Collective Unrest

 

Just Like That

October 4, 2018

Nick’s wife, Afsaneh, was a nurse and had the day off, so they decided to go for a picnic with their four-year-old daughter, Laya. It was a Wednesday, and the small park along the bay they went to was practically empty. Nick pushed Laya on the playground swings while Afsaneh spread a combination of Iranian and American food across a blanket on the grass nearby. Then they sat in the shade of a tall eucalyptus tree and ate, watching the boats on the bay and the occasional passerby on the walkway.

An old man passed them walking a dog with brilliant white, bushy fur as Afsanah was putting things away in the basket after they’d finished. The dog stopped to sniff at them, and Laya knelt up and reached her hand out tentatively to touch its side.

“Go ahead,” the old man told her. “He won’t hurt you. He’s very gentle.”

Laya stood and moved her hand more boldly, scratching the dog between his ears. As she did, the dog turned his head and licked her hand. Laya looked up suddenly at the old man. He smiled down at her, then at Nick and Afsaneh; they returned the same. The dog stood perfectly still as Laya moved her hand through the thick fur along his back.

“He’s beautiful,” Afsaneh said.

The old man nodded with satisfaction. “He’s a show dog. We just got back from a regional competition. He won third place.”

“Wow,” Nick said. “How about that, Laya?”

She grinned and nodded.

“Well,” the old man said, “we’d better be on our way.”

Laya stepped back, and they watched the pair move off down the walkway. The old man was short and dressed all in white: white tennis shoes, white socks, white pants, and a white windbreaker zipped to the chin of a deeply tanned and wrinkled face. He shuffled slightly as he walked. They watched the dog tug him a little onto the grass, where the old man stepped into a depression surrounding a sprinkler head, turned his right ankle, gave a little yelp, and fell on his side.

Afsaneh reached him first, kneeling beside him. He lay grimacing and reaching his hand towards the ankle he’d twisted. The dog licked once at his face.

“I’m a nurse,” Afsaneh told him. “Let me look at your ankle.”

He watched her as she gently lifted his ankle onto her lap and felt around it. Nick and Laya had come over and stood a few feet away watching, too. The old man winced as her fingertips probed the outside of his foot. The swelling there was evident under the white sock.

“I’m afraid you’ve sprained it,” Afsaneh said. “Not badly. You don’t need to go to a hospital or see a doctor, but you do have to ice and elevate it as quickly as possible. How did you get here?”

Through clenched teeth, he hissed, “Drove.”

“Where’s your car?

“Over there.” The old man cocked his head towards the row of diagonal parking spaces across the grass at the curb. “The silver Caddy.”

They all looked at the car he indicated, which was parked just a few spaces from their own.

“Do you live close by?’

He turned slightly and winced again. “Couple miles.”

“All right,” Afsaneh said. “Well, you can’t drive yourself with that ankle, so I’ll bring you home in our car, and Nick can follow in yours. Nick, help me get him standing.”

They did. The old man draped his arm around Afsaneh’s shoulder and she supported him as he limped gingerly across the grass. The dog walked by his side with the leash dangling behind him. Nick gathered their picnic things, and they hurried ahead. At their sedan, he opened the passenger side door for the old man and the back door behind it for the dog. He and Afsaneh helped the old man into the seat. Before Nick closed the door, the old man reached into his pants’ pocket and gave his keys to Nick. He looked back and forth between the two of them and said, “Thanks.”

The dog hopped up into the back, whining a little, and Nick closed that door, too. Afsaneh arranged Layla in her booster seat on the other side of the dog, climbed in behind the wheel, and backed away. Nick got into the old man’s big car, set the picnic basket and folded blanket on top of a pile of papers on the passenger seat, and followed closely behind.

Afsaneh drove slowly so Nick wouldn’t lose sight of her. They passed their own section of town with its apartment buildings and crowded bungalows and entered an older, established neighborhood of wide tree-lined streets and large estate-like homes. Afsaneh turned into a long driveway and stopped in front of two-story home with columns and a fountain near its double-doors. Nick pulled in beside her, and they both turned off their engines.

As Nick lifted the picnic basket and blanket, he upset some of the papers on the passenger seat that fell onto the floormat. He set the picnic items on the driveway next to his open door and reached for the papers; by the recent dates and notations at the bottom of each, he saw that they were all printouts from various Internet web sites. The headline of one had to do with the need to limit immigration to the U.S. from Middle Eastern countries. Another was about a southern state’s legislation to hold U.S. sponsors of Middle Eastern immigrants liable for any crimes they committed. The last was an online petition in support of the travel ban to the U.S. for some largely Muslim nations; words were scrawled in uneven handwriting on top that said, “Find out how to sign this”.

Nick’s eyebrows knit and he blinked at the papers he held, a chill crawling over him. He thought of meeting Afsaneh early in college after she’d come from Iran on a student visa; she was a couple of years ahead of him in school. Nick watched her help the old man out of the car, and thought of the extra shifts she put in at the hospital so he could stay home with Laya and work on his master’s thesis. He watched his daughter with her sandy-colored hair like his and his wife’s dark complexion smiling and rubbing the dog’s fur from her booster seat, and shook his head. The water from the fountain gurgled quietly. He replaced the papers where they’d been on the seat, shook his head again, got out of the car, and carried the picnic items over to the sedan.

Nick handed Afsaneh the old man’s keys as they passed him and unfastened Laya from her booster seat. He lifted her out of the car and the dog came behind her. Nick put the picnic items on the seat where the dog had been and followed them himself.

When he entered the house, Afsaneh already had the old man lying on his back on a couch in his big living room and was arranging throw pillows under his injured ankle. She unlaced his shoe on that foot, removed it carefully, and went into the kitchen. The old man held the back of one hand over his eyes and groaned. Grass stains stood out on the knees of the white pants. The dog nosed at the old man, then curled up on the floor next to him. Laya settled herself in a chair at the antique desk in the corner, took a sheet of paper from the computer printer beneath it, lifted a marker from a cup, and began to draw, humming as she did. Nick remained just inside the doorway and surveyed the room with its ornate furnishings and large gold-framed mirror over the fireplace. When his eyes fell on the old man, he felt his stare harden and his jaw clench.

A few moments later, Afsaneh returned to the room with a bag of frozen corn and a dish towel. She knelt at the foot of the couch, fitted the bag around the injured ankle where the swelling was most pronounced, and tied the towel loosely around it.

“Leave that on your ankle for as long as you can,” she told the old man, “and keep your foot elevated like that. There’s another bag of vegetables in the freezer you can rotate to when this one thaws, but don’t move any more than necessary, and keep your weight off that foot when you do.”

The old man had removed his hand from over his eyes. He nodded.

Afsaneh looked towards the darkened interior of the house and asked, “Is there anyone here to help you?”

The old man shook his head. “My wife is dead. We had no children.”

“All right. Well, the sprain isn’t too bad, so you should be okay in a day or two. Just limit your movements and keep the ice on and the foot elevated, even when you go to bed tonight.”

“My bedroom is upstairs,” he said. “But I’ll sleep right here.” He gestured with his hand. “Can you hand me those afghans?”

Afsaneh took the two afghans off the high-backed chairs next to the couch along with one of the throw pillows on them. She lifted the old man’s head and arranged the pillow under it, then spread the afghans over him.

He fingered the fabric, looked at her, and said, “My wife made these.”

“They’re lovely.”

He nodded.

“Do you want a glass of water or something before we go?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m grateful for your help. I’d still be lying there on that grass if it wasn’t for you.”

Nick thought about the papers in the old man’s car. “Come on, Laya,” he said. It came out hard. “We’re leaving.”

Afsaneh gave him a puzzled look as Laya hopped down from the chair and brought the paper she’d been drawing on over to the old man. She held it out to him and said, “Here, I made you a picture. It’s you and your dog.”

The old man took it from her and studied it, nodding, a small smile creasing his lips. He set it on his chest, looked at her, and said, “Thank you.”

She bent down, rubbed the dog’s fur, then took Afsaneh’s hand.

“So, you’ll do what I’ve told you?” Afsaneh asked.

“I will, yes.”

“All right, then.”

They turned and came toward Nick. The old man didn’t return his stare. But his wife glared at him as she and Laya passed him. He closed the door firmly behind them.
~~
The three of them drove home in silence except for Laya’s humming. They went into their ground floor apartment through the back door the led into the kitchen. Laya continued into the living room where Nick and Afsaneh heard the television turn on. They put away the picnic items in tandem without speaking until Afsaneh finally said, “What was that all about?”

Nick closed the refrigerator door, turned, and faced her. He pursed his lips looking at her.

“Well?” she said.

“He had anti-Muslim rhetoric in his car.” Nick spoke slowly and as evenly as he could. “News articles about curbing Middle Eastern immigration here and a petition supporting the travel ban.”

His wife’s expression didn’t change, but she folded her arms across her chest. A long moment passed. Finally, she said quietly, “I see.” She opened a cupboard and began placing picnic items in it. Nick watched the back of her. After another moment, she said, “That doesn’t change the fact that he needed our help.”

~~

The next morning, Afsaneh rose early while Nick and Laya were still sleeping. She changed quietly into her nursing uniform and then busied herself in the kitchen. Nick silenced the alarm next to their bed when it woke him an hour or so later, dressed, and got Laya ready for preschool. When they came into the kitchen, Afsaneh had cereal, bowls, spoons, milk, glasses, and orange juice on the table. There was also an aroma of saffron in the air and a sealed Tupperware container on the counter.

“Good morning,” Afsaneh said. They watched her gather her purse and pull on her jacket from a peg near the back door. “I have to catch my bus. Breakfast stuff is ready.” She looked at Nick. “And I’ve made some Khoresh to heat up for dinner; it’s in the fridge. There’s also some in that container for the old man from yesterday. I want you to bring it to him after you drop Laya off at school and check on him. Ask him to show you his ankle and be sure the swelling has gone down. See if he needs anything.”

Slowly, he shook his head. He said, “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek and then Laya’s. She said, “Have a good day.”

Nick was still shaking his head after the door closed behind her.

~~

The old man’s car was where he’d left it the day before when Nick came up the long driveway a little later. He parked in the same spot as the previous day, turned off the engine, and sat listening to it tick. He looked out across the manicured grounds, the stands of tall, well-maintained shrubs that separated the old man’s property from his neighbors on both sides, the murmuring fountain. Hummingbirds hovered at a feeder dangling from one of the porch eaves. Nick blew out a breath, lifted the Tupperware container off the seat next to him, and walked to the front doors.
He heard shuffling from the living room inside after he rang the bell, and it took several minutes before one of the doors opened and the old man appeared in its cavity, the dog at his side. He was dressed exactly as he’d been the day before, but his clothes were rumpled and his hair was mussed. He looked as if he’d just awakened, but recognition soon filled his face. He dropped one hand on top of the dog’s head and said, “Hello.”

“My wife asked me to check on you,” Nick said. “See if the swelling on your ankle has gone down.”

The old man nodded and slowly extended the leg he’d injured. His pants slid up exposing the ankle; the swelling there was almost gone.

“See,” the old man said. “Better. Thanks to your wife. And you.”

“Mostly her.”

The old man cocked his head and made little shrug. Over his shoulder, Nick could see the tangle of afghans on the couch and the drawing Laya had made taped over the antique desk. It dangled alone there on the wall.

He extended the Tupperware container, still warm, and said, “This is for you, from my wife.”

The old man frowned, then his eyes widened. He took it in both hands. “Smells wonderful.”

“It’s Koresh, an Iranian stew. It’s good.”

The old man looked from the container to Nick. Their eyes held. The old man said, “Please thank her for me.”

“I will. Is there anything else you need?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I’m fine.”

Nick nodded and walked back to the driveway. When he passed the old man’s car, he glanced in the passenger side window; there were no papers on the seat. He stopped, squinted, turned, and saw the old man watching him.

“There were papers on your passenger seat yesterday,” Nick said. “Articles, those sorts of things. They’re gone now.”

“I threw them away,” the old man said. “I don’t want them anymore.”

“Just like that.”

“Yes.” The old man paused. “Just like that.”

They regarded each other while the dog whined quietly and nosed at the old man’s leg. Nick turned towards the street and shook his head.

“Maybe your daughter can come over sometime to see my dog,” the old man said. “Visit. Laya.”

Nick looked back to him. He said, “I’ll ask her.”

Then he got in his car and backed out of the long driveway. As he turned onto the street, he looked back at the house. The old man was still standing in the open doorway; he raised one hand from the container he held and showed its palm. Nick did the same before driving away.

 

William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and J Journal. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California. “Just Like That” was originally published in Turning Points.

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