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House of Sand and Fog (Andre Dubus III)


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  Saturday afternoon I drive my Naderah to San Francisco to have her hair done by an Italian kunee who charges more than we should pay. His business is located in Ghirardelli Square amongst all the specialty shops, restaurants, cafés, and galleries whose doors are open to touring people from all over the world. In the morning I trimmed the rear hedge bushes and I am still dressed in the cargar clothes I before would wear only for the Highway Department, so I do not enter the Italian's shop, knowing, as I do, the many Persian wives who make appointments with him.

I sit upon a bench in one of the lower courtyards and watch the people pass by. Over our bungalow in Corona the sun was shining, but here in the city, in that area of large piers and wharfs they call North Beach, there is cool summer fog, a fine mist in the air, and many of the tourists look out of place in their short pants, sandals, and shirts with no sleeves that show the undisciplined flesh of their bodies. Many of them pause in their shopping, asking one another to take their photograph as they stand beneath a shop sign or in the center of the courtyard, dozens of strangers walking by them. I hear the speech of Orientals, Greeks, Germans, and French. But the majority are the more large, more fed, pink-in-the-face Americans, who carry their shopping bags, eating ice cream cones or drinking sweet sodas from cups as they walk past, their small loud children leading them.

I sit and I regard these cows, these radishes, and I again think to myself: These people do not deserve what they have. When I first came to these United States, I expected to see more of the caliber of men I met in my business dealings in Tehran, the disciplined gentlemen of the American military, the usually fit and well-dressed executives of the defense industry, their wives who were perfect hostesses in our most lavish homes. And of course the films and television programs imported from here showed to us only successful people: they were all attractive to the eye, they dressed in the latest fashion, they drove new automobiles and were forever behaving like ladies and gentlemen, even when sinning against their God.

But I was quite mistaken and this became to me clear in only one week of driving my family up and down this West Coast. Yes, there is more wealth here than anywhere in the world. Every market has all items well stocked at all times. And there is Beverly Hills and more places like it. But so many of the people live in homes not much more colorful than air base housing. Furthermore, those late nights I have driven back to the pooldar apartment in Berkeley after working, I have seen in the windows the pale blue glow of at least one television in every home. And I am told that many family meals are eaten in front of that screen as well. And perhaps this explains the face of Americans, the eyes that never appear satisfied, at peace with their work, or the day God has given them; these people have the eyes of very small children who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or a sweet taste in the mouth. And it is no longer to me a surprise that it is the recent immigrants who excel in this land, the Orientals, the Greeks, and yes, the Persians. We know rich opportunity when we see it.

Nadi looks lovely as she exits the kunee's salon, her hair styled thick and black around her face. She pauses to put the checkbook into the green alligator-skin bag she purchased in Bahrain not long after our flight from home. She wears a handsome green suit, the jacket buttoned at her waist that has grown too small these days, her hips and legs as well--too thin. Even from where I sit I am able to see the lines around her mouth and between her eyes above her nose. My Nadereh is so easily made nervous. Even this intimate dinner party for our daughter has tested her. And I have worried she may bring on one of her headaches that send her to bed for hours, or days. But she is a beautiful woman, and I rise to meet her in the crowded courtyard.

On the drive south to Corona we stop at a florist's shop in Daly City and purchase flowers Nadi chooses herself, so many they fill the large trunk space of the Buick Regal. I am of course concerned about the money we are spending for this affair; Nadereh also insisted on some of the finest champagne, three bottles of Dom Perignon at well over one hundred dollars each. She even made telephone calls in her questionable English to the city for finding Persian musicians to play the kamancheh and domback for us, and I was relieved she found no one at such short notice. But my Nadi appears quite contented. She sits beside me as I drive down the coast highway into Corona, and she hums an old American pop song I recognize about tying a yellow ribbon around a tree of oak. The sun has remained in Corona, and now, two hours before the arrival of Soraya, it shines on the green ocean, making it nearly too bright to view more than a second or two.

"We will have a beautiful sunset for our guests, Nadi-jahn."

Nadereh nods her head only very briefly before telling to me again the final list of tasks to be completed in only the next hour: all the flowers must be arranged around the home and above on the roof porch--this is what she calls it--amongst the new outdoor furniture; our Waterford flutes must be dusted and properly chilled in the freezer; you must set up the new tape player for music in the living room; and make certain Esmail has put his room in order, bathed, and dressed in his French-made suit. I nod my head and reply, "Baleh, baleh." Yes, yes. But there is no need for me to listen any longer for I know the list very well. As I accelerate the Regal up Bisgrove hill, I am thinking of my daughter Soraya, of her small lovely face I will hold in my hands, and that is when I see Esmail speaking with a young woman on our grass under the sun. Her hair is straight and dark. She wears blue jeans and a white blouse, and there is the red Bonneville I have seen before parked against the woodland. I steer into the driveway and she regards me directly: it is the woman who last week was sleeping in her automobile so early in the morning. Nadi touches my shoulder and says to me in Farsi: "That is the woman who hurt her foot, Massoud."

I extinguish the engine and tell to my wife yes, she has come for a tool her najar boyfriend may have left behind; I've been expecting ler. I step out of the car and walk over the cut grass smiling and extending my hand to the woman, who hesitates a moment before taking it.

"I am happy you came." I take her by the elbow lightly. "Please, this way, I will show you." I turn to my son and say low in Farsi, "Help your mother and tell her nothing. Later I will explain."

Around the bungalow's corner, at the stairs to the widow's walk, the woman to me says: "I'm sorry, but I think you have me confused with someone else."

"No, I am quite certain who you are."

"I'm Kathy Nicolo." She to me offers her hand and I take it and release it quickly. The sun is upon us and in this light her cosmetics stand out too much. She regards the ground: "I know my lawyer talked to you, but I thought we could just meet face to face, Mr. Bahrooni."

"My name is Behrani. Colonel Behrani."

The woman inhales deeply and looks upon the new widow's walk. "My father left us this house. He left it to me and my brother."

Esmail appears carrying a large pot of chrysanthemums in his arms for the roof. I tell to him to please rest them on the ground and go. He leaves and I say to this woman: "I am sorry,, miss. But you should be telling these things to the bureaucrats at the county tax office. They have made the mistake, not I."

"Yes, but they've already admitted it. They said they'd give you your money back. Look, I know you put a new deck on; I'm sure they'll pay for that." The woman pulls from her front pocket a package of cigarettes, lighting one with a cheap plastic lighter. She inhales deeply upon it and I feel a hot impatience begin to move inside me. I hear the water running in the kitchen sink. I look at the window screen beneath the widow stairs, but it is shadowed and I cannot see my wife inside. I step forward, hoping the woman will follow, but she does not move. "I am sorry, miss, but as far as I am concerned I have nothing more to say to anyone. Why should I be penalized for their incompetence? Tell me that. You should sue them for enough money to buy ten homes. I will even sell you this house for the right price. This is all I require." The rear door to the bungalow opens and shuts and I take the woman's arm and begin walking her back over the grass. "I am sorry, I do not know where he left his hammers." The woman begins to pull away, but I squeeze her arm more tightly, stopping in the center of the lawn under the sun. "My family knows nothing of this, miss. There is nothing more to say of it."

"Let go of me." She pulls her arm free, her cigarette falling to the grass. She steps backward, an incredulous expression upon her face. "You can't just move in here and try and make money on this. That's not right!" I look once back at the bungalow, then cross my arms over my chest, feeling the push of my heart against them. The woman shouts at the unfairness of me, and she begins to use profanity, but I only shake my head at her patiently; if Nadereh is watching from the window, she will quickly believe what I tell her, that the najar's girlfriend is crazy, deevoonay, thinking I am someone I am not.

The woman abruptly stops, as if she has suddenly realized the futility of all she is saying. She pulls her hair free of her face and she regards me for a long moment, then she turns and hobbles back across the street to her expensive sedan. I watch her turn the large car around, and as she drives down the hill, I step on her smoking cigarette, crushing it beneath my shoe.
 
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Excerpted from House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Copyright © 2000 by Andre Dubus III. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.