“Love thy neighbor” was no longer working for him. He had no neighbors, only hordes of strangers living virtually on top of him. The ties that bind had been severed strand by strand until the narrowest of threads was all that tethered him. Something had to give and as he felt the clawing hands dragging him ever downward he could not help but wonder if he had outstayed his useful existence. Perhaps it was time to drift away and perhaps he would take others with him.
Phil Mordan had spent nearly all of his 55 years in Iowa. His roots were there. Family, friends and, until they’d “offered” him an early retirement, his job. Grilcar hadn’t been the best place to work but it had paid well. Not a lot of places where a man with a high school education can earn fifty five thousand a year without putting himself in danger.
That great pay had been the problem of course. Iowa is full of old people and Grilcar’s payroll was heavy because of seniority. New hires came in at less than half of his $24 an hour pay and the newbies didn’t have the same benefits he did so the boys upstairs figured the easiest way to bring costs down was to offer a severance package to everybody who was over fifty and had at least twenty years in.
Phil wasn’t forced to take the package but it was made clear that there would be significant changes made in 2015 and that the severance was a take it or leave it proposition. Hourly employees were informed of the offer on Wednesday, November 26th and they had until Wednesday, December 31st to decide if they were going to stay or go. Even management wasn’t exempt, though rumor had it that they had a different package offered to them. The contract for the new year wouldn’t be out until 2015 but everybody knew that times were tough at Grilcar. Phil took the severance along with nearly three hundred other hourlies.
Christmas had been okay. Phil wasn’t the kind to let things beyond his control rattle him too much and once the new year rolled over and he got the skinny on the 2015 Grilcar contract he figured that taking the early out had been the right choice. He knew he should look for a job but it was a whole lot easier to just chill while his wife Ruth went to work at Transcor. Things were okay and when he felt down he could always slip into the basement and light up, drug tests now being a part of his past.
Time on his hands meant that Phil could play video games, watch movies, even read the paper and listen to the news. He’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the January, 2015 massacre in France. Although he knew Muslims thought it was sacrilege to make pictures of their main prophet Muhammad or to burn their holy book the Quran he couldn’t fathom why that could lead to slaughter. Once he’d heard about the death threats to people who drew pictures of Muhammad he’d wondered why people had to antagonize one another. It seemed like the biggest and most absurd pissing match in the world.
Not that somebody shouldn’t be allowed to draw pictures of Muhammad if they wanted but what was the point of sticking it to somebody? He remembered how upset his mom had gotten when that fellow had put a crucifix in a bottle of urine back in the eighties and called it “art.”
Phil wasn’t a believer but he just figured that Jesus on a cross covered in piss was way more mean spirited than drawing pictures of Muhammad. People all over the world had hollered about how disgraceful Jesus in a bottle was and when Americans learned that tax dollars had helped fund the A-hole who came up with that crap there was talk about not funding folks with NPR or NEA or ATF money or whatever agency sponsored a guy who literally pissed on America’s values. Still, there hadn’t been folks who hunted him down and murdered him.
That was a big difference between Muslims who lived elsewhere and the ones he knew in Cedar Rapids. The ones he knew were mostly regular Joes like his buddy Said. Dude didn’t drink but he was okay. Didn’t push his religion down other people’s throats the way a lot of Christians tried to either and when he’d invited Phil to the Muslim Center in downtown Cedar Rapids for some annual fund raising dinner Phil had brought Ruth along and they’d had a nice time.
They ran into some folks there that he didn’t even know were Muslims like Ruth’s coworker Lila and their neighbors from up the street , the Hiltons. The Mordans and Hiltons had sat together at the dinner and talked about their kids just like neighbors tend to do. Phil walked away from the dinner wondering why so many fools lumped Muslims together with the terrorists. How much of a threat can Muslims be if they lived their lives peacefully and you didn’t even know they were Muslims?
The dinner had been in April and early in May Tom Hilton had been walking by while Phil finally got around to a little lawn beautification, raking some of the leaves he’d missed in the fall and gathering up small branches and twigs that had fallen over the winter. Phil had just brought a tarp filled with leaves down to the edge of his lawn and emptied it along the curb where they’d be picked up and composted by the city. Tom saw him and said, “Lawn’s looking good, Phil. It was nice to see you at the Islamic Center last month.”
“That was a nice spread, we enjoyed it,” Phil replied with a nod. “I’m really glad Said suggested we go. Have you fellas been at that location very long?”
“Really?” Tom asked. “You don’t know that we have The Mother Mosque here in Cedar Rapids? It’s the oldest mosque in North America. We celebrated eighty years in 2014.”
“You’re pulling my leg. The oldest mosque is in Cedar Rapids? I would have figured New York or San Francisco or something.”
“Nope. First mosque in North America is right here. Well, I see you’re working so I’ll let you go.”
“Yeah, I better finish before Ruth get’s home from work. Hey. Before you go I got a question for you. Why is it so bad to draw pictures of Muhammad? I mean that thing in France back in January was just nuts. And then yesterday in Texas with that idiotic draw Muhammad contest? Killing people or getting killed just because they drew pictures?”
Tom hesitated, looked at his feet, pursed his lips, nodded and then after inhaling and holding his breath a moment said, “Both of those instances were very sad. My brothers in Texas were completely misguided and everyone who loves Allah is glad that they were not able to spread even more violence here in the US.
“No one should die for expressing themselves and of course one religion’s sacrilege is another person’s free speech. No one at Charlie Hebdo deserved to die no matter how despicable their satirical cartoons are. Allah will judge us all. It is wrong for someone to take the law into his own hands no matter how obscene the pictures were.”
“Obscene? What do you mean? Just because they were of your prophet?”
Tom tilted his head and brought his eyebrows together. “Have you seen the pictures? Charlie Hebdo is uniquely French. The goal is to stick a thumb in the eye of everyone. The magazine is obscene and those who buy it only spur them on. Still, it is a terrible atrocity when someone who claims to serve Allah murders over blasphemous words or pictures. Part of living in a free society is allowing the cock roaches to run free. The West is accustomed to this but the heinous images of The Prophet are too much for those that feel that any insult must be answered. I pray for those that were killed and hope that we can all learn to live together.”
“‘All learn to live together.’ Ain’t that the truth. Good seeing you. Your Mother Mosque seems like a real nice place and I can’t tell you how much it pisses me off when folks lump all you Muslims in with the terrorists. Reminds me of Northern Ireland back in the seventies. Or people hating Jews just because they’re Jews. Ridiculous.”
Tom nodded. “That it is. We can all pray for peace and tolerance. I’ll see you, my friend,” he said, offering his hand.
“Yep. I’ll see you.”
Later on once Phil had gone on line and checked out Charlie Hebdo he understood why Tom had called the pictures obscene. From what he could tell those French boys did like to make fun of everybody though, not just Muhammad. Terrible that a thumb in the eye should lead to murder.
Phil shook his head as he thought back to the sixties race riots when he was a little boy. How his father Gary shook his head and said, “Somebody better put them darkies in their place or the whole country’s gonna burn.”
His mother had stared at Gary, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head back and forth. “Yes. Here in Lisbon we have such a terrible problem, don’t we.” Dad had glared at her in return.
Looking at the pile of dead leaves in the gutter Phil said to himself, “It isn’t any one kind of folks who can be incited to kill. Back when I was in high school and those neo-Nazis marched through Skokie there sure could have been riots. Illinois National Guard was the only thing that kept the match off that dynamite. Pops seemed to think that those brown shirts marching through a neighborhood that was full of Holocaust survivors was pretty good entertainment. There’d been a lot of shouting but no shooting. Yes, Gary Mordan you were one mean son of a bitch. Rot in hell, you old bastard.”
Yeah, it was a shame that the killings in France had cast a bad light on Muslims all over the world. A few bad apples can sure make a mess for everybody else. But just like Phil was different than his old man most Muslims were not running around beheading folks or shooting ’em because of disrespecting the other fellow’s beliefs. At least not here. Not in the USA.