September 23, 2016
Simple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done. He finished smoking his cigarette with chilling calm, so that for the first time in all the years he had smoked, he could enjoy lighting one cigarette with another and, without wetting his palate, not taste the foul tang in his mouth.
“Does the smoke bother you?” He rolled down the car window.
“No, sir.” The man’s sharp Mongol eyes were darting from side to side, unable to remain fixed on anything. Just like the way he talked, with all those annoying questions.
“Where are we going, sir?” “We have work to do.” “What kind of work?”
He felt less anxious when he talked. He did not want to stay quiet for even one second. Just to talk, about anything. It did not matter what.
“Were you happy with your pay yesterday?” “May God offer more blessings.”
He had put the thermos on the back seat and the gasoline tank in the trunk. It would not take more than thirty minutes to drive up to the mountain pass. By then it would be four-thirty in the morning. Based on his calculations, it would take him one hour to finish the job, making it five-thirty, and it would still be dark.
“Golshah, are your wife and kids in Afghanistan?” “They’re here, sir.”
“How many are you?”
“We’re nine. Six children, wife, and her mother.”
“You’ve been busy! God bless your stamina. How old are you?” “Forty, forty-five, just about.”
“Don’t you have a birth certificate?”
“I did. Our house collapsed when the planes bombed the city. It got buried in the rubble. I searched a lot, but I didn’t find it.”
“You weren’t home during the bombing? Where were your kids?” “I wasn’t home. Three of my children died, along with my wife.” “So this is your second wife? The six kids are hers?”
“It’s no good for a man to be without a wife. I was lonesome. I saw this woman, with a mother and two children. They were from my hometown, Herat. I thought it would please God, too, if she were not left without a man …”
He laughed out loud, from the bottom of his heart. Golshah turned and stared at him. For a few seconds, he forgot about everything. And then, as though Golshah had suddenly found the courage, he, too, laughed and asked, “What’s the work, sir?”
He picked up the telephone to call Fariba, who was sulking and had gone to her father’s house in Isfahan. He hesitated. He could not bring himself to dial the number. What did he have to say to her? She had already decided not to go back to that secluded hinterland where, according to her, she had wasted three years of her youth, lonely and isolated. She would not return, even at the price of a divorce and losing the man she still loved. He had only two options: either give in to Fariba’s wishes and request a transfer to Isfahan, where he would have to live under her parents’ noses, or leave her.
But was his problem the question of where they should live? Or whether they should separate or not? For a long time now, he had stopped caring about what would happen. Whether Fariba would stay or go, whether they would live in a small town or someplace else. He knew that, with or without her, whether they lived in a remote town or in Isfahan or Paris or New York—which Fariba always talked about with envy—none of it would make any difference. What the hell was wrong with him? What was he after? All he knew was that he had to carry out the cold-blooded decision he had made, even at the cost of a human life. He frightened himself. How had he come to this?
He was not in the mood for breakfast. He took a cigarette from the pack that was on the coffee table, lit it, and sank back in the sofa. All he wanted was to just lie there, put his feet up on the table, balance the ashtray on his stomach, puff on his cigarette, and not think about the decision he had made. It was as if there were another Kamran inside him, one who did not want to be so heartless. If only he could just stay there forever, sprawled out and doing nothing. He heard his cell phone ring. He would not have answered it had the number on the screen not been that of the real estate agency.
“Good morning, sir. I’m calling because I have found a buyer. You said you’re in a hurry, and I wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that we can arrange to show him the house.”
“Is it for cash?”
“Of course, sir, all cash. And it’s up to you how much you’re willing to lower the price. As I explained yesterday, cash customers are hard to come by, and I can’t coax and sweet-talk him until he sees the place. Of course, you understand, sir.”
“All right, I should be home this evening around six or seven. If I’m not here, call me and I’ll hurry back. The sooner we wrap this up, the better.”
“Most certainly, sir. I’m at your service. And don’t worry. Even if this one doesn’t work out, I will do whatever it takes to turn the house into cash in a matter of days.”
He hung up and took a deep breath. If Fariba were there, she would say, Don’t they let up even on holidays?
Like that Friday when she had come and stood behind him. Which Friday was it? How long ago? Why could he not gauge time? All he could remember was that he did not close the book he was reading; he sat there, motionless. Then he clasped his hands and rested them on the table. He inhaled the pleasant scent of her Nivea deodorant deep into his lungs. He let her playfully run her index finger through his hair until she reached his earlobe. Then with the back of her hand she stroked his bare shoulders until he had goose bumps, and he waited for her to move closer to his left side so that he could deliberately turn and allow his flushed cheek to brush against her nipple.
“Stop it, girl, stop it.”
Acting childish was for such times.
“I like it. Leave me alone, it’s all mine.”
Fariba’s breezy laughter and that quiet spring morning moved his hand and laid it over hers. He clasped her hand with the intention of lifting it off his shoulder, but the pressure of her body and the scent of Nivea from her underarms mingled with the smell of the onion he had eaten at dinner. He stopped resisting and let her play with the sparse hair on his chest, stroke the skin under his earlobe with her lips and the tip of her nose, and purr, “Do you like it?”
But that time, she neither ran her finger playfully through his hair, nor did she twiddle with the hair on his chest.
She said, “Kamran.”
Whenever she called him Kamran instead of Kami, he knew there was trouble ahead. He closed the book, leaned his elbows on the table, and started drumming his fingers on his head.
“Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“I don’t like things the way they are.”
Something was stuck in his mind. Why could he not turn to her and smile, or even hold her, just like the old days when he would sit her down on his lap and joke around with her and they would pour their hearts out to each other? Just like those Fridays that he could no longer remember.
“Stop it, Kami. Let’s go to bed.”
“I’m not sleepy right now. I’ll be there in half an hour.” “You’re not coming? You don’t like me?”
“Don’t you love me anymore?”
How could he explain something to someone when he could not quite understand it himself? Especially to Fariba, who absolutely did not like hearing anything that went against her wishes.
He had spent the entire previous night thinking. He had weighed every aspect of the plan. He had no doubt. He would settle things with the company, request a transfer to Isfahan, and sell the house. And he would ship the furniture and their belongings by truck. He was not going to find a better opportunity than now that Fariba was sulking and had gone away. He had called her and, after an elaborate apology, had pretended to be despondent, pretended that her sullen brooding had turned his world upside down and that he had no choice but to move to Isfahan. Now, all that remained was for him to choose a cliff on the road to Isfahan and to find someone to put behind the wheel of the car instead of himself. Ever since the previous night when the idea had first occurred to him, he had been reviewing it over and over again, and every time he reached this point, his thoughts became muddled and confused. But he quickly checked himself and stopped thinking about the moral aspects of the scheme. He lit another cigarette and turned his gaze to the people worming their way around on the sidewalk.
“Did we have to drive through the city center?” Fariba asked. They were on their way to Isfahan to visit their parents.
He rolled down the window slightly and held his cigarette close to it.
“I have to give the house keys to Kamali. I forgot to do it yesterday.”
Day laborers carrying their bundles were roaming around the circle. A group of Afghans had gathered around a double-parked pickup truck, blocking traffic. He tried to pass them on the left. The cars behind him were honking nonstop. The car coming from the opposite direction was trying to make its way through the horde of men, who had now gotten into a scuffle, fighting to climb into the back of the pickup truck. A man who was clearly the owner of the truck was shouting, “Only three men! Get down from there!” He was struggling to drag the men off his vehicle.
“They’re such savages,” Fariba said.
He wanted to say, The poor souls are desperate for a bite of bread. Work is scarce.
Instead, he said, “Is it too warm in the car?” “No, I’m just restless.”
“We’ll get there. It won’t take long.” He had to brake.
“When are we going to leave this place forever?”
She stressed the word forever with an icy, passive tone. “We’ll leave.”
Fariba looked at him with the same edgy chill.
“It would be great if we moved to Isfahan,” she said.
He wanted to ask, What will be great? Without the slightest emphasis on great.
“Yes, it would be great,” he said.
He knew that if Fariba weren’t feeling so glum, she would have retorted as she had done two days ago: “All you do is talk. Talk, talk, talk.” And if he, too, were in the mood, the bickering would start. But they were both sensible enough to not do anything that would ruin their four-day trip. Perhaps he still needed to allow life to move along its normal course. Just as before. Or perhaps his colleague, Kamali, was right and he had completely gone off the deep end. “Man, what are you doing to yourself?” Kamali had said. “You’re holed up in that ridiculous, godforsaken camp and spend day and night butting heads with a bunch of peasants and workhands. For what? The hell with professional advancement, the hell even with you! Have you given any thought at all to what Mrs. Fariba must be going through? The poor thing is melting away like a candle.”
The phrase “like a candle” was directly related to the looks the two of them had been exchanging. In the beginning, he had taken it all as a good omen, and he was happy for Fariba. He had thought that it would help her adapt to that unfamiliar environment more quickly. And for that reason, he had increased his contact with Kamali, especially since they both worked for the Watershed Management Department. But events had not unfolded the way he had wanted them to, or at least not the way he had expected them to.
A man was rapping on the car window with his knuckles. It was only then that he heard the cars honking behind him. He changed gears and drove on. His eyes were still fixed on the long lines of day laborers. He had to pick an Afghan from among them, an Afghan who was an illegal immigrant, whose being or not being made no difference to anyone. It would be difficult to find a fellow Iranian who had nothing and no one—for instance, a homeless man whom no one would look for if he were to disappear. But there were a lot of illegal Afghans and no one cared about them.
Further on, he again eyed them in the rearview mirror. One of them was about the same height and size as him. He pulled over and climbed out of the car. The men stormed toward him.
“I don’t need a worker!” he hollered. His eyes were on the Afghan who had the same build as him. Kamran subtly winked at the man and made him understand that he should discreetly follow him. The Afghan was slightly heavier than him.
“Do you have a residency permit?” he asked.
The man quickly produced a card from his pocket and showed it to him.
“Yes, sir. I’ll do any kind of work, and I charge little.”
A few others dashed toward him, pleading that he hire them as well. Each man offered to charge less than the next. Kamran looked them over, but none of them physically resembled him. He waved them all away and told the Afghan he had picked that he had changed his mind and did not need a worker after all. He wandered around the circle for a half hour or so until he saw an Afghan of about his size. The man was older, but age did not mat- ter. By the time he was done, no one would know the man was not the same age as him. All they had to have in common was their height and bone structure.
“Do you have a residency permit?” he asked.
“I don’t have it with me, sir,” the man said. “But I do good work.” “In other words, you don’t have one.”
“But I’m a hard worker. Pay me half the rate. Can I come?” The man picked up his bundle.
“What’s your name?” Kamran asked. “Your servant, Golshah.”
“You come here every day?”
“Every day. What kind of work do you have, sir?”
After he had made certain that the man suited his needs, he drove straight to the office to arrange for his transfer to occur as soon as possible and then set out on the road to Isfahan to choose the cliff he needed. One corner of his mind was still thinking about the laborers, about Golshah, with whom he had arranged to meet the next day. And he was not surprised that Tajmah, not Fariba, occupied the other corner of his mind.
A few sandbags had been stacked on top of each other like battlefield fortifications. They were flanked by a pair of tall, yellow metal canisters—used artillery or mortar shells—with a flag erected in each of them. There was a banner: “Felicitations to our fellow countrymen on this pride-inspiring week of holy defense.” Every year there was a one-week celebration of the war with Iraq, during which kiss-asses, vying for promotions and more overtime pay, would wear their ill-fitting Basiji army uniforms and address each other as “brother” to demonstrate their enduring revolutionary spirit and their readiness for battle should America decide to attack Iran. Right! A firecracker would have them crawling into a hole, much less an attack by America.
“Your obedient servant, sir.”
Even though he was feeling less morose than during the past few days, he had to appear particularly cheerful. He was nervous. He could not understand why he was growing increasingly anxious since the day he saw Golshah and the laborers. He focused his mind on the end result of his plan, and it calmed him down. He allowed that sense of temporary peace to flow inside him. He smiled more broadly than usual at the guard who was standing at the door, wearing a Basiji uniform.
“Aren’t you going to punch in your card, sir?” “No, I’m on leave.”
His colleagues would associate his cheerfulness with his transfer, and he would be free of their pitiful and relentless curiosity. That day would be such a wonderful day.
YAGHOUB YADALI, a fiction writer from Iran, has directed for television and worked for Roshd Magazine as the editor of the film section. In addition to Rituals of Restlessness and Sketches in the Garden, he is the author of the short story collection Probability of Merriment and Mooning. His short stories, articles, and essays are published in Iran, Turkey, and the US. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa, Harvard University, and City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, PA. Sara Khalili’s translation of Rituals of Restlessness was published by Phoneme Media in 2016. Yadali lives in Amherst, MA.
Adapted from Rituals of Restlessness, by Yaghoub Yadali, Copyright © 2016 by Yaghoub Yadali. With the permission of the publisher, Phoneme Media.