By Craig Loomis
Sitting, thinking about what to eat for lunch, four white-haired old men who have lost some of their important front teeth, who are busy telling stories of their sons and daughters, not to mention their grandchildren, who, when they turn to their shisha and grow quiet, will look off into the middle distance, or maybe stare down at their sandals, wondering how in the world their toenails got that way, or, watching others at the café, how everybody these days thinks talking into machines is the same as conversation when of course it’s not, are angled in chairs, around a table, near the water’s edge.
But never mind their teeth and the rest of it because there is not much to smile about these days, not like there used to be, before the likes of Saddam Hussein and all that’s come after him: iPhones and Internet and fast European cars, and how about the never-ending flurry of wars and tiny half-wars, except, they would never use the words ‘flurry’, and that’s not to mention the daily headlines that tell of murdered women and children just because they were out shopping at the wrong time, playing football on the wrong street when the missiles landed; missiles that can travel hundreds of kilometers with nothing better to do than to annihilate homes and shops. And every now and again a hospital that is minding its own business, and all the while the missile shooters don’t even know who they are aiming at, not really, just the them over there, over that mountain, across the sea, and “Oh, by the way,” one of them says, speaking to nobody in particular, “what’s for lunch?”
These old men with their iqals cocked funny, their cold-weather dishdashas crisp and grey/brown, because everybody knows those are the colors for December and January, and maybe even February. Never mind because there is more, as they busily finger their favorite mishabs and now back to sucking on their shisha. But there they are, sitting at the seaside café, undecided on what to eat, when suddenly they hear music, and even though they try to pay it no mind, when it doesn’t stop–only getting bigger and louder– they have no choice but to turn old-man slowly in their chairs to see what is what; and sure enough they spy what looks to be a group of colors moving their way, but that can’t be right, and the closer it comes–the music slowly beginning to make better music sense– they can see the colors are really men dressed like clowns, carrying balloons, beating on drums made for children because there is a new restaurant in town, and if you pay close attention to what the banners say, there is free soup for the first 500 customers; and by the way, the red-and-blue-and-yellow clown-men are wearing masks, too, which is always a good idea if you are a grown man dressed like a clown, carrying a sign, beating a drum made for children.
The old men, and I count three now, the fourth having just left, saying, ‘I’ve got things to do,’ taking his cane, saying he has grandchildren to visit, ‘a birthday for the youngest’–but never mind, because the remaining three haven’t stopped watching the clowns with drums stroll by; the three of them looking long and hard as if watching has suddenly become some sort of contest and whomever watches the hardest, the longest wins. Once the men with clown colors have done their advertising duty for the new restaurant, somebody, somewhere blows a whistle and they take a well-deserved break, putting down their drums, resting at the water’s edge, smoking cigarettes, daring to push their masks up on their foreheads so anybody who cares can get a good look at what a grown man wearing a clown costume with balloons looks like. In the end, the three old men turn to look at one another and after a small quiet, burst out laughing. They are thinking the same thing I am—Why would grown men do such a thing? Of course we all know the answer. In fact, the answer is always the same with everybody, and everything, and there’s nothing to be done about it. When nobody is looking, one of the old men wipes his nose with the sleeve of his dishdasha, shuffling his feet sand-papery over the grainy seaside bricks, and when he does, like a kind of magic, tiny brown birds swoop down out of a treeless sky, walking around under the tables and chairs, thinking that with all this laughter and feet shifting there has to be something like bread crumbs somewhere.
It isn’t long before the three of them turn to other things, with one of them turning to the other, asking, “Where did Khalid say he had to go?”
“Something about a birthday. One of his kids has a birthday.”
“Yes, I see.” Nodding down at his hands that have a firm grip on the table’s edge. “By the way, Mohammed, you birthday is soon, Sah? If I recall, very soon, maybe next month, is it?”
“Yes, yes, next month is right,” answers Mohammed almost too quickly, as if he were thinking the same thing.
“And how old will you be?”
“Too old, I am afraid. Too old.”
“Yes, you’re right about that,” says the third one. “For the likes of us, birthdays are nothing to celebrate. Not really. Just a reminder that it won’t be long now.”
And the three of them, as if practiced, laugh as one. No one knows how the talk moved from clowns to birthdays, just that it did; and although they are laughing, mishabis clicking, even I can tell from where I’m sitting–three tables over–that their laughter is nothing that has to do with funny.
“Yes. . .,” followed by a sandpapering of sandals, “yes, we’re all too old, Sah? Too old to worry or care, or almost anything.”
Meanwhile, the men with clown costumes and masks and drums and all the rest are all done smoking and getting ready to begin again. That whistles comes again from someone, somewhere and the clown men start where they left off. The three old men watch them regroup and file away with their colors and drums, until finally they can no longer hear or see them. The one called Mohammed sighs a sigh that even I can hear from my table. And one of others asks, “What?”
“It’s nothing,” he shrugs.
“Of course it is. What?”
“Nothing I tell you.”
Gently reaching up to slip off his ghutra, to feel the new, cool sea breeze. “Just thinking of birthdays, that’s all. Our birthdays all used up, I am afraid.”
For the longest time they say nothing, just watching people walk by, families, young couples pushing a baby buggy, teenagers tripping over one another, laughing at nothing, children with brightly-colored bicycles, not caring if they run into somebody or not. Three people from China or maybe Japan, stop to take photographs of the sea. Finally, as I get up to leave, the smallest wisp of cloud floating under the sun, the tiny brown birds still searching for bread crumbs that are not there, I hear one of them say, “Me, too.”