The wise among us know there are no rights. There are merely adjudications. This was Haroon Feisal Mohamed’s thought as he labored to steer Jumbo Cousins’ red van. Jumbo had insisted Haroon drive, and that they avoid Greenville and Hendersonville, opting instead for Route 23 North through Tallulah Falls and the gorge there. They’d then cross the Georgia state line into Waynesville and then drive Route 40 home to Asheville. Why? Because Haroon had to conquer his fear of Tallulah Gorge.
“You address it,” said Jumbo. “That’s how a fear is cauterized. Otherwise, it grows like a cancer.”
The van didn’t feature power steering. Its wheel vibrated, torqueing to one side. Jumbo’s vehicle, all right, one of a kind, thought Haroon. The man was persuasive, hard to control, idiosyncratic, fearless, with no quit in him. One who understood adjudications.
Jumbo had explained: “I’m doing this for you. I don’t just let anybody drive my van. You need to get through that gorge on your own. It’s the only way.”
This brought no comfort to red-eyed Haroon, the van the only sign of motion on the unlit narrow and twisting ribbon of asphalt. Haroon was spent. They’d stood for the entire concert at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, having been lucky to get in.
Jumbo had been persuasive. “Farewell tour, post-pandemic, time to get out and live. It’s once in a lifetime, Haroon, and a Friday night, and I can get standing-room-only tickets. They’re not cheap, but I’ll pay for yours. I know Haroon you’re a big fan. Their music. Our generation. I’d feel like we missed out if we didn’t take advantage.”
Haroon had agreed, though as much as he’d loved the music and appreciated a free ticket, he didn’t like choosing to live based on a fear of missing out. This struck him as such an American hang-up. Yet he was an American now, fully legal after what he often jokingly referred to as his green-card years in limbo. Jumbo was right, too, about facing his fear of driving the gorge. The time had come. First the gorge, then maybe he’d summon the confidence to ask Brianna, one of his co-workers, out for a date.
Jumbo had said, “Imagine a gun pointed at your skull. How do you react? If it were me, I’d picture myself calm and full of poise. That’s how you need to come across with Brianna.”
Long drives. Too much time to think. Drained of the adrenalin that had made the trip from Asheville to Atlanta tolerable after a day of work, they’d stopped for supper at a Denny’s. They’d wisely avoided alcohol. This had helped Haroon to navigate the van through Atlanta traffic. Once beyond city limits, he’d expected to relinquish the wheel, but Jumbo had shocked him, demanding he drive.
“You’re going the distance through the gorge at night all the way up to Franklin and on over to Asheville. Now pull over so I can catch some shut-eye in the back.”
The big man was still asleep. His occasional snores filled the van. Haroon kept both passenger and driver side windows open. A damp chill breezed in to keep him awake.
Was it in darkness where God began or ended? The question intrigued Haroon as he leaned forward over the dash, eyeing the unlit road, the air perfumed with a mingling of lush greenery and a fetid odor of earthen rot. If God came in the night, it was to express nature as a condensing dew that Haroon could taste against his teeth. There was an eeriness to the night’s shine that had settled in with a severity that reminded Haroon of the obsidian gleam in a sheared lump of coal. God was a black man. Black as that fine coal.
No way he’d wake Jumbo or pull over, though the urge was strong when he felt a prickling of sweat beetle up his neck. Headlights filled his rearview mirror. They slowed when he slowed. Swerved when he swerved. There was a possum to avoid, and this nocturnal creature startled Haroon, darting across the road. Swerving again, nearly losing control of the van, Haroon thought he could hear one of the waterfalls, there were six of them, that gave the town its name. The road cut left and then right. Then right again. All the while, the waterfalls murmured out of the darkness and headlights stayed in the same place in his rearview, keeping the same distance, moving with him at the same speed. He was immersed in the gorge now, meeting Jumbo’s challenge that he “get in over his head and out of his comfort zone.”
The waterfalls blended with the purling of streams and Haroon thought it’s not a road, it’s an experience, each turn more severe than the last. At times the asphalt looked like a frayed shoelace blurred along its edges by banks of mist, crowded overhead by the effulgence of tree cover, dank vines, branches that drooped down on both sides of him. In some areas they formed a canopy that gave Haroon the feeling he was rolling through a tunnel of loamy aromatic mists.
He’d learned from Jumbo that locals had mistakenly translated the word Tallulah from Cherokee to mean “loud waters.” During their supper at Denny’s, Jumbo had explained that the word could have been from Choctaw, not Cherokee, but it was most likely from Creek and meant “small town with one hill.” Jumbo had some Choctaw blood in him on his father’s side and an abiding interest in what he called “America’s buried genocidal history.” Did Haroon know that of all the American tribes only the Cherokee were able to compile a dictionary of their own language? Like the Choctaw, they were removed, Trail of Tears and all that, but Haroon knew that, didn’t he?
“Stick with me, Haroon, and you’ll know more than most about this nation’s history and it’ll tear your heart out.”
Haroon swerved to avoid a rut, the van racing down a steep curve that ended with an abrupt jolting turn back to the left. No margin for error. Those headlights were still there. The van wobbled, its wheel tugging and Haroon felt a shiver of panic. He didn’t like being followed. Why didn’t those lights back off?
He should wake up Jumbo, but that would mean surrender, and Jumbo would be angry and disappointed. So would he. Those insistent headlights weren’t going to stop him. True, they made him nervous, but what was he afraid of, after all?
He knew what. Jumbo knew too, but they hadn’t discussed it. A moment of relief came to Haroon as he saw that the vehicle behind him was, as he’d suspected, a police car. The two beacons atop its roof were now lighting up the darkness. No siren, just a blue wash that pulsed like summer lightning against the soft drapery of foliage.
Haroon stopped in the middle of the road, the one he feared. The gorge he feared. Tallulah. Like the old actress Tallulah Bankhead who Jumbo had said was named after her grandmother who’d been named after the falls. “Probably a load of Hollywood hogwash.”
The big man had ceased snoring. Wake him? A second police car had arrived. From where and how so quickly, Haroon couldn’t say. As if materializing out of the darkness, it was parked crossways in front of the van and blocked passage.
Haroon felt hemmed in as he shut the van engine off. The night silence with its ever-present rippling of falling water felt strangely soothing as the blue strobes kept pumping. Haroon looked out his window, squinting to see a sliver of sky above the road as if he’d entered a vast planetarium. This was a dream and he’d awakened not as intruder but as tourist, adventurer, citizen. He’d done nothing wrong. He belonged here.
What shocked him most was that he didn’t feel afraid. It had to be the distant sound of water. Closing his eyes, he heard it rising up the steeps within the gorge. He breathed what smelled for a tart moment like honeysuckle, a scent he could identify. It cleaved through the ranker more humid succulence of swamp vegetation. Rains, it seemed had passed through here not long ago.
Crickets and chiggers and cicadas were suddenly deafening, sounding their fricative symphony in a cataract that proved this was never a quiet place. It was a tangle, a cacophony of sounds, looming walls and slithering tapestries of them. A mosquito buzzed toward his ear lobe and Haroon swiped it away and saw blood on his fingers just as he saw four cops emerging toward him from out of the darkness.
Four of them. All white men about the same age and height. They looked like mannequins of cops, their faces too clean, their eyes too small. An unnatural rigidity to their posture, two of them bulky, their blonde hair cut short, a paranoid aura about them. The other two, leaner, both with dark hair, stood back, hands ready on their belts. This was their road, their chorus of cicadas, their waterfall, their night. Haroon, facing them, understood, indeed, what he had feared. Not the gorge’s natural, nocturnal breath, but its manmade one.
What should he say? He had little experience in such matters. His words should be simple, spoken softly, deferentially. He had a university education. A good job with an IT firm, and he’d worked from home during the Covid lockdown. Without telling them, the cops should sense he was a professional from the way he behaved. He knew he’d be asked for his driver’s license, and the van’s registration, which Jumbo kept clipped to the sun visor. He remembered that a possum played dead to avoid predators. Then he heard a robotic voice, “License and registration please.”
It brought him back to many a conversation with Jumbo, who’d served tours abroad in the US Army, had experience when it came to men showing their primacy in volatile situations. Jumbo, his first and dearest American friend, a man who’d lived and served in the Middle East, had sought to understand what imperialist greed had done to many innocent people in that part of the world. “Be an open book,” Jumbo liked to say. “And you’ll really scare people.”
Though the cop held a light pointed into Haroon’s eyes, he didn’t cast its beam deeper inside the van. If so, he would have seen Jumbo, who was no longer snoring. Haroon handed over his license and the registration. He’d be fine. This wasn’t Jim Crow or the KKK times he’d read about. Or was it?
Now came the fear. One he knew that a black man lived with daily in many a nation. You just never knew with white people. Jumbo was an oddball, an exception, an outcast in his own family. There were few like him, so generous, willing to question the status quo, each political event, regardless of the race or creed of those involved.
Haroon knew he’d been driving the speed limit, but he also knew this didn’t matter. These cops had absolute power. They could do as they pleased, toying with him, even though he’d done nothing wrong.
Rights and justice, thought Haroon, were absurdly idealistic conceits. How scared he felt. There it was. It was their county, not his, no matter his passport. But he wasn’t a gangster, nor would he want to be. He paid taxes and his job as a software designer had a connection to making life better for people. So, he’d been to a concert in Atlanta. Stood up in the back. Cheered over the spectacle of it all. Not a crime. Especially after the pandemic. He should remember advice Jumbo had once shared: “Don’t expect. Because the surprise is always better when it comes.”
Haroon felt conflicted about involving Jumbo. Daytime or night, drunk or sober, the man had driven this gorge many times. A force of nature with a philosophical bent, he had generational roots that ran deep in these parts and much wisdom when it came to what he called “the back-assward hillbilly redneck trash, my own kin, that breed hellfire out of these hills.”
Let Jumbo sleep. This was his problem, his fear. Those cops didn’t need to know Jumbo was back there. He’d handle this on his own. His fear, as it related to police brutality, wasn’t absurd. There was the George Floyd case, and many other examples of violence and racism. Regardless of his education, or being an Egyptian-American, he was just another black man in the South, one who hadn’t been born there and he had every right to quake in his shoes. Only an ignoramus wouldn’t be afraid. Haroon believed Jumbo would agree with him on that point.
He was biting his lower lip when he heard, “Please, Sir, step outside the van.”
The cop lowered his light beam. Imposing, but not aggressive or rude, not at all, he was polite to an extreme. So damn polite! Haroon didn’t speak as he exited the van. Both shoes on the ground, arms pinned to his sides, he stood at attention telling himself not to move in any sudden manner. The test was on. He must pass. He’d pay a speeding ticket if need be. The point was to address his fear. Man up. He wasn’t a native. They were. This was not his land, his freedom and it had never been guaranteed. Get his mind right. Shut up and listen.
Still courteous, the cop said, “Please, Sir, palms against the front end of the van and spread both of your legs.”
The three other cops gathered around and Haroon thought of them as dogs taking turns as they sniffed at and sized him up with an interest that suggested they’d never seen a man like him before. The legs of his trousers were frisked by all the cops, each one overly deliberate in the way he patted around Haroon’s buttocks and under his crotch and arms. Thorough yet stiff and altogether too serious. The front of the van felt hot against Haroon’s open hands. The smell of radiator fluid and motor oil torched his nostrils. One cop took his wrist and Haroon felt ice immediately in the man’s grip as he led him to the police car. “Okay, Sir, get on in.”
The blue strobes stopped flashing. The night seemed to rise with an intensity that matched the cicadas, a sweeping wave of sound that increased in volume. It struck Haroon that these cops weren’t human. The way they moved, disjointed, tense, showed they were brimming with fear. Shouldn’t he be the one afraid?
The police car drove off ever so smoothly. Maybe, thought Haroon, he’d been wrong not to say that Jumbo was in the van. Yet sometimes taking no action was the best choice. Were these cops racist? Did his skin make him a felon? These questions lingered as Haroon sweated silently thinking of Jumbo as he swiveled his head around to see the van grow smaller.
Those cops still had his license, but they hadn’t put him in handcuffs. One police car and two men were still back there and Haroon wondered if they’d search the van, wake Jumbo and poke him into roaring like a bear stirred from hibernation.
As the drive went on, Haroon felt his head dropping. He lacked the energy to stop it, drifting into a half-conscious state as he thought he heard one cop remark, “I’ll wire into Rabun County.” He heard the other reply, “Tell him center of Clayton, near the gorge.”
They spoke in clipped cadences with so little emotion. They could take him anywhere. Who would know? No doubt all sorts of crimes had been committed on this road under cover of darkness. Haroon thought he could hear the screams. Rapes, lynchings, tribal wars, blood oozing out of the tree bark. God had, indeed, gone into hiding, but would God rise at dawn in the East? Back home, the place he’d abandoned, his father would say, “All praise Allah. But not those who know him.”
This was his last thought as he fell asleep. When he awoke, he found himself seated on a metal stool inside a harshly lit room and he thought he heard someone say “sheriff’s office” after a phone rang. He wasn’t sure of his whereabouts. A police station. Its own little universe. The light blaring. The sounds and sensations distant and hazy. He felt as if he’d been drugged. What time was it and how long had he been in this place?
He was coaxed to stand and then locked into a cage enclosure made of heavy steel. A cop stuck a hose through a gap between the bars. Fluorescent lights glared overhead. Everything looked yellow. In the room’s bright light, Haroon could see this cop was just a boy. What did he know of life? A gun on his belt. So much power.
Haroon, his mouth dry, took his end of the hose. He thought of all the poor kids in cities across the world, especially those from minority populations, whether guilty or not, who never got lessons from their fathers or friends, who never listened, who joined gangs, who lived as if they were gangsters believing they’d never get caught or fall on hard times. Until hard times came. Until one mistake was made that changed everything. Until one gang member mouthed off or showed disrespect toward the wrong person at the wrong time.
Whether in Cairo or California, the mistake was always to be ignorant. To believe you were new or original and that the past didn’t haunt every street, alley and building around you. It took so little to send any cop, already tense, over the edge. Even the best ones, no matter their race, could snap due to pressures of the job. The world they faced each day was rife with criminals. No one in it could be trusted. Kids, especially boys, again no matter the race, needed to be taught to understand this. Rights are not legislated. Or given out. At times, they’re not even earned.
The tube in his mouth, Haroon breathed per the cop’s orders while watching him read a meter at the base of a machine. There was hissing from a pipe shaped like a thin test tube. The cop assessed the meter, pressed a few buttons and then walked away.
Where was Jumbo? What time was it? None of this was legal, was it? Enjoy the surprise. A sullen Haroon heard the big man’s stentorian voice before he saw him. It was an alluring voice that carried between the station’s glazed block walls, Jumbo lilting casually from side to side, entering the station with a cop stiff as a bookend on each of his arms.
Haroon felt his face burning with shame.
A born salesman, though he’d worked for years in agriculture with his hands, Jumbo now sold plumbing supplies at wholesale rates to retailers and developers. He liked to denigrate himself by saying he sold toilets for a living. During the pandemic, he’d filled orders and assured deliveries from his home. He had a baritone’s voice, an easy delivery as he said no they hadn’t been drinking and that Haroon was bone-tired. They both were.
Jumbo appeared so composed. As if this was normal and he did it all the time. He was manning up, finding his center, keeping the fire there on a low simmer. Identifying his outrage and compartmentalizing it. The man had skills, confidence, and a chameleon’s ability to alter his persona to adapt to any situation. These were traits Haroon envied.
When Jumbo approached Haroon and sized him up, he didn’t look angry. Haroon didn’t believe it. Jumbo was just being kind. The man was too savvy to let his real feelings show in front of cops. Maybe he would later, in private. Haroon hoped he’d do so in a fraternal way so to teach, to build Haroon’s confidence, to show forgiveness. This was a form of manning up too.
Haroon knew he looked pitiful and confused. He felt awful. Jumbo didn’t respond when he muttered about the road, his fatigue.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” asked Jumbo.
Haroon wanted to shrug, but he didn’t. Better to speak the truth. “The gorge. My challenge. I wanted to do it myself.”
Jumbo, reflecting, rubbed his chin. He and a pair of cops faced Haroon on the other side of the cage’s bars. Jumbo then turned to one of the cops. “Contact Macon County, or the police station in Franklin if you want to verify anything. You can ask for the police chief. They all know my kin in those parts.”
Haroon’s throat was still so dry that his voice cracked when he spoke, lacking any power. “I was doing my best. Your van, it’s not so easy to drive.”
“Hey, hey, don’t worry. You did it. You got through the gorge. I’ll get us out of here.” He turned to one cop, “You think my friend here can get some water?”
The cop nodded and hurried off, returning promptly with a paper cup of tap water. As Haroon sat there drinking, what frightened him most was realizing how genuinely confused and young the cops appeared. It was as if they didn’t really know what they were doing and were making it up as they went along. One of the cops just gaped at him and Haroon wanted to lash out and ask why he was staring, hadn’t he ever seen an Egyptian in the zoo before.
After clearing his throat, one of the cops said, “We shouldn’t let him go.”
“Test results first,” said another cop. “We got bigger fish to fry.”
“No, we don’t. He’s right here. We got him.”
Were they arguing? It appeared so. The argument ceased when another cop, an older one built like a wrestler without a neck, as if his head had been jammed between his shoulders, became one more uniform among what was now a trio. The primary difference in the features of this third cop was that his face showed more wrinkles, his jowls giving him a bulldog’s look.
Haroon found the silence unbearable. Still seated in his cage, he looked at Jumbo and saw glimpses in his friend, too, of anguished shock, despair and befuddlement.
Seasoned authority figures were less threatening than incompetent ones. Haroon blew a sigh. The bulldog cop was now, unquestionably, in charge of the situation. Feet spread, both hands on his gun belt, he assessed Jumbo, who stood at his side. He drew his eyes down and then up, needing to crane his neck because Jumbo towered over him.
Haroon was still in the gorge. Still being tested. As he waited, he could hear the falling water and he imagined moss-covered stones under foamy rills and pools of water. At last, a fourth cop appeared with the breathalyzer results. Haroon had passed. The bulldog told the others to return to their duties. He told Jumbo there’d be no charges pressed.
“Do you think you can let him out of his chicken coop?”
“You trying to be funny?” asked the bulldog cop. “I can put you in there, if you prefer.”
Jumbo silenced himself. Haroon felt hopeful as he stood, waiting, and the bulldog unlocked the cage and said to him, “If I see you and your friend back here this way again, I reckon you’ll regret it, you hear?”
Jumbo stepped in. “It’s not gonna happen.”
“That so?” The bulldog didn’t appear convinced. “And I will make that call up to Macon County, and to the police chief there, you can be sure of that.”
He can still hurt us, thought Haroon. They can always hurt us. “Sir, I’m very sorry.”
The bulldog, unmoved, remained taciturn.
“Can he get his license back?” asked Jumbo.
“At the front desk.”
Jumbo grabbed Haroon by the wrist and led him out. They retrieved the license and registration and once under the night sky, which was brightening now in the east, Haroon realized how bottled-up he’d been, burning inside. He stood a moment and tasted the air, but it wasn’t sweet and it didn’t relax him. He saw a circle of cops surrounding him, their guns raised, he and Jumbo and the van in the circle’s center. All the cops where white, the same build, their feet spread, their guns out and supported by two hands. He heard one of them shout, “You made it out. So now what are you gonna do?”
God, it seemed, had come out of hiding. As he got into the van, on the passenger side, Haroon said to Jumbo, “Is this really happening?”
Jumbo pursed his lips and stared straight ahead, both his big hands dangling over the steering wheel. “We got ourselves a dose of the old-school South, didn’t we? Just what I was fearing, I think, more than you were.” He blinked his brown eyes twice. He turned to Haroon. “Gets heightened when so much is on the line, doesn’t it?”
Haroon nodded. “Once was enough. I don’t have to do it again.”
Jumbo sounded a sardonic, “I wouldn’t let you.”
They drove a long time without speaking. Haroon nodded off, waking when Jumbo decided to stop for coffee. As the morning continued to rise, they began to talk with more intensity about how fears take on various forms and play all sorts of dramas inside one’s head. Haroon wanted to tell Jumbo about his hallucination, all those armed cops encircling them, but its power shrunk in his mind the more he thought about it. Let that be his private nightmare to carry. He felt startled when he heard himself ask if Jumbo thought God hid at night in places like the gorge. Jumbo, sighing, replied that most days he wasn’t even sure if God existed.