5 hours into it, the bus driver finally announced that he was stopping for a rest and lunch at the next roadside cafe coming up. The conversations in the bus picked up pace and volume as the tourists turned expectant and energized, eager to empty their morning tea-ful bladders, and stretch their legs after the winding nauseous ride up into the mountains.
Several minutes and a last few curves later, the bus glided smoothly off the road and onto a short dusty driveway. The air breaks hissed and the bus came to a stop in front of a small porched cafe advertising Canada Dry on an old rusty sign. He got up quickly just as the bus rolled to a stop, wanting to be the first off, and while everyone else gathered their cameras, purses, and packs, he dropped onto the ground and made his way through the cafe, to the restroom in the back. He relieved himself, shivered, and washed his hands and face and using the damp paper towels, cooled the back of his neck as he looked at himself in the cracked and fading mirror. He took a deep breath. So far so good.
The smell of kabab, lime, and turmeric, mixed with burning charcoal, caressed the hungry tourists milling in and out of the small cafe. The mustached owner, a red kitchen rag over one shoulder, stood proper, cupped one hand in the other, and announced softly that today's kabab selection was freshly butchered lamb from the nearby mountain village, and a brown trout he had netted this morning from the crashing sounds of the river across the road outside the cafe. The same one the bus had been following and crisscrossing all morning as they made their way up the winding road traversing the steep gorge. Outside, all around the porch the passengers had started to camp out on the neatly set up small plastic chairs and tables, 4 or 5, each table with a small hand tamped brass vase from the cheaper parts of Esfahan, held a random of plastic roses.
"Nice touch", he thought, and smiled to himself and walked past the young boy who hurried out of the cafe with a full tray, starting the endless flow of tea.
At one end of the drive, an outcropping of baby rock from it's mountain mother penned in the cafe. The other end was closed off by a tall narrow stand of birch trees. The parking area filled almost completely by the immense tour bus. The birches seemed to be planted too close to one another years ago, in an un-random perfect row, but now illuminated their brilliant purpose, as the small round yellow leaves spun like perfect gold coins spilling off the slowly warming morning breeze. The birches rose high, creating a wall of sparkling shade that fell across part of the cafe's porch as the sunlight warmed and licked at the guests lovingly.
Behind the birches, he saw a 2 track dirt road fringed with intermittent tufts of green grass on either side and also down it's center, where the long gone wheels had not worn to dirt. The track drifted off, shifted and disconnected at odd angles, ending in the distance at a large, tall, square-shaped building framed on one side and the back by perfectly aligned tall Sycamore trees. Like elegant ladies' fingers pointing to the sky. He came back to give his food order and money to a fellow passenger, and told him he was going for a walk, and would be back when the food was ready. He walked around the last of the birches, and hopped across a clear gurgling water channel feeding them, and trotted to a stroll onto the dirt road.
He got to the house, crossing the crunching graveled drive in front, and made his way up to the landing, after seeing the large wooden open doors. It looked as if the house was eager to invite a stranger in for a visit, once again. The house was empty. As he walked inside he noticed broken windows and stained chalky walls. Dirt dried after a rain once had flooded the inside, covering chipped tile and a rough marble floor. He made his way through the old house, and came into what was most likely the sitting room. The large square room had a balcony at the far end, and as he came closer to it, he could see more of this morning's mountains and scenery through the broken doors and windows. He stepped onto the balcony and noticed that the garden was surprisingly well kept and quite lovely. Chess patterned tiles of marble stepping stones, and grass, lined by rosebushes of the deep dark red velvet-eared kind. A large mess of climbing small pink and white roses closed the end of the garden behind a sparkling swimming pool!
The pool was perfectly rectangular and went long from left to right, exactly centered the balcony's view. The water was clean and fresh. And moving. It was at that moment that he noticed a swimmer make his way from the triangular shade covering the far end of the pool, into the sparkling light. The swimmer stopped in mid-stroke, began treading water, and looked up and with a wet-bearded grin. "Hello!" he said as he caught his breath, "Are you from the tour bus?" he asked.
"Yes, sorry to disturb you, I was just taking a walk from the cafe, and I thought that-"
"No, don't worry about it, this old house is empty, but it has an incredible pool. Left from before the revolution, I think the owners were Americans." the swimmer cut him off and began his lap again.
"This is amazing! That this pool has stayed so well preserved!" he yelled at the swimmer.
"No---, the pool--- was in bad shape--- when I got here---, I had--- some of the villagers--- help me fix it up." the swimmer said, as he took each focused stroke. "Jump in if you want." he panted. He took the steps that went from either side of the balcony to the garden and pool area, to check out the pool closer. The swimmer's clothes were on a bench under the balcony in front of the pool. The kind of bench you often found at traditional hookah and tea cafes and garden restaurants, covered in small carpets and large back pillows. This one was a plain gray-wood bench though, with only the clothes of the swimmer draped over one end of it. He hopped on one foot as he took off his shoes. He pulled his shirt and pants off and pulled up his briefs and ran over to the pool stepping only on the stones on the grass, and dropped into the icy cold water and started to paddle towards the far end of the pool, the whoosh of his exhaling breath echoing off the balcony wall.
The swimmer, hit the far wall of the pool, did a perfect flip-turn and splat! splat! splatted up to him, again grinning. "Hi, I am Hossein!" and held out a wet hand as they both treaded water. He took the wet hand with a half-smile, and added a half-effort etiquette of his own name, with a, "Wow what great water this is! Hey man, sorry to disturb your exercise." and swam past the swimmer to do his own laps.
They swam in silence, catching glimpses of each other's open eyes and gasping mouths only as they passed each other when their strokes brought them up for air. He couldn't remember how long he had been swimming when on one pass of the bench, he noticed the swimmer had come out of the pool. He decided that he had swam enough, and stopped and swam over to the edge and pulled himself up and out of the pool, stepping again on the grass stones back to the bench.
As he approached the bench, the swimmer was standing by the bench drying himself off. He wore a light blue Speedo with a diagonal red and white stripe. As he approached the bench, he saw the swimmer's sock-filled scuffed black leather shoes at the foot of the bench, a pants, a shirt, and then he blinked, swallowed, and noticed the traditional brown cloak and white perfectly wound turban cocked almost comically off the bench's short post.
He tried to hide his amazement. Not so much at the thought of a swimming mollah, but now with the added information of a Speedo wearing swimming mollah. "I try to swim every day." The mollah moved past him to toss him an extra towel from under his clothes. He quickly dried off his face to hide his amazement. "I used to be a top swimmer in college when I was younger." the mollah said as he worked the water out of his own hair and beard. He looked to be about 35 or maybe even 40. The slight paunch certainly hid a former swimmer's stomach muscles. "What about you?" he asked.
Before he had a chance to reply, the mollah promptly dropped his Speedo to the ground and stepped out of them, picked them up wrung them out onto the grass, spread them out on the other post, and started to put on his clothes. "Uh, yeah" he answered realizing he was now looking at a naked speedo wearing mollah. "Uh, I mean, I used to swim every day in the summers, when I was a kid in Tehran, we had a pool like this one, but smaller, in my Father's house." he said too quickly as he continued to dry himself off.
"How nice" the mollah said as he sat down on the bench to pull up his socks. "I used to swim at the Olympic pool the shah built. Do you remember the one he built especially for the Asian games?"
"Yeah sure, I think my high school took us there for a field trip once." He answered a bit puzzlingly. What is this? A set up? he wondered, feeling resentment beginning to build in him.
The mollah pulled at an ear and cocked his head to the side and started smacking the other side and pinched and blew out his nose to try and pop his ears to clear the pool water. He sat on the bench and looked back at the pool, which had now stopped moving and was slowly returning to it's usual function, a mirror reflecting the garden grass, the roses, the sycamores, and the now visible snow-capped mountains on the horizon.
The mollah asked him where he was from, and after a few hesitant answers and as the questions turned less personal, he grew more and more comfortable, and even began asking the mollah some questions. The mollah had been the son of a rich Bazar merchant, and grew up in Tehran during the Shah's time, which explained the swimming and possibly the Speedo. He had apparently been a partier in those days, and he even recounted an American girlfriend he had before the revolution. "She had golden hair" he said, "We loved each other very much, but our parents disapproved." he said. "I remember that last afternoon, after my father forbade me to see her again, and I ran all the way to her house, and started yelling from the street." I yelled, "Terrracy! Terrracy! I Love You! Her father came to the window and told me to go away." They both laughed as the mollah cupped both hands around his mouth and relived the moment.
As their laughter faded and stopped, they sat quietly allowing the now high sun to warm their skin for a while, and they swung their legs back and forth from the edge of the bench, like two young boys playing hooky from school. "Man, what days those were." the mollah sighed.
He looked at the mollah and wondered if he could tell him everything he now wanted to say. The mollah looked up from the ground and their eyes met. For an instant they seemed to pass all the unspoken words between them, through their eyes.
"Why did you become a mollah?" he finally asked. As soon as he said it, he knew he had crossed a line.
"Why? Is there something wrong with being a mollah?" the mollah grinned as he answered the question with a question.
"Uh, Yeah, haven't you been watching TV?" he grinned back.
"Well, I am not a political mollah." He countered.
"What's the difference?", it was on now.
"The difference is that after the war, I saw God in a different way than the political mollah's do." the mollah volleyed deep.
"Wow! So you're saying that a war that your colleagues started, had an impact on your career? My, my, my, what would you have done if it wasn't for that war?" The mollah looked up stunned.
"That didn't come out right, I wasn't a mollah when I went to the war. The war changed me." he tried to explain. The swimmer's grin gone now, a stern look fighting the re-awakened demons behind his eyes.
"I'm sorry, I am bitter. That's partially what this whole trip back to Iran is about. I am sorry for what you had to go through." he said.
"No that's OK, you're right actually, the politicians have used and ruined religion, why do you think I am way out here in the middle of no where?" the mollah said forgivingly.
"So is that it? They assigned you to some mountain village and you get to swim in the summer?" he added pathetically.
"No," the mollah smiled, "I chose this assignment, because this is where my mother came from. But for the most part it is a quiet simple life. I was unable to really do much of anything after the war. I started swimming when I found the pool in this old house, and it kind of saved me."
"But it's good that you came back to Iran again." The mollah smiled and looked him in the eyes. "Maybe this trip will save you too, after all this is your home."
"Actually, my home is in America now." he replied shortly at the invasion.
"No, don't say that, Iran is your home, it will always be your home. This is where your family came from." He smiled, almost half baiting him now.
"No, you will forgive me, but, I don't think that this is my home anymore. My family is in America too." he said, taking the bait fully.
"Are you serious? You mean to tell me that you really don't feel that Iran is your home anymore?" the mollah asked convincingly curious.
He looked at the mollah before answering. Without his turban and cloak on, he looked just like any other man. "Mr. Hossein, are you asking me as a mullah or as a man?" he grinned at the grin that quickly appeared on the mollah's face again.
"Whatever makes you more comfortable." the mollah replied as the grin turned into a mollah's smile. He opened his mouth to say something.
"Actually it doesn't really make any difference." he cut him off. "Between me, you and god, you will forgive me, but I simply don't think Iran is all that healthy, under your eslam. Again, please forgive my speaking to you like this.
There was silence. The mollah looked at him, the mollah smile turning back into a grin, and he said, "Well then I suggest we settle this like Michael Phelps would."
"What, you want to race?" he said.
"Yes, and let's bet on it. I win, you give me, god, and eslam a second chance." the mollah said pulling up his now dried Speedo.
"And what if I win" He asked as he got up and ran over to the end of the pool and started swinging his arms to loosen up.
"You win, and dinner's on me! 1-2-3 GO!" as they dove into the water, shattering the mirror.
They pounded the water with their fists as they swam to the end of the pool. As they got closer and closer, they both began laughing under the water, and as they came up for the final stretch to hit the wall, they both suddenly stopped and looked up at each other, realizing that they were each trying to let the other win.
"See! You mollahs are all corrupt at the roots!" he said as he fell backward gasping and laughing.
"And you diaspora-Iranians are free to be liars!" the mollah guffawed.
The horn of the bus interrupted their laughter. "Shit! That's my bus! I have to go!" he said as he jumped out of the pool, and grabbed his clothes and started hopping as he pulled up his pants. "Good bye Mr. Hosein, thanks for the swim!" he yelled over his shoulder as he ran up the balcony and back through the sitting room. He ran out the front doors, and sprinted down the road towards the birches and the cafe. By the time he got there, he had just a shirt and pants on, and sat on one of the cafe chairs and began to pull on his socks and shoes. The tourists were already on the bus, and they all looked at him angrily through the tinted windows. He grabbed the other sock and shoe, he would put it on once he was on the bus. He took his seat as the tourist he had given his lunch order to, handed him his lunch in a take-out package and his change with a dirty look for dessert.
The bus driver climbed into his seat. He put the bus in gear and there was a loud grinding and whining sound as the bus shook, shuddered, and jerked a few feet and suddenly stopped. The bus driver cursed quickly and quietly and jumped back out of his seat. A few minutes later he came back wiping his hands with a rag, grabbed the microphone, and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sorry but it looks like we're going to be spending the night here tonight, There is a very nice and clean Travelers Hospitality hotel nearby, I spoke to the cafe owner and he has gone to get some cars from the village to pick you up and take you to the hotel. I also spoke with the local mollah, and he has invited you to be his guests for dinner tonight. I will have us back up and running again in the morning."
He grinned as the passengers groaned and got up to get out of the bus again. He waited until everyone had gotten off, using the time to get dried and dressed. When he finally stepped off the bus, he walked over to the other passengers as the first of the cars began pulling up. The mollah, in full cloak and turban now, was directing the convoy, and looked at him, pointed up at the sky, shook his head and grinned.
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