Excerpt from “From Luna Park to the Levantine Sea” by Michael Keefe

December, 2015

Khaled wiped the espresso machine with a damp cotton rag. The white holiday lights strung across Broome Street smudged gray through the Plexiglas window of his coffee truck. Holiday lights—even in his private thoughts, the euphemism for Christmas had taken root.

Maybe he would close early. Even his loyal Arab patrons had abandoned him today. It was for their sake that Khaled set out two small bistro tables and a cluster of folding chairs beside his truck each day. For their sake and for his. Watching them gather and squabble like pigeons, arguing politics and playing backgammon—a hopelessly small reminder of life in Aleppo before the war.

Khaled stooped behind the pastry case. Into a plastic bag, he dropped unsold croissants, bagels, and muffins. They would be tomorrow’s day-old treats, sold at half price. Triangles of baklava—baked fresh each day by a Lebanese woman down the street from him in Sunnyside—these he covered in cling wrap. He would bring them to his poetry group, or his grief support group, or home. Home. Khaled lived in the guest room of a house that belonged to his distant cousin, Nadia Poole, and her husband, a contract lawyer named Greg. They had a daughter, Sara, and a pair of beady-eyed terriers. Nadia was Khaled’s family by blood, but just barely. And it was her home, not his.


Khaled recognized the thick Eastern European accent. And the casual racism inherent in the misnomer. All the muscles in his ribcage tensed.

“Hey, Abdul.”

The cabbie.

Khaled took one full cycle of calming breath, then stood. “Hello, sir.” He forced a modest smile to his lips. These little gestures greased the gears of daily life. Or maybe this was an Arabian idea. Very few of the native New Yorkers he’d encountered seemed to share this philosophy. “And what will it be today?”

“Usual.” The cabbie set two dollar bills and one quarter on the ledge—the exact cost of a small Americano.

Khaled dosed the portafilter with the finely ground beans he purchased from a boutique vendor in Brooklyn, then tamped down the grounds. He kept his head bowed, waiting for the espresso to pour.

“So, Abdul.”

Despite himself, Khaled looked up.

The cabbie had a wedge-shaped head, like a chisel. He glanced side-to-side, as if he continued to monitor the shifting tides of New York City traffic, whether driving his Yellow Cab or standing on a deserted sidewalk. “Your Islam friends. They take day off from planning jihad, or what?”

The espresso dripped in amber then streamed dark into the shot glasses. A pillowy crema settled to the top. Khaled poured the shots into a paper cup and added hot water. He set the drink on the chrome ledge outside the Plexiglas window.

The cabbie had dark blue eyes. They weren’t hard eyes, or cruel eyes. If they offered a view of the man’s soul, then the animosity must reside in his mind.

“Why do you come here?” Khaled hadn’t known the question would slip from his mouth until he’d asked it.

“Why?” The cabbie frowned. “What why?”

“You could get an Americano anywhere. If you dislike Arabs, why come here?”

“Oh.” The cabbie nodded. He had a shrewd smile—mischievous perhaps, or cunning. “This is best coffee. Strong. Good taste.” He took the paper cup from the metal ledge and walked back to the corner, where his taxi sat idling at the curb.

At the bottom of an invoice, Khaled wrote down the medallion number of the cab. Then he closed his business for the day. Once everything was stowed, he would drive his food truck across the East River to the commissary to have it cleaned and stored over night. Afterward, he would ride the subway to Nadia’s house in Queens. He might help Sara with her homework, or try to coerce some lines of poetry from his weary mind, or subject himself to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Syrian War. Inevitably, he would join his host family for a dinner of pizza, or take-out Chinese, or—for Khaled’s sake—falafel and shawarma. Then he would retire to his room. In his email, he might or might not find a new link to one of the mysterious videos: the drone feeds of ruined Aleppo.

Rina, are you there?


Summer, 2012

From the brass dallah, Khaled poured a shallow pool of Arabic coffee into the demitasse that sat upon the silver serving tray. He draped a starched napkin over his forearm and carried the tray in brisk steps across the mosaic tile floor. Khaled managed the café at the Caravanserai, a hotel in New Aleppo named for the roadside inns of Arabia past. The presentation of the coffee confused most of their Western guests—they frowned at the thimble-sized serving of muddy brew and regarded the dallah as if rubbing its curved body might cause a djinn to billow from its spout.

But this guest, despite his American accent, appeared familiar with the local ways. He dressed like a journalist, in a rugged version of business casual that could be paired with either coat and tie or flak jacket and binoculars. And the sun had cooked his white skin a pinkish brown. Since the rebels began their siege of the city the month before, the Hotel Caravanserai had very few guests, and most of these were diplomats and members of the press. Who else would come?

Khaled set the tray on the marble tabletop.

“Thanks.” The man looked up from his phone. “Hey.” He squinted at Khaled, appraising him. “Know any restaurants with good arayes? The kind of place where locals go, I mean. There was this great little hole-in-the-wall joint over in the Salaheddine district. But it was next door to an FSA stronghold, and the regime bombed the hell out of it.”

Khaled’s English was strong, but his interpretation tripped over the hole that seemed to have existed in the wall of the restaurant prior to its recent destruction. And, when he tried to envision the perfect plate of arayes, Khaled saw only the great feasts that filled the dining room table at Rina’s parents’ house. He could taste the golden pita, lightly crisped, and stuffed with lamb both tender and perfectly spiced. “Sorry, sir. Maybe I could ask the concierge if he—”

The guest’s smart phone vibrated against the side of the serving tray. He raised an index finger—American for both “I’m ready to order” and “I’m going to interrupt you now”—and turned away to answer.

Khaled was halfway across the café when he registered the English word school and the urgency in the journalist’s voice.

“What school?” the man asked. “Which district?”

The world turned quiet and soft. Khaled knew, but told himself he didn’t know. The neighborhood would be his own, and the school would be the one his son attended. Joram, seven years old. Khaled moved as if underwater, his limbs all but useless against the pressure of the ocean’s depth. He knew what the news of the school would be. Anymore, Aleppo had no other news to tell.

Khaled’s cell phone sat on a shelf behind the coffee bar. Its little gray screen displayed three new voice mails. The blood in his body seemed to freeze. In working-class Syria, no one left voice messages—it was cheaper to hang up after one ring and wait for the other party to call back on a landline. As Khaled reached for his phone, it shuddered with a new call. Rina’s number lit up on the screen. And he understood that, once he answered, their only child would be dead.



Read the rest of “From Luna Park to the Levantine Sea” in our eighth print annual, available now.




Michael Keefe is a bookseller in Portland, Oregon. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Thin Air Magazine, and Bluestem Magazine, among others.


(Front page image via)

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