God narratives don’t tend to begin in hotel conference halls. Rarer still is it to find one starting with a couple of patched up sound technicians readying a hall for a TEDx talk on business processing. This one does. In March 2012, I was more concerned with how realistic it was to believe I could fund my master’s degree through selling bonsai trees than with existential questions about God and fatherhood. I didn’t expect to leave that job with a collapsing barracks of beliefs about what it means to be a father, son, or devotee. I took for granted that these relationships simply exist, never delving too far into what happens when one of the parties within these relationships doesn’t consider the relationship valid. I suppose such thoughts had been safely shut away in the cave of my personal mental garage, requiring a jolt to help pull the shutters up. That jolt came from a man trying to find the words to obliterate the distance between himself and his God.
“Who do you pray to?” our client inquired, as he taped wires to the conference hall walls the way he saw me do it. We’d been talking about my being raised by parents of different religions, so the question wasn’t out of context. The client was an older man named Lon, whose hair was pinned to his scalp with oil and whose sinewy physique was hinted at by a short-sleeved shirt. His back was bent by the cranks of declining physical health though he somehow maintained eye contact and had an easy charm. Lon told me earlier his background was in data analysis for an energy company in the States. Since retiring and moving to England several months earlier, he was earning pocket money through TEDx talks.
The hum of a microphone whizzed by. So too did the whiff of a sandwich, corned beef, and real butter.
I didn’t immediately respond to his question as, not only did the phrasing of it surprise me, but, within that week alone, I’d already said the Hail Mary during Mass, a communal prayer to God during an AA meeting, and an Islamic dua in bed. The final was a ritual my father taught me during childhood. However, having met Lon an hour earlier, I didn’t want to overshare. Besides, Fergus, my girlfriend’s dad, had forgone the rest of his sandwich to fit together heavy slabs of temporary staging which I felt I ought to help with. This sort of activity had become my responsibility ever since Fergus returned to work several months earlier. While searching his loft for old wigs that my girlfriend, Vicky, used to use for her ABBA tribute act, he fell and suffered a brain injury. At the time, Vicky and I were putting out fliers for her forthcoming adaptation of Passion. We heard the news from Vicky’s mother, “The Moo.” “Archie pup found him. There was blood everywhere. He was scared of hurting him. He just stood back and barked. Dad’s going in for surgery in an hour.” Vicky told me The Moo was crying. Fergus often came close to destroying himself. Two years to the day, he had fallen out of a tree, trying to reclaim a frisbee, and broken his leg. The Moo regarded him then like a piece of burnt toast. Vicky told me she wasn’t worried until she heard The Moo cry.
Without having been blessed with any practical sense, my fondness of Fergus, and desire to help him avoid falling from anything, meant I was happy to accompany him to jobs like this. Besides, I was on the final year of my degree back then and wheeling around overhead projectors while making small talk with fed up people holding clipboards was, at least, a break from neocolonialism. The sound of a door slamming in the wind sounded oddly like a man falling from a ladder, which hurried me along.
I hunched my shoulders at Lon’s question, guiltily hoping that a cryptic response would lure him into walking with me to the stage. I planned that his presence would relax our pace of work, allowing Fergus to dispose of his corned beef.
“Many,” I said to Lon. I walked to the stage and finished Fergus’s work as Lon sniffed at the beef. I returned his question.
“Unetlanvhi — my Cherokee creator. He doesn’t understand me. We speak different languages, I’ve forgotten his.” Apart from the language of his God, the man knew everything. While the talk he would give two hours later concerned business process simulation, he’d already spoken on topics ranging from the Bangladeshi railway system to David Crystal’s account of English. “I went to boarding school,” he informed me, “I could tell you every rule of English grammar, but I can’t string off one sentence in Tsalagi.”
Fergus switched places with me. He took up the conversation and gestured to me to build the speaker stands 60 meters away. For all his qualities, Fergus rarely ventured from conversations about PA systems. I grimaced as I heard him eulogize “Soundcraft” in his thick Ayrshire accent that makes each word a threat. Apart from the solemn sound of metal clinking onto metal, their voices were the only noises. But soon, I stood in awe as they traded audio-visual-equipment-based jokes. I would come to understand that Lon was a drummer after leaving boarding school in Arizona. At the time, I thought of my relationship with Fergus, how we went hours without speaking during van rides to far away jobs. During the beginning of our relationship, I spent afternoons reading up on projectors and scart sockets in preparation for the journeys. However, Fergus sensed my lack of passion and would respond coldly. I retreated into an interaction which, to many, would appear ancillary. Yet, I would look forward to those van rides and the silence.
When I saw Fergus doing his Stephen Fry raconteur impression prior to Lon’s presentation, I felt an odd pride. He seemed to be as relaxed as if he was about to do his weekly flannel wash. I thought about the origins of that pride and how it related to my relationship with my father. The thought pulled out crumples of sadness and anger. I never took a moment to feel pride in my father, I was too preoccupied with fearing him. He and Fergus have met once during my relationship with Vicky, an ill-advised family lunch, hosted by my parents. Fergus tackled the etiquette of eating the lamb biriyani like a prisoner climbing the roof of the panopticon. Before that lunch, I had only ever seen him eating corned beef sandwiches and different varieties of fried cod.
Hours after Lon’s presentation and the clear up, I thought of my relationship with my father, and Lon’s relationship with Unetlanvhi. I found similarities. Not in how we got there, but the endpoint. I would learn that in school, Lon had his Cherokee humiliated out of him and replaced with a hammered-in state education. Consequently, years later in that conference hall, Lon believed, in prayer, Unetlanvhi could his hear his name but couldn’t decipher anything else. I imagined that Lon prayed, hoping that his acknowledgement of Unetlanvhi would be enough. Just as I hoped, despite the dubious soil we planted our father-son relationship in, my father and I acknowledging the relationship might be enough to keep the bond intact.
My father, a Bangladeshi migrant in suburban Berkshire, wanted me to live in England but didn’t want England to live in me. During university, I called him each day but what happened after the greetings was weightless. After our relationship soured in my mid-20s, we became silent partners in the enterprise of father-and-son-hood. We’ve not met face-to-face since the last time we spat bitter onions into each other’s eyes several years ago. To my girlfriend’s amusement, I would send him obscure gifts on his birthdays, like an office guillotine or wicker-woven chickens. While the choosing was humorous, the desire to crack the stale atmosphere of our relationship was sincere. Occasionally, I received thank you notes. For example, this was the note I received after my father found his guillotine.
Thank you for the guillotine.
I read “Dad” as code for my father deeming our enterprise to be intact. He’d put thought into the word. As I heard Lon turn his talk on business process simulation into the closest a PowerPoint had come to resembling opera, I considered probing further into Lon’s relationship with his God. During the presentation, Fergus and I waited around for two hours. Fergus meticulously went through the same process as always. He found a comfortable chair, fidgeted on it, went to the parking lot for a cigarette, returned to the chair, and fidgeted on it again. No phone, no book, no rehearsals for forthcoming salsa dances. Just waiting. I felt duty bound to join him in this process, it seemed an important part of the job. But while I considered our van journeys transcendental experiences, these waits were close to unbearable, the tension broken only by one of Fergus’s jokes, which would always arrive at an unexpected time.
“I like two types of music, Country and Western.”
And each time the joke came, I felt a breeze fluttering through me so cleanly, the despair I’d felt moments before shrunk into something no bigger than an absentminded yawn. When the presentation finished, after congratulating Lon, I asked him the question that had been playing on my mind, about Unetlanvhi hearing him speaking his name and it being enough.
“No. He cannot sanctify the work I do. I try to learn the words to communicate it to him, but my Cherokee is a stump. That is what matters.”
I wanted to ask Lon, just who is Unetlanvhi for, if not for people like him who try their best to connect? However, I knew my question was more about my relationship with a man I try to be son to. What I really wanted to understand was: What is devoted? I never asked the first question. I couldn’t bear the prospect of offense. Lon had to remain on that pedestal, on top of the stilts, on top of the crane.
Fergus wouldn’t strike anyone as the sort to find himself on a pedestal, with his corned beef smell and silences. I know we must have had differences of opinion, but it’s never mattered. To my girlfriend’s exasperation, I’ve gone out of my way to spend evenings exchanging silences with him. So, to witness him transformed by Lon in that conference hall was terrific. I thought that, perhaps, Fergus had some Cherokee in him. Lon confirmed the possibility as, from his knowledge of the Cherokee Nation, belonging is often determined by factors other than ancestry — just as well given that Fergus’s ancestry is as Scottish as haggis and Groundskeeper Willie. Lon told me it’s possible to be socially Cherokee without being racially American-Indian. When I put this to Fergus, I was met with silence. Then, the next time we were in his van, I noticed the sound of water drums and leg rattles. I’d barely heard anything apart from Fergus’s cholesterol-induced heavy breathing in that van, which I thought was absent of music to encourage silence. The water drums were for my benefit. Fergus has a dry sense of humor and is painstakingly, loyally Scottish.
In the few years since that first meeting, we’ve met Lon a handful of times. The first was to help set up some AV equipment for his barbeque party, hosted at a nearby park. We were invited to stay afterwards, which we did, only for Fergus to find that battered cod had been absent from the menu and the meat had been flavored. We chatted to Lon briefly, about work and holidays. After the barbeque, we visited his home a few times. Fergus seemed to expect the contents of Lon’s home to be like a bouquet of unexpected things stored within the barrel of a simple hat. But, then again, exotic to Fergus is a sprinkling of pepper on a boiled egg. Lon’s home was ordinary, just as the life he lives now, despite its fraught and uncertain beginnings. What was extraordinary about this episode was the path of our friendship, and how it cast open my perceptions of God and fatherhood. There’s a warmth between Lon and Fergus and I, although our relationship has progressed in the inverse. Where friendships tickle the surface then reach in deep, ours did the opposite. It doesn’t matter. I won’t forget that afternoon in a conference hall seven years ago, where I was inadvertently given life-changing advice: That as far as the categories of “father,” “son,” and “God” and are concerned, it is the histories we make that decide who and what fits where. •
All images by Isabella Akhtarshenas.