The kite runner, p.14
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       The Kite Runner, p.14

           Khaled Hosseini
 

  IT WENT ON LIKE THAT for a few weeks. I'd wait until the general went for a stroll, then I'd walk past the Taheris' stand. If Khanum Taheri was there, she'd offer me tea and a kolcha and we'd chat about Kabul in the old days, the people we knew, her arthritis. Undoubtedly, she had noticed that my appearances always coincided with her husband's absences, but she never let on. "Oh you just missed your Kaka," she'd say. I actually liked it when Khanum Taheri was there, and not just because of her amiable ways; Soraya was more relaxed, more talkative with her mother around. As if her presence legitimized whatever was happening between us--though certainly not to the same degree that the general's would have. Khanum Taheri's chaperoning made our meetings, if not gossip-proof, then less gossip-worthy, even if her borderline fawning on me clearly embarrassed Soraya.

  One day, Soraya and I were alone at their booth, talking. She was telling me about school, how she too was working on her general education classes, at Ohlone Junior College in Fremont.

  "What will you major in?"

  "I want to be a teacher," she said.

  "Really? Why?"

  "I've always wanted to. When we lived in Virginia, I became ESL certified and now I teach at the public library one night a week. My mother was a teacher too, she taught Farsi and history at Zarghoona High School for girls in Kabul."

  A potbellied man in a deerstalker hat offered three dollars for a five-dollar set of candlesticks and Soraya let him have it. She dropped the money in a little candy box by her feet. She looked at me shyly. "I want to tell you a story," she said, "but I'm a little embarrassed about it."

  "Tell me."

  "It's kind of silly."

  "Please tell me."

  She laughed. "Well, when I was in fourth grade in Kabul, my father hired a woman named Ziba to help around the house. She had a sister in Iran, in Mashad, and, since Ziba was illiterate, she'd ask me to write her sister letters once in a while. And when the sister replied, I'd read her letter to Ziba. One day, I asked her if she'd like to learn to read and write. She gave me this big smile, crinkling her eyes, and said she'd like that very much. So we'd sit at the kitchen table after I was done with my own schoolwork and I'd teach her Alef-beh. I remember looking up sometimes in the middle of homework and seeing Ziba in the kitchen, stirring meat in the pressure cooker, then sitting down with a pencil to do the alphabet homework I'd assigned to her the night before.

  "Anyway, within a year, Ziba could read children's books. We sat in the yard and she read me the tales of Dara and Sara--slowly but correctly. She started calling me Moalem Soraya, Teacher Soraya." She laughed again. "I know it sounds childish, but the first time Ziba wrote her own letter, I knew there was nothing else I'd ever want to be but a teacher. I was so proud of her and I felt I'd done something really worthwhile, you know?"

  "Yes," I lied. I thought of how I had used my literacy to ridicule Hassan. How I had teased him about big words he didn't know.

  "My father wants me to go to law school, my mother's always throwing hints about medical school, but I'm going to be a teacher. Doesn't pay much here, but it's what I want."

  "My mother was a teacher too," I said.

  "I know," she said. "My mother told me." Then her face reddened with a blush at what she had blurted, at the implication of her answer, that "Amir Conversations" took place between them when I wasn't there. It took an enormous effort to stop myself from smiling.

  "I brought you something." I fished the roll of stapled pages from my back pocket. "As promised." I handed her one of my short stories.

  "Oh, you remembered," she said, actually beaming. "Thank you!" I barely had time to register that she'd addressed me with "tu" for the first time and not the formal "shoma," because suddenly her smile vanished. The color dropped from her face, and her eyes fixed on something behind me. I turned around. Came face-to-face with General Taheri.

  "Amir jan. Our aspiring storyteller. What a pleasure," he said. He was smiling thinly.

  "Salaam, General Sahib," I said through heavy lips.

  He moved past me, toward the booth. "What a beautiful day it is, nay?" he said, thumb hooked in the breast pocket of his vest, the other hand extended toward Soraya. She gave him the pages.

  "They say it will rain this week. Hard to believe, isn't it?" He dropped the rolled pages in the garbage can. Turned to me and gently put a hand on my shoulder. We took a few steps together.

  "You know, bachem, I have grown rather fond of you. You are a decent boy, I really believe that, but--" he sighed and waved a hand "--even decent boys need reminding sometimes. So it's my duty to remind you that you are among peers in this flea market." He stopped. His expressionless eyes bore into mine. "You see, everyone here is a storyteller." He smiled, revealing perfectly even teeth. "Do pass my respects to your father, Amir jan."

  He dropped his hand. Smiled again.

  "WHAT'S WRONG?" Baba said. He was taking an elderly woman's money for a rocking horse.

  "Nothing," I said. I sat down on an old TV set. Then I told him anyway.

  "Akh, Amir," he sighed.

  As it turned out, I didn't get to brood too much over what had happened.

  Because later that week, Baba caught a cold.

  IT STARTED WITH A HACKING COUGH and the sniffles. He got over the sniffles, but the cough persisted. He'd hack into his handkerchief, stow it in his pocket. I kept after him to get it checked, but he'd wave me away. He hated doctors and hospitals. To my knowledge, the only time Baba had ever gone to a doctor was the time he'd caught malaria in India.

  Then, two weeks later, I caught him coughing a wad of bloodstained phlegm into the toilet.

  "How long have you been doing that?" I said.

  "What's for dinner?" he said.

  "I'm taking you to the doctor."

  Even though Baba was a manager at the gas station, the owner hadn't offered him health insurance, and Baba, in his recklessness, hadn't insisted. So I took him to the county hospital in San Jose. The sallow, puffy-eyed doctor who saw us introduced himself as a second-year resident. "He looks younger than you and sicker than me," Baba grumbled. The resident sent us down for a chest X ray. When the nurse called us back in, the resident was filling out a form.

  "Take this to the front desk," he said, scribbling quickly.

  "What is it?" I asked.

  "A referral." Scribble scribble.

  "For what?"

  "Pulmonary clinic."

  "What's that?"

  He gave me a quick glance. Pushed up his glasses. Began scribbling again. "He's got a spot on his right lung. I want them to check it out."

  "A spot?" I said, the room suddenly too small.

  "Cancer?" Baba added casually.

  "Possible. It's suspicious, anyway," the doctor muttered.

  "Can't you tell us more?" I asked.

  "Not really. Need a CAT scan first, then see the lung doctor." He handed me the referral form. "You said your father smokes, right?"

  "Yes."

  He nodded. Looked from me to Baba and back again. "They'll call you within two weeks."

  I wanted to ask him how I was supposed to live with that word, "suspicious," for two whole weeks. How was I supposed eat, work, study? How could he send me home with that word?

  I took the form and turned it in. That night, I waited until Baba fell asleep, and then folded a blanket. I used it as a prayer rug. Bowing my head to the ground, I recited half-forgotten verses from the Koran--verses the mullah had made us commit to memory in Kabul--and asked for kindness from a God I wasn't sure existed. I envied the mullah now, envied his faith and certainty.

  Two weeks passed and no one called. And when I called them, they told me they'd lost the referral. Was I sure I had turned it in? They said they would call in another three weeks. I raised hell and bargained the three weeks down to one for the CAT scan, two to see the doctor.

  The visit with the pulmonologist, Dr. Schneider, was going well until Baba asked him where he was from. Dr. Schneider said Russia. Baba lost
it.

  "Excuse us, Doctor," I said, pulling Baba aside. Dr. Schneider smiled and stood back, stethoscope still in hand.

  "Baba, I read Dr. Schneider's biography in the waiting room. He was born in Michigan. Michigan! He's American, a lot more American than you and I will ever be."

  "I don't care where he was born, he's Roussi," Baba said, grimacing like it was a dirty word. "His parents were Roussi, his grandparents were Roussi. I swear on your mother's face I'll break his arm if he tries to touch me."

  "Dr. Schneider's parents fled from Shorawi, don't you see? They escaped!"

  But Baba would hear none of it. Sometimes I think the only thing he loved as much as his late wife was Afghanistan, his late country. I almost screamed with frustration. Instead, I sighed and turned to Dr. Schneider. "I'm sorry, Doctor. This isn't going to work out."

  The next pulmonologist, Dr. Amani, was Iranian and Baba approved. Dr. Amani, a soft-spoken man with a crooked mustache and a mane of gray hair, told us he had reviewed the CAT scan results and that he would have to perform a procedure called a bronchoscopy to get a piece of the lung mass for pathology. He scheduled it for the following week. I thanked him as I helped Baba out of the office, thinking that now I had to live a whole week with this new word, "mass," an even more ominous word than "suspicious." I wished Soraya were there with me.

  It turned out that, like Satan, cancer had many names. Baba's was called "Oat Cell Carcinoma." Advanced. Inoperable. Baba asked Dr. Amani for a prognosis. Dr. Amani bit his lip, used the word "grave." "There is chemotherapy, of course," he said. "But it would only be palliative."

  "What does that mean?" Baba asked.

  Dr. Amani sighed. "It means it wouldn't change the outcome, just prolong it."

  "That's a clear answer, Dr. Amani. Thank you for that," Baba said. "But no chemo medication for me." He had the same resolved look on his face as the day he'd dropped the stack of food stamps on Mrs. Dobbins's desk.

  "But Baba--"

  "Don't you challenge me in public, Amir. Ever. Who do you think you are?"

  THE RAIN General Taheri had spoken about at the flea market was a few weeks late, but when we stepped out of Dr. Amani's office, passing cars sprayed grimy water onto the sidewalks. Baba lit a cigarette. He smoked all the way to the car and all the way home.

  As he was slipping the key into the lobby door, I said, "I wish you'd give the chemo a chance, Baba."

  Baba pocketed the keys, pulled me out of the rain and under the building's striped awning. He kneaded me on the chest with the hand holding the cigarette. "Bas! I've made my decision."

  "What about me, Baba? What am I supposed to do?" I said, my eyes welling up.

  A look of disgust swept across his rain-soaked face. It was the same look he'd give me when, as a kid, I'd fall, scrape my knees, and cry. It was the crying that brought it on then, the crying that brought it on now. "You're twenty-two years old, Amir! A grown man! You . . ." he opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, reconsidered. Above us, rain drummed on the canvas awning. "What's going to happen to you, you say? All those years, that's what I was trying to teach you, how to never have to ask that question."

  He opened the door. Turned back to me. "And one more thing. No one finds out about this, you hear me? No one. I don't want anybody's sympathy." Then he disappeared into the dim lobby. He chain-smoked the rest of that day in front of the TV. I didn't know what or whom he was defying. Me? Dr. Amani? Or maybe the God he had never believed in.

  FOR A WHILE, even cancer couldn't keep Baba from the flea market. We made our garage sale treks on Saturdays, Baba the driver and me the navigator, and set up our display on Sundays. Brass lamps. Baseball gloves. Ski jackets with broken zippers. Baba greeted acquaintances from the old country and I haggled with buyers over a dollar or two.

  Like any of it mattered. Like the day I would become an orphan wasn't inching closer with each closing of shop.

  Sometimes, General Taheri and his wife strolled by. The general, ever the diplomat, greeted me with a smile and his two-handed shake. But there was a new reticence to Khanum Taheri's demeanor. A reticence broken only by her secret, droopy smiles and the furtive, apologetic looks she cast my way when the general's attention was engaged elsewhere.

  I remember that period as a time of many "firsts": The first time I heard Baba moan in the bathroom. The first time I found blood on his pillow. In over three years running the gas station, Baba had never called in sick. Another first.

  By Halloween of that year, Baba was getting so tired by mid-Saturday afternoon that he'd wait behind the wheel while I got out and bargained for junk. By Thanksgiving, he wore out before noon. When sleighs appeared on front lawns and fake snow on Douglas firs, Baba stayed home and I drove the VW bus alone up and down the peninsula.

  Sometimes at the flea market, Afghan acquaintances made remarks about Baba's weight loss. At first, they were complimentary. They even asked the secret to his diet. But the queries and compliments stopped when the weight loss didn't. When the pounds kept shedding. And shedding. When his cheeks hollowed. And his temples melted. And his eyes receded in their sockets.

  Then, one cool Sunday shortly after New Year's Day, Baba was selling a lampshade to a stocky Filipino man while I rummaged in the VW for a blanket to cover his legs with.

  "Hey, man, this guy needs help!" the Filipino man said with alarm. I turned around and found Baba on the ground. His arms and legs were jerking.

  "Komak!" I cried. "Somebody help!" I ran to Baba. He was frothing at the mouth, the foamy spittle soaking his beard. His upturned eyes showed nothing but white.

  People were rushing to us. I heard someone say seizure. Someone else yelling, "Call 911!" I heard running footsteps. The sky darkened as a crowd gathered around us.

  Baba's spittle turned red. He was biting his tongue. I kneeled beside him and grabbed his arms and said I'm here Baba, I'm here, you'll be all right, I'm right here. As if I could soothe the convulsions out of him. Talk them into leaving my Baba alone. I felt a wetness on my knees. Saw Baba's bladder had let go. Shhh, Baba jan, I'm here. Your son is right here.

  THE DOCTOR, white-bearded and perfectly bald, pulled me out of the room. "I want to go over your father's CAT scans with you," he said. He put the films up on a viewing box in the hallway and pointed with the eraser end of his pencil to the pictures of Baba's cancer, like a cop showing mug shots of the killer to the victim's family. Baba's brain on those pictures looked like cross sections of a big walnut, riddled with tennis ball-shaped gray things.

  "As you can see, the cancer's metastasized," he said. "He'll have to take steroids to reduce the swelling in his brain and antiseizure medications. And I'd recommend palliative radiation. Do you know what that means?"

  I said I did. I'd become conversant in cancer talk.

  "All right, then," he said. He checked his beeper. "I have to go, but you can have me paged if you have any questions."

  "Thank you."

  I spent the night sitting on a chair next to Baba's bed.

  THE NEXT MORNING, the waiting room down the hall was jammed with Afghans. The butcher from Newark. An engineer who'd worked with Baba on his orphanage. They filed in and paid Baba their respects in hushed tones. Wished him a swift recovery. Baba was awake then, groggy and tired, but awake.

  Midmorning, General Taheri and his wife came. Soraya followed. We glanced at each other, looked away at the same time. "How are you, my friend?" General Taheri said, taking Baba's hand.

  Baba motioned to the IV hanging from his arm. Smiled thinly. The general smiled back.

  "You shouldn't have burdened yourselves. All of you," Baba croaked.

  "It's no burden," Khanum Taheri said.

  "No burden at all. More importantly, do you need anything?" General Taheri said. "Anything at all? Ask me like you'd ask a brother."

  I remembered something Baba had said about Pashtuns once. We may be hardheaded and I know we're far too proud, but, in the hour of need, believe me that there's
no one you'd rather have at your side than a Pashtun.

  Baba shook his head on the pillow. "Your coming here has brightened my eyes." The general smiled and squeezed Baba's hand. "How are you, Amir jan? Do you need anything?"

  The way he was looking at me, the kindness in his eyes . . . "Nay thank you, General Sahib. I'm . . ." A lump shot up in my throat and my eyes teared over. I bolted out of the room.

  I wept in the hallway, by the viewing box where, the night before, I'd seen the killer's face.

  Baba's door opened and Soraya walked out of his room. She stood near me. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans. Her hair was down. I wanted to find comfort in her arms.

  "I'm so sorry, Amir," she said. "We all knew something was wrong, but we had no idea it was this."

  I blotted my eyes with my sleeve. "He didn't want anyone to know."

  "Do you need anything?"

  "No." I tried to smile. She put her hand on mine. Our first touch. I took it. Brought it to my face. My eyes. I let it go. "You'd better go back inside. Or your father will come after me."

  She smiled and nodded. "I should." She turned to go.

  "Soraya?"

  "Yes?"

  "I'm happy you came. It means . . . the world to me."

  THEY DISCHARGED BABA two days later. They brought in a specialist called a radiation oncologist to talk Baba into getting radiation treatment. Baba refused. They tried to talk me into talking him into it. But I'd seen the look on Baba's face. I thanked them, signed their forms, and took Baba home in my Ford Torino.

  That night, Baba was lying on the couch, a wool blanket covering him. I brought him hot tea and roasted almonds. Wrapped my arms around his back and pulled him up much too easily. His shoulder blade felt like a bird's wing under my fingers. I pulled the blanket back up to his chest where ribs stretched his thin, sallow skin.

  "Can I do anything else for you, Baba?"

  "Nay, bachem. Thank you."

  I sat beside him. "Then I wonder if you'll do something for me. If you're not too exhausted."

  "What?"

  "I want you to go khastegari. I want you to ask General Taheri for his daughter's hand."

  Baba's dry lips stretched into a smile. A spot of green on a wilted leaf. "Are you sure?"

  "More sure than I've ever been about anything."

 
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