WEDNESDAY: Southern Belle


Based on the lyrics by Scotty McCreery. Story copyright rests with the author.

THANKS TO his uncle, Ali held both American and Turkish passports. He could travel between the two countries with ease. In Istanbul, he used to own a carpet store, one of the bigger ones in the Grand Bazaar, the oldest and largest covered market in the world. Curious visitors streamed in at all times of the day, taking in the cacophony of sounds, inhaling the scents of the seven-herbs-and-spices incense, blending uniquely with the aroma of cardamom from strong Turkish coffee and the ubiquitous apple tea.

But business was not easy to come by. Despite the steady flow of customers, competition was fierce. One step into the streets of Sultanahmet, a tourist will be assaulted by hordes of aggressive carpet sellers shouting “Konichiwa! Ni Hao! Are you from China? Bruce Lee…Tiger Woods…” They would do anything to get your attention.

Before long, Ali figured that life would be less hectic if he just shipped his wares to the U.S. and sold them door to door. He was still young. He wanted to see the world, to experience Western culture, to live like a true gringo. His dual citizenship put him at a unique vantage point, which few of his fellow natives enjoyed.

With that plan in mind, he travelled to different parts of his country to scour up top-quality carpets. The Seljuk town of Konya was usually his first stop. Their rugs, with their filigree patterns and meandering vines, were popular among Americans. Next, he would visit the Cappadocian towns of Urgrup and Avanos whose prayer rugs, woven by locals in cave houses, were in high demand. To the east, he reached as far as Erzurum and Diyarbakir in the Van region near the Armenian border. They were known for their Kurdish kilims, compact yet light weight. He could always get a good bargain there. A six-by-nine, which would require a minimum of a year and a half to make, could easily earn him a 50-fold profit.

At the American embassy, Ali had the connections he needed to ship these carpets as adjunct cargo, along with the other exports like figs and dates, all for a cheap price. In Secaucus, New Jersey, he rented a storage unit to use as his base. When he was ready to go on one of these sales trips, he would rent a truck and load it with his carefully curated carpets. Then off he went. Each time, he planned a different route to avoid the towns he had visited before. He could traverse five to six states each time. When his inventory ran low, he would return to his home base to rest up.

To be frugal, he stayed in a cheap motel close to the storage unit. When he had the time to relax, he would sit in front of TV with a bottle of Efes, his beer of choice, in his hand. His mind would wander back to his family in Istanbul, especially his wife. He learned how difficult it is to be separated from his close ones. Each time he returned to his country for a visit, he would heftily reward her with a selection of authentic brand-name handbags and high-end clothing. Such was the life of a travelling salesman.

With time, Ali settled into this routine. He was surprised to discover that many of the gringos he ran into had hardly ever ventured beyond their neighbouring counties, much less their home states. Fewer still had ever set foot overseas. Some were curious about his background, but most regarded him with suspicion. He quickly developed a knack for finding the neighbourhoods best suited for his business, and reading and sorting his customers by types.

Some would let him talk on and on without a slight indication if they were truly interested or not. Ali’s voice would turn hoarse before deeming them to be lost causes. Then there were those who just wanted to keep him around because they needed someone to talk to. He commiserated with these loners. He himself could easily be one of them. Who doesn’t need somebody to talk to once in a while? The worst were those who would just slam the door in his face. Ali didn’t mind. You need a thick skin to be in this business and he had learned not to take any offence personally. He approached every door the same way, with the same professionalism.

Business is business. That was his motto. At the end of the day, it was the cash in your pocket that counts.

One August day, as he was heading to upstate New York, he turned on the radio and a catchy tune was being played.

Somewhere down south there’s a swingin’ screen door,
Sundressed beauty on a hot front porch.

It instantly reminded Ali of one of his recent stops, two weeks earlier in a small community outside Memphis, Tennessee. It was a hot summer day, like the one depicted in the song. He was about to wrap things up for the day, which had not been a good one. He hated to end it with only a single sale, so he urged himself into going for one more before calling it quits.

It was not an auspicious start. Mrs. Conway, as she introduced herself, seemed to be a mix between a lost cause and the lonely sort. He was not optimistic about this final prospect. His spiel seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. But as he had noticed, she had a big house, so he was sure that there was room for a rug or two. He pushed on with his sales pitch and showed her one last finely woven kilim.

In a last-ditch effort, he told her a story from the Arabian Nights where they used a kilim to smuggle women in and out of the harem.  “See how soft and pliable it is,” he said. He let Mrs. Conway feel the material. When she ran her hand over it, he knew instantly that something had clicked.

“You said they smuggled women in and out of the harem in this?” Mrs.Conway asked in her heavy accent. “My words, lady. Feel it, and see how soft, pliable it is. It’s a quality fit for a king. And it’s lightweight too. No silk can be finer than this.”

“Do you have something in a larger size?” she said. Ali climbed up into the truck and pulled out a couple of sizes. “I’ve got more if you need a bigger selection.”  He started explaining the meaning of the symbols on each kilim, and the intricate patterns that required a painstakingly long time to weave. “This one is from Erzurum, it’s one of a kind, look how beautiful the design is.”  

Ali sensed that a deal was in the making. But Mrs. Conway’s mind seemed to be set on the red one with the alien motif. “You said this is six feet long?” He assured her by running his measuring tape across it. “Six-by-eight, just as I told you. Look at this nice regal red colour. You really have an eye for the good taste.” He slid it over to a sunnier spot to show off the colour. Ali knew in his heart that the gaudy colour was not an easy sell, so he would gladly get rid of it if just to break even.

To each her own taste.

As a trick that he used, Ali wrote down a price in his notebook and showed it to Mrs. Conway. After flashing it, he crossed out the original price and scribbled another number below it. “Only for you, Mrs. Conway.”

Even he himself had to marvel at this sudden turn of event. The story of the harem always worked, and he congratulated himself with a smile. As he was loading the rest of the samples back into his truck, he heard Mrs. Conway call him. Her surprising request almost made him fall off the back of his truck. “Would you like to come in for some sweet tea?  If you’re not in such a hurry.”

Well brother, if lovin’ those sweet tea, blue jean dreams is wrong
Well, I can’t help it.

Ali hummed to the refrain. Well, sometimes fortune shines on you just when you think the dark clouds are looming.

Mrs. Conway led Ali into a large living area. The interior was a little dim for his taste, but it was filled with fine furniture. Mrs. Conway sure knew how to pick and choose. Ali thought the rug would fit in nicely.

“My husband is out on a hunting trip,” Mrs. Conway said casually. She directed his attention to a beautiful stone fireplace at one end of the living room, one he wouldn’t mind having in his own house back in Istanbul for those wet and dreary winter days. Above the hearth was the head of an enormous wild boar, probably one of Mr. Conway’s treasured hunting trophies. As Ali stared in awe at the boar’s tusks and its piercing glance, Mrs. Conway took the rifle hanging under the specimen and showed it to him. “It’s a Remington 7600. Try it, it’s not loaded.”

Ali had never handled a gun before. Clumsily, he laid the stock of the rifle on his shoulder, narrowing one eye to take aim. “Not like that,” Mrs. Conway said, nudging up close to him to correct his stance. She placed his finger on the trigger and let him pull it. The empty click was a bit anticlimactic for Ali, but just as he pulled the trigger, he felt Mrs. Conway’s body wrapping up tightly against his back. She must be on her tippy toes for her lips to snug up on his cheek.

With hesitation, he dropped the rifle and pulled her down on the couch. He lost his balance and fell awkwardly. In the process, he knocked the sweet tea and saucer off the table with his flailing arm.

Mrs. Conway didn’t give him a chance to recover. She was ferocious. Ali had never experienced sex like this. His intimacies with his wife were tame by comparison. Sweat soaked through his shirt, and in a moment of reckless abandon he kicked a Tiffany lamp off one of the end tables, shattering it instantly into a thousand colourful shards. Ali was stirred for a second, not knowing if Mrs. Conway would ask him to pay for the damage. He hoped that it would not cost him a fortune. But Mrs. Conway just continued until they were both spent, as if those accidents had never happened.

Wanna catch your heart like a firefly,
Hold on to you for the rest of my life.

Now, looking at the stretch of highway in front of him, Ali couldn’t remember when he started liking country music. It had not been one of his favourite music genres until he discovered that their rhythms and tunes were a perfect match for his long hours of driving. This song in particular. And the startling experience that it evoked. It certainly provided a nice diversion from the monotonous landscape on Interstate 80.

The shrill sound of sirens from two police cars behind him woke Ali from his daydream. He wasn’t sure if he had been speeding while reminiscing. He pulled over, and after a long wait, the cops approached him.

“Ali Recep?”

“You were in Lynchburg, Tennessee nine days ago, were you?” The approaching cop asked while his partner stood on guard nearby with one hand on his gun holster. Ali nodded and calmly recounted his itinerary.

“Mr. Recep, you are under arrest for sexual assault and homicide. You have the right to remain silent.”

Ali was dumbfounded, but he couldn’t find the right words to explain what happened. After a moment of silence, the cop continued.

“An unidentified male body surfaced in the lake two days ago. He was wrapped in a huge Turkish rug, maybe you know something about that?”

“You mean Mr. Conway?”

As they put handcuffs on him, Ali’s favourite song was still blaring from the radio, fittingly on its last verse.

Well brother, if lovin’ those sweet tea, blue jean dreams is wrong,
Guess I’ll be wrong with my Southern Belle.

  1. Clever premise but I wish we could have got to the action sooner instead of starting with two pages of back-story.

  2. Enjoyed the character and his ‘adventures’.
    My view is that you could perhaps have started at ‘One August day…’ then fitted in just a smattering of back story later on.
    I liked the way you used the country music and lyrics. It gave colour, and matched the title.

  3. I agree with reviewer, David Moores. In music, as in literature, and especially the short story, the intro need only be one bar long, to establish the key, before launching into the lyrics. Atmosphere and backstory have their place but, like the weather, aren’t usually the story.

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