The Brief Return of Ozymandias
Kevin Elias Kaye
Mehdi was twice my age, but it only showed in his dry, cracked hands, white and chalky around the knuckles where the wrinkles cut deep and wound over the surface of his thick fingers which he slowly maneuvered around his bundle of dull, black hair, uninflected with even a single gray. The leather band with which he bound his hair had a patina of antiquity and might have been worn by another man as a bracelet. This was the first time Mehdi left his nation of Berbers, his own senescent country. He wanted to see his grandson, Rafi, who had arrived in San Francisco not even eighteen months ago and then became the most exquisite employee in my restaurant group. Rafi explained to me, in sharp words forged by sorrow, how it was his own tainted blood that assured the world another tribe would go extinct when the old man chose to let himself die. That Mehdi sat next to me at an antique bar as we drank espresso didn’t even seem strange; rather, his silence was a delight as we stared at bottles of bourbon and rye while the morning light slowly climbed up the wooden blinds. The ranchero music of the cooks filled most of the silence, but occasionally Mehdi pointed at a bottle as if to politely say, “May I see that one?” The third or the fourth seemed to be to his liking and he swirled a bit into his tiny cup and drank it down in a single, airless gulp. Unaffected, he flipped through a stack of vintage French postcards, grainy pictures now faded of Grenoble, Marseilles, Lyon, that we used as check presenters, paper-clipping checks in the manner of other fashionable establishments. I bought them by the case online, on eBay, from pensions, motels, and hostels going out of business.
Rafi now managed two other restaurants I owned, but he had been my maître d’ here for almost a year. He’d been the first to arrive to an open call two weeks before we opened and through the soaped window he cut an intriguing silhouette, like that of a cut cartoon Samurai or maybe an overnourished Sphinx: a little person with an enormous quantity of hair tied in a bun atop his head, a silver serving tray tucked under his arm as secure as an artist with his portfolio.
“In Paris, if you don’t have your own tray then no one will take you serious as a server,” he explained when I asked about it. The tray had none of the cork or rubber meant to keep plates and glasses from sliding around, but he proceeded to stack a clatter of sample highball and Collins glasses I’d filled with water and ice to consider, and he rushed around the tables stopping only to avoid the imaginary guests the two of us envisioned filling the restaurant with conviviality and money.
He placed the glasses in front of me and several imaginary guests and told me about some specials we wouldn’t have for months while stacking espresso cups into a tiny porcelain pagoda before I offered him my head waiter job.
Mehdi chose not to finish raising Rafi, the boy his own son orphaned when he passed away, still a student at an iniquitous French university. “He’s not mine to raise,” Mehdi told the armed policemen who drove out to the dusty Ksar upon which the Sahara was slowly advancing and from which the Atlas Mountains refused to shade or cool. Rafi sat in the back of their car watching the confounded officers implore the stoic chieftain to reconsider his decision. Rafi, who had not yet celebrated his twelfth birthday, didn’t know he was about to stop growing or that he would always be little, and he looked through the car window smudged with vertisol. Though he was wholly unable to read his grandfather’s lips, he understood perforce that his father’s father was refusing the orphan.
One officer insisted that Rafi was now Mehdi’s responsibility, while the other drummed his fingers on the stubby rifle hanging from his shoulder in an attempt to intimidate the old man. Undaunted with the fearlessness of eternities he refused to listen or even hear their limp language of ownership and obligation and said only, “Return him to the Gendarmerie.”
Within a month of opening the new restaurant, Rafi was a minor celebrity in the Haight. He waited on all the tables with window views and greeted people at the door. He did all this with his silver tray, which caught the glow of the stylish Edison bulbs. He hustled through the crowded room with carafes of wine, plates of charcuterie and cheese, martinis and coffee without spilling a drop. Because he was a little person, women returned his flirtations interpreting them as very funny and certainly innocuous. Their dates and husbands likewise understood Rafi’s overtures as benign compliments; some appreciated the help, having grown tired of the women they arrived with; others felt the compliments confirmed a greater status on themselves. Frustrated but undeterred, Rafi scrambled through that restaurant smiling, laughing, praising and all the while trading food and drink for piles of money we all loved counting at the end of service.
That’s how we became friends, counting money and crowing about our successes. We remained friends by avoiding personal or intimate topics, the exception being sex. I would go behind the bar and make myself a Negroni, and Rafi would roll a joint with two papers, using some of the really good weed he always had. He ashed on his silver tray as we talked about the women we’d been with and talked more about the ones we hadn’t.
“Another day, another dollar,” one of us would always say to the other.
Then the other would get up and say, “I’ll lock up, don’t worry.”
Rafi explained to me that his maternal grandparents were more accepting if less forgiving. They warned their daughter not to get involved with that communist from Africa, but she ignored them, and Rafi was born before she finished her doctorate. When Rafi’s parents died, his grand-mère and grand-père blamed the Tunisian roads even though it was a French-operated tour bus, as luxurious as it was wide, that had made the swift decision to narrow the winding road and forced his parents’ two-door Peugeot off a cliff.
It took the Gendarmerie an extra day to find his grandparents’ decrepit farmhouse hidden by the unpruned apple orchard that paid their modest bills, because the roads were poorly lit and mostly unmarked, so Rafi spent that night in a cell in Flers that the night watchman had tried to make cheerful by bringing some of his son’s linens and a Walkman. He also brought him a chicken breast cooked with onions and a slice of apple pie that Rafi ate in the watchman’s dim, claustrophobic office.
“Sorry, kid,” the watchman said when the lock registered with a click. The door rubbed heavily along the floor, but both the light from the hallway and the officer’s snores infiltrated into the cell.
In the light of morning, they found his grandparents’ farmhouse with instructions from another farmer who knew the couple. It was a forty-five-minute drive and the police were back at their station before two hours had passed.
Rafi was grateful to his grand-mère and grand-père who merely nodded at the boy to let him know he was theirs now, and before he went to bed, he’d worked nearly a full day in the damp, heavy air that crept through the orchard and found its emotional watershed in the deteriorating farmhouse skirted with fields for potatoes and herbs.
He never spoke a word, Mehdi. He stayed at my large, empty apartment, and I gave him the guest room with the ensuite bathroom outfitted with handrails and the walk-in tub I had installed for my father before all the tiny strokes and the neuropathy took their merciless toll. My dad drank my best wines and left the bottles on their sides, staining rugs at a dollar a milliliter, sometimes more. One night he staggered to the fridge, blind from drink, and opened up the icebox to pee and washed his hands in the ice and water dispenser. When one of the two ladies who had just serviced the old man vomited in the elevator, I was soon after handed a petition by the super asking me to remove my father from the building. I hadn’t apologized to all my neighbors or finished all the repairs before he died in the bathroom of the dingy bar across the street from his nursing home. He’d worn the terrycloth slippers across the street, and they were yellowed from the urine that pooled in the stall all night long before he even arrived.
Rafi’s grandfather either levitated or found my mid-century furniture repellant, my modernity repulsive. When Rafi collected him in the morning, the bed was made just tidily as I had asked my cleaning lady to prepare it, and the milky cake of soap was untouched, the glass door to the shower bore no stain of steam or water. With all that long hair, I would have expected to find tangles of it in the drain or trash, but I never found a single strand anywhere. It was as if he’d never arrived and I had just been waiting for an actual guest to host, one of flesh and bone as flawed as my own and none of this perfect, seamless man who was Rafi’s grandfather.
Rafi took him around to my restaurants and the old man watched his grandson collect zippered bags of money, print menus, talk to staff and hustle all the while. Mehdi sat at the bar or at a small table and drank coffee or mint tea, soundless and remote as the snow-caps on the horizon. He just pulled at his hair from time to time, the cracked knuckles winding around his digits like boustrophedon of some inscrutable, ancient tale.
He was a goddam Sphinx.
I did not expect Rafi to tell me about life in Flers where he and his mother had each spent their adolescence alone, separated by twenty years, and crowded into the rickety farmhouse with a single bathroom, except to reminisce about how they collected apples and sold them to a local Calvados producer. Without much emotion, he made effable the antiquated form of poverty and the concomitant abuse. Rafi became the chief hand of his grandparents and never finished the final two years of lycée his parents would have wanted for him, “they thought collège was enough for an orphan, a Tunisian one at that. And both my parents had graduate degrees. I was pretty smart, you know.” The good apples were sold, but the bad ones were tossed in the cellar and mixed with potatoes and mashed with cream to get everyone through the winters.
The church wouldn’t have the bodies of Rafi’s parents, so the couple was buried in unmarked graves far away from the farmhouse on the long, sylvan property. Stumbling upon his parents’ sullen, miserable graves he took it upon himself to fashion a cross from dry fallen boughs and then a crescent from green saplings he pulled from the forest floor. When these acknowledgments were discovered he was beaten for the first time of many.
“Occupe-toi de tes oignons!” grand-père told the little teenage boy with oaken firmness, reminding Rafi that an orphan had no business remembering his lost family and even less business desecrating the farm his mother would have inherited.
Two years after he arrived, Rafi’s grand-mère died. Rafi still had not grown, but rather than take his grandson to a doctor in Alençon Rafi’s grand-père beat the boy twice as much. It wasn’t the loss of his wife that drove him mad so much as the indignity of losing, first, a daughter then the purity of a bloodline. They were proud Normans who agreed to be French, but Rafi was neither, an unalterable blight like Phytophthora. The vigorous abuse and vile recrimination depleted Rafi’s grand-père and advanced the old man’s miserable senectitude. He died just over a year later, having watched from his bed as his grandson collected the fallen apples they would have subsisted on that winter. Rafi limped around the farm for a month until he felt strong enough to move to Paris, arranging for the sale of the property and grabbing only his clothes, a silver serving tray and all the contempt he could fit into an old waxed canvas duffel bag he’d found in the barn stuffed with old tools whose wooden handles were polished by use.
He rented a room in a small apartment, near the bustling offices of La Defense area and began waiting on tables at busy cafes and restaurants where diners paid with company accounts, and until the money from the farm was secured, he worked weekend nights in Paris selling snails and wine to tourists at a bistro with colorful murals. He saved his money, buying only rolling papers, tobacco and weed and eating staff meals voraciously but fasting otherwise. He would have been in his second year at lycée when the money he saved and the money he inherited bought him a plane ticket to America, and still tired of the dreary cold of Normandy, he moved to San Francisco.
Mehdi was wide as he was quiet. He had a broad nose with an aquiline hook that menaced and a thick chest that spread into muscular shoulders. Repose was a pair of clenched fists for him, and his ready hands bore many verses in the palimpsest of scars that belied a violent youth and murderous passage from boyhood and the ancient ways into the cruel gray machinery of new worlds suddenly washed ashore. He moved deliberately, sometimes halting and his body filled doorways with impermeable shade. No one sat next to him without feeling his antediluvian gravity and the centuries of silence he contained barely pulsed.
Rafi wasn’t certain how the old man found him, or why, but through the whispering diaspora of Tunisians Mehdi had tracked down his only grandson, his legatee. He wasn’t without means either. He’d been the chieftain of his tribe, outlasting other heirs and competitors to the properties and patronage they managed to hold onto all those many lean years, so he arrived from the airport in a black Lincoln and handed my doorman his bag with the air of regnal superiority men of his ilk steadily accumulate all of their lives.
“If you deliver the bread before they order drinks, they won’t order desert,” Rafi told me the first time we talked intimately.
“Where do you get these, these expressions?” I asked. Rafi was without peer as a worker, and he charmed the customers who flitted in and out my restaurants, but he was more comfortable with pleasantries, platitudes or the quirky expressions of others than revealing or admitting anything personal.
“When you’re a little person, everyone who talks to you is a little unsure of how to behave, so everyone talks to you in one of two ways: Either they speak to you as if you’re just a piece of shit, or,” he paused and smiled as though delighted, “or they speak to you as if you were some type of holy person. As a result, you get a lot of people’s best bullshit polished and presented as if it were genius.”
Because Mehdi didn’t speak, he never told me what tribe he was the last member of, and because Rafi’s father had indeed been a communist and a true believer in a classless society and borderless rule, Mehdi’s grandson didn’t know what tribe had further bastardized him after being orphaned. He was a Berber, I knew that from Rafi but nothing else and alone in my apartment I tried to find out more, staring at my computer and eventually wondering about my own father who left County Cork for America and about whom I knew a great deal. He’d given me wonderful songs and terrible beatings for most of my swift childhood, and a fear of a second drink and diabetes as a grown man. When I’d had my first success, my first taste of money I took him back to Ireland. I wanted to show him the best of his homeland, but that wasn’t to his liking. He preferred to get drunk all day in dingy, local bars before returning to our hotel with other tramps and alcoholics. In that manner, we were removed from Ireland’s grandest hotels and coziest pubs and forced to stay on the couches of distant relatives. He had asked me to tell my aunts and uncles he was in law enforcement, but to conceal from them as to what side of the law he was on.
It wasn’t without ceremony that Mehdi would end the line of his tribe. It was clear that Rafi expected some type of beatification for his grandfather, immediate if secret canonization.
“They have a word for this in his language,” Rafi told me, “but I don’t know what it is so don’t ask. The other leaders of the other tribes will come to the funeral.” He dragged on his thick joint and the sweet smell of hydroponic dope and tobacco lingered in bluish clouds around and between us, as if to offer succor. “I suppose they’ll be in traditional dress. I don’t know who else will be there. Sometimes, someone from France comes, a minister or someone like that.”
The loneliness of being last was all we had left to talk about. Rafi slumped back in his chair, his little legs pooling onto the floor and I saw that bit of hook in the nose that he must have inherited from his grandfather. I had my father’s fair skin, but other things I should have had he’d torn out of me or I had replaced them with business and restlessness and a sagging loneliness that filled the dining room when all the guests left to go home.
“You should have your grandfather eat here tomorrow night. On me. Anything he wants. Let him see you shine.”
“Are you kidding me? I don’t even know if he has eaten in a restaurant before.”
“Of course he has. You don’t fly to San Francisco from Tunisia and jump in a black Lincoln if you’ve never eaten out.”
“How the fuck would he order, he doesn’t even talk.”
“Just send him out some food.”
“Okay, I’ll see.” Rafi released a wet sigh that became a deep laugh before he started coughing as if he’d never smoked dope as strong as this before.
Mehdi showed up at the restaurant around 7:00 p.m. His grandson looked up at him then ushered him to a single seat at the narrow end of the bar where he wouldn’t be bothered by more than one neighbor. I was lingering at the restaurant, making certain the dinner service went smooth and talking to the chef at the pass while glancing at dishes that were arranged on big cork-coated trays the runners used. I poked my head into the dining room and saw Mehdi who registered my intrusion on his privacy with a nearly imperceptible nod. I wandered behind the bar and watched the bartender stiffen then grabbed the bottle Mehdi enjoyed before and poured him a drink, which he swallowed without pause. I returned to the kitchen and asked the chef to keep sending out food to Rafi’s grandfather.
“Everything,” I told him, “soup to nuts.”
“Soup to nuts,” my chef repeated before telling his cooks the plan.
Mehdi was no stranger to the delicacies we sent, slurping oysters, a half dozen from each coast and savored their liquor before digging the shell back in the ice. He ate steak tartare piled high on toast points. He never reached for the salt or pepper, never asked for a single thing and the bartender made him one drink after another: an Americano with creamy bacalao, a Paper Plane with heirloom roasted beets and fromage blanc. The first of two main courses the chef sent out was a supreme of chicken with a glistening raspberry gastrique, the crispy skin the same luxurious hue as his Bicyclette. When the second main arrived, he dipped his bone-in ribeye in green pepper sauce and his fries in Béarnaise with the enthusiasm of a hungry student in the Latin Quarter and ordered a second Boulevardier halfway through. He paused when his plate was cleared then pointed to a Sauternes of his choice to have with cheese, not wanting to acquiesce entirely. Then he ordered another.
Mehdi never said a word, Rafi seated at least two people next to him and he outlasted them all, eating with unabated appetite, not rapacious, not voracious. He showed no sign of pleasure, no indication of pride or constraint. He never regarded his grandson. There was no judgment in his bearing, just total equanimity and ancient self-possession. Mehdi never got up to use the bathroom and he never put his elbows on the marble bar. He had two desserts, each with an espresso—the first with an aquavit and the second with a cognac. He then pointed to a bottle of syrupy anisette and gestured for a dram of that. He coughed into his thick, heavy fist after finishing and then spread the back of his hand before his face, staring at his coarse knuckles.
He sat another hour as the restaurant closed. When the other guests had left, he gestured to my bartender for the check. The bartender was polishing a glass and put it down then walked over to me and Rafi and asked what he should do.
I walked over to Mehdi, “It’s on the house.”
Rafi echoed me, in French.
Mehdi nodded. He sat for a moment, all of us wondering if he might start to talk. After a minute, we looked more carefully to see if he was listing unsteady, but he broke our trepidation by reaching for his glass of water and taking a sip.
Rafi retreated to a small table and began counting the money. He sorted the bills first, then the credit card receipts. Satisfied he had it all, he decided to take a break and rolled a joint on his silver tray. Just then Mehdi walked over to his grandson and gestured for his grandson to roll him a cigarette and then gestured again for him to light it which Rafi did, and the Sphinx walked out of my restaurant to smoke.
“Can you believe that?” Rafi said.
“That was a whole fucking lot of food,” I told him.
The bartender walked over to Mehdi’s seat to fold the old man’s napkin, set his spot.
“Rafi,” he said loudly, “what the hell is this?”
We both walked over, Rafi and I, and found an old postcard of a Ksar which one could see the green ascent of the eastern Atlas Mountains behind it, paperclipped to which was a stack of Tunisian Dinar and Euro notes, thousands of dollars of bright colorful bills. On the back of the postcard were a list of handwritten addresses, all in the region Rafi’s father had been raised.
“What’s it say? Rafi. What’s it say?”
“Tout a toi. All yours.”
We looked online at exchange rates and Google images of the addresses, but nothing really made sense. Not the numbers, not the single pitch-roofed homes, the untilled farms, little shops in little villages, a cafe, a bakery.
None of us thought to catch Mehdi. Eventually, we thought to look for Mehdi. When we finally realized he had all the answers, that he had the only answers, we unlocked the door and looked outside, but he was already gone. He had walked into a sea of black cars, their red and white lights weaving new worlds out of old ones, over and over.