Balthuzar al-Muhammed tried to lock with the icy blue eyes of the interrogator. But the man, who had never introduced himself, looked just past Balthuzar’s head while asking questions in a monotone drawl. With his finger, Balthuzar rubbed his thin mustache. He was seated across a table from the interrogator in the windowless room, reached through an unmarked white door in Concourse 3.
Then he heard a couple of words he had been waiting for and he moved forward on his seat.
“Al-Qaida? Bomb?” said Balthuzar. “That’s crazy. I don’t know anything about bombs. You searched me. You searched my pack. The dog sniffed all over my pack. You know I don’t have a bomb.”
An undefiled yellow pad of paper was on the metal table, in front of the man with the black-rimmed glasses.
“Why did you approach Miss Banner?”
“I just said to her, ‘I like JFK. They make it so there’s plenty of access.’ What I meant is there’s lots of internet, many electrical outlets to recharge your phone. Access. That’s all.”
“Or it means plenty of access where you can sneak a bomb onto a plane. Have you been to Afghanistan in the last 10 years? Or Iraq?”
“Maybe Syria? Don’t lie. We can check. It’s all in a file that’s easily found.”
“Yes,” said Balthuzar, a slender man. “That’s what I mean. Good access.”
“Why would you say such a thing to a young woman from Pennsylvania that you don’t know?”
"I thought she was being friendly.”
The man squeaked the legs of his chair as he leaned back from the table.
“C’mon. She looked friendly?”
“Honestly. I found her attractive. Is she from Philadelphia?”
“Mmmm,” said the man, who wore a black suit with a plain brown tie. “That’s something. Balthuzar, we are going to have a deal, you and me. We are men of our word. If you will tell me if you know anyone in an ISIS network, what their name is and cellphone number, I will tell you what city in Pennsylvania Miss Banner is from. It’s not Philadelphia. It’s not South Philly, either.”
“ISIS?” said Balthuzar. “I thought it’s called ISIL. That’s how much I know about it. You think every young Muslim person with a ponytail is a terrorist. I’m just a college student from Ohio. A boring guy. I grew up in Detroit.”
“There’s plenty of radical mosques there, my friend. That lets you off no hook.”
An older woman entered the room, scowling. She did not introduce herself. She had a slender build but fat pink cheeks around a button nose. All the calories went to the cheeks somehow. She wore a blouse with a geometric repeating pattern of yellow and green trapezoids. To Balthuzar, it looked like an Arab mosaic.
She said to the man while watching Balthuzar, “We’re starting to get somewhere.”
“Aieee,” said Balthuzar. “I think we’re getting nowhere.”
“C’mon, Balthuzar,” said the man. “There are a lot of cities in Pennsylvania.”
“How can I convince you that I am not a terrorist? How can I prove a negative? I was just attracted to the girl. I bet she’s from Pittsburgh.”
“Who is your primary contact in Michigan? Or maybe it’s Ohio, yes? You met an imam at college?”
“You’re barking up the wrong tree. You’re looking for an oak, and I’m a spruce. I was just trying to pick her up. It’s as simple as that. You didn’t rule out Pittsburgh. What about Scranton?”
“Why is it, Balthuzar,” the woman said, drawing her syllables out, “that you know so many cities in Pennsylvania? Have you ever been in Scranton?”
“Yes. It is a city of large green lawns and ugly industrial buildings that have been closed for 50 years. Is it a crime to visit Scranton?”
“So you really know Scranton,” she said. “You know its neighborhoods. Is there a mosque you have prayed at in Scranton perhaps? Don’t lie. We have a file on the mosques there.”
“I have been to Scranton twice to visit my cousins. I met with no imams or radical terrorists there. C’mon. Both of you, you’re letting your imagination run wild.”
“Don’t worry so much about our imagination,” said the woman. “What about you? What is nirvana? You’d like to go to heaven with dozens of women who look like Miss Ban… the young lady from Pennsylvania, who are virgins?”
“Oh, c’mon now, really. I doubt she’s a virgin. Maybe she’s at College Station. Maybe she goes to Penn State?”
“What’s your cousin’s name? In Scranton?”
Balthuzar shook his head. “Her name is Mary Cozzana. C-O-Z-Z-A-N-A.”
Cozzana was the name of a secretary in the admissions office at school. The actual name of Balthuzar’s cousin was Sophia Mansour. Balthuzar felt clever. He was starting to enjoy the interrogation.
“Where does Mary live?” asked the woman.
“The street is R… it begins with an R. I can’t remember it. Near the Northside mall. You cut across an overgrown baseball field and you’re at the back entrance of the mall.”
Looking at him skeptically, she pulled out a pen and scratched some notes on the yellow pad on the table.
An older man came into the room with a tight smile. He nodded at the other two.
“Mr. Larry,” said the icy man.
Mr. Larry summoned the mosaic woman out of the room. She took the yellow pad with her. The door latch clicked. There was quiet for two minutes as the icy-blue-eyed man stared at the ceiling. Then the other two re-entered.
“Mr. al-Muhammed, you are free to go,” said Mr. Larry. “We’re sorry for any inconvenience. Well. We’re not that sorry. Please move on to your flight and don’t bother any strangers, OK?”
“Sure,” Balthuzar said. “I’m sorry I tried to talk to Miss Banner.”
Mr. Larry opened the door. Balthuzar got up slowly, and hoisted his green backpack, looping it on one shoulder. Mr. Larry ushered him out to the concourse. Balthuzar made his way through a clot of people craning their necks up at the blue arrivals and departures screen. A panel flipped over to inform that the flight to Memphis was delayed for bad weather. On time to Charlotte and Chicago. The flight to Boston was boarding. Several people looked down to see Mr. Larry and Balthuzar picking their way along the concourse.
Balthuzar walked to the right, toward Gate 16A. After twenty steps he glanced back and caught the back of Mr. Larry’s shoe disappearing inside the doorway and the unmarked door closing. Balthuzar chuckled.
Back at the gate, the first person he noticed was Miss Banner, sitting in the same seat with earbuds plugged into an iPhone. Her eyes slid sideways to look at him. Balthuzar sat two seats down from her and said, “Hi.”
Miss Banner froze. Then she said, “They let you go?”
“Yes. They figured out that I’m not a terrorist. I was just making conversation. I’m innocent.”
“Well, if you’re innocent, why are you being watched?”
“What are you talking about?”
“See those guys over at Gate 17? Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee? The guy in the yellow Hawaiian shirt is talking into a microphone on his wrist. His friend with the dark brow and the glasses is pretending not to look at us.”
“Wow,” said Balthuzar. “I think you’re right. Do you go to Penn State?” He leaned away from Miss Banner and pretended to be interested in rummaging around his backpack.
Someone shouted “Stop, stop” and the voice echoed off the ceiling of the concourse. A uniformed police officer was running along the concourse five strides behind a civilian.
Balthuzar jumped up and flung himself at the civilian, noticing a little late that the guy was quite big. The tackle was half made and the police officer finished it off, leveraging the man flat on the floor.
The impact threw Balthuzar to the floor on all fours. Two seconds later the man in the Hawaiian shirt launched himself at Balthuzar and pinned him to the floor. The Hawaiian shirt jangled a pair of handcuffs.
“You dummy,” said Balthuzar. “Can’t you see I was just helping this police officer?”
The man with the heavy brow was standing alongside, and said, “That seems to be the case, Lemanski.”
A second uniformed officer hurried up and helped the first one with the suspect.
“Shit,” the suspect said. “Fuck.”
A third officer arrived in an airport golf cart. The suspect was loaded in the back in handcuffs with the original officer sitting alongside. The cart drove off with a small red light revolving on top.
Lemanski ushered Balthuzar over to the plastic seats and they sat side by side.
“Shit,” said Lemanski. “Fuck.”
“How about, ‘thank you’? You could thank me.”
Mr. Larry hurried up. “Thanks, Lemanski. I think we can let Mr. al-Muhammed go and wish him a safe trip with our thanks.”
“What was that guy up to?” Lemanski asked.
“No idea,” said Mr. Larry. “A shoplifter?”
“What a day!” said Lemanski. “OK. I’m sorry, Mr. Muhammed. We’re all a little quick to react these days.”
“Homeland security,” said Balthuzar.
Mr. Larry and Lemanski looked at him quizzically.
Lemanski whispered something in Mr. Larry’s ear. Mr. Larry shook his head no.
“Have a nice day,” said Mr. Larry to Balthuzar. He led Lemanski and the heavy-browed man away and within a few strides, they were in the crowd. In a minute, Balthuzar noticed the yellow Hawaiian shirt disappear inside the unmarked white door.
Miss Banner walked over to Balthuzar. “Trouble seems to follow you around this airport,” she said.
“It’s not my fault. I’m just trying to get to Cleveland somehow.”
“Right.” She smiled. “Anyway, you seem all right to me.”
Balthuzar straightened his shirt. “You’ve concluded I’m not a terrorist.”
She smiled. “My inclination is to say no. But what do I know? My name is Melissa.”
Balthuzar laughed. “And mine is Balthuzar. You’re from Pennsylvania, aren’t you?”
“How would you know that?”
“My interrogators knew that. They were trying to use it to get information from me. The deal was: We’ll tell you what town in Pennsylvania she’s from if you tell us what radical imam you get orders from.”
Melissa frowned. She wore blue jeans and an old pink sweater with some loops of yarn distended. “That doesn’t seem right. Don’t get too confident. I still have suspicions.”
“When your skin is dark in this country, you live with suspicion. It’s the air that I breathe. The police have put that suspicion in my head and your head, in the head of all white people. They told me that you’re from Pennsylvania because they hope to get from me information, get a line on a radical Muslim cell. They are grasping at straws.”
Melissa looked him up and down.
“But I don’t know any radical Muslims,” Balthuzar added. “I’m just a dumb college student who can’t decide what to major in.”
“You won’t major in jihad.”
“No,” Balthuzar laughed. “Stay away from that major.”
Melissa shuffled her papers and said, “I’m thinking of giving you my phone number in Scranton. But my mom would clock me if I told her that I gave my number to a guy apprehended at the airport and suspected of being a terrorist.”
“Suspected wrongly. False accusation.”
“It’s just a phone number.” She tore off a piece of paper, wrote a number on it and handed it to him. “If you’re ever in Scranton.”
“And I won’t share it with the guys in the al-Qaida clubhouse.”
“Don’t even joke about it. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee are probably watching you on video right now. Maybe they’ve got audio.”
Balthuzar shook his head.
“Now it’s me kidding,” she said. “This is just nuts what happened to you today. And still I’m a little scared and not sure whether I’m scared of jihad or the police state.”
Balthuzar shrugged and offered the scrap of paper to her. “I can give it back to you.”
“You’ve already memorized it. And I’ve already told you I live in Scranton.”
“Trust is a fragile thing.” Balthuzar smiled sadly. “I like that. If I was a poet, I would write a poem called ‘Trust is a fragile thing.’”
“Now you’re just reciting lines for Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee to hear.”
“Do you write poetry?”
“Well, I did for a class. Then the class was over last year, and I thought I would continue writing poems for myself because I like the way the ideas come. You write something down and then another thing following that, and pretty soon you have a whole thing that you never knew was in your mind. Images come from who knows where. But I guess the ideas don’t come to me lately. Until one day at JFK International Airport when I thought up ‘Trust is a fragile thing.’”
Melissa chuckled. She grabbed back the note from his hand, put it on a magazine for backing and wrote out a few lines. “There’s my email address,” she said. “You write ‘Trust is a fragile thing’ and send it to me. I’d love to read it.”
Balthuzar smiled. “OK. That’s my homework. The poetic pressure is on.”
The PA system in the terminal scratched out a call for Scranton passengers. Melissa nodded at Balthuzar, grabbed her pack, and in several strides was mixed up in the gate’s crowd of travelers, poets, terrorists and such.
Lance Howland is a newspaper editor from the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s had thousands of pieces of journalism printed in a long career as a newspaper reporter, editor and online editor. His publications range from The Syracuse Post-Standard to The San Francisco Chronicle. This is his first short story accepted for publication since college; he had a memoir piece about baseball and disability printed in Elysian Fields Quarterly 15 years ago. A native of central New York state, he is an avid pickup basketball player. He has read 96 percent of the words written by William Trevor and Alice Munro. He is married and the father of two adult women.