Fiction: “Amateur Altruism” By Jody Azzouni

… okay you have to start over, that’s all. Huh? We’re at the beginning of the program again okay? Soup Kitchen: just start in on it like: here’s the big event that ended it, the event that no one talks about. I guess. Once upon a time—now it’s your turn: Go

Okay okay it had been going on for a while It? you know the soup kitchen No no, how it began, you have to tell me how it began Wait wait, I’m on it. I guess it started small or something he always left the door open To the house? to the whole house? Yeah yeah you know the front door for his friends he owned the whole house and so and so he was always around and and these people would come over These people? Well whoever his friends to begin with different guys mostly from the old country but usually someone or a few and then a few more would come over around dinner which was always the same time six thirty and then there were more and then still more and so he kept preparing more food each time buying bigger pots I guess a bigger stove commercial stove I think he got one installed in the kitchen after there wasn’t enough food for us a couple of evenings in a row Us? You know me and your dad Okay one of those really big refrigerators too and then he goes buffet-style for good—for all the dinners I mean for us too and soon there are fifty or more people showing up most of them smelled too I remember that God did they smell! You’re kidding No no I’d come back after school and he’d be preparing some soup—that was the other thing before the soup kitchen we had normal things for dinner like steak or hamburgers or lamb chops string beans solid food well mashed potatoes are sort of solid they don’t move around on the plate that much Yeah yeah and then and then all of a sudden it’s just these soups all the time and lots of them he must have invented on the spot let’s pour this into it and this and this too—it’s been sitting in the refrigerator for a while boiling it will kill whatever—not Campbell’s by a long chalk That again right right but but don’t get me wrong he got really good eventually some of the soups were amazing but we were kids and we didn’t want you know soup all the time and I’d complain and stuff but it didn’t do any good and sometimes he’d think to leave me a hamburger or something in the refrigerator but usually some homeless guy got to it first ate it raw probably. We didn’t call them homeless people or maybe that term was just starting to get popular. We called them bums hell they called each other bums and worse not Dad of course he always called them guests even revered guest in one case as if these people were actually invited or something Revered guest? That’s so funny I guess I guess we weren’t laughing then me and your dad I mean we were kind of resentful about it I mean I mean not all of them were bums homeless people some of them were just disturbed people middle-class people I mean practicing social discourse in a place where maybe they wouldn’t get beat up so often when they compulsively burst out with their usual shit I think that explains what a lot of them were like I mean this is probably true of the guy this story is about Wait wait, what guy? there’s a guy that the soup kitchen story’s about? Yeah Are you sure? I didn’t hear this from anyone Calm down calm down I remember the story I really do there’s certainly an important guy who’s the center of the narrative the center of the narrative; where’d you get that phrase from? I don’t remember I don’t remember anyways anyways

Anyways his name is Bob he had no legs I didn’t hear this I never heard about a Bob with no legs, are you sure? Yeah yeah Awesome—they’re covering up even more stuff than I thought—no one’s ever said anything about any Bob, I’d have remembered I guess I guess so Bob tell me about Bob, why’s he so important? did Dad rip him off or something? No no not exactly Ha! No no wait it’s not about that wait wait I’ll get to him I promise but first first first I got to organize my thoughts on this a little wait wait wait It’s okay I’m frightened stagefright sort of can I actually do this? but I’ll do it I mean I mean it sort of went in stages

What went in stages?

The soup kitchen Oh I mean it evolved over time Okay so so so first you know the kitchen area next to the yard at first he had them out there Them? The guests Oh right, right had them out by the kitchen and the yard I remember this one time a bunch of them no more than ten I guess this was really early on sitting around in the yard on the steps in the yard you know leading up to where the peach tree is Right, right, the peach tree! and and and it was starting to rain and one of them looks up and says I remember this! I really do one says it’s a woman she says somewhere there are people in umbrella factories who are having a good time right now Huh? I guess because it’s raining so they have work Oh and my dad is saying that maybe they should all come inside before they get soaked and you know homeless people can be like that you know difficult and one’s going shelter is perverted just like pets Just like pets? You know pets are supposed to live outdoors they’re animals they’re not supposed to be indoors groomed like poodles with sexual organs missing Oh right right and like he doesn’t stop talking about this and some of the other ones are nodding along like this really makes sense he’s saying people are at their best—exact words I remember the exact words!—they’re really well-behaved, nice towards each other only when they’re trapped outdoors and concerned with hungry tigers. He put it just like that Dad nodding in his sweet way like this is the most reasonable thing in the world give them a warm cave this is the bum talking and then they get really nasty about it—start arguing about the decorations on the walls—what the fuck’s with those antelopes? this is the mother-in-law complaining about the cavewife’s designs on the walls Oh right I hate antelopes they don’t blend in well at all with flickering campfire not enough red in them Okay Dad saying he shouldn’t use that word What word? Fuck, fuck Oh right, right Dad explaining there are children around and the guy gets defensive can’t stop his compulsive spiel a lot of them were that way compulsive talking they couldn’t stop they couldn’t stop at all I could see why they were in trouble I mean apart from bad luck these people just couldn’t shut up always guaranteed to say the wrong thing good lord I feel so sorry for them now I know, I know anyways anyways

Right right the need for shelter is way over-rated this is still the bum Okay for thousands no millions of years we crouched or pranced he’d spin out a list of verbs you know crouched pranced danced that sort of thing like he’s doing a poetry slam or something Okay occasionally hung out in branches trudged through the cold no big deal awesome even the face-to-face body-body contact the consensual love between homo sapien and Gaia Gaia? Gaia? He really said Gaia? Yeah yeah, the two of them Gaia and some homo sapien I guess rubbing up against each other real natural Oh boy oh boy some cave guy rolling around in the dust like a sparrow, that’s the idea? I guess I guess—I remember all the exact words! Good good okay

So so so that was the first stage right? kitchen and garden and the neighbors start complaining one particular neighbor shit I forgot his name It’s okay, he still live there? No no, I don’t think so—he died long ago I mean. Okay okay just go on Right right and and and I felt sorry for him he tried to talk to Dad first with the homeless people around but they really hated him good reason I think I mean they knew he didn’t like them was working to get rid of them didn’t really sympathize with their plight I guess you’d say and then and then later he’d come around just to try to find my dad by himself or with me in the mornings in the garden my dad got up early was always the first so we’d be there this was in the summer so he’d come by talk with us over the fence you know? Dad always offering him Turkish coffee that’s what he called it Turkish coffee not Arabic coffee and and and you know an orange on a plate Okay and and the neighbor he’d talk about the shit in the garden Shit in the garden? the homeless people shit in the garden? No no, although oh God what they did to the bathrooms, that’s a whole nother story no no I meant he was complaining about the homeless guys Oh oh the shits in the garden Right right right that’s what he called them Bob especially The special homeless guy that everyone’s been hiding from me? I guess, I guess, hiding from you that’s a funny way to put it No one’s ever mentioned him, I’d call that hiding him, wouldn’t you? Yeah yeah right right, I guess, the one without legs You said that before, no legs at all? Pretty much a little part of the legs down to just below his trunk a little bit of thigh still left he was really strong sort of got around on his arms and a cart a little wooden cart amazing when he’d come to a curb or something he’d sort of slide his body off the cart one arm supporting him on the curb the other one pushing or lifting—yeah really lifting—the cart onto the curb and then in one motion center himself back onto the cart again really strong really powerful upper body the other direction he’d just sort of surf down into the street he’d push the thing along it had wheels and he’d kind of push it along with his arms you know like he was skiing he could get it going pretty fast especially where the cement was even and he’d call out out of the way dudes! time to part the red sea! people moving aside way before they actually saw him skeetering towards them because of his big booming voice he had milking the victim role to the max What do you mean milking the victim role to the max? he had no legs! Right right I don’t mean he wasn’t a victim I mean he had no legs Right, and? and? Well well he really knew how to use what he had what he didn’t have I mean Okay whatever anyways anyways

right right really big chest powerful arms he’d surf on Montague street I saw him a number of times zigzagging along when it was really really busy you know lunch time lawyers reeling out of the way You’re exaggerating, you’re really exaggerating No no the lawyers the lawyers they knew they really knew what tripping up over someone like that could lead to they really didn’t want to mess with him open themselves up to a civil suit not with him I guess your honor is there a podium available to put on top of the chair here so that my client’s head comes up over the table so he can actually see the proceedings? Right, right and and and some of the lawyers I remember they were you know kind of fat I thought it was funny to watch them get nimble for the first time in twenty years or so I mean I guess it was funny to a to a you know a twelve year old I can see that

right right okay okay so so. Where was I? You were talking about Bob Yeah yeah but but but this is out of synch I’m not supposed to talk about him yet it’s later in the story how did I get here? I don’t remember, oh the neighbor, you said the neighbor Right right complaining because Bob I remember this he’d you know break up the muffins the pita bread and scatter the crumbs all over the yard or outside the building on the stoop he was always trying to feed the birds he’d say birds aren’t meant to live near cement he’d say kind of hard to pick worms out of cement if you haven’t noticed he’d use just that phrase it really annoyed people If you haven’t noticed Yeah yeah like he was being condescending to people you know and Mr. Gleason Mr. Gleason you know the neighbor Oh wow! you remembered his name, awesome Right right Mr. Gleason he’d say it’s only rats that’s all that gets fed by Bob’s stuff it’s attracting rats and roaches he’d suggest that someone was going to call the Health Department not him of course he’d assure my Dad never him he doesn’t want Dad in trouble because Dad’s such a good guy you know a genuine saint but but but he’s heard talk you know? because he owed my Dad a lot of money He said that? Said what? that he owed Grandpa a lot of money? No no I’m saying that I knew that Grandpa told you? No no no he never talked about stuff like that I saw him give people money a few times you know the way I saw him give everyone money no a check he gave him a check you know he lent him money for the greenhouse and and and you know everyone else would tell me that Dad had lent other people money never mention themselves at all that was weird so so so one time I think I made a chart of all the people in the neighborhood that had gotten money from him you know to start restaurants buy washing machines pay phone bills you know based on what I saw or what people told me about other people it was a lot everyone in the neighborhood pretty much Oh wow and and and

Where was I? Why was I talking about this? The neighbor complaining Right right he was really pissed off about the homeless people every evening I guess all the neighbors were pissed off but he’d lent them all money so much money so they weren’t going to do anything to him anything overt anyways anyways Dad going don’t worry I’ll clean it up and he did he really did never saw that man sweep up so much in my life but but but every day Bob was out doing it again and Mr. Gleason tells Dad look I’ve witnessed him scattering crumbs, even on my property! Dad saying why don’t you tell him to stop if you see him doing that? explain it to him let him know you’re upset let him see that you’re feeling hurt people like to see people’s emotions see that they care about something that they’re concerned He said that? feel my pain? Not exactly feel my pain but he but he was always telling people that if they explained how they felt about things to each other then there’d be peace or something like that Yeah right, that’ll work and and Mr. Gleason going I’m not telling him anything he’s got no legs.

That’s really funny. Oh shit it’s a joke? I made a joke? No no it’s true don’t worry some things that are true are still funny. Oh wow who would have thought? okay so so so.

Mr. Gleason. Right, I’ve kind of lost it oh right right he’d say to Dad these people are called bums for reasons they have problems you can’t help them they need social workers psychiatrists drugs this just isn’t your job you’re supposed to be a property owner you know respectful of boundaries focused on the neat and the clean the well-being of your fences and sidewalk the ocasional city tree got to bring your kids up in a good environment these people some of them urinate in the garden near the trash like dogs you’ve seen this? Dad asking of course of course Mr. Gleason saying I’m finding that a little hard to believe Dad says there’s a bathroom I let them use my bathroom you want to see it? what they’ve been doing in there? no no I don’t think so Mr. Gleason saying although thanks for the offer I don’t know Dad saying I’ve never seen them doing what you claim they’re doing well they wouldn’t do it in front of you don’t you think that would sort of be biting the hand that feeds them? well I don’t know Dad says they seem pretty up front about everything else want some more Turkish coffee? I’ve also got some fresh figs if you’re interested What an asshole Who? Mr. Gleason? Yeah No no I understand the poor guy things were always happening to his property because of us and people can get really bent out of shape about their property like when Daoud’s cat jumped out of the window went through the roof of his greenhouse You mean the greenhouse that you said Grandpa paid for? No no not the whole thing he didn’t pay for the whole thing You sure? Well no but aren’t greenhouses expensive? What’s that got to do with anything?

I don’t know. Where was I? Cat through the greenhouse roof right right and the cat broke through I mean cat carcass scattered all over stuff poor Mr. Gleason bewailing the fate of his succulents His what? some sort of plant that’s hard to pick cat out of I don’t know I guess it’s a real pain picking cat out of its leaves or something they’re intricate the leaves and and and This is cracking me up Yeah yeah I guess but Dad agreed to pay for it of course but he was resentful Grandpa? No no not him Mr. Gleason Oh right rabies he was always talking about rabies that it was dangerous that we were dangerous to the rest of the neighborhood telling Dad look there are charities you can give to they have the knowhow the training to deal with marginalized peoples He said that? marginalized peoples? Yeah yeah have the right tools gloves or something That’s a joke I guess and and they can do this sort of thing with a minimum of fuss people go to college get degrees in altruism amateurs really shouldn’t get that involved in anything that dangerous Altruism right right and and and anyways these people are kind of ugly they lower property values he said that too I mean this is the seventies not like now it’s hard to believe but people in those days were really concerned with appearances That’s a joke too it is? Yeah you definitely were trying to make a joke there. How’s it work? Well the idea is that people are still concerned with appearances, it’s irony you were definitely into irony. You know, before the accident. I guess. I sure don’t get it now I don’t get it at all It’s okay. So?

So so right okay. I’m not sure oh oh right so that was the first stage Right right you said the soup kitchen went through an evolution Right I can remember this because I’ve keyed them Them? The stages Right, right I’ve keyed the stages to events you know to stuff they said They? The homeless people because then Dad sort of moved them all indoors I remember going around with him one time to different restaurants not to eat anything which would have been nice for a change something other than soup but but but you know to see how they were laid out small tables Dad saying with umbrellas sort of silly indoors don’t you think? Yeah I’m saying and then picnic style he liked that that was the second stage you know like the Union Oyster house I never heard of it it’s in Boston somewheres but there are fish places like that in New York I don’t really remember where you line up picnic benches next to each other Dad thinking this is okay this way they can get to know each other a little better I’m saying Dad I think they already know each other pretty well You said that? Yeah yeah I was smart then You’re still smart No no I’m not No no you are you’re just a little disjointed I guess

I guess. So anyways. So the picnic tables and they’d get into fights that’s what happened when these people talked too much to each other one time they got into a fight over whether anyone speaks faster than New Yorkers someone originally from South Dakota or something really insulted another time a fight over the word reconcile what it means I mean Oh wow, really? Yeah yeah and and and this was a bad one a fight over whether yoo-hoos are kosher Are they? How would I know? it’s easy to find out I’d imagine aren’t there people out there who are paid to know things like that? I guess I guess, it probably says on the bottle Yeah yeah, but Dad he only had orange juice around Oh and and and

Right. Someone screaming one time I don’t think New York’s exciting what’s exciting about living with a lot of rich people? and then and then there’s this guy going I saw a television special the other night growing muscles in a lab where where you know they add this chemical to the muscle cells and this is cool this is him saying this is cool they’ll develop a tan at the same time someone else asking why the fuck should muscles have tans? someone else asking why is that a good thing? and the other saying back it’s all about prestige muscles are really big on prestige You know I think you’re making some of this up—you don’t really remember what they said do you? That can’t be what homeless people talk about I don’t know it seems like I remember it I remember this leading to a fight because one guy said where would you see something on television? you know really insulting insinuating the guy doesn’t have access to a television the other one saying at my mother’s you don’t have a mother why would you have a mother? that sort of thing I don’t know you’ve probably told these stories before don’t you think? like before the accident and maybe you kind of like elaborated things a little bit and now you can’t recall what’s what I don’t know I guess I should stop talking No no Bob there’s something important about Bob Right right Bob so Bob

Okay wait something else comes first I mean okay so Bob Calm down take a breath I can’t I can’t I’ll lose it if I do Okay okay so so I remember this you know Bob so I remember this is pretty early on before the picnic tables I think I get my soup and I sit down on the floor by the wall a little further away from where most of the homeless people are congregating it’s next to this guy with no legs it’s Bob but I don’t know his name yet Right right and he’s got sores or something all over his arms and I think I see fleas too although that’s probably impossible Why? because because they’re really small and jump around and and they’re really fast got little hydraulic pumps in their legs or something Okay okay, go on so so anyways he goes you live here? yep I say going to school? he asks where else? I say that your room over there? wait wait that’s bad I guess I should tell you about my room first Okay my room was on the ground floor I mean I could lock the door but sometimes I forgot that’s really important we’ve got to keep that in mind. Okay, it’s in my mind, wait wait you told me before that you lived upstairs or something Right right but that was later Okay

So? I don’t remember Oh Christ! I’m sorry I’m really sorry I should just stop talking maybe take it up again in a few weeks you know like people who lift weights Huh? oh I see, I see, no no, it’s okay just keep calm. Look, you’re talking to Bob he just asked about your room Right right nice bed he says Oh shit he said that? that’s kind of scary Yeah right? He’s like hitting on you? No no nothing like that at all Bob wasn’t like that at all he’s interested in the bed you know something soft to sleep on even just a nap not me not me you’ll see I mean they hit on your Dad actually They did? Not Bob but a lot of the other ones—I guess it was kind of disgusting You guess? You guess? I mean I mean you’ve got to understand your Dad was really good looking I mean really really good looking I’ve seen pictures he’s okay and all No no you don’t understand you’ve got to think David Cassidy or Peter Frampton or something but more scrumptious I guess Who? Good looking rock stars Oh whatever Yeah yeah you’ve got to think something unearthly angelic even I mean ask your mom Yeah yeah I guess the looks you have to understand maybe they couldn’t help themselves or something he was that good looking they had to reach out and touch a lot of attempted fondling and and all around lots of those half-gestures people make like they’re going to touch you but then think better of it? not me not me of course no one wanted to touch me and and I was glad I really was for once so so so you can see why he sort of kept out of their way most of the time not that they’d really try to push it in any case you know they did that kind of thing where they’d try to reach out you know find an excuse to touch him fondle his hair or something the men the women whatever This is so yuck Yeah yeah well I guess Grandpa knew? No no, I don’t think so I mean nothing ever went beyond the reaching out business I mean he was okay with it your Dad I mean maybe he liked it Oh that’s so yuck, you’re just saying that to be mean No no I’m not I don’t mean he was into it as anything you know sexual I mean it was attention we all needed attention we were kids and like no Mom around at that point and even when she was she was you know totally narcissistic you know not a lot of attention from someone who’s trying to treat you like a mirror I guess and and and Dad you know your grandpa he was always talking to these homeless people giving them advice and shit or dealing with the neighbors you know not a lot of time left over for us I guess I don’t blame him or anything just trying to get a little perspective on this or something like perspective Okay okay

And? Right right I’m sorry I’m really lost now.

Give me a second, I’ll get us back on track Okay. Right, Bob was asking about your room Right he was interested in your bed Right right that’s important to the story you wait it ties it together it really does Okay so so he says right right this is it he says I have to admit it he says I’m really jealous. Doesn’t happen often especially in a generous place like America but I’m sure feeling a touch of the old envy right now know what I mean? That’s so funny he really said that? he’s talking about your bed? Yeah yeah I mean at the time I mean I saw him almost every night and I thought he was an asshole but now I think he was really smart Okay

So so okay so he doesn’t remember each time that he’s talked to me before it was the alcohol I guess or drugs of some sort so so so what he says doesn’t really add up too much one day he’s telling me he’s a meteorologist going people often chuckle when I tell them what I do—no one trusts me I’m berated angrily for global warming Awesome and a few times later he’s saying he’s a sociologist and wait I say yesterday you were telling me that you were you were wait I remember this that you were a hydrodynamicist—yes yes he says I have a degree in that too it’s important to be a hydrodynamicist in sociology he’s telling me he’s studying the evolution of bubbles the laws that apply to them are the same ones that apply to social groups no kidding I say I was saying that a lot in those days no kidding It was a joke. When I’d say no kidding? Yeah especially when you’re hearing bullshit like that Really? I was trying to make these guys laugh by saying that? No no it was just for yourself a laugh to yourself That’s that’s really weird I didn’t know people laughed to themselves I mean I didn’t know it since the accident Right right anyways so so

Right right, wait wait so so sometimes he was just mean Bob right right like one time he’s saying to me your father’s really really handsome I’m just pointing this out in a detached way He said that? in a detached way? yeah yeah detached that’s a weird way to put it yeah yeah he’d say stuff like that no kidding I say back and that’s your mother? you know there’s a picture on the mantel a bunch of pictures actually and he’s pointing to one I know he’s talking about Mom because there aren’t pictures of anyone else up there and we’re in the living room that was the third stage I guess Dad broke up the picnic tables you know to stop the fights How long did this go on? How long did what go on? You know, the soup kitchen stuff I don’t know can’t have been more than a couple of months I think this is me as an adult thinking how could it have gone on longer? there were complaints neighbors on the sly trying to disguise their voices so Dad wouldn’t recognize who they were calling up making threatening phone calls officials coming over talking to him Officials? yeah like inspectors two of them at a time I guess to prevent bribes so that meant you had to bribe them twice as much Oh wow so so so Grandpa bribed people? Yeah I guess I don’t know if he knew that was what he was doing Really? You know if someone was asking him for money he’d give them money so maybe he just thought these people with badges just needed money like everyone else and and he was giving them some I don’t believe that, he wasn’t that out of it No no I guess but I don’t think he was thinking in terms of you know paying money so that he could break laws or anything like that he was you know here are some people asking for money he was always trying to solve problems by giving advice or giving people money I think actually that inspectors were coming over a lot you know not shaking him down or anything like that you know they’d ask him for advice about this or that the little lady is unhappy this is really good soup what’d you put in it this time? great deal on oranges at Key Food that sort of thing I guess anyways anyways I got it I got it so so something would have stopped it Stopped it. It you know the soup kitchen Right you were asking me how long the soup kitchen thing went on That’s right I did I really did that’s good really good that you remembered that Thank you thank you so so so where was I? The inspectors coming by Right right why did I get into that? You’re telling me, this is what I think you’re up to: you’re telling me—god I don’t know what you’re telling me—this is killing me—something about Bob and I think something about how the soup kitchen thing stopped That’s right that’s right and this is it if there hadn’t been a fire that’s right a fire wait wait that’s the punchline I can’t tell you about the fire yet but I know there was a fire Okay okay stop I’m going to lose it if you Okay okay.

I think I lost it. And that’s your mother? Huh? Your mother he’d pointed to a picture of Grandma Right right so he’d let homeless people into the whole ground floor at this point except my room when I’d remembered to lock it and it was okay except when they got too enthusiastic and a lamp would be hand-gestured to death That’s really awesome Huh? You know, hand-gestured to death—that’s really awesome Yeah yeah that happened a lot so so so he says I remember it now so he says that’s your mother Yep I say she’s Elizabeth Taylor gorgeous he says Yep I say I’d heard that before so so so what happened to you? that’s what he asks God fuck up? That’s so shitty Yeah yeah I guess he thinks that’s funny laughs spittle into his plate so how come such a sweet guy like you is homeless I say I’d think with your personality you’d have lots of friends not just a bunch of birds you have to bribe with someone else’s food You said that? Yes Really? really I remember I told you I used to be smart or at least smartass Right, right so he doesn’t stop he really doesn’t he’s telling me that I’m lucky I’m not homeless that studies show that the better looking you are the better you do if you’re homeless people give you more money that sort of thing he tells me he’s trying to teach some of them how to use cosmetics—simple stuff lipstick on the lips not all over the face that sort of thing but he’s not having a lot of success I don’t get it.

What? Why’d you talk to him if he was such an asshole and you didn’t like him anyway? I don’t know other people were worse they didn’t make sense most of the time and they were always trying to give you advice because you were a kid Them? giving advice? Oh sure all the time pickpocketing tricks for example they were always practicing pickpocketing Oh wow yeah your dad he got really good at it It figures I guess so so Bob right right so he was making up shit I could see that but at least some of it was interesting and and Dad it was really hard to talk to Dad most of the time not because he didn’t want to talk to you he always wanted to talk to us but but but there were all these other people that Dad was always talking to needy people giving them advice some money whatever was in his pockets at the time, suggestions about how to get back on their feet start a small business maybe frankfurters or something tips about how to avoid getting colds eat oranges that kind of thing Oh wow

I’m lost again. I’m totally lost Bob let’s stick with Bob Okay so Bob yeah Bob he’s the centerpiece right right so anyways one time maybe it was after he’d been going on about how short I was that it was cool to be naturally short not get as it were chopped up into that size oh shit yeah right right guilt trip or something so anyways I go into my room wait wait that was another time I hadn’t seen him that’s right and I think I remembered to lock it Wait wait so you go into your room and there are all these homeless people in the apartment? No no not by this point he’d gotten He? Dad I mean Dad your Grandfather Oh he’d gotten it together that they were supposed to be out by nine and he’d actually gotten sort of firm about it I mean finally I mean there were still always some staying the night but he made it a rotation thing I mean a waiting list there was a list and he kept the numbers down you know he used to let everyone stay over at first but then then their numbers the really needy people showing up I mean it went up really fast and it got overwhelming so he stopped it made everyone leave I mean every now and then he’d make an exception but then other ones would protest I mean they were really needy and so they were only thinking about themselves you let him or her stay I don’t care that she’s got three children what about me? look at this infected arm or whatever and some of them were sneaking around stealing stuff he couldn’t understand that Grandpa right right and I mean open your door and everyone in need floods in so he stopped that I could tell he was really unhappy about it really upset but soon he had designated areas where some could stay the night and he had a waiting list officially with no exceptions or pretty much no exceptions but extras were always managing to squeeze their way in We did this already Oh oh okay and and actually towards the end it didn’t seem so overwhelming less and less people were showing up Really? Yeah yeah I remember this pretty well Maybe some neighbors were getting together gently suggesting with a couple of baseball bats that some of these folk not come around anymore Oh wow you think? I sure do Okay okay Bob.

Right right. So I go into my room and there’s Bob in the bed Oh shit yeah right? all half of him smuggled neatly right in there in the sheets and and wait wait I got to backtrack No no not now, please don’t do it now I’m on it don’t worry I have to talk about matches Matches! No no it’s okay Not matches, please! No no they’re relevant, there were these blue matches Okay, whatever so so so blue matches so beautiful I’d gotten a box of blue matches Okay and you know, I’d ground up the heads it took hours put the powder in this beautiful transparent vase-shaped glass not too large this turquoise powder Why? Why what? Why’d you do this?

You don’t understand it was beautiful it was something I had that was beautiful all of you it was true it’s still true you don’t understand what it’s like to have something beautiful I don’t get it you don’t get it because because you’re already beautiful no one beautiful gets it Oh come on! No no it’s magic the way heads turn You’re just being silly No no I’m not I’m explaining if you’re not interested that’s okay No no that’s not it, it just sounds so weird Look look I’m a kid but that’s that’s what’s going on this vase like magic a genii I called it the genii bottle and this beautiful powder I’d just look at it gaze at it sometimes Okay the rest of you the rest of you were beautiful but I had I had at least I had something beautiful.

I didn’t exist then. Just thought you should know. Right right but but you know what I mean.

Okay, whatever. And and your dad he was very curious really curious he wanted to know what was in the bottle what kind of powder it was and I wouldn’t tell him. Okay I think I know where this is going Maybe you do maybe you do. Where is it going? Okay Bob. Back to Bob, right? Right right so so Bob. What about Bob? He’s in your bed. Right right thanks thanks so I say get the fuck out of my bed, and like he leaves in a huff no argument I mean swings off the bed his cart next to it and wheels himself out I don’t care I’m stripping down the bed thinking I got to sleep on the floor a few days until whatever’s in the bed has died boil the sheets and Dad comes in says do you know where Bob is? I can’t find him and I’m going I don’t know and he says you sure you didn’t see him? and it comes out and I just let Dad have it this creep in my bed you’re always letting these creeps in why can’t we have a home like normal people this is so sick and I’m saying I gave the shit a piece of my mind someone had to and maybe he won’t be back and Dad is just standing there and he says you’re young you could sleep in the garden under the trees the clean sky this man this man has no legs where’s he going to sleep? fuck if I care I say and then there’s this bit about it not being a nice word fuck right right like that’s relevant to anything so I’m bringing it back to the topic we’re arguing about I remember this perfectly! I’m saying he’s really nasty I’m glad he’s gone and Dad he’s going out after him which really pisses me off because when would he ever have time to do that if I got lost? and he’s saying to me the man has no legs and it’s already a long walk between good moods for the rest of us, and I’m shouting at him oh great! just what we need right now some fucking Arabic poetry! Oh wow, this was a fight the two of you had a fight I guess I guess not a normal fight it was hard to have a normal fight with someone like Dad Yeah, yeah, I can see that.

So? so he finds him I found this out later and brings him back probably argued with him on the street for hours but you know a matter of honor or something that this scumbag stay overnight in our house Oh shit you’re still mad like after all these years I guess I guess and and this is important he puts him upstairs over your dad’s room Oh boy, I got a real bad feeling about this Right right and and and

I guess this is it there’s a fire right a fire in your dad’s room the mattress the mattress catches fire Oh wow and and well it’s not that the place burns down but there’s all this smoke so much smoke the mattress I guess but other stuff too so much smoke and the whole house and and I guess I don’t know how this happened but Bob he can’t get out of the room upstairs Oh shit right right and and He burns to death? No no nothing like that He dies? Well yeah but I don’t want to give you the wrong impression here he didn’t burn to death it wasn’t anything like that at all I mean he passed out from the smoke he suffocated smoke inhalation. Smoke inhalation? Yeah that’s it mattresses and insulation too they produce a lot of toxic smoke I guess Oh shit Yeah yeah maybe I think I think it was that he couldn’t turn the doorknob it’d gotten stuck or something. Oh that’s horrible, that’s really horrible Yeah yeah right.

And and you know Dad got in a lot of trouble a lot of trouble I mean it wasn’t that he went to jail or anything like that but but but there was all this stuff about the soup kitchen and the the you know violations it was big so big scandal lawsuits a lot of lawsuits it lasted for years all sorts of stuff social workers to you know determine whether we were neglected children if we should become wards of the state or something years it went on for years lots of questioning investigations I mean I mean when he won the lotteries years later it was ridiculous like manna from heaven and then and then he could settle everything pay everyone what they wanted Oh wow.

Okay. Okay? Yeah. That’s it? I think so. Wait wait, I don’t get it What? The matches. Matches? Your magic match powder. Oh right. It was gone. Gone. Oh right right. Okay your dad. I thought he’d come into it Right right he said I’d gone into his room and set his bed on fire deliberately Oh shit, he would! He really would! I can’t believe it and and you know the vase with the match powder but with no match powder anymore I mean it was in the room it’s what started the fire that was proved eventually but even before that he said he said it was me.

What did you say? I said I said this is to Dad I said I’d made the powder from match heads that I did it because it was pretty and because it was powerful To Grandpa? you said this to Grandpa? Yeah yeah he was sitting on a chair in the kitchen just the two of us I was standing in front of him and he was listening listening intently to me this was early the next day cops had been there and back again initial investigations I guess firemen still around I mean I mean we weren’t evacuated for more than a couple of hours because because I guess there hadn’t been that much actual fire Okay and and I said I said that I wasn’t sure why I’d done it he asked me what you asked me Right and that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it anymore than I was sure what I was going to do with my stamp collection I mean I mean you just collect them to look at them you don’t do anything with them do you? I guess That I wouldn’t tell Daoud what the blue powder was what was in the genii vase because I don’t trust him that he must have been trying to figure out what the powder was and tested it by trying to set fire to it on his bed that must have been what happened I guess I mean that’s what I would have done that’s what any kid would have done if you want to know what something is and you’re too old to taste it I mean you’re old enough to know that some stuff can poison you then you’d just try to set it on fire it probably lit up all at once before he had a chance to put it out.

I don’t think he deliberately started a fire Did he believe you? He? Grandpa. I don’t know he never did anything about it never punished us I mean No one? Not you not Dad? this was really serious really bad. No punishment at all? Right right but no no Didn’t you want to know if he believed you? wasn’t that important to you? Of course it was.

Didn’t you ask him if he believed you? Yeah I did.

And what did he say? He said he said well he said you said what you said and he said what he said What? I didn’t get that at all. My brother he said what he said I’m still not getting it! He said and I quote well, well without the well I mean Oh shit just start over please! Okay okay he said what I’m going to say now to wit—is that right? Oh God this is hell, just say what he said. Nothing else. Go. You said what you said and he said what he said. You said what you said and he said what he said? Right That’s it? that’s all he said? Yes. What does that even mean? I don’t know You didn’t ask him what it meant? How do you ask what someone means when they say something like that? I guess. Shit. He never talked to me that way. I guess not. But you’re older than I was when this happened No no, he never talked to me that way. At any age. Oh. What was he thinking? I think he was warning me. I mean this is me as an adult thinking not now I mean I mean as an adult before years ago thinking about it it just hitting me one day you know? he was warning me. That’s what I think now. You always say what you say and he always says what he says and if you tell the truth I mean someone can always lie and what are you going to do then? What do you mean? You can prove who’s telling the truth I guess I guess but not always you know? you can’t always prove things and then sometimes sometimes other people don’t really care about you and what’s true what really happened to you because they’re too busy or it’s not their business or there’s nothing in it for them or they’re lawyers or something.

Oh shit, oh shit, this is bad. This is really bad. I guess.


Jody Azzouni is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University. She has stories recently published or forthcoming in The Literary Review, The Chariton Review, and Map Literary. She has also had stories published in several dozen other literary magazines in the last decade or so, including Alaska Quarterly Review and The Madison Review. She’s had four pushcart nominations, most recently for a story published in 2014. She also publishes poems. Some of her work can be found on Azzouni.com.

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