The Former Mayor of Baghdad

Door in Iraq
Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

The former mayor of Baghdad opened a restaurant in my east Denver neighborhood. He’s our guy. Or used to be. He’s the one we installed after we took over. Listen to me. We. I mean the government. I didn’t do shit.

Out there on the sidewalk is how I meet him. He’s supervising a new sign being hung out front and I’m, well. Who knows. Walking, I guess. Since Jenn left I’ve been having difficulty connecting to the why of what I’m doing. Find myself in the grocery store, staring at the shelves. Someone comes up and goes, Sir, what are you looking for? And then there’s me standing in the aisle with an empty cart, not knowing what to say. Upsetting when it happens a few times in a row.

The team working to hang the sign in front of the restaurant takes up the whole sidewalk. Excuse me, I say to the former mayor of Baghdad, though I won’t know that detail until later.

Ah yes, he responds. He holds up one finger. He waves at his crew to pause. He ushers me through. We open next week, he says, giving me his card. Do you like Iraqi food?

I haven’t had Iraqi food, I tell him.

This makes him very excited. My friend, he says. Do you know it will be like? Amazing grace. Yes? You are blind, but you will see.

I tell him maybe. I’m being friendly because that’s just how we are in this neighborhood. I’m being friendly because I don’t know how to tell him he’s doomed. It’s a good place to live but he’s chosen a bad location for a business. Since I’ve lived here it’s been a brunch spot, a furniture showroom, a design agency, and now it’s Al-Basha, Denver’s first and only Iraqi restaurant.

I know that because later I find a business journal article about it online. That’s where I discover he’s the former mayor of Baghdad. I wonder what the location will be next. After all, it’s just a matter of time. The city will reclaim the spot from the former mayor of Baghdad like it did from all the other business owners. His mistake is thinking that he is special. That he is exempt from the rules of nature. He, of course, is not because, of course, no one is.

Listen to me. Like I’ve got all the answers.

#

I’m not the first person in the world to get divorced. It just feels that way. People have been saying to me that it’s okay to be sad about this, but when I do, the feeling of despair is too delicious and I can feel the ground shift beneath me as I sink further into the folds of endless gray blankets. So easy to be sad about Jenn, but also sad about everything. So easy to empty all effort into this one comfy dumpster of being miserable all the fucking time.

Yikes, I think.

The important thing is to stay busy. Which wouldn’t be so hard except I’m not working right now. I can’t explain it any better than this: I woke up one day and was not able to deal with the fact that it was September again.

Jim, I’m sick, I emailed my boss from my phone as I watched all my neighbors climb into their cars from my bedroom window. I had wrapped the bed sheet around me like a wedding dress. I’m not coming in, I typed.

That was two weeks ago. I have not replied to subsequent emails which were sent in the guise of checking up on me.

Today I detect a note of panic in his check up. Are you ever coming back?? he asks. Double question marks like it’s me making the decisions. He’s clueless. I don’t respond.

They’ll eventually stop paying me. I know that. I just don’t give a shit.

#

It is too early in the evening to be so drunk except that I am. I am drunk from the bladder of wine I snuck into a big dumb superhero movie that I half-watched, half-slept through.

I’m missing pieces, I say to the Uber driver on my way home. Or like I have them, but they’re in the wrong spot. Or like there are parts leftover from assembly still rattling around inside me.

Where do you feel them rattle? The driver has presented himself at the onset of our journey as something of a mystic.

I move around in the backseat, trying to see where I can feel my leftover pieces. Somewhere in my balls, I say.

Interesting, he says. May I ask how much time you spend contemplating God? For me, I would estimate forty percent.

Same, I say.

Let’s change the subject, he says. What’s your favorite documentary?

I pretend to think about it and then I pretend to fall asleep.

You’re home, he says when we arrive at my place.

Eh, I say.

#

For the same reason I couldn’t handle it being September, I cannot yet face my empty little house. This is how my walks begin and walking makes me recall the former mayor of Baghdad and recalling the former mayor of Baghdad puts me on a trajectory to his doomed restaurant and upon opening the door to Al-Basha, I am greeted with a sweet and warm faceful of air. Beyond it I find a dozen golden blanketed tables, each one full of plates and people and towers of food with exotic smelling sauces and wordless, happy noise droning from each chewing face. Music from the old world plinks away in the background.

I shake my head. They don’t know this place is doomed.

There is no room for me among the diners, but there is room for me among the drinkers. I sit at the bar, wave away the menu, and ask for a bottle of their cheapest red wine, which turns out to be a metallic tasting merlot. Listen to me. Suddenly so discerning. I drink two glasses fast which leads to me being drunk enough to become master of the universe, an achievement you can unlock with a certain volume and velocity of red wine.

The entire universe now safely under my control, I begin conducting the orchestra of the restaurant around me, telekinetically guiding the waitstaff through negotiations with the kitchen and the customers and each other. There is a wild harmony to a room full of smells and people and they should be grateful I am at the helm, that I am drunk enough to ascend to this spiritual plane where I can assign each atom its rightful position in space.

I’ll see him now, I say to the bartender after I finish the bottle of wine.

Who? she says.

The former mayor of Baghdad, I say. The owner. We met last week. I have a very important message for him.

The bartender tells me the owner isn’t there tonight, but that I can leave my message with her.

Good because the message is this, I say. The message is that you are doomed. That doom awaits you. But that not to worry because when you fail it won’t be your fault. And that the world is simply recorrecting. And that you did your best. But it’s okay. And even though I didn’t try the food, it really seems like some people like it a lot. But also you’re still doomed.

I ask the bartender if she wants to write any of this down. She says she has a good memory. I say if you have such a good memory then what was this place before it was Al-Basha?

She says that this place isn’t Al-Basha, that it’s Arnoldi’s, that it’s been at this location for 15 years. That it’s an institution in this neighborhood. She looks a little concerned. She says that Al-Basha is the new Middle Eastern place across the street.

Across the street? I say and she hands me my bill.

You’re not where you think you are, the bartender informs me.

#

There’s no bar in Al-Basha. Just a few red tables that would be entirely empty if not for the quiet family of four eating in the corner with their heads bowed. There is no music, no art on the walls, no color at all. Nothing but the untucked maroon shirt of one teenaged waiter. He doesn't move a muscle when I walk in. His face is hidden by hair as he stares at his phone.

I stand there for a little while and I’m about to leave when the former mayor of Baghdad comes out of the kitchen and rushes to meet me at the door. My friend, he says. I knew you would come.

I am unable to tell whether he recognizes me from the sidewalk or whether this is just his schtick. Walking across the street has greatly diminished my powers as the master of the universe. There is no harmony in this place to bend into tunefulness, no energy force to swirl in invisible currents. A sour taste in my mouth replaces my fading winebuzz.

You will have the lamb, the former mayor of Baghdad says. The quzi. There is no argue. Please.

He seats me at the center table, a place of high honor, I assume, and I nod to the quiet family eating in the corner. I am served a plate of yellow rice and blackened knobs of meat. I have a couple bites. It’s fine. In some ways, it’d be better if the food was a disaster because then it could be more easily explained to him when forces of nature come for their due. Probably no one has explained to him how it doesn’t matter what you do, how hard you try, some things are just black holes. They just take from you, they suck you dry, and even though you can’t stop it, it’s better to know so you don’t be so hard on yourself when it happens.

My friend, the former mayor of Baghdad says as he takes the seat across from me. He pours a milky liquid from a metal tumbler over ice in two small glasses.

Arak, he says.

I cheers him. Arak, I say and drink.

No, he says. This drink is called arak.

I cheers him again. Arak! I say and drink again.

No, no my friend. This is the name of it. The name. Arak.

I thought you were from arak? I say.

He pauses. I am from Iraq, he says slowly and then catches on and smiles.

I smile back sadly. This poor bastard.

You love the lamb, he says, pointing to my plate.

I wish it were that simple, I say. I finish my arak. The former mayor of Baghdad refills my glass. I’ve come to let you know something, I say. My powers as master of the universe are tingling back into my limbs and I decide to start from a high level.

You are going to die, I say, gesturing with my hand as if to say far ahead, sometime in the future.

The former mayor of Baghdad nods. Yes, he says.

But it comes faster for some men, doesn’t it?

Yes, he says solemnly and sips his arak.

Like some places, I say. Some places are prone to catastrophe.

I know this, he says.

I shake my head. No, I say. I’m talking about this place, this restaurant. It’s something about this spot.

He nods again. Yes, he says. There is something special here.

I bang my fist on the table. No! Goddamnit. You’re not listening. You’re doomed. Don’t you see? It’s nothing you did. It’s a curse. It’s a law of nature.

He bangs his fist on the table back at me. Ahh! he says. See? I can do too. Hm? Nothing I did? There is no knowing what I have done. Hm? Maybe you are cursed. Maybe you are doomed. Have you thought that? You think this was my number one choice of the world? You think they gave me so many choices? You think I don’t know they gave me what no one else wants? Eh? I say okay because what other spot do they have for me? No spots.

The former mayor of Baghdad drains his glass. I was hunched forward, hands on the table, but now I slump back.

So you know? I say.

Of course I know, he says. I am a businessman.

The man in the family of four signs the check for their meal. I’m trying to nod at him like when I arrived but he won’t look at me. I realize he’s uncomfortable on my behalf. I am suddenly very sober.

It seemed bigger inside me somehow, I say to the former mayor of Baghdad. It seemed very important to tell you.

Maybe important for you, the former mayor of Baghdad points to me and then to himself. For me, there is not that.

The teenage waiter buses my partially eaten lamb. Would you believe I thought I was helping? I ask.

Of course I believe you, he says, splitting the last of the arak between our two glasses. American helping. I know this story.

#

I know I should wait for the morning to reply to my boss, but I don’t. There is a lingering sensation of having learned something and I want to capture it because doing so will mean that it’s definable, which means it’s fixable, which means someone can finally help me, that I’ll finally know how to ask, that if only I could be genuine and honest for once, in this one email, the world’s axis would shift back into place and I’m so, so close except for the fact that everything I write is such awful dogshit.

Jim, I write. For thousands of years, men have suffered. New paragraph. I am such a man.

I replace men with people. I cross out such a man and write no different. It’s been two hours. I hope I’m not actually going insane. That would be humiliating.

It takes me the rest of the night but I do it. Listen to me. Some kind of grad student.

Listen to me. I mean, please. Anybody. I need someone to know this.

Jim, I write. I’m starting to feel a little better.

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