In the early 1960s, Millie Gwynne of Montpelier, Vermont, was inspired by the President of the United States to do something for her country. So upon her graduation from college, she went to work for the Information Office of the United States Department of Agriculture.
She wrote bulletins that explained turkey marketing referenda and articles about sheep mastitis. She made friends with experts on the controlled burning of forests. But Millie soon grew irritated with her new job. The bureaucrats around her seemed to do so little real work. One of her bosses actually slept at his desk for most of the day. Frustrated in her patriotic purpose, she began to look for something else.
She decided to join the nascent Peace Corps. Her father, a country lawyer, would not hear of it. He had served in the Pacific. He vividly recalled the filth of the Third World; no no no, he said, absolutely not, and of course, Millie obeyed him.
One day in the USDA cafeteria, a large pink room defined by murals of cows grazing, she heard that the Rural Electrification Commission was seeking someone to write about a big hydroelectric dam that the Shah of Iran was building with American help in the remote province of Khuzestan.
Millie took herself and her resume right over to the REC.
She was twenty-four years old, a tall girl, narrow-hipped, broad-shouldered, with a wide, placid face and gray blue eyes. She never wore any make-up. Her dark blonde hair she wrapped simply into one thick braid. She strode forthrightly, with a galumphing gait, and had enjoyed considerable acclaim at her all-girls’ college as the charging forward on the field hockey team.
Millie’s lack of sexual affect went far to allay concerns about sending a woman on the Iranian assignment. More importantly, no other qualified candidate had appeared. So Millie was selected. Her job was to conduct interviews, take lots of pictures, and then write an enthusiastic case study showing the advantages of American foreign assistance. It would be circulated world-wide. She was told that the Iranian government would insist on touring her around.
Millie’s mother, knowing how disappointed she had felt after the Peace Corps veto, convinced Millie’s father to let her go.
“Just do your job and keep your nose clean,” he said, “and I guess you’ll be fine.”
Millie’s parents had taught her to prize economy. Therefore, she carried a sparse and conservative knapsack to Persia. It contained a spare pair of jeans, two long sleeve shirts, extra sandals and underwear (all blue), one swimsuit, two wash-and-wear dresses, toiletries, Tide, Tampax.
The Iranian guide assigned to her by the Ministry of Information, Cyrus, a somber, square-shaped man of fifty, took Millie to see the crown jewels in Teheran. They seemed so elaborate and tasteless to her that she let go a little laugh at the sight of them.
Cyrus was offended. Millie felt really bad.
When they toured the city of Isfahan, she assured him that she thought the blue-tiled mosque there, with its intricate patterns of geometrics and flowers shining on towering turrets, was very pretty.
Cyrus drove her out to the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of Darius the First, built in the 6th century before Jesus. “I built it secure and beautiful,” wrote Darius over a crumbled portal. The guide spoke emotionally of Persepolis as a national treasure. But Millie was unmoved by the friezes of conquered peoples bringing tribute to the King. What could these acres of pillars mean to a regular American girl? Of what interest to her was empire?
Millie interviewed the president of the Dam Association at his home in Teheran.
His home fooled her completely. It was surrounded by a broken down, dun-colored wall. Inside the wall, however, she found a palatial dwelling whose marble floors were spread with magnificent rugs.
Millie asked all the questions she had been told to ask by her bosses back in Washington. Of course, she knew they were not really questions but rather opportunities for the president to say whatever his government and her government wanted him to say. Millie dutifully wrote down every word in a book with blank pages.
He showed her photographs of himself with the American engineers who had designed the dam, gathered for an audience with the Shah. It seemed strange to Millie that all the visitors were holding their hands over their testicles.
Servants appeared. They made no sound at all, so deep and soft were the scarlet carpets. They brought hot, sweet tea in tiny glasses clutched by sterling silver holders.
Millie’s father had taught her to shake hands firmly when introduced to strangers, saying “Hi! I’m Millie Gwynne. And you are…?” When she did this to a military man at a Teheran restaurant, he put his arm around her waist and whispered something offensive. On another occasion, an Iranian held a door for her, and she smiled and thanked him. He immediately suggested that they go to his room. In a moment when Cyrus was greeting a shopkeeper friend in a crowded bazaar, a man tried to snatch her purse. Fiercely, Millie held on to it. So the assailant settled for giving her breast a painful squeeze. Millie slugged him. Shocked, the man closed in on her, spitting hatred. Cyrus screamed in Farsi, An American journalist, you shit-brained goat, a guest of the government! and the man ran for his life.
The guide pleaded with Millie please please! not to report the incident, and Millie promised she would not. However, two bright spots of fury burned on her peaches-and-cream cheeks.
Cyrus suggested that she should wear a chador while traveling; his wife would be happy to lend her one. Millie politely refused. How could she explain that she would not be caught dead wearing the gauzy black thing, that to do so would feel to her like an anti-American outrage, as unthinkable as saluting the Russian flag?
Still, from that time forth, she carried her cash, travelers checks and passport inside her blue cotton bra and wore her dresses unbelted, loose, shapeless.
Released at last from Cyrus, who was equally thrilled to be rid of her, Millie flew south from Teheran to Khuzestan. In the airport, she asked an armed guard for directions to the ladies room. To her relief, he responded courteously.
Hank Putney, public relations director for the Dam Association, picked her up in a VW bus. A heavy man, he wore blackout sunglasses and a short-sleeved shirt, now translucent with sweat.
He had several other passengers, art students, he explained. One was a woman who, as soon as they were on the road, let the chador fall from her head to her shoulders. Her shining black hair was coiled in a chignon. Her big earrings were real gold. Her eyes were made up with movie star precision. And she was younger than Millie.
“Hi. I am Farida,” she said with a big friendly smile. “I went to high school for two years in America. My father was doing surgery at Boston and my brother, Mansur, was studying at MIT. Father sent me to a Catholic girls’ school to protect my innocence. There I learned about dancing and smoking and the fires of hell. It was so much fun!” Farida’s earrings jiggled merrily. “My brother married Linda. She is from California, and he brought her back here with him. Now he is one of the chief engineers at the dam. I am going to visit him and work on decorating the powerhouse.”
“Are powerhouses supposed to be decorated?” Millie asked.
“This one will be a work of art.”
“Wow!” Millie exclaimed when she saw the dam. “Now that’s beautiful.”
Rising up from the brown mountains, the swooping, clean-faced concrete structure locked together the bare shoulders of the gorge, and at its base lay a new lake, green as grass. Just downstream, the massive powerhouse jutted right out of the mountainside.
Hank Putney walked with her across the narrow pathway at the top of the dam, a dizzying height. Most visitors were frightened by this trek—and Millie was, too—but she had been raised to mask her fear. Hank said the dam would ultimately electrify the lives of two-and-a-half million people. She wrote that in her book. If he exaggerated, she felt she should not care. Her job was to tell the story he told her.
“Are any of the construction workers still here, so I could interview them?” she asked.
“Not any more. We hired a French company to do the building. But they’ve all left now, except for two bodies we couldn’t retrieve.”
“Boulder broke loose, knocked the men off the scaffolding into the gorge.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s terrible! Were just those two people lost?”
“We’ve had eighty-one dead altogether.”
Millie gasped. She dropped her pen into the abyss. Dug in her pockets for another. Hank reached over and stopped her hand. He was smiling patiently, rather wearily. “You don’t have to write that,” he said.
The 200 or so Americans who directed the 2,000 or so Iranians who were working on the project seemed to Millie a brave and rugged bunch. She interviewed a dental assistant from upstate New York, a soil chemist from Utah, a geologist from Montana. Hank introduced her to Mike Hall, who was training the young Iranian engineers. Millie thought he looked like a Hollywood cowboy. Tall. Tan. Big strong boots covered with the indigenous dust.
“We hired as many locals who were educated in the U.S. as we could,” Mike said. “The smartest one is Mansur Tabizadeh. When I leave, Mansur will take over. He’s got a wife from La Jolla, Linda, great girl, old Navy family. She used to be a champion surfer.” Mike elbowed Hank. “And Mansur’s kid sister, Farida, the tile maker, now isn’t she a cute little number . . .”
Millie felt uncomfortable, hearing him talk about Farida that way, so to change the subject she asked, “What if the Iranians can’t do it?”
Mike gaped at her. She thought he had not understood her. She repeated. “What happens if the Iranians can’t run the dam?”
“Is she stupid?” he asked Hank. “Doesn’t she understand what’s going on here?” He turned on Millie. “Get this straight, honey. People who can build the blue mosque of Isfahan are not going to mess up a plain old ordinary hydroelectric dam.
He strode away, the angry clomp of his boots echoing on the canyon walls.
“I’m sorry,” Millie said. “I was only thinking that maybe we should leave some people behind to be advisors in case they run up against a problem they can’t handle.”
“You don’t have to write about the people we’re leaving behind,” Hank said.
The powerhouse could be reached by a winding trail of broad stone steps. Beyond it, near the barracks for dam workers, was Farida’s studio. Here she and her fellow art students were making the tiles with which they intended to cover the powerhouse.
Farida showed Millie how she painted each terra cotta tile, added the under glaze designs—segments of vines and lattices, letters like flocks of swans—then coated them with a glaze that would make them a mirror for the sky. Already workmen were placing the tiles onto the powerhouse walls. Every day, more azure overtook the concrete. Over the doorway, Farida said, she would create a legend stating that the great dam had been built by the Shah for the benefit of his beloved people.
In Isfahan, such work had left Millie cold. However, seeing it in the hands of a young woman like herself, she finally had an inkling of the brilliance required to produce it. “Wow, you are really gifted,” she said, snapping pictures. “A person like you could have a tremendous career.”
Farida’s brother, Mansur, invited Millie inside the powerhouse, to see the great turbines. While Farida served tea, he explained that the man who sat at these controls would preside over a resurrection, the wasted glory of the mountain rivers harnessed at last, making the desert shine with light and ice.
Millie thought Mansur was really cute. Big brown eyes. Immaculate white shirt. Great teeth in a great smile. She could see how an American girl like Linda might go for him.
“Linda has made a wonderful adjustment to Iran,” Mansur said proudly. “She has mastered the cooking and the language and soon we will have kids. I am fortunate to have an American wife and an American education at this time when America is such an important friend for our country.”
Mansur showed Millie a picture of his wife, Linda Desmond Tabibzadeh, a beautiful girl with long pale brown hair, her Moslem headscarf flopped around her neck, happily showing the camera her new gold bracelet, a gift from her wealthy husband.
“Why didn’t she come here with you?” Millie asked.
“Well, I wanted her to come,” Mansur answered. His tone turned nasty. “But my sister Farida here insisted that she could not stay home to help Mother this time, she simply had to work with the other art students to decorate the powerhouse.”
Farida snapped back.
“I am not working with the others. I am directing them. The design of the tiles for the powerhouse is entirely my creation.” She turned to Millie. “Millie thinks I will have a tremendous career.”
“Oh yes I do!” Millie cried supportively. “Absolutely!”
Mansur laughed and patted his little sister.
That night, Hank and Mansur went off to some meeting which Millie could not write about. So she had dinner with Farida in the company commissary.
“I love my sister-in-law Linda,” Farida said. “She has taught us how to crochet granny afghans. She reads to us from Moby Dick. She trained as a physical therapist so she knows how to rub my mother’s sore back. She grows lots of flowers. One time, she went out to work in the garden without her chador, and all the neighbors were scandalized. However, I have explained to them that under the reforms of the Shah, it is perfectly acceptable for a married woman to work in her own garden uncovered.”
“It is a great pity that Mr. and Mrs. Desmond were so much against Linda’s marriage to Mansur. They will not speak to her any more. They do not answer her letters. I tell her that when she has a baby, their hearts will soften. Then we will take the child to California to visit. I know my father will let me go if I go with Linda. And I will have wonderful teachers there and my own studio for the decoration of houses, not just real houses but houses in the movies, oh Millie, this is my dream, this will be so wonderful.”
Millie wanted to tell her new friend that Linda’s parents were probably just like her own parents and might not ever forgive their daughter for marrying a dark-skinned Moslem, rich or not, baby or no, and it would be wiser for Farida to drop “The Linda Plan” and instead try to seduce Mike Hall or some other American who thought she was a cute little number and get him to take her back to the States.
But Millie Gwynne was much too well brought up to utter such crude truths to another decent woman.
The next day, on the way to the sugar cane plantation, in temperatures past 100 degrees, Hank Putney told Millie the story of his life. He told how his ex-wife used to steal cash out of his wallet while he slept and how he finally found out that she was placing bets at the beauty parlor and needed the money to cover her losses, and how she started screwing his boss, and how the boss fired him, gave up his own loyal old wife and the respect of his children for that thieving whore, and ruined Hank’s life in the process, oh yes, Hank’s whole life fell apart. So that was why he had taken this job. To feel good about something. To believe in people again.
Millie could not understand how Hank could talk so much in such heat. She herself could hardly remain conscious much less speak.
At the sugar cane plantation, a burly young man named Scott MacGruder greeted them. He had just come in from the fields. Drenched in sweat. Covered with dust. He had sun-squint wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and freckles.
“So you work at the USDA, huh? Did you happen to run into Earl Garcia in the Cotton Division? I went to school with him. Texas A&M.”
“Oh sure, I know Earl. I wrote a whole report on cotton allotments for him.”
“Where’d you go to school?”
Knowing that Millie and Hank had endured great heat on their journey, Scott suggested they all immediately cool off in the company pool. At the first touch of the water, Millie was filled with such a powerful longing for home-snow-lake-swimming-north oh God, north! that tears sprang to her eyes and she became dizzy and lost her footing. Scott MacGruder reached for her, to steady her. The matted hair on his forearm sprang up copper in the sun.
Ah, but poor luckless Hank. No sooner had he immersed himself than an Iranian secretary appeared to tell him of an urgent phone call, and he had to give up the pool and handle it.
That left the two young Americans alone for a few minutes.
“We get along fine with the farmers here,” Scott said. “They learn fast. Soon they’ll be running 10,000 acres of sugar cane and a refinery too. Only we hear that the big bosses like Mike Hall have to pay so many bribes that the company is going broke. We hear about folks disappearing in the Shah’s prisons. And when you see how poor most people are, and how rich . . .”
“Yeah. The rich people here can really make you sick,” Millie murmured.
“And we’re just a bunch of dumb rednecks, what the hell can we do? I feel like we’re being set up somehow, and one of these days the whole shebang is going to come crashing down.”
Under the water, Millie took his hand. She had a pretty good idea of how beautiful she must look to Scott MacGruder at this moment, with her golden braid floating, her lashes wet and spiky, her pale shoulders bare. After all the hiding that this journey had required of her, this moment of exposure felt as restorative as the cool blue water.
“You just have to do your job,” she said softly, “and keep your nose clean and everything will turn out fine.”
The nice Aggie laughed. He patted Millie. “Now look me in the eye and tell me you believe that,” he said.
On her last day in Iran, only hours before her flight, Millie was invited to lunch at the home of Mrs. Tabibzadeh in Teheran. She was greeted in a marble hallway, by the lady of the house and her sisters and sisters-in-law and her American daughter-in-law, Linda.
Linda looked thinner than she had in Mansur’s picture. The gold bracelet flopped, too big for her wrist.
Mrs. Tabibzadeh appeared to speak very little English for the two years she had spent in Boston. With Linda translating, she took Millie on a tour of the garden, pointed out this clematis and that exquisite lilac, all planted by Linda. She also showed off the beautiful crocheted shawl Linda had made for her. And her bad back, massaged regularly by Linda, had not felt so good in years.
Linda blushed at having to translate all this praise.
At lunch, Linda went back and forth from the kitchen, serving and clearing platters. Millie would have liked to talk with her more, but she was very busy going back and forth.
Millie described in detail Farida’s extraordinary work in decorating the powerhouse in Khuzestan. “Farida is such a talented person!” she exclaimed (Linda translating.). “It would be wonderful if she could study in the United States . . .”
“Yes yes. And Mansur?”
“Oh he’s doing very well,” Millie answered. “Please, Linda, tell Mrs. Tabibzadeh that if she’s concerned about where Farida would stay in America, she could certainly stay with us, we have a spare room and my parents are strict church-going people.”
“Yes yes. But Mansur. Linda?”
Linda leaned against the kitchen doorway, wearing the same weary, patient smile Millie had seen on Hank Putney’s face, the smile that said How stupid can you be, Miss Vermont? Wasn’t it clear by now that Mrs. Tabibzadeh only wanted to hear about her son, that she was feigning ignorance of English in order not to have to respond to Millie’s unwelcome suggestions? Wasn’t it a way of life in this country to lie about your true strengths, to hide your palace behind a broken down wall, cover your balls to mask your influence, lock down your gifted girls to achieve a secret advantage no outsider could fathom? The powerhouse in Khuzestan would tell the centuries that this dam’s builder was the Shah, and Farida who had designed every tile, the art students, the French and the Americans, Hank and Mike and Scott and Mansur and the thousands who had toiled under the murderous sun and even died to finish this work, would go uncredited before history.
Two bright spots of fury burned on Millie’s cheeks.
She said: “Don’t sweat it, Mrs. T. Mansur has it made. All he has to do is watch out that he doesn’t piss off the Shah, and when our people split, he’ll be the top man in Khuzestan.”
Mrs. Tabibzadeh smiled. Linda served dessert.
When the women adjourned for tea in the rose garden, Millie went to the bathroom. Brass plated fixtures. Towels like clouds.
Just as she opened the bathroom door to rejoin the group, Linda pushed her back inside, closed the door, bolted it, and crowded her into the farthest corner.
“Help me!” she whispered. “Please please. I have made a terrible mistake and now I’m trapped. My dad is a racist. My mother’s a wimp. They won’t talk to me or answer my letters, they’ve just written me off. If I get pregnant in this country, I’ll be lost forever. Please! Please help me.”
Millie reached inside her blue bra and gave Linda everything she had.
For Mansur, it was a disaster. Humiliation beyond endurance. His mother and father begged him not to chase after his fugitive American wife. “Let her stay in California,” they said. “Let her rot there. Thank God you have no children with her blood in their veins.” They swore that they had only pretended to like Linda in order to make him feel happy, but in fact had always distrusted her, she was sneaky and excessively polite and kept her true feelings locked inside.
But Mansur was inconsolable.
He paced in the powerhouse in Khuzestan like a caged animal, tearing at his moustache and his eyebrows. By law, Linda could not have left the country alone without his permission. So she must have been able to bribe some official to let her pass. Where did she get the money? He knew she had nothing of her own. Somebody in Iran must have helped her. But who?! Surely not any of his friends or their wives or anybody in the family. She must have had a lover! Someone she had met when he had brought her to Khuzestan. Ah why had he done that?! For pride, damned pride, just to show her his powerhouse . . .
But then again, how could she have carried on a love affair when she lived under his mother’s eye and never went out alone? He stared blindly into the unfathomable green American lake, whispering curses on the bitch, the lying bitch, the woman who had sworn that she loved him enough to leave her family and her language and her filthy ham and eggs and her arrogant, greedy country.
His clever little sister explained that it was Millie, of course. Millie Gwynne, the visiting writer. She must have been the one who helped Linda get away, destroying their family’s honor and (Farida did not say this) her own best hope for the great escape she had so long dreamed about. They were all like that, the Americans. Unreadable. More loyal to each other than they ever let anybody know. They blinded the world with the glare of their machines and the brightness of their promises, and really, they were full of lies and secrets, plots and unforgivable betrayals.