The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran. He works very quickly without rest, but when Torez stops the orange highway truck in front of the crew, Tran hurries for his paper cup of water with the rest of them. This heat is no good for work. All morning we have walked this highway between Sausalito and the Golden Gate Park. We carry our small trash harpoons and we drag our burlap bags and we are dressed in vests the same color as the highway truck. Some of the Panamanians remove their shirts and leave them hanging from their back pockets like oil rags, but Torez says something to them in their mother language and he makes them wear the vests over their bare backs. We are upon a small hill. Between the trees I can see out over Sausalito to the bay where there are clouds so thick I cannot see the other side where I live with my family in Berkeley, my wife and son. But here there is no fog, only sun on your head and back, and the smell of everything under the nose: the dry grass and dirt; the cigarette smoke of the Chinese; the hot metal and exhaust of the passing automobiles. I am sweating under my shirt and vest. I have fifty-six years and no hair. I must buy a hat.
When I reach the truck, the crew has finished their water and the two Chinese light new cigarettes as they go back to the grass. The Panamanians have dropped their cups upon the ground around their feet and Tran is shaking his head, and saying something in his language as he stoops to pick them up with his hands. Mendez laughs. He is almost as big as the radish and there is a long burn scar the color of sand upon one of his fat arms. He sees me looking at it as I drink my ice water and he stops his laughing, no longer does he even smile, and he to me says: "What you looking at, viejo?"
I drink from my cup and let him look at my eyes. His brothers have started to go back to work but now they stop to watch.
"Old maricon," says Mendez. He takes up his trash spear from the orange tailgate, but my eyes look at the burn again long enough for him to see. His face becomes more ugly than it already is and he yells something at me in his language and his teeth are very bad, like an old dog's. I don't give him rest from my eyes and so now he steps to me, yelling more, and I smell him, last night's wine and today's sweating of it, and now Torez is yelling louder than Mendez. Again it is in their mother tongue and it is over quickly because Mendez knows this crew can manage very fine without him, and he needs money for his sharob, his wine. He is goh, the shit of life. They are all goh.
"Vamonos, Camello." Torez moves by me and closes the tailgate. Tran is already working ahead of the truck while the smoking Chinese and the lazy Panamanians walk to the shade of the trees, pretending there is trash there.
I pull my sack over my shoulder and to Mr. Torez I say: "In my country I could have ordered him beaten."
"Si, Camello? In Mendez's country he would have beaten you himself."
"I was colonel, Mr. Torez. I was colonel in the Imperial Air Force. Do you know this, Mr. Torez? I was a colonel."
He hands to me my garbage spear and looks me in my eyes. His are gavehee, brown as coffee, like all his people, like my people also. But I see he has made up his mind about me.
He says to me, to Genob Sarhang Massoud Amir Behrani: "Okay, Colonel, but today I'm Senor General. Comprende?"
At the lunch hour, Torez drives the highway truck down to the trees and we all remove our paper sacks from where we left them in the tool chest this morning. We eat in the shade. Many times Tran eats with me and I do not mind this because the little Vietnamese speaks no English and I am able to do my work in the classified pages of the newspaper. In my country, I was not only a desk officer; I bought F-16 jets from Israel and the United States, and when I was a captain in Tehran, a genob sarvan, I worked on the engines with my own hands. Of course, all the best aerocompanies are here in California but in four years I have spent hundreds of dollars copying my credentials; I have worn my French suits and my Italian shoes to hand-deliver my qualifications; I have waited and then called back after the correct waiting time; but there is nothing. I have had only one interview and that was with a young girl in college who I believe the company was simply giving personnel experience. That was over two years past.
But today and all week, I do not even attempt to look for a position. My daughter Soraya was married on Saturday and I feel already there is a hole in my chest with her gone. There is also a hole in our home, but now we are free to leave that place that has cost me three thousand dollars per month for four years. And I turn straight to this area called Legal Notices/Auctions. This is a part of the paper I have never before investigated. I have been speaking and reading English for over twenty-five years but the language of law in both our countries seems designed to confuse. Of course I know what is an auction, and this morning, when the air was still cool and we garbage soldiers sat upon the metal floor of the highway truck as it drove under the tall span of the golden bridge, the smell of the ocean behind us, I held the newspaper tight in my lap so no wind would touch it and that is when I saw the short notice of Seized Property for Sale, a three-bedroom home. Though of course this has not been my plan. My plan has been highly simple: stop spending money from home so we may use it to start some sort of business. I have been looking into many possibilities; a small restaurant, or a laundry, a video store perhaps. Though I know these American papers, I know what they say of this economy, still I see small shops going out of business on both sides of the bay. And of course we have no money for to buy a house as well, but there are many auctions in my country. There it is known as the legal way to rob.
Tran is eating rice and vegetables with a large plastic spoon from waxy paper in his lap. He is very small and yellow-brown. There are deep lines around his mouth and between his eyes upon his forehead. He smiles and nods at my own food. I eat rice also. Soraya used to save the tadiq for me, the hard cake of rice at the bottom of the pot Americans throw away, but for us, for Persians, it is the jewel. We cook it with very much butter so when the pot is turned upside down all the rice comes out onto the plate, even the brown and burned part we call tadiq. Now, each night, my wife, Nadereh, saves half for my lunch. She also packs for me radishes, bread, one apple, and a small thermos of hot tea. The Panamanians watch me pour the steaming tea into my cup and they shake their heads as if I am a stupid child. They do not know what I know of the heat, that there must be a fire inside you to match the one outdoors. At Mehrabad, my base near Tehran, sometimes the tarmac would become so bright off the sands even we officers, with our European sunglasses, would close our eyes. Of course we spent most of the days inside our air-conditioned offices. Many times there, between appointments or briefings, I would have my attendant phone Nadi at our home in the capital city. She and I would speak of the small events of the day, then she would let the children to the telephone. One morning, when my son Esmail was one and a half years, he said his first word to me, then, over the wire: "Bawbaw-joon," father most dear.
With my fingers I tear out the small notice of the home to be auctioned and place the paper in my front shirt pocket beneath my vest. Today is Wednesday, the only day I do not work my night position at a small convenience store in El Cerrito, a neighborhood where I am not likely to see any Persian people, not the rich ones, the pooldar, those who live alongside us in that high-rise of overpriced apartments on its hill overlooking the bay and San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. In four years, this two-bedroom flat has cost me over one hundred forty thousand dollars in rent. But I will not let myself think of that now. I cannot.
Tran finishes his lunch. With his fingers he brushes off the wax paper and folds it neatly before putting it back into the bag with the plastic spoon. He pulls out a chocolate bar and offers to me a portion, but I shake my head as I sip my tea. I know that he will use that tired paper for his lunch tomorrow, and the spoon will probably last him half the year. I know, like me, he is a father, perhaps even a grandfather.And perhaps I will be a grandfather soon as well.
Of course I argued many times for a more reasonable place to live, but Nadi fought me; we must keep up our appearance. We must act as if we can live as we are accustomed. All because it was the time of hastegar for our Soraya, when young men from good families send roses to her and our family, when their fathers call me to talk, and their mothers call Nadi to introduce. If there is no family match, there can be no match. And naturally, because our daughter is very beautiful, with long straight black hair, a small face, and the eyes of a queen, she had many offers and of course could not make up her mind. Meanwhile, Nadi had to make certain our daughter did not attract any common Persians; she ordered all the best furniture and lamps and carpets. On the walls she has hung French paintings, and the mosaic-frame portrait of the battle of martyrdom in the Karbala. On the silver coffee table are crystal bowls filled with pistachios, dates, and fine chocolates. And near the sliding glass doors to the terrace are fresh green plants as large as small trees.
There are many other Persians living in the building, all rich, all pooldar. Many of them are lawyers and surgeons. One was a judge in Qom, our holy city before it became the headquarters for the mad imam, but the mullah is dead now and we still are on the list of those who will be hanged or shot if we are to return home. He left behind many such lists as that.
I think of these things as I look over at Mendez, sleeping in the shade, his brown stomach visible beneath his peerhan. When we flew from France--Nadi, Esmail, and I--I carried bank checks worth two hundred eighty thousand dollars. A man like Mendez would drink that money, of this I am quite certain. But many nights my sleep does not come when I think of how unwisely I let that sum be burned up, burned because my dear Nadereh could not and cannot bear to let other families know we have next to nothing left from the manner in which we used to live. If I had been stronger with her, if I had not been so sure I would have work soon with Boeing or Lockheed, making a respectable salary, then I most for certain would have invested in real estate. I would have told Soraya her hastegar must wait for a year or two, I would have rented us a modest apartment under one thousand dollars per month, and I would have purchased a partnership in an office building or perhaps even a residential property in a growing neighborhood of new homes. I would have watched the market like a wolf, then, in short order, I would have sold for an honest profit only to do it again.
We have forty-eight thousand dollars remaining, this is all, an amount my fourteen-year-old son will need for the first two years of university alone. It has been my hope to begin a business with this, but I fear now to lose it all, to become bankrupt like so many Americans. Of course, I have always seen the samovar as half full, and Nadi may have been right; Soraya has married a quiet young engineer from Tabriz. He holds two Ph.D.s in engineering and we can rest to know she will be taken care of and I thank our God for that. The young man's father is dead and that is a pity because he is supposed to have been a fine businessman, a possible partner for myself. Perhaps it is the seized property I must begin to view, the used, the broken, the stolen. Perhaps there is where we can get our start.
Because our work is finished at half past three, the sun is still high as Torez drives us through San Francisco down Van Ness Street. I sit with Tran and the Chinese opposite the Panamanians, and I look over the pig's head of Mendez--he stares at me with the tanbal eyes, the lazy eyes of a man who wants sleep then more wine--and I regard all the mansions of Pacific Heights, the high walls covered with white and yellow flowers, the iron gates that allow in only fine European automobiles: Porsches, Jaguars, even Lamborghinis, the cars of the old Tehran. My driver in the capital city, Bahman, he drove for me a gray Mercedes-Benz limousine. Inside was a television, a telephone, and a bar. Under Shah Pahlavi, we all had them. All the high officers of the Imperial Air Force had them.
The skin of my head is burning. Each morning, Nadi gives to me a sun-blocking lotion I rub there, but now, even with the warm wind in the open truck, my scalp burns and I promise to myself again I will purchase a hat. We continue south through the city past Japantown and its five-acre Japan Center, where one can buy electronics, porcelain, and pearls. Many Persian wives from our building shop there, and so I must sit low in the bed of the truck and stay in this manner until Torez turns onto Market Street, then down to Mission Street, where is the Highway Department's depot. He drives us under a freeway, past a movie theater which shows films only in the Spanish language. On both sidewalks are no pooldar people, only workers, cargars, brown-skinned men and women carrying bags for their shopping. And there are many small food stores, restaurants, laundries, and clothing shops, and they are owned by the Nicaraguan people, the Italians, and Arabs, and Chinese. Last spring, after our thirty-day fast of Ramadan, I from an Arab purchased a shirt in his shop near the overpass bridge. He was an Iraqi, an enemy of my people, and the Americans had recently killed thousands of them in the desert. He was a short man, but he had large arms and legs beneath his clothes. Of course he began speaking to me right away in his mother tongue, in Arabic, and when I to him apologized and said I did not speak his language, he knew I was Persian, and he offered to me tea from his samovar, and we sat on two low wooden stools near his display window and talked of America and how long it had been since we'd last been home. He poured for me more tea, and we played backgammon and did not speak at all.
Torez drives into the dark building that smells of motor oil and dust. It is so large it reminds me of an airplane hangar, which I appreciate. He parks the truck beside the gas pumps opposite the office and we crew of garbage soldiers walk to punch our time cards. But Mendez and one of his friends stay behind. Each day it is different who Torez will choose for tool and truck cleaning duty, and I am certain the pig Mendez holds me responsible for today. I walk through the bright truck yard surrounded by a tall chain fence and I carry nothing but my newspaper and bag and thermos. Every day at this time it is the same; my back and legs are stiff, my head and face are burned by the sun, and I must walk four city blocks to Market Street to the Concourse Hotel where I pay to keep my white Buick Regal in their underground parking facility. Of course it is an added expense, but there is no secure location for my auto so close to the Highway Department. Also, it gives to me opportunity to clean myself and change clothes before returning home.
In the beginning I would enter the hotel through the carpeted lobby. At this time of day there is only one employee at the desk, a man of forty years with very short black hair and a large black mustache. He is dressed in a fine suit, but pinned in one of his ears is a tiny bright diamond. Each day he would regard me in my work clothes dirty from road dust, wet with my sweat, and each time he would ask, "May I help you, sir?" Soon enough I stopped explaining and simply pointed to the elevator I would take to the garage. But one afternoon, when there was a well-dressed lady and gentleman settling their account at the desk, the diamond man, the kunee, the one who gives ass, who in my country would be hanged, he looked over their shoulders and asked very loud of me: "May I help you, sir?" The lady and gentleman turned around, and I could see they were tourists, perhaps Germans, but they viewed me no longer than a man would take for a dead insect upon his windshield while driving. And for the thousandth time in this terrible country I wished to be wearing my uniform, the perfectly tailored uniform of an honorable colonel, a genob sarhang in the King's Air Force, the King of Kings, Shahanshah Reza Pahlavi, who three times in my career his hand I kissed, twice at formal gatherings at Sadabaad Palace, once at the grand home of my dear friend General Pourat. But of course my uniform then, in the lobby of the Concourse Hotel, was damp work clothes with blades of grass on my lower pants, dust on my back. So I did nothing but move quickly away, once again the hot blood of a killer dropping from my heart to my hands.
Now I simply eliminate the lobby and every day walk down the concrete auto ramp into the shadowed belly of the building, where I unlock my automobile and retrieve the clothes I wore early this morning. I am never certain if there will be Persians in the elevator of our apartment building or not. In the cooler months I wear a suit, but now, in summer, I wear a short-sleeve dress shirt and tie, dress pants, and polished shoes with socks and belt. I leave these in a zipped garment bag laid out quite neatly in the trunk. The hotel elevator is carpeted and air-conditioned. I breathe the cool air into my lungs and soon I am in the second-floor lavatory opposite the ice machine, where I remove the auction notice from my front pocket, pull off my shirt, and wash my hands and bare arms and face. I shave for the second time today. I dry myself with the hotel's clean paper towels, and I use cologne on my cheeks and deodorant under my arms. Today I change into brown slacks, a white pressed shirt, and a tan silk tie. I fold the auction notice into my wallet, wrap my work clothes and shoes in paper, then put them in the garment bag. When I step into the hallway and walk to the elevator, my covered clothes over my arm, my tie knotted correctly and straight, and my face shaved clean, I pass a Filipino maid pushing her cart and I take notice that she smiles. And even bows her head.
The gentleman from the San Mateo County Tax Office gave to me a map for finding this home to be auctioned. He informed me to arrive by nine o'clock in the morning and be prepared to offer a ten-thousand-dollar deposit should I have a wish to purchase the property. He also to me said it was located upon a hill in Corona and if there were a widow's walk on the roof, you would see over the neighbors' homes to the Pacific Ocean below. I had not heard before this term "widow's walk," and so after traveling to the bank for a certified check of ten thousand dollars, I drove home to the high-rise and eventually last evening, after a dinner with Esmail and Nadereh where I revealed nothing, a dinner of obgoosht and rice and yogurt with cucumber followed by tea, I dismissed my son from the sofreh upon the floor where we eat barefoot and I searched for "widow's walk" in our Persian-English dictionary. I found only "widow," a word in Farsi I know quite well enough, and I felt a sadness come to me because this did not seem a good sign for the purchase of a home.
But this morning, that feeling had every bit disappeared from my body. Many summer evenings, instead of sleeping upon the sofa in my office, I rest on the carpet near the sliding door of the terrace with my head on a pillow beneath the leaves of the tree plants my Nadi cares for like her own children. Last evening the sky was clear, and sleep came for me as I watched the stars through the screen.
I rise with the first light from the east, and, after a shower and shave and a breakfast of toast and tea, I wake Esmail for his newspaper route. Then I dial the Highway depot and inform them of the summer flu I am suffering. I prepare tea for Nadi and bring it to the bedroom on a tray. The room is of course dark, with the shades drawn and the drapes closed, and I know she is awake because a cassette tape of Daryoosh's sentimental music is playing softly beside her bed. I rest the tray on the bureau and open the drapes and both shades.
"Eh, Behrani. Nakon. Chee kar mekonee?"
My wife's voice is still hoarse from sleep, and I know she again has not slept well. She says to me, "Don't." And, "What are you doing?" But this morning, for the first time since perhaps France, I know what I am doing; Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani knows what he is doing.
She sits up and I put carefully the tray upon her legs. I bend to kiss her cheek, but she turns her face from me and I sit down in the chair near her bed. My wife's hair is thick and short, an area of gray near her face that she dyes black. Sometimes she applies too much and that part of her hair appears the color of a plum. Nadi has always worried about all that is not as it should be, and the overthrow of our society has aged her more than myself. But even still, her face is small and beautiful and many times when I am allowed to stand or sit in this shadowed room where she spends so much of her days, I hear the domback drum behind Daryoosh's singing, and I see her and she has no longer fifty years, but twenty-five, and again, I desire to be with her in the fashion a man is supposed to be with his wife.
"What do you think you are looking at, Behrani?" she says in our mother language as she reaches for another sugar cube. She does not take her eyes from me. Her hair is tousled in the rear. I think of our children, and I smile at her and the cassette tape ends and the machine clicks off at once.
"Nadi-joon, today there may be a big opportunity for us." I of course say this in English, but it is never any use for if she answers at all it is only in Farsi.
She says nothing. She turns over the Daryoosh cassette and she does not wait for me to proceed about this opportunity. She reaches to turn up the volume, and I rise and leave the room and dress into a summer's weight gray suit.
It is not one of my finer sets of clothes, for I do not wish to appear pooldar, nor however do I wish to seem like a beggar in the marketplace. Before leaving, I kiss my son on the top of his head as he eats his cold cereal at the small breakfast table in the kitchen. His hair smells of sleep and needs washing. He is dressed in a loose T-shirt and shorts, and beside him on the floor is his skateboard and bag of newspapers. He has only fourteen years, but he is already my height--175 centimeters--and he has his mother's face. Both my children have Nadi's small, beautiful face.
The house is one-story but in a good state of repair. It is painted white and appears quite bright in this early sun that is already hot on my head that still carries no hat. There are hedge bushes beneath the windows and a small lawn of grasses in front that is in need of trimming. The street is called Bisgrove, and it is on a hill with houses built closely together on one side, a woodland on the other. But the county tax gentleman was correct; the street is not so steep one can see the water, only the pale morning sky so high and wide over the rooftops. Opposite the road are evergreen woods and brush and farther up are even more homes, all small, many with bushes and fences separating the lawns. I look once more at the woodland, at the fashion in which the sunlight drops through the branches, and I am thinking of our summer home in the mountains near the Caspian Sea, of how the light was the same in those trees along the winding earth road to our bungalow, and for a moment, I feel a sense of sarnehvesht, of destiny, and as soon as I do, I stand erect and look back at the property with as cool an eye as I am able, for I do not wish my judgment to be weakened at the point of sale.
Within thirty minutes we are all assembled, the county tax gentleman, the auctioneer, and only two prospective buyers: a young couple, a boy and his wife, who has not as many years as my daughter Soraya and is dressed in blue jean pants and white basketball shoes; and a gentleman close to my years, though very fat, as large as Torez, and he is dressed in a fine pair of suit pants but no jacket, simply a loose tie and white dress shirt that is stretched over his belly, and he is sweating on the forehead and above the lip. It is him I view as my main opponent, and all of his sweating makes me straighten my shoulders and I feel quite calm.
First, the county tax gentleman takes us for a walking tour through the bungalow. There is no air-conditioning, but the rooms are cool and I note every floor except for kitchen and bathroom is carpeted. The living room is large enough, and the dining area is a counter with stools where the kitchen begins. In the rear are three rooms, and as we step out in the backyard, I pat my breast pocket and touch the certified check from the Bank of America.
The young wife is very fond of the rear lawn, which is small and surrounded by evergreen hedges taller than a man. They shade us from the morning sun, and she begins to tell to her husband of the privacy they might have here, but it is the sweating gentleman, the radish, I am regarding. He stays close to the county tax officer and the auctioneer, who has as many years as me, carries a notepad and pen, and wears a department-store necktie and shirt. He has upon his face a confused expression, and he pulls the county tax gentleman aside for a quiet word.
Then we continue around the side yard to the front, and the sale begins with the auctioneer's suggested starting price of thirty thousand dollars. I am at once so astonished at this low figure that I do not respond and the young wife raises her hand and the auctioneer acknowledges her and the radish nods his head and the price is thirty-five thousand. The wife lifts her hand again, but the young husband forces it down and begins whispering loudly to her that they do not have that much saved, reminding her they are expected to pay all at once. My hand raises slightly from my side and the auctioneer points to me and the price is now forty thousand. The radish regards me with his wide wet face and his eyes become small, as if he is at once assessing me and my intentions as well as the numerous numbers in his head, and now it is clear to me he is a professional, a speculator, and he most possibly buys and sells dozens of these bungalows. I turn my face towards his and smile a most relaxed smile, one that is meant to invite him to bid all afternoon for I am prepared to do the same, sir, though of course I am not; I can barely go further than this, and I am not so certain any of this is wise.
"Forty-two fifty," says the radish, his eyes still upon me.
"Forty-five," my voice answers.
"Will there be a fifty-thousand-dollar bid for the property? Do I hear fifty, ladies and gentleman? Fifty thousand?" The auctioneer regards all our faces, our hands and fingers. The county tax officer consults his watch, and I feel the fat man's eyes upon me, and I make my own look to the house as if I am prepared to bid and bid. The sun is hot upon my head.
"Forty-five thousand, going once, going twice--"
The radish turns and walks to his car, and now the auctioneer cries, "Sold," and the county tax gentleman steps forward to shake my hand and receive the deposit which I hand to him from my jacket pocket. I sign his papers, and I hear the young couple drive back down the road, but already I am calculating what this house on this street might bring me in the open market, and I am certain I will surely be able to double my money. Yes, yes, I will put it up for sale as soon as we move in.
Excerpted from House of Sand and Fog © Copyright 1999 by Andre Dubus III. Reprinted with permission by Vintage. All rights reserved.