by Joan Wilking
In a small town on the East Coast Ali Ahmed sits on a stool at the cashier's window of the 24 Hour Gas and Gulp sharpening the tip of a Bic ballpoint pen, one of 500 he bought in bulk at OfficeMart. 325 sharpened, 175 more to go. One after the other he clamps the pens into the vise mounted under the countertop. Late at night, when the patrons are few and the ones who don't pay at the pump are too drunk, stoned, or bleary to pay attention to what he's doing or care, he uses a small metal file to sharpen.
Four gas stations are scattered around the downtown. Another out on the highway. A Dunkin' Donuts. A Howard Johnson's Motel at one end of town, a Best Western at the other. The Seven Eleven and Richdale sell milk and eggs, canned chili, dog food, the local paper, the Boston Globe, and lottery tickets. It's a pretty little town. That's what everyone, says, "Aren't you lucky to have ended up is such a pretty little town." And Ali Ahmed smiles to himself and thinks, Nothing lucky about it.
White clapboard houses look out over green lawns and perennial beds the garden club ladies care for with more vigilance than their children. The brats. Always hanging around. Leaving their bikes lying on the sidewalk while they sneak in, usually in pairs. One stands watch while the other shoplifts candy and gum, Teriyaki flavored beef jerky and Slim Jims. At first Ali tried to catch them. The couple of times he did he called the police. The police called the parents. The parents came and called the policemen Billy, Joe, and Bob. Billy, Joe and Bob released the kids to the parents. Personal recognizance. The next week they were back again, stealing Ring Dings and Twinkies, Cracker Jack and condoms.
Ali Ahmed sits sharpening pen number 326 to a point so sharp it will easily pop one of the glow-in-the-dark beach balls in the wire bin by the door. It's June, humid,and there are bugs. Such bugs. Mosquitoes and greenheaded flies with iridescent eyes. Every bite swells to the size of a pomegranate. "Probably because you've never been exposed before?" the pharmacist said, and sold him a box of Benadryl. He took two, threw the rest away; they made him sleepy. He had work to do, sharpening.
Behind the reception desk at the Best Western Hanif Raman sits addressing envelopes. 500. 325 addressed, 175 more to go. Nice looking envelopes. Thick paper. Ivory laid finish. The return address professionally printed in the upper left corner:
BasataP.O. Box 416Eastridge, Massachusetts 01636
When he picked the envelopes up from Copy Cop the girl at the desk asked, "Basata? What does that mean?"
"Simplicity," Hanif Raman said. "A very fine name isn't it? I have a little marketing scheme. The distribution of promotional pens to convenience stores."
Muhammad Jehan leaves his place behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts and walks to the Post Office. The others are capable enough when left alone. They all now know the money well enough to make change, the language well enough to say please and thank you, their place well enough to keep pouring coffee, and handing out donuts.
It is a sticky day. Bright haze grays the air. The smell of mozzarella and tomato sauce tease his nose as he passes the House of Pizza. The Greek's wife waves. He waves back and keeps walking.
"How much to mail first class?" Muhammad Jehan asks the postmaster. The envelope is sealed. The postmaster feels it all over.
"Has to be hand cancelled," the Postmaster says. "How many? 500? Most out of state? None overseas?"
"That's right," Muhammad Jehan says. "A promotional pen and flyer."
"You'll want a bulk permit," the postmaster says. "I'll give them to you on a roll." He did some calculations. "$428."
As he walks back to the Dunkin Donuts Muhammad Jehan divides in his head. Box 416, Zip 01636. 500 pens. 500 letters. 500 envelopes. 500 bulk stickers. August 12. 2004. 48 more days. Auspicious. All divisible by 4. Very auspicious indeed.
Shula Shiraz sits at the computer in her office behind the Richdale. Travelocity is having another Getaway Sale. Vacations to to Disneysworld and -land. Also Getaways to Pittsburg and Dayton, Baltimore and Minneapolis, Moline and Spokane. She bought 24 more tickets. 124 vacations for owners of gas stations, coffee shops, motels and convenience stores. 74 purchased. 50 to go. 496 tickets for 124 Getaways. The Travelocity screen says, Getaway for less. Hit the beach. Hit the city. Hit Cincinattii, and Mobile, Akron and Long Beach. Tallahassee and Fargo.
At the Exxon station on Rte. 1 Hari Halim checks the level of the underground tanks. 9,000 gallons each. Four tanks. 36,000 gallons in all.
Hari Halim smiles. God is good. No bombs or guns. 496 carefully sharpened Bic pens in the pockets of 496 Getaway travelers, all of them waiting, like him, for the moment when they will leave their gas stations and convenience stores, motels and donut shops with hands in pockets, fingering the lethal pens they will wield midair. The thought makes the back of Hari Halim's neck prickle.
They will leave their pretty towns with electronic detonators in place. 90,000 gallons of gasoline in Eastridge alone. 8 propane tanks at Dunkin Donuts. 24 bottles of gas in the cage at Gas and Gulp, 16 at Richdale. So many gallons. So many small picturesque towns.
Hari Halim walks back into the station, sits down, unrolls another length of bulk mail stickers, tears off one, and rubs it across the moistened sponge. The glue has a sharp smell. Soon he will fly. He will soar to where there is nothing but the sweet fragrance of jasmine and all will be bright and pure again. He smoothes the sticker down, inhales and imagines the smells he will smell before he becomes one with Allah's most delicate flowers.
His own body odor. Blood. Jet fuel.
About the author:
Joan Wilking's short fiction has been published in The Atlantic, Other Voices, Ascent, The MacGuffin, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Mississippi Review, The Barcelona Review and others journals both print and online. She is a three-time finalist for Glimmertrain's Very Short Fiction Award, and was a finalist for Glimmetrain's 2005 Fiction Open. Her short short "Proper Dress" was included in the anthology Politically Inspired, edited by Stephen Elliott, published by MacAdam/Cage.