The sea bird
By Mokhtar Paki
April 2, 2003
Anne had not shown up at our office for three days. Nobody seemed worried about
her or was surprised. "She does not have any sense of time," said Mr. Bateman,
our supervisor in the Map Department. Our office produces maps for geographic textbooks.
At the time we were very busy because of the tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle
East. We had to draw new maps of the area showing the new borders. We worked overtime
while Anne came late to the office and left early. She always had an excuse. She
would say, "I have a problem." She did. I knew. Her Volkswagen, which was
covered with graffiti and stickers, seldom ran. She did not like her job. I knew
she was looking for another one.
She had a date on Saturday night with a guy whom she had never met before. She
had read his ad in the Man Seeking Woman column of The Bay Guardian. Everybody
in the office knew it. Nobody cared. Davis, a junior drafter, laughed coldly and
said, "Axe murderer seeks Anne." Somebody giggled. This encouraged Davis
to make more jokes. Davis was a very young, handsome, happy-looking, newly-married
man from Concord. Like many of the other staff, Davis did not like Anne's openness
and vulgarity. She would say loudly, "I am sick of picking up men at bars."
She showed the Relationship pages of The Bay Guardian to everybody, "Now,
I am trying this."
She was able to make people pay attention to her talk, even when she was talking
vulgar. With this ability, she defended herself in the office meetings. At the end
of the meetings she always asked Mr. Bateman some questions that put him in a defensive
position. I believe she took advantage of the conflict among the heads of our department.
They did not like each other. That was why Anne could complain, shout and write memos
against them, especially against Mr. Bateman. After a few days of her absence, Mr.
Bateman went through her file in the computer and discovered thirty-seven memos written
by her. She wrote memos against nearly everybody.
She had shouted at me but never wrote any memos. I still remember the day she
yelled at me, "Jamal, say something." I am happy she did not write anything.
I did not like to be involved with any problems in the office. But not being involved
made her angry. She was too impatient to be a spectator.
I had my own reasons for being quiet. I felt isolated because of language and
because of the war situation in the Middle East. I was scared of losing my job by
getting involved in office politics. I found this job after a long period of unemployment
and job searching. After escaping from Iran in 1982, I spent nine years moving from
one country to another. I had been two years in the United States and wanted very
much to settle down.
It was at the Thursday weekly meeting that Anne's absence became an issue for
discussion. "We can't work with an irresponsible employee like Anne," said
Mr. Bateman, "The world changes and we don't have any real map. We have to work
as fast as the borders change. We can't wait." As usual Mrs. McCall, another
supervisor disagreed, "We've heard rumors about the destruction of some ancient
small towns, but nothing definite. Perhaps we should wait." Mr. Bateman closed
his eyes and said, "No. We won't wait. We can't wait."
At the end of the meeting he ordered me, "Go to San Francisco and find her.
Her phone is disconnected, but we have her address. We also have the addresses and
phone numbers of her references. I know she talked to you more than to anyone else
in this office." He needed her. Anne was an experienced technician and drafter.
We did not know where she had put or hidden the sheets she was working on. She used
to work on the maps of the Soviet Union, now divided into several countries. Every
evening she left sheets and papers somewhere in our messy office and nobody could
find them. "We need those damn sheets," said Mr. Bateman. I was working
on the Azerbaijan map under the supervision of Mrs. McCall. She had ordered me to
finish the drafting before the weekend. I did not like to leave the office without
asking her, but Mrs. McCall was out of town. I did not know how to reach her.
"I am working on Azerbaijan," I said to Mr. Bateman, " Mrs. McCall
wants it finished for Monday..." He said he did not care about Mrs. McCall.
He smiled and said, "You have to get along with Anne." His voice sounded
mean and funny. I did not want to get into trouble with Mrs. McCall because of Anne.
My religious and traditional background could not accept Anne's behavior. She made
me nervous. I did not like her impatience. When she got angry, she did not listen
carefully and I could not understand her rapid speech. It made our communication
difficult. She did not have a pretty face but she looked nice when she smiled. She
had a good body and long, beautiful hair. She was all right when she was not angry.
"But what about the other times?" Ann said to me once, "You don't
talk even when I am not angry." I did not answer. She made me restless. Something
about her made me think of all my past frustrations. I realized this from the first
day of my work in the office.
The first day was orientation and Mr. Bateman had her take me around the office.
After one hour walking and talking with her I felt sick. It certainly was not a good
beginning after a long, painful process of getting hired. The job was below my qualifications,
but I needed it. A long line of applicants waited for interviews, and it seemed like
a miracle that I'd gotten the job. I didn't talk much in the interview. Mr. Bateman
gave a long speech about himself, his office, and his expectations. Then, he asked,
"What is your sign? I mean, your birth date." That was it. The miracle
happened. My sign had told him that I am patient, hard working, a smart guy. He believed
that our work was visual, that my English wouldn't be a barrier. He hired me as a
In the orientation, I found out that Anne's star sign was the same as mine. She
made jokes about the way Mr. Bateman had chosen his wife. The first thing she said
in the orientation was, "This place is fucked up." I found her irresponsible,
but she said what she liked. "Don't you get it? He hired you because you speak
Farsi and Azari. When the Azerbaijan map is finished, you're history." She looked
serious. She took me to a nearby Iranian restaurant for lunch. She knew Chinese,
Mexican and Middle Eastern restaurants. She knew bars and cultural clubs. During
lunch she kept talking without pause. After thirty minutes I knew a lot about her.
She was born in Minneapolis and lived with her mother until the age of fifteen.
When her mother married for the third time, Anne left. After three years traveling
around, she came to California with her boyfriend, who was twenty years older than
she. "I left him too," she said with a sad voice, "He was a piece
of shit." She used that word also when she talked about her stepfathers and
her father. In California she worked and studied at the same time. At twenty-eight,
she had accumulated the experience of a much older woman. Like an old woman, she
gave me some advice and warned me about the stupidity of "the office jerks."
When we finished our lunch, she said, "Now, you talk about yourself." I
looked at my watch and said, "It is time to go back to the office." She
laughed, "Don't worry. Say something." I couldn't think of a thing to say.
I had many things to talk about. I could not keep all of them in my mind, so every
evening I wrote them down in Farsi or talked in funny English before the mirror.
That was the time of the Gulf War. Kuwait was burning. The United States was bombing
Iraq. All Middle Eastern people were concerned about the entire area. I was too.
Everyday I tried to call my mother. All lines to Iran were busy. I could not concentrate
on my work. I made some errors on the drafting sheets. Mrs. McCall asked me, "What
is the matter? You look distant. Pay attention to your job." She was a very
tall, thin woman with a gravel voice, "What is the matter?" I told her
about my concern for my mother. But the next day she asked the same question. I said,
"It is a difficult time for me." She smiled, "Of course it is. You
may need a long vacation." Her voice wasn't threatening but I was so scared
of being laid off.
I tried to be careful and pay attention to my work. But I really needed to know
what she or Mr. Bateman thought about the Gulf War. When I asked them, she looked
at me as if I had done something wrong. She became silent, but Mr. Bateman answered,
"We need gas. We like to drive our cars." He smiled. "I, personally,
don't like to get out of my car." This was two weeks before Anne disappeared.
She was in a bad mood and had already written a memo against Mr. Bateman who had
protested the loud sound of her radio broadcasting the war news. She wrote, "It
is necessary to know what is going on in the area of which we are making maps."
. She whispered, "I, personally, don't like to get out of my car," then
laughed hysterically and said, "I, personally don't like to get out of my bed.
I need some fucking yuppie to take care of me." I believe that Mr. Bateman heard,
but he did not say anything.
Everybody in the office complained about the arguments and shouting from the map
section. Mr. Bateman tried several times to get rid of Anne, but couldn't. He had
enough problems himself. Our department was behind schedule and Mrs. McCall complained
about his management. I believe Mrs. McCall liked it when Anne fought him. She had
some close friends amongst the top men who wanted to reorganize the whole office.
They knew about Anne and her arguments with Mr. Bateman, which they called, "temporary
problems." "What the fuck," Anne said to me, "I am used to being
a temporary problem."
Yesterday morning Mr. Bateman asked me, "Why didn't you go to San Francisco?
We need to find her." I did not know what to say. It sounded like a detective
story and I was to be the detective. It did not suit me at all. Besides, I did not
want to put Mrs. McCall's assignment away and leave the office. I tried to convince
Mr. Bateman to wait until the next Monday, when we could report to the police. "If
we need the sheets," I told him, "I will find them." I could not.
I spent a whole day searching the office, mainly Anne's section. Under her table,
I found several torn pieces of Anne's photograph. She had taken it with a Polaroid
camera and got angry when she saw the result. It was dark and unclear. I could not
find all the pieces. Wanting to put together the complete picture, I searched more.
I almost forgot about the sheets. I could not find them anyway.
Next we called her references. None of them had any idea where she could be, and
they all said the same thing before hanging up. "She is somewhere. Don't worry."
Beside the references, there was her mother. Anne had given her address and phone
number for an emergency situation.
Anne had rarely talked about her mother. She once told me that her mother was
a gypsy from an Eastern European country. She was never judgmental when talking about
her. It was strange that she had chosen her mother for emergency situations. "California
is too far from Minneapolis," said her mother through the telephone, "What
can I do?" She had a strange and heavy accent. She did not understand many of
my questions, and she often answered something unrelated to them. Surprisingly, she
used the same phrase as the references did: "Don't worry, she is somewhere."
She added, "I don't know my daughter very much. Every time I see her, I see
a different Anne from before. She is a girl with a burning lap. She runs for water.
She always does."
"She runs for men. Hah, she always does." said Davis, the junior drafter
when heard about my conversation with Anne's mother. Davis rarely talked to Anne.
Mrs. McCall and Anne agreed that Davis was like a "peacock." His marriage
disappointed the two women and made them friends for a short time. But the stress
of work pushed them away from each other. Again we could hear arguments and complaints.
Mrs. McCall did not like to hear Anne's radio broadcasting the Gulf War. Mr. Bateman
did not like Anne's voice. Davis hated both. When he wanted to call his wife, he
would say to Anne, "Turn the radio down." Then he would begin to talk,
"Hi, honey. Did you sleep well..." The last words were always the same,
"I love you too."
It was the last days of the war, and Iraq was already divided between Shiite Muslims,
Kurds, Saddam Husseinís troops and Allied forces. While Davis was on the phone to
his wife, Anne turned the radio up to listen to the news about the sea birds that
were dying because of the oil stream in the Gulf after the explosions. After his
"I love you too" line, Davis said to Anne, "Why did you do that?"
Anne answered, "Because the news about those poor birds is more important to
me than your family drama. You can go to the meeting room and call her and say 'I
love you honey' as many times as you want." Davis said, "You're jealous,"
He smiled. "You don't have any one to tell you that." Anne became silent.
She left the office earlier than usual while listening to her Walkman.
"I never keep arguments in my mind," she always said. "Forgetting
is the best way to survive." So she talked to Davis the next day as though nothing
had happened between them. " To forget, she leaves," said her mother in
our telephone conversation, "That is why she left home years ago." Sometimes
Anne forgot about memos she had written and people she had met.
Once the office secretary asked her, "How was your date?" Anne laughed,
"Which one?" The last week before her disappearance she talked every morning
about the latest in the succession of men she met. The first man was a pilot whose
plane had crashed years ago and killed twenty-four passengers. "I am not a therapist,"
Anne said. "He just talked about how depressed he was." The second man
did not like to dance or drink or do anything. And the third man was happy. "He
could do everything," she said, "but he was very unattractive, like mashed
potato." The fourth one was coming from San Diego to meet her on Saturday night.
We do not know any thing about this one, because Anne didn't return.
On Friday, one week later, I woke up late and did not feel well. That week had
seemed to me like a year. I tried to call my mother. The lines were busy. It was
raining. Before I got to work, I walked to the coffee shop near the office. I used
to go there with Anne sometimes. I looked at The Bay Guardian while having
my tea. The cover story was about the civil wars and revolutions in the Third World
countries and Eastern Europe. The subtitle read, "Running Through Hell Searching
For Freedom." The pictures were shocking. I leafed through the newspaper and
looked at the pictures of killing fields, hungry children, men who'd been executed,
immigrants. A picture of an old Afghan woman reminded me of my mother. As usual,
the last pages were filled by the Relationships section.
I returned to my apartment. I tried again to call my mother and finally I got
through. She lives in a port town on the Persian Gulf. I had seen films and pictures
of a huge smoke cloud over the area and the oil running into the gulf. I talked to
her in Farsi, the language I love and the only one she can speak. I asked how she
and my brothers and sisters were. As usual she said, "Fine. What about you?"
She was afraid to talk openly on the telephone because of government control. She
said, "Are you all right? What is wrong? Something must have concerned you."
That is the way she talks. She keeps asking, and as soon as she hears the answers
she cries. "I am afraid," I said. "I do not know if Iran will be the
same or divided into pieces when I come back." "Do not worry," she
said after a long pause, "Do not sit alone and think. Get out. Go somewhere..."
She stopped talking. I knew she was crying. Her voice was trembling, "The birds...
Poor things..." she got silent again. "Talk please." I begged. She
sighed, "They come from the war zone on the other side of the gulf. They stay
a while, then leave. One of them came here yesterday." She cried, "Black
and oily. Still it is alive. It is flying over our house. Jumping and sprinkling
oil around and making the windowpanes dirty. Three times it hit the walls but jumped
again. I don't know when it will leave... or die. Poor thing."
I walked around my room and looked at the pictures on the walls. I searched my
shelves, drawers, and bags. There was nothing that could comfort me. Sitting on the
balcony and looking at the deep gray sky, I tried to remember. Nothing came to my
mind. So I walked around my room again. I stopped in front of the telephone. I called
Anne's apartment and heard a recorded voice say, "The number you have reached
has been disconnected..." I called Anne's mother. She again comforted me, "Anne
is ok. She is somewhere. She has moved. She always does. This is the only thing I
know about my daughter."
I called the office and said that I did not feel well enough to work that day.
Mr. Bateman said, "Get some rest, and be ready for Monday!" I got out of
my apartment. I took a train to San Francisco. I walked for hours with no destination
through the downtown streets. It was stormy and cold. The small birds sheltered themselves
under the trees. Later in the afternoon I found myself in front of Anne's apartment.
I looked at her window. The room was empty. None of the neighbors knew where she
had gone. I kept walking. My mother's voice was in my ears, "Poor birds..."
I wanted to talk with someone so much. I lit a cigarette and found the torn dark
pieces of Anne's picture in my pocket. In a coffee shop, I tried to put the pieces
together. Lines ran through her face like geographic borders. I put the pieces in
my pocket again. I kept walking.
Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell
me to fix it.