Jawad Zain was sucking on an ice cube in the kitchen when his phone started vibrating in his pants. Like most waiters who worked at Les Trois Moutons, he had the habit of keeping his phone on silent mode, even when he was off duty. The waiters of Les Trois Moutons were only allowed to use their mobile phones during breaks, and if they wanted to keep their devices in their pockets while they were serving tables, they had to either switch them off or put them on silent mode. If ever a waiter’s phone rang on the restaurant’s premises, the said waiter was terminated on the spot.
The unexpected call interrupted Jawad’s train of thought. When his phone started vibrating, the freezer door of the refrigerator was open. He was staring blankly at the frozen burger patties in front of him, thinking about the word ‘hope’ and what it meant for the average Lebanese citizen. Lebanon was a district in hell, run by primeval devils and their subordinate fiends. No matter how hard one worked, he could barely afford to live a miserable life. It had been a few years since Jawad got his bachelor’s degree, and he was still a waiter. There was no point in dreaming big, American dreams. There was no point in planning. There was no point in living. Yet he observed how others silenced their perplexed minds, wilted hearts, and roaring stomachs with hope. He did the same. He lived with hope because one couldn’t live without it. One must have hope even when there is nothing to hope for. The predicament of the Lebanese citizen was a little like that quote his friend had shared on Facebook the other day. ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ What was the name of that skinny old man with forehead wrinkles? Wrinkles that reminded him of waves, waves generated by recurring sessions of brain masturbation. When he was still attending university, he had come across that wrinkled forehead in one of his elective courses. What was his name? Hackett? That was the name. Samuel Hackett? Something like that.
The phone vibrated for about a minute before Jawad decided to answer it. He closed the freezer door, spat the ice cube into the kitchen sink, and let out a loud and satisfying, odorless fart. He pulled his Android out of his pocket and saw that the caller was his unbeloved boss.
“Hello, buddy,” said Ali Hussein, the restaurant manager. “Can you believe it? The customers are becoming fussier every day. This woman just complained that her mushroom soup was too hot. She didn’t shut up until I offered a free dessert.”
Jawad detected an awkward friendliness in his manager’s baritone voice and instantly construed why he was calling. Some loser must have called in sick, he thought, and now he’s going to drag my ass back to work.
Ali Hussein only called his subordinates ‘buddy’ when he needed a favor. The last time Ali used the word ‘buddy’ was a couple of months ago, on inventory day, when he needed Jawad to stay after closing to help him count the liquor bottles in the storeroom. Ali never counted the liquor bottles. He delegated someone else to do it.
“Umm, I wanted to ask you something. What are your plans for tonight?” Ali inquired in the friendliest manner possible. He sounded like a teenager who was trying to ask the most popular girl in class out on a date.
It was 7:30 PM, and Jawad had just returned home from his day shift. He had no plans of going back to work. Time passed slowly at Les Trois Moutons; another shift meant another thousand years serving food to people who didn’t know what to order from the French menu. He had other plans. He intended to devour a massive ham and cheese sandwich and then hang out with the boys.
“Well,” Jawad said and, after a long pause, to buy himself some additional time to think, he added, “Hmm? I couldn’t hear you.”
“What are you doing tonight? Do you have plans?” Ali repeated, a little louder.
“I was just getting ready, actually. I just got out of the shower. I’m getting dressed now, and then I’ll be heading out.”
“Heading out where, buddy?”
“Well, I promised my parents that I’d be having dinner with them tonight,” Jawad lied. Every waiter used this fib at least once every season or so to take a day off. In actuality, Jawad’s mother was on her deathbed, and he wasn’t on good terms with his father. He never went home, and he seldom communicated with his father.
Telling Ali the truth wasn’t an option. He wasn’t going to tell him that he was planning to imbibe one pitcher of beer after another with the boys until midnight. That wasn’t a good enough reason not to go back to work. Besides, Ali wasn’t a drinker, even though he ran the operations of a restaurant that served alcohol. “It’s haram,” he kept reminding Jawad and his other Muslim coworkers who consumed alcoholic beverages on a regular basis. Ali frowned upon alcoholics, and Jawad knew this. If his plandidn’t sound ‘pressing’ enough, Ali would have surely found a way to persuade him to cancel it. Therefore, he lied.
“My mother will kill me if I don’t show up,” he added. “You know how mothers are.”
“Hmm,” Ali said, making it clear that he was skeptical. He knew how a waiter’s mind worked. He was one for six years before getting his first managerial position. He had to lie to take days off, too, especially on holidays.
“I was going to ask you to punch in at 9 PM,” Ali continued after a pause, “If you work the second half of the night shift, I’ll make sure you get recompensed for canceling your plans. Mahmoud called in sick, and I need an extra waiter. Sandy is on her way to the airport, and Sama is in Batroun. You’re my only hope.”
“Oh, I would if I could, but I just can’t tonight. My parents are waiting.”
“I see. I see,” the friendliness in Ali’s voice faded. “There’s no way you can postpone your family dinner, right?”
“I’m afraid not. The meals are cooked, you know.”
On any other day, Jawad would have considered taking the extra shift. Customers were more likely to spend more money on alcohol at night; subsequently, they tipped better. Working an extra night shift was a good deal; however, today was Wednesday.
His friends were waiting for him at Café Carré, a coffee shop hidden in a grim alleyway on the periphery of Hamra. Compared to the more famous coffee shops located on the main street, Café Carré was below average. It did not meet the most basic safety and hygiene standards. But the coffee was acceptable and cheap.
“Zain the Man, you’re late!” Sammy said.
Sammy was twenty-seven, tall and overweight, passionate about basketball, and unemployed. He was Jawad’s best friend. They did everything together.
The third member of the crew was Hassan. He was sitting at the table next to Sammy with his legs crossed. He looked like the stereotypical, Arab man one sees in Hollywood movies: brown-eyed, bearded, and tanned skin. He was a twenty-six-year-old taxi driver who never had the chance to go to college. His father died from cardiac arrest when he was seventeen. Consequently, life appointed him the man of the family who had to take care of his mother and his two younger sisters. But that didn’t stop Hassan, who always loved philosophy, from becoming a well-read man. Even though Jawad and Sammy were the university graduates, Hassan was the group’s intellectual. He was an avid book reader and a merciless beer drinker. Jawad found him puking on himself in the W.C. of Sam’s Beer House one night, and they became friends ever since.
Jawad high-fived both of his friends and sat at the table with them. He nodded at the barista, and the barista winked at him. Jawad was a regular, and he was friends with the staff. Within minutes, he had a double espresso and a bottle of sparkling water in front of him.
“Thanks,” he said to the waiter who brought him his usual order. “And please,” he added, “Can we pay now? We’re not staying here for long.”
“Sure thing,” the waiter said and went to ask the barista, who was also the cashier, for the bill.
On the table in front of him was a book. Jawad picked it up and flipped through it without pausing to read a sentence or even a word. He looked at Hassan — the only one of the three who read books — and asked him about its content.
“It’s called Memory for Forgetfulness, as you can see. Have you heard of Mahmoud Darwish? He is one of the greatest Arab poets who ever lived. Hmm? You know, there’s a part where he talks about coffee. I think you’ll like it. Hand me the book; let me show you.”
“I’m not interested in reading about coffee. Coffee does not belong to poetry. You’re supposed to drink it, not write about it.”
Sammy high-fived Jawad for the witty comment. Then they both grabbed each other’s head, head-butted, and said, “Ka-boom!” Their movements were synchronized — the result of a decade of friendship.
“Oh, look! I’m a poet, and there’s a cup of coffee right here!” Sammy said, trying to keep the witticism’s momentum going. “What should I do with it? I know! Why don’t I write about it?”
“Why don’t you shut up,” Hassan exploded. “Look at you, you idiot. Camus was right when he said that ‘unintelligence must be earned.’ You make a lot of effort to remain ignorant. You never want to learn anything, and you make fun of people who do. Don’t laugh, Jawad! You’re not better than him, you know.”
“Why don’t you shut your mouth and write a poem about my cup of coffee,” Sammy smiled a mirthless smile. He wasn’t the wittiest person at the table or anywhere.
“Are we going to do this the whole night?” Jawad asked. “Let’s go and get drunk, boys! What do you say?”
The waiter came with the bill, and the boys split it in silence. As they waited for their change, Sammy lit a cigarette and said, “Hassan, habibi, I’m sorry, truly sorry. I was just playing with you.”
“It’s alright,” Hassan said.
Sammy extended his hand, initiating a handshake, but Hassan rejected it and gave him the middle finger instead.
“You can suck on this,” Hassan said, “but I forgive you.”
While his friends were arguing, Jawad felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He could tell by the short, intermittent vibrations that it wasn’t an incoming call. Someone was either texting him or sending him voice messages. It turned out to be the latter, and the sender was Ali. This is very stressful, Jawad thought, I don’t want to think about work tonight. He unlocked his mobile phone and put it on airplane mode. He didn’t bother listening to his manager’s voice messages.
“On your birthday I’m buying you a rope for you to hang yourself,” Sammy was addressing Hassan. “If you buy me a beer later, I’ll forgive you, too. I’m really broke. My flatmate packed his things and abandoned me last month. He didn’t say anything. He just left and never came back. I tried reaching out to him, but he doesn’t answer when I call. I have no clue where he is. Maybe he is dead. I had to pay his bit of the rent this month. What a jerk! I hope he’s not dead or in prison because I really want to kick his ass. Some of his stuff is still in his room, but there’s nothing I can sell — just a bunch of shirts, underwear, and gizmos from the nineties nobody uses.”
“Save your tears, crocodile,” Jawad said. “We don’t care. You can cry when my sick mother dies next month. Besides, you’ve always been broke anyway. You’ve been low on cash since the day I met you. Ha-ha, I paid for half of the beers you’ve drunk in the past ten years. The other half, Hassan paid for.”
“Tonight, I’m not buying anyone anything,” Hassan said. “I am low on cash, too.”
“I have money,” Jawad said.
At that moment, a good-looking girl in tight jeans walked in and ordered two espressos in paper cups. The boys had seen her before, but they did not know her name. She was a salesperson in one of the clothes stores nearby. When her boss had visitors, he would often send her to fetch espressos. Café Carré was the nearest coffee shop.
“One day, I’m going to ask her out,” Hassan said while he checked her out.
“How? Are you going to read her a love poem or something?” Sammy drew a smile on his face again.
“A poem that will make her undress,” Hassan said and then winked at Sammy.
“Ooh, you dirty little poet. By the way, weren’t you working on a poem just before Jawad arrived?”
“Why don’t you read it for us?”
Hassan kept his eyes on the girl. He shook his head, bit his lips, sighed, put his hand on his chest, stood up and sat back down, and then shook his head again. When he finally turned to his friends, he found them snickering.
“So, Shakespeare, are you going to read that poem?” Sammy asked again. “It’s been a while since you last shared anything.”
“I’m not in the mood. This isn’t a poetry recital gathering, is it? Let’s just go and get wasted. I need to get her off my mind.”
“You don’t have much money. So I’ll buy you your first beer if you read your poem now,” Jawad said. “Read your poem. Why not? It’s not a long one, is it?
“No,” Hassan said. “It’s a short one.”
He unlocked his phone with his thumbprint and opened the notepad application in which he had saved his poem. He looked at the girl one more time before she left.
“What’s it called?” Sammy asked.
“There’s no title yet,” Hassan answered.
“Go on,” Jawad said.
“Okay, now shut up. It is only a first draft, alright?” Hassan made that clear before reading his newly drafted poem:
Leaning against a car parked on the side of the street
peeling a banana, eating a banana
waiting for her knight in shining armor
to come riding a motorcycle
and pick her up, take her
to a fancy
restaurant where the food is good
and the Wi-Fi connection is fast
and free, so that she
can take a selfie
and show the world how happy
“That’s not bad at all, bro,” Sammy said.
“It is terrible,” Hassan said. “Fortunately, you know nothing about poetry.”
They all laughed together. Even the waiter who had brought them their change laughed. He was standing behind Hassan when the latter was reciting the poem.
“Nice,” the waiter said and moved on to serve other tables.
The boys downed their espressos like tequila shots and left.
As they walked towards their favorite bar, Jawad decided to text Gregory the Monster. He pulled out his phone, switched back the settings to go back online, and dialed Gregory’s number.
Gregory the Monster was an angry, walking mountain. He was not a member of their crew, but he told funny jokes when he was intoxicated. The boys liked his company. He was nicknamed ‘The Monster’ after beating the crap out of three Syrian construction workers in an abandoned parking lot one night. After the incident, some of the people who knew him said that Gregory had always been a racist and that he had always hated Syrians. When the boys asked him if that were true, Gregory said no. The boys believed him.
“He’s not answering,” Jawad said as they crossed Hamra’s main street.
“Who?” Hassan asked.
“The Monster,” Jawad replied. “He’s probably asleep.”
Jawad still had his phone in his hand when the phone vibrated again. He wasn’t surprised when he saw it was Ali. At first, he wasn’t going to answer, but he saw that it was 9:30 PM; there was no way Ali could force him to go to work.
He answered, “Hello?”
“Jawad, buddy, guess what,” Ali said. “Your colleague Mahmoud came to work, and he has a fever. I asked him to come, and he did even though he was sick. Nice guy, eh? I don’t need you anymore.”
“Oh, great,” Jawad said. He turned to his friends, who were a few steps behind him, and waved his hand at them. He then brought his index finger to his lips. If Ali knew he was out with his friends drinking, he would be very pissed.
“Yes, indeed, that’s great,” Ali said, “and guess what.”
“What?” Jawad didn’t feel like playing guessing games with his boss. “Tell me.”
“You heard me. You’re fired. There’s no need for you to come tomorrow. Pass by at the beginning of the month to get your salary.”
“Wait. Why am I fired?”
“Do you want to guess why? No need, buddy, because I’ll tell you right now! On his way here, Mahmoud saw you enjoying coffee with your boys. You see, I don’t like to work with liars. You’re a liar, Jawad.”
Ali hung up before Jawad could come up with an answer.
“Looks like I don’t have to go to work tomorrow,” Jawad said. “Let’s get wasted.”
“Fuck, man. You got fired, didn’t you?” Hassan asked.
Jawad nodded and let out a long sigh.
Before entering Sam’s Beer House, Jawad put an arm around each of his friends, pulled them closer, and said, “Tonight, we get shitfaced. Just like the old days. Tomorrow, I will shoot him, and then I’m going to shoot myself.” His friends took the last part as a joke, but Jawad meant what he said. He no longer wanted to work hard only to afford a miserable life. As they sat at a table in the corner of the pub and ordered a pitcher of beer, he lit a cigarette and, in a very low voice, said, “I can’t go on, and I won’t go on.”