I was sitting one table away. A food court in an Asian market, two middle-aged men from somewhere far away, dark-skinned accents I couldn't begin to place. The bigger fellow listened; across from him sat his friend, a spry man in black, his collared coat covering a service uniform. They were chewing on their chicken, but appetite was giving way to a different voice now, a somber tone amongst their leisure.
"I'm worried about my kid. My son. He started acting bad. He beat my wife. His friends. I try to follow him; see where he go. They call me at my work, and I get worried, because it's the work number. My boss says your wife is calling you. And she explains what's happening. And I say let me talk to my son. And he swears. At me! Says F word. 'I don't give a fuck,' on the phone. Hurts my feelings." Gruff but sincere. His body leaning forward, hands spread apart. He had the poetry of an unrehearsed lament. “Because I work hard. For them. For him." He paused before continuing.
“So I took them and sat them all down. My wife, my son, my daughter. And we pray. To all religions. I say if this Christian religion, Jesus, if exist, please. Please! Take him down. Take my son and help him. And I say to the Muslim religion, Allah. If he exists, Mohammed. Please, take him down. This is my son. He was good child, good in school. Good grades. Everything good, until now. I don't know what happened.”
At first his friend had kept eating, chewing on thinly sliced meat you could tell he was trying to hide his enjoyment of, but he had stopped by now. They were the units of conflict and audience– human drama– at their most elemental, with a purity of truth so many operas, films, symphonies and literature could never hope to capture. Two men at a table. His pronunciation of Allah was perfect, the accent you can't fake: emphasis on the first syllable, and a thick rendering of the double L.
His listening companion did the most friends can sometimes do: listen. These were the queries that bruise the soul, with hardly an answer in sight. It was a question parents have asked for thousands of millennia. Odds are high that child will one day grow up and ask similar questions about his own wayward son. Perhaps at a table, with a considerate friend.
Somehow, as ever, we continue.