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The Kite Runner: Page 24
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"Don't shoot me!" Karim cried.
But before any of us could say or do a thing, Kamal's father shoved the
barrel in his own mouth. I'll never forget the echo of that blast. Or the flash of
light and the spray of red.
I doubled over again and dry-heaved on the side of the road.
Fremont, California. 1980s Baba loved the idea of America.
It was living in America that gave him an ulcer.
I remember the two of us walking through Lake Elizabeth Park in
Fremont, a few streets down from our apartment, and watching boys at batting
practice, little girls giggling on the swings in the playground. Baba would
enlighten me with his politics during those walks with long-winded
dissertations. "There are only three real men in this world, Amir," he'd say. He'd
count them off on his fingers: America the brash savior, Britain, and Israel. "The
rest of them-" he used to wave his hand and make a phht sound "-they're like
gossiping old women."
The bit about Israel used to draw the ire of Afghans in Fremont who
accused him of being pro-Jewish and, de facto, anti Islam. Baba would meet them
for tea and rowt cake at the park, drive them crazy with his politics. "What they
don't understand," he'd tell me later, "is that religion has nothing to do with it."
In Baba's view, Israel was an island of "real men" in a sea of Arabs too busy
getting fat off their oil to care for their own. "Israel does this, Israel does that,"
Baba would say in a mock-Arabic accent. "Then do something about it! Take
action. You're Arabs, help the Palestinians, then!"
He loathed Jimmy Carter, whom he called a "big-toothed cretin." In 1980,
when we were still in Kabul, the U.S. announced it would be boycotting the
Olympic Games in Moscow. "Wah wah!" Baba exclaimed with disgust. "Brezhnev
is massacring Afghans and all that peanut eater can say is I won't come swim in
your pool." Baba believed Carter had unwittingly done more for communism
than Leonid Brezhnev. "He's not fit to run this country. It's like putting a boy who
can't ride a bike behind the wheel of a brand new Cadillac." What America and
the world needed was a hard man. A man to be reckoned with, someone who
took action instead of wringing his hands. That someone came in the form of
Ronald Reagan. And when Reagan went on TV and called the Shorawi "the Evil
Empire/' Baba went out and bought a picture of the grinning president giving a
thumbs up. He framed the picture and hung it in our hallway, nailing it right next
to the old black-and-white of himself in his thin necktie shaking hands with King
Zahir Shah. Most of our neighbors in Fremont were bus drivers, policemen, gas
station attendants, and unwed mothers collecting welfare, exactly the sort of
blue-collar people who would soon suffocate under the pillow Reaganomics
pressed to their faces. Baba was the lone Republican in our building.
But the Bay Area's smog stung his eyes, the traffic noise gave him
headaches, and the pollen made him cough.
The fruit was never sweet enough,
the water never clean enough, and where were all the trees and open fields? For
two years, I tried to get Baba to enroll in ESL classes to improve his broken
English. But he scoffed at the idea. "Maybe I'll spell 'cat' and the teacher will give
me a glittery little star so I can run home and show it off to you," he'd grumble.
One Sunday in the spring of 1983, 1 walked into a small bookstore that
sold used paperbacks, next to the Indian movie theater just west of where
Amtrak crossed Fremont Boulevard. I told Baba I'd be out in five minutes and he
shrugged. He had been working at a gas station in Fremont and had the day off. I
watched him jaywalk across Fremont Boulevard and enter Fast & Easy, a little
grocery store run by an elderly Vietnamese couple, Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen. They
were gray-haired, friendly people; she had Parkinson's, he'd had his hip replaced.
"He's like Six Million Dollar Man now," she always said to me, laughing
toothlessly. "Remember Six Million Dollar Man, Amir?" Then Mr. Nguyen would
scowl like Lee Majors, pretend he was running in slow motion.
I was flipping through a worn copy of a Mike Hammer mystery when I
heard screaming and glass breaking. I dropped the book and hurried across the
street. I found the Nguyens behind the counter, all the way against the wall, faces
ashen, Mr. Nguyen's arms wrapped around his wife. On the floor: oranges, an
overturned magazine rack, a broken jar of beef jerky, and shards of glass at
It turned out that Baba had had no cash on him for the oranges. He'd
written Mr. Nguyen a check and Mr. Nguyen had asked for an ID. "He wants to
see my license," Baba bellowed in Farsi. "Almost two years we've bought his
damn fruits and put money in his pocket and the son of a dog wants to see my
"Baba, it's not personal," I said, smiling at the Nguyens. "They're supposed
to ask for an ID."
"I don't want you here," Mr. Nguyen said, stepping in front of his wife. He
was pointing at Baba with his cane. He turned to me.
"You're nice young man but your father, he's crazy. Not welcome
"Does he think I'm a thief?" Baba said, his voice rising. People had
gathered outside. They were staring. "What kind of a country is this? No one
"I call police," Mrs. Nguyen said, poking out her face. "You get out or I call
"Please, Mrs. Nguyen, don't call the police. I'll take him home. Just don't
call the police, okay? Please?"
"Yes, you take him home. Good idea," Mr. Nguyen said. His eyes, behind
his wire-rimmed bifocals, never left Baba. I led Baba through the doors. He
kicked a magazine on his way out. After I'd made him promise he wouldn't go
back in, I returned to the store and apologized to the Nguyens. Told them my
father was going through a difficult time. I gave Mrs. Nguyen our telephone
number and address, and told her to get an estimate for the damages. "Please call
me as soon as you know. I'll pay for everything, Mrs. Nguyen. I'm so sorry." Mrs.
Nguyen took the sheet of paper from me and nodded. I saw her hands were
shaking more than usual, and that made me angry at Baba, his causing an old
woman to shake like that.
"My father is still adjusting to life in America," I said, by way of
I wanted to tell them that, in Kabul, we snapped a tree branch and used it
as a credit card. Hassan and I would take the wooden stick to the bread maker.
He'd carve notches on our stick with his knife, one notch for each loaf of_naan_
he'd pull for us from the tandoor's roaring flames. At the end of the month, my
father paid him for the number of notches on the stick. That was it. No questions.
But I didn't tell them. I thanked Mr. Nguyen for not calling the cops. Took
Baba home. He sulked and smoked on the balcony while I made rice with chicken
neck stew. A year and a half since we'd stepped off the Boeing from Peshawar,
and Baba was still adjusting.
We ate in silence that night. After two bites, Baba pushed away his plate.
I glanced at him across the table, his nails chipped and black with engine
oil, his knuckles scraped, the smells of the gas station--dust, sweat, and gasoline-
on his clothes. Baba was like the widower who remarries but can't let go of his
dead wife. He missed the sugarcane fields of Jalalabad and the gardens of
Paghman. He missed people milling in and out of his house, missed walking
down the bustling aisles of Shor Bazaar and greeting people who knew him and
his father, knew his grandfather, people who shared ancestors with him, whose
pasts intertwined with his.
For me, America was a place to bury my memories.
For Baba, a place to mourn his.
"Maybe we should go back to Peshawar," I said, watching the ice float in
my glass of water. We'd spent six months in Peshawar waiting for the INS to
issue our visas. Our grimy one-bedroom apartment smelled like dirty socks and
cat droppings, but we were surrounded by people we knew-at least people Baba
knew. He'd invite the entire corridor of neighbors for dinner, most of them
Afghans waiting for visas. Inevitably, someone would bring a set of tabla and
someone else a harmonium. Tea would brew, and who ever had a passing singing
voice would sing until the sun rose, the mosquitoes stopped buzzing, and
clapping hands grew sore.
"You were happier there, Baba. It was more like home," I said.
Peshawar was good for me. Not good for you.
'You work so hard here.
"It's not so bad now," he said, meaning since he had become the day
manager at the gas station. But I'd seen the way he winced and rubbed his wrists
on damp days.
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