Wishing for Grapes: Pt. 1

Abdi was generally an unexcitable fellow, but it was difficult even for him to suppress the anxiety that rose within him as he waited now. He batted his thoughts around the corners of his mind and fidgeted with his hands while strangers around him spoke to one another about their past encounters with the land’s king.

"It's been years for me. How long has it been for you?"

"I've never met him, actually."

"Really? There was a time when I came every year."

As his peers talked to one another, Abdi kept quiet, unsure of what he would have to say to these strangers around him. Instead he focused on how the cool tile felt on his feet, which he had used to walk for two days from his village to the palace. When he looked down the corridor, he saw citizens who were clearly not from his small town. Some had darker skin, some lighter, and the dialects that whispered off the walls sounded odd against his ears.

The people waited to speak with their king. Some carried days’ worth of goods, and between the moments where fragments of the line would shuffle a few feet forward, these travellers set down their items and readjusted their backs. The smell of feet lingered since many were either barefoot or in sandals. Periodically, a baby would cry before a frazzled mother would shush it. Conversation continued around Abdi.

"I wonder how long we'll be waiting."

"Once, I was here for six hours before making it into the throne room."

"Do you think it will take that long today?"

"There’s no telling. The king's a popular man when times are tough."

Abdi remembered the stories his grandfather used to tell of rich, healthy land and the stability it brought. Meanwhile, Abdi’s family was growing accustomed to financial struggles. He didn’t have to ask his neighbors for their opinions in order to know how they felt. He knew their attitudes had dissolved into an exhausted anger toward circumstances, and he assumed that the people in line with him now felt similarly.

The king was a good king, no doubt. After all, he made a point to individually meet every citizen who waited in line for him. But harvests were slim and that was undeniable. It was only two months ago that Abdi, his father, and his brothers were instructed by a government official to, “for the good of the people,” they were assured, double their grape contribution. A week later they were met by a separate official, who requested the standard portion and could find no record of the previous exchange — or even the man who claimed to be with the government. The mystery was one that received weeks of speculation on his father’s farm. Abdi’s oldest brother, between violent bites into his disappointing rations of bread, explained how he was convinced that the whole affair was nothing more than a clever exploitation from the town one day west of them.

It seemed instances like this one were spreading both in intensity and frequency, leading each town to strengthen its security and leaders to talk of building higher walls. It was the worst kind of resentment: one that was never spoken of and that sought no resolution. Yet it bubbled up within his family and his village as well as between cities and, finally, toward the king and his government. This resentment harbored within Abdi, though he tried to silence it with words like “temporary,” “season,” and “someday.” They offered him little comfort.

His wife was kind and understanding and his son Raif was bright, but Raif was to be married off someday. He was the only child to carry on the family after Abdi’s death someday, and Abdi knew what sort of disadvantage Raif would face with an unstable income and stock in an unprofitable farm. Quietly Abdi wished that Raif’s intelligence and charm could be enough to lead to marriage, but he thought back to that awkward first encounter with his wife just days before their wedding and knew that this wouldn’t be so. While his brothers and father argued with one another about the best way to make up for lost resources and, as his most irrational brother argued, get revenge on those who did them wrong, Abdi determined that meeting with the king couldn’t be the worst approach, especially since he could no longer trust a lower-level government official. Perhaps there was some insight the king had that could help Abdi and his family before resentment turned into violence.

"When's the last time you met him?" Abdi turned over his right shoulder and lowered his gaze several inches to meet the wrinkled face of a man who grinned up at him. This man was missing several of his teeth, causing his friendly smile to look goofy and rather out of place compared to his low voice and scruffy facial hair.

"Pardon?" Abdi replied.

"The king! The king!” The man jumped and clapped his hands together. He repeated, “When's the last time you met him?"

"Oh. Well, I came here when I was a little boy.”

“Ah, yes, you were a little lad.” The man said, as if Abdi’s answer somehow jogged a memory he had. He continued inquisitively, “You didn’t come alone?”

“No, I came with my father,” Abdi had found himself so lost in the puzzles in his mind that he couldn’t humor this stranger with aimless chatter. Seeing that there was no point to this particular interaction, Abdi turned to face the front again, perhaps pointing too much of his back at the short man than was necessary. The man seemed to accept this for a few minutes, smacking his lips loudly but leaving Abdi with his own thoughts. Suddenly he gasped and poked Abdi’s back.

“I remember you!” He insisted. Now Abdi’s irritation subsided to exhaustion.

“I’m sure you do,” he muttered back.

“You have four brothers and your father brought all of you to the trading camp years ago,” he said, satisfied as Abdi turned to him curiously. “Oh, but that could be anyone! You think I’m making it up. But I remember your family. Your father is Berk and your family sells milk and grapes.”

Abdi looked down shamefully. “We don’t sell milk anymore.”

“Ha! But you admit that I remember you!” the man cackled. Abdi was tempted to forgive the man’s insensitivity because of how delighted he was at his own victory.

Abdi felt the defeat. “Yes, I suppose that you do.” With that, he turned his back once again and continued inching forward with the line.

The fact that someone remembered his family wasn’t terribly surprising. Abdi remembered spending many of his young days at the local trading camp with his father and brothers, where they sold the crops from their estate. Though the camp was now a desperate affair comprised of poor men, it was once a bustling blend of buyers and vendors, and Abdi’s father was among the greatest of them.

It was time to pass into the throne room. Abdi was surprised that the king’s space was so simple. He remembered that the atmosphere used to leave him in awe, but now he saw that this must have had very little to do with the room’s decor. Abdi almost smiled, vaguely remembering what it was like to be a child.

This room, in contrast to the hallway, was extremely quiet. Abdi could see the king sitting on his throne, which was perhaps the reason he found himself straightening his posture and clearing his throat politely. The size of the room disabled Abdi from hearing conversation taking place at the throne, which he noted to use as comfort when his turn came around.

As the moments passed by, Abdi indulged in prolonged glances in the king’s direction. It only became easier with every step forward he took. Now, nearing the front of the line, he could see the king quite well. The people around him, who had remained silent for the first several minutes in the throne room, now whispered with one another, taking in the space together.

“Do you think the king knows about the increased taxes?”

“I would suppose so. Don’t you think he knows about everything?”

“Maybe. Who’s that man next to him?”

“That’s his advisor, Muhtar. When he retired as military general, the king chose him out of ten thousand men to serve by his side.”

Abdi followed the conversation and glanced to the king’s right. Muhtar was much older than he expected. It appeared that breathing took a heavy toll on him; Abdi could see his body heaving all the way from across the room. Muhtar’s eyes, or at least what Abdi could make of them from a distance, seemed kind and aging. They paired well with his hunched posture. This man was certainly older than even Abdi’s father, which Abdi didn’t encounter often. He could feel his heart rate accelerating as he shook off the idea that he could ever be as old as Muhtar.

“Make way!” suddenly cut through his thoughts. A stout servant quickened his pace as he guided a group of four men into the throne room.

“Pardon us,” he gently pushed Abdi and his neighbors aside. When he reached the center of the room, he turned to the curious and indignant people in line. “Attention!” His voice grew louder until it sounded perfectly suited to the large space. Abdi determined that he had given this speech before. “This will only be a few minutes. These men are here as volunteers.”

Whispers built up in waves and then quickly plunged into silence as the king rose to his feet. He and Muhtar walked slowly and gracefully to meet the group in the center of the throne room. The king, appearing younger and younger with each step toward the crowd, held out his arm for Muhtar, who clung to it with his left hand and his cane with his right. No one spoke a word. It was only when the king and his advisor reached the servant and the group of young men that greetings began and the line of people seemed to breathe out all at once.

Abdi saw that these newcomers couldn’t have been from the same parts of the nation. They each looked quite different from the other, particularly in the shapes of their faces and in the way they carried themselves. One in particular caught Abdi’s stare. Whereas the three had faces lightly graced with imperfections and wrinkles, this man’s was smooth and of perfect complexion. His hair was full and dark and his eyes were large with a thick bed of lashes. When he spoke, as he did when he introduced himself to the king as Can, his voice was healthy and his words finished with as much polish as when they began.

Abdi’s short friend tapped on his shoulders excitedly. “You know what those folks do, don’t you?” This time, Abdi’s curiosity overwhelmed him and he leaned down to hear what story the man had to tell.

“No, what?” he replied.

“Why, they’re volunteers!”

“Yes. They said that already.”

“Oh,” the man paused and looked confused. Abdi wondered if the man was taunting him now that he finally wanted to hear what he had to say.

“Where are they from?” he asked, urging the man along.

The man ignored his question. “That young one there is an orphan.” Abdi looked at Can again, surprised with this news. The king, Muhtar, and the young men conversed quietly while the servant shuffled back to the room’s entrance and welcomed a chain of men carrying large burlap bags over their backs.

“Betcha don’t know what’s in those bags,” the man guessed aloud. Abdi shook his head. “Those are supplies. Ha! And you thought it was food. No, no. A town just east of Ankara was ravaged for all its food by its neighbors just four days ago. Those volunteers are going to rebuild the village. And you see that old man next to the king?” He stretched out his arm and pointed to Muhtar. “He’s the one that sends them off with their blessing before they go.”

Abdi looked at the group again, now transferring the sacks onto handcarts. After observing each member, he decided he longed for the advisor’s position. Muhtar, this creature of wisdom recognized by the king, was able to remain in the courts daily, right by the king’s side. Abdi wondered what sort of immense success this man must have seen while serving in the military.

He watched Can amble over to Muhtar, who placed his hands on Can’s shoulders. Abdi witnessed a strange look in Muhtar’s eyes. He thought it was a look of sadness or concern. But the longer he watched, the more he wondered if it was a look of envy. He shook his head at the thought of it. It would make no sense for a man in Muhtar’s position to envy anyone in this room save the king, let alone a young, orphaned man left to do grunt work around the nation.  

The hunched Muhtar weakly pleaded with Can that he, too, would heave a bag onto his back and join this time. A miserable smile stretched across Can’s face as he shook his head and embraced his elder. Abdi marveled at this as the men said their goodbyes and rolled their carts through the archway they had entered through. As Can wheeled by Abdi, they caught glances and Can flashed a gleaming smile at him. Abdi merely gaped before turning back and watching the king guide Muhtar back to their position at the throne.

It wasn’t long before it was Abdi’s turn to speak with the king. A servant guided him to the throne as a nervousness swelled up inside him. He shook as he kneeled before the king. When he looked up, the king’s eyes were piercing but loving. Muhtar looked calmly into the distance, and Abdi couldn’t determine which of these people was more fascinating to him in that moment.

When the king prompted him to speak, Abdi froze and nearly choked as the ravaged town came to mind. He felt foolish explaining that his family had been tricked by their neighbors, especially after a team of volunteers just left for their journey. But the king smiled upon him and asked him to rise to his feet.

“Muhtar,” he called softly to the man on his right. “Please record this man’s story and grant his family a pardon from taxes next month. He is Abdi, son of Berk.” Muhtar nodded slowly, happy to serve the king but disinterested in Abdi. The king spoke again to Abdi, “Tell your family that you can use the next month to build your resources and make up for the misunderstanding with your neighbor.”

Abdi nodded quickly.

The king reached out his hand and allowed Abdi to kiss it. “Thank you for visiting today. You’re welcome anytime.” The servant by Abdi’s side waved him over to Muhtar and trotted back toward the line to accompany the next citizen to the throne. As Muhtar scribbled his notes in the leather book beside him, Abdi tried to keep himself from staring into his eyes. He was overcome by a blend of envy for Muhtar’s position, terror at his age, and awe at his rank.

When Muhtar completed his annotations, he finally looked up and met Abdi’s gaze. His voice was quiet and his words only barely broke through his coughs: “Go, and be prosperous.”

Abdi returned home nights later. His wife, not concerned with the impending budget crises, craved a detailing of his trip and a description of his well-being.

“How was it?” she wondered. Before Abdi could answer her, Raif assailed him with questions about seeing the king.

“What is the king like? Is he really big? Was he nice?”

At times, Raif’s eagerness was endearing to Abdi. But as his thoughts consumed him and his restlessness increased, he could only let his mind drift while his son rambled off his questions.

Raif continued, “Did you become friends with him? Will I get to meet him? Can he come for dinner?”

Abdi thought about that fleeting moment when he spoke face-to-face with the king, but quickly realized that it was the observations and conversations preceding it that had most enraptured him.

“Dad,” Raif whailed. “Are you listening?”

Abdi looked down at him. “Let’s sit for our dinner,” he suggested. At that, his wife guided them to the table, which was filled with plates of rice and bowls of figs. She pulled out a chair for him and then helped Raif into his place before bending down into her seat and placing her hands neatly in her lap.

“Daddy,” what was it like to talk to the king?” Raif asked again.

“It was nice.”

“What did he say? How long did you talk to him?”

“Honestly, son, our conversation was not very long.”

At this, Raif furrowed his brows. “Why?” he puzzled. Abdi shrugged and explained that the king’s time wasn’t something to be wasted. The answer wasn’t enough to satisfy anybody at the table, but it was enough to prompt the quiet Abdi needed.

When Raif saw that he wasn’t going to receive the answers he was looking for, he used his fork to shovel olives around his plate.

“Raif,” His mother said gently, not needing to ask him out loud to eat his food instead of play with it. Raif slumped back in defeat.

“If you aren’t hungry, then go off to bed,” Abdi chimed in. Raif couldn’t argue too much with his father’s reasoning, seeming to finally accept that this meal wouldn’t reveal anything about the king. Without saying a word, Raif pressed his palms against the edge of the table and scooted his chair back until he could stretch out his legs and his toes could touch the floor.

He made one last attempt. Raif turned to his parents on his way to his room and pleaded, “Can you please tell me about the king tomorrow?”

Abdi answered his son much more sternly than before. “There’s really nothing to add to what I’ve already told you.”

Raif examined Abdi’s face, seeming to search for an answer as to why he was being so evasive. He bit his lip and tried to mind his manners, but once Abdi signaled for him to leave the room, he couldn’t hold it in much longer.

“Dad, I think you just didn’t get what you wanted,” he mumbled.

Abdi’s scoff hid a hint of a chuckle. “That’s nonsense. He gave us what we needed to make it by next month,” he retorted.

“But that’s not what you were really wishing for. And that’s why you’re disappointed.” Abdi watched his son disappear into the darkness of his room.


My Name is Jeremy

From: Dr. Jeremy Johnson
Date: 08/01/2014
To: Everyone
Subject: Your first assignment

Hello, my name is Jeremy.

I suppose that doesn't tell you much about who I am or what matters to me, but doesn't it make you feel as though you know something personal about me? Perhaps as if the imagined version you have of me in your mind approached you on the street, you'd, depending on the type of person you are, think to yourself Oh, hey, that's Jeremy or wave at me and say hello. If it makes you feel any better, I'm the type of person who would wave hello back, so feel free to do so.

I want to express at the beginning of things that I do not prefer to be called Dr. Johnson. I know some of you will insist on calling me so out of an obligation to be polite. A few of you will refuse to call me Jeremy because you’re paranoid that I’ve laid some sort of trap where only my most respectful students will receive the grades they’re after. In any case, I understand your motivation. If you're the kind of person who will call me nothing other than Dr. Johnson (or maybe even "professor" or "sir,” to change things up), there's no point in my telling you that you can call me nearly anything you'd like and it will not affect your grade. At any rate, I can clear my conscience any time I wonder if I’ve let you know my preferred name.

I'd like that you not call me Dr. Johnson because I earned the title of "doctor" no different than many of you will. I was raised with the impression that attending college was not an option. My parents (if you care to know their names, they're Joseph and Sue) never really asked if college was something that interested me. Neither were they forceful about the matter because, frankly, the idea of going to college was one that I resigned myself to early in life. After I graduated — yes, the day will come for you too — I was shocked to find that my philosophy degree wasn't well versed in the art of finding and landing me “the job" my school had promised. In all fairness, I didn't know what this job would have been anyway. After all, I finally accomplished what I had in my mind since middle school that I was going to do and I hadn't adequately prepared for what would follow. And so I did what any bored and confused young adult would do. What many of you will end up doing. I went to grad school.

After obtaining my master's degree and realizing that this world of academia was as familiar as anything I was going to experience, I went for my PhD. That's not to downplay the amount of work that many dedicated students put into their graduate degrees or undermine the benefits of higher education. But even now I remember my freshman year classmate, Rose, who scrubbed bathrooms at the city hotel on the weekends and was otherwise glued to her computer to input stacks' worth of data in order to pay tuition and earn her associate degree. There's also my old roommate, Ben, who secretly found no greater joy than indulging in the stress and anxiety of pursuing his law degree and consequently sabotaged every romantic relationship of his drawn out college years. Had I kept in touch with any of my fellow students, I would ask that you refer to them as doctors. As for me, I fear you associating that term with my name would give you a false and unfair perception of who I am. In all likelihood, if I were taking this class with you, I'd be the one that's consistently late (if there at all) and the one whose ripped jeans and torn jacket you'd examine as I asked you to share your notes from last period.

So please just call me Jeremy.

I decided to send you this email two weeks before class starts to tell you about your first assignment (and to give your mind a break from the mason jars of quinoa protein power smoothies and #ootd posts you’ve either been sharing or liking on Instagram all summer). On the first day you can rest assured that I won't be reading you the syllabus. I believe you're perfectly capable of reading it yourself. In fact, I've added it to the course documents on Blackboard. You're welcome to read it now if you so choose. You can also opt out of reading it. I know I'm supposed to express some sort of opinion on this, but I prefer honesty over social etiquette, so I'll happily tell you now that I don't give two shits if you read the syllabus start to finish with highlighter in hand or if you never even open the file. You know yourself better than I do; you're welcome to do what makes you happiest. You’re the one who has to live with your decisions in life.

What you will probably notice about me is that I ask the question "Why?" all too often. I'm like that annoying brother you had who, either because he had nothing better to do than cause your eyebrows to wrinkle or he genuinely wanted to be your friend but had no idea how to go about doing so, punctuated each of your sentences with a whiny "Why?" until you tattled to your mom and she told you both to hush because she had a headache. Well, now you're faced with the unique situation where the obnoxiously inquisitive brother and the annoyingly disinterested mom are one in the same. I can tell you now that this truth is going to annoy the hell out of some of you. If you find that this becomes true for you, I encourage you to take your own approach in your assignments and disregard my outlandish requests. You may also tell me that I annoy the hell out of you if you'd like, but it's not going to change the way I approach my class. Those of you who enjoy (or at least humored by) this course are welcome to indulge me in my intrusive questions. I suspect you'll discover something about yourself or about your writing that maybe, just maybe, will last beyond finals week. If that matters to you at all.

About that assignment.

I'd like for you to conduct some observations. Don’t worry; your response isn’t due until the second week of class. But I encourage you to at least start thinking about it now. Here's what you need to do: Take note of the next time someone hurts your feelings. It can be anyone who does it and it can be about anything. Maybe it was unintentional (or this person claims it was unintentional), or maybe you did something to this person long ago that he or she used as justification to slight you. A pretty woman at my most frequented coffee shop turned me down for a date. That hurt my feelings. She probably didn't mean to make me feel bad as she rolled her eyes and suddenly found the most interesting story ever on her phone, but it was a consequence of what she did mean to do, and that was avoid spending more time with a creepy dude like me, who's been repeatedly instructed by his friends to muster up the courage to ask a girl out after finalizing his divorce three years ago. These are the kinds of events I want you to stop and take notice of. So the next time your dad tells you your new blouse looks "nice" instead of "beautiful" or the next time your friend passes out drunk on your floor without thanking you for dragging his sorry ass across campus while he puked on your favorite shoes, write down what happened in great detail.

Describing the event is the first step. If you want to include in your description why this specific thing happened to hurt your feelings so much, you can do so. But I don't expect it. Next, what I want you to do is explain what kind of person this person is. A man named James Altucher wrote an article about how to deal with crappy people. To summarize the part I find most interesting, he claims that there are four categories every person in your life fits into:

  1. There are happy people, who seem genuinely joyful about their circumstances and you sometimes resent them for it.

  2. There are people in pain, who are unhappy and need your compassion but may infect you with their unhappiness if you aren't careful.

  3. There are good people, who make your life better with no hidden motives and you sometimes resent them for it.

  4. There are crappy people, who are both bent on making your life worse and convinced they're doing the right thing.

This post is your compass for the second step of the assignment. Which category does your inflictor, in your opinion, fit into? Choose one and expand on your answer. Why should I believe you? This should go without saying, but even though this person is the subject of your assignment because he or she hurt your feelings, they can fit into any of these four categories from a general perspective. If you don't know the person well enough to say, I want you to figure it out. Remember things they said leading up to the event and take note of any incriminating evidence (your co-worker is always smiling so clearly she's in pain or that stranger had Nickelback blasting through his headphones so obviously he's a crappy person. I kid.) You can lie if you want. You'll be making your own share of assumptions anyway. Accuracy is not the point. It's the analysis that matters.

The third thing I want you to do involves a separate event. This time, I want you to tell me about the next time you hurt someone's feelings (or as far as you can believe that you hurt someone’s feelings). The same rules apply: it can be justified, random, unintentional, or rewarding. It may even be retaliation immediately after your first event of someone hurting you. I know what you're thinking: Will I categorize myself next? No. You'd all lie anyway. All I want you to do is explain this event in as much detail as you did your first. Use a word counter if you have to. Got it? Remember, there are three parts to this assignment:

  • Take note the next time someone in your life hurts your feelings and describe the event at great length. Be as descriptive as possible, please.

  • Place this person into a category according to the list above: a happy person, a person in pain, a good person, or a crappy person. Convince me that you're right.

  • Tell me about a time that you believe you hurt someone else's feelings in as much detail as you did in point one. Make sure this section is as long as the first.

I don’t imagine it’s happened yet for all of you, but I like to think that these prompts have at least some of you begging my favorite question: Why the hell are we doing this?

After making it through the short period when some of you insist that these events didn’t really affect you all that much, you will each have your own way of processing the thoughts I ask you to expend. When instructed to think about situations where pain and other people are involved, some of you will idealize. As you ruminate on the events from your assignment, you’ll compare how things are with how they ought to be. Others of you will believe yourselves to be the victims of your events. Perhaps even the victim in both scenarios.

A smaller portion of you will take a darker turn with this assignment, making sweeping observations about the flawed nature of the human race. You may ponder on how you would cause more pain to your inflictor if provided a circumstance where your politeness didn’t overcome you and your biting words flew freely from your mouth rather than bubbling up as a lingering sting in the back of your throat.

Then there are those of you who will internalize your events and slowly unravel the steps you can take moving forward. You’ll decide that there’s something to be learned about yourself or about the categories you assign people to and you’ll make your own connections between the past that you can’t change and the future that has yet to happen.

But the main reason I’ve chosen the assignment I have is that I’m determined to make you better writers. Given that you have to spend three hours with me each week, that seems like something worth pursuing. Don’t you agree? This first response is meant to make you think about what causes involuntary feelings in you and in others. In order to complete your analysis sufficiently, you’ll also have to draw ties between people and decide for yourself why they do what they do, providing the drive behind your stories and serving as a foundation for authentic writing.

The fact that you’ve enrolled in a sophomore-level writing class leads me to hold a few assumptions about you. First, the majority of degree programs at our university require only a freshman-level composition course, and here you are in English 251. While some of you will have no more interest for my course than you would in microbiology, I believe that most of you either think you’re decent writers or have at least determined composition as a lesser of evils in the scheme of general education requirements.

Second, the fact that you’re in a writing course at all reveals that there are a few of you who are dreamers, likely carrying bundles of notebooks in your backpacks — not to take diligent notes in political science, but to sketch, draft, and question the world around you. Some of you have been hurt and, though you perhaps weren’t aware of it, gravitate toward the arts to find solace. No matter where you fall in the assumptions I've made of you, you're welcome here.

Throughout our class, I'll be training you to indulge in these thought processes. Or to at least cooperate with them. Right now I’m in the rare position where I can categorize each one of you according to my own whims. I can place you in any box I like with no repercussions. However, once we begin discussions and your classmates help you confront each and every choice you make in your pieces, your individuality will detangle before your very eyes and you will start asking these questions as life happens around you. It’s at that point that any worthwhile writing can begin.

The first step is to start observing.

I will provide office hours on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 to 2 until class begins. Feel free to drop in with questions. In the meantime, I look forward to meeting you in two weeks.