Ellis Robinson sits on a blue Igloo cooler in the garage. He stares at the cinderblock wall where the garden hose hangs on a rubber-covered hook sunk into a two-by-four. The garage is big. He’d built it separate from the house, with enough room for the truck and Valerie’s car. Above him, the boat hangs from high rafters. Often, he’d sit on this cooler, admiring his construction work. It had taken him two years to get it done. But today, the work seems not to matter. He doesn’t scan the structure for things he might have done differently, or things that need fixed. He just stares at the stony gray grain of the interior wall, unsure of his thoughts, his place, how he got here, or what he should do next. Outside, the day is hot and pressurized. A concrete cool shade prevails in the garage. He will stay here a while.
It was three months ago, when they’d been on a dig looking for a line break, that Claude Murphy, his co-worker at the utility board, told them about the plans for the mosque. Claude, a short, bulky man of around 40, who kept his hair close-shaven and often moaned about his divorce problems, even years after the fact, was the crew’s source for news, whether they wanted it or not. And generally, it seemed like everyone hated his moaning so much that his preaching about issues was welcome. At least Ellis could respond to such things with a reaction other than sympathy, which really started to feel fake after a while. Ellis once overheard a couple of the younger guys calling Claude, “the squarehead with the broken heart.”
“See? It’s just like I been telling you,” Claude had said that day in February. “First, they put in these meeting places where these freaks can get all whipped up on Allah. Next thing you know, they’re everwhere, and you know what happens next fellas, the big attack, that’s what. Then, whatever of us is left’ll be livin under heathen law, getting our heads chopped off for being good, Christian folk.”
Ellis didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t make any sense. Why on earth would you keep letting these people build places to congregate? Why would you let this crazy religion spread, into the cities, neighborhoods, and schools?
“How is it they let this shit happen?” he asked Claude.
“Fucking bunch of idiot liberals take their side, and then the Muslims start hollerin’ that they got rights, like they’s real Americans, like they belong here...”
“They don’t belong here,” chimed in one of the boys from the hole. “Here, somebody take this shovel. I found it.”
A few weeks after that first conversation, Ellis took some vacation. Last spring, they loaded up the girls and the boat, drove the four hours to Lake Punty, and rented a cabin, but they couldn’t afford any family trips this year. The utility board paid well, but with the price of things and two growing daughters of nine and eleven years, the money just wouldn’t stretch anymore. His plan for the week off had been to catch up on yard work brought on by the early warmth, maybe fix the screen door frame on the back of the house which had become loose, and, if he was lucky, get out and cast a line or two into Berry Run Creek. On the first of his days off, he was cutting grass when he caught a glimpse of Valerie, standing in the door, holding out the phone to him.
Ellis and Valerie met in Vincent’s Bar when they were both wild and young. She had been in town visiting her cousins, who Ellis knew, and they’d hit it off, flirting all evening. At one point during the night, one of Ellis’ old girlfriends came in and he’d had the opportunity to share his sad story of humiliation and betrayal. Valerie, upon hearing this tale, rose from the table, walked up to the philandering bitch, and popped her in the nose.
“You were so drunk that night,” he often said to her, and they’d both laugh.
These days, things had changed. Valerie wasn’t that girl anymore since they’d married and produced children. Ellis couldn’t pinpoint it, exactly. Things weren’t bad. It just seemed like there was something they needed, something they’d forgotten. As she stood in the doorway, holding out the phone, he could easily see the physical changes in her, a bit more heft around the hips, a little more puffiness in the cheeks, but still, she was beautiful. It wasn’t as if her fire had gone out, but it was changed somehow, redirected in a way that conveyed a vague sense of loss for Ellis. As he considered his circumstances from day to day, and thought of days to come, his fire retreated in the face of responsibilities, further inside, where it raged against the walls.
He shut off the mower.
“It’s Claude,” Valerie called with a smile.
“Ellis,” said the squarehead with a broken heart, “me and Jer are headed into the city tomorrow. We’re gonna put a stop to this fucking mosque. You in?”
“Well, what the hell, Claude? How the hell you plan to do that? I’m not going to jail for no Muslims…”
“Oh, we ain’t burnin’ anyone out, Ellis. Least not yet, anyway. Some people are having a protest down there and you know, if the goddamn hippies can do it, we sure can do it to protect our own country, right? We need to make a big statement here, Ellis, lots of people. Let these fuckers know we’re not falling for it.”
Afterward, Ellis was surprised when Valerie said she couldn’t go. “I’ve just got too much to do,” she said. She listed a few things before Ellis’ attention strayed.
“Look at you,” she said, seeing him out the door the next morning when they heard Claude’s horn, “getting involved in politics!”
“It ain’t politics,” he said.
“I know. I’m proud of you.” She kissed him.
The protest was attended by approximately seventy people, in front of a vacant lot in one of the city’s hip residential and commercial sections. In spite of the fact that Phil backed out at the last minute, Claude had been right; these were people that Ellis liked, from Grandfatherly Joe with his t-shirt that read, “Due to price increase on ammo, do not expect warning shot,” to Debbie, the waitress with the blonde hair and the high country laugh, and her pudgy, buzz-cut twelve-year-old son, Duke. Many attendees wore American Flag t-shirts and Ellis felt that he fit right in. There was a sense of comradery, and, once the chants began, “No New Mosque,” and “Muslims, Go Home,” Ellis began to feel the power in it, the magnetism that drew in photographers, taking their pictures. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before, the shared anger, the dedication to a common purpose, the sense of doing something incredibly important. Grandfatherly Joe’s fuzzy eyebrows crinkled in focused rage, made all the more poignant by his advanced years. Friendly Betty showed she had a tough side. She had a fine son, to be this informed and active. The crescendos rose and fell.
And then she came.
She was young, maybe 21, with the face of a child, a very beautiful child. She wore a black cloth headdress over a white scarf, below that, a grey sweater over a light blue blouse and long black skirt. The first word that came to Ellis’ mind was, “nun.”
The girl wafted just in front of them, pulling her wireless phone from her bag. Suddenly, the fervor drained from the protest, replaced with confusion. It was obvious to them all now that she was a dark-skinned infiltrator, a part of what they feared. But she was right there, just in front of them, with all the trust in the world, holding her camera aloft and shooting a picture of herself, smiling, in front of a “NO TERRORISTS IN OUR TOWN,” sign.
Suddenly, Betty was laughing, inviting her to join the protest and the girl was soon moving among them, holding out her phone, taking selfies. With Betty, who had the joyous air of someone provided with miraculous justification. In front of the man named George, who continued to chant into his megaphone as if she didn’t exist. With a young man who was having difficulty hiding his attraction, rotating his tan Stetson in his hands continuously. She was striking; there was no doubt, all smooth, gentle curves, the rounded, cherubic cheeks, and the eyes overflowing with brown innocence that suffused into her complexion like radiance.
Ellis, following Claude’s example, faded further back into the crowd, staying away from her. And yet he watched her interactions. The father in him thought she was too trusting. A couple of the men in the crowd now seemed more threatening to him, in a grinning-snake kind of way, and he wished she would just go.
Finally, mercifully, she gave a small wave good bye to the people around her, still smiling in her mischievous, yet sincere, way. God, thought Ellis, young people just must all think they’re immortal.
The girl withdrew into the thoroughfare, in front of them. Checking that there were no cars, she walked out into the middle of the street and held her camera above her head to capture herself and the entire protest. She struck a pose. Ellis could not see her face, only that she held her fingers aloft in a peace sign. Then she was gone.
The protest became all hubbub and harrumph at this point and never regained the focus from earlier. On the way home, Claude, bent with rage over the wheel, said, “That shit’ll go viral. Fucking cunt.”
“She was just a kid,” said Ellis.
Claude turned and looked at him.
Turning his attention back to the darkening road, he said, “Fucking raghead cunt is what she was.”
Ellis didn’t comment further.
The photos did, indeed, go viral, as Ellis discovered later that night, after Valerie had gone to bed. They weren’t hard to find on the internet. Every liberal website had picked them up with headlines like, “Young Woman’s Awesome Response to Protest.” Adira Qasim, the articles said, was a college student at the local college. She was an American-born Muslim, the daughter of a medical technician, and a top graduate of her high school. She responded to the reporter with, “Why would I want to make anyone angry? We’re all just human, right?”
Ellis scrolled down through the pictures. The protestors looked far too happy to see her, except for George, of course, who kept the straight face because of the megaphone. The shot with her, Betty, and Duke looked like a family reunion. The shot with the kid looked far too laden with sexual tension. Then, he reached the last picture.
He stared for a moment before he realized it was not taken by the girl. It must have been taken by one of the photographers across the way, catching the moment when she shot the last selfie on the street. It was hard for Ellis to process that it was the same girl. She was leaned back, the camera phone extended high above her head, the peace sign held up at waist height. All this was familiar to Ellis. But it was the look on her face that stunned him. Her lips were drawn together, blurring the line between defiance and a kiss. The expression drew her face taught, thin, and sharper, drawing her nose longer and wider at the base, making her look more foreign, more threatening. There was a strong sexuality in the pose, to which he was not immune, but the maturity is what shocked him and held him fast. Her eyes possessed a fire that pulled him in to a dark mystery, something anciently feminine and resilient, an aspect of womanhood that seemed impossible in the gentle, trusting girl he had seen, something he had no name for, that stirred him as sure as religious epiphany.
When he realized that his mouth was hanging open, he scrolled quickly down the page, away from the picture, and found himself looking blankly at an advertising banner for weight loss. He turned away from the computer, to a picture that Val took of him, in the boat, holding a large-mouth bass.
Ellis felt his brain had run amok. He kept reflecting on those eyes and their defiant love. He turned back to the monitor and scrolled the picture back into view. The way the expression contorted her face and made her look more foreign could have angered him. Instead he gazed at her, the faint reflection of his own expression in the glow of the monitor asking unanswerable questions. He felt an undeniable magnetism that he was only able to overcome by scanning for his own image in the background. He was there, to the far right of the picture.
To his chagrin, he was smiling.
But then, so were most of the people standing there. Ellis grimaced as he thought of what Claude would say, then quickly looked for him in the picture. Short as Claude was, he was mostly obscured at the back of the crowd, but Ellis recognized the squarehead sticking out from behind a tall man’s shoulders. Only half his face was visible.
He was smiling, too.
Ellis didn’t have to return to work for another five days. When he got back, Claude was on to the next thing, the Supreme Court or some shit. But the whole experience hadn’t been so easy for Ellis to abandon. Night after night, he navigated to her picture, still mesmerized by the transformation in her face. Once, only once, he realized that he was massaging the front his pants absent-mindedly. The odd sense of shame he’d felt at that moment forced him face to face with words he didn’t want to think about, words that began to press from the edge of his mind as surely as tectonic forces beneath the earth. Ellis felt the rumble, the fiery cracks forming beneath his feet. His thoughts would flee to the picture’s background, where he was instead forced to confront all those smiling, happy faces.
As he looked at his own visage, he had to acknowledge that it was likely the most genuine smile he’d ever worn in a photograph. And Claude. Claude’s face caused him the most consternation. Though only half was visible, Ellis marveled that it was actually likable. He found himself wondering what turned the man human and, before he knew it, he asked the same question of himself. He hadn’t even meant to think it, but now it was too late. His eyes jumped back to her, then to himself, and back to the large mouth bass. The ground began to shake, earthquake or volcano. Ellis chose the earthquake, in vain.
Because, even though he forced himself to reexamine the moment as a human moment, even though he was compelled to reevaluate the way he saw other people and other cultures, even though he could walk away now and say he’d learned a lesson which he could forget later, he still couldn’t keep his gaze from the picture. There was nothing to pull him anywhere else now. There was only her. How was it, he asked himself, that he looked at her face and saw the first woman? All womankind? Why did she draw him back, again and again?
Ellis began to worry about this, all the time. He could speak to no one about it. As time wore on, a worry grew in him, rising like steam. It became urgent that she know he was not a racist, that she know he’d improved as a human being because of her. After a while, it became unbearable that she would never know this. Every day, through family dinners, through talking with Valerie about plans for the next week, the next month, the next year, through wondering where they were going to cut back even further, and through Claude, pontificating like an ignorant asshole at work, the tectonic pressure continued to increase, the subterranean fire burned hotter, and Ellis became more desperate.
The eruption came at night. Unable to sleep, Ellis called in to work and left a message on the machine that he was sick. He dressed in the pre-dawn and left the house before Valerie and the kids awoke. In his S-10, he drove into the city, to the college. He parked in the campus parking garage and crossed the street to the great, green lawn. It was an oasis in the dirty concrete, peppered with old oaks and evergreens. Ellis had no idea how he was going to find her, but he was determined, no matter how long it took. His phone rang. Valerie. He turned it off.
He wandered, regarding each of the buildings, trying to determine a likely location. By what? Instinct? The pull of his spirit? Hers? He didn’t know. He considered looking in the Hall of Science, but ultimately was too uncomfortable to enter any structure. He was completely self-conscious and kept wondering if he looked out of place. I’m ridiculous, he thought on more than one occasion. Ellis sat, finally, on a bench on the great lawn, the only place he felt at-ease.
After more than an hour, he saw her approaching across the lawn on the walk,. She still wore her black hijab and white scarf, but her outfit beneath was simply a blouse and jeans. As she drew closer, he was startled to have to refer back to his first image of her.
“Excuse me, miss?” She looked at him, and was the young girl again, not all of womankind.
“Yes?” she said, eyes friendly, like the first time he’d seen her. He was disarmed. He tried to remind himself that she was the formidable, primal woman from the photo, only it wasn’t working. He could see that woman nowhere in this girl. He suddenly imagined a picture of himself, seeking out a young, pretty girl. The picture shamed him, and yet something drove him forward, struggling for words. He realized he was sweating.
“I hope you don’t think I’m a racist,” he finally blurted.
“Why would I?” she asked. There was a change in her eyes, uncertainty now.
“I was there,” said Ellis. “The protest- You- I- Listen-- you did something to me.”
And now her look was guarded. He was blowing it, a foolish, peripheral face in someone else’s photograph that had no idea who he was.
He didn’t recover after that.
“Look,” she said, and now here was that fire, that woman, “I don’t know who you are. I wasn’t trying to do anything to you.”
She turned sharply, her hijab swaying slightly out from her shoulders, and began striding toward the nearest building. Ellis continued to stammer for words.
She turned. “I don’t think you should come around me anymore,” she said.
As he watched her brisk withdrawal, he imagined himself yelling, “I love you!” A few minutes after she disappeared from view, he turned and left. When he returned home, he made an excuse to Valerie, got out of the house as quickly as possible, and headed for the garage.
Now, Ellis Robinson sits on a blue, Igloo cooler staring at the garden hose, past the garden hose, into the past. In the last twenty minutes, he has considered various acts of rage or despair, but he hasn’t twitched a muscle. The imprints of his elbows on his knees will be long-disappearing. He wishes that he could go back, before it happened, and tell Claude he was going fishing, not to some damn idiot protest. He wishes he would have looked at people differently back then, and not had to learn this way. He reconsiders various acts of rage or despair. Outside, the late afternoon is hot and oppressive, despite it being the first week in May. Summer will be brutal. A cool concrete shade prevails in the garage. He will stay here a while.
C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain in the U.K., Still: The Journal, and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press, and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as an Adjunct Professor of English. More at www.CMChapman.net and on Facebook.