Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place

Very Truly Yours, John Ashcroft

by Alison Derbenwick

Incessant water, falling, deafening blows in bright endless silence, a ball peen hammer on a stainless steel sink. Never night, never day. Never without time. Never that is forever.

About Alison Derbenick

Being a lawyer with a background in history and journalism has helped Alison Derbenwick create her fictional characters.

"I think those fields spend a lot of time looking at human condition," she said. "It gives you some insights into how people behave and react to things."

This insight, Derbenwick said, helps make her fictional characters "very real."
Derbenwick has been writing fiction since she published her first story in Cricket Magazine at the age of 7. Although she continued to write during the past few years -- she took creative writing classes off and on -- Derbenwick didn't submit her work for publication until the Weekly contest.

"I think if everything you write sits in a drawer, it has limited value," she said. Entering the short story contest, she said, was a way to see she could "still write things that people want to read."

-- Nisha Ramachandran

On his back, on the floor, Fariq fingers his unfamiliar beard, thinks it is like a calendar and is glad for the first time since this started that he is a man.

He figures it has been many days.

Once, it was Monday.

Mondays started early. A run down quiet streets, a fast shower, a cafe latte at Cafe Murano if he was early enough, or a latte trotting across campus if he was not. He'd never figured out why they put the nine a.m. Early Western Religions class he TA'd on the far corner of campus, in the math building, but there it was and he was almost always late. They expected it now, the sixty-odd mostly Asian undergraduates wearing clothes like pajamas and expressions that said they were only there because it was a prereq class. Already talking, he'd open the door, coffee in hand, leather briefcase with one broken buckle tucked under his arm, and they'd open notebooks, lift pens, trying to absorb enough to write the week's reaction paper without doing the assigned reading. Sometimes Fariq wondered why he bothered.

That Monday, the last Monday, had been different: a run, a fast shower, a black coffee in Cafe Murano because he didn't have enough change to afford a latte. Instead of the usual spread of ungraded papers, Fariq sat with a single page and an envelope in front of him. The envelope was doubling as a coaster, brown rings from the bottom of his cup making sepia kaleidoscope prints on the yellow post office forwarding label. The page was a letter, typewritten, covered in Amy's blue notes, and addressed to him:

Dear Mr. Fariq Safir, RE: Special Registration for Students from Designated Countries: By order of the United States Department of Justice and Attorney General John Ashcroft (8 CFR 214, 264; AG Order No. 2608-2002), nonimmigrant males from designated countries must register with the INS by no later than Monday, December 16...

It was Monday. Monday was the deadline.

Lying on the thin cot, Fariq watches the ceiling and tries to sing himself his mother's lullaby. But he cannot remember her voice; the words are missing and darkness never comes. He thinks about lattes, fingers his lengthening beard.
He wonders if the days are now weeks.

When it came in the mail, he'd taken the notice to his friend Amy, a law student.

"Did you hear about this?" he asked.

Amy rolled her eyes. "This is Berkeley, Fariq. Of course I heard about it."

"And?" he asked. "What do you think of it?"

"It's ridiculous, of course," she said. "Discriminatory. Inefficient. Unconstitutional, in fact. Places an undue burden on visiting foreigners. Violates due process. Do you want more?"

Fariq tried to smile. "In English instead of lawyerese, please?"

"In a word, it's bullshit. All bullshit."

Fariq sighed. "But real."

"Yes," Amy said, "unfortunately."

"So I have to go?"

Her eyes fixed on his face. "What do you mean, you have to go?"

"Amy, I'm Group 1. I'm from Iran. Why do you think they sent me this thing?"

Amy hesitated. "Are you even Muslim?"

"Am I what? Does that matter?"

Amy sat on the bed. "I'm sorry."

Fariq shrugged.

"What are you going to do?"

Fariq looked at her. He liked how blue her eyes were. "I don't know," he sighed. "I moved without reporting it to the INS -- "

"You have to report the fact you moved to the INS? Why?"

Fariq made a face. "Who knows? I hardly ever did it. They never seemed to care."

Amy looked at him, raised her eyebrows. "Maybe it won't be a big deal."

"That's not the worst," Fariq said after a moment. "My visa's expired."

"What? Why?" Amy waited, then said, "I'm serious. After September 11, you must have thought they'd care more."

"What I thought after September 11 was complicated. Then, you know how it is at the beginning of the semester. Lines at financial aid, the registrar's office, the bookstore. I don't even get financial aid and I have to stand in that line. I didn't get the paperwork done. It's never been a problem before."

"You've let your visa expire before?" Amy asked.

For an instant he saw something in those blue eyes that he didn't like, some doubt or fear or question. "Amy, it just happens. In eleven years there are a lot of visas and renewals and extensions. It's bureaucracy. It doesn't mean anything."

Amy read the notice through, looked at her hands. "I think it might mean something now."

Fariq sat down beside her.

She faced him, tucked one leg under her bottom, and took his hand. "I'll look at the law. Maybe there's a loophole."

"Do you think they'll arrest me?"

She shook her head, no, pulled at her lips with her fingers. "This is America. I don't think people would tolerate that."

Crouching against the wall, Fariq rubs his ankles. The space between the cot and the stainless steel toilet is a gray cement path made shiny by bare feet and many steps. His stomach growls.

He wonders who administered his finals, thinks about Amy's eyes. He misses how she pulls at her lips when she's thinking and wonders if she's trying to get him out. He fingers his beard and rubs his feet against the cement floor smoothness.

He fears it has been a month.

On Monday, that Monday, the line at the INS office was so long it stretched down the sidewalk like a snake coming out of its hole. Amy had offered to come with him but he said no, and when she had argued not only was she going to be a lawyer but she was his friend, he yelled back she was scaring him. Now he wished she were there. He finally stepped through the double doors into the dusty administrative air, his weary broken briefcase stuffed full of legal paperwork that might have been understandable if it didn't frighten him so much to read it.

It was humiliating to be fingerprinted and photographed like a criminal, his back against a height chart. In the interrogation room, the INS officer wasn't interested in his dissertation research or the article he was publishing in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

"Why didn't you report your change of address?" she asked.

Fariq shrugged. "I don't know. It didn't seem important."

"Obeying the law isn't important?"

"No," Fariq said, "I didn't say that."
Her eyes flicked toward the other INS officer: check. Like ticking boxes on a list.

"But you let your visa expire, you didn't report your change of address, and it's not the first time you've done either." She tapped her pen against the table and frowned. "If it's not disregard for the law, how do you explain it?"
Fariq wondered what they knew. "I guess I don't."

Check.

"Why don't you belong to a mosque?"
I

t was as if his father had walked in, and Fariq cringed. Life here was so different, so full of distractions, so...secular. Everything his father feared. "I'm not proud of not practicing. But I study religion. I teach it. It's always on my mind. Practicing is..." He stopped before he finished: practicing felt superfluous.

"Are you hiding your religion?"

Fariq scowled and clenched his hands beneath the table. "No," he said. Being a practicing Muslim had inconvenient rituals and lifestyle restrictions, but how could he explain that to her when she probably went to church for an hour on Sunday morning and called herself a Christian?

"Is that why you don't wear a beard?"

Fariq looked at her. "What? Yes. I mean...no. Men here just don't wear beards."

She looked at the other officer again: check. "And this trip you took to Tehran last August? You bought your tickets the day before you left, and were back inside a week. What could you have done in Tehran for four days?"
Fariq shook his head. "I wasn't in Tehran. I was near Chogha Zambil."

"Where?"

"In western Iran, sort of in the middle."

"Near Iraq."

Fariq sighed. "Yes."

Check.

"For four days," she said.

Fariq wondered if he owed them the truth. Finally, he said, "For my father's funeral." Saying it made it real again. A final seal on his father's dissatisfaction with him. Fariq felt tears.

She was implacable. "Your records show that your father lived in Tehran."
Fariq was tired. "Those records are almost ten years old," he said. "My parents moved after I came to America."

The other officer cleared his throat. Check.

"Do you have a copy of the death certificate?"

Fariq snapped. "No," he said. "Is your father dead? Do you carry his death certificate?"

The woman sized him up. He wondered what she saw, his shaggy dark hair, his dark skin, his nice-but-not-too-expensive suit. Did he look like a terrorist?

"Can you prove that you were at your father's funeral?"

"I don't know how you'd prove that."

She pursed her lips. "Well," she said. It was not a precursor to a suggestion. She looked at the files in front of her, and Fariq wondered what they might say.
Finally she told him to remove his shoes and socks and belt. They led him away in shackles, no explanations, no phone calls, no paperwork, and they put him in the room and told him to face the wall. Before the door shut, Fariq wondered for one crazy second if they were going to shoot him in the back of the head.
Fariq sank to the floor, buried his face in his hands.

That was the last Monday.

Fariq cannot remember Amy or lattes or students. Food comes erratically through a slot in the wall. Lying on his stomach, Fariq reaches for the plastic tray and eats like an animal. He no longer thinks. His beard looks like he has worn it for a lifetime.

He has stopped trying to count time.

When the door opens the hall is the same color as the room, bright white light, but Fariq blinks like a mole emerging into the sun. The guard's voice is too loud after too much silence and only Fariq's own sounds: fingernails scratching dirty skin, foamy urine splashing the sides of the stainless steel toilet.

Fariq crouches against the wall, his hands pressed against his ears.

"You can go now."

Fariq blinks his burning eyes. "What?" His voice is rusty with silence.

"Get up." A clipboard is waved at him. "Sign here and you can go."

Fariq doesn't ask as he takes the clipboard and signs without reading. Nothing matters except that he has lost months of his life in this hole.

He smells bad. They haul him to his feet, drag him to a shower and strip him naked. The guard shoves soap into his hand. "Clean yourself up." The water is hard and not warm enough, but it is cleansing. Too soon, they hand him his dirty underwear, his rumpled suit, his shoes and socks and belt and tired broken briefcase still full of papers. He leaves his underwear on the floor and pulls his pants over his legs. When he is dressed, the guard hands him a comb and holds up a mirror.

The comb sticks in the knots in Fariq's hair and hurts when he tugs it out. The face that looks back from the mirror is thin, unrecognizable behind the beard, the eyes flat and dark. That man could be anyone.

He could even be a terrorist.

They walk him out the front door and leave him standing on the steps. "Thank you, Mr. Safir," they say, waving the clipboard with his signature on it. "We apologize for any inconvenience, but it really was a matter of national security."
Fariq wants to spit. National security? Don't they understand this is his fucking life?

Even in Los Angeles the breeze smells of the ocean, and his skin crawls with the livingness of it. He wonders if it is already spring, or if it is only a spring day in winter. Cars and people pass in front of him, an overwhelming Technicolor kaleidoscope after the white silence. Fariq sits on the steps and watches, people talking, laughing, breathing -- as if the world hasn't changed.

People who don't know, or don't care.

This is America, after all. The back of Fariq's throat fills with something bitter. What would his father say now? I told you so, you foolish boy?

There was a phone number from another Iranian student, a phone number with hidden meanings on a scrap of blue-lined notebook paper Fariq had crumpled up and thrown away. He doesn't know who would have been at the other end of the line if he had called, but now he imagines: the voice, the explosives, the blind single purpose. No more waiting or wondering why. Just revenge. His revenge. He closes his eyes and tries to see the number. Had it started with a four? A three?

But instead of numbers, Fariq sees book accolades, friends, life as a professor. He sees notes and papers, eager students, children with Amy's blue eyes. And he sees in himself a quiet resignation that banishes this time, this now, to a distant and unreal memory.

The agony of it makes him want to scream.

Has he not been changed? How can he still believe in that world? Only minutes back in the sunshine and what was unimaginable an hour ago is re-imagined. Time softens the edges of pain until someday it becomes just tissue paper, worn thin and vague. Without this, Fariq thinks, we might always remember. But we would never survive.

He presses his forehead against his knees. His father's voice in his head is loud.
"Fariq!" Amy's touch is a lifeline. Somehow, she is there, helping him to his feet. Her face says he looks awful. "What have they done to you?" she says. "I tried get in to see you. I talked to about a zillion lawyers. Then they don't even tell me they're letting you out today. I just happened to call ..."

"Amy," Fariq says, trying to interrupt her. "Amy," he says again, taking her arm. He is surprised to find his hand is still strong.

"What?" She doesn't look at him.

He needs her to look at him.

"It's good to see you," he says, and then he is weeping.

Amy's eyes come up to meet his and they are as blue as the sky behind her. Fariq leans into her, and her arms go around him. She holds him, rocking gently, making small, soothing sounds.

In the street, a car honks its horn, and around them the world goes on.


Brave story of a not-so-brave new world. The writer takes us on a journey that we may not wish to make -- and by telling one man's story, tells us a lot about our country. Powerful writing.
-- Ellen Sussman