As Babak walked down East Tremont Avenue in the direction of a great commotion, his son Navid's voice reverberated within him. "Work every minute you're getting paid, puertoriqueños," Navid had yelled through his megaphone, standing atop a heap of rubbish gutted from a fire-damaged row house in Castle Hill. Navid, who had only been in charge of the family business—Bronx Bob's Housing Development—for three weeks, had become furious at five of the day-workers on site. "You think you can fuck around on my watch because I'm Babak's boy. Let me tell you it's no more mister nice man." The ten minutes of break time per hour did not appeal to Navid, a much more captious boss than Babak had ever been. Babak had overheard the rant last Friday when he came to drop off the lunch that Atefeh occasionally prepared.
Without the job to fill his time, Babak's daily ritual now involved watching the BBC world news on satellite TV, taking long, wandering lunches, and buying marijuana for Atefeh at the local laundromat in the late afternoon. His old business, too, never fully left his mind: he was always keeping one eye speculating for new land and the other eye on Navid's behavior.
Babak ducked inside Omar's Laundromat. He saw a kid go up and buy a soda. That was how Omar had sold pot to Babak too at the beginning—asking Babak if he wanted that to-go, and then tossing the eighth inside the brown paper bag, next to a cold can of Coke. Now Omar just gave Babak a hug each time he came in, and dropped it in Babak's shirt's front pocket.
"How is Atefeh?" Omar asked, patting Babak's shoulder.
"Because of you, she's ok," Babak responded.
"I've got better stuff coming this afternoon," Omar muttered near his ear. "Come back the usual time."
Outside, the crowd had swelled, and Babak wandered closer to investigate. There was a long line of people leading to the doors of Santiago Brothers Funeral Home. News trucks and limousines came into view. Babak stopped in front of a pizza shop, which had its radio blaring: "...four hundred pound rapper... fatal heart attack... to rest this afternoon... all Big Dane all day..." A woman hanging out in front of the pizza joint wore a black bandana soaked through with sweat, and chugged a plastic packet of grape drink; she smelled vaguely of the drink but also of sawdust. A sign in the distance read "We'll miss you, Big Dane." The name sounded familiar, Big Dane, Big Dane, and Babak wondered if it was someone his son listened to. Maybe it was even one of those American celebrities whose face had for many years stared ominously from a glossy poster in Navid's childhood room.
Because there was no other demand on his time, Babak decided to get in line for what he assumed would be a chance to view the open casket. No one would mind, he thought, as the service seemed open to the general public. Maybe he would recognize Big Dane. If he did, he could tell his son. Lately they hadn't seen eye-to-eye on things. They argued over when to purchase and when to hold, and Navid didn't want his father's advice on how to negotiate with the City Zoning Councils. "Real Persians don't settle," Navid had told him, "they fight until they get what they want." All Babak could say was, "Do real Persians laugh at foolish comments?"
Babak was happy with his choice to join the crowd, even after the first twenty minutes in line, the unveiled sun heating his scalp through his wisps of combed-over hairs. He still liked following the events of the neighborhoods he had helped to build. Even back when he was working eighty-hour weeks, he'd put in his two hours at an annual tree-planting fundraiser in the junior high school courtyard. He had considered himself an honest, earnest man, one who talked the talk, and also walked the walk—an expression that he had taken an early liking to in his American English education.
The queue tangled around the block. As Babak began to move along with the current, he no longer saw the entrance. Some of these people knew one another, and exchanged certain handshakes that he had always liked but never engaged in. Pounds; graceful complex smacks at the wrists. He had been taught and he had taught Navid that handshakes were supposed to be firm, one pump, straight on. If a man tries to twist his hand while he shook yours, Babak would tell Navid, then that person is trying to get the upper hand. Babak had noticed that Navid now shook everyone's hand with an extra torque, an upwards turn of the wrist. He did this even when he shook Babak's hand.
Babak heard one of the men who had just exited say the words "hip-hop legend," which confused him because the radio had called the dead man a rapper. He did not know much about music. The only CDs he owned were Puzzles! Volume 1, Puzzles! Volume 4, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Cruisin' Classics, and an Iranian mix CD that Navid had made for him in college. Navid used to teach his father about music but now Babak couldn't remember any details, only the scent of the spiced tea that they would drink together during their evening conversations. Had Navid once said that he preferred hip-hop to rap, or rap to hip-hop, or that hip-hop was a take-off from rap, like the way that baki pakhlavasi was just a different version of baklava? A few years ago, Babak could have asked his son to clarify the difference. Not anymore. Babak couldn't pinpoint when Navid had started growing distant from him, but it was around the time of Atefeh's accident, in which the impact of car on car had left two discs ruptured in Atefeh's back. The accident was by all standards not even a serious one, but it had left her with chronic pain that no doctor could alleviate.
The woman in front of Babak wore a light blue jacket and chewed bubble gum. The boy with her seemed like her younger brother, or a neighbor, or a cousin; he carried three roses in his right hand. He wore a black shirt with silver jeweled patterns in the shape of a snake. The boy's eyes were open as wide as the hood of the overheated car in the middle of the block.
People played Big Dane's music on boom boxes, and the heavy bass lifted Babak's spirits. The rhythms themselves delighted him; if he wasn't mistaken, they borrowed from some traditional Persian drum rhythms, particularly the Saghghezi. Some of the lines embarrassed Babak, but he couldn't help being attracted to the melodies and percussive lyrics of the songs: "Hypertension" ("You mah salt shaka girl/You a white girl and you so damn fly/I don't think I can take ya/You like salt out the shaka") and "I Ain't No Sitcom" ("This ain't no sitcom/I'm dead serious/I don't finish in twenty-three minutes/but I leave you delirious"). There was one song in which the phrase "I am marvelous, you is the horriblest" was repeated for at least half a minute.
Babak listened. He liked how much he felt a part of this place, this neighborhood that he had helped to populate by building affordable housing. "I can't give houses away," he used to tell families of Pakistani immigrants, "but I'm doing as close to that as I near possibly can." Most would not believe him but would buy anyway. Many of the men in these families that he met were immigrants who were, as Babak had once been, hungry. They had some savings in their family bank accounts, but not enough to become full. "A place to sleep and come home to, not to show off." That was what Babak had sold because he knew that was what they had needed.
He turned the corner to the block behind the funeral home and suddenly remembered that the poster that once hung in Navid's room had "P. Diddy" printed in bold red across the center of the image, not "Big Dane." So he had heard the name from someone else, possibly not even from Navid.
A radio station van painted with pink balloons and dollar signs double parked at 177th Street off East Tremont. Babak heard a side conversation between a DJ and a guy selling bootleg movies. "When we were all younger, I had to have at least one Big Dane song played at every party or else you'd have a riot on your hands." Babak almost envied their connection to Big Dane, and wished that he too had some story that he could share, wished that he could tap the shoulder of the woman in the light blue jacket ahead of him and begin to reminisce. It had been like this for him in his home in the outskirts of Tehran; he had often been able to find some commonality that would allow him to unite with a group of strangers. Babak's old neighbors in Iran, the Beh-Amins, used to bring out their mostly domesticated tiger on random occasions, and let it roam through the settlement. Everyone came out, from all over the village when they heard that the tiger was roaming the neighborhood. After a few minutes of initial excitement, Farshad Beh-Amin would put her back into the outdoor cage. Instead of retreating back to their dwellings, the people of the town, men and women, children and elders, stood outside and remained wound up. Babak could just walk up and down, door-to-door, talking to old family friends before it got too cold. But in America, even New York America, it was different.
The line looped around, bringing Babak back to Tremont Avenue. The hearse, parked out front, now had its hazard lights on. Flashing lights gave Babak headaches, migraines even. He closed his eyes and considered stepping out of line but no, he could already hear the jeers of the crowd accusing him of faithlessness during such a sacred event. Babak's breathing quickened; he felt as if his heart had something stuck between its teeth.
Babak walked through the door of the funeral home, past a man he assumed to be one of the Santiago brothers. The silence of the place seemed almost impossible given the number of people crammed inside. But the quiet and the coolness were rejuvenating for Babak and he shuffled down the aisle, his eyes fixed on the shiny maroon coffin propped open at the altar.
When it was finally Babak's turn to see Big Dane, he stepped up very close to the body. Upon seeing the man, he forgot everything that he had heard while in line. He noticed the giant size of the body, three times in girth that of Babak. And the man was not just fat—soft all over, his wide cheeks like plush pillows—but built fundamentally on a larger scale than most. The two hands clasped together over the dead man's chest made a shape roughly equivalent in size to Babak's skull. Until this point, Babak had always imagined the ideal American male as something more akin to himself—the wiry, suave businessman who could slip quickly between the desk and the chair, bend elegantly behind the steering wheel of a car, and move in person as the taxis did, in sharp, fast jolts and gestures. But this guy, this Big Dane, who was not any of that, seemed so much superior to Babak, dead or alive.
While Babak was pushed along past the coffin and into one of the rows of benches, his mind drifted to the memory of the residents he had once evicted from a building in Brownsville. In a flash it came to him: they were the ones, not Navid, with posters of Big Dane on the walls. For some reason, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps because they had no place to store frivolous belongings, the residents had left them behind. Babak had ripped the posters down himself, vowing to sue. The tenants: Melody Cano, a slender, short, Colombian brunette, and that oldest son Hamster, and his wisecracking sister Esperanza. Babak could not forget meeting the three of them for the first time over a plate of rice and beans, telling Melody that he would take a chance on them. They had set up an alternate payment plan, but he had limits. When it was clear he could never rent the apartment to anyone again without expensive repairs, Babak had evicted them. They had called him a slumlord to his face. He had been the only person to enter the condemned house before the demolition crews came.
Within minutes, the viewing ended, and the reverend invited a man by the name of Mo' Bizness to speak. Mo' Bizness came to the podium and, in a booming voice that belied his diminutive stature, began to talk: "His name was Dane Rodriguez Washington, his earliest years in the Dominican Republic were full of setbacks, his father had been shot in a case of mistaken identity. Dane's struggles in the Bronx as a twelve-year-old who overcame persistent learning disabilities are well documented, his mother's support unending, his literacy campaign in the 90s inspiring. Musical genius unprecedented. Nobody did more with pauses than Big Dane," he said. "You'd hear the brother wheezing," Mo' Bizness continued, eliciting low mm-hmm's from the crowd. "He was who he was, he didn't deny anything."
Babak remembered the songs that had been playing outside, how there were intervals of audible wheezing, places where the music just stopped and then restarted with a percussive gunshot. Two rows ahead of Babak, a beautiful black woman nodded along vigorously. She was on the cusp of bursting into tears. An ex-lover, Babak thought, or a musician Big Dane had worked with, or just a friend or a lifelong fan. As opposed to Babak, she probably felt some personal tie to the man inside of the coffin. Babak felt only—what?—not much for Big Dane but a longing, maybe, to be loved as people loved Big Dane. But the sudden desire for fame was soon replaced by the recognition that he lacked those qualities that could make swarms of people admire him. His own wife had told him once, soon after Navid's birth, that he was not a very lovable guy. She had meant to tease him only, but still the words had stung.
The funeral was over. Babak stood outside and listened to the music, now pulsing from a pick-up truck. The radio would be playing Big Dane's music all day long to honor his memory. Babak walked to his van parked five blocks north. He left his spot and called Atefeh from his cell phone. He told her he was considering a drive to their storage unit in Long Island City, to go throw out more of the stuff that they had amassed in their twenty-eight years here. "I'm so happy you're finally clearing that place out," she said. "That's all of your junk."
"I know, I know. But it makes me happy to see all of these things from when we were younger."
"That's one thing I do not mind about the pain," Atefeh said. "I do not have to go with you to that place and watch you cry about old Farsi newspapers. Did you see Omar yet?"
"I did, but too early."
"Tell him I say hello."
Babak's cell phone started to vibrate.
"That is Navid. See you soon."
Babak hit a button on his phone and heard a rush of noise, of construction.
"What time are you coming?" Navid said.
"Five-thirty. That's when you'll be ready?"
"Don't be late today."
"I got business cards," Navid said.
"Did you keep the old design?" Babak asked.
"No, I went with something new. I'll read one to you. It reads," Navid cleared his throat, "Navid Omidi. Executive Property Manager. BB Real Estate, and at the bottom right of the card, my cell phone number, no logo this time."
"Why the abbreviation? We're Bronx Bob's," Babak said. "Why did you put all of that? No one knows what real estate means. This will hurt business. We don't announce ourselves with those words—real estate." Babak switched lanes to avoid a double-parked livery cab. "What is real estate? Estates? We buy buildings. Just put that on the card. We buy buildings."
"Oh, come on, you retired. You're an advisor now."
"Why must you use titles with me, son? We never agreed on titles. Don't give these cards out."
"5:30," Navid said, and he was gone.
It had hurt Babak to think of his son's name on the business card of an enterprise that had been Babak's baby. Now Navid was passing the idea off as his, with such arrogance, such permanence, right there in boldface. For twenty-one years Babak had passed out his simple cards with his name and the BBHD logo of a silver lion and an orange sun that Atefeh had designed. Your name. Your phone number. An emblem signifying your original home. That was all anyone needed to get started.
Babak decided against a trip to Access Self-Storage. Instead he went on his way to pick up Navid at the worksite and bring him home. One day Navid would have to get his own apartment, but Atefeh had said not yet. He stopped off at Omar's and exchanged in mid-embrace, a roll of eight twenties for a bag of pot. Omar did not count the bills in front of Babak and this made Babak glad, to know that someone trusted him. As he left, he imagined Omar saying at his funeral, "Babak was the most trustworthy man I ever met."
While Babak drove, he listened to the hip-hop radio station. As he approached the worksite, he spotted Navid gesturing madly at a group of sweaty workers, the end of an apparent rant that culminated in Navid removing his helmet and throwing it at the wall near where the workers were standing. Where had his son learned this behavior? Atefeh had always said, perhaps somewhat sadly, that Navid had turned out just like his father. But it wasn't true! Babak had tried to fit in with the workers, had made a constant effort to stay popular.
"What took you so long?" Navid said, getting into the car. "I'll take a cab if I can't rely on the elderly."
That night, Atefeh filled a pipe with marijuana and flipped on a local news network. Babak brought in a box of eight-inch matches from the kitchen. He lit one match and kept the flame burning while he took a short hit, just long enough to get Atefeh started. Pulling hard and getting nothing often aggravated her back even further. They watched a lead-in to the piece on the Big Dane funeral, the camera showing people lined up around the block.
"Isn't that near where you and Navid bought property?" Atefeh asked without much force behind her voice. She inhaled the smoke slowly, smoothly. Her grip on the blue porcelain bowl was as elegant as the way she used to walk prospective customers to the back of her brother's showroom to see the most expensive rugs in the store. "Look, there, East Tremont, it all looks familiar," she said, squinting.
Several times during the segment, Babak almost told his wife about going to the funeral. Each time though, he stopped himself. Atefeh offered Babak more of the marijuana but he declined. They watched the coffin being carried into the hearse. A voice praised the rapper for being "bombastic," a word Babak did not know. They played a clip of one of his songs. "I like some of the beats," Atefeh said.
When the song ended, the two anchors, a Latina woman and a Chinese man, discussed the crowd that had attended the funeral. "All different races, all different nationalities, all different ages." Atefeh fell asleep on the couch as she often did, and Babak reached under her shoulders and coaxed her to her feet. He urged her to begin walking, and he pushed behind her, saying "step," "step here," "step," "right here." Her right leg led, her left leg followed. They made it up to their second floor bedroom after ten minutes. He got into bed next to Atefeh and took off her dress and shoes and socks, and pulled an extra-large "Bronx Bob's Housing Dev" t-shirt over her bare torso.
For a long time after Atefeh had fallen asleep, Babak lay very much awake beside her. He found himself humming the music to Big Dane's songs, rasping his fingers over his ribs to the beat of lyrics he could not remember. Finally, deciding that he could not sleep until he heard the songs again, Babak got out of bed, grabbed his car keys from the fruit bowl no longer re-filled with fresh bananas each Thursday, and walked to the work van in the driveway. He turned his key to power on the radio and tuned to the hip-hop station. As he expected, the station continued its tribute to the deceased, and the dead man's voice came loud and full from the driver and passenger speakers: "I am marvelous, you is the horriblest." Babak leaned his seat back, conducting the songs with his index finger. Not until Babak saw in the shadows of his peripheral vision the approach of his son did he realize how high he'd set the volume. Navid walked out to the driveway in his pajamas, waving his right hand at his father in violent protest, and before Babak opened the door, he knew he was going to be scolded—Navid, already in charge. Babak grinned a wide grin that he knew Navid hated because it allowed the gap of his two missing teeth to show.
"Come inside," Babak said. "Listen to some music, calm your shit down."
teaches first-year writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he is pursuing a PhD in English. He is currently a fiction editor at The Carolina Quarterly. Originally from Queens, Phil received an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.