Tentmaking in Tehran

I met the man who called himself Mr. Hamidi in a teahouse in southern Tehran. At the teahouse, I lay on the couch under a watercolor painting of Ferdowsi square and drank tea through a sugar chunk. Ceiling fans chopped at the heat and a stereo coughed out Gypsy Kings. This was my favorite teahouse because of the easy route of escape—the kitchen exit led to busy streets. 

When Mr. Hamidi arrived, I identified him by the blue shirt. I told people what to wear but never what I would wear. He was young and Islamic stubble shaded his cheeks. He paused inside the entrance, so the sun clung to the back of his jeans while his head broke into the dark room. I watched his eyes. They looked only at the booths. Once, I met with someone who looked at the exits before the tables, and I had left without meeting him.

I stood and approached him.

“Mr. Raad?” he asked, which was the name I used in this country. “Salaam.”

Mr. Hamidi wore a smile so clean I suspected it. He was unmarried and claimed he worked as a cook in an Italian restaurant. In Dubai, where he stayed for one year, he learned how to cook Italian food. He listed many pastas: tortetelli, farfalle, rotelle, rigatoni. He wanted to create a new pasta, an Iranian pasta, for the glory of Persia. If he wanted to increase the glory of Persia he should make one in the shape of the bomb, I thought. While we talked, we ate dizi. My bowl needed more spice. My smart, kind, beautiful friend Yu, who was an excellent cook, made me spicier food. Mr. Hamidi praised my Farsi, and I taught him the Thai word for tea. We lowered our voices and discussed what he knew of Christianity. He knew little but was excited. He confessed he was not a good Muslim. Twice he cracked his knuckles all at once by squeezing one fist with the other hand, and the cracks were frightening.

“Jesus is Great,” he kept saying, as if this was a crazy idea. Perhaps he was not seeking to betray me. I told him how the Qur’an did not give grace to evildoers, but how it pointed to the grace of Christ. The music and other people made eavesdropping difficult, but Mr. Hamidi still glanced around nervously. Even though I was cautious about new members like Mr. Hamidi, his interest excited me. I had not scored a convert since my arrival seven months ago, and Mr. Hamidi was on the edge. I imagined guiding him to the crowds on the clouds.

I lit a Homa cigarette and he did the same. I hated smoking but it helped calm my Iranian friends. If this teahouse were safe, I would want Yu here with me. Mr. Hamidi started talking about the West, which he did not like because America bullied his country. “They are like nervous children pretending to be parents,” he said. He kept railing against America the hypocrite, only making an exception for some of their music and movies, and I kept my face sympathetic in order to avoid betraying myself. I had worked hard to erase my four years of America from my speech and to only mention Thailand. When he finished, I sympathized by saying that in Thailand, the farangs—especially Americans—danced over our beaches wearing skimpy swimsuits, and older Thais complained. We agreed: Americans pushed themselves into every country.

Mr. Hamidi insisted on paying for the meal three times. I refused three times. When he insisted a fourth time I knew he meant it, so I let him pay. He took out many coins—it seemed like thirty or more—to make the bill.

We stepped into the aggressive daylight. “I want to join a group,” he said. 

In each group, we studied the Word and hummed worship songs low enough that curious neighbors could not hear. My goal was to grow the group but every new member might be a spy. “It is best if you and I talk again,” I said.

When we left, we walked opposite ways. But after a few steps, I stopped. I had a suspicion. A suspicion of nothing. Still, I stood before a man selling hot beets and watched Mr. Hamidi. He walked head down, blinded by concentration, past the girls in pink chador and the flowering Cypress trees. I watched until he was nearly gone and thought I had watched for no reason. But before I turned away, he stopped in front of a charity box for Islamic offerings. They were blue, framed by yellow hands, and decorated many street corners. Mr. Hamidi dug into his pocket, searching for a coin. Finally, he found one, slipped it into the box, and continued. A shiver seized my legs. I thought that the teahouse man and the man giving money were not the same man.

~ ~ ~

In the afternoon, the wind slid off the Alborz mountains and delivered the smell of laundry from the textile factory next door. Forklifts grunted, lifting pallets of halal dolls, and workmen shouted insults as complex as poems. Inside the office, Ji worked. He was a tentmaker like me, a man working to support his ministry. While other missionaries lived on funding, their salaries determined by the price of a McDonald’s hamburger in their host country, we had to find jobs. Ji started this company as a front but soon made it real. He had always planned to minister in Iran, while I had fallen into this country by accident, because the missionary institute in India needed one spot filled in the Farsi class. Ji was having a coughing fit, which had gotten more frequent after three years in Tehran’s exhausting air. Despite the coughing, his eyes never left the computer screen. Many days he worked without breaks for twelve hours.

“I worry about this one,” I said in Farsi. “He acted like he was acting.”

“You know why I am not in Evin prison?” Ji said, leaning toward the computer screen. “Because I am anxious for nothing. I act as though I am not doing anything illegal.”

“I get tired from acting,” I said.

Ji pinched his chin, which he did when worried. “Why do you think he is a spy?”

I told him about the charity box.

“If he is a good Muslim, he will be a good Christian.”

“If he is too good a Muslim, he will betray Christians.”

Ji turned from the computer. “You worried too much about the last man and he never joined.”

“So I shouldn’t be careful?”

“No, be careful. Be very careful. Remember Nadarkhani.” This man of faith was arrested and threatened with execution. And six months ago in Qom the government arrested a homosexual, a Christian, and a man on the wrong side of politics. If foreigners like ourselves were caught, we would be charged with blasphemy or spying. 

Ji worked for a few more hours until he had another coughing fit and went home to his wife Yu. Twice a week I went home with him, and he and Yu sat close and laughed in unison so when I joined their laughter it sounded like an echo. It made me sad that Ji was so in love with Yu, because I wouldn’t want to hurt him. That night I left the warehouse late, when the subway was empty except for laughing girls with bright headscarves.

In my apartment building the stairwell smelled like esphand, the seeds burned to ward off evil spirits. My door only had two locks, which did not seem enough. Once in the apartment, I kept the lights off until I had checked the alley from the back window. My refrigerator had little food so I ate only rice and fruit. I set an empty plate across from me. At the language institute in India where they trained me, if an extra chair was available in a meeting, they would joke it was for the prophet Elijah. So this was Elijah’s plate. As I ate I talked to him: “Elijah, this city smells like a bus fart.” I wanted to talk to people back home in Thailand, but worried that the government would listen to my calls and arrest me. I knew the internet was monitored so I did not send emails. 

I was not always a nervous man. At the language institute in India, I was known as Mr. Funny. I plucked many jokes from the Word. “What person in the Word did not have a father or mother? Joshua, son of Nun.” That always made people laugh. At parties, I was the one who sang too loudly and made funny gestures. But in Iran, keeping so many secrets made me tight. Ji said, “You are too anxious, Raad.” Then he quoted from the Word about not being anxious for tomorrow. But I could not help being anxious, and convinced myself it was holy because otherwise I could not stay out of prison.

The smell of esphand had leaked from the hallway. I turned off the lights and checked the alleyway. The muezzin down the street wailed Islamic prayers, which reminded me to pray Christian prayers. When I crawled into bed, I prayed that I would not dream of Mr. Hamidi or Evin prison, but of the taste of the sea and colors of my childhood. 

~ ~ ~

My Tuesday meeting, near the park in Naziabad, was in an Eastern-bloc apartment next to a white building with Greek columns. I had been leading the group for several months and most of them were strong believers. Still, I had not told any of them about my time cleaning offices in New York. I talked only of the rambutans and water lizards of Thailand. Once I talked so much about currents and tides and brine, recalling my childhood on my father’s fishing boat in Ko Chang, that the men checked my neck for gills. 

Usually I approached this meeting by the blue subway line. But since I had given the Word to a man on the West side of the city, I took the red line and walked through the park. On the park rim, I bought a cup of rose ice cream from a man selling them off the back of his motorbike. 

At first I did not pay much attention to the beggar, who sat on the ground opposite the apartment with a small box for change and whose legs ended at the knees. The war with Iraq had required the sacrifice of many legs, just like the war in Cambodia. The beggar held a string of green beads. Twice every minute, after finishing his prayer, he shifted a bead from one side to the other. At first I thought his eyes were closed, but when he turned his head to look at someone I realized he was only pretending.

It seemed strange he would sit so close to our meeting place. Why not the grass? And honest people do not pretend to close their eyes. As one of the men of the meeting entered the apartment, the beggar thumbed a green bead. He did not slide another until a second man entered. Despite the rose ice cream, I began to sweat. He was perfect because no one would suspect a beggar. And what would happen when all the men arrived and the beads were pushed to one side? I imagined a van pulling up and men jumping out and shoving us into the van and no one hearing from us again.

I called the Iranian leader I had been training.

“Mr. Raad, when are you arriving?” he asked. I realized that if I told him about the green bead man, the group would spill out and walk quickly and stare at the beggar, and their fear would stink in the streets. So I said, “I am sick.” I told him to cancel the meeting.

“We will stay and have tea,” he said.

“No, send everyone home,” I said. Then I saw Mr. Hamidi. He walked on the rim of the park. Even though the air had begun to thicken into night, I could see he had the same blue jeans, gray shirt and firm legs. His presence was very suspicious. Perhaps he was helping the beggar. Though the two did not exchange glances, this only confirmed their talents for secrecy.

Mr. Hamidi stepped off the sidewalk and cars swerved before him and motorcycles after. Of course I followed. What else was I to do? I needed to protect myself and the meetings. My throat grew small and my breath quick. 

He went into an alley and I followed, even though it made me nervous. Alleys were for drug pushers, not tentmakers. Even though the alley curved, blocking my view of him, I could hear his sandals slap the ground. Someone whistled—a warning whistle? We exited onto a main street. I looked both ways and could not find him. Wait—in the distance, his back. I walked past an old door with a men’s knocker on one side and a women’s knocker on the other, and Mr. Hamidi turned on the street next to the Dark Owl teahouse. I hurried after him, doubting myself. What would I do if I caught him? No, I did not want to catch him. I just wanted proof. Proof that he was not who he said he was. Proof that I was not being anxious and suspicious.

The street poured through a brick arch into a broad square. A fountain sprayed in the middle. A couple touched briefly, then thought better of it. On the far end, topped by a dome, double doors led into a mosque where men bowed and rose, bowed and rose. I could not see Mr. Hamidi. The square was wide and he could not have crossed it. Unless he had run, there was nowhere he could have gone. It was as if he had disappeared into the air. I had lost him. No, he had lost me. I was turning in a large square, looking for a man I had met once and only followed because he might be tricking me, and I was now lost.

~ ~ ~

While Yu cooked with Chinese spices and hot oil, Ji and I played Go, placing our white and black stones on the grid. Ji kept surrounding and trapping my stones, and I could not escape. He played the game not with love but with longing for the place it reminded him of.

One month after I arrived in Tehran, Ji returned to China and came back with a wife. Yu was four or seven years younger. Either I had misheard or they had told me different numbers. She often massaged the top of Ji’s neck as though she loved that part of his body more than any other. And when they sat, he rubbed small circles on her knee as if polishing a valuable vase. Yu’s sneezes sounded petite. They were identical to the sneezes of my former girlfriend in New York. I loved this girl, but she did not want to return to Thailand or be a tentmaker, and so we parted on bad terms.

“Food,” Yu announced in Farsi, bringing three dishes to the table in quick order, and Ji nodded to confirm her pronunciation. Ji praised his wife often, and at the warehouse he never complained about her. In his view she was a holy object without flaw. I found her very beautiful because of how she treated Ji. To respect Ji, I had tried to reduce the frequency of my thoughts of her, but this effort failed. 

After Ji’s blessing, we ate. Even though my tongue longed for Thai flavors, Yu made tasty food. Breaded chicken and vegetable dumplings and bok choy with ginger and garlic. She looked at the food with shy pride.

“Sleeping? Eating?” Yu asked me in Farsi. When she did not know the words, she spoke in Chinese and Ji translated it into Farsi. And when I did not know the word in Farsi, I repeated the word in Thai to loosen my memory. With all these languages colliding, we laughed often.

“I sleep okay,” I said. I mimed the phrase by tilting my hand back and forth. “There are many things to be nervous about.”

Yu looked at her husband with worry. She knew any danger would spill onto him.

Ji swallowed a bite of bok choy. “You are still nervous about the new man,” he said.

“He followed me to the Tuesday meeting.”

Ji and Yu stiffened. “You are sure it was him?” Ji asked. “You are sure?”

“Perhaps it was not him. It was dark and he disappeared. But he wore the same jeans and his body looked the same.” 

“The same jeans?”

“Blue. Loose on his body.”

Ji settled back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “A farmer lived in the hills.”

“In China?” I asked.

“One day there was a revolution,” he continued. “A man in uniform came to town and told the villagers that the four olds were now forbidden—old customs, old cultures, old habits, old ideas. Forbidden! Killing these old ideas meant that the villagers could no longer keep their lineage books. But the farmer did not want to burn his lineage book. He respected his family too much. However, soldiers went to every house, and if they found any example of the four olds, they burned the house and beat the owner.

“So the farmer bought wood and built a secret space beneath his house. Also, he stopped bragging about his family history and spent time in the square, where he could see the soldiers coming. When others spoke about the four olds, he spoke harshly so no one suspected him, even though before he never supported the revolution.

“Then the official and soldiers came to the house. The official said everyone knew the farmer had bought wood and changed his talk, which meant he was hiding. So the soldiers found the secret space, burned the lineage book, and sent the man to a camp.”

 Ji looked sad. I suspected the story was not untrue. “See? It was not the search that caused worry, but worry that caused the search.” He eyed me across the table. “Look at your shoulders,” he said, and I dropped them. When he rubbed a finger over my eyebrow, folds fell from my face. “Are you sure you are called?”

This scared me. No one had ever questioned my calling. “Yes, yes, of course,” I said. But maybe he was right. My numbers were so low it made me doubt. Ji had converted households and ran five meetings. I had converted no one and ran only one meeting. Which made me feel like Mr. Hamidi was important. I wanted him to be safe so he could be converted. He seemed on the rim.

“Meet him one more time,” Ji said. “Then, if you still worry…” He fluttered his hand into the air like a spooked bird.

After dinner, Ji tried to clean the dishes but Yu, showing her usual eagerness to serve, pushed him from the kitchen. Ji and I retreated to the general room.

“Did you hear the news today?” Ji asked. He pretended to hold an object, clicking his tongue as he stuck it to a surface, and flung his hand out while making the noise of violence. 

We had talked about this warfare. Men on a motorbike stuck a bomb to the door of a scientist’s vehicle, one of the scientists working on the bomb. Some months ago, in the center of the city, I found plastic bits at my feet. I knelt and wiped some of the thick dust. It smelled like fireworks. At the nearby water pipe café, an old man with nostril hair like broom bristles announced the events of yesterday. Speaking through exhaled smoke, he said it was higher in pitch than a car crash. From the charred car four men had carried a wounded man. Three of the men had a limb to carry, but the fourth man, the one near where the left leg had been, had nothing to lift.

“It is sad,” Ji said. “But the more the Iranians worry about motorcycles with bombs, the less they will worry about men with Bibles.”

“Small bombs can’t fight big bombs forever,” I said. “And the Qur’an cannot keep the Bible out forever.”

“The Iranians worry about the wrong thing,” Ji said. “The most dangerous weapon is not bombs or tentmakers but culture. Young people here have sold their hearts to Hollywood and rock music and Coke. It changes them. Now, even some Basij sell alcohol rather than pouring it out.”

“But we also change culture.”

“We are not changing culture. We are changing hearts,” Ji said. “The human heart is the biggest bomb. You light the fuse and a whole country changes.”

Ji began coughing, and when he couldn’t stop he took a cylinder from his pocket and squeezed a blast into his mouth. He began breathing easier. “Good air,” he said, showing it to me.

When Yu handed me a dish with leftovers, our fingers touched. She sat next to her husband, eager to hear our conversation. She rubbed the hair on the back of Ji’s head and Ji made circles on Yu’s knee. They were a monument to happiness. In a gap in our conversation, Yu turned toward her husband with reverence in her eyes, and he smiled as though newly aware of himself as an object of love. I did not know whether I would ever reach that happiness, but closed my eyes and hoped some would drift to me.

~ ~ ~

Before siesta on Monday, I walked to my market, the one next to the mural praising the man with a bomb on his chest. I had seen this mural many times but not stopped to examine it. In the mural, the serious man walked with purpose toward a Star of David. Above him was a series of Arabic words, topped by promising clouds. I imagined that same man with the big bomb strapped to his back and thought it was not crazy to worry about such a man. Any sane country should worry about such a man. Such men wanted nothing but the destruction of the Zionists and the great Satan who supported the Zionists. But I wondered if a mural was made about me, whether Iranians would also worry. I imagined a painting of myself walking toward the Azadi Tower with a Bible strapped on my chest, and behind me, connected by ropes, I pulled a Statue of Liberty with the face of a skeleton and American movies with loose women. Some Iranians would fear that and I could understand why.

Inside the market several women wore their headscarves back, teasing men with a strip of hair. I was certain their shampoo would not smell as good as Yu’s. Unfortunately, the market did not carry Thai curry paste, so I bought Indian paste, the one closest in taste.

“Mr. Raad!”

I jumped, startled. It was Mr. Hamidi. He had Persian pudding and Coca-Cola in his basket. 

“You live close?” I said.

“No, but I was nearby.” He asked about my work.

I mentioned meetings but did not say locations. Then I thought of a clever test. “What did you do two nights ago?”

“Two nights ago?” He frowned and stalled, as if to make up an excuse. “I cooked for the restaurant. And my sauce that night was wonderful. I used a technique I learned in Beirut.”

“I thought you learned to cook in Dubai.”

He looked confused. “Dubai? Oh, yes. Dubai for a year, Lebanon for a year.”

“And where is your restaurant?”

He said a place that was not near the park or the square. Perhaps it had not been him.

“We should meet again?” he said.

I was wary but could not refuse. I suggested the same teahouse, but he disagreed. “No, the Namazi garden. It is beautiful now, with the flowers.”

“I will come,” I said. At the time it might have been a lie. 

“And I have two friends you should meet. They want to hear your beliefs.”

I should have been excited by this news, since it was hard to reach people, but I nodded without enthusiasm. Then he said, “May God protect you,” and this time I did not watch as he walked away.

On the walk home, the bulky bags straining my arms, I wondered if Mr. Hamidi had staged that meeting. Since I went to the store every Monday, it would not be hard to arrange. As the pink and yellow buses passed, blowing exhaust in my face, I felt like smoking a Homa cigarette.

~ ~ ~

The next morning I took the subway to Ji’s apartment, timing it so Ji would have left for the warehouse. When I knocked, sounds came from the apartment but the door did not open. When it did, Yu opened it only a slit. She was wearing a long dress with modest sleeves, and the fabric had not yet adjusted to her body. I gave her my excuse for coming: the dish that had contained leftovers. She took it and I waited until she invited me for tea. 

“Give Ji?” she asked, holding up the dish and looking confused.

“I decided to give it to you. Ji breaks too many things.”

I was joking but the language missed her. So I pretended it was not funny.

She moved around the kitchen with the authority of someone who had fully accepted her new role. Ji had told me their families knew each other, back in China, and Yu had always been a hard worker and never complained. Ji said this as though it was the highest compliment. 

Yu held up a jar of sugar and I declined. She held up milk and I declined again. “Work today?” she asked.

I used simple words to talk about the new shipment of toys. After I finished speaking, we let the silence and smiles do our heavy lifting. She made small gestures and I sent them back. We drank our tea often to give our mouths some activity. Even though I had little experience with women, I had always dreamed of being alone with Yu. In my dreams we sat so close our knees bumped and her eyes never left my face and we talked for many hours. 

“Ji safe. Yes?” Yu said. 

Her worry made her beautiful. A single breath could have toppled her. Every man wanted a woman to worry for him so he could be brave in the face of her worry, and hers was the holiest worry because it was born of love. “We are very careful,” I said. 

“And you?” she said.

She must have known. How Ji knew the lay of this city, where to find support and where to sidestep, yet I stumbled and groped. “If I disappear, you and Ji should leave,” I said. “Don’t stay, even if Ji wants to.” 

She nodded. 

“Do you really understand? If they take me, you will leave?” 

She said she understood.

“Swear to me.”

She said the words for yes and no, surrounded by Chinese words, and I realized she was quoting the Word about not swearing. She paused, put a hand on her stomach, and said, “Yes.” This promise satisfied me. But her hand was surprising. It seemed a promise on the soul of her future child. But given the careful way that she moved, perhaps she was already with child. Ji was so talented at producing new men. 

We drank the rest of our tea using only child-like phrases that split in the wrong directions. Before we opened the door, I hugged her goodbye. I didn’t only want her body close to me but also wanted the feeling of being close. Close enough to someone they would worry for me. My girlfriend in New York had never worried for me, and that was a sign. Yu let go of me before I let go of her, and she offered a smile that started as a secret but grew into a public message.

As I left, she offered a shy wave and I replied with a broad hand, saying goodbye twice. Every step on the stairs sounded hollow, as though it would be the one that broke and let me fall. 

~ ~ ~

At the warehouse Ji worked harder than a deckhand, trying to finish all his accounting before his meetings at night. He had recently started two new groups on the outskirts of the city, both requiring a subway ride long enough to lull him to sleep. Every night he got home late and every morning he left early. I do not know whether Yu ever told him about my visit. He never spoke of it. When I told him of my plan to meet with Mr. Hamidi, he nodded his approval but told me to be careful.

On the day and time, I went to the Namazi garden. Even though my stomach swerved like a frightened fish, I would give Mr. Hamidi one more chance. Under a fig tree, I smoked a Homa cigarette. I needed one to calm my nerves. This was not our meeting place but an area where I could watch for Mr. Hamidi’s approach. On the grass where families picnicked, babies walked from mother to father with the uncertainty of wind-up toys. 

When Mr. Hamidi appeared, he walked among the Holland roses, sticking his nose in their petals. During a stretch of yellow flowers, he held his hand level and brushed against the tops. They all bounced back except one, whose stem broke. He tore it from the stalk and stuck it into the soil. Never once did he relax his false smile.

Two of his friends joined him. At first I thought they were his friends who wanted to convert, but they wore black and had muscles like Muy Thai heavyweights. Behind them lurked a black car. It reminded me of funeral cars. A lump of pain grew in my chest. When Mr. Hamidi embraced them, his arms were jaws of a trap, cocked and ready to spring. When he released them, he cracked many knuckles at once. Those cracks! They were as loud as slammed doors.

Slumped against a cement wall, I prayed. I was called. This was my mission. I could not let these fears defeat me. I knew what Ji would say. He would say I was being too cautious and my groups would never grow if I did not find members. He would say that my imagination built towers of tragedies that fell and fell. So I tried to scoop up all the scared parts of me and pound them into a hard ball of courage. I tried and tried. But my legs were as useless as the prayer-bead beggar’s. I crawled to a bench and smoked another cigarette for so long I worried they would explore the park and find me. So I left. On the subway ride back home, I had low thoughts of myself. Even though I was not the type of person who quit anything, perhaps tentmaking was not for me.

When I reached my apartment, my cell phone rang with double its normal volume. The noise terrified me. It was Yu. She was crying and talking about four cars. 

“Four cars what?” I said.

“Morning,” she said. “This morning.”

She shot out sentences in Chinese and I asked her to speak in Farsi.

“At warehouse,” she said. “They take Ji.”

She fumbled through her explanation, and I stitched together stray words to make a story. One of the warehouse workers had called her. The government men in black cars, wearing everyday clothes bulging with guns, had pulled up quickly. Without harassing anyone in the warehouse, they put Ji in the fourth car and drove away. Ji had not called her since.

The phone left my ear. Yu kept talking but her voice was small. The nearby minaret blasted its call for prayer, deafening me. Light broke in the windows and sprayed the carpet with glare. Only the bottom lock of my door was fastened. My neighbors were too quiet. Someone yelled in the back alleyway. 

I put the phone back to my head and spoke quickly. I told Yu that she should leave the country with me. We could cross the border to Iraq or catch a boat on the Caspian. If she stayed she would not be able to rescue her husband from Evin prison, and they would take her as well. I could not bear the thought of her in prison, I told her. Yu, Yu, I said. I kept saying her name, almost crying it, even though I knew every mention of her name betrayed my affection for her. I hung all my feelings on those two lovely letters, and there was no way she did not understand what I felt for her. I said her name until I could admit to myself what had long been true: I loved her.

The phone remained silent. I said her name once more as a question before I realized the line was dead, and that she had hung up when the phone was away from my ear. An emptiness spread across my chest. My phone dropped to my hip. Those words could never come out of me again, not with the same feeling. But even if she had heard me, I knew my pleas were useless. I knew in my stomach that she would not go. If I were married to my love, I would not leave either. 

In my bedroom, I counted my belongings. A mattress beaten down into the shape of a long ashtray. Next to the mattress, two weary books. Near the window, a hump of dirty clothing. There was not much but it seemed like even less now. On the wall I had pinned up the only picture in the house, a picture, not of my parents or of my former girlfriend in New York, but a magazine page of a beach that looked like a Thai beach. The sand was white and held the husks of coconuts. The water rippled with lazy waves. I had often stared at that beach to lift my spirits before falling asleep, but now it seemed like the saddest picture in the world. 

As I threw clothes into my suitcase, I felt jealous of Ji. Strange, to be jealous of an imprisoned man, a tortured man. A man torn from his wife, a man cut down in the height of his work. But at least he had risked everything because he was destined for this task. I had risked my life because I was living out someone else’s plan for my life, the plan assigned to many good believers, a plan I thought was my own. Maybe it had been my plan when I was younger, but it could not be my plan now. It was time for me to quit.

I stepped outside the apartment carrying a suitcase. In the hallway it felt suspicious to carry the suitcase, so I put the suitcase back inside. Nothing of value, anyways. I started to lock the door out of habit, but stopped. Why should I? I left it unlocked. I paused before I left. The hallway still smelled like esphand. The alleyway was just as loud. I would hear the call of the minaret echo in my dreams; I would hear it forever. With nothing but my pockets and shoes, I left that country and never returned.

​# # #
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Issue 109, Jul – Sept 2017
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130

John Matthew Fox
Guest Short Fiction Editor, Issue 127, January – March 2018

John Fox is the author of I Will Shout Your Name (forthcoming from Press 53, Fall 2017) and has also published in Crazyhorse, Third Coast, Shenandoah, and the Chicago Tribune. He provides editing services and resources for writers at Bookfox, which has received mentions from The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Huffington Post. He earned an MFA from the University of Southern California and an MA from New York University, but after teaching at the collegiate level for a decade, he decided to focus on Bookfox full time. After traveling to more than forty countries and living in three, he has settled down in Orange County, California, with his wife, twin boys, and six chickens. He spent years researching the clandestine world of missionaries in Iran to write this story. 

John is accepting short fiction submissions July – September

What is your #1 pet peeve?
Drivers stopping a car length before the intersection. Is there a ghost car in front of you?

What is your favorite article of clothing?
I never go anywhere without a hat.

Which book have you read cover to cover more times than any other book?
Blood Meridian. Which is funny, because I feel like the book is a test that you fail if you continue to read. The horrors in the beginning of that book should dissuade any good and moral person to stop reading, but I can't help myself: I'm entranced by the language and propelled to the end.