The party store the Guls owned was within walking distance of our house.
But let me back up a minute to explain that very Midwestern sentence.
In Michigan, where I grew up, a “party store” is not a place to buy helium-filled balloons, or economy packs of Power Ranger-themed napkins and paper plates, no. A party store is a convenience store, a Kwickie Mart, a 7-11. Back in the 80s, they were everywhere and they were family-owned and the Guls, an Iranian-American family, happened to own the one nearest my house.
In rural Michigan, “walking distance” was a flexible term. It was all relative to how far away the places you needed to walk to were. I was 12 and lived about 15 minutes driving to anything interesting. So that’s how the Guls’ store became a neighborhood hangout. In 20 minutes, my friends and I could walk down a two-lane country highway and buy all the pop, Fritos, and Snickers bars we could afford. But the real attraction was in the back of the store.
If you walked past where Mr. Gul sat beside his cash register and turn left down a shadowy hallway, a neon glow would eventually greet you. It was there we would gather around the latest arcade games. Two at first, and then the Guls expanded to three.
The arcade hallway also happened to be the connection between the Guls’ store and their home. Through that closed door at the end, we could smell unfamiliar food cooking and hear people, usually women, chattering in a language we didn’t even know the name of. Without fail, the Guls conversations would switch from Farsi to English when they walked through that door. The switch wouldn’t even register on their faces or in their body language; their cultural identity shifted as naturally as the cows in the fields outside shifted their weight to walk.
I suspect that door was also where the Gul children traded in their Persian names for English ones. I never knew the names Victor, Lila, and Ashley’s parents called them. Victor was a year younger than me in school. He had a round face with dark eyes and a gleaming smile. He didn’t have an accent; he was American, born and raised.
When Victor came through that hallway, he’d always stop and joke around with us until his father called him to stock the refrigerated case or sweep the parking lot.
He would sweep the entire parking lot. He’d even sweep the large stones that acted as barriers between the lot and the small patch of lawn that separated it from the trailer park street. While he swept, Victor waved to the cars that drove past. The store was on the corner of the country highway and the entrance drive to a large trailer park, so he knew most of the people in the cars. He swept and waved daily for years.
In 1990, two major things happened: I turned 16 and received my driver’s license, and the United States began sending troops to Kuwait to fight in Operation Desert Storm. The idea of wars wasn’t completely lost on me; we’d read about them in history class. Still, I was surprised at how little our lives had changed after President Bush had invaded. I was surprised at how few people even talked about it.
One morning, I got up early—I think I had to open the Subway restaurant I worked at—and headed to Gul’s party store for breakfast. As I was approaching, I saw all five of the Guls standing in the lot looking at the huge stones blocking the entrance to the parking lot. Someone had moved the barriers from the edges of the lot. The words “Go home Camel Jockeys” were spray-painted in red across the stones. With no way to pull in and a job to get to, I kept driving. I don’t remember thinking about it much after that. Work and school and friends kept me busy.
A few months later, my dad mentioned that the Guls had gone out of business. Apparently, the people of the trailer park got together and decided not to shop there anymore. They turned on a dime
Living just down the street, we hadn’t heard a thing about it. It never occurred to me that someone would treat the Guls that way. They’d been a part of the neighborhood almost all of my life.
Early early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.