VALIOLLAH’S 40th by Morad Moazami

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Morad Moazami

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“Does this look all right?” Mehran asked his mother.
She took a glance and returned to her phone.
“It does,” she said.
Uncertain, she raised her head again, casting another passing glimpse.
“Maybe you should have shaved.”
“It’s unclean.”
“It’s a sign of respect.”
“You not shaving?”
“It shows that I’m mourning.”
“But you’re not mourning.”
“Are you?”
She said nothing.
“Is anyone?” he probed.
She remained quiet.
“I think they’d appreciate the effort then,” he simpered.

The elevator door opened, and mother and son walked inside. An old man stood beside them as the elevator lifted them to the eighteenth floor.
The elder man stood with a cane hidden in his left palm, as if ashamed to reveal his age. Mehran remembered him from somewhere, but couldn’t place him.
Was he a neighbor? he pondered.
When they reached the floor, the boy stood behind for the old man to exit first. The mother, Firouzeh, however, neglected the taarof and walked past the man with her head down, and fingers prattling with her phone.
Peculiarly, the old man turned up by the same the door as her.
He is a guest too, Mehran remarked, standing back and watching, but who is he?
“Are you coming?” Firouzeh nagged at the boy, jeering and lifting her head to look for him.
Instead she came face to face with the old man she had been ignoring.
Her eyes popped and she gawked into his mug and his baldhead. A quick succession of blinks, coughs, scratches and heavy breaths followed. Staring back into the old man’s eyes again, she gasped and dropped her phone, tumbling to the floor with it, scuttling for the lid and battery.
Mehran, having detected Firouzeh’s alarm, snapped from his languor and hurried toward his mother. He picked up her phone, its lid and battery, fastened it back together, and then lifted his mother from the floor.
Raised to its feet, Firouzeh’s body immediately glued itself to the mustard-colored walls and stared on at the smiling, old man.
“Do you know who that is?” she stammered with eyes open.
Mehran beamed.
“I do!” he exclaimed, having recalled that face from childhood, and paying no actual regard to the old man behind him.
“It’s Mr. Eesaie, right? I remember him from school.”
Eyes unblinking, his mother was still at a loss for words.
“I didn’t think he knew Dayi Valiollah either. I’m just as surprised,” the boy added.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Firouzeh stuttered again, her eyeballs swelling. “Who the hell is Mr. Eesaie?”
“The floor principle. He’s the one who —”
“For God’s sake, just look at him!” she finally cried, pointing her finger at the old man.
Mehran turned, and his eyes widened with fear and disbelief, as he ran headlong toward the door and rang and rang the doorbell without pause.
He had just come face-to-face with a prime minister who had been dead for forty years, and Mossadegh was relishing the bedlam he had set in motion.
The door opened and all three were welcomed into the house of lukewarm mourners. Dr. Mossadegh wasn’t the only dead man in the room. Behzad was there, napping on the couch. He had been stricken by a truck five years prior at the age of fifty-five, having remained fifty-five thereafter. Hormoz, Mehran’s grandfather, was also present, settled in the balcony, making planes from paper, launching them off the eighteenth floor, and matching the idealized memories of his grandson.
All guests were dressed in black, and plonked atop their chairs, boredom sweltered from their eyes. The monotony had made them unmindful to the fact that they were sitting amongst the deceased.
Valiollah had passed away forty days previous, and they no longer cared. They were there out of propriety, tired of death, staring at walls, and dabbling in conversations about nothing at all. Some even conversed with the dead houseguests, heedless to the cessation of their lives.
“Where have you been the past few years?” Parviz had asked Behzad earlier in the day. “Back in Italy, I presume?”
“I’ve been travelling quite a lot lately,” Behzad smiled, refusing to hold his death against the man.
Then there were the political men. As per tradition, they were arguing at the dining table at the far corner of the room. Mossadegh had joined them as quietly as he had left them decades before.
“The government is wrecking the economy,” one of the men bellowing. “Oil and gas and, goddammit, we have it all, we just don’t know how to —”
Mossadegh interrupted and spoke of his ordeal with oil in the 1950s. He was an expert on the subject after all.
The men looked at him and listened. Despite their political expertise, they couldn’t quite tell who this man was. He was certainly familiar, but they couldn’t place this well-spoken, bald-headed old man. Where had they seen him before?
Jalal, who had joined the conversation only to make time pass, had been surveying the room as Mossadegh spoke. He hadn’t a care for oil and country. As long as he was paid for his work and could support his family, all else mattered little. He observed the tired white walls of the apartment, the antiques at the corner of the dining room, the eccentric old man flying paper planes in the balcony, and then he recalled something else.
He looked around again, went back to the walls he had just been glancing at, and scanned the photographs hanging from them. The wall was full of old family portraits, but there were other photos too: pictures of Seifollah khan, Abdollah khan, and…
“Oh my God!” he bawled.
Mossadegh stopped speaking, and the guests turned to Jalal’s frozen face and pointed finger.
“What is it, Jalal?” Parviz ran to him, rubbing the man’s shoulders and fiddling with his suit.
He then looked up, and saw.
“Sir,” was the only word that left his tongue. It was all that he could say.

Only then did the guests realize that they had been conversing among the dead.
At first, they shrieked in horror and disbelief, but in a matter of minutes, they had quieted down, having accepted the strangeness of this dull affair. It was an extraordinary circumstance they had chanced upon, and they had decided among themselves that they were not going to waste it by wailing.
They began to persistently quiz Mossadegh. Thought they made sure not to ask him about the afterlife on account of good manners, they did not restrain themselves from interrogating him about his time in office, the coup d’état, his thoughts on the revolution, and on and on.
By then, the women – none, excepting Firouzeh, younger than the age of sixty – had surrendered themselves to the prime minister, giggling at his every utterance and shaking their heads over every recalled incidence.
The men, protecting their proud demeanors, either nodded or shook their heads, with the occasional frown upon their brow to indicate that they understood. Jalal was no longer bored. Parviz was exuberant.
Even Amirbanoo, the widower, treated Mossadegh with joy.
“Remember, doctor, when you sent Valiollah khan that wonderful letter when you were in prison?” she nudged at his sleeve, breaking up the politics and reminding the guests of the man they had come to mourn. “I’m sorry to bring it up. It was a dark time, but that beautiful letter of yours – I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
“I think it’s still in Vali’s room actually,” she added.
Looking for an excuse to collect herself from the excitement, Amirbanoo’s sister-in-law, Nahid, offered to fetch the letter,
“It’s on the top shelf of the bookcase – you know, the one with the English books.”

The hallway that led to Vali’s room was faint and lightless. Nahid noticed that most of the closets and drawers had been left open, with pictures of her brother scattered over the floor.
Amirbanoo must have been looking at them before we arrived, she thought.
Valiollah’s military uniform was laid out on the floor, and his medals were neatly pinned onto it. A picture of a newly wed Valiollah and Amirbanoo was also placed beside the clothes.
Nahid glanced at the old Polaroid. Amirbanoo wasn’t very beautiful, she reflected, before guiltily banishing the thought from her mind. Putting the picture back, she grew conscious of the silence that loomed over the room. The somberness of the living and joviality of the dead were a whisper from where she stood.
She felt calm. She loved her brother and may have even loved Vali’s wife more, but how they mourned was tiresome: First, it was the burial, then the funeral, not to mention the sadness surrounding the death itself. Then there’s the seventh, she reflected, and the fortieth, and the one-year.
We remember every death and every funeral, she lamented. We make it harder for ourselves to move on. Why can’t we just let them go?

At the balcony, Hormoz was holding Mehran’s elbow and coaching him on the correct stance when throwing a paper plane. The two of them were alone, just like in Mehran’s childhood.
As a child, he went to his grandparents’ home every Thursday night, listening to Hormoz’s stories and drinking his grandmother’s lemon tea. He remembered the stinging “Mr. Sadri!” his grandmother called out from the other room, never understanding why she refused to call his grandfather by his name.
“Remember my promise?” his grandfather now asked him. “That I’d take you to Tesfo with me one day?”
Tesfo was a small publishing firm Hormoz worked for when he had been alive, known for publishing elementary school textbooks.
“It was his legacy,” Mr. Kermani had told Mehran at the burial, noticing the photograph the nine-year-old had snatched from his grandfather’s gravestone. “He loved what he did, and we loved him for it.”
They watched a paper plane coast through the air.
“I do,” Mehran answered, eyeing the plane. “But you died and we never got to go.”

Inside, Firouzeh and Behzad had struck up a conversation. She was fretting over her dinner party so much that the Mossadegh episode had left her unruffled.
Behzad had been Firouzeh’s closest friend, and had lived a sad life. Having dwelled in Milan for most of his life with a wife and three children, he one day came to realize that he had lived a lie.
None of the family knew, and he did not dare tell them, knowing that they weren’t the most broad-minded of folk. But Firouzeh was amongst the few people who had known his secret.
Coming home from work one night, when he was already fifty-one years old, Behzad had been surprised by his father-in-law on the front porch of his Italian abode. He smiled at the sight of his wife’s father and greeted him with a warm handshake, and in return, received a beating.
They had found him out. Her daughter had read his letters to a male lover, and had told her mother.
Bruised and abandoned by his family, Behzad had called Firouzeh from a payphone that very night. The next day, he was on a plane, coming back to the homeland he had rejected long ago. He had no other choice, and no other home to run to.
For two months he lived with Firouzeh, Mammad, and Mehran.
Soon enough, he had gotten his life in order with a new job, a house, and an out-of-sight lover. That was, of course, until the car crash.
Firouzeh hadn’t seen him since.
When she spotted him wheezing away on a couch during the tired affair, she hurried and shook him out of his slumber.
“Firouzeh!” Behzad awoke and shouted cheerfully.
It became evident then, that the fortieth had become a festivity.

Amirbanoo noticed this transformation, watching and listening as her friends and family engaged in conversations about the dearly departed. Every name had come up with the exception of her husband’s. The memorial was meant to be for Valiollah and the dead had come a long way to pay tribute. But the living hadn’t a care in the world. They hauled the deceased off to different places with romanticized retentions, refusing them the chance to speak of their fondness for her husband.
“I don’t know how this party would have gone on without you,” Amirbanoo overheard Parvin tell Mossadegh, her palm perched on the man’s cane-holding hand, laughing a laugh she hadn’t in two decades.
Party, Amirbanoo noted.
“She’s right! It was such a bore before you arrived,” Mahla agreed. “We’ve seen these people every week for the past forty days. It gets tiring.”
“Why did it take so long for you to come back to us, Mohammad khan? We’ve missed you,” said another guest, fueling Amirbanoo’s outrage.
He’s here for my dead husband, she wanted to scream at them. But she recoiled.

“What took you so long?” was the sentiment Firouzeh had also shared with Behzad after they were done reminiscing. It was also the same remark Mehran had made to his grandfather as he stared into his life-long hero’s eyes.
“I don’t even understand how it happened. One moment you were there, and the next thing I know —”
“It’s a shame I had to go,” Hormoz replied, smiling at his grown grandson. “I wanted to see you grow up. I never even finished building that ship for you. Do you remember the ship?”
Nostalgia swept Mehran away. Past and present blurred and he returned to the memories he had revisited throughout his life.
“We’re going to build this together, alright?” his grandpa had promised, kneeling down to the boy’s nine-year-old height, and handing him the uncooked figurine. Mehran nodded without a glimmer of excitement, disregarding his granddad’s thrill.
Two days later, Hormoz was dead.
“She misses you too, you know,” he told his grandfather.
Hormoz sighed, and sat on the misplaced lawn chair in the balcony.
“I’ve made mistakes,” he confessed.
“I know.”
“I’ve done things that I can never forgive myself for.”
“I know, Baba Hormoz.”
“She forgave me every time.”
“She did.”
“Or rather she didn’t. She looked past them,” he lamented.
“They’ve probably told you by now,” he added, “about that trip to Japan —”
“They have.”
Mehran was reluctant to see his idol humiliated again. He wanted to leave it alone. It had been long ago. None of it mattered anymore. He’d rather hold on to his own memories of his grandfather, even if it meant evading the truth.
“You haven’t heard it from me,” Hormoz exhaled.
“I don’t want to.”
“I didn’t come home from that trip alone,” Hormoz continued.
“Baba Hormoz, please —”
“I remember your grandmother’s smile fading when she opened the door. She didn’t even ask.”
“I know. I’ve heard it all. I don’t want to hear it again.”
“Parto just looked at me and walked into the kitchen. ‘I’m preparing dinner’ she said. There was a frightening calm in her voice.”
Mehran turned away and gazed distraughtly at the Milad Tower. His grandpa had died before the building had been erected, but the structure had been a constant in his childhood like his grandfather had been. Both of them had existed for a only small portion of his life. Why was it then that both remained so lucid in his memories?
Hormoz carried on with his story, disregarding Mehran’s refusal to hear him.
“Only now do I fully understand what I did to her.”
Mehran was rummaging through his memories trying to find anything that could divert his attention. He couldn’t bear hearing the story again. It would shatter those perfect snapshots of the grandfather who transcended all faults. But no matter how much he tried, the story went on.
“I had broken something inside her, and she refused to react or to let me know how much I had hurt her.”
Mehran finally gave up, and listened.
“She looked straight into my eyes, and to this day I don’t know whether the look was cold or tender.”
Hormoz hesitated.
“Who am I kidding? It was the saddest look I have ever seen. ‘You two can stay in the bedroom,’ she said to me. ‘I’ll sleep in Firouzeh’s.’ And like a cad I took the tray of food from her hands and walked back to Akane.”
Hormoz paused and propelled a paper plane into the air. He held on to the balcony railing and watched it fly. His withered hands were only inches away from Mehran’s.
Neither grandson nor grandfather looked at the other. Mehran was staring at the tower, but he had been listening, with tears streaming down his face.
His grandfather did not notice the tears, or the boy.
Hormoz hadn’t taken his eyes off his plane. It was coasting impeccably toward Sanaat Square. With what seemed like a deep breath, he continued.
“She knew that I’d regret what I had done. That if she let this happen and let me drift off into this stupidity for just a few months — Please look at me, Mehran jaan.”
Mehran turned to his grandfather and broke into sobs. Hormoz stretched his arm out to Mehran, but something held him back.
Let him cry, he might have thought, persisting with his story.
“She was positive that if she let this happen and that if she just let me drift off into this stupidity for just a few months, I’d come back.”
He paused and glanced at his grandson.
“And I did. She opened the door for me again as if those few months had never happened, as if I had just come back from Japan, five months of our life unremembered. She took the suitcases from my hands, and —”
Hormoz inhaled with unease, resting his arms on the rail.
“Do you know what she said?” he beamed sadly. “She said: ‘Now you sleep in Firouzeh’s room.’”
Neither grandfather nor son said a word after the story was told. The wind had slackened and the paper planes lay stagnant on the lawn below. Mehran had nothing to gaze at but the square-shaped tiles under his grandpa’s feet.
His shoes, he smiled.
“She talks about you every day,” came his still-boyish voice, breaking the silence.
“Why didn’t she come today?” his grandpa asked.
“Her legs. She can’t walk as well as she used to.”
A snigger escaped Hormoz’s lips.
“I didn’t take so long to die,” he mumbled.
He then heard a snivel, and turned his head. His grandson’s eyes were dampening once more, but he knew no way of consoling him. He extended his hand again, but pulled back, stabbed by the sniffles of the boy he’d hurt. Timidly, he switched his gaze back onto Sanaat Square, looking for his paper plane.
“Maybe you should leave her alone,” he heard the boy say.
With a mournful look, he turned.
“But —”
“Let her move on.”
“Has she forgiven me?” he begged, leaning toward his grandson and staring dolefully into his eyes, as if a teenage boy would know the answer.
Mehran sealed his tear-stained eyes and opened them with an arduous gulp.
“It doesn’t matter,” he answered.
“I need to know,” Homroz said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mehran said again, reaching out to hug his grandfather.
“But she —”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Hormoz’s arms finally gave way. His forehead resting on the boy’s shoulder, he held his grandson for the first time in nine years, and began to snivel.
“I wish I could cry,” he moaned.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Hi,” said a voice from behind the mahogany desk.
“Why don’t you come out and see everybody? They’re here for you,” Nahid replied, not even bothering to feign surprise at her brother’s arrival.
“They’re not, and — well, I don’t want to be a bother,” Vali said. “I just came to pack some things that I forgot to take.”
“Take with you where?” she asked before grasping that she is better off not knowing.
“Nowhere in particular, Nahid jaan.”
“At this age,” Vali paused. “In this state,” he laughed, “it doesn’t matter where I go, as long as I am not a bother.”
“But you’re not a bother.”
“I am.”
“You see, Nahid jaan,” he continued. “We leave with many regrets, all of us. So we come back to pack, per se, not realizing that we need to go away and let everybody else learn to live their lives without us. That’s the point of dying after all, isn’t it?”
“It is.”
“Then let me go,” Vali sweetly said, standing atop a chair and reaching up to his bookcase.
He then looked back at his sister with a smile, his last.
“Tell them all to just let go.”
“Don’t leave.” Nahid cried out.
But he was gone.
Her brother had abandoned her again, and she didn’t know what to feel – to cry or smile or to tear the room apart.
“I hate you!” she bawled. “I hate y–”
But there was no use in screaming. He had already gone away.
Nahid lingered by the empty chair, before reaching up to the bookcase at the side of Vali’s desk. Raising dust, she patted the black, rusted metal shelves with the palm of her hand, looking for Mossadegh’s letter, but there was nothing. She looked through the drawers as well, and then rummaged about the desk, all the while hoping that this was just a grieving woman’s fantasy. But there was nothing left for her to bring back.
She began to worry. What if Vali had heard her? What if the shrill sound of her I-hate-you was to echo in his mind through eternity? That was not how Nahid wanted to be remembered by her brother – forgetting that it was he who was supposed to be remembered. After all, she was still alive, and still in the midst of her legacy.
I can’t forgive myself, she chastened herself, as her legs walked her back through the hallway and toward the guests. She could hear herself stepping over Valiollah’s pictures and letters, but she had lost her care. They were only objects.
Her concern lingered in her mind as she walked back empty-handed, her eyes fastened down to the wooden floor.
No longer hearing the voices that she had abandoned minutes ago, she felt estranged.
Lifting her head, she saw that the dead were gone.
Firouzeh was back to jawing at her cellphone, cursing the developers of “this terrible goddamn phone!” with no Behzad beside her. Shahriar khan was now occupying that very space, snoring a snore unalike Behzad’s exalted grumbles.
Companionless and without his grandfather’s guiding hand, Mehran was now seated amongst the men at the dining area, pushing through his political ideals on men triple his age.
The guests were quiet again in their black, idly sitting like out-of-work pallbearers. No one said a word to the other, not even attempting to conceal their boredom. With no Mossadegh, they had nothing to talk about except for halva and tea.
Minutes ago they were wild with excitement, speaking to the dead as if they were more alive than they, but now, they spoke of nothing and cared for nothing. What can one say to people one doesn’t miss yet?
There was value in the dead, there were things to be said and stories to be heard and individuals to be missed. The living were alive, there was nothing to miss about them yet.

Nahid took her seat beside her sister-in-law, and glanced at her with a confused smile. She finally grasped what Vali had meant. He had been a burden, but it wasn’t his fault. It was the living that held on. It was the living that made the dead and death itself into the burden that it was, living death for the dead, by mulling, memorializing, and mourning year after year after year.
It was then that she understood that this wasn’t her first last word to her brother. There had been plenty other goodbyes: words before bedtime when they were children, words said before a trip when they were young, and exaggerated goodbyes after they quarreled. This was just another, she reminisced. This was just another exaggeration.
I’ll see him again, and even if I don’t, these years were enough, she laughed with an eased conscience.
Remembering her brother the way he was, Nahid began to laugh a less secretive laugh.
The other guests couldn’t fathom why she was dissolving into such laughter. They chose to stay silent instead, staring at the carpet and the walls, nodding at their fellow guests, and lowering their heads for the grieving widow of the house; and although she hid it well, Amirbanoo was most satisfied that the dead were gone.
The guests had their eyes on her again, and everything was in its right place: The mourner was mourning, and the others watched on, shaking their heads in superficial commiseration, and going on to their dinner parties when it was over.

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Portrait by Sergey Safronov

Morad Moazami was never courageous enough to embrace writing as the true calling he knew it was. At some point, while drifting through academia and unrelated matters, the need to write triumphed over his timidity; and now he writes, as often as possible, about worlds he has found and those he has left behind. Though its completion feels endless and increasingly unnerving, he is currently putting the finishing touches on a short story collection. He can also be found around the Internet, on Antiquiet, Unsung Films, Movie Mezzanine, and Sound on Sight, voicing his opinions on films and music, and feigning an objective stance as best he can.

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