American Sketches

by Haider Shahbaz

(Note: The theme of one sketch was suggested by fellow 3 Quarks Daily columnist Rishidev Chaudhuri after a night of his delicious summer drinks. As always, I am grateful.)

I (Thirty five dollars and seventy two cents)

Once he nailed her to the floor he moved back assuredly. He briskly – yet noiselessly – moved his bulk from the kitchen to the common room. He stepped around the Ikea furniture. He was unfazed by her desperate gaze. She was beating her heels against the shiny hardwood floor. Her arms were stretched straight above her head. The palms of her hands were nailed into the shiny hardwood floor by a Stanley TRE550 Brad Nail Gun. It cost him twenty seven dollars on Amazon. The Stanley SWKBN625 nails cost him two dollars and eight cents. The blood was dripping and congealing. Never was life like this on the shiny hardwood floor. He had taped her mouth using Scotch 920-BLK-C 1.88-inch by 20 yards Duct Tape. The tape cost him four dollars and fifty three cents on Amazon. It had three out of five stars in the customer review section. When he returned from the common room, he was carrying a medium sized deep-blue bucket. The half a gallon of diesel that was sloshing inside the bucket cost him two dollars and twelve cents at Shell. He doused the diesel on her and around the kitchen. He took out matches from the back pocket of his brown khakis. The matches had a deep blue cover with a red stripe across the bottom and a shining diamond: diamond matches. The matches cost him nothing. He lit one, flicked it at her, and walked out. He walked through the neatly pruned garden towards his Prius. The pink house with a rectangular body and a triangular top painted against the taut canvas of a New England sky was slowly burning. He started his car and drove down to highway I-95 drinking Dunkin´ Donuts coffee. He gulped large amounts of air from the open window. He turned his car lights off. The sun was coming out behind the birch trees.

II (Rothko)

I saw the sun setting on New York City. Crossing 42nd Street on 9th Avenue, I looked to my left. I could look all the way down 42nd Street where the city ends and the sky begins. The sky looked like a canvas framed between buildings. The orange and yellow of the setting sun were like Rothko's. Though less geometric and more smoke, as if the city was scared to get lost in color, while it watched it from far away.

I lit a cigarette on the other side of 42nd Street. He came and stood next to me, rubbing the bald spot where his shoulders met his head. You couldn’t really call it a neck. He wiped with a blue cloth that was squeezed inside his palm. You couldn’t really call it a handkerchief. After wiping, he looked up at me and said, “Shuklak Arabi?”

“No, don't speak Arabic. I speak Urdu, from Pakistan,” I said.

“Urdi?…Ah…Kurdi? Iraqi?”

“No,no…Urdu,from Pakistan”

“Oh! Urdu…Bakistani”.

I nodded.

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know, I'm very lonely.”

His eyes were small and focused. His English was troubled. He looked tired like someone who had traveled a very long way. He stuffed his sweaty cloth in his black duffel bag. I stubbed out my cigarette and started walking to the nearest subway station.

I took the C train from 14th street to meet a friend on 34th street. I kept watching the ads lining the walls and the train kept running to new stations and I never got off on 34th Street. When I reached 155th Street, I realized that I had to turn back because I was supposed to meet my friend. But something told me that I should stay on the C train and sing Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song'. There were only five people left in my car. I thought, my voice isn't so bad, I should definitely sing Redemption Song. And I started humming it to myself to see if I was any good but I could only remember two verses: “Won't you help to sing/ These songs of freedom”. And for some stations, I kept humming repeatedly: “Won't you help to sing/ These songs of freedom.”

I thought everyone will hear the sadness in my song, pay me, and I will stay on this train forever. I thought maybe one day a lonely Arab man would come in to this train and I will serenade him with my song and he won’t be lonely anymore. Of course, I never stood up to sing the song. And I never went to 34th street either. I just got off, took another train, it took me somewhere else.

III (Youth and Beauty)


An excerpt from Janis Joplin´s letter to her parents, April 1967. From the book “Love, Janis” by Laura Joplin. (1992, Random House, Inc.)

“I raised the middle mike up to my mouth, the whole audience applauded! Too much! And then as we're getting ready to play, a girl yelled out “Janis Joplin lives!” Now you can't argue with that, and they clapped again. Also, a rock publication named World Countdown had a collage on its cover using photographs of important personages in & about the scene & I'm in there. Also they're bringing out a poster of me! Maybe you've read in Time magazine about the personality posters. They're big, very big photographs, Jean Harlow, Einstein, Belmondo, Dylan & Joplin. Yes, folks, it´s me wearing a sequined cape, thousands of strings of beads & topless. But it barely shows because of the beads. Very dramatic photograph & I look really beautiful!! If it wouldn't embarrass you, I´ll send you one. I'm thrilled!! I can Haight-Ashbury´s first pin-up…”

IV (Erotica)

She stroked his penis, up down, up down, gently with just her fingers, letting the penis breathe, before she slowly put it all the way down her throat and kissed his balls with her lower lip, gagging slightly. She swirled her tongue around his penis as she came up, massaging the soft muscles. She breathed as she came out, before kissing the top of his penis, and then as if she had rediscovered it, she spent some time licking the head. She swiped her tongue on the underside of his balls while hardening her grip on his penis. When she climbed on top of him, and slid down on his penis, he wanted her to sit there forever. By the time he got behind her, she had come three times and he had come once. He took both of her ass cheeks in each hand and parted them as she let out a moan that caught even her by surprise. As his penis dived into her dripping wet vagina, he put his hand on the back of her neck and pushed her head in the pillow. She was obliging. He spanked her till he could feel his hand going red. He could see her dripping. He came for a full thirty seconds.

As he was putting on his pants, he realized that in a habit lasting twenty years now, this was the most satisfied he had ever been with a prostitute. Smiling from ear to ear, he said to her, “I feel like a billion bucks.”