Near a garden
The watermelon became part of our house
By Bernard Radfar
August 16, 2001
Below is a selection from a book of stories Mr. Radfar is writing about living
between Iran, Venice and America.
I needed dolls to do as I wanted. To my ears their voices projected only sweetness.
Lining them up on the fireplace mantel where I would feed them each Jell-O, I listened
to the summer rain that brought relief on that humid day.
Mom was in the kitchen grating onions with grandma; they exchanged turns, hoping
to keep one another from breathing in too much of the vapors that cause eyes to tear.
They worked quietly and in unison, preparing the kabob feast for later in the afternoon.
Having grandparents living with us now added joy to our house, even with all their
uncertainty having left Iran almost in a fortnight.
Grandpa sat on the brown vinyl couch in his pajamas, reading through a stack of
Iranian dailies, becoming more hopeless with each moment about what would happen
next to his country, his properties and relations. The television was left on for
when he paused between papers, looking up to watch young couples dancing on "Soul
Train". He called to his daughter Rachel for a cup of tea. She poured water
into the kettle while looking out onto her acre of backyard, the proud willow standing
in the corner drinking the rain.
The doorbell rang. Our neighbor, Jan, asked whether we were going to see the fireworks
show. Her family was planning on barbequing sausages at the new mall, which was now
in competition with the town for spectators.
Rachel said they would make dinner at home and come later for the show, where
she would look for them. Jan declined several invitations into their home, insisting
that she ought to pick up her son from the batting cages now that it had begun raining.
They left the screen door open after she left to allow the cool breeze to go through
the house. Grandma was carefully going through a slab of beef with her fingers, removing
any joints and fatty deposits before grinding it. Pascal returned from the tennis
courts on his bike, only because of the rains. He asked mom to make him some toast
and sat with us in the family room, looking out the window. Mom brought us both pita
sandwiches and cups of orange juice and went back to her onions.
Dad pulled into the driveway and sat in his dilapidated sedan listening to the
news at full volume. Eventually he went directly to the backyard, presumably to pick
cucumbers and tomatoes from his garden. I went right on playing with my dolls, pretending
to lull them to sleep for the afternoon. Dad came in and greeted grandpa.
"Hello, Doctor Moses. Look here at what happened in Shiraz today," answered
Grandpa, giving dad a paper from his stack. It seemed like all their conversations
began this way.
Dad put the newspaper on the kitchen table and began sorting through the mail.
The synagogue was reminding him to renew the annual membership. He then opened the
electricity bill and stared at for a minute or two in disbelief, on the brink of
an outburst, as is most often the case when it arrives; he slapped it against the
counter and went to the refrigerator to find cherries. He turned on the short-wave
radio and began searching through the bands for news from Iran; in the past weeks
the coverage solely dealt with the reading of names of people executed by the new
government. Occasionally someone he had known or had seen in his neighborhood in
Tehran would be mentioned on this dreadful list. Grandpa and dad would sit for hours
sharing information, sifting through the rumors in hopes of finding truths, basically
in agreement about the darkness ahead for the country.
The cracks and beeps of the radio could be heard throughout the house in those
years. The reports did not affect me at all; I never knew the people and places they
referred to, all of it seeming entirely alien.
As the rain was beginning to subside, Pascal and I talked about going outside
to play Frisbee. I had been in the living room all day, watching cartoons earlier
on, as was my ritual. Grandpa irritated me when he would change the channel without
asking, looking for a news report. Grandma, however, was entirely sensitive to my
moods and needs, in part because she was concerned about me but also because she
was just that kind of woman. She would take me by the hands to her room downstairs.
She would find her purse then come over to me with a piece of gum for each of us,
which we would chew together.
While I finished the last of my orange juice I began to hear mom screaming in
the kitchen. My sister had been playing with me all morning then had gone to the
back to listen to music in her room. Leila had returned from the back of the house
bleeding profusely. The sight of this little girl's face covered with blood frightened
me so much that I could not look. She had taken dad's razor from the sink and started
playing with it, as she had done twice before, causing little abrasions the other
times. On this occasion she had cut herself all the way from her forehead to just
above her eye.
Mom held her against her skirt, absorbing the blood, trying in desperation to
get the flow to slow down. Grandma ran around the kitchen looking for cloths. Dad
was the doctor, he nonchalantly told them to press against her wound and that she
would be fine.
Mom began screaming at him. "I told you to put your razor on the top shelf
when you were done shaving. How many times did I tell you this?"
He told her to shut her mouth. She continued. "When are you ever going to
learn? Look at her. Just look at her."
Dad stood up from the kitchen table and hollered like I hope never again to see
anyone do in my life. "To hell with Leila. Let her die. Let her bleed all day.
I do not care. She might as well die." In the middle of his explosion he grabbed
the watermelon off the counter and threw it against the sidewall, causing it to scatter
all over the kitchen and into the living room. He walked out of the house, ignoring
the reasoned pleas of grandma.
Leila sat in mom's arms the rest of the afternoon. Whenever any of us tried to
clean up some of the watermelon, mom would tell us that we were to leave it for dad.
There was no way to ignore its flesh strewn across the room where we spent most of
our lives. Dad was there in the morning when we woke up but he left without cleaning
it up. Mom caught grandma mopping some of the juice from the living room floor and
fought until she stopped. The watermelon became part of our house, like the chipped
tiles in the entry or the toilets that did not flush properly; first it was the ants
that ate much of it, and then it began to smell. What was left slowly dried out and
glued itself to the floor. We learned to live with this watermelon, to take ourselves
to other places. Leila and I would go with friends to movies or shopping. Pascal
would always be at the tennis courts, even after it was dark. Mom was the only one
that was never far from the smell of the watermelon.
Every night dad would come home and wait for his dinner, sitting only inches from
bits of the watermelon. In the morning he would slurp his tea and leave, pretending
to forget everything about this place.