Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 15, Number 2
Copyright © 2020
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Adam Luebke
Um Jafar knew she was bleeding herself out like an old goat for
her American son-in-law, but she didn’t know any other way to soften
his heart. Generosity was almost a fault with her. Like yesterday, when
Hoda was out getting her hair fixed, Um Jafar had taken Mark shopping
for new outfits. He resisted at first, saying he had enough clothes, but
with just the slightest prodding he was in the shop, trying on jeans. Dark
ones, light ones, ripped ones. Styles from Turkey. He didn’t have any
like that, he admitted, so Um Jafar bought him three pairs and they
stepped out onto the busy street. When he smelled the roasting nuts,
she bought him a bag. Again, he mildly resisted, but he didn’t stop her.
She pointed to the boxes of persimmons and apples and a truck loaded
to its top with bananas hanging from railings.
“You want?” she asked again. “I will make you happy.”
“I’m so happy already,” he said, his smile crooked and his nose
sharp as a beak. His pale skin was already puckered and pinked with
the winter sun. Imagine him there in the summer! she thought.
Next, his dirty running shoes needed replacements. She could
hardly endure walking next to him wearing those grody things. In the
store, the rows of sale shoes didn’t fill his eyes, but rather the high-priced
boots the businessmen wore.
“Anything you like,” Um Jafar said. “I will make you happy.”
As he tested the sizes with the salesman, lacing and unlacing, she
thought of the dream she’d had before Hoda and Mark had flown in. In
the dream, Mark stood in the doorway of a dark room, his heart flaming
hot beneath his shirt and beating blame into her heart. Blame for the
money she took from Hoda to help pay for Abeer’s surgery to correct
an enlarged heart valve. Um Jafar had rallied her children to pitch
together as many dollars and dinars as they could to defray the costs. It
was cheaper than surgery in the U.S., but still too much for her to bear
after all the investments she’d made. In the dream, standing before that
unfamiliar room, her vision kept zooming toward Mark’s face until she
saw only his teeth, all the while she could hear his angry, thumping heart.
He’d never said anything about the money that she’d heard of, but she
knew when her dreams were real and when they were just dreams.
Today, they were at home and Um Sarah stopped by. She rarely
visited, not even when Abeer was in the hospital. “I heard you’ve got
family staying with you,” Um Sarah said. “All the way from America?”
The mole above her lip stood out against the white powder she’d patted
onto her cheeks. She touched her lips together twice and then took a
seat in the new porch, admiring the wood paneling the workers had just
installed the day before.
Um Jafar, after pulling on a black abaya over her pajamas, hollered
into the house that they had company. She glanced at Um Sarah’s outfit,
her plump little body bundled up tight in colorful fabrics so that every
round inch could be traced. That woman didn’t know her own age.
In the half-finished porch, Abeer appeared with a tray of coffee and
manakish, still steaming from the oven. It was to be their breakfast, but
now it would be mainly for Um Sarah.
Mark worked in the bedroom with the propane heater, editing a
video he’d shot of Jordan. He hoped to be successful, Hoda said, by
producing videos online. Um Jafar hoped he would be, but with his heart
squeezed against giving, she didn’t think it likely God would open those
doors for him yet.
Um Jafar went inside and knocked on her bedroom door. She
heard the bedframe squeak.
“You must come for fresh zaatar,” she said. The paint on the door
still held a light smell.
“No, thank you,” Mark called.
“You must eat. You are so skinny. You will be happy if you eat.”
The door opened. “I’m full,” he said. His face was flushed, and a
wave of heat pushed past him. He touched his stomach. “I ate cereal
“Why you are so skinny, then?” she asked. “Come. It’s hot.”
He smiled and closed the door. Um Jafar wrapped a coat around
her shoulders and went back to the porch, where the sliding windows
were opened, and Um Sarah sat in the narrow band of sun like a lizard
thawing out from the night. A scrap of bread dangled from her plastic
“So, I won’t meet the American?” she asked. Her pink scarf was
tied beneath her jaw, forcing out a squirt of flesh, which was a shade
darker than her powdered cheeks and chin.
“He’s full,” Um Jafar said, flipping out her hands. “Whatever he
When the workers knocked, both the women’s hands were slippery
with oil and littered with sesame seeds. Um Jafar struggled to rise off the
couch and open the door with her pinky. “These old elephant legs,” she
said with a grunt, and Um Sarah tittered.
She let in Ahmed and his son, and everyone exchanged peace and
blessings. The son dumped a stone cutter saw wrapped in a stained cloth
and a pouch loaded with hand tools to the granite floor. They were there
to seal the cracks and replace one pane of glass that had been fractured
where her grandson pounded his fists against it in a fury. The grandkids
were with auntie Hoda that morning, so there was finally peace in the
house. The workers would also need payment, so she negotiated with
Ahmed as he wrapped a wire around his arm.
When she sat back down, Um Sarah’s eyebrows were hoisted
nearly into her hairline. “You financed this little job?” she asked. When
Um Jafar only sighed, she continued. “Don’t you collect enough rent to
pay for such a small job? You know they take extra to finance it, don’t
“God will put more,” she said, “but I just don’t know when.”
Of course, being married to Abu Sarah would’ve helped a great
deal, since he owned businesses all over Jabal and Tabarbour—Um
Sarah didn’t understand what it was like to live with an uneven flow of
money. Um Jafar didn’t want to tell about her dream with the American.
“The tenants never pay on time,” she said, which was true.
One of the families was from Syria, living on the third floor, and they
had trouble paying their electric bills on top of rent. Um Rania had
stopped by the back door to ask for a reduction. Her husband’s hummus
shop was not popular like back home, she’d said, because other shop
owners were spreading lies about the cleanliness of his food. He had his
core customers, but the business wasn’t growing. “You know he has the
best quality hummus in Amman,” she said, shaking her head a little.
Um Jafar’s leg had been aching that day, and standing at the back
door, haggling with the Syrian woman didn’t help, so she’d hastily
proposed a discount of five dinars. That was reasonable after the family
had delayed rent for a month and was paying in small chunks what they
Um Rania touched her hand to her heart at the offer. “That’s very
kind,” she’d said, her voice gaining strength behind her small features,
“but our problem is worse than five dinars. I’ve come to ask you if we
can reduce our rent to two hundred.”
Um Jafar nearly hit the ceiling. “Two hundred?” Her leg throbbed
with the pounding of her heart. “Two-fifty is already cheap. Cheaper
than what you’d get next door, and these apartments are new.”
“Habibti,” the woman said, whining.
“Habibti,” Um Jafar said, firmly, “I’ve got loans to pay.” She didn’t
say she had an American’s brittle heart to win over. “I’m not asking for
your husband to pull in the moon.” She raised a hand. “Two hundred
forty-five and that’s the final,” she said. “That will help you with
Um Rania turned away, saying, “Thank you, thank you, may God
bless you.” Her flat sandals slid against the grit of the stairs, and with
every other step her ring clinked on the railing. The bang of her door
echoed throughout the stairwell and still clung in Um Jafar’s mind.
Um Sarah was twisted on the couch, watching the action across the
alley where an Egyptian man remodeled his building. Iraqi workers
clinging to ladders sanded the cinderblocks and cleaned discoloration
from between the cracks. Another worker installed stone tiles on the
veranda. The Egyptian, with his head wrapped in a hatta, watched him
work. A cool wind had picked up, and he pulled on a jacket. He leaned
forward in the plastic chair but kept his gaze on the worker scraping and
plastering mud between the cracks of the tiles. Inside the doorway, a
table was set up with two-liter bottles of orange soda and water.
“My house is so empty,” Um Sarah said. “I may get some renters.
Do you think an American would want to stay in Tabarbour?” She
finished off her coffee and licked her lips.
“The Egyptian charges three hundred,” Um Jafar said, pointing, “but
I’m too soft. If my heart were hard, I’d be wealthy. I’d charge three
hundred and ten—these apartments are new—and if they can’t pay,
“You’ve got to be careful with the laja’een,” Um Sarah said.
“Why sign the lease if you can’t pay?” Um Jafar asked, noticing her
visitor’s cup was empty, grounds and all, so she filled it. She’d forgotten
that Um Sarah swallowed the soot at the bottom—she was a grubby
woman like that.
A door opened from inside just as Ahmed and his son started
clunking away below the window. Mark stepped into the porch.
“Hoda’s still gone?”
“Fresh zaatar,” Um Jafar said, “come and eat.”
He sat, delicately tearing a piece for himself. “Zacky,” he said,
nodding as he chewed. “I suppose Hoda is spending lots of money
Um Jafar explained to her visitor about Mark, how he’d met Hoda,
and his mild interest in Islam. Hoda liked that he was tall and handsome,
but also that he had a sweet personality. She thought she could deeply
install the faith in him as well, so she’d married him. “She was always
different like that,” Um Jafar said, using language that she knew he
wouldn’t pick up easily.
Mark leaned closer, watching their lips, sometimes smiling and
“A nice boy,” Um Jafar said, “but needs more religion.”
“You are American?” Um Sarah asked him directly. Her eyes
twinkled with something that unsettled Um Jafar’s stomach.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Los Angeles.”
Um Sarah beamed. “My son, at San Diego. I will visit you when
I’m there,” she said.
As if a light turned on over his head, he perked up and added, “But
I’m planning to travel more and shoot videos of each country I travel to.
Show what they eat, how they live. That sort of thing. You can make big
money doing that.”
“My husband travels. But he is not good. He want to live in Qatar.
Not with me.”
“Both of our husbands, not good,” Um Jafar said. “We get old, but
our husbands think they stay young.”
“We should bring nice husbands like the American,” Um Sarah said.
Um Jafar handed her a napkin and touched her chin. The lady
dabbed at it, wiping away the sheen of olive oil. Um Jafar got up and
went into her bedroom. Mark’s computer, which she’d also bought him
yesterday, was open on the bed. It was a very advanced model, which
she’d also financed, and he was thrilled to replace his dented old
computer with it. Its box and papers were scattered on the floor. Beside
the bed, the heater blasted away. She rolled it out of the room and lifted
it, tank and all, across the threshold into the porch.
“I could help you with that,” Mark said.
“How do you like Jordan?” Um Sarah asked, her green eyes like
“Very much, I like it,” he told her. “But there are no traffic rules.
That’s the scary part. Everybody just kind of, goes,” he said.
Um Jafar warmed her hands in the heat.
“We must take him to Aqabah and Petra and Jerusalem,” Um Sarah
said. “And he must come to my place.” She turned to Um Jafar. “You
will bring him to my place for dinner?”
“He doesn’t eat meat,” Um Jafar said. She’d already tested that
avenue by buying the choicest leg of lamb, but he’d refused.
“So, I will make chicken,” Um Sarah said defiantly. She tucked a
thin curl of hair beneath her scarf as she watched the American rip apart
another piece of bread.
“No jaj,” the American said. “I don’t eat meat.”
Um Jafar was laughing. “You see, he catches some of the words.”
“I will make him vegetables,” Um Sarah said, her eyes moving from
his throat to his nose.
“I already make,” Um Jafar said. “I already do. He is happy eating
Mark was watching the Egyptian man across the road.
“Come, sit with me,” Um Sarah said to him. “I will dream up
vegetable dishes new for you.”
Um Jafar put a hand on Mark’s leg. “He will be cold next to you.
He must stay in the sun.”
“Why does that man always watch them work?” he asked. “Every
morning, he sits and watches, just two feet away. It must be intimidating.”
But Um Jafar barely heard the question because she was describing
to Um Sarah all of the vegetarian dishes she had already invented and
was planning to cook.
“But I’m an excellent cook,” Um Sarah said. “Everybody says so.
Let me give him something new to experience.”
“We may visit one day,” Um Jafar said.
“When? I swear to God, nobody visits me.”
Mark watched their faces, his eyes switching between them more
“We may visit one day, but not because I’ve run out of vegetarian
dishes. It’s up to Hoda. She is so picky with her food,” Um Jafar said.
“She has missed my dishes for many years.”
Mark went back to the bedroom, and Um Sarah seemed all but
deflated in the strip of sun beaming over her left shoulder. Her garments,
once tight, looked loose and swaddled up around her neck as she
slumped on the couch.
Just as Abeer brought in a tray with a pot of tea, Um Jafar hoped,
as the workers became more active outside, that their noise would drive
away her visitor.
Adam Luebke’s short fiction has appeared in The Antioch Review,
The Southampton Review, Flyway, Valley Voices, and elsewhere.
He holds an MFA from Otis College of Art & Design and teaches
English literature at Maryville University. Currently, Luebke lives in
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