THE LONGEST DAYS


Our mosque leans to the left. That’s because it was a church before the Tidesville Islamic community put enough money together to buy it. Apparently, the slope from the entrance to the altar was slight and didn’t bother the parishioners as they walked up the aisle and sat in a pew. But for us Muslims, standing in prayer and facing east on Friday, or for a couple of hours on those late Ramadan nights, that tilt is a nuisance. The mind plays tricks on you if you stand on a sloping surface too long. I started to imagine the guy to my right was leaning into me on purpose. The guy who usually stood beside me was the biggest guy in the mosque. His name is Ricky Lettesdaw. We were the only two Nordic men there. I didn’t invite him to stand next to me, but because I got there early, I always chose my spot near the front corner, and he usually gravitated toward me. The muscles of my left leg are building, especially during those long nights of prayer where I hold down the end of the line, and support my weight with the left side, along with the leaning Ricky Lettesdaw—a naturally big boy, and the newest member of the mosque—on my right.

The first time I met Ricky Lettesdaw outside of the mosque was at the grocery store. I almost bumped right into his belly. I was there late in the afternoon picking up a frozen chocolate pie and a box of mixed salad for my wife, when I abruptly turned to aim toward the checkout line, and nearly slammed into Ricky. Not that Ricky would have been affected. Had I hit him, I’d probably have bounced backward and landed on the tiles.

                I apologized before I even recognized Ricky. He wore a baggy blue and yellow striped t-shirt and blue shorts that hung below his knees. We shook hands and wished peace upon the other, as is the manner for two Muslims. We were both converts, and I gave the Islamic greeting of peace too ardently. I’d caught myself doing that before—probably making up for the many years I’d lost saying the standard ‘hellos’ and ‘what’s ups’. I should’ve sensed he was struggling, but as usual, I was stuck in my own thoughts.

                Ricky Lettesdaw’s shopping cart was, I’ll say without exaggeration, heaping full. The metal cage held a bursting mass of foodstuffs—mostly processed, in boxes, cans, or plastic containers. A dozen eggs nested beneath two tubs of ice cream and a stack of frozen dinners. I felt lithe with my nearly empty hand basket, like a bowling pin standing next to a bowling ball. Beads of sweat popped out on Ricky’s forehead.

                It was the month of Ramadan. The month of peace and blessings. A time in which we Muslims worked toward gaining piety and closeness with God. It was my fourth Ramadan, but it was Ricky’s first. He was experiencing many Islamic firsts in his life since I’d come to know him. I didn’t know him well, only from the mosque, and once, in the mosque’s social area, we shared a pot of coffee and a chat about his conversion into the strange new religion. He spoke briefly about his mother before he became shy and clammed up. She’d resisted every bit of his conversion, and their relationship had been devastated.

In the grocery store, standing next to the fresh produce shelves, with the intermittent sprinklers misting water over the vegetables beside us, I wondered about how he and his mother were doing. If they’d patched things up at all. I wanted to ask, but I remembered that day we sat at the plastic kitchen table, and the way his voice wobbled when he mentioned her. I didn’t want to spring any bursts of emotion in public. I also wondered if his lifestyle had taken a plunge after what happened with her. His appearance was always a bit ruffled. Oily locks of hair pushed right or left across his head. Clothes that looked trampled upon. The disturbing odor of sweat drifting off his body. He was messier than what I’d expected of the average college male bachelor. I figured he’d straighten up with time. There was nothing like waking up at the crack of dawn for the morning prayer, and keeping up with the five dailies to keep a person’s day and evening properly organized and safe from life’s bad habits. Although he had told me he frequently slept through the morning prayer, even though he set three alarms to wake him. That day in the grocery store, it hit me that I’d missed an obvious connection between Ricky’s turmoil in his relationship with his mother, and his outward appearance. He was depressed.

                For Ricky, Ramadan had fallen at the most challenging time of year. Late May, with days dusky long and stretching out every evening. The Islamic calendar is dictated by the moon, so each year Ramadan moves its way up the calendar by about ten days. That first Ramadan with Ricky had us doing over eighteen hours of dry fasting—no food or water from just before four in the morning, to after nine at night. It was doable, but it was difficult. When Ramadan fell to the shorter days in the winter months, fasting would be easy, even for Ricky and myself.

                As we stood beside Ricky’s jalopy of a cart, I noticed an accumulation of drying white spittle at the corners of his lips. He seemed to be in the mode of constant salivation while at the store—every gleaming box and bag of chips, cookies, and other snacks became a rare delicacy at that late afternoon hour, when outside the sun was hottest, and the fast had carried on for such a long time at that point, about fourteen hours, and wasn’t going to cease for another four. It was a little difficult for me, too, and I didn’t have the weight problem Ricky did. When he spoke, his lips clung to each other as if his body were trying to keep the moisture sealed in. He said, “How are you faring these long days?”

                I lifted my basket with the pie, smiled, and said, “Just looking forward to dessert.”

                “I think I’ve got some of that somewhere in here.” He patted the cart’s red handle.

                We excused ourselves shortly after our run-in, and I watched Ricky push his weary cart toward the checkout lanes. Ricky’s slight inward step and the cart’s wobbly right front wheel made me feel for him. Like either one of them could suddenly topple. I made a quick prayer on his behalf. Make it easy for him. Bring him piety and strength out of the hardship of this month.

                At home, my wife was sitting on the bed watching a documentary on her tablet. I unpacked my two items and thought of Ricky, probably stocking his fridge at the same time. My wife and I were both university instructors, so while Ramadan was in the summer, we were blessed not to have a demanding work schedule. A meeting here and there, and both of us had an online class, but that took no more than an hour or two a day. We were blessed to fully enjoy that special month, and after the sun went down, and we finished up our prayers at the mosque, we’d go home around midnight, make coffee, eat snacks, and work on writing grants and research projects. I knew after we had kids, that freedom would decrease, so I tried to enjoy the early years of marriage and work the most. I imagined Ricky kept a similar schedule as he was a university student, and would have finished up classes in early May, at the same time we did.

                What did I know of Ricky? Not too much. In those days, I kept myself separate from the students at the mosque. The students always wanted my phone number. Maybe they thought I could help them somehow, either as an English tutor, or in an administrative capacity. They thought I had pull at the university. But in reality, I was an ordinary instructor hoping that if I could publish a little research in the field, I would climb a step up the ladder. I held no special place in the university. So I kept them at arm’s length, as best I could. Including Ricky, the only other convert in our mosque.

                We had a small Islamic community in our town. It was fully fueled by the university. Without that, there would have been virtually no diversity in the area. It was the upper Midwest, after all, and nobody lived there expecting, or really wanting, diversity. The only talk of variety was saved for crops and soil. Ricky and I were the only German-Norwegian fellows at the Islamic center. For that reason alone I had befriended him, a little, because I knew the internal battle of being a convert to a religion that wasn’t fully welcome in or understood by the community.

When I say I befriended Ricky Lettesdaw, I mean I kept him at a distance. I didn’t feel I was much help that day we had coffee in the basement. We sat at one of the long plastic tables, on the hard metal chairs. All along the basement walls were propped church pews that had never been dragged away after they were ripped out by their studs from the nave upstairs. The church had been converted into mosque the year before my wife and I moved to Tidesville, so I only saw the finishing touches, like the last coats of paint and applying of baseboards. The pews had always been in the basement, tilted like open coffins waiting for a time when they’d be called back into service. The imam once or twice a year would call for us to get together and haul them out, to dump the clutter, but nobody ever did. We were all busy as professors and students.

In the cool of the basement, Ricky opened up about his mother, and how she’d had a fit when he told her he wouldn’t be going to church with her any more. That happened just before Ricky started in the university. He’d been working at a seed company, testing hybrid kernels, and living with his mother as he applied to universities around the area. After his father died, Ricky decided to put off college and work a few years after high school and take care of his mother. They’d gotten very close. He’d come to Islam after reading about death and seeking religious knowledge online, and after over a year of searching for information on the different world’s religions, he’d found peace in that one. He explained the ambivalent emotions—the joy of finding his way, and the pit in his stomach every time he thought of how he’d tell his mother. “I couldn’t deny my interest in it, and I couldn’t deny its message,” Ricky said. A few months later he took the plunge by testifying his faith with an imam online. When he told his mother, she didn’t understand at first. “It took her multiple times to digest the words. When she finally got it, she took my clothes and threw them outside and told me to move out.” Ricky tried to calm her down, but she wouldn’t, so he moved in with a friend until he was accepted at the university. He’d talked to his mother on the phone a few times since that initial incident, but she refused to speak of the religion. She complained that she was rotting away in the house by herself. A forsaken old woman with a husband rolling in his grave. She claimed she’d seen him twice, standing in their bedroom doorway. “She meant he was rolling because of what I’d done,” he said, recounting her words. “And I can’t tell if she’s serious about seeing him.” Soon after that, Ricky’s eyes dampened, and we both looked away. We switched subjects and soon after I left.

I knew Ricky was having a terrible struggle. Most converts have a similar story of trial soon after their conversion. I couldn’t really think of much to say that afternoon, to help him without getting tangled up in meaningless comfort words. After that, we kept our exchanges at the mosque to basics, almost as if we’d done something to be ashamed of.

                If he’d told anybody else about his mother, I didn’t know about it. It sure seemed like nobody else knew, and Ricky always kept a pleasant face at the mosque. The Muslims welcomed him every Friday at Jummah prayer just like he was one of them. Which he was, in faith, but there is always a gap between converts and native Muslims. I felt it was difficult for Ricky to get in very far to make friends. Nobody there kept him out on purpose, but Ricky could have been more forceful to integrate. They were mostly students, so they were very busy and had already formed their rings of friends. I’m sure many of them liked video games and movies as much as Ricky did, and would have been happy to connect on that point. I noticed they liked to tease each other a bit. One very thin Ethiopian student would always slap Ricky a sharp high five, and then make a joke about having just a quarter of Ricky’s weight to get him through Ramadan. Ricky seemed to like those jokes, and he would extend a smile or playful comment back. One of the stricter graduate students in the mosque told Ricky that Ramadan would shape him up quicker than boot camp. He patted his own belly and pointed to Ricky’s. “Ramadan gave me the discipline to keep it off for the other eleven months as well.” I never knew how Ricky took comments like that. He would always smile a little, and then look off as if deciding on something.

                With my wife watching a show in the bedroom, I sat on a chair in the office and tried to read. I liked to use the blessed month to work on personal development. “I met that other convert, Ricky, at the grocery store,” I called to her.

                “How’s he doing?” she asked. There was music and polite laughter from whatever show she watched.

                “Seemed pretty worn down,” I said. “You know, he’s on the heavier side.”

                “Poor guy.”

                “I think he’s worried about his mother,” I said.

                She didn’t answer.

                “Seemed like he’s having a tough time of things.”

                The bed squeaked from the other room. “You didn’t invite him for iftar?”

                I tried to choose my words carefully. “He was buying a lot of food. It looked like he planned to make his own meal.”

                “It’s not about the food, Brady, it’s about being with other people.”

                “I didn’t feel he wanted to be invited,” I said.

                “That’s OK, you’ll get more sensitive to other people with time.”

I read for a while. Every time I got a few sentences down the page, my mind drifted to Ricky pushing that cart. As I hauled my light purchase out to the car, Ricky had driven past me. His car looked to be about twenty years old. He’d stopped for a family on the crosswalk in front of the store. His window was rolled down, and I could see his forehead shiny with sweat. He wiped it with the back of his hand, and then, with a tinny sound from the engine, he’d taken off. I wondered if he was doing all right. We were seven days into the fasting already, and there was about twenty-three more to go. I knew he lived alone. Maybe he wasn’t drinking enough water after the fast broke. Maybe he needed someone to teach him about nutrition. Was he getting enough fruits and vegetables?

                I told my wife I was going to visit him and I planned to be back before it was time to eat. I knew she would have a pleasant dinner ready by sunset. Maybe I’d even bring Ricky.

                The arteries of our small town were backed up in little clots of cars at the major intersections. Not that there were many cars, but there was always the rush at five. I couldn’t quite remember where Ricky Lettesdaw lived, although he’d told me the building name when we’d had coffee together. I drove west of the campus and found Garden Creek Square—it sounded familiar.

                The outside door was locked. The sun was still high up in the sky and burning bright. My throat was dry. That is always the miracle of Ramadan. I never get hungry during those long days, but I do get a little thirsty, however, the need is nothing compared to any other time of the year when I want a drink of water. Every desire while fasting Ramadan is eased, although judging from Ricky’s wet lips and red eyelids, he might not have agreed.

                I yanked on the door. The lock was loose, but it held. After a few minutes a young lady scampered down the stairs with a mesh sack half filled with clothes. I sneaked in right as she exited. “Do you live here?” she asked, but I was already up the stairs. The small town caution always heartened me. I’d lived in a couple of major US cities, in apartment complexes in rundown neighborhoods, and nobody ever questioned anybody who slipped in past the locked door, and it was then that I most wished people would have. I went back down to check the register, and found Lettesdaw, 305.

                The third floor smelled like roasting chicken. My wife and I are vegetarians, so the smell of cooking meat holds no sway over us, but I wondered about the sweating Ricky Lettesdaw, carrying up the bundles of groceries to his apartment, and fighting through heavy whiffs of what must have been the delightful smell of a chicken dinner. His apartment was at the end of the hall.

                I knocked. Lightly. When nobody answered within, and I didn’t hear any footsteps or movements, I knocked again, louder, harder. Still nothing. A shower started somewhere. The water pipes in the wall shook. Ah Ricky, I thought, dousing yourself with water. That’ll only make it worse if you can’t swallow any. There is nothing wrong with showering while fasting, however, to do so just to relieve the thirst never seemed right to me. The point, after all, is disciplining the body and the lower desires, and not to try to soak up some liquid through the pores of the skin.

I knew I shouldn’t meddle, but something told me Ricky wasn’t all right. My wife would never forgive me if I turned my back on a new Muslim on Ramadan without investigating. I found the apartment manager’s door on the second floor. His wooden door was open. In its place was a metal mesh screen door. I peered into his living room as I knocked. Magazines were piled on a footstool. A small table in the kitchen was stacked with mail and ads. I knocked again—the metal clanged like a snare drum. A thin man in a worn white tank top stepped out of the kitchen.

                “What? What?” he asked. His hair was thinning. His pale skin was yellow in the low light. He’d not seen much of the summer. “It’s after hours.” He came right up to the screen door. Our noses were almost touching. “Who are you? Do you live here?”

                “It’s about one of your tenants.” A funny smell drifted past the tight metal screen. The smell of something cooked long ago.

                “Backed into your car? I’m not responsible for street parking. I’m not,” he said, and raised his arms. He rubbed his rounded little belly, which hung low on his abdomen. “It’s not my problem. The lot was zoned by the city. I can’t help that.”

                “It’s not that,” I said. I had half a mind to leave it alone and run down the hall, out the door, and hopefully never see that man again.

                The manager put his hands on his hips. He was petite with his slim frame. “Well, that’s just great. Then how can I help you? I guess I’m on duty twenty-four-seven the way it is.” He sighed. “Did the cat puke in the hallway? Did somebody steal your drugs?”

                I reminded myself to stay patient. I forced a pleasing smile. “It’s the man in 305, Ricky Lettesdaw.”

                “Lettuce Head?” the manager asked. “What’s the problem with Lettuce Head?”

                “No problem. Not exactly. I’m just a little worried about him.” My face flushed. I didn’t know how to explain the danger I felt Ricky might be in.

                “Are you his friend, or are you the saint of Garden Creek?”

                “I’ve been knocking on his door and he isn’t answering.”

                The manager’s face fell. His features softened. When he spoke again, his voice took on a higher tone. “Well whoop dee-doo,” he said.

                “I’m a little worried about him. His mental state. That’s all.”

                “He seems like a solid enough kid to me. Pays his rent on time. I like that, at least.” The manager rubbed his hands over his dull brown hair and then put his hand flat against the screen. It popped out toward me. The flesh of his hands pushed through the little metal ovals soft as pizza dough.

                “Listen,” I said, “he and I are Muslims, and we’re fasting Ramadan. It’s very long days without food and water, and I have reason to believe he might be in trouble, or have passed out in his apartment. There’s no reason he wouldn’t answer when I knock, unless there’s something wrong.”

                The manager stepped away from the door. He eyed me through the screen. “You don’t look Muzalim,” he said.

                “Can you help me check on my friend?” I asked.

                “For one they’re not blonde like you. For another, every one I’ve ever seen’s been brown. And Lettuce Head? He’s a Muzalim? He doesn’t look Muzalim either!”

                “You learn something every day,” I told him, but then regretted it because it came out cynical. “I think Ricky’s sick and I’m worried he passed out. Is it possible to open his door and call inside to make sure he’s all right?”

                “That’s highly against the rules,” he muttered. “What’s in it for me?”

                I didn’t want to waste more time. I pulled out my wallet and showed him a twenty. He gave no reaction until I showed two twenties. He turned his back on me and disappeared for a minute. I thought he’d decided to ignore me until I heard the jingle of keys. He stepped back to the screen.

                “Step away,” he said, “or you’ll get bonked on the nose. Which you deserve for putting me through this.”

                Once he stood beside me in the hallway, he put out a hand. I placed one twenty on his palm. He pointed to the other one. “Not until we see if Ricky’s OK,” I told him.

                He nodded. “I love a fair deal.”

                We moseyed up the stairs to 305, me two steps behind the manager’s thin white legs, which didn’t have more than a couple of hairs on them. He knocked on the door with 305 screwed into the front. “If he answers the knock, you still owe me the other one,” he said.

                I agreed.

                He knocked louder and harder until the door shook against the frame. “I assume you’re sure he’s home.”

                “I know he’s home.”

                “There’s no domestic quarrel between you two that he’s not answering for some reason?”

                I frowned and said of course not.

                “If you don’t open up, Ricky, I’m going to unlock the door. We’ve got reason to believe you might be unwell,” he shouted. He turned to me and whispered, “That’s more for the neighbors’ sake, so if I get in trouble, they’ll testify that I warned him clearly.” He slid the key in the lock and pushed open the door just enough to stick his face in. “Heya, Ricky! Hey, Ricky!” He stepped back. “He’s not home. That’s what it is.”

                “I’m going in,” I said.

                “I can’t let you do that.” He reached for the twenty. I crunched it in my fist and shoved past him into the apartment. The kitchen was a disaster. It looked like Ricky Lettesdaw bought new pots and pans to cook in rather than washing the used ones. I’d never seen so many cooking implements and containers, and especially not in such used and unwashed condition.

On each end of the kitchen was a doorway without a door. The manager followed me in. “If I get in trouble, boy, I’m blaming this all on you. You threatened me.”

In the other room, a long couch the color of oatmeal ran the length of the wall. A big screen played a movie, but there was no sound.  I glanced past the TV into a darkened hallway.  If I found him sleeping, I didn’t know what I would do. Check his pulse? Monitor his heart?

Two easy chairs faced the couch. Between the chairs was an overstuffed, enormous green beanbag, and that’s where I saw Ricky’s body, sprawled out on the giant beanbag with his shirt off. His chubby legs angled off the bag like fallen pillars. He still wore his shoes. His chest rose and fall, peaceful in the rhythms of exhausted sleep. I knew that deep sleep well.

We looked down at him. Neither of us said anything, probably hoping he wouldn’t know what we’d done, of our blunder to check on him. But we also stared, trying to figure out if he was OK. It looked like Lettesdaw had cracked open a home day spa kit complete with a full body skin cream rub and facial mask. Pure white cream had been rubbed over his arms and chest. A few flowery puffs were spread thick over his neck and up over his jawline.

I took a step back. No man should see another man in such a compromised position. Skin rubs and facial creams don’t necessarily have to be for women, I thought, but I was certain a coarse guy like Ricky wouldn’t want his indulgence getting out. We all had ways of cradling ourselves during tough times. As I backed away, I saw a canister of whipped cream beside the beanbag. A frothy dribble hung from its white tip.

Out in the hallway the manager closed the door so softly the latch didn’t even make a sound. He locked it and moved down the hallway.

I followed behind his bony white shoulders. “In Ramadan,” I said, “the trick is to stay active, because prolonged fasting can work in your favor, or can drag you down, depending on your level of activity.”

He didn’t say anything. We went down the stairs.

“Fasting brings clarity and efficiency to the body, but if a person is inclined to sleep extra hours, the sluggishness takes over. A guy can get into a really deep sleep,” I told him.

We got to his apartment and he put out his hand. I gave him the other bill. “Thankfully nothing was wrong,” I said.

“I don’t get why you people starve yourselves,” he said. “It’s so Old Testament.”

“It really makes you thankful for the food and water.”

“I’m thankful for my food,” he said. “Without starving myself.”

“It increases piety. Brings about the right conditions for getting closer to God,” I said.

The manager glanced up at the hallway ceiling, and then his eyes shifted in the direction of Ricky’s apartment. “It looks like it’s really helping.”

“We’re humans,” I told him. “We make mistakes. It’s his first time fasting.”

The manager unlocked his screen door, stepped inside, and slammed it shut.

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said.

“Go away,” he told me.

Outside, the sun was lower in the sky, but there would be still another hour or more left before we could break the fast. I thought about calling Ricky when I got home. He probably wouldn’t hear his phone ring. I could leave a message inviting him for dinner. I’d tell him there’d be dessert.