The Microbiology of Laiq by Christopher Allen

The Microbiology of Laiq 

The afternoon is warm for the suit Laiq’s wearing. Colonies of microbes pullulate in his sweat. He pronounces their names slowly to make them harmless science, to convince himself that they’re not demons. Mal-a-sez-zia, Staph-y-lo-coc-cus e-pi-der-mi-dis, Cor-y-ne-bac-te-ri-um, Ko-cu-ri-a rhi-zo-phi-la. He’s masked their odors with a fragrance made by the company interviewing him today — his first. Not too much, his interview trainer warned him. Immigrants always go overboard on perfume.

He’s sitting outside the company’s blinding glass high-rise, early because his German is still basic and he tends to get lost. He tucks his black sneakers under the bench. All the dress shoes at the Lutheran church were three sizes too big.

It took them weeks to find a suit small enough — these huge Europeans. The dark blue trousers are thin at the seat, the seam resewn with beige thread. But the cut of the jacket is perfect, as if the little man who owned it is giving Laiq a full-body hug. From the donation center Laiq took one blue tie, one white shirt bleached but still tanned with sweat under the arms — subtle but Laiq sees it, knows its chemistry. The tie — Laiq sniffs it — is populated by a million micrococci and other pathogens.

“Herr Iqbal?”

A pall of rose water and lactobacilli — a woman — leads Laiq to an office where a giant lurches towards him. His name is Christoph and they can speak English and what a pleasure and won’t he sit down. Laiq shakes the hand — Sta-phy-lo-coc-cus ho-mi-nis, Pro-pi-on-i-bac-te-ri-a — and avoids eye contact. The office smells of furniture polish, stale coffee and the saliva of a midday nap — milky, Laiq thinks, Strep-to-coc-cus sa-li-var-i-us, Veil-lo-nel-la. Everyone smells like soured milk and sleep here. Christoph takes a swipe at the refugee’s name but falters. It’s hard, he says, not Mohammed or Ahmed or Ali.

Laiq’s one of the fortunate: this new country is short on overqualified scientists desperate to work as underpaid lab technicians. He showed the authorities his diploma, told them in perfect English that he was top of his class and tortured by the Taliban. He didn’t talk about the stink of war, how it would never shower off, how understanding his own microbiome only made him desperate and short of breath, that he wished he’d studied art. In interview training he learned to stick to know-how, expertise, and work ethics — what the interviewers need to hear. You gotta keep your shit together, stay in the moment, his trainer told him when Laiq would break down in class and go on about microscopic jinn crawling over him like a trillion teeth.

Christoph talks too fast. Laiq’s credentials are perfect, beyond impressive. He didn’t know they taught courses in microbiology in Afghanistan. His lab work is just the kind of experience they’re looking for, his dissertation topic is so interesting. Laiq smiles and trembles because he can’t find a question in anything this Christoph is saying. He feels a drop of sweat fall from his armpit, moves so that it soaks into his shirt, now blooming with bacteria.

“Mr. Iqbal.” Christoph leans back and coughs. “It must have been a rough ride to Germany.” He laughs when Laiq doesn’t respond. “Maybe we should stick to microbiology.”

“Microbes.” Laiq smiles sadly. “We are legion.”

“Right. Right.” Christoph laughs as if this is a joke he obviously understands. “So now we talk business. We’re testing new fixatives, something I’m sure you’ve done in the lab.”

Laiq nods as Christoph goes on about resinoids and lab experiments. He nods and nods, but he needs this to be over so he can go back to the refugee domicile and shower. His warm, wet shirt is humming. He tries to stay in the moment. He hears his interview trainer telling him to keep it together. He closes his eyes, tries to focus.

With eyes closed he’s in the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler jammed with refugees, smuggled over borders, three days now without fresh air, a pile of their shit in a corner. He tries to focus but his body is alive with infection. “Did you know,” he interrupts Christoph, “that under normal circumstances the human body is host to 39 trillion bacteria? That’s more cells than the human body has of its own, and that’s just bacteria — not to mention fungi and viruses.”

Christoph says, “Pardon?” because he was asking Laiq’s opinion about synthetic alternatives to the fixative vetiver.

“Unchecked,” Laiq goes on, “they’ll multiply to a hundred trillion. They feed on our natural oils and secretions. Did you know that each demon has its own distinct smell? Mo-ra-xel-la ca-tar-rha-lis: the man who ejaculated in my face because I am gay and educated. A-ci-ne-to-bac-ter bau-man-nii: like the dirty socks stuffed into my mouth because they can’t stop me screaming. Gar-dne-rel-la va-gi-na-lis: the stink of a woman whose vaginal infection has festered for weeks because no one will help her. No one. We prayed for soap to clean ourselves and our undergarments. The farmers in the mountains held their noses and locked their doors.”

The two men stare each other down as Laiq hears his interview trainer yell Smile! No one hires a sad, angry refugee. So Laiq smiles. What else can he do?


The Microbiology of Laiq


Christopher Allen’s debut flash fiction collection, Other Household Toxins, is forthcoming from Matter Press. His short fiction has appeared in [PANK], Juked, FRiGG, Indiana Review and others. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and a contributing editor for The Best Small Fictions. 


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Image: Caroline Davis2010