Hossein Mirzazadeh needed new shoes. The buying of the shoes themselves was a good adventure. He drove into downtown Seattle during his lunch break. There was a place that sold department-store items at a reduced price. The bustle of cities still made him think of Tehran, though it had been twenty-five years since he’d lived there. It was good to be a part of it. He could move within that city rhythm with familiarity.
The shoes were black, simple, similar to the ones he had. As a boy he would get new shoes once a year, at Nowruz. It was about the same now. It was good for a man to buy shoes, he felt. They served a very good purpose. They would be the shoes he saw when he woke up in the morning, the ones he placed in a locker when he went swimming at the pool, and the ones he would put away in his closet at night.
He put the shoes in the trunk of his car. On the way back to his office, he thought of a young man he’d known in Iran who hadn’t come to one of their political meetings because he was wearing new shoes. The meetings were up in the mountains. The young man had not wanted to get his shoes scuffed. We are trying to make a society where you’ll have a lot more to care about than your shoes, Hossein had told him. Of course we have to go up in the mountains to talk like that. Hossein had known that they were the young man’s only pair. But all of them who were going up there had only one pair. That was why they were all going up there together. While women in the Shah’s family were flying to Paris for a day to buy shoes.
Hossein still remembered the sight of the young man turning around and walking away. He’d told the others that in the Iran they were going to build, people were not going to care so much about material possessions. But he’d felt miserable that he hadn’t been able to reach the part of the young man that cared more about justice than shoes. Each time he was able to bring another person along when they went up to the mountains—a student, one of the men he’d been in the army with—the revolution succeeded, and so with the young man who didn’t want to get his shoes scuffed, he’d wondered if the revolution had failed. He’d wondered as they’d hiked up, and then it was like a lot of things—he’d put it out of his mind when it was time to put it out of his mind.
Coming home from work that day, Hossein believed himself to be a lucky man. There are men whom you can’t describe without starting with their hope for their people. You’ll start describing their hair color or eye color or style of dress, and you’ll think, what does this have to do with them? What does this have to do with the look in their eye as they’re walking down the street, the way that a universe is being filtered through another day of striving, a striving that is not just their striving but their people’s striving? Hossein’s notion of his own good fortune had to do with the way he had found some ways to keep that hope alive in him despite being here in America and despite everything that had gone wrong in Iran.
He left the shoes in the trunk of his car and came in with a glad and excited feeling to see his family. They were all wonderful people. The smell of his wife’s cooking filled the house and eased his mind. His son was reading the paper with a beautiful serious look on his face. His daughter was talking on the phone and laughing. A family was what a man got instead of a revolution, though it was better to think that they were what he got along with a revolution. He was proud that each of them carried a hope for revolution inside them as well. It gave a liveliness to their house that came through when they sat down together in the evening, with somebody usually laughing so hard that they had to get up to walk around. It was the truth that was the funniest thing in the world. Hossein didn’t know exactly when he had discovered that, but it was a good principle because it meant a man didn’t try to be funny unless he had something to say.
And dinner gave him a chance to do the other thing he was very good at, which was to eat. Nobody really knew how he did it, but somehow in the first five minutes his plate was nearly clean. And when it was clean it was clean. No stray grain of rice or bit of chicken remained. Only the cooked tomato skins that did not go down well. When he ate particularly fast, his wife would chastise him.
Have you ever been through a famine, Hossein would say. If you had lived through a famine like I did when I was seven, you would eat fast too.
His children would laugh, and he appreciated how they would laugh each time even though the joke was familiar. Underneath their laughter was a respect for famine.
Underneath everything was a respect for everything. If a family was what a man got instead of a revolution, at least the life of his family carried some of the same principles that he had hoped would run the life of his people. There was nobody who placed themselves above anybody else. There was nobody who saw a big piece of chicken at the table and tried to take it for themselves. It was important because he had seen those men. He had seen men who were given the small piece of chicken at work and took the big piece at home. At some point it had become too much to see it everywhere, starting from the top and trickling downwards, and he had left. Since then he had seen that it had more to do with the world than with Iran, but that was something that he had had to see for himself.
What he was interested in now was the way a family could be a place to go with those feelings. His son and his daughter wanted very much to hear stories of Iran and political work and prison. And they happened to be who he wanted to tell. He could tell them in the way he wanted to tell them, which was that there was a part of the story that was over and done, and there was a part of it that was still going. It was easy to do when the listeners themselves were very much just starting out and still going. And he didn’t tell them with the expectation that they should follow in his path. He had too much faith in his path. And he had too much faith in his children too, they were already listening to understand themselves.
He didn’t know that he had been looking for a listener for all that stuff. When he thought of the men who had died, it made the most sense to keep it inside him, where the memory of those men would stay true. But there were people in the world whom you could tell about things like that and nothing happened to the memory when it came out. Or if anything did happen, it was something confirming, because they would start with silence, and usually end with silence. There were at least two people like that in the world.
And that was more than he had expected, because the world had not stopped when those men had died. It had kept on expecting and demanding, and there had been a younger brother and sister to take care of, and a mother to support, and jobs and jobs, at day and at night, and then a wife of his own, and leaving the country, and starting all over again in America, and then the same two children who sat before him listening. He felt twenty-five sometimes when he told them about those days, and he looked it as well. His children could see who he had been at twenty-five more clearly than they could from old photographs. It was an aliveness in him, whose excess they had always felt in the way it could go in any direction that life gave him, watching and learning about baseball with his son, joking with his daughter’s American friends, but this was the basic soul of it, where it all came from, and they were humbled to see that where that aliveness came from was death, and that it came unassumingly from death, from the same man who watched and learned baseball with them and who joked with their friends. And even the way they were humbled was nothing he would bask in, not even as a storyteller noticing his effect, because really the main part of the story was the part that was still going, for all the love he had for those men, he made a listener feel like the important part of the story was the part that was still going, because his point in telling it was not to take but to give. It was when he told them of what was over and done that he realized himself how much of it was still going.
And it was still going that night when he drank a glass of water just before going to bed. The water woke him up at two o’clock in the morning, as he had expected it to, and he got out of bed to use the bathroom. Then he went to the garage. He opened the trunk of his car and took out the shoes. He was not the kind of man who would come home carrying new shoes he had bought for himself. He had needed them, and he had bought them, but they were just shoes. There were some other things he wanted to carry coming home to his family, and they were harder to hold. If he had to not hold on to his shoes in order to come in carrying them, that was all right. If he had to go and get them from his car in the middle of the night, that was nothing but a way to remember what shoes really were, which was something that everybody deserved to have.