By Maniza Naqvi
“You should write an American story.”
“'Don’t think I can.”
“Of course you can. You just haven’t tried.”
“What would I write about?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. In fact, go ahead. Try telling me an American story.'
“Yeah! Now! What better place then this, sitting here at your favorite table in the Villa Orient café in the heart of Sarajevo?”
“Well, I have been thinking of a story idea.'
‘Really? You want to hear this idea?'
“Well let’s order another bottle of wine first. Okay. Now, let’s see. How’s this for a start? Ahem. If you take the yellow line back into the city—that is to say into DC…'
“Yeah? What happens if I take the yellow line metro into the city?”
“No! I’m telling you the story now. That’s the opening dialogue. This guy is doing the narrating he’s talking to you and telling you his story.”
“So… here we go: So, If you take the yellow line back into the city, that is to say into DC… say if you were out in Alexandria or you're coming over the 14th Bridge, or say if you were on a run at lunch time or anytime or maybe if you're driving in, in any case it doesn't matter how you're doing it—then just as you get off the14th Street Bridge if you pay attention and keep looking to your left, there comes a point where the Washington Monument sneaks up behind the Jefferson memorial, aligning just so, becoming part of the Memorial, so that the Monument looks like a minaret–and the Memorial a mosque. Kinda nice! I never used to think so before. I always thought that a mosque—- what do they call ‘em, over there– jamia,– looked to me more like a silo and a rocket attached to each other. Go figure. Shit happens. Stuff grows on you. I grew up in the deep blue of rural Pennsylvania. Mom, dad and ten kids—seven brothers and three sisters—Sunday school and mass, Hail Marys and thank you jezuzes twenty four seven. Didn't even get to Philly, ever, until I shipped out—well flew out. I mean I joined the National Guard and everything y'know. Figured it was good money every month for doing nothing, well not doing much anyway, a few pushups'—a little shooting range action, always fun. A few weekends once in a while spent out doors training—all expenses paid. Then the six month rotation came along for Bosnia and I got to go see the world. Never'd been to Europe before. Cool. '
“Ok. Go on.”
“Just listen: I don't do it often though, come over the bridge. I’m in the District on Logan circle. I’ve done well in terms of real estate. Got back from Bosnia and bought the walk-up two bedroom two bath spacious sunlight apartment overlooking Logan Circle for seventy five thousand dollars. And now I’m sitting on a million dollar property. Not bad. So I walk or bike to work on most nice days. It’s a pretty route. Past the Studio Theater, brownstone townhouses, the whole food store, past the McCormick Paints—where outside on the corner Mexican day laborers, supporting whole families across the border, wait for work—- rain, or shine, heat or freeze, wait to make a daily wage on the construction projects across the street—-all those up and coming single family homes, cavernous hollow spaces—of chrome, steel and painted– ecru. Single family home for a single owner and his dog. Wait–out there–catching a cold, getting sick—No health insurance. Past the gay bars, Dupont Circle—onto P street and on the other side of it and over the bridge into Georgetown and alongside Dunburton Oaks. Or if its cold or raining I take the P street bus up to 30th Street and then walk across to the Georgetown Mall to the DMV.”
“No, I'm more likely to imagine all that traffic coming into the city when I turn on the radio in the morning to listen to the Morning Edition, or as I like to call it–the mourning edition–the traffic guy on WAMU 88.5FM tells me, while I brush my teeth, that the outer loop to the Beltway on 395 is backed up near the 14th Street bridge. What a view those guys must have even though they've got sun hitting them right in their eyes at that time. Especially, in the winter. It seems the angle is bad at that time of the year because that's when every morning it’s the same story on the radio, “traffic is backed up on the inner loop of the beltway, cars slowing down due to strong sunshine. Christ in this town we make everything a federal crisis, even sunshine.'
“At Eagle base up in Tuzla and now this: sitting at the desk renewing drivers licenses at the DMV-and, get this, I'm doing this for all the aliens over here—non-citizens. All these non-citizens—Man! I mean its unbelievable how many there are—and in the capital too. I mean, you would think that there was some sort of a limit to how many of these guys we'd have floating around. And here we are giving out licenses to them. Afghans, Vietnamese, Somalese, Iraqese, Chinese, Sudanese, all kinds of geese, Man! Like her.'
“Ahhhhh. Getting interesting! A girl.'
“Uhhuh: I saw her sitting there in that huge crowd of people waiting for her number to come up on the electronic ticker. She was reading a big fat travel guide book, she’s writing stuff down, taking notes on a map. Planning her vacation abroad, I thought, Probably going to Florence by the looks of her. Fancy handbag. I just got done with the guy I was dealing with when her number came up and she made her way to my counter and sat down real anxious. She put this vanilla colored folder on the counter—all her documents—and her filled out application.”
'So I say: “First time license?”
'And she says: “Yes–I drive of course but not in this country.”
And so I ask: “Why not?”
“Never felt the need to?” she replies
Why? I ask
And she says: “I walk–and I take the train or the bus. I never go far.”
“Are you going far now? I question.”
“Yes. She says.”
“Where—may I ask? I ask”
“Going to go see America.” She declares with a grin.
“Uhuh”. I say slowly
“I'm going to drive across it, she says.' Cross country. I'm going to go see America.'
“I look at her paperwork carefully and I say: I've never done that. Been to Bosnia-; been to DC;–seen the DMV but never done that.”
“And you give out licenses?” She laughs.
“So?' I ask”
“The irony?' She says.”
“I’m sorry?' I say confused and irritated.”
“'Nothing' She says quickly and smiles politely. She looks as though she’s suppressing a sigh.”
“I noticed she takes out a pen, one of those ballpoint pens you get at dime stores with these floating plastic fish at the top end that light up when you press the pen down.”
“Anyway, five minutes later she leaves in a rage can't blame her really–she had completed everything–been back and forth to the DMV six times—she tells me, each time there had been something missing: a required document for this or that because she wasn't a citizen nor a green card holder just a resident on a special kind of visa. Now she’s here again, she’s at the DMV and here I am the jerk who’s found yet another problem with her documentation. I can see that’s what she’s thinking. Its in her eyes. The utility bills that she had brought in were three months old—and what we needed here, what was needed-—were the latest utility bills which means last month’s bills. One month old bills only. I showed her the rules—one month. She’s upset. Really upset. But before she goes she says to me.”
“If you want to know what's wrong with this country! Just come to the DMV! “
“Keep talking like that lady and see if you ever get a license.” I say as I lean my chair back.”
“She looks at me and says, I'll get mine back, some day, you'll see.”
“Oh yeah”, I say, “Howzat exactly.”
“I'll set you down for posterity.”
“Prosperity,” I say. And then say it again slowly: “Prosperity.” Sheesh. These foreigners.
“She shakes her head. This time she’s not suppressing nothing. She sighs looks up at the ceiling like she’s looking to be beamed up or something.”
“That was it. She had tears in her eyes she was so frustrated. I was enjoying it—the scene she was creating and the zero sympathy she was getting. People, waiting their turn, looked at her bored. Annoyed, even. She was holding up a whole counter that they could have been sitting at already if she would just go. She left in a huff, like she was going to go up in smoke. “She’ll do some shopping in the Mall. Retail therapy. She’ll get over it. And she’ll come back with the right documents next week” I said to the guy at the next counter over. He laughed.”
“It was only after she had left that I noticed that she had left behind her map and some papers. I don't know what got into me but I slipped the whole mess off the desk top and into a drawer.”
“I took her stuff home that evening. She had a route marked out in a fluorescent green high lighter. And she had notes written all over the map—in the broad margins on the sides and on the back. She had these yellow and pink stickies with notes written to herself in ball point about places to go and see at each of the stops. She had four or five different themes for taking different routes like she was thinking of various ways to cut it all. Like she had one with routes that would take her through places where there was a community of say Pakistanese or Bosnians, or Vietnamese, or Arabs, or Armenians or Chinese, or Filipinos, or Cubans or Iranians. Went from Washington to Metro park to Edison New Jersey to places in Florida, to Tennessee, Dearborn, Detroit and Los Angeles. But the one she had marked up in fluorescent green seemed to be just picked at random. Sort of zigzagging north to south all the way to the coast, ending up in the far north corner of Washington State.”
“And she had this note to herself that says “I want to know if out there, its like the movies: all about old ladies with blue hair waitressing at diners and calling you hon and serving you coffee and pancakes; bibles in nightstand drawers in motels; trailer parks; plantation mansions in disarray; eighteen wheelers driven by muscular men; washer driers humming into the night; neon lights outsides lonely Laundromats redolent with Clorox,Tides, Downy softners; fluorescent cheese burritos under heat lamps at seven elevens; big weird churches; prefabricated and plastic monuments to the ten commandments; signs for selling guns; Miles and miles of shopping malls resembling toy construction sets in childish colors of baby blue and pink; Wal-Marts as far as the eye can see; white castles; big huge polypropylene flags flapping in the wind, red, blue, white. Acres and acres of parking lots for car dealers—SUVs, Fords, Hummers brand new and shiny—catching the clear blue day in their windshields and rear view mirrors winking back at you in the sunlight. Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Miller, Davis Garcia, Rodriguez. Wilson, Anderson, Taylor, Thomas, Patel, Hernandez, Mitra, Moore. Booker, Banks, Mosley, Washington, William. Torres, Flores, Nguyen. Mo? Is that short for Mohammad? Boots with spurs; ten gallon hats; rodeos and ropes; bucking steers. And super-sized lonely shopping carts late at night in mega lit empty parking lots awash in corn syrupy light. Will it rain, shine, blizzard and blow and will it go from hot to cold, from desert to mountain all in one day? Will it be purple and teal and blue grass green and fuschia pinks? Daisies, blue bells, lilies, poppies, tomatoes, watermelons, pumpkins, corn, everywhere out of season. Monsanto-ized. The racket of cicadas, the croaking of bullfrogs. And road kill: a beloved dog (destined to be on the local evening news), the inevitable rabbit and fox. And deer leaping out of no where; an occasional sign for bears. Eagles over head, migrating geese, giant butterflies on their way to Brazil—but mostly white jet stream, like melting calligraphy up there, over head. Tanned, blonde sinewy, sculpted gorgeousness weather beaten faces fixed with Botox. Maple trees, poplars, cedar, magnolias, spruce, birch, gigantic ancient Sequoia redwoods. Checkered shirts, flannel and blue jeans. And maybe even a tornado, or two. Fierce and proud and guns and miles and miles of army bases. Will people say hello? Will I be able to make tonal differences? Or will it be mostly me and the car radio? Will songs get stuck in my head. Will I be lonely? Will I be sad? Sounds of lust indoors, and in back seats and from the room next door. Beds creaking, ceiling lights shaking. Easy riders passing by; hitchhikers, bikers—war vets—traveling in packs—long hair—tattoos, black leather—ripping the air with torn mufflers, registering something—killing time, waiting for Memorial day. Pink cadillacs, convertibles; rayban reflecting landscapes—showdowns and high noon,—no trespassing signs, welcome mats, and mailboxes shaped like log cabins and sitting ducks. Drawls, brawls and yawls. Will I be able to tell the accents. Howabout them apples. Will I accumulate mounds of Styrofoam and stash away in the legroom—variations of plastics. Routes, exits, turnpikes, oil price hikes. GreyHound competing with spark spewing speeding Chinatown buses. High security facilities flying the flag, churches flying the flag, schools flying the flag, baseball diamonds flying the flag, theme parks for Jesus and Buddha flying the flag and museums for—baseball bats flying the flag. Tribe-run Casinos and liquor stores, slick black hair and wing tipped shoes, fields of grass; sunflowers, golf courses and swimming pools. Gated communities, assisted living, cults. Live long and prosper. Waiting for the rapture. Piling up on canned food. Looking for the signs. Almost extinct natives living near open uranium pits. Bumper stickers: God Bless America; dairy cooperatives and the AFL-CIO. Tappan Zee and Kalamazoo. Rappahannock, Dakota, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, Cherokee, Apache. And so forth. Will I see their ghosts in the woods? And at night on crossing the plains under the stars? Will I see the state lines as I cross them? Will I see the marks of what took place here, the Balkanization of this land? Will I see the source of that plan? Blue tuxedos, graduations, proms, weddings, police cars with sirens blaring, lights blazing speeding past. Freight trains running alongside with box cars carrying cargo of tanks, wheat; diapers; hobos and runaways. Turquoise and silver jewelry and big hair and fat. And beauty like nowhere else. Big sky—true—its been said many times, many ways—but big sky—no doubt about it. Diners, cows, highways, country lanes, mountain ranges, plains. Native. American Indians on reservations, and stars and planets you can reach out and touch. Skies, that you look at and can’t help but think of space. Think super novas. Think meteor showers. Think Wowee zoweee. Think, Houston we have a problem Think big. Think large canvases. Think paint that would need to be splashed with pails, or sprayed. No way, no time for trivialities of a brush here. Think curvature, think horizons, think big blue yonder, frontier out there, over there. Think moving, moves, moved forwarded going places always going places. Will I come back? Will I come back transformed? Will someone change after meeting me? Will I? And after all, what do you see, what can you see, really, when you're just passing through?”
“She’s planning to go through the whole damn country She's picked well. She's traveling on the ground and seems like through the Milky Way too—in some places I don't know what she was planning to see—except the sky. And it’s not a straight line. I look at the map every day. I read her notations over and over again. I try to remember her name and I can’t. Or even her address. I keep a lookout for her at the DMV but I never see her. She never comes back. And then a month later I decided. I got the car fixed. I had some cash saved up. I was going to go back to Bosnia just for the heck of it. For a visit, I was thinking. But I’m going to use the money for this instead. I take a week off from work and I’m off. I’m following the fluorescent green line. I find out two days into the trip just as I get to Lebanon, Virginia that I’m having the time of my life—and that its going to take more then the week. So on day seven, as I’m passing through small towns in Ohio, I call in sick. I take another few days…just like that. And then a few days later I decide what the heck you only do this once—maybe twice—and I just go awol. So what I'll get fired. I'm seeing America. I got the map figured out here—the works cut out for me—heck the works already done for me.'
“So do you like it so far?”
“It has potential. Is the girl Bosnian?”
“Hmmm! Interesting could be. Like, he could have asked her where she was from, he could have said, are you from Bosnia? and she could have said 'yes' but not warmly. Like she could have looked really strong and independent. And like that could have rubbed him the wrong way. Or she could be Pakistani. Or a Serb?”
“Hmmmm. So what happens next?
“He zigs and he zags his way across the USA and gets to Montana. Go head pick a teeny tiny town in Montana. He stays at a motel—and in a room on the desk he finds a pen—fish—that lights up every time you press it down. She was here! He’s transfixed. She’s been here! His heart takes a leap. He feels his pulse race. He’s filled with anticipation. That means she got the license. Or maybe she didn't and she's traveling with someone else—a friend? A relative? A lover? She's single he remembers that detail from the documentation. Is she taking the same route or is she going a different way? Must be different because she couldn't have gotten here before him. Unless, of course, she's starting on the West Coast and going back to Washington. No that would be stupid. Maybe she's taking another theme for a route. He looks at the notations on the sides of the map and sees which other route this town would fit in on. He looks at the places she's noted down where she wants to stay. He goes through the yellow pages, calls directory assistance and calls all the motels and all the hotels and inns that she’s noted down. So he describes her to all the receptionists and B&B owners who answer the phone. Some say never saw anyone fitting the description. Or if they say that a guest fitting that description just left he jumps into the car and heads in that direction. He studies the map thinks of how she must think. Where would she go next.”
“So now he’s on a wild goose chase?”
“Yeah. The trip changes from a trip across the country in search for America to a search for her.”
“Does he find her?”
“Does it matter?”