I was sitting on a beanbag in the Shabadogi family’s basement when this frequent guest of theirs came thumping down the stairs. His name was Navid and he was staying again with the Shabadogis for Thanksgiving. Navid was an army guy, I had once gathered. I had seen him wearing camouflage one year and assumed he was an army guy, anyway. He stayed with the Shabadogis when he couldn’t afford his own place—which was often—and because my father absolutely had to spend each Thanksgiving with this family while I was in grade school, I had met Navid many years prior and knew him marginally. My mother put him up once, too, a couple years back. He slept in my room because I was in college. My mother says she’s not sure, but she thinks he stole my calculator—one of those expensive graphing calculators I didn’t need anyway because I had graduated from high school and you don’t need that kind of calculator after high school.
“Yo,” he said. “What’s cooking tonight?”
I assumed he meant what are you getting in to? instead of what’s for dinner? because Mrs. Shabadogi made the same thing every year for Thanksgiving dinner: a massive Honeyball turkey and an equally massive vat of basmati with saffron. Some years my father would prepare kabob. Every year Mrs. Shabadogi would say: two cultures united in love and through food, referring to her own happy and interracial (I guess) marriage and that of my parents, who did not seem happy, at all, but smiled anyway. The husbands were born and raised on the same street in Tehran. Coca-Cola Avenue. Mrs. Shabadogi would hand the carving knife to Mr. Shabadogi, who would cut and distribute the turkey while my father scooped rice onto the plates in an almost holy way. Like deference to basmati and saffron is the sixth pillar of Islam. My mother prayed for all of us in Jesus’ name, which made everyone uncomfortable.
“Same as every night,” I said. “Same old thing every year.” My response was ambiguous in case my interpretation was wrong. I had become familiar with this kind of neurotic interpersonal nuance.
“I’m betting you’ll get cooked,” he said.
I looked at him and waited for him to continue.
“The rest you’re fooling, maybe, but me—I know reefer.”
Pot was my primary coping mechanism for this kind of so-called family reunion. I knew he knew. Had seen him smile slightly when I’d come in from the cold, an hour or more after leaving for a walk. Smelling like Christmas. I would be paranoid usually, but with Navid—I thought I could trust him with this. It had something to do with the camouflage.
“You smoke?” I said.
“Used to,” he said. “Then I had to grow up, you know?”
“You know where I can score around here?”
“I know the place. If we leave now we can make it back before dinner.”
So we left. I told my mother that Navid and I were going on a walk, and she nodded, said be back by nine. It was seven. We walked down Monroe toward Tackett, turned left on Helmke before the bridge, away from Ellicott City. Once, when we were younger, Mr. Shabadogi, Navid and I threw pennies into the water below the bridge and wished we weren’t spending Thanksgiving in Baltimore. Wished to be someplace warmer, too. These are the things we wished out loud. But we were also wishing things internally. Me, that my nose would shrink. That me and some popular and attractive American singer like Aaron Carter would become friends and we’d hang out together thinking up lyrics or talking about girls. Or whatever. That night, the first night on the bridge, I can remember two other things about it: it was snowing big wet snowflakes and I was about to lose a baby tooth. I remember when I pushed on it with my tongue, Mr. Shabadogi told me not to force this kind of thing. That the body works on its own timeline.
Navid and I stopped at the bridge again, now many years later, and we looked at the snow gathered and gathering on the thin layer of ice that had formed above the water. Navid had a long aquiline nose like mine. He looked more Persian than me, too. He spoke fluent Farsi. When he wasn’t wearing camo, he dressed in that classy American way Iranian immigrants often dress. Except he wasn’t born in Iran. Like me he hadn’t even been there. One other thing about Navid, he always smelled good. Always. “You remember when we threw pennies into here?” he said. He was staring at the ice, just staring at it. Not blinking. The silhouettes of tall trees hunched over us. You could smell firewood burning somewhere, which made me sad inexplicably.
“No,” I lied.
“It’s all the same,” he said, still staring at the ice. “Eighth is fifty and I can’t imagine you’ll need more than that before Saturday. This guy, call him Muscle.”
“Muscle,” I said, and nodded, trying not to laugh. We left the bridge, kept walking. Again it was snowing big wet snowflakes. The moon was full and you couldn’t hear cars rumbling ahead to D.C. It seemed as if everyone was where they wanted to be.
Muscle waved to us from a screened-in balcony above his front door. I couldn’t make him out exactly, but I could see he had a long, black beard. He seemed much older than me and Navid, too. He gestured warmly for us to help ourselves inside, make our way upstairs, to the balcony. I could smell his pot burning from downstairs and I wanted it.
“Muscle,” he said and extended his hand to shake mine. Beneath the ruddy light of the balcony I could see why he was called—or called himself—Muscle. His arms were massive. His beard was even more impressive from up close, extending out in every direction like Marx’s beard but more. He looked dirty but I couldn’t tell for sure with the light so dim. I couldn’t place his accent.
“Navid says you’re a potential client of mine,” Muscle said. “How long you in town?”
“I need just the one bag. I go back to Ohio this weekend.”
“Just the one bag,” he said, stroking his beard, looking at Navid sternly as if disappointed, but still with a slight smile. Like my response was funny. Or like it offended him.
“Sit,” he said, pointing to a chair in the corner. He nodded at Navid to sit too, who did. “I almost forgot my manners.”
He passed me a glass pipe and when I felt it I remembered the coldness of Baltimore in November. I had forgotten, meeting Muscle. Forgotten I was shivering. I lit the pipe while Muscle and Navid watched eagerly. Against physiological impulse I managed not to cough. I was afraid Muscle and Navid could see how hard I was trying.
“Thanks,” I said and passed the pipe back to Muscle, who did not hit from it but instead passed it to Navid. Navid looked at it before accepting. He lit the pipe and blew the smoke slowly up toward the one light of the balcony, where it twisted around and into itself, then he handed the pipe back to Muscle and spoke to him in a language which I did not recognize as Farsi. Muscle said some things in this language, too. Then Muscle handed me the pipe with a smile and I hit it again.
Navid looked at me, said: “I’ll be right back.”
I looked at him strangely and waited for him to continue.
“Need to warm up my hands,” he said. He stood and went inside.
“You’re not from around here?” Muscle said when we were alone.
I shook my head. “Columbus. Visiting the Shabadogis for Thanksgiving.” I didn’t know whether he knew the Shabadogis.
“Ah—Thanksgiving,” he said. He pulled out a sack he had weighed out already and handed it to me. “It’ll be fifty,” he said. “The view up here is free.”
I handed him fifty dollars and he looked at it before accepting, like how Navid had looked at the pipe.
“Let me ask you,” he said. “What else you got?”
I said I didn’t understand.
“Credit cards? Cell phone? Maybe more cash, even.”
“I won’t be needing anything else,” I said. I was looking inside for a sign of Navid, a sign that he was about to return, but there were no such signs. I began to shiver more violently.
“Of course you need something else,” he said. He stood and walked behind me, put his hand on the back of my chair. For once I was grateful to the cold for masking my fear, my shaking hands. I tried to stand to face Muscle but he pushed me back down into the chair gently, then he said again: “Of course you need something else.”
“I need to go. Dinner starts at nine and Navid and I promised we’d be back by…”
“Navid will tell them you’ll be late, so I ask again: what else can you give me?”
When I didn’t say anything he leaned his head forward and looked me in the eyes, his face so close to mine. I could see so many wrinkles on his face. He was older than I had thought originally. Forty, maybe. His breath smelled like cigarettes and Crown Royal, and I knew, then, that Navid would not return. Muscle put both hands on my shoulders, still looking at me from close.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I know.”
“What do you know?”
“How it’s so cold. How it’s not fair. How you’re a kid and I’m not.”
He was still looking into my eyes, so I narrowed them as if still unsure. But I wasn’t unsure. I was feigning something. I needed time to think.
“How this will go from pleasant to ugly if you don’t give me what I want, starting with that wallet you had out a few minutes ago.”
Mechanically I reached for my wallet, handed it to him. I did not look at him. He opened my wallet and withdrew my driver’s license.
“Persian,” he said. “Very nice.”
I still wouldn’t look at him.
“And Visa is even better. What’s the PIN?”
When I didn’t respond he put his hands back on my shoulders and asked, gently, again:
“What’s the PIN?”
“You’re not lying to me?” he said. “Remember, I know where you live…”
“I don’t live there anymore.”
“I know where your family lives, then.”
“That’s my boy. And a phone?”
I withdrew my phone and slapped it into Muscle’s massive palm.
“You want my coat too, or can keep that?”
“Smart,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Now go, and remember.” He tapped my driver’s license against my shoulder, and I understood I wasn’t to mention anything about him or Navid to the Shabadogis. Then I got up and left and never saw or heard about Muscle again.
After some time of walking I found Helmke. I picked a direction and headed that way. When I didn’t come across the bridge I changed direction, still high, anxious about the trees which seemed to move of their own volition overhead. The trees still hunching. Cars still not rumbling to D.C. or back to Baltimore on the highway. Firewood still burning somewhere so I can smell it. Me still sad about it. I walked past driveways I didn’t recognize, mailboxes beat off their posts by pre-teens itching to rebel against something. I was about to turn around again when I saw the bridge.
I stopped walking on the bridge. Stopped there a third time. The moon was shining through the hunched trees and onto the snow resting silently above the ice. Looking at the snow like that, seeing it glisten beneath the full and pale moon, the moon impartial to everything, I realized, then, that I wanted my wishes back. All of them. About my nose and Aaron Carter and the rest. I climbed down carefully onto the ice and stood there listening to it creak. I waited. My pennies would be deep beneath the ice, beneath the unfrozen water, beneath a decade and a half of sediment and all types of confusion and broken promises and broken dreams, and other stuff tossed flippantly from cars rushing someplace important on the highway. Stuff not forgotten. I would know which pennies were mine by their dates. I stood listening to the creaking ice and inhaled the old smell of firewood. I was shivering. I was sure I would fall through, and was eager for it. I stood on the ice and waited—and waited.