We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2017 after a trip to California and a year of concern about Syria.
Achmed noticed the old nun sitting in the bus shelter on Brookhurst. This was not unusual since an assortment came to the stop in their unmistakable outfits. Even though she was clear across the parking lot, he could tell she was the same one he saw at the Thrift Store when he was there with his Auntie the previous week — she was the shortest and roundest of them all. At the time, he was showing his mother’s sister and her little children around the shops. They were just in from Lebanon and he was helping them get acquainted with the neighborhood.
Now he saw the nun from his perch on a stack of pallets in front of the grocery store as he attempted to do as little as possible. He was acting like he was not slyly watching people. But he carefully scanned the streetside boundary of the strip mall where his parents had a restaurant fronting on the back lot. He had a feeling his father might kill him if he were caught with a toe off the property, but he enjoyed seeing as far through the boundary as he could. He looked and looked for hours. He also needed a reason not to venture into the back lot, where one of his busy parents would find something for him to do. For instance, he was good at peeling cucumbers, even though he was only nine, and his mother did not mind who knew about it. But he did not want to peel cucumbers. They felt slimy.
The restaurant was doing well enough. He knew this because his parents yelled about how much money each of them was spending and what exactly should be bought for the new baby on the way. There was a lot of fighting. In a way, the name of the restaurant: Aleppo, was a good name, since it often seemed like it was the site of a civil war. Achmed knew all about the war in Syria because his aunt and uncle, who had just arrived, told them all about it. New refugees had basically crowded his uncle out of Lebanon, so he had to come to little Syria in Anaheim.
No one who worked at Aleppo had actually lived in Aleppo. His father was from Jordan, but mainly from the United States. His mother was from Lebanon. She’d been to Aleppo as a teenager, before the war started, and before pictures of starving people and bombed out buildings made everyone cry. Aleppo was an old city. He had heard this over and over when she told the story to old Americans with nice clothes and careful haircuts who came to the restaurant because they had never had Syrian food yet. Aleppo was Turkish, Armenian, Lebanese and who knows what else all mixed together with a cuisine all its own. Aleppo was like a jewel, combining all the many lights of ancient peoples.
So they had a new jewel in Anaheim, a little pocket of memories in a strip mall along with a barbershop, a hookah parlor, a little grocery — which was one of the few places you could find old copies of Lebanese newspapers, and a store where Muslims could buy clothes. Technically, Achmed’s family were Muslims and they did Eid and Ramadan in their own way. But his father did not go for praying and did not own Muslim clothes. He said, “I did not come to America to stay in Jordan.” But when the Imam came to the restaurant for lunch he acted Muslim enough.
Achmed saw a lot and heard a lot. He was quiet and stayed off the radar as much as possible. There were not a lot of kids his age in the families who managed the shops. And since he could not go off the premises, it was somewhat difficult to have friends among the native Americans, many who spoke Spanish and thought he was weird, and many who were as white as Disneyland and stared at him like he was in a display case.
The bus came by and the nun did not get on it. Pretty soon another came by and she still did not get on. Achmed was curious. He secretly thought she might be dead like a character on TV. He had never seen a dead person and did not want to, really. But he also did not want to tell his father there was a dead nun in the bus stop if she were not really dead. So he quietly went across the parking lot and stood right outside the shelter like he was waiting for a bus. His mother would have rather died than see him get on a bus, but he did not expect the nun to know that; besides she might be dead.
He turned his head ever so slightly so his eyes could see her from their farthest right corners. Was she breathing?
She was not only breathing, she was crying.
This scared him mightily. The nuns, dressed in their black and white armor, seemed impervious to bad things. But this nun was proving to be surprisingly human. He could not help himself, and he felt responsible for the honor of strip mall. So he went over and sat on the bench next to her.
She did not immediately see him. But when she turned to get a Kleenex from her sleeve, she was startled. She took off her eyeglasses, wiped her eyes and looked at him more carefully. “You must be an angel,” she cried.
Achmed did not know a lot about angels, so he let that pass. “I saw you crying,” he said.
“And why wouldn’t I? The world is full of sorrow and I have almost no idea where I am!”
“You are on Brookhurst” he said.
“Yes, so the bus says. But I have forgotten my way home. I have become too old to be of any use to a needy world. I have been sitting here waiting for someone to find me and so you did. God must have sent you like a little Jesus to save an old lady.”
Achmed had even less idea of Jesus than angels, although he had heard the Imam say “Isa be praised” a few times.
“Aren’t you a nun?” he asked.
She straightened her habit and said, “What was your first clue?” And for the first time she smiled. “What is your name?”
“I don’t think I have ever seen a more handsome angel. Would you like to save my life?”
Before he thought clearly he said, “I guess so.”
“All you have to do is get me home.”
“But I don’t know where you live, either.”
“Oh, you probably do. You’ll have to think about it. It can’t be far or why would I be here?”
That made sense, somehow. So he said, “OK. Let’s go.” He got up and so did she. When she got up she was not much taller than he was.
“You are not very tall are you?” she said. He wasn’t. Then she took his hand in hers. Achmed looked back at the barbershop to see if anyone was looking.
He usually saw the nuns coming from the direction of the fireworks at Disneyland, to which he had never thought of going. So he crossed Brookhurst. He figured it was OK since he was with an adult. The nun took his arm in the crosswalk like they were husband and wife.
There were two white girls on the far corner. He decided to ask them where the nuns lived. But as soon as they saw him they started laughing. By the time they got across the street, one of them said, “A penguin and a terrorist. Merry Christmas!” Then they ran off laughing.
“Those were nasty little girls. You’ll have to pray for them after you save me,” she said.
They kept walking, even though he had no idea whether they were really going the right direction. Halfway down the block an older man was up on a ladder putting up Christmas lights. He couldn’t see anyone else, so Achmed took the nun up his walk.
“Hello?” he softly said.
The man dropped his lights and grabbed on to his ladder. He looked down on the two little people on his walk and said, “What are you two doing here? You scared me to death.”
“Do you know where the nuns live? This one’s lost.”
He looked at her and she smiled back through her glasses. “No. I make it a practice not to know where nuns live.” And he turned back to his lights.
So they kept going. It seemed like a long way. Pretty soon they were at Euclid Street and Achmed thought he might forget where he lived, too.
She noticed the puzzled look on his face. “God is with you wherever you are,” she said.
“That’s nice. But I’m not sure where you live.”
“I know. It is quite terrible isn’t it? But you shine like a star. I suspect you will figure it out.”
He stood on the corner stuck to a nun who thought he was a star. This was only the first time in his life he would be in over his head. But he did not know how that felt yet. It was terrible.
Just then a Honda van rolled up and out burst three more penguins. They all started praising God, one in Spanish, “Gloria a Dios! Gloria a Dios!” One in some Asian language, “Vinh danh Thánh Chúa trên trời,” and one in English. “Thank God! Sister Clare, we found you, you naughty woman! We will need a tracking device soon.”
They hugged and kissed and then did it all again.
Sister Clare wrested herself free of their clutches and straightened her habit a bit. She formally turned to Achmed with a little bow, and directed their attention to him with a sweep of her hand. “Sisters, I would like to introduce Achmed the angel. He graciously decided to save me.” They descended upon him.
He did a respectful amount of wriggling, and protested, “I really did not do anything. I don’t really know where you live.”
“We will show you!” And they dragged him into the van.
“Oh my god,” he thought. “I will never see my parents again. I should be peeling cucumbers right now.”
They were only on the road for a minute. “Here it is. We would let you in, but we don’t allow men in.”
“But he is an angel,“ protested Sister Clare, “And I have a tin full of cookies from Michigan.”
The nun who seemed like the leader was having a theoretical problem. “He is obviously a male angel.” She turned to him with a jolly but inquisitional attention, “Where do you live?”
“Isn’t that in Syria?”
“No it’s on Brookhurst.”
Sister Agnes took him home in the van.
When they reached the strip mall she turned to him with tears in her eyes, “Thank you so much for caring for Sister Clare. She used to love this entire area so well. She would still like to do it. But she can’t keep her mind on it anymore. Here, have a sucker. She handed him a red tootsie pop and he popped out the door. She roared out of the parking lot, assuming cars were going to stop. They did.
He sat back down on his pallets and determined to never tell his parents one bit of what had just happened. That would work out as long as no one in the nail salon saw him take a tootsie pop from a nun; if they did, everyone would know within half an hour. He decided it would take about a half hour to dissolve the sucker, so he unwrapped it.
The only problem was, on December 24 his mom came into the restaurant and yelled, “Achmed!” He turned away from the futbol rerun he was watching and saw that she had a shiny red and green package in her hand. She came right up to him as soon as she saw him and showed him the tag. “Do you by any chance know anyone named Achmed the Angel?”
“Um. Uh. I have no idea?”
“Your friends the nuns were glad to meet your mother. One of them took one look at me and called me Mary, then gave me this.” She held up another red tootsie pop.