As an old man, Hassan Sabeti felt a real and distinct disappointment each day that he had not changed the world. Not him by himself. He and the other men he had believed it with. Those men had died and he was alive. They had been dead a long time. He was the only one of them to become an old man. It’s strange, he told them, the world did not catch up to us. Eighty-two years old and the world did not catch up. I would’ve thought that would be enough time.
When he thought of those men, he believed the world would catch up. He just wouldn’t be there to see it, that’s all. That was all right. He would’ve liked to see it. But it was like an old romance now to look back on it. The time with those men had been the most romantic time of his life. Particularly the time in prison. When a man is in prison, there is a measure of relief. The thing he is going to change is all around him. These are the walls he is going to knock down. These are the iron bars he is going to use for something decent instead. The aspects of creation and destruction are very clear. They are trying to destroy him and he is trying to create everything.
He smiled to think of it. He sat with his wife and his son and his daughter.
“”Did you know,”” he said, because there was never a time any more when he was not thinking about the world he had believed they would change and had not, “”did you know that we used to say, Egypt is next? That was how sure we were. We used to say that after we free Iran, Egypt is next.””
It was going to be a beautiful world all right. His wife and his son and his daughter could see on Hassan’s face what a beautiful world it was going to be. They could hardly believe what a clear view of it they had. They could hardly believe how much a man and his dream could be intertwined.
Hassan sat at the table eating fruit. There were traces of the world they would have made in the way he ate fruit. There were traces of it everywhere, but eating fruit was a good one. He ate like a young man, jauntily. Like he knew that at least it was the right dream that had gotten him to eighty-two years of age.
The dream that everybody could sit at a table and eat fruit.
That was what eating fruit was, after all. That was the right way to do it. Otherwise, what did you have? You had the taste and flavor of it, but you didn’t have the wonder and magnificence of it. And if you didn’t have those, you’d pretty much lose the taste and flavor of it too after a while. It was an angry dream sometimes and a funny dream and a sad dream too. He didn’t know how else a man was supposed to know he was dreaming right. You wanted to have all those things there in the end, didn’t you?
Sometimes in a quiet moment now he let himself believe that that was part of a dream’s job, to carry you, along with whether or not it came true. He did not feel like he was betraying the memory of those men when he felt that. He did not say it out loud to his family, but they could see in his face that his disappointment was not a bitter disappointment. It was not resentful. It was still soft. He had just expected a little more from the world, that’s all.
His children watched him eat fruit and they understood why it had always been so terrible to disappoint him. It was because he could hold it. He had a place for it, and that had been their introduction to disappointment and to carving out a place for it themselves. When they had been young, they had been scared of how big a place it needed. They had never sat in prison or believed that Egypt was next. How were they supposed to make a place that big?
It was the regularity of the dream. Its everyday-ness and its all-the-time. He had been dreaming of the world they were going to make in the way he had walked from the front door to the mailbox. He had walked like he was already there. And if it was something with people, he had been there so much that he had brought them with him.
It was nothing his children could say to him. They could not say to him that in his way he had changed the world, because his disappointment was too beautiful a place by now. He would smile at them politely if they said that. But like a smile he would give to a stranger. Not someone he was letting in to see the place.
He was not afraid of dying in an unchanged world. A man does everything he can, he felt, and that is his life. Along the way he meets some men who are trying like him and he does not ever forget them.
As for his children, he could give them stories, and the stories were of men who were sure, who had believed that Egypt was next. He had no stories about the man he was now. All he could do was show them who he was now when they came to see him: I wake up. I read the newspaper. I go to the swimming pool and swim. In the afternoon I drink tea and eat fruit. Through it all I did not change the world. It is still a place where a great many miseries abound.
It was so beautiful to see an old man disappointed like that that they did not think of consoling him. They only told themselves to pay attention, to learn how it was that your sensitivity could become your strength, how something with the fragility of a goddamn teardrop could somehow be as strong as iron at the same time.
It looked to them like it was worth it to dream. It looked like the only thing to do. They wondered what an old man was supposed to feel if it wasn’t a disappointment at not having changed the world.
His daughter had a four-year-old daughter of her own. Each time they drove to her swimming lessons, the little girl looked for an old woman with a cat at the park near the pool. She had seen her the first time they had gone there and she had asked why she was at the park with her cat. They may not have a house, her mother had said. After that, each time the little girl saw the old woman with a cat, she would be quiet for a very long time, sometimes the whole day.
As she watched him eat fruit, Hassan’s daughter felt like confessing something. She wanted to tell him that the last time they had gone to the swimming lesson, she had driven another route so that her daughter would not see the old woman with her cat.
“”Baba,”” she said instead “”what was it like to be the only one of those men who lived?””
“”At first I felt guilty,”” he said. “”And then I felt very lucky.””
“”When you had us kids, did you ever feel like you wanted to give us a happy world?””
“”A happy world?”” Hassan said. He cut a slice of pear in two with his fork. It was like seeing a man in his place of great and poetical study to watch him eat fruit. The pear glistened as he and the fruit brought out the best in each other. “”I always wanted you to be happy, if that is what you mean.””
“”But you always knew that it is not a happy world.””
“”Yes. A man hopes that life will be easier for his children than it was for him. If he endures hardships, he hopes that his children will not have to endure those hardships.””
His daughter wanted to say something about how she had given up on the notion that ease was the thing. What she wanted was wisdom. The wisdom to know what to do about her daughter and the old woman with the cat. A wisdom that was as sure as the memory of the men her father had nearly died with.
She had not known how much she wanted a wisdom like that until she had a daughter. She had always loved her father’s stories, but they were something more than stories to her now. She saw that they had been something to for him to measure himself by.
It was so very logical to want to change the world. A little girl sees an old woman with a cat who have no house and all she wants is to be directed as to how to change the world so that they do. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. It’s as natural as somebody teaching her how to button her own coat.
Hassan’s wife peeled an orange and placed it in front of him.
“”At least he still eats fruit,”” she said. “”The day he stops eating fruit, I will worry about him.””
“”I will never stop eating fruit,”” Hassan said. “”Do you know that in prison they wouldn’t give us any fruit? It was a terrible thing to do. That is why my mother brought oranges when she came to visit. She brought oranges and I would take them back to the men. Those were the best oranges I ever had.””
Hassan’s daughter felt it from both ends, from her daughter and her father, and she wished she knew how they did it, how they could hold it all. Sometimes it seemed like the space her daughter had for disappointment was as big as her father’s. She wished she knew what she could do for her. If that space was something that was alive and well in an eighty-two-year-old man, she ought to have some idea what to do for it.
The first thing she could do was to admit that she could not give her daughter a happy world. That it was all right even in her daughter’s happiest moments, to look at them with a measure of sadness, because of the world where they were. That was how her father had looked at her. She remembered the look now: ‘My daughter is riding a bike for the first time, and those men are still dead,’ ‘My daughter is playing on a soccer field, and they are still dead.’ As a girl she had sometimes wished that her father could lose himself completely when he was watching her, that he could be more like those fathers cheering uncontrollably. But it was all connected somehow – his pride in her and his memory of that time, which was the memory of the world he wanted to give her.
It was a different kind of joy a man could have when he was disappointed at not having changed the world. It could come out over very small things. Everything he would keep. There were a million things he would keep, and he paid attention to every one of them.
That was there in his face as well: I will keep this. This will be there in the world we would have made as well.
She felt proud to be included in that. She felt proud to be included in something men had died for.
“”Baba,”” she said “”the next time I bring Leila, will you tell her these stories, about prison and about how Egypt was next?””
Hassan looked up from his orange.
“”How old is he now?””
“”She is four.””
“”Wait one year,”” he said. “”Wait until she is five. Wait until she is five and I am eighty-three. Anyway maybe I will be a good storyteller by then.
Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran, grew up in London, Orange County, and Seattle, and lives in San Francisco. Along with writing, he works as a substitute teacher. His stories have appeared in various journals, including Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, and Slippery Elm. His collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.