Like Prizes in a Cereal Box

When I come home to our terrorist camp and see Akbar peeing into a
two-liter Coke bottle so he doesn’t have to get off the couch, I shut
off the TV and stand in front of the sensor so the remote won’t work.
All of them shriek like I’ve sprayed them with a whole clip from the
AK, which right now has a pair of Sayyid’s dirty boxer shorts hanging
off the barrel. Craning their bodies around to try to click the TV
back on, the three of them say that Allah doesn’t really give a shit
if our place is clean or not as long as they do the job when it
counts, and, besides, cleaning is bitch work and they are not bitches,
hell no, they are envoys of God, they are almost angels, motherfucker,
and they’re not going to go around with some spray bottle of Windex
and squeegee just because I’m allergic to dust.

“Do you want to live in a sty,” I say, “like filthy, dirty pigs? Do
you want to be unclean?”

“Bitch, I ain’t showered yet today and I ain’t planning to,” Sayyid
says, “so why don’t you just chill and get out of the way of the TV.”
He hops off the couch, kicks me in the gut, then hops back on. I fall
down on the prayer mats in front of the TV and he and Akbar laugh
their asses off. Salim takes a hit off the gravity bong and blows
smoke in my face and he knows my asthma’s been flaring up, he knows, that asshole.

I’ve sectioned off a cubicle for myself in the back right corner of
the garage, by the bunk beds, and I go there and sit cross-legged on
my cushion and listen to Enya on headphones. Oprah says it’s important
to have your own space, no matter how small, where you can go to
recharge and learn again to deal with your problems in constructive
ways. The sheets hanging around me are from the Martha Stewart Living
collection and they’re of a reasonably high thread count, in nice warm
pastels. I rub my face against them, close my eyes, and imagine the
seventy two virgins, the different kinds of outfits they might wear,
the fabrics and the cuts. I mouth the words as I fantasize: satin,
lace, Lycra, velvet; thong, bikini, boy short.

I hope Allah will give me a girl from a shampoo commercial. That’s
what I want for at least one of my virgins, a shampoo girl with long,
full, moisturized hair, who shakes it in the wind and moans endlessly.

The world I can’t change is the converted two-car garage in Passaic,
New Jersey where we’ve lived for two and a half months. It’s a nice
middle-class neighborhood, with automatic sprinkler systems and people
who wave at you when you drive buy, even if they don’t know you.

We rent the garage from Ms. Henderson. She’s an infidel and she bakes
us chocolate chip cookies all the time, brownies too. She’s in her
late forties and smells like nutmeg and dish detergent and misses her
husband who left her a year ago for a younger woman. Sometimes she
cries about it, but when I try to comfort her, she says it’s just the
Botox.

If any of the rest of them run into her, in the driveway, say, they
won’t even look in her direction, much less smile or say “Hello” or
“How you doing?” like normal people do. It would be suspicious even if
we weren’t what we are, so, to keep up appearances, I bring in her
paper every morning and we have a cup of coffee with cream and sugar.

We have our coffee in the breakfast nook and sometimes as I sit down
at the little Formica table, I repeat the word to myself, nook , the
snugness of it like a clean blanket. When we’re not drinking our
coffee, we put it down on porcelain saucers and we eat toast with
orange marmalade and scones sometimes and wipe our mouths with cloth
napkins.

The little TV in the nook is always on The Today Show, of course. We
comment occasionally on this or that, what Meredith’s wearing, who
Matt’s interviewing, laugh at Al’s jokes, but mostly we just watch
quietly and then talk during the commercials. Mrs. Henderson, who says
just call her Becky, only has time to watch the first hour before she
goes to work at the hospital, but she lets me stay and watch from 8 to
10 as long as I lock the door, because she knows how much I love it. I
sit alone in her faux-funky vinyl chair and drink in the images along
with my Folgers.

Even though I probably shouldn’t, sometimes I walk around the house
after she leaves. It’s clean and neat and filled with lovely things:
throw pillows and framed pictures and scented candles. I stand in
sconces and at end tables, fondle her tchotchkes and baubles, her
knickknacks, her trinkets. I sit down on her couch and get up and sit
down again, watch the way it compresses under me and then slowly
rises, like dough.

We live a life of waiting. Until the cell phone rings, we’re not to
do anything at all, not lift a finger. Just wait. We keep the phone in
the back of the pantry, behind the canned goods, and we don’t look at
it or talk about it or think about it.

I pretend to have a job, partially for cover and partially to get out
of the house. I tell Mrs. Henderson that my brothers are all severely
mentally retarded and that’s why they have to stay home all the time
and why she can’t go into the garage. I tell her that personal space
is very important to them and they have breakdowns if it gets
disrupted, which is half true anyway.

My fake job is that I work at a day care for developmentally disabled
children. I tell her that growing up with retarded brothers really
made me want to help people. I make up the names of the children and
the cute, fun things they do, their various foibles and quirks. She
thinks we should send my story to Guideposts magazine because a lot of
people would find what I do really inspirational.

What I really do is go to the mall. I stroll the promenades, stare
into shop windows. I go into stores and try on shirts, jackets, hiking
boots. I escalate and elevate. I browse.

When I get tired of walking, I go to Barnes and Noble, to the café,
and I buy myself a coffee and a cookie. My eyes dance over the menu,
all the flavors and sizes, the choices. When I say my order, I
carefully enunciate the syllables. “Mo-cha non-fat gran-de la-tte.”
The barista puts my cup down on the counter, and I grip the paper
wrapper with both hands and hold it to my chest as I carry it to my
table, the steam and scent of it rising into my nose. I sit there,
sipping, and I read Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly and People and
Star, Cosmo and Maxim and Good Housekeeping, anything and everything
glossy and interesting. I read them over and over until the new issues
come and then I read those over and over, too.

I know people are looking at me. I see their stares, sizing me up.
Could I be one of them, one of those? When I catch their glances,
their gaping mouths shift into forced smiles, raised eyebrows fall
against their will. At first it hurt me a lot and when I saw it I
would cry, but now I just smile and go back to my magazine and pretend
they’re paying attention to me because I’m a famous celebrity and I am
ignoring them because I have famous celebrity things to do.

We have the couch and TV set up in line with Mecca, so when the alarm
rings for the salah, Sayyid and Salim can just slide off the couch,
cleanse their hands in the bowl of sand, and pray without missing any
of whatever show they’re watching.

One afternoon a week after we moved in, there was an episode of Oprah that I really wanted to see. So we were all down in the sujood, heads
on the ground, and I knew it was almost time, so I very quietly got up
and grabbed the remote and changed the channel.

The next thing I knew, I was getting punched in three places, sand
stuffed in my mouth and eyes, Oprah’s smooth voice replaced by a
thumping beat. After that, I pretty much let them have control over
the TV.

Sayyid and Salim watch TV all day, taking breaks occasionally to play
video games and buy pot from this kid down the street. Their second
favorite thing to watch is MTV Jams, which is hip hop videos and
culture twenty-four hours a day. Their favorite thing to watch is
judge shows, which air here in a five hour block every afternoon. They
cheer and clap with each gavel bang, with every sentencing. They boo
the guilty parties in their post-court interviews and they’re quiet
when the judge is talking, especially when it’s Judge Joe Brown, their
favorite.

“It’s fuckin’ great” says Sayyid, “it’s instant justice, dealt
down by total authority. You know Judge Joe Brown ain’t even listening
to those bitches, he’s just pretending to give them a say.”

“Yeah,” says Salim, “JJB doesn’t give two shits about evidence. He
knows the second he sees the perps how he’s going rule, what he’s
gonna say, what he’s gonna lay down. All of rest of it is just those
pitiful bitches trying to act like they got some power or some control
until the hammer of justice comes down and shuts their stupid little
mouths.”

Akbar joins them for the judge shows, which he says are good and
righteous, but besides that he mostly keeps to himself. I don’t think
he really likes any of us; he spends most of his time on the heavy bag
or on the exercise bike. When he’s not working out, he’s reading the
Quran.

I don’t pray anymore. I did when I was younger and everything, but
now, I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem important anymore. One time,
there was a story on the Today show about lapsed Catholics, and even
though it doesn’t really apply to Islam, I still like the word.
Lapsed. It implies that maybe I believed something sometime and maybe
deep down I still believe something or would like to in the future,
but that circumstances have lead me to stop for now.

I don’t know how I got started exactly.  You know, you just get a
job. It’s maybe not the job you thought you wanted or even a job that
you were particularly interested in, but whatever, you’ve got to do
something with your life.

“You’ve got to do something with your life,” my parents said to me
the day after my high school graduation, as I sat on the bed I’d slept in for
eighteen years of my life, twisting the comforter in my hands. “You’ve
got to do something. Make us proud.”

The call comes when I’m not home, but they don’t answer it. When I
open the door, all of them are standing around the kitchen table,
staring at the phone, at the blinking red voicemail light. The TV is
off and it’s so quiet I can hear the pipes groan, hot air pushing out
of vents. We stand there for a couple of minutes, just looking.

It vibrates and we all jump back. Against the table, the vibration is
amplified like a jackhammer. Akbar bounces up and down a couple of
times on the balls of his feet, exhales sharp, and picks it up. He
listens and mumbles into the phone occasionally, pacing back and forth
the length of the garage, pushing off the walls like a swimmer.

The target is Wall Street, he says when he gets off the phone. I
think of the things I know about Wall Street and I see money flying
through air off of a balcony but I can’t see where it’s falling, I
can’t see the floor or the building or the people’s faces or anything.
Is it really a whole street or is that just a nickname? Can we destroy
a whole street, do we have that power, the four of us?

That night we all go to bed early. I wake up around 3 to the sound of
something, heavy breathing. I look down from my top bunk and I see
Akbar doing push-ups by the blue glow of the TV. I watch him for a
little while and then roll over.

The next morning, while Ms. Henderson and I are watching Matt
interview a salesman who’s invented a revolutionary new kind of toilet
seat, a Fed Ex truck shows up with a package addressed to me. At least
it looks like a Fed Ex truck, but when the guy opens the back, there’s
only one package and he doesn’t ask me to sign for it. It’s big and he
and I bring it in on a hand truck while Ms. Henderson watches through
the front window. When I get back inside, I tell her it’s soft foam
toys for my brothers to play with.

“It’s like Christmas” is a Western expression used to signify that
there are lots of gifts and happiness. We cut open the tape with a box
cutter and fling packing peanuts all over the garage. There are maps
and satellite photos and pages and pages of information on local
police presence and other pertinent information. There’s a DVD with
hours of video of the area in front of the Stock Exchange, which is
our target. We’re scheduled to do it at noon, when the most people
will be on the street, so the DVD is just hours of lunchtimes, hours
of people in suits and overcoats walking back and forth in the
sunshine.

At the bottom of the box, carefully packed and taped in place, are
the supplies – the empty nylon vests, the explosives in their wax
paper coating, the triggers, wires and schematics, the Ziploc bags of
nails and screws to pack in the nooks and crannies of our bodies like
prizes in a cereal box.

We have this computer game that Sayyid downloaded from some
Palestinian web site. It’s modified from one of those American games
where you play a crack military operative who has to sneak around a
compound and knock out terrorists with head shots before they blow up
the embassy.

Our version is about stealth, too, but it’s the opposite thing. You
play the martyr who has to sneak through crowds of people, past
suspicious cops and anti-terrorist squads. The trick is to move the
joystick at a moderate speed, so you don’t seem like you’re in a hurry
to get anywhere, but not too slowly, so you don’t seems like you’re
snooping around. The trick is not to jaywalk because that’s all you
need for the cops to pick you up. The trick is not to shift your
viewpoint around so it looks like you’re trying to take in too many
details. Once you get into the place you think is optimal, in the
heart of the polygonal crowd, you press the X button and there’s a
beep and the screen goes white. The game calculates the number of
people you killed and gives you a score.

The great thing about the game is that when it’s finished, when “Game
Over” flashes on the screen, it goes back to the title menu. It goes
back to the title menu and you can start over again and you can die
again and start over again. You can keep trying, do better. You get as
many chances as you want.

The training was no sweat. It was summer camp with automatic rifles.
There were calisthenics, lessons on popular culture, blending into a crowd,
electronics and wiring, marksmanship.

It was nice. It was summer and I was so happy to be out of school, to
not have to do any more papers or tests. At first I was worried that
it was going be like what I had seen in war movies, with drill
sergeants spitting in my face and making me do pushups in the mud, but
all the instructors were pretty laid back. The guy who was in charge
of our house wore a Metallica t-shirt and had three pairs of Converse
All-Stars in different colors.

At night, they turned the dining hall into a screening room, where
they showed videos of Western excess, to let us see the evil we were
fighting against first hand. The first thing they showed us was the
Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape. It was an old VHS and the
tracking went in and out, like it had been played too many times, but
some guys still had to leave the room because they couldn’t take it.
One punched a hole in the wall. I sat in the front row and took notes.

When Pam and Tommy were doing it on the speedboat, I heard someone
whisper, “Check out them titties, son,” and an explosion of hissed
giggles. I looked over to see two guys with their hands down their
baggy pants. The next day, I was introduced to them formally, because
they were my cell, Sayyid and Salim, the ones that I’ll be with till
the end. Akbar was the guy who punched the wall.

I get home from the mall and they’re all waiting for me on the couch.
The TV is turned down low and it makes me uncomfortable.

“Yo, we got something to ask you,” Sayyid says. His hair looks combed
and I don’t know why.

“What?”

“We want to, uh, we want to get the city early on Friday,” says Salim.

“But we don’t have to be there until noon,” I say. “Don’t you guys
want to sleep in?”

They look at each other and Sayyid elbows Salim until he hands me a
crumpled piece of paper. It’s an ad for “Rapper’s Delight,” a bus tour
of hip hop landmarks in Harlem and the Bronx. It lasts from eight to
eleven AM and there’s a complimentary soul food snack included.

I look up from the paper and I see all their eyes on me, pleading.
It’s a shock to realize that even after all the beatings and the shit
talking, I still mean something to them, I have some sort of
authority. We’re kind of a family and I have some say in what we do
and how we do it.

“Akbar,” I say, “why do you want to do this?”

He looks at me for a second and then says, his voice cracking, “Well,
I like to get down with my badness, also,” and we all bust out
laughing until he gets up and threatens to kick all our asses. I make
dinner and they watch TV and it’s the nicest the garage has felt the
whole time we’ve lived there, like a home.

I figure I’ll just go shopping or something and I don’t even make the
connection until later, when I’m washing dishes. I’ll be in the city,
New York City, on a Friday morning.

Friday morning is the best episode of The Today Show every week. It’s
when they get the most A-List stars and have musical guests out in the
plaza and everybody shows up and it’s like America’s block party. And
I can be there, and I will be there, in the front row.

We go shopping at Walmart. It’s a chore to get them all out of the
house, but I tell them I’ll buy them Icees and McDonalds and they
grumblingly go along.

The reason that we go shopping is that we have to have outfits to
cover the bomb vests, which are big and heavy. With the explosives and
the shrapnel packed in, they weigh like 25 pounds. We wear them around the garage constantly to try to get used to the weight, to be able to
walk normally and not arouse any interest.

We have to look normal and inconspicuous. I know everything there is
to know about looking normal and so this is my thing that I can do, I
am in charge of this. The others immediately gravitate to the Adidas,
Fubu, the Wu Wear. I help them pick out their oversized tee-shirts and
jerseys, big baggy coats with faux-fur collars and hoods.

I don’t know what to wear at first, but then I see it, a big white
sweater that says, “I Heart New York.” It fits me great.

Thursday morning, I tell Ms. Henderson that I’m taking my brothers
into the city to see a specialist who found a new treatment for their
crippling mental retardation.

“That’s wonderful,” she says.

“That’s not all,” I say, like a peppy game show host. “While they’re
at the hospital with him, I’m going to go to the Today Show and be in
the crowd.”

She says that’s just the most wonderful thing she ever heard, she’s
so happy for me. She says she’ll set the VCR to record the whole thing
and won’t even watch it herself, so that when I get home, we can watch
it together and try to find me in the crowd shots, and won’t that be
fun?

“Yeah, that’ll be great” I say. I sip my coffee.

We go out to dinner at Pizza Hut on Thursday night. It’s
all-you-can-eat and we do, along with a couple of pitchers of Pepsi.
We don’t talk much, just inhale cheese and sauce and bread, pepperoni
and bacon and sausage.

The first time we ordered pizza, the night we moved in, Sayyid wanted
pepperoni and I said, “You know that’s pork, right?” and he got up in
my face and said, “Nobody knows what pepperoni is. It’s shit you eat
on pizza that tastes good, so don’t be such a bitch.” So I ordered it
and I had never had pepperoni before, not even in college. It wasn’t
some big moral stance, I’d just never eaten it. The first bite was too
hot and it burned the roof of my mouth but I didn’t even care, it
tasted so good.

When we get back to the garage, there’s a marathon of America’s
Funniest Home Videos on. We watch it for four hours and then get in
our beds, all our movements silently coordinated.

None of us really sleep that night. We all get up around six and eat
Cinnamon Toast Crunch without milk for breakfast. I make the beds and
vacuum and the others go for a jog around the block. They get back and
we put on the vests. Even after all the practice, they’re still heavy.
We bounce up and down in our underwear, feeling the heft of it rise
and fall on our bodies. We put on our outfits, which I had laid out on
the sofa the night before, and I turn off the TV and close the door.

The drive takes about forty minutes. There’s no CD player in the car
so we listen to some morning talk show, some bloated conservative jerk
going on illegal immigrants. I take the Lincoln Tunnel. We don’t have
to stop to pay the toll because of the E-Z Pass that they gave us in
our box, but as I drive through the turnstile, I know there are
cameras watching me, there are always cameras, so I smile and try to
look relaxed. In the tunnel, I drive at a moderate speed, not too
fast, not too slow, perfectly with the flow of traffic.
We park at a lot near Times Square with a pass from the box. I make
sure that the others know how to get to where they’re meeting the bus
and that they have money and everything. We’re going to meet at the
Hello Deli right after their bus drops them off. They walk off with
their hoods up and blend into the crowd. I watch them disappear and I
know I’ll never see them again, and it makes me kind of sad.

The thing is, I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to meet them.
After the Today Show is over, I’m going to get in the car and I’m
going to drive back to the house and pick up my clothes and the money
I’ve been saving under my pillow, that I’ve been skimming off the
credit cards, and I’m going to get a bus ticket to Mexico. I hear that
a little money goes a long way in Mexico and that people who want to
find somebody may not look there because there are a lot of places to
hide. I am going to find a hiding place and I am going to stay there
and things will be fine.

I walk down the street, through the throngs, alternating looking down
at my map and up at the buildings. The tallness is a thing I really
can’t get over. The bigness, too. The movies and TV can’t get at it,
it’s bigger than them, you can’t put a frame on it. It’s all bigger
than my eyes can deal with in one go, it makes me dizzy, so I look
down at the map to get centered.

A little bit later, I look up from my map and I see the ice rink, the
skaters gliding around below me, fathers and mothers and little
children, and I know this is Rockefeller Center. The skaters are
moving so freely, so effortlessly, that I think about going down there
and skating with them, but I’m on a mission and I know where I’m going
and it’s not some ice rink.

I get closer to the set and enter the crowd. I’ve never seen so many
people in my life. I feel them all through my body, the sound of
laughter and talking and babies crying, the BO and perfume. I feel the
breath of so many strangers hit my face, the way the cold and the wind
get cut off by all the bodies, like they’re human insulation. I press
my way through them gently, always feeling the vest on my sternum and
the little button in my left coat pocket, my hand making a cave of
hot, sweaty air around it. I find gaps, little bits of space, worm
along with an “Excuse me” and a smile. I thread my arms like needles
into empty spaces and pull my body through. I move past cardboard
signs and people dressed up to look like witches and Martians.

And somehow, as if by magic, I get to the front, to the barricades
I’ve only seen on camera from the other side. I grip them and feel
that they are solid things, real iron. To my left is the stage, where
they’re setting up for some rock band to play later, setting up big
speakers and drums and microphones and men are carrying miles of cable wound around their arms in big loops.

Then I turn to my right and I see him, Al, Al Roker, about fifteen
feet away. He’s giving a weather report to the camera while holding
somebody’s Chihuahua. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but it’s strange,
because on TV you really only see people from the front, but I what I
see is the back and the side of him. I see the back of Al Roker’s ear,
which I’d never seen before on TV, never. It feels so real.

I hear whistling and cheering to my left and I turn around and lean
over the rail to get a better look and it’s all too much. It’s Matt,
walking down along the barricade, signing autographs and taking
pictures and shaking hands. It’s Matt, in his blue suit, with his
perfect hair and shoes and cufflinks and tie. It’s Matt, who I’ve
watched for so long, and now he’s not flat on my TV, he has form and
body and he’s right here near me. It’s Matt. He’s here. It’s today.

His hand grabs my hand and shakes it and my arm moves like a loose
rubber band. “Nice sweater,” he says, winks, smiles that smile, and
he’s on to the next person in line.

But I don’t let go of his hand. I hold on. I can’t let go of it.

He realizes when he tries to shake the next person’s hand and he
turns back to me, chuckles a little bit. “All right buddy, nice to
meet you,” he says, “but we’ve got some other folks here who want to
say hello,” and what he is saying is completely friendly and rational
and right, just like he always is, but I don’t let go, I hold tighter.
I’m looking him right in the eyes and, over his shoulder, I see police
officers coming from the opposite barricade and people are yelling all
around me and pulling at my arm and at my shoulders, but I don’t let
go. I’m looking him right in the eyes and I see his face change, I see
his eyes and he looks uncertain, maybe even scared, and it’s not
right, I’ve never once seen him look scared or sad or hurt or angry,
every morning he’s happy and bright and fresh, and I wish he wouldn’t
look at me like that, but I don’t let go, I can’t, and I feel him
trying to pull back but I use all my weight to pull him closer and I
smell him, he smells like breath mints and skin, and the police
officers are right on me now and I pull him closer still, so he’s
right up against the vest, and I don’t let go.

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