My father said his new friend, Mr. Sharifi, was an “exile.” I didn’t understand. It was Saturday morning and my father, my mother, and I were sitting at the breakfast table. Last night, an unbelievable thing had happened and my father had not come home for dinner. Instead, he had called to tell my mother that he and Mr. Sharifi were going out for a few beers, and then going to grab a pizza. “Well I think that’s wonderful!” my mother had said, once into the phone and then once to me. “I’m always telling your father he should have some friends.” I had friends in the neighborhood and at school, and my mother had lady friends she went out to lunch with sometimes, but I took it for granted that grown men didn’t have any friends at all. “I’m a lone wolf,” my father would always say.
I knelt on my chair, which I wasn’t supposed to do but which was the way I liked best to sit. I poured milk on my corn flakes, holding the carton with both hands. At breakfast, it was my job to watch for the first sign of smoke coming out of the toaster, which sat on a counter behind my mother. She would then reach around and force the lever up. Sometimes she would have to fish the toast out with a knife. “Don’t ever put anything metal in the toaster,” she would tell me, poking the knife in deep. She said only she was able to do this safely, because she knew just how to keep from being electrocuted.
“Tell us about this Reza Sharifi,” my mother said, testing the temperature of her coffee.
My father told us that years ago, when Mr. Sharifi was a student, he had written some political things, and participated in some activities, and that ever since he was not welcome in his country. The name of the country meant nothing to me, but my mother’s eyebrows went up and down once. Now he taught social studies in the same school district where my father was the director of art instruction. Their paths might never have crossed, except that Mr. Sharifi was spending the summer revising the high school curriculum on ancient history, and asked my father to create some new visual aids. The project appealed to my father, who called himself a “history buff.” In the evenings, he sat reading books as thick as the dictionary, with tiny print you could hardly see. At dinner, he would begin conversations with “Did you know…?” and then would relate some odd fact he had just learned, such as that the year 1752 had had only 354 days because right in the middle they changed the calendar, or that the shortest war on record was between Britain and Zanzibar in 1896 and lasted only 38 minutes. “Reza was telling me all about Zoroastrianism,” my father said now. “Quite possibly the world’s first monotheistic religion.”
“Imagine that,” my mother said, her usual reply.
After breakfast, he announced he was going to fix the metal shelves where my mother used to keep rows of spray cans and liquid cleaners and polishes. These were the same shelves he had ripped down one Sunday afternoon awhile ago during an argument with my mother, sending cans and bottles flying, their lids popping off and rolling in all directions. When he was finished fixing the shelves, he patched the fist-sized hole in the laundry room wall, which had been there so long it had started to grow cobwebs. Then he even replaced the glass in the kitchen window where a heavy metal serving platter had gone sailing through one late night.
“The important thing,” my mother told me once, “is that he takes out his frustrations on things instead of people. As long as he does that, it’s OK.” She even bought a whole set of Corelle dinnerware. “Look,” she said to me happily, opening the box and dropping a bowl, which bounced on the floor. “Now we don’t have to worry about the dishes anymore.”
In the midst of every outburst, my father would suddenly stop, as if waking up from walking in his sleep. Leaving the broken shards where they lay, he would disappear into his basement art studio and lock the door. My mother would clean up the mess. Much later, he would reemerge, smiling and calm, and all of us would proceed as though nothing had happened
We were in the car headed for Mr. Sharifi’s house, so he could meet my mother and me. My father was at the wheel. The road was winding and hilly, and the car looped and careened, making my stomach rise up with weightlessness. It was my favorite kind of riding. I was eager to see what kind of a house Mr. Sharifi would live in, and what he himself would look like. Finally we pulled into the driveway of a very small house with a front yard that sloped sharply up from the narrow street. Shingled in redwood, and hidden among trees and flowers, it looked like a little cabin nestled in woods, rather than a simple house on an ordinary street. The driveway was so steep that my father had to set the handbrake, and the car doors were heavy to push open.
Mr. Sharifi turned out to be a small man with honey-colored skin like my mother’s. My father and I had “Irish skin” from his mother, pale and with a little red in it, and we always had to be careful about sunburns. But my mother’s skin could darken gently from butterscotch to walnut. Also like my mother, Mr. Sharifi had a mound of jet-black hair that shone like a pool of oil. He welcomed us with a soft voice, and he had a slight accent, pronouncing “th” like “d,” and giving a slight roll to his r’s.
Inside the house, a big plate of cookies was already waiting for us on the coffee table. I wanted to kneel in front of it right away and start eating, but instead Mr. Sharifi gave us a tour. The house had only two bedrooms, one converted into a study. I was used to visiting the houses of my uncles and aunts, where all the additional bedrooms were filled with cousins. I couldn’t seem to picture how the house was being cared for. My father never operated a vacuum cleaner or washing machine or oven. He never watered a plant or put flowers in a vase. He never stacked up magazines into a tidy pile, cleaned the bathroom, or waxed the kitchen floor. He never went to the grocery store and brought home a week’s worth of food, or went to JC Penney’s to buy his clothes or underwear or socks. He never cooked a dinner, or made a sandwich, or put cookies out on a plate. But Mr. Sharifi, who lived all alone, must do all these things himself.
On the ride here, my mother had expressed concern that I would be bored at Mr. Sharifi’s, where it was unlikely that there would be any toys or anyone my age to play with. But Mr. Sharifi’s house was full of fascinating things — vases and urns with complicated patterns, glass tea cups rimmed with gold, chess sets with carved pieces. But most fascinating of all was his collection of hourglasses. Other than in the Wizard of Oz, I had never seen an hourglass before. Mr. Sharifi had dozens and dozens of them, in all shapes and sizes and designs. He explained that he had collected many of them while traveling, and the rest he had received as gifts. They were everywhere in his house: on shelves covering an entire wall of his kitchen, along the mantel above the fireplace in his living room, on shelves above his desk in his study, and there was a huge hourglass, half as tall as me, standing on the floor outside his bedroom door.
“Would you like to try one?” Mr. Sharifi asked me. I nodded without taking my eyes off a small yellow one with the heads of tropical birds carved into the wooden sides. “When all the sand gets to the bottom, it means three minutes have gone by.”
“And your egg is done,” my mother laughed.
I stood watching as the sand trickled through the narrow neck into the bulb below.
“Try any of them you like,” Mr. Sharifi said “The big one on the floor by my bedroom lasts a whole hour.”
“Well, that should keep him amused for a while,” my mother said.
The grown-ups went to talk in the kitchen, while I made my way through Mr. Sharifi’s house, turning over all the hourglasses. Each time, I was mesmerized as the sand trickled in a thin stream, forming a cone-shaped pile in the bottom globe. The necks that bottled the sand in the top were so narrow they were almost closed off, yet grain by grain the sand always managed to get through.
At one point, I became aware of my mother calling to me that it was time to eat. Reluctantly, I appeared in the kitchen. But Mr. Sharifi had prepared a plate for me, with half a tuna fish sandwich and a pile of potato chips, and told me I could continue to play with the hourglasses instead of sitting at the table.
“Now don’t get crumbs all over,” my mother said.
I carried my plate down the hallway toward the big hourglass outside Mr. Sharifi’s bedroom. I set my plate aside on the floor, then lifted the hourglass, which was very heavy. With some difficulty, I managed to turn it over. I sat in front of it, watching the sand particles fall. I began to munch my sandwich. Occasionally, the grown-ups’ distant laughter murmured at the other end of the hallway. If I listened closely, I thought I could hear the shhhh of the slipping sand.
Soon my sandwich was gone, and the chips were gone, but still the sand was falling. It would take a long time for this hourglass to empty from top to bottom, a whole hour Mr. Sharifi had said. I became aware of Mr. Sharifi’s bedroom door standing open on my right. From where I sat, I could see that his bedroom windows were covered by gauzy curtains, and outside the windows were thick leafy trees that crowded close so that the room was almost dark even though it was the height of the afternoon. The room had not been part of the tour. I had an urge to go inside. I heard another burst of laughter from the kitchen. Leaving my plate on the floor, I got up, and crossed the threshold.
Like the rest of the house, his bedroom was very tidy. The rug was very soft under my feet, and was covered with intricate designs. Even in the dim light, the colors were rich — deep reds and golds, turquoise, yellow, black. He had a bed with a fuzzy white spread, and there was a wooden dresser with a pair of heavy-looking hourglasses on top, filled with blood red sand. Above the dresser was a round mirror. When I stood right in front of the dresser and went up on my toes, I was just high enough to rest my chin upon its smooth top. I looked at myself in the mirror and made faces.
I jumped. My father was standing in the bedroom door.
“Patrick, don’t play in Mr. Sharifi’s bedroom.”
“I wanted to see the hourglasses.”
“There are plenty of hourglasses in the other rooms.”
I went back into the hallway and sat in front of the big hourglass, which still had most of its sand suspended in its upper chamber. Suddenly I was bored and angry, and all I wanted to do was go home. When we were finally standing in the living room near the front door, saying our thank yous and good-byes, there were sudden loud popping sounds from the direction of the front window. We all turned to look, and saw huge smears of yellow and white streaming down the glass. Immediately, Mr. Sharifi yanked open his front door and ran out onto the small stoop calling “Hey!” There was a long pause, and then he came back in, shutting the door behind him.
“How terrible!” my mother exclaimed. “Why would someone hit your windows with eggs? How terrible!”
Mr. Sharifi rubbed his hand through his hair. His face was red and angry.
“Come on, let’s get a ladder and clean that off,” my father said.
“No, please. I’ll do it,” he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Please, let’s not let this ruin a nice afternoon. You go ahead. I’ll take care of it.”
My parents were looking at the window but Mr. Sharifi was looking at the floor. His face had smoothed out but now his ears flamed scarlet right to where their tips poked at the little silver triangles at the sides of his hair. No one noticed me wiping my hands, which had gone sweaty, on the coarse linen of my pants.
Finally my parents gave in, and we climbed down the front stairs to our car. My mother turned back to wave, but I saw her eyes drift again to the huge mess on the window. As we pulled away, she commented, “I hope he gets that off of there soon, or it’s going to bake in the sun. Then he’ll never get it clean.”
My mother announced that she was going to invite Mr. Sharifi for a barbecue, and would also invite her friend Miss Petit. My mother spent all morning preparing. She made a whole flock of sandwiches, and then cut off all the crusts, which completely shocked me. How could it suddenly be all right to throw away the crusts? Usually I had to stay at the table and eat my crusts, every last bite. She insisted that my father get very dressed up: fresh shave, white shirt, necktie. Grumbling, he moved from the bedroom to the bathroom and back again in his white shirt and boxer shorts, the shirt billowing out around him like a barber’s smock. My mother clipped on her earrings and fitted her feet into her highest high-heeled shoes. Her friend Miss Petit arrived in a cloud of perfume, cinched tightly into a dress that tapered narrowly to her waist before puffing out over her hips in a cloud of swishy material. Mr. Sharifi showed up in cutoffs, sandals, and a plaid short-sleeved shirt open to his chest. “Oh dear,” he said, when he saw the others. “I think I underdressed. You said barbecue. I thought…”
My mother released a musical laugh that I did not recall ever having heard before, and said there was no problem at all. However, as she handed Mr. Sharifi out the back door to the patio, she turned to throw a furious look toward my father, who shrugged his shoulders.
My mother had arranged four folding chairs so that they faced each other two by two. She put Miss Petit and Mr. Sharifi in one pair, then set down a tray containing iced tea, a pile of Triscuit crackers, and a ball of wine-infused cheese with broken nut meats pressed into the sides. There was no chair for me, nor anything of interest for me to eat. My mother handed me a glass of cherry Kool Aid, settled into a chair next to my father, and the adults started talking, and every once in a while my mother would laugh like a tinkling bell. Soon Miss Petit was laughing exactly the same way.
I found a place off to the side and sat on the grass sipping my sweet red drink. Mr. Sharifi’s legs were so lovely that I couldn’t stop looking at them. They had such a nice shape and the black hair on them looked so soft and silky that I wanted to pet them. At one point Mr. Sharifi excused himself and disappeared inside. The bathroom window, although high up, opened above the patio, and suddenly we all heard the loud and distinct sound of Mr. Sharifi streaming into the bowl. It was thunderous, rumbling, just like my father sounded when I heard him through the bathroom door. My own always sounded light, unsure, weak by comparison. That was the difference, I thought, between men and boys. My mother began to talk loudly, joined by Miss Petit. Then we heard the toilet flush, and the sink ran for a long time. Finally, Mr. Sharifi reappeared. He saw me looking up at him, and smiled at me as he sat down.
Eventually, my father was sent to light the grill and throw on the steaks.
“Why don’t I help with that,” Mr. Sharifi said. But my mother said she wouldn’t hear of it, and refilled his iced tea glass.
I wandered over to where my father was poking at the slabs of raw beef with a metal spatula.
“So are Mr. Sharifi and Miss Petit going to get married?” I asked.
My father shook his head. “Your mother,” he said.
A few days after the barbecue, I asked my father, “Can you and Mr. Sharifi take me swimming at the lake?” Always, taking me swimming was the province of my mother and Grandma Habib. As far as I knew, I had only seen my father in a bathing suit once. It was during our one and only family outing to the lake, a Fourth of July holiday picnic. According to the tiny date printed on the border of the photos of the event, it was when I was three years old. My father always took the pictures in our family — it was his camera and he didn’t want anyone touching it. But there was one picture, which must have been taken by my mother, of my father crouching bare-chested on the sand, me standing between his thighs, his arms folded protectively around me. Both of us are smiling broadly. Now, when my parents weren’t looking, I would pull out the big photo album just to gaze at the picture. I wished I could remember the occasion, but I didn’t remember it at all.
My mother began to argue against the idea, saying that Mr. Sharifi would be too busy, that she knew my father hated the lake and hated swimming, that she would be glad to take me if I wanted to go.
“No!” I said. “I want Dad and Mr. Sharifi to take me.”
My father and mother looked at me in surprise. I even felt a little surprised myself.
“It’s OK,” my father finally said to my mother. “He just wants it to be a guy thing. An afternoon out with the boys. I understand.” Then he turned to me. “You talk nicely to your mother or nobody’s going anywhere. Apologize.”
I said I was sorry. It was a very small price to pay.
The following Saturday, I was walking out of the lake parking lot in between my father and Mr. Sharifi. Mr. Sharifi and I were wearing flip flops that thwacked as we made our way across the street to the wide expanse of lawn that descended to the sand at the shoreline. The lake was manmade, created to generate electricity from water power, but swimming was permitted at the edges. All three of us were wearing our bathing trunks; I had on a big T-shirt, and my father and Mr. Sharifi wore colorful Hawaiian shirts that caught the breeze as we walked. My father gripped a stack of beach chairs under his arm, and Mr. Sharifi carried a Styrofoam cooler that sloshed and rattled, as soda cans bobbed in melting ice.
When we got to the sand and my father and Mr. Sharifi took off their shirts, they looked so different from each other that I was startled. My father was all bone and sinew, and white as a glass of milk. Mr. Sharifi was brown and rounded, with a carpet of black hair covering his chest and tummy and trailing all the way to his fingertips and toes. Mr. Sharifi asked me if I wanted him to buy me a hot dog, but I said I wanted to go swimming first and I knew you couldn’t eat and then go in the water. He went off to get snacks for himself and my father, and my father said to me, “Don’t stare at Mr. Sharifi like that.”
“I wasn’t,” I said.
He looked at me closely. “Mind your manners.”
I saw Mr. Sharifi, at a distance, starting on his way back, a hot dog in each hand.
“All right,” I said.
I pulled my T-shirt over my head, kicked off my flip-flops, and waded out into the lake. The water was cold and murky, full of silt. I lay backward into the water, and it closed around me. Kicking my feet slowly and extending my arms, I drifted a little way from the shore. By lifting my head just slightly, I could watch my father and Mr. Sharifi. They moved their webbed beach chairs close together and sat down. They were now barefoot, and their legs were almost, but not quite, touching. They had each popped open a can of soda and had twisted them into the sand by their feet to keep them upright. They munched on their hot dogs and talked. Occasionally, my father looked out to see where I was, then turned back to Mr. Sharifi. While I watched, Mr. Sharifi extended his legs and crossed his feet at the ankles. My dad stretched his legs out too. I was too far away to be sure, and maybe it was only my imagination, but it appeared to me that my dad was brushing his toes against Mr. Sharifi’s ankle. I put my feet down so I could stand up and see better, but all of a sudden there was no bottom there. My legs flailed around, but I had gone out too far. I thrashed my arms and legs and got a big mouthful of the brown water. I coughed and cried out, and then I went under. There was nothing solid anywhere. I spun inside the icy cold water. It squashed me, pushed to get inside me, scrunched inside my ears, wouldn’t let me go. Then all at once I felt myself being propelled. Water flew off and away from me. Gravity pulled my insides one way, while my body flew the other way.
“Patrick!” My dad was chest deep in the lake, holding me aloft. I wrapped my arms around his neck, coughing and gasping. I pushed my head into his shoulder. His body and legs made a loud gushing sound in the water as he waded back to the shore, his arms holding me up under my back and knees. Mr. Sharifi was near the shore, knee deep, saying, “Patrick, Patrick, are you all right? Ryan, is he all right?”
“He just went out a little too far, didn’t you, Champ?” my dad said, setting me down.
I stood, wobbly, as tiny ripples broke over my ankles.
Six days later, my father came home early from work. His face looked white and his mouth was sagging open. He walked right by where I lay on my tummy with a bowl of cereal in front of afternoon cartoons.
“What’s wrong?” I heard my mother ask from the kitchen. I knew just how to make my ears pick up their conversation instead of the TV. If there was going to be an argument, I never wanted the crashes to take me by surprise.
“Reza Sharifi,” I heard my father say. “He’s dead. Suicide, they said. Suicide.”
“Oh dear God,” my mother said.
I didn’t know what suicide meant. But I knew what dead was. Dead meant you wouldn’t see them again for a long, long time, not until you were dead too and saw them in heaven. Dead wasn’t supposed to happen to you until you were old. But sometimes, when things went all wrong, it could happen to you before then. It could happen when you were Mr. Sharifi’s age, or even my age. Once, out in front of our house, a speeding taxicab ran over a three-year-old boy who lived next door, and then he was dead too. I left the TV on, and my cereal bowl on the floor, and crept off to my bedroom. Quietly I closed the door, and got into bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Oh, Mr. Sharifi’s hourglasses! He loved them so much! And now someone that I didn’t know would come and box them all up and take them away and I would never see them again.