As much as he had never signed up for this duty, as much as his bosses said it didn’t exist, Louie figured he was stuck with it now.
The thunder of planes taking off and landing a few meters away, shaking up the warehouse. Inspections every hour by some kid from Georgia who didn’t know what he was looking for. This Iraqi woman who didn’t speak a word but sat there watching him, hour after hour, reading her Arabic books, sometimes reciting Arabic poetry. Poetry, for Christ sakes! He could tell when he heard it — and he knew when someone was laughing at him.
He stared at all the boxes, cartons, crates, moving slowly along a conveyor belt. Almost like a regular baggage area, but bigger, slower, clumsier. Iraq was under U.N. Embargo, so each piece of freight coming in at the airport needed to have a description of contents and authorizing signature attached to the outside. Washer/dryer for some general’s wife: Yes! Emergency generator for the public hospital: No! He checked the paperwork. He didn’t have to do much — just check paperwork. Make sure every damn item was authorized. Mickey Mouse — Build your own Adventure World: Yes! Sterile baby formula: No!
Damn crazy priorities.
When the conveyor belt broke down, he had to physically load the approved stuff on a dolly and wheel it out to the loading dock where trucks would pick it up for delivery into Baghdad. The rejected stuff—he felt like leaving it on the conveyor belt for somebody else to deal with. Damned if he wanted to get a hernia lifting that too. But in the end he stacked it in the designated area on the floor.
The Iraqi woman was always there, watching. Didn’t she ever have to pee? A huge image of the dictator Saddam Hussein stared down at them from the pocked wall of the warehouse. Word was that the Americans were going to take Saddam out, soon. Louie wanted to be part of that. But he was jumpy. No question that his blood pressure was through the roof.
The Iraqi woman had a different book every day. “Fast reader, huh?” he said to her once. She didn’t answer. Didn’t even look at him. He shrugged. He wasn’t supposed to care.
Louie walked around the streets, watching the children. Many of them looked sick. Sometimes they stared back at him. When he returned to the barracks, he sat for a long time staring at the wall, thinking. He did not tell anybody where he had been.
Somebody was trying to sneak a perishable shipment through the sanctions. It was packed in dry ice. Anti-pain medication, destined for three Iraqi hospitals. No Authorization. He stopped the line, which had been serviced during the night and was operational again. Outside, a plane took off. Another landed. The warehouse shook.
The Iraqi woman was there, beside him, also examining the shipment. “I suppose it is ‘humanitarian,’” he said, “but it’s still not allowed.” Damn, since when do I have to give excuses for doing my job? “I can’t let it through,” he said louder. “I could get my fucking ass kicked right over to that prison.” He moved his chin angrily in the direction of the airport security facility. She stared at him, impassively in this crazy way that churned up all kinds of doubts. Then she returned to her seat and picked up her book.
“Shit,” Louie said. And he thought: I’m just going to let this go through. He started the line again. The Iraqi woman looked up, as if she knew something all along. The two of them watched the shipment travel down the line and out the little swinging door to the loading dock. After that, Louie felt very calm.
A few minutes later, she closed her book and looked up at him and said: “I know that took a lot. Thank you.”
“You talk English, like — well, like a regular American…”
“You talk like a regular American, too,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I guess that was the wrong thing to say, but…”
“Okay, Louie, I’m going to put you out of your misery,” she said, but she was laughing. “Harvard Law School, class of ’93.”
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
“You’re pretty impressive yourself,” she said.
When she saw his utter astonishment, she added:
“My name is Lubab, by the way. Would you like to have tea with me? I know a safe place.”
Harriet Rohmer is the Founder and former Publisher of Children’s Book Press (now an imprint of Lee and Low). She is also the author of Heroes of the Environment (Chronicle Books) and more than a dozen short stories (Louisiana Literature, Bayou etc.). This story comes out of her time as an Artist in Residence in Everglades National Park.