Out of Focus
Well; I had finally seen it.
My grandfather's headstone was no different from any of the others--marble, simple, neatly aligned with others in its row; and even aligned with others in almost any direction I looked throughout the Fort Snelling National Cemetery, just outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Except that the lines of the inscription on his headstone connected with my life and me personally, and the others did not.
Andrew C. Blasington
CW3, US Army
May 7 1937
Apr 5 1971
Yeah, my grandfather had flown a helicopter gunship in Vietnam. Not ever being in the military myself, I later learned from some veterans that he would have been called a 'Snake Driver'--strange term, if you ask me. It was on his second tour there that he had caught the magic bullet that had somehow reached him through the barriers of his cockpit, including a supposedly armored seat.
He had exited this life, according to what Gran told me, while his number two guy brought the Cobra gunship ('Snake') back to Pleiku with Granddad's body in the seat behind him--he didn't even know that his partner was already dead until they had landed and the medics showed up just as they got the canopy open, even before the rotors had stopped turning.
Before Granddad had gone through the Army's Warrant Officer Candidate School--where he became a Warrant Officer Candidate, or WOC; and later became a trained Army Aviator at Fort Rucker in Alabama--he had served as an Enlisted Soldier in "The Old Guard" at Fort Meyer, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. The Third Infantry Regiment, or "The Old Guard," performs many duties in and around the nation's capital, including the very photogenic and ceremonial guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery.
As a tall, handsome young Soldier (I had seen his pictures in his dress blues), Granddad had served in the Caisson Platoon, participating in the ceremonial burials of the remains of many a returning young hero who had given the 'last full measure' from one of our nation's conflicts --or even an old hero who had simply passed away in due time well after his or her own conflict was well into the past. It was during one of these ceremonies that Granddad had spotted the daughter of one of the Arlington Ladies, and had immediately fallen for her; later looking her up and dating and then marrying her in 1957--making her my Gran.
Back in 1948, Mrs. Gladys Vandenberg, wife of then Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, had noted the burial of a young Airman with no family present--it was too expensive in those days for many families throughout the country to travel all the way to Arlington, Virginia. She had vowed that, from that point on, no Airman would be buried without "someone" present besides the honor guard and the Chaplain. She had organized ladies from the Officers' Wives Club at nearby Bolling Air Force Base to form the Arlington Ladies group to ensure that, on a rotating basis, at least one of the ladies would see that no Airman was buried without "someone" to represent the absent family members. The Army wives began to do this in 1972 and the Navy wives joined the cause in 1985.
Regardless of service affiliation, The Army's Old Guard had provided honor guards for service members buried at Arlington Cemetery for decades when Granddad was assigned there in the mid-to-late 1950s. Being from Minnesota himself, he had been proud to learn that The Old Guard traced some of its unit history to frontier units that had served at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, during the Black Hawk Wars of the 1830s. That was when he had decided that, when he finally died, he wanted his interment to be at Fort Snelling, near his boyhood home and his extended family, instead of at Arlington. His death, needless to say, happened earlier in his life than he or his family had anticipated; and Gran had grieved, had him buried there with honors according to his wishes, and had settled down back near her family in Maryland at the ripe old age of 33--never marrying again.
My mom, who was just short of twelve when he died, had been born just two years after Gran had married Granddad, having been conceived during a brief leave he'd had in the fall of 1958, when he and Gran had arranged a 'hop' on an Air Force cargo plane and had flown to Hawaii for a week of passion in Waikiki. Mom had many stories of Granddad during her childhood and pictures that she had collected from Gran while growing up in Leonardtown, Maryland.
Later, Mom had met Dad at the University of Maryland in College Park; married him; and settled into life--first as an Air Force wife, and then as the wife of a pilot with Delta Air Lines and living in Covington, Georgia, just outside of metropolitan Atlanta. My younger brother, Carl, and I were born and grew up there; me in 1979, and him in 1981.
My name is Louis Chandler, by the way--Lou to my friends--and "Lou-Zer" to my ex-wife.
Why am I here in Minnesota, you ask?
Well, my job had brought me here--my new job, I should say. Even as the divorce papers had been served, my now ex-father-in-law had fired me quicker than a circus cannon. That way, he could bring the full pressure of his money and influence down on me with a top-notch legal team to hammer me on behalf of his daughter--his princess--the bitch.
The speed with which my ex-father-in-law had gotten rid of me had not really surprised me. After all, he had become aware that I had begun to gain some insights into some of the devious methods that he was using in his business dealings--not that I would have had the guts to confront him or do anything with the information; but, numbers do not lie. Not only that, but he had had his IT guys come in on the day that I was fired so that they could wipe the hard drive on my computer; as well as my shared folder on the network server where I had begun storing evidence of his ... well ... let us simply call it his 'imaginative' ways of handling his responsibilities where the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission were concerned. My proof of his criminality and ethical lapses had disappeared from the company's network faster than my building and office keys and parking pass had disappeared from my personal possession.
Thankfully, I had maintained a personal network of friends and professional connections in the area so that I could land another job near my home; a friend named Bill Gray had snatched me up and put me to work within a week of my being let go by my father-in-law's company. I would not be destitute, but I'd had to take an appreciable cut in income in order to start over with Bill's company. At least it was only about a fifteen-minute drive from where I had been working for well over seventeen years.
As for my Minnesota trip, Bill, my new boss, had needed to stick someone on a plane to go and straighten out an account in St. Paul and I was the stuck-ee. Normally, one of the other accountants who work in my department would get that task, but Bill knew that I needed a fresh outlook on life in general.
My divorce had been final for three months and I was still morose. After fifteen years of marriage--mostly a period of strife and turmoil--I was now a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor again.
My ex-wife, Francine, along with her lover, had really taken me to the cleaners. She had gotten the house (where Asshole Baby was now shacked up with her openly), custody of our two girls (Gracie, 12, and Chelsea, 14), and a sizeable chunk of our joint finances in terms of lump sums and alimony. She and the asshole were also not planning to marry anytime soon; which meant my alimony payments kept coming to her until they did.
During courtroom hearings involving visitation deliberations, I had discovered that my ex had been turning the girls against me for years. So, I was not surprised to find that my 'visitation rights' were minimal and just might become almost non-existent due to 'difficulties' with the timing of my visits--Bitch!
I was now living in a small apartment in Sandy Springs, off Mount Vernon Road, on the north side of Atlanta, just outside the I-285 Perimeter. It wasn't quite a dump, but it was not luxurious either. I did not consider myself as 'living' in Sandy Springs; I only slept there. It seemed that, nowadays, I 'lived' at work; and work was much more enjoyable these days, although less lucrative, than it had been for over a decade before.
And now my work had required me to travel to the Twin Cities; and I was taking a short break to see where Granddad was buried before returning to my hotel. I was flying out of MSP in the morning, but it was still early in the evening. So, I decided to get a drink before calling it a night.
That is how I ended up meeting Mukhtaar Faruk Dhuhulow.
I was just about to reach the bar located near my hotel--located using one of my phone apps--when I heard a commotion in the alley nearby. Now, I am not a brave soul at all; but I am normally curious about the world around me--sometimes to my detriment. But, this time, when I indulged my curiosity by stopping to glance into the alley from its entrance, I set events in motion that would have profound implications for my life.
Three men were standing over and around the form of another man on the ground in their midst just a few feet into the alley. The man on the ground was attempting to rise when one of the men kicked him and said something in a language that I could not understand. Then another man, who seemed to have the air of being the one in charge of the others, said something in English.
"You owe me nine thousand, Mookie (at least that's how it sounded to me), and I want it now." His English was clear, but with the trace of an accent that I could not place. Seeing one of the men suddenly brandish a knife in one hand, I reacted out of shock and fear without thinking.
"Hey!" I yelled. They all looked at me as I stood at the end of the alley. I guess my shadow and the silhouette of my form in the fading daylight must have made them believe that I was bigger than I really am; or else the three assailants may have been unsure of how many other men might have been with me. In any event, the man who appeared to be in charge kicked the man on the ground once more in the side before leading the other two away at a slow run.
Suddenly realizing what I had done, and the danger in which I had placed myself, I began to shake. I stayed rooted to where I was standing for a moment until I could get my breathing and heart rate under sufficient control to keep me from fainting or running away in stark terror. I guess it was the pitiful groan of the man lying before me that caused me to move out of the panic mode and into the help mode.
"Are you okay?" I asked as I stepped closer to him, before realizing that had to be just about the stupidest question anyone can ask at a moment such as this. "I mean ... do you need an ambulance, or..."
"No!" the man said with emphasis. His voice was relatively strong, indicating that he was simply taking a moment to get himself together before rising. He was taking deep breaths and holding his side--the one that had received the kick--as he evidently performed a hasty self-assessment. Then he said, "Do not call anyone; please." His voice was relatively clear, with no trace of accent.
In the glow of the light fixture at the back of one of the buildings framing the alley, I could see him now as I got closer. He was Black. I do not simply mean that he was African-American; he was really Black--as in African 'Black.'
"I just need a moment," the man said as he rose now to one knee, took a couple of deep, testing breaths, and then extended one hand, obviously seeking for my assistance to him. As I pulled, the man stood and looked in the direction in which his assailants had run. Seeing that they were nowhere in sight, he turned to me and I saw what could be interpreted as a smile in the dim light.
"Thank you, My Friend," he said. "You saved me from what would probably have been a terrible beating at their hands. I guess that is what I get for borrowing money from the MWA." I only found out later that he was referring to the Somali gang, Madhibaan with Attitude, who owned significant gang 'turf' in the Twin Cities area, and were opposed by a rival gang, the Somali Outlaws.
I nodded and looked around, suspecting that, at any moment, other gangbangers of the same stripe as those I had seen attacking the man earlier would step out of the nearest shadows to get me. Seeing my unease, the man placed a hand on my elbow.
"Now," he said, "We must leave this place. Come with."
I was too keyed-up to have the inclination to respond to his statement by asking him, "Come with ... whom ... or what?" Midwesterners with whom I'd had business dealings during my adult life had often left me hanging with their proclivity to end a sentence with this phraseology. It left a Southerner, like me, with the feeling of leaning forward mentally, waiting for the rest of the sentence.
I simply nodded and turned back to the entryway to the alley and access to the street ... and safety--I hoped.
Moving my feet on autopilot at that point, I walked on toward the bar that had been my original destination with this man still gently holding my elbow. When he saw that I was turning in toward the doorway of a bar, he hesitated for a moment, and then continued inside with me, after a furtive glance in both directions along the sidewalk.
I asked for CC and ginger at the bar, but the man with me simply waved his hand when the bartender looked his way. My companion shrugged and told me that he was Muslim--nominally, anyway--and did not drink alcohol.
I threw my first drink down my throat and asked the bartender for another. While I was waiting for the second drink, I realized that my own bodily and emotional functions had returned to a sufficiently normal level in order to ask the man about what had been happening when I had intervened on his behalf.
"Oh, I am behind on the payment of a loan that I had gotten from them," said Mookie, as he asked me to call him, after telling me his whole name and hearing me mangle it in my attempt to pronounce it. "Today, I discovered just how much ... or rather, how little ... patience they have when collecting on unpaid debts." He went on to give me a brief idea of who these gang members were and how they fit into the way of life here in the 'Little Somalia' section of Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods.
I did not say anything, as my second drink arrived and I took a sip. Mookie went on to give me a short, but thorough, description of life among the fifteen-to-twenty-thousand-some-odd Somali expatriates living in the Twin Cities area. Most of them had fled the civil war in the east African country in the early nineties, but some, like his family, had come in the early eighties. Mookie had U.S. citizenship by virtue of having been born here.
Mookie told me a little more about his growing-up years in Minneapolis among the Somali ex-pat community and described his learning to survive independently of his family. He evidently had been able to support himself by a series of low-paying jobs--some of them not necessarily above-board--so he had never been truly destitute. But, the one time he had needed some money above his normal means, the MWA had turned out to be his only salvation--at least temporarily. From that point on, they were his nemesis--demanding usurious rates of return on his unpaid debt.
"Speaking of unpaid debts," Mookie said at last, "I cannot repay you sufficiently for your assistance back in the alley." I simply waved my hand in his direction, indicating that it was nothing, really; and it had been just that--nothing; as I really had been frozen in place after calling out before thinking about the possible consequences.
"But," he said, reaching with his right hand over toward his left wrist, "honor demands that I should repay you with something." He unclasped a small wrist chain with some sort of round decorative item on it and handed it to me. I took the object without thinking and it felt warm in my palm--from his own body heat, I imagined.
The object was a simple gold chain in two parts, with an equally simple clasp and with what appeared to be a mounted stone in the middle, where the chains came together. As I gazed at it, the stone seemed to shimmer with a dark green glow. It was not faceted, but it was not exactly gemstone smooth either.
"This is my gift to you, My Friend," Mookie said to me. I was still looking at the object and did not say anything as he continued. "This is a Nasiib stone. It is supposed to bring good fortune to its wearer. And I would like for you to have it as a small token of my appreciation."
"Good fortune, huh?" I said with a small smile and a wry shake of my head. "You mean 'fortune' as in good luck or an actual fortune, as in money and other riches?"
Mookie smiled, revealing his almost white, but slightly uneven teeth. "I really do not know for certain, but my father explained that I should rub it with a circular motion with my finger whenever I was in a highly emotional situation and allow the stone to take me to a 'place of peace, ' as he called it."
Mookie smiled and continued. "I am not sure what he meant by that, as I never experienced any changes in my fortune or my situation when I found myself rubbing it in bad situations. And, believe me; I have rubbed that stone frantically several times in my young life." He chuckled at this, and I could not help but smile.
"Tell me," I said with a dubious look at Mookie's smile, "is this one of those mystic gifts that only really works if you present it to me with your dying breath?"
Mookie laughed at that and said, "You have been reading too many Al Steiner stories, My Friend." When I gave him a blank look, he simply laughed again and said, "No, no; but it is all I have with me today that I can use as repayment to you for saving me, possibly from terrible harm. Will you accept it, along with my thanks?"
I nodded and shook his hand, placing the chain in my pocket for the time being. We spoke for about another twenty minutes, simply being friendly as we both finally got ourselves fully under control from what had been a harrowing moment earlier in the evening.
"I must go now, My Friend. I have a cousin who may be able to help me raise the cash that I need. Meanwhile, I will not burden you with any more of my problems," he said as he rose. He quickly shook my hand, and walked out a parting smile and a wave.
I had thought only briefly of perhaps offering him a little cash from my own wallet, but then I realized that I only had a small amount there. I was ashamed of my situation, but was even more ashamed by the circumstances in my life that had left me in that situation in the first place.
Ever since I was in middle school, I had been risk-averse and had tried my best to avoid confrontation--physical, emotional, or otherwise. The one time I had entered willingly into a fight during my first week in sixth grade, I'd had my ass handed to me by an eighth grader, who left me bleeding and bruised. That had basically established my mindset and my actions for the remainder of my time in Georgia's Newton County School District.
I had remained virtually invisible during middle and high school. I even went on to maintain that aspect during my tenure at Emory University at Oxford, just outside of Covington; and later at the Goizueta Business School on the main campus of Emory University in Druid Hills, near Decatur.
This personal invisibility talent of mine was part of the reason that I did not date much in college, although I had gotten laid once before graduation. A friend and fellow student had lined me up with a girl who simply loved sex and saw no reason to deny a young male virgin the opportunity to lose his status as such--with her as the very willing partner. Since graduation, I had not been able to exercise a repeat performance with anyone before entering the work force.
My first job after graduation had laid the foundation for my future career. I got a job in accounting with a small firm in Decatur and I had worked there for not quite two years when I met my future wife.
Francine Thompson captured my attention from the first time I met her in the break room of our small firm. She had been hired as the PA of my boss, and I was somewhat smitten at first sight. Even hearing from some of the guys in the company weeks later that she was a gigantic prick-tease; and furtively from other guys indirectly in overheard conversations in the men's room that she was a sex fiend on dates with other guys they knew--I still maintained my mild infatuation with her.
Francine, I learned, came from a fairly well-off upper-middle-class family in a rather affluent section of Stone Mountain. She had great physical beauty, as she was almost a mirror image of a young version of fashion model Stephanie Seymour--brunette, bountiful (where it counts), and extremely beautiful. As naïve and inexperienced as I was, I got the distinct impression that she had gotten the job here based on more than her degree in Business Management from Agnes Scott College.
One would think that, with a bachelor's degree such as that, a woman with her social pedigree could find a position with more prestige than simply that of a PA in a small contract accounting and human resource management firm. It turns out that this supposition would be correct.
It only took just over four months for the true agenda to reveal itself. It seems that Francine's 'Daddy, ' J. Carter Thompson, president of a chemical and textile conglomerate--headquartered in Decatur, just adjacent to Atlanta--wanted to acquire our company to augment his business development efforts. And Francine had been his trusted agent to scout out our company's bona fides. When the smoke had cleared after the buy-out, I was left as one of the group of two-thirds of the original employees remaining after Daddy let the others go--counting them as 'dead weight.'
The atmosphere in the accounting and business development offices of our part of Daddy's newly-expanded company had taken on a darker look and feel as well. One did not buck the system, as defined by the upper offices, and one did not openly speak ill of J. Carter Thompson or his princess, Francine.
Mr. and Mrs. J. Carter Thompson "requested the presence" ... of me ... at their home--or so said the invitation in my jacket pocket. Of course, all the employees had one of these, and word was out that you failed to attend one of J. Carter Thompson's soirées on pain of dismemberment, or firing--or both.
So, I dutifully showed up and walked the three blocks to the Thompson home, since there was no place to park nearby with the curbsides filled with the cars of those in attendance. Even though it was January, this was Georgia, and it was only in the fifties today, so the walk was not too uncomfortable from the weather standpoint.
The party was in full swing as I walked in the front door and tried my best not to stand out. That tactic worked for a total of fifteen minutes.
"You should know that what you are tryin' to do just will not work," said a very soft and feminine voice behind my left shoulder. I jumped a bit, as I was startled. I had been befriending a potted plant after having shaken the hands of J. Carter Thompson and his wife as they made the rounds. But I did not really want to mingle with this bunch, even though I knew a handful of them from work. So I had been sipping my drink and biding my time while standing just off the front hallway until I could gracefully depart without raising too much ire with my hosts.
Turning to confront the challenging voice, I paused to gape open-mouthed at a true vision of loveliness. The young blonde woman standing there slightly behind me was smirking at me knowingly. She wore a pink high-low sweetheart chiffon cocktail dress that was perfect for a party on a mild winter day in Georgia; and it highlighted perfectly some very nice curves. In fact, the beaded band at the waist allowed the gathers flowing down from the built-in cups covering her magnificent breasts to form the outline of a heart shape--with her breasts as the heart's globes and her waist as the focal point--that would truly capture any man's eye ... and his imagination.
"Y'all are a-gonna to be catching flies if you let your mouth hang open for much longer," she said with a glimmer in her eyes. I dutifully closed my mouth and I swear that someone standing ten feet away might have heard the click of my jaw closing.
"What ... what do you mean--what won't work?" I asked as I began to feel the heat of my embarrassment reach my face.
"Tryin' to hide out in this crowd," she said. "You ah just simply too tall and too nice-lookin' to be completely invisible."
Now, I was really feeling embarrassed. This young goddess was saying that I was nice-looking? And the classy Southern drawl that dripped from her gorgeous lips was giving me electric thrills--that, along with her beautiful face and form. Thankfully, she continued speaking, so that I did not have to say anything more to cause me additional embarrassment.
"I am Alicia Thompson, by the way," she said, "and I guess you must work for ma daddy." As she said this, she looked around furtively.
"I was wonderin'," Alicia continued, "if y'all could slip over to the baa and sneak a drink over here faw me. Daddy does not want me to be seen publically drinking alcohol--what with me bein' under the age of twenty-one and all; but I am so fed up with all this party bullshit that I really need one."
She gave me 'that' pleading look that all good-looking women learn how to use, starting when they are about ... oh ... six, when they want the nearest male to do something for them. "A Manhattan, please," she said now with a seductive smile.
What could I do? Piss off her daddy, my big boss? Piss her off by refusing? I took the short-term survival route and went over to one of the bartenders hired for the party and asked for another CC and ginger; along with a Manhattan for Alicia.
Returning to give Alicia her drink, I thought that would be the end of it. But she surprised me by linking her arm in mine and pulling me through the French doors to the patio out back. I could hear music coming from somewhere, but no one was dancing on the area that had been cleared for the purpose.
Alicia pulled me aside and asked me about myself. I gave her the short, half-a-dollar version of my life to date. As she told me about herself, I learned that she was already eighteen and would be completing high school this year and that 'Daddy' had already mapped out her future for her. She would attend Agnes Scott, earn her degree, and become part of the Thompson business empire in the same manner that her older sister, Francine, had already done.
I saw the distasteful expression grow on her face as she related this to me, along with her dislike for the way that her father was trying to dictate everything about her life to her. I could sympathize with her wanting to live her own life; but I was in no position to offer any suggestions--and I was not about to say anything negative about my boss or his ideas. After all, I was but a lowly peon in the Thompson business hierarchy, and I had only known Alicia personally for less than an hour. Also, I was still looking for an excuse to make my exit from this party.
Never underestimate the visual power of a good-looking woman, though; and never underestimate, as well, the stupidity of a man within the effective range of her aura of beauty. I just had to open my big mouth.
"I would say, 'Go for it, and take that international travel offer while it is still good," I said in answer to Alicia's request for an opinion. She had been explaining how a friend of hers was taking a break for part of the summer between high school and college to see the world. And she had offered to include Alicia in her plans to work on a project in Kenya as part of a non-governmental organization, or NGO. The two women would look after each other during the trip abroad, while gaining some life experiences and traveling a bit before having to face the so-called 'real world' expectations back home--college and maturity, courtship and marriage, work and parenthood, etc. Naturally, Alicia's parents were not in favor of this.
Calamity fell on me just as soon as I got the words out of my mouth!
"Alicia!" came an angry female voice from behind us. I turned to find Francine Thompson standing there, scowling at the two of us. "What do you think you are doing; airing our family's personal issues to a ... a ... stranger?" She looked at me with mild contempt as she scolded her younger sister.
"Stranger?" I asked, suddenly incensed. Normally, I would have kept my mouth shut about any subject whatsoever in the presence of Francine Thompson. I guess, for a moment, the little bit of alcohol I had been imbibing took control of my tongue, temporarily resulting in my emergence from self-imposed world of obscure non-confrontation. "You and I have been working in the same business offices for the past year; and I am suddenly a stranger?"
"Mr. Chandler," so she did know who I was. "I was referring to my little," she emphasized the word here, "sister's short acquaintance with you. As for your recommendation that she simply ignore Daddy's wishes and travel to the ass-end of the world; just who do you think you are to try to get her to defy the plans of her family--plans that were designed long ago--with her best interests in mind, I might add?"
Then, I made another of the many bad decisions of my life--I caved!
"I ... uh ... I guess you are right, Francine. I'm sorry that I stuck my nose in where it did not belong." I was in full kowtow mode now. Francine still glared, but not as much. Then she turned toward her younger sister with a superior look.
As I glanced at Alicia, I saw her expression go from one of surprise at the audacity of her sister to one of disappointment that bordered on contempt for me. I was now lower than worm shit in her opinion, evidently.
Then Francine just had to pour it on as she turned toward Alicia. "And don't think that I will not mention to Daddy that you are doing more underage drinking in public."
When Alicia heard Francine say that, she immediately turned on me and vented her frustration at my sudden lack of backbone, as well as my lack of support for her. "He got it for me. I would not be surprised if he was just trying to ply me with alcohol for nefarious purposes." Suddenly, she had turned from friendly soon-to-be high-school graduate seeking advice from a slightly older man to an offended society belle, lashing out with scathing commentary toward a cad who was obviously trying to seduce her.
I was goggle-eyed at this accusation, and could only turn beet-red and stammer, "I ... no, I..."
Francine got me out of my immediate predicament by saying, "Mr. Chandler, I would recommend that you make your parting respects to my parents and leave the premises as soon as possible." It was clear from her tone that this was an order rather than a suggestion.
Cowardly I may be; stupid I am not.
"I ... I will simply ... say goodbye to the hostess and see my way out," I stammered as I set my glass down on the patio table.
Both Alicia and Francine glared at me. Francine nodded. Then Alicia snorted in disgust and shook her head before looking away from me.
That was not the end of things with Alicia and me, however.