A draft excerpt from Christmas in Mecca.
The leafless trees stood speechless, a disorganized gang of rigid mutes, brittle black sketches scribbled against the gray canvas of the late November sky. “If I hear more bad news at the next parent-teacher conference, you’re a dead duck,” she said from the driver’s seat, her aggressively intent gape stabbing into the traffic and pedestrians ahead. Hawkins sat in the back, watched the trees nested in the yielding expanse of gray heaven. He unconsciously felt each of his slow, rhythmic breaths, moist air gently flushing in and out of his lungs.
“Harry, I’m talking to you,” she shouted, spinning the steering abruptly, thrusting the car’s rust and sputters into the narrow side street that led to Hawkins’s elementary school. “Don’t you dare not pay attention, young man,” she warned, squinted eyes, slowly approaching a crosswalk. She stopped the car, watched the blue-coated guard, whistle in mouth, gesturing oncoming traffic to a halt while giving the scattered column of small, bundled children hand signals to cross. She glared at the river of cheerful kids, their bright coats and happy backpacks lolling about, forming a trickling tributary of brilliant color moving in a high-pitched, happy swirl into the washing grey stream of the day. “Look at them,” she said, disgusted. “They don’t even know enough to be angry.”
Hawkins, still and detached in the back seat, stared out the side window, watched a lone, brittle brown leaf clinging softly to the twigged tip of a forgotten branch growing sideways out of a gnarled, sprawling wooden mammoth. The leaf shivered, rested, hopped and turned, rested. So many forces had acted on it through its season, Hawkins thought: the nurturing gentle rays of spring sunlight that conspired with April rains to give it a life of supple lime; the blazing, heavy jostle of the summer sun that toughened its cloak to a deep, thick emerald; the cooling autumn breezes that lulled away its moisture and color, prompting impending slumber. So much happened to that leaf, he thought, in a cycle of existence that was at once both predictable and unique.
“Harry, damn it!” the air thundered inside the closed cell walls of the messy car.
Hawkins broke his gaze from the trees, the leaf. He stared from the backseat at the rear of his mother’s head. A bun of wiry braids turned in on themselves, jagged grays poking out of the dirt of flat brown. Her neck was full, sitting atop rounded, pudgy shoulders. “You are worthless,” she said, both fists clenched before her, shivering white parentheses that angrily flanked either side of the cold, black steering wheel. Hawkins continued to stare, a tired stoic whose eyes blinked from time to time. Outside, the traffic guard continued her duties; the happy river of chanting, bouncing children flowed unabated. “Harry,” she said, oblivious to the sun and the joy outside, shook her head slowly from side to side, a tone of wounded exasperation. “Harry,” she said again, this time nudging her head forward and down in a sharp dip, a gesture of exclamation to accompany her second frustrated utterance of her son’s name. She pursed her mouth, her perennial precursor to emotional vengeance. Her chapped, dry lips parted, then words began to drop from her mouth, a runaway train of heavy, black cannonballs. “Harry, when you were born there was an ugly, turbaned couple in the hospital bed next to mine. They were having a child as well. You know what I think happened?” she asked the air, watching but not seeing the little children crossing happily before the frozen car. “I think our babies got crossed up. Yep. That’s right. I think my child went to them and I got theirs.” A look of disgust grasped her face, bulged her eyes and left her lower jaw askew. “Because there’s no way you belong to me,” she said, hissed, acid words.
Hawkins stared at the back of her head, stringed brown knots held together by wires of gray above her fat neck and heavy shoulders. He dropped his sight and fixed a gaze on his small hands, his left thumb crossed over the right, fingers interlocked, hands holding on to each other in a tender intensity. He turned to watch the world outside, the gray, the wind, the cool and the light. A fluttering, weightless struggle caught his eye. That leaf, that same brittle, dry leaf now shivered and quaked and clung for all its worth.