If you have not read the previous two sections of A Great Distance, The Beginning & The Middle, please go back to Part 1 by clicking HERE.
These three sections were placed in the longer novel that is now completely edited and ready to publish this Fall. That novel, Wake Me Up (click HERE to see an early cover art mock-up) will have an updated cover, probably one of my parents’ paintings once again pointing to the subject of the novel. I have one in mind, and I will be sharing these choices with you later.
Deepika, the visiting writer to Missoula, Montana writes this last section filled with a guilt she refuses to acknowledge, let alone embrace, and her own pregnancy is paramount in her mind. This last part reveals her mindset, that she created Sai as a speakerbox for her own life’s philosophical and family yearnings. This section of Deepika’s story also was the novel’s original conclusion, mirroring a wish for change in the characters’ lives she has witnessed as co-worker, friend, mistress, new mother, daughter, and independent thinker.
A Great Distance (excerpts from)
Deepika’s Story, Part Three:
This is the day I’ve waited all my life for. Sai can’t help feeling philosophical. It is an end and a beginning. The feelings circle within him, boiling memory into a bitter scar.
Mrs. Plesher and her damn cats—Sai files the story with his editor and closes his desk. Forget her and his irritated editor; he hopes no one close to either of them dies soon, and Shorty’s stooped, shuffling body crosses in front of him, his skin turned to ashy gray — a desiccated Shorty eaten up by too much obeisance to his sibling, and Sai wonders what will happen when, or if, Alice, pops off this mortal coil before him, a puppet too ragged for any second hand shop.
The first emotion Sai felt when the call came telling him about his father’s death was happiness, a spiteful revenging happiness. He said, “Thank you, Gladys,” into the telephone, hung up; a smug twitch of lines passed across his face. He was quite sure his response shocked Gladys, but then again maybe it didn’t. Gladys was his mother’s closest, faithful friend and protector who couldn’t care less about his father’s death, her best friend’s husband’s death, either; maybe Gladys also thought it was logical. The scar stayed hidden deep, but singular razor cuts pried the wound open in time, and wondering about his past made Sai realize that his mother had the exact same damage and had passed it to him at birth.
When people grow old, and think they can’t get much older without drastic changing, there’s always someone who’s changed more, grown older without catastrophe. Sai always thinks a person ages through injury.
When he was young, and ganged up on by Harold, the playground royalty, he thought every punch in the nose would blink a year away; all the blood spattering on the pavement would shave seconds from his life; a fall down the stairs would erase an entire childhood.
Sai hears young adults moan turning the age of 21, thinking themselves to be at the brink of liver-spotted death. Some of them even talk about how they will resort to early euthanasia if they end up like their parents or the people they see on the news fighting for more benefits. Before 21, they’re happy and complacent. After 21, they realize there are very few special birthdays left to welcome except number fifty and maybe one hundred for those who want to hold on like an astronaut adrift in space running out of oxygen.
Someone once told Sai that in America a person dies every fifteen seconds, a person has a heart attack every forty seconds. A rape occurs every two minutes. A person dies of AIDS every quarter hour. Murder every three minutes. Struck by lightning more than once a day. These people grow and grow older in a very short time — injured lives. In the world—deaths occur every fraction of a second, lights blinking off around the earth like fireflies trapped in a child’s killing jar.
Sai figures his father’s light was sparking along on dim for the longest time. His death was painless, a sudden intensity shooting from heart artery pump, to brain synapse logic response. The only logical response after a bursting heart was death.
At the end of the day, when the call comes, Sai feels happy deep down inside; he knows no one would possibly understand just how happy. The way he should feel. Creation. Destruction. A cycle. That is a lie, not as blatant as Sai usually is, but still a lie. He is being morbid. Gladys would say, “Old habits are hard to drag away.” How can his father’s death cause such conflict?
Now, almost a whole day after getting the call, after mumbling his way through a hateful interview with a woman who loves cats more than people, Sai doesn’t know what to feel. He sits in the sleek black and chrome living room chair his ex couldn’t stand, sips his scotch, and lets the burning smell from a neighbor’s fireplace waft in and out of a cracked window; at least it helps mask the rotting cabbage scent of the kitchen. He’ll have to store this chair with a friend tomorrow on the way to the airport – but his car is stranded, another loose end to tie up and he calls a coworker whose brother owns a car repair shop in Hailey. Yes, I can pick you up. The chair will fit in my brother’s tow truck. Got you covered, Sai. And Sai feels a slim relief. He lived with his family for eighteen years and always with this feeling of being trapped by circumstance.
Sai doesn’t blame his mother. How could he? But she will have to move to Idaho now, away from the city that’s engulfed her since birth, child of first generation immigrants from a smaller, but still congested, village close to Bombay, take her away from memories that scarred her and made his self-pity rigid with the taste of knowledge.
When Sai was five, after the accident with his mother, her fall, he wasn’t allowed to see her until she returned home. He led a solitary existence. He’d pretend to meditate a lot. They told him all about meditation and being quiet and mindful and to never speak when not spoken to first: meditate. His father still said nothing to him that wasn’t in the form of a directive. Sai knew his father would always have too much to say when Mother got home to listen as his sole audience member.
His father couldn’t cook.
Dull chicken thighs fried in corn oil and the leftovers sitting in a frying pan, wilted lettuce dripping ketchup, Chinese noodles, rice curry, Szechwan string beans, soy paste in white cardboard fold-up boxes littered the table, counter, floor. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, clean anything either. A cultural thing? Gladys and her lesser friend, Edith Wright, would spend two entire days cleaning the house from top to bottom for Sai’s mother when she returned. The house rang with curses on those two days, indistinguishable.
When Sai woke up at seven, quiet for fear of making the door down the hall open, he’d change into flannel and corduroy, blue-stripe Keds. He knew how to tie his own shoes since he was four, with big bow loops. Most of the time the laces knotted horribly.
On his way down the stairs Sai paused where it happened, letting out a deep breath, how his mother held him, how they fell, a moving image flicker. Sometimes a thump came from behind his father’s door as if a whale was breaching. Sai bit his lip, continued to the kitchen, hoped for escape without a yell, whistle, verbal command to “Get the hell upstairs, Mother-Killer.”
The refrigerator door opened to reveal ice-glazed, frosty shelves, wrinkled olives stuck in the corners, goat cheese wet, green, and molding. Sai pushed the door closed, searched the cupboards for peanut butter and Saltines. Pulling a stool over, he stood gazing at the crumbs, old boxes of Maypo, raisins, and rat traps placed near the flour, sugar bags. On the kitchen table next to the coffeepot that leaked was a quarter.
The quarter, newly minted, went in Sai’s pocket while a slight feeling of dread filled up his thoughts. Did he leave the money for his lunch? What were the odds? A hundred to one he left it for his morning paper and coffee at Shirlee’s Lunchbox. What will happen if he finds it missing? Sai shut the kitchen door quietly and it made a whisper. Father’s window above reflected streaking sunlight; the beige curtains were drawn. Sai was an independent kindergartner sneaking out the back door on his way to school—what he would later come to think as the true place for salvation—while his father lay in stasis, as if inebriated, not by alcohol, because he wouldn’t drink during the work week, but swollen up by the unfairness of it all: the wife—an arrangement he’d never forgive his parents for—the child, and their fall down the stairs, how Sai’s father saw the whole thing happen as he walked out of the bathroom and after, the landing window still in pieces with cardboard cutouts over the holes, cracks; Sai wondering, much later, if his father had planned the whole thing.
The morning wind, cooling, crisping surfaces to the freezing point, made the trip to school a wide-eyed one. A leaf, oak, maple, dogwood, cherry, any vine still clinging to the city’s buildings, every blade of grass, keen to a razor’s edge, was sheathed in frost-ice. A blue jay sparkled against a brownstone backdrop. Two teenagers, sideburns long still in a throwback to the fifties, square, oiled, their eyes reflecting granite side streets, cupped matches for cigarettes, pretending they were in the past. Both teenagers knew how the West was won. They spit against buildings, the waste freezing instantly, covered their faces with bandannas to ward off chill, spoke in glances to each other as Sai passed by across the street with his head down.
Sai knew about Jarko and Mick, transplants from Bulgaria, who practiced their own kind of city vandalism to a perfection so sharp that the ease with which they’d terrify was measured by how fast the heartbeat raced, how piercing the cries of the caught were, how loud the slams of windows were as they sauntered by. The forerunners of all the gangs to come, they were their dead idols with a twist: James Deans gone wicked. Sai heard Mick’s voice, “There’s the stupid squib who pushed his mother down the stairs.”
“A buck she croaks,” Jarko replied, “A dead Jeremiah.” They slapped palms.
“Let’s find out why he did it?”
Sai could also hear the drip of water as the sun rose higher. This sound, light skittering across a still pond, mixed with the scraps of kicked stones, the Deans following him. To be a part of the brickwork, to be gaseous floating up away, to be army camouflage in a jungle across the ocean, was what he wished to be. Anywhere but there at that moment in time. Humming stressed tones he glanced quickly behind, saw them closing the distance and they breathed confidence, menace slithering across their features. They laughed sharply. Sai ran. They laughed louder. Sai ran faster.
The place he was running to was unreachable. In his mind he accepted capture and even slowed down a little while a heated vision bubbled, the scene hot enough to distort glass, melt street tar so that the feet would stick and dinosaurs drown: Sai imagined Jarko and Mick with spears, in a corner, when he turned to face them. He screamed, muffled with square constriction. Mick thrust his spear into him. His heart burst. Jarko put his spear through Sai’s legs below the knees. Together they lifted him up above. Screaming. I knew my life would end like this. He was caught.
The Deans whistled, tore Sai’s t-shirt at the shoulder, yanked him into an alley. Newspaper sheets flew freely in the wind, stuck in frozen puddles. Even though the sun was out, the alley remained in shadow. Broken crates stacked up against the left side among dented, graffiti-ridden trash barrels.
“Think the squib’s gonna cry?” Jarko asked Mick.
“Not while I’m around he won’t.” They held Sai between them, blew stale breath into his face.
“Why’d you do it, Puss-N-Boots? Why’d you push your mother down the stairs?” Sai heard the question and thought about tumbling repeatedly down a steep hill, knowing there was no end to it, no drop off. “I think he needs to be pushed down a hole too. Go on a nice trip,” Mick said.
“Let me go,” Sai wailed in a voice low, young, girlish, the words urging their anger up a notch. He kept silent then, stared like an Egyptian statue discovered centuries too late—its perfection rotted away.
“Mick, wanna take him to the hole?” Sai’s eyes widened leaving a ring of white around his brown, icy irises.
The hole . . . images of darkness, depths in hundreds of feet instantly filled Sai’s thoughts. Smaller, a flicker of green flame, curiosity, wound its way in with the danger.
“OK, you’ve had it squib. Say your prayers.”
“He prays to a different God, Jarko.”
“The wrong one, Mickey,” Jarko sneered.
Sai was too small to fight, barely forty-five inches. He supposed he invited foul play. Crooked lifestyles were drawn to his composition. Smiling, even laughing, became impossible. His lips were always turning down at the ends, a perfect pantomime of sadness. Usually it was the elderly who traveled the streets leaning on canes or one another who pointed out his solemnity.
“A boy like you. A boy your age should be happy. What’ve you got to be serious for? When I was a kid I didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Life was more exciting that way. You’re still a child. Make the most of the opportunity before it’s too late. Back then, I had the profound ability to discover, as if I was a celebrated inventor, everything on this earth.” Mr. Arjun Kharbanda loved to make speeches. He stood outside his coin laundry smoking stinking hand-rolled cigarettes, his lips ringed with wrinkles. “I remember when I lost it, kid. When objects were just—plain objects. Curiosity was a thing of the past. The magical shine disappeared; I had learned the difference between right and wrong. You go around, moping, looking like you knew this the moment you were born.”
The yellowing blind was closed at Kharbanda Laundromat. Sai wondered if Mr. Arjun Kharbanda would help him or tell the Deans to teach him a lesson, teach him to appreciate natural curiosity. Jarko and Mick, with Sai in the middle, passed in front of the silent washing machines heading in the opposite direction of the Roosevelt School on Maxwell and First Ave. Sai was held tightly at the shoulders and deep down part of him relished the touch. Fingers dug into his neck and Sai felt the pain and experienced the fear but he liked it and could never ever tell anyone this. His parents never touched him. If he yelled for help they said he would bleed.
On his way to the hole other kids Sai knew passed by, sleep still grasping their limbs. No one noticed the group of three. They slipped away, invisible to all, on towards a block of abandoned buildings. A piece of cement fell to their left, shattering against the cracked pavement. Sai glanced up to the rooftops. Of course, no one was up there. Lonely, spying gargoyles, dirty with soot, crumbling, stared their stony stares, as if they were all-knowing creatures forged with intelligent mockery. All the begging in the world couldn’t make them take flight. They knew what was going to happen. Sai could almost hear them laughing.
The building was made up of crumbling brick, broken windows, falling gutters, and splintering doorways. From within came the low sound of dogs growling, scattered paws on stairwells. Sai thought for a moment he was entering a building that was alive, full of dark, malignant life. The window reflected sunlight pale yellow, streaking orange. If Sai’s face could ask a question it would ask the obvious, and get derisive laughter in reply: “What’re you gonna do to me? Are you gonna hurt me? Please don’t. I’m only five. My arm’s already broken. Please. Please. Please.”
“That word,” his teacher told him, “was magical. Please transforms frowns to smiles, impatience to starlight, will help you reach your destination smoothly. If you say please after every request, you will become a man,” the teacher said, “a man just like your father.” Maybe that was why Sai forgot to say it except under duress and bullying arm-twisting. Like now, but his teacher had lied to him. Etiquette would get him nowhere. Mick punched him in the stomach. He fell to the plaster-covered floor landing on his contused arm. Jarko kicked his legs out from under him.
On the ground in dust, Sai held his stomach with his trembling hands. Even though he knew please wouldn’t work he cried it anyway, tears rolled down his face painting lines, dripped to the floor.
“I told you not to cry, baby. What’s your name?”
“I think you’re a little con artist. I think you pushed your mother down the stairs. That’s what everyone around here thinks. I think we picked the right squib today, Jarko.”
“If you try conning us you’re dead meat, crybaby.”
Sai cried louder.
“No one’ll hear you down in the hole except the dogs and the rats. Scream all ya want.”
“Why’re you doing this?”
“It’s what ya deserve for trying to kill your mother, squib.”
The floor was pocked with holes. Dotting the far side of the room, close to the boarded up windows, smaller toothy holes sat about like animal burrows. These holes, if stepped in, could twist an ankle with a snap. Newspaper, a rat-bitten red sock, a barbecue grill broken in half, a baby doll carriage, littered the room, covered the smaller pits like camouflage over tiger traps. In the center of the room was the hole Jarko and Mick taunted Sai with and now pulled Sai towards. Sai thought it was the blackest pit he’d ever seen before. He became weightless and his feet skidded on the floor making long tracks of dirt, rat droppings. They brought him to the edge, laughed and threw him into the darkness. He landed half on, half off a crusty mattress. His arms scraped the floor, the cast bursting, and bled droplets out of splinter marks. Above Sai, the Deans said, “See ya round, squib.”
Passed out in the hole Sai dreamt of them coming back to get him. Sai in the darkness. Them in circular light. They reached down, arms like bunched rope, lifted him up and threw him down again, but this time there was no crusty mattress. Spikes, growing from the floor, had taken its place. Points glistened in welcome as he raced towards them. He stuck out his hand and it was punctured cleanly through the palm. His mother appeared at the top, far away, pleading with him, and he saw the shadow come up behind her and then she was falling towards him, landing on him, taking his breath away, the shadow smothering the light.
Sai’s father and Mr. Groverton, a neighborhood policeman, found him four hours later when he didn’t report, show up, for school. They lifted him out of the hole with a harness made of twisted rope. His father joked about leaving him there.
Sai’s parents didn’t know what to do with him from the start. They were pessimists with no self-control. Words, actions, tirades, monologues spewed forth in wicked delusions of order and righteousness and slighted ego. Contractions started a little more than a day before Sai’s arrival. Sabrina, his mother, screaming, “I knew something like this would happen. Of all the people I have to have a child with. Of all the people my parents have to force me to be with.”
Sai’s parents, mainly his father, didn’t speak to him much, directly, but that wasn’t true a lot of the time because they were two very vocal doom smiths. They just didn’t talk around him. When Sai was only a newborn they thought that by speaking in front of such a young receiver of information, they would ruin his mind. Doors were always shut tightly first around him, barriers set to block expression.
Sai wasn’t even four when he realized the moaning would go on forever.
Whenever Sai came home from school two years later, his father would still groan. The blood. “Remember the blood, and why you’re named after a knife.” The story, true, yet melodramatic and dirge-like spun round the house, Sai Kulbhushan Amrashi. They wouldn’t buy Sai a Hershey bar because they thought he’d start to covet sweets and he’d grow fat and lazy in the grass. That his pride would destruct and lead into an alley of evil forces where otherworldly sinners seeking a strict penance for their actions congregated to hatch nihilistic plots. Sai learned this from their many diatribes on ancient languages forgotten by the masses.
Even though their religion was the furthest from Catholicism, really a form of lax Hinduism, they called Sai Sinner when he could comprehend the term. The only reason being, he supposed, was they thought he caused them to feel pain all over—tainting their bodies and minds—without a river to drown in and to wash them clean, untainted. Later on he wondered why they would even let him know he was doing something, anything to them. He wanted human contact so much. All he had to do was sit in the same room in a corner away from them, motionless, speechless. That was enough for them to notice him. “Sinner,” his father said with a laugh, “feeling awful today? Good. That’s how you should feel every second.”
Yet everything has changed. Sai believes he’s not supposed to feel awful now, that he has the power to change his fate. Maybe then his childhood demons could run amok causing destruction and havoc, but he’s banished them to the deepest pit within, now it’s as if his childhood demons grew up alongside him, mutating into adult concerns. Now, his father is dead. Back then, as a child, he wanted to know why his father orchestrated his every action. He didn’t know anything about his father’s past because his mother or her friends never said anything about him—and __ _________ __________ _______________ _ ______________ _________ ____ he aches to know why—was there something in his father’s childhood that made him the wretched man he was? Did his parents abandon him at birth? He’d never thought to ask, and now it’s way too late, and the really sad part is that Sai feels this emptiness of knowledge every time his father appears and disappears.
Everything changed after his mother fell down the stairs, after they told him television would ruin his mind, turn him into something vile and grotesque, after he started going to kindergarten, where he’d have to pretend he knew what the other children were talking about when they mentioned what was on TV the night before. His mother changed for the better.
Sai remembers asking his mother to do one thing—“Put me on your shoulders, Mommy.” His father would’ve said something to him then, about whining and the destructive swords of sloth and wanting, but he was behind the bathroom door, out of sight. It was a demanding statement. The one nice thing she did before her fall was pick Sai up, all forty-five pounds of begging flesh, onto her broad shoulders so that his small head rested on her tangled dark brown hair.
“Who’s been teaching you to mooch, Sai?”
She said this while a shadow dimmed the light in the hallway, and then Sai went on the scariest ride of his life. Going down any flight of stairs, if he’s back, dwelling in his mind, thinking about the past—and when is he not?—affects his heart. It tightens up somehow and his left arm goes numb. All he could see was his body tumbling over his mother’s head, ripping out a handful of her hair with a pudgy fist, and slamming into the radiator at the bottom. His mother, screaming, “Shiva,” in a high-pitched shortened yelp, tumbled over him. He heard a loud crash and the sharp tinkle of broken glass.
When Sai looked up, dazed, he saw how her head had smashed through the window just past the stair landing. He saw the blood. He saw her legs twitching. He saw movement from the top of the stairs, descending. He had two major contusions on his left arm, a broken nose and a gash where his chin had scraped the floor, twelve stitches.
She was in the hospital for two months. When she came back she was nice to Sai and would remain nice, plastic, pliable to him forever after the fall. He sometimes wondered if she knew who he really was. She never yelled at him anymore, only listened to his father shout, “Demon. Boy. You caused this, and I hope you burn in your own created special Hell. I hope you go to the place all sinners burn.” Sai always wanted to remind his father that they don’t believe in Hell, that he didn’t feel awful because he had gained a mother, someone who he thought was closer to his image of the other kids’ mothers, the only person in his life who ever really listened to him and wouldn’t, couldn’t talk back. He had the accident to thank for that.
Sai doesn’t feel awful now, in the present, either. He doesn’t. Resolved. He accepts his future. He has a good job at a mountain resort newspaper, reaching for a promotion to assistant news editor within the year, and maybe, now that his father is dead, he can bring his mother out, support her. Maybe. His body’s still in control but his mind wanders. It’s hard growing optimistic in the world today, in his world before his mother’s fall down the stairs. And he keeps wondering what that world was like. What his mother’s world was really like when he was born and before.
Contractions, contradiction, original pain.
The front right tire blew on the way to the hospital. No spare.
“How close together are those contractions? Don’t want to have your baby in my cab, do we?” Imagine, a moon-faced, unshaven, cigar-smoking, obese cab driver asking Sai’s mother-to-be that question, as he picked her up on the side of the Interstate. His stomach, resting snug against the meter, could’ve been trained to turn it on. Imagine a pregnant, contraction-ridden hitchhiker looking like Broom Hilda with a Hindi accent. This cab driver stopped to pick her up and would live to regret it. From a clean-shaven, showered, healthy intern, the question would be natural. From Moon-face, an assault? Sai imagines it was more the way he screwed up his face, showing grated teeth, many missing, and said, “Those contractions,” as if brimming with concealed laughter, hiding amusement triggered by the worldly womanly pain suffocating his cab. She made him stop the taxi, told her husband to give him money to go call an ambulance; holding her weight with both hands, grimacing as a contraction ripped out from the core. The cab driver sped off. Abominable wretch. Two people boiling with hatred on the highway; one slouching on the guardrail, rat-woven muddy-brown hair weaving over her shoulders as she clutched Sai, the belly; the other covering his pock-marked face with both hands, moaning, oblivious to the bumper-to-bumper lunch-hour traffic moving slowly along. Sai didn’t, and he still doesn’t, know whether his father was moaning about his wife stranded five miles from the nearest hospital or missing his lunch, with his favorite game show, a carnival host blaring false security to the contestants.
Disoriented, Sai entered this world, and will probably leave the same way. Like his mother who was very much alone now and can’t even say her own name because of the accident. He wanted to teach her.
Sai can barely remember learning, teaching himself how to talk; he doesn’t know what his first spoken word was. Since his parents wouldn’t speak much around him, he had to learn from other sources; he was mumbling; humming most of the time, one gigantic two-legged bee bumbling along without a stinger until the authorities forced his parents to enroll him in kindergarten.
The television, a large Zenith monster, black and white, grainy, they always locked in a downstairs room as if they were ashamed of it. His mother had the key. His parents would watch an evening of comedy, bald-headed police drama, variety. Sai would silently unhook the child-resistant wooden, criss-cross gate at the top of the stairs, tiptoe down, skipping the squeaky ninth stair from the bottom and put an ear to what he called in his mind the strange room. Voices came out jumbled through the thick oak doors, securely fastened. He would jumble and work with speech, words, thereafter.
They were right to lock television away from Sai, even after his mother fell. He would never learn anything but how people followed the rule of a secular world and flaunted their abuses of the seven deadly sins and more commandments than anyone could remember come football Sunday. Maybe his father was right. Maybe he was a follower of ego, covetousness, lust, anger, Kali, gluttony, Shiva, envy, and sloth.
After the ambulance came, picking up a woman and a husband, the driver stuffing a ham-and-cheese sandwich on black rye into his gullet as he drove, there was peace for some time. “Turn off that pig-calling siren. If I go deaf, I’ll sue the pants off your fat ass.” The words spit forth from Sai’s father’s lips. With the siren off, they waited in traffic. They would’ve arrived at the hospital faster if they’d walked. It didn’t matter. Sai wouldn’t come out for another twenty hours anyway. By then his mother would be hooked up to IV bags and the doctors would be worried about the baby becoming infected as they get worried about any baby after a full day of labor. Maybe Sai didn’t want to come out. Maybe his parents knew this and resented him for it. Maybe the reason for the whole event was that Sai knew who had conceived him already, he knew the egg intimately; the sperm was a coastal invader. Sai could picture the event: a miracle. Creation. They, the tools, probably hated each other at first glance, but were forced together, glued and bonded, every second fighting the match, but the egg would hatch.
The egg. So small in comparison to, say, the image Sai gets when he thinks of an elephant egg. Growth in what was then such a long time to wait.
Nine months of rushing inside with nothing to do but grow and feel the walls constrict, kicking out.
More than a day’s worth of grief, tears that wouldn’t be quenched. The blood color branched in her eyes as the second day approached, and not one lapse in the contractions, not one idle moment lost to a profusion of blood and membrane, flesh and bone.
The hospital, Mercy First St. Agnes Hospital, gray brick and asphalt, once closed down for eight months in 1985 while its ceilings and walls were cleansed of asbestos, was still potent, invisible to all, soaking into the maternity rooms like some rodent looking for the cancer ward. Asbestos, Evil, which is greater? One can kill a fire. One can start a fire on purpose. Did Sai’s father blame the accident on the evil of the hospital? Gasoline poured into the thick of the woods, the brittle stuff hearty with dry heat and dust. The rodent, hairy, diseased, bleeding freely from cracked sores, crawled around that hospital for over twenty years before its head was caught in a trap, steel slamming down into the meat of the neck, grinding to the bone, bleeding. And his father kept telling him it all came down to the blood. Remember the blood. But at this time the rodent was free, and Sai’s mother didn’t know it. How could she? In 1985, when the story went fifth page editorial in the newspaper, Gladys said his mother was tormented inside even if she couldn’t say so. Gladys said the article hit the chord of life when she read it to Sabrina. “Your baby was born in that asbestos death camp. Maybe that’s why he never visits you.” She said his mother thought cancer with all her heart, what little place was left down deep, hidden in that crevice of thought. Gladys sent Sai Power-Pack-It Vitamins every month for a year with a note saying: “Watch out for the Big C. Your mother didn’t know. She’s sorry.” If Sai had a cold, Gladys thought it was an early symptom of gloomy days to come. Gladys should’ve had children of her own and stopped trying so hard to be Sai’s surrogate mother.
In some way, to a certain degree, Sai wondered if she could be right. He wondered why Gladys stayed by his mother’s side. Such a good neighbor; someone who knows the whole family history; two old women watching time, husbands, and one child pass them by.
All the medical personnel involved with Sai’s mother in that hospital during her vigil, despised, would sell every piece of the soul to Satan to get all one-hundred-sixty-five pounds of sickening human rage out of the maternity ward.
And there it is, the painful truth from an undesirable’s own pen; a recreation of a life he is piecing together.
What no one realized, what not one single person realized was that his mother wanted justice full in the face, twenty-six years of justice, a promissory note with the constitution in small print, footnoted at the bottom, Miss Manners backing the ideal with a response engraved in parentheses after the words: “All men are created equal…”
She wouldn’t let any man into her hospital room. After the way her assigned doctor, male Doctor Rubemann, probed her with green eyes, she thought were drug-clouded eyes, with hands, fingers like Nosferatu’s. She held her abdomen with one hand while the other struck out at Rubemann. She screamed, “Get out. Monster. Leave. Cut those Goddamn fingernails!”
Dr. Cranbisses, with gold-wire glasses perched on her nose, strolled into danger zone Amrashi, clipboard patient record pressed to her breast, surveyed the woman Nurse Ball, Nurse Erler and night Nurse Shetty had nicknamed Patient Patton. “Doctor, we’re warning you, Patient Patton will rip you to shreds if you let her. You’ll be back here in five minutes tops.”
An untidy doctor has dirty hands that touch Sai’s mother’s skin, will touch her, and cut the umbilical cord. The fingernails, painted a dazzling red, matched the smock under white physician frock and hid the dirt of the delivery before her entry into Sabrina Amrashi’s room; Dr. Cranbisses helped birth twins an hour past, blondes both, fuzzy girl as pudgy as an inner tube and lobster boy, now lying peacefully behind partition glass, in pink and blue and the Amrashi woman in white.
It was the black shoes, shiny new in expense, Sai’s mother noticed right away, just thinking of the appearance. Gold, real, undiluted chain on left wrist, circles hanging from each earlobe, a dangle woman come to time the contractions and press all over with a flat powdered palm, fingers wearing diamonds on white gold, a pearl necklace jiggling between soft dress neckline and cleavage.
“How are we feeling today, Mrs. Amrashi?” Not really wanting to know, opinions formed by the nurses’ remarks before entering, niceties because of the money involved. Sai’s mother would let her know as she pushed herself up a little bit on her pillow, the rattrap of her hair cascading in her face.
“I feel like a gigantic menstrual cramp and I wish you were the plug.” Her teeth flashed white, yellow-gray near the gums, and silver in the back. “And how are we feeling today, Doctor? You look like a million bucks of baby money. Is that how you feel too? Like a cash register? What am I? Penny change?” Dr. Cranbisses blushed red and surrendered the room with a jangle of jewelry.
Vehemence coursed through her veins as she waited for the next contraction and the next doctor. A woman wrapped in white, crepe soles stiff lacquered leather on top, crept into the room carrying a new IV bag, gaze averted to a spot above the two piercing black eyes in Sabrina Amrashi’s volatile head.
These eyes gazed restlessly upon the nurse, mirthless and maddening.
“Doesn’t anyone know I’m having a baby?” The nurse remained silent, unhooked the empty IV and positioned, checked the drip of the new one. “Answer me.” Sai’s mother tried to sit up in the bed and winced with the pain. Turning sharply, the nurse scurried from the room as Sabrina pushed a tray table and made it crash into the wall behind her. The nurse, and the maternity unit, heard, “I won’t let you get away with this. Where’s my lawyer?”
And maybe the answer laid here because she was very pretty at one time—not the lawyer she only threatened with, but Sai’s mother—striking, her neighbors said. But she had to put up with a father who insisted on being called Vijay Boom. The neighbors grimaced bringing that past to the present, when questioned by Sai, because Vijay Boom hadn’t been around since Sabrina got married, he left her that same day, and none of them could think of anyone who would want to go find out what had happened to him.
Sai’s mother’s childhood passed with Vijay Boom in complete control. She followed the orders of Vijay Boom, and came to worship Vijay Boom because he was all she had; her dear mother was lost, killed, carved, murdered…
In a grocery store, shopping for lamb to make a yellow curry with carrots and soft-boiled potatoes, baby food for Sabrina, Lucky Strikes for Vijay Boom. Then, after casing the store for thirty minutes, came the three men, one woman, each of them grasping a chain, a hunting blade, or a .22, desperate for a quick rush of money. They needed the money so badly, to start a new life, to feel like anyone else proudly walking the streets with a full belly. One of the men wanted something else after seeing the woman near the fruit display, grapefruit piled into a towering pyramid. He grabbed and threw mother’s mother into a neighboring stand of ripening pineapples, spraining her left wrist, popping a kneecap, tore open her blouse, said something about how golden her skin was in a whisper so only she could hear, how that excited him, while the other two men, one woman watched the front, terrified the cashiers. The man cut her cheek with the hunting knife, the serrated edge slicing a thin line from ear to lip as he lay on top of her, pressed his tongue into the blood dribbling from the cut. She spit in his face, yanked her good wrist free and raked his cheek with newly sharpened, cleaned nails, gouging a cleft in his left eye. Aqueous humor spewed out.
A spiking spasm of hot pain, enraged, he closed her eyes with his fists and plunged the blade into her neck, slashed through across the top of her ribs, stood up, kicked a pineapple down to a tomato cart, leaving mother’s mother lying like a fish too far gone to toss back. Was it Sai’s mother’s skin color that attracted the man with the knife? Who coined the term hate crime? In the past a murder was just that: a murder.
Vijay Boom clipped a news photo out of a paper showing the four murderers. The police told him they got what they deserved, one and the same, in the grainy sensationalized newsprint photo. See the blood pooling all around them? He called them The Savages.
The Savages, the three men, one woman took the money, too little to make it too far, but, nevertheless, tried to run very far away.
They all died a little while later, as Vijay Boom’s article stated, in a bar states to the South, holding up Shandy’s in North, Georgia. One Man wore an eye patch made by One Woman. There were two off-duty police officers doing shots of whiskey with a beer wash. When One Woman blasted the bartender, the two cops skidded behind a table overturned, fired at will, putting a dim third eye in One Woman’s forehead, smashing vertebrae in Three Men who were inexperienced in the art of the shoot-out. Eye Patch grabbed a cocktail waitress, and held the hunting knife, cleaned, to her throat, backed out of the bar and was shot in the head by a bruiser boy in blue with off-duty badge still pinned to shirt pocket who was flattened backside next to the entrance of Shandy’s out of sight. The cocktail waitress, shaky and wobbling, said, “You saved my life. Like in the movie shows. I’ll get you a drink.” The bruiser boy in blue cocked his head back, said, “Well that’s what I was comin’ in for, Ma’am,” and sauntered into Shandy’s.
And out of chance with no choice, Sai’s mother went motherless, and in a sense, became her own mother as Vijay Boom came home yelling for his dinner, paced the hallways, raged at Sabrina about traditions and family and what Sabrina came to call The Arrangement. “You’ll marry who your mother wanted you to marry.” Again and again. “Food will be ready as soon as I get one foot into this house. Do I make myself clear, Sabrina?”
Dropped out of school when it was legal so she could better take care of her father, so that he wouldn’t gripe if there was dust on the table, grunge in the carpet, snow mud in the front hall.
The neighbors saw little of Sai’s mother—maybe a flitting shadow passing a sweeper behind a drawn shade—and they whispered about her possible deterioration.
She was smiling.
The neighbors do remember the balloons and the one time they saw her happy, her appearance. Sai’s mother told the neighbors she met her husband that day. Not the man her parents wanted her to marry but the one that would break apart The Arrangement. Balloons, red, pink, white, filled with helium, bought at a carnival, held in one hand tightly, while the other was pulled, enclosed by Vijay Boom’s fist. The carnival, the only event, really the only happy event she went to as a teenager with her father.
She smiled, wearing a green and black plaid skirt, white blouse, wondered about a world so different from hers as her father told her a story about an overweight woman, knees, ankles, elbows hidden by fatty flesh, a young bowling-boy sitting next to her, both squeezed into the ride’s chair, The Scrambler moving to beat the air, clutch wind, the pin screw popping, snapping loudly and the weighty woman and child skidding against pavement, mangled, meshed into the ride-chair grating as they flew, scrambled through the air, landing, crushing into Elephant Ear Caravan with a corrugated metal flesh scream. Vijay Boom said, “D.O.A.” A jumble of arms, seat cushions, legs, safety-brace bar, pavement crush, human and elephant ear dough.
“No rides, Sabrina. Never safe at these two-bit things. Never put them together right. Remember that big lady and her dead son and remember you know better.”
Sabrina watched. It was all she could do, no food: too greasy. “They cook with dirty hands. Look at that french-fryer, hands so filthy they look diseased. He’s passing the plague.” She took in the colors, the people, the fear, a couple embracing before entering the egg-shaped cage of The Whirligig, taking them around, around, upside down, stranded at the top for five seconds, shaking, plunging down again when the attendant thought their screams were loud enough, a magical time for Sabrina that lasted four hours. She went home, cooked supper, shrimp and beans with sour soup, read a picture book, went to her room, forgetting to wash her hair again, gazed at the balloons clinging to the ceiling, thought of the young man, with little pock scars dotting his chin, who sold them to her, the sly, lengthy eye contact as he gave her the strings with one hand, taking the money from Vijay Boom with the other. Blushing, an embarrassed feeling as she was yanked away and told to follow, heed her father, to the bandstand for the tractor pull.
The pull—Sai’s mother daydreamed in black, gray, and red spastic tones, the forceps so long cold reaching diving into her. No one leading them, like a driverless car gliding down the avenue, the steering wheel turning by itself, under invisible heated power, the headless horseman plunging steaming along a mossy forest path on an ebony steed seeking what was foreign in his woods of Sleepy Hollow. The forceps dashing in, then out, testing the flesh and tightening with a knowledgeable click, closing onto the foreign. She screamed, and the forceps tore back, the head of her baby gripped between the tongs, blood dribbling from the hole left where the head was severed from the neck, and she woke up, sharp, when she dreamt the small headless thing crawling its way out in search of what was a part of him for nine months.
They wouldn’t sedate her, or kill the pain until it was really Time, and she was very close. Giving birth. She couldn’t let her mind wander, couldn’t go back to the womb where the baby-thing awaited her, revenge in his tiny heart that pumped blood in a never ending supply, out through the neck, showering like a Roman fountain.
So she took her journal from the bed stand drawer, wrote about the nurses and the doctors, how none of them seemed to care, and just wanted her gone; then opened to the section reserved for her nightmares, and wrote about her dream.
She loved nightmares. Sai’s mother said they were the only ones she could ever remember clearly, and she had many nightmares to fill her notebooks. Sai never said anything in reply because he was too young, and then the accident shut his mother up about everything including her dreams, but now he thought she was right about nightmares. They were the only dreams he could remember when he opened his eyes after sleep. Before the accident, his mother would say, “The other ones fade away almost instantly when you wake up. These stay with you, make you think, appreciate your life no matter how hard it is.” She would make stories out of her favorites, dating back to her childhood years with Vijay Boom; they were bedtime tales. At this point in her life started a series of dreams she called the Bogeyman dreams: I am in a house, painted black, sometimes gray, and every now and then I would dream the same dream in blue. I have a dust rag in my hand, scrubbing the walls, and then I would turn slowly, eyes open, mouth quivering at the sight of the shape, huge and strong and darkness and needle-toothed and lizard-tongued and I would run down the hall and this needle thing would chase me and its feet, or paws, sounded like sponges squishing on the wooden floor and I would scream, loudly, for father to help me, and I would always come to a dead end and wait for the Bogeyman to round the corner and then I would wake up when Vijay Boom burst through the floorboards and pulled me away. And I woke up that very morning and ran away from home. I ran to meet my husband, Naseeruddin Amrashi, who sold balloons to a little girl so long ago and now worked for the city works department in management. He was a hard worker, a hard man, and he loved me and worked just as hard to keep me from my father. I never saw Vijay Boom after my wedding day.
Now Sai guesses it is his turn to pull his mother away, now that he is well into his thirties and can afford, with the promotion at work and what he saved from his San Francisco job and the help his ex gave him, to take care of her. If they were frugal—they can sell the family house; that will help. Would his mother even remember saying goodbye to Gladys?
The call came yesterday, telling Sai his father died when he tripped on a discarded shoe on the landing, tumbled down to the floor, and cracked his head on a chair leg. His heart tightened and burst. Gladys said it was his own shoe, a mud-flecked work boot. Gladys meant that it was his own damn fault.
After the call came Sai goes to sleep and wakes up quickly in the morning as if from a cold shock, but he can’t remember his dreams. His first thoughts concern the funeral service, and whether or not he should attend. He goes to work. Meets the wreck of a woman, Mrs. Plesher, and her brother, Shorty, and all of her saved, mewling cats and files Alice’s real story knowing the woman will haunt him when his piece comes out; Sai is unable to take sides, just gives the facts and lets them sort it out, turns the story into a human interest look-what’s-happening-in-our-valley whine.
Sai will fly away tomorrow morning if the low cloud cover across the valley allows the airplanes to fly.
And now Sai is thinking about how his father treated him, how his father, Naseeruddin Amrashi, kept hating him even more after his mother grew to care for him, even smile a bit, during her permanent convalescence; he also wished his father had an accident when he was the age of six so that he would’ve changed also.
Then again, maybe Sai could’ve done something himself earlier.
Sai is speculating about what his parents went through when he was born, what they went through before he was born, how to replay history without throwing it all away. He realizes he never gets to hear his father’s voice again, explaining to the police how the accident happened, explaining how his ungrateful child forced his mother to carry him down the stairs on her shoulders. Sometime in the future he will realize his father knew too much, too many things he didn’t witness. His father will stare into Sai’s eyes, where they will start to smolder, daring him to say anything to anyone about how his father is caught in a lie. When Sai is a teenager he finally says, “How could you know so much if you were in the bathroom? I thought you didn’t see anything? Did you come out to watch or to push?” These fights Sai always starts inevitably turn vicious. Words battling for finality, and usually his father is the one who turns his back with a dismissive wave of his hand that means believe what you want.
Maybe Sai has to go back, to watch his birth, to see what went wrong instead of hearing about it over and over again. He slumps in his chair and knows he has to stop thinking now because he keeps picturing his father standing next to his mother with him, The Child, on top of her shoulders, short fingers tightly grasping her hair, at the crest of the stairs, the shadow arriving, and a fall transforming all three of them together all at once.
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