BY: Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri
“I didn’t say bomb,” Mustafa Bey said to his son David, his words inflected with his harsh Turkish accent. “I said bum. Tell them, my boy. Tell them your father isn’t a fucking terrorist.”
“You said bomb on an airplane,” said the TSA agent, whose name was Lawrence. They were both in his office, having been ejected from their flight prior to takeoff.
He had a bulbous head, like a pumpkin and steel blue eyes which bore into the two of them. He stood between his desk and the window, which overlooked the runway and the lights of the city, across the way. It smelled of stale coffee, sweat and onions, and something else, a musky scent. Outside, David and Mustafa could see people shuffling by, hear the low rumble of conversations as they moved swiftly to their gates, to the Starbucks or McDonalds, or the other souvenir shops at the center of the terminal.
“I didn’t say bomb,” Mustafa said, shifting, rotund belly hanging over the chair. He wore brown dress pants and a striped Polo shirt, identical to his son’s. “David, tell this man.”
David scrunched his boarding pass in his left hand, looking down at the floor. His black hair was slicked at the side and he smelled of sweat and Polo cologne, which Mustafa insisted that he wear, to make him seem distinguished. In his other hand, he held a copy of The Colorado Review, the campus journal he’d be interning at this fall.
“Is that true?” Agent Lawrence stared at David, his lips pursed.
David stared at his father, still fuming from the argument on the plane. He absorbed the electrical hum of the lights, which seemed to sing a symphony of ominousness.
“Sir,” the agent said, leaning against the desk, crossing his arms. “Mrs. Edgar reported that you said bomb. Unless your son has something to add.”
“Sir, I love this country,” Mustafa said, pursing his lips into that smile, that little smile he used to charm business partners. “This country has treated me well. I feel like your people are so open, easy to deal with. And very spiritual.”
“Sir,” Agent Lawrence said. “I’d like to believe you, but we have to check everything. Someone reports that another passenger said bomb on an airplane, we have to investigate. We have safety to think about, you know.”
Mustafa and David had been discussing David’s inability to obtain financial aid at the university and the fact that Mustafa would have to work twice as hard as a soil agronomist to help pay the tuition. Of course, Mustafa’s version of discussion meant driving home his points with the dogmatism of a dictator.
David had been admitted to the MFA program at Colorado State that spring, in fiction. Mustafa believed that it was David’s fault, and his mother’s even more so, that he hadn’t been able to obtain financial aid. This had formed the core of their argument waiting for their flight back to Boise. She didn’t know how to be tough, to raise their son to take what he needed, to be crafty, Mustafa said. His ex-wife didn’t realize that life was a jungle. People were all in it to use and be used. This was an argument that David had heard many times and didn’t want to hear again, an argument he couldn’t push back against. As far as Mustafa was concerned, his ex-wife, Marilyn, was an American devil, the byproduct of Michigan City, Indiana.
“You’re a smart boy,” Mustafa had said, placing a thick arm on David’s shoulder. “You just act like a dummy. A bum. You can rise above it still, if you get your head out of your ass. Listen to Daddy, my boy.”
Of course, bum had ended up sounding like bomb, given Mustafa’s accent. The plane had been delayed before takeoff. David and Mustafa had been escorted off by a laconic airline marshal. His grip on Mustafa, the coldness in his eyes, had all conveyed more than any words could. It had conveyed contempt, and the marshal’s need for power disguised as justice.
David could still recall images that rose to him, leaving the plane. He imagined imprisonment, detention, and his future evaporating before him with cold rapidity. David recalled the sense of revulsion, the prejudice in their seatmate’s eye, an older, gray haired woman of about seventy-five. Her voice, shrill and hysterical came to his mind, reminding him of a constipated seagull. She had gripped her seat tightly, as though it were an island, impenetrable by the world around it.
David had to admit he felt an inner satisfaction at his father’s trouble. Karma was paying him back for the way Mustafa had tried to mold his son into his own mirror image, a man with no fixed ideas, except where fatherhood was concerned. A social chameleon. On the other hand, he felt a pang of pity, because he and his father were outcasts in their own way, his father because he was Turkish and Middle Eastern, and who’d always be defined that way. David was forced to inhabit a sphere between his Turkish father and his quiet, Midwestern mother. They were unable to fit anywhere except the periphery.
“David.” Mustafa elbowed his son sharply. “Tell the man. I didn’t say bomb.”
“Mrs. Edgar was quite certain,” Agent Lawrence said.
David wanted to be away from the space in which he and his father were constrained. Years of arguments hung over them like an old scent. He knew his father wanted him to cover up their argument, so he could keep his image of family-man intact.
“Ask my father,” David said, looking down at the floor. “He’s the one who couldn’t articulate the word bum.”
“I need answers here,” Agent Lawrence said. “I’m not saying you said bomb. I’m not saying that at all. But the fact is Mrs. Edgar thought you said bomb. She was frightened. Very frightened. You could both be in significant trouble here if we can’t figure out what happened.”
“What trouble?” David quipped, scowling. “Like Guantanamo trouble?”
“This isn’t funny,” the agent said. “Detention is an option. And potentially worse, if you’re guilty.”
“Sir,” Mustafa said. “I said bum. Not bomb. My English isn’t the best. David, you’re good with words. Tell this man the truth.”
“You hear that?” David said to Agent Lawrence.
“Let’s review the facts,” Agent Lawrence said.
“David,” Mustafa said, wagging his index finger. “This is your problem. If you spent more time with me, you could learn to be strong. I know you’re afraid to hear the truth. The truth is hard, my son. Your father tells the truth because he loves you, unlike some people. You don’t comprehend. And now I have to pay twelve-thousand dollars for your little mistake with the university.”
“You’re fucking blaming me for this?” David pursed his lips into a sneer, tossed his head back. “Jesus. Do you ever take the blame for your own problems? I’m not the one who said bum. You could have used a different word.”
“Don’t get defensive,” Mustafa said, tapping his chair.
“Son,” Agent Lawrence said with a weary sigh, a sigh that held a hint of sympathy. “Why don’t you tell us what happened? What were you doing?”
“We were in Ft. Collins,” David said. “Looking for apartments, since I’m going to school there this fall. We’re heading back to Boise tonight. Not exactly a terrorist’s agenda.”
“CSU?” Agent Lawrence smiled at David. “That’s a good school. What major?”
“Creative writing,” David said.
“Writing, huh?” Agent Lawrence nodded, as though trying to comprehend it.
“Well, my son was in physics,” Mustafa said, repeating the lie he’d told his colleagues and friends numerous times before, trying to cover his tracks, give his son’s career some prestigious tint. “But he decided he wanted to change to writing. I don’t understand it, but it’s his choice. Don’t you agree, Agent Lawrence?”
“You bet,” Agent Lawrence said, looking down at his clipboard, on which he scribbled notes rapidly. “Let’s get back to the germane details, gentlemen.”
He looked at Mustafa, and asked him about his line of work.
“I’m a soil agronomist,” Mustafa said. “I advise farmers.”
“Soil agronomist?” Lawrence said. “Agriculture?”
Agent Lawrence frowned. David could imagine what he was thinking: Mustafa was building bombs in secret, using his scientific knowledge to wreak havoc on the country. It seemed funny and sickening all at once.
“I help farmers,” Mustafa said. “I advise them on cultivating soils. Growing various crops.”
“It’s true,” David mumbled. “I’ve worked for him. Communications, technical reports. All that. Tedious as hell.”
Agent Lawrence nodded, made some notes, scribbling assiduously.
David stared out the window. Dusk fell across the hills, bathing the jagged peaks in plum-colored shadows. Agent Lawrence asked Mustafa and David further questions about their home addresses, about Mustafa’s past records with the law, which there was none. Then about David’s own past. David answered with a kind of detachment, as though his body was present, but his mind had been transported elsewhere.
David thought of his mother, Marilyn, of the little townhouse, in which they’d lived ever since his parents’ divorce. He was fifteen at the time. She was a quiet brunette in her fifties and believed firmly in focusing on the present. The past, she said, held only memories to be idealized and distorted. She’d encouraged him to pursue his writing, telling David that it held a certain vividness, a haunting quality that would appeal to readers. However, she’d jokingly lamented that his stories about mothers would make her look bad. There were runaway mothers, inebriated mothers, stoner mothers, everything in between. David couldn’t help it, though. The painful past held a certain attraction.
David had gotten into CSU with a story about a boy running into his long-lost mother at Tchaikovsky’s funeral in 1893. Marilyn’s half-joking critiques issued with her Midwestern bluntness, boiled down to one word: depressing. And on certain occasions, fucking depressing.
“You’re talented, David,” she’d said. “Your writing is so smooth, so imaginative. If you get a sense of what you want, you’ll be fine. It’s a competitive world out there, but you can hold your own.”
“I worry about you,” Mustafa said now, his hazel eyes bearing down on David, like searchlights. “How will you survive? The world’s a jungle. Do you know what’ll happen if your writing doesn’t pan out? Why do you think I should cough up twelve-thousand a year? I should be retired now and you could be taking care of me. I do all this work for you.”
“I’m a writer,” David said. “That’s what I’m interested in. They wouldn’t have let me in, if I couldn’t play with the big boys. Did you even read the story I sent?”
“David, my boy,” Mustafa said. “You have to be proactive. If you’re not proactive, you’ll get nowhere. You could have told me you sent that story. I have ten thousand things to do, talking to the farmers in Mountain Home, dealing with that secretary. My boy, I’m like a chicken, running a thousand directions, with my head cut off.”
“Gentlemen,” Agent Lawrence said, motioning for them to quiet down. “Let’s keep moving. I don’t want to have to detain you, but I need to clarify. Mrs. Edgar clearly heard you say ‘bomb,’ sir. That’s a security threat. We had to delay the flight because of it. People’s jobs, livelihoods are on the line. Talk to me here.”
“Well, David?” Mustafa said. “Are you going to talk to the man? Or are you going to let your father rot in prison?”
In the agent’s businesslike manner, his cool, unsentimental gaze, the awkwardness with which he watched a father and son argue, David felt that Agent Lawrence hadn’t known the intimacy and strangeness of family in some time. He was a man who lived by his job, for reasons known only to him, reasons hidden in his own particular past.
“He said bum,” said David fiddling with the buttons on his polo shirt. “That’s all there is to it. We were discussing my graduate school. My father never wanted me to go in the first place. We had an argument.”
“We’ve established that,” the agent said. “Precisely what was the nature of your conversation? I need all the details.”
“Look,” Mustafa said, tossing his hands in the air. “I was just having a friendly discussion with my son. Telling him he needs to think about his future, about his life. My son misinterprets things too frequently. He needs to be strong.”
“And so in this argument, you called him a bum? Your son?” Agent Lawrence said. He nodded, as if trying to envision the scene. David felt a kind of chill, a sense that the agent was reaching into the darkest recesses of his mind, trying to figure out his every flaw, his every characteristic.
“Argument is a very subjective term,” Mustafa said. He glared at David.
“It was an argument,” David said. “Things got heated. Quite a bit so.”
Agent Lawrence made notes.
“I could sue your mother for what she did,” Mustafa said, crossing his arms. “She didn’t support you. She neglected you, didn’t teach you anything. I talked to a lawyer, you know. This is the greatest social crime, my boy. A mother’s duty is to her child, not hitting the road, and gambling, and fucking around.”
The agent looked down at the desk, and his lips were twitching. David wanted to laugh too. It was ridiculous. A man suing his ex-wife over supposed neglect of their twenty-eight-year old son. Now, this was a good MFA story. David squeezed his fingers, in and out, trying to hold his words to himself. He couldn’t convince Mustafa that his mother was someone whose life wasn’t defined by her relationship to someone else, to her son, ex-husband. Even to her job as a hydrologist, from which she’d retired three years before. She was a woman who could live on her whims, without the calculations that had constrained his father and David himself. David envied her greatly.
David hoped his mother was out on the road somewhere at that moment, just enjoying life, in some small-town motel in the hills, wrapped up in the electric energy of neon lights. Or perhaps on a star-filled landscape, listening to Jackson Browne out on some lonely highway, relishing the ability to not be on a particular set schedule. He wondered how he’d tell her of this night, put Mustafa’s wildness into words. They were words she hadn’t heard in years, and which she and David discussed sparingly, like items stored in an attic.
“David, this is another of your problems,” Mustafa said, adjusting his son’s collar, which was popped. “You don’t know when people try to help. You need to see a psychiatrist. I’ll pay for it. Do you want that? Or do you want to rot away like your mother?”
“Well, gentlemen,” Agent Lawrence said, clearing his throat. “I’m inclined to believe you, but I still need to get a full picture from the other passengers. We might have to put you on the no-fly list, though. You and your son will have to find other arrangements home.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” David rose from his chair.
“Watch your language, please,” Agent Lawrence said. “The fact is Mrs. Edgar insists that you said ‘bomb,’ and the plane was delayed. I see no evidence that you’re terrorists, but we do have to take precautions. These are tough times, gentlemen.”
“Sir,” David said. “We had a difference of opinion. That’s it. It was an argument.”
Agent Lawrence nodded, made more notes.
“I know you want to help,” David said to Mustafa, playing with his shirt sleeve. “But your help is no good. Look at where you got us. We’re on a fucking no-fly list because of it. Because you have to be right all the fucking time. If you could just admit you were wrong once in a while. Just once.”
“I’m trying to help you, boy,” Mustafa said. “I can help you. Unlike your mother, who buries it all in the sand. Doesn’t tell you the truth.”
“Gentlemen, please. Let’s stay calm here,” Agent Lawrence said, arching an eyebrow, as if to convey authority.
“My help is no good?” Mustafa laughed, his mustache bristling like a porcupine. “Do you prefer your mother’s help? Is that it? She tells you nothing about your problems, while your life goes to hell. Have her help with the twelve-thousand dollars, then. Do it. If you’d been with me, I could have gotten you a full damned waiver.”
“I’m tired of this,” David said. “It’s like you’re always looking at me under a microscope, looking for the smallest speck. Well, you know what? I don’t give a shit. It doesn’t matter what you think about me. It really doesn’t. I wasted my time worrying about what you thought, hoped that I could please you. I wished I’d known that years ago.”
David paced the floor, his gait uneven. His face was flushed and he felt as though he wanted to cry. For no reason. Simply because he needed to. Mustafa always thought David needed a reason to justify every action he took, in order to become an organized, calculating man. Mustafa even thought having fun, letting loose and drinking, threatened David’s focus. David needed to keep his eye on the prize.
“And you know how to live?” Mustafa looked upward, gesturing with the grandeur of a preacher. He wore a look of sadness or contempt. It was a kind of sadness, David thought, that reflected his own self-pity, but also held something else, however small. It was a sense of despair, deep and misguided, a despair that conveyed his fundamental belief: His only son wasn’t going to have the life he deserved.
David could only imagine how his father pictured his life. A beggar on the streets, alternating between cries for food and pontificating on the finer points of Tolstoy or Hemingway. A lost soul, with a lowly MFA, working in a 7-11, unable even to handle the basic, down-to-earth tasks of working a cash register, and left with no other options in the world. Mustafa could never understand that a person’s life was his or her own individual affair, in which they rose or fell based on their own initiative and impulses. The uncertainty of things held an edge of excitement.
Agent Lawrence kept reviewing his notes. David could only imagine what he was really thinking, adding them all up, and coming to conclusions about them.
He didn’t want to look into Mustafa’s eyes, because they held his judgments of his son. It was the smile that said: tell me the right answer boy. Do the right thing, the thing I would do.
“Well,” Agent Lawrence said. “As I said, I think we’ll have to place you on the no-fly list as a matter of protocol. But, let me check in with my superiors and other passengers.”
“Thank you my boy,” Mustafa said, shaking his head. “You got us into this. I hope you learn from today. Do not be emotional, boy.”
“Emotional?” David said. “You’re the one who called me a bum.”
“I would rent a car once you get out of here,” Agent Lawrence said, voice raised. “Get a motel for the night. Start out in the morning. This could be much worse. At least your lives haven’t been entirely disrupted. We’ve had to detain jokesters and pranksters for this sort of thing.”
“Thank you, sir,” Mustafa said. “But it’s the idea here. I’m trying to teach David something.”
“Yeah, I learned something. Never try to argue with you,” David muttered. “Everyone loses. You have no sense of logic. I love you, but you have no logic.”
“What?” Mustafa growled. “What?”
“Let me just report to my superiors,” Agent Lawrence said.
“Thank you,” Mustafa said. He leaned in towards David. “Tell that to my son. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. God help him. I hope I live to see my son become strong. That’s all I fucking want.”
Agent Lawrence rose, surveyed David and Mustafa and shut the door, disappearing into the whirl of the terminal.
David closed his eyes and tried to drift away from the place. A woman on the PA system called for Rex Botkin to board flight 420. He pictured his mother, welcoming him home, enveloping him in a gentle hug.
“David,” Mustafa said. “Are you listening?”
Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. A native of Boise, Idaho, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in various literary journals including Ink In Thirds, Monkeybicycle, The Courtship of Winds, and 100 Word Story. He lives in Fort Collins, CO, and is presently working on a flash-fiction collection.