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Authors: Thrity Umrigar

The Story Hour (6 page)

BOOK: The Story Hour
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The black lady's eyebrow go high. “I am a real doctor, Mr. Patil. Now, if your wife has a problem with me, I'd be happy to refer her to a different therapist. But”—her voice get real quiet—“I think you're the one with the problem.”

Husband open his mouth, but just then the black lady say, “Now, if you'll excuse us, visiting hours are over. And I need to start my session with Lakshmi.”

I feel something prideful in my chest. The husband look like he Pran and he got beat up by Amitabh Bachchan. He don't know whether to go or come, sit or stand. He look at me for help but I look straight at him. What he call this room? A hotel room? If I'm in hotel, he the visitor.

Chup-chap, quiet as a lizard, he gather the tiffin box and take the dirty plate. The gulab jaman, wrapped in foil, he put on the table for me. He look at me again, and then at the black lady, and then he leaf the room.

Soon as he go, I feel like to cry. So alonely I'm feeling without the husband. And wicked, for how I happy when this lady make him defeat. Some jadoo she do, to make me side with her over my husband. I decide I will not speak to her. Let her leaf my room as she make my husband leaf.

She sit down on chair across from me. “I heard you're not eating much here, Lakshmi,” she say. “So I'm glad your husband is bringing food from home.”

Who tell her I not eating? How she know my husband bringing the food? “Who telling you such lies? Why you care what I eat? You mind your own business.”

“It is my business,” she say. “Look, my goal is to evaluate you and make sure you're fit to be discharged, okay? So I require your cooperation, Lakshmi.”

Such big-big word she using. I don't understand anything she say.

She look at me close. “Are you getting what I'm saying? It's really important that you understand. If you don't, we can get a interpreter, okay?”

“What ‘inter-printer' mean?”

“Someone who speaks your language. Hindi? Punjabi? Gujarati? Whatever you speak. And that person can tell you what I'm saying.”

“Why you need to speak to me?”

She give out big breath. “Lakshmi. You've just tried to kill yourself. If your husband had not come home early with a headache, God knows what would've happened. Okay? So we can't let you go from here until I'm convinced . . . until I'm sure you won't do this again. Do you understand?”

I nods. “I'm sorry. I am wicked woman for the suicide. I am sorry.”

“Sweetie. You're not wicked. You're just in pain. You're hurting. I can see it on your face. And I'm here to help you. But you've gotta let me in.”

“You already in,” I say, confuse.

She laugh. “In, like, into your heart. Your mind. You have to tell me why you took this step. So that we make sure you don't do it again.”

I feel as if I walk into a dark room and turn on the light. I now understands what she is wanting from me. She is wanting my story. Just like when you go to the doctor sahib with cough-cold and he is asking questions—when it started, were you walking in rain, were you eating too many sour mangoes all of once? Then only he knows what medicines to give.

She is wanting my story. In my village, I was champion storyteller. When Ma became sick with the 'rthritis, I would tell Shilpa stories at night so she could go to sleep and not hear Ma's crying. When the bad men hurt Mithai the elephant, I spend night with him and tell him story after story. In school, I always make the other childrens laugh by stories and jokes I was telling.

But I have not told story to anyone in very long time.

“Lakshmi,” the lady say. “What happened? What made you do this on Thursday? Did your husband beat you? What brought it on?”

I thinks of Bobby and how he look, standing in that parking lot, holding the statue I gave. I thinks of him getting in his car and how it feeling like my heart remove from my body and get in his car with him. How I know, even then, that Bobby only think of me as waitress in restaurant but I . . . I think of him as . . .

I wants to tell her about Bobby and about his kindness and the California. But then I ascare. What if she tell my husband? What he do if he know I likes Bobby in the bad ways, in the way married wife must not like other man? He be angry and mean, or he make joke about it. Either way, he hurt me.

I cannot tell her about Bobby, who is beautiful like ice to me. You putting ice in the sunshine, where other people can see, and it melt. Bobby is secret, one of two secret in my life, that I will never tell.

“Lakshmi,” she say again, and I know she waiting for me.

“What?” I say. “What you wanting to know?”

She lean toward me. “I want to know,” she say, “if your husband beat you. Is that why . . . ?”

I shakes my head no. “Never,” I say. “Husband, good man. He never doing any beatings.”

“So what made you? Take the pills, I mean?”

And suddenly, the pain in my heart so big, it comes out of my eyes and roll down my face. “I's alone,” I say. “I have no family relations in this desh. I alone.”

The black lady's face is so kind, it making me cry more. “I'm sorry, sweetie,” she say. “I understand. It's very hard.”

“I used to call my Shilpa sweetie. When I was the teaching her English.”

“Who's Shilpa?”

I want to say: Shilpa is reason I'm in this jail of Am'rica. “Shilpa is my sister.”

“I see. And she's still in India?”

I am surprise by question. “I thinks so.”

“You're not sure?”

I look at the floor. “We not talking anymore. Husband not allow. After marriage, he say I not talking to Dada or Shilpa.”

She let out breath. “You have no contact with your family in India?”

“Husband not allow.”

She look angry. “Why ever not?”

I look at the floor.

We sit nice quiet for many minute. Then she say, “Tell me about your village. Tell me about where you grew up.”

Even Bobby not ask so many question about my life. No one ever take interest. I close my eyes and I smell the earth of my village after the rainy season. And the first thing I am seeing is the well.

6

I
T RAINING SIX
days nonstop and my father's field is flooding. He sit at home and Ma say he drive her mad with his worry and kitpit. He telling her how to light coal stove properly, how to bake rotis correct way, how to sweep floor. She so irritate, she throw broom at him and say, “You so good, mister, you sweep this mud floor until it become Taj Mahal.” Shilpa and I think what Ma say so funny, we laugh and laugh, until Dada make strong eyes at us and raise his hand. But we not afraid of Dada because he never beating us. One time when my report card not good and Ma slap me, it is Dada who cry like a girl, not me.

On six day of rain, Menon sahib come to our house in his blue Ambassador and ask if I can go to his big house for cleaning. His wife in city for few days and Munna and he alone in dirty house. I see Ma is sad that I leaf my schoolwork to help Menon sahib, but she cannot do extra work now. Both her feets having the 'rthritis and it paining her. I am so happy to leaf house and go sit in backseat of big car with Munna. It is only second time I sits inside a car—first time was taxi that we took from train station one time when we went to city. But the taxi was small and crowding and the smell of the agarbatti that the taxi driver was burning make me sneeze and sneeze. Menon sahib's car is big as my house and Munna is my friend, although he being only five and I am eight.

This is first time I goes to Menon sahib's house without my ma, but I am knowing exact what to do. First I takes the jharu and sweep whole house. I collects the kachra in newspaper and then I get the rag and start to wash floor. I scrubs and scrubs until I am seeing my face in the white tile. Munna sit with me for some time and then he go to other room to play. Menon sahib's house having many rooms. After floor wash, I begin to wash Menon sahib's wife's saris and cholis and bedsheets. My arm feel on fire as I scrub soap on clothes and rub them together. I wish Ma was here doing this jobs, but then I remember how her feets all swollen like a ripe mango, and I feel ashame. I push the hairs out of my eye and scrub harder.

The rain has stop when I finish washing and the sun is coming out. I takes the wet clothes out to dry. Munna is outside also, running around me, making zoom-zoom noise like aeroplane. He try to help me but he too short to hangs the clothes on the line. Even I having problem to reach the top but I managing.

After five-ten minute, Munna quiet. The sun is so hot on my face, it make my skin cry. I hear the mynah bird making song in the trees and I answers back. Woo-hoo, I say, and it listen and then talk back to me.

One minute everything is sweet and peace-like, but then I hear door open and Menon sahib is giving the shout and running toward me. I ascared, thinking I hang his wife's clothes wrongly, but then I see he cover mouth with one hand and pointing with the other. I turns around. Munna has climb on the stone wall of the well in Menon sahib's compound. He now leaning into the well, looking to find his face in the water. As I looking, he move in more, his little feets pushing against the stones.

The mynah bird still making song. The sun still making my face cry. But now there is no sweet in this day. I feel ascare, because in one minute Munna will fall into the well. I kick off my chappals and run. The mud is soft and make shuck-shuck sound from my feet as I move in it. The mud trying to pull me back and so I know running no good. If I to save Munna, I must to fly, fly like the mynah bird in the tree. So I does. I fly. As I get closer to well, I open my hands, like wings of big bird. Just as Munna slipping into well, I close my hands around his legs. He hanging upside down and my knee hit into stone wall and bleeding. But I don't let him go. I hold him tightum-tight until Menon sahib come behind of me and take Munna out of my hands. For one seconds, I ascare Menon sahib has gone mad because he kissing Munna and slapping him at same time. Then he making some noise and moving forward-back, forward-back, and I see he crying. Munna start to crying also, and then Menon sahib kiss his son, all over his face and head. Menon sahib is always so strict, like the schoolteacher. When my dada go to him last day of every month to collect his money, Menon sahib never ever smiling at Dada, just writing numbers in big red book and counting a few rupee notes to give. Dada always feeling poorly when he leave Menon sahib's shop and come home. We never becoming rich, Dada say, because Dada can sell what we grow only to Menon sahib and he never pay enough.

But now Menon sahib is crying more than Munna do, and I feels shy, like I watch something not my business. I begins to walk toward the house, but he put his son down and touch my shoulder to stop. “Lakshmi,” he say. “I am in your debts. If I take five more births on this earth, I still be in your debts.” And then come part that nobody belief, not even Shilpa: Menon sahib fold his hand to me. Dada say I lying when I tell him. Stupid girl, Dada say. Menon sahib is like a raja. He own our whole village. Why he join hands in front of a eight-year-old girl?

But he do. He say, “Beti, from this day on, you are like my little niece. I will pay your school fees for as long as you go to school.”

I so happy, I run all way home to tell Ma and Dada good news. I run through sugarcane fields, and while I run, I seeing myself in my future. I am seeing the Lakshmi that is high school pass. Shilpa and I is now living in Mumbai, in big house next door to Sharukh Khan. I have a big car like Menon sahib and a driver. And I is buying a new sari every week.

But that Lakshmi, high school pass, will never be allow to be born. My naseeb not allow, because my birth star weak. I see that future Lakshmi again, the day I leaving school forever in eight standard. I see her when I am bent over the kerosene stove and when I dipping chapati in dal to feed my ma because the 'rthritis twisting her fingers like root of tree. I see her again when I working with Dada in field, because Ma cannot help him no longer. Every time I see that future Lakshmi, she spit at me, make blood in my eyes.

Menon sahib good, honest man. He pay my fees as he promise. Not his fault that the promise turn out to be short and thin.

Once, only once, I see that future Lakshmi again with happy eyes. It the day my Shilpa become high school pass. You boil, boil, boil milk and what happen? It turn to malai, no? Same way, on day that Shilpa pass school, all my sadness become smaller and smaller and turn into happy.

7

S
UDHIR WAS COMING
home tonight and she was picking him up at the airport in five hours. Enough time to spend one last evening with Peter, to boil pasta on the stove of his small kitchen, knowing that he was following her every movement with his eyes. To feel the tingling anticipation of when he would put down the glass of wine and rise from the chair, take the few short steps to where she was, and hold her from behind, kissing the nape of her neck. Ever since Friday night, when she'd arrived to pick him up for a late dinner and he had seduced her on the living room couch, they had fallen into a surprisingly easy routine, meeting at Peter's home in Homerville after Maggie got off work. Last night they had planned on going out to pick up some Thai food but ended up in front of the television, eating microwave popcorn for dinner. Peter was fascinated by American TV—that's how he referred to it—because he was on the road so much and seldom had time to watch.

Their bodies, too, had fallen into an easy rhythm. For almost thirty years Sudhir's was the only body Maggie had touched, and she knew it as well as her own—the tight muscles of his back, the dark hair on his chest, the sharp jutting of his hip bone, the callous on his big toe, the dark spot on his shin. Peter's body was a new country to discover and explore, and she felt exactly like a tourist—giddy with anticipation, taking delight in both the familiar and the unfamiliar. In addition, there was the novelty of Peter's whiteness. Steeped in her parents' quiet but fierce race consciousness, influenced by the books about slavery and Jim Crow that she read as an undergraduate at Wellesley, she had never been interested in dating white men. Unlike some of her peers, she didn't cultivate an active antagonism toward white guys and had never condemned her black friends who had white boyfriends. She was simply indifferent to the lures of white skin. When she was a kid, Wallace had told her enough stories about the humiliations he'd suffered, working as a houseboy for a British colonial officer, to turn her stomach. She knew better than to paint all whites with the same stroke, and God knows she'd had plenty of white friends in college, but still, when she met Sudhir, she was relieved that, like her, he was the color of the earth. The joke, of course, was that in many ways Sudhir acted very much like a stereotypical white middle-class American male—he spoke proper English, had bourgeois values, and had grown up in a stable two-parent home. Wallace had said as much the first time he met his son-in-law: “Baby girl, you done gon' and married a white man.”

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