First published, The Third Script (Transportation Press)
By Siamak Vossoughi
There was a young man and an old man at war, and they were the same man, seventy-nine-year-old Rahim Hashemi. The war was on his face. It was beautiful and terrible to see. The war could be seen by his wife and his children and the plumber who stood in his kitchen telling him that it would cost eight hundred dollars to clear out the pipes below his house. The plumber did not know how or why it was a war. He was a white American man who wanted to go home to his wife. He did not know that for seventy-nine years Rahim Hashemi had not been the kind of man who said ah, the world is full of men who will lie and cheat. He had not said it because he knew what happened to the men who said it. It was as clear as day: The men who said ah, the world is full of men who will lie and cheat lost hope. They became heartbroken and lonely, although they did not know that was what it was. He did not know how they met a single day with the full force of life, to be honest.
He could only remember dimly how he would’ve seen the plumber as a young man. The money aside. It was not really the money he was worried about. It was the world they would be left with. He could remember that as a young man he would’ve somehow been able to see the desperation in the plumber. And that would’ve helped Rahim to hate a system that had made him desperate. He knew that the system thrived on man’s suspiciousness of man, on making men small and desperate and rat-like. And so it was defeating a system to not hold a man’s desperation against him. It had almost been easy to do it: You built yourself up every time you refused to believe that man was small.
But he could not see any desperation in the plumber standing in the kitchen. He looked young and fit and strong, and sure in himself that the cost was eight-hundred dollars. Rahim wondered if the system had become so entrenched that men did not show the desperation on their faces anymore. At the same time he felt a great desperation on his own face. Maybe he had lost somehow. Maybe he should’ve been one of those men who said the world is full of men who will lie and cheat all this time.
He looked at his wife and children. They must remember, he thought. They must remember what we could do when a family refused to believe that man was small. He looked on their faces to find some reflection of that old belief. But they were too occupied by seeing that war in him. They knew it was bigger than any war in them. In their own ways his wife and his son and his daughter had all refused to believe that man was small, but none of them with his stakes and none for so long. None of them had tried to take the belief that man was not small and build a new system with it back in their own country. They did not know if they were qualified to help.
But he could not look past the man standing before him the way he once could. He does not care, Rahim thought. He does not care if he leaves and I say that the world is full of men who will lie and cheat. He does not care if I take that belief with me to another man, or to my wife or to my children.
Why don’t they see it, he thought. Why don’t they see that we are all connected to each other, and that what one of us gives to another, the other will give to someone else? Meaning that it is all in our hands, this whole business of life is in our hands.
If only the plumber was not so blank-faced, he thought. If only he had that little twitch of desperation and life that revealed that he wanted more from the world than this too. That was what he remembered from back home. They wanted to be more than small and afraid, even if they did not know how to get there. And so it had been very natural for Rahim and the young men he knew to say, we’ll do it by being big and unafraid. Maybe that will mean death. Okay. Death is just death. It is not a man being small.
Those were the stakes that made his wife and his children afraid to say anything. They watched in awe at how the plumber didn’t know any of it. It was hard to know what his stakes were. He worked for a company that had decided that this would be an eight-hundred-dollar job. He wanted to hurry up and go home.
Seventy-nine years old, Rahim thought. How many men have I known who have lied and cheated? I don’t know because I never kept track. I had a brother who kept track. And I saw that that became all you did if you did that. But there was something else of which I wanted to keep track.
He looked at the people in the room to remind him what that thing was. It had a human face, he knew that much. He remembered faces from his youth, faces that hadn’t looked small even when they were standing across from death. So why was an overcharged plumber’s estimate doing this to his face now?
It was because all that stuff hadn’t added up to anything. Seventy-nine years old and man was just as desperate as when he was a boy. So what had his life meant? The young man he had been would never have believed it. He would’ve laughed at the thought. Man? he would’ve said. We’re going to show what he can be.
“Eight-hundred dollars?” Rahim Hashemi said.
“That is the price, sir.”
Didn’t he deserve to say it? Didn’t he deserve to say out loud after all this time that these men were crooks? Didn’t he deserve to say it in front of his family so that they would know what kind of a world they were dealing with?
They made it very hard to remember that other thing. That was what he wanted the plumber to know. You are making it very hard for me to love man. That love could survive anything when I was young, but now I am old. It could survive anything because I didn’t think it would be a question of survival when I was old. I thought it would have a chance to do more than survive. I thought it could sit back and breathe. But it’s the same world. It’s the same world and man is still desperate and clawing and the worst part is that he is at ease with his desperation. You don’t even see it on his face anymore.
“I cannot pay this,” Rahim Hashemi said.
“Sir, the pipe will get backed up again if it isn’t cleared out.”
“I am sorry.”
He looked at his wife and children with a hope that they understood. He was too tired to fight a war. At least if the plumber left, he could fight it on his own terms. He could remember the young man, and the ease with which the young man would have glided over the situation. The young man would have said it is not the plumber, it is the manager in an office making a decision. And he would have said it is not the manager in an office, it is the owner of the company. And it is not the owner of the company, it is the man at the top. And the man at the top, we’re just going to get rid of him, that’s all.
No need for any dramatics.
He felt embarrassed about his own dramatics now, but it wasn’t just embarrassment for himself. He felt embarrassed for man. If men weren’t going to show their desperation on their faces anymore, somebody had to do it. To remind them, in case they didn’t remember, that at the end of this thing was death. He looked at the people in the room and he thought that they must know, even the blank-faced plumber. So there was no point in not going to the heights of a love for man. He’d had to spend his life there because it seemed like the only other option was to spend it at the depths. That was how it had looked to him. If there was some place else, he wanted them to know, I didn’t know what it was. Maybe I should’ve. Maybe I should’ve been the kind of man who would let the plumber do his job and then pay him and then grumble to anybody who would listen about all the liars and crooks. But my life couldn’t go that way. I had to take a side. I know it seems crazy to take a side when it comes to the cost of unclogging a pipe, but this is the side I’m on just now, and it’s the side of life. Believe me. I’ve taken that side before. Man is not a liar and man is not a crook. I set out with that belief a long time ago and it has gotten me here. Seventy-nine years. You have to show the men who have given up that you have not given up. That is the only way. It does not matter that he is young and I am old. He has forgotten how to be desperate. He does not know that I learned from beautifully desperate men how to be desperate. From men who were so desperate that you could not find a trace of desperation on their faces. That kind of desperation has to survive. We will call up another plumber tomorrow and he will offer us a reasonable price, and if he does not, we will call until we find someone who does. This is the time to be strong. Anybody can grumble about man, but this is the time for action.
It didn’t matter if he lived to see the time when men showed what man could do. It only mattered that he believed in it. He was an old man now and he could not take the kinds of actions he could when he was young. But it was the young man and the old man coming together when he told the plumber politely and respectfully that he could not pay eight-hundred dollars to unclog the pipe. His wife and his children saw the fire he had had back then. Just for a moment though. He had always believed in the low, constant blaze. He knew that man already counted for something without him. He was there just in case. Just in case anybody in the world forgot, which they did every day, that man was not born to be a thief. If it took a war inside himself to do that, that was all right.
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From THE THIRD SCRIPT, stories from Iran, Tasmania & the UK.