This short story is selected as Story of the Month August’2013 and won INR 1,000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
I was left with the fresh taste of impending doom and the piercing sound of the squealing tyres as I crawled onto the pavement. In a sudden moment of clarity, my past bore into my conscience. In effect, my wall of heroic nonchalance was reduced to smoldering ashes. I could literally see the flames dancing in preparation of my grave. As I drifted out of consciousness, my last thought was that I was going to die.
There are moments where mere mortals like me suddenly turn into devoted priests, lamenting an unfulfilled life and begging for forgiveness. We see our greatest regrets, our hopes, our mistakes, our blessings which we chose to ignore. We promise to redeem ourselves, to renew our faith and cry our hearts out for another chance. Then we are given that chance and we truly mean to keep the promises and to embrace the sudden new outlook that dawned upon us in our moment of despair. And then we drop our façade of the priest and return to our formerly selfish human ways. Aah, to err is human. How convenient.
I had been out joy-riding, driving over the limit, reveling in the spirit of rebellion. I was angry, I was disappointed and all I wanted to do was to defy her. I wanted to break all the rules, undo all the advice I had been given over the years. Anything really, anything except facing how I really felt. So I drove on in pitch darkness, in a car that wasn’t mine, daring trouble to bump into me. Careful what you wish for huh? Next thing I know, I crash into a giant wall and I’m thrown out of the car. And while I exaggerated signs of mysticism in my head, the car burst into flames and I woke up in a hospital. The first thing I saw was the tear-stricken face of my mother. Then I saw Roy Monterio.
Roy Monterio is the embodiment of a saint. The guy runs an old age home, two schools and a vastly successful business. All my promises of good behavior long forgotten, I focused the throbbing pain in my shoulder onto him.
‘Are you here to reprimand me, oh holy lord?’, I snapped at him.
What can I say , people in the town call me a bitter, troubled teenager for a reason. He simply sighed.
‘Actually, you broke into his house. You tore down this man’s wall and you have the audacity to talk to him like that. Watch it, young lady’, Dr. Sharma replied instead.
His disgust was apparent. Geez, ever heard of subtlety? I turned my head away. I was in no mood. I knew it was my fault and I was headed down a destructive ditch and yada, yada but I simply didn’t care.
‘I am not going to press charges’, Monterio said, ’but in return you have to volunteer at the old age center for a month. Your injuries are minor. I’ll see you there on Monday’. He started towards the door. Just before he left, he added, ’if you miss a single day, I’ll have your license suspended and the music club closed. Mickey… be there.’
Then he walked away. You’ve got to be kidding me. I could kill that pompous saint. My mother looked like she wanted to say something. I turned away and stared at the doctor instead. My stare could outlive his disgust any day.
‘Migsha chatterjee?’, the receptionist looked up expectantly, ‘we’ve been expecting you’.
I nodded warily as she showed me the way. The place smelt like stale medicine.
‘There are 65 men and women staying here. You’d be expected to help out wherever needed. I will introduce the staff to you in a bit. In the meantime, why don’t you go look around?’ said the woman whose office I had just walked into. Aarti Mishra was printed on bold letters over her door. I assumed she was the manager. She was strictly business and engaged in no small talk. I liked her, she wasn’t phony.
‘I am not concerned with how you behave outside, but in here you will be responsible. Your actions will have an impact on lives here.’
She dismissed me with a curt nod. I grinned and let out a small bow. I bolted before she could say anything. I bumped into a nurse on the way who sent me into this room. A very old man groaned and motioned to his side. What’s that smell? I looked down to what he wanted me to do. A bedpan. A filled bedpan. Crap.
Despite the occasional belch, the bedpan and the stench, I began to kind of like working down there. There was this one lady who insisted upon being called Thelma. It was no surprise that she liked the movies. I would sneak in some DVDs for her and I would tell the nurse that old Vastav fell on his floor. They would rush to his room and despite his testimonies, fuss over him. It would irritate him a great deal and that gave us all a sadistic pleasure. You see, Vastav was the meanest old man in the center. He wouldn’t get along with anyone and gruffly dismissed any help from the nurses. The first day I went into his room, he looked up and said, ’get out’.
Anyway, after the nurses went, we would watch a bit of some movie and she would always hold my hand and say, ‘thank you Louise’. I told her I’d guess her favourite movie for 100 bucks. She replied by telling me that I could pull a better trick.
It was day 15. Thelma and I had just finished watching Gone with the wind. Finished it over 4 days! She reached out to thank me as always. My hands were trembling against hers. I had stormed out of the house that morning.
‘What’s wrong?’, she asked me.
‘uh..it’s nothing really. I just had a fight with my mom’, I replied.
‘Well explain your side to her’, she said.
I mumbled something like yeah and got up to go out. She sensed my obvious discomfort and commanded me to sit down. Normally I would retort with some clever comeback and walk away but I really needed to talk.
‘What really happened?’ she asked.
‘Um..it wasn’t so much a fight but a more she-trying-to-justify-herself and me-storming-away’, I replied.
‘Justify herself?’, she was outright surprised.
‘Nothing . Forget it’, I said.
She repeated herself as if she didn’t hear me. I squirmed in my seat.
‘Some days ago I found out that I was adopted’, I said in almost a silent whisper.
She was furious. ‘So just because you now know you were adopted, it changes how you feel about her? She fed you, took care of you, loved you and now she has to justify herself for you to love her?!’, she said in a rising tone.
‘NO. Damn it, no. My love for her will never change. She is my MOTHER. Which is why, she should have told me. I’m mad because I found out. I’m mad because she didn’t know me well enough to tell me’. I almost screamed at her and banged the door on my way out.
That day I faced what I was feeling. I wasn’t concerned about my birth parents. I was mourning a loss of trust. I was hurt. And I wanted to talk to her but my ego wouldn’t let me.
Day 20 was Vastav’s birthday. Despite his notorious popularity, the staff and the fellow residents had arranged a small celebration for him. He didn’t even cut the cake. He spent the whole day sitting beside the door, constantly looking out. I was reluctant to ask Thelma but curiosity eventually got the better of me. She told me he was waiting for his son to show up. I felt a little bad for him. In the evening, I went to help him clear up the mess in his room. I was being quite nice to him and he kept snapping at me. I finally lost it.
‘Hey old man, just because you are frail doesn’t give you a right to be a giant pain’, I snapped right back at him. It probably did give him that luxury but I was a firm believer of equal rights. Woman empowerment and all. To my surprise, he started laughing. Oddly enough, he seemed relieved. We spoke all evening and I actually discovered that a lot of our interests were common. Music was a big part of his life too.
‘Hey, don’t feel too bad about your son. He is an idiot’, I said later that evening.
He sighed and replied,’ no, it’s not his fault’.
He turned his head away. I told him that he shouldn’t defend his son. It was clear how wrong he was.
‘All this, the nurse, the medical care, the center is paid for by my son. When he was a kid, I used to come home drunk and beat him senseless. On the rare occasions I was sober, I would yell at him and hit him and order him around. The only thing I managed to do was to pay for his basic needs and education’.
As he looked into my eyes, I saw such pain in his eyes that for an instance I forgot his horrible admission. He spoke with pure remorse,’ he is only giving me what I gave him and he is much more kind. All money and no love. I haven’t even apologized to him yet.’
I was truly horrified. He yearned for redemption but how does a son forget all those years of abuse. I didn’t know what to say.
My days of volunteer service were over. I had gone to collect my things when I noticed the ambulance outside. I rushed inside to find out what had happened. Everybody was gathered outside Vastav’s room. Thelma was sobbing gently and the nurses were taking out his things. Massive heart attack, they said. A couple of hours later, a Honda drew up outside the center. A man in his 30’s came inside and signed on some sheets. They gave a box of Vastav’s artifacts to him. He refused to take them and went outside. On an impulse, I scribbled on a sheet of paper and ran after him.
‘Sir..sir, please wait for a second. Um Vastav asked me to give this to you in case you came by after his birthday and he missed you’, I panted as I caught up to him.
He looked at me in surprise. He took the note and read it. I thought I saw a hint of a smile and genuine sorrow in his moist eyes. He put on his sunglasses, nodded and climbed into his car. I know I had no right to lie about his last words to his son but I think he would have wanted to say it, even if he didn’t know how to. I went back to the center and tried to console everybody and promised I would visit. Monterio smiled at me as I left.
I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, son. The note was clasped tightly in the man’s hands.
I saw my mom as I walked into the house. I walked up to her and said,’ Mom, I’m sorry. Everything’s not okay. We need to talk. But it will be. I love you’.
She started crying as she hugged me tight enough to knock the air out of me. Oh, the drama.