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The Story Hour

Chapter 1

I begins.

Dear Shilpa—I  writes. Belief me when I say not single day pass in six years that I not thought of you. How are you, my dearest?

Then I takes the paper, roll it like a ball of dough, and throws it across from the room. It land on top of the coffee table—why he call it the coffee table when in this house we only drink chai?— and I goes to pick it up to place in the dustbin. Shilpa never reading my note. He will never posting to her. Some things even stupids like me know.

I look at clock on the wall. Eight-forty-five, evening time. Husband be home by ten-thirty. Quickly-quickly I goes to the bathroom and open the medicine chest. I takes all the bottles out and carry them to the sitting room. I put the bottles in a row and for one minute only my stomach faints, as if the medicines is already in it. But then Bobby’s thin face come to me and I see his sad blue eyes and the pain shoot my heart again. It was not my imagine. Bobby, too, look sad when he leaf today. I will miss you, he said, and his words was both honey and poison, sun and moon in the same sky.

I didn’t say: Why you must go to the California? I didn’t say: I wanting you to come to the restaurant every Thursday forever so I can watch you eat and feel the full in my stomach. I didn’t say: In this cold country where I having no friend or relation, you are the only one who smile to me, who talk to me like I am person and not the garbage. I did not say: I have betrayed my husband twice—once to saves my family, second to save my soul. I didn’t say, I didn’t say anything at all.

Six tablets in the husband’s My Grain bottle. Three antibiotic. Seventeen green tablets for relaxing the muscle from when he had the back pain last year. I remember something, and hurry from the room. In kitchen cabinet above microwave is big bottle of ibuprofen from Costco. I open. Hundreds of orange tablets. While in kitchen, I fill large pitcher of water.

I feels I should pray. Do pooja. Ask Bhagwan’s pardon for sin I am doing. Ask husband’s forgiving, also, for inconvenient I am causing him. Marry Rekha, I want to tell him. Rekha work in our grocery store next to the restaurant and I have saw how she look at him all flirty-flirty. Husband is good man, he work hard, eyes down, never notice Rekha or other ladies. Not his mistake he don’t love me. Not his mistake I don’t love him. Early on after marriage, I was hoping that slowly-slowly, the love will come. If my ma still alive, she could tell me what to do to make the love come. But Ma dead long back, and so I wait. When husband’s father die three  year back and he can’t  leaf business to fly to India, he so sad and griefing, and I think love will now happen between us, for surely. When I buy a new red sari for his friend’s marriage and husband look at me and smile, I think that is love but it just the alcohol. Now I know. Husband  love one woman. That woman not me.

I am not ascare to die. I am only ascare that after death I be alone. Maybe because of suicide, I go to the hell? If hell all hot and crowded and noiseful, like Christian minister on TV say, then I not care because it will be just like India. But if hell cold and quiet, with lot of snow and leaf-empty trees, and people who smile with string-thin lips, then I ascare. Because it seem so much like my life in Am’rica.

Bobby said he moving to the California to be near his sister. “I’m tired of being so far away from family,” he say. “You know?”

“I know.”

He listen something in my voice because he look up immediately. His eyes as blue as July sky. His long yellow hair fall like sunshine on his forehead and my finger burn from not touching it. “Yeah, I guess you do,” he say, and then he smile, and I feels something hot and living move from my stomach all the way to my face. The husband is thirty feet away, sweating in his white undershirt  in the too-hot kitchen, but he is nobody to me right now, a stranger on the bus, a blind man who never seen me. Bobby is the  one who reading  my heart,  who knows my feets are in Am’rica, but that each night my heart fly like a bird over my father’s fields, over our village square, over the stone house my dada build himself, searching, searching for Shilpa. Bobby—who never talk to my husband even though husband sometimes leaf the kitchen to come joke with his regular customer and say, “See you next Thursday, sir”; who sometime send an extra-special  sweet from kitchen  for him—Bobby can see that my husband do not let me talk to my relations, that he has made me a tree without root system, that he look at me and see the nothing. Sometimes when husband call me from the kitchen and his voice is sharp as the knife he holding, Bobby look up at me and make the face, the way children do when they taste a sour green mango from the tree. But something encourage  in that face, also, like he say, “Go, Lakshmi. You strong woman. I knows you sad but the God will help you. Be brave.”

For  last two year, Bobby come  for lunch  every Thursday. Some week he on vacation and no show, and those week go as slow as the bullock-cart climbing the mountain. Then I hating myself for wearing good sari and putting Pond’s cream on my face to make it more fair. Then I irritate with grocery store customers  who want to know where this-and-that  is, and Rekha look at me with frown and say, “Kya hai, Didi? Go upstairs and take a nap for an hour, na?”

And now I am to never see Bobby again. Because he tell me today he is shifting to the California and although he say he come visit sometime, his eyes look down and his white teeth bite his lip when he telling the lie. Also, he wait till he finish his lunch, before to tell me. I say nothing, just nod my head, which feel heavy, like a mountain is sitting on top of it. I balance the mountain while I nods and smile, nods and smile. He is saying “ job transfer,” and “good weather,” and “near my nieces and nephews,” while I nods and smile. After a while, he stop talking and he lean back in chair and put his hands behind his head and breathe  out. “But I will miss you, um, that is, this place,” he say. And his lips become a half-moon, upside down.

I shake off mountain on my head. “Wait-a,” I say. I rushes toward store. Another customer put hand out to ask for bill but I ignores him. I go into store and look around. Something I want to give Bobby. Something to carry on the aeroplane, something to take to the California. A memory from me. A memory of me. I look at shelves I have stocked—bottles of Pond’s cream, Vicks Va- poRub, Ovaltine, Horlicks, milk of magnesia, Kalvert’s raspberry syrup, Patak’s lime pickle. Nothing here to give. I go to next aisle and look—bhelpuri mix, fried moong dal, banana wafer packets. I grab a packet of gathias. He will snack on this on the aeroplane.

But I am not satisfy. I want something . . . more fixed. I moves quick to next shelf. Boxes of sweetmeats—halvas, pedas, jalebis. Cans of leeches, mangoes. Nothing, nothing.

And then I remembers.  I go to front of store, behind cash reg- ister, where we keeps our boxes of expensive saffron. And behind the boxes is our silver tray, where each morning the husband lights a diva and says the prayers. In the tray we have small statues of our gods—a blue painted  statue of Krishna, a wood carving of Hanuman, the monkey god, a silver statue of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. Rekha is at the counter, checking out a customer, and I slips behind her and reaches for Lakshmi. But she having eyes in the back of her head because she open her big fat mouth and say, “Didi, what are you doing?”

Shut up, mind your own business, I want to say, but instead I say, “Nothing,” and move to the door that connect restaurant to store.

But when I reach, the table is empty. Bobby has left.

Next to his empty plate, Bobby has kept twenty-dollar note. Lunch buffet is costing only $7.99. I grab the note in same hand holding the statue and rush to the front door. The brass bell above the door say ting-tong as I opens and shuts it behind me.

In parking lot, I look at bluegreenredwhite cars sitting neatly in a row, like tooths in the mouth. Quickly-quickly my eyes looks around the lot, trying to find Bobby. Has he driven away already? Without saying proper goodbye? My heart fall like the sparrow from the tree when I think this. The tears begin to burn my eyes, and then I sees him, far ahead of me. “Mister,” I scream. He not look back. And so, for the first time since I am knowing him, I speak his name. “Bobby,” I yells. “Mister. Bobby. Please.” Without telling me, my feets start to move and then to fly, as if to catch his name before it leaf my mouth.

He turns around and his face look surprise as I rush toward him like the Rajdhani Express. He take a steps back, as if he thinking I will run into him, like train derailment. But I stops just in front of him and now my mouth feels dry and no wordings are coming to my mind.

“Yes?” Bobby say after a minute. He always look at me so kind. “You leaf without saying the goodbye,” I say, but his face turn red color like I pain him, and so I say, “You leaf without proper change back. Buffet only seven-ninety-nine.”

He begin to laugh but not in mean way that the husband laugh when he make fun of me. “Oh well. It was only twenty dollars, Lakshmi. And it was a tip—for all the care you’ve taken of me these past few years.”

The word “care” open a cave in my heart. In my old life in India, I takes care of so many peoples. Shilpa. My ma. Dada. Mithai the elephant. Here, I have nobody to care for. My husband don’t want caring from me. Every time I nice, he just remember  what he don’t have. And what he do have—me.

I opens my mouth but nothing is living in it—no words. Still, I must try. “My pleasure,” I say. “No extra tip required.”

He smile again. “Lakshmi,” he say. “It’s okay. Really. No big deal.”

At his naming me, I remember  the statue in my hand. “Here,” I say. “For you. A gift for the California.”

His eyes grow big when I put the silver statue  in his hand. And suddenly I not feel shy. “It’s Lakshmi. Goddess of the wealth. Same name as me. Something to remind you of me in the Cali- fornia.” I looks at him quickly and then looks at my feet. But still I am feeling Bobby’s eyes on my face, making it hot like the sun.

“Wow. Are you sure?”

I nod. I see my feets in the dirty Bata rubber chappals I wearing in restaurant and then look at Bobby’s feets in his leather sandal. All pinky-pink his toes are, like a baby’s. I feel ashame and look up quickly before he follow my eye.

Bobby is staring at me, his head on one side like our old dog used to do when he puzzle. Then he smile. “Bye, Lakshmi,” he say. “Thanks for this.”

He put his hand out for me to shake, like I also a man. No man ever handshake me before. I unsure to do what. If the husband see, he will not like. But I see the hairs on Bobby’s white arm, like golden thread. Soft, like a girl’s hand. And then I think: I’s in Am’rica now. I must shake hands like proper Am’rican. And so I takes Bobby’s hand in both mine. “Good luck,” I say. “God bless.” “God bless,” he repeat. Then he pull out of my hand. “S’long, Lakshmi,” he say. “I’ll drop you a card from California.”

I watch Bobby’s blue car make left turn on main road. I knows Rekha, with her big eyes and long ears, counting the time for how long I absent. But still I standing, moving not forward or back, even though the sun strong on my skin, even though the breeze moving the pallov on my sari. I not ready to enter the hot, smelly restaurant. I not ready to serve the customers who is not Bobby. I wonders what would happen if I begins to walk, to leaf my life and just take one step, then second, third? I would go past Russian tailoring shop, liquor store, Dollar Store. But where I go once I exit plaza? Across main road is Shell station. But I don’t drive the car—the husband say I too stupid to learn. I have twenty dollars in my hand which Bobby gave for the care. I have dirty Bata slipper on my feets. Not too far I can go on my own, I knows, but still, thinking of going inside store and restaurant  makes a vomit in my throat. I hates my life, I thinks, and the thought give me the shock. Until this minute, I not knowing this.

“Lakshmi,” I hears, and even without turning, I know who is calling. It is the husband and he walking fast near to me. He is without shirt, still in the white sleeveless ganji he cook in, and I notice the big arms with the dark hairs and the stomach that moves like a handi of water as he walk. He also breathe huf-huf-huf as he come to me.

“Are you mad?” he say when he reach me. “Going on a walk while the customers are waiting? Standing in the middle of the plaza talking to yourself?”

I say nothing.

He eyes narrow. “What’s this?” he say, lifting my hand holding the twenty-dollar note. “You stealing from register? Rekha say you take statue with you. Forty-five dollar, statue is costing.”

I let him take note from me. “Customer tip,” I say. “I thought he make mistake.”

“If customer  make such stupid mistake, it’s on his head,” he say, and then smile, like he making a funny joke.

But I not laughing.

“Come on, stupid,” the husband say. “Finish your work, you.” Sometime I think my real name Stupid. He call me this more than my own name.

He put his arm behind my neck and lead me back to store. If he could pulls me from my nose, I thinks, he would.

Rekha give me the funny look when we enter store. And then, in front of her, he say to me, “Now, where is statue you took?”

Rekha begin to wipe counter,  as if she not heard. First time in her life she wipe that counter without me telling her to. “I tell later,” I say softly to husband.

“No later-fater. I need to maintain inventory. Everything accounted for. That’s what Suresh advise.”

This year, the husband hire accountant for first time. One of the men he play cards with every Thursday become his new accountant. He feel very prideful about this. It make him feel like real Am’rican businessman, I think. Now everything is Suresh-says-this and Suresh-says-that. I not liking Suresh. I not liking any of the mens who my husband friend.

“I gave it to Bobby,” I say. I turn  my back to Rekha, so she cannot hear.

Husband raise right eyebrow. “Who Bobby?”

I feel dirty, having the husband say Bobby name. But he want answer. “Our best customer. He come every Thursday. He moving to the California. So I give gift.”

Husband slap his head, like killing a fly. “Oh, you stupid. Who give gift to non-returning  customer? You trying to bankrupt me or what?”

Behind me, I hear Rekha giggle. Chu-chu-chu, she sound, like mouse. My face feel hot as the  iron. “You chup,” I say to her. “Ears like open sewers you is having. Listening to other people’s business.”

Rehka get look of Hindi film heroine when she kidnap by villain. “Bhaiya,” she say to my husband. “This is so unjust.” Bhaiya, she call him, means brother.  But way she look at him, not like sister at all.

Husband say nothing to Rekha. He only looking and looking at me, as if he seeing something on my face he not before see. “Lakshmi,” he say quietly. “You thirty-two-year-old woman. Why you acting like some stupid teenage girl? Now, please, go faata-faat and wait on customer. We have job to finish.”

I feel the tears in my eyes. But I am not crying when Rekha can see. In six years in Am’rica, I learn one trick—how to cry without tears. In my village, in the arms of my mother, I use to cry like baby. If I don’t come first in my class, I cry. If Dada talk angry to Shilpa, I cry. If village children tease Mithai the elephant, I cry. When Ma get sick and I have to leaf my school in eight standard, I cry and cry till Ma joke we not needing monsoon that year. But in Am’rica, I cry from inside. Like singing song without moving your lips.

But now, as all pills are in the row, I don’t feel sad. I feel relief. In Hindi film they always write letter when heroine do the suicide. But no one for me to write. Shilpa, I don’t know address for. Better if Dada not knowing. The husband be upset for two-three days and then he hire new help for restaurant. Nobody here to miss me. Maybe Rekha miss me more than anyone.

At last minute, I get the husband’s whiskey bottle and put on coffee table. The husband will be more angry over loss of whiskey than loss of wife. I smile to myself for making the joke. But inside the smile is thousand hot needles. Because in making joke, I making the truth, also.

I have never tasted daru before. Dada say good girls never drink the daru. But I pour some in glass now and drinks. Yah, bhagavan. It is like swallowing the burning matchstick. Maybe no need for pills, this alone kill me. But I swallow three My Grain tablets. I sit for a minute, looking at clock. Husband home from card game in two hours. Is the dying happening yet? Nothing happening, just room moving or I moving. Muscle pain medicine bottle is heavy in my hand. I pours out many tablets in my hand, like a maharaja pouring gold coins. I feel rich. I fills big glass of water and then swallow six or eight tablets. Then I drinks a little more of husband’s whiskey. It tasting so bitter, I wonder if this is what making husband bitter all the time.

The room is going fast, like merry-go-round at the village fair. I pour more tablets into my hand but the hand so shaky that many falling on coffee table and then on floor. I don’t care. I feeling lazy, happylike. I just swallows more pills. I knowing now that I am dying. I tries to think of my Shilpa’s face, tries to remember her  laugh, what her  hands look like. I knows I should say the prayer, ask God for pardon for sin I am doing, but I don’t. God seem very, very far away now. I wants Shilpa’s name to be last name on my lips, my sister’s face to be the last face I see before I am leaving this cold, empty life forever and ever.

The Story Hour
by by Thrity Umrigar

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062259318
  • ISBN-13: 9780062259318