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The Man from Persia

The Man from Persia

My brother’s name is Brian, but I call him Frank. I order the shrimp tempura and he tells me how he was up half the night hacking away at a grade III meningioma. His surgical skills are improving, he says. Last week he wasted only three patients, a forty year old Caucasian male and two Hispanic girls, aged eight and five. He smiles. Brain tumors are real bastards.

Then his eyes wander to the chopped shiitake mushrooms proliferating on the counter. This new app he’s come upon, it’s called Touch Surgery. He can’t get enough of it.

“It’s giving me nightmares,” he says.

The other night he woke up with a gargantuan ear sprouting from his chest. He sliced it off with a kitchen knife, but it just kept popping out again.

Perhaps ordering sushi wasn’t such a hot idea. The temperatures have cracked the hundred degree mark for the fourth day in a row, the longest stretch in twenty-five years they say, the longest ever recorded in October. Yesterday morning I ran into a wall down by the Marina, a stench so powerful it knocked the breath out of me. I propped my hands on my knees and watched the gulls go batshit while Lisa screamed at me through my earphones. Lisa is my virtual run coach. Ours is the longest relationship I’ve been in since I moved here.

The fish were floating belly-up by the thousands, still and glistening like a giant bowl of ramen noodle soup. It’s called a dead zone. When the water temperature rises, the oxygen level drops and the fish die.

I joke about it. This is a small family-run place in Venice, the one in California. It’s tucked behind a Thai massage parlor and bears a sign of the most hideous green over the entrance. Inside, a cardboard notice of the same shade announces that ALL FISH IS LOCAL. The owner put it up the day after the Fukushima disaster.

“I sure as hell hope not,” I say. But the guy doesn’t find it funny.

It’s been quite a while now I’ve had this feeling of being—I don’t know. Stranded? Frank’s visit is a pleasant distraction.

I look at him. He’s three inches shorter than me, one for each year I have on him, but he can pin me to the floor with his hands tied. The swell of his back is like a bull’s hump and he moves with the grace of a seal underwater. As a kid I used to spit toothpaste down his neck and hold his head under the tap before we went to bed. He followed me everywhere I went.

Like that time in Persia. The one in Iowa. That’s where our grandfather lived. Grandpa didn’t have cable, but he had a kidney shaped pool. The thing was, we always got to visit him in the wrong season. He was our father’s old man, but it was our mother who stayed with us. Our father would drop us off and come to pick us up when it was time to leave.

What happened was Frank and I were chasing each other around the pool one clear afternoon, when I decided to jump off the shallow end to shake him off. He couldn’t have been older than four. As I landed my heart crashed in my chest with the full, satisfied thump of a sudden windfall and I felt, rather than heard, the crunch of dead maple leaves under my sneakers. Ears roaring, gulping down burning mouthfuls of cold air, I darted across the length of the pool and shimmied up the other side without a glance back. I kept going, bursting with triumph, and barged into the kitchen on a hot waft of cinnamon rolls.

“Where’s Brian?” my mother asked.

I turned round. “Frank!” I called, “Hey, Frank!”

I went back to look for him. He was lying curled at the bottom of the pool, twitching slightly, like a fish, his eyes rolling gently back in their sockets.

How did he get there, I wondered. It looked as if some light, feathered hand had set him down on the frayed mat of red leaves. Through their parted fingers the glazed tiles gleamed remotely, like chips of blue sky.

That was the year I learned that if someone hits his head whatever you do you must never ever let him fall asleep. Our mother picked him up and carried him into the living room, singing and clapping her hands while grandpa watched the Vikings game on TV.

When Frank began to throw up she bundled him up into the old man’s battered truck and rushed him to the emergency room in Harlan. I thought of her cinnamon rolls going cold in the oven. I could still smell them, their sweet sting like tears in the back of my throat. I kept on asking, “Is he going to die?”

I pay for the sushi and we step out into the unconditioned world. We wade the few blocks to my place in silence, until Frank says to me, “You OK, Frank?”

He calls me that too. Again, it goes back to those childhood trips. Grandpa never got our names right first time, we were always Frank, both of us, unless Ma corrected him. She once told us we had an uncle by that name, whom we had never met. He’d left years ago, she said, and nobody had heard from him since. It all sounded very mysterious to us. This shadowy entity that bound us so closely together, this guy Frank, we made up stories about him. We called him The Man from Persia.

“Sure,” I tell him, “I was thinking about movie titles.”

So he says, “The Big Heat.”

“Death in Venice.”

“That’s a book,” he says.

“They made the movie too.”

The air these days is full of texture, like good scotch, even here by the ocean. It leaves a smokey aftertaste in your mouth. It must be the factory fumes blowing across the Pacific from China. What I like about this city is that it reminds you the earth is round. You think you have reached the end of the line, but keep going and sooner or later you’ll catch a glimpse of the rising sun.

I ask him about work. He shrugs his shoulders, then his face breaks into a grin.

“Funny thing happened at the pool the other day. Remember the Compton sisters? The dark one, Irene, she walks over to me and guess what, when she takes her robe off she’s wearing nothing underneath.”

“Nothing at all?”

“Not a stitch.”

“You lucky bastard.”

Irene Compton is eighty-five and going gaga. She and her sister used to run the gas station down by the old Holiday Inn on Route 20, back home. They would give Ma free coupons from time to time. Last year Irene broke her hip and Frank helps her with her rehab. Twice a week they slide into the warm chlorine water together. He walks her up and down the length of the bath, cradles her, loosens her joints.

She’s not the only one. There’s Kevin, twenty-eight, with Down’s syndrome and Mark Anthony, eleven, with Scheuermann’s disease. There’s Sean, nineteen, in the final stages of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Frank showed me a picture once of the progression of DMD in children from the age of three to six. It reminded me of the drawings in our school textbooks illustrating the evolution from ape to man. It’s as if the upward thrust which lifted our gritty ancestors from the ground hadn’t quite spent itself and were still exerting its pressure within the tender casing of these children. As if to contrast the surge their calves overdevelop rapidly, fighting for balance while the pelvis slips inexorably forward. At first they tiptoe, then they stumble – spines arched, limbs flailing – wingless creatures learning to fly. By the age of twelve they are grounded permanently in a wheelchair and in their late teens respiratory complications arise, as the invisible drive keeps gnawing relentlessly at the muscle tissue to overcome resistance and break free of its shell. Finally the lungs collapse, crushing their breath out.

“They give you a rise yet?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Listen. Why don’t you come down to L.A. for a little while. I could introduce you to a few people, help you mix in with the TV crowd. You’d be shoveling it in. You know, personal training and stuff?”

He laughs, “Jesus, you sound just like Dad.”

“Yeah, well. So, what do you say?”

“Why not. I’ll think about it.”

He won’t, of course. He has a talent for dealing with guys like me and our father.

We reach my apartment. Like so much else here, the place has the catchy luster of fake jewelry for the price of the real stuff. Except for the view, I guess.

As soon as we step inside, I can see that Alex is amused, a good sign. I felt a little uneasy about leaving her with Maya while Frank and I were out. Maya is Frank’s wife. Alex and I haven’t really been dating long enough for that kind of thing.

She lifts her face up to be kissed. Alex is twenty-one and likes to wear men’s cologne.

I say to her, “How do you tell who’s the dumbest actress on set?”

She says, “She’s the one sleeping with the writer?”

Maya frowns at us. “That’s not true!” she cries, “I think actresses are very smart. I mean, I can tell for sure that you are,” and she touches Alex’s arm.

Alex smiles, “Thank you, dear.”

Maya has been teaching her how to make origami. Alex hands me a paper swan, or is it a bat. “It’s a Pterodactylus,” she says.

“In my opinion,” Maya says, “Origami dinosaurs are way more interesting than, like, ordinary ones.”

“Except you should make them bigger,” says Frank.

The three of us laugh, until finally Maya joins in too. I keep wondering what Frank sees in her. Not that she’s bad-looking, but I know I’m missing something, somewhere.

Frank scoops the origami off the table and I lay out the sushi. Alex fetches a batch of iced beers, while Maya drifts towards the bay window, leaning her forehead against the glass. Down below the boat masts burn softly, like incense sticks, smearing the sky with purple. I guess the view might be fake too, after all.

###

Then, at some point, the conversation veers off into dreams again. Maybe it’s the shiitake mushrooms.

“You shouldn’t have ordered them,” Maya tells Frank, “You know they don’t agree with you. Not at night.” And she goes on and tells us about his nightmare again. The one with the huge mushroom growing out of his torso.

“Actually, it was an ear.”

“You said a mushroom. You did.”

“The mushrooms had nothing to do with it. It’s that new app, the surgical simulator. That’s what did it.”

“But you did have mushrooms for dinner. You did too.”

“Hey,” says Alex, “Maybe they were Mexican,” and this time we all laugh.

The windows are open, we can hear the gulls crying beneath the traffic noise.

“You know, I had a terrible dream once,” says Maya. “Last year, just after we got married.” She glances at Frank, “I dreamt that he was drowning. I had my arms wrapped around him, like really tight? And the scary thing was, he looked so small. Like he was a child. And yet so heavy. I tried to keep his head above water, but he just kept going under.”

Frank pops the rest of the roll into his mouth.

“She wet the bed,” he says.

Alex recoils in disgust and then tries to smile it off. But Maya just nods.

“I did, didn’t I?”

Alex says, “Well, who knows what goes on inside our brain when we’re asleep.”

“Know what?” says Maya, “You’re right. We’ve no idea. There’s all kinds of weird stuff going on. I mean, take him,” and she leans into Frank’s shoulder, “He walks in his sleep.”

I glance at him, “You still do it?”

He smiles, “I bet it’s the goddamn mushrooms again.”

Maya shakes her head, “But it’s not. He does it all the time. Sometimes he talks to me. He looks like he’s awake, but he isn’t. I don’t know what to do, they say you shouldn’t wake people when they’re like that.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” I say.

“I know. But it’s freaking me out, you know. It’s got to the point I can’t tell the difference anymore. I mean, if he’s awake or not. Sometimes I talk to him, but I don’t know who it is I’m talking to. You know what I mean? It’s like, is it him or, you know—”

“The Man from Persia?” I say.

Frank snorts, choking on his beer.

“What?” says Maya, uncertainly.

She and Alex look at each other.

“Yeah, but what does he do?” says Alex.

“Well. Not much really. I mean, the other night he wanted to give me a massage. Seriously. I woke up and he was kneeling right next to me, right? With his hands raised in front of him and wiggling his fingers, like this?”

“You sure I wasn’t trying to strangle you?”

“This is serious. I’m not kidding. Want me to do your back? That’s what you said.”

Alex nudges me under the table, “That’s so sweet. I wish you’d give me a massage from time to time.”

Maya says, “Maybe he should see a psychiatrist?”

Frank hugs his elbows and rolls his eyes, Cuckoo’s Nest style.

“Very funny. But we googled it, remember? They say sleepwalking is a puberty phase. I mean, it can’t be normal, can it? Not at your age.”

Frank looks at me, “We read that some guy from Portland tried to use it in court once. Killed his whole family and then got in the car and drove for the rest of the night. He woke up somewhere near Vancouver. He said he couldn’t remember a thing. Maybe you could use it for one of your TV episodes.”

“Another time, he acted like he was a dog.”

“What, barking and wagging his tail and stuff?” says Alex. I can tell she is really hooked.

“No. Just crouching, like. Next to the door. You know, like he was on guard or something.”

Frank takes a long swig from his bottle. He points his finger at me.

“You,” he says, “You remember what you used to do when I got up during the night? I mean, when we were kids? Speaking of not waking one up. Jesus. You know what he did? Told me to fuck off. That’s right. Used to yell right in my face. My own brother.”

I grin, “It worked though, didn’t it?”

And then there was that time our parents spent the weekend in Persia. Ma was helping our father clean the place out after Grandpa had suffered a stroke and had to be moved to a nursing home. It wasn’t often that both of them were away. I thought I’d invite some people over.

Frank was thirteen, I remember he had rubbed black mascara into the pale fuzz lining his upper lip and couldn’t get it off anymore. Not that anyone really noticed. By midnight we had all passed out on the carpet with puke caking the front of our shirts.

The incident occurred later that night, although it wasn’t until the next day that we found out. What happened was, soon after we woke up, we noticed that a lot of our stuff was missing. Shoes, keys, cell phones, wallets—all gone. Someone had paid us a visit in our sleep and robbed us. At least that’s how it looked in the harsh mid-morning glare.

But we were wrong. The intruder, whoever it was, hadn’t taken anything. Our possessions were still there, all collected safely in one place. I didn’t know why, but the sight of them made me shiver. The shoes were arranged neatly in pairs on the kitchen table and the rest of our things were lined up on the counter top in a perfect row. It reminded me of that fairy tale, the one about the poor shoemaker who lays out the leather on his workbench one night and finds a pair of shiny new boots in the morning.

“Anyway,” says Maya, “I still think you should see somebody. You know, get a professional opinion, like. Maybe it’s that concussion you had when you were a kid. When you fell into the empty pool?”

Frank takes her chin in his hand and gives her a peck on the mouth. Then he presses his thumb, gently, on her lips.

“Come on. You think we can change the subject now?”

###

This sleepwalking thing, it bothered me for a while. I thought I could make it into something, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Eventually I wrote a sci-fi show about a teenage kid whose sleepwalking state turns out to be a doorway to a horrific parallel universe. It never saw the light of day, but the development money was enough for the down payment on a two bedroom condo in Santa Monica.

Still, something was missing. I knew I owed Frank one, but I didn’t really know how to go about it. Should I get him a Rolex? Or maybe a Super Bowl ticket? Should I just send him a fat check? In the end I figured I should do something more meaningful for him. I decided to buy him a multi-purpose, full HD 4,000,000 ISO camera.

It went like this. He’d invited me over to his place for Christmas, relieving me of the melancholy of flat-stomached Santas and imported firs smothered in sodium polyacrylate. I came on my own: my breakup with Alex had been sudden, dramatic and surprisingly painless, like the untimely dismissal of the show. I felt excited, and a little feverish. Come Christmas Eve, after Frank had opened his present, I took Maya aside and told her my plan. She should place the camera on a shelf in their bedroom and turn it on once Frank had fallen asleep.

“Just leave the curtains drawn open. This baby has night vision.”

“No way,” she said, “I saw that movie, what’s it called. Scared the hell out of me.”

“Seriously” I said, “The worst that could happen is that you catch Santa in the act. Of course,” I added, “He would have to kill you then.”

I said, “Listen, it’s quite simple. The idea is to record him while he’s sleepwalking and then show him the video the next day. It might trigger something. You know, getting a good look at himself that way.”

Suddenly she looked hopeful. “You think it might cure him?”

“It’s a stab in the dark.”

This time it was the linen. He emptied the basket at the foot of the bed and started folding the garments one by one. Socks, T-shirts, Maya’s panties, her bras. He made five neat piles, soft, plushy stepping stones covering the few strides of bare floor between the door and the bed. Was he letting someone in, I wondered.

I felt embarrassed, as if I’d caught him in some intimate, shameful act.

“So what do you think?” I said, turning the video off.

Frank was silent for a few moments, then he shrugged.

“I don’t know. It’s a bit weird is all. It’s like when you listen to your recorded voice for the first time. Yeah, it’s a bit like that.”

Maya looked disappointed. “Maybe we could put it on You Tube,” she said.

###

Frank’s marriage didn’t last. A few years later I bumped into Maya as I was coming out of Gap, on Wilshire Boulevard. She said she was visiting L.A. with a friend.

“But hey,” she said, “Just look at you.”

I was pushing my daughter in her pram. I smiled, “Yeah. She’ll be one in June.”

She clasped her hands and squatted beside her.

“Say hello,” she said, “Say hello to Auntie Maya.”

Slowly, she reached out and ran her fingers through my daughter’s wispy hair.

“You know what my mommy used to say? Here, where the soft spot is, it’s where the angel kissed you when you came into the world. That’s right, sweetie. Your guardian angel. Don’t you ever forget that.”

She stood up again, wiping tears from her eyes. I tried to think of something to say, but I came up dry. She let out a little laugh.

“And how’s Brian?”

“He’s doing OK,” I said, “He’s in San Diego.”

“San Diego,” she repeated, “Well, I’m glad to hear that. Say hi to him, you know. And it was so nice seeing you. And your little princess.”

She took my daughter’s hand and pressed it hard against her cheek.

“Bye bye sweetheart,” she said, “Bye bye now.”

Actually, Frank was doing more than OK. Somewhere down the line he’d finally agreed to let me help him set up his own fitness center and now, for the first time in his life, he was making money. When I went to visit him, later that fall, he was in the process of having a kidney shaped pool installed in his back yard.

“For old times’ sake,” he said. “Maybe I can actually swim in the goddamn thing for once.”

Storms had been sweeping through the city for the past couple of days. The word historical kept cropping up in the news. There had been flash floods. The place was a mess.

I asked him if he could put me up for a few weeks, until things cooled down at home. As it turned out, the baby had failed to boost up my marriage. Big surprise. My wife was feeling cheated. She called me a fraud.

I was happy. The two of us together, it was like being children again.

Then one night I got up to get a drink of water and as I held my mug under the tap I saw Frank standing outside in his boxer shorts. I crept up on him in the dark.

“Hey, Frank,” I said.

He turned slowly.

“You been sleepwalking again?”

He shook his head. I could see that his eyes were clear.

He said, “Haven’t had a spell for quite a while.”

The way he said it, it sounded as if he’d lost someone close. We stood on the porch, staring at the ravaged lawn and the gaping fiberglass hole, completely awash with mud.

“He died, you know.”

I glanced at him. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Our uncle Frank. I looked him up.”

“You did? But how did you—”

“It was quite easy, really. Small town, a few people still remember the accident.”

I’d lost him. “What accident?”

“He was a child, Frank. There was never any guy from Persia. He drowned in the pool when he was four.”

Goosebumps broke out all over my skin.

“I know,” he said, “Pretty spooky, isn’t it?”

It had started to drizzle again. I took a few steps towards the pool. Frank had sunk planks here and there, so as not to get stuck in the mire, and stepping onto them from the porch all of a sudden I was reminded of the soft piles of laundry he had set down in his sleep on that Christmas Eve, a few years back. A crazy thought entered my mind. And what I thought was that maybe those stepping stones, the path he had made, had not been meant as a way in after all, but a way out. The Man from Persia had been saying goodbye.

I felt a hand brush my shoulder, lightly.

It was time to go back inside.

 

Andy Leanza was born in Italy to a British mother and an Italian father and spent most of his childhood holidays in Northern England. After completing his postgraduate studies in the UK, he moved back to Italy to pursue a career in screenwriting. For five years he co-wrote one of the most successful cop shows on Italian television. Among his upcoming projects is an international TV series on the cutthroat world of multinational oil corporations. He lives in Rome with his wife and daughter.

Six Questions with Andy Leanza

TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
AL: The Man from Persia, under a different title, was my first attempt at short fiction since my years in high school and I started to write it as a reaction to the soul-deadening hackwork I was doing for Italian television. It was sparked by a few unrelated incidents in my childhood: my little brother’s concussion, his sleepwalking, the curious habit my Italian grandmother had of calling both of us Frank—or, rather, Franco. I wanted to write something about the loss of magic in one’s life, but couldn’t quite get a handle on it. I just couldn’t figure out what kind of story it should be. So I put it aside and forgot about it. Then, a little over a year ago, it hit me. Perhaps it could be a ghost story. From that moment on everything fell into place.

TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
AL: My mother, with her bedtime stories. And my uncle. He never had any money, so his fridge was always empty, but his flat was full of paperbacks.

TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
AL: My little folding table in the living room. I’m not sure if I can call it my favorite, but it’s the only place I have. As much as I would like to, I’ve never been able to write in cafes.

TD: Favorite word?
AL: But.

TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
AL: Philosophy in the bathroom, poetry in the kitchen, novels and short stories on the couch.

TD: Some inspirational thoughts for writers, if you care to share.
AL: Breathe in, breathe out.

 


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