Category Archives: Fiction

Calling Cards

Calling cards. Plastic, pocket-sized cards — the brand he always looked for back then was called Mother India. Yellow, red and white, with a little map of the home country outlined in one corner. If you paid cash you could get a card worth $5 for four bucks. You scratched the little black strip on the back to reveal a pin number that you entered when the automated voice told you to. At 7 cents a minute it was way cheaper than what the regular phone services offered. “Calling card,” he said softly, under his breath. He’d been reflecting just the other night, about how he didn’t really have a calling. It was a thought that had never surfaced before, but he’d attended a talk that evening by a man about the same age as him, a man in his mid-thirties who’d spent the last ten years working in a middle-of-nowhere village of South India. He’d built a school in the village and started an organic farm, and founded a very successful village-version of Alcoholics Anonymous, while  his wife led a remarkably effective women’s group. They’d stopped three child marriages and had come very close to locally eradicating the dowry system (a system technically illegal, but still in practice.)

The man speaking was handsome in a way that Indian men seldom are, he was also articulate and inspiring to the point of being quite irritating. He wore a white khadi kurta with blue jeans and Bata slippers. An outfit that somehow lent him an air of offhand nobility. His wife was equally articulate, and had a quiet gravity about her just as compelling as her husband’s animated warmth. When she smiled she lit up the room. He had never seen that happen before, had always thought the phrase was a bit of a tired cliche — until that moment when someone had asked a question about boredom. “Don’t you sometimes get bored stuck out there with a bunch of rustics in the middle of nowhere?” Such an obnoxious question, he had expected the couple to get huffy and indignant. But instead the man had laughed boyishly, and at the same moment, the seriousness on the wife’s face had slipped, and there was her smile, revealed like moonburst on a dark night, and it had taken his breath away.

He thought moodily about that quality of radiance he’d witnessed in the two of them. There was nothing at this particular moment that seemed the least bit radiant about his own existence and he was often bored. True, he was successful but in an unspectacular way.  He had reasonable self-esteem, and no definite calling. He wished suddenly, and with a fervency that surprised him, that there were calling cards that actually lived up to their name –cards with lines you could dial that would be answered by a friendly anonymous stranger who would tell you in a matter of minutes what your calling is. He had no faith in the battery of personality tests and the expensive career counseling sessions that were on the market. But a calling card — now that was something he would try out if such existed. $5 for the answer to one of the most persistent riddles of humanity — “Why Am I Here?” — it seemed like there would be a sizable market for something like that.


Stream of Thought

She was sitting very still next to a silver stream and when she looked into it she saw her reflection. Clear eyes looked into clear eyes. And she wondered suddenly whether, when she rose and left, the memory of that face– her face– would still remain in the water. In a secret way she hoped it would. And she wondered then how many other faces had stopped at this silver stream to see themselves in its depths. And suddenly the face in the stream spoke up in a voice that was familiar because it was her own voice— only somehow like the stream—silvery.

And the voice said, “The stream cannot hold me forever because it is a stream and streams do not know the meaning of holding on and they do not know the meaning of forever.”

And she listened to this in some surprise (because you see she was a little unaccustomed to being addressed by her reflection) but when she had got over her surprise she nodded and said in a matter-of-fact kind of way, “ Yes you’re right. Silly me,” and she rose and walked away from the stream without a backward glance—which is why she did not see her reflection smiling after her.


Protocol

She enters the room slow marching, in the manner of a bride down the aisle– carrying not a frilly bouquet– but a tray bearing six individual steel tumblers of steaming coffee. Her eyes are downcast, giving viewers an impression of timidity or coyness or both. In reality she is neither. She is just a woman trying very hard not to spill coffee. As she walks, unbeknownst to her audience she is maneuvering the tray through a series of skilled and imperceptible movements to ensure that these cups, (which her mother with misplaced enthusiasm has filled to the very brim) do not runneth over. As protocol dictates she approaches the oldest man in the room, her grandfather, and extends the tray. As protocol dictates he waves her towards the oldest male guest, her prospective father-in-law. As protocol dictates he waves her in the direction of the host, her father, who waves her back. All this hand-waving is accompanied by a specific brand of head-shaking intended to imply gracious deference. A visitor from a distant land might understandably, if incorrectly, conclude from the proceedings that the order in which these half-dozen tumblers of coffee are dispensed is a profoundly significant matter, one with serious implications for national security or global warming. Meanwhile the tray is growing unbearably heavy and our slow marching prospective bride is sorely tempted to drop the whole thing on the floor and head for the nearest nunnery.


Wings

“She has what?” His mother’s voice escalated dangerously and he realized that this wasn’t going to go over well. Returning, newly-and-unexpectedly-married, from a routine business trip to India had been bad enough, but now there was this awkward situation to be dealt with. He cleared his throat and tried to sound casual, “She has wings.” His mother dropped the tea cup she was holding.

“She has wings?” His mother uttered the word like she’d never heard it before. Yes he nodded, trying to appear casual. As if flying appendages attached to one’s bride were perfectly normal. “And you knew this when you married her?” He nodded again, remembering their first meeting. She had been barefoot. Standing on the sea shore, wearing a white blouse, a long moss green skirt and a wistful expression. Her wings were fanning gently behind her, like a resting butterfly’s. He had never seen anything so beautiful. She filled his heart with tenderness before he even knew her name. He did not know what she saw in him. Safety maybe? In a flighty world he was solid as the earth. He asked her out to coffee, and even though she did not drink caffeine, she said yes. They were married within the week.

Somehow the wings had never troubled him. In his eyes she was a magical creature, a being not entirely of this world. On her the wings seemed perfectly natural. He’d asked her about them once. And she’d answered his questions without hesitation or embarrassment. Yes she’d had them since birth. No her parents (both dead) did not have them — though there were rumors of a maternal great-great-grandmother who had been ‘touched by angels’. No they were not removable. Yes they could be concealed under clothes without discomfort. Yes she could use them to fly. High enough to clear tree tops, but not much higher. And only for relatively short distances — she could cross a pond or a small lake easily, but not an ocean. So he bought her an airplane ticket, and they traveled back to his home in the United States together. She had never been in an airplane or out of India before. On the flight they traded seats so she could look out the window, her eyes enormous with wonder.

His mother who knew he was returning from a work trip had been expecting him, but not the bride. They had not informed anyone on either side of the wedding. Delirious with happiness he imagined his only living parent would be thrilled to have him show up on their doorstep with this lovely overseas wife as a surprise. His well-bred mother’s eyebrows had shot up past her hairline when they were introduced at the door. Her smile had stayed in tact, but lost its warmth so rapidly, that his dark-haired wife actually shivered, and hugged her elbows. A gesture that made her look so lost and waif-like that he wished they could turn around and go home.

After seating them in the living room his mother had excused herself to put on a pot of tea. He had followed her into the kitchen, and wanting to have it out, had mentioned the wings. After high-pitched disbelief, and a shattered teacup, grimness had descended on his mother’s face like armor. “You have obviously lost your mind,” she said, “ I don’t know what kind of trickster that woman is, but she’s up to no good. You’d better keep a separate bank account and one eye on her at all times.” He tried to stand up for his wife’s innocence, but his mother waved him aside with a swatting-fly gesture as old as his childhood. She placed a white china teapot patterned with pale pink roses on a tray, with matching cups and saucers. “We’ll have to look into clipping them,” she said. “Clipping what?” he asked bewildered. “Her wings of course,” said his mother, before sailing through the door to serve hot tea with a side of chilliness to the woman waiting in her living room. A woman whose eyes were slowly beginning to spark, like two black shards of flint.

Outer timidity can mask a fierce resoluteness of spirit, a domineering exterior house deep-seated fragilities. And no one’s wings can ever be clipped without the clipper losing their own place in the sun. He knows these things, or at least suspects them, and because he is not a man given to foregone conclusions, he finds himself curious about where this situation is headed.

As he joins the two women in the living room he is thinking of systems dynamics, non-linear relationships, the butterfly effect.

A woman chances to flap her wings on a sea shore somewhere in India and…


New House

The telephone was installed at 11 o clock on Monday morning and now sat on her desk like a perfectly self-contained cat. She derived an odd sense of pleasure from seeing it there. “A telephone makes a new house less lonely,” she said to the wall of the study. It stared back at her wordlessly with a pale, blank face, and she made a mental note to hang up some pictures that afternoon. Maybe the watercolor prints she’d purchased for a small fortune from that shivering sidewalk artist in the park. Thin boats silhouetted on an indistinct river at sunset. She knew very little about great art but enough to know that this was not it. And yet something about the narrow frame of the boats and the flawed river had moved her indescribably. They spoke to her of life’s uncertainty, its ultimate imperfection and now, months later, a lump rose and bloomed richly in her throat just thinking about that moment of insight and extravagance on the chilly pavement.

She hadn’t yet admitted it to herself yet, but she was waiting for the telephone to ring. Outwardly she busied herself with other tasks. Cleared up the breakfast dishes, and carefully collapsed an empty cereal box before folding it as flat as she could to store away in the recycling bin outside. Tuesdays they collected the recycling. Was it Tuesday? She wasn’t sure. She would have to crosscheck with the printed calendar sheet they had given her with the collections days marked off. She pulled the sheet out of a kitchen drawer, stared absent-mindedly at the array of empty numbered boxes that represented the shape of her days. She didn’t notice the way her head had tilted slightly off to one side, the way it does when one is trying to listen for something in the distance.

She loved the sound of the telephone ringing. The high, clear insistent purr of it that rippled in the air like an invisible flag – a declaration of someone’s particular need in that instant to reach out to her. That was part of the reason why she never answered it in the first ring, not even if it was a call she was expecting and she was right by its side. She always waited for at least three rings before picking up. Letting the sound fill her the way air fills a balloon, gives it definition and bounce. When she said “Hello” the balloon lifted softly and drifted towards a blue, cloudless sky of conversation.

She frowned down at the sheet she was holding. What had she meant to look up? Oh yes, the collection dates. It was Tuesday just as she’d thought. Why did that seem such a long ways away? Tuesday was tomorrow. It was the silence of the new house that did it she decided, it stretched from this present into the future like an empty clothesline on a windless day. For the first time she wished she was more of a plant person. It would have been soothing to have a couple of potted geraniums on the window sill or a small, sturdy palm in the living room. Something she could name and then talk softly to. She had never understood until now why some people did that.

***


Elevator Music

In another lifetime they might have been good, perhaps even great friends. Their natures each pitched to unusual keys, offset enough to harmonize in inspired ways. But they didn’t. Not this time around. What emerged between them instead, was the relationship equivalent of elevator music. A vast politeness, a blameless bond neither strong nor interesting. It held them temporarily in the same orbit, no more, no less. Like passengers seated next to each other on a plane, who exchange brief pleasantries then fall into their separate worlds. Or acquaintances at a mutual friend’s party, who listen to one another’s stories with that air of formal attentiveness that betrays a lack of natural sympathies. From their forgettable interactions was absent the trouble or reward of real conversation. They traveled a shared highway, a little more than distant and much less than close. You know how it is with some people. And so it was with them. Though it might have been otherwise.


Cloud Pillows

“I’m going for a walk up the hill,” she announced nonchalantly. And because we live in a safe neighborhood and I can see the path that runs all the way up the hill from our kitchen window, I nodded at her with a reciprocal degree of nonchalance. My daughter had woken up this morning believing she was old enough now for independent strolls, and had announced this belief over breakfast. She is five years old, and was born knowing her mind.

She slipped into her bright blue flip-flops and reached for the door handle, looking over her shoulder to give me a quick, grave and wordless nod. Such a mature,eloquent gesture it both amused and astonished me. I looked down to hide a smile.“Enjoy the sun,” I said. “And the clouds,” she added, “They look like pillows today. My favorite kind.” “Mine too,” I said quickly. I don’t know where she gets a lot of things from, but this particular fondness of hers comes directly from me. There must be a gene for it. “Enjoy the sun and the cloud pillows,” I say as the door closes softly. She was never a loud child, always careful beyond her years with inanimate objects.

I can see her walking up the hill. Leaning a little forward into the angle of the slope. In her white shorts and red and white striped shirt with the long sleeves she looks like an unseasonable candy cane. Long sleeves because she doesn’t do short sleeves. She told me last summer in all seriousness that her arms were too skinny for short sleeves, that they made her look silly. I am not sure who she gets her sense of fashion from.

There is no one else on the hill today. The path is flanked by tall apartment buildings like ours, and identical tall buildings stand guard at the top of the hill. The hill, the buildings, the sky above – they are so big and in their midst my tall-for-her-age, solitary daughter looks unutterably tiny. And so brave. Every now and then she pauses, flings a glance up at the sky or back over her shoulder. She can’t see me from where she is, and cannot possibly know for certain that I am watching her. And from this distance I can’t read the expression on her face. Sometimes when I watch my daughter – even when she is right next to me, I feel like I’m looking at her through plate glass. I don’t think she tries to be unreachable. But her thoughts often wander places my mind can’t follow, at such times I have no idea where she is thinking.

Suddenly she stands very still, and I sense, the way only a mother can, that
something has happened. Her hands have flown to her face. She kneels on the
pavement and I wonder with some degree of astonishment, if she is praying. I am
not a religious woman and if she is indeed offering her genuflected salutations to her Creator or the Universe it is not a custom she picked up from me.

Now she has risen and is returning down the hill, not running but walking very fast, so fast that I fear she might trip on her own flip-flops. She has not yet mastered the art of simultaneous speed and steadiness. But she doesn’t trip. As she gets closer I can see her face and I can see she has been crying, is in fact still crying. Her hands curled into fists by her side.

I meet her on the sidewalk. She walks straight into my arms, not questioning my presence, nor how I knew to come find her. “What happened?” I ask, holding her close, unsure of what metaphysical realm she may have inadvertently stumbled into. This intuitive, quaint and extraordinary child of mine.

She tilts her head up, tears still leaking out of the corners of her eyes.

“I bit my tongue,” she says sorrowfully.