April 29, 2019
I am Somali Boy Number Two. I don’t have a speaking role. I stand in a grey hoodie and look forlorn. I don’t know if forlorn is the appropriate expression, but the director—a freckled, nervous man—hasn’t suggested otherwise. I suppose I don’t try to look like anything, really. It’s just that my face has this pulled appearance that people read as searching, and searching translates into loneliness, vulnerability. I guess if you seem searching, something emotionally integral is probably amiss. I don’t care, though. I get free bagels in the morning and a cold tuna sandwich for lunch at the craft service table. Mostly, I keep to myself. There are two other Somali Boys—Number Three, who is round and has lines that border minstrelsy, and Number One, Omar, who is the star.
MINNESOTA, SOMALIA is about a Somali teenager who befriends a former cop after being caught graffitiing the side of a mini-mart. The teenager is homeless and a recent immigrant from Somalia. A touching, unlikely friendship ensues.
I’m standing in a Target parking lot. Omar’s shooting the scene in which his character quits. He’s a real shit actor, so shoppers with blotchy skin and wet hair slowly wheel their red carts to figure out why the fuck this lanky kid is being filmed with a Steadicam. It’s a Sunday morning; no one bothers to ask. Plastic bags are full of cereal, Lean Cuisine, and Milwaukee’s Special Reserve. They say nothing ever changes in Rosewood, Minnesota, except for the addition of another Starbucks. Except for the addition of another suburban development. Except for the addition of more Somalis. The fact is everything changes. The suburbs have this image of stasis, but we’re here now, making this shit blacker and a little more Muslim. I can’t tell which is scarier. Allahu akbar, right?
The late-August humidity is a draped sheet. Land of 10,000 lakes. Do you know what comes with so many lakes? Mosquitos the size of my thumb. Geese that’ll fight you over a fucking fry. I’m twenty-one, on break from college—a somewhat permanent break. I dropped out. Well, the dean says I have the option of returning, but I dropped out. Now, I’m here in the parking lot, standing behind a silver Honda Civic covered in bird shit. My character is supposed to drive Omar home. Number Three bailed. I already filmed my scene. At this point, just waiting for the tuna sandwich. I rake my Nikes against the asphalt. They’re scuffed, greyed. Three years old, maybe four. The film crew hovers around the store entrance. The director is talking to some manager. I assume it’s the manager because he’s balding with a portly stomach. It looks like he’s smiling. Probably saying, “Well, gee, let me know if you need me in the shot. Handsome fella like myself.” Chuckle, chuckle. Nudge, nudge. I’m sick of waiting. My ankles begin to sweat. Another bird shits directly in front of me. Some say that’s luck.
I answered a casting call on Twitter: Somali men, ages 15-20. Must speak English. Must be genuine Somali. The production company produced a few indie films starring washed-up Lifetime actors. MINNESOTA, SOMALIA is their supposed pivot to timely, serious drama. The director made a name for himself on YouTube, after filming a documentary on kids who politically protest, called The Kids Were Never Alright. I’m certain that he paid for good reviews. This film has the basic synopsis of a feel-good tear-jerker in the vein of other stories about poor black kids taught to play football or to read: the former cop becomes his mentor. In the end, the guy dies of cancer, but not before the audience discovers that he paid for Omar’s college tuition. If you couldn’t tell, the director is also the screenwriter.
EXT. TARGET PARKING LOT – DAY
OMAR slowly comes into focus. He walks toward the store and holds a gold name tag.
Beside him walks a buoyantly blonde family of Scandinavian blend—MOTHER, FATHER, CHILD. They smile.
Sometimes, I rewrite scenes in my head. I don’t quite see the logic of Omar quitting if he is, indeed, a homeless truant, but the director is a terrifying force, like a former cult leader or someone who was popular in high school and never left town. Everyone nods because the job market is trash and we all need the money. I need the money because I’ve moved into my parents’ basement—where they look at me with big, wet, disappointed eyes—so I don’t comment when he tells the makeup artist not to cover the cluster of whiteheads on my chin. “It adds to the vibe,” he says. What vibe? We’re all capitalist scabs.
I was a film major before I dropped out. I used to work on a script. I still am working on it, technically. It’s a take on my favorite movie. When I was twelve and my brother, Mukhtar, was thirteen, we watched The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey before he looked like someone who sells homegrown shrooms to college students. We sat on the basement carpet, which was then beige and plush and bought with my parents’ new money from their physical therapy practice. We skipped our Quran lessons and disconnected the landline, so Brother Ali wouldn’t call our mother as a reminder. The winter glare shone harshly through the windows.
As a child, I often felt as if my body was sinking. I don’t get this so much anymore, but then, it was real bad. I’d sit on the couch, and my heart would drop, my stomach would drop, and my feet would grow cold. My parents thought that American sensibilities made me an anxious child; perhaps the luxuries of sugary cereal and school clubs were detrimental.
“If we raised him in Somalia, he’d be a little stronger,” my father would say.
“Mukhtar turned out alright,” my mother would reply.
I remember when Truman discovered that his life, that the world, was a sham. I sank deeper into myself, and asked, “Mukhtar, Mukhtar—isn’t that sad? Isn’t that really, really sad?”
My brother rolled his eyes, then held my hand. “Who cares if it’s fake, Abshir?”
I have seen the movie approximately 200 times. I have memorized enough lines to slip into conversation. The early bird gathers no moss! The rolling stone catches the worm! The director kind of looks like a shaven, polished Jim Carrey, at least peripherally. He doesn’t speak to me much. I guess he thinks I’m my character, which is alright. The first day on set, he mentioned the potential for nominations. “That’s what we have to en-vision for ourselves—prestige, awards.” He began. “We must man-i-fest. We must co-create with the universe. No, conspire! Who knows Paulo Coelho? ‘And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’ Thomas—where’s Thomas?”
He made Thomas McFadden, Omar’s opposite, raise a perfectly tanned hand. “Thomas was on Dawson’s Creek, folks! A real pleasure to be working with a star!”
The twelve people in the room clapped, except for the Somalis. I rolled my eyes and said, “He was an extra” only to receive a symphony of shushes. Number Three asked, “What’s Dawson’s Creek?” More shushes. Whatever, the tuna sandwiches are free. I’m only on set a total of seven times if everything runs smoothly. That’s at least seven free lunches, but Omar keeps messing up his lines, so I’ve been filming every weekend for the last month. I’m being paid $3,000 to just stand here, and $3,000 to look forlorn is a good deal.
The hoodie’s inner tag scratches my neck. Once I get the sandwich, I’m out, but a girl in dreadlocks runs up to me. She’s the production assistant and named after some virtue, Mercy or Faith.
“Hey,” she says. “They don’t need you today. Actually, they don’t need you for the next few shots. It’s, uh, taking a bit more time than we allotted. Reshoots. I’ll be in touch, though.”
“What about lunch?”
“Er, I suppose you can stick around for that.” She looks at her watch. I look at my phone. It’s 11:27 A.M. She doesn’t want me to stick around. I enter the store. I’ve been back in Minnesota for two months, and this is the first time I’ve gone inside the Rosewood Super Target. It’s the size of half a Sam’s Club. Whenever my mom needs anything, I’d go to the Grovetown Target, which is an hour south, and less likely a fly trap of old acquaintances. The greeter smiles at me. I try to smile back but probably look like a creep, since she turns around swiftly. I’m bad at fake smiles. A summery pop song bubbles through the speakers.
I go to the chip aisle. There’s an assortment of new flavors. Carcinogenic and colorful. I pick up two family-size bags of brittle, powdered-cheese puffs. I hold each under an armpit. The store lights begin to feel brighter. I can hear the rubber soles of my Nikes press against the waxed linoleum.
As I head to the checkout, a guy approaches with a shopping cart. He is broad-shouldered in a cut-off sleeved shirt, rust-colored hair held back with a headband. I think he must be signaling for someone else until he extends his hand and says, “What’s up, man?”
“Sorry?” I move the chips from my armpits to my chest for protection.
“Oh shit—you don’t remember, do you? Embarrassing. C’mon—Pineview?”
I don’t respond.
“We went to school together—Trevor, Trevor Samuelson?”
“Oh—sorry, it’s been a while.” The chips fall to the ground. We shake hands. His grip is firm, what my father calls a military grip. He reaches down and gives me the bags.
“A while? It’s only been, like, three, four years. Not much of a while here.” He leans up against the cart. “Whatcha been up to, kid?”
“You at the U?”
“Oh ho, we got a Whittaker boy on our hands. Always knew you were a smart one.” He says this despite most likely remembering nothing about me, aside from my brother. My brother was the most interesting part of my life. Mukhtar memorized the entirety of the Quran by twelve. He knew how to roll the perfect jay with a dollar bill. Had friends all over the county. Taught me how to angle my feet when climbing onto the patio roof, took the blame when I dented the jeep after being out past curfew. He was a bolt of lightning. People call me smart when they’re just trying to be polite. Trevor then looks as if he needs to say something important. His eyebrows knot, head cocks a bit to the left. “Haven’t seen you around in the summers. Must be hard to be here. You know last time the guys, the team, got together, we talked about setting up a, like, memorial fund for him.” He rubs the back of his neck and offers a half-pathetic smile to stamp his goodwill.
“Thanks, man,” I say. I want to leave, and anything more would ensure that I remain and listen to him talk about his life, his choices. I spot a wedding ring on his hand. Please don’t talk about your life. He then pulls me into a hug and I glance at his groceries—floss, zucchini, bagged wine. I say thanks, again, and he nods and heads to the cashier.
I place the chips atop a Pampers display and walk to the exit. The greeter is replaced by a younger one. He smiles at me and turns away when I stare at him. I’m good at making people feel uncomfortable. All you need to do is to look forlorn.
The snack table has been set up on the far corner of the lot. I lost my appetite. The film crew is a singular mass, a skeleton group of production, lighting, audio, and makeup. The makeup artist is the director’s cousin and seems the most competent of all. He holds me by the chin and says, “Marvelous cheekbones.” I gather he’s a saint. I’ve stopped trying to differentiate faces, and wave a quick goodbye for propriety’s sake.
A friend would ask, “What’s the endgame?” I don’t really have friends anymore, so I ask myself, “Abshir , what’s the endgame?” I open the door to my jeep, and throw out the empty McDonald’s bag. The car is cluttered with crumbled receipts and soda cans. An ant trails the steering wheel edge. It’s time to get out of Rosewood.
I don’t drive home but instead head north and make my daily pilgrimage to the Clover gas station out by Balsam Lake. I have a tank full of gas and a shit ton of time. I take the backroads, and soon hit Highway 61. I slow down to see the jutting rock formations, volcanic remains from when water covered land—something about this is formidable. It makes me feel like all of life is God rewriting scenes, and that makes me want to go back and punch Trevor Samuelson in the jaw.
Clover is 6.7 miles away from Balsam Lake. The lake where my brother dove from a cliff like some sort of fated osprey. The gas station is about as far as I can manage. I watch families walk inside. Children with beach towels swathed over their boney shoulders. Parents with honey-wheat hair and red patches of skin where the sunscreen missed. If I see the attendant staring at me, I go in and buy a large raspberry Slurpee-like concoction, and suck through the straw in my front seat until my tongue begins to sting. All this sugar is probably what made my skin ripple with whiteheads. I sit in my car, which was our car, to think about him. Five years, one month. Something about the lycra swimsuits and open coolers makes parts of him thread in and out of memory.
Before I dropped out, the dean suggested that I see a therapist—not a school counselor, but someone he personally knew.
“Your records show that—well, what you went through, to put it, frankly, is traumatic, and here at Whittaker, we want to support you in any way that’s appropriate. Your professors—particularly Ripley—say that you’re quite capable when you’re present. Quite bright. We just need to foster this presence.” He let his right hand circle the air for emphasis. “If you’re willing, I’ve arranged for you to meet with Dr. Legrand. It’s your decision, ultimately, but we, of course, want you to feel to supported, Abshir.”
I said nothing. The office was full of heavy cherrywood furniture. The dean had a wrinkled face and thick, glossy eyebrows. He sighed and leaned forward, “If therapy isn’t of interest, well, I suppose I’m not supposed to say this, but—have you thought of prayer?”
I honk twice at a navy Prius that cut me off. I’d honk again, but instead, I roll down my windows. I want to scream, but my breath catches. Windows go back up. The sky is clear, and something about the lack of clouds makes me sad—sad for myself. Why? Who fucking knows why seemingly innocuous things make me feel what I feel. Isn’t that the beauty of having, like, a soul or something? Does it ever need to be anything more? I don’t think about prayer, but I think mostly of the month before the end, when Mukhtar and I spent every Sunday at the lake. He’d wake me up at dawn, and we’d take a single backpack stuffed with our trunks, water bottles, and snacks. He liked peanut butter protein bars; I preferred trail mix. The lake water was always cold. It felt awakening, and I said, “Maybe this is why early Christians baptized their followers by submerging the entire body under water.” Mukhtar said, “You’re a hopeless dork—fucking hopeless.” He was a better swimmer and an asshole and my hero. He playfully dunked my head. I kicked his leg, pushed him away. We got out of the water, set down two threadbare towels, and allowed our bodies to sun dry. I dug my toes into the muddy bank. I could still imagine the sensation of granular debris.
Pineview students were known for their parties. On the side of town opposite my parents’ modest house were new McMansions built atop cornfields. The people there were good, liberal and classically unbothered. Parents would turn their homes into a shelter for the gaggle of high schoolers who’d snort lines of Xan to come down off the Adderall. Mukhtar was the only Somali invited to these parties, and I joined the others when they called him a white boy for it. I never went, despite getting pity-invitations whenever I was with my brother. The best ones were at Cole Wyckoff’s lake house—an eight-bedroom property out in Balsam, some forty minutes away from Rosewood. Those who weren’t invited would await the next day’s photos on Facebook.
I rewrite scenes in my head.
His FRIENDS: We went diving.
His FRIENDS: We weren’t drinking.
The POLICE: There just happened to be a log where he hit.
EVERYONE: Sorry, sorry, sorry…
Then, silence. A closeup of seven actors with their tongues removed.
I see him. He is dark-skinned, deep-dimpled, and the muscles of his legs tauten as he runs and runs and finally jumps off the grassy ledge. He is barefoot and becomes a passing bullet that punctures the lake’s surface.
The scene fades, and we’re in the mosque basement. There are steps to washing a corpse. About fourteen, give or take. Fucking wild. We gathered—uncles that I had met only once, cousins I shared cigarettes with at weddings, my father, the Imam, my brother on the metal table. I adjusted the cloth to cover the remains of a small tattoo on his bloated left bicep. My mother’s initials, R.M. Brother Ali once told us that God doesn’t accept anyone who purposefully marks their flesh, because your flesh is his flesh. My parents weren’t devout, but since he was freshly dead, they felt as if they needed to be for his sake, for the sake of his soul, I guess.
I went to high school in a somewhat bougie district. The administration found me a grief counselor, a middle-aged woman who had thin, colorless lips and a wide mouth that more so resembled an elongated slit than a human feature. It was three weeks after the funeral, fall term senior year. I suppose her purpose was to decide whether I was suicidal. Every Monday, she handed me a sheet with a range—a smiley face to a frown. I always chose the neutral face because what can she possibly project onto that? During our last meeting, she said to think of something comforting and I said, “The ancient Mesopotamians believed that death was just eating dirt for eternity,” and she nodded and sincerely asked, “What comforts you about that image?”
I pass Clover. This is the first time the gas station becomes a rear-view blur. There is nothing that makes today different, aside from a weight on my chest. Deeper than my chest, like it’s in my sinews, like I’m suddenly really fucking lonely, but there’s something about this that is also a relief. Farmland has morphed into Eastern White Pine. I turn on NPR just to block out the noise in my head. If this were The Truman Show, this would be the moment someone would tell me that my brother isn’t dead. A cop car would emerge from the thicket. The cop would, perhaps, be played by Thomas McFadden, who was really just an extra on Dawson’s Creek, and not at all someone important like the director makes him seem. I’d hear the sirens before seeing the lights, and I’d say, “Fuck.” I have a clean record and take driving quite seriously. Plus, I’m black. I’d slow down and stop on the side of the road, and the faux-cop would say, “Step out of the vehicle.” And I’d think, “Shit” and start mentally butchering Islamic prayers, and he’d lead me into a wooded area, and there’d be a light, and we’d go farther down the path. There’s a clearing with a seated audience, and I’d think that I must be so scared that I’ve started to hallucinate, until a disembodied voice says, “Abshir Botan, we’ve got a surprise for you, all the way from ______. Your brother, Mukhtar!” The audience would cheer. My brother would emerge from the dark—his smirk still brash and crooked.