"The Saint” is part of a collection of short tales titled Tuolumne Park: A Set of Human Stories from Somewhere in Northern California. The collection, which is narrated through the eyes of a young boy, portrays the lives of characters residing in a fictional Bay Area town.
“Look at these people,” said Arif pointing at the television. “Look at the way they talk and talk.”
“Well, isn’t that the point?” I asked.
“The point of what?”
Arif’s face turned bright red.
“What this country needs is a monarch,” he said, “a kind and benevolent monarch.”
He removed his eyes from the nightly news to stare at me again.
“None of this democracy mess.”
Arif had long been a regular down at Café Luca. He came in his checkered shirt and blue burette and liked to sit at the back tables with his coffee mug and an old newspaper. His favorite stories were always to be found in the metro section: features about celebrity feuds or outlandish corruption schemes, or about how a millionaire had lost his property or girlfriend, or had divorced his wife and ended up bankrupt and in jail.
He also liked to talk politics.
“Know the best government there ever was?” he asked me one Saturday morning after the police had showed up at Tuolumne park to control a local protest.
“Who?” I asked.
“The British Empire. Just ask yourself: how was it in India for women before the British came, huh? How was it?”
He raised his hand, as if to ward off all of his imagined dissenters.
“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Once I was sitting at the café after school doing my homework when Arif hovered over me and looked over my shoulder. I was writing as neatly as possible between the straight lines when he pulled out the page from under me and inspected it closely. “I see you’re learning about human rights,” he said.
“It’s for my civics class,” I said.
“Know who the first person was to ever talk about human rights?”
I had no idea. I tried to think of the most important person I had ever heard of.
“Bill Clinton!” he exclaimed. “Look at what this Clinton fellow did! You think he invented human rights?”
“Who was it?”
Arif crossed his arms very knowingly.
“It was the Prophet.”
Many people living down near the park dismissed much of what Arif said. He was not popular among the parents. My mother told me never to talk to him. “His mouth is full of garbage. And if you listen to him yours will be too. Plus, he drives like a maniac. Do they not have stop signs where he’s from?”
But I, being a child, liked Arif. I liked the cadence of his voice and the way he moved his hands around when he spoke. His low, bellowing laughter possessed a warm sincerity and a pureness of heart. I also knew something about him that most people didn’t.
One evening, Albert, the owner of Café Luca, changed the television channel to a Masterpiece Theater show. It was a classical drama, with a woman in a velvety dress sitting inside a horse-drawn carriage. She stopped near the back of a palace door and met an elegantly dressed army officer who reached for her hand to lead her outside of the carriage.
“What is he doing?” Arif glowered at the screen.
His eyes were fixed on the army officer who was now lowering his face toward the woman’s hand to kiss the topside of her palm.
“That is not his wife,” he said. “That is forbidden. God says a man must never talk to another man’s wife. Turn this bad show off!”
A few minutes passed until the show ended and there was a commercial break, and Arif stared off into the corner and started sighing to himself. He turned toward me and lowered his hands to his lap.
“Is it true?” he asked.
“Is what true?” I replied. I imagined he was going to ask me about the sins of American teledramas. Only I was way wrong.
“Is it true that women only like powerful men?”
My voice started to crack.
“Do you ever wonder why I am not married?” Arif asked. “It’s because I am not rich. I only accept what God gives me.” He put his head in his hands. “But one day, God will make me famous and will deliver me a beautiful wife just like this”—he looked up at the screen again—"just like this Anna Karenina woman.”
That’s how I knew Arif was a lonely man.
“My family were Aristocrats,” said Arif.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Arif had found me seated near the main lawn of Tuolumne Park where I had just ridden my bike up to the green and stopped for a drink of water.
“Aristocrats?” I replied.
“Very wealthy people,” he said. “In Bangladesh, my name is all over the city benches, on little plaques. At the city market, we have a foundation stone with our name on it. One in front, one in back.” Arif’s smile seemed permanently stuck to the front of his face.
“That’s incredible,” I said.
At some point I began to know most of Arif’s story by heart. He came to America when he was sixteen, in the same year that Bangladesh got its independence. His father had been a judge—one of the last to ride a government horse to work. His mother’s family had been tax officers. Somewhere back there, there was even a nawab.
He finished his studies in three short years and moved out to California. He first worked as a physics teacher. Then in his late twenties, he went back to school for an extra degree in computer science. He got a job with a technology company down in San Miguel and stayed late at the office resolving error reports and system crashes. Most of his clients, he told me, were in the Philippines.
It satisfied him having his job. He liked calling himself an engineer. “Every problem has a solution,” he said. “Every disease a cure.” He also believed strongly in routine. Every day he woke up around six and performed ablutions and prayed. At seven he prepared tea and biscuits and sat out on his back patio sipping frothy milk while watching the morning birds flutter in the trees. A half hour later he was down at the train station ready to board the 8:15.
For years much of Arif’s life remained the same. He owned a one-room cottage at the end of the park and boasted about its noble simplicity and splendid isolation. Then in his mid-forties his father passed away. “Now I must carry the family name,” he told me. “Otherwise our memory will be lost.” But first Arif had to find a wife. He joined dating services and interfaith groups. He often went to movie night at the public library and enrolled at the community gym. Nothing worked. One woman didn’t call him back; another said she already had a date. The one who did invite him over for dinner gladly welcomed him into her home only to introduce Arif to her spouse—another woman, of all people. Arif hadn’t the faintest idea that she was already married. (“These lesbians are very hard to tell!”)
His frustration lingered on. I still remember the day I saw him loitering at the department store. I had tagged along with my mother and wandered off to sift through the discount racks. Arif was standing somewhere near the bathrooms wearing a business suit and red tie. At first I thought he was trying to sell something.
“Shhh!” he said and signaled for me to come over. “Don’t talk.”
I hurried over and crouched down with him quietly behind a mannequin.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He pointed in the distance.
“You see there?”
A few feet from us was a tall slender woman wearing jean shorts and tank top. She had long hair, high heels, and a leather purse.
“Who is that?”
“She’s a model,” Arif said.
“A model!” This made me very excited.
“How do you know?”
“I can always tell.”
We stared together again.
Arif must have thought twice about what he said, or had some kind of bad memory, because a moment later a look of anguish crossed his face. He scrunched his brow and shook his head in dismay. “Except the Ukrainian women,” he said. “They are not models. They are very dishonest people!”
Saturdays were parents’ days down at the middle school. From nine to twelve, moms and dads visited teachers’ classrooms and talked about their child’s grades and performance or attended one of the conference seminars led by the head principal. (My mother liked to go nearly every weekend to complain about a book I had been assigned written by a “well-known misogynist.”) After the meetings, many of the teachers walked over to Café Luca and congregated on the outside patio. Some sat in small groups and gossiped about students. Others finished grading reports. A few sat in pairs talking about love lives or vacation plans, or about the houses they were looking at in the northern suburbs to escape the real estate prices near the park.
It was on one of these afternoons that Darla, the eighth-grade history teacher, walked into the café. The patio had filled up early that morning with returning students at the nearby college. Darla crossed the patio and walked inside to gaze around for an empty place. She made her way to the back area where Arif was occupying his usual four-seater.
“Do you mind if we share?” she asked.
Arif moved his blue bag.
“Be my guest,” he said.
Darla placed her canvas bag to the side and folded her denim dress beneath her legs. The two sat in silence. Darla had a small stack of papers and Arif had his newspaper. (He had been attempting the crossword puzzle and was stuck on an eight-letter word with the clue “French battle.”) Then after a few minutes Arif’s eyes started to glance over at Darla. He watched her underline words with the nib of her pen and write notes in the page’s margins. At first his glimpses were short and secretive. But after a few successful stares, he began to look more intensely and even started to read from the top of her student’s essay.
“I beg your pardon,” he interrupted her. “That is not correct.”
Darla raised her head. “It’s not?”
Arif was dangling his glasses from the edge of his fingers.
“That is not why the Allies won the Second World War. They won because the British were more godly than the Germans. Queen Victoria had written “By the Grace of God” on her coins. That was why they won. Did you not know?”
Darla scratched her head and nodded politely. Her perplexity conveyed a slight concern.
“Let me ask you a question,” Arif said. “Do you believe in God?”
“Do I believe in God?” Darla hesitated.
“Yes or no?”
Truth was she didn’t know. Darla had started going to church about a year before as a way to get over her divorce. Once or twice she even visited a mosque. She liked the sermons and the call to prayer. But never once did she think of herself as religious. At least not in the traditional sense.
“Perhaps I do,” she considered.
Arif flashed an approving smile.
Some seconds passed and the sound of chatter returned through the patio door. Arif reached inside his backpack and pulled out a small plastic container. Inside were fruits and vegetables covered in tinfoil. He slowly unwrapped one of the fruits and put the pieces on a white plate.
“Would you like some pomegranate seeds?” he asked.
He scooped the seeds out and divided them carefully.
“The pomegranate is a very heavenly fruit,” he said. “It has all the nutrients for our body. The Prophet said that if you eat pomegranate God will light your heart for forty nights.” He looked calmly at Darla. “Isn’t that what we are missing in our lives—a little light?”
Darla evinced a glowing smile.
Over the following weeks Darla and Arif were seen all over town. They walked in the botanical garden and strolled under the pergolas at the park. Arif showed her the hidden bench beyond the stream, where they sat alone under the draping branches closed off from the sounds of the city streets. On Saturdays they worked in Darla’s garden. Arif came over in khaki shorts and work gloves and leaned over small plots of soil and planted seedlings. In the evenings they rendezvoused at the park. Arif brought a blanket and containers of food and a couple of plates and utensils.
“Be careful with the bones,” he said one evening while serving her. “These fish have very little bones.”
Then he looked up at the trees. Around the edges of the leaves were warm casts of sunshine penetrating the evening air and orange-colored leaves.
“In these hours I think to myself: there must be a God. How else could there be something so beautiful?”
Darla heartedly agreed.
Back at the café people started to talk. All the gossip was that Arif had finally found his match. “I always knew he had a good heart,” Albert opined. “It was just a matter of time.” Only Richard, the retired accountant, was more suspect. Richard, who came to the café to play chess most afternoons, said it all happened too quickly. “You’re telling me Arif, with all his religious mishigas, is going to marry a Christian woman?” Richard didn’t say much more, but he seemed to know something that we didn’t. “Not in my book,” he added.
It turned out Richard’s prediction was right.
Late one morning Arif came into the café in a large overcoat and beanie. The fog had been hanging oppressively low, and Arif’s face was covered in rain. He placed his coat on the rack and began to wipe the drizzle from his forehead and cheeks and came to the back tables and sat down next to the chess players. His eyes strained while he decided whether to speak or not.
“I don’t get it,” he said, pausing to consider. “Why do women think they are more dominant than men?”
A few of the chess players stopped their game and turned their heads.
“Who taught them this?” said Arif, now more encouraged. “I thought this was a God-fearing nation. Why do people not follow his words?”
“Time to settle down, Arif,” Albert called over.
I hid myself behind a house plant. My sense was that Arif was only beginning.
“No, I will not settle down,” Arif exclaimed. “My father was very strict. Nobody talked back to him. That was how he raised me. My mother cooked and cleaned, and I always followed his rules. That was how the household worked. Why does nobody get it? Without order there is no family; without family, society suffers.” Arif stood up and looked around to see only quiet faces staring back at him.
Others averted their attention to their chessboards or newspapers or anything they could pretend to have been looking at beforehand.
“People here think they are so much better than God,” Arif added. “But just you see what happens when you don’t obey his word.” Arif took out one of the morning features from the local newspaper. It was about a young actress who had a child out of wedlock and was now in rehab.
“This is how you become.”
He held the newspaper up so everyone could see. Then he grabbed his overgarments and marched away, pushing the door open and letting it slam forcefully against the hard wood.
Months passed before we saw Arif again. He didn’t show up at the café or the park. His cottage remained dark, and leaflets started piling up outside his front door. There were rumors that he had left town. Albert thought he had seen Arif’s place listed in the classifieds. “Does that mean he’s going to get rid of all that junk?” Albert wondered about Arif’s belongings. “You see all that stuff piled up in his shed, like that blue surfboard.” Richard said Arif wasn’t leaving. Evidently, Richard had seen him one morning packing his bags and preparing for a road trip, trying to fit a big green tent in the back of his Toyota Corolla. “He’s gone camping,” said Richard. “Probably somewhere in the High Sierras.”
It was sometime in early March when Arif appeared again at the café. It was a cold chilly morning with occasional glimpses of sunshine breaking through the clouds. The air was sharp and fresh and the remaining fog had lent a small mystique to the midday azure. Arif wore a white kurta and topi hat and had bracelets and yarns around his wrists. An amulet hung around his neck. He came to the back, sat down beside me, and placed his hands gently on his lap and tilted his head. He was quiet but seemed to want everybody to notice him. He kept taking unusually loud deep breaths.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
He looked at me and smiled.
“I have been on a journey.”
“A journey?” I asked. “What kind of journey?”
His face remained contemplative.
“I have been healed.”
He reached into his side pouch and took out a brochure. It had a photo of a man with gray hair and a bulbous nose. The man’s eyes were deep and dark, and he was sitting in front of a long mountain-scape.
“This man Dr. Mizrah has healed me,” said Arif. “He is a saint—a Sufi saint.”
“He has healed you?”
Arif nodded in assurance.
A quiet breeze passed through the café. I returned to my homework hoping to finish it before I left. But as I read over the questions I couldn’t concentrate. My mind kept returning to Arif and this mysterious saint. I put my worksheet down and folded up my binder and put it in my bag. Then I looked up at Arif and waited for him to return a glimpse.
“Is the saint going to help you find a wife?” I asked.
The question caught him off guard. He fluctuated between answers and searched his mind for the right words.
“Marriage is a splendid gift,” he said. “But not a necessary one. I have other commitments now.”
“You’re not worried about losing your family name?”
“Who am I to control the ways of God?” he suggested. “The world in his control.”
“But who is going to cook and clean?” I tried one more time.
“Everyone has duties,” said Arif. “Everyone has duties. Now my service is to Him.”
Arif seemed desperate to show that he had unpeeled a new layer of life, that his world had been reborn. But as he lay back in his chair and averted his attention out the window, his manner seemed rehearsed and feigned. Something about what he said didn’t add up.
By the time I got home my mother was still eating her lunch. She was seated at the table, where she liked to keep her small gray cockatiel on a perch beside her. She looked at me as I walked in, removing her fingers from the bird’s feathery neck.
“Did you get your homework done?” she demanded.
“Mom, guess what? Arif told me he doesn’t need a wife.”
Her eyes froze and she moved the perch away to stare at me. “What did I tell you about talking to him?” she said.
“But he’s been healed.”
The bird must have taken note of the tense situation, for it started to chirp in a series of loud shrills.
“Your father and I are preparing a letter to the city,” my mother said. “Don’t you know that guy has been feeding all the stray cats? I even saw him throw a 7-Eleven cup into a compost bin. The nerve!”
The bird began flapping its wings and took off on a small dusty tour of the kitchen before finding its way to the window blinds.
“Now go up to your room and finish your homework. Otherwise, you are not going back to the café alone.”
I took my bag and went upstairs.
That night I didn’t sleep a wink. I stayed up wondering why it was that Arif needed to be healed. Why did nobody care? The world of adults seemed so cold and unforgiving. It was as if seemingly friendly interactions were marred by hidden judgements. The neighborhood was, in this way, full of invisible boundaries, silent protocols, and unspoken conditions. The next day I went back to the café and listened to Albert and Richard talk quietly. I knew they were talking about Arif, because of their low, leery tone and the way they gazed around the room scandalously as they spoke.
“I wonder how much this saint of his is charging?” wondered Richard.
“You think he is charging?” Albert replied.
“All these guys charge.”
Evidently Richard’s ex-wife had been part of a spiritual sect down at Pismont Beach and, as he liked to say, it cost him more than his second house.
“They always demand something,” Richard said assuringly. “Arif’s problem is that he has built his steeple too high. All this religious stuff is just a front. He’s buried something beneath it all. That’s what I say.”
Albert seemed mystified, as did I. It was the first time I had ever heard someone talk like that.
“Then what do we do?” said Albert, putting his hands inside his pocket.
“Nothing,” Richard said. “Nothing we can do. Arif has got to figure it out on his own. Then the question will be whether he will even accept himself. That’s the question.”
Richard seemed to be talking in enigmas. But something about what he said wrung true to me. It made sense in some unknowable way, and pretty soon I figured out why.
One week in early May an envelope arrived in all of our mailboxes. It had no postage stamp, no return address, not even a name on the front. It had only a purple card, with red and white stickers and a drawing of a winged heart.
Please join me for a day of healing. Dr. Mizrah will be our guest. Food and Beverage to follow. Start time: 12:00. Place: Tuolumne Park.
“In peace?” My mother said. “What does he mean, in peace?” She threw the note inside the wastebasket.
For the rest of the day the card remained buried under bird droppings and stale bread. But after my mother left for work, I went down to the kitchen and pulled it out and cleaned it off and took it upstairs. I wrote the details down in my flipbook and kept the card in my wallet.
That week I saw Arif all over town again. In the mornings he was out in his front yard trimming the hedges. In the afternoon he visited the park and mowed the grass and raked the leaves. I passed his cottage one day and saw him cleaning out his old belongings. (Albert was right: he was a packrat in the extreme.) Along the curb were a dozen boxes of giveaways with a “take me” sign on top. I picked up the lightest box I could find and carried it home. It was full of old photos and scrapbooks.
On Friday, Arif walked into Wah’s Grocers and, two hours later, came out with a cart full of vegetable and meats. That night he cooked. He placed two speckled pots atop his stove and chopped dozens of onions and eggplants. He placed mutton and curry into one big pot. In another he stirred chicken and lamb. He put the food inside two tin containers, which, along with some rice, he let heat overnight. At around twelve o’clock all the lights went out. Only the sound of his gargling fountain was heard in the yard.
Come Saturday the fog burnt away early. The sky was bright and clear and small crowds appeared at the park around noon. The program began with a short prayer followed by meditation and song. Before long, Dr. Mizrah stood up in a black buttoned robe and spoke in a deep sonorous voice. “The question is what we do when we suffer?” His sentences were punctured with elongated pauses. “We must not look to others. We must look within: to ourselves.” His words wrung desperately hollow to me, and I saw a few others start to turn away or stand up and move away. But Arif appeared spellbound. It was as if Dr. Mizrah had spoken to the depths of his soul. I thought Arif might even cry.
The evening descended and the assembled crowds dispersed. Arif promptly cleaned up all the trash and extra food. He carried the blankets and pillows back to his house, not leaving even a scrap of paper on the ground. I, too, began to make my way home. Only as I crossed the lawn, I came upon Arif’s blue burette lying in the grass. It was left behind in the sprinklers. I picked it up and put it in my bag. Seeing it was only 9 o’clock, I rode my bike over to Arif’s house and knocked on the front door.
At first there was no answer, so I knocked again and waited. Still, there was no response.
Two moments later was a sound. It was a squeak and then a muffled moan. I waited and heard the same sound, this time it was deeper and longer. I tiptoed behind the house passing his fence and hedges and had nearly come up to his back deck when I saw the kitchen light turned on and a figure appeared in the shade. It was Dr. Mizrah. He was wearing the same black robe as before, only now it was unbuttoned and hung down below his chest. His cheeks were flushed red with sweat. He walked out onto the back patio, where a few seconds later he was joined by Arif.
There was a silence between them as they both looked out into the night. I saw that Dr. Mizrah had a look of satisfaction on his face, as if he had consummated some sacred act. But Arif didn’t look the same way. He was scared, I could see. His expression was timid, in possession of anxious unknowable thoughts. Perhaps this was that discovery that Richard had mentioned. This was what had been buried beneath his sadness and loneliness. As I hid there watching them, I was sure of Arif’s fears, his inability to accept what had happened. I saw him gaze out into the dark night—up toward the sky—and I believe in that moment he was seeking forgiveness, apologizing and repenting for his shameful sins.
I didn’t tell anyone about what I saw. I felt that it belonged among the secrets of the park, like the hidden bench beyond the stream. But the next time I saw Arif at the café, I could tell that he had changed. He no longer chuckled at news stories about sportscar enthusiasts crashing Ferraris. Nor did he give people a hard time about their politics or what they thought about history or human rights. Then, some weeks later, Arif stopped coming altogether. I cycled past his cottage one day and found his place completely empty. The curtains were removed; the shed had been cleared out. Leaflets were again piled high on his doormat. But this time his car was no longer in the drive. Later that day I found out that my mother had filed a petition with the city. The Housing Department had delivered Arif an eviction notice.
I stayed in my room sulking for hours. What should I have told my mother? Did it matter that Arif had been deeply troubled all along? Most of all I wanted to show her the photo I had found in the box of giveaways that day. It told me that Arif had known about himself secretly all along. I took out the photo with Arif still as a young boy standing next to a man seated atop a horse in front of the city market. They must have known this was their final parting, because they both looked unsure and distant. “Tomorrow I go to America,” Arif wrote on the back of the print above the date, March 1971. “I will make father proud. I will fulfill his dream and have my family. If I am lucky, he won’t regret me anymore.”