“They’re killing me, Hazeem,” whined the Iranian president, Akhmed, as he lay in his jammies, tucked into the sheets of his ornately carved, gold-plated bed in the master bedroom wing of his Tehran palace. “Hand me the thermometer again, will you?”
“But you just finished taking your temperature, Your Greatness, and it was perfectly normal. A little below, in fact.”
“Don’t you turn on me, too, Hazeem,” the president moaned. “I couldn’t bear it. Everyone around here wants to see me dead—don’t deny it. I thought I could depend on you, at least.”
“Of course you can.”
“Then hand me the damn thermometer. I feel feverish.”
“Shake it down for me, will you?”
Hazeem shook it down.
The president opened his mouth and lifted his tongue. Hazeem guided the thermometer in gingerly. Akhmed gestured for his friend, interpreter, and confidant to hand him the Popular Mechanics magazine that, along with People, Marie Claire, and House Beautiful, littered the foot of the bed. He leafed through it, found a dog-eared page, and, pointing at his mouth to indicate he didn’t want to talk with the thermometer under his tongue, handed the magazine to Hazeem.
The interpreter glanced at the article, “How Terrorists Could Make a Suitcase Atomic Bomb.” There were some nice graphics—very detailed illustrations—and even without reading the article, Hazeem could see they had researched the topic. Even at a glance he got the feeling that any rogue knucklehead could slap the thing together in the back of his carpet stall on weekends, between hits of his hookah. They not only made it look easy but fun. Even Hazeem—a peace-loving fellow if ever there was one—felt the urge to run out to Omar’s Hardware and round himself up some nuclear weapons parts.
He handed the magazine back to his president. “Nice.”
“Nice!” Akhmed exploded, apparently forgetting the thermometer. It did a little pirouette at the tip of his tongue, and as he inhaled for another shout, it slid down his esophagus and got stuck. He gasped for breath and began to turn blue. He pointed desperately to his throat, but Hazeem pretended not to understand. He knew he’d rescue the little bugger but wanted to screw with his head for a minute—although he did consider breaking for lunch, which he was fully entitled to do, as there was nothing in his contract that stipulated Heimliching his boss back to planet earth. Finally, though, he reached into his president’s mouth and, with two fingers, fished out the thermometer.
“What the hell were you waiting for?!” the president gasped.
“I didn’t understand what you were saying.”
“You’re an interpreter!”
“No harm done, Most High One.” He held the thermometer at the angle where he could read the mercury. “Still just short.”
Akhmed shot him a glare.
“I assure you,” Hazeem said, displaying the thermometer, “I was not referring to height. I meant you’ll be happy to know you’re a little below normal.”
“Well, guess what? I’m not happy, okay? Don’t think for a second I don’t know they’re slipping me some funky thermometers made in China by six-year-olds who wouldn’t know the right temperature if they stuck their heads up their scrawny butts. I’m telling you, they’re trying to kill me around here.” He hurled the thermometer against the wall. “I don’t care what it says! I have a fever!” He pounded his ankles against the mattress. “Fever! Fever! Fever!”
“But the doctor said he suspects only an ulcer. It’s not going to kill you at all. When you get your X-ray tomorrow, you’ll see. Once you know you’re not dying, you’ll automatically feel better. That’s the way the mind works.”
“So now you’re a mind expert? Spare me, Einstein.”
“I think you mean Freud.”
“Who cares? They’re all Jews. It’s me we’re talking about. Stick to the subject.”
“All I’m saying is, a simple change of diet, and you’ll be your old lovable self. Soft foods, that’s the ticket.”
The president grabbed Popular Mechanics and shook it stupid. “It’s not my diet, Hazeem. It’s our so-called scientists. You see for yourself: every mope on the planet knows how to make a nuclear bomb except us. Look at the Pakis. When Persia was ruling the world, Pakis were eating grubs out of tree stumps—not that they’re still not. When we were opening merchant trade routes throughout Europe and Africa, they were telling bedtime stories to their goats. But do they have the bomb? You bet! While we were conquering the entire Middle East, the Chinese were still blowing off their fingers with firecrackers! While they were stuffing fortunes into cookies, our people were inventing aqueducts! But do they have the bomb? Naturally. It’s maddening! And now North fricking Korea!!! Pyong freaking Yang. Was there ever a more root-eating people? That little simian Kim Jong! Talk about no fashion sense!”
“Perhaps he doesn’t want to appear too contemporary while the rest of his people are dying in gutters.”
“Hasn’t he heard of the Internet? Doesn’t he know you can buy the coolest threads online at deep discount? The latest stuff. Slim cut, smart colors, all the latest outerwear? And don’t even get me started on shoes.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have a credit card.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. Even Visa isn’t dumb enough to give that deadbeat a line. All right, so he doesn’t have plastic. I’ll grant you that.” He paused dramatically, then hissed, “But he does have something else, doesn’t he, Hazeem?”
“I see what you’re getting at.”
“And, pray tell, what would that be?”
“Do you really want me to say it?”
“Yes, yes I do. I want you to say it. Right here, right now. Tell me what that squat little midget freak has that we don’t.”
“The bomb,” Hazeem whispered.
“I can’t heeaar you.”
“The bomb,” he said, louder.
“What kind of bomb?”
Hazeem cleared his throat.
“Go on, say it. I promise not to hurt you.”
“Atomic bomb, Your Tallness.”
“Atomic bomb!! Nuclear bomb!! Radiation!! WMD! Mass destruction! Mayhem!! Geno-frigging-cide!!”
Akhmed’s knees bucked broncolike under the sheet. “Even that Korean turd has the bomb!” Again he waved Popular Mechanics. “Oh, sure, the mighty Iranians—we have oil and television and the Internet and plenty of stinking credit cards. But we can’t even read simple instructions on how to make a goddamn bomb!! What are we, chopped liver??!”
“I can’t be very mighty if I can’t even get my brain trust to figure out what every other jerkwater race has already filed under ‘Been There, Done That.’ I can’t even torture my scientists into making me a bomb. I’m telling you, Hazeem, my self-esteem has never been lower. I’m emotionally fragile!”
“I see your point, I do. But we have to believe that Allah has a plan.”
“With all due respect to the Almighty, I’d like to see some results already. What’s the matter, we’re not theocratic enough?”
“Perhaps it’s His way of testing your patience?”
“He’s pushing it, that’s all I’m saying.” He cast his eyes skyward. “How about cutting me a little break? Get me one teensy-weensy scientist with half a fricking brain?”
“It’s obvious He’s got something special in mind for you. The trials of martyrdom, after all.”
The president plopped back, exhausted. He heaved for breath, sweating profusely. His sheet was heaped on the floor in a pile roughly the shape of Mount Ararat. His Dr. Denton jammies were all askew—back flap twisted to the side, his toe poking through left bootie. Magazines were scattered all over the room. Feathers began squirting out of his pillow. He stretched his arms at his side, Christlike. When at last he caught his breath, he panted, “Martyrdom? You think?”
“If not you, who?”
“Not those pains-in-the-ass mullahs, that’s for sure.”
“You always know what to say to me, don’t you, Hazeem?”
“We’re sort of soul mates, you and I.” The toe sticking out of his bootie hole wiggled. “You always manage to make me feel better about myself.”
“I like you.”
“I’m a good person.”
“Firm but fair.”
“Could you find People?” he asked, casting an eye floorward. “It’s down there somewhere.”
Crunching broken thermometer, Hazeem searched for and found the magazine and picked up the sheet, too. He draped both over his president’s knees.
“Allah’s will aside,” Akhmed said plaintively, “I do wish our scientists would quit screwing around already. Sometimes I think we’d be better off with a few Zionists ourselves.”
“I’ll get one of the women to sweep up the broken glass.”
“How about Sahala?”
“Yes, she’s a pretty one.” He caught himself. “That is, under the fabric. I’m only guessing.”
“It’s all right, Hazeem. Man does not live by falafel alone.”
“And could you do me another favor?”
“You know that bar refrigerator in the gym? The one no one is allowed to open but me?”
Hazeem pretended to search his memory.
“In the freezer compartment is a plastic container with a blue top. It’s the matzo ball soup one of our agents sneaks out to me every month from Tel Aviv. Would you heat me a bowl? Nice and hot? Put it in the microwave on high for six full minutes.”
“Come, come, Hazeem. You needn’t seem surprised. You’ve heard the rumors, and they happen to be true. Yes, I do like Jew food. It’s my one weakness.”
“You need not tell me this—”
“The plain truth is, deli makes me feel better. It’s like having my own sweet mother again before I had her killed. Alas, I always feel sturdier after a good brisket au jus. Always peppier after an apple-cinnamon rugelach.”
“I dare say, chicken soup will soothe your ulcer.”
The president cast him an accusatory gaze.
“I’m merely conjecturing, I assure you. I have absolutely no personal experience in the matter.”
Akhmed broke into a grin. “Relax, my friend. I’m only tugging your chain. I wouldn’t mind if you too were to experience the pleasures of deli. Why should I keep the joi to myself?”
“You’re very generous,” Hazeem confirmed with a bow.
“And, don’t forget, a good interior designer!”
Hazeem began to back out of the room.
“And a splendid dancer!” the president called after his interpreter. “And I have fashion sense! I know eyewear!”
But Hazeem was already gone—sprinting down the hallway as if being chased by a scimitar-wielding maniac.
* * *
The next morning, the Iranian leader, feeling a bit mellower, waved to an admiring throng as his bodyguards ushered him into Khomeini General Hospital. A couple of nurses, clad in white burqas, wanted to put him in a wheelchair, but he brushed them aside. “I walk in, I walk out,” he blustered, swaggering to the X-ray department. Since he was preregistered (Hazeem), he had only to flash his Blue Star/Blue Crescent insurance card before being whisked to a locker cubicle, where he was to store his clothes and don an examination robe. First, of course, the bodyguards checked the locker for explosives—planted by Mossad agents, posing as hospital accountants, presumably— and after the all-clear, he slipped in and got undressed. Before stowing his clothes, he plucked out his wallet and, still feeling warm and fuzzy from last night’s steaming matzo ball soup, leafed sentimentally through his photos. There was a picture of Nazar, his late cockatiel, the best little friend a fellow could have, and of his idol, Josef Stalin, who knew how to deal with lazy, stupid scientists. Oh, if only he, himself, hadn’t been cursed with such a soft heart; if only he’d had Uncle Joe’s executive temperament. He sighed wistfully and flipped to the next two photos: the black-and-white of Gordon MacRae that had come with the wallet, and a color shot of Rosie O’Donnell, scowling—perhaps mocking Donald Trump. Now there was a woman! Oh, what Akhmed wouldn’t do to claim her for his stable! How she would give it to those insufferable mullahs! Look at the way she got into The Donald’s face! And that mousy Hasselbeck’s! Yes, sure, she was a little on the hefty side, but he happened to like plump on a woman. What was wrong with a bit of blubber? You didn’t see that kind of self-assured shape on Iranian women—assuming you could see their shape, which you could not, but he had a pretty good idea what was going on under those threads. He had heard stories. He closed his eyes and imagined the lusty fullness of Rosie’s burqa as it waddled around Tehran’s narrow streets, trundling from one sidewalk to the other. Mmm, mmm.
“We are ready for you, Your Excellency,” head nurse Fafoola called.
Akhmed stowed his things and slipped into the hospital gown. It was dreadful! Despite the recent matzo ball soup, his trip down cockatiel lane, and his wishful fantasies about Rosie, the moment he laid eyes on the robe, he fell into gloom. He recalled depictions of Persian Empire merchants and noblemen, with their ornate, flowing garments, their magnificent turbans, their sumptuous silk scarves and opulent slippers, woven with silver and gold threads. Yet where was that resplendent Persia now? He fingered the hideously frumpy hospital gown. Here, that’s where. Schmatas made in India and a so-called nuclear program without a frigging bomb! “Did you forget something, Dr. Nuclear-Bomb Scientist?” he mocked. “Oh, yes, now that you mention it, I think I forgot a nuclear bomb!”
“Your Excellency? Are you all right in there?” called the nurse, tapping.
“Of course I’m all right,” he snapped. “Get me marking pens.”
“As many different colors as you can find. Red, blue, green, black. Quickly!”
“I’m not sure we have—”
Oh, great. We don’t have a nuclear bomb, and we don’t have marking pens. He remembered his wallet photo of Uncle Joe. “Do you happen to know where Siberia is, Nurse Fafoola?”
“Yes, you know: frozen tundra, man-eating wolves, eleven-month nights? If you don’t give me red, blue, green, and black marking pens within five minutes, I am going to send you there on an extended holiday—say, the rest of your life—but only after boiling you in camel spit.”
“I’m on it.”
“Purple, too, if you can manage. That one is optional.”
In a couple of minutes, red, blue, green, and black felttipped pens came rolling under the dressing room door. He had done Uncle Joe proud. He took off the gown and got to work, stretching it over the bench and tattooing it with multicolored designs—curlicues and fleurs-de-lis and butterflies and bluebirds and swirls and spirals and miscellaneous amorphous flights of graphic fancies. “There, that’s better,” he declared, holding the robe at arm’s length and feeling glad for his people that they were blessed with such a creative despot.
When, finally, he emerged from the cubicle, six or seven of the hospital staff were semicircled around the dressing area waiting for him with grave expressions. But as soon as they laid eyeballs on his handcrafted design, they broke into spontaneous and heartfelt applause.
* * *
After having the X-rays taken and being given a Tootsie Roll Pop, the president, dressed again and with his folded gown on his lap, waited in a private lounge for an internist to discuss the results. Since his matzo ball soup, he hadn’t experienced any of the sharp duodenal pain that had made him call the physician in the first place, so he felt pretty upbeat. Maybe Hazeem was right; maybe he wasn’t going to croak.
But the instant the doctor entered, and Akhmed spotted that look on his face, he knew something was very wrong. His throat thickened, and his Tootsie Pop drooped. The doctor looked around to make sure they were alone. He closed the door behind him and, holding the X-rays, sat next to the president.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I doctor? It’s all right, you can level with me. I’ve lived a good life. My only regret is never having hooked up with Rosie O’Donnell, but it’s too late for that now.”
The doctor held up an X-ray. Akhmed’s eye immediately spotted the problem. There, smack dab in his stomach were three half-roundish black spots.
“It is like no cancer pathology I have ever seen,” the M.D. said glumly. “It must be very grave. But we want another opinion before losing hope. I suggest we send the films to the best clinic in the world. Unfortunately”—the doctor braced himself—“it happens to be in Tel Aviv.”
The president broke out in robust laughter.
“Your Excellency,” consoled the doctor, perhaps assuming his patient had gone berserk from the shock, “we need not become hysterical with fear yet.”
Akhmed shoved his Tootsie Roll Pop back into his cheek. “That’s not pathology, you blithering idiot.”
“Your Supremeness, calm yourself. It need not mean the worst and—”
“Where the hell did you get your medical degree—Greece?!” He shook his head. “No wonder we can’t make a stinking bomb!” His laugh sputtered. “I’m telling you that’s not cancer. Sheesh!”
“Of course not, you bloody quack. It’s matzo balls.”
The doctor cast a glance at the door, in case he had to make a quick getaway.
“It’s matzo balls, I’m telling you. Nuked on high setting for six minutes.”
“Microwaved, you knucklenuts. Get with the twenty-first century.”
“Microwaved,” repeated the internist, holding the film up to the light. “Yes, yes, I see it now. Matzo balls.” He tittered, “How could I have missed it before?”
“Don’t patronize me, you butcher. I’m telling you, I ate a bowl of soup before fasting last night. Ask Hazeem—he’s the one who brought it for me. I was so hungry I swallowed without much chewing. Please don’t lecture me about chewing before swallowing. I’m not in the mood. And, pssst, if you ever tell anyone I ate Jew food, you’ll be sucking Siberian tubers with Nurse Fafoola.”
“But if it’s true—”
The tyrant cut him a death glare.
“What I mean is, why are the…matzo balls, you say?…”
“Go on,” Akhmed growled.
“Why did the matzo balls absorb all this radiation?”
The president peered at the X-ray again. “What do you mean?”
“They shouldn’t be black like this, Excellency. Not unless they were made of base-mineral ore. And even then…”
Akhmed filliped the sucker stick with his pinky.
“There is simply no way any food would show up on this X-ray,” insisted the doctor. “None.”
“The explanation is simple.”
“It is, Great One?”
“Of course. It’s obvious your X-ray machine was made in Iran by Iranian scientists. They can’t do anything else right, may as well make defective diagnostic equipment.”
“The machine was made by Mitsubishi, I believe.”
The doctor semicircled his smock. “Crescent my heart.”
“Japanese, you say?” The president scratched his stubble. He snatched back the X-ray film and held it up once more. “Then what does it mean? Is it ominous? Did they try to poison me? I must say, I feel fine. Ore, you say?”
“Have you any more of these matzo balls, Supreme One?”
“I never let myself run out.”
“I suggest lab testing at once. We should get to the bottom of it without delay.”
Akhmed was concerned. “All right. I’ll have Hazeem bring you a jar. Would you like it frozen or thawed?”
“You say you heated the soup in your microwave oven?”
“Not me. Hazeem.”
“Perhaps we ought to test the oven as well.”
“All right. I’ll have him bring that, too.”
The doctor hesitated.
“Maybe it would be prudent to have another party bring the items, Your Good and Plentyness.”
“Another party? What’s wrong with—” He stopped. He cast the doctor a stunned look. “Hazeem? You don’t think… You can’t mean…”
“It’s simply a matter of protecting the experiment from contamination,” the physician said tactfully. “I can send someone around right away with the necessary protective gear.”
“Hazeem?” the president wheezed. “No, no, I refuse to believe—”
The doctor whispered, “These are perilous times, Enormous One.”
But Akhmed hardly heard him. He just lowered his head and, shaking it, kept muttering, “Not Hazeem… By the grace of Allah, not Hazeem…”
* * *
“Great news, Mr. President,” Hazeem chirped on the phone the next morning. “I think you’d better pop right over.”
“Right over where?” the leader asked suspiciously, mindful of the doctor’s implied accusation against the president’s so-called friend. Akhmed had not slept a wink imagining Hazeem cornering him in the sauna and beating him to death with a hot rock; locking him inside and turning the temperature to two hundred (he had seen that once in a Matt Helm movie); secretly replacing his baby oil with battery acid.
“To Facility Six-A.”
What was this? Facility Six-A? That was code, of course, for one of the underground nuclear laboratories. Were they in on the assassination plot, too? Traitorous bastards!
“You’ll see. It’s very exciting. A surprise!”
I’ll bet, the despot sneered silently.
“An early birthday present,” Hazeem pressed.
We’ll just see about that. Akhmed was starting to get a little miffed. Hadn’t he trusted Hazeem with his life? Hadn’t he confided all kinds of personal matters, including his profound love for his cockatiel? Hadn’t he shown him his wallet photos? So this is how the dirty rat repays me. Yes, we’ll just see who is more cunning than whom. You’ll have to get up a lot earlier than this to get the drop on yours truly.
He decided to play along. “Can you give me a hint, my trusted friend?”
“Not over the phone, Your Fullness—not even the cell phone.”
“And I suppose you want me to ditch the bodyguards? Or are they in on it, too?”
“In on what?”
“All right, Hazeem. I’ll bite. But I think there is something you should know first.”
“Your young niece…the one who attends university in the United States…”
“Samreen?” Hazeem said, his voice rising. “What about her? Is she all right? Nothing has happened—”
“Nothing yet, my trusted friend.”
“Yet? Good heavens, this is no topic for riddles.”
“Quite so. I know how fond of her you are. And vice versa. I know how much she depends on you—as do we all. And I’m sure she and all of her…activities, shall we say, will remain under cloak to assure her continued safety.”
“Activities? What activities? What the blazes are you talking about? Don’t joke about Samreen. I won’t have it.”
“Never mind. God willing, she will be safe and sound, snug as a bug.”
“She does her studies, that’s her only activity. She is a straight-A student. I see her grade reports.”
“And you never need worry about monkey business, if you know what I mean.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Naturally, we have people in strategic places everywhere to protect our interests. Something could easily be arranged.”
“Samreen is my interest only, no one else’s.”
“To make sure she doesn’t get seduced by the wrong element, you know? America is not a safe place for young Muslim women—with all their drugs and alcohol and young black men, heaven forbid.”
“Are you suggesting having her followed? I won’t stand for it. She is pure and innocent. She has nothing to do with geopolitics.”
“I take you at your word. It is only something to consider for the future, which, Allah be praised, will be long and blessed. Perhaps we could discuss the matter further after meeting at the Facility?”
Agitated, Hazeem spluttered, “There is nothing to discuss, Mr. President. The matter is closed.”
“Ah, I thought you might see it that way. Do you still have a ‘surprise’ for me, then?”
“Here,” Hazeem bristled, handing the phone to someone. “You deal with him.”
“Your Eminence?” said a new voice. “It is I, Tahir.”
“Tahir? You mean, Hazeem really is calling from Facility Six-A?”
“You’d better come see for yourself, Your Prominence. We have made a wondrous discovery.”
Akhmed leapt out of bed. His covers went flying. “What?! A breakthrough?!”
“This is a momentous occasion.”
“OMG! Why the bloody hell didn’t Hazeem say so?! What’s wrong with that man? You’re not yanking my cord, now, are you? Because if you’re screwing around, I’ll reupholster my minibus with your children’s flesh. Baby Tahir will be the steering wheel cover.”
“Congratulations to you and all Iran, Your Heightness!”
“I knew you could do it! Never a doubt in my mind! Break out the Tab. You can make a toast to me.”
“As you request, Your Eminence.”
“I’m on my way down!”
* * *
Down was right. Nine floors below a location so secret that even he didn’t know where the heck he was (design was his thing, not directions), the president sat sipping a diet soda and listening with wide-eye, rapt attention as Tahir stood at a control panel in front of a thick-glass observation window, explaining what was about to happen. Next to him sat a lab-coated (he wished he could work his marking-pen magic on that puppy) assistant, and next to the president Hazeem rested against the edge of a counter.
Behind the observation window, marked with several yellow-and-black international radioactivity symbols, a robot arm hovered over a stainless-steel table on which sat one of Akhmed’s matzo balls. Well, he presumed it was his, not imagining anyone else in the country having any. Seeing it made his tummy growl.
“We bombarded this food item”—the scientist couldn’t bring himself to utter a Jewish epicurean term—“with enough rads of enriched uranium to kill an entire harem of goats. When we pass the Geiger counter over it, it should click like a sky filled with locusts, and the needle should bend like the Strait of Hormuz.”
“Very literary,” the despot said, slurping. “But may I remind you, you’re paid to be a man of science, not Kahlil Gibran?”
“Watch.” Tahir nodded to his assistant, who flicked a switch and, with two fingertips, tickled a joystick. The console speaker whirred, and beyond the glass the robot arm swung to a countertop, grasped a Geiger counter, arced over the table, and floated the radiation detector within an inch of the Zionist food item.
The device clicked lethargically.
“Some uranium,” the president scoffed. Did he have stupid written on his forehead? Was this puny demonstration how they intended to save their incompetent hides?
“You don’t understand, Your Greatbigness. I assure you, that dough ball is radioactive enough to fell a camel at a thousand meters. But for some reason it’s clutching those rads like a collapsed star’s gravity field. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a scientific wonder. We haven’t the slightest notion why on an atomic level it’s behaving this way. It could be the texture of the dough—very moist and absorbent—possibly neutronically mutated by some fortuitous outside agent. Or its properties: a certain kind of chicken used in the production of fat, or a method of distilling its grease.”
“Outside agent?” Akhmed hissed, gazing accusatorially at Hazeem.
“Not a person agent,” clarified Tahir. “A circumstantial agent.”
“Speak Farsi, man.”
“Perhaps a serendipitous confluence of forces, each benign in itself, creating an effect greater than the sum of its parts. That microwave oven of yours, for instance: did it emit electromagnetic energy at an aberrant frequency? Or said chicken: what did it eat the day it was slaughtered to produce the fat in the doughy mixture? Or the cracker meal: was it somehow affected by an unusual blast of solar gamma rays—from intense sunspot activity, perhaps? Or…” He hesitated.
“What?” the president demanded.
Tahir cleared his throat. He lowered his voice. “Or possibly the hospital’s X-ray machine.”
“I knew it!”
“Not to say it’s defective, Momentous One,” he clarified. “Only to suggest a possible unexpected influence on the unstable Zionist product, which, as you are well aware, is made with the blood of Christian children.”
“Your point being?”
“We are taking a close look at the X-ray apparatus and also testing the microwave as we speak. Perhaps an examination of the food itself may reveal answers.”
“All mildly interesting, but what does it have to do with our atomic bomb, and”—he glared at Hazeem—“how is it an early birthday present? Are you telling me that this matzo ball will detonate a nuclear device?”
Tahir looked down. “Not precisely, Your Tremendousness.”
“Then I suggest you precisely tell me why you dragged me out of bed.”
The scientist poked the air. “Observe, please.”
As the assistant worked the joystick, the robot arm placed the Geiger counter next to the matzo ball and picked up a nearby hammer, with which it gave the ball a sound thump. The Jewish delicacy split open and scattered in mushy fragments. The radiation detector went wild, its languorous clicking erupting into a plague-like clamor.
“Allah be great!” the president gasped, leaping off his chair and launching his can of pop into the air, soda splattering on the window. Immediately sensing the significance of what had taken place before his very eyes, he exclaimed, “We’ve split our atom! And it’s Jew food!”
“Again, Your Fullness—not exactly. But we’ve done the next best thing. And I quite believe it’s not only as good as an actual nuclear bomb, but in practical respects, even better.”
Akhmed’s eyes narrowed. “Better than the bomb?”
“Please sit again, and I will explain. Would you care for another Tab? And possibly another pair of pants?”
* * *
Tahir did explain, and it was magnificent. While his highly competent scientists (Tahir’s words) were assiduously developing a controlled nuclear reaction—a true atomic bomb—the president had lurched into a substitute so stunningly insidious, so ingeniously nefarious, so understatedly efficacious, regarding His Eminence’s brilliance and killing Jews, that the chances of sneaking a nuclear-type explosive into the United States and wreaking havoc on its life and economic well-being had increased manyfold.
“What the devil do you mean ‘nuclear-type’?” the Iranian leader asked with healthy skepticism.
“No, no,” Tahir assured him. “It’s nuclear, certainly, but not in the normal”—he splayed his hands—“ka-boom! sense of the word…. More in the brilliantly creatively ingenious sense of the word. You see, developing a conventional atomic bomb is difficult enough, but miniaturizing it to be able to stand even half a chance of smuggling it into the U.S.—well, who knows how long that might take, despite our tireless, dedicated, patriotic, religious, and completely loyal work ethic? But sneaking in a suitcase full of spherical Zionist food items that won’t even appear on low-level airport or, better yet, seaport radiation X-ray scanners into a Jewish-dominated American urban center of depravity would be a slam-dunk, if I understand the expression correctly. The beauty of your discovery—that is to say, your invention—is that it will require only a small amount of conventional detonation to impose maximum death and destruction, not to mention commercial disruption and chaos.”
“I like where this is going,” admitted the president.
“As you yourself witnessed, for some mysterious chemomolecular-subatomic reason, the radioactive dough balls appear completely inert—indeed are radioactively entropic—until violently agitated, at which time they release their stupendous stored energy like a tiger, devouring every coolie on the riverbank, so to speak.”
“Yes, I see,” Akhmed said, rubbing his hands in glee. “That Zionist-loving city won’t be fit for habitation for months. What a boon to civilization!”
“Months?” said Tahir, glancing twinkle-eyed at his assistant. “Try years.”
“Thousands will die painful, gruesome, agonizing deaths.”
“You’re right! A regular atomic bomb would be quick and painless—too good for the infidels! But this…slow and…gruesome, you say?”
“Oh, if only I could be there to take a video!”
Tahir considered. “Perhaps you could arrange it.”
The president screwed him a glare. “I’m speaking rhetorically, you traitorous imbecile.”
“Traitorous? Me? Oh, no, Your Stubbleness. Ask anyone here. They will all vouch for my complete devotion to your health and well-being. Why, just the other day I was telling Faizal—”
But the president was no longer paying attention to the head scientist. He was standing with his face pressed to the observation glass, gazing at his smashed matzo ball as if it were a pound puppy. He loved the little guy more than ever. The runt had given its all-too-brief life in full devotion to its master. There it lay, broken and alone in a melting ring of chicken fat, crackling rads in dying fealty to its nation and faith. Well, not faith, to be sure, for the brave little fellow was a Hebrew heretic, though in the end he had given himself to the one true belief, and there was no doubt, no doubt at all, that there awaited him in paradise seventy-two potato latkes.
He turned to Hazeem with tears trickling down his cheeks. “Life is good, my friend,” he whimpered. “I did you an injustice this morning, and I am sorry. May I give you a hug of contrition?”
Hazeem hesitated. Tahir and his assistant watched the leader and interpreter with more than passing curiosity. Hazeem’s glance darted from one scientist to the other. “Perhaps a heartfelt handshake would suffice,” he suggested to his president.
“No, no, nothing short of an apologetic embrace will do,” Akhmed replied, crossing the floor, clasping his interpreter, and burying his wet face in the crook of Hazeem’s neck, as his friend-interpreter squirmed with embarrassment.
“There,” the tyrant exclaimed, letting go and wiping his cheeks with the back of his wrists. “All forgiven?”
“Of course,” Hazeem assured him.
“Then all is well.” The president glanced back at the observation window. “And this is indeed an early birthday present.” He turned to Tahir. “Tell me, would you all mind leaving me alone for a minute?”
“Of course,” the scientist agreed, ushering out his assistant and Hazeem.
When he was alone with his matzo ball, Akhmed considered the fragility of life, the transience of happiness, the injustices of this world, the capriciousness of fate. He decided that, apart from devotion to God, the noblest existence was in service to one’s people, but that, as there were many who were self-serving, ungrateful, and carnal, the true martyrs had to be eternally vigilant. Was not essential loneliness, silent suffering, the fate of all great men?
Perhaps, he decided as he gazed blurrily through the observation window, he had been too sentimental for his own good. Perhaps in letting down his guard, his sensitivity had been mistaken as weakness. Perhaps he had let his loyalty to Hazeem cloud his judgment. Did the rascal think his veiled comments about Akhmed’s height did not register? Did he think his repeatedly turning down his president’s invitation to join him in the sauna went unnoticed? Did Hazeem really believe he could cop an attitude with his great leader the way he had regarding his niece Samreen? That he could speak to Akhmed so snippily about a what…a female?
Blinking teary-eyed at his matzo ball, Akhmed was suddenly very aware that by having taken Hazeem into his confidence, he had exposed his own vulnerability… not only of feelings but, apparently, of life and limb. This morning’s fright had perhaps been a wake-up call in more ways than one.
Kissing his fingertips and pressing his palm to the glass, he bade his matzo ball farewell and decided that, yes, he had trustingly revealed too much of his sensitive side to Hazeem—what a fool he had been!—and that a plan of remedial action was most assuredly in order.
He would pick his time and place. There was no hurry. He would toy with Hazeem as it pleased him before administering justice. Before lowering the blade.