“You stay out of this, Steve.” I push my Texan friend back from the steps of the arrack shack, into the adjoining alley, so that he does not get a chance to see the ugly scene that may unfold inside.
I look around to make sure that no vagabonds or hookers are roaming in the streets. I don’t want him to see the darker sides of my town, though he may already be privy to outcasts within his own society in Austin. To my relief, the road is empty, rid of any causes of concern. Maybe, those in the low social strata also celebrate New Year and have gone to the urbanized parts of the town to rejoice. Their absence will spare me of any embarrassment in a guest’s presence.
I have known Steve Connor through an online literary workshop, where we have been members since 1998. Though our friendship is barely two years old, we have developed a strong bond between us. At thirty-two, an accomplished freelance journalist, he is five years younger than me, but I see him as sort of a mentor.
Having served in the Special Forces for fifteen years, I’ve decided to settle back at my hometown, spend some time writing fiction. Steve reads my work, tells me my style resembles Faulkner, and always provides me constructive feedback. Our friendship has grown thus, and I’ve invited him to spend a few weeks here and to see the millennium sunrise. I’ve often spoken highly of my native place to Steve. So, I don’t want him to think my townsfolk are a bad lot.
Now, with my reassurance that I’ll handle the situation on my own, Steve moves away into a dark corner.
I walk back inside the arrack shop and approach the well-built man, an inch or so short of my height of five-foot-eleven, who has started a tiff with me. “I don’t care who you are. And I won’t buy you a drink.”
He stretches his muscular arm, flicks ash from the cigarette he smoked. “Anybody drink buy me one, is all.” He takes a deep drag of his cigarette and blows out thick rings of smoke into my face. “That rule, you follow.”
I turn away from the smoke, tainted with his stale breath, as it curls into my nostrils, and move towards the counter.
The bartender stops dusting the counter. “That’s Mustafa, a local hoodlum. Buy him a drink and avoid confrontations.” He casts a furtive glance at the man. “You want to enjoy the rest of your evening, right?”
“Yes,” I say, smiling at him. “And I will too, without buying him a drink.” I look straight into Mustafa’s brooding eyes.
He stands, nonchalantly, relishing his cigarette, maybe sizing me up.
My lean body, maintained so through a strict diet and regular workouts, perhaps gives an impression that I’m a weak person. Mustafa has no way of knowing the brute strength that nestles within my thin frame.
I cast a fleeting glance outside and thank God because Steve is not spying on whatever is unfolding inside. What will he think, of my country and its people, if he were to witness this? I shouldn’t have suggested to him this shabby shack and instead should’ve taken him to one of the posh bars we usually go to.
The bartender’s voice brings me back from my rumination. “Arrack,” I say. “Two glasses, 100ml each—” They measure the brew thus, rather than in ounce or pegs.
“Soda?” he asks, “goes well with it rather than water or ice.”
“Whatever works well,” I tell him, “is fine.” Out of a corner of my eye, I see Mustafa stub-out his cigarette and walk toward me.
He places a hand on my shoulder. “Order my drink.”
I stare into his eyes. “When I told you ‘no’ the first time, I meant it.” I shrug off his hand. “The blood that runs in my family, it’s different. We don’t listen to threats.”
He lights another cigarette. “You’ll—“
“Hold it.” Steve dashes in through the door, sweeping his long, blond hair back from his forehead, casting a huge shadow of his six-foot-four tall, stout figure on Mustafa.
Mustafa stands measuring him, length and breadth.
“What’s the matter, Arun?” he asks me.
My heart sinks. Whatever I haven’t wanted Steve to know, he has known. I try to hide my embarrassment. “Nothing… It’s just that he wants me to order a drink for him. New Year’s eve, you know…”
Steve turns to Mustafa. “Hi!”
Mustafa drops his cigarette, stubs it out with his foot and says, “Must respect elders,” eyeing Steve’s blond hair, “a guest from a foreign place.”
Steve smiles, extends his hand. “Steve.”
Mustafa holds it.
I feel the tension in the air slowly dissipate, look at Steve and wink. “This is Mustafa, Steve.” I introduce him.
“Nice to meet you.” Mustafa shakes Steve’s hand with care, as if he were shaking hands with a very elderly person.
The bartender fetches a bottle, places it on the counter, and tells Steve, “Local brew, on the house.”
Mustafa grabs the bottle, uncorks it, and takes a sniff. “Stuff’s good. Nobody light cigarette, as it catches fire.”
I start toward him, angry at his audacity of taking the bottle the bartender meant for Steve.
Steve puts a hand on my shoulder. “Wait, let’s see,” he whispers to me.
“I serve,” Mustafa says. “C’mon.” He leads us to one of the tables with four chairs laid out in the farthest corner of the shack.
The bartender comes with three glasses and four sodas, places them on the table. “Anything to eat,” he asks.
“I order,” Mustafa says. “What you like?”
“Anything you see fit, Mustafa,” Steve says with a smile.
“Crab roast, mussels fry, prawn curry,” Mustafa tells the bartender. “Bring mussels first.”
“Sure,” the bartender leaves.
Mustafa picks up the bottle, takes another whiff, and fills the glasses to half.
I pick up a soda bottle, looks around for the opener.
“No need,” Mustafa says. “I show.” He brings the bottle to a corner of his mouth, places the cap between molar teeth, and flicks his wrist.
I glance at Steve. Perhaps, he may not like a stranger taking off the lid with his teeth. Will the table manners he is familiar with allow such behaviors?
Steve just sits there, watching with interest the way in which Mustafa shakes the soda bottle by placing his thumb over the opening.
“This how soda poured,” Mustafa says. He upturns the bottle and, slightly moving his thumb, releases a jet of soda into the glass. As soon as it hits the content, the liquids mix and fizzle up to the brim in a burst of a million small bubbles.
“That’s fantastic, Mustafa,” Steve says, genuine delight evident from the gleam in his eyes.
The bartender arrives with the mussels in a plate, with three spoons. He shifts the arrack bottle to a side and places the food in the middle of the table.
“Yes, Mustafa,” I say, “My name is Arun.”
“Sure, I eat anything that doesn’t bite back.”
“I eat pork, no say nobody.” Mustafa looks around to see whether any of the other customers are eavesdropping. “Bearded men in mosques, them kick my butt if know.”
Steve laughs, I do, and so does Mustafa.
“One beef, one pork,” he tells the bartender. “Mix both, one plate, give us. Let’s all cross the boundaries.”
I look at Mustafa, wondering whether he’d known the deeper meaning of what he said; maybe not, he may never—but all three of us were eating from one plate, and it is an ideal notion of convergence.
When the bartender leaves, Mustafa pushes the plate to Steve. “Mussels here are the best.”
“Thank you.” Steve scoops a spoonful into his mouth. He leisurely chews it and says, “Umm… delicious.”
Mustafa stretches his arm, scoops a spoonful, and offers it to me. “Try, Arun.”
I accept it. The aroma of coconut oil and fresh peppercorn wafts into my nostrils even before the scoop reaches my mouth. I take another spoonful and give it to Mustafa, who opens his palm and accepts it.
The bartender brings the crab, prawn curry, and the beef-pork mix. He lays out the tray on the table, after removing the empty soda bottles and plate. Steam rises from the roasted crab, with its pincers shining deep orange and the top of its shell a dark brown. The surface of the prawn curry, a dark red, floats thin layers of coconut oil that reflect the light from an overhead neon bulb. The pork-beef mix, a jet-black hue, garnished with mint and coriander leaves, topped with shallots, carrots, capsicum, and cherry tomatoes, explodes in an array of colors.
Steve inhales a long breath, closing his eyes, and his body remains frozen for a moment, as if he is a saint in meditation. He then exhales slowly and speaks, “Wow, Arun, this is great. It smells so delicious.” He picks up a spoonful of beef-pork mix and says, “Help yourselves.” He spoons it into his mouth.
Mustafa pours the next round, going through the same process with the soda. “Enjoy pincer,” he says.
“It’s freshwater crab,” I tell Steve. “You’ll find no other food better than that.”
“Of course, Arun. I can see and smell that.” He takes a pincer, cracks it between his teeth, scoops out the flesh with his finger, and eats it. “Wow, it’s so hot, yet the meat very sweet, and the coconut oil is mellowing out the heat.”
After a few minutes of eating and drinking, Steve speaks, “So, Mustafa, what’s your story?”
Mustafa sits, looking at Steve’s face, not understanding what he meant.
“Mustafa, Steve is interested to know about you,” I tell him, after downing my third drink.
“No much to know.” Mustafa swallows the crab he has been chewing and clears his throat. “Never knew father. Mother dead while I study eighth grade.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Steve pours himself another drink, and when Mustafa reaches for the soda, he holds his hand up. “One straight will help burn the overdose of food.”
“Started working then, this and that job.” Mustafa also has another straight. “Yes, neat good for sleep.”
“Marriage?” asks Steve.
“Fathers no give daughters to hoodlums and scoundrels.” Mustafa looks a bit sad. “All I learned in street were fight, work, drink and sleep.”
“One day, there’ll be a bride for you, Mustafa,” Steve says. “You’re a good man.”
I see a faint shine in Mustafa’s eyes. This may be the first occasion he sits with a foreigner, or a military man for that matter, and receives a compliment.
“God knows. You marry?” Mustafa asks.
“Once,” Steve says, and pours another drink for him. “But divorced. Now,I have a live-in relation.”
“Live with a girlfriend, without marriage.”
“That good, no responsibility…” Mustafa looks at me as if to ask whether I live with a girlfriend, too.
Steve laughs, not bothering to explain further. “Your friend there, lucky guy; beautiful wife, long marriage, two kids—“
Mustafa smiles at me. “Good. How you friends—one very old man, one very young.”
Steve bursts into another bout of laughter, I join him, and Mustafa sits confused at our reaction.
“Mustafa, Steve is only thirty-two. I am older than him by five years.”
“Allah,” Mustafa says, “but white hair?” He ponders for a split second. “Ah, I remember, your hand strong.”
“Many of us have such hair color, Mustafa,” Steve says. “We call it blond.”
Mustafa’s body shakes, in a fit of laughter. “That very fun, how then know young and old?”
“We just know, Mustafa. Maybe habit?”
“You come because business?”
“No,” I say. “Steve’s here to see the millennium sunrise and, of course, to visit me.”
“What? Sun no rise in America?”
The innocence in his question rather makes me sad than feeling funny. Steve sits with a grim face.
“It’s like,” I say. “Mustafa, sun rises in America after about ten to twelve hours after it rises here. And, the sunrise in our town is very beautiful, more so than anywhere in the world. It’s because of the beaches and mountains in the background. You ever see it?”
The sadness returns to his eyes. “Me? Every day, I come bar, eat and drink all money I work, go sleep.”
In the lingering silence that ensues, Steve and I look at each other.
Mustafa speaks again, “You Kristen, he Hindoo, I Musleem. We together party—fun?”
“In fact, Mustafa,” Steve says. “I always harbored an apprehension about Muslims. Now, after meeting you, I know—“
“I get one bottle more,” Mustafa says.
“No,” I say. “I’ll buy. Remember, I owe you one.”
“No, Arun.” Mustafa goes to the counter and returns with a bottle, pours it and adds soda.
Arrack rises to the brims of the glasses. “To millennium sunrise,” he says raising his glass.
“To millennium sunrise,” I chant with Steve.
Arrack bubbles, spirits soar to the skies, where sun prepares for a new dawn: the millennium sunrise.
Hareendran Kallinkeel lives in Kerala, India, after a stint of fifteen years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. He writes fiction, mostly short stories. His works have appeared in several online/print journals. Recent publications include Pif Magazine, BlazeVox, and New Reader Magazine. His stories are forthcoming in Djed Press, Military Review, and Reality Break Press.