A story for today: “I Hate Dill Pickles”

NOTE: This story was written about 2007, against the background of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unfolding discovery of U.S. detention and torture of many Muslims. I shared it with a Muslim friend from Raleigh NC, and he wanted to show it to the editor of their community newspaper. I agreed and soon they asked to publish it. Which they did.

What it described was supposed to be unthinkable and illegal within the United States. But it wasn’t then, in fact, and recent events have shown that what was fiction in this tale is becoming more a reality each day.

Spring 2018; or maybe tomorrow

Sara Rahman was my best friend in eighth grade. “BFFs, Amber,” she often said to me.  And some of the best times we had were while walking home from school.

We joked and laughed about everything – stuff in school, books she was reading, her dorky big brother Ahmed, even some of the sillier songs from “American Idol.”

Maybe we were having too much fun. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone running up to the ice cream truck that came jangling by and pulled over to the curb.

But it was a warm spring Thursday, and Sara had five dollars in her pocket, a pre-birthday present from her aunt, and she loved ice cream.

“Especially butter pecan,” she said. “That’s my very favorite.” So we did stop at the ice cream truck. No butter pecan, but they did have big cones of cookies and cream, so Sara got one of those, and bought me an Eskimo pie.

The Eskimo pie was good, but Sara’s cone must have been better. Not only was it sweet and cold, but by the time we turned onto Hillside, our street, it had taken on an extra identity as a karaoke microphone. She was acting out one of the more outlandish American Idol numbers – I can’t remember now if it was Haley or Sanjaya — singing into the melting ice cream and sashaying down the sidewalk.

“Watch this, Amber,” Sara said, building up to a big finish. She whirled around and threw her arms out in a wide flourish.

And when she did, the scoop of soft cookies and cream flew right off the top of the cone and landed splat! on the side window of a parked silver-gray van.

Sara heard the splat and stopped to look, and we both saw a long white drip sliding down the dark glass. She turned to me, eyes wide, mouth open, ready to start giggling.

But then the van’s window rolled down several inches, and a man in dark sunglasses looked out at us. “Hey, young lady,” he said, “better be careful with that stuff.”

Now instead of giggling, Sara squealed and we both turned and ran down the block, all the way to where our houses faced each other across the street.

When we got to her place I stopped and glanced back, and the van’s window was closed again. We both stood by her porch for a minute, giggling and laughing and trying to catch our breath. Finally Sara said, “That was wild!”

“Yeah,” I said, “if Sanjaya had tried that, he would have won for sure!”

She laughed, but before she could answer the front door banged open behind her. “Sara!” called a male voice.

It was her brother Ahmed, Mister Dorkiness himself, a book in one hand: tall, skinny, clunky black-rimmed glasses. So what if he was super-smart? So what if he was going to Harvard, or at least Duke,  for college? So what if he was always carrying the Quran and going off to pray?

“Hurry up!” he said. “It’s time to get ready to go to the center, and you’ve still got chores to do.”

“What about YOUR chores?” Sara retorted. “Did you take the trash out yet?”

“None of your business,” he said. “Come on – you’re going to make us late.”

“All right, all right,” Sara said over her shoulder, as he went back in.

“Hey,” I whispered, “maybe it’s better that men and women sit separately at your mosque. It means you can be far away from HIM.”

Sara rolled her eyes and shrugged. “Oh, never mind Ahmed,” she said.

“And why didn’t you tell me about having to take off our shoes and sit on the floor there?” I said.  “There was a hole in my sock that day I visited.”

“I forgot,” she admitted. “But don’t worry about that – nobody notices.”

Then she took my hand and gave me a serious look. “You’ll be here Saturday for the party,” she said. “Promise?”

Her eyes dropped. “I think some of the girls at school are still a little — you know, weird about Muslims.”

“I’ll be there,” I said. “But tell me something: are you going to start wearing that scarf then, like your mother, when you’re twelve?”

She shook her head. “Nope, I’m not ready for the hijab. In fact, I haven’t decided if I’m going to wear it at all. Muslim women don’t all have to dress alike.”

“Good,” I said. “I like you better this way.” I turned to go. “But hey – be careful with the ice cream at the party, okay? See ya!”

She giggled and waved. “I will. Two o-clock sharp!”

When I got to our side of the street, I reached out and brushed my fingers against the big old oak tree that stood at the end of our driveway. It was a reflex: I’d been doing that since I was little. This was my favorite tree, huge, old and gnarly, the bark all spotted with pale green lichens. It seemed to stand guard over our house and the whole block.

 At home, mom insisted I dig into homework before anything else, and there was a lot of it. I have a big brother too, Allen; but fortunately he’s already at college, at Guilford, so I don’t have to put up with him much.

But there’s a downside to that too: it means I have more chores to do around the house. After dinner, my folks let me watch a video before getting back to homework. The last assignment on my list was to look up stuff for my big English paper. I was doing it on Islam, because it meant I could ask Sara and her mom more questions. But I had to have stuff from articles and books too.

I was still trying to figure out how to describe the difference between Sunnis, Shias, and Sufis when dad tapped on my door. “Amber,” he said, “the trash needs to go out.”

I had completely forgotten. The truck came by early the next morning, and our big trash barrel on wheels had to be filled and rolled out to the curb. “Okay, dad,” I said, and left the computer, headed for the kitchen to collect the first of the wastebaskets.

About ten minutes later, outside the back door, I dumped the last plastic bag into the trash barrel and started rolling it around to the driveway. It was almost completely dark now, but I knew the way with my eyes closed. The driveway ran into the street just past the big oak, and I parked the trash barrel right in front of it.

Brushing my hands, I heard a rolling noise somewhere behind me. I glanced around, and saw a figure pushing a similar trash barrel down Sara’s driveway. Squinting, I could see it was Ahmed; maybe he’d forgotten too. I headed back toward the house.

Behind me a car’s brakes squeaked, and a door slammed. I looked around again, and saw the silver-gray van, its side door open, stopped in front of Sara’s. Three men hopped out of it, and even in the darkness I could see that they were wearing gloves and some kind of black masks.

Without thinking, I stepped behind the trunk of the big oak, held my breath, and then peeked carefully around it.

The men had grabbed Ahmed. The trash barrel was knocked on its side on the grass, as one man clapped a hand over his mouth, another held his hands behind his back, and the third lifted his feet into the air. They obviously knew what they were doing.

Ahmed was squirming, but the men were strong and he could barely move, and there was no sound. In just a few seconds, the men had expertly folded his wriggling form into the van, two of them sliding in behind him. The big side door slid shut with a quiet thump, as the third man hopped into the driver’s seat. Then the van sped off toward the corner, and into the night, its lights off.

The whole thing had only taken a few seconds, and no one had noticed me behind the tree. I stumbled back to the house in a kind of daze, and all I could think was: there was still a white smudge on the van’s window where the ice cream had landed.

My dad works for the police department. He’s not a cop with a gun and uniform; he sits at a desk, doing something they call community relations. So I went to him first. He was watching baseball on TV. I must have looked strange, because he frowned when he saw me. “What’s the matter, honey?” he asked

“I – they – these men– ” I began, in a hoarse kind of whisper. “They – took Ahmed, they – ”. And then I began to cry.

Somehow I thought that when dad went to call the office, there would soon be police cars crowded into Hillside Avenue, police radios buzzing and blue lights flashing in the shadows. But nothing like that happened. He did go across the street to talk to Sara’s folks, but that was all very quiet, and I couldn’t see anything through the living room window.

When he came back, I was still full of questions. “Is Sara okay?” was the first one. Dad nodded at that. But he raised a warning hand when I asked about Ahmed, and then said, more gruffly than I expected, “Amber, you need to get to bed. Don’t worry, things will be all right. Go on now.”

Mom spoke up. “But, George–”  she started, and I could hear questions in her tone. But dad shushed her too, and pointed toward their bedroom.

They closed the door, and I made a detour into the bathroom. Pretending to brush my teeth, I leaned up against the wall that faced their room, trying to listen.

I only made out a few words. “NOT kidnaped,” I heard dad insist, over Mom’s murmur. “No, he was TAKEN. Different. This wasn’t some random thing, Helen. They know what they’re doing.”

Then more murmurs from mom – I couldn’t make out the words, but could hear worry, maybe even fear in her voice.

Then dad again: “Our job, Helen, is to go on as usual. We’re not doing anything wrong, so we have nothing to worry about.”

There was the sound of motion – one of them was coming toward the bathroom! Quickly I turned the faucet on, then flushed the toilet, went into my room, and got into bed.

I laid awake a long time, staring into the night.

The next morning, Sara didn’t stop by so we could walk to school as usual. I saw her car pull out of the driveway, and guessed her mom was taking her. At school she was very quiet, and so was I.

Worse yet, by lunchtime, the rumor was spreading around the cafeteria that Ahmed had been picked up as a spy or a terrorist.
How could they have heard this, I wondered?

But Kimberly from my home room whispered it all in the girl’s bathroom: Sara’s mom went to the office to say that Ahmed would be absent for awhile, and somebody in the office got suspicious and called a friend in the police department, who repeated what dad had said about how “they” knew what they were doing. From there it spread like brushfire.

I walked home alone that afternoon. When I got to the house, mom was on the phone. And while I dawdled in the kitchen over a snack, it rang twice more. Mom took the phone into the living room, but I soon realized she was saying some of the same things each time.

“Yes, yes, I understand. I’m sure it’s hard for them, but we don’t want trouble either.”

She listened, then sighed. “What I’d like,” she said, “is for things to just be as normal as they can be.”

I was trying to focus on homework, and wondering if I should change the subject of my English paper, when mom tapped on the bedroom door. “Honey,” she said, “I’m heading to the market. Can you come along?” I was ready for a distraction.

Mom drove silently. But when we were looking over the stacks of packaged strawberries and heaps of apples, the feel of the fruit seemed to open her up. “I’m afraid a lot of parents are worried about having their kids go to Sara’s party,” she said.

“Oh, mom,” I said. “That’s awful.”

She wouldn’t look at me. “They’re concerned,” she said, and picked up a large tomato, gazing at it as if it was made of gold. “I guess I am too.” She put down the tomato and picked up another one.

“Mom,” I said, “are you telling me not to go?”

She didn’t answer right away. Pushing the cart down a crowded aisle, she plucked cans of soup from a shelf, and then searched for her favorite kind of whole grain instant oatmeal.

Finally she said, “Amber, I know that Sara has been your best friend . . .” and then trailed off.

“Has been?” I said. “Can’t she be anymore? What’s happened, mom?”

Mom frowned, and examined the label on a bottle of low-sodium tomato juice. I knew perfectly well that she had seen this label a million times before.

“We just –” she started, “– we just want things to get back to normal. Can’t you see that?”

I picked up a jar of dill pickles. I hate dill pickles, but needed to look at something too. “Have you said this to Mrs. Rahman?” I asked.

“Not yet.”

I put down the pickle jar. “Good,” I said. “Let me tell her. And – ” I walked down the aisle and turned toward the frozen food section “–- I want to get something.”

Saturday afternoon, two o-clock came and went. Dad was at the office; some kind of a meeting, he said. Mom had been reading, a mystery novel, I think. Watching from the side window out across the street, I saw that no cars stopped to drop off kids at the Rahman’s house.

When I tiptoed into the living room at twenty after, mom had dozed off.

That was my chance. Retreating to the kitchen, I made a stop at the refrigerator, then was silently out the back door, and down the driveway. At the curb I brushed my fingers along the rough bark of the big oak tree before crossing the street.

Mrs. Rahman answered the door, and smiled at me. “I’ll get Sara,” she said.

Then Sara was there. I held up a plastic bag, which had a film of condensation on the outside.

“It’s butter pecan,” I said. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” said Sara.

She was wearing a hijab.

If this story is meaningful you, please pass it on.

Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager

5 thoughts on “A story for today: “I Hate Dill Pickles””

  1. When in the 3rd grade…I brought home a black classmate and
    friend, Josephine to play after school. My mother received hateful phone calls and sent my friend home. “Dill Pickles” happens every day to some minority child. My memory is almost 80 years old. It changed my life. I have been searching for Josephine to apologize.

  2. Much to ponder. Had similar experiences in high school with black kids. Negative reactions from both sides

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