دوازده کلید زنجیره ای

کتاب: عطر سنبل، عطر کاج / فصل 8

دوازده کلید زنجیره ای

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A Dozen Key Chains

In my large extended family, each member has a reputation. This reputation, carved in stone, is usually the result of a somewhat random act that for some unknown reason takes on a far greater meaning, and becomes the defining moment in a life. At the tender age of five, for instance, my cousin Ardesheer developed the nasty habit of defecating behind his parents’ living room curtains during their frequent formal dinner parties. Today someone might interpret this behavior as a sign of anger, since the poor tot was stuck with a nanny against his wishes while the other family members reveled. Instead, it came to serve as a reflection of the type of person he really is. Having outgrown his annoying and unique routine, Ardesheer went on to become a restaurant owner. Recently at a family gathering that took place during a slow patch in his otherwise successful career, someone mentioned that Ardesheer’s restaurant wasn’t doing too well. To this my aunt replied, “Well, what do you expect from someone who poops behind curtains?” As much as Ardesheer has suffered from his reputation, my older brother Farshid continues to thrive on his. When Farshid was in kindergarten back in Abadan, he was, according to all reports, an extremely popular and charismatic little person. This may not seem like such a big deal in other families, but my parents, both of whom are painfully shy, looked upon their outgoing anomaly just as Native Americans regard an albino buffalo—he was a miracle. Forty years after completing kindergarten, my brother is still consulted before all decisions big or small. Farshid has steered endless numbers of cousins and second cousins through decisions ranging from which type of car to buy to which courses to take in college to which nasal decongestant works best. Nobody is more devoted to Farshid’s decision-making prowess than my parents, and Farshid, like James Bond, has never turned down an assignment.

When I was eleven years old, I told my parents I wanted to go to camp. The year was 1976, and I had lived in America for a total of two years. Except for some sleepovers back in second grade, I had never spent the night away from my parents. I cannot remember what possessed me to want to try summer camp. I’m not sure I even knew what one did at camp. But for whatever reason, I made the announcement, and my parents immediately assigned Farshid, who was then eighteen, the task of finding the right camp for me.

After much research, Farshid found the “perfect” camp: Pine Lodge Mountain Summer Camp, located in the Mammoth Mountains, a mere eight-hour drive from my house. My father, whose cultlike devotion to Farshid rules out the possibility of questioning any of Farshid’s decisions, was very impressed that the camp cost $500 for two weeks. Anything that expensive has to be good, he repeatedly said. The Pine Lodge brochure also came with a stamp of approval from a camp organization that none of us had ever heard of, but which further impressed my father. My mother, as usual, had no comment, although twenty years later, she did say, “I didn’t think you should’ve gone.” After signing up for Pine Lodge Mountain Summer Camp, I received a list of supplies I would need, none of which we owned. The following Saturday, my father and I set out for Montgomery Ward. My father, whose aversion to shopping is well known, believes anything that costs more than it did back in Ahwaz in 1946 is overpriced. Fortunately, he is always willing to pay for classes and experiences that promote growth of some sort. But everything else is too expensive. His inability to pay full price for anything explains why he owns what is, as far as we know, the only maroon-and-pink suede pair of Nikes in existence. The items he has picked up on clearance tables range from merely useless, like his portable siren, to truly atrocious, like birds made of felt. And even he has admitted that people do stare at his maroon Nikes in a way that suggests something other than envy. But the magnetic pull of a bargain is simply too strong.

List in hand, my father and I headed straight for the clearance section in the camping department. The first item on our list was a sleeping bag. Unfortunately for me, there happened to be one on sale. Although I knew nothing about sleeping bags, I did notice that this one was considerably larger and bulkier than the ones not on sale. While the others rolled up and fit neatly into small drawstring bags, this one was the size of our kitchen table, which my father had bought at an auction of seized goods. I did point out to my father that this particular sleeping bag did not come with a drawstring bag. My father assured me that he would find some kind of bag at home. After all, you’d have to be stupid to pass up a sleeping bag that cost only $8.99!

We continued down the list and purchased the cheapest version of everything, skipping the “optional” items entirely. Those, my father explained, were for people who just liked to buy stuff. Inflatable mattress, wide-brimmed hat, insect repellent—who needed all that extra baggage?

We brought home our purchases and proceeded to examine each object as if it were a meteor that had landed in our living room. A mesh bag for laundry! Stackable tin plates that converted to frying pans! An aluminum canteen with a built-in cup! These purchases, coupled with the picture of the smiling girl riding a horse on the camp brochure, left little doubt in my mind that Pine Lodge Mountain Summer Camp meant nonstop fun and adventure.

The only doubt lingering in my mind concerned the sleeping bag. Despite my father’s reassurance, there existed no bag in our house big enough to hold this monstrosity. No matter how much my brother, father, and I sat on the sleeping bag, we could not make it any less bulky. It defied flattening. The synthetic material used to stuff my sleeping bag would have been much better utilized in some other place, like freeway dividers, but for now I was stuck with the King Kong of all sleeping bags and nothing to put it in. Finally, my father, with his “mind of an engineer,” came up with a brilliant solution: a Hefty trash bag.

A few months later, my father and I drove to the bus stop together. Like any other child going to overnight camp for the first time, I immediately regretted my decision. My father did his best to calm me by telling me stories of his first year in America as a Fulbright scholar at Texas A&M. He spoke fondly of his Pakistani roommate, who made delicious curry, but whose name he no longer remembered. My father’s stories made one fact abundantly clear: I did not want to go to camp.

We arrived at the bus stop only to discover that all the other kids had signed up with at least one friend. My family had just moved from Whittier to Newport Beach, so I didn’t have a friend anywhere, especially at this bus stop. To make matters worse, everyone was staring at my Hefty trash bag.

We finally boarded the bus. I sat by myself and secretly wished that some kind person would sit next to me and be my friend. No one sat next to me. As the bus ride began, I was acutely aware of how much fun all the kids around me seemed to be having. Giggles and laughter filled the bus. After a few hours on the road, the boy behind me tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?” he said.

“Sure!” I answered.

“Well,” he said, “do you look down a lot?”

“No, why?” I asked.

“Well, your nose points downward so I figured that’s because you’re always looking at the ground or something.”

Upon hearing this, all the kids around me burst out laughing.

Hours later, we arrived at camp. Pine Lodge was a converted two-story house. All the boys stayed downstairs and all the girls stayed on the second floor. In the girls’ room stood rows of bunk beds. There was one bathroom on the floor for all the girls to share. Oddly, the door to the bathroom had been removed, so any girl who needed to use the toilet or the sink could walk in on someone taking a shower. Coming from a modest culture and an even more modest family, I had never seen another person naked, not even my mother, so the idea that someone could walk into the bathroom while I was naked in the shower seemed unbelievable. I decided then and there not to bathe.

Out of the eleven other girls in my room, ten appeared to be mean. Mary, who slept on the top of my bunk, was the only girl who would speak to me, or rather cry to me. I liked her right away, not as a friend, but as someone who made me look good. Mary and her younger brother, Willy, were both campers, and they spent all day trying to be on the same team for all activities and all night crying at the idea of being separated. I had never known a brother and sister who actually enjoyed each other’s company so much. I soon discovered it wasn’t that they enjoyed each other’s company so much as they were simply afraid of everybody else. The two of them managed to be the butt of every joke. Mary felt responsible for Willy, whose Coke-bottle glasses and tendency to tremble made him an easy target for all the boys. Mary, herself, was not much more resilient. All someone had to do to reduce her to tears was to call her a name, any name. Mary and Willy were a huge source of comfort to me, not only because they hated Pine Lodge Mountain Summer Camp as much as I did but because they were the ones whom everyone picked on. I knew that in the pecking order of favorite targets for mean kids, I followed Mary and her brother. But those two, between their crying, their trembling, and their throwing up when nervous, proved far more satisfying targets than I could ever have hoped to be. In fact, not only did I not get picked on, but I was completely ignored by everyone, including the counselors. Had it not been for Mary’s sobbing to me every night, I could have sworn I was at a Zen retreat.

Since I wasn’t going to bathe, I decided to minimize getting dirty by participating only in arts and crafts. I skipped the horseback riding, the overnight campout, the archery lessons, the hikes to the Indian grounds, and basically every activity outlined in the camp brochure. Every morning I showed up at the macramé station ready to make another key chain.

At the end of the first week, the counselors announced that the camp would be putting on a play called Fiddler on the Roof and everyone would have to participate. Each camper was assigned a role. I was to play the ghost of the grandmother. Even though I had only one line, the role required that I be covered head to toe with talcum powder. I now suspect that this was a ploy to encourage me to bathe.

The night of the play, one of the counselors started to apply the talcum powder but soon ran into a problem. A week’s worth of oil had accumulated on my hair and body, and the talcum powder clumped the instant it touched me. Rather than look like a ghost, I resembled someone who’d been dunked in a vat of bread dough.

After the play, I really wanted to bathe, but I simply could not. The idea of any of the mean girls walking in on me as I took a shower was just too much. Plus, I had achieved such a near-invisible status, I didn’t think anyone would notice how dirty I was. Nobody, except for the macramé teacher, Pat, ever talked to me, so I had no motivation to risk humiliation in exchange for hygiene.

Finally, the last day of camp arrived. I put on the one clean T-shirt I had saved for this day, packed my twelve key chains, rolled the sleeping bag into its trash bag, and waited for the bus. I didn’t have to worry about any emotional good-byes since this was, by far, my happiest day at camp. I exchanged addresses only with Pat. I didn’t have much to say to Mary, since our relationship was based entirely on her sobbing and my listening. I wondered whether her father would be angry if he’d learned he had spent $ 1,000 on camp for his kids and they had done nothing but cry. I, at least, had my key chains, and by the second week, even Pat had remarked on the quality of my knots.

I arrived at the bus station to find my father and oldest brother, Farid, waiting for me. Upon seeing me, Farid screamed, “You stink! Didn’t you bathe at all?” All of a sudden, I realized the gravity of the situation. I had not washed my body in two weeks. Having lost my near-invisible camp status, I was overcome with embarrassment and shame. “Of course I bathed!” I replied.

During the car ride back, my father asked me if I had enjoyed camp. “It was great!” I said. I knew he had sent me to camp expecting $500 worth of fun, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. So instead of weaving key chains, I spent the next few weeks weaving stories of all my great adventures. I don’t know whether my father believed me, but at least I earned a reputation as the best key-chain maker in the family.

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