FICTION FINALIST: The Fall

 

Hell, yes, it was a bad winter: first, Riham’s father gets sick with pneumonia. Two weeks at Greater Memorial, and they’re talking about putting him on a ventilator before he finally looked at a bowl of grey oatmeal and said, “I’m hungry.” Still another month to recover at home, and Riham was running over there all the time to check on him, and just when things are settling down, you know, everybody’s calm and smiling again at Sunday night dinner—my mom falls down the stairs, rushing to open the door for the FedEx guy. Down fourteen steps to the marble tiles of the hallway, and I don’t like to sound like a jerk, but I’d told my dad at least a hundred times: “Get carpeting,” I said. “Carpet’s cheap and safer.” No, no, you know how he is. “In the old country, we had tiles everywhere,” he argued. “It’s so nice and clean. Like back home.” And when he’d come to my house, he’d argue so much about how dirty rugs are, how they were hotels for filth and germs, that we finally took them all out. All my life he’s wanted everything to be like back home, but the man has never gotten on a plane—I’m talking forty-three years—and actually gone home. He doesn’t talk much, but he knows it’s a life here.

No, my mom was fine. She’s so tough. She always said, “Look, Sufi, when I was growing up in Guatemala, I used to tend the cattle with my papa, because he don’t have no son. He always want a son, no luck. So I become a son.” I can picture her sometimes, like a really rough nine-year-old tomboy, rounding them up. Except I keep getting cowboy images in my mind, and I know it wouldn’t have been a rootin-tootin, down-on-the-ranch kind of life, not in Guatemala. No cactus in Guatemala, right, but it keeps popping up in my head anyway. There’s always one in the foreground when I imagine my mother as a kid. But that’s where I fail, you see, to really understand my parents, because I’ve never been to Guatemala, and I’ve never been to visit my father’s country either, so when he says they had tiled floors in every room, and my mother tells me about cattle, I have no choice but to believe them. And if some detail is missing, I just insert it myself, like that cactus that won’t go away.

Bad winter. Bad, shitty winter. So when my wife came down the steps that morning in April and said, “It’s going to be 68 degrees tomorrow. Let’s have a cookout,” I don’t think I even bothered to take a breath before I said “yes.” That’s how quickly I said it, because we needed a break. And remember, the baby was only five months old by then, so we were still in that fog, especially Riham, who was nursing. She refused to do any formula, or give her rice cereal—just 100% breast. Breast is best. She even pumped it when she needed to be at the hospital with her dad all day, so I could feed it to the munchkin in a bottle. That’s my wife—she’s pretty determined. She’d read that breast milk is best for babies, and that’s what she did. “Look on the can,” she told people who questioned our—her—choice. “It says it right there: breast milk is ideal. Would you buy a Honda if the tag said Toyota is better?”

Is that the best line ever, or what? I still laugh when I think of people’s expressions. How can you argue with that?

She was hardcore. She even kicked me out of bed for a while, because she worried that I’d roll over on the baby if she brought her to our bed to nurse at night. I’m still pretty heavy, I know. 280—not terrible, but big. Don’t forget, I played football in college, you know. The stomach came later. Just two years, I played, then busted my knee. But the UPS job has been good—I’m going on ten years with them. I can lift those boxes like no one else, and every few months they give me a certificate. I keep them all in a drawer in the kitchen, next to the address books and the stamps. Anyway, about a month I spent on the couch while she was nursing the baby, and all I could do was watch TV reruns all night, keeping it so low so the baby wouldn’t wake up and I am telling you, it was so low that I had to make up in my head the gaps in the sentences. So when Bill Cosby tells Theo about his schoolwork, you know that one, and at the end he says, “I love you son, and maybe, just maybe … .” What? But everyone laughs, so I know the Coz delivered a good punch line, but what is it? So I make it up, you know: “Maybe, just maybe, I’ll let you live here another year.” Or, “Maybe, just maybe, I won’t kill you.” The Coz kills me, even when I’m making up his lines.

My point here is that it was a rough winter. But by April, the baby was sleeping a little more, Riham lost the blue moons under her eyes, I was back in my own bed, and I’d stopped using my 45 minute lunch break at work to nap in my truck. So when my lady came down our steps, looking so fine in her white nightgown, her hair all curly on her shoulders, wanting to have a family cookout, I just answered, “Yes.”

***

            My mother brought empanadas. That’s what she brought to every family event. When Riham’s father had been in the hospital, with blue lips and his chest sucking in with every breath, like valleys between the hillsides of his ribs, my mother brought tray after tray of empanadas. I told her not to try so hard, that the man is throwing up even water, but my mother is persistent—oh my god, is she persistent. She doesn’t care how crazy she looks to other people—she’s just stubborn about some things, like she’s saying, “I won’t give up on you. Look at me here, I won’t leave. I won’t give up.”

My father made warak dawali for the cookout. Stuffed grape leaves. He rolls them himself. Yes, I can speak a little—a few Arabic words. Shukran—that’s thank you. And marhaba—that’s hello. I can speak more Spanish than Arabic—probably because I was around my mother more than my father.

Riham sent me out that morning to buy charcoal for the grill and hamburger patties and buns, while she made the calls. By 2 p.m., almost everyone was there: my father helped me clean the grill. We hadn’t used it since last year, so it was in bad shape. My cousins Lonnie and Jon, and Diego and his wife were there. The little kids insisted we do it picnic-style, so we spread blankets on the grass.

We ate. Everyone said what a good idea it had been for Riham to have a cookout. “Picnic!” the kids yelled every time. “Okay, okay,” we shushed them up. Riham looked gorgeous—she put on a red dress, to the calf, that she’d worn before she had the baby, and that made me realize she’d lost the baby weight. She’d said she would, and of course, it happened. Only her face was rounder, her lips as red as her outfit.

We took turns checking on the baby. She woke up around 4 p.m., and Riham went in to nurse her. It was about 4:30, and I was just setting up the volleyball net, when she came back, holding our child.

***

            When I said I spent more time around my mother as a kid, I mean that in every sense. If it weren’t for what happened, I probably would still think of him as a mystery. Everyone always thought of my dad as just a shadow in the room. He was next to you all the time, he helped you, but he didn’t talk, he didn’t engage.

When I was little, it was easier to understand—he was at work all day, and my mom didn’t work. Or, as Riham would insist, my mom “chose to raise us at home full-time.” Fine. And of course, I don’t remember much. Who does? I just know I was happy. All my cousins were raised in the same type of households—dad at work, mom at home. Dads are parents who come home at 6 p.m., with dirty fingernails, and stand in the bathroom, scraping them with a penknife while moms yell at them to change their dirty shirts before sitting at the dinner table. That’s how it was. I remember listening to Spanish music on worn-out cassette tapes Mom would borrow from her family, and when she really liked one, she’d play it on one boom box and record it on another. And I had to be quiet. Totally quiet. And if a car honked its horn outside, she’d curse: “Gilipollas!” and we’d have to start it again. It was torture. Today, I can copy a CD in a second, and back then, Mama would have bought the tapes if she could, but there was always a latest tape that a cousin or friend had brought back from a trip to Guatemala. “Sam Goody don’t carry our music,” she’d say. “So we do this.”

All I remember of Dad was weekends, when he was cleaning: wash the car, sweep the front step, wash the windows. He was always crawling up into our little attic, and re-sorting all the stuff—“Do you want this box?” “Sufi, do these skates still fit you?” Always making room, clearing space, for what? I get it now, but I used to be confused when he’d reply, “Only carry in your life what you need. Don’t waste what you have.” I always assumed it was an immigrant thing, like my buddy Suresh from high school, whose dad stitched socks when they got holes in them and taped up his glasses when they broke. When his mom wanted to buy a new toaster oven—Suresh tells it so funny—it was like a family summit had to be called. Pros? Cons? Could the old toaster be fixed, even though it had almost started two or three fires?

My dad wasn’t that extreme. But close. I got all the stories about arriving in Guatemala with twenty bucks and his cousin’s address in his pocket. I heard those over and over. The details rarely changed: he wore a blue cotton shirt, he bought a Coca-Cola, the first person who spoke to him was a janitor in the airport who used hand gestures and a lot of pointing to tell him how to get a cab ride. Getting to the U.S. border from there was even harder. It took him four years, but he made it.

He worked longer hours than any dad I ever met, right there on North Avenue in his liquor store. He never let me work with him. I was sixteen when I finally saw the place—imagine seeing my dad taking money and making change from behind a cage—like bars with bulletproof glass. I was only there because I’d gotten my license the month before and Mom sent me to give him his wallet—he’d forgotten it at the house. The man actually shooed me away. I was so pissed off, because the couple of guys there, drinking out of bottles in paper bags, started laughing. He came out and yelled at me to get in the car and go home. And that night he and my mom had a bad fight—she was in tears.

“How could you send him? Do you have amnesia?” he yelled at her, half in his broken Spanish and half in his broken English. I got his point, and I know he loved me, but I resented him even more.

I’ve always resented him—that started when I was a kid. Like I said, he was always at work, and I was home with my mom. And it was fine. But I have this memory of a T-ball game, so I must have been five or six. I don’t remember the details, but my team shirt was blue and my cap blue too. It was hot, because my neck was dripping with sweat, and my uniform shirt’s tag irritated it even more. And I was running and running and landed on home plate. And then I remember two things: my coach hooting like an owl, and my mother screaming, “Go, Sufi, go, Sufi!” It was later, after all the high-fives, after Mama bought ice cream to celebrate, that I realized Dad hadn’t been there to witness whatever it was I’d done—steal home, hit a grand slam, who knows—and probing my disappointment more deeply, I realize, of course, he hadn’t been there for any of my games.

Another one: My confirmation ceremony, seventh grade. I’m wearing a hand-me-down suit from my cousin Diego, and a blue tie. John Adero, a little shit who always poked in people’s business, turns in his pew to whisper, “Are your parents divorced?”

“No,” I whisper back, and I ask why he said that.

“Your dad’s never here. I’ve never seen him, so—”

His sentence is cut off by his frantic, bubbly return wave at someone seated behind me. Probably his mom, and I don’t have to turn around to know his father is seated right beside her. And I suddenly felt so angry, but of course, I was really ashamed.

I raked leaves with him every Saturday in the fall. Seems like quality time, but not when you’re not speaking. He put his head down when we started and only looked me in the eyes when we’d finished three or four hours later. He usually seemed almost surprised to see me, and he’d automatically check his watch, then back at me, like he was asking himself, “Has he been here the whole time?”

I remember once, hearing a Jewish comedian—stand-up stuff—saying that his father embarrassed him because he wore sandals with socks to the mall. It was funny, but I’m thinking, at least his dad took him to the mall. My image of what dads were like came from Cosby Show reruns—the joking, but firm, father. The “maybe, just maybe …” type of dad: a reprimand, softened by a joke.

When I was born, my mom always tells this, he insisted that everyone call him Abu Sufayan, because that’s my full name: Sufayan. An old man in his village that he’d really admired. So one day, while I’m in high school, we’re all doing stuff on genealogy in class and I’m moved—yeah, that’s right, I’m literally moved—to find out why my dad named me after this man. I know nothing about him, and it’s such an unusual name, right? When I asked him one day to tell me about him, he just looked over my shoulder, like I wasn’t in the room. He stayed like that for so long, and I got so annoyed that I left and never brought it up again. That may be the last time I ever initiated a conversation with him.

“Your papi loves you,” Mom always said. “Never doubt it.” But she could not really understand the problem, she who came from a big family—there are ten of them—where everyone hugs, kisses, where your cousins are your best friends and your crowd, where your parents are always either yelling at you or trying to feed you.

Either way, my point is, it’s still communication. I know Dad always loved me, that he sat behind his metal and glass cage in a shithole neighborhood from noon to 2 a.m., for me, but the void, the silence is what I think about. He’s the one person I could sit in a room with, not speaking at all, for hours and feel like it’s completely natural. Maybe not natural. Normal. For us, it was normal.

The joke for a long time was that he might not show up to my wedding. “Maybe he’ll just come to the church and then skip out on the reception to go to work,” I’d tell Mom, and she’d shush me. But he came and did his duty. When he kissed me, three times in the Arab style, his hands slamming on my back like a jackhammer, my mom told me he was so happy that I had to trust her, but I told her it didn’t matter, because what mattered was communication. If you love someone and don’t show it, don’t tell them, does it matter?

“Some people show their love in other ways,” she said to me, “and he really adores you.” But I thought “adores” was taking it too far, so I laughed, and she didn’t want to talk anymore after that.

***

            Riham. Now that girl communicates. Freshman year of college, 1978, and I’m thinking I’m the great man on campus. Got the scholarship to play, and a room in the nice dorms, the new building where every suite has its own bathroom. No running down the hall with your towel to beat the guy next to you. My roommates are all on scholarships too. Awesome guys. Everything is rolling along, until one day, this girl in class, right behind me, says, “I didn’t get a paper.”

“What?” I turn around, and I’m blown away. Gorgeous, gorgeous—black hair down to her hips. Big brown eyes. But she’s low maintenance, I can tell right away. She’s got on jeans and sandals, and a keffiyeh around her shoulders, like a warrior.

“I think there’s another paper stuck to your copy,” and she’s impatient, whispering because the professor has already started the lesson on commas or semicolons, or whatever it was. And the girl is right, but I can’t make my fingers separate the papers, and so she leans forward and with one slip of her index finger and thumb—long fingers, tanned, no nail polish, no jewelry—she gets her paper and slides back into her seat. And I’m ready to pass out because that black hair just touched my cheek.

But when I try to talk to her after class, she’s cold as ice. Later I find out that she’s working two jobs to pay her tuition, and my football jersey gave me away as a player. And maybe I said something about being on scholarship that I thought would impress her but actually turned her off. But a bunch of students in the class organize this study session, and she comes to it and she’s wearing that keffiyeh again. And I try to talk to her about being Arab, except I don’t know much, and she looks at me in that way, the way that tells me she’s a thinker. And that means that she’s not impressed by things that impress other girls easily, so now I’ve got to get creative.

So I did. No fear. I joined the Arab Students Union, and I showed up at their meeting four weeks later, right before the spring semester began. She’s the treasurer, and she’s selling these red, white, black and green bracelets, so I fork over five bucks. I can barely hear her say “thank you.” During the meeting, they discuss visibility on campus. “We’re a small group,” says the president, Omar—we’re still friends with him; he’s got four kids now. Good guy. Anyway, Omar, who was so skinny back then, he’s up there ranting about nobody knows we exist on campus and we need more of a presence. So I put my hand up, and she notices, she stares at me, but I go ahead anyway and tell them that they should link up with some of the other ethnic groups on campus. Have a joint event or a multicultural thing with the Korean students or the Black students. And then I’m a hero—everyone loves it. I go a step further, because now I really have the girl’s attention, and I offer to contact the Latin Students Organization, and I say, because I’m half Latino. They love me even more, and after that meeting, I’m chatting with Omar and she comes up to me, all big-eyed, and says, “I didn’t know you were half Latino.”

I explain it all, how my father left Palestine when he was seventeen, moved to Guatemala and met my mother.

“How did they get to the United States?” she asks.

I don’t want to tell her the whole story: the crossing at night in the back of a truck; the smell of rotting vegetables that still makes my mother throw in the trash any vegetable or fruit that gets over-ripe in our refrigerator; being dumped in Brownsville, Texas, and not believing that they were still alive. I don’t want to share that, not yet, because I don’t tell anyone that story. It was drilled into me since I was a little kid, not to mention it to anyone (“The police will come and take me away from you, Sufi,” Mom used to scare me), although I have a feeling that at some point, if this goes well, I will be telling this girl anything she wants to know.

But then, she asks me next, “Why did he leave Palestine?”

And I have to admit that I have no idea.

***

            My father was completely shocked when I told him about Riham. He never imagined his only child would marry an Arab girl, and even though he didn’t say it to my mother, he was really happy about that fact. I knew when he met Riham—I saw the charmed look on his face when she said, “Marhaba.” And when she called him “Ammo” respectfully—she hooked him.

“My grandchildren will be full-blooded Arabs,” he said, in a bemused voice, at breakfast one day.

“Three-quarters,” my mother corrected him, slamming a plate of eggs in front of him, pretending to be mad. He winked at me, and we both laughed, while my mother threatened to poison our omelets. “Full-blooded,” she muttered with a smirk on her lips.

“He’s so happy, huh? A man who’s never even gone back himself to see the country he loves.” And even though she was kidding, using that fake-anger, my dad got quiet when she kept on joking, and I kept laughing, trying to keep the joke going, encouraged that he’d winked at me and unaware that anything had changed. When I laughed again, he quietly left the room.

***

            We’re all sitting on the blanket. Riham has the baby in her lap. My dad’s about to start on his plate of watermelon and stands up. “I need to get a fork,” he says.

As I remember it, Riham gets up too. “I’ll get it, Ammo. I need to change Juju’s shirt.” I think the baby had been drooling a lot—she must have been teething—and her little one-piece was wet around the collar. It was a green one-piece that said “Angel” on it. Riham didn’t really dress her in pink.

“No, I’ll get it,” my dad insists, and they have that argument Arabs always have, where they’re trying to prove how much they respect each other: Riham has the baby on her hip, and she’s trying to pull Dad’s plate from his hands. I specifically remember Riham saying, “No, I’ll take it because it’s my fault—I forgot to bring out more forks for dessert.”

My dad just settles it by putting his plate down, and taking the baby. He’s grinning, and I remember thinking that was nice to see how Riham could actually bring out that side of him. “I’ll change her shirt,” he says. And that was nice too, because I never really saw my dad be insistent or make himself involved with the baby before.

So he goes inside. Ten minutes later, we hear him screaming.

She’d been on the changing table, and when she fell, the side of her head hit the tiled floor. She wasn’t moving, although her eyes were wide open, and her head looked like it had caved in a little above her ear. Diego was on the phone right away. My girl did not make a sound or move the whole time the EMTs were working on her, and a little while later, she closes her eyes and doesn’t open them. “Is she okay?” Riham finally screamed. “She is, she is,” they assured us, but their faces were grim. “But she lost consciousness.” Riham climbed into the ambulance. “I’m gonna book it,” the driver told me when I shouted that I would follow. “I’m not waiting for you to catch up.” She gave me the name of the hospital and slammed her door; the ambulance pulled away with a sudden jerk, leaving me behind in the driveway with my car keys in my hand, and that’s when I started shaking. Until then, I’d been watching the whole scene before me, afraid to move, to breathe, to touch her. All I kept thinking was that I might hurt her more if I moved her the wrong way.

Diego rode with me. My mom stayed behind to take care of my dad, who, I found out later, had passed out in the other bedroom.

***

            Juju was fine. Four days later, when she came home, there were area carpets in every room in the house.

“A moderate concussion,” the young female pediatrician told us reassuringly, “although we always worry with such a young infant.” They put a tube in her head to reduce the swelling, they said, and her skull had a faint fracture that would take years to heal on its own. Although they may never truly heal, the pediatrician said in a way that was oddly comforting, despite the meaning of her words. “It seems bad, but in a few years, you won’t even remember this.”

They told Riham to pump her milk and store it. She fed it to Juju from a little dropper, a quarter-ounce at a time. The nurses assured her that the IV gave Juju what she needed, but she didn’t buy it for a second. She just stayed there, every hour, to try again. A quarter-ounce here. An eighth there. The third day, she drank a half-ounce in one sitting, and by the next morning, she took it from the bottle. She was nursing again before she was discharged. When we left, we filled the back of my SUV with all the teddy bears, flower vases, and get-well baskets we’d received. We left the baklava and chocolates for the nurses.

The first night she was home, it was like when she was born—we didn’t sleep all night and kept waking up to check on her, to feel her pulse. Riham finally just slept on the floor next to her crib.

That night, as I lay in our king-sized bed alone, knowing the two females I loved were safe in the next room, I suddenly remembered my dad. Not directly—initially I was thinking about my mother, and then the exhausted train of my thoughts pulled into his station. Because that is what he was in my life: a person I only thought of in connection to someone else, never one in his own right, who deserved recognition.

I wondered how he was doing. My mother had never mentioned him in all her calls to us in the last few days, and I hadn’t asked.

I called him the next day. My mother answered, and spent ten minutes asking about Juju, until I nearly forgot why I was even calling. Everything was so easy with my mother: she’d been to the hospital every day and practically lived there, although I never really felt her presence. Whenever Riham or I needed to leave the room, she appeared out of nowhere: “You go, I will stay with the baby. Don’t worry.”

“Is Dad there?” I asked her. “I want to see how he’s doing.”

“Oh yes, Papi is here. He will be so happy to talk to you.” A full minute goes by, so I know she prepped him for the call. I can imagine what she said, because I’d seen her do it with so many other calls. “Radwan,” she’d say, “Radwan, Sufi is on the phone. Come and talk to him. Ask him how the baby is doing.”

I know she told him that, because that is exactly what he said. “Sufi, how is Juju doing?”

“She’s fine, she came home yesterday.”

“Thank God.”

“Don’t you want to come and see her?”

“No.” He paused, then said again, “No, I do not.”

I have to admit, hearing that was … so forceful, so hard. It was like a confirmation of everything: No, I don’t really care about you. No, I am not interested in your life.

Maybe it was because I hadn’t slept the night before—hadn’t slept in four days at the hospital, hadn’t really had a decent sleep all winter, to be honest.

Maybe that’s why I answered the way I did, a way that—Mom told me later—made my father burst into tears when he hung up the phone.

“You almost killed her!” I shouted. “And then you don’t want to see her? Fine, I don’t want you to come near her again. How’s that?” And I hung up the phone.

My stomach felt like it had fallen out of my abdomen and onto the floor. My whole torso felt empty, shaky. I checked on Riham, who was washing the dishes, the water running loudly, which is why she probably didn’t hear me yelling. The baby napped in the bouncy seat next to the counter—within Riham’s line of vision. Knowing that everything was safe, was okay, in this house of mine, I told my beautiful wife that I needed to go lie down. She turned to me, smiled, and said, “Rest, habibi. I’ll have dinner ready when you wake up.”

“Don’t let me sleep too long? An hour, maybe.”

“Okay, sure,” she said, stacking plates on the dish rack. They were the plates we had used that day at our cookout—and as my head sunk into the pillow, I realized that, yes, we had not been home in four days, and that we needed to catch up with things in the house.

But when Riham woke me up, I knew it hadn’t been an hour. My head felt heavy, and for a second, I thought I was back in the hospital, sleeping in the blue vinyl recliner that had been my bed for three nights. But then I saw my dresser, felt my quilt, and saw my wife. She looked concerned. “Your father is here,” she said. “He looks really upset. Come downstairs.”

He was sitting quietly in the living room, his car keys in his hand, his jacket still on, his back to the baby sleeping behind him in the kitchen. He stood up when he saw me.

I just didn’t want there to be a scene, so I said, “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s please forget what I said.”

He nodded. “Okay. Let’s go for a ride.”

“What?” I asked. “Where?” I looked at Riham, who seemed alarmed, but my father was already headed for the door.

“Come on.” He spoke in a way that—it wasn’t authoritative, but it was almost like he was desperate to sound authoritative, and I didn’t want to make him realize that I could simply ignore him, go back to bed. It would have been so easy to do that, or to just sit down on my couch and refuse to go.

But I didn’t want to hurt him. I’ve never wanted to hurt him. My outburst on the phone was probably the roughest way I’ve ever spoken to him. When had I ever had to confront him before, ever, about anything? Even when I was a teenager, all those confrontations that kids have—I’d had them with my mother, not with my father.

“Where are we going?” I asked again, but he was walking down my driveway. So I squeezed Riham’s hand and followed him.

***

We drove in his rusting Toyota Corolla around the neighborhood, in silence, and for a while, I thought that maybe he didn’t know where to go. Maybe he’d assumed I wouldn’t follow him, and now he needed to make a decision. Eventually, after about ten minutes, I could tell we were actually headed somewhere, and once we passed the main stores in the downtown and then, fifteen minutes later, passed the train tracks, I knew that there was only one place we could be going: the old DeJon vineyards.

And that is what made me continue to remain quiet. I wanted to see if he was really going to take us there. The DeJon family had owned this vineyard when I was a kid—their son was in my class, and he was forever inviting me to go there on weekends. They had wine tastings, tours, festivals. On holiday weekends, for Mother’s Days and Memorial Day weekends, they would bring local bands to play, and people would bring picnic blankets. I used to ask my dad to take us there, to hang out for the weekends. Once I even made the argument that it was a vineyard, where grapes grew, and didn’t they have grapevines in Palestine? I mean, this is how little I understood about Palestine—I arrived at that conclusion because, if Palestinians cooked with grape leaves, they must have grapevines, and then they must have vineyards, right? It didn’t work—he just looked at me, amused, and said that he had to work, but that I could go with my mother if I wanted. But of course, that wasn’t my point. Anyway, when I was in high school, the DeJons had to finally admit that they weren’t making enough money to sustain the business; they closed it down and moved to Arizona, and the place had been shut down since then, the vines running over and the old barn, where they used to have bands and tastings, filled to the window panes with grass and weeds.

But now, here I was, with my father, twenty years after first begging him to take us as a family. I wondered if he even knew it had been shut down—maybe he thought this would be a big reunion for us, to sit together over a glass of wine and finally connect as father and son. I studied his face as we got out of the car; no, he didn’t seem surprised. He looked ashen, tired.

“So what’s up?” I asked, following him as he walked to the field where the vines grew so thick and were so twisted that the wooden rails that ran up and down the field were not visible.

He didn’t answer, but peeked under the leaves. “No grapes,” he muttered. “The leaves are too thick—the sun cannot reach the grapes.”

“I’m sorry for what I said on the phone,” I tried again to restart the conversation. I was starting to feel tired again. We’d left my house an hour ago, and I was sure the baby would be waking up by now, and maybe Riham would be wondering where I was and whether I’d be back in time for dinner.

“I’m sorry I dropped Juju,” he said quietly. “I turned around to get something and she rolled right off the table. I should have held her, been more careful.”

Before he’d finished, I hurried to say, “It’s okay. She is okay now, and I don’t want you to be upset.” I really didn’t. But I added, so he would know: “I just didn’t know why you wouldn’t come to see her.”

He leaned forward, his back turned slightly to me, as if he didn’t want to look at me. His palms rested on the twisted vines, his index and middle finger playing with a green leaf as though it were a lock of hair.

“I love her so much, and I love you very much.”

“I know.”

“I am afraid to love you very much. I always was, because … it’s like, if I show it and I am happy, then maybe God will take you away from me.”

I sensed instinctively, at this point, that I should keep my mouth shut because he was about to gush out something revelatory. Maybe this would be our first real conversation. I followed those instincts and just listened, staring at his feet, his brown work shoes that he wore everywhere, with the thick rubber soles, that looked like old-school Doc Martens. I stared at them hard, afraid to look at his profile so that he wouldn’t stop speaking.

“Sufi, when I was twenty years old, back home, I killed a little boy from our village. The neighbor’s son. I was out shooting with my friends for rabbits. We did that all the time, and I didn’t see him—Demetri. His name was Demetri. I didn’t see him playing in the grass—we have tall grass in some parts of the hills back home.”

He paused, then quickly said, “It’s not an excuse. After they buried him, the boy, his family burned down my father’s house, and my father told me to get out of the country. He said that they could reconcile it with the family, but never with me. I had to get out so that the problem would be eliminated.

“He gave me some money, maybe one hundred dollars, everything he had, and one of the priests in the next village helped me to leave. I’m glad I left. I didn’t go back. Never. Not when my father died. Or my sister. Not one time. All they knew of me was a check that arrived once a month, with my name on it. And the church got a check once a year, at Easter, from me, to thank them because they helped me be reborn. I was given a new life when I had taken another life.”

After a long pause, I worried that he wouldn’t speak again, so I pushed the conversation along timidly: “Did Mom know?”

“I was honest with her always. She still wanted to marry me. I didn’t want children, I told her. And she said okay. You know, our life was too hard. But then we began to hope. We asked questions about how to leave Guatemala. You know that story—I’m sure she has told you most of the details. We got to America and when we finally felt safe, she changed her mind. One child, she said. Before I am too old to become a mother. And I thought, please God, don’t give me a son, because I don’t deserve it.

“When you were born, I tried to deny my happiness, but it was there. My son.” He smiled, a sad smile, but he wasn’t looking at me, was staring into the vines. “In my heart. And at the same time, I was afraid.

“I named you Sufayan, so that I would be called Abu Sufayan—that was the name of a man I respected in our village. He saved me the night that they burned down my father’s house—he saved all of us, actually. I will never forget him. He was so wise, so reasonable. His sons lived in Guatemala—they gave me a job when I got there and I lived with them for a month until I was okay. They did that for me because he told them to—he said, go find my sons and tell them I sent you. That was it.”

“He sounds like … like a really…” I didn’t know what to say.

“He was religious—maybe I thought naming you after him would show to God that I understood what I had done, that it would protect you somehow.” He paused. “And then when Juju fell, I thought finally, here it is … the curse is revisited upon my son. Through me.” He stopped. I thought he was going to start crying, and I held my breath.

But he didn’t. Instead, he suddenly thrust both hands deep into the vine and pulled, and he screamed at the top of his lungs. A roar that came from deep within him, filled with—anguish. And I felt my own tears climbing up inside my throat, as he stood there, wrestling with the old vines and roaring.

“Dad, stop it, stop,” I said weakly. “Come on.”

“I should have been dead fifty years ago—they came to kill me that night, and only the old man saved me.”

We stayed there for so long, both of us leaning on the vine, and my dad muttering occasionally, and me thinking how I didn’t even know him well enough to know the words that would comfort him.

***

My father died of lung cancer, within a year of being diagnosed. It was aggressive. It happened the summer that Juju finished eighth grade, around the time she started insisting that we stop calling her Juju and start calling her Jumana. “It’s a more elegant name,” she said. “Juju is a baby name.” We’d had our other two children by then as well, my boy Alex and little Sophia.

When Alex was born, I’d wanted to name him Radwan, for my father, as our custom dictated (according to Riham). My mother thought he would like that, but my dad forbade it. He cracked down on me like the hand of God and said. under no circumstances was a child to be given his name. And once again, I felt that old anger rise up inside me, that same feeling of rejection, of not being understood. Like I told Riham, it’s not like that day at the vineyard changed my relationship with my father. When I told her what happened, what he had confessed to me, she was so moved by it all, and she tried to insist for months after that I move closer to my dad. “This is a major breakthrough,” she would tell me. And once in a while, on a quiet Saturday, she would encourage me to call him. “Call him up and tell him you want to take him to the museum,” she would say. As smart as she is, she didn’t understand that my dad is not a museum kind of father, and besides, while I understood him now, it didn’t mean that everything was suddenly okay. He was not suddenly Bill Cosby and I was not suddenly Theo. It took me a while to accept that maybe that is what it was supposed to be.

I spent long hours talking to my mom about what Dad had told me. She seemed so relieved that now the burden was off her chest, that someone else knew. “It’s been so hard living with that,” she told me one afternoon in her kitchen. “It’s hard to be married to someone who does not want to be happy, who is waiting to be punished.”

The cancer was diagnosed in the autumn, when my mother could no longer ignore his cough and his persistent bouts with bronchitis, when I kept pointing out that his lips were always blue. It’s not that she didn’t want to take him, but that he refused to go. “They never tell you anything good,” he said of the doctors. And they sure didn’t. It took about three weeks and several tests before they confirmed the cancer, and they started the most aggressive treatments they could. “Your dad is in relatively good health,” one doctor said to me when I took him in for a treatment. I was concerned because of how hard the nausea and the weakness was hitting him. “We think he can withstand it,” the doctor said, “and it’s his best chance.”

When it didn’t, he refused anything else. No more IVs dripping into his arm, no more pills, nothing. Even when we knew the pain must be excruciating, he just got still, became quiet, like he was collapsing into himself, didn’t complain.

“Take the pills, Radwan,” my mother begged. I begged. Even Riham tearfully pleaded with him to take the painkillers. We even put Juju up to asking him, thinking he couldn’t refuse. But he would just pat us on the hand, the head, to reassure us that he knew what was best.

I knew what he was doing. I understood him a little now, enough to see that he wanted to feel the pain. This was finally the punishment he felt he deserved. And nothing could convince him differently.

But that is when I finally lost it. Only Riham knew that I lost it, because my mother had enough to deal with. Only Riham saw me, that night when I came home after he’d had a really bad night and finally slipped into the coma, when we sent the kids to sleep at their cousin’s house. I lay on the couch, my head in her lap, and cried like an infant with colic, like a pain was tearing up my chest and only the screams relieved it. Like I couldn’t find the words I needed but wanted someone to just hear me, and to know what I felt.

His funeral was quiet. There were no major speeches. I gave a simple eulogy, just saying that he had been a devoted father who worked hard for his family. After we buried him, we sent the final check—at his request—to the church in his village. A week later, I was sitting in the bleachers, watching Alex play his first T-ball game at the park by our house, wearing his blue uniform shirt and his white stirrup pants. He smacked the ball and ran for third base instead of first, and in between laughing and cheering for him and the other three-year-olds, I suddenly realized that my father had paid over ten thousand dollars in his lifetime to that church. And I hoped that, at some point, he felt that it had been enough.

 

One Response to “FICTION FINALIST: The Fall”

  1. Greg Roll

    Thank you, Susan for this lovely story that unfolds like a flower, organic and genuine.

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