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Vol. 7, No. 2

Bread
by Rabih Alameddine

Bread

1.

Indira Gandhi bakes and Barbra Streisand, her hair frizzy and round, cuts off a piece of bread, dangles it in front of my open mouth. "Open wide for the little airplane," she sings. My hungry eyes follow her fingers dancing in the air. Indira, a cigarette dangling between her thick lips, harmonizes with Barbra in a phlegmy, burlap voice. She flicks ashes into the dough. "Secret ingredient for Lebanese breads," she says. I shrug. My mouth opens wider, but Barbra opens her much bigger mouth and swallows the piece of bread whole, without chewing. She smiles, arches her left eyebrow. "You're a bitch," I say.
          My mother hushes me. "Yousef, you'll wake up your older brother," she whispers. She strokes my brow gently, repeatedly, until I am fully awake. Streaks of light shine through the blinds, giving her zebra stripes as she sits on my bed. "There is no fighting this morning." Lullaby voice. "Can you find us some bread?" I nod, sit up in bed, wipe the vestiges of sleep from my eyes. I cover my naked chest with the blanket and point at the door. "Out," I mouth.
          "I'll get the bread," Jamal says. He rolls around in bed, faces us, fully awake. He stretches languidly, sits, his feet settle on the floor.
          "It's okay," I say, no longer whispering. "Get back to sleep." He stares at a spot on the floor next to my bed. His eyes widen. He suppresses a smile, but his pursed lips betray him, or me, to be more precise. My mother looks down, sees her bottle of hand lotion on the floor. I blush, want to say something, but my voice sticks in my throat. "Hurry up, please," she adds as she leaves the room.
          The instant the door closes, my brother buries his head in the blanket and cracks up. I throw my pillow at him. I dress quickly, wear my red and white Nikes, my best running shoes. I pick up the bottle of hand lotion to return it to the bathroom.
          "Leave it," my brother says. "You don't want to walk out of the room with it. She'll see you. I'll put it back."

2.

The streets of our neighborhood in West Beirut are empty and I run fast, try to stay under each building's canopy. I increase my speed when I cross the street, turn left on the corner. An old woman, in two winter coats, hobbles ahead of me. A militiaman, rifle slung across his left shoulder, walks on the other side of the street in the opposite direction. I slow down, feeling safer. A group of about ten mills around in front of the rusted-metal, gridlike shutters of the bakery. The smell of baking dough wafts out of the broken windows.
          "Hey, Mr. Elias." I put my mouth in one of the holes of the shutter. My voice surprises me. It seems to come out differently every time I open my mouth. "When will you open?"
          "Fifteen minutes," the baker says. "Don't worry. We have enough today."
          The crowd visibly relaxes. Since they will not be competing for the bounty, they get closer, begin to complain about the last three days. "I just hate the RPJs." "Don't they ever get tired?" "I hear these are the last gasps. It's going to be all over soon." "It's that damn conspiracy."
          Their voices dim as I run away. Turn right on the second corner, three blocks, left. I enter another bakery huffing. Four people ahead of me in line. It moves fast, only four loaves per person. At my turn, I ask for a dozen. Mr. Riad, the baker, refuses. His handlebar mustache is flour white.
          "There are six of us."
          "I have to feed everybody."
          "How am I going to divide four loaves for six people?"
          He adds two more loaves to my bag. "I better not hear you've told anyone about this."
          I smile, run an imaginary needle and thread through my lips. A military jeep screeches to a halt in front. A man enters the store; a machine gun hangs loosely from his shoulder.
          "I need five dozen."
          The baker fills his order as the people in line stare at the floor.
          I retrace my steps, hurry back to Mr. Elias's bakery. Before I reach it, I hide the bag under a boxwood hedge.
          "I can only give you five," Mr. Elias says to me.
          "Oh, come on. Make it an even half dozen."
          "Five for a family of five," he says. "It's only fair. Come back in a couple of hours and if there is any left, I'll sell you more."
          "But we're six," I say. "You're not counting my little sister's doll."
          Both he and his wife giggle. She places one more loaf in the bag. "Ask your mother what I should do about the pain in my belly," she says, pointing at the lower left corner of her distended stomach.
          I retrieve the other bag, run home, dash up eight flights of stairs, enter our apartment as the bread hero with a dozen loaves.

3.

My father's beard is black, white, blue, and yellow; the remaining black streaks from his chin down his neck, white everywhere else, a blue rinse because he uses a shampoo called Bel Argent, and yellow, mostly around his mouth as a result of heavy smoking.
          "I want to go out," I say. "It's safe today."
          He lays down his book, Secondary Analysis in Social Research, removes his spectacles, revealing shallow pockets below his eyes. "Where do you want to go?"
          "I'll think of something," I say. "Mom's out. We should all get out of the house while we have a chance."
          "Your mom is out shopping. That's important. If it remains safe, we'll be able to leave the house tomorrow."
          "If it's calm, there's school tomorrow. Can't I go out, maybe just across the street? I don't think that's a big deal."
          My father does not say anything, but picks up his book, intends his brief look to be profound and penetrating.

4.

The phone rings. I run to pick it up. Jamal beats me to it.
          "Yes, yes. It's working. It just came on this morning. So did the electricity."
          I stand by him, try to figure out who is on the line. He turns his back to me. He hums and haws, hangs up.
          "I'm going to play soccer," he announces loudly. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
          "Can I come?" I ask, following him into the room.
          "I don't know." He throws off his shirt and begins to dress in his soccer outfit. "I already saved your ass today. I'm not sure if you're worth saving twice."
          "What do you mean?"
          "Your mother wanted to have the birds and the bees talk with you. She hadn't realized you had begun to yank on that little thing of yours."
          My mouth drops.
          "I told her I'd talk to you. I had to smooth-talk her. I know you've been through medical school, Mom, but I think the runt will feel more comfortable with me. You owe me big time. I'm not sure you can afford to owe me more."

5.

Ominous clouds scud across the sky. Jamal and I stand on the distressed street waiting for a jitney. Not many cars are out and no other pedestrians. I notice three bullet holes in the door of the Fiat parked on the sidewalk behind me. "Look at that," I say, noting the foam percolating out of the driver's seat, but my brother keeps his eyes on the road waiting for a ride. I put my index finger in one of the holes, move it around, feel its smoothness. I pull my finger out and then put it back in.
          "You're too young for that." My brother chuckles. He moves his Adidas soccer bag from one shoulder to the other, shifts his weight. His brown eyes fix on each passing car. A Peugeot speeds by, the woman in the passenger seat looks anxious. The wind picks up, hisses. My brother inhales deeply, nostrils tough, flaring. A cold gust provokes a shudder. Jamal lights a cigarette, protects the match with a cupped hand.
          "Give me one," I say.
          "Don't even think about it," he admonishes. He puts the Lucky Strike packet back in his jacket pocket.
          I take out a box of matches and practice striking a couple the way he does, trying to do it without burning my hand.
          "Stop that."
          A rickety brown Mercedes approaches. My brother points his forefinger out and the taxi slows down. Two passengers, a man and a woman, sit in the back. My brother tells the driver where we are going. The driver nods and we jump in the front. I have to squeeze between my brother and the driver.
          Jamal puts one arm around my shoulder and the other out the window as we drive along Beirut's corniche. A coffee vendor on the side has only two customers. The Mediterranean batters its shore on our right.
          A black BMW 2002 with tinted windows drives by, blaring its horn, seems to be driven by a crazy man. It gets too close, compels us to slow down. The woman in the backseat screams. My hand reaches for the dashboard. The car cuts us off, forces the taxi driver to stop. He begins to tremble. My brother shakes his head, the corner of his mouth tips, about to smirk.
          "Come on," he says, getting out of the car.
          A militiaman disembarks from the other car, walks toward us, laughing. He is tall, muscular, dark sunglasses, black hair and thick mustache, open-buttoned shirt showing thick chest hair, has a gun on each hip. "I told you I'd drive you," he says.
          "You gave them a fright," my brother tells him.
          "Fuck them. Get in."
          I wait till my brother gets into the car before I get in the back.
          "You must be Yousef," the militiaman says. He drives off with alarming speed. "Do you know who I am?"
          "This is Shaft," my brother says, heading off my reply. "He plays on the same team."
          "What's your real name?" I ask.
          Shaft chuckles. "I only go by my military name."
          The backseat is a mess. All kinds of sports gear strewn on the floor and the seat. I move one soccer shoe with my feet and feel something heavy. A handgun, two handguns. I pick one up.
          "Put that down," my brother yells.
          "Don't be so nervous," Shaft says. He is jovial and friendly. "It'll be okay."
          "I can't believe you. You have guns in the backseat."
          "I didn't know you'd be bringing your baby brother."
          "I'm not a baby," I interrupt. "I need air too."
          "We all need air." Shaft laughs. "At least you guys were at home. I've been in the bunker the last three days. I need this game."
          Shaft belches. My brother looks at the car's roof. I notice an Uzi beneath my brother's feet.

6.

Empty bottles and spent rocket shells litter the soccer field, but not one sprig of grass. Players from both teams work together to clear it as best they can. The goals have no nets and the north post is warped, forms a short, elongated M. The south goal has a white plastic bag stuck on one of the posts, blowing like a windsock. My brother is the only player on the field with a full soccer uniform. Some have soccer shoes, most do not. A couple wear cutoffs, some wear sweats. Others wear army T-shirts.
          I sit on a large rock on the side next to Jamal's duffel bag and Shaft's clothes so no one walks away with them. Various groups of older boys and young men, most of them in military fatigues, surround the field, waiting, smoking, joking.
          "We should start," a player from the other team shouts. "It might rain soon."
          There is an argument between the players on my brother's team as to who should play in goal. No one volunteers. The team gangs up on a short man with no soccer apparel and he gets conscripted. He walks back toward the goal, head down, cursing.
          "We need a ref."
          A portly man from the sideline offers himself, but Shaft refuses, claims the man belongs to the other team's militia. A second man volunteers. Both sides agree but only if he puts his gun away.
          The referee walks toward me and gives me his gun. "You take care of this," he says. He takes off his jacket, revealing an olive-green tank top. I place both the gun and the jacket on top of Shaft's gear.
          The game is a mess, disorganized. The crowd enjoys itself on the sidelines, whooping and hollering. A group of boys not too far from me passes around a bottle of cheap scotch. My brother plays forward, but he rarely touches the ball. The midfielders are not skilled enough to start anything resembling an organized attack. Shaft roams the field, having no discernible position. After ten minutes of complete chaos, a defender on the other team passes the ball to his teammate, underestimating Jamal's speed; my brother comes out of nowhere, steals the ball, runs past the last defender with ease, megs the goalkeeper. He makes scoring goals look so simple. One, nothing. I want to yell, but contain myself. The group next to me cheers madly. One of them shoots his gun in the air in celebration. The goalkeeper is upset, thinks my brother insulted him by passing the ball between his legs. He screams profanities.
          Rain begins to fall and the field muddies quickly. It is horrible, delicious weather. I repeatedly wipe water from my eyes. None of the fans leaves as the game disintegrates further. Wide pools form at various parts of the field. My brother gets the ball at midfield. He runs smoothly, feigns defenders, who slip and fall. This time he places the ball effortlessly in the lower left corner.
          Rain falls harder. When my brother gets the ball, a defender slide-tackles him, completely ignoring the ball, going for his knee. My brother screams as he flies in the air. He rolls on the ground, writhes in pain. A fight breaks out. I run on the field to see to my brother, but Shaft screams at me to stay with the gear. I see him walk menacingly toward the defender, grab him by the throat, and choke him. The fans run on the field, guns drawn. Lines are easily demarcated. No one fires a shot. Standoff.
          The referee walks calmly toward me. "Game over," he says. Picks up his jacket and gun and watches the impasse on the field. Everyone is standing around, except for Jamal on the ground, and Shaft, who still chokes the offending defender. He talks to the chokee, then throws him to the ground. The tension eases. Shaft helps my brother up. They walk off the field, my brother leaning on the much bigger Shaft. The crowd slowly disperses. I hear laughter.
          "That was fun," the referee says.

7.

By the time we get to Shaft's car, it has stopped raining. Dark. The sun has set and there is no electricity. Shaft, energized and talking incessantly, turns on his headlights for illumination. Hobbling slightly, my brother puts his Adidas sweats over his muddy soccer outfit.
          "You're good for our team," Shaft says as he begins to undress. "I knew you were good, but not this good." He takes off everything, including his underwear. "Don't worry. Nothing like this will happen again."
          "I'm not sure," my brother says. He bends his knee, straightens it, testing its range. "I'm not used to playing like this. My other team is more organized. This is very haphazard."
          "Don't worry. It'll be better next game." Shaft uses his T-shirt to wipe away the grime, spends an inordinate amount of time on his large penis. In the dim light, he sees me looking, and I avert my eyes. "We'll get a real referee. And no one will dare hurt you, because you'll be one of us."
          "I'm not one of you," my brother says.
          "You will be if I say you are, and that's that. Everyone got the message today. I made sure of it."
          Shaft opens the trunk of his car, throws in all the dirty gear. He removes a folded green jacket and pants. He wears them with no underwear, paying attention to where the creases fall.
          "Don't I look good?" he asks me. "I just got these. Paid a bundle for them. East German uniforms." He moves closer, pushes his chest close to my face. "I'm not sure you can see them in this light, but there are very fine lines in deeper green throughout."
          "I can see them," I lie. He smells of sweat and earth. He musses my hair with thick fingers. His fingernails and cuticles are bitten and chewed.

8.

The car's headlights offer the only light as we zoom across the moonless night of Beirut.
          "So what does the Dalai Lama tell a hotdog vendor in New York?" Shaft tells joke after joke. My brother remains silent, so I am the one who has to reply.
          "What?"
          He laughs boisterously while delivering the punch line. I miss the joke, but join him because his laughter is contagious. I keep looking at his luminous eyes in the rearview mirror. He takes shortcuts, blazes through streets I do not recognize, avoiding any checkpoints.
          "Your turn to tell me a joke."
          "I don't know any," I say.
          "I know another one. What does the Syrian prostitute say to the Pope?"
          A bullet whizzes by, but does not hit the car. Rabbit quick, Shaft turns off the headlights and increases his speed, drives in short zigzags.
          "Fucking amateurs," he yells out the window.
          I try the seat belt. The whole thing comes off in my hand. Jamal holds tight to the door's handle, smiling.

To read the rest of this story and others from the Summer 2003 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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