It was exactly 5:03 when Ollie walked in the door. “Ali joon, is that you?” his mother called out from the kitchen. “Baleh, maman! Kohjahee?” Ollie answered. “I’m in the kitchen,” she hollered back. He didn’t need to ask her what she was doing because he could smell the sweet, yet pungent aroma of pomegranate paste in the air, and he knew in an instant that this could mean only one thing – khoreste fesenjan, or simply fesenjan, for short! Ollie never could figure out why his mother and other Iranians spelled fesenjan in English the way they did, f-e-s-e-n-j-a-n; the way they pronounced it when speaking Persian was f-e-s-e-n-j-o-o-n. Fesenjan was Ollie’s favorite Persian food. It was a kind of stew that had originated in the Persian province of Gilan, and it was a national favorite of Iranians around the world. Of course, every Iranian mother had her own special way of preparing this heavenly delight, but each had to stick to the fundamental ingredients of pomegranate paste, crushed walnuts and chicken. When cooked into a stew-like mixture, it was served on a mountain of steaming hot rice flavored with saffron.
The luscious smell of the mouth-watering dish was about to drive Ollie out of his mind. He was famished and his stomach had been growling for the past half-hour, non-stop. It was nights like this that made Ollie happy his mom was originally from Iran. No American mother could possibly whip up scrumptious treats the way an Iranian mother could, he thought to himself.
Soon dinner was on the table. Like most Iranian mothers, Ollie’s maman treated him like a king at home; he never had to cook for himself, wash a dish, make his bed, clean his clothes, or help around the house, unless, of course, there was something that she could not do herself. She liked it that way and so did Ollie. She worried, however, that perhaps by spoiling him so much that she was setting him up for failure in his future relationships with women. Where in America would he ever find a woman that would wait on him hand and foot? She had asked herself many times whether she indulged him so much because of a subconscious desire on her part to keep him near her forever. If he couldn’t find a woman to take care of him as well as his mother always did, perhaps he’d just live at home. This thought was both inviting and repulsive to her at the same time. She didn’t like the thought of living alone someday, but she didn’t like the thought of raising a mama’s boy either. She did, after all, hope to have grandchildren someday. She hoped that he would one day find a good Iranian girl in America, but in her heart-of-hearts, she knew that Iranian girls who were born and raised in America were not like Iranian girls who grew up in Iran. Even Iranian girls in today’s Iran were not like the girls of her generation. Today’s girls seemed to have aspirations and ambitions that extended far beyond raising a happy family. Perhaps, she thought to herself, there was no woman that would one day take care of her son in the way that the women of her generation had been raised to believe was important.
With the food on the table, she quickly let these thoughts pass from her head; he was only fourteen and there would be plenty of time in the future to contemplate such things. There was so much to talk about and to catch up on. “Azizam how was your day,” she asked with genuine interest? With his mouth full of fesenjan, he sounded as if he had a speech impediment as he replied, “It was great! I took my class picture, and I helped Reg today with his Social Studies report.” “Who,” she asked with a look of bewilderment on her face? “Reza, maman, Reza,” he responded with a twinge of exasperation. “Oh, yes, I forgot,” she said with a soft smile. “What about your track meeting? How did it go?” she continued.This was the opening he needed. He knew that if he was going to convince her to let him join the track team, he had to strike while the iron was hot!
“Everything went great. The coach said that he had already talked to my P.E. teacher and knew that I was the fastest kid in the class. He told me that if I wanted to be on the team, he would guarantee me a spot, as long as I attended all the practices,” Ollie gushed enthusiastically!
“What do you say, mom? Can I...can I join the team?” he pleaded. She didn’t immediately respond, but sat quietly as if considering a major decision in life. Ollie knew not to push her. It was now up to the stars in the Cosmos, and destiny…as well as whatever she decided that would determine his fate. After sitting for what seemed an eternity, she looked at him and smiled. “As long as you don’t let your school work suffer, I don’t see any harm in letting you go run yourself silly,” she said. “Thank you very much, maman. Khaili mamnoon,” Ollie joyously shouted as he jumped up and gave her a big kiss on her cheek. She smiled to herself, thinking that he had not yet figured out that she could never refuse him. He was all she had in the world, and ever since her husband died, she had been alone except for her precious Ali.
After dinner, Ollie helped his mother carry the dishes into the kitchen and load the dishwasher. He didn’t usually help his mother with this chore, but tonight he wanted her to know how much he appreciated her for letting him to join the track team. His mother knew that he was showing her extra respect, but she really didn’t want him to help her with any of the housework, not even the dishes. She had been raised in a traditional Iranian home where the women did the housework and the men earned the living. Girls were expected to help their mother’s around the house, but boys didn’t do much of anything until they were grown and had families of their own. “Azizam, don’t you have anything else to do? You’re getting under my feet, now. I’ve got to get the dishes done and put away,” she said gently so as to not hurt his feelings. “Maman, I don’t mind helping you. You know that don’t you,” he asked? “Yes, ghorbonet beram, but really…I can get this place cleaned up faster if you’ll let me do it,” she said with a smile. “Ok then, I guess I’ll go over to Reg’s house for a while; I told him that I’d stop by after dinner for a little bit,” he added. “Alright, but be home by 8:00,” she firmly responded. Ollie shook his head and headed toward the front door.
It wasn’t a long walk through the park to Reg’s house. He lived in a nice, quiet neighborhood on a street that was lined with tall shade trees. Although the street was lit, it was a bit spooky at night because the trees blocked out most of the light. Despite the ever warming temperatures during daylight hours, it still got chilly when the sun went down. As he walked down the red brick sidewalk, Ollie pulled up the hood on his sweatshirt. The chilly breeze was more than a bit cool to him; it was freezing, and he didn’t like it at all. All of a sudden, he heard a noise from behind. He turned on his heels a peered into the black night air, but he saw nothing. His heart raced wildly when suddenly he heard a loud crash and the screech of a cat. As he peered into the darkness, he could just make out an overturned garbage can in the street. Paper and rubbish began blowing in every direction. Whoever has to pick all that crap up is going to be pissed-off, he thought to himself. He decided that he had better just keep moving before someone came out of one of the houses and accused him of turning over garbage cans.
After a few minute’s walk, Ollie finally arrived at Reg’s house. It was a beautiful, two-story brick house. Reg’s father was an engineer working with a large tractor manufacturing company on the edge of town. His mother was a housewife although she held a Masters degree in something. Reg had told him before, but he had forgotten. He stood at the door for a moment, pulled his hood off and ran his fingers quickly though is hair in an attempt to straighten it. He knew that Reg’s parents were fairly traditional people and they would expect a certain degree of formality from him. It wasn’t Reg’s parents that spooked him though; it was his very weird and very old grandmother. Ollie had met her before, but he felt uneasy around her. She wasn’t simply old; she was ancient, and she was very, very superstitious. While Ollie could understand her, he didn’t like talking to her much because she used a lot of big words in Persian, and she liked to nit-pick him about his Persian pronunciation. Every time that she insulted him, he wanted to give her the finger and tell her that he was born and raised in the United States, so she should just get off his back. In true Iranian style, however, he simply lowered his head and apologized for his linguistic shortcomings. In addition to being persnickety, she smelled old, and Ollie was baffled as to why. He thought she smelled like a damp basement or something worse; he couldn’t quite put his finger on the exact nature of the malodorous aroma which emanated from her small frame, but her elderliness reeked of something very similar to scent of dirty, sweaty socks.
Ollie rang the doorbell! “Hey man, salaam. Come in,” said Reg with a big smile on his face. From the living room, he heard Reg’s father, Mohsen, call out, “Ali jan, bia inja.” Ollie quickly kicked off his shoes by the front door; he knew well that traditional Iranian families never wear their shoes indoors when at home as they consider it a filthy thing to do. He wanted to be sure to show the proper respect since Reg’s parents knew his mother. “Bia inja, come in, Ali, come and sit down.” said Reg’s mother with a smile. “Tell me, how’s your maman?” “She’s well, thank you,” he replied. “Reza tells us that you are going to have your fortune told tonight by Grandma,” said Reg’s father. Ollie whipped his head round and looked at Reg with one of those “what-the-hell” looks! “Baba, that was supposed to be a surprise,” Reg said with exasperation!
Ollie’s eyes got big and he could feel his palms starting to sweat. This was the first he’d heard anything about having his fortune told. Before he could say anything, a strange musty odor, kind of like dirty old socks, began to burn the inside of his nostrils; he knew well what that meant. In walked the old lady wrapped from head to toe in a flowery chador. It looked like she had a sheet draped over her head and wrapped around her body. He knew better than to laugh though. Even though his mother never wore a chador, he knew that it was the customary covering which many Iranian women, especially the older ones, wore over their clothes. Ollie thought she looked kind of like a flowery ghost in her outfit, but he kept his thoughts to himself. “Come, boys,” the old lady ordered in a stern voice as if she were talking down to servants.
When the three of them sat down at the rarely used, large oak table in the formal dining room, Ollie saw the old lady begin to mix tea the old fashioned way with loose leaves instead of with a tea bag. On the table sat an old and very large brass Persian samovar from which she poured hot water into a cup. Steam was rising out of the cup. She told him to sit still for a few moments as the leaves took a few minutes to brew. Ollie felt butterflies start to swirl around in his stomach. He didn’t really know what to expect as he’d never had his fortune told before. Of course, he had heard of this from his mother, but he’d never actually been through it before. As the steam continued to rise from the cup, his eyes quickly darted across the table to where Reg was sitting. Reg had had his fortune told many times before in this way, so he was not anxious at all. As his eyes caught Ollie’s, he could tell that Ollie looked a bit nervous. In an effort to get Ollie’s mind off of what his granny was doing, he asked him what he thought of his social studies report about the baby who got its head cut off. Ollie told him that he did great. He thought the teacher and half the class was going to blow chunks all over the room when he gave his grotesque presentation.
In an instant the old woman held out the cup in her wrinkled hand and told Ollie to drink it quickly. When he placed his hand around the cup, he couldn’t believe how hot it was. “Ouch, that’s hot…khaili dogh-e,” cried Ollie in obvious pain, as he quickly put the cup down on the table spilling a bit of the tea! “Maman borzorg, it’s too hot, he can’t drink it like that,” blurted Reg while wiping the table with a napkin. The old woman, obviously perturbed by what she considered insolence on the part of the boys, didn’t say a word; she let her eyes to her talking with the unsettling glare that she fixed on both of them. Ollie began to think that perhaps this hadn’t been such a great idea. How did he let himself get talked into this? Here he was sitting across from the old woman who smelled like socks with her eyes gawping at him in such a suffocating way that he found it difficult to breathe. For an instant he felt as if he were going to pass out from asphyxiation, so he concentrated as hard as he could trying to force his lungs to continue taking in air. The tension in the room was a thick as molasses. Ollie kept looking down, staring at his lap, hoping to avoid making eye contact with the old soothsayer sitting arm’s length, across the table from him. When he finally looked up again, her old face had softened somewhat. She held her chador closed by putting its edges between her teeth. He had seen women doing this before, the last time he had visited Iran with his mother. He thought she looked weird, but seeing that the all-enveloping wrap had no buttons on it, the only way Iranian women could keep it closed was to either hold it with their hands or put it between their teeth. Ollie surmised that Reg’s grandma liked using her teeth to close it, so that she could keep her hands free to do other things. He just hoped that she didn’t want to keep them free to reach across the table and slap him up side his head.
As the steam kept rising, the old woman growing impatient said, “Drink, now time for drinking!” Reg, sensing that the tea was still too hot said, “Maman borzorg, he’ll burn his tongue if he drinks it now.” Not amused the old lady snapped in half-Persian, half-English, “Borro baba, time now for drinking!” Ollie knew that the old lady meant business, so he slowly reached for the cup that was sitting on the table in front of him. “Vhy you so es-slow,” asked the old woman? “I tink you don’t vant to know future,” she sharply added. Reg and Ollie recognized her pronunciation as the way many Iranians that hadn’t been speaking English long said English words. Among the letters and letter combinations that they seemed to have particular trouble saying correctly were “w” at the beginning of words, which they invariably changed to “v,” the letter “s” at the beginning of multi-syllable words, which they pronounced as “es-s..,” and the letters “th” at the beginning of words, which they shortened to “t.”
Cautiously, Ollie wrapped his hand around the still very warm cup. Not knowing if there was a certain, special way to drink the tea, he looked at the old woman apprehensively and ask, “Maman borzorg, how should I drink the tea?” No longer agitated with the boys, the old woman softly replied, “Drink all in von drink and don’t es-stop to breathe.” She knew that he was a bit frightened, but this was part of his culture too, and he needed to learn it, she thought to herself. This was as good a time as any. Ollie lifted the cup to his mouth, his hand shaking ever so slightly, and in one fast motion, he poured it down his throat. It burned a bit, but he didn’t want to aggravate her any more than he had already; though grimacing, he held in the pain. When he had finished, she told him to put the cup down on the table. He complied.
Ollie watched her intently, not knowing what she would do next. The old woman just sat there looking at the cup sitting on the table. His mouth was still burning from the intense heat of the water the old woman had used for the tea. He could never understand why Iranians liked their tea so damn hot. His mother was the same way though. She was a full-fledged, unreformed “chai” drinker as were ninety-nine percent of the people in Iran over the age of three. She always said that any tea worth drinking had to be hot enough to boil an egg in. Ollie, being only half-Iranian, and having been born and raised in the United States, had not yet developed a passion for the drink that his mother and seventy million other Iranians had. He wasn’t sure if he ever would. Reg was the same way though. Even though he had been born in Iran, he had no real memories of it, except for his family’s trips back and forth every couple of years to visit relatives. While Reg was much more of a tea drinker than Ollie since he grew up in a house full of Iranians that could remember what life in Iran was like, he still preferred Pepsi or Coca-cola. Sometimes, when out with friends, he would even indulge in tall glass of ice tea: a sacrilege not only by Persian standards, but also Iranian standards.
With the cup still sitting on the table under the intense, unblinking gaze of Reg’s maman grandmother, Ollie began to suspect that perhaps something was going to jump out of the empty cup like a rabbit being pulled from a hat. Maybe this was part of the attraction that many Iranians had for having their future told. Could it be that this was a case of two for the price of one; a magic show and a future revealed, he wondered to himself? Reg just sat there saying nothing at all. He had been around tea cup reading his entire life, so he knew that the process couldn’t be rushed. He looked at Ollie, whose raised eyebrows seemed to be asking in the hush-filled room, “How long is this going to take?” In a reply that did not require him to break the hush of the room’s silence, he cocked his head to the side as if to say, “Hey man, take it easy.”
That’s when the old woman picked up the cup. She looked at it one way and then the other, turning it round-and-round intently observing how the tea leaves had deposited themselves on the inside of the cup’s floor and walls. She said, “Hmm….very interesting. I never see anyting like dis before.” She then took a deep breath and began to read that which the leaves revealed. She was switching back and forth between English and Persian and it was difficult for Ollie to translate everything that she was saying because she was using some big words in Persian that he normally didn’t use when speaking to his mother at home, or with Reg at school. Ollie, in a panic, interrupted. “Engalisee, Maman-ee lotefan, please,” he pleaded! She fixed her gaze, staring into his apprehensive eyes and continued without pause. Reg grabbed a pen and paper that were sitting on the table and began to scribble as fast as he could, translating what his maman borzorg was saying from very formal Persian into English. When the old woman stopped speaking the boys looked at the enigmatic message which was written on the page:
Near the valley of ancient kings,
Lies the lion to which you’ll bring,
A dearth of knowledge at the start,
Then take away a prideful heart.
Before the full moon rises thrice,
Beguiling spirits will entice,
You to a land where fate will send,
A cagey foe and a headstrong friend,
The land of which the leaves now speak,
Lives in your heart, but oh so weak,
From a thousand graves call out your kin,
To face head-on what fate will send.
But, where you’ll go and what you’ll do,
The leaves won’t now reveal to you,
All I can tell and say tonight,
Dark clouds could ruin a future bright.
With that the old woman stood up from the table and began to walk away, no goodbyes, no nothing. Ollie looked at Reg with a look of absolute bewilderment. Had he walked all this way on a freezing night just to hear a bunch of mumbo-jumbo from Reg’s ancient and probably half-nutty grandmother? What was all this non-sense about kings, lions, full moons and fate, he wondered? Just as the old woman began to turn through the doorway on her way out, Reg asked, “Maman borzorg, all he wanted to know was about the track team. Will Ollie be picked for the team…that’s why he came over tonight?” The old woman turned around clutching her chador tightly around her small body and replied, “He already know de answer to dat. Only fate know vhy he here tonight, but it not for track-e team. He know es-soon enough….es-soon enough.” With that the old woman disappeared from the room.
“Man that was weird,” said Ollie feeling stunned by what had just transpired, “I’ve got be getting home. I’m late already.” “Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow at school then,” replied Reg. Ollie and Reg stuck their heads into the living room and Ollie told Reg’s parents goodnight in Persian, “Shab be khayr.” “Shab be khayr,” they answered in unison>>>Chapter 3
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