The announcement caught him by surprise, even though it should not have. Mealtimes were always subject to interruptions and elucidations by his father on matters he deemed extremely pertinent to their life.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes sir,” he whispered anxiously.
These pronouncements were usually delivered for his benefit. Even his siblings knew this, which is why they immediately looked in his direction as if to check his readiness.
His mother avoided his pleading glance by nervously tending to the baby.
“He was a great artist, EVEN AS A CHILD!” He stressed, yelling.
His father proceeded with his lecture.
“The newspaper had an article on an amazing child prodigy this evening.”
“Are you listening?”
He was not surprised. The newspapers in Tehran frequently used such stories as fillers in the 1950's, as if to offer the populace some hope.
His father seemed to be an expert at finding these articles and as an added supplement he would bring home books on other prodigies such as Gandhi, Lincoln, Mozart, Einstein etc. These books were required readings for his children; the potential prodigies.
“It was reported that a young child, about your age, nine or ten, entered a grocer's shop and asked if there was any work available in exchange for food. The grocer took pity on the poor, hungry boy and told him that he could paint the wall at one end of the shop. He provided him with some paint and left him to the task. Are you listening?”
“Yes sir,” he whispered again.
“Then put down your spoon and seem as if you are!”
By now he had lost his interest in the food anyway. He was trying to avoid his brother's and sister's gaze by seeming busy with his food. His mother was still busying herself with the baby.
He put his spoon down on the edge of the plate.
“The grocer came back a few minutes later and what do you think he discovered?”
“I don't know sir.”
“Of course you wouldn't. Well I'll tell you. He discovered a beautiful mural gracing that previously drab wall!”
He leaned forward across the Sofreh and glared inquisitively in the boy's face.
“What do you think about that?”
Well, he was thinking about the grocer at the end the street. Mohammad Ali would not have trusted any vagrant with his drab walls. In fact he would have chased him out of his shop and threatened him with a good beating if he were ever to return.
“That was very admirable sir.”
“Not like you with your caring parents and expensive art lessons.” His father retorted.
There was a chilled silence.
“What do you think?” He repeated.
He was wondering how the grocer knew the little bastard was a genius. How many colors did he give him? Why did he have so much paint on hand? Why did he leave him alone for so long? Wasn't he afraid of being robbed blind or of his wall being completely trashed?
“I think I am very fortunate sir.”
“Yes, very fortunate but never grateful, your art teacher tells me you still have problems with relative proportions. Is that true?”
“I am trying sir."
“How many expensive art lessons do you think Raphael was privileged to have?”
He knew this was a crucial question but no particular answer had ever guaranteed his father's satisfaction in the past.
“I don’t know sir.”
He felt the sting of the backhand across his face.
“None, you moron, NONE!”
Through the welling tears he could see the distorted smiles on his siblings’ faces. His mother, biting her lip, was nervously wiping the crying baby's mouth.