Short Story. Under New Managment by Andrew McIntyre. A reading at Folio Books San Francisco on May 5, 2014 for Odd Mondays by Ramon and Judith Sender.
Mohammed slept in the dim light of the carriage, his head slumped sideways, broken nose bent double, sunken cheeks so deep his face seemed to be carved from wood. Stained black from tobacco, his lower lip jutted out creating the aura of a hungry animal. His hair tightly curled, short, greasy. I finished the remains of the cigarette, grinding the paper into the wooden slats.
The landscape flickered verdant, countryside gradually surrendering to squat dusty one-road towns, children waving and yelling, running alongside the carriages. Eventually, the adobe suburbs of Algiers. The train halted in a siding below a rusting iron bridge. Mohammed rubbed his eyes.
Searching for a cigarette, he coughed and spat through the vent. We waited for a goods train to start across the vast distance to the desert settlements, Laghouat, Ghardaia, Ouargla, Timimoun, the wagons clanging by for several minutes. Far away, echoing music over the buildings. Algiers gleaming white, shadows still long, the breeze off the sea fresh and clean.
We jumped from the train into the church cool of the red-brick station.
Mohammed stripped off his denim jacket and several layers of shirts by a tap, proceeding to swill water over himself. “Ah, that is good,” he mumbled.
He patted himself with newspaper, grinning, his stomach corrugated with strength. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth as he dried, puffing merrily, “Eh, André, your turn.”
I splashed water across my face.
I retrieved my luggage from the locker, and we lurched into the sunlight.
Against the blue of the sky, gulls soared on the thermals above the azure bay, sparkling in the morning sun, tiny lapping waves twinkling in the light. Cars pushed slowly through the crowds, billowing exhaust. The muezzin’s call for prayers drifting on the breeze, “Allllah hu Akkkbar . . . Mohhhhmad Rassssoul . . . LLLa Illlllah Allllllah . . . hu Akkkkkba . . .” sending shivers down my spine. Mohammed stopped to listen.
“Beautiful,” I said.
“The muezzin? Yes. It makes me strong to hear.”
“The great mosque near Bab El Oued. Alllah hu akkkbarr. Allons y. Nous allons chercher l’hôtel. The hotel is in Bab El Oued. We leave the luggage, then we go into the city. We have to sell today.”
We wandered by the station precinct past the railway junction and the docks, the brown army barracks, up the hill, along the boulevard by the port.
From the center we reached Bab El Oued, walking through cobbled streets that narrowed as we neared the Casbah. Mohammed stalked ahead. We were sweating heavily.
He turned to me, pointing. “Viens. I show you something.”
A vast 19th-century red-brown cathedral, built near the great mosque so that the bells might drown the muezzin, the stained glass intact. The walls pockmarked with bullet holes from the war, the damage like acne. We entered through the west door. A familiar musty hint of incense, the sounds of a surprisingly large congregation. Midday mass was about to commence.
Seeking the altar, the hanging body of Christ, I rested with my bag as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. Slightly nauseated, I found myself admiring the building’s new role.
Through the cloisters, the organ loft, the choir stands, the old sacred regions, in the ghostly half-light, bands of women bustled, jostling noisily through stores selling men’s underwear, men’s suits, magazines, newspapers, pans, brushes, iron goods for the kitchen, women’s apparel. The sound of registers, and loudspeakers announcing bargains, echoing through the nave.
The altar a restaurant where families were gorging on chicken and chips. Above them, an advertisement claiming the best lamb in Algiers.
Mohammed waved an arm. “Isn’t it magnificent?”
“Indeed,” I agreed. “But the lighting could be improved.”
Mohammed chuckled, ruffling my hair. “Come on. I like you, you surprise me. Let’s get going.”
** “Under New Management” was first published in 3:AM Magazine in February, 2009.