Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

 

Dad comes home holding a little plastic portion of jam like the ones they give the patients in the hospital where he works. He holds it up in the air and says, ‘See the jam?’

‘No,’ I reply.

He puts his hand a little closer to the only lightbulb in the ceiling. ‘And now?’

‘No, I can’t see anything,’ I say.

‘Maybe the lightbulb’s too weak.’

‘Maybe,’ I say.

With a flourish that one has to admire, he makes the portion of jam roll down from between his fingers and settle in the palm of his hand. His closes his fist so that it looks like an envelope – an old trick he invented at nursing school. Now his hand is an envelope with the little portion of jam inside it. He presses the light switch with the edge of the envelope and the light goes out.

Then he presses the switch again and the light comes on.

Dad holds the jam up in the air again. ‘Is this better?’ he asks.

‘No, I can’t see any jam from where I am,’ I say.

‘Come a little closer. You’re in the furthest possible spot in the room.’

He puts his hand closer to the light as if he’s going to do another trick – making the portion of jam go right inside the lightbulb.

I am in fact a long way from Dad. I’m sitting on a chair next to the window. The chair is high and when I sit on it my feet don’t touch the floor.

I get off the chair and move towards my father. ‘Dad, can you put the jam inside the lightbulb?’ I ask. ‘If you put it inside the lightbulb, I could see it.’

He lifts his hand higher but before I reach him the power goes off. The darkness swallows Dad. It swallows his hand and the jam.

‘See what happens when we put jam in the light-bulb?’ he jokes. ‘The packaging explodes, the jam burns and turns the whole room black.’

Transfixed, I say nothing.

Dad says nothing for a while either. Then he says, ‘Go and flip the trip switch.’

‘OK, I’ll go and flip the trip switch,’ I say, repeating his own words to reassure him.

I move forward with heavy steps, as if I have a tortoise clinging to each foot. I poke the darkness with my finger. It’s like an animal that I’ll tickle so that it shows me its stomach. I lift up one foot and bring the tortoise down on the animal’s stomach. I lift up my other foot and bring down the other tortoise, and make my escape.

But then my finger hits Dad. He jumps and drops the portion of jam. ‘Did you hear that? That’s the sound of the jam!’ he says excitedly, disguising his fear. But in fact I can’t hear the sound of the jam, which rolls along the floor until it comes to a stop.

Dad doesn’t move from where he is. He doesn’t want to lose the jam, although our house is small – just one room plus a kitchen and a bathroom. But between our little room and the kitchen and the bathroom, there’s another room, the biggest room in the house. Dad has rented that room to one of his relatives, who we found out was an arms dealer. Dad’s relative brings home loads of weapons and ammunition. Sometimes he stands by the door of his room and, instead of saying ‘good morning’ to Dad, he says, ‘What do you think of this piece? It’s just a sample. It’s a piece that’s easy to use. It’s from Romania. It has excellent sights. Why don’t you borrow it for a day or two? Don’t you have any disputes with anyone?’ Dad has never owned a gun, and the only dispute he has is with this relative of his, who has stopped paying the rent. But Dad doesn’t dare ask him for it. Dad thinks that the relative should not only pay him rent but also take out a mortgage.

In his other hand, the hand that wasn’t holding up the portion of jam, Dad’s holding a bag. A bag with lots of tissues inside. His passport too. And a party official’s card. Dad sees the card as a weapon, his only weapon. Sometimes he leaves the card on a stool near the door so that his relative can see it clearly.

‘When you’ve flipped the trip switch, come back through this door,’ Dad whispers. He puts his hand into the bag and picks out the card. He does a turn of about 270 degrees towards the door of his relative’s room, from where one can hear the sound of weapons being loaded and unloaded. Dad doesn’t trust his relative. ‘Do you think he’s inside?’ he asks me.

The jam has come to rest at the relative’s door.

‘Maybe,’ I say, though the words hardly make it out of my throat. I conclude that I’m also frightened.

Dad and I both know that the relative is in his room.

Dad could have turned ninety degrees instead of 270 degrees. It occurs to me that he wanted to come with me to flip the trip switch, but then he remembered the jam. The fuse box is in the kitchen, so in order to reach it I have to leave our room through a side door – a door that leads to the corridor on the ground floor where we live, and from that corridor I have to come into the house through the front door, where you find the kitchen and the bathroom. ‘Shut the door quietly and don’t be long,’ Dad says.

There are rats in the building, and they like to sneak into houses in the dark. I open the door a fraction and sidle out, kicking the air at ground level to frighten off the rats if there are any there. I shut the door quietly, as Dad requested, so as not to annoy the relative, though we don’t know if he’s alone in his room or has someone with him.

I feel my way along the wall of the corridor and come to the front door of our house. I take out the key that I always keep in my pocket. I open the door and sidle into the house, aiming several swift kicks at the air near the floor, but behind me this time. I approach the fuse box, touch the switch and push it down, but the power from the generator doesn’t come back on. Now I’m in the kitchen, while Dad remains immobile in our room. Between him and me lies the relative’s room, which Dad and I are banned from entering, and the relative can come into the kitchen directly through a door from his room.

I can’t speak to Dad from here because I’d have to raise my voice and that might upset our relative, who might be doing business with one of his clients. So I can either go back to our room and wait with Dad for the power from the generator to come back on, or I can stay in the kitchen, switching back and forth between the mains and the generator, or I can go and pay the bill for the generator, because the owner of the generator might have cut us off for not paying it. Of course it’s not a good time to pay the bill because it’s 11 o’clock in the evening. I can’t see Dad from where I am in the kitchen and he can’t see me either. After I don’t know how many minutes, the relative comes out of his room, with a gun in his hand, because he feels hot. That’s what he does when he feels hot – he picks up his gun and comes out. He’s about to say angrily, ‘This piece is smuggled, smuggled from Israel,’ but he treads on the jam. The portion of jam splits open and splatters his foot with sticky apricot jam, so he opens fire.

My father no longer goes to the hospital to work, because you don’t find nurses in wheelchairs working in hospitals. But he’s made a deal with a colleague, who brings him little portions of jam twice a week. He can’t stand up, and he can’t even push his wheelchair with his hands. But he looks up towards the lightbulb when-ever he sees me coming into the room. I’m no longer a child, though. Inside the lightbulb I find a portion of jam. ‘How did you do that?’ I ask him. But Dad doesn’t answer because, just as he can’t walk or move his hands, he can’t speak either. He smiles. I try to reach the jam but I realize it’s impossible, because the lightbulb’s too high and the only person in the house who can bring it down is our relative, with a bullet from his revolver.

 


This story is taken from Mazen Maarouf’s collection Jokes for the Gunmen, published by Granta Books. Order your copy here.

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