By: Richard D. Hartwell
You could say that the trip decided itself. In the car, on the way to Adalanto, neither of them can agree who had brought up the idea first, let alone how it was finalized. But by six-thirty Friday night the trip is well underway; at least Carl and Jamie are in the Toyota and heading northeast on the 15 Freeway. Jamie’s sister is taking care of the baby, the trip having decided itself earlier in the afternoon. Carl had agreed, or perhaps he had suggested it himself, although Jamie felt responsible for suggesting it first, or perhaps just quickly approved what Carl had suggested. Maybe they, Jamie or Carl, or both, just heard something on the radio or saw something on the TV news or read something in the morning paper in the passport office earlier on Friday, that sparked the trip.
By seven-thirty or so, even with the horrendous Friday night traffic, the Toyota is well north of San Bernardino and almost to Victorville. Beyond Carl’s occasional bitching at some driver, neither one has said anything, particularly not anything about Jamie’s doctor’s appointment earlier in the day; the final one, before the trip; before the operation.
Carl takes the 395 northwest, veers off on Adalanto Road. After the asphalt tapers off and becomes dirt and dust, he follows his best recollection of rights and lefts to the United Islamic Children’s Cemetery. It’s real; Google it, it’s there. Jamie has never been here, long after the funeral and Carl’s divorce. Although Carl has been here annually, three times just aren’t enough to ingrain his mental autopilot and he concentrates on each turning. He makes no mistakes this time.
Rather than drive in, which others often do but which Carl still considers a sacrilege although he doesn’t know whose, he turns the Toyota around facing west and parks next to the hurricane fencing. They both sit still for a moment or two after he turns off the ignition. Jamie takes Carl’s hand.
“Well?” Carl finally says in a subdued voice.
“Yes, let’s” is all Jamie can manage. Then, “Be sure and grab the water and paper towels. They’re in the trunk.”
“Yeah, okay!” he manages as he rolls down the driver’s window. He is almost overcome by the thick, dark August heat of the high desert just before sunset. The long mountain shadows drape the cemetery in a dusk darker than the winter day he had buried Michael.
Carl pops the trunk before getting out and Jamie grabs a couple of bags of bottled water and rolls of paper towels. Carl retrieves the remaining waters and the plastic flowers, gently closes the trunk to subdue the noise, and then slides through the pedestrian passageway next to the unlocked vehicle gate. Jamie follows discretely, hanging back, recognizing that Carl still hasn’t fully processed his son’s death at thirty-six, let alone Michael’s conversion to Islam just a year or two before his death. Jamie hopes the baby will help Carl. Carl walks ahead, alone. They are the only visitors.
Michael’s grave is actually easy to identify. It is on the far side of the cemetery tucked into the apex of two intersecting walkways next to the oval vehicle drive. His grave is one of the white-painted rectangles with a black marble tombstone on which is engraved a Qur’an citation in Arabic script and Michael’s English name, doctor’s title, and life dates in block lettering. This is the first time Jamie had seen the cemetery, the grave, the tombstone, and Carl cry.
The two of them set to washing the gravesite and the tombstone using the untouched water in accordance with Carl’s limited understanding of Islamic culture and tradition. Jamie steps back as Carl empties the last of the water bottles over the grave and replaces the sun-bleached plastic flowers with the bright new ones brought today. Now Jamie understands why Carl wouldn’t stop for real flowers on the way. Life in the desert, whether that of Arabia or Adalanto, is different, as different as Islamic law is from Western expectations. Jamie gathers up the empty bottles, dirtied paper towels, and discarded plastic flowers, stuffing them all into the plastic grocery bags, and steps back. Jamie wants to allow Carl some time alone at Michael’s grave, but with head still bowed Carl reaches behind searching for Jamie. Hands clasped, Jamie steps forward until standing next to Carl. Carl’s tears are added to the purified water cleansing the grave.
“Mike – this is Jamie. We’ve been together a couple of years now and I want you two to meet . . .” Jamie squeezes Carl’s hand as Carl continues “. . . adopting a little girl . . . from Russia named Sofia . . . become your sister.” He tells Mike, Michael, about the baby and the upcoming trip to Iran and of the convolutions of getting passports and visas. “. . . going to Iran . . Jamie can get the operation . . . may convert like you did . . .” These are just phrases captured between gusts of the high desert wind, rubbed between the grit and grains of blown sand. Carl figures Mike should know about Jamie and the operation, and the baby named Sofia, and Iran, and all the rest of it. Jamie fills in the missing pieces of Carl’s conversation with Michael, or more properly his prayer of supplication for understanding and approval from Mike.
* * *
After Michael’s death, Carl’s marriage ended. The death of the son was only the final burial of an already dead relationship, culminating years of shoveling dirt into each other’s lives. Then Carl faced a downward spiral of booze and drugs until he entered a rehab program that provided not only a redirection for his life, but the receptive soul of Jamie, one of the program’s counselors. Myriad facets of Jamie’s life intrigued Carl, but one of the most fascinating was the ongoing adoption process of Sofia, a Russian-born orphan, by Jamie as a single parent. After leaving rehab Carl maintained contact with Jamie and over the course of several months the acquaintance grew to a relationship of much deeper meaning. Carl and Jamie were married mid-summer 2009. That complicated Jamie’s ongoing adoption of Sofia as the adoption now had to be renewed as by a couple, rather than by a single parent; the process started over. There were other issues as well. However, the trip to Iran and then Jamie’s operation and then the passport change; all these would resolve the issues blocking Sofia’s adoption. All these Michael heard from Carl.
* * *
All these Jamie reviews as Carl’s voice is overwhelmed by the increasing wind. The cleansing ritual is completed and Carl turns to face Jamie. Carl’s face is relaxed. Jamie realizes that Michael’s approval, somehow, has been granted. Carl squeezes Jamie’s hand as they walk slowly back to the Toyota. Carl opens Jamie’s door; walks to the trunk, opens it and places the remaining paper towel roll and plastic bags filled with empty bottles and trash into the trunk; opens the driver door, slips behind the wheel, and starts the engine.
“Thank you. I can get used to that.” Jamie says.
“For what?” from Carl.
“For coming out here. For introducing me to Michael . . .”
“Mike!” interrupts Carl.
“. . . to Mike. For being honest with him; and, with yourself; and with me. And for opening my door,” he answers. “I can get used to that, when we get back. I’ve also been thinking . . .”
“Huh?” again from Carl.
“. . . about converting, wearing the hijab; after the operation; you know . . .,” he responds.
Carl turns toward Jamie, “You’ve been studying! Thank you!” He takes Jamie’s hand, brings it to his lips, and kisses it first lightly, then more firmly. “Thank you, for everything!”
“You’re welcome, . . . for everything!” he says, or Jamie said, or she will say after Iran. She, or he, settles back in the seat, thinking of Sofia; thinking of Carl; thinking of the future made brighter by the truth rather than the trash.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather be still tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.