A celebration of Persian voices and talent

The Crumbling House by Michelle Zamanian


The Crumbling House

by Michelle Zamanian
“She spoke little English and she had no one else. So few Iranians were allowed here, then, now, ever.”

The Crumbling House
by Michelle Zamanian

M ost nights, Abby stared at the house next door and waited for the light to come on. The red, crumbling house looked over her apartment. It looked a lot like the one she grew up in. No one lived there, but every night at the same time, she could swear a light would come on in the kitchen and turn the building a rose hue from the inside out.

This winter was hard on Abby. Not just because it was winter and things die, but because of the cold. It had been negative forty degrees for three nights and it had also been thirty-two years since her grandmother died.

Bright red-lettered font scrolled across the television screen: Snow Emergency. There would be no work today. She walked down the apartment building’s staircase and went out the front door. The snow was piled up in mounds as high as her waist. Almost everything was closed, except the grocery store. She crossed the street, scarf tucked tightly across her face covering her mouth against the wind.

The automatic doors of the store blasted tepid air at her. She pulled her scarf down, letting it hang to the floor. She grazed her fingertips along the long bin of pomegranates, anar in Persian, as she walked by. They were waxy, still-life ready. Anar, she said in her mind, anar, anar, anar. She had to remember this if she wanted to go to Iran.

The supermarket wasn’t as warm as usual, as the winter air from outside seeped in. The spinach leaves drooped with the weight of ice crystals. She put a piece of fresh ginger root into her basket and moved past the pomegranates, the anar.

She saw a familiar face at the register. It was Barry. He greeted her by name. “Abby! I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“I didn’t expect to see you here.” She was caught off-guard.

“I made the top university jazz band, just like you did,” he smiled.

“I heard that. Congratulations, Barry. You were always a great soloist,” Abby kept her sigh on the inside. She wanted to say she knew he was always better than she was.

“It’s funny how age doesn’t really seem to matter now that we aren’t in high school. I used to think I was so much younger than you.”

“Time is strange like that,” she said, grabbing her bags gently. “Band really was everything in high school.” She turned to leave.

“I hope to see you more now,” he said.

She nodded and smiled like she always did, knowing that was not how things worked. Lost in thoughts about Barry, she forgot to shield her face from the cold.

Abby walked out the automatic doors and the icy air burst through her body and swept down her bones. Across the street from the apartment building a man sat in a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that said, Nuke Tehran. The man spit out the side of the window before yelling, “Go home!”

This wasn’t the first time this happened, but it was the first time it happened right in front of her building.

Abby stomped her boots off inside her radiator-heated apartment. Somehow, she wasn’t mad. Her face didn’t turn red, rage didn’t raise the bile in the back of her throat. She opened the curtains of the biggest window that faced the house next door and sat down on the couch. She stared into the abyss of the red house for hours without realizing it.

The fascination with the crumbling house had started from the moment she first viewed her apartment. She uncovered basic information about the house on Zillow and knew it was built in 1896 by the first newspaper owner in Mankato.

The website had little detail about the inhabitants over the years, besides the original owner and last one. Between the website and what neighbors told her, Abby had gathered that the woman who last lived there had died there too. The house was given to no one after the woman’s death and it had been claimed by the bank. A sign still sat immovable in the front yard, half-covered in snow. “For sale by Righteous Protection Bank. Sold as is.”

The last owner, Sedigheh was an immigrant from Iran. Chet, Abby’s upstairs neighbor, told her that Sedigheh was a kind woman, but brokenhearted by the death of her son. She spoke little English and she had no one else. So few Iranians were allowed here, then, now, ever. Abby could relate. Poor khaale, poor aunty, all alone.

Sedigheh’s son, Farshad, first came to America to situate a new life for himself and his mother, safe from the bombings, safe from the war with Iraq. He bought the old, beautiful, crumbling house for her. Sedigheh arrived just in time for Farshad to get drafted. He tried to marry an American woman, but once his visa expired, he had to go back to serve in the military. He died. One misstep, one Iraqi bullet. The letters stopped coming. Sedigheh didn’t find out for months. She waited patiently.

Cooking his favorite meal, every day. Baghali polo and turmeric chicken. She kept fresh dill growing inside the house during the winter.

Abby took a spoon from the utensil drawer and set it on the counter. She put her other groceries away and took the ginger root out to make her favorite Persian dish, a baked tomato rice. She stood at the kitchen counter, staring at the red house while scraping the skin off the fresh ginger. The fragrance sputtered upward with each stroke of metal on flesh, piling the skin at her fingertips. Looking down at her hands, she realized she had picked up turmeric by mistake. Her fingertips were stained a deep yellow.

Then, the rose light came on inside the house next door.

Abby was four when her grandmother moved into their old Victorian house. She had her own bedroom, but her grandmother took her bed, so she had to sleep on the floor. The wallpaper in the room was white with tiny red hearts repeated in the same pattern as the gravestones at the national cemetery. She stared at them for hours watching the patterns move and change, repeat and fold. The square room had a long shag carpet in a deep red and a picture window that overlooked the busiest street in town. It had two closets: one was normal, and the other had shelves and no door. There was a tiny door above the second closet that was locked. She would climb on the shelves to try to get inside. She was sure there was treasure or pictures hidden inside. Her grandmother barely spoke to her, because she was shy about her English and no one had taught Abby Persian, but said, “Leave alone, sometimes it better what is in head than what is real, Abby-joon.”

Abby lost interest in the mysterious door above the closet after her grandmother died.

The Crumbling House by Michelle Zamanian
Photograph by Michelle Zamanian

She found herself standing outside the crumbling house.

She entered from the mudroom in the back. A deafening metallic clank reverberated from the next room. The rose glow illuminated the hallway. Fragrant onions, garlic and roasting meat wafted through the house. The kitchen was covered with a thick gray dust, but the glow was real. A rose light illuminated the walls and radiated from a figure at the center. Sedigheh was there, singing in the kitchen; pulling Abby closer. A lullaby grew louder with each step toward the woman. She was short and round and wore a long purple dress, Abby wanted to call her maman bozorg. She reached out to touch the woman’s shoulder, but her hand went through her. The woman kept singing to herself.

“Sedigheh-khanoum?” Abby said in her harsh American accent. The kitchen went dim. The woman disappeared into the darkness. The backdoor slammed and a gust of air unsettled the dust in the kitchen.

In the living room, everything was exactly as Sedigheh left it. Farshad was frozen in his uniform above the fireplace. Sedigheh’s tattered wool coat hung on the coat rack by the door. The floor creaked with each step. She found a stack of letters piled on the desk next to the coat rack, most unopened, but one lay exposed. The letter had a seal at the top, with beautiful calligraphy and a line of numbers that appeared to be a date.

She couldn’t read it, but she knew what it said: He’s not coming home. She felt Sedigheh’s heart crumbling like the paper in her hands. She stood silently and remembered her grandmother’s casket, stitches through her lips, her body hollow and rigid.

Farshad’s body was in a martyr cemetery in Iran. His picture was displayed above his grave, a picture that Sedigheh would never see. Chet had told her that Sedigheh kept her son’s heart in a jar. Abby didn’t believe him, that wasn’t something that Iranians did. He said that the heart was the only part of Farshad that her cousin was able to smuggle into the country.

Abby saw a blackened jar on the fireplace mantle.

The sound of broken glass echoed through the silent house. The moldy heart lay on the floor in a halo of glass shards. Blood dripped down Abby’s hands. Sedigheh screamed and her body poured down like a mist to the ground. Her rose light evaporated.

Abby let the blood from her hands drip on the old carpet, forcing a different rose color onto the ground.

“You shouldn’t be here, this isn’t your home,” the taunting tone of Barry’s voice floated around Abby. He appeared next to her, staring at the weeping woman.

“You’re gone, Barry.” Abby said through clenched teeth. The rage and sorrow built as she stared into Barry’s eyes. His face was bruised and bloodied. Her heart ached. That summer, years ago, she saw him last at the grocery store. She didn’t get to say goodbye. “You don’t understand, you’re not real anymore.”

“Just because you couldn’t let go doesn’t mean she has to be stuck here.”

“Enough!” She yelled. Barry faded into hues of black and blue highlighting the dust in the room.

“He never came home,” Sedigheh said.

Abby’s voice cracked. “I know.”

“He said he would come home.”

“There is no home, maman bozorg. There is no one coming back for us.” Abby held her bloodied hands out to Sedigheh. The dimmed, rose lit hand fell into hers.

“It’s time to go.”

FEATURED IMAGE BY Michelle Zamanian


Michelle Zamanian

Michelle Zamanian is an Iranian American writer living in Minnesota. She is the editor for We Are More at The Rumpus. Find her on Twitter @mezamanian.

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