The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner/12

t out and bought a picture of the grinning president giving a thumbs up. He framed the picture and hung it in our hallway, nailing it right next to the old black-and-white of himself in his thin necktie shaking hands with King Zahir Shah. Most of our neighbors in Fremont were bus drivers, policemen, gas station attendants, and unwed mothers collecting welfare, exactly the sort of blue-collar people who would soon suffocate under the pillow Reganomics pressed to their faces. Baba was the lone Republican in our building.

But the Bay Area's smog stung his eyes, the traffic noise gave him headaches, and the pollen made him cough. The fruit was never sweet enough, the water never clean enough, and where were all the trees and open fields? For two years, I tried to get Baba to enroll in ESL classes to improve his broken English. But he scoffed at the idea. "Maybe I'll spell 'cat' and the teacher will give me a glittery little star so I can run home and show it off to you," he'd grumble.

One Sunday in the spring of 1983, I walked into a small bookstore that sold used paperbacks, next to the Indian movie theater just west of where Amtrak crossed Fremont Boulevard. I told Baba I'd be out in five minutes and he shrugged. He had been working at a gas station in Fremont and had the day off. I watched him jaywalk across Fremont Boulevard and enter Fast & Easy, a little grocery store run by an elderly Vietnamese couple, Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen. They were gray-haired, friendly people; she had Parkinson's, he'd had his hip replaced. "He's like Six Million Dollar Man now," she always said to me, laughing toothlessly. "Remember Six Million Dollar Man, Amir?" Then Mr. Nguyen would scowl like Lee Majors, pretend he was running in slow motion.

I was flipping through a worn copy of a Mike Hammer mystery when I heard screaming and glass breaking. I dropped the book and hurried across the street. I found the Nguyens behind the counter, all the way against the wall, faces ashen, Mr. Nguyen's arms wrapped around his wife. On the floor: oranges, an overturned magazine rack, a broken jar of beef jerky, and shards of glass at Baba's feet.

It turned out that Baba had had no cash on him for the oranges. He'd written Mr. Nguyen a check and Mr. Nguyen had asked for an ID. "He wants to see my license," Baba bellowed in Farsi. "Almost two years we've bought his damn fruits and put money in his pocket and the son of a dog wants to see my license!"

"Baba, it's not personal," I said, smiling at the Nguyens. "They're supposed to ask for an ID."

"I don't want you here," Mr. Nguyen said, stepping in front of his wife. He was pointing at Baba with his cane. He turned to me. "You're nice young man but your father, he's crazy. Not welcome anymore."

"Does he think I'm a thief?" Baba said, his voice rising. People had gathered outside. They were staring. "What kind of a country is this? No one trusts anybody!"

"I call police," Mrs. Nguyen said, poking out her face. "You get out or I call police."

"Please, Mrs. Nguyen, don't call the police. I'll take him home. Just don't call the police, okay? Please?"

"Yes, you take him home. Good idea," Mr. Nguyen said. His eyes, behind his wire-rimmed bifocals, never left Baba. I led Baba through the doors. He kicked a magazine on his way out. After I'd made him promise he wouldn't go back in, I returned to the store and apologized to the Nguyens. Told them my father was going through a difficult time. I gave Mrs. Nguyen our telephone number and address, and told her to get an estimate for the damages. "Please call me as soon as you know. I'll pay for everything, Mrs. Nguyen. I'm so sorry." Mrs. Nguyen took the sheet of paper from me and nodded. I saw her hands were shaking more than usual, and that made me angry at Baba, his causing an old woman to shake like that.

"My father is still adjusting to life in America," I said, by way of explanation.

I wanted to tell them that, in Kabul, we snapped a tree branch and used it as a credit card. Hassan and I would take the wooden stick to the bread maker. He'd carve notches on our stick with his knife, one notch for each loaf of naan he'd pull for us from the tandoor's roaring flames. At the end of the month, my father paid him for the number of notches on the stick. That was it. No questions. No ID.

But I didn't tell them. I thanked Mr. Nguyen for not calling the cops. Took Baba home. He sulked and smoked on the balcony while I made rice with chicken neck stew. A year and a half since we'd stepped off the Boeing from Peshawar, and Baba was still adjusting.

We ate in silence that night. After two bites, Baba pushed away his plate.

I glanced at him across the table, his nails chipped and black with engine oil, his knuckles scraped, the smells of the gas station--dust, sweat, and gasoline--on his clothes. Baba was like the widower who remarries but can't let go of his dead wife. He missed the sugarcane fields of Jalalabad and the gardens of Paghman. He missed people milling in and out of his house, missed walking down the bustling aisles of Shor Bazaar and greeting people who knew him and his father, knew his grandfather, people who shared ancestors with him, whose pasts intertwined with his.

For me, America was a place to bury my memories.

For Baba, a place to mourn his.

"Maybe we should go back to Peshawar," I said, watching the ice float in my glass of water. We'd spent six months in Peshawar waiting for the INS to issue our visas. Our grimy one-bedroom apartment smelled like dirty socks and cat droppings, but we were surrounded by people we knew--at least people Baba knew. He'd invite the entire corridor of neighbors for dinner, most of them Afghans waiting for visas. Inevitably, someone would bring a set of tabla and someone else a harmonium. Tea would brew, and whoever had a passing singing voice would sing until the sun rose, the mosquitoes stopped buzzing, and clapping hands grew sore.

"You were happier there, Baba. It was more like home," I said.

"Peshawar was good for me. Not good for you."

"You work so hard here."

"It's not so bad now," he said, meaning since he had become the day manager at the gas station. But I'd seen the way he winced and rubbed his wrists on damp days. The way sweat erupted on his forehead as he reached for his bottle of antacids after meals. "Besides, I didn't bring us here for me, did I?"

I reached across the table and put my hand on his. My student hand, clean and soft, on his laborer's hand, grubby and calloused. I thought of all the trucks, train sets, and bikes he'd bought me in Kabul. Now America. One last gift for Amir.

Just one month after we arrived in the U.S., Baba found a job off Washington Boulevard as an assistant at a gas station owned by an Afghan acquaintance--he'd started looking for work the same week we arrived. Six days a week, Baba pulled twelve-hour shifts pumping gas, running the register, changing oil, and washing windshields. I'd bring him lunch sometimes and find him looking for a pack of cigarettes on the shelves, a customer waiting on the other side of the oil-stained counter, Baba's face drawn and pale under the bright fluorescent lights. The electronic bell over the door would ding-dong when I walked in, and Baba would look over his shoulder, wave, and smile, his eyes watering from fatigue.

The same day he was hired, Baba and I went to our eligibility officer in San Jose, Mrs. Dobbins. She was an overweight black woman with twinkling eyes and a dimpled smile. She'd told me once that she sang in church, and I believed her--she had a voice that made me think of warm milk and honey. Baba dropped the stack of food stamps on her desk. "Thank you but I don't want," Baba said. "I work always. In Afghanistan I work, in America I work. Thank you very much, Mrs. Dobbins, but I don't like it free money."

Mrs. Dobbins blinked. Picked up the food stamps, looked from me to Baba like we were pulling a prank, or "slipping her a trick" as Hassan used to say. "Fifteen years I been doin' this job and nobody's ever done this," she said. And that was how Baba ended those humiliating food stamp moments at the cash register and alleviated one of his greatest fears: that an Afghan would see him buying food with charity money. Baba walked out of the welfare office like a man cured of a tumor.

HAT SUMMER OF 1983, I graduated from high school at the age of twenty, by far the oldest senior tossing his mortarboard on the football field that day. I remember losing Baba in the swarm of families, flashing cameras, and blue gowns. I found him near the twenty-yard line, hands shoved in his pockets, camera dangling on his chest. He disappeared and reappeared behind the people moving between us: squealing blue-clad girls hugging, crying, boys high-fiving their fathers, each other. Baba's beard was graying, his hair thinning at the temples, and hadn't he been taller in Kabul? He was wearing his brown suit--his only suit, the same one he wore to Afghan weddings and funerals--and the red tie I had bought for his fiftieth birthday that year. Then he saw me and waved. Smiled. He motioned for me to wear my mortarboard, and took a picture of me with the school's clock tower in the background. I smiled for him--in a way, this was his day more than mine. He walked to me, curled his arm around my neck, and gave my brow a single kiss. "I am moftakhir, Amir," he said. Proud. His eyes gleamed when he said that and I liked being on the receiving end of that look.

He took me to an Afghan kabob house in Hayward that night and ordered far too much food. He told the owner that his son was going to college in the fall. I had debated him briefly about that just before graduation, and told him I wanted to get a job. Help out, save some money, maybe go to college the following year. But he had shot me one of his smoldering Baba looks, and the words had vaporized on my tongue.

After dinner, Baba took me to a bar across the street from the restaurant. The place was dim, and the acrid smell of beer I'd always disliked permeated the walls. Men in baseball caps and tank tops played pool, clouds of cigarette smoke hovering over the green tables, swirling in the fluorescent light. We drew looks, Baba in his brown suit and me in pleated slacks and sports jacket. We took a seat at the bar, next to an old man, his leathery face sickly in the blue glow of the Michelob sign overhead. Baba lit a cigarette and ordered us beers. "Tonight I am too much happy," he announced to no one and everyone. "Tonight I drinking with my son. And one, please, for my friend," he said, patting the old man on the back. The old fellow tipped his hat and smiled. He had no upper teeth.

Baba finished his beer in three gulps and ordered another. He had three before I forced myself to drink a quarter of mine. By then he had bought the old man a scotch and treated a foursome of pool players to a pitcher of Budweiser. Men shook his hand and clapped him on the back. They drank to him. Someone lit his cigarette. Baba loosened his tie and gave the old man a handful of quarters. He pointed to the jukebox. "Tell him to play his favorite songs," he said to me. The old man nodded and gave Baba a salute. Soon, country music was blaring, and, just like that, Baba had started a party.

At one point, Baba stood, raised his beer, spilling it on the sawdust floor, and yelled, "Fuck the Russia!" The bar's laughter, then its full-throated echo followed. Baba bought another round of pitchers for everyone.

When we left, everyone was sad to see him go. Kabul, Peshawar, Hayward. Same old Baba, I thought, smiling.

I drove us home in Baba's old, ochre yellow Buick Century. Baba dozed off on the way, snoring like a jackhammer. I smelled tobacco on him and alcohol, sweet and pungent. But he sat up when I stopped the car and said in a hoarse voice, "Keep driving to the end of the block."

"Why, Baba?"

"Just go." He had me park at the south end of the street. He reached in his coat pocket and handed me a set of keys. "There," he said, pointing to the car in front of us. It was an old model Ford, long and wide, a dark color I couldn't discern in the moonlight. "It needs painting, and I'll have one of the guys at the station put in new shocks, but it runs."

I took the keys, stunned. I looked from him to the car.

"You'll need it to go to college," he said. I took his hand in mine. Squeezed it. My eyes were tearing over and I was glad for the shadows that hid our faces. "Thank you, Baba."

We got out and sat inside the Ford. It was a Grand Torino. Navy blue, Baba said. I drove it around the block, testing the brakes, the radio, the turn signals. I parked it in the lot of our apartment building and shut off the engine. "Tashakor, Baba jan," I said. I wanted to say more, tell him how touched I was by his act of kindness, how much I appreciated all that he had done for me, all that he was still doing. But I knew I'd embarrass him. "Tashakor," I repeated instead.

He smiled and leaned back against the headrest, his forehead almost touching the ceiling. We didn't say anything. Just sat in the dark, listened to the tink-tink of the engine cooling, the wail of a siren in the distance. Then Baba rolled his head toward me. "I wish Hassan had been with us today," he said.

A pair of steel hands closed around my windpipe at the sound of Hassan's name. I rolled down the window. Waited for the steel hands to loosen their grip.

I WOULD ENROLL in junior college classes in the fall, I told Baba the day after graduation. He was drinking cold black tea and chewing cardamom seeds, his personal trusted antidote for hangover headaches.

"I think I'll major in English," I said. I winced inside, waiting for his reply.


"Creative writing."

He considered this. Sipped his tea. "Stories, you mean. You'll make up stories." I looked down at my feet.

"They pay for that, making up stories?"

"If you're good," I said. "And if you get discovered."

"How likely is that, getting discovered?"

"It happens," I said.

He nodded. "And what will you do while you wait to get good and get discovered? How will you earn money? If you marry, how will you support your khanum?"

I couldn't lift my eyes to meet his. "I'll . . . find a job."

"Oh," he said. "Wah wah! So, if I understand, you'll study several years to earn a degree, then you'll get a chatti job like mine, one you could just as easily land today, on the small chance that your degree might someday help you get . . . discovered." He took a deep breath and sipped his tea. Grunted something about medical school, law school, and "real work."

My cheeks burned and guilt coursed through me, the guilt of indulging myself at the expense of his ulcer, his black fingernails and aching wrists. But I would stand my ground, I decided. I didn't want to sacrifice for Baba anymore. The last time I had done that, I had damned myself.

Baba sighed and, this time, tossed a whole handful of cardamom seeds in his mouth.

SOMETIMES, I GOT BEHIND the wheel of my Ford, rolled down the windows, and drove for hours, from the East Bay to the South Bay, up the Peninsula and back. I drove through the grids of cottonwood-lined streets in our Fremont neighborhood, where people who'd never shaken hands with kings lived in shabby, flat one-story houses with barred windows, where old cars like mine dripped oil on blacktop driveways. Pencil gray chain-link fences closed off the backyards in our neighborhood. Toys, bald tires, and beer bottles with peeling labels littered unkempt front lawns. I drove past tree-shaded parks that smelled like bark, past strip malls big enough to hold five simultaneous Buzkashi tournaments. I drove the Torino up the hills of Los Altos, idling past estates with picture windows and silver lions guarding the wrought-iron gates, homes with cherub fountains lining the manicured walkways and no Ford Torinos in the driveways. Homes that made Baba's house in Wazir Akbar Khan look like a servant's hut.

I'd get up early some Saturday mornings and drive south on Highway 17, push the Ford up the winding road through the mountains to Santa Cruz. I would park by the old lighthouse and wait for sunrise, sit in my car and watch the fog rolling in from the sea. In Afghanistan, I had only seen the ocean at the cinema. Sitting in the dark next to Hassan, I had always wondered if it was true what I'd read, that sea air smelled like salt. I used to tell Hassan that someday we'd walk on a strip of seaweed-strewn beach, sink our feet in the sand, and watch the water recede from our toes. The first time I saw the Pacific, I almost cried. It was as vast and blue as the oceans on the movie screens of my childhood.

Sometimes in the early evening, I parked the car and walked up a freeway overpass. My face pressed against the fence, I'd try to count the blinking red taillights inching along, stretching as far as my eyes could see. BMWs. Saabs. Porsches. Cars I'd never seen in Kabul, where most people drove Russian Volgas, old Opels, or Iranian Paikans.

Almost two years had passed since we had arrived in the U.S., and I was still marveling at the size of this country, its vastness. Beyond every freeway lay another freeway, beyond every city another city, hills beyond mountains and mountains beyond hills, and, beyond those, more cities and more people.

Long before the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan, long before villages were burned and schools destroyed, long before mines were planted like seeds of death and children buried in rock-piled graves, Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of harelipped ghosts.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.

If for nothing else, for that, I embraced America.

THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, the summer of 1984--the summer I turned twenty-one--Baba sold his Buick and bought a dilapidated '71 Volkswagen bus for $550 from an old Afghan acquaintance who'd been a high-school science teacher in Kabul. The neighbors' heads turned the afternoon the bus sputtered up the street and farted its way across our lot. Baba killed the engine and let the bus roll silently into our designated spot. We sank in our seats, laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks, and, more important, until we were sure the neighbors weren't watching anymore. The bus was a sad carcass of rusted metal, shattered windows replaced with black garbage bags, balding tires, and upholstery shredded down to the springs. But the old teacher had reassured Baba that the engine and transmission were sound and, on that account, the man hadn't lied.

On Saturdays, Baba woke me up at dawn. As he dressed, I scanned the classifieds in the local papers and circled the garage sale ads. We mapped our route--Fremont, Union City, Newark, and Hayward first, then San Jose, Milpitas, Sunnyvale, and Campbell if time permitted. Baba drove the bus, sipping hot tea from the thermos, and I navigated. We stopped at garage sales and bought knickknacks that people no longer wanted. We haggled over old sewin