Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bernie and Abdu

{This is a fantasy.}

Abdu picked up his lunch tray and looked for a place to sit in the inmates cafeteria at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. Almost all the prisoners were clustered together, it seemed, by skin color. The whites were in one corner, the blacks in another corner and the brown prisoners, who mostly spoke a language other than English, were in a third corner. He didn’t see anyone who looked Somali. More than ever, Abdu felt alone.

Then, he noticed an elderly white man sitting by himself. The man gave Abdu a half smile and nodded at the chair across the table from where he was sitting. Since no other American had given Abdu even a quarter smile, he took the invitation and sat down across from the elderly man.

“Hi. How are you?” asked the elderly man.

“Not so well. It’s hard adjusting to America when you’ve lived in Somalia all your life,” sighed Abdu, not saying even the half of it.

“First time here, then?” asked the elderly man.

“Yes,” said Abdu morosely, as he took a bite of his sandwich. Then, he frowned and asked, “What’s in this sandwich?”

“It’s called bologna,” said the elderly man.

“Is there any pork in it? I’m Muslim. I can’t eat pork,” said Abdu.

“They told me it was all-beef bologna,” said the elderly man. “I can’t eat pork either, so I made sure to ask.”

“Why can’t you eat pork?” asked Abdu.

“I’m Jewish,” said the elderly man.

Abdu squirmed in his chair and looked around. But, still, none of the other inmates, or prison staff, were giving him even a quarter smile. So he stayed where he was.

“Say, what’s your name?” asked the elderly man.


“Abdu? I’m Bernie.”

Abdu looked at the extended hand. He had never touched a Jew before; in fact he had never seen one before. He had heard about them, of course, and expected something much more monstrous than this seemingly congenial old man. However, considering that no one else was giving him even a quarter smile, he took Bernie’s hand and gave it a perfunctory squeeze.

“So, Abdu, what are you in here for?”

Abdu fidgeted and said, “Stealing . . . I suppose you could call it robbery. I mean . . . well, they say I was a pirate.”

“I see,” said Bernie. “They’ve charged me with stealing as well. And, to tell you the truth, people have called me worse things than a pirate.”

Abdu, not having had anyone to talk to since he had been arrested, couldn’t contain himself. “It’s so unfair. We weren’t pirates. We were . . . uh, fishermen. We approached the ship to see if we could get a glass of water. It was very hot that day.”

“Didn’t you have guns?” asked Bernie, his brow furrowed in puzzlement.

“Well, yes. But it’s very dangerous in that part of the world. There are a lot of pirates.”

“I see,” said Bernie, easing back into his half-smile.

“Do you? Do you understand? We’re very poor people. I never experienced central heating before I was imprisoned here. We struggle just to stay alive.”

“Life is a struggle,” said Bernie sympathetically. “You always have to stay on your toes.”

“I found that out this morning,” said Abdu. “A very large man here, with a name something like ‘Buppa’ . . .”

“You mean Bubba?” asked Bernie.

“Yes. That’s his name. He told me I had to give him the wages I would earn working at the prison laundry room. He raised his fists to make sure I understood what he meant. I can’t believe he would threaten me with violence to extort a little money.”

“Life can be very unfair,” observed Bernie. “Sometimes, you just have to bear up.”

Abdu felt panic welling up inside of him. “Bernie, they told me I could spend the rest of my life in prison. I can’t do that. I’ll go crazy. There has to be a way out.”

Bernie looked around, remaining silent while he scanned the room. Then he spoke in a low whisper.

“It doesn’t look like anyone is listening. Look, Abdu, I can help you get out.”

“You can? How is that?” asked Abdu, for the first time since his arrest feeling a ray of hope.

Bernie now widened his mouth into a full smile. “First, let’s chat about how you can help me.”

Abdu was puzzled. “How could I possibly help you?”

“You or your family probably have some . . . um, savings you might want to invest.”

“Us? Savings? Are you kidding?”

“Oh, come on, Abdu. Surely, you fishermen catch big fish sometimes. Everyone gets lucky now and then. This is important, if you want to get out of here.”

Abdu turned his head slightly, narrowed his eyes, and scrutinized Bernie closely. “Well, maybe we have a few extra shillings,” he said in a low voice.

“Good. I have a friend who controls a bank account in a foreign country, and all you have to do is tell your family to wire, let’s say, a million U.S. dollars to this account,” said Bernie. “Then I’ll tell you how to get out of here.”

“A million dollars?” cried Abdu. “That’s piracy.”

“Not at all. You see, you aren’t giving it to me. You’re investing it with me. I’ll use it to trade stock and options. I have a special, secret strategy that will generate returns of 10 to 12 percent a year, every year. Guaranteed. I’ll bet that’s a better return than you can get in Mogadishu.”

Abdu frowned. “No one can possibly earn a steady return like that. Even in Somalia, we know that markets fluctuate. Why, with the rising interest in piracy, the price of an RPG rocket launcher has doubled in the last two years.”

“Abdu, I tell you, I can get those returns,” said Bernie, the picture of buttery sincerity. “You understand that I’m offering you an exclusive opportunity. I haven’t told the other inmates about it. They’re all staying while you’ll be on your way out.”

Abdu pursed his lips while his mind raced. Then, he sat up in surprise. “Wait a minute. I know who you are. You’re the guy who stole $64 billion dollars. Even in Somalia, we’ve heard of you. You’ve stolen much more money than all the Somali pirates put together.”

“Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers,” said Bernie. “They never get the full story.”

“Forget it,” said Abdu. “I’m not falling for this nonsense. Whatever money my family has, we’re keeping at home, under the mattress, right next to the AK-47.”

Bernie was silent for a moment, but kept smiling. Then, he said, “Well, think about it, Abdu. We have lots of time to talk it over. I’m not going anywhere and neither are you.”

“Bernie,”said Abdu. “You know what you’re saying is a pack of lies. You’ve pled guilty. You’ve admitted you’re a crook. How can you keep saying these things?”

“Because this is what I do,” said Bernie. “I started years ago, and couldn’t stop even though I knew it was wrong. Why stop now? They can’t keep me in jail any longer than they already plan to.”

Abdu slumped back in his chair. He could see the future now. If he was convicted of the charges against him, there would be more lunches—maybe years of lunches--with Bernie, who would pitch him again and again about an exclusive way to escape. He’d listen because no one else would offer him any hope. And Bernie’s promises would be the worst punishment of all, because they’d just be illusions.

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