Manini Nayar

Ammu has never known anyone who died. Not a grandparent or a rickety neighbor or anyone struck by what Ammu’s tightlipped mother, Nina, referred to (after six months of her own successful chemotherapy) as the C word. Ammu’s mother swatted away death as if it were a mosquito and marched forward into a robust if unchartered future.

“Some things need tablets and pills,” she announced to Ammu, believing a firm explanation fortified the spirit. “Some things just need a strong will.”

Ammu’s mother waved death away out of a window, saw it buzz off into the ether.

But now, entirely out of the blue, the thought of death occurs to Ammu as she looks up from her waiting-room chair in the bus depot to confront an expansive derriere drooping into a hammock of frayed denim. So close is Ammu, she notices at once the efforts of a gleaming patent leather belt to bolster this dispirited descent. Not so much a belt, she thinks, but a bold swagger barely holding up the jeans. There is something sad about this presentation that makes Ammu think of endings: so much effort over an inevitable collapse.

The man with the foreboding bottom straightens up and turns around abruptly, his attempts at resurrecting the soda machine clearly in vain. His straggly ponytail tosses from side to side, slapping against his face. The sound is oddly pleasant, like water lapping against concrete. He sits down heavily on a bench next to Ammu and groans loudly. Or possibly, burps? Ammu isn’t sure, but it is certainly the sort of noise that Ammu’s mother would have dismissed out-of-hand as uncouth. Other people’s mothers said gross or disgusting. Ammu’s mother Nina is not Other People.

Bad language is a creeping canker in the mind, Nina warned Ammu. It will eat away your brain. Ammu likes the word canker. So close to cancer and yet so distant, a whiff of Shakespeare closeted in the mouths of people.

Quite possibly this man will talk to her. Ask for money, maybe. Or want to know her name. Or the time. Anything is possible. Ammu has come to see this recently, when her father left for California without a return ticket, even though it was Ammu’s 11th birthday in a few short weeks.

“Got the time?” says the man.

Ammu is thinking of birthday cake, pink with white roses. The question hangs over the cake like an affront, as the man shifts urgently on his too-narrow bench. Ammu weighs her options. She could move away or glance at her watch (which she already had a minute ago) and say “6:45” in a businesslike way because such requests burden a thinking woman with places to go. White sugar with eleven roses, one more for luck maybe, but never thirteen because thirteen is unlucky. Her father left on the 13th of March on a zooming airplane.

A decade ago Ammu’s parents left India for the United States on the thirteenth day of a lunar fortnight. An auspicious number that promises good fortune and eternal happiness, Nina often repeated with more than a tinge of irony. But this is another country, and Ammu knows numbers can be confusing in different applications. Her math test grades frequently make that clear.

The 13th of March is definitely not lucky.

“Almost the Ides,” her mother had said bitterly to Ammu, who imagined The-Ides was a Greek word she must look up in a dictionary. She would not ask her mother to explain. Nina’s sudden bursts of fury kept questions at bay as if they were hungry wolves to be beaten back. Ammu had to be quiet and reserved, the way Greek goddesses (the nicer ones) behaved in stories. They survived against all odds. Ammu was a Greek Goddess when not in school or doing homework. Theides, Goddess of Daddies.

“6:45,” says Ammu determinedly to the man who is now looking straight at her. She will not be outstared.

The bus depot is almost empty, the waiting room musty with old cardboard boxes, faded vinyl chairs and the dingy smell of departure. Ammu can almost taste the sourness of the place. She coughs to clear her throat and wonders whether Theides ever coughed. Or sneezed. Or blew her nose. Greek goddesses might deal death or pestilence but they rarely made unseemly noises. Ammu would have to ask her mother when Nina recovered from her fits of anger, though this possibility is far away, at least for now.

The bluejean man looks at her. A bony kid with a tic at the side of her mouth, throbbing up and down like a pulse in the wrong place. Brown saucer eyes lined in pencil. A small twitchy nose. Frilly pink shirt and black leggings. No bag. Wavy black hair.

“I’m Dan,” he says. The information is presented as an incontrovertible fact. He doesn’t expect an answer. “Ethelbertha,” he adds. “My baby girl. You’re kinda like her.”

Ammu is startled by this unsolicited observation.

“Eth-el-bertha.” The name squats bossily on her though she can’t quite tell why.

“Ee-Yup,” says the man. “Ethel as in my mother’s name, and Bertha as in my ex’s mom. Ethelbertha.”

“Oh,” says Ammu. She has no idea where this conversation is going. “Are you on your way to see her?”

“Nah,” says the man. “My ex is gone with Ethelbertha. Haven’t seen them in some time. Long time.”

“I see,” says Ammu politely.

“My baby.” The man seems to be lapsing into an elusive memory. He spreads his hands away from him, parting the air gently. “Long black hair she had. Like yours. Reminded me, you know.” He shifts toward Ammu, suddenly alert. “But her mom, a bitch.”

Leaning back, he gives his armpit a satisfying scratch.

Ammu looks away. Uncouth, her mother would have said. A middle-aged man on a Greyhound bench—a man full of noises—in bluejeans with raggedy holes. His pony tail hangs limply over his shoulder like a comatose skunk. He needs a haircut. And a bath. Ammu corrects herself. A bath? Is that too mean to say? Some people are homeless, so they don’t have bathrooms. They have shelters with faucets and instructions on the wall in black letters: USE WATER SPARINGLY. DO NOT WASTE SOAP.

Ammu has seen these directions herself in the shelter downtown when she volunteered at Thanksgiving. The people were huddled around the dinner table in overcoats thick as comforters, and yet they seemed cold, shivering as if the winter snows had followed them indoors and melted into their bones. They were not thankful for their dinner. They scoffed at the stringy turkey and dismissed the lumpy mashed potatoes. All the while they held out their plates for more, as if punishment were reprieve. Ammu couldn’t blame them, but she was glad to come home to endless hot water baths and clouds of foaming soap.

Mom, she thinks suddenly. Mom.

The words burst in her head like faint pellet-gun explosions. Mommompoppop.

Ammu closes her eyes and turns away from the man, a sign he appears to understand immediately. He has stopped his busy shifting, his face now vacant as a pause.

Not so late at night, not even seven o’ clock, and the only other travelers biding their time are two old ladies at the other end of the waiting room, their heads bent into magazines like horses drinking long draughts of water from a paper trough. The ticket booth woman, tight yellow curls over a wizened face, is hidden behind the bars, a caged monkey chattering brightly to herself. Or so it seems to Ammu. Lost in la-la or cell-phone land.

“No, no, Jimmie,” she cries excitedly. “You go first!”

Her voice escapes the ticket booth in a thin continuous stream—ugofust!—a word that sounds like an exotic disease to Ammu. Theides was felled by ugofust, a creeping canker in the mind that led to sudden outbursts of fury and stilled all questions. On the other hand, the smart goddesses survived plagues and being carried off in all directions. Ammu ticks them off mentally: Artemis, Iphigenia, Athena, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hera, Persephone, Theides — known for her stunning beauty and stoic majesty, who overcame the curse of ugofust….

A giggle escapes Ammu, but she stops abruptly and concentrates on her existence in this very moment, a strategy the yoga-and-mindfulness class instructor at the Y had suggested that post-cancer Nina practice daily as a calming device. Center yourself and be still. Feel the peace. But Ammu’s center is growling, softly, unexpectedly. Ammu realizes she is hungry.

To run away from home requires forethought, not an impulse. Sandwiches and money. A plan. More consideration than skipping the school bus to hitch a ride to the depot with an old farmer in a rusty Buick and telling your mother yesterday that you might spend the night at Jenny’s, your best friend and almost-close-as-a-sister. Hitching the ride reminded her of a statuette Nina had once shown her in National Geographic, of Athena, her marble arm held high as if in perpetual victory or hailing a taxi. A super-goddess with a practical side.

“You goin’ somewhere?” inquires the bluejean man, his fingers tracing an invisible spider that seems to be running up and down his left arm.

“Or just waitin’ for someone?”

Ammu doesn’t answer. She is distracted by the old ladies who speak suddenly as if on cue.

“Chocolate sauce,” announces the more rotund of the ladies, a lace bonnet perched jauntily on her head. Ammu wonders if they are Mennonites. In the woman’s hand is a dainty mother-of-pearl paperknife that she wields over a closed issue of Home and Garden. Skkruk—the knife cuts open two stuck pages.

“That’s what I always say,” murmurs the other, lost in a voluminous dress. “And fresh cream with strawberries?”

Chocolate sauce brings it alive,” says the fat bonnet-lady emphatically, dismissing dissent. She rummages in her skirts and brings out a black cellphone as if to call someone, then thinks the better of it and drowns the phone again in a rustling sea of tulle.

Ammu realizes they are discussing recipes. She imagines a sea of chocolate sauce with bobbing strawberry buoys amid cream-topped waves. Her empty stomach growls in sympathetic accompaniment.

A cracked television on the far wall is turned on by the ticket booth woman. A newsflash materializes in vivid color. Mosul is under attack and has been for the past three days. Two American soldiers have been killed. Sacrificed for freedom, observes the anchor somberly, as light glints off a fusillade of distant gunfire.

“Them furriners,” says the ticket booth woman, annoyed. “All them furriners killing people everywhere!” Up goes her arm over her head, waving vigorously to indicate everywhere.

“Yew Ess A!” says the bluejean man, suddenly galvanized. “Keep ‘em out is what I say! Yew Ess A! Out I Say!”

Ammu squirms away from him resolutely.

“All sacrifice is love,” murmurs the old lady in beige. “Hebrews 9:22.”

“I’m goin’ to Seattle.” The man on the bench is still talking. “Where you goin’, little lady?” he demands, insistent as an itch.

Her father is in California. The Big C got his emotional knickers in a twist, according to Nina. Got to get away, he said. He was suffocating. Couldn’t breathe with all the bloody tension. Secondhand smoke chemo. Immediately after his departure, Ammu’s father sent a brief email explaining his plans to head a startup company in San Jose and, most importantly, to begin anew. Those were his very words. Begin anew sounds more promising than divorce, at least to Ammu’s father, who will soon have no wife but possibly girlfriends, possibly golden California girlfriends. Clichéd girlfriends, like his clichéd job. Her mother will have the house in South Bend, the teaching job at the community college and some bills to pay. She will be bitter but stoic, because anything else is uncouth. Ammu can see all this ahead as plain as day, but not if she has a say in it (which she will, shortly, when she gets to California).

Not to be felled by an email, Ammu’s mother made an announcement. Let me lay it all out, she’d said, sounding like a fecund chicken. This betrayal was for her a kind of death, explained Nina, her voice steady but her eyes glazed over in pain. He just thinks we can all do as we damn well please, she’d added. Starting-up? I’d say shutting the hell down. Shutting us all bloody down.

Ammu now knows:

  1. Sometimes mothers can be OtherPeople. Even uncouth when the situation requires.
  2. Other mothers in South Bend, all devoutly Catholic and trailing drifts of hair spray and lavender soap, are more circumspect about absent fathers and tell their children that Daddy is on vacation or just de-stressing. Sometimes they say it while smiling and baking cookies. HailMaryMotherofGod, they murmur soothingly like gentle waterfalls when South Bend Daddies get all loud and cranky. But to Ammu they said You lucky girl! Lucky ducky!

…You luckyducky girl! they caroled to Ammu in maternal chorus to cheer her up after Nina made the email public accidentally on purpose by confiding in a loose-lipped neighbor. You SUPER lucky girl to be in America! Where you can be all that you can be! Follow your dream! Have a cookie!

Ammu wants to believe them. These OtherMothers believe in America and Jesus. In America, all things are saved if you just believe. You are safe, away from guns and bombs and religious crazies. They are kind to black people. They contribute to the Red Cross. They shut their eyes.

Ammu’s mother pays them no attention. Instead she chases down this new threat of death with a few choice curses. Having swatted away the Big C, all other forms of death are metaphorical for Nina. Contestable, but hovering. A buzzing, stinging thing. Mosquitophorical.

Nina is still young, a woman in her late thirties. She loves her daughter deeply, but with a kind of impatience reserved for uncooperative pets. Back in India when Nina was a girl herself, she had a cat called Rufus, a feisty Cheshire. Ages ago, says Nina dismissively, though she keeps a photograph of Rufus on her dresser and treats her past as a recoverable Utopia. Ammu considers such obsessions morbid. At the very least, unduly sentimental. The cat looks out from the photograph like a feudal lord, distant and a bit testy with the serfs. The photograph is right next to one taken of baby Ammu, cherubic in a stiff lace dress. Ammu had a gerbil once but gave it away before disaster could strike, as apparently it can at any time. Though possibly never in California where the skies are blue and the water infused with vitamins, which is why Ammu is headed there. Soon she will smell of lavender and cookies and set up house for her father.

“California,” she says finally, less a response to the man than an affirmation of intent.

“You don’t say!” says the man. He seems impressed. “California’s a long ways away for a little girl.”

Ammu is momentarily disconcerted. She has no ticket for anywhere, or (the thought strikes her now, dismays her) the money for one, or even for a sandwich. She thinks of the sleepover at Jenny’s, and wonders if her mother has telephoned Jenny’s parents to check on Ammu’s whereabouts after her clarinet lesson. Perhaps her watch can be bartered for money. A gold-trimmed watch, a present from her father. She doesn’t really need to know the time anyway. Who will buy her watch? Ammu looks around.

Someone new has entered the bus depot. An African-American man with a straw hat over a scarred face, two jagged lines reaching up his cheek like branches. His large canvas pants are pulled up to his waist with braids of metal, and around his neck hangs a thick silver chain. The old ladies stiffen immediately. The African-American man ignores them.

The old ladies turn back to their magazine, busily a-twitter.

“James thinks it’s cold in Buffalo, but I think the summers are lovely there.” Bonnet-lady is definite about this.

“Never been to Buffalo,” says the beige dress. “Though Niagara Falls, that’s lovely for sure.”

Maybe these old ladies have just met, are not old friends, possibly not Mennonites, just wayfarers wrapped up warmly for a long bus journey, just biding time.

The bluejean man hums softly, tracing the path of his invisible spider up his shirt and into a pulse in his throat. Ammu can barely hear him, but she suspects that what he’s mumbling isn’t good. He begins singing, a rhymeless song with the Word in it, the word that describes other people not like you. The word for black people. She’s heard it before. Once it was yelled out at her by someone in a speeding car as she got off the school bus. Then the car careened back, and a crewcut teenager stuck his head out of the window. “Dot Head!” he shouted, with a connoisseur’s need for accuracy.

Her mother waved the incident away. Just clueless people, she’d said, as if they were objects of pity, as if they live under the earth in another dimension. Way beyond uncouth. Ammu is hearing the word again now.

The man with the silver chain has not heard the word or merely chosen to ignore it. His attention is drawn to a medley of noises emanating from the cavernous door behind him, a darkened shell from which things seem to emerge like apparitions. A child has entered the bus depot, a girl possibly five years old, tap dancing her way toward the new arrival. An elf in a belted gingham sundress, bobby socks and spotless white Keds. She has a red ribbon in her curly brown hair and a fetching frown on her face. Her eyes are alert with anticipation.

“I wants candy,” announces the child as if there are no two ways about it. She pulls at her ribbon.

The bonnet-lady is transfixed by the dancing child. “A child shall lead us,” she murmurs.

“A dear little lamb,” agrees beige-dress. “The blood of innocents saves us. It washes our robes and make them white.”

“Amen,” they say together.

The man next to Ammu has also seen the child enter the depot and now sings louder. He may be insane. This is a new and unsettling thought for Ammu, and the shadows in the depot are beginning to look strange, stretching out across the room in long fingers. The room’s three bulbs pool light randomly as if on whim.

“Ain’t no candy here.” Astonishingly, the new arrival seems to be this girl’s father.

Candy would be good. Ammu pulls in her aching stomach to stop it from rumbling. A Snickers bar. A roll of gumdrops. One gumdrop. Anything.

The girl’s father drops a coin into the soda machine.

“There’s soda.” He shakes the broken machine halfheartedly. “Or none.”

The child ignores him and sits down across from Ammu in a metal chair.

“You got candy?” she asks.

Ammu shakes her head.

“My mom got candy,” says the child accusingly. “She always gives me candy.”

This is a new experience for Ammu, being the grown-up in a conversation. Usually, it’s others who shape the give-and-take with her, chatting in a stream of questions, as if gathering data: “So how is school these days?” “ Do you like math?” “Do you want to be a doctor or an engineer?”

Ammu and the child eye each other. The bluejean man on the bench is digging under his fingernails with a wooden toothpick. His nails are darkly fungal and he appears committed to their cleaning. The two old ladies are watching everyone, but especially Ammu and the child. They are whispering to each other. WssWsss

The wsssing sounds like a secret to be shared. An important shushing. What is the secret?

Ammu sees it now. Her father is right here in the room!

Ammu sees him clearly, briefcase held aloft and advancing toward her. He’s just the way she last saw him, the same brown tweed business-suit, wafting the same evening traces of after-shave smudged with sweat. Just before he made his California announcement and mentioned signing papers to her mother. Before he chucked Ammu under the chin and said she was always his girl. Simple, like that. And then gone.

But here he is! Ammu rises up quickly in joy. I’m here! I’m here! You found me!

She stumbles over the bluejean man’s foot, not seeing the room at all. Her haste has cast a spell and now her father has disappeared.

“Easy now,” says the man, not unpleasantly and in an almost familiar way as if addressing an old pal on a park bench. “What’s the hurry? The bus ain’t arrived yet. Someplace else to go?”

The question is a revelation to Ammu. A place to go!

Maybe her father is hiding behind the ticket booth where there is a narrow strip of space and a cardboard carton that almost fills it. That’s where he’d go to keep out of sight. Maybe he’s hiding there now. When she was little, he’d hide in places he knew she’d look so Ammu could always find him. Under the stairs, under the beds, behind the drapes, in a box. She’d run into the backyard and look up, scouring the sky. He could be there, hanging loose on the moon, perched on a star. Or underground, tunneling to China. He made life easy and full of surprises, just like it should be. Shut your eyes, he’d call, And count to ten! And when she found him, his mouth wide open, laughing, like Shiva ready to swallow the ocean. He’d pick her up and swing her around in a dizzying whirl. All chaos then and piggybacks. Amen and sugar icing. As it was it will be now and forever. Ammu would make it so. She steps past the child and heads over to the booth.

WssWsss, signal the ladies, bending and drifting like willows, hurry on, hurry on, you’ll find him. The bluejean man is watching her, curious.

“You take care now,” he says genially, like a game-show host.

Ammu squeezes behind the booth. Her father is not here.

She is, though, and can wait. The cardboard carton is empty, inviting her to fill it in.

No one can see her. Everybody’s on the other side of the booth. It’s just her now, waiting. She gets into the box and it fits her—like a mitten, she thinks—all curled up, a fist. She pulls off her gold-trimmed watch and it clatters down at her feet; she does not need the time. She will burrow deep into her center. She will feel the peace.

Soon a scrape of wheels. A commotion again, louder, with the thudding of bags and chatter. The depot has come to life. Rainbow hues spurt through the air, leaving in their wake a trail of white feathers and light. Puffs of melody rise and fall, swirling together and blending in soft crescendos. Ammu struggles to see through this haze. Any moment the police will arrive—Ammu has no doubt of this—and her mother with Jenny-who-can-never-keep-a-secret, who will tell on her, who is her best friend and almost-sister, the one who is always-so-good-and-obedient. The light clears and the music falls. A police car siren cleaves the air merrily to the tune of Oh Happy Day! and a rush of voices engulfs Ammu in spangled confetti.

“You here, kid?” Flashlights flood the box. A portly bustling policeman with a red face and cape looks like Santa. And now her mother arrives in a rush, sari pallav flying, arms outstretched and zooming like an angel through the air. The highway journey is full of laughter. The policeman is a jolly fellow, singing loudly and promising hot chocolate and a teddy bear. Nina holds her daughter close. They are home.

A Greyhound bus is leaving. The confetti blizzard of voices has tempered into silence. The box is sharper than she ever imagined cardboard could be, corrugated like a man’s scarred face. The candy-obsessed child, her father. Ammu wonders where they are.

When she opens her eyes, maybe a minute later, maybe hours, she sees the two old ladies peering down at her. So close, she can smell their almond-scented hair, their musty talcum powder. She gazes back up at them, a baby bird.

There is no sound in the depot, just the lulling sense of Sunday afternoons when her mother ran Ammu a bath, the soapsuds magic bubbles to carry her away—to California or India or wherever you damn well pleased. Ammu would sink into the tub and pretend she was deep in the sea where there were no fishes, just the rush of water swishing past her ears. She’d lie there while her parents laughed and talked behind the door, their voices filtering through the steam on wisps of foam. If she lifted her arms, Ammu could pull herself up like a victorious goddess, like Theides rising up out of the water and into the air, up and up and up into the light.

“Are you all right, dear? Feeling well?” says bonnet-lady, peering in. “Do you want to call home? Call your mother?”

But in her hand reaching down toward Ammu is not a cellphone but the mother-of-pearl knife, blade extended.

“Jesus saves,” murmurs beige-dress. “In difficult times. Suffer the little children.”

“Amen,” says the other, softly. “You must lead the way.”

They gaze with tender love at Ammu. Their eyes are filled with hope.

The blade singes Ammu’s cheek, a sweet filament of blood.

The water flows away from Ammu in great big sheets and she is all alone. She is on a breaker by the beach, looking out into a vast and careless sky. Not a cloud, not a breeze, just a dipping silence like at the bottom of the sea. If she calls, will her father see her, bring her candy, chocolate sauce, a birthday present? She doesn’t doubt this for one moment. Yes, of course he hears her. If she shuts her eyes, he will.