An excerpt from Sons and Other Flammable Objects

While many of his hells were easy to automatically blame on Darius Adam, this one actually was his father’s fault. After all, it happened in another summer of Darius Adam’s extreme seasonal restlessnesses, when he’d spend empty hours flipping through the few old pictures they had of Iran, not just to see them, but to inspect them: the background minutiae, scraps of homeland foliage carelessly captured, blurs of background people caught in their own frozen moments unaware, a sidewalk, a storefront, the sky. He’d observe how it was different, or how it was not really different and how annoying that was. He would try to inject himself into that world and imagine himself then, and there, but this time with the awareness that it would all be lost. Only once in a while would Darius Adam allow the feelings to bubble up and take him over, make him drive to a Middle Eastern convenience store, ignore the helpful Arabs, rush for the packets of saffron and sumac and hold them hard in his hand, sniff deeply, and stumble out, like a mad-man in a nonsensical dream, feeling mildly shitheaded at the stunt but somehow satisfied by another scratch at an inconsolable itch.

It was his alone—Lala had rid herself of longing somehow, perhaps by her talent for never thinking too deeply, he thought—but he, he was stuck, and what isolated him further was the knowledge that that sickness, that deep aching lust for something as complex and impossible and maybe nonexistent as a homeland, was something his own child would never understand.

At those times the only relief would be to divorce himself from the self they knew—father, husband, teacher, whatever—and become the most abstract thing of all: an Iranian. His national identity, he would work to become that and that alone, a part of a nation, a patriot—he would work to shed any and all individuality and concentrate on what he could do to link himself with a pulseless, purely conceptual thing. He became it, high on a pole, far far away in his native wind, waving—he was red, he was white, he was green, he was the gold lion, he was the gold sun, he was the gold sword—and it was enough.

Xerxes Adam never had any knowledge of this mania that made his father suggest the protest in the first place. All he knew was that it was another season of consistent uneasiness and upheaval on his father’s part, when Xerxes and his mother would have to fill the dinner conversations with idle chatter, back and forth, volleying blank statement for another blank reply, question and answer, laughter and coughs, anything to avoid a window of silence where Darius Adam could enter with something horrible and demanding and beyond them.

Like the protest. It came on one of those faceless all-vacation summer mornings, he remembered, when his father came to breakfast in a tie and dress slacks, very very awake.

“Okay, then, go ahead, tell us what this is about,” Lala snapped after a moment, sick of waiting for the tense Darius, who was restlessly thumbing the hard layer of his toast, to give in.

That was all he needed. “Eat but then get dressed,” Darius rose suddenly. “We have somewhere to go.”

Lala and Xerxes both involuntarily glanced at each other. It was going to be bad.

“Would you like to tell us where?” she dared ask.

Darius Adam cleared his throat with an unsettling formality. With one hand in a ceremonial fist, he said it: “A protest.”

If it had been uttered in English, Lala Adam could have used the opportunity to shoot her usual venom, make a joke about “protesting” (her protesting that idea, that the only thing she had to protest was him, that did protesting a protest cancel them out, ha, ha—ah, language, Xerxes thought), but unfortunately he had said tazahorat and the Farsi word for protest, as in dissent, was altogether different from the word for a rally in which an assumedly large mob gathers in the spirit of some professedly necessary negation of something definitely larger and more necessarily negative than them.

The young Xerxes was at an age where even the slightest aroma of violence had some inexplicably potent allure—even though this was a kid who was watching a 1960s genie play wife, not playing military video games—so somehow the notion of a protest, something he had only vaguely known from history books and the news, did hold a secret appeal. His better judgment—his self self—told him that since it was so adamantly endorsed by his father it could very well be something he would not like, but his plain self—the generic surface one, the one that made him eat candy and hate vegetables and resent math and fear girls, like everyone—that one wanted it.

“It is up to Xerxes,” Lala had announced. Deep in her eyes Xerxes saw that she did not want this thing in her day, a day that could be pleasantly, uneventfully spent at grocery stores and malls, in the dumb lull of errands. Between event and unevent, Lala always chose the latter. So she shut up and shrugged and looked to her son, nervously.

She was always tossing the ball into his court, setting him up, wiping her hands of things by wiping the shit on him, his fucking mother. Xerxes, disgusted yet somewhat excited by the illogic of masochism and the thrill of self-defeatism, cleared his own throat and said sweetly, “Sure, Dad.”

The first tip-off that this could be a bad day was that Darius Adam showed no visual signs of pleasure at his son’s uncharacteristic acquiescence.

They went. It was more than Xerxes had imagined. For two hours they stood among screaming dark-haired people that, yes, looked like him, maybe even sounded like him, but were strangers and strange strangers at that. Every few minutes Darius Adam would grip his son’s shoulder, and with a proudness that Xerxes found embarrassing, utter, “These people are more like you than anyone on this earth. These people are us!” It was a thought Xerxes found overwhelming as he glanced at the veiny old ladies with beak-like hooked noses and hunched backs but with raised fists bobbing in the air next to the even higher raised fists of men his father’s age, men with animal passion and ferocious barks, flanked by whistling wives waving their homemade Iranian flags, egging them on. Underneath them all there were others like Xerxes: clueless, numb, suddenly mute children, who, even though they understood both the Iranian chants and the precarious English doggerel of “Uni-ted Na-tions / pay more atten-tion,” were doomed to a counterfeit feeling, like uninvited ghosts, extras, like real people interrupting a world of Technicolor animation. This was not theirs. Xerxes amused himself by contemplating the nature of the role reversal—his usually rabble-rousing brethren suddenly turned into the reserved, composed grown-ups in a world where the adults were suddenly cussing, crazed, practically rock-hurling exhibitionists. No, there were no rocks thrown and what cussing there was they didn’t fully understand—their parents never taught them those words—but the craziness, the exhibition, it was there. His parents immediately took their roles: Darius roaring along with the crowd, wearing that strange adult facial expression that was both grin and grimace; his mother nodding, laughing in a way that looked like crying, mouthing the shouts with closed eyes. Cars, full of oblivious Americans, drove by them, slowing down—the occupants with craned necks, reading signs, listening to slogans—and then speeding off. Occasionally a car would honk and everyone would turn and cheer the car on, the driver undoubtedly one of them. It was a strange world, the universe of the protest, with its undefined urgency and muddled messages and aimless energy. He thought about asking his father, Dad, what the hell are we Iranians protesting anyway, but he thought he knew the answer and that it was something vague but important like injustice, unfairness, dying, wars, et cetera. Even at that age, he knew a way of dealing with it was to just not hear it.

That was the first hour: consuming at least, and at best, Xerxes thought. The second hour things changed—a man with a microphone got up on the Federal Building steps and spoke on and on about specific problems that Xerxes had heard enough about to at least be able to stomach, about the tyranny of ayatollahs, about Islam gone bad, about American indifference, about revolution. “I am tired!!” he would say in Farsi; “I am tired!!” he would then say in English. He was buried among the mob of dark nodding heads—Xerxes tried to see him at first and then just amused himself with the disembodied voice’s invisibility. “We are nothing to them!!” he would shriek in Farsi; “We are nothing to them!!” he would shriek in English. For a while Xerxes tuned him out, a bit bored, and thought about school and what TV shows were on then, and conjured a particularly incredible Lego blueprint for a space station in his mind, and suddenly couldn’t wait to go home. But on went the voice: “Do you hear this?!” Xerxes tugged a bit at Lala’s sleeve, and she ignored him. “Hope!!” The crowd roared back, “Hope!!”—enchanted by this man and his bilingual rants. Xerxes, frustrated, finally tried to get on his tiptoes to take a look at this guy—maybe that was part of the allure for the entranced adults, the guy’s visuals—and at the very moment Xerxes caught a quick glance at the man’s sweating swarthy mustached face and balding head and red, red T-shirt—he remembered the appropriate red, remembered trying to imagine the man picking out that shirt before he went out that day, the calculation and symbolism and visual effect of the red, chilling—at that very moment, the man raised a bottle full of something that everyone thought okay, sure, maybe water, but wasn’t, and poured it over himself and then with the same hand fingered a lighter, and went flash—lighter, then shirt, then man—and in a hissing phoo-phoo-phoooooosh of white and red and black, was gone: lion, sword, sun, a man in a split-second flick become flame, to the paralysis of an audience of good citizens, in that unfortunate moment when Xerxes had to look—just moments before Lala’s motherly reflex made her drop a trembling hand to his eyes—just in time to look and see man become a flamboyant zero like the magic trick of his dreams. Those seconds so thoroughly pierced themselves a slot in the easy mold of a child’s mind that off and on for years he could not escape the thought of the man, his impassioned auto-cannibalistic tada! and the old anti-lesson of what happened when the world cared too much: it burned, it crumpled, it disappeared.

“What did you see?” his mother demanded on the ride home. Instead of saying nothing, he professed everything.
 Darius attempted to console both of them by saying it was nothing they hadn’t seen before—and, well, he was right—the news, movies, cartoons, nightmares. “So this was just live. It was no realer. Forget it,” he said, “like everything else we watch, just forget it.”

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area. Her novels include Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion. She is currently Writer in Residence at Bard College and a Contributing Editor at The Offing, a new channel of the LA Review of Books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *