The Reception

by Alison Grifa Ismaili

Curry and cardamom steep through the doors of the Riverview Ballroom. Smells so thick, Mo's nostrils sting each time he passes, but still, they're a pleasant reminder of back home. Not the same, but close. Whenever he brings another guest to the tenth floor, his mind instantly flashes to the spice vendors in the Rabati souk with their pyramids of pale yellow ginger, bright orange turmeric, and soft brown cumin. White pepper, black pepper, fiery red Sudanese pepper.

"I'll take care of you," says the elder man in the long violet shirt that reaches to his knees. It's loose around his hips, and the fabric looks soft, shiny, embroidered with silver. He's the bride's father, a diminutive man, half Mo's height, with bones frail like a wren's.

"I'm only working one shift," Mo says. He's been on his feet since seven, and the blisters on his toes writhe and scream against his black Slip Grip shoes. Cirque du Soleil had been staying at the hotel a few days prior, and he'd been carting around all their luggage and equipment.

"You're the best." The elder man persists. "I've been seeing you. You work harder than the others. I have five hundred guests arriving today." He seems accustomed to having to look up to people when he speaks. It doesn't seem to bother him.

Mo finally hedges. One of the other guys has called out, and he knows his manager will agree to a double-shit, which is what he calls two shifts in a row.

So for hours, he picks up guests from the Baton Rouge airport—sometimes in the bulky hotel van, sometimes in the sleek black Lincoln. He drives them downtown, helps them check-in to their rooms, and directs them to the tenth floor.

The ballroom swells with the throbbing bass of Indian pop music interspersed with the intriguing whine of sitars. Again, Mo returns back home. He and his family had passed many a night watching Bollywood films, the most popular ones that had been exported to the Maghreb.

He doesn't enter the reception, but occasionally, the doors swing open and tall good-looking young people stumble out. The men sometimes in finely made Western suits and ties, sometimes in their dress from back home. Not his back-home; their back-home. Mo notes the high shine of their dark square-toed shoes. The women wear flowing gowns that pool onto the floor. Bright silk patterns in amber, sapphire, silver, and gold. Their lips are painted the colors of pomegranates and mulberries.

All the young people speak the buoyant English of American TV shows—the English that seems perpetually on the edge of some sort of punchline, some very wry quip. A linguistic delivery Mo could never even hope to perfect, but he knows it well. It often emanates from his own son. Their laughter is sharp and clean, parsed by the prism of youth. Their smiles are so easy, their teeth so perfectly aligned, perfectly blanched. Inside the privacy of his own mouth, Mo runs his tongue over his crooked old teeth, and he feels heavy with the estimate the orthodontist had given him for his son's braces. The paper is on the bureau in his bedroom a couple miles away, and he can envision his wife wringing her hands, quiet to herself, hoping he'll agree to find the money somewhere. Between $4,000 and $8,000 depending on the metal, the ceramic, the visibility—the options are endless and merciless in l'Amérique. All for a pair of slightly twisted incisors, something no one would bother to notice back home. He heads downstairs for a cigarette.

In the parking garage, the elder men from the reception have also stolen away to smoke. Some venture across River Road to the levy where the dark Mississippi oozes by. Sucking down a butt, Mo listens to the clipped voices volley back and forth. A mother tongue, he can't recognize. Indian of some sort, he's certain—but in a country so vast, the geography escapes him—where are the big cities situated, what foods come from where, which languages are spoken in which regions?

The bride, as far as he can tell, has changed her dress twice. The first was an intricate and billowing gown of crimson. Gold bangles ringed her plump brown arms; her hands painted with henna. She wore a gold-and-red charm in her nose, which she had connected to her earring with yet another gold chain. The jewelry was fine and light, he could tell even briefly from a distance, not like the heavy beaten silver of his Amazigh people back home.

Her second dress is lavender and gold lace, which makes him recall his own wedding a decade and a half earlier. It was not as populous as this. Merely a small village affair outside of Ouarzazate, the door of the Sahara, as they call it. Only the neighbors attended, along with fourteen imams who read from the Qur'an deep into the small hours. He could only catch rare glimpses of his wife as she was sequestered with the other women in an adjacent room, but how his stomach lighted each time he saw her. She had changed dresses three times over the course of three days. Kaftans—ivory, indigo, pale lilac. He'd bought the ivory one for her, and she'd borrowed the others from her sister and Auntie.

Flicking his wrist to check the hour, he finds it's nearly midnight. His head hurts and his feet have gone numb. It's past the time to clock out.

On the tenth floor near the elevators, Mo spots the bride's father directing a team of young men. Stacked in their arms, they carry savory-smelling buffet trays.

"Do you have family?" The man smiles up at him with all of the bones in his face. His teeth are just as crooked as Mo's. "Here, take these. We can't let this food go to waste."

The warm stack of aluminum trays is weighty on his palms and forearms. The tray on the bottom is oily, and he's careful not to let it slip. He inhales deeply.

"Thank you so much. What is it—beef?"

In an instant, the man's face goes blank, his brows, like two down feathers, open wide onto his forehead. The youths behind him stiffen. Their bright smiles draw to a close.

"We don't...we don't eat beef," he stammers.

"Okay, okay," Mo says. "Don't get excited. What is it then?"

"Pork," says the man.

In one swift motion, Mo passes the trays back into the man's arms. Despite the dull ache in his temple, a faint glow of amusement percolates in his stomach. But his face doesn't betray him. He keeps his mouth in a line; his eyes, he knows, are vacant and still. "We don't eat pork."

And, for a beat, they stand peering into one another. The earth's viscous blood bubbles up from countless millennia of difference, of unlike, and dislike. It puckers and gurgles. The heat, the hatred, the violence and carnage, riddled deep into the DNA of humanity—until the elder man barks out a laugh.

He hands the trays to one of the young men behind him and digs deep into his pants pocket.

"Until next time, then," he says, and claps a thick white envelop into Mo's palm. "I told you. In all the hotel, you're the best."

BIO: Alison Grifa Ismaili has lived and worked in Africa, North, South, and Central America. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Fiction International, Litro Online, and Spillway magazine, among others. She currently resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with her two boys and her very patient husband.