Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2017    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Winter 2017 Issue


Cover Thought-Forms

Derek Rose

H. Fry

Slater Welte
Our Last Summer at the Lake

G. Bernhard Smith
Bread and Water

Sarah Blanchard
The Bus Driver

Dalton James
Butter Teeth

Joshunda Sanders

T. B. O'Neill
The Court Martial of Darren Sweet

Faith Shearin
Island Ecology

Jess Greenwald

Eileen Arthurs
Limbo Babies

Rosy Tahan

Chris Brewer
Good People

Rosy Tahan


Ameen’s was not a large store, but to its customers, it had everything: labneh, akkawi cheese, zaatar, burghul, halawa, various types of Levantine olive oil, and several hummus alternatives for those who didn’t like “what the Americans have come up with now.”

The store was the only one of its kind for miles, so there was usually a long wait at the cashier. At some point during this wait, some customers would inevitably cave into their temptations, and hunt for quarters to put in the gumball machine.

The machine was a beautiful thing, with a clear sphere, brightly filled, set atop a blue cylinder containing the coin mechanism. The middle part of the cylinder was clear, through which the colorful gumballs could be seen rolling down a blue spiral ramp to arrive at a shiny silver chute.

The machine didn’t belong to Ameen. A few weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy had come in and offered Ameen 5% of the profits in exchange for letting the machine stand in the store. He didn’t have to do anything else so Ameen agreed, privately thinking that his customers wouldn’t let their children near that “sugary American nonsense.” But his wife Mouna disagreed. She understood the power of whining children better than he did, and sure enough, the machine was half empty by the time Matt came around again.

He arrived as Mouna was closing shop, which she did every day. It was agreed that Ameen would open shop and Mouna would close, since he liked taking evening strolls and she didn’t like waking up to alarms. Besides, she liked the quietness of the shop in the evenings. Opening made the day feel so much longer than she wanted it to be.

Matt unlocked the top of the gumball machine and tilted it towards her. “Want one?”

She shook her head. He ripped open a new bag of them and held it out to her. “How about these? They’re fresh.”

“Both ways they rot your teeth,” she said.

“You sound like my mom.” He laughed and popped a gumball into his mouth before closing the top of the dome.

“I’m also a dentist. I was,” she corrected.

“How come you aren’t one now?”

“I’m not licensed to practice in the US.”

“That’s too bad,” he said. He sounded like he meant it, which surprised her. Mouna rarely asked for sympathy, but it amazed her how often people said things without any feeling.

He took out his phone and calculated her share of the extracted quarters, then walked out with his coins jingling in his loose basketball shorts. When the door closed she was suddenly overcome with an urge to be somewhere else, so she went outside and sat on the curb staring through the empty parking lot until Ameen gently tapped her shoulder and they went upstairs.

Mouna and Ameen had moved to the United States in September. By December they had opened Ameen’s and the store was doing well enough for them to allow themselves to feel settled in. Their new lives were lonely, but they were safe, which was the best they could ask for after the unrest and grief of the last few years.

They lived in the same building as the store, a floor above, which made for an easy commute. Mouna sometimes woke up with the eerie feeling that there were strangers in her house, but she was never able to forget that their household was emptier than it had ever been.

On the days she woke up too early, she would escape downstairs and watch Ameen as he sang and cheerfully rang up the customers, and she would wonder how two people going through the same thing can go through it so separately.

Matt’s next visit was on a hot day at the end of May. Mouna could tell that schools had begun to close for the summer; children were popping up with their parents in the daytime. The last customers trickled out like slow sweat, and she leaned against the back wall with her eyes closed until jolted out of her reverie by the sound of Matt tinkering with the gumball machine.

“Why did you start doing this?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “I had some extra cash and figured I’d make a little investment. You know, for college.”

“How can this be enough for college?”

“One machine’s probably not, but maybe I’ll save enough to get a few more around town. And I have a summer job lined up.”

He looked up and saw her smiling. “What?” he asked.

She shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

He shut door of the coin bank and stretched up. “Well,” he joked, “if you get your dentist’s license I totally want a share for bringing you so many new patients.”

Mouna started laughing. “Of course.”

Matt called and said he was going away the last two weeks of June, and asked if the machine was depleted enough for an early maintenance visit. Mouna told him to come. Later, when she saw the gumballs still crowding the fishbowl, she raided the cash register for quarters and cranked them into the coin slot, watching them spiral down into a plastic bag she had taped at the mouth of the chute.

She would do this all summer, apologizing to customers for giving them nickels and dimes and, after hours, feeding the quarters to the gumball machine in a ritual Ameen watched on the security cameras, though he never said anything.

By July they had finally accepted the futility of fans and decided to install an air conditioner. Ameen was determined to do it himself, so Mouna held the ladder steady from below. He started teasing her about her low tolerance for the cold, and to his surprise she responded, with a sudden but gentle shake of the ladder, making outlandish threats he knew she didn’t mean. When Matt arrived they were laughing, at themselves, at each other, and because it felt so fresh.

Matt accepted their offer of cake and ice cream, so they all went upstairs and sat around the kitchen table together.

“How did you decide to name the store after Ameen?” Matt asked them.

Mouna looked into Ameen’s eyes. “We never really talked about it,” she said. Ameen met her gaze for a moment, then looked away.

“We had to make a decision in a hurry,” he told Matt. “Also, my name means ‘trustworthy person’ in Arabic, so we thought it would bring us more customers,” he said with a wink.

“What does your name mean, Mouna?” Matt asked her.

“Wishes,” she said. “The plural.”

Matt laughed. “That’s a pretty great name, honestly.”

“I’ll save it for my dentistry practice,” she smiled.

“What would my name mean, if you say it in Arabic?”

Ameen thought about it. “Well, there isn’t an exact translation,” he began, then Mouna looked up. “The verb die,” she said. “Past tense.”

“Yikes,” said Matt, then fell silent. They finished the rest of the ice cream and cake without speaking until Ameen offered Matt some tea, but he said he had to get going.

One night in late August, Mouna went to bed later than usual and was woken up almost immediately by a loud crash downstairs, followed by what sounded like rattling.

“Ameen, wake up!”

He threw off his bedcovers with a sudden jerk of his arm and asked her what was the matter.

“I heard something,” she said. “Downstairs.”

They huddled together and listened. “I don’t hear anything, love,” Ameen said, getting under the covers again. “Go back to sleep.”

Mouna didn’t move.

“You could have imagined it,” said Ameen softly, stroking her back.

She could have. Her imagination didn’t have to stretch far to find tragedy, after all. She resented Ameen; he should have been the same, not far away from her, in sleep, as though he had never had a namesake who lived and breathed and was now locked away in a bedside drawer.

When she woke up the next morning, it was past the store’s opening time, but Ameen wasn’t downstairs. She could hear his voice in the next room, talking on the phone. He was talking about a break-in.

She quickly got dressed and went downstairs.

Whoever it was must have picked the lock. The door looked intact. The cash register, of course, had been cleaned out. It would have been a completely silent break-in except for the gumball machine violently toppled, its gumballs scattered among shards of glass that just yesterday held a half-full globe. That was probably what woke her up.

“The police are on their way,” said Ameen from the foot of the stairs. He looked at Mouna. “Do you want to call him?”

Mouna shook her head. She bent and picked up the broken body of the machine, and placed it upright where it used to stand, now offering them nothing.

Matt arrived before the police did. Sweeping some of the glass away with his sneakered foot, he kneeled to examine what was left of the gumball machine.

“Can you fix it?” asked Mouna.

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I guess it depends on the cost of the replacement parts. I might have to take it somewhere.”

“Take it with you,” said Ameen. “We’ll clean up.”

“Don’t they need it for fingerprints or something?” asked Matt.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mouna.

“Anyway, we already touched it,” said Ameen.

They stood in a strange new silence. “I’m sorry, Matt,” began Mouna, then stopped. Everything she wanted to say echoed from years and miles away from their little shop, too heavy for scattered gumballs. That’s the thing about loss, she thought. In all its manifestations, it never leaves anything to share.

Upstairs, she watched at the window as Matt heaved the machine into the back of his car. The police came, they left, and then it was just her and Ameen again; two people who never learned to grieve together. How horrible to realise that he was right to sing and to sleep soundly, and she had been doing it all wrong, all alone.

She never wanted to tell Ameen any of this, but then he came upstairs and opened his bedside drawer, and he collapsed into sobs as several gumballs rolled into view.

Rosy Tahan is currently studying psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi, but prefers to explore human behaviour through literature. She is Syrian and will therefore always find a way to include olive oil in her writing.

Dotted Line