Sherman ZahdJon Sindell / Humor
By Jon Sindell
Copyright by Jon Sindell
“Sherman Zahd” the story has appeared in the magazines Mobius, Write Side Up, and Pulse. Sherman Zahd the boy has had a hard life.
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“Oh, god, Sherman’s odd
Crazy little Sherman Zahd!”
It was inevitable, perhaps, kids being kids, at all times in all places–even enlightened times such as these, in ultra-tolerant places such as San Francisco–that Sherman Zahd would be known to his fourth grade classmates as “Sherman’s Odd” by virtue of his name alone, without regard to any Middle Eastern “oddness” in his appearance or demeanor, just as surely as Uriah Peckinpaugh III would be dubbed “You Pee” despite a total lack of evidence that his bladder control was at all deficient, and Mary Wong would be known as “Very Wrong” despite the fact that she rarely volunteered in class, and was very rarely wrong when she did. These incongruent facts meant nothing in the schoolyard, for kids, being kids, have a marvelous talent for manufacturing evidence supporting the derisive nicknames they love to use when genuine evidence cannot be found. Thus was it said, and the false rumor spread, that Uriah Peckinpaugh III had peed in his pants in the locker room of the San Francisco Giants–in front of Barry Bonds’ locker, no less!–during the fourth grade field trip to Pac Bell Park (“That is slanderous, scalawag!” the round-faced boy yelled, thrusting a finger in the air in the manner of his namesake grandfather, a bond lawyer); and it was also said, and believed by everyone other than two loyal friends, that Mary Wong had once told Miss Wright ... that turtles can fly. It was much the same with poor Sherman Zahd, who was dubbed “Sherman’s Odd” within mere days of his arrival at Franklin Elementary, and whose every brief utterance (the only kind of utterance he ever made), every gesture, every physical trait–from his bird beak nose, the small, bony body, the single caterpillar eyebrow, the deep black eyes, the uncertain ancestry, the mysterious smile–confirmed that he had been nicknamed justly.
“He’s a spy,” muttered one boy, mindful of the suspicious fact that Sherman had arrived at the school just two weeks before 9/11 (i.e., the start of the school year).
“He’s a terrorist!” said a second more loudly, drawing the conclusion which was percolating in many kids’ minds.
“But he’s Iranian,” said Mary Wong, who knew that Sherman’s mother was from Iran because Miss Wright had told her so, and also knew that: (1) Iran–which she could find on the map, and proudly pointed to at Miss Wright’s behest–used to be the fabled kingdom of Persia; (2) Iran produces caviar, dates, and oil; (3) the majority of Iranians are of Persian, not Arab, descent; and (4) all of the suspected hijackers were believed to be Arabs, and none were thought to be from Iran. Mary’s timid pronouncement was immediately jeered as “Very wrong, Mary Wong!” by the cadre of boys who were leading the inquisition; and, as Sherman himself did not reject the charges, but rather smiled at his accusers in his darkly mysterious, indeed, odd way, it was clear as glass that the charges were true. “But he doesn’t speak English,” sighed Uriah Peckinpaugh in lawyerly exasperation. “How do you expect him to deny your charges?” “He could be pretending not to,” said the chief inquisitor, a blocky boy named Dick Saunders, known by his friends as “Duck” for his bristly blond flattop; Duck’s cohorts, however, sensing possible merit in Uriah’s point, pondered it; and as they did so, Sherman, guided by the elbow by his schoolyard lawyer, slipped through the crowd and out of the school, thus avoiding further trouble. And so it remained for the next two years, lonely years during which Sherman spent much of his time hunched over a journal, or working in the computer lab, both of which activities added to the sense that the kid was strange; and, what was worse, fueled suspicion that he was a terrorist, a spy, or both. Sherman’s other main activities, so far as anyone could tell, included huddling in private with his teachers and speaking as little as possible. This laconic tendency, of course, made Duck Saunders and his cronies ever more suspicious of Sherman’s intentions–“Everyone knows you’re guilty if you take the Fifth Commandment,” Duck said–but the brevity of Sherman’s utterances, which never addressed controversial subjects, kept everyone guessing as to the thoughts veiled behind his mysterious smile. And it might have stayed that way had Ms. Costanza, the sixth grade teacher, not decided that it was her duty, as the shepherd of the future voting citizens of the republic, to elicit their participation in the great public debate leading up to the war in Iraq.
“Well,” Sherman began with great hesitation, reading the essay which would imperil him, “Saddam Hussein is a very bad man.” This was no different from the view expressed in two dozen other essays, of course, and raised not an eyebrow. “He used weapons of mass destruction to kill many thousands of his own people,” continued Sherman, “and thousands of Iranians, too.” This too echoed the view of most of the kids in the class, though few knew, as Sherman did, that WMDs had also been used against Iran. Nor was there much ado about Sherman’s assertion that the U.S. should only attack if the United Nations voted for it, for Ms. Costanza herself had let it be known that this was her view, and it was one with which a small majority of the class, mostly girls, agreed. No, what got Sherman in trouble, what caused his blocky nemesis to wrench the essay from his hand and hold it aloft in the manner of a prosecuting attorney–of an attorney general, even–was the following: “Still, I don’t think any of this justifies killing innocent people. After all,” he said brightly, “this is America!”
“See!” said Duck Saunders, armed at last with the evidence he craved. “He hates America, man! He hates us because we’re free!”
“That’s enough, Duck!” said Ms. Costanza, angrier than anyone had ever seen her. She tugged poor Duck by his ear, and though he cried out in pain, she knew from past performances that his cries were fake, and dragged him to the principal’s office for a stern lecture on political and ethnic tolerance. The result was that Duck and company left Sherman in relative peace–save for a few ambiguous incidents on the playground in which sharp elbows found his ribs–until the day Sherman ruined the class’s celebration of Jessica Lynch’s rescue.
“But it’s just not true,” Sherman said in class, eliciting a collective gasp that sucked the air right out of the room. “What do you mean, Sherman?” asked Ms. Costanza, fully as bewildered as the kids in the room. Perhaps she had not heard right; perhaps the boy had misspoken. “Do you mean there are some uncertain details?” she suggested, offering Sherman a chance to retreat. Ah, but it was too late for that. It was as if Sherman, having been irrevocably outed as a terrorist sympathizer in the eyes of a sizeable faction of the class, had no choice but to breathe freely now, to ventilate his long-suppressed thoughts and opinions just as a genie, if you will, breathes deeply, greedily, of the hot desert air when freed at last from the confines of the imprisoning lamp. “I mean, it is not true,” said Sherman, “it is not a true telling of the story. The real hero was a man from Iraq. He discovered the Jessica Lynch prisoner in the hospital, and he had the courage to cross the battle lines to tell the American officials where she was at. But that was not all. The American officials asked him to go back to the hospital to make a map for the rescue operation. And this he did, crossing the lines of fire twice more, risking his life on the line. And that is how they knew where to find her. And that is why no shot was fired.”
Ms. Costanza stood hands on hip, her mouth agape. “That’s–that’s astonishing, Sherman. I didn’t read that in the Chronicle.”
“No, you did not,” said Sherman, indulging the impulse to sneer a bit. “It was reported on Arab television. Aljazeera. ”
“He’s ours,” murmured Duck Saunders to his gang, pounding his fist in the palm of his hand. But when Sherman Zahd walked out of school that day, he walked taller and prouder than he ever had in the past two years, feeling for the first time like a freedom-loving American; and the inward smile was outward now, a close-mouthed amalgam of smile and sneer. So good did he feel that he stopped off at 7-Eleven to celebrate with a Slurpee, which he slurped with glee as he stepped out of the store and rounded the corner. There he was intercepted by Duck Saunders and his two man crew, who, rumor had it, had roughed up kids for money at that very spot.
“Can I have a sip,” sneered Duck, backing Sherman against the wall.
“I don’t think so,” said Sherman, taking another sip.
“You don’t want to give him a sip!” said Oddis Rankin, Duck’s right hand man.
“I don’t think so,” said Sherman. “He didn’t say please.”