This story was nominated for The Best of the Net.
The boy and the girl were watching the father working in the backyard. It was Saturday afternoon and the sky was gray in a way that seemed like Saturday afternoon was always going to be gray from here on out.
The girl was to go to a birthday party later. The boy was thinking of going down the street to see what was happening at Ryan and Taisha’s house.
“I wish he had a friend,” the girl said.
The boy made a sound to suggest that he agreed with his sister while also acknowledging that he was starting to become an admirer of solitude.
“What would he do if he had a friend?” the boy said.
“He would go to their house and watch a football game,” the girl said. “He would drink a beer.”
“You are thinking of American men.”
“It is not American to have a friend.”
Outside the father was working in a very heartbreaking way. He was raking and weeding. The boy and the girl did not know why it was so heartbreaking. But they both thought it would be less heartbreaking if their father had a friend.
Their mother saw them looking out the window.
“What are you doing?”
“I wish he had a friend,” the girl said.
“He has friends. We know many Iranians here.”
“No,” the girl said. “A friend.”
“Well,” the mother said. “Tell him.”
The girl went outside, with her brother following.
“Baba,” she said. “What about a friend?”
“Yes. It’s Saturday afternoon.”
The father smiled and leaned on the rake.
“What would we do?”
“You could do anything. People do it all the time. They call each other up and say, Would you like to come to my house or could I come to your house?”
“It sounds nice.”
“It is nice. People do it all the time.”
“What do they do from there?”
“They talk. Or they play games. Or they watch something together.”
“Then they say goodbye and go home.”
“Yes. But they had fun.”
“Yes. And now they are friends.”
The father looked up at the gray sky and turned it all over in his mind.
“It seems like a nice system.”
“It’s not a system, Baba. It’s just friends.”
“I see. Well, it seems nice all the same.”
The girl did not think at any point that her father was fooling around. He spoke the real questions inside him.
“What makes them friends?” he said.
“They like the same things. Maybe they like the same games or they like the same songs.”
“Or they like the same books,” the boy said.
“Can I be friends with people who don’t like the same things?”
“Yes,” the girl said. “But that’s hard.”
“You can’t be friends with everybody.”
“No. You can’t call everybody up on Saturday.”
“You’re right. But there are so many of them.”
“Well, you have to pick.”
“There are so many people that I would have to not call up.”
For the first time, the girl felt uncertain about her approach. There were many people that her father would have to not call up. They all deserved to know him. She was sure of that. They all deserved to see how he smiled and how he laughed and how he worked in a yard like nobody was watching him. They deserved to wonder what he was thinking about, because whatever it was, it looked beautiful.
“Well, that’s how it is,” she said, recovering her resolve.
“It’s hard to have friends.”
“It’s hard to not have friends.” The girl thought about how the world would look if all her friends were going to the birthday party and she was staying home. She scared herself thinking about it.
From inside the mother watched them talking it over, the father listening seriously to the daughter, the son watching them both and appreciating the whole discussion. It looked like a meeting of important thinkers, each of them approaching the issue with full concern for what they were bringing to the table and with full concern for what the other was bringing to the table. It was almost as if the children knew the premise from which the father was starting, which she remembered to be his premise as she watched through the window. It was very much like him to take their concern seriously, and it was very much like them to think that what was missing from his world was a friend. She smiled to think of what was missing from his world.
When she had first met him, he was the first man she had known who could bring what was missing from his world with him. He still could, truth be told. You had to dig pretty deep in him to see that that was what he was doing. The Iranians that they saw sometimes did not know it. The girl was right to say that they were not his friends. She had studied the situation. Of course, neither of them could tell her that he was starting from the premise that a friend was someone with whom you planned to bring along all that was missing from the world. What was beautiful about the husband though was that he genuinely seemed to not know. He had a great deal of respect for the girl, for both his children and their perspectives on various matters, and he was happy to hear them out.
“I suppose you are right,” the father said, “But we have the Iranians we see at our gatherings.”
“I mean a friend,” the girl said.
“She’s right, Baba,” the boy said, coming around to his sister’s way of thinking. “Talking to one friend is different from talking to a group of people.”
“Yes. I know you can joke and laugh with them. But we know you are more than that.”
“I like joking with them. We can do it in our language.”
“We know,” the girl said. “But you are something under the joke.”
The boy and the girl took on an expression to suggest that they had known he was something under the joke for a very long time.
“I am? How do you know?”
“We see you working in the yard,” the girl said. The boy nodded.
The father broke into a very big smile. The mother saw him smile and she knew that he was enjoying the conversation. He was enjoying it as though the children knew the story of his past experience with friendship. He was very happy that they knew without him having to tell them. There was a lot that was unspoken between them. Sometimes both of them, but especially the girl, frowned like him. It was a magnificent frown because it was directed at life, and not with anger, but only with a desire to be as inside of life as possible. You could see them trying to get inside. She hoped that the girl would not lose the frown as she got older, that she would not be told to replace the frown with a smile, because it was an exceedingly happy frown, if people could look at it the right way.
“Everybody works in their yard,” the father said.
“If one of the men you know works in his yard the way you work in the yard, he should be your friend,” the girl said. The boy agreed.
“How will I know?” the father said. “Should I look at their yards?”
“No,” the boy said. “They might have paid someone to do it.”
“You should ask them when you see them,” the girl said. “And if they brag about working in the yard or if they brag about how nice their yard looks, then that’s someone who isn’t going to be your friend.”
“Yes,” the boy said. “Whoever doesn’t brag should be your friend.”
“I see,” the father said. “What if they have a very beautiful yard?”
“Doesn’t matter,” the girl said, frowning.
“What you are saying seems like a good premise for a friendship.”
The boy and the girl looked at each other. They felt proud.
“In Iran I had some friends who were the kind of men who would not have bragged about their backyards.”
The boy and the girl tried hard to not look surprised.
“They did not have backyards, but if they did, even if they were very beautiful, they would not have bragged about them.”
“Well,” the girl said, “It’s the same thing here.”
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Maybe you’re right,” the father said.
Inside the mother watched the meeting come to a peaceful and constructive end. Her husband had given their children all the room they needed to air their concerns. She could see they had come to some kind of agreement.
A friend, she thought. It was funny. Her children saw the same thing that she did. Her husband was a man who deserved to have many friends. There were many men among the Iranians they knew who perhaps considered him their closest friend. The loneliness that her children saw was the loneliness of a man who had found friends with whom he planned to bring along all that was missing from the world. They saw what great potential he had as a friend, what a genius of friendship he could be.
She had once seen it too. When she had first met him, she didn’t know if he was the boldest man in the room or the quietest. She saw how everyone moved closer to him in order to figure it out. Finally, she learned that it was both. The movement between the two kept him busy. His children saw the movement too and they thought it was a great loss if he did not have a friend to move like that with.
They were right. They were right but they were wrong too, because he was still moving like that with the friends who had planned to bring along all that was missing from the world. They were moving back and forth between living and dead. It was his movement with them that the children saw, that they wanted to see made real, because those men really had believed they could bring all that was missing from the world. His movement with them was so natural that he didn’t notice he was not alone, that he was working out there with them all the time. As his children, they had every right to want to see it made real.
The boy and the girl came back inside. The mother watched them walk in with a sense of quiet accomplishment. Both of them looked like their own time with their friends would be made better by the effort to find their father a friend.
“How did it go?”
“Good,” the girl said. “We found a way for him to find a friend.”
They told their mother about the plan to find out which of their father’s friends wouldn’t brag about having a nice backyard.
“That seems like a good plan.”
Maybe it was true. Maybe the not-braggers could be something like the men he had known, men who wouldn’t have bragged about bringing along all that was missing from the world if they had succeeded, because they saw it as nothing more than their job. They saw it as their job as readily as working in the yard. It was hard to have friends like that again after having had them once, after having gone to prison with them and after having seen the grand majority of them killed. It was hard to have friends like that again after having had them once.
Through the eyes of the children it seemed possible. It seemed possible because not bragging was to revolution what the boy and the girl were to him. Maybe there was a friend who would understand that. If nothing else, she could see how he had so effortlessly stopped what he was doing to hear them out.
SIAMAK VOSSOUGHI is an Iranian-American writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, West Branch, and Gulf Coast. His first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and his second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize.