By Jon Sindell
“Sherman Zahd” the story has appeared in the magazines Mobius, Write Side Up, and Pulse.
“Oh, god, Sherman’s odd
Crazy little Sherman Zahd!”
It was inevitable, perhaps, kids being kids, at all times in all places–even enlightened times such as these, in ultra-tolerant places such as San Francisco–that Sherman Zahd would be known to his fourth grade classmates as “Sherman’s Odd” by virtue of his name alone, without regard to any Middle Eastern “oddness” in his appearance or demeanor, just as surely as Uriah Peckinpaugh III would be dubbed “You Pee” despite a total lack of evidence that his bladder control was at all deficient, and Mary Wong would be known as “Very Wrong” despite the fact that she rarely volunteered in class, and was very rarely wrong when she did. These incongruent facts meant nothing in the schoolyard, for kids, being kids, have a marvelous talent for manufacturing evidence supporting the derisive nicknames they love to use when genuine evidence cannot be found. Thus was it said, and the false rumor spread, that Uriah Peckinpaugh III had peed in his pants in the locker room of the San Francisco Giants–in front of Barry Bonds’ locker, no less!–during the fourth grade field trip to Pac Bell Park (“That is slanderous, scalawag!” the round-faced boy yelled, thrusting a finger in the air in the manner of his namesake grandfather, a bond lawyer); and it was also said, and believed by everyone other than two loyal friends, that Mary Wong had once told Miss Wright … that turtles can fly. It was much the same with poor Sherman Zahd, who was dubbed “Sherman’s Odd” within mere days of his arrival at Franklin Elementary, and whose every brief utterance (the only kind of utterance he ever made), every gesture, every physical trait–from his bird beak nose, the small, bony body, the single caterpillar eyebrow, the deep black eyes, the uncertain ancestry, the mysterious smile–confirmed that he had been nicknamed justly.
“He’s a spy,” muttered one boy, mindful of the suspicious fact that Sherman had arrived at the school just two weeks before 9/11 (i.e., the start of the school year).
“He’s a terrorist!” said a second more loudly, drawing the conclusion which was percolating in many kids’ minds.
“But he’s Iranian,” said Mary Wong, who knew that Sherman’s mother was from Iran because Miss Wright had told her so, and also knew that: (1) Iran–which she could find on the map, and proudly pointed to at Miss Wright’s behest–used to be the fabled kingdom of Persia; (2) Iran produces caviar, dates, and oil; (3) the majority of Iranians are of Persian, not Arab, descent; and (4) all of the suspected hijackers were believed to be Arabs, and none were thought to be from Iran. Mary’s timid pronouncement was immediately jeered as “Very wrong, Mary Wong!” by the cadre of boys who were leading the inquisition; and, as Sherman himself did not reject the charges, but rather smiled at his accusers in his darkly mysterious, indeed, odd way, it was clear as glass that the charges were true. “But he doesn’t speak English,” sighed Uriah Peckinpaugh in lawyerly exasperation. “How do you expect him to deny your charges?” “He could be pretending not to,” said the chief inquisitor, a blocky boy named Dick Saunders, known by his friends as “Duck” for his bristly blond flattop; Duck’s cohorts, however, sensing possible merit in Uriah’s point, pondered it; and as they did so, Sherman, guided by the elbow by his schoolyard lawyer, slipped through the crowd and out of the school, thus avoiding further trouble. And so it remained for the next two years, lonely years during which Sherman spent much of his time hunched over a journal, or working in the computer lab, both of which activities added to the sense that the kid was strange; and, what was worse, fueled suspicion that he was a terrorist, a spy, or both. Sherman’s other main activities, so far as anyone could tell, included huddling in private with his teachers and speaking as little as possible. This laconic tendency, of course, made Duck Saunders and his cronies ever more suspicious of Sherman’s intentions–“Everyone knows you’re guilty if you take the Fifth Commandment,” Duck said–but the brevity of Sherman’s utterances, which never addressed controversial subjects, kept everyone guessing as to the thoughts veiled behind his mysterious smile. And it might have stayed that way had Ms. Costanza, the sixth grade teacher, not decided that it was her duty, as the shepherd of the future voting citizens of the republic, to elicit their participation in the great public debate leading up to the war in Iraq.
“Well,” Sherman began with great hesitation, reading the essay which would imperil him, “Saddam Hussein is a very bad man.” This was no different from the view expressed in two dozen other essays, of course, and raised not an eyebrow. “He used weapons of mass destruction to kill many thousands of his own people,” continued Sherman, “and thousands of Iranians, too.” This too echoed the view of most of the kids in the class, though few knew, as Sherman did, that WMDs had also been used against Iran. Nor was there much ado about Sherman’s assertion that the U.S. should only attack if the United Nations voted for it, for Ms. Costanza herself had let it be known that this was her view, and it was one with which a small majority of the class, mostly girls, agreed. No, what got Sherman in trouble, what caused his blocky nemesis to wrench the essay from his hand and hold it aloft in the manner of a prosecuting attorney–of an attorney general, even–was the following: “Still, I don’t think any of this justifies killing innocent people. After all,” he said brightly, “this is America!”
“See!” said Duck Saunders, armed at last with the evidence he craved. “He hates America, man! He hates us because we’re free!”
“That’s enough, Duck!” said Ms. Costanza, angrier than anyone had ever seen her. She tugged poor Duck by his ear, and though he cried out in pain, she knew from past performances that his cries were fake, and dragged him to the principal’s office for a stern lecture on political and ethnic tolerance. The result was that Duck and company left Sherman in relative peace–save for a few ambiguous incidents on the playground in which sharp elbows found his ribs–until the day Sherman ruined the class’s celebration of Jessica Lynch’s rescue.
“But it’s just not true,” Sherman said in class, eliciting a collective gasp that sucked the air right out of the room. “What do you mean, Sherman?” asked Ms. Costanza, fully as bewildered as the kids in the room. Perhaps she had not heard right; perhaps the boy had misspoken. “Do you mean there are some uncertain details?” she suggested, offering Sherman a chance to retreat. Ah, but it was too late for that. It was as if Sherman, having been irrevocably outed as a terrorist sympathizer in the eyes of a sizeable faction of the class, had no choice but to breathe freely now, to ventilate his long-suppressed thoughts and opinions just as a genie, if you will, breathes deeply, greedily, of the hot desert air when freed at last from the confines of the imprisoning lamp. “I mean, it is not true,” said Sherman, “it is not a true telling of the story. The real hero was a man from Iraq. He discovered the Jessica Lynch prisoner in the hospital, and he had the courage to cross the battle lines to tell the American officials where she was at. But that was not all. The American officials asked him to go back to the hospital to make a map for the rescue operation. And this he did, crossing the lines of fire twice more, risking his life on the line. And that is how they knew where to find her. And that is why no shot was fired.”
Ms. Costanza stood hands on hip, her mouth agape. “That’s–that’s astonishing, Sherman. I didn’t read that in the Chronicle.”
“No, you did not,” said Sherman, indulging the impulse to sneer a bit. “It was reported on Arab television. Aljazeera. ”
“He’s ours,” murmured Duck Saunders to his gang, pounding his fist in the palm of his hand. But when Sherman Zahd walked out of school that day, he walked taller and prouder than he ever had in the past two years, feeling for the first time like a freedom-loving American; and the inward smile was outward now, a close-mouthed amalgam of smile and sneer. So good did he feel that he stopped off at 7-Eleven to celebrate with a Slurpee, which he slurped with glee as he stepped out of the store and rounded the corner. There he was intercepted by Duck Saunders and his two man crew, who, rumor had it, had roughed up kids for money at that very spot.
“Can I have a sip,” sneered Duck, backing Sherman against the wall.
“I don’t think so,” said Sherman, taking another sip.
“You don’t want to give him a sip!” said Oddis Rankin, Duck’s right hand man.
“I don’t think so,” said Sherman. “He didn’t say please.”
“You–!” Oddis raised his hand, but Duck stayed it and told Sherman: “You hate America, man! And you hate Private Lynch. She’s a hero!”
“And you dissed her!” said Albert Chu, leaning his perpetually scowling face into Sherman’s.
Sherman shook his head like a teacher bemused by the confusion of his students. “You guys are so funny. You don’t even know how great a hero she truly was.”
“What are you talkin’ about!” The circle was tight against Sherman, his back to the wall.
“I mean, allow me to tell you the real true story of this great war hero, the story you are not allowed to hear. You think she went down fighting, don’t you? You think the Iraqis killed her comrades and captured her alive? Stop for a minute and think–could Iraqi combat troops kill a whole platoon of our American soldiers in battle? It’s ridiculous! We kill them! Look at the numbers–there’s always, I should say, approximately eighty or a hundred of them killed for every one of us! Right?”
“Right. But, they shot her, didn’t they?” Duck glowered, still suspicious.
“No! They didn’t! That was just a story to fool the terrorists! Look, I’ll let you in on a top secret–if you promise to keep it quiet. Can I trust you?” They nodded. “My Uncle Abdul”–here Sherman lowered his voice so that they had to lean right into his face–“my Uncle Abdul is a CIA spy, working for us in the CIA bureau in Baghdad–and he tells my father everything. The secret is, the Private Lynch is a spy, too! They sent her in there in order to be captured, so that she could take pictures of the Iraqi weapons, and make audiotapes to give the CIA! She had a camera implanted in her forehead, and a microphone in her neck.”
“Okay,” said Albert Chu, leaning in on Sherman. “But if she didn’t get shot, then how’d she get hurt?”
“She fake hurt herself, so they would take her to the hospital! Think about it: What would she learn chilling with other American prisoners in a rat-filled dungeon? But in an Iraqi hospital, she could talk to real Iraqi people, the ones who hate Saddam as much as we do, and want to be liberated from him. The soldiers didn’t even try to hurt her–in fact, they were under strict orders not to shoot her, or anyone like her. And do you know why? Can you guess? It was so they could put her in Saddam’s harem! You’ve seen pictures of her, haven’t you? She’s beautiful!” They nodded. “She was recruited from the set of American Idol. She was standing in line to audition, and the CIA recruited her on the spot. They knew she was so beautiful, Saddam was sure to want her for his harem. After spying everything she could in the hospital, she would pretend to recover from her fake injuries and go to his harem–and if he wasn’t already assassinated by another agent, or killed by our smart bombs, she would kill him with poison lipstick!”
“And how’d your cousin find all this out?” said Duck Saunders through narrowed eyes. “And how’d he tell your father?”
“Nanotechnology,” said Sherman with a wink. He pointed to his forehead. “Uncle Abdul very clever.” And as they already knew that Arabs are sly, they nodded knowingly and chattered among themselves as Sherman Zahd walked off down the street.
“Wait a minute!” they said the next day, pushing Sherman against the wall of the 7-Eleven once more. “If we wanted her to infilterate Saddam’s harem, then how come we rescued her from the hospital?”
Sherman was sipping an even larger Slurpee this time. “The incredible reason is–you’re not going to believe this–Saddam didn’t want her for his harem! He sent a posse of his toughest punks to the hospital to check her out, and they took her picture in different attractive poses, and sent it to him over the internet. And guess what! You can’t! He said she wasn’t pretty enough! His exact words–it’s unbelievable–were, “She looks too American.”
“That bastard!” A bubble of froth from Duck Saunders’ moth floated over Sherman’s shoulder. “He’s crazy! American babes are the hottest in the world!”
“I know!” said Sherman. “Saddam knows American babes are the hottest in the world. He just said it to insult us because he hates us so much!”
“Yeah! What’s he want anyway, some Arab girl with a big black beard?”
“Hey,” said Oddis, “Sherman’s got a little sister, man. No need to diss her.”
“Oh, no,” said Sherman with a little laugh, “we’re Iranians, not Arabs. No problem.”
“What happened next, Sherm?” asked Oddis.
“What happened next is, she had to figure out a way out, because she knew they were going to kill her since she wasn’t going to be in the harem! But first, they decided to torture her for espionage. But since she was CIA-trained, she wouldn’t talk! So they drugged her and hypnotized her, and she pretended to be hypnotized. Then she gave them all this great top secret espionage, like how many soldiers we had, and where they were, and what kind of guns they were using, and where and when we were going to attack next. The only problem was, it was fake! She was making it up! And they bought it! They all called Saddam on their cell phones, thinking they were going to get a bunch of medals; but the next day, when he sent his soldiers to where he thought he was going to take our troops by surprise, it was an ambush! And we slaughtered them!”
“Sweet!” they all said. “I bet my uncle shot a few A-rabs,” said Duck.
“Yeah! The only problem for Jessica was, she was running out of stuff to make up, and she knew when she did, they’d kill her with biological weapons! So she started up the best story of all, to get them interested. She told them that George Bush himself was going to fly in to Baghdad secretly on a Blackhawk to run the war. She said he was mad at the way the general was running things, and that he wanted to call all the shots from now on–and drop a few bombs himself! They all started getting excited, and writing things down in Arabic, and talking to each other really fast with their hands! They thought they were going to win huge promotions when they told the big news to Saddam, maybe even get an oil well or two! But then, right before she was going to tell them where President Bush was going to land and when, she froze! Like a computer! She just sat there staring off into space like a zombie! And they were freaking out, dudes! They were totally scared that if Saddam found out they had frozen her right before she was going to tell them when Bush was coming, he’d gas them for sure! What they didn’t know was, Jessica was just faking being frozen!”
“I know! Their best hypnotizers tried everything to start her up again, but she just kept staring off into space. Finally they smoked some cigarettes and decided to go home for the night to avoid arousing suspicion. And that’s when she made her daring escape plan, the one you know about already.”
“Awesome!” they agreed, slapping hands as Sherman walked off down the street.
“Hey, Sherm,” they said, waiting outside the 7-Eleven the next day, “give us some more inside stuff on Iraq.” So he told them the latest, the stuff they wouldn’t get on t.v.. How, after the “abortion” of the Jessica Lynch spy mission, they decided to use her rescue to boost morale instead; how Saddam always carried a suicide pill because he was scared of being captured by George Bush himself, and how, since he couldn’t sleep without pills now due to worry, they had two guys assigned to him just to make sure he didn’t accidentally take his suicide pill instead of his sleeping pill; how weapons of mass destruction were being shipped to other countries every day through underground tunnels and given to underground terrorists to use against us. And so it went, day after day, meeting at the 7-Eleven for Slurpees and chips (“good ol’ American junk food,” they joked, taking turns rubbing Sherman’s head with their knuckles), Sherman mesmerizing them with insider’s tales, they rewarding him with nachos which he pretended to like. The association carried over to school before long. After two years as a loner, Sherman now had a crew; and, considering the bad-boy make-up of the crew, cries of “Sherman’s odd”–muted cries, out of earshot of Duck, Oddis, and Albert–were renewed by those who knew Sherman back in the fourth grade. Suddenly, to the amazement of all, it was three bad boys and that odd little Sherman Zahd: Sherman, helping them in the computer lab, where they spent most of their assigned time harassing kids who were trying to work; Sherman, finding books in the library for their reports; Sherman, regaling them in the playground with all sorts of stories, tales which, he told them, he made up on the spot–and not just stories about the war, but stories about pygmies intoxicated by rare African berries, riding lions bareback; about ancient Persian astronomers tortured on the rack for claiming asteroids were heading towards the earth; about secret government plans to develop IQ pills to cut schooling from 12 years to 1. “How can you make this stuff up!” they said in awe. “It’s called writing,” said Sherman with a wink. And now the young writer was completely uncorked, for he had what he had long craved, an audience of his peers. He also had what he had long needed–schoolyard muscle to protect him from harassment. And if, from time to time, his new friends would toss out vile slurs against Arabs, it didn’t seem to bother him much, for he laughed it off and called the slurs “spice for your speech.” Besides, he knew that they meant nothing personal against him, for they had declared him to be an “honorary American” in respect of his uncle the spy; and, also, he had convinced them that Very Wrong was right, Iranians are not even Arabs to begin with. Not that there wasn’t always an undercurrent of tension, for there was: a lingering sense that perhaps Sherman was not really the ardent patriot that he seemed, that maybe an Iranian really is just a different kind of Arab after all (“Iraq is almost the same word as Iran,” Albert noted). Nor was Sherman senseless to this, for when they’d ask him for help with yet another computer project–“C’mon, Sherman, I’m no nerd, man, just use my password and knock out that report for me”–it seemed that the friendly arms wound around his neck were just a bit tighter than friendly arms should be.
Yet if Sherman seemed pleased with his new lot, his father was not. “Why do you join with such riff raff!” scolded the man, an Iraqi-born physician. But Sherman just smiled the mysterious smile he’d shown his classmates for two years and shrugged. “At least he has friends now,” said his mother, the beautiful daughter of an Iranian banker who had fled before the fall of the Shah. She stroked her son’s raven hair. “I think it’s wonderful he has playmates.”
“Such playmates can make big trouble,” said the father. But Sherman refused to go back to the playground without protection, and besides, he figured, it was just a few weeks until the end of the school year, and then he could make a clean break with Duck’s crew. He just had to keep it cool until then, and he had lots to occupy his time, for he was working on a project–a top secret one, like all his endeavors–in the computer lab, where he was already spending inordinate amounts of time writing term history reports for Duck’s gang. Not that he minded doing so, for it kept him in their good graces, and out from under their thumbs. By delaying the completion of the reports until the morning they were due, which was two days before commencement, Sherman managed to reduce his face time with the gang to about twenty minutes a week. Naturally they were thrilled with the reports he produced, all perfectly formatted and spiral-bound, yet riddled with the copious quantity of spelling errors the teacher would expect from them (Sherman had even cribbed the errors from the gang’s own spelling tests to ensure authenticity): Victury Of The West. The New American Millenium. The Impereel Eagle. “What do we owe you?” they asked. Nothing, Sherman insisted. But you deserve something, they said. “I will get it,” he replied.
The day before commencement, Sherman was two hours late coming home. His father, having read that lawlessness among juveniles increases near the end of the school year, feared the worst. He set out in his car to trace Sherman’s usual route home. Near the 7-Eleven, he saw Duck and his gang in a semicircle around the wall, and he could see fragments of a figure pinned up against the wall. It was Uriah Peckinpaugh, his eyes wide with fright, clutching his briefcase to keep Albert Chu from snatching it. Sherman’s dad, who was called “Dr. Zahd” by everyone who knew him despite the fact that he hadn’t practiced medicine since fleeing Iraq, pulled up alongside and blew his horn. “What are you doing!” he thundered.
“Just talking with our lawyer,” Duck grinned. Uriah seized the opportunity to reclaim his briefcase and scurry away.
“Have you seen my son?” said Dr. Zahd.
“Could you describe him?” chortled Duck.
Dr. Zahd had been an army medic during the war with Iran. He had seen men holding their intestines in place, and had learned to see such things clinically, dispassionately, else he could not have functioned. He looked at Duck and company in just this way. “Tell him I’m looking for him if you see him.”
But Sherman was already back home, pacing in anticipation of the next day’s commencement activities. He was up for an award, and he wanted it badly.
The awards for the most part went to the expected recipients, including Mary Wong, who won the Biology Award. At 11:15, Sherman Zahd strode to the podium to accept the Creative Writing Award. “Not bad for a boy who spoke little English when he came to this country from France,” said the presenting teacher. At about the same time, the answering machines and voice mail boxes of Ms. Elizabeth Saunders, Mr. and Mrs. Oswald Rankin, and Mr. and Mrs. Simon Chu reached their limits, filled to capacity with irate messages from callers who had read the flyers posted on walls and utility poles all over the neighborhood the night before. “Death to America the fashist viper,” the flyers said, repeating a phrase–“the fashist viper”–employed in the history reports authored, but never read by, Duck Saunders, Oddis Rankin, and Albert Chu (Duck had in fact glanced through his paper on the way to class, but didn’t know what either “fashist” or “viper” meant). Only a few of the hundreds of callers seemed intent on accepting the invitation at the bottom of the flyer to “Join our Def Underground Heros call to action to defeat the impereel beast! Break windows! Smash windsheelds! Slash tires! Go crazy!” And while the FBI didn’t really believe that three 12 year-old boys would be dumb enough to put their phone numbers on flyers as incendiary as this (or to form a group called DUH), the fact that the flyers were written in the school computer lab on password-protected computers used by the very kids whose phone numbers appeared on the flyers would cause the agency to keep its files open for quite some time; this thought consoled Sherman Zahd as he sipped a Slurpee and contemplated the lonely summer ahead.