Daniel Lowe teaches writing at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and received his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh. His debut novel, All That’s Left to Tell, “celebrates not just the power of storytelling but the deeply human need for it in even the most dire situations” (Stewart O’Nan).
Don’t miss out: Lowe will be at White Whale Bookstore on February 17th, in conversation with Stewart O’Nan!
From the Publisher: “Every night, Marc Laurent, an American taken hostage in Pakistan, is bound and blindfolded. And every night, a woman he knows only as Josephine visits his cell. At first, her questions are mercenary: is there anyone back home who will pay the ransom? But when Marc can offer no name, she asks him a question about his daughter that is even more terrifying than his captivity. And so begins a strange yet increasingly comforting ritual, in which Josephine and Marc tell each other stories. As these stories build upon one another, a father and daughter start to find their way toward understanding each other again…”
This chapter is published here courtesy of the excellent Flatiron Books.
Now this plate of boiled grain, the spoon in my hand.
Now the walk around the perimeter of the building and the sunset call of the muezzin.
In the long hours between her visits, he used the other events of the day as a refuge.
Each time, before she came into the room, they bound his hands and blindfolded him. Often Azhar, whose few words of English he’d likely learned from the woman, smiled apologetically before he knotted the scarf, drawing it slowly tighter so as not to pull the hair on the back of his head, while Saabir, whose English was only slightly better, yanked the scarf so hard with his calloused fingers that he thought it would leave its bright pattern imprinted on his skull. The room was small, perhaps ten by fifteen feet, partially underground with a half-finished floor, the other half hard-packed dirt; there was a single high window through which, when she wasn’t there, he could occasionally see the feet of men walking by, and when she spoke to him, her voice—he thought she must be fairly young, despite its melodic depth—resonated slightly off the blank walls from where she sat on the other side of the room. Most times Azhar or Saabir seemed to remain in the room with her, but he couldn’t be certain. He had been here six days, and this was the fourth time she’d come.
“Good morning, Mr. Laurent,” she said. Her English was perfect, and if there was the slightest inflection of a Pakistani or Afghan dialect, it likely came from the time she’d spent in those countries. She could easily have been American, was likely American, because while he was no expert in local or regional culture, and had traveled here after absently reading a couple of books, it was unfathomable that a faction in this country that would kidnap him would use or train one of their own women for this purpose. He was stunned they were using a woman at all.
“Can you say good morning to me, Mr. Laurent?” she said, addressing him not as a child, but as someone from whom she expected a courteous response.
“Good morning,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m sorry. I still don’t know your name.”
The blindfold was wide and thick, and even if the sun had been angling through the high window, which it never did, and he’d held his eyes fully opened, he would likely have been able to make out only her silhouette.
“You can call me Josephine these mornings I visit,” she said. “If I told you my real name, you would start to worry.”
The few times she’d spoken to him to this point, never for more than ten or fifteen minutes, she’d been similarly ambiguous in her choice of words, and he’d lacked the courage to ask what she’d meant. But this time, he said, “Worry about what?”
She let out a brief sigh, perhaps a quiet laugh.
“Maybe that you couldn’t pronounce it,” she said. “Or maybe, if I told you my real name, you would start to think that you would never be leaving here.”
He had come to the country for the wrong reasons and stayed for worse ones. He’d volunteered to open new opportunities for Pepsi while operating out of Karachi, a city he would have had trouble placing in Pakistan before he’d volunteered, or rather insisted that he go, using the relatively light weight of his executive position to make the move for no more than six months. Gregory, his boss, and younger than he was by ten years, but with more international experience, had said, “Six months will seem like an eternity. Pakistan’s a young country. But you’ll feel something ancient there, and every now and then it doesn’t feel good. Not saying you won’t meet some wonderful people, even walking around in the markets. Hell, you can buy a Big Mac if you’re homesick. I don’t mean to be unnecessarily grim, Marc, but you watch the news. Educate yourself and be careful.” He’d done neither adequately.
The first times she’d come in, she had mostly asked for names of people in the States who would ransom him. Though she loosely accused him of being a spy, he had been kidnapped in order to exact a sum of money that would either finance her cause or that of the people she represented. He had been wandering where he shouldn’t have, out toward the slums of what he was told was Lyari Town, hoping to soothe his heart with images of greater poverty, when a cabdriver who spoke some English warned him of the danger and offered a ride back to his hotel. Because it was toward evening, he’d accepted the ride, and two blocks later the driver had slammed to a stop, and a man toting a machine gun emerged from a small shack and aimed the gun at his head while the driver climbed into the backseat and blindfolded him. They’d driven for hours; whether it was in circles or all the way out to Waziristan he had no way of knowing, though they weren’t in the mountains. When Azhar or Saabir, each afternoon, walked him for exercise around the perimeter of a house near the one where he was held, the air still seemed damp with the occasional salt-scent of the sea.
“You look no worse for the wear,” she said to him. “I see you have a change of clothes. Eating well?” He’d been given simple but generous meals of grains and peas and bread. “It would be an affront for a Pakistani not to act hospitably,” she added without irony. She said something to Azhar in what he believed he recognized as Urdu, and he heard the door open and close. She pulled the chair across the floor to the point she was only a couple of feet away. When she sat down, some damp fragrance briefly invaded his nostrils.
“Mr. Laurent,” she said. “May I call you Marc, now that we know each other a little better?”
“May I call you Jo?” he said to her, the first undercurrent of sarcasm he’d managed since his capture, because even in his state he’d bristled at her use of the word hospitably.
He expected she would leave the room, or call a man back in to slam his chair to the ground, or to slap him—something for this first expression of impertinence—but instead she said, “When I’m in the room alone with you, you’re certainly welcome.
“Mr. Laurent,” she continued. “Marc. We called some of the numbers you gave to us. Business associates. More business associates. Mr. Gregory McGuire expressed grave concern for you. But not one family member. None among that list of numbers.”
“No one in my family has the kind of money you’re looking for.”
She laughed lightly at this, a few high, musical notes that gradually deepened.
“You’re not talking to Saabir, who thinks all Americans are wealthy. I know what kind of money your family doesn’t have. And I don’t think for a minute the Pepsi corporation is going to hand over ten million dollars for a mid-level executive. Easier to promote someone else than sell that many cans of soda.”
“No offense intended. But a corporation being what it is, they’ll work harder to keep your capture a secret than to ransom you. Which is why we need the numbers of family members. We can find them ourselves in good time, but that’s only likely to extend your stay.”
“Are you American?”
“That you will never know for sure. Regardless of what happens, you’ll never see my face.”
“They must pay you well.”
She shifted in her chair at this and resettled herself.
“We won’t be talking about my motives. Or how I became radicalized, as they say.”
“I can’t believe you’re a woman,” he said.
“Can’t believe it or don’t believe it?”
“Either. A fundamentalist Muslim group would not hire a woman as its interrogator.”
“Is that what this is? An interrogation? Does it feel that way to you? And as I said, you have no idea who I am, who we are, and what our motives may be.”
He strained to loosen the rope around his wrists, not because he hoped to escape, but because sitting in the chair with his arms behind his back made his shoulders ache. He’d held no thought of escaping from the moment of his capture; the despair and fear that most would feel were numbed by the presence of all the days of these past two months, and even the weeks before them that had followed him onto his flight. He used to be terrified of flying, but midway over the Atlantic, when out the window he watched the unvariegated water meet in a distant haze the indifferent blue of the sky, he thought if the plane nose-dived at that point, he would feel no terror because of despair. And then he’d felt his face warm with a different kind of panic: that this move at age forty-seven, after his wife had left him, was an anguished effort to reignite a life that had never burned with a particular fervor in the first place.
“I’m sorry about the bound hands, but it’s the only way.”
“You think if you untied them that the first thing I’d do is snatch the blindfold from my eyes? I don’t care all that much what you look like.”
“After a while, maybe we’ll see.”
He felt the familiar tightening of his grief in his larynx but forced it down.
“So, Marc, you had a wife.”
“Yes, I had a wife. Did you find out her name on the Internet?”
“We did. Lynne. Lynne Laurent. Why do so many people seem to choose to marry for the musicality of their new name?”
“It’s as good a reason as any.”
“That may be true. Did she take you for everything you had?”
“No. She didn’t take me for anything.” Which had ultimately proven true in other ways. But in the isolation and confinement of these last six days, the gilded edges of his early memories of her—that morning when, from the porch of their first home together, she turned back to smile at him as he left and her robe slipped from her shoulder, or the time she’d cut her forearm so badly that it had to be stitched, and she’d winced when he gripped his homemade tourniquet with his hand, and later he’d contemplated her dried blood on his fingers in ways that had unsettled him—had begun to glow with increasing heat.
“No affection for you at all?”
“I’m not saying that. But she’s not going to fund-raise for the cause, if that’s what you’re thinking. I haven’t spoken to her since I arrived here.” Which was true but for the two voice messages she’d left. “What you’ll get for your phone call is maybe a measure of concern. Maybe.”
“No brothers? No sisters?”
“Two sisters. One lives on a farm in Indiana in a little ranch home on sixty acres they rent to local corn growers in order to make ends meet. The other lives in a tiny apartment in Chicago where she’s trying to patch her life back together after bouts of alcoholism. She borrows money from me.”
“No children?” she asked.
At this he felt his eyes tighten under the blindfold and sting at the corners.
“No children,” he said.
He heard her stand up then; her garments rustled, as if she were resettling them, and then she took a quiet step or two, and he felt her shadow as she stood over him; he heard her exhale in his ear.
“Marc,” she said. “Your only daughter was murdered a month ago. She was nineteen. You know this. And you didn’t even go home for the funeral.”
She breathed again in his ear and then pulled away, dragged her chair back over to the far wall, opened the door, and closed it behind her.
This excerpt from All That’s Left to Tell is published here courtesy of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Lowe.