Nidhi Singh was taught at the American International School, Kabul, before moving on to Delhi University to earn her BA in English. She is the author of several novels, miscellany on Indian Cinema, and Sikh Holy Scriptures. Her short stories and essay have appeared in Mulberry Fork Review, Aerogram, Flash Fiction Press, Fabula Argentea, Fiction Magazine, Asvamegh, and elsewhere. She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.
No Place to Go
by Nidhi Singh
October 7, 2016
The hot sun beats down from a pale cloudless sky on the dusty scrapheap where derelict automobiles arranged in haphazard rows, stacked on top of one another, await further cannibalizing or decimation into fist-sized chunks by the baling press and the hammer mill.
An unkempt man, tucked under an old army blanket Battledress Serge, lies in the backseat of a rusty V6 Chevy Camaro. Nearby, in the backseat of a crumbling 1957 Ford Thunderbird Convertible is a salt- and pepper-haired woman. Unaffected by the heat, she is also shrouded in a worn red shawl, humming to herself.
They look old and wrinkled, but a closer scrutiny will reveal they are only middle-aged, and have worn badly.
“I can’t see,” he says in a loud whine that carries over to her.
“Try opening your eyes,” she replies. Her eyes twinkle for an instant, and she twirls her thumbs.
The man pries his eyelids open one by one, squints, stares, rubs his eyes, and stares again until his eyeballs are bulging in their sockets. “I can see again! It’s a miracle! God above watches over us!”
“Come on. You were seeing just fine not more than ten minutes ago,” she replies.
“Was it ten minutes…or more? How would you know?”
There is a long pause, and then she says, “It could have been five…or less. It could even have been days for all I care.”
They fall silent as a couple of vehicles whoosh past on the state highway. A truck stops nearby and voices of men are heard. Then a door slams shut and the truck slides noisily into gear and drives off.
“Have they g-g-gone, are they d-d-done?” he asks after a while, quaking.
“The v-voices…from the peak and from the plain…that awful lonely vein.”
“Of men of law?”
“The whispers, carrying in the wind.”
“Of men with knives?”
“The whimpers, lingering in the darkening shadows.”
“Of children? Should I take a look?”
“No, no! Stay here. Wait till they are gone.”
A loud clatter, thrashing of metal against metal, ripping of fabric, and shattering of glass ensues. A car tumbles down and smashes to the ground. Someone curses loudly. The shuffling of feet recedes into the far distance.
“Halt! Who goes there?” she asks in a murmur that barely lifts above the whistling wind.
“No halting, you silly, what if they come here?” the man asks.
“Oh,” she whispers. And then a little louder: “Proceed then. Go on going.”
“Hide,” he says, and pulls the gray wool blanket tightly over his eyes. She tries the same but her pale, bare ankles peep out from under the small shawl. She shrinks herself into a ball in a desperate scuffle to hide.
They lie still for a long time, until that ever-murmuring race with a trill that quivers through their piercing notes, those pesky little katydids, spread their wings and burst into song. Bats click and pop their way through the darkness, while cicadas tickle their tymbals and seek fellowship.
“Is it music, or is it noise?” he complains, briefly peering over the backseat. “I can’t see again.”
“It’s nighttime,” she explains.
“Already? How long since this has been going on?”
“The day slipping into darkness, the night breaking unto the light: since forever it seems.”
“Should we wait out until daybreak?”
“Will it be better?”
“But then there is hope.”
“There is always prayer. It might be less worse off.”
“My lips are sealed.”
She shifts uncomfortably in her seat. She rubs her toes that have become numb. "Do you think we should stretch ourselves a bit?"
“I need some exercise.”
“It’s exhausting just to think of it. I need some fresh air.”
“New ideas. A change of scene.”
“Come on out. My back will kill me if I stay cramped like this another day.” She steps out of the car, raises her arms aloft, bends down and tries to touch her feet but can’t. The effort is too much for her; she sways slightly, clutches the sides of the Ford, and then leans against it, out of breath. The man has come out as well. He bends sideways, loses his balance and nearly falls.
“You are still in good shape,” he says enviously.
“You don’t look so bad yourself.”
“Pretty in an odd sort of way.”
“If you shaved they might still not throw you behind bars.”
“I might even hug you if you didn’t smell.”
A police siren wails in the distance and grows louder as it approaches. Moments later a cruiser drives into the lot. They stand transfixed like hares caught in the glare of headlights. They cower as one of the cops walks out and approaches them. The other cop leans against the vehicle and lights up nonchalantly.
“What’re your names?” the officer calls out.
“We don’t have any, we gave them up,” the man says. “We don’t remember any.”
“Oh, you mean what we go by?” she wonders aloud.
“Ah that,” the man says, waxing eloquent: “Home Koala…Douche Americanos…Assholatosis…Shitacane. My personal favorite is Burden of the Earth.”
“Okay, I get it, I get it.” The cop raises his hands, his palms outward. In a more gentle tone, he continues, “Do you have any identification?”
“Sure, I have a birthmark here,” she says, lowering her pajamas. She shows him the tattoo of a pink and green butterfly on her buttocks. The man is frantically tugging at the cords of his pajamas but they won’t untangle.
“That’s all right,” the cop says, to the man. “I’ve seen enough. Does this place belong to you?”
“Who knows who owns it?” he says, shrugging.
“Who leases it?” she adds.
“Who claims it?” he says.
“Who craves it?” she says.
The cop looks from man to woman and then toward the building set at the back of the lot. It’s in a poor state of repair with most of the windowpanes missing and doors smashed in. A part of it has been set on fire and it seems to have been prey to arson at one time. “Someone reported a man prowling in this heap. We caught him trying to sell a car stereo. You wouldn’t know anything about it would you? I guess not. Hey, you folks should be in a home or something—any kids?”
“Not that we know of,” she replies, her trembling fingers tugging at her lapel.
“Not that we remember any,” the man says, shuffling his feet and kicking up dust.
“Not that anyone calls.”
“Is there anything at all that you remember about yourselves?”
“Born in 1961 to Estha and Paul Hepbrom of Great Barrington, MA, weighed 140 pounds once, believed billions of mindless drones can’t be wrong is all bull, is ugly because got hit by an ugly stick. Life is going in a different direction and the body is in a state of permanent outplacement. My sixth-grade elementary schoolteacher was ancient when I was in her class and presumably hasn't gotten any younger since I left. He would always use a forsythia branch as the device of cruel and unusual punishment. The green forest behind his house was taken out by nature. In the darkest hour we must search for the voices that allow us to remain human—humans are natural born killers. People are often difficult, unsound, and self-centered—excuse them anyway. Pogue mo thoin. Before gramps died, he told me to stay a child forever...it's worth it, he said….” The man’s voice trails as he runs out of breath.
“Hell, what? Do you need some food—cigarettes?” The cop pats his breast pocket and withdraws a pack and takes a step toward the man who shrinks back and scuttles to the rear of the car, his eyes big and round with fear. “It’s okay.” The cop stops and tosses over the pack. It hits the man’s chest and drops to the ground and stays there. “Can I help you in any way?”
“No one knows what help looks like as no one has ever seen it,” she says. “But we ask you to leave us alone.”
“We ask that you never return,” he says.
The cop tips his hat, shakes his head, and muttering to himself, returns to his car and drives off with his companion.
“Do you miss the kids?” he asks in the fading light.
“The offspring?” she says.
“Before they grew up, or after?”
“Aren’t they all the same?”
By early next morning grey clouds have spread their ash-like cloak across the somber sky. Soon tiny pebbles of rain plop on the shimmering car roofs and with every gust, dead leaves fall. The man rubs his palms vigorously. His pigeon chest wheezes as he tries deep-breathing exercises.
“I am wet,” he says, in a petulant tone.
“Try rolling up the car window,” she tells him. Her lips quiver into a mischievous smile momentarily before curling back into the permanent crease of a scowl. “On second thought, come let’s stand under the porch roof. We can watch the rain.”
“Let’s,” he says, unmoving.
“Follow me,” she says, and shifts uncomfortably to find a dry spot on the damp upholstery.
After a short silence the man calls out from under his blanket: “Are you still there?”
“From where you be speaking now.”
“I’m here, wherever that might be.”
“You said something about standing under a roof.”
“You really want to?”
“If you insist.”
“I guess we’ve run out of choices,” she says, as the rain begins to drip inside and a little pool gathers on her frayed shawl.
“We are our choices.”
“Then we’ve run out of ourselves.” With a supreme effort she raises herself out of the seat and wades through the slush; her arms spread out like a tightrope walker’s, she totters left and right as if the earth was heaving under her and manages to reach the porch of the office building where she hangs on to a wooden column for dear life. The man watches her with rapt attention and then follows, parrying the falling rain as if it were blows to his body. As they stand clinging to the balustrade, another car comes in through the driveway. A man in a priest’s cassock steps out. Covering his head with a bible, he sloshes through the mud toward them.
“Holy Christ! Watch out! A priest,” the man says, frantically looking about for an escape route.
“Stop it! You are not a boy anymore,” she says, restraining him by the sleeve.
“Good morning,” the priest says pleasantly, tapping the rain off the good book.
“Officer Proust called in and suggested I visit here.”
The two stare at him blankly. “We cannot help you,” he says finally.
“You must turn elsewhere for mercy and find the grace to deliver you,” she says.
The priest’s jaw drops but he quickly recovers the mellowed mien.
“We see you’ve brought the paperwork,” he says, gesturing toward the Holy Book.
“You’ve already got everyone’s burdens,” she says, “and there are thousands of things you can’t tell anyone about.”
“Why a priest?” he asks. “A priest outdrank me in a fair once, though.”
“Do you question God?” The priest asks.
“No, we answer to him. Alone,” she replies. “Why did The Cloth arise in a faith that began without it and opposed it?”
“Are you Catholics?” the priest asks with infinite patience.
“If you’re not one you’re going to hell no matter what,” he says. “We are more of dogs-persons—right now we have neither dogs nor cats. But we used to be alcoholics once.”
“Brother, would you like to say a small prayer with me?” the priest asks.
“Sure,” he says. “Prayer is to do nothing and still think you’re helping.”
“A placebo,” she says.
“A way of saying you are so important God will change his plans for you.”
“To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a lone unworthy petitioner.”
“When you talk to God, it's prayer. When God talks to you, you’re mad.”
The priest, exasperated, produces the sign of the cross with his right hand and utters a short prayer before leaving: “May the grace of Christ, our Savior, and the Father's boundless love, with the Holy Spirit's favor, bless us from above.”
“He’s saved,” he says.
“He’s on his way to glory,” she says, holding out her hand and letting the rain fall on her open palm.
By nightfall the rain has stopped and shimmering stars swarm the watery yard. The man, who has managed to find a dry seat to snuggle in, laments, “The prayer left me strangely drained.”
The woman, also in a warm and wilted car nearby, says, “ You’re in touch with your spiritual side.”
“You’ve just encountered your inner divinity.”
“You want me to get to the highway pub and find some food? They have nice waiters there – someone on a smoking break in the back always finds a bite for me.”
“Alright. But carry some money with you.”
“Whatever for? I don’t need any. Food is free.”
“It’s for when you get waylaid. They always get pretty nasty when they find you aren’t carrying any money on you.”
“So you want me to carry money on me so I can get robbed?”
“Yeah, as always. Do you have any left?”
“Yeah, some.” She shakes her pocket for the jingle of change but there’s nothing left.
“I will.” She wraps her shawl close and steps out into the night to find food for him.
The man tosses and turns restlessly on the seat while he lies in wait. He rises frequently to stare out into the dark at the entrance to the lot. He curses often and thinks of the verbal lashing he’s going to give her for making him worry and fret thus. A thought crosses his mind to go after her, but fear grips his head in a bony vise of knees.
Then, the unhinged Iron Gate lurches violently as someone leans on it. Groans and cries rend the air and pierce his eardrums like flamed skewers.
“Is that you? Are you hurt? Did you get robbed? Did you give them the money?” he asks, his head swimming in mad fright.
“They got me…” she groans and manages to reach her car and collapses. Her animal cries continue like a wild creature being lowered onto the tip of a spear.
“I wish I couldn’t hear.” The man presses his hands on his ears and sobs. After a while he removes his hands and cocks his head to listen. She is still crying but barely.
“Have they chopped you down yet? Have they finished you?” he asks.
“Is it over?”
“Almost…John,” she pants. Words escape her in a soft hiss.
“Please don’t leave me alone Jenny…I cannot bear it…Jenny…Jenny?”
“Well, that’s done then. Poor folks.” Officer Proust removes his gloves and lights up a cigarette. “Let’s file a report,” he tells his buddy.
“Any family?” the Lieutenant asks.
“Yes Sir. Two kids…both doing pretty well for themselves, too. We’ve informed them. They never had time to check on their parents, though.”
“What happened to the husband?”
“I guess after the wife was stabbed and passed away in this car here, he just never stirred—he starved to death.”
“Does this lot belong to them?”
“Yes sir. It’s a secluded lot on the highway. They got robbed and beat so many times, I guess they just lost their mind and began to hide in the cars out here. The kids wouldn’t have them, so they had no place to go, I figure.”
“Yeah, no place to go,” says the Lieutenant, and spits a thin jet of red tobacco juice on the ground.