Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story
Very Truly Yours, John Ashcroft
by Alison Derbenwick
Incessant water, falling, deafening blows in bright endless silence,
a ball peen hammer on a stainless steel sink. Never night, never
day. Never without time. Never that is forever.
About Alison Derbenick
Being a lawyer with a background in history and journalism
has helped Alison Derbenwick create her fictional characters.
"I think those fields spend a lot of time looking at human condition," she
said. "It gives you some insights into how people behave and react to
This insight, Derbenwick said, helps make her fictional characters "very
Derbenwick has been writing fiction since she published her first story in Cricket
Magazine at the age of 7. Although she continued to write during the past few
years -- she took creative writing classes off and on -- Derbenwick didn't submit
her work for publication until the Weekly contest.
"I think if everything you write sits in
a drawer, it has limited value," she
said. Entering the short story contest, she said, was a way to see she
write things that people want to read."
-- Nisha Ramachandran
On his back, on the floor, Fariq fingers his unfamiliar beard,
thinks it is like a calendar and is glad for the first time since
this started that he is a man.
He figures it has been many days.
Once, it was Monday.
Mondays started early. A run down quiet streets, a fast shower, a cafe latte
at Cafe Murano if he was early enough, or a latte trotting across campus
if he was not. He'd never figured out why they put the nine a.m. Early Western
Religions class he TA'd on the far corner of campus, in the math building,
but there it was and he was almost always late. They expected it now, the
sixty-odd mostly Asian undergraduates wearing clothes like pajamas and expressions
that said they were only there because it was a prereq class. Already talking,
he'd open the door, coffee in hand, leather briefcase with one broken buckle
tucked under his arm, and they'd open notebooks, lift pens, trying to absorb
enough to write the week's reaction paper without doing the assigned reading.
Sometimes Fariq wondered why he bothered.
That Monday, the last Monday, had been different: a run, a fast shower, a black
coffee in Cafe Murano because he didn't have enough change to afford a latte.
Instead of the usual spread of ungraded papers, Fariq sat with a single page
and an envelope in front of him. The envelope was doubling as a coaster, brown
rings from the bottom of his cup making sepia kaleidoscope prints on the yellow
post office forwarding label. The page was a letter, typewritten, covered in
Amy's blue notes, and addressed to him:
Dear Mr. Fariq Safir, RE: Special Registration for Students from Designated
Countries: By order of the United States Department of Justice and Attorney
General John Ashcroft (8 CFR 214, 264; AG Order No. 2608-2002), nonimmigrant
males from designated countries must register with the INS by no later than
Monday, December 16...
It was Monday. Monday was the deadline.
Lying on the thin cot, Fariq watches the ceiling and tries to
sing himself his mother's lullaby. But he cannot remember her voice;
the words are missing and darkness never comes. He thinks about
lattes, fingers his lengthening beard.
He wonders if the days are now weeks.
When it came in the mail, he'd taken the notice to his friend
Amy, a law student.
"Did you hear about this?" he asked.
Amy rolled her eyes. "This is Berkeley, Fariq. Of course
I heard about it."
"And?" he asked. "What do you think of it?"
"It's ridiculous, of course," she said. "Discriminatory.
Inefficient. Unconstitutional, in fact. Places an undue burden
on visiting foreigners.
Violates due process. Do you want more?"
Fariq tried to smile. "In English instead of lawyerese, please?"
"In a word, it's bullshit. All bullshit."
Fariq sighed. "But real."
"Yes," Amy said, "unfortunately."
"So I have to go?"
Her eyes fixed on his face. "What do you mean, you have to
"Amy, I'm Group 1. I'm from Iran. Why do you think they sent
me this thing?"
Amy hesitated. "Are you even Muslim?"
"Am I what? Does that matter?"
Amy sat on the bed. "I'm sorry."
"What are you going to do?"
Fariq looked at her. He liked how blue her eyes were. "I don't know," he
sighed. "I moved without reporting it to the INS -- "
"You have to report the fact you moved to the INS? Why?"
Fariq made a face. "Who knows? I hardly ever did it. They
never seemed to care."
Amy looked at him, raised her eyebrows. "Maybe it won't
be a big deal."
"That's not the worst," Fariq said after a moment. "My
"What? Why?" Amy waited, then said, "I'm serious.
After September 11, you must have thought they'd care more."
"What I thought after September 11 was complicated. Then,
you know how it is at the beginning of the semester. Lines at financial
the registrar's office, the bookstore. I don't even get financial aid and I have
stand in that line. I didn't get the paperwork done. It's never been a
"You've let your visa expire before?" Amy asked.
For an instant he saw something in those blue eyes that he didn't
like, some doubt or fear or question. "Amy, it just happens.
In eleven years there are a lot of visas and renewals and extensions.
Amy read the notice through, looked at her hands. "I think
it might mean something now."
Fariq sat down beside her.
She faced him, tucked one leg under her bottom, and took his
look at the law. Maybe there's a loophole."
"Do you think they'll arrest me?"
She shook her head, no, pulled at her lips with her fingers. "This
is America. I don't think people would tolerate that."
Crouching against the wall, Fariq rubs his ankles. The space
between the cot and the stainless steel toilet is a gray cement
path made shiny by bare feet and many steps. His stomach growls.
He wonders who administered his finals, thinks about Amy's eyes. He misses
how she pulls at her lips when she's thinking and wonders if she's trying to
get him out. He fingers his beard and rubs his feet against the cement floor
He fears it has been a month.
On Monday, that Monday, the line at the INS office was so long
it stretched down the sidewalk like a snake coming out of its hole.
Amy had offered to come with him but he said no, and when she had
argued not only was she going to be a lawyer but she was his friend,
he yelled back she was scaring him. Now he wished she were there.
He finally stepped through the double doors into the dusty administrative
air, his weary broken briefcase stuffed full of legal paperwork
that might have been understandable if it didn't frighten him so
much to read it.
It was humiliating to be fingerprinted and photographed like a criminal, his
back against a height chart. In the interrogation room, the INS officer wasn't
interested in his dissertation research or the article he was publishing in
the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
"Why didn't you report your change of address?" she
Fariq shrugged. "I don't know. It didn't seem important."
"Obeying the law isn't important?"
"No," Fariq said, "I didn't say that."
Her eyes flicked toward the other INS officer: check.
Like ticking boxes on a list.
"But you let your visa expire, you didn't report your change of address,
and it's not the first time you've done either." She tapped her pen against
the table and frowned. "If it's not disregard for the law, how do
you explain it?"
Fariq wondered what they knew. "I guess I don't."
"Why don't you belong to a mosque?"
t was as if his father had walked in, and Fariq cringed. Life
here was so different, so full of distractions, so...secular.
father feared. "I'm
not proud of not practicing. But I study religion. I teach it. It's always
on my mind. Practicing is..." He stopped before he finished:
practicing felt superfluous.
"Are you hiding your religion?"
Fariq scowled and clenched his hands beneath the table. "No," he
said. Being a practicing Muslim had inconvenient rituals and lifestyle
restrictions, but how could he explain that to her when she probably
went to church for
an hour on Sunday morning and called herself a Christian?
"Is that why you don't wear a beard?"
Fariq looked at her. "What? Yes. I mean...no. Men here just
don't wear beards."
She looked at the other officer again: check. "And
this trip you took to Tehran last August? You bought your tickets
the day before
you left, and were back inside a week. What could you have done
in Tehran for four days?"
Fariq shook his head. "I wasn't in Tehran. I was near Chogha
"In western Iran, sort of in the middle."
Fariq sighed. "Yes."
"For four days," she said.
Fariq wondered if he owed them the truth. Finally, he said, "For my father's
funeral." Saying it made it real again. A final seal
on his father's dissatisfaction with him. Fariq felt tears.
She was implacable. "Your records show that your father
lived in Tehran."
Fariq was tired. "Those records are almost ten years old," he said. "My
parents moved after I came to America."
The other officer cleared his throat. Check.
"Do you have a copy of the death certificate?"
Fariq snapped. "No," he said. "Is your father dead? Do you carry his death
The woman sized him up. He wondered what she saw, his shaggy dark
hair, his dark skin, his nice-but-not-too-expensive suit. Did he
look like a terrorist?
"Can you prove that you were at your father's funeral?"
"I don't know how you'd prove that."
She pursed her lips. "Well," she said. It was not a
precursor to a suggestion. She looked at the files in front of
and Fariq wondered what they might say.
Finally she told him to remove his shoes and socks and belt. They led him away
in shackles, no explanations, no phone calls, no paperwork, and they
put him in the room and told him to face the wall. Before the door shut, Fariq
for one crazy second if they were going to shoot him in the back
of the head.
Fariq sank to the floor, buried his face in his hands.
That was the last Monday.
Fariq cannot remember Amy or lattes or students. Food comes erratically
through a slot in the wall. Lying on his stomach, Fariq reaches
for the plastic tray and eats like an animal. He no longer thinks.
His beard looks like he has worn it for a lifetime.
He has stopped trying to count time.
When the door opens the hall is the same color as the room, bright
white light, but Fariq blinks like a mole emerging into the sun.
The guard's voice is too loud after too much silence and only Fariq's
own sounds: fingernails scratching dirty skin, foamy urine splashing
the sides of the stainless steel toilet.
Fariq crouches against the wall, his hands pressed against his ears.
"You can go now."
Fariq blinks his burning eyes. "What?" His voice is
rusty with silence.
"Get up." A clipboard is waved at him. "Sign here
and you can go."
Fariq doesn't ask as he takes the clipboard and signs without reading.
Nothing matters except that he has lost months of his life in this
He smells bad. They haul him to his feet, drag him to a shower
and strip him naked. The guard shoves soap into his hand. "Clean yourself up." The
water is hard and not warm enough, but it is cleansing. Too soon, they
hand him his dirty underwear, his rumpled suit, his shoes and socks and
tired broken briefcase still full of papers. He leaves his underwear
on the floor and pulls his pants over his legs. When he is dressed,
him a comb and holds up a mirror.
The comb sticks in the knots in Fariq's hair and hurts when he
tugs it out. The face that looks back from the mirror is thin,
beard, the eyes flat and dark. That man could be
He could even be a terrorist.
They walk him out the front door and leave him standing on the
you, Mr. Safir," they say, waving the clipboard with his signature on
it. "We apologize for any inconvenience, but it really was a matter
of national security."
Fariq wants to spit. National security? Don't they understand this
is his fucking life?
Even in Los Angeles the breeze smells of the ocean, and his skin crawls
with the livingness of it. He wonders if it is already spring, or if
it is only
a spring day in winter. Cars and people pass in front of him, an overwhelming
Technicolor kaleidoscope after the white silence. Fariq sits on the steps
and watches, people talking, laughing, breathing -- as if the world hasn't
People who don't know, or don't care.
This is America, after all. The back of Fariq's throat fills with something
bitter. What would his father say now? I told you so, you foolish boy?
There was a phone number from another Iranian student, a phone
number with hidden meanings on a scrap of blue-lined notebook paper
up and thrown away. He doesn't know who would have been at the
other end of the line if he had called, but now he imagines: the
the blind single purpose. No more waiting or wondering why. Just
revenge. His revenge. He closes his eyes and tries to see the number.
Had it started
a four? A three?
But instead of numbers, Fariq sees book accolades, friends, life
as a professor. He sees notes and papers, eager students, children
blue eyes. And
he sees in himself a quiet resignation that banishes this time,
this now, to a distant and unreal memory.
The agony of it makes him want to scream.
Has he not been changed? How can he still believe in that world?
Only minutes back in the sunshine and what was unimaginable an
hour ago is
Time softens the edges of pain until someday it becomes just tissue
paper, worn thin and vague. Without this, Fariq thinks, we might
But we would never survive.
He presses his forehead against his knees. His father's voice in
his head is loud.
"Fariq!" Amy's touch is a lifeline. Somehow, she is there, helping
him to his feet. Her face says he looks awful. "What have they done to you?" she
says. "I tried get in to see you. I talked to about a zillion
lawyers. Then they don't even tell me they're letting you out today.
I just happened
"Amy," Fariq says, trying to interrupt her. "Amy," he
says again, taking her arm. He is surprised to find his hand is
"What?" She doesn't look at him.
He needs her to look at him.
"It's good to see you," he says, and then he is weeping.
Amy's eyes come up to meet his and they are as blue as the sky behind her.
Fariq leans into her, and her arms go around him. She holds him,
rocking gently, making small, soothing sounds.
In the street, a car honks its horn, and around them the world goes on.
Brave story of a not-so-brave new world. The writer takes us on
a journey that we may not wish to make -- and by telling one man's
story, tells us a lot about our country. Powerful writing.
-- Ellen Sussman