A friend of mine offered up a short story for the blog, and I've read this guy's writing before and love it, so I jumped at the chance. I'm glad I did, too, because this story kicks much ass! He said I should use "proftbolt" as his blog pen-name, so, that's what I'll do.
The file he sent was double-spaced and had some strange returns here and there, so I've edited the format to look better on the blog (I've made mistakes in formatting before, and hence you have my apologies if you've tried to read that one - I need to re-format that someday, 'cuz the story itself's not bad, I think). I didn't change any of the content, I just added paragraph breaks when speakers changed in the dialogue, or in other places where spacing looked like they belonged. In any case, if the paragraphs aren't spaced correctly, that's my foul-up, and Proftbolt's welcome to point them out and I'll fix 'em. And thanks for letting me post it!
Anyway, I think ya'll're gonna like this. It's strange, and will definitely make you think. Enjoy!
East of Rulesville by Proftbolt
The sun's excruciating heat was pounding down on Paul. The dry dust kicked up by a passing caleche seemed to hover around his face like gnats swarming around a light pole in an empty parking lot. The thick brown mist seemed to be just waiting for the moment that he opened his jaw wide to choke him on the tiny sand particles.
"Don't start with a weather report," he said aloud, but low enough so that only he could hear the murmur. He remembered his old creative writing instructor telling him all of the rules of writing: never start with a weather report, old fat Dr. Baker used to say. Never start with a weather report.
Paul watched as a blue and white taxi drove by very slowly. The driver, with a dark complexion, banged hard on the side of the door and shouted, "Taxi? You go take taxi? You go take taxi now?" Paul shook his head no, tried to avoid eye contact, and looked back into his yellow legal pad. The words just weren't coming to him. He looked at the young man in the blue galabiyya who had just offered him hashish only minutes ago. Why do they always offer him hashish, he thought. I don't know why they always pick me out. Do I look like someone who would want hashish? He watched as the young man turned to follow a German tourist. Paul could hear the tourist say, "Sprechen zie Deutsch?" and the young man responded with a resounding, "Ya!" Write about what you know, he could remember frumpy old Dr. Baker say. What did he know? Well, he grew up on a farm outside of Dayton. His summers were full of playing basketball under the makeshift hoop attached to the old red barn. He played tag and rode his bike, jumping over ditches and pop cans. What did he know of the hot noonday Egyptian sun? What did he know of pharaohs and lost civilizations? Cicadas returning after a long, long sleep. That's what he knew. Sticky summer afternoons while sitting under a tall, tall oak. That's what he knew. But what the hell did he know of this ancient land and of the ancient people?
He saw out of the corner of his eye another man starting to approach him. Probably somebody else trying to sell him some plastic Anubis, Paul thought.
"Fine day, sir," said the man. He wore a tan galabiyya, torn and frayed at the bottom. His feet, rough and dry calluses evident on the sides, were shod in worn out sandals.
"I don't want any," said Paul as he averted his eyes to look back across the Nile. The wind blew small rhythmic waves.
"I am not selling."
"Then what do you want?"
"To tell you it is a fine day along the Corniche. Is not the Nil beautiful?"
"Yeah," said Paul. "It's beautiful." Make sure the dialogue is believable, how people really speak, he heard Dr. Baker chastise.
"I have something I want to show you," the man said.
I've heard that one before, thought Paul. "I thought you weren't selling anything?"
"Oh, my friend," said the man. His teeth had large gaps that his thick tongue tried to fill. "What I have is not for sale." Make the plot organic. Make it grow. Make it flow, Dr. Baker would say, pointing and jabbing with his thick fingertip. "What is it?"
"Oh, I have to show you. Come. You come now." The man waved at Paul before Paul realized his cultural mistake. He started to wave "bye-bye" before he caught himself. The man repeated his motion, and reached out to touch Paul's hand. Paul noticed the tremendous contrast in their hands. The man's hand was very dark on the outside and surprisingly light underneath at the palm. But all over were very rough spots, bumps protruding. Paul's was very white and smooth.
Description should be at a minimum, only there to propel the story, the gruff Dr. Baker would say, running his hand down a long list of rules. You should follow these rules if you want to be a great writer. All great writers follow these rules, Dr. Baker would often say, and caress the handout as if it were the Rosetta Stone. But Paul often thought differently. Rules are made to be broken, aren't they?
"Okay," Paul found himself saying, not really realizing that he was now standing, his hand resting in the two dark, callused hands of his newfound friend. The man smiled, his turban slipping down over his brow as he did so.
"Come. Come. Come," the man repeated. "Come my friend."
Paul did as he was told, and, hand-in-hand, walked with his newfound friend. Funny, Paul kept thinking. In America, people might stare at two men holding hands, but in this country, a country that frowns on homosexuality, that's okay. They walked down the sidewalk until it ended and turned to dust. Then, quickly, the man took a right down an alley. Days before, Paul had explored this very same alley but only briefly. As soon as he moved into the alley, he was swarmed by merchants trying to get him to come into their stores, to purchase their wares. He was besieged by little boys trying to sell him trinkets. He was swarmed by young men trying to practice English with the foreigner. "Where are you from?" They would shout. "America," Paul said. "Aaaaah, America," they shouted back. "America No. 1. Egypt No. 2. You very, very good. You come to my store, yes? Come. Look at my store. What is it you want? I have all. You want silk? I have silk. You want Nefertari? I have Nefertari."
But now, no one approached him. Instead, they all looked at him, and when his eyes met theirs, they were the ones who quickly cast them downward. No one spoke to him. No one offered him anything. No one tried to lure him into a store. As long as he was tethered to his new friend, he was an untouchable. He watched his boots kick up the dust with every hard smack to the dirt alleyway. Flies buzzed around the fresh produce and around his head. He heard the muezzin haunt the evening air. He heard the Egyptian music pound in the shops. Arabic voices bounced all around him, but as he passed, all seemed momentarily quiet.
Finally, his newfound friend said, "Come. Inside here," and pointed to a very thin doorway down a tertiary alleyway. Paul ducked his head as he went through the doorway, and he entered a small, dark room. There was only a chair for furniture. A young female squatted by the chair. "Come in here. Look." Paul squinted until his eyes adjusted to the difference in light.
"This is my daughter. Take her," the man said.
"What?" Paul said. Surely he heard wrong. Perhaps the man said something in Arabic, but it sounded like something else in English. "What did you say?"
"Please, take her."
"I can't take your daughter. That's . . . "
The man interrupted him. "But sir, please listen. You are a rich American professor. . . " Paul stopped listening to the man for a moment, trying to figure out how this man knew so much about him. How did he know he was a professor? How did he know any information about him? He turned to look the man in the face to try to pick up what he was saying. ", , , and you have the means to take my daughter across the border, out of Egypt. I cannot."
"Wait, wait, wait," Paul said. "I don't follow. You want me to do what?"
"Take my daughter out of Egypt. I know you are a good man. I know you are a kind man. I have been told about you. I have been told that you rescue strays, no?" His voice cracked a bit before a smile slipped out.
"How do you know me? I've never met you before. How do you know so much about me?"
"Let's just say, we have a mutual friend."
"There's no time for that, friend. Please, you must take my daughter, and you must take her tonight, after midnight."
"Take her where?"
"Go to the pier tonight. There will be my cousin Ahmed. He will take you out on a felucca. From there, he will dock with a motor boat, and it will take you past Alexandria. From there, there will be a bigger boat to take you across the Mediterranean to a little village in Turkey. Once you get to the other side, my cousin Muhammad will be there. That is all I ask. Once you have delivered her to Muhammad, your duty is over. He will take her to Hamburg where she will have a chance of a better life."
"But why me?"
"Again, you rescue strays. You must. You cannot resist. Allah wills it."
"But why do you need to get your daughter out of Egypt?"
"If she is still here by sunrise, I am afraid they will kill her."
"She was raped. She is no good now. She cannot marry. She must go."
"If she were raped, then it's not her fault."
"You don't understand, my friend," the man said as he started to pace. He darted his eyes back and forth from the doorway to Paul. "That does not matter. Here, she is looked upon as the temptress. She is, how do you say, damaged goods. It does not matter if she consented or not. She is still no good. I love my daughter. After my wife died, she is all I have left, so I must get her out of here."
"But what about the man? The one who raped her?" Paul asked. Something told him he should not ask, but he couldn't resist. He looked at the young girl, still squatting. Now that his eyes had started to adjust, he could see a small kitten curling up around her ankles.
Don't waste time on unnecessary details, he could hear old Dr. Baker say. He generally wore a plaid jacket with leather patches on the elbows, and whenever he espoused his rules, the patches would shake.
"Aaaah," the man said, stroking his chin. "He will be punished, too. But not in the same way. That is the way. That is our way. You must not question."
Two more men walked into the tiny doorway, and the man addressed them in Arabic. They seemed to be arguing slightly, but since Paul knew only bits and pieces of Arabic, he wasn't sure. About all he could make out was the "salaam" of peace when one man addressed him.
"You must take her," said one man. "It is her only hope. You came looking for something to write about. Well, here is your chance." He did not wait for a reply. He turned and walked back out of the door, his sandals clopping hard against his heels.
The other two men remained, said nothing, and stared at Paul. He was starting to feel uncomfortable. Maybe, he thought to himself, if I agree to it, they'll leave me alone, and then I can sneak away. When he told the man in the doorway, the one with the fuzzy mustache, that he would do it, the man grabbed Paul's face, kissed him on both cheeks, and told him to wait there. The wetness still remained as Paul peered into the darkness.
Paul was now alone with the girl. He felt that as odd, a westerner alone with a young, unmarried female.
"What is your name?" He was not sure if she could speak English or not.
"I am going by Ruby," she spoke, but her voice was very low, almost a whisper.
"You speak English?"
"Yes, for three years now I am speaking English at the school."
"Ruby? That's not a very Egyptian name."
"No. That is what father says I am going by now. It says in this little book." From underneath a fold in her clothing, she produced a passport. Paul immediately recognized the blue cover as being American. So that's it, Paul spoke to himself. She has a fake passport, and I guess I'm to pose as her father or something to get her out. Or am I getting involved in some kind of underage, illicit sex trade business, Paul thought. His mind was receiving many, many images about now. Is this really a good thing, or am I just being used here?
"I am going by Ruby, like the singer," she said softly. Every so often, a flash of light would penetrate the darkness, and Paul could see her pouty lips glisten. "You know Ruby? I love Ruby. I want to be just like Ruby. I love Ruby and her snake. My father say she is evil, but I want to be just like her."
"You . . . you . . . were raped?" Paul hesitantly asked, peering into her eyes that seemed to twinkle in the moving darkness.
"I don't understand. If he forced himself on you, then why are you in trouble?"
The little girl looked up from the kitten. Her eyes, even in the approaching darkness, were very vivid. Paul could tell that they were green. He was reminded of that famous photo of the girl from Afghanistan. Her skin was the color of coffee after about four or five packets of cream have been poured in. "It is the way. I do not question."
"Yeah," Paul started to prod. Perhaps he could use this for one of his stories. He walked all along the Corniche yesterday, writing down all of the images. He watched the donkey carts full of dung go up and down the street. He watched the street peddlers hassle tourists. He saw the Bedouins drink strange brown liquids, squat in the sand, and laugh at the women as they passed. He wrote it all down. But nothing struck him as much as this fated Egyptian girl. He thought she might be about thirteen. She seemed like a Third World Juliet. With no one guarding the door, this would be a wonderful time to slip out, to disappear, and get away, but something in the little girl's eyes drew him in. Something in the story kept him riveted. Keep the reader engaged, Dr. Baker always said.
And he was.
"Yes," he tried to correct himself from using too much slang. Perhaps she will not understand me. "But you could not help it. He forced you."
"Kind of," she said. "I am, how you say, temptress, like Ruby. Like Jezebel."
"But that's not true, is it?"
She started to move closer to him. She looked into his eyes. "Yes. I wanted to be near this boy. I lifted my dress. He could not help himself." As she moved closer, she tugged at her hem and Paul could just make out, in the faint light penetrating the dark room, a little tattoo on her upper thigh. From Paul’s research, he thought he could recognize the silhouette of the god Bes.
"So, you wanted him to force himself on you?"
"Only attention. I like him. I wanted attention. I did not want, how you say, fuck."
Paul was startled by the word. It seemed so ugly, so out of place, especially coming from this small girl. "But now, now that I am, as father say, tainted, all I can do is fuck. I must go to Hamburg, father say, where I fuck. I make money. I live."
"Is that it?" Paul realized. You have to become a prostitute? That's not right. Paul was now thinking about how he could help this poor girl. Perhaps the man was right. He did take in strays. Perhaps he could go along with the plot until later when he could rescue this girl. Perhaps he could run away with her. Perhaps he could hide in her eyes.
What a tale this could make, Paul thought to himself.
She started to move closer to him. "But, the boy. He no fuck me."
"But, I thought . . . " Paul seemed to get more confused. He started to inch away from her, clawing at the dirt floor. He could feel the cool earth seeping in under his fingernails.
"He think he do, but he do not. I am still whole."
"But, then, why don't you tell your father?" "Because I wanted him to. That is sin enough." She moved even closer to Paul, her hand now moving up his thigh. Paul noticed his khaki pants starting to wrinkle up. He watched as she slowly moved higher and higher up his thigh, her smooth palm groping, groping, groping until it finally rested on his crotch. Her hair was surprisingly brown and curly as it fell down over him.
"What are you doing, Ruby?" He said the name, emphasizing it as if it seemed as out of place as this girl grabbing at him. He moved his hand down to push hers away, but instead, he slowly caressed the backside of her wrist. Her hand moved quickly to his zipper, and before he knew it, he felt her hot breath. Paul couldn't control himself. Ruby's head shot back quickly. She smiled. "Oh, not long," she said, and Paul felt embarrassed.
He heard voices outside, and he quickly grabbed his pants by the belt loops and fumbled with the zipper.
Two men entered the tiny hovel, two men he had never seen before. They looked at him lying on his back, scrambling to get to his feet but only able to rest upon his haunches. They looked at the young girl who was now smiling and wiping at her mouth with the backside of her wrist. They yelled at him in Arabic and jabbed fingers in his face.
"I didn't. I don't know what you're saying," Paul tried to protest, but neither man seemed to understand English nor even care. “I’m an American,” he blurted out. “You can’t do anything to me.”
One of them grabbed him by his collar, yanked him to his feet. Paul looked to the fading light shining through the doorway and tried to move toward it. The other man blocked his path, butted into him with his shoulder, and then spat in his face.
"I didn't . . . she did . . . " Paul tried to say, but the two men started hitting him in his stomach. The blows were more surprising than painful. He wanted to say how he didn't do anything, but all that came out was "ummph."
Paul fell to his knees, and one man continued hitting him, punching him in the face. Paul could feel the solid and rough hands pressing up against his eyes, his nose, his mouth. They'll stop, soon, Paul thought. They are just angry, but it will subside. Maybe the man in the tan galabiyya will show up again. He'll explain everything. I'll give them money.
But they continued to punch him, and when Paul slumped over into the dirt, face first, they started kicking him with their bare feet. One started stomping on his head. Paul could see the man's bare sole crushing down on his face. Showing the bottom of the feet is considered to be quite rude in the Muslim culture, Paul kept thinking to himself. How rude of this man. Here I’m getting pummeled, and all I can think about is cultural etiquette, Paul thought to himself. The thought made him smile a little, but the smile exposed his teeth, allowing a toe to smash into his open mouth. There was blood, but Paul couldn’t tell if it was blood from his gums or blood from the man’s toe, cut on his sharp tooth.
Then, he saw a shiny blade of metal appear. He always read about the coldness of the blade. That's what creative writers always say. The blade was cold. But it wasn't. It was not cold at all. In fact, it seemed to burn as it entered his body. But once there, he felt nothing.
He could see Dr. Baker standing in front of him, wagging his finger. Now remember, you can't have the main character die, because if he dies, who tells the story?
I guess that's good news for me, thought Paul, as the two men picked up his limp body, blood leaving a trail of red drips out of the doorway. I guess that's good news.
The men put Paul on the back of a donkey cart. He could smell the manure that had been there earlier in the day. As the donkey brayed and started to move, he could hear the call to evening prayer just ending, and he could see the little girl waving to him off into the distance. She was waving goodbye.
Or was she waving for him to come closer?