A Lonely Note

A Lonely Note

by Kevin Stevens


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Tariq is beset by danger on the streets and by conflict at home. Music is his only consolation. The only ally of his own age is Rachel, his Jewish classmate. She will not let Tariq’s Islamic Iraqi background define how she—or the wider community—sees him. When he forms a new friendship with the volatile but intriguing record-store owner Jamal, Tariq discovers the world of jazz and the man he could become. The violence that has long threatened finally erupts, and things suddenly clarify for Tariq. He takes the ultimate risk—not on behalf of his friend but on behalf of his enemy—and the disparate worlds of modern America and traditional Islam come together in an unexpected and gripping resolution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910411315
Publisher: Little Island Books
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kevin Stevens grew up in Great Falls, Montana, before moving with his family to Ireland in 1972. After graduating from college, he spent 10 years in Boston working in publishing and writing nonfiction, including the best-selling The Cops Are Robbers, which was made into an NBC Movie of the Week starring Ed Asner. His previous books for children include The Powers, a Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Reading selection in 2014. Kevin has also written for the Irish Times, the Journal of Music in Ireland, and the Dublin Review of Books. He divides his time between Dublin and Boston.

Read an Excerpt


'HEY, FREAK – still on hunger strike?'

The question came from a cluster of kids at the entrance to the lunchroom. Though it wasn't really a question. Nasty laughter followed. Muttering. Tariq kept his head down. He walked up the foyer steps, past the trophy case, and underneath the flags of nation, state and school. He moved through the double doors beside the vice-principal's office. When they closed behind him it was like coming up for air after a long dive.

He got his clarinet case from his locker and went to the empty band room. He took a seat near the back and assembled his instrument. Pieced the joints and the bell together, carefully fitted the mouthpiece, moistened the reed and clamped it in place. He set up his music stand and played some scales. The routines soothed him, but the ugly nickname rang in his ears.

He had recognised the voice. Brad Jorgensen. A muscular kid in faded jeans and a torn sweatshirt who lived on the west side. He had a tattoo of a lightning bolt on his neck. Gold earring, heavy stubble, a sneer on his full lips. In gym class on the first day back at school, two weeks ago, Mr Thiel had asked Tariq how to pronounce his name. Someone at the rear of the roll call ranks cried out, 'Rhymes with freak' Since then Brad had whispered the word in passing, shouted it in the street. He seemed to enjoy its sound. Already it had stuck. And other names. Twice on his way home Tariq had been harassed by Brad's friends, who threw rocks at him from the vacant lot beside the Dairy Queen and called him 'raghead' and 'camel jockey'.

After he had warmed up, Tariq practised the opening of Rhapsody in Blue. The band teacher, Mr Broquist, had scheduled the piece for the Thanksgiving concert, and Tariq had worked on the opening for ten days. But he couldn't get the glissando right. Instead of rising in celebration, it came out as one long, lonely note.

During Ramadan, Tariq was allowed to spend lunchtime in the band room. The principal had offered an empty classroom for prayer, but he and Yusef, the only other Muslim in the school, preferred to practise or study. Yusef was a senior who took advanced placement courses in physics and chemistry and had been accepted to the University of Chicago. He rarely spoke to Tariq, perhaps because his parents were Shias from Bahrain. His father was in the Muslim Brotherhood and his mother wore a burqa. He bristled when teachers assumed that he and Tariq were friends.

The door opened and Tariq went stiff with fear. But it was Rachel.

'Hey,' she said. 'This a private party?'

'You're not supposed to be here.'

'So sue me.'

She walked in and sat down. Dressed as usual in black leggings and a denim skirt and a man's striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Lots of plastic jewellery and curly dark hair spilling over her oversized glasses.

'Don't let me cramp your style,' she said.

He rested the clarinet crosswise on its case. 'It's no use. I'll never get it right.'



'It's because he's Jewish. You're culturally disadvantaged.'

'Ha ha.'

Rachel was in most of his classes. She was a whiz at math but loved words. She was in the honours English programme, edited the school paper and wrote poetry. She also studied Hebrew on Wednesday afternoons at Temple Beth El.

He looked away. This always happened: she sought him out, joked with him, flirted. He could tell. He knew. And then he would clam up.

'Play that tune for me,' she finally said.

'We have history.'

'Not for ten minutes. Go on. Play.'

The only time he thought he could really open up to her was when he played choubi. She listened to bands like Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, but something about Iraqi folk music made her eyes go sexy.

He played 'Oh Girl, Stand Up', which his uncle had transcribed for him. Rachel loved the title and the music. And he loved that she loved it. The wild melody and the buzz of the reed against his lip made the clarinet feel like something alive in his hands. After a few seconds she stood up and danced in front of him, throwing her hair back, shaking her hips like a belly dancer, lifting and waving her arms so that her orange and yellow bracelets slid nearly to her elbows. Embarrassed to look at her body, he focused on her feet, clad in black ballet flats with small gold bows. They glided across the polished wooden floor in time with the rhythm.

'God, those notes,' she said when he was finished. 'Where do they come from?'

The music was familiar to him. He had heard it all his life. It was her dancing that made it exotic. That made him feel like a snake charmer.

'So how come I can't do the Rhapsody gliss?'

'You'll get it. Don't worry.'

A picture formed in his mind. A picture that often came to him. In it, Rachel lay beside him in bed, gazing at him with the same hooded look she had when she listened to him play. One of her hands lay on his bare chest.

He opened the instrument case and began to disassemble the clarinet.

'Are you OK?' she said.

'I'm fine.'

She watched him place the pieces in their felt-lined pockets. His hands shook. Not so much, but enough so she could tell.

'Is it that asshole Brad?'

He said nothing. She took her glasses off and wiped the lenses with the hem of her shirt. The excitement of her dance had faded. But she was still smiling.

The class bell cut across his silence. From the hallways came sounds of yelling, laughter, locker doors banging.

'Back to the grind,' she said at last. 'History class. Are you coming?'

'You go ahead.'

She lingered, shrugged and left.

AFTER school, he went to the resource centre. If he waited long enough before walking home, he would avoid Brad and his friends.

He passed the time watching YouTube videos of Iraqi pop music. No clarinets, but ouds and flutes and drums, usually accompanying male singers with oily hair and white suits with wide lapels. And women dancing. Always dancers. They wore heavy eye make-up and tight, frilly dresses and chunky jewellery. When they moved they thrust out their breasts and hips, shaking their bodies and smiling at the camera while the zanboor drum rattled like a machine gun.

He felt himself going hard and shut down the computer. When Rachel danced, his whole body responded, not just his dick. But he enjoyed looking at the dancers and thinking of her.

Dizzy with hunger, he wondered what his mother would make for the evening meal. Sunset was another four hours away. Before lunch hour he'd eaten a chocolate bar he had bought on the way to school and hidden in his locker. Ate it so quickly and furtively he'd hardly tasted it. Afterwards he felt unclean and even hungrier.

At four o'clock he left the school by the rear entrance, passing the computer lab and civics room. Both were empty. Above the entrance to the civics room hung a satin banner that read: WE ARE DEFINED BY HOW WE TREAT THOSE DIFFERENT FROM OURSELVES. Below the sign, Mr Kholandi polished the hallway floor. He was from Syria. He was much shorter than Tariq and wore a moustache that looked like a wire brush. He struggled so much with the big polisher that he didn't hear Tariq say hello.

The day was bright and hot, as hot as it had been all summer, and the rustling cottonwoods cast checker work shadows on the walkway. He hiked his schoolbag up his shoulder and switched the clarinet case from one hand to the other and headed across the parking lot, through the buzz of crickets and a breeze tinted with the smell of alfalfa.

He didn't notice the boys until he was out from under the trees. Four of them, including Jorgensen, sat on the hood of a car eating hamburgers. The sun was behind them so he couldn't see their faces.

As he angled away from them, heart jumping, they slid off the car, ran across the parking lot, and encircled him.

'It's the freak,' Brad said. 'Where are you going?'

Tariq did not answer. He set his clarinet case on the ground.

'Running home to say your prayers?'


'I thought all you people did was pray. When you're not blowing yourself up.'

The football team was on the practice field beyond the parking lot. Whistles, shouts, the clash of shoulder pads. Through the chain-link mesh of the fence, Tariq could see the coaches in their gold polo shirts and maroon shorts.

'I'd be praying if I was you,' another boy said. 'Praying you don't get your ass kicked.'

The rest of them laughed. Hard laughter. One of them was still eating a burger, and the smell of it made Tariq's stomach turn. He thought about running back to the school and getting Mr Kholandi, but what would he say? Some boys are being mean to me?

Before summer vacation, Mrs Gunderson, who taught history and civics, had invited Imam Mohammad from Tariq's mosque to speak at assembly. Tariq and Yusef had been forced to sit beside the imam on the dais while he spoke, on and on, about the Five Pillars of Islam. Before that day, nobody had ever bothered Tariq about his religion.

'Those faggots in the Middle East, I saw them on TV,' Brad said. 'Bending over with their shoes off and facing the same direction like a bunch of robots. Wearing those fucking beanies and praying to Allah for the takeover of America.'

'Destruction of America.'

'That right, freak?' Brad said. 'When you bend over, do you pray for planes to hit the White House?'


'Bend over now,' the kid with the burger said.

When Tariq did not move, the kid kicked his clarinet case so that it tumbled across the tarmac. He thrust a dirty food wrapper into Tariq's face. The smell made him want to vomit, and he pushed the paper away. Brad grabbed the shoulder bag, threw it to the side, and wrestled Tariq to the ground, pinning him down. Tariq struggled and kicked, but Brad was strong. The other boys sat on his legs and took off his shoes.

'Woo-hoo,' they cried, laughing and throwing the shoes into the bushes.

'See you pray now, dickhead.'

He knew what they were going to do before they did.

Two of the boys pinned his legs while the other unbuckled Tariq's belt and unbuttoned his pants. He struggled and squirmed and cursed.

'Haiwan, beljuhanem!'

The Arabic curse surprised him – he had meant to speak in English. The strange sounds enraged the boys even more. They whisked off his pants. Tariq kicked as hard as he could and struck one of them in the leg.

'You asshole,' the boy shouted. He grabbed the waistband of Tariq's boxers. He hesitated, and Tariq prayed, prayed in the most precise Arabic, that he be spared the ultimate shame. But the boy ripped the boxers off him, exposing to the bright sunlight Tariq's penis, white and shrivelled in its nest of hair.

Time slowed, sound stopped, the sun hung high in the sky. The bullies stared, mouths open, as if shocked themselves by what they'd done. When Brad let go of him, Tariq curled up, grabbed his pants, and pulled them on. Without meaning to, he sobbed.

Brad barked a laugh and drifted away. The others followed.

Slowly, Tariq stood up. His bag had opened and his notes and pens and books were scattered on the ground. The clarinet case was scuffed and scraped. His torn boxers lay on the tarmac like a broken flower. Beyond the fence a whistle shrieked, a football was punted high in the air, the players shouted. He wiped his nose and, reaching for his bag, saw two girls hugging their schoolbooks to their chests and staring at him from a window on the third floor.


HIS MOTHER called him twice for iftar. When he did not leave his bedroom, his father came upstairs and entered without knocking.

'Tariq, your mother has put the food on the table.'

'I'm not hungry.'

He was lying on his bed, facing the wall, his hands clasped between his knees. His shoulders ached and his legs throbbed where they had been cut and scratched.

'Son. Turn around.'

After a moment he rolled over and looked up at his father. He was dressed in his hospital clothes: blue cotton suit, white shirt, dark blue tie. In his jacket pocket was a protective plastic pouch holding several pens and a small chrome flashlight.

'Of course you are hungry,' he said. 'It has been more than twelve hours. But you don't sense it. Your hunger is hidden, like an animal in the trees.'

When his father used these old expressions, his tone changed. Tariq called it his master's voice. As if he were teaching a lesson.

As if hunger had anything to do with it.

'We are in the month of patience, Tariq. He who fasts will have his sins forgiven and will be delivered from the fire.'

'Yes, Baba, I know.'

Tariq thought of the Snickers bar he had gobbled in high daylight, the crunch of the peanuts and the sticky caramel he had barely tasted. And though he had washed his face and hands and changed his clothes as soon as he got home, he could still smell the sickening food wrapper the bully had thrust in his face.

'Get up,' his father said.

Tariq stood. He was dizzy. 'I'm just not hungry,' he said. 'It has nothing to do with the fast.'

'Fasting is one of the Pillars of Islam. I don't have to tell you that.'

'No. You don't.'

'Like your prayers. Have you performed maghrib?'

'Yes,' Tariq lied.

His father looked at the rumpled bedspread and said in a low voice, 'Fast is not the best way to put it. In the ancient Arabic the word means "abstain". Not just food. We abstain from false talk and impure deeds.'

'I know all this. I'm not hungry.'

Tariq stared at the floor. His body burned with shame, and his eyes were hot with tears.

'Let's eat, son.'

His father patted him on the shoulder and smiled, as if he knew everything.

FOR the evening meal his mother served dates and sweetened milk, followed by tabouleh and hummus and fried eggplant. Stewed lamb with yogurt. Sweet and savoury breads and sliced vegetables. The dishes covered the table, and Tariq could not avoid seeing and smelling the food. He nibbled this and that. It was all like sawdust in his mouth.

At college his mother wore traditional clothes, though she was always stylish. Her head scarves were bright and pleated, her cloaks made of silk or chiffon and delicately embroidered. During Ramadan she also wore her scarf at home, which made her face look rounder, her eyebrows darker.

'Is that a new hijab?' his father often asked. He didn't like the loud colours and fancy patterns. He believed a woman's dress should be not just modest but severe.

She would tilt her head, pat the silk with the tips of her fingers and smile at Tariq. 'I don't recall the Qur'an saying anything about what colours I should wear.'

'It has nothing to do with the Qur'an.'

'So what has it to do with?'


His mother laughed. A musical laugh, like the tinkling of a triangle. 'Well, my tradition allows for pastels.'

But his father said nothing about the hijab this evening. She peered at Tariq and spooned baba ganoush onto his plate. 'Eat, habibi, eat. Don't make me feel as if I did all this cooking for nothing.'

'Leave the boy alone, Zaida,' his father said. 'He'll eat.'

Zaida taught chemistry at the state university. During Ramadan, the administration permitted her a lighter schedule so she could come home early and prepare iftar. She cooked for the family table and for the mosque, where they ate two, sometimes three evenings a week.

His father ate slowly, frequently wiping the corners of his mouth. His beard, though streaked with grey, was carefully trimmed and combed. His eyes were deep-socketed, long-lashed and intensely dark. At dinner his movements were over-refined, as if to emphasise that a long day of hunger would not reduce him to vulgar expressions of greed or haste.

'I met with the committee today,' he said. 'You'll be interested in this, Tariq. The Az-Zahra Madressah has challenged our congregation to a football match.'

'You mean soccer?'

'It's football, Tariq. That is what I choose to call it.'

He meant soccer.

Zaida's large eyes moved from husband to son and back. 'That's not a bad idea, Malik,' she said. 'Something to bring the communities closer.'

At Monroe General, Tariq's father was known as Mal. In his house and at mosque he was always Malik.

He snorted and waved a piece of bread at her. 'You want to be closer to those Africans?'

Most of the students at the madressah were recently arrived Shias from Uganda and Nigeria. They did not have their own mosque, but met in a basement below a furniture store in Monroe. Their imam was Iranian.

'Fasting brings true sympathy for the poor and needy,' she said.

Malik scowled. 'You think that ayatollah is poor?'

'Hamid is no ayatollah. And he is a decent man. I had lunch with his wife last week, and she told me they have secured funding for a new mosque.'

'Funding from where is what I want to know.'

'It doesn't matter where. They deserve a proper place of worship as much as we do. As anyone. When will you play? Soon?'


Excerpted from "A Lonely Note"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Kevin Stevens.
Excerpted by permission of Little Island.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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