Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sunday Scribbling #163: Disconnected


Rana was about to end his travels with the man from Trinidad. From Trinidad, though his people were from India. They had traveled to Trinidad in the nineteenth century, though the man – V – was never clear why. Given how much V got from the people with whom he traveled, it was odd how little he gave out about himself.

Rana, of course, knew where India was, though he was unclear about Trinidad. Atlantic? Caribbean? The mouth of the Amazon? It didn’t seem to matter – the man was so obviously from the subcontinent.

V’s latest travels had been to Malaysia, a far cry from the Islamic terror of Rana’s Pakistan. In V’s stories of that archipelago, Rana was given to believe that there was a softer side to the Prophet whose minions in his part of the world was so bent on raising a bloody desert out of what green ways were left in the hearts of his people. V’s stories of the Malays whispered that there might just be another way.

All of which meant little to Rana now as he wandered the cities of America. He was about to leave V, V who had himself wandered the southern cities once some twenty years ago. Rana was not going south: he told himself that he was traveling into the evening redness of the west, an expression for which he was quite fond, while having no notion what it really meant. He’d heard it also called the blood meridians, a description which lacked his favor, as it recalled Karachi, Bahawalpur, even Lahore: as, perhaps, it should.

Rana was seated alone in a plastic booth in one of America’s ubiquitous fast food emporiums, eating fried fingers of potato out of a thin cardboard bucket; he dipped the fingers in tiny cups of red sauce, drank brown gassy liquid from a paper cup. A man sat in the booth in front of him, eating and reading from a newspaper. Behind him, Rana was surprised to hear the tones and rhythms from his own black-suited world; he turned and saw her – a woman in black pants and a blue shirt, the universal uniform of this emporium, but skin the color of a madrona tree, black lustrous hair, decorative lines of henna braceleting her wrists.

“I leave in two days,” she was saying to a woman whose skin was charcoal black. Rana felt a pang – hers or his own? – of homesickness in his belly; he’d not felt his own in all these many weeks of wandering: though he wanted to reckon the sickness hers, he could not shake the feeling that someone from home was calling him, and djinn-like, had traveled the vehicle of the woman’s own desire to return. He imagined her free of her drab uniform and dressed in colorful cloth, her feet bare on a dyed cool concrete floor, laughing at the sound of a river outside her window.

No, the homesickness, and the desire, could not be his.

Twenty feet in front and above him was a television screen, absent the afternoon dramas he’d so often seen in such places; this screen was showing a movie, set in snow, with an old man struggling along a snow-clogged country road. A young man, driving with his wife in a truck, stops to offer the man a ride. The old man quickly enters the truck as if it were his due. He is taken to the house of a blonde woman: Rana notes that the woman’s mouth has been ruined by something injected into her lips. The ruined mouth is not that of the character – it is the actress’s mouth. Rana has seen her other times, before her disfigurement. In the world that he intimately knows, disfigurement is meant as punishment, for men and women alike; here in America, disfigurement is an act of vanity.

No one in the restaurant is the least bit interested in the movie. Men and women in camouflage outfits come and go with their food in bags; old men and women sit quietly alone and contemplate meat sandwiches held prayer-like in their hands; young couples sit and ignore the food between them. To his right, a very large woman and her very large daughter, sit sullenly and eat out of two clear bags of packaged fruit slices. On Rana’s table, beside his mound of potato fingers, the face of a young white American doctor on a thin placard is exhorting people, out of both sides of his mouth, to make sure they add good foods as well as delete bad ones from their diets. He finds this a very odd thing in such a fried food Mecca. He has seen this doctor on the cover of many other books and magazines touting good foods for the heart, and wonders who could have possibly arranged this marriage.

“Bloody Taoist,” thinks Rana.

He has, at the moment, a raging headache that is spreading down the back of his head like the many islands of the Malay archipelago – here, there, the pain is all about his occipital lobe, darting across his neck and shoulders, fully hammering away at the crown of his skull as well.

He wonders, strangely, if the pain is because of his clothes. This morning, quite impulsively, he discarded his shalwar-kameez in favor of blue denim dungarees and a blue cotton shirt. On his feet are brown ankle boots, not the sandals in which he has walked across half the earth. His hope had been to blend into this south Texas city, not to inflict pain. He knows it is perhaps somewhat irrational to blame a headache upon his clothes, but he is wary of dismissing the thought as just another of his usual mental shenanigans: back in Lahore, as he boxed his black suit into its mothball casket, he felt the yoke of tension he’d carried through three years of law school and ten years of practice lift right off his shoulders. He would have not thought it possible that a change of clothes could effect such change. For years, his family had encouraged him to visit the healer of their old village; friends, returning from schools in London, had offered handfuls of candy-colored pharmaceuticals; he’d resisted them all. Finally, a naked woman the color of his black suit had visited him in a series of dreams. She’d laughed at his obvious embarrassment, even in the private confines of his own mind.

“No, I am not one of Karachi’s African whores,” she said. “You can uncover your eyes; my breasts will not bite.”

She had a proposition.

“Five card stud.”

Rana did not like the sound of the last word; he’d no idea what she was talking about.

Out of an electric blue string bag, the woman fished for a deck of playing cards.

“Every time you lose, you will give me an article of that infernal suit.”

Rana felt himself a captive in the suit, but disliked the woman’s attack upon it.

“And if I win? You have nothing to give me,” he said, looking boldly now at her naked body.

She let him look long at her beautiful lines, casually slinging a leg over the arm of the chair in which she sat. Then she burst into laughter that roared like the sound of the River Indus.

“If you win, my little brother? Well, let us cross that bridge if we get there.”

There were no bridges. Within thirty minutes, Rana was stripped to his undergarments, which the woman graciously allowed him to keep. She sat across from him in his own black suit. Fetching, in her way, but moments after tying the tight knot of his cravat about her neck, she pulled a match from her string bag and made to set the suit on fire.

“Wait!” Rana screamed – but needn’t have. The woman was consumed in a torrent of blue and green waves, his black suit carried quickly out to sea behind her.

She crossed to him and pressed his face into her black belly: she smelled of ocean, of salt, of the darkest patchouli. He could have sworn, as he woke, that he felt the slap of a large fin in his face.

In New Orleans, Rana had seen the woman of these dreams once again; not the same color – this woman was golden – but the same unmistakable look upon her face that defied any man to shirk or desire her. Rana caught her scent and the look upon her face, before he heard a word she said.

“I am she,” she said. And that was all she said.

Two days later, walking through the market in the French Quarter, he had seen her again, holding out a plate of bright red watermelon slices to passersby. He hoped to avoid her eye and walked by.

“My little brother,” a hand firmly grasping his arm. “You would deny me? What – am I naked before you?”

He feared to look.

“Look at me.”

He did as he was bid. He could have sworn the blue and green Caribbean was in her hair.

Her hand cupped the back of his head, as she drew him to her, and kissed his forehead. In his ear she whispered, You have nothing to fear.

Releasing him, she said, “Take,” and placed a red piece of fruit into his open mouth.

“May I sit?” said a voice to his left. The woman was as dark as his card-playing dream, but she was clothed in one of the hot camouflage suits he’d been seeing go in and out of the restaurant. “Lunch is crowded today. I wouldn’t have bothered you, but—”

“No, please: sit. I was just—”

“Your fries are half eaten, brother. I wouldn’t want to run you off. I’ll be done in a jiffy.”

On her tray was a single cup of coffee. She caught the question in his eye. “Headache. A miserable one.”

Rana was about to say, “me, too,” but realized that his had lifted. The islands on the back of his head were just islands, no longer spikes of fire. He realized, too, that he had slipped off his boots and was sitting with his sock feet stretched out across the booth.

Her hand stayed the retreating ankle. “No way. You were here first.”

The camouflage of her uniform was resolving into improbable patches of blue and green. There was the smell of salt in the air.

She took a careful sip of the coffee, breathed in its stout relief, and said, “Two more days.”

Rana was still swimming in blue and green. “I’m sorry?”

“Two more days. I am out. Twenty years in this proverbial black suit will be over.”

“But your suit is not black.” He was going to say it was blue and green, but managed to eke out “it is patches.”

“Figure of speech, my brother. I bury people. Over there,” cocking her head behind her to the south.

“You dig—”

“Well, no, I don’t do the actual digging. But, arrange the services. It feels the same. Folks look at me as if I’m the devil decked out in black.”

All Rana could see was ocean and, he was embarrassed to realize, the iridescent black sheen of his card partner.

“First thing I do, come this Friday, is cremate these rags. I’ve got a kiln over at my duplex – these are going in for a nice long bake.”

Rana wished he had thought to burn the mothball casket.

“Then a quick hop up to Austin, take a right on 71, and head straight out for the Blue Flame, some of Swish’s finest coldest cans of beer. Rattle my wisdom teeth, they will. Sit out under his big pine trees in the back and watch that sun burn its way into the west.”

“The evening redness,” blurted Rana.

“The evening redness. I like that.”

Rana smiled. “Please. It is yours.”

“Then, after that evening redness, my brother, I am going to drive back home to Sumner Drive, peel whatever clothes I’ve left on me from driving home with the top down, and walk naked beneath my ceiling fans until I figure one good goddamned reason to put a lick of clothing back on and go out into this infernal world.”

There, seated in the booth of a fast food joint at the corner of Harry and the Austin Highway, Rana knew he had finally set down in America. He knew two things: one, this woman was not propositioning him in the least, and two, even though there was the image of a magnificent black ass sashaying in full mahogany bloom about her living room, there was no evening redness upon his face.

He looked across the booth into the woman’s face. He held her look for a good minute, while the old man in the movie was whining to the blond woman with the ruined lips.

“And then?” he said.

“And then what, my little brother?”

Rana smiled. The camouflage had resolved completely to blue and green. There were turquoise lights in her hair. He held her look again, pulled back his feet and slipped them back into his brown boots.

“Your headache is gone, yes?” he asked. He did not wait for an answer. He stood up beside the booth, gently cupped the back of the woman’s head, and kissed the center of her brow. With his thumb, he pressed a rose into the squashed dent of her inner eye.

From his back pocket, he fished out the deck of cards and placed them on the table in front of her.
“Then, my sister, it will be time for a little five card stud.”



Blogger AD said...

may i just say that was a longggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg read! ?


2:32 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

AD: You may. We'll keep Finnegans Wake in the garage.

3:25 AM  
Blogger anno said...

Long, but interesting. I'll remember this, the next time I'm tempted to play cards with the gods.

Also, you probably knew this already, but I was surprised to learn that Rana is not only a Hindu title for princely royalty but also a genus of frog. Seems somehow appropriate.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Tumblewords: said...

eating fried fingers of potato out of a thin cardboard bucket; - this is the epitome of the now world. Excellent work, as usual!

9:22 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Anno: I did not know the frog connection, but I like that you pointed it out, and yes, it does fit nicely.

Maybe some gods, but never Yemaya...

9:56 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Tumblewords: I walked around in this character's skin for several weeks, while reading V. S. Naipaul. "We" parked ourselves one afternoon in a McDonald's to see what we could see.

10:00 PM  
Blogger gautami tripathy said...

It might be a tad long but well worth it! Loved that picture too!

SS: tangled mess

9:22 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

GT: Thank you for hanging in there.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

Interesting and riveting!

7:37 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Thank you, Dee.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Tammie Lee said...

"eating fried fingers of potato out of a thin cardboard bucket; he dipped the fingers in tiny cups of red sauce, drank brown gassy liquid from a paper cup"
You have an amazing ability to look from another perspective! Brilliant. This piece is a full and colorful tale.

I found your tea in Calif.:Lapsong Souchong (right?). So smokey, how do they do that. For my first cup I am having it straight up, no sugar, no milk. Wonderful. Thank you.

3:18 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Tammie: Thank you for reading along with Rana's journey.

I'm impressed with your tea-chops. Straight, no chaser: that's some stout smoky tea.

5:46 PM  
Blogger MichaelO said...

Paschal - Long read be damned, that was a fine story! I loved how foreign you made lunch at Mickey D's! This one was full of Creole voodoo, my man. The juxtaposition of shame and vanity in disfigurement really highlights eastern/western cultural divides. Sorry it took me so long to get to the read as I needed to make some time for it this week. Cheers, bro!

8:45 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Michael: Thank you for hanging in there for an admittedly long read. I have to say that I really enjoyed when Rana came calling in my head: he lived there for about a month, for three (I think it was three) stories. As for Creole, I always love when Yemaya comes calling with her sassy ways...

5:35 PM  
Blogger jsd said...

this was excellent, much to think about.

6:24 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Thanks for jumping in the river, jsd.

8:22 AM  

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