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Minimal Pairs
by Tom Fillion

"Ship. Sheep," Jim Tierney said.
    The class of air force recruits repeated. Except for Buster.
    Buster was small and had a complexion like he had been dipped in mahogany. He was older than the other students and his attempt to learn English was so minimal that the younger Saudis laughed at him. He laughed too, and happily accepted his role as class clown. That role was expanded into the unofficial school mascot. The other students paraded him around, hand in hand, like a rare, prized animal.
    "Goat. Boat," Tierney said.
    The class repeated.
    One day after the prayer and lunch break, Buster didn't return.
    "Where's Buster?" Tierney asked.
    Some made gestures and put their hands together.
    "Calaboosh!" one of them said.
    "Buster's in jail? Jail. Mail. Bail," Tierney said.
    The class repeated.
    "Yes," Abdulnasser, one of the students, said.
    "What did he do?" Tierney asked.
    "Fighting with policeman."
    "Cop. Bop," Tierney said.
    The class repeated.
    Tierney didn't expect to see him back again. Problem solved. He was off the hook. Buster was dumb as a goat. A short time later, the classroom door opened and there stood Buster, beaming. All was forgiven, and he was returned from his brief stay in the calaboosh. The students cheered. He took his empty seat, but not before making it around the classroom, kissing everyone on both cheeks.
    "What happened, Buster?" Tierney asked.
    Abdulnasser translated. Buster had a grin on his face.
    "Oh, Mr. Jim," was all he could say in a deep voice.


Kurt Weimar was ordered by Dr. Boris Sundstrom, the new lead instructor, to work one-on-one with Buster. Weimar didn't take kindly to it and quickly forgot about the arrangements. Buster was happy as a fig, cruising around the school and learning as little English as possible. He located Wrinkles, the old man who served tea to Major Mudather and the other Saudi officers, and Buster became his protégé. Instead of being with Weimar, a retired E-9 from Milwaukee who specialized in minimal pairs like at-that, Buster was stretched out on a rug while he and Wrinkles sipped tea from dirty cups.


Dr. Sundstrom was the author of "International Politics, Roman Law, Natural Law and Jews." It was published by the Christian Legal Report in Idaho.
    "What's the Christian Legal Report?" Tierney asked.
    "It's associated with Harvard University," Dr. Sundstrom said. "It costs ten dollars, but since you are colleague, Mr. Tierney, and I am the new lead instructor, you can have a copy for five dollars American."
    Dr. Sundstrom was a neo-Nazi and covered everything with linoleum. His lips were made of linoleum.
    "I'd rather teach Defense Language Institute English to Buster," Tierney replied. "No sale. Six silly sisters are sweet meat."


Tierney had never met Major Mudather. He was always sleeping or putting Islamic bumper stickers on walls.
    A man in green fatigues, long beard, and a shaved head like a ripe turnip was slumped on the desk. They approached and he roused slightly but didn't wake up. Dr. Sundstrom pulled at Tierney's arm.
    "Maybe next week. Let's go that way," he suggested pointing to another office. "The Major had an operation, and he's been like that ever since."
    "When was the operation?"
    "Three years ago," Dr. Sundstrom answered.
    "What did they operate on?"
    "His knee," Dr. Sundstrom replied.
    "Knee, key," Tierney thought.
    Dr. Sundstrom went inside another office. He came out a few minutes later.
    "He can see you," Dr. Sundstrom said then walked in the other direction.
    The Major grumbled something in his sleep. Dr. Sundstrom tip-toed. Tierney tapped on Warrant Officer Algarni's door and then entered.
    "Welcome, Tierney," Warrant Officer Abdullah Algarni greeted.
    He stood up, walked over, and shook hands in a very friendly and cordial manner. He was dressed in green fatigues covered by an overcoat of the same color.
    "Sit down," he offered, motioning to a couch against the wall. "Tell me about yourself," he said after returning to his desk.
    Tierney was in Saudi Arabia to quit smoking and avoid foreclosure on his house near Disney World.
    "What do you think about the situation?"
    "Saddam has to be stopped."
    "The truth is, Tierney, Saddam is working for the Jews. He's a Jewish agent," Algarni said.
    Tierney looked up to see if Algarni's face reflected the ha-ha he was playing. He waited for the punchline.
    "Saddam was brainwashed by the Israelis," Algarni said.
    "That's possible," Tierney replied. "How many wives do you have?"
    Algarni smiled.
    "Two wives."


The furniture in the administration office was changed, re-arranged. Everything was covered with linoleum. Weimar, the grumpy from Milwaukee, was out of administration. He blew cigarette smoke as white as his shaggy eyebrows. Dr. Sundstrom took over completely. Major Mudather woke up long enough to approve.


Dr. Sundstrom put a letter in Kurt Weimar's file warning him about his "dereliction of duty" regarding Buster and minimal pairs. The letter was written by Dr. Sundstrom and signed by Major Mudather who read nothing that crossed his desk except the Koran and "International Politics, Roman Law, Natural Law and Jews."
    Dr. Sundstrom streamlined the operation into linoleum. He wrote all letters, evaluations, and directives, and, Major Mudather's signature went on them. Dr. Sundstrom was a puppeteer working in linoleum. He kept his wife who had a bilabial plosive locked in their villa.
    Weimar got wind of the letter in his file and responded like a Cold Warrior that flew a B-52 taxi with nukes. He fired off a letter of his own. He circled misspellings and grammatical errors in the letter signed by Major Mudather, but written by Dr. Sundstrom who wrote and spoke Bulgarian English. He corrected some of the other lies that Bulgarians always used, especially after years of Russian oppression. Dr. Sundstrom added them to justify his claim. That's what Bulgarians do.
    Weimar's letter went through the chain of command. Buster and Wrinkles drank cloudy tea. Scud missiles hit Dharan and Israel. It was Saddam working for the Israelis. Weimar's letter wasn't a Scud missile, but it had fallout. Major Mudather looked incompetent and sleepy to his superiors. He was on permanent Ramadan. He came from a family that traced its lineage to the Prophet. He had diplomatic immunity.
    Tierney heard Dr. Sundstrom and Weimar down the hallway yelling.
    "Talk to me when you get your doctorate," Dr. Sundstrom shouted.
    His face was bright red, the color of a beefsteak tomato in desert boots.
    "Is your doctorate in English? No, it's in Bulgarian Russian and Management which is a contradiction of terms," Weimar yelled.
    "Russian and Management. That's a minimal pair," Sean Higgins, an Irishman whose family cut turf near Ben Bulbin, said to Tierney.
    "Talk to me when you've been published in the Christian Legal Report in Idaho," Dr. Sundstrom shouted.
    Weimar was officially ousted from the front office. Linoleum, slow-moving like a glacier, covered his old desk. He was sent to the smokers' office. U2's took off from the flight line right outside his window.
    The Saudis officers at the training center were furious.
    Mohammed Algarni, second in command, was enraged by the incident. He married a third wife. Fayze Shahrani, a warrant officer with baggy pants that were too short, had rental houses in Mecca. He was known as "the Piston." He vented his anger.
    "You could have stopped him from sending the letter," he yelled.
    He pointed his finger at all the instructors including Tierney. They stood in the smokers' office.
    "But no, you let him send it. You are all responsible. And we have been nice to you, and this is how you pay us back," he shouted with his voice wavering.
    He stormed out of the office. Francis Brown had been there for years.
    "We're part of the conspiracy, and the Saudis will retaliate," he warned.
    The Saudis extended the workday by an hour. Tierney and the others received undated and unsigned communiqués in Bulgarian English from Dr. Sundstrom. He outlined strategies for improving poor performances. One communiqué was on how to maintain classroom control and discipline. Another communiqué was on Major Mudather's pet peeve: instructors sitting instead of standing. Another one on maximizing production sounded like something in a Bulgarian tractor factory.
    Sean Higgins began to refer to the English Language Training center as the "Gulag."
    "It's a pity, isn't it, this all started with that little Bedoe. What's his name? Oh, yes, Buster, the one who drinks tea with Wrinkles," Sean observed.


"Where's Buster?" Tierney asked, pointing to the empty seat.
    "You mean, Runway, Mr. Jim?" Abdulnasser asked.
    Abdulnasser removed his ghutra and motioned to the top of his head.
    "He has no hair like runway, Mr. Jim."
    "Is he in jail again?"
    "No, Mr. Jim. He go home to Mecca. To raise camel and study Koran."
    "Ship. Shape," Tierney said.
    The class repeated.

About the author:
Tom Fillion is a graduate of the University of South Florida. He teaches mathematics and coaches golf and tennis at a Tampa public high school. His short stories have appeared in Ramble Underground, Hamilton Stone Review, Cautionary Tale, Word Catalyst, Decomp Literary magazine, Storyglossia, and Tonopah Review. Forthcoming at

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