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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 25


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The way sweat erupted on his forehead as he reached for his
bottle of antacids after meals. "Besides, I didn't bring us here for me, did I?"



I reached across the table and put my hand on his. My student hand, clean
and soft, on his laborer's hand, grubby and calloused. I thought of all the trucks,
train sets, and bikes he'd bought me in Kabul. Now America. One last gift for
Amir.



Just one month after we arrived in the U.S., Baba found a job off
Washington Boulevard as an assistant at a gas station owned by an Afghan
acquaintance--he'd started looking for work the same week we arrived. Six days
a week, Baba pulled twelve-hour shifts pumping gas, running the register,
changing oil, and washing windshields. I'd bring him lunch sometimes and find
him looking for a pack of cigarettes on the shelves, a customer waiting on the
other side of the oil-stained counter, Baba's face drawn and pale under the bright
fluorescent lights. The electronic bell over the door would ding-dong when I
walked in, and Baba would look over his shoulder, wave, and smile, his eyes
watering from fatigue.



The same day he was hired, Baba and I went to our eligibility officer in
San Jose, Mrs. Dobbins. She was an overweight black woman with twinkling eyes
and a dimpled smile. She'd told me once that she sang in church, and I believed
her-she had a voice that made me think of warm milk and honey. Baba dropped
the stack of food stamps on her desk. "Thank you but I don't want," Baba said. "I
work always. In Afghanistan I work, in America I work. Thank you very much,
Mrs. Dobbins, but I don't like it free money."



Mrs. Dobbins blinked. Picked up the food stamps, looked from me to Baba
like we were pulling a prank, or "slipping her a trick" as Hassan used to say.
"Fifteen years I been doin' this job and nobody's ever done this," she said. And
that was how Baba ended those humiliating food stamp moments at the cash
register and alleviated one of his greatest fears: that an Afghan would see him
buying food with charity money. Baba walked out of the welfare office like a man
cured of a tumor.




THAT SUMMER OF 1983, 1 graduated from high school at the age of twenty, by
far the oldest senior tossing his mortarboard on the football field that day. I
remember losing Baba in the swarm of families, flashing cameras, and blue
gowns. I found him near the twenty-yard line, hands shoved in his pockets,
camera dangling on his chest. He disappeared and reappeared behind the people
moving between us: squealing blue-clad girls hugging, crying, boys high-fiving
their fathers, each other. Baba's beard was graying, his hair thinning at the
temples, and hadn't he been taller in Kabul? He was wearing his brown suit-his
only suit, the same one he wore to Afghan weddings and funerals-and the red tie
I had bought for his fiftieth birthday that year. Then he saw me and waved.
Smiled. He motioned for me to wear my mortarboard, and took a picture of me
with the school's clock tower in the background. I smiled for him-in a way, this
was his day more than mine. He walked to me, curled his arm around my neck,
and gave my brow a single kiss. "I am Moftakhir, Amir," he said. Proud. His eyes
gleamed when he said that and I liked being on the receiving end of that look.



He took me to an Afghan kabob house in Hayward that night and ordered
far too much food. He told the owner that his son was going to college in the fall. I
had debated him briefly about that just before graduation, and told him I wanted
to get a job. Help out, save some money, maybe go to college the following year.
But he had shot me one of his smoldering Baba looks, and the words had
vaporized on my tongue.



After dinner, Baba took me to a bar across the street from the restaurant.
The place was dim, and the acrid smell of beer I'd always disliked permeated the
walls. Men in baseball caps and tank tops played pool, clouds of cigarette smoke
hovering over the green tables, swirling in the fluorescent light.
We drew looks,
Baba in his brown suit and me in pleated slacks and sports jacket. We took a seat
at the bar, next to an old man, his leathery face sickly in the blue glow of the
Michelob sign overhead. Baba lit a cigarette and ordered us beers. "Tonight I am
too much happy," he announced to no one and everyone. "Tonight I drinking
with my son. And one, please, for my friend," he said, patting the old man on the
back. The old fellow tipped his hat and smiled. He had no upper teeth.



Baba finished his beer in three gulps and ordered another. He had three
before I forced myself to drink a quarter of mine. By then he had bought the old
man a scotch and treated a foursome of pool players to a pitcher of Budweiser.
Men shook his hand and clapped him on the back. They drank to him. Someone
lit his cigarette. Baba loosened his tie and gave the old man a handful of quarters.
He pointed to the jukebox. "Tell him to play his favorite songs," he said to me.

The old man nodded and gave Baba a salute. Soon, country music was blaring,
and, just like that, Baba had started a party.




At one point, Baba stood, raised his beer, spilling it on the sawdust floor,
and yelled, "Fuck the Russia!" The bar's laughter, then its full-throated echo
followed. Baba bought another round of pitchers for everyone.



When we left, everyone was sad to see him go. Kabul, Peshawar, Hayward.
Same old Baba, I thought, smiling.



I drove us home in Baba's old, ochre yellow Buick Century. Baba dozed off
on the way, snoring like a jackhammer. I smelled tobacco on him and alcohol,
sweet and pungent. But he sat up when I stopped the car and said in a hoarse
voice, "Keep driving to the end of the block."



"Why, Baba?"



"Just go." He had me park at the south end of the street. He reached in his
coat pocket and handed me a set of keys. "There," he said, pointing to the car in
front of us. It was an old model Ford, long and wide, a dark color I couldn't
discern in the moon light. "It needs painting, and I'll have one of the guys at the
station put in new shocks, but it runs."



I took the keys, stunned. I looked from him to the car.



"You'll need it to go to college," he said.



I took his hand in mine. Squeezed it. My eyes were tearing over and I was
glad for the shadows that hid our faces. "Thank you, Baba."



We got out and sat inside the Ford. It was a Grand Torino. Navy blue, Baba
said. I drove it around the block, testing the brakes, the radio, the turn signals. I
parked it in the lot of our apartment building and shut off the engine. "Tashakor,
Baba jan," I said. I wanted to say more, tell him how touched I was by his act of
kindness, how much I appreciated all that he had done for me, all that he was still
doing. But I knew I'd embarrass him. "Tashakor," I repeated instead.




He smiled and leaned back against the headrest, his forehead almost
touching the ceiling. We didn't say anything. Just sat in the dark, listened to the
tink-tink of the engine cooling, the wail of a siren in the distance. Then Baba
rolled his head toward me. "I wish Hassan had been with us today," he said.



A pair of steel hands closed around my windpipe at the sound of Hassan's
name. I rolled down the window. Waited for the steel hands to loosen their grip.



I WOULD ENROLL in junior college classes in the fall, I told Baba the day after
graduation. He was drinking cold black tea and chewing cardamom seeds, his
personal trusted antidote for hang over headaches.

"I think I'll major in English," I said. I winced inside, waiting for his reply.

"English?"

"Creative writing."

He considered this. Sipped his tea. "Stories, you mean. You'll make up
stories."

I looked down at my feet.

"They pay for that, making up stories?"



"If you're good," I said. "And if you get discovered."



"How likely is that, getting discovered?"



It happens," I said.




He nodded. "And what will you do while you wait to get good and get
discovered? How will you earn money? If you marry, how will you support your
khanum?"



I couldn't lift my eyes to meet his. "I'll... find a job."



"Oh," he said. "Wah wah! So, if I understand, you'll study several years to
earn a degree, then you'll get a chatti job like mine, one you could just as easily
land today, on the small chance that your degree might someday help you get-
discovered." He took a deep breath and sipped his tea. Grunted something about
medical school, law school, and "real work."



My cheeks burned and guilt coursed through me, the guilt of indulging
myself at the expense of his ulcer, his black fingernails and aching wrists. But I
would stand my ground, I decided. I didn't want to sacrifice for Baba anymore.

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