real

He answered the phone and heard his name, the woman wrapping the word in a rich accent.

Quentin said, “Hello.”

Farah asked if this was a bad time.

He said, “No,” and left it there.

“Friday,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Our appointment.”

“I remember.”  Now he did.

“Friday morning,” she warned.  “Ten thirty, at Immigration.”

“Okay then.”

She hesitated.  “Are you alone, Quentin?”

“Not really.”

“Oh.”  Then, “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t speak.

“Ten thirty,” she repeated.  “But we should meet before.  At my apartment, maybe at eight o’clock?”

“We probably should.”

“To talk.  To be ready.”   She was breathing quickly, as if climbing stairs.  “I’ve asked others.  I know what to expect.  This is just to prove where I live, and that you are real.”

“But I’m not real.”

He heard a soft, mournful gasp.

“You are and thank you,” she said before breaking the connection.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Steel Dog-15

Birds of Thunder

Vinnie’s hair was longer, and against every expectation, she was wearing a girlish skirt and silk blouse. “Where have you been?" she asked with measured amazement. "I haven’t seen you in ages. What have you been doing?”

“Nothing I’ll admit to.”

They shared unenthusiastic laughter.

Vinnie stepped closer.  “What are you reading?”

“About thunderbirds.  They dug up a huge new species in Africa.”


“Too bad there wasn’t an ark to save them.”

“Don’t walk that path,” she said.

Another young woman was standing nearby.  Judging by the glowering expression, Quentin was a problem, or the stranger was furious for reasons unrelated to this unknown male lurking inside the library.  Either way, it was her sworn duty to glare at him while grinding her teeth.

Makeup softened Vinnie’s face.

“Anything new with you?” he asked.

“The usual.  Grad school, getting ready for the summer term.”

“How’s Harp?”

“Wonderful,” she declared, looking only at him.

Her friend fidgeted like a bored five-year-old.

“My mother asks about you.”

He straightened.  “Asks what?”

“’How’s your friend Quentin?’  That sort of thing.”

“Remind me.  When did I last see dear Mom?”

Vinnie said nothing.

“Five months ago, wasn’t it?”

A complaining tone leaked out of the girlfriend.

“I have to go,” Vinnie told him.


He watched the women walk away, then returned to his thunderbird—a four-legged monstrosity with a tiny head and a set of reliable instincts riding on a body bigger than most houses. And it occurred to Quentin that although the beast was surely stupid, its life had been grander and more interesting than any little human existence would ever be.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Steel Dog-14

A Reasonable Precaution

Her home was smaller at night.  Rumbling music drifted from a neighbor’s apartment, bringing the sweet flavor of incense.  Farah sat at the far end of the sofa but leaned towards him, waiting for his eyes, and earning his gaze, she said, “Hello.”

“Hello,” Quentin repeated.

She smiled nervously.  Two vodkas and a tall glass of baneh wine left her in control but with no margins for error.  Straightening her back, she pushed out her chest before offering the opaque words, “I think, yes.”

Quentin assumed that Farah was tired or bored, and now she wished he would leave. 

“It’s late,” he offered.

“But before you go, I want to remind you how much I want to remain in your country.”

He nodded.

“I love Queensland.”  She put her hands in front of her face, as if hunting new details in the wiggling fingers.  Then the hands dropped, and she said, “The rules have changed.”

“What rules?”

“Concerning married people.”  Leaning against the armrest, she said, “I don’t know why this happened, but I hear that immigration officials are becoming more careful.”

Quentin tried to swallow and tried again, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that he could eat the lump in his throat.

“Of course Persian men have a much harder time staying in this country.  Being female in your world has advantages.”

“What are we talking about?”

Farah stood, abruptly and without explanation.  After a moment of studying the top of his head, she walked into the tiny bathroom, leaving the door open while calling out, “This is not fair to you.  I know.”

He agreed but said nothing.

“You shouldn’t have to put yourself at risk.  Certainly not for me.”

Fabric moved, twin thumps marking the shoes hitting the tiled floor.

“But we must be ready,” she said.  “For questions.”

Snaps unfastened, a zipper purred.



“Close your eyes, please.”

He closed them to where he could see motion but no details.  On bare feet, Farah drifted back into the room and settled on the sofa—an olive-colored shape aiming for silence, but nervous enough to breathe deeply before saying, “Open your eyes, please.”

She was nude, sitting awkwardly five feet away.

“They might ask about my body,” she explained.  “I considered taking photographs and giving them you.  But no, this is better.  Best.”

She was a few pounds heavier than he had imagined, the extra weight gathered around the waist.  An abundance of black pubic hair grew between smooth, pale legs.  Bending forward, her belly wore a crease that hid her navel.  Her breasts were substantial and a little soft, tipped with massive black nipples stiffened by fear and the chilled air.

Nestled between her breasts was a scar, vertical and wicked.

“What happened?” he wondered aloud.

She knew what he meant.  With a disinterested voice, she said, “I had some trouble once.  That’s all.”

He imagined surgeons wielding swords.



“I should know your body too.  As a precaution.  Government people have been known to ask, and we need enough details to be believed.”

The setting, the circumstances…the utter surprise…made him self-conscious.  But his tentativeness passed.  There was enthusiasm in the voice when he said, “All right.”

She stared at his knees as he stood, and as soon as the shirt came off, she averted her eyes, studying the dark plastic-pine paneling.

Naked, Quentin’s anxiety and arousal were in rough balance.


She did nothing.  For three breaths, she acted like a woman alone.  And then with her gaze still averted, she put her right hand into her pubic hair, the middle finger plunging, vanishing and then coming out again with a faintly wet sound.

Now she looked at him.

At his face first, then the penis.

“We need something more.  For each other, a performance.”  She sat back slightly and pulled a folded bath towel from behind her back.  Then she rubbed her pussy again.  Harder, but slowly. “Although I don’t think we should touch,” she said with a sigh.  “Touching would be too much.  I’m sorry.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Steel Dog-13

Everything Will Come True

The movie wasn’t much, and take away a handful of laughs, it was nothing.  Two hours of sitting in darkness, a strange woman close enough to share her heat.  Every accidental touch led to the wrist or leg being pulled away, but of course nobody was unfriendly and they agreed on drinks afterwards.  The movie house used to be a theatre where traveling plays and comedians entertained pre-television audiences.  Tucked behind the modern screen, among curtains and giant ropes and inaccessible walkways, was a narrow but extremely tall tavern.  Unlike every other bar in town, smoke didn’t form choking clouds, and despite being crowded, there was surprisingly little noise in the place.

Quentin asked about school.

Farah talked about her classes, which was how literature got set on the table between them.

He mentioned his new favorite author.  Did she know Konsky, the Angry Slav?

“I don’t read fiction, Quentin.  I’m sorry.”

“What do you read?”


He hadn’t expected that.

Pleased to put him on the defensive, Farah sat back, reciting a few favorite lines, presumably in Farsi.

“What does that mean?”

“My translation would be ugly,” she said.  “I don’t want to scar what’s beautiful.”

“Well, it sounded lovely,” he said, without lying.

Drinks arrived:  one carbonated licorice, one vodka and lime.  A few sips made her relax, and a few more made her less cautious.  Watching smoke lift from neighboring tables, she said, “There is a plan, you know.”

“A plan.”

“Oh, I believe there is.”

Words demanded interpretation.  Leaning forward, he asked, “Who’s doing the planning?”

She snickered.  “God, of course.”

“Of course.”

“But that’s right.  You don’t believe.”

“Not in magic, no.”

She challenged him with her eyes.  “What do you believe, Quentin?”

“Endless, infinite plans.  And everything will come true.”

She swirled her liquor and ice.  “What a sad way to think.  Can’t you see the guiding force that carries us through our days?”

“You mean gravity.”

A long look at her glass marked the topic’s end.  Then, “The West is so different from the East.”

“For instance?”

“Your ice is sharp.  In Persia, we prefer our ice rounded, easier on the mouth.”

“Like the shape of your buildings,” he mentioned.

“Some buildings are round.”  She sat back, shrugged.  “The important ones.  But small homes and hovels are usually cubes.”

She laughed; he couldn’t tell why.

“Round like desert tents,” Quentin said.

“Smart people say that.  ‘Round like tents.’  And they’re always angry when I explain their mistake.”  Another sip.  “Where does this ‘desert tent’ story come from?”

“Public school.  In the fifth year, Dance Grade, they show us films.  The footage comes from the Arab provinces.  Sand and camels, and the narrator explains that tent-shaped buildings are a Maimun tradition.”

“Desert people, yes.”  Farah sipped.  “I’ve visited the Persian wastes.  Several times.”

Quentin nodded, waiting.

“The wastes are nothing like Persia.”

“Drier,” he ventured.

She shrugged and hesitated, and considering who might be listening, she leaned closer.  “I don’t like desert people.  Sand makes men vulgar.  Persian men are bad enough, but Arab men believe women are playthings, and worse, Arab women are happy to be playthings owned by stupid brutes.”

Insulting an entire people, Farah seemed prettier.  Was this why humans were racists?  Did hatred help the skin glow, the eyes dance?

“What about your father?” he asked.

“What about him?"

“What’s his job?”

“He’s an engineer,” she said.  “In the petroleum industry.”

Quentin nodded as if that was familiar.  And maybe he had heard it before.

“Father and I haven’t spoken in a long time.  But when I was young, he’d take me on trips across the oil lands.”  Another sip preceded the question, “Did the films look romantic, these camels and the bright sand?”


“Well, the Prophet Maimun never wrote about tents.  But He had a great fondness for the round form.  Breasts, feminine rumps.  Though He didn’t put it bluntly.”  She sucked up a cubic chunk of ice, spat it out.  “In the Final Testament, the Prophet claims that half-spheres and wind-shaped dunes are the loveliest shapes beneath the heavens and that God would smile on those who built their homes along such divine ideals.”

“But he was thinking about breasts?”

She laughed.  “He was a man.”

Quentin sipped his fizz, considering questions.

“I left my homeland, but I still love its distinctive buildings. And I still find it jarring, the sharpness of your boxes.”

What surprised Quentin was how personally he took the reproach.

“But of course,” she continued.

He looked up, past the top of her head.

“Inside those elegant half-eggs and mushrooms, Persian rooms are as cubic as yours.  Flat ceilings, every corner pointed.  Otherwise, how could we hang our important artwork on the walls?”

Sharp-cornered ice rolled inside his mouth, revealing its flavor.  Leaning across the table, he said, “This is what I believe.”

A wary nod was offered.

“Life is fiction,” he said.  “Reality is a sequence of eternal moments stacked close, moments where matter and energy are almost identical.  Every life story is built from an infinite pile of similar ingredients, and nothing’s real except possibility and mayhem.”

She didn’t react.

Quentin sat back, laughing joylessly.  “Everything, Farah.  That’s what our universe believes in.  We see God’s fingers because our brains are wired to find connections, building coherent narratives in piles of random sand.”

A different smile emerged.  Thin, but tough.

Then she said, “No,” while leaning halfway across their table.  “You don’t believe that, Quentin.  You cannot fool me.”