Spring 2008, Volume 4

Fiction by Benjamin Arda Doty


It was a busy, crowded night before Christmas Eve at San Francisco International; you couldn’t find a decent place to stand, much less sit near any gate. A snowstorm in the Midwest snarled air traffic between coasts, delaying and cancelling flights. Children cried; parents lost their patience. People clamored for answers from overworked airline workers. We kept hearing messages that we were at threat-level orange. I didn’t think of bad things when I thought of orange. There was orange juice. There was Syracuse, my alma mater, home of the Orangemen. But I expect it meant something to someone among all of us stranded there. The messages, the same everywhere, became part of the background. Everybody wanted to get home. Atlanta was my destination.

I called my mother to report I would be late. She asked when I’d be home, and I told her that I didn’t know. She told me all the things she would make for our Christmas dinner: a pot roast, mashed potatoes and other delicious foods she learned to prepare when she came over to this country. We weren’t Christian, but we celebrated Christmas anyway because it was fun and the only time of the year we saw each other. We talked more. There was an announcement concerning my flight, and I told her I had to let her go since it was hard to hear what they were saying to all of us.

The flight would be three hours late but able to get me to Atlanta. I could live with three hours; it was a small price to pay to get home. But something happened, and I had a bigger problem.

Two plain clothes men filtered through the crowd unbeknownst to me and grabbed hold of my arms; one stood on my left and the other on my right.

“Are you Hasan Ali Altan?” one of them asked.

Their grip was strong, practiced.


“Then you have to come with us.”

“My arms,” I said, but no more. I struggled for words of protest, but found none.

“Please come with us, sir.”

I was overpowered by confusion, their politeness and the understanding I couldn’t refuse their request.


I tried to get a look at the two men as they hustled me down a narrow hall connected to the terminal, my leather attaché hanging loosely off my shoulder. One had a shaved head, the other didn’t. They were dressed in the same black shoes and pants, but their jackets were different, one dark blue, the other lighter. They were government men. The shaved man was older and had a broad neck, making his chin disappear in his collar. The other had a boyish face, pale skin, thick brows and a bushy head of black hair. They couldn’t have looked more different, but they had the same purpose. They were well built and exerted a great amount of energy, as if at any moment they would have to carry me if I lost my footing or will to walk. Or worse if I resisted. I could see veins on the shaved man’s temples bulge under the strain of this responsibility. I could hear their heavy breathing, each heaving in synch with the other. I could smell it, the nauseating peppermint on the boyish one. I tried to make sense of what was happening, but couldn’t. I felt lighter in my shoes, as if the laws of gravity didn’t apply anymore. I tried to understand these men, but couldn’t. It wasn’t until we were in a poorly lit, grey-walled room with only a table and chair that they let me go.

“We have to search you. Raise your arms. Put them against the wall.”

I complied. They took my attaché and patted me down.

“Sit. You’re shaking. You have a reason to be nervous?”

“No,” I said, but this was not true.

I wanted to make eye contact with one of them but couldn’t. I sat down in the chair. The shaved man took a seat on the table in front of me.

“Keep your hands on the table, palms up,” he said, “where I can see them.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, mustering some courage and staring at my hands palm up. They were clamped down to the table by the enormous weight of the shaved man’s blue eyes. I concentrated to keep them still; the trembling went to my knees and the rest of my legs.

“Sit tight,” said the other, talking into his radio and winking, as if this were routine.

I thought of my hands, how important they were to me. I dreamed the shaved man was looking at my hands like I was, his eyes holding them down, rigid and tense on the table.

“Get up.”

I complied. They took hold of my arms again. We left the room. I felt limp, that my feet would soon not touch the ground; they would have to carry me. I’d have no backbone; my head would bob up and down on my neck, as thin and brittle as a toothpick between two pearly teeth.

“My briefcase,” I said, breaking my train of thought. It had been left in the room.

“Someone will take care of it.”

I should have asked them their names, but didn’t. They had never said a word to each other, as if they were of one mind and nothing had to be said.

We stepped outside and onto the tarmac. Airplanes roared. A strong wind pressed on us. I saw planes take off and land, their bright red and white lights twinkling across the airfield, people going home. A black car pulled up, its approach inaudible under massive jet engines and invisible in the cloak of night. We all got into the backseat of the car, and it drove away from the airport. The two men held me as tightly sitting as standing.

I tried to think of what Christmas would be like at my home. My father would be sitting across from me in his favorite chair, the La-Z-Boy, toying with prayer beads in his hand and quizzing me on the last year of my life; I didn’t visit often enough. My mother would come in and out of the living room with endless trays of food, her effort to have us eat all the time a demonstration of love. And when she revolved into the room, she’d ask me, as she did every year, why I wasn’t married and what kind of girl I was dating since I refused her matchmaking picks. My sister, Nur, would sit across from me, thinking how lucky I was to be living outside of the house, independent, and her chance next year to be free as a freshman away at college.

The car stopped in front of the faintly visible outline of an office building, which seemed as black as the night except for the light emanating from its front door. I went through that light into an even brighter room with walls as luminescent as a hospital examination room. They let go of my arms.

“Sit,” said the shaved man, pulling back a chair for me. This room had an extra chair across from me.

The two men left the room and closed the door.

I waited, slouched in that chair, my hands hidden between my knees lest someone should ask me to take them out, like a school boy afraid they’d get paddled again. They were now trembling between my knees. Did I have something to be afraid of? A compact middle-aged woman, casually dressed, entered and sat down in the other chair. She had translucent blue eyes, made up lips and brows. She smiled.

“The agent-in-charge will ask you some brief questions, Mr. Altan, in a moment when he gets here,” she said. “Do you need to call anyone?”

I thought of my parents, who were expecting me, but said no.

She left. Minutes passed, maybe an hour. I heard the faint swivel of the door opening and the sound of rubber soles on linoleum. I lifted my chin.


The agent-in-charge had sandy blond hair and a thick brown moustache. He wore a tan suit over his tall, lanky frame, a white shirt and a striped blue, yellow and copper tie. The nose was long, and perched on it, left and right, were dark brown bullet tips, like the dense eyes of a bird of prey with clarity of purpose. He sat.

“You smoke, Mr. Hasan?” he asked, lighting a cigarette with a Zippo lighter.


“Really? You strike me as a smoking man. You know what makes a smoking man?”

I shook my head.

“A smoking man is a man who thinks a lot about things that he can’t be one hundred percent sure of. I look at you, I think, there’s a lot going on in your head.”

He leaned forward and blew, burning my eyes. I coughed. He leaned back, turning his hand out to knock ashes onto the floor.

“Maybe you’re not a smoking man,” he said, taking another drag and exhaling up toward the ceiling. “Mr. Hasan, are you a United States citizen?”


“Born here?”


He inhaled, pinched the cigarette between his thumb and index finger, took it out and leaned forward again, eyes scrutinizing.

“Do you like living here?”


“You don’t say that with much conviction, Mr. Hasan.” The agent paused as if waiting for a lost thought to return. “You travel a lot?”

“Yes. I was going to Atlanta.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, raising his voice, “do you go outside of the country?”




“Anywhere else?”


“You don’t say. Muslim countries.”

I nodded.

“They don’t like the United States, Mr. Hasan. They don’t like that we’re killing Muslims. Did you know that?”

I nodded.

“Do you have a problem with us killing Muslims, Mr. Hasan?” he asked, slowing down his words and bringing them down to a whisper as if it was a secret.

“I love my country.”

“That’s not what I asked,” he said. “Why do you go to Turkey, Egypt?”

“Family, I have family.”

“Oh,” he said, as if it was a surprise to hear. “Do they like the US, Mr. Hasan?”


“If I asked your mom and dad to come here and testify to that, they would, wouldn’t they?”

I nodded.

“Wouldn’t they, Mr. Hasan?”


“And they would say you’re a good son and wouldn’t do anything wrong? Wouldn’t they?”


I tried to imagine my mother, half the height of the man sitting in the chair, answering his questions, her face drained of life, her ability to speak shut down by fear, her eyes on the verge of tears, her simple plea “I didn’t do anything wrong,” a confession for a crime without a charge.

Minutes passed in silence.

I startled; he had clapped his hands in my face.

“Mr. Hasan, wake up,” he said, taking out another cigarette. “Do you think this is a game, Mr. Hasan?”

“No,” I answered, shaking my head.

“Okay, Mr. Hasan, I believe you. Now tell me. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a chemical engineer.”

“You are?”


“Are you good with your hands and making things with ‘em?”

I didn’t answer.

“You either are or aren’t,” he said. “You get paid to do what you do, don’t you? What do you make, Mr. Hasan?”


“What? Speak up.”


“Batteries. Batteries. You know what I hate?” he said, pausing. “I hate when you can’t tell which battery’s bad, which battery’s good when you get something that don’t work. You have to try each one out with good and bad. I’d rather just throw them all away and start from scratch. You follow?”

I nodded.

His cell phone rang.

“Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah. Okay. Ahem. Another one. Okay. Fine. Thirty minutes,” he said and hung up.

He stood, pushed his chair in and began pacing the room, all the time nursing the cigarette.

I looked up. There were the bright fluorescent lights of the ceiling and only the black outline of the questioning man standing over me.

“Do you know Abdul-Haq Ghezali, Khadim Zumiri and Shahbaz Qassim, Mr. Hasan?” He said each syllable slowly, as if he practiced the names beforehand. They were those foreign sounding names, like mine, which made you think of places where they’d cut off your hand for stealing, where the punishment was greater than the crime. They were names no good American would trust with his life.


“Mr. Hasan, I want you to know you’re in a lot of trouble if you withhold information.” He put his palms down on the table, leaned on them and said, “This is the only chance you’ll have to tell me if you know of anything that would bring harm to the passengers on the plane you were going to board.” His nose touched up almost to mine, point blank range. He cracked a smile.

“Scott,” he said, as someone walked into the room.

Scott was a young man, younger than me, in a white short-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks and polished black shoes, another government agent. He walked into the room, carrying my suitcase and attaché in a large crate. He placed the crate on the table. Another man followed him and took a place in the corner wall to my left, his hands together in front of him but not far from the pistol bulging out of his hip through the sports coat. He was the third agent in the room. He watched on as the agent-in-charge and Scott completed the interrogation.

“Scott, open up the bags,” said the agent-in-charge, standing up. “Mr. Hasan, were you going to carry a bomb on the plane?”

“No,” I said, “no, absolutely not.”

“Then you won’t mind if Scott searches you, do you?” He dropped the cigarette to the floor and turned the butt under the sole of his shoe.


“You’ll cooperate?”


“Remove your clothing, put it in the chair. Stand facing the wall.”

Weak at the knees, shaking even more now, I stood and turned towards the wall. Shoes off first, then shirt, socks, pants, everything, I undressed. The room was cold, like a meat locker. The young man put on latex gloves and went through the articles of clothing I put on the chair. The man-in-charge went through my suitcase. I clasped my hands together below the belt line as if it were a solemn occasion.

“Scott will have to search your person for any contraband. He’ll be quick.”

“Put your hands against the wall, sir, feet shoulder length apart,” said the young man.

I complied. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my lips together. It was fast as he said, like a doctor’s swift swab inside the cheek for bacteria, like a cook’s quick check for the tenderness of meat before a big dinner

“Nothing,” said the young man.

“Put on your clothes, Mr. Hasan. You can go home.”

The clothes were on the chair; I put each article on one-by-one. The agent-in-charge and Scott looked away, as though to watch would now be indecent. They kept puttering through my things until I was fully dressed. The third agent, standing in the corner with a gun ready to be drawn if the need had arisen, stared down at his shoes.

“Scott, tell Janet Mr. Hasan is done here.” The agent-in-charge turned and looked at me. “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Hasan. You’re a trooper. You have a nice Christmas now.”

I swung the attaché across my shoulder and picked up my suitcase. I followed the third agent who had been waiting in the corner out of the building. I met the woman Janet. There waited a taxi outside of the building with its engine running, fare paid for in advance.

“Thank you for your patience, Mr. Altan. You missed your flight, but we’ve booked one for you at 1:30 in the afternoon. We upgraded you to first class. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me,” she said, handing me a plane ticket and business card.

It was only a misunderstanding. A passenger had heard me talking to my mother in my native language; this woman had become suspicious and had informed someone at an airline desk. The government had been tipped off by someone, somewhere of a plot to blow up a plane originating from a major West coast hub during the holidays. The bad weather and delays had created confusion and heightened people’s nerves. Fear had spread, a misunderstanding.

My apartment had been as I left it: lights turned off, the temperature gauge for the heater turned down to sixty-five degrees, instructions for the cat sitter on the table. The cat came around, smelled my shoes and suitcase for new odors and sneezed. It was three minutes past four in the morning on the microwave clock. The contents of my suitcase were disorganized, clothes unfolded and thrown back into it, the orange sweatshirt on top. I remembered other things the color of orange. Guantanamo. Inmates kneeling, hooded, hands and ankles bound in bright orange jumpsuits. The orange of a fire. I never told anyone why I had to take a flight the next day. The bad weather was convenient; I told my parents the flight was cancelled again.

BIO:  I'm a first-year fiction student in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. My fiction has appeared in Paradigm and is forthcoming in Whistling Shade and r.kv.r.y.