TEHRAN GAS STATION ©Christina Maile 2022
TEHRAN GAS STATION
Christina Maile ã2022
Ardeshir will be late. Very late, if that brand-new Samad in front continues to let every car nose ahead. The driver must be dense, reminding Ardeshir of Kaveh, his private student. The semester, barely 2 months old, and the boy’s parents are beginning to complain about the lack of progress.
From out of nowhere which is how one drives in Tehran, a space to the right opens and with great satisfaction Ardeshir easily swings past the Samad. From what he can see of the gas station - which for now is only a red and white sign looming high against the empty windows of the old Hilton Hotel – he has perhaps another 15 minutes of waiting before he gets to the pumps. Five minutes to fill up. Then hopefully half an hour to Kaveh’s house.
This semester, it is the equations of the hypotenuse. No matter how tenderlyArdehsir draws for Kaveh the barque of the cosine, the catamarin of the sine, or the simple rowboat of the 90 degree angle, the liquid vacancy of the boy’s eyes submerges the little boats deck by deck again until by the end of the 75 minute hour, all of them have sunk companionably into the crowded mud of the boy’s head. At these moments Ardeshir imagines what must be the walled port of Kaveh’s comprehension, distant and untroubled.
A tiny Fiat hesitates, then surrenders to Ardeshir’s mutinous change of lanes. He needs more cowardly drivers like that. Right now such crumbs of mercy are worth almost any price. For of all the mornings of the world, it is precisely tomorrow morning which brings Kaveh’s first big math exam of the semester. And of all the evenings of the world it is this evening of all evenings when Ardeshir the math tutor will be late
Six weeks ago, sitting in the immense chill of Kaveh’s parents’ air conditioned living room, Ardeshir’s sweaty good suit drying chillingly against his body, both parents, dressed very European in crisp soft clothes, the mother’s scarf, sheer as perfume, gracing her shoulders more than her hair, they were impressed with the excellent letters of reference Ardeshir presented. Of course he felt no need to mention they were from families whose children were already good students. Never would he have considered a circumstance to the contrary. How could anyone not succeed who lived in surroundings so elegant and rich.
Of his three private math students, Kaveh is the worst. The effort Ardeshir expends on the worrisome boy is so exhausting, he has hesitated to take on another student. But to give in to such exhaustion is madness. A minimum of four students is absolutely required if fees are to be paid, food to be bought for his family.
But Ardeshir knows his exhaustion is not just the boy. There is his teaching job at the middle school, a steady, undemanding position, But the trip, an hour’s drive from his house is made longer by the need at 6:30 am every morning to drive his daughter to her pre-university classes which lie in almost the exact opposite direction.
Though there is a women’s door leading directly to the back of the city bus; though the women sit there insulated like eggs in a carton, though in this way they are safely separated from male passengers, “I ask you my daughter, where are the precautions when you are standing alone at the bus stop? Where is the protection walking home by yourself, as strangers, as men freely pass you by? No no no. It is the duty of a father to consider all these dangers, and it is the duty of a daughter to obey; to wait inside the lobby after classes are over, to wait as long as necessary until the arrival of your father upon the driveway of your large, reasonably priced but well-regarded school. “
There is a moment of relaxation for the mid-day meal at home with his wife and children. But afterwards… there is the drive to the bank to check if his school salary has been deposited. The trip to the house of a friend to pay off an installment of a loan, The drive to the government office to argue about a mistaken identity card. And at least once a week, to drive one of children or even his wife to some far-away bazaar where a better quality item might also be cheaper.
It is only after all these obligations that the money-making part of his evening begins. He returns to his car to drive to the houses of his students to tutor them.. The traffic is unbearable. the lights of the pollution billboards always yellow or red. But who pays attention to such things, when one must concentrate on beating back the cars, the trucks, the taxis, the little vans piled with furniture higher than a minaret, the motor bikes populated with entire families ramrod straight as dolls, the black-smoked buses, the voracious mini buses, the occasional man-pulled wagon, the insect-buzzing scooters, everyone either yoked together in jammed, elongated misery, rushing and clawing like starved predators for a piece of street as if it were a chunk of throat.
Spewing smoke and haze in this city of rare traffic lights, they persevere, fender to fender, insinuating themselves through the narrowest of openings, hurtling forward, blaring horns, screaming curses, fleeing collisions, stomach crunching stops, the flickering animations of pedestrians, and always, ever watchful for the smallest tinge of failed nerve, for the blood of hesitation, for the leanest blade of opportunity, as he untangles the twisted vegetative streets of Tehran for shortcuts, for strategies, for momentary collaborations with luck. Breath by breath, millimeter by millimeter Ardeshir knows the pulsating pathways of the city as intimately as he knows the geography of his wife. But he has never known a day when he is not unalterably tired.
But today, it is the tiredness of his car, the slow deaths of its parts which are the source of his present trouble.. Months before, when his gas gauge stopped registering, Ardeshir began keeping a mental record of the state of his tank. And finally today, the shaking and shuddering of the engine confirmed the almost absolute absence of gas.
Ardeshir drums his fingers on the steering wheel. Not even a working cassette player. Still he cannot bring himself to throw out the cracked plastic cassette tapes melting on top of his dashboard. Old Persian songs. The litter of ancient lyrics. Where is my love who gazes at me with the eyes of a gazelle. Where is the forest I must travel , where is the sea I must sail, upon the bow of my ship with my arrows of love… His eyes, alert like a sailor’s never leave the swells and troughs of the traffic in front of him, even as he pulls up the 2 litre bottle of water balanced near the clutch, even as he rummages in the glove compartment for his small cup. Only when transported briefly by the water in his mouth does his gaze momentarily drift from the jammed sterns of the autos to his tutor bag on the passenger seat. Inside are some coloured papers he has cut into right triangles and squares. He knows they will not help Kaveh,. He only brings them in obedience to his last week’s promise to the boy’s mother that he will bring a new technique, a Danish technique for teaching geometry.
Kaveh’s parents live in the immense quiet of Velenjak’s wide, even sidewalks, edged with densely dappled iron gates, and high marble courtyard walls upon which the leafy shadows of old sycamores tremble. So unlike Ardeshir’s own neighborhood of thin streets, thinner trees and small pasted flyers which confetti their patchy courtyard walls like bits of dried blood. It takes him hours to scrap them off, and even then they re-appear almost immediately. But Kaveh’s neighborhood is pristine and as placid as ice, lit by a clearer sun, scoured by the narrowing atmospheres of wealth and the relics of wealth, it shimmers behind iron gates, diamond-paved gardens, multi-arched windows and caged balconies. An unexpected dizziness that first time, when the iron gates of Kaveh’s house fragrantly opened to Ardeshir and into his lungs, the ancient exhalation of power.
Through the car window the hot gaseous breath of the city tides in. Usually there are vendors zigzagging these lines. Where are they? The water had tasted of plastic. He longs for a nice orange.
Can it be? Weaving in and out of the lines of cars, a full-throated vendor appears, holding something high in his hand.. Ardeshir is suffused with happiness. His mouth tingles with anticipation. Oranges!
“New wallets for your gas ration cards”, the man shouts. “Of the finest make. It has a special compartment for your gas ration cards.
Ardeshir almost weeps with disappointment.
“Wallets for your gas ration cards Look and see. Look and see.”
“Go on, get out of here, “ A driver on Ardeshir’s passenger side suddenly yells out. “Go on, I spit on the gas rationing cards. If it wasn’t for these stupid gas rationing cards, we wouldn’t need your damn wallets. We wouldn’t be waiting in this stupid line. Go on, get out of my sight.”
The vendor halts, seemingly stunned by the driver’s anger. And yet it is never bad to have gotten someone’s attention. It is the most important first step towards any kind of sale.
“Not only for gas rationing cards, my friend. Oh no, not only for that!”, the vendor shouts for the benefit of the neighboring drivers, “ Other things too. Space for money, receipts. ID cards. Room for all. Such magnificent gas card wallets. Take a look. “
“Didn’t you hear me.” The driver yells back as the vendor nears. “ Go on get out of here. We don’t want this useless gas rationing. We don’t want your stupid wallets..”
The vendor slows. From the countenance of the vendor, Ardeshir reads the anger at the insult to his wallets.. But the man does something that Ardeshir immediately admires. The vendor opens wide his case , and cradling it in his outstretched arms, displays neatly arranged samples of the wallets in all colors , in leather, in fabric.. Passing slowly and ceremoniously between the cars as if holding jewels ore relics, he affirms to one and all, every man’s desire to own beautiful things.
As the vendor is swallowed by another wave of cars, the complaining driver looks over to Ardeshir . “Can you believe this? The lines are longer every day.”
Ardeshir smiles “I am running out of gas just sitting here.”
The man continues, “This country has plenty of oil, why must we have these stupid gas rationing cards, eh?
Ardeshir is about to reply when he realizes this man, this driver could be anyone. Anyone just waiting for him to say something incautious. Ardeshir does not want to appear discourteous.. He merely nods imperceptibly and quickly turns towards the old cassettes as if they had called him for re-arranging.
How fortuitous that he did turn for he immediately spies an opening in the left lane and expertly squeezes one micron past a chair leg jutting out of an over burdened van.
The first time Ardeshir entered the modern pale cream house of Kaveh’s parents, he immediately felt its strange arctic candor as he followed Kaveh’s father along the white wainscoted hallway, the marble floor, the curved marble steps down to the only room he has ever been allowed to enter - a living room so large it can hold Ardeshir’s entire apartment. At the far end, a balcony overlooks a small back garden. Dark curtains and gold tassels at the windows, it is dense with old Baluchi carpets and richly brocaded chairs. Against the walls, with their espaliers of fruit shaped mouldings are gold rimmed picture frames embroidered with the dusk of painted landscapes. The room simmers with the smell of rich fabrics and silk flowers. Bouquets of them, fanned inside vases, themselves shaped like flowers. They inhabit the end tables, the cabinets, the top of the large armoire in the corner. The carpets are like petals on the floor. So reminiscent of old Qajar waiting rooms, the furniture could be plotting amongst themselves in French. Basking in the light of the evening lamps, the room itself is a kind of garden, luminous and unalive.
Kaveh’s parents were impressed that he has been to Europe, had studied in Denmark as a matter of fact. He doesn’t add that he had been so homesick, it was a blessing he never found a real job there. The parents’ initial friendly optimism at Ardeshir’s ability to help their son is now fading along with Kaveh’s math grades. Ardeshir is thankful that it is only the mother he must face on his weekly visits. The father is never home. There is much work to keep a factory running, the mother explained importantly. Something Kaveh must learn as well as math. But his father will see to that part, she adds.
Poor Kaveh, Ardeshir thinks, the boy, already 14, does not show any sign of being able to take over anything, much less math. But Ardeshir reassures the mother, and of course in a way himself. Your son is smart, he tells her, but he must do the exercises I leave him. He must apply himself. (As I did, once). Ardeshir feels badly because shy, hesitant, heavy Kaveh reminds Ardeshir of himself. One evening Ardeshir was even struck by how alike their hands were – wide and thick, and like Ardeshir’s, fingers thinning to delicate points where the nails began. But how long will the parents bear the tutor’s inability to raise their son’s grades. Until Ardeshir finds another student to replace Kaveh, he must continue to place the blame of failing on the boy without seeming to.
For the lessons, he and Kaveh each sit on one of the eight elaborately carved, upholstered chairs which surround the dining room table which is fitted into a dining alcove within the living room. A plastic table cloth covers what Ardeshir suspects is an equally beautiful table. It is almost exactly the same grayish, cheap pattern that his own family uses. Did they know this about him? The mother brings in a tray of tea, plates and a dish of fruit. Leaving them alone, she is always nearby. Ardeshir can hear her in the kitchen on the other side of the wall. Sometimes a door closes. Sometimes there is the slight thrum of her passage down the hallway as she goes about her mysterious obligations. Back and forth she goes, in and out of the other fire-bloomed, swan-white rooms he imagines.
In just such an evening filled like all the others with disappointing exercises, and the mother on some long household journey, that Ardeshir, tired and bored asked the boy about his interests. Kaveh was even more silent than usual, if such a possibility could be. The silence lengthened. Should I have asked this question? Is it too personal? But then Kaveh , his head still bent towards his lesson book whispered,
“I like to build wooden models, and ride my bike.”
“Models? You build models? How nice. I used to build them.”
“Do you want to see one? ”
“Well I ….” Before Ardeshir could finish, the boy ran from the room. Immediately Ardeshir became uneasy. Here he had seemingly sent the boy away, the mother would catch him alone at the table. She would accuse him of wasting time and money. He became angry at the stupid boy who left him in this questionable position. But then Kaveh had returned quickly enough, holding out a small wooden construction.
“I made it myself. From a kit” Ardeshir took the small armored tank into his hands.
It had been manufactured out of extremely thin plywood which had been jig-sawed into flat intricate shapes. To construct the model, all one had to do was to slide these shapes one into the other according to the numbers printed on the pieces. When all the sliding was done, a three-dimensional model was formed. Ardeshir turned the tank from one side to the other. Unpainted, the pieces also had not been manufactured very well, the parts fitted badly and many were loose and falling out if not handled delicately.
“It is very well done, Kaveh.” Ardeshir smiled, “ I have never seen anything like it. You are very talented.” Kaveh’s face glowed.
Ardeshir placed the model on the table in front of them and began to refer to it in the lesson. Did it make a difference in the teaching? He had no time to form a conclusion. The mother entered with more tea. “So Kaveh, you have brought out your model to show. But you know what your father says.” and she took the tank away with her.
That was two weeks ago and although Kaveh seems to be waiting, Ardeshir does not ask to see another model again. It was such a bold and unusual step. He is afraid to repeat it.
But there is something about the mother which tells him that perhaps he should be more courageous. Some kind of fragile empathy about the difficulties of educating her son. She ruffles Kaveh’s hair when she leaves the tea, and tells him he is a good boy and very smart. At the first interview, she had said little, and only after the father spoke. A tall, heavy, bull headed man, he had managed to lower Ardeshir’s fee which Ardeshir had secretly raised by 50% upon seeing the house. Despite Ardeshir’s impeccable credentials, the father had succeeded in getting Ardeshir to lower his price by 30% of the secret increase. So a gain of 20%, above his normal fee but is it enough for the aggravation? When the negotiations were done, the mother had spoken, with frequent glances at her husband, of the need to gain Kaveh’s wandering attention. Ardeshir had responded enthusiastically without considering anything serious in her words. The father became impatient.
“The tutor knows his job, we are paying plenty for it. He knows we want results”
Last week as Ardeshir was leaving, and only to be expected, the father spoke through the mother.
“My husband is growing impatient, Ara Azir”, she said when she handed him the envelope containing his fee. “ Kaveh must begin to do better. His father doesn’t believe enough progress is being made. He may want to look elsewhere for teachers. ”
Panicked, Ardeshir blurted “The concepts are hard. But I have been involved with…uh…some recent methods which have been tried in…in Denmark”. Next week I will bring these methods which I have just acquired. They have shown remarkable results.”
Only three cars are ahead of him now. The roof of the station approaches like a legible cloud.
As he waits, Ardeshir’s gaze is caught by a thin old man standing under the edge of that cloud. His large-beaked nose hovering over his scraggly white beard, the vendor is dressed in baggy black pants, a long sleeved shirt,and despite the heat, a dark wool vest buttoned tightly to his neck. Colorful boxes nest at his feet. In his hands, an old fashioned ship model, complete with sails.
The vendor has made a wise choice – it is a wonderful location. Here the cars must slowly pass on either side of him into the beginning of the gas station . Here the drivers are happy mostly, in a good mood, their interminable wait for gas almost at an end. And here, most of all, here is where the money is already halfway out of drivers’ pockets and wallets. Money for gas, of course. But perhaps money too for the beautiful ship he offers, right here in front of all, available to tempt a person’s sudden whim. Ardeshir likes that the man says nothing. Allows the ship’s beauty to speak for him, and an idea begins to form in his mind. Ardeshir leans through his window.
“Let me see that thing.”
“Of course, Ara .” The vendor sails himself and the boat close to Ardeshir’s window. With the other hand, he thrusts a box into Ardeshir’s hands. “Open it, all the pieces are there.”
Keeping an eye on the pumps, Ardeshir inspects the box. The words “Pirates of the Caribbean”, in English, are printed above a picture of the pirates themselves. One of the pirates is a woman. Her hair has been magic marker-ed over with a hijab, and a black solid scrawl covers her body. Only her Western face is visible like a full moon among the grinning men rich in beards, hats, and knives. At one corner Made in China is printed.
Ardeshir removes the cover and is pleasantly surprised. It is a real model- building kit. Almost exactly, no, even better than the ones he built as a boy. There is an actual solid wood hull split into two parts which must be glued together, and bits and pieces of plasticised cloth. Real balsa-wood masts and decks. There is thread for rigging, and two tiny brushes included with the tiny bottles of paint. Even a small stand for when the ship is completed. Everything neatly arranged in separate plastic bags, sealed closed. His hands shake at the care and wonder of it.
“How much for this little toy?”
“ Toy?! Not a toy. A kit. A beautiful kit. And as you see I have only a few left, There is nothing like it in all of Tehran.”
“What is the price?”
“Yes, yes, so I will tell you. My original price was 60,000 tomans, but since you are in a rush,we can dispense with talk, I will give it to you for 50,000 tomans. There, its yours. ”
“For a toy that one must put together and will break easily?! “ Ardeshir shakes his head. “I will give you 25,000 tomans for such a fragile thing. “
“Ah my friend, that is the point. It is not a toy, but a real model kit. To train a child to build. Even if you could find another kit like this, which I assure you, you cannot, they would charge you over 80,000 tomans.”
“Well then you must sell this unfinished toy to someone who lives in a palace. Not to me.”
“Look at it. This is not something that you can buy in any store. I guarantee, you will find nothing like it in all of Tehran. But I have a soft heart. 45,000 tomans. And I am truly giving it away at that price.
“This is just a whim of mine. It is not something I need. It is to be a gift only. 30,000 tomans, And even at such a price, it may not be worth the trouble of buying it.”
“You know sir. I can tell by the way you touched the pieces, you are experienced in such things. Perhaps you have been a sailor yourself?. There, then, you cannot deny the quality of the kit. 40,000 tomans, and only because I personally want you to have it.”
“I agree it is a well made toy, but unfinished But I cannot go higher than 30,000.”
“Sir, as you agree, it is a wonderful model. All I ask of your goodness and kindness is 38,000 tomans. There I’ve said it. 38,000 tomans. So be it. …For your son…am I right?.. You and your son will work together to build it. Oh how everyone will admire the work.”
Ardeshir is very tempted. The vendor is anxious for a sale, Ardeshir can get it easily for 32,000 tomans. He could introduce it to Kaveh’s mother this evening as the Danish teaching technique. For that is the idea he has formed.
In the weeks to come, the lessons could revolve around helping Kaveh to build it. Ardeshir would very much like to do that. It is almost a lifetime away that he has built such a model. And as Kaveh is already interested in kits, it would be very easy to incorporate math lessons in the building of it. The parents would be pleased. Kaveh would pass his tests. This is in fact how Ardeshir himself became interested in math. Building models. How long long ago was that? 26, 27 years. Can he still be that same person who went to Denmark to study, when Denmark seemed like a beacon of adventure and success.
A car has moved away from the pump. Now he is only one car away. He must move fast.
“I will think about it” Ardeshir thrusts the box back at the vendor.
“ It is yours. 35,000 tomans. That is my last price, a very good price.” The man says running along side Ardeshir’s car.
Areshir tips the box on top of the edge of the window as he surges ahead. The vendor has no choice but to run and grab it before it falls to the ground.
At the pump finally, Ardeshir gets out and hands his gas ration card to the attendant.
Although Ardeshir’s own Khodro has become so useless in many ways, it has one good advantage. It is a 4 cylinder car. For such cars, and after much proof and paperwork, owners of such cars receive a special gas rationing card which allows them to buy gas at lower cost.
The attendant returns the card, and adjusts the pump. Ardeshir unlocks his gas cap and inserts the nozzle.
“The camera! I want that camera! Give it to me.”
Ardeshir looks up. At the other line of pumps, a man is screaming at a woman inside a car.
“She is a reporter.”, he yells to the two men who have emerged from the car the woman is sitting in “ She will put my face on television, report me to the government. Give me her camera,.”
His shirt is sweaty , his gray pants shapeless. He is waving a large white plastic container. More lie at his feet.
Ardeshir knows immediately the situation. Some men with the lower rate gas ration card instead of filling their own cars with gas, fill up plastic containers. They then sell the gas in the containers at a small markup to drivers waiting on line who would have paid more for the gas with their higher rate gas ration card. Everyone profits. It is not illegal to fill up gas containers. But it is illegal to re-sell the gas.
Ardeshir can’t here them, but from the gestures there is calming gestures from the two men towards the screaming man.
“Why should I believe you?” the man continues, “She is not a a tourist as you say. Why else would she take a picture of a poor man at a gas station. What kind of tourist picture is that. She will have me arrested!”
The men are now holding the woman’s camera and are showing him what they are doing.
“You have deleted my picture. I have your word?”
Whatever the two men say the problem seems resolved.
The man grabs his white containers. The two men get back in the car with the woman and speed off.
Ardeshir looks at his watch. Miraculously the waiting in line, the gas filling, everything has taken much shorter than he anticipated. Perhaps if his blessings continue, Ardeshir will get to Kaveh’s house with more than enough time. Perhaps this is a sign. He makes a decision that seems fated, parks alongside the station, and runs back to the corner where the man with the boat had stood.
Nowhere to be seen. Did the argument about the camera frightened him away?
Ardeshir is suddenly relieved. He would have bought the wooden kit. With money truly he could not afford. Would he really have had the nerve to present such a gift to Kaveh’s parents? No matter how graciously received. No matter the explanation of the Danish method, Ardeshir already knows as he steps on the gas towards Kaveh’s house, that whatever he could have done or not done, he will soon be stepping through the doors of that arctic house and instead of the mother, it will be Kaveh’s father who will greet him and lead him to a room where furniture blooms from the floor.