Issue 3: Kidstuff / Paul Violi

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Iran, Tehran, Ramadan, Istanbul, Turks, Iranians, travel, & Erzurum


Turkey, 1968.

Mud paths line the distant mountainsides, loop across the sheer and glaring drop, and shacks hang off them like dead fruit on a vine. We’ve stopped looking below, at the battered, overturned trucks and buses down there. Some are rusted, some recent wrecks. Occasionally, groups of looters who scaled the rocks and ice stand in the roadside slush, guarding their pile of booty. Watching us drive by without snow tires, they beam with optimism, convinced it’s going to be a lucrative winter.

We’re quiet. Craig tries to humor us by mimicking the cop we encountered in the last place we stopped, the one who had put us in a bad mood to begin with. He had flirted with Penny as he checked her passport, delighted, he said, to have met his first Texan. Then his friendliness gave way to what I thought was mock disgust before he said, “Pen-el-OH-pay… This is a Greek name, is it not?” And he spit on her shoes.

The Iranians haven’t been too friendly lately, either. They hired us to drive three new Mercedes from Istanbul to Tehran, three mud-splattered white Mercedes, stuffed with plastic flowers, radios, crates of oranges. Now we’re cramped and tired, tired of being sideswiped by trucks, stuck in snow, stalled on hills and edges of cliffs. I’m tired of Craig’s recollecting how much he enjoyed being doped up while working in the engine room of an Alaskan trawler.

We’re also hungry. And since its Ramadan, so is everyone we’ve met—hungry and irritable. The food supply in restaurants depleted during the fast, we felt we had lucked out last night when we found a place that was open. We were given a tour of the kitchen, carcasses hanging from rafters, a pile of orange sheep skulls in a corner of the dirt floor. If the waiter hadn’t tormented Penny, feeling her each time he served a plate until one of us jumped up and shook him until he was smiling like a monkey, we would have stayed and finished our meal. Mama had already warmed up the cars, and cursing the Turks, consolingly offered Penny a gum ball of O. She ate it later when we pulled into a parking lot and slept with the windows partly open, the motors running to keep us warm. We no sooner got back on the road in the morning than we had to stop, Penny leaning out the car door, puking softly in the snow and then smiling, returning to the old notebook she had, constantly reworking, outlining a bad sketch of a stallion that she’d colored in with the blood from her first fix.

But now, more out of boredom than resentment, we decide on a change of plans. Far enough between the other two cars to make the turn unseen, we swing off the main road and gun it. After a few minutes we figure we’ve lost them, we’re on our way, wherever that may be, laughing and jabbering and then I don’t know what. It isn’t much of a road, a dotted line on a map. There’s no tension in the steering wheel. The car skids broadside, blindly, soundlessly, behind a great white wave, and plows into a snowbank.

A few hours later we are almost glad to see Mama drive up. He trudges around the half-buried Mercedes, angry and frustrated because he “can’t English,” can’t believe how stupid we were to have gotten lost. We demand more food and money before we help him haul it out and advise him that anybody with a head as small as his shouldn’t wear turtle neck sweaters.

Soon Ali and Aik Bar arrive. Aik Bar was sad. He knew no English either, no way to tell Penny he misses her, he loves her. He’d chase her uphill in the dirty snow, slipping, crawling in her tracks, pleading “Crazy Love! Crazy Love!” This amuses everyone except Mama. He continues to rant, even complaining to a shepherd and his family who have wandered over. The shepherd stares impassively at him, but the women—plucked eyebrows framed by black veils, skin too pallid for these bright snowfields—clucks softly in…approval? disapproval? commiseration? Their children wave uncertainly when we finally drive away.

Back on the main road, the Iranians stick close, almost boxing us in. A storm comes up but we take the hills easily enough, radio dipping in and out of the music. It’s a monotonous, strident music, and it doesn’t sound much different when shredded and fried by lightning. We help ourselves to the oranges Mama told us he wanted to save for his mother, for that proud moment when they will meet at the border and he will present them to her along with three splendid new cars, and an armful of plastic flowers. But’ we’re not feeling very friendly, and just to taunt him, we toss the peels out the window into his high beams as he tails us ever closer, punching his horn in helpless protest, honking like a mule.

We don’t stop driving until after midnight, in a village east of Erzurum: wide and muddy main street, ramshackle storefronts, yellow lights sunk behind little windows. While Mama goes looking for food and Ali and Aik Bar tend to other things, we stay in the car, too groggy to talk, and watch the menfolk assemble.

Curiously, quietly, they wander out of the dark and circle the car. Hunched together, they look kind of timid. They come closer, and they begin to kiss the windows. They suck on the windows, grin and make fish-eyes. Some tuck their thumbs in their ears and wiggle their fingers, stick their tongues out and roll their eyes. We laugh, but not much; there are a lot of them. A short old man in a long coat shoves his way through to Penny’s window and pulling it out from his coat like a clumsy magician, offers her a chicken. She, relieved to see an amiable smile, smiles back. And quick as a wink he rips the squawking chicken’s head off and, blood ejaculating from its neck, Pollocks over her window. With that, the rest of them yell and press and pound against the car. It sways with the surge, bloody scribbles smeared across the glass. Penny screeches, jumping hysterically in her seat. We look swivel-necked for help. The Iranians are nowhere in sight, but instantly the crowd backs off. A cop appears. Tall, solitary, unperturbed, in a clean, Gestapo-crisp uniform. He mechanically kicks his way through the huddled men, arms akimbo. They quietly stare at their feet, and like reprimanded children fidget in his wake. He kicks a few more, for emphasis. He says nothing, never shows his hands. I roll down the window, fast. He clicks his heels, bows slightly, and making it sound almost like advice, says, “It is best that you leave here now.”

PAUL VIOLI’S Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes, a collection of short prose, was published by Hanging Loose Press.  He is the author of 12 books of poetry, most recently OVERNIGHT, and has received the Morton Dawen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and numerous other poetry awards. More about his books and publications can be found at
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