Authors: Andre Dubus III
The Cagekeeper and Other Stories
HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
W. W. N
Copyright © 1999 by Andre Dubus III
All rights reserved
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W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dubus, Andre, 1959–
House of sand and fog / Andre Dubus III.
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 10 Coptic Street, London WC1A 1PU
For my brother, Jeb, and for my four sisters,
Suzanne, Nicole, Cadence, and Madeleine
I wait for my arrival
—From “The Balcony” by Octavio Paz
I am grateful to Capt. John Wells of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department for all of his generous technical advice. I am indebted to my old friend Kourosh Zomorodian, who for two years was my Farsi teacher over Friday night pitchers of Lone Star Beer in Austin, Texas. With gratitude, as well, to Ali Farahsat for relieving me of some of my ignorance of Persian culture. Thanks also to my agent, Philip Spitzer, for his faith and determination.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to my diligent and gifted editor, Alane Salierno Mason.
HE 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,
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.
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
the shit of life. They are all
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.”
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
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 Señor General.
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.
ECAUSE 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.