Chapter INamed After a King
I climb down the bunk ladder and leave the small room me and my brothers share. The apartment is still and stuffy and Maman is asleep on the living room floor. I head out the door, careful to close it quietly behind me.
In the courtyard I run my fingertips along the yellow stucco wall. On my forearm I have this bright bumpy scrape from when Shawn tackled me against the building playing Smear the Queer. It’s like a tattoo and reminds me how good it feels to become older, tougher.
Early morning is the only time I get to be out of the apartment on my own. The Valley’s sky is white and empty. A leaf blower runs loud somewhere. I can’t see the city from here, but I know one day I’ll have more than just these stucco walls and patches of brown grass.
For once the laundry room isn’t coughing out its weird smelly steam. I take the pebble-stone staircase to the second floor, clearing two steps at a time. Back inside through a chalky metal door, down a sticky hallway and then another, stamping over brown soda stains and cigarette burns in the carpet.
I knock on Johnny’s door loud enough for him to hear, but quickly. I don’t want to bother his mom, who’s probably pouring a cup of coffee, halfway through her first cigarette. She barely cracks the door open. Still getting his beauty sleep, Cynthia says, a quick stream of smoke passing through her lips.
I’ll come back later, I tell her and hurry back to our apartment before Baba gets home.
Maman hasn’t woken up yet. Her breathing is silent and her face shiny with sweat. A thin beige bedsheet pulled up to her chin, her chest gently rising, Maman looks beautiful as she sleeps.
Shawn’s sitting on the floor in front of the triple bunk Baba built for us, crunchy boogers in the corners of his eyes. He blows the snot from his nose onto the sleeve of his shirt.
And you wonder why girls don’t like you, Justin says, leaning over from the top bunk. Shawn laughs and I do, too.
Shawn asks, Doesn’t Johnny’s mom get tired of you running upstairs and knocking on their door at the crack of dawn?
Like I haven’t already thought of that myself. I don’t want Shawn to come with me when I go back, so I lie and say, Nobody answered.
Shawn passes a controller up to Justin, whose scrawny legs are dangling over the wooden ledge. Justin asks Shawn for the millionth time why, if he doesn’t like playing basketball in real life, he would want to in a video game?
What are you talking about? says Shawn. I love basketball. I just don’t get to do it.
Why not? I ask.
Why do you think. Look the f*** around.
It’s Friday, our last weekend of summer break. In the living room I hear Maman starting her morning. First folding up her bed, which isn’t actually a bed, just a couple of sheets and a pillow on the floor and the thick fuzzy blanket she brought with her from Isfahan, then storing it all in the closet. She is setting the kettle on the stove for chai when Baba gets home.
Baba calls for me and my brothers, his voice booming through our bedroom walls.
I find Baba emptying out his pockets onto the floor. Dozens of twenty-dollar bills. More money than I’ve ever seen Baba have. His face is proud after a rare good night at the casino. We’re going to celebrate, he promises. He walks over to the sofa, where we’re not allowed to make a sound while he sleeps, slowly peeling off his crinkled button-up shirt and gray dress pants.
Maman stays seated at the dining table, eating her breakfast, the same one she has every morning. Noon barbari with paneer and walnuts and honey, always a plate of fresh sabzi on the side. A clip at the back of her head holds her long black curly hair. No makeup on and still Maman looks so pretty.
Are you hungry? she asks me, holding out a bite of bread covered with crumbly cheese.
A pot of tea sits on the samovar on the stove. She waits for it to finish steeping as I pick up a few of the twenty-dollar bills. When Baba isn’t looking I hand one to Maman. She tucks it into her purse and brings a finger to her lips. We agree without words that we won’t give the money back even if Baba asks.
Baba is now lying stretched out on the sofa with the back of his wrist over his forehead. I lean down to hug him, the smell of cigarette smoke heavy all around. He brings me close to his stubbly face and kisses me once on the cheek. His eyes are heavy and red with puffy bags. It looks like he’s never going to wake once he falls asleep. I make sure to be quiet as I go to tell my brothers about all the money.
Instead of pausing the video game while I was gone, Shawn kept on playing.
You snooze you lose, he says.
He wasn’t snoozing, you idiot, Justin says, still in bed. He was with Baba. What did he want? he asks me.
Baba hit the freaking jackpot, I say.
Yeah? Shawn says. How much you wanna bet by tomorrow morning the money’s gone?
I tell Shawn he’s wrong and so does Justin, pulling a crumpled bill from his Nowruz stash, which he keeps tucked underneath his mattress. He dangles it down at us. Five bucks says Baba keeps winning, he bets Shawn, who stands up from his bed. Deal. But don’t go crying to him when I take your dough. Shawn spits into his palm and my brothers shake on it. I climb up into my bed to hide the money I kept for myself from Baba’s jackpot. Johnny will be so impressed when I show him.
Baba marches into our room, clapping his hands. His shoulders are loose and his cheeks shiny from a fresh shave, the tiny bit of hair left on the top of his head combed to the side. He’s wearing his gray slacks and a clean dress shirt, tucked deep into his waist. Tavalod, tavalod, tavalod-et mobarak, Baba chants, shutting off our game and swaying his body, dancing how he does at mehmoonis after the shirini has been served, the music turned up high. A Persian Happy Birthday just for me.
It’s a week after my actual birthday, but Baba announces we’re going to celebrate today just as he promised. Together, he says, like families are meant to.
I race down from my bunk, careful to skip the missing third step of the ladder. After seeing the f*** you Justin had carved into its wood, Baba hammered off the step. He didn’t bother asking which one of us it was, then had the three of us line up together, facing our bunk, a shoe in his hand, and Justin didn’t say a single word, just stood there taking it. I was crying the hardest even though Shawn got it the worst. As the oldest, Baba said, he’s supposed to know better. Even though he’s the oldest, Shawn is the shortest, shorter than Justin, even shorter than me.
Now standing beside him, I ask Baba to do his special Persian snap for me. Injoori, he shows me, bringing his thick and worn hands together. I watch and try to learn how he does it, the tip of his middle finger sliding against his index, where snaps like tiny firecrackers echo through our bedroom as he whistles. And now with Baba making music I lift my arms in the air, gently twisting and twirling my wrists, swaying my hips the way I’ve seen him do when he’s taken his place in the middle of the dance floor, Baba always the first to bring life to the party.
How old? he asks, like he doesn’t already know. I hold up a five and a four, showing him that I’m getting closer to Justin’s ten and to Shawn’s twelve. Any day now, Baba says, you’ll become a man.
Mashallah, he chants, smiling even bigger, the top of his gums shiny and pink. His eyes are small as he dances, my body following his.
Maryam-jan, he yells, calling for Maman. Hurry and look, he says, come see your son.
Right here in our own building, Baba tells us, a grill and two benches, just for us. Doesn’t—
Get any better than this, Shawn interrupts, finishing off Baba’s favorite line. He walks out of our room, and Baba, Justin and me follow behind.
Maman joins us outside in our building’s small picnic area. She has everything prepared. Sliced onions and tomatoes. Raw chicken shining bright gold with turmeric and oil. She wears her long black blouse and a scarf tied loosely around her hair. She fans the charcoal with a piece of cardboard, trying to get the coals to come to life. She asks Shawn to pick up the trash our neighbors left on the ground around us, which he does. Paper plates with spots of ketchup and used napkins, from whoever was here before.
For you, Baba says, handing me my birthday present as my brothers look on. A golden paper crown from Burger King. Baba knows it’s my favorite.
He tells me to stand in front of the grill, says he wants a picture for Iran, for them to see just how handsome his youngest boy is.
Shawn sits on the old splintery bench to watch, telling me how stupid I look as Baba tells me where to place my arms.
Justin’s already wandered off collecting dandelions that grow along the concrete path winding through our building. He likes bringing the ones that haven’t yet died into our room, placing them by the window in the vase Maman let him have. Something nice to look at, he says. Our version of a hotel room.
Copyright © 2023 by Khashayar J. Khabushani. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.