Lifted by the Great Nothing: A Novel

BOOK: Lifted by the Great Nothing: A Novel
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Pour
Mamita et Paíto,
qui me donnent envie d’être courageux.

 

 

 

 

I
was sober and could have walked a chalk line,

but it was pleasanter to stagger, so I swayed from

side to side, singing in a language I had just invented.

—Isaac Babel

Contents

Prologue

Part One: Summer Of 1996

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Part Two: 1996–2000

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Part Three: Summer Of 2000

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Part Four: Ten Years Later

Chapter Twenty-One

Acknowledgments

A Note On The Author

PROLOGUE

Max’s father, Rasheed, loved baseball, burgers, and expressions like
howdy
and
folks
, which sounded more like
Audi
and
fucks
with his eternal Lebanese accent. When his father ordered the tree house to be built in their yard, he instructed the builders with great enthusiasm, “Okay, fucks, put the tree house in there now!” He clapped his hands once and pointed at the pines that faced their home.

Max didn’t know what to do in the empty tree house. Imagine it as a ship? A prison? A hiding place? It was a small particleboard box on stilts with a tiny window, a circular opening in the floor, and a ladder. His father intended it to revolutionize his boyhood, laughing about how his son wouldn’t ever want to come back into the real house. So after it had arrived, Max nested up in there at least once a day out of duty. It was so well enveloped in the pines that hardly any sunlight made it through that little window. It stayed dark most of the day, like a hole
suspended in the air. He invited a neighbor’s grandson up once, but since it felt like an empty attic, the boy came back down after a few minutes of pacing about. The boy’s lack of interest made the house more exclusively Max’s, and more dreadful. Alone again, he decided to set a trap at its entrance. He emptied a tube of toothpaste around the edges of the opening and waited for an intruder. Eventually he got hungry and went home, staining his slacks with the paste on the way down.

When Rasheed came up there for the first time, he wore a khaki cap, a brown fanny pack, and his camera slung around his shoulder. He was a short man but still had to crouch to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling. “Wow,” he said, once inside the barely lit space, “just, wow. This is fantastic.”

“Yeah,” Max said, walking back and forth in the cramped house.

“You can do many great things in here.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“If I had this as a boy, I would be too happy. Much too happy. Are you too happy?”

Max took a moment to transfer all the sincerity he had into his answer. “Yes.”

Rasheed looked proud, comforted that he’d made the right purchase, that he understood what his boy wanted. He began shooting Max with his camera, the flash filling the box like gunfire. “Right. Now pose like a great adventurer.”

Max placed his hands on his hips and put his nose up in the air.

“All right. Good. Now pose like a great thinker.”

He posed like the great adventurer again, only with a variation in chin angle.

“All right. Now, maybe, like a big caveman.”

Here he rounded his posture into a crescent and thrust out his jaw. Rasheed laughed and hugged Max tightly enough to take
the wind out of him. He opened his fanny pack and pulled out another gift for his son: a compass.

By himself again, Max turned in a circle, watching the compass’s needle insist on north, which happened to be where their real house stood.

PART ONE: SUMMER OF 1996
ONE

Five years before Max and Rasheed would never speak again, Rocket was still alive. A gray-and-white potato-shaped dog, and blind, she was eleven years old—a year younger than Max. She got out of the bed that lay next to his and wagged the back half of her body as she followed him into the kitchen. She bumped into the back of his legs when he stopped at the counter, waving her head and turning in circles. She smiled and panted:
Hey, hey, hey, hey
. Rasheed came in and told her what a pretty girl she was.

Max had done all the cooking since he was about eight and took special pride in Sunday breakfasts. Today he prepared onion and shiitake mushroom scrambled eggs, chipotle-seasoned sweet potato fries, avocado slices, whole-grain toast, juice, coffee, and hot chocolate. He stood on a chair and leaned down on the electric orange press right as the doorbell rang. It was their neighbor, Mr. Yang.

Mr. Yang usually dropped by to bring them pears from his Asian pear tree, or to apologize about his son, Robby, though never in the same visit. Robby was his youngest child (eighteen) and had Down syndrome. Sometimes he came over naked, giggling, his chubby cheeks worm-pink, and when Rasheed or Max opened the door, he gave a long, drawn-out cry, “Hi!” and waved his hands over his head, as if celebrating his beauty from the top of a parade float. His happiness uplifted them. After admiring Robby’s excitement for a moment, Rasheed typically said something like, “Okay, Robby, okay, hello, yes, hello, you are a very nice boy to come see us, yes, that’s right,” and walked him home.

Today, Mr. Yang hadn’t come about Robby or to bring pears. He wore a fine-looking gray suit in place of his usual gardening attire. Despite his handling soil and plants all day, he was an exceptionally clean man, one whose feet, Max imagined, might have smelled of candle wax and whose silvery white hair probably felt like bunny fur. But today there was more to him than his usual spotlessness.

“Good morning, Mr. Boulos!” he said to Rasheed.

“Ah, hello, Mr. Yang. How are you?”

“I am so very well, Mr. Boulos! Today, I will have a sudden party and would like you to participate in it with us.” Max abandoned the kitchen and joined them at the door. Mr. Yang nodded to him and then acknowledged Rocket with a kind squint.

Rasheed savored the phrase “a sudden party.”

“Yes! For the
camukra
flower will bloom today, Mr. Boulos. It finally arrive to a bloom!” When he smiled, his cheeks lifted his huge glasses over his eyebrows.

“Oh, Mr. Yang, that is very great news,” Rasheed said, and then turned to explain to Max that this
camukra
flower took fourteen years under Mr. Yang’s faultless care to blossom. Today it was scheduled to open and wilt in less than five minutes.

Mr. Yang cut in to add that his great-grandfather had succeeded in this deed, though his grandfather and father had unfortunately failed. Now he, Mr. Yang, knew by some nature-defying calculation that his would come into flower today.

Max’s father and Mr. Yang liked each other very much. With genuine excitement and warmth, they chatted about commonplace things like the weather, traffic jams, different ways to get to the Home Depot, lawn mowing, and the deliciousness of Asian pears and other fruit. Though they knew each other’s origins, they didn’t speak of them. Their accents brought so much attention to their foreignness in other social environments that they’d tacitly agreed to enjoy a simple, classic American neighborliness, forgetting that they ever came from somewhere else.

Once Mr. Yang had violated this understanding, causing a strain between them for a short while. He’d stopped in to ask Rasheed how to make hummus, which he’d read optimized the nourishment of a particular Chinese orchid he’d tried to cultivate before without success. Rasheed coldly told him he did not know.

Mr. Yang said, “But where you are from, I think you eat this food very much.” He looked troubled by the possibility of having gotten his facts mixed up.

Rasheed stared at his feet. “Yes, it is true. But I don’t eat hummus, I don’t enjoy hummus, and I don’t know how to make hummus.” This constituted one of the rare unsmiling moments between them. Mr. Yang regarded him awhile, unsure of the meaning of this secrecy. He eventually broke away with a shallow bow and walked home. Maybe he took Rasheed’s unwillingness to share his Middle Eastern know-how as a form of exclusion. Maybe Mr. Yang realized the disappointing boundaries in their friendship. Or maybe he thought Max’s father had secrets involving a dishonorable past linked to hummus.

Max had no idea if his father knew how to make hummus, but he certainly never ate any with him. Rasheed had effaced
his past so thoroughly that Max didn’t ever think to ask about it. Other than Rasheed’s generosity, accent, and a face that could pass for everything from Italian to Hispanic to Jewish to Arab, he veiled off access to Lebanon, a country Max couldn’t have located on a world map. His mother had died in that place long ago, that’s all he knew.

But Rasheed hadn’t uprooted his ancestry entirely. Once, when quite drunk, he lapsed, confiding in Max, after a wearing day at the warehouse, that they would retire to the Country someday.

“The Country?” Max asked.

“Yes,
Lubnān
.” The metallic glint in Rasheed’s eye promised some kind of paradise. He told Max he would stop working and they would go—by the Mediterranean, under the sun, between mountains, in the bustling city of Beirut—when the people could be trusted again. But the idea of being surrounded by people who had only recently become trustworthy terrified Max. In fact, living anywhere but on Marion Street, in this unexceptional town of Clarence, New Jersey, seemed like a self-destructive undertaking. Why start over when you’ve built something so secure and knowable here?

Max never thought to ask why his father went by Reed instead of his given name, Rasheed, nor did he think to ask why they never ate Lebanese food, or why he’d never heard his father utter a word of Arabic, or anything about old Lebanese friends or family or religion or politics; nothing about his personal history at all.

When someone did ask Rasheed where he came from, he’d say, “I’m American.” If they insisted, he said his ancestors came from just about everywhere. If they insisted further, he told them his relatives last resided in the Near East, and then deftly changed the subject.

When he informed Max about the retirement plan back to the Country, he stressed the importance of never telling anyone
about the journey. “When we are in America we are Americans,” he said. People who wore their nationalities on T-shirts and hats were idiots. He explained he would not be defined by some faraway place. We were individuals, not countries. Besides, people couldn’t understand Lebanon.

Over time, and thanks to a joyful nude visit from Robby, Mr. Yang dropped the hummus tensions and came back over with pears and sincere small talk.

“Please, Mr. Boulos,” he said now, “I invite you all to come see it bloom.”

“Now?” Max asked, looking back at his breakfast, already beginning to mourn the eggs that were getting cold.

“Yes. It is now. I have many people in my home now. I call them early this morning after the flower move and I calculate when it will happen.” He laughed, and his shoulders popped up and down.

“Yes. We will come,” Rasheed said triumphantly.

“You know it will happen now, really?” Max said.

Mr. Yang looked at his wristwatch. “Normally, sometime between ten forty-five
A.M.
and eleven forty-five
A.M.
exactly.”

That’s incredible, Max thought.

“Wow,” said Rasheed. He looked at his watch too. “That begins in under nine minutes. We’re coming over shortly.”

Mr. Yang rubbed his hands together. “Okay, good, see you.”

“W-w-w-we’ll head right over,” Max echoed as the door closed. Rasheed clucked his tongue at him in disapproval. Max didn’t actually have a stutter. He put it on because a handsome Doberman-faced boy named Danny Danesh had one. He associated it with Danny’s success. Danny Danesh didn’t technically have a speech impediment either; he stumbled over his consonants when angry or overly excited by his own jokes. He had everything going for him—class clown, most daring prankster, best drawer—and was a miraculous feat of athleticism and
cool. He only had one good arm. The other was a short chicken wing with four rubbery nubs sprouting in different directions. And still he was the best basketball player in the middle school. He dribbled with large side-to-side movements with that single long trunk of an arm, crossing his opponents and dashing past them. Juking quicker and jumping higher than anyone, he consistently got to rebounds first, one-handedly tapping the ball up in the air, like a sea lion with a beach ball, until he managed to bring it down to his chest and dribble again. He had a wicked long-range shot too.

BOOK: Lifted by the Great Nothing: A Novel
4.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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