Read all the five stories below or separately by clicking on each link.
1- Singra and Tea by Juanita Kakoty
Aideo, my mother, is the eldest of six siblings, and the ugliest of the lot. Not that the rest are strikingly good-looking, except Roma mahi, Aideo’s only sister, younger to her by ten years. She was and still is a beautiful woman who looks much younger than her fifty six years. Thank god I have taken after Deuta, my father, who used to be a handsome man! In those days when they got married, the groom never got to see the bride before the wedding. So the first time Deuta (huge fan of Madhubala) saw Aideo’s face, he almost fainted. Even the white dots above her thick brows and red lipstick couldn’t make amends. He never thought his luck could run that bad. The hunched woman, with not a slight hint of charm, satin the flower-strewn bed, cut his enthusiasm, piercing him right through his heart. He sprang out of the freshly painted room, leaving the young bride to the whirring of the fan above. Deuta’s father had added the room to the L-shaped house for him, the newly wed.
Over time Deuta must have overcome his shock and thus my siblings and I came to this world. But still, no one could miss his lack of affection for Aideo. He stayed out of the house mostly, at office or socializing with friends. My aunt and uncles always told Aideo that she was lucky he stuck to her despite his charms, whenever she went crying to them after he hit her or didn’t return home. They were tactful enough not to mention her lack of charm. That would console Aideo for a while. Deuta didn’t stop though. He’d hit her because the house was in a mess, because his shirt button was missing, because the food tasted like dishwater, because the food was cold, because he didn’t like her wooden expression, because she didn’t know how to entertain guests, because the kids weren’t studying enough…
Deuta was a scion of the Chaliha family from Sibsagar’s Melachakar neighbourhood. His father and grandfathers were learned scholars who had contributed immensely to the cause of education in Assam, right from the days of Miles Bronson. In fact, the family genealogy keeper mentions that one of the early Chalihas met Bronson in 1883 when the American Baptist missionary arrived at Sadiya and helped Bronson learn Assamese and the other Khamti and Singpho languages of the region. Not only that. He also helped Bronson set up the printing press and establish many schools. But Deuta didn’t have much interest in education. His heart was in music, particularly music created by the Hazarika brothers. He missed not a show when Bhupen Hazarika and his brother Jayanta Hazarika performed in Sibsagaror the nearby towns-Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Golaghat. All this stopped with Aideo’s entrance. His paternal aunt who lived in Golaghathad said of Aideo- She is very efficient and manages the whole house herself. I bet nobody can be a better housekeeper than her. She is exactly what the Chaliha household needs with your big family and year-round guests.
Deuta’s father accepted the match despite knowing that this sister of his was not particularly fond of his wife and kids; despite knowing that Deuta was in love with a pretty Ahom girl from the same town for over six years. In protest, Deuta moved to Nagaon with his bride, within a month, on the pretext of a coveted job. No one understood why the job was coveted.
Perhaps, had he looked at a pretty face instead of Aideo’s on their wedding night, he would’ve stayed back in Sibsagar. Perhaps he wouldn’t have taken to alcohol.
The Ahom girl he loved had married and moved close to grandfather’s Melachakar house. This, along with Aideo’s lack of grace, fanned Deuta’s angst and he decided never to set foot upon his ancestral town again. He took up a rented room in Nagaon and had good plans of leaving Aideo there while he disappeared for days, but things happened and Aideo got pregnant, several times over. So he got tied to her, come as he did from a ‘good family’ which had instilled a certain sense of karma and dharma in him. And the more he realized that there was no escape, the more ruthless he became to Aideo. As his rage increased, his handsome features changed and metamorphosed into such ugliness, that he began to seem like a good match to Aideo’s looks.
Deuta’s family didn’t come looking for him nor did he go looking for them. Once in a while grandmother would call to ask after us. Those days, our black telephone, the quintessential one back then, had been replaced by a light green one. I was excited whenever it rang. I knew it was grandmother calling from the black one in her room. Grandfather had expired a few months after my parents’ wedding. And once grandmother died, our green telephone received calls from the black telephone perched on a shelf in grandmother’s bedroom, which was turned into a guest room after her death, twice or thrice in a year when somebody died or a wedding was taking place.
Aideo’s family, on the other hand, regularly stayed in touch and showered us with affection. At least till property issues cropped up. Aideo’s father, my maternal grandfather, had come from his ancestral home near Namrup to Golaghat penniless. Then, he tilled the land, cleared the woods, built houses and toiled night and day in his rice fields and banana plantation. Soon he started cultivating ginger and a variety of mint that he began exporting to Calcutta, which eventually, they say, brought him the moolah. By the time he died, he had managed to amass incredible wealth.
He died when he was over ninety, without a Will. A month after his death, Dangormama, Mother’s eldest brother suggested that grandfather’s wealth be divided among the sons. This caused a furore among Aideo and Roma mahi. Are we not our father’s daughters? they retorted. It must be his heinous wife’s idea!
No one paid them any heed except Aideo’s youngest brother, Bubu mama, who told everyone that the ‘girls’ be given a share of the property too. My other uncles unwittingly agreed and the process of dividing the wealth began, which went on for four years amidst slandering and bickering.
By this time, the new Millennium was a decade old and Deuta had transformed into a vegetable, almost, after two heart attacks within two years. The once aggressive man had now turned so docile that he shocked people. He spent all his time in the house, sitting quietly in some corner, staring at the walls, or watching TV till food was served. He seemed to dislike the company of human beings. It was only the neighbourhood stray dogs who managed to lift his spirits once in a while with their antics. He’d even stopped talking rudely to Aideo. This was Aideo’s chance to dole out to him a little of the bitterness she’d received.
I am tired of this man! Oh lord, why don’t you take him away and bring me some respite! She’d often cry out when he was within earshot, apparently exasperated at something he’d done. There were times when she even rebuked him in the presence of others for dropping food on the tablecloth, for not flushing the toilet properly, for irritating her with his silence, and other such trivial stuff. Something she would not have dared earlier.
The day we heard that my eldest maternal uncle had sold off some land, without consulting anyone, Deuta had suddenly taken ill. He was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors were not able to detect anything but said that it must be severe weakness or a lack of will to go on. Deuta lay in the hospital bed in a little room, fixing his gaze to some spot in the ceiling; and Aideo, sitting in a plastic chair by his bed, ranted on about my uncles’ ‘third-class character’ fuelled by ‘the greed of their wives’ to whosever called up or visited the hospital room. It took not even a week after that day for a Will to come up, which brewed another storm in the family. It was one of those usual Monsoon days when early in the morning, after a night-long pouring from the skies, the sun rays shone up the squeaky clean land. The air was crisp, dewdrops hung by the rods of the windows, by the leaves of the trees and potted plants, and there was the musky smell of the damp earth. I sat outside in the veranda with a textbook in my hand, trying to put my mind on the fast approaching exams. But my mind kept racing back to the glorious sights and smells of the rain-kissed earth.
Disturbing such a lovely morning, the phone rang with such might that it seemed Roma mahi was transmitting her temper through it. Equally distracting was Mother’s trite about her rights to her paternal property. Roma, she screamed into the phone, I’ll take them to the court! What do they think? She was throwing her arms wildly around while she talked and almost hit me once when I went passed her into the kitchen. The new rules of inheritance say that women have equal rights to parental property. I’ll fight this! How dare they throw a little piece of land in God knows which corner of Golaghat to you and me! Like we are beggars and waiting for them to toss a tiny coin at us! How dare they!
I’d never heard Aideo talk like that before. Of course, she had taken to talking like that to Deuta these days; but to the rest of her family members? Well, I am sure Roma mahi was squirming at the other end of the phone-line at the sound of this changed Aideo; or maybe she was too distracted and perturbed by what her brothers had done to even notice. With that, a daily round of telephonic conversations began between Roma mahi and Aideo and they engaged in endless discussions and strategies. Finally, at Roma mahi’s insistence, after almost two and a half months, Aideo dialled her youngest brother’s number. He is an engineer, he is sensible, Roma mahi had drilled into Aideo. Incidentally, none of the brothers had got in touch with the sisters after the Will was drafted.
Aideo began her complaints to Bubu mama in a stern voice, but after about a minute her voice broke and quivered, and by the time she finished what she had to say, she was sobbing more than talking. Bubu mama accepted that the sisters had been wronged, and that it had been wrong on his part as well to have kept quiet about it this long. I’ll see what I can do about it, he told Aideo, Let me have a word with the others. But before he could talk to the others, Deuta died. And they all came to Nagaon, bringing with them an air of discomfort, to pay their condolences.
Aideo ganged up with Roma mahi and ignored the brothers; they were of course nice to Bubu mama thinking he was on their side, taking up their cause with the other brothers. Not a word had been exchanged about property yet matters had reached such extremes that my eldest maternal uncle and his wife came all the way from Golaghat for only an hour or two; the one next in line, whose wife had expired a few years ago, came with his sons for two days but they stayed at a hotel; and my third uncle, who had wasted his whole life on alcohol, came just for a night. It was Bubu mama and his wife who stayed with us till all the funeral rites were complete. It was another thing that he had work in Nagaon that whole week.
It was quite a scene the day Roma mahi arrived. She stepped out of the car wailing, but she looked as regal as always. Not a strand of hair here or there, not a single line of distraught on her face, skin smooth and glowing. She wore a simple cotton off-white mekhela chador with a lovely border of light blue and black flowers. Her husband looked like a sack of potatoes by her side. Baideo! Why did this happen! she wailed embracing Aideo. They both remained in that embrace for a while, emanating sounds of sobbing and wailing and sighing continuously. Finally Aideo gently broke the embrace and took a sniffling Roma mahi inside. I was in the kitchen preparing black tea for all those gathered to pay their last respects to Deuta and saw all of this happening by the gates, from the kitchen window. A little while later Roma mahi appeared in the kitchen and inquired of me, still sniffling and sobbing, if there was anything to eat, she was hungry. There are a few singras, I said.
That will do, and give me some milk tea with it please. Black tea kills me, she said with a remarkable balance of sobs and sighs.
Soon she was joined by Aideo, who announced that she was feeling faint before closing the kitchen door and fetching herself a huge cup of milk and corn flakes. These singras are from the shop at the corner, Aideo told Roma mahi in a sad tired voice as she took her place at the dining table next to her. Oh, the new place that you were talking about, Roma mahi said in an equally sad voice, a good chunk of the singra in her mouth, very nice, reminds me of the ones we used to eat as children – when the stuffing used to be just boiled potatoes and peas with a hint of turmeric and salt.
Yes, Aideo answered, taking an enormous spoon of cornflakes into her mouth. Then the sisters sat there a long while talking about what a noble soul Deuta was, amidst a lot of sniffling and munching.
* * *
2- The Choice by Kavya Kushnoor
“At this age, it is not love. It is infatuation” Seema said, sounding teacher-like.
“No, no. It is love, love, love! You don’t get it. Nobody gets it!” protested Bhuvi. She had finally decided to confess her feelings to Seema. They were seated at their regular spot on the staircase that lead to the playground.
“OK” Seema said after a moment’s silence. “Let’s play FLAME. Then you’ll know I’m right.” It sounds like a reliable test of true love, thought Bhuvi. They tallied Bhuvi’s and Sameer’s names with the word FLAME. M for marriage and L for love. Bhuvi dreaded the other three letters of the alphabet. E for enemy was the first to get crossed out. Bhuvi was relieved. They were not even F for friends. It ended up being A for affection. Seema gave Bhuvi a triumphant look which quickly turned to concern. “See, I told you. It’s not love.We’re so young.”
“FLAME is a lie. It is love! I know it is.”
Bhuvi refused to talk to Seema the whole day. They didn’t discuss it either fora long time though it was on their minds. One day Seema decided to discuss it, knowing Bhuvi was not over Sameer.
“Does Sameer know that you like him too? Rumour has it, that he does. He has to know, you know, that you have feelings for him too.” said Seema.
Bhuvi blushed, “What? He likes me too?”
Seema told her that Sameer was one of the nine boys who, as rumour had it, loved her.
“Let’s get his friend to deliver the message.” suggested Seema with a snap of her fingers.
Bhuvi hid behind the wall while Seema spoke to Sameer’s friend Zubin.
“Bhuvi loves Sam….”
“No, no. That’s a lie! I just want to know if Sameer loves me. Are the rumours true?” Bhuvi jumped in reflex and approached the two.When Zubin looked at her, surprised, Bhuvi became conscious of her prominent pimple.
Zubin’s intense stare made her more conscious. He had deep, dark eyes. Those eyes that promised everything but trouble. They were warm oceans of honey; gentle and comforting. He was the son of the famous politician and his family was known throughout the town just like hers. Zubin accompanied his father in campaigning during elections in town. Boys feared him, adored him and stuck around him. He knew what ticked with the masses and what didn’t. He was cautious of his actions, for he knew that even trivial things had consequences. But Zubin didn’t happen to Bhuvi the way Sameer did. So she forgot all about him and the soothing comfort of his presence.
It was the year when they had to write with pens instead of pencils. The year they appeared taller, were called by their cool nicknames and were charged with a rush of hormones. Many things felt different in the eighth grade. Bhuvi began to notice how funny the boys were. She didn’t want to beat them up anymore and thatit wasn’t so bad to discuss cricket with them or even play ‘Statue’.
Arun was one of the boys who aced at ‘Statue’. He also served as a message bearer for Bhuvi. Arun got her a boy’s letter, one day. Ten pages long, written with colourful glittery ink. Bhuvi was impatient to get home and more interested in the ice-cream in her hand than the letter. She was impressed that there were neither any words scratched out, nor were there any stains of words erased by an ink eraser. This is not the first draft and the boy has worked hard, she thought. She glanced through the pages and gave her verdict.
“No, I don’t love him.”
Arun said, “But he said read the letter at least, before you decide.”
“I saw it. My ice-cream is melting. I need to go.” She did not want to seem more interested than she was.
“Are you sure? Keep the letter.”
“No. My autowala is waiting. I’m going. Bye.”
A dozen more such proposals followed. Bhuvi would go home and wonder why all these boys liked her. Out of all the boys, she admired Sameer for his silky brownish-black hair and fair skin. Her admiration made her especially doubtful of his love for her. It seemed too good to be true.
In the annual function that year, when Bhuvi went on stage to welcome the chief guest with a bouquet, she heard a loud whistle. She was sad the whole evening when she found out that Sameer got slapped by the head-master for whistling at her. ‘Can’t a boy whistle in peace?’ she thought. She sat by herself and didn’t talk much the rest of that evening. Bhuvi told her friend Seema what she felt about Sameer.
Not before long, Sameer and Bhuvi were a couple. Though Sameer spoke Hindi mostly while Bhuvi spoke Kannada, English was a common ground between them but her vocabulary intimidated him. So he preferred Hindi. When he spoke in his barely broken voice, she listened carefully to understand from what she learned through Hindi movies and textbooks. Words often failed her. She had so much to tell Sameer. She joined words bit by bit and created sentences for him. He responded better then. They mostly spoke about favourite colours, movies, food and of Sameer’s dream of having a government job like his father once did.
They once met on the school terrace. He gave her a gift: a heart that could be wound to play soft music. “Sit on the bench” he said and gestured to the space next to him. She refused, not sure why. That was their one five- minute date. Him on the bench and her standing next to him. He would graduate out of school that year and go to study someplace else. For months after that, she would hear the soft music and tell herself, “It was just a bench. I could have sat on it.”
There weren’t many avenues to date in a small town without bad consequences. They learned it the tough way. They were not aware then, that the whole world watches the curious moves of the smitten. Like grabbing a handful of candy beyond permissible amounts, this too seemed like a pardonable simple pleasure. Once, they both dared to stay in an empty class and talk. Bhuvi stood near the door and Sameer waited at the far end of the class. Four of his friends waited outside on guard. It was more out of intrigue than to guard, actually. An eighth grade girl does not talk to a tenth grade boy to discuss notes; not even for the love of learning. They didn’t think of it then. The news spread like wild fire among the teachers. “Look at you! All grown up!” they’d tell Bhuvi. Her test scores fell for the silliest mistakes. The hint of scornful sarcasm dripped from their tone whenever the teachers announced Bhuvi’s marks to her. “96 out of 100? I didn’t expect this from you Bhuvi!” None of this could contain the joyous, fuzzy swirl inside her heart and at the pit of her stomach. Words frothed up. She scribbled and scribbled and scribbled poems in his memory. It was bad enough that she could only see few glimpses of him each day: in the morning assembly for prayers and through the netted window on her frequent rounds to the toilet.
He then fell ill with typhoid. Bhuvi missed the thrills of distracting his attention when she walked past his window with a group of giggling girls. She walked around with a heavy heart, wondering:
‘Does he need me?’
‘I want to take care of him, nurse him to health’
‘Will his mother mind? I could impress her with my nursing skills.’
Bhuvi knew that she lived in the real world. Girls can talk to boys only so much. So she would wait and wait and wait until what seemed like an eternity until he got well. She wrote a long ode in his memory and took it to class. She showed it to Seema, who, impressed with her poetic skills, signed Bhuvi’s name below it and handed it out to Sameer. The letter passed a few hands before it reached the sick, careless boy’s house. Sameer was the new hero, to land the pretty, sought-after girl.
Like all other good things, this sweet ache of longing came to an end. Sameer’s mother was panic-stricken when she found the letter and reported to the head-master Phillip. Phillip made copies of it and handed it to the other teachers. “I am only trying to discipline the kids”, he said to justify his perversity. Authority and intrigue excused the middle-aged man who sought to spice up his boring life. One such experience was enough to teach them both the value of secrecy.
They would not stop meeting for such reasons though, for the heart knows no reasoning. They grew more discreet in their choice of place and timings. The empty street five minutes away from Bhuvi’s house seemed like the best deal. She could sneak out of her house, meet him and go back within few minutes and no one would know. They only met after dusk. She hovered near the telephone in her house. He would call her and on lucky days when she picked up the phone, he gave her a cue. She then creeped out of her house to see him.
On one such day, Sameer accidentally walked into a barbed wire. He balanced himself before tripping onto the ground. Bhuvi pretended not to see. He seemed silly and less heroic at that moment, but she loved him despite such flaws. It was true love after all. His demeanour had a strange nervousness, yet his eyes sparked mischief. That day, he asked her for a kiss.
“Kahaan?” she asked him. He placed a finger on his lip. She could sink into the ground. ‘OK’ she said, her face towards him and her eyes staring away into a distant corner. He stood still for what seemed like forever.
‘What am I supposed to do?’ Bhuvi thought. ‘Why is he tormenting me like this?’
“Kya hua?” she asked. Actually she wanted to shout, ‘Do you want me to do everything?’ but she could not muster courage to say much. The next thing she knew, his front teeth jammed into hers. Her knees felt so weak, she could fall. She wanted to hold something, but what? Everything felt so hazy. He gripped her arms on both sides. She tilted her knee and balanced herself with her toes of the left leg.
The next date was less awkward. This time, he picked the barbed wire with his hands and let her walk first into the corner of the field. He led her to the wall of an adjacent building. Bhuvi had a wall to lean on, while he leaned against her. Fireworks lit up in her stomach, bees swarmed in her chest, her heart beat faster and heat rose to her face and ears. Magic felt real. That night, in her diary, Bhuvi wrote about her days that passed in a dream like haze,the strange and wonderful things she felt because of Sameer. She wrote about the new-found velvety-red softness of her lips and the colour of her face. She revelled in the secret that was hers alone to keepand to share with Sameer.
Bhuvi found a new friend in Ayat, Sameer’s sister, who studied in the same class as Bhuvi. She heard most about Sameer’s life from Ayat. Bhuvi found out that Sameer did not have a father. The siblings lived off the charity of their maternal uncle. Ayat was a beautiful girl with fire-like black brown hair that extended to her waist. She had a round, white face and almost looked like Sameer when she spoke.
Sameer’s family was very different from Bhuvi’s, but he had his share of strife for survival. There was a need for preservation of sanity, a search for stable grounds on which to plant his feet, a plea to make sense of the endlessly changing world around him. Ayat received kidnapping threats from their maternal uncle. Whenever Sameer didn’t obey him, he used perverse threats to discipline his nephew. Bhuvi wondered how one could kidnap someone who lived in the same house. Where would he take her?
Sameer had graduated from school and there was no chance for them to randomly cross each other’s paths during the day. In the meanwhile, the headmaster had given a copy of Bhuvi’s letter to her father Pramod. Pramod dealt with such serious matters in his signature style: with silent, deliberate and reticent action. He decided to change Bhuvi’s school. Phillip did not expect this move. All he wanted was a moment’s glory when he would shame the influential Pramod with his daughter’s letter. Now that Pramod transferred his children from Phillip’s school, the number of students seeking admissions would plummet. He was not prepared for this. Bhuvi happily obliged since it would finally end the humiliation and fear she constantly felt around the teachers. No one would know anything in the new school and she could live happily again.
Bhuvi always waited for the phone to ring, in case it could be Sameer on the line. She had no way to reach him. His calls dwindled from one every week to one each month. His love was not ideal but the ache in it was familiar. His absence spurred a melancholy similar to the absent love in Bhuvi’s own disturbed home. It was the love she had taught herself to live with. Sameer’s love, his conversations – or a lack of them, were not very different from her parents’ love and their inability to communicate.
In her new school, Bhuvi was not as anonymous as she would have liked. In a small town, news spread like wildfire, especially about fair-skinned, slender daughters from wealthy homes of izzat-daar people. Everywhere Bhuvi went, she was harassed with name-calling. “Sameer, Sameer” random stranger boys, older, younger called out to her on streets. She wept for compromising her father’s izzat and vowed never to speak to Sameer after that. Though they never spoke to each other, the name calling from random strangers didn’t stop for months.
She considered telling her mother about the boys harassing her in and out of school. What would Meena say? “Why did you let this happen? You compromised your precious izzat just like that?” What would the teachers say? “Serves you right. Acting like an adult at such a young age!” She’d much rather suffer silently through it all. Soon her parents found out about her troubles from the neighbours. Some measure had to be taken, but what? So Bhuvi was forbidden any make-up. No bangles, no bracelets or big earrings. She wore dupattas correctly and never looked any boy in his eyes, just as her mother taught her.
That is when Zubin re-surfaced in her life. He brought along his comforting aura. He too had gone to another school after graduating from the tenth grade. He gave her his mobile number one day when Bhuvi walked home from school and their paths crossed. “The boys tease you?” Zubin asked. “It will stop from tomorrow.” He said it like it was a command. The word harassment had not yet found a place in their vocabulary. True to his word, only one boy teased her the next day. Eventually, that stopped too. There was something about Zubin; the way a pack of boys followed him everywhere he went, his manners, the way he spoke to everyone. He could make her feel safe. He also seemed to understand the rules of izzat that her mother spoke of all the time, but could never explain what it meant or how exactly to preserve it. Bhuvi called him often when no one was at home. They spoke for hours and had real conversations. She often thought about him. Reaching Zubin was easy. He was always there. Reliable, one phone call away, stable and well mannered.
Hidden from the world, cautious of its norms, their bond blossomed over years of friendship in the recesses of their hearts – like gushing springs. Slow to bloom, but in full splendour when blossomed. They dreamed of travelling the world, to seek, to know, to touch. The gifts they gave one another were invaluable. It was an ability to love. It was an ability to be loved. To receive it in its tenderness and its many consuming fire-like furies. An insanity that knew sobriety, a concern for one another’s haya and honour. A consuming flame of passion preserved by gentleness and patience with the worldly norms. To reach out, to accept love bestowed and a belief in one’s own lovability.
They never met in public because… izzat – his, but also because of his concern for hers. He would not do to Bhuvi what Sameer had done. They only spoke on the phone. She would get dolled up and wait on her terrace and he would pass by on his bike. Both young, 16 and 18, were innocent and naive enough to make promises to each other and speak of their future children. They had decided everything. The son would resemble Zubin and the daughter would be in Bhuvi’s image. They would forsake the world for each other. It was a certainty. They can live and die with just each other. That much they knew. Zubin didn’t just happen to her. He was also a choice she made and she knew, she chose well this time.
* * *
3- Fallen by Michael Chin
There’s an adage in the circus: what you don’t fear can’t hurt you. It’s something old-timers would say to fresh-faced kids who were worried aboutstage fright or messing up a stunt.
Like so many things in a circus, the saying’s a double-edged sword. Tell the right youngster and it’s a little dose of courage. Tell another, and it’s a license to do something stupid.
Ulana, the trapeze artist? She lived the adage.
But let’s back up to one of the men who loved her once upon a time. Harold Fleming III was a fourth-generation magic man, who’d blame his failing career on poor timing. He came of age when people didn’t believe in magic anymore. Bad news for an illusionist. Like everyone who stuck it out in the magic business, he innovated. Things went south on a beheading trick in Toledo, though—he didn’t like to talk about it—and Harold found himself blackballed from any booking more ambitious than a grade schooler’s birthday party. He asked his father for advice, fully expecting he might say what everyone else did about it being time to seek a more stable career. Instead, the old man directed him to a circus where he still had some connections.
What choice did Harold have?
The circus was unimpressive. The whole outfit showed up a half hour later than Harold was supposed to meet the Ringmaster.Then they were too busy scrambling to set up the big top to actually talk to Harold. Finally, just before the show was supposed to begin, Harold got hold of the Ringmaster’s right hand man, whom, after he forced a handshake upon, introduced himself as Claude.
Claude offered him the chance to talk after the show—nothing more, nothing less.
Harold pressed him. “What sort of compensation might I expect if I were to join you?”
“Three meals a dayand the chance to perform for a crowd.”
“There’s no salary?” Harold wondered if this might have changed since his father’s day, or maybe it was a bit of carney trickery, inviting a negotiation.
“Watch and you might learn something about magic.”
Harold almost left, insulted at the suggestion this cut-rate circus might teach him something about his own craft. And yet, Harold was there, and couldn’t very well come to his father for any more advice if he hadn’t seen through this iteration.
He bought a carton of chocolate-covered peanuts from a stand outside the tent and made his way in, ready to be unimpressed. True to form, the acts were crude. The Reptile Man brought his snakes perilously close to the crowd for a cheap thrill. The Stilt Walker could barely stay upright. Harold would be embarrassed to share a stage with “talents” like these—that is, until he saw the trapeze artist.
Ulana swung high above the crowd, from one bar to another, clutching with chalk-caked hands, spinning in the air.
All of this without a net.
Harold’s first impression: not using a net was another demonstration of a second-rate circus. They probably couldn’t afford one, and to let someone perform an act that high-flying without precaution was pure recklessness. He understood performing without a net better as the act went, on however. Yes, there was the bit of dramatic flair that came with a truly dangerous act. More so, Ulana’s body was fluid and light. She looked as though she may genuinely take flight at any moment, and it occurred to him that to have a net might have been an absurdity—unnecessary, inelegant, underselling how absolute this goddess’s abilities were. She was dressed in white spandex with silver glitter swirls. From a height of fifteen, maybe twenty feet, she positively shone in a whir of motion.
Until she crashed.
Ulana’s hands slipped and her grace disappeared. Gone was the majesty. She plummeted, some combination of her head and chest hitting the ground first, her spine folded such that she doubled over herself at an inhuman angle.
A pair of stage hands collected her body. They draped a black cloth over her and carried her off, as if she were a prop rather than flesh and bone. While gasps and the scattered sound of weeping came from the crowd, the Ringmaster returned to the center of the ring, offered no explanations or apologies, but rather introduced the next act.
It was an outrage. Harold wasn’t sure which he should be more disgusted with, however—the circus that carried on with its show or the audience that let them. For, while there were still murmurs, a crying child with pig tails in front of him in the bleachers, by and large, they seemed to accept the fatality as if it were an ordinary part of any evening’s entertainment.
Harold couldn’t stand by for it, and meant to leave, but he found himself wedged in the middle of the bleachers, no chance of escape without causing an uproar of his own, not to mention having soda and beer sloshed all over him.
He waited for the wail of ambulance sirens, maybe police. He supposed it was possible someone from the circus had driven Ulana to a hospital personally. He also supposed there was every chance the trapeze artist was dead.
After another act, it was intermission, and as the audience en masse began to stir, Harold made his move. There was no security to speak of, shoddy as the circus was, and though the Reptile Man and Fire Eater eyed him when he passed through the curtain to the backstage area, no one said anything. Harold made a bee-line for the Ringmaster.
“Is this how you do business? See someone take a fall like that and don’t skip a beat?” Harold wished that he had his flares ready at hand. He could imagine popping them off, forcing the Ringmaster and everyone else to pay attention to him, maybe creating an aura of genuine wizardry among these simple-minded carnie folk.
“The show must go on,” the Ringmaster said.
Claude pulled Harold aside. He was strong and physically took Harold by the arm and got him to take a few steps, before Harold planted his feet to resist.
“I know that seemed bad, Houdini,” Claude said. “But it’s not what it looked like.”
“It looked like that girl died,” Harold said. “And I’d wager this circus is liable, for sending her out without any safety nets or even a strongman there to catch her. What do you mean to do? Bury her in a field and get out of town?”
“I told you, it’s not how it looks,” Claude repeated. “Why don’t you go home. We’re camping right here after we tear down. You can come by in the morning and see for yourself about Ulana.” It was the first Harold had heard her name. He registered, even under such absurd circumstances, that it was a pretty name. “When your head’s clear and you can see she’s fine, we can talk business.”
It took Harold a moment to recognize that the business he spoke of regarded whether Harold would join the circus. He might have cursedout Claude, but the juggler summoned him away for something or other. The entire backstage area was like that—a whirl of chaotic motion and chatter and energy.
Harold found himself taking at least the first half of Claude’s advice, leaving the circus behind. He meant to leave altogether, to tell his father this circus had fallen on dark days. He only got as far as a motel twenty minutes from the site of the show, though.
Harold realized he’d never intended to go home. That in going to see the circus at all, he meant to run away with them, chart a new course for his life or at least a few months of it. So, he’d go back to them. He’d find Claude or the Ringmaster himself, and he’d demand to see Ulana if she were all right, and when she inevitably wasn’t, that’s when he’d strike out. Look up the number for the local police in advance and drive to the nearest payphone. Circuses were slippery, but driving around a big top, all that equipment, all those people, they wouldn’t be able to disappear altogether.
Circus folk live double lives—performers, yes, but real people, too, and removed from the spotlight and their makeup it can be difficult to recognize them. As he drove out at five in the morning, motel lobby coffee steaming from his cup holder, determined to catch the circus before they broke up camp, one of the scenarios he imagined was that they might try to pass off someone else as Ulana. He’d have to look for details—he wished he’d studied her more closely the night before, or, more obvious still, hung around the circus rather than letting himself get thrown off the trail.
And yet, when Harold saw Ulana that morning, there was no mistaking her.
In a circus of people who looked dirty and rundown from endless travels without a hot shower in sight, Ulana looked somehow better put together, more like one of the girls he would have had a crush on in high school than one of the miscreants he’d turn sideways to avoid touching in busy hallways. While the other performers may have cleaned up enough to make themselves presentable on stage, Ulana was a beautiful girl, any time of day, by any standard.
“I told you she’d be all right.” Claude sidled up beside him and bit from a dirty, raw carrot—evidently, his breakfast.
“I don’t understand.” Harold couldn’t help staring. He enjoyed finding marks—those last few people an audience who looked genuinely dazzled by his sleights of hand, but here he was, himself, marveling. “It’s part of the act then? She always falls.”
“She always falls.” Claude spat a little carrot juice with each word. “It didn’t used to be that way, but once we found out what she could do, we realized that was a more unique act than any old high-flyer.”
Harold remembered her body. Face planted, spine creased, feet to either side of her head. “I have to know how she does it.”
“You know better than that. A magician never reveals her secrets, right?”
One of the first lessons a magician learns is that there’s always a trick. Real magic was for the movies and the marks. Ulana’s fall was no ordinary illusion, though.“This isn’t a trick.”
“You can talk to the girl or her mother,” Claude said. “But they’ve never told me how they do it; they’re not going to explain it to someone who’s not even a part of the circus.”
Ulana ate cotton candy for breakfast while her mother worked on sewing up one of the tears in her outfit from the night before. Her mother was thin, and Harold imagined she might have been pretty at one point her life, too, though by now she’d been reduced to more of a spindly evil step mother. Maybe a witch.
Definitely a witch.
Harold decided he’d have to get to know them better.
Harold never would make much headway with Ulana’s mother—she wouldn’t tell him her name, even when he introduced himself.It turned out that no one in the circus knew her as anything but Ulana’s mother or the old crone. The woman wasn’t a performer, but as Claude would describe it another time,part of the package of keeping on Ulana.
Harold found some of the other carnies referred to the trapeze artist as the fallen angel.
The girl had that ethos around her—more mythological figure than co-worker. While most of the performers drove en masse in trucks, intermingled with the cargo of props, bleachers, and the big top’s infrastructure, the old crone drove Ulana separately in a beat-up beige station wagon; while most of the crewcamped out in one of two large tents overnight, the mother and daughter slept in their car.
Contrary to her mother, though, Harold found that Ulana would warm up once he talked to her. He showed her a card trick over lunch one of those first days after he joined the circus, the day before he’d actually perform with them for the first time. It was elementary pick a card, any card kid stuff, but she clapped her hands with delight when the trick went according to plan.
He got her to open up—by degrees, day by day—about the workings of her act. He didn’t mention his stalwart efforts to figure it out. Nor did he mention that, no matter what,her mother was somehow standing in a position to obscure his view until someone or something distracted him long enough for Ulana’s body to escape altogether. But he did ask, at intervals, “How does your act work?”
She avoided eye contact, and looked more girlish than ever when she did—like the sort of shy teenager who couldn’t imagine anyone might care what she had to say. “I trained for a long time in gymnastics.”
“Not that.” Harold put on a laugh, as if he couldn’t imagine she was being evasive. As if her answer was a silly, silly misunderstanding. “I mean about the end of the act.”
“That’s my mother’s doing.”
He didn’t press her. It took time for the girl to tell him this much, and truth be told, he was developing a school boy’s crush on her. He was careful to keep that in check, because being so new to the circus, and with the old crone lurking, he didn’t know what might make him unpopular among the carnies, or get him axed.
Months passed. Harold waited until after he’d performed one night—as good an act as could be expected, working with only what equipment he could transport in his car, culminating in making one of the circus’s dancing girls disappear, the other appear in her place. It was a good trick, but all the more so a gambit to let new assistants in on his magic before he fully trusted them.
He depended on their involvement making Ulana jealous.
Harold couldn’t be sure which part of his approach had worked—talking to Ulana each day, his impressive act, the use of the dancing girls—but he earned the trapeze artist’s trust. Maybe even her friendship. It wasn’t all the manipulation of showmanship, one performer trying to access another’s trade secrets. No, before he knew it, his crush had evolved into what he thought of as a deep, perhaps forbidden love.
Another night, before Ulana went on stage to fly, she made her way to him, while he was still mopping stage sweat from his brow and whispered to him, hurried, “You can make people disappear.”
He wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement of fact, but he nodded.
“I want to disappear.”
In any circus, there are those happy few, those fools, living their life’s ambition. More folks were like Harold, though—there on a last resort.
Still, there was a third category. There were performers who stayed with the circus because someone or something beyond choice or financial necessity compelled them to this life.
Ulana opened up to Harold about her mother’s spell. Each night, when the clock struck twelve, Ulana would be with her mother in that car. It started when Ulana ran around with boys in high school, and her mother went out driving to find her. The old crone had warned her more than once not to make her go looking, and then the spell took effect—more potent, more powerful than the smaller magic tricks Ulana had demonstrated in their home life, like making buzzing flies drop dead, or drawing window blinds with a wave of her mother’s hand. Harold was inclined to speculate about all of this magic as trickery of light and strings and misdirection. But then, the witch had proven herself capable of bigger magic, hadn’t she?
Their circus life had started out as a compromise. Ulana had wanted to be a gymnast, but there was little money in it as a career. So the two of them would take on this new life, where Ulana could at least perform, and her mother could stay close, not to mention stop worrying about payments on their little house as they gave themselves over to the road.
In those early days, Ulana performed an ordinary high-flying routine, over a frayed rope net. Ulana didn’t fall until weeks, maybe a couple months into performing.
The old crone suspected the Ringmaster would let her go, thinking he could find a better trapeze artist. As a novelty, she suggested her daughter would fly without a net.
The first fall was planned—not right away, but a week or so in, after the Ringmaster and Claude were better at ease. Her mother reassured Ulana that, after the fall, she’d wake up back in the car.
She was right. The spell superseded death, even, and Ulana was always back with her mother come midnight.
The old crone hadn’t warned her about those seconds of excruciating pain, however, upon landing. Ulana had since learned to contort her body to land head or neck first—to ensure the quickest, most painless death.
As soon as the Ringmaster understood what she was capable of—not the mechanics, but the end result of a staged catastrophe, and a performer who’d emerge good as new—that superseded any gymnastic feat as the heart of her act.
Ulana hated it. “I need your help,” she implored him, and then repeated, “I want to disappear.”
Harold choreographed it. Like Ulana’s own act, the key was in making the highly deft, highly purposeful appear like the gravest accident.
Making a woman disappear was easy. Even without proper equipment—he’d sold off his coffin meant for such things weeks before resigning himself to circus—there were workarounds. The use of a rigged sheet, dimmed stage lighting, the misdirection of having one of the dancing girls perform a brief routine and the fat lady singing, while Harold narrated—it was amazing how easy it was to overload a crowd’s senses until not one of them would notice a shrouded figure slinking off stage.
So he’d show her, make her disappear, and bring her back—as traditional as it gets.
But Ulana wouldn’t come back.
The sheet fell, with the added flair of a firecracker’s smoke and sizzle, and he did his best to emote surprise. This venture into the theater of the uncomfortable—pretending that something had gone horribly wrong—was new to him.
He circled the crumpled sheet, looked to the dancing girl, and the fat lady who was still singing, pantomiming worry. Where did she go?
Finally, he straightened his blazer. Like any magician of any experience, he had had tricks go wrong. The key was to get off stage as quickly as possible. “I’m sorry, everyone. We will need to wrap up our act early. Thank you and good night.”
He waved and hurried to the backstage curtain. He hadn’t warned the fat lady or the dancing girl of what to expect, and so they were suitably awkward in looking to him and to each other, puzzling out if something really had gone wrong.
The audience’s applause came slow and scattered. Not the shock Ulana typically registered with her falls, but at least some of the questioning of whether what they’d seen were real, and if they might see more later—would this girl reappear during another act, and the magician after here? Such things weren’t unheard of at a circus.
But they weren’t coming back.
“What’s the big idea?” Claude demanded at the curtain.
“I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well.” Harold hurried past him. He’d thought his career as a solo magician was over. With Ulana as his assistant, with her youth, with her beauty—he started to believe again.Who better than a beautiful girl to make a magic man feel more than ordinary? And a trapeze artist who could rise from the dead? Maybe some of the magic was in her mother, but Harold felt certain Ulana might draw more magic—real magic—from him, too.
If his plan worked, Harold would find Ulana waiting for him in his car,which he’d already given her the key to. They’d be on the road in minutes, heading in the opposite direction from the circus’s next town, never to cross paths again.
Except, when Harold got backstage, Ulana was there. The old crone held her hand in a white-knuckled death grip.
“You think you can sneak off with my daughter.” Her voice was thin and reedy, tinted by some sort of accent Harold couldn’t quite place. She looked much older from that close and he wondered if her jet black her were dyed—it would almost have to be to come from the same body as her wrinkled, liver spotted skin. “No one sneaks around with my daughter.”
Ulana looked a little pained, but didn’t appear to resist her mother’s grip, resigned to the fact it wouldn’t do any good. Harold realized he’d underestimated the witch. She had a magician’s instinct herself. The marks watched the stage, what was happening in the spotlight. Magicians knew to keep an eye cast to the shadows and on the stage door.
Harold had made a career out of smooth talking—what was a magician but a used car salesman who peddled cheap wonder instead of misguided faith in ajalopy? The key was mitigation. No, he wasn’t running off with Ulana. They were merely adapting her act.
Harold had barely gotten through the first words of his pitch when it became difficult to speak. His lips stuck together, as if he’d been eating chocolate fondue, then as if he’d applied rubber cement like chapstick, then like he’d never had two separate lips at all, then like he didn’t have a mouth, or a nose for that matter. No air. His face was all desperate, sweating skin when the old crone told him, “You will leave my daughter alone.”
He nodded vigorously.
Presto-chango, he could breathe again.
Ulana kept her eyes on the ground.
That old circus wisdom—that if you don’t fear something it can’t kill you—occurred to him then, a recessive memory his father must have told him, maybe when he started performing magic professionally.In that moment, a counterargument donned on Harold, too, that there were those times a man was right to be scared.
Harold thought of leaving the circus, but just one more town bled into three, into eight. He sold off his car, bought a proper suitcase, and loaded his most essential gear in there to hit the road in the back of one of the covered trucks alongside the conjoined twins and the bearded ladies.
At every town, Harold watched Ulana fly. After a time, though, he couldn’t bear to watch her fall.
* * *
4- The Last Word by Michael Nugent
O’Connell Funeral Home
Tom saw Murphy and walked into the back row of folding chairs set up over to the far left of the casket. It was out of the way of the throngs that would be coming to see the dearly departed off on his final journey. It would be quiet, good for sitting and talking.
“About time,” said Murphy, looking up. “You’d be late for your own funeral.”
“Sure hope so.” Tom sat down. “And you, Murph? I bet you’ll be good ’n early to yours. Right? You’ll tell a few jokes. Lighten up the crowd. Goose the widow wife.”
“I don’t think,” said Murphy, “that the grieving widow will be showing herself at any funeral of mine.”
Tom looked out at the casket in the middle of the showing room. “I’m not going up there to pay my respects ’til the bitter end. I don’t wanna see what Jimmy and Mabes has done to the poor body this time. They’re losing their touch. They used to be artists.”
“Yeah, they’re slowing down. Jimmy and Mabes are still living upstairs, doncha know.”
“I know this, Murphy. All these bodies down here, all the ones in the back they’re prepping for tomorrow’s wakes. Jesus, what fucking company to have underfoot.”
“Not much different than the stiffs you hang with.”
“Present company included,” Tom sniffed.
“This wake is gonna last three fuckin days?”
“You bet, Murphy. They’re saying there’s a good many people who want to say their good byes. They’re already lining up.” Tom stood to take off his heavy winter coat. “Hot in here. But it’s gotta be twenty below outside.”
“I’m just hearing that wind howling loud. It won’t let up, Tom.”
“It’s not the wind, Murph. It’s the sound comin from all the dead bodies Jimmy and Mabes fucked up. They’re back to moan about how they looked at their send-offs. You’re supposed to look good, Murph. At least once in your life. At least when you’re checkin out.”
“When it don’t count a whit.”
Tom chuckled to himself. “You’re right about that,” he mumbled. “Ya can’t get laid when you’re in the grave.”
“Jimmy and Mabes drink when they work on the bodies in the back. You know that?”
“That I didn’t know, Murphy. You’re a veritable font.”
“They say it kills the smells. And when the gases in the bodies cause the dead to jerk around the table and to pop up like they’re about to shout surprise outta their open fuckin mouths? They say the drink makes it easier to laugh it all off and just smack the body back down. Jaysus Lord.”
“The drink don’t help much with the smell. You’d think they’d have incense or candles in here to cover up the stink of all those chemicals coming from the back. At least get a fuckin fan in here to suck the bad air out.”
“A whirlin sharp blade at a wake with all these drunks. That would not work out, my friend.”
Tom shrugged. “They got to do something.”
“You know they drain the blood out back there and then shoot shit into your veins and arteries to replace it?”
“Murphy, Murphy, shut up. Have some respect for the occasion, man.”
“They used to have big candles in the showing rooms until one time a grieving family got so piss drunk they knocked the candles over and those maroon drapes that Jimmy and Mabes had hanging all over the fuckin place back then caught fire and the body everyone had come to see almost burnt up right then and there in front of their damn eyes. The fire department had to hose the whole place down and they had to drag three, waterlogged bodies to the bone yard. Jimmy himself was so drunk he tried to piss out the flames.”
“They can do three wakes here at a time? Then they’re haulin in some money, Murph. That much I can tell you.”
“They got three rooms going right now. Some people showed up right here before you arrived. They had a good cry up front at the casket and then realised they had the wrong fucking dead guy and then they dabbed their eyes and wiped their cheeks and just walked outwithout so much as a drink in honour of the poor soul.”
“Where’s the respect these days. At least Jimmy and Mabes decided to toss the candles instead of the booze. No booze would be no good. They’d lose business.”
“This is the only funeral home in a 100 miles, Tom, maybe more.”
“I wouldn’t be waked in a funeral home with no drink, Murph. That ain’t gonna happen.” He pulled a fresh pint out of his blue blazer’s inside pocket and took a long swig. “I’d offer you some but now’s a bad time for you to fall off the wagon.”
“Jimmy and Mabes call it Our Lady of Perpetual Waters.”
“The shrine in the lobby where you grabbed your bottle. The table with the votive candles and the memorial cards and the signature book. With our Lady of Fatima and her outstretched hands standing like Vanna White over the rows of pints you can either pocket for the evening or slop into the paper cups if you’re doing shots.”
“I paid a visit to Our Lady, Murphy.”
“I hope you signed the book, Tom.”
“That I did. You know that room off to the right next to Our Lady? When you come in off the street?”
“The Cry Room? With all the tissue boxes?”
“Where the spouses go and wail after seeing all the debt, the mistresses and the gigolos their deadbeat mates left behind. It was pitch dark when I came in.”
“That means just the kids’ll be coming, Tom. The ex- ain’t gonna be setting foot in here.”
“She won’t be comin because she knows her work is done.” Tom nodded up at the casket. “There’s no more suffering she can supply.”
“There’s no more sufferin anyone can supply. It’s done and over.”
A clutch of people walked up to the casket, paper cups of scotch in their upraised hands. One by one they stood over the open casket. One by one they all did down the hatch and walked away to grab a folding chair and some more hooch.
“See that, Murphy? They’re toasting a life well lived. They came here to say thanks and well done. And they’re saying sorry that life with all its pain sucks worse than the love that breaks your heart.”
“Is that what they’re saying, Tom? They’re damn eloquent, aren’t they. You feeling okay? You gettin misty?”
Tom was hunched over naturally. His back and his neck were crooked so that he was always looking down at his feet and the terrain he trod. He had to force his head up to see ahead, to see the sun and the stars. He pushed back a shock of his stiff white hair popping out of the thicket atop his head and at the end of that motion held back his head. He watched the toasts ripple through the growing line of mourners.
“How long have we been friends, Tom?”
“Well, let me see. We met at the American Bar fifty-five years ago. You were the waiter then. You told me to look up and stop staring at my shoes. You said if I looked up I might notice all the pretty ladies around me. I might even behold the delicious brand of scotch you always brought me so I wouldn’t have to ask you its name all the time.”
“You claimed you had a physical condition. Some shit like your spine curved.”
“And you shot right back at me,” Tom snorted. “You said, well then, my man, pull the stick out of your ass and slap it on your back. It’ll all work out.” He snorted louder this time as he shook his head in memory.
Florence, the funeral home attendant in her shiny black jacket and her strangling black tie, looked over at him. She frowned, and shook her head. He whispered “sorry.” She squinted back. It took everything he had to keep from snorting one more time.
“Me all bent over,” Tom managed when he had his urge to laugh under control. “And you, with that bloated, fat belly of yours that you’ve had since the days you found the tap at the American.”
“Doctors call it malabsorption.”
“That stomach? I knew you were maladjusted. But malabsorbed, you say. Maybe that’s it. The prime of your life lasted, what, four weeks back in ’53? Like a shooting star in the night sky that faded away.”
“Shooting stars don’t fade away, Tom. They run out of room to run. And folks remember the shooting stars. They stick with ya once you’ve seen one. Tell me one you’ve forgotten about.”
Tom craned his neck. “Lookit all the fuckin people coming, Murphy. The line’s out the door and they keep comin. Lookit their faces, mourning what they’ve dressed up to come and see on a night like this.”
On the second day of the wake, Tom saw Murphy again and returned to his seat in the back row.
Tom settled into the folding chair, his head down as usual. He started studying his pants, trying to find a crease. He thumbed his blue jacket at the spot where yesterday there was a button. These were the things he wore to church, and to the town hall sing at Christmas, and to the funerals. These were his best things.
“The kids are here,” said Murphy.
Tom looked up. “So they are. Little Jenny and Jonny. They’re the twins?”
“Twins? No. They’re a few years apart but you can’t tell from looking at ‘em. Them getting those names is a tragedy on top of it all. It was the mother.”
“So, take this Jenny and Jimmy.”
“Jonny. Jenny and Jonny.”
“Yeah, ok. Jonny’s always getting you to laugh. He fuckin lives to bring the smiles out. And Jenny, she’s like the good Lord sprinkled his rosy countenance upon her. Good soul is written all over her ass. But she doesn’t have a clue what to do with it, right?”
“Soon she will.”
“And the other two, Murphy. Look at ‘em. Willy and Wilhelmina?”
“For Chrissakes, Tom. He’s Phil and she’s Filomena.”
“What’s with the names in this family?”
“The mother, I tell ya.”
“Good ol’ Phil there? He looks like he’s fuckin scared of his own shadow. Look at those fuckin eyes. Darting this way and that.”
“He’s always seen the darkness out there,” said Murphy.
“And in here.” Tom thumped his chest. “You know all about that darkness that’s inside, doncha Murphy? Which is why you, too, just got to get the laughs going and the jokes flowing. You see what’s chasing us from cradle to grave. You know what it is at the end that takes us.”
“Easy on that pint, Tom. You’re practically gushing.”
“Lookit Filomena there. She’s the town mayor for Chrissake, always shaking the hands and patting the backs. But she’s never graced me with her lovely smile, despite me knowing her since the day she was fuckin conceived. Even before.”
“She’s smart that way. She knows who to keep at a distance.”
“They’re all lost. Their father let ‘em piss, but he gave them no direction.”
“Is that what you think, Tom? Is it? Well, time to stop talking ill of the dead. You got enough bad to say about the living.”
Florence disappeared and then came back with two open bottles of single malt fresh from Jimmy and Mabes’ special collection. Normally she opened it when a nun filled the casket, maybe if there was a good priest. The grateful mourners tonight recognised the solemnity of the moment, extending their thirsty cups.
“I always thought old Florence was sweet on the dearly departed.”
“You think so? Where’s that come from, Tom?”
“Just look at her. Standing watch. Reminding us to be sad.”
“It’s what she does, Tom. She’s a sad one by nature, always with that long face, always with that outfit no matter what or where. Even Friday night bowling night. She lets loose a ball like it’s the devil himself at the end of the alley thumbin his nose at her.”
“Those small beady eyes of hers just filled up when she peeked into the coffin. Yes, sir, I’d say she was smitten.”
Florence stopped her pouring and stepped into the centre of the room in front of the casket. She hefted her full cup to the casket. “And here’s to this good man!” she shouted above the hurrahs.
“Lookit the family over there, Tom. Watch em. They’re all alone now.”
“Don’t, Murphy. It only breaks the heart.”
“Like you should know, never having one.”
“A family,” said Murphy.
“I didn’t because I wouldn’t. Look what mine did to me. Robbed me of hope and will while I was still in grammar school.”
“You always had the chance to shove that all behind you, Tom.”
“But you know what, Mr. Pull-Yourself-Up-by-Your-Own-Bootstraps? Sometimes you can’t. That’s the way it is. I’m bent this way, looking down but never out and never up, because this is the way I got built. I keep my eyes on my shoes so I can see where they’re leadin me. So fuck you, Murphy.”
“You keep your eyes on your shoes and you know what? You hit the wall again and again and you never see an exit.”
“An exit is simply a door into some other shithole.” Tom drained his pint. “It’s all ending now anyway, Murph. We’re here to say our good- byes and then we’ll leave and go back into that cold world with the mournful, unholy cries of the dead who couldn’t get their ugly mugs through the pearly gates because Jimmy and Mabes got too shit-faced to pretty them up. That’s life in a nutshell.”
“You’re fuckin pissed, Tom.”
Tom stood up. “Yes, and I’m gone. I’m grabbin a pint and I’m leavin.” He pointed at the kids in front of the casket, himself teetering back and forth before grabbing a chair back.
“When it’s over, when those kids are outside in this cold night and its wind, they’ll realise at last there’s nothin no more holding them together. The four of ‘em found the rest and the best of themselves in him in that fuckin casket. Without him? They are small. They are partial. Their little dream world he built for them cracks wide open and the darkness outside rushes in and it grabs them fuckin just like this.”
He pulled his arms tight against his chest. He fell back against the mourners behind him. They pushed him back on his unsteady feet. “Watch it, douche,” said one.
“Douche she calls me. At a fuckin wake. Of a fuckin great man. The darkness chasing us is here inside with us already, Murphy. And the body’s still warm, ain’t it.”
Florence came over. “Come on, Tom. Let me walk you out. I got a cab for you.”
“Fuck you, Florence. You never liked me.”
“Still don’t, asshole.”
The crowds were even larger the third night. Jimmy and Mabes had whiskey pint bottles lined up before a beaming Our Lady of Perpetual Waters. The raucous flock fought to drown out, or simply drown, the baying winds beyond the front door.
Tom was in his seat.
“Well, my friend. I’ll be back.”
Tom looked up. “Where ya going, Murph?”
“I need to take care of some business.”
“That you do.” Tom watched Murphy leave and then looked at his watch. Almost midnight. The funeral was early tomorrow morning and they were already two hours past the closing time. The family wasn’t showing up tonight. Tom shook his head at that.
Florence made the rounds with a last bottle of single malt, telling people to move on. She’d tried to limit him to one pint for the night but he snuck another one in his pocket when she wasn’t looking. She gave him a farewell mercy hit from the single malt anyway.
Tom counted up to fifty final toasts at the casket before he stopped. More than a bit of drink was sloshed right in there, and more than a few were poured into, and over, the casket’s occupant. Go with God.
It was, finally, time. Time to look him in his dead, fuckin face, and say his good bye. Florence was turning a fake key in a fictional lock, saying move it. Go with God.
He made his way up there, grunted down onto the kneeler, and looked inside. The face looking back at him gave him the shudders, as he knew it would. Collapsed, white, the poor man had lost all his ruddiness, those fat cheeks, he lost his spark that said life was indeed grand. Jimmy and Mabes did their best to get the old, familiar smile back. They showed some of their old artistry. But, in the end, the smile was a grimace of pain.
Tom gave the forehead a kiss. It stunk. It was damp from spilled drink, sweating. The lids of the eyes were opening some, their slits giving a bit of reveal into the soul.
“You had a good run, my friend,” he said. “Lookit all these people come to say their goodbyes. They’ll miss ya. I’ll miss ya even. We had a good run, too.”
There was a fuckin gleam in those eyes looking back. He heard him.
Florence snuck up behind him. “I got to close it, Tom. Get a move on, now. Say your finals.” She backed away.
“Good bye, ol’ Murph,” he said half aloud. “You’ll be back. And we’ll go at it again. What else do we do, but yack, right?” He waited, nodded, saluted, stood slowly, and then headed for the hallway, his back and neck bent, watching his shuffling feet.
Tom had no one left now. When you lose a friend like Murphy, a brother forever like Murphy, there’s a hole there. Along with all the other holes that rip you. You walk through a swiss cheese life.
Florence watched him leave. “I’ll see ya at the American, Tom,” she called out. He waved back at her, if a hand barely lifting up waist high can be called a wave.
She kneeled down at last and dabbed away with a hanky from her jacket some of the collected scotch. She patted Murphy on his clenched hands and held them.
“You were a sweet one, Murphy. I shoulda told ya that. We all shoulda told you that.”
She leaned over and gave him a kiss on his moist lips. “Thank you, Murphy.”
She got up, lowered the lid and turned out the lights.
* * *
5- Drive by Mohit Parikh
With his feet tapping restlessly in the back seat of the car, his teeth gritted and fists closed to nurse anger at Mummy, at himself (if he could what he should he would open the door and step out of the speeding Ritz), Manthan wishes he wasn’t here, that he was somewhere else: in his room, perhaps, arranging re-arranging the shelves of his tiny wooden library; his books – dusty, dog-eared, brand new – spread all around him on the carpet, in piles, in disarray, and him considering in all seriousness a fresh rule for their organization – not thickness, not appeal, not era or art movement, but something new.
Or he could be on the terrace lazing under a thick warm blanket in this dreary afternoon, the silver sun failing to warm his face but strong enough to ignite in his mind adventures for his superhero erotica: The Boob Man catching in the nick of time a desolate old Frenchie jumping off the Eiffel Tower; The Boob Man awakening not only her toneless tits but also her teary soul; The Boob Man seeing through her clothes as well as her mind and filling not only the vacancy in her vagina but also in her heart; The Boob Man becoming one with her under the pyramid of Louvre as he initiates the woebegone ex-diva to the way of advaita…
Or perhaps he would be sitting at his writing desk, not writing (this much he admits to himself) but looking, looking at the street next to his house- home to a gang of cute puppies growing under the strict guidance of a matriarch, looking at the row of single storied houses across the street, at Verma Uncle’s house, him and his wife afflicted of Alzheimer’s (or is it Parkinson’s? or Lou Gehrig’s?) sitting wrapped in grey shawls in their garden chairs and, well, just sitting; the husband serving a spoonful of something sometimes – poha or upma or fruits – to break the monotony of sitting, and the wife offering her mouth without once glancing at her feeder…
Or maybe, bored of looking, he would revert to his bed for watching, his hefty grunting laptop balanced on his abdomen, playing pirated files of the early works of famous filmmakers that he has obtained from his friends with superior broadband connections – ‘Paanch’, ‘Pather Panchali’, ‘You can’t learn to plough by reading books’, ‘Orgazmo’…
Or even out for an aimless walk in this windy winter, his hands folded across his chest, fingers under his armpits, his monkey cap making him unrecognizable from any other passerby, his monkey cap transmuting his face into a mask, transmuting his self into a ghost watching his townsfolk toil, tire, take a breather and turn back to their business of making a living and whiling away their lives, whiling away their winters, their hay days.
He could be anywhere but here. This, here, is unacceptable.
“I don’t know why I am needed,” he complains to Mummy, banging the car’s door behind him, as Reema Aunty and Architect Uncle, walk out of the car, out of earshot.
“Okay, sorry, next time I won’t bring you.”
“You have these two experts. You are there. I don’t know why I am needed.”
“You are needed so that you can tell Papa this is what you like. See those designs, just see,” she says, pointing towards the bungalow that looms large over them, flaunting an admittedly impressive modern facade. “So trendy. So fresh. Stands apart. Your father is fixated on those old windows and doors of Hawa Mahal style. They are cheap too. I say, save money by having a cheap sunmica, build a room less, but don’t compromise on the looks, bhai. And an architect would know better, ask him where to save money. But does he ever listen to anybody? I will die if he does. You have to make him understand the next time we have all these discussions.”
“He starts screaming and swearing. I never do.”
“You reduced the lawn area by a third without telling him.”
“I never do anything without telling people.”
“You registered me for a driving lesson!”
“I only do what’s in everyone’s best interest.”
“How do you know that?”
“Okay, sorry. As always it’s all my fault. If you want to go, you can go. You can take the car.”
“Fine. How long will this thing take?”
“Just two more houses after this one. Reema Aunty’s clients they are. Diamond jewellery exporters all. They might like you for their daughters. Then, you won’t have to earn for the rest of your life. You can write, she can earn.”
“Don’t be so grouchy. It’s not like I disturbed your writing. You were watching cricket.”
He has to admit: he was, indeed, watching cricket on television. A re-telecast of a test match played a decade ago between two teams that don’t thrill him even when they play against India live. But that is part of the writing process, how can he explain that to Mummy? You waste time in something uninteresting, until there is a large gaping hole in your soul, until the guilt subsumes and consumes your being; until you punch a wall, throw a book, curse yourself: you scum of the earth, Manthan, write, you piece of shit. Until the anger propels you, compels you to put pen to paper.
The bungalow’s gate opens and a woman, younger than Mummy, with a pallu on her head and bangles up until both her elbows, emerges to greet them with a namaste and a beaming face. Then, another woman, dressed much less ornately, joins them. Another round of pleasantries as Reema Aunty introduces everyone. And, suddenly, a question about Manthan’s marriage and a collective laughter.
This ordeal, he reckons, is a fitting fucking penalty for all his procrastination.
He drags himself behind the adults, as the entourage slithers from one room to another of the ground floor, as the excited people prattle about pillar and pipelines and plaster of paris. He feels dizzy, just as he feels in a clothing store. The microprocessors of his brain getting hanged: where to look, what to see, how to think? Another floor, more rooms, and the hosts – nice, proud, welcoming – answer all prying questions of Mummy: costs, contacts, constituents. The Devarani-Jaithani aunties are surprisingly knowledgeable. It appears they know as much about wood quality and water drainage techniques as Architect uncle. They talk, without hesitation, as if this too is information, of the family fights over difference in opinions, the cheats they suffered during construction, the stress of ever increasing costs. He thinks briefly of Naipaul’s House of Mr. Biswas, of Chekov’s short stories, of the denizens of Narayan’s Malgudi, but mostly he thinks: how stupid these obsessions with homes, designs, shapes, and space. How stupid these desires to have things your way.
What is home but four walls and a roof – a shelter from cold and rain and wind and wild animals, a private space for the really important matters of life: thinking, dreaming, writing. If our species should be concerned with architecture, it should be with the architecture of mind, the pattern of our thoughts, the shape of our character (as the thought runs in his head an image accompanies: He is at a large public gathering, on a stage, speaking emphatically into a mike to an enchanted audience; then his mother appears and says: you laze around, daydream, watch TV late in the night – I have caught you watching Bikini Destinations twice -, beta, stop flying in the air. Work on your own self first.)
“What do you write?” Jaithani Aunty, the woman dressed less elaborately of the two, asks. “Romance novels? Murder suspense? Harry Potter?”
“Ummm….” He shifts in his chair in the sitting room, where everyone is seated for snacks, now that the house inspection is over. Their eyes turn to him. “Ummm… Growing up in middle-class India, aunty.”
Good answer. Once he uttered “on sexuality” to the chatty, personable parents of a friend. They nodded, fell silent, and, for the rest of the evening of the get-together, concentrated on their son’s other friends. To his old Hindi teacher, whom he met accidentally at a Pizza Hut outlet, he said “on spiritual dilemmas of my generation She asked him about the teachings he was following, and, when he failed to speak anything particular or impressive, she compared Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism for him and contrasted them with Islam and Christianity. She also suggested books, story ideas, and grilled him on his life choices, strongly disapproving his squandering years of youth.
“Middle-class India…,” the Jaithani aunty says, “So you are our next Chetan Bhagat. Waah bhabhiji, you will have a celebrity in the house.”
“My daughter reads a lot. All day, all night, her face is buried in books only,” the Devarani aunty says. “Just two days back she got this many books from Crossword Sale.”
“I also love reading books,” Reema Aunty says. “Have you read Shobha De, Manthan?”
“Writing a good business?” Architect uncle interjects, now that he has finished his cup of tea and is onto the second serving of fruit custard. “How much money do writers make?”
“Ummm… I have no idea, uncle.”
“Oh, they make a lot. Chetan Bhagat left his investment-banking job for writing, it was all over the newspapers. Now they are also making movies out of his books,” Reema Aunty answers. “Javed Akhtar, Gulzar, all of them so rich. We will have to make appointments to meet your son, bhabhiji.”
“But you could have written in NTPC. That was a good job. Nobody leaves government jobs for hobby. And don’t writers like isolated places to write?”
“Ummm… yeah, it was a good place. I thought I needed to… ummm… travel, meet people, see things…”
“So you just ran away from the power plant? You could have resigned. You could have taken a sabbatical.”
“Oh, you ran away?” The two women ask in unison.
“There is a saying in NTPC: you either retire or die, you never leave. Haha. I thought if I didn’t run away that night, I would never be able to leave.”
Uncle Architect shakes his head. “You should have thought of your parents.”
“It is all very well for us. He has my full support. His father is a bit worried but you have to always support your kids,” Mummy says. “Just get settled quickly, bhai. Find a girl of your choice, no restrictions, we say – just don’t get a Sindhi or a Mommedan; find anybody and get settled. After all, we are preparing this house for his marriage only. These days, bhabhiji, nobody gives their daughters if you don’t have a separate floor for the couple. Girls don’t want to take care of the old, you know.”
“That’s so true. This generation is selfish, I mean in a good way. They care so much about their own happiness. But it is important to respect your elders too. Take our own Guddu bhaiyya’s case, her mother’s brother’s son, he is having so much trouble. His wife wants to cook chicken in the house…”
Manthan finishes his bowl of fruit custard in two large scoops, meekly excuses the gathering on the pretext of nature’s call, and slips outside after pretending to head for the toilet.
Resting his buttock against the car’s booty, he slurs inanities. He dreads the two more houses left to visit – the faces he will have to face, the faces that he will have to make, his face that Mummy will have to save (no job, no marriage, a runaway). How will he ever survive this day?
As soon as he gets home, he decides, he will dash to his room, put on the earphones and watch his favorite episodes of How I Met Your Mother on a non-stop run. That is how he will reclaim his life. Then, if he feels better, he will plan the next episodes of The Boob Man – Every Woman’s Favourite Superhero. This big, thick novel, which he has been fleshing out since a month and a half now, has quirky, passionate characters groping for a plot. In his prose there is ecstasy (as Nabokov insists there must be), the imagery is titillating, what is missing in the action is a hook that will keep the readers hanging. He knows his storyline is threadbare at present. It doesn’t give him to the space to squeeze all his ideas out and release them on the blank page.
After dinner, when he will be dull and heavy due to all the eating (damn you the compulsion of hunger!), he will play a soft instrumental music and read an excerpt on spirituality – shlokas from Yoga Vashishtha or teachings of Ramana Maharshi or haikus of the dying monks of Japan. Maybe even Tolle’s Power of Now…
Suddenly, a rage arises in his body, from his chest through his temples, and all the way through his fists. He slams it on the car’s window, once, twice, stops midway on the third, picks up a stone from the ground, and hurls it far towards an empty plot of land: you could have been reading Power of Now now, Manthan, he says to himself; that one singularly monumental book that teaches how to embrace the present but here you are, stuck in these stupid, stupid everyday things losing sight of your ultimate goal!
An aging man, with a smiling face and gentle eyes, sitting on a stage with a blank background appears in his head, peers into his eyes, and orates softly:
Wherever you are, Manthan, be there totally. If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes your unhappy, remember, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it or accept it totally. If you want to take responsibility of your life, you must choose one of these three options, and you must choose now.
He cannot possibly remove himself from this situation. He has no money in his wallet to take an auto or a bus, and he cannot possibly be taking money from Mummy. It hurts his dignity as it is: twenty-seven years old and he is still living in his parents’ house (in his teenage he had come across the condescending American phrase ‘a nerd living in his mother’s basement’, he had no idea he would someday be that Hollywood cliché’). Mummy is cooking lunch, dinner and breakfast, and buying for him apples and Bourbons and Lipton’s green tea, while he contributes nothing, not even with labor – dishwashing, dusting, taking her to market -; while his friends are buying refrigerators and washing machines and holiday trips for their parents; while they are living up to their parents’ expectations of becoming a husband and a parent themselves.
So: change the situation or accept it completely?
Tap, tap. On the shoulder. Uncle Architect.
“Where are you lost, boy?”
He smiles sheepishly and shrugs, “Oh, nothing, Uncle. Just.”
Uncle smiles back, raises his closed fist and unleashes from it a key: “You drive.”
“Oh, no-no. No license.”
“He is afraid of his Papa,” Mummy says, appearing beside Uncle. “His Papa does not allow him to take out the wagon at all, not once, not until he gets a driving license. But look at all his cousins. Look at Vicky, Manthan. He would steal the keys from his father’s pockets and go out on his own, roaming with his girlfriends since he was seventeen. Seventeen! And girlfriend is one thing, you are even afraid of driving a car without a license.”
“Your mother tells me you are learning since three weeks.”
“Without fail in the morning I go with him. Never once troubled the teacher, smooth as butter on the road he is. But does he ask his father to drive this car? No. Not once. Did the father offer the car to his child? No, not once. I ask, whose property is it? Yours only, bhai. Drive, Manthan. Uncle isn’t here always…”
Half an hour more. A maximum of forty-five minutes, and then he is away from all this craziness and coercion, away from all Architect Uncles and Interior Decorator Aunties of the world, never to see them again in his life. Never again to hunt houses; and never again to steer a car. As soon as he reaches home, he is calling his driving school and withdrawing his admission.
Just this once, Manthan.
He turns on the ignition, puts the gear in the reverse and lightly, alertly, with an alarm drumming, presses the acceleration pedal.
“Nice, nice, very nice. The reverse is the toughest, bhabhiji. And he does it so well,” Reema aunty says.
“Driving is simple, all about ABC,” Uncle Architect turns to Reema aunty and boasts.
“… Accelerator Brake Clutch. That’s all. That’s all there is.”
Mummy says, “His Papa is a scared cat, I tell you, can’t handle it if his children are out on the road. But you can’t learn to swim without going in the water. What if there is a medical emergency? Who will drive in the middle of the night?”
“And men should drive, Manthan. My cousin’s son, a little older to you,” Reema aunty says. “He didn’t have a car, so could not get married only. They had to buy a Tata Nano, but even after marriage people were making fun. His wife would drop him to an office like a school baby, pick up…”
This is not how he likes to drive. He drives with focus, in silence, with Mummy made to stay quiet in the back seat by the strict instructor. He drives in assurance, gaining confidence from sticking to his lane and following rules, from the knowledge that the instructor always has a hand on the hand-brake and a foot on the extra brake pedal. His driving is simple. Never over-speed, never overtake from left, never turn without indicators and arm signal; keep a proper distance between cars, keep watching the rear- view mirrors, avoid roads that have cops, and make sure there is no music, no radio, no food, no chatter…
He rests his arm on the window with the glass rolled down, watches Architect Uncle turn up the volume of a prank call telecast on Radio Mirchi despite his request just a minute ago to turn down the volume, and scans the area. There is a cop across the road, towards his right, sitting on a chair outside a blue make-shift cabin for traffic cops: the cop is far and unconcerned. Nearer to him is a rotund policeman wrapped in a shawl at a tea kiosk, drinking tea. Him too – not a problem. But: in front of him, right in the middle of the cross-section, a female cop dressed dapperly, with a wireless headset on her ears, looking in his direction, at him. Waiting to pounce on him? He feels uneasy. As such, he hasn’t done anything wrong – he has parked his car behind the zebra crossing, made sure Uncle’s seat belt is on, Papa already got a pollution check sticker pasted on the windscreen and all the car documents are in the dashboard. All save one.
“I don’t even have a learner’s license,” he protests belatedly.
“They only want your money, the policemen.” Architect Uncle says. “Oh, I have heard this one. This is a good prank.”
“License these days is only good as an ID card,” Reema aunty seconds. “But you should have got it anyway, Manthan.”
The female cop catches a biker without a helmet, pockets the keys and points him to the cop at the blue shanty. Once again her eyes in his direction. Is she reading his face and mumbling something to the other policeman? It’s easy actually, he has been told. One look at him, and you can tell he is breaking some law. One look at him and you can tell he won’t lie, won’t make calls to powerful connections, to his father, won’t bribe. That he will accept all the charges without protest, like a sincere student caught cheating for the first time in exams. That, in fact, he will thank the cop for pulling him out of his misery.
Only fifteen seconds to green light: the vehicles around him waking up as if from a slumber, rinsing their mouths, gargling, grunting. They inch ahead, one after another, meandering to the next lane, onto the zebra crossing, beyond it, beyond the divider, occupying every possible square of space. As the countdown peters down to single digits, their hands race the accelerator, pressing the breaks and clutches harder. Their teeth are clenched, foreheads marred by crisscrossing lines, minds busy mapping the routes of least resistance, noses uncaring of the smoke from the mobile ahead. It’s as if they are waiting for a gunshot, as if they are at the starting point of a hundred meter dash, the first mover having a winning advantage, the loser losing out on everything.
Manthan realises, that despite himself, despite his judgments, he too is tense – it’s a collective tension. To be calm here is a feat of zen masters, and he is an abject failure. He is an abject failure with both zen and pen.
A Maruti Dezire behind him honks horn – once, twice, thrice – and so, conceding to its urgency, he shows a thumbs-up in the side-view mirror and presses the pedal to lend space.
Suddenly: a jerk. A noise. Silence. The car’s engine has died.
He turns the ignition key but the automobile does not respond. The light countdowns to zero and turns green. The vehicles, as if on cue, are venting their drivers’ frustrations and restlessness. He gives another go at it, turns the ignition key again and again – but the car cries, coughs, refuses to move. In the car behind him a bald old man behind the wheel, with his wife seated next to him, mouths an unseemly abuse, exhibits a mock punch, and merges in the river of overtaking vehicles on the side lane.
The entire market’s watching him.
He thinks: I shouldn’t be here, in this situation, on this seat, doing this. This is not my place. One press of the pedal, Manthan, and you are out of here.
“What are you doing, man? Just ABC, like I said. Go,” Uncle Architect visibly anxious. Reema Aunty observes, “Is that fat officer coming towards us?”
One press of the pedal, Manthan, and you are out of here…
And he presses the clutch pedal. And he maneuvers the gear into neutral, and he turns the ignition with his other hand, and he stomps his foot hard on the accelerator, and he rolls the gear forward to one. And the car takes off…
And Uncle Architect hollers: “What are you…!”
It is a day like any other, much colder than she prefers it, but, otherwise, ordinary in all matters: the roads mildly busy, her colleagues slacking off, her daughter calling about yet another quarrel with her brother. She directs a young biker whom she caught riding without helmet to her colleagues: they enjoy the negotiations early in their shifts. They will make the boy do sit-ups in exchange of freedom. More likely, they will pocket two hundreds bucks including her share of fifty. In any case, such confrontations are best directed to them.
She calms her kids down over her bluetooth headphone, distracting them with a promise of Dairy Milk, even as she makes sure she is vigilant like a cat observing a pigeon. Her job might be mundane, low-paying and weary – even when you go home the din of the traffic buzzes in your ears and everything smells like automobile exhaust -, still, it is a job that helps feed her family and she respects that.
She wonders, in all this chaos, what she will cook today. Anything green or nutritious, and her son will throw tantrums; anything light and fluffy, and her husband will stay hungry – a puzzle to be solved every single day. It is with this thought – the thought of food as a puzzle – in her mind that her eyes react to the sound on the road, with the image in her head of kitchen utensils and un-ignited stove, of uncut vegetables, and her small family complaining about proposed menu, that she finds a white Maruti Ritz racing straight towards her.
A wild buffalo gone berserk, aiming her with its horn. The carriage of God of Death manifest. This is it – this boy driving the mobile is sure to run over her, and all she can do (her brain calculates in a split second) is watch him arrive…
A turn, a screech, a bang.
As if someone up there heard her prayer – her gods, her deceased grandfather – the car swivels at the last moment, and crashes head-on into a moving truck.
She wants to cry, shout, slap the boy driving the car a thousand slaps, incarcerate him, thank him for steering away at the last second… but she tries to compose herself. She must run over to the crash site, inspect, take charge, call an ambulance, aid victims, investigate.
She finds though that her feet are frozen. Her breathing is shallow, difficult. Her throat dry. She is a feeling in the air without a body. A point suspended in the sky, going up, up, effortlessly like a cotton seed.
As if climbing stairs in dark, she takes a step at a time and makes her way to the scene of collision. The Ritz is almost invisible to her: it’s front half smashed by the truck’s anterior, its second half swallowed as if by the audience surrounding it. Where did so many people come from in such a little time? The crowd parts as she nears, which is a relief because she cannot summon the will to instruct the lot. She is not sure if she has a voice, if anybody has. She is watching a movie on mute. The Ritz – or what of it remains – has its doors jammed, windows jammed. People are knocking frantically, mouthing, “Come out, come out.” One of her colleagues is lifting an iron rod, and the other signaling a conscious occupant to move away from the window.
Her head turns from the jammed Ritz to the truck-driver receiving first-aid, and narrating his version of events to listeners, to the area of impact. The automobile’s bonnet is jammed below the truck, destroyed beyond repair. From it, a thick liquid is dropping neatly in a single flow: a pool of blood on the pavement but fluorescent. And just next to the flow, naked wires hanging loose. She sees clear electric sparks, like from a firecracker, even in this daylight.
Run, she wants to scream. Run away!
* * *