No One Can Pronounce My Name
HARIT DESCENDED THE RUBBER-COATED STAIRS of the bus and tripped as he jumped to the sidewalk below. He turned around to see if anyone had noticed, but the bus was already pulling away, leaving a dispersing cloud of smoke and people. It was a short walk from the bus stop to his house, but within ten paces he began to sweat. The heat seemed so hot here because the surroundings didn’t look as if they could stand it any more than the residents. The thick roofs (many-shingled and arched), the roads (bracketed in deep curbs), and the trees (branches bursting and then shivering in leaves) were all suited to a cold landscape. Harit had seen this theory proven during his first winter in Cleveland, when snow piled on top of those shingles, nestled into those curbs, and spackled the leaves in ice. But in the summer, the neighborhood seemed like a tired, old man who could not endure such exertion.
The house in which Harit lived stood opposite a large baseball field. The field was surrounded by a sextet of light posts so large that they could have constituted a new Seven Wonders of the World had another counterpart been shoved into the ground. It seemed that a different group of boys appeared on the field every night, clad in uniforms of red, yellow, and gray polyester, or—during practice games—an assortment of sweats and mesh. Their hollers would last until 9:00 P.M., when the lights would shut off with an ear-splitting pucker. The field’s diamond was on the opposite side of where the bus stopped and Harit’s house stood, so he didn’t have to interact with the kids very often. But there were those afternoons when a ball would find its way to Harit’s side of the field, and some fragile little kid would run over to get the ball and look terrified that Harit was going to do something awful to him. There was that quick shake of the head, a short No, and Harit, who should have learned to look in front of himself and not at others by now, would move away.
Today, thankfully, he had an uneventful walk home, and when he slid his key into the back door of his house, he had one second of peace. But as soon as he turned that key, it was time to get into costume.
He wasn’t sure why he put on the rose oil anymore. It had seeped into his skin by now; Teddy had already sniffed him and asked why he had started to smell like someone named “The Dowager Countess,” whom Harit didn’t know but who, according to the tinny voice that Teddy used to say her name, sounded like a very small woman. Harit cursed himself when he remembered that he had run out of lipstick yesterday. Luckily, he had a bit of raspberry Chapstick left, and a few heavy circles around his mouth pretty much did the trick. The sari that he had been using for the past week was beautiful, a peacock blue, but he had started to smell in its folds a stale version of his own pungent body odor. He tipped the bottle of rose oil against his index finger and, trying not to stain the fabric, flicked small droplets onto it. He then whipped the sari into the air the way he did with his blanket when making up his bed in the morning. He sniffed the sari again. There was still the unmistakable sourness, but the rose oil now clouded it enough that his mother’s old nostrils would not detect the smell.
She was in her armchair in the living room, and the stereo was going. Gital Didi had brought a new batch of cassettes for her, and the latest one was a Mohammad Rafi best-of collection. That voice, normally lively, was so muffled by the old stereo’s speakers that it sounded as if poor Mohammad himself were trapped inside the machine. Harit—for all the sadness of the situation—had to stifle a laugh as he looked at his mother, this sentinel of a caged megastar singer. She had taken to wearing a pair of gigantic, purple-rimmed sunglasses—also a gift from Gital Didi—which made Harit’s job both easier and harder. Easier because they filtered out such mistakes as his Chapsticked lips; harder because they made his mother even more inhuman and unapproachable. Her eyes, even under the gossamer of burgeoning cataracts, were a pair of darting, glimmering circles that were abnormally large for her face and that had often made people mistake her for a South Indian instead of a Punjabi. But now, with her new eyewear, she had become a wax figure of herself, an effigy upon which some child had played a prank. Still, something in her defied total weakness. The way that her mottled hands rested on the chair’s armrests, the way that her white sari, though jaundiced with time and overuse, flowed like the raiment of Saraswati, the way that her hair, ghastly white, held its bun save for a few defiant wisps—it all emphasized her determination to mourn forever.
“Is that you?” his mother asked in Hindi. It was always the first thing that she said. She didn’t speak English anymore, and she used the informal you in a childlike manner.
Harit gave his usual response: “Yes, Mother. It is Swati.”
* * *
He wasn’t exactly sure how the dress-up game had started. It had just seemed like the logical thing to do. He had found himself holding one of Swati’s lipsticks to his mouth and knew that it would be a routine. He had never thought of putting on women’s clothing before and had certainly never thought of putting on makeup, but in the midst of his suffering, or the catatonic nothing that turned out to be suffering, he had done both of those things so easily that he wondered if perhaps he had once dreamed about doing them, if they had been occupying the same part of his mind that a childhood phobia of snakes or an affinity for lassi had occupied. Perhaps it was because, at the beginning, it wasn’t just his mother who needed Swati to be alive but Harit himself. That was it: he did not question his actions because part of him believed that Swati was the one performing them.
His mother’s eyesight had turned blurry by then, and there had been times when she had confused Harit with Swati. The brother and sister could not have looked any different—Harit with his large eyeglasses, mustache, and messy, long hair sprouting from a receding hairline; Swati with her beautiful face, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and that smile. Her teeth were not terribly white or straight, but her smile brightened up her entire appearance, and that was something that no amount of dissembling could give Harit, who hardly ever smiled and, maybe worse, did not understand why smiling was such a big deal. He practiced Swati’s smile in his bathroom mirror before offering it to his mother. He looked as if he had indigestion. But it was a sign of just how far his mother’s eyesight had dimmed that she took this horrible version as the real thing.
He first approached her three days after the funeral, after they took Swati’s body to the entirely un-Indian local crematorium, after the people there burned her off with a lack of ceremony that stunned not just Harit but all of the families gathered. At the end of it, the owner handed Harit his sister’s ashes in an urn that seemed too plain—What did an ideal urn look like, though?—and Harit was surprised at how light it was. Since Swati’s passing, their mother had not spoken—or wept, for that matter—and generally stayed clear of Harit, so it wasn’t very difficult to hide the urn from her. She was folded into the backseat of a car by three aunties who stood by like ladies-in-waiting, while Harit was driven home in a separate car by the pandit’s wife. For the next three days, his mother sat in her armchair, not moving, not speaking, not even getting up to use the bathroom.
At the end of the third day, soon after the lights from the baseball field had gone out and left them in the gray dust of a nighttime house, Harit entered the room dressed in his costume. He was almost as dazed as his mother and, later, would remember the experience as if it were something he had seen years ago in a strange movie.
“Is that you?” his mother asked when she saw him, and it startled him to hear her voice, not just because she was speaking but because she said this sentence as matter-of-factly as if Swati had come in with a cup of chai. He had expected her first words after this long silence to be torn, exhausted, hollow.
“Yes, Mother. It is Swati.”
He didn’t have time to worry if she believed his impression because his mother broke down. Her outburst lasted only a few seconds, but Harit would never forget the way that his mother’s body unfurled, as if she were a ball of paneer expanding after being freed from a cheesecloth.
“Arré, beti, you scared me so much. I was so scared! I was—Don’t ever leave me like that again. I would—I don’t know what I would do. My child is home. My child, my child…” She was weeping horribly, hitting her eyes with her hands. Harit had seen her cry only once before, when he was seven and her cousin Jyoti had died of tetanus. Instantly upon hearing her cry now, he felt just as he had then, vulnerable and terrified, a weak child with a weak mother. He backed away from the living room and ran to his bed, rocking himself to sleep in his sister’s sari and wishing that Swati were there to pat him to sleep, as she had done for so many years.
* * *
“You know, in French, the word sale means dirty,” Teddy said. “So you can imagine what French people think when they come here.”
Teddy was always dropping French into conversation. He once tried to teach Harit how to speak the language, but Harit’s “merci” kept coming out like “mercy,” and that is exactly what Teddy gave him after the fourth, and final, lesson. The funniest thing was that Teddy didn’t seem to know that much French, either.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Harit heard the short sound of metal on glass—the tip of a hanger flopping onto the counter as Teddy looked at him in anticipation. Harit was fixing a round table of ties. Red was the color of choice that summer, so the assortment before him contained varying shades of it, each tie shooting its color outward, as if mimicking the tongue of Kali.
“Uh, yes, I heard,” Harit said. He nudged one of the ties back into place and then looked up. Teddy was holding a blue blazer with gold corduroy lapels.
Teddy snorted. “Someone’s in a mood today,” he said, taking the blazer and walking it over to where its colorful clones were hanging. Harit watched him saunter, feeling, as he often did, that every interaction with Teddy, regardless of how brief, had to Mean Something.
Harriman’s was a department store that had undergone several evolutions of decor since its birth forty years before. Harit often thought of what he must have been doing while the store was being built. He would have been four then. The faux-wood walls were hoisted against real-wood planks while he had his first taste of sweet halwa. The original tan carpet—tufts of which Harit could still see popping up between layers of the newer, navy blue carpet—was rolled into place while he sat in his open-air classroom, seeing the skeletal script of words he had, until then, known only by sound. The marble staircases were given a final polish as Harit’s equally pristine soles bounded up the red stone steps of his temple. As Harriman’s opening day came to a close, coiffed housewives shuttled out of the glass front doors, milk shakes from the second-floor parlor in their bellies; Harit sat on his house’s front step, licking the cool dribble off a mango Popsicle.
He found the job through Gital Didi’s friend Sameet, who had worked briefly in the storeroom. Sameet had been charged with the task of moving gigantic boxes of women’s shoes from one end of that musty concrete bunker to the other. Harit, on the other hand, parlayed his interview into the more important position of working in the Men’s Furnishings department. Not the Men’s department, which included dress shirts and slacks and sweaters. The Men’s Furnishings department, which involved “accoutrements” (another Teddyism): ties, cuff links, suspenders, wallets, clips, hats, pocket squares, scarves, and—partly because the space devoted to it was adjacent to the Men’s Furnishings section, but more because it didn’t fit into any of the store’s other categories—luggage. The department was the also-ran of the store, but working in it still beat the storeroom, even if Harit came to realize that twiddling one’s thumbs was only slightly better than sweating.
Although Harit’s English was far from ideal, it was augmented by a certain attention to pronunciation and vocabulary that set it apart from that of most Indian people. This made him the best Indian presented to the people at Harriman’s in quite some time. For his interview, he showed up dressed in his nicest outfit—a tailored herringbone jacket, brown corduroy slacks, cream dress shirt, and maroon silk tie. He waited for Mr. Harriman, the general manager, in a poorly lit office on the top floor. The office was very plain. Given the grand appearance of the store, Harit had envisioned a lavishly furnished room that resembled a professor’s study—not this, which brought to mind a hospital without the cleanliness, a DMV without the people. Mr. Harriman’s secretary, Stella, brunette with a pointy nose and small face, carried the unmistakable expression of someone who didn’t have a damn clue as to how she had ended up in a job like this. Why was she assisting the general manger of a department store when working in the store, graceful behind a perfume counter, seemed so much more attractive? Harit could only assume that the pay was better in her current position.
“Mr. Harriman will see you now.” She said every word as if it were new not only to him but also to her. Harit nodded politely and walked up to her desk. She flinched slightly, and he realized that she had not intended to walk him to Mr. Harriman’s door. To put her at ease, he pointed in the direction of the office, indicating that he was headed that way.
Mr. Harriman—whose first name Harit never learned—was in his late sixties and was a smart dresser, contrary to the dour and unbecoming photograph of him that Harit would eventually see in the employee break room (E. H. HARRIMAN—no first name—engraved on a placard under it). Harit would soon learn that when Mr. Harriman got particularly stressed, his skin became red and he looked like a bell pepper. His voice was by turns mellifluous and grating, and he had an unexplained southern accent.
“So, Mr. Singha, what brings you to Harriman’s today?” Harit’s last name was Sinha, but Mr. Harriman added a g to it, as if it were a Thai beer.
Harit did not understand the question. Why else would he be here? “I have come to see if I might find employment.”
Mr. Harriman threw his head back and laughed. His teeth sparkled. “Right to the point. I like that in a salesman.”
“Oh, I did not come for a salesman position,” Harit said. Mr. Harriman’s mouth fell into a frown, and Harit panicked. “Uh, I would love to be considered for a salesman position, but I was informed that you need men for your storage room.”
“Ah, yes, yes, we have had many helpful boys from India, but I like the look of you, Mr. Singha. Do you have any sales experience?”
Harit wished that Mr. Harriman had looked at his résumé. It clearly indicated that he had done his schooling in Commerce and that he had worked for several years back in India as the operator of the projector in a movie theater, before coming to the States and working as a janitor at a medical supplies company. None of this made him an ideal candidate for a salesman job.
“No, sir. No sales experience.”
“Do you like Harriman’s?”
“It is a nice store, sir.” This was the first time that he had ever set foot in it.
“Well, Harriman’s is the crown jewel of this community, Mr. Singha. I opened decades ago with an aim to make it the premier shopping experience in Greater Cleveland, and it is my belief that it has remained such since that time. We’ve survived the supermall, the cybermall, and about a million apps that turn your phone into a mall.” Harit could tell that Mr. Harriman had given this speech several times. “Throughout the years, we have employed a wide variety of employees. A former assistant manager of ours was African American!” Mr. Harriman raised his eyebrows, as if Harit were supposed to be very impressed. Harit realized in this moment that Mr. Harriman was offering him a salesman job because of his ethnicity.
After the interview, Mr. Harriman walked Harit out of the office and said to Stella, “This is Mr. Singha. He is going to be working in Men’s Furnishings. Can you get his paperwork started, sweetheart?”
Stella looked up at them as if Mr. Harriman had just said that Harit were making a trip to the moon.
* * *
On a Thursday afternoon, Teddy asked Harit if he wanted to go for a drink after work. “Fancy a drink?” was the way that Teddy phrased it, and it struck Harit’s ear strangely, for the Anglo-bred English he had learned gave “fancy” a sexual connotation—a mundane question made illicit in Teddy’s mouth.
Harit offered up a quiet “I must tend to my mother at home,” but no sooner were the words out of his mouth than Teddy was pulling him by the shirtsleeve and saying, “No ifs, ands, or buts, mister.” They left the Thursday night quietude of the store—Thursdays were generally calm before the weekend rush on Friday—and soon they found themselves in a TGI Friday’s in a nearby mall that Harit had passed on his way to work but had never examined up close.
“Table for deux, please,” Teddy told the pimple-faced hostess.
Her eyes flicked from Teddy to Harit and back. “Two of you?” she asked, already plucking two menus from a stack and turning on her heel.
“Yes, darling,” Teddy said as they walked down the middle of the restaurant. “Honey, you need to get yourself some nicer pumps.” He pointed to the girl’s old shoes even though her back was turned. She ignored him.
Their booth was in the far corner of the restaurant, under an oblong window that looked out on the mall instead of the parking lot. Through the window, Harit could see a girl standing attentively in a hat and apron at the cookie shop in the food court—waiting for anyone at all to bite.
“It’s about time we did this,” Teddy said, opening his menu and scanning its contents with one outstretched finger, the way one might do to a tax form. It struck Harit how out of place Teddy was. Harit had only ever seen him in the store and, once, briefly in the parking lot, but now, against the red and orange swells of the bar and grill, Teddy looked like a paper doll that had been plucked from a book. “What are you gonna have?”
Harit had never had a drink with another person in his life. He’d never had a drink, period, until after Swati’s death. A week after the tragedy, Gital Didi came by with a few groceries for his mother, and in the middle of pulling bundles of coriander, tubs of yogurt, and flour from the brown paper bags, she pulled out a six-pack of Bud Light and set it on the counter, as if it were the most natural thing to give him. Harit froze in the middle of the kitchen, eyeing the beer as if it were a squirrel that had bounded in through an open window. Gital Didi said, “Perhaps that will help,” and turned away to put a gallon of milk in the refrigerator. Later, after his Swati act, while reaching for that milk to make a nighttime lassi, Harit saw the beer, large and prominent on the small shelf. He lifted the whole six-pack up, the cans thumping against each other, and eyed the cold metal carefully. Then, as he had done at ten years old when extracting an orange Fanta from his parents’ icebox, he set the package back on the shelf and pulled off one can. He took it to his room, sat on his bed, opened it—the psst of the can making a much louder sound than he had expected—and had to shove it into his mouth to stop the foam from hitting the floor. He sucked at it, the bubbles burning his throat and the taste acrid and so bitter compared to soda. By the time he finished the can, he was already drunk. He spent the rest of the evening moaning with heartburn into his pillow, but the next night, he drank two more cans, finally realizing why people got drunk—to forget things.
By now, he was used to the scratch of the alcohol at the back of his throat, but he also had no idea what it was like to drink in front of someone—or, more precisely, what it was like to be drunk in front of someone. It was this worry that made him order a Coke.
“A Coke?” Teddy said. “I didn’t take you out so that you could order a Coke, sweetheart. Time for a big boy’s drink. I’ll have a vodka soda, and make his a rum and Coke,” he said to the waiter, a butch young man with spiked hair, huge arms, and orange-tanned skin.
“Sir, please, a Coke,” Harit said, stroking his hair nervously with his right hand.
“Absolutely not!” Teddy laughed. “Rum and Coke. Rum and Coke.” He pounded on the table with his fists and chortled. The waiter gave an exasperated sigh and walked away. “Well, what’s her problem,” Teddy said. His face transformed from gleeful mockery to discomfort as his fleshy checks and thick neck erupted in a hectic blush. Harit was confused, assuming that Teddy was referring to the hostess, who was not even in sight.
A minute later, the waiter reappeared with a glass of clear liquid over ice for Teddy and a Coke for Harit. Teddy sat quietly as the waiter set the drinks down and walked away.
“Well, cheers, dear,” he said, raising his glass into the air. Harit picked his drink up, clinked it against Teddy’s glass, and took a sip. He gagged. The burning sweetness in his mouth must have been rum, and the rum must have been half-piss. Teddy burst out in laughter again.
Harit had always thought the jolly dry heave of Teddy’s laugh to be comical, but here, in this crowded restaurant where the people in the booth next to theirs peered over the partition to give a stern eye, he hated it.
“Honey, don’t tell me you’ve never had rum before.”
“Have you ever had a drink before?”
Harit looked at Teddy angrily and said, “Yes. I have had several.”
“Oh, really?” Teddy was chortling again. “When?”
“After my sister died.”
Harit hadn’t expected to be so mean-spirited, but the words came out of his mouth quickly. He didn’t regret speaking them. If anything, he felt empowered, especially when he saw Teddy’s face fall and his blush darken to purple.
“Oh, my God, I am so sorry,” Teddy said. “How did it happen?”
Instead of responding, Harit took his glass and tipped the rest of its contents down his throat. He closed his nose as he had done years ago when taking his mother’s sore throat remedy of honey, black pepper, and masala. Then he said, “Where did the waiter go?”
* * *
The inaugural outing ended as Teddy gave Harit a ride home in his beige Camry, Harit fumbling to find his house key because he was tipsy and because it was ten after nine and the baseball field lights had gone off. He had just enough presence of mind to make his costume look presentable and carry on the usual level of conversation as Swati with his mother (which wasn’t much). Contrary to what he thought would happen after the initial rush of rum at the restaurant, he did not get sick but fell into a pleasant sleep the moment he lay down. He woke up two hours late the next morning. He sat up in bed and was greeted with a pain that reminded him immediately of how he had felt upon spotting Swati’s crumpled body at the foot of the stairs—a punch to the forehead. He managed to get dressed and take a few sips of water from the kitchen tap, and then he realized that he had not given his mother her usual cup of tea that morning. Her grief and fading vision had confined her, and she relied upon him to do little things like these when Gital Didi wasn’t around.
He looked into the living room. His mother’s head was drooping, and there was no music playing. He started forward but then noticed over the rim of her sunglasses that she was looking at her hands. He realized, his brain like a rusty machine sputtering into action after neglect, that she had been in this exact same position last night. She had not met his eyes but had been looking at her hands, and he had been so worried that she would not believe his clumsy disguise that he had not thought about why she had been doing so. Now, he saw that she was holding a teacup, and he realized that he had no idea how long it had been there. It could have been since yesterday morning, although he normally remembered to take it out of her hands before leaving for work. He had no recollection if he had. The pain in his forehead was making him forget.
“Ma, are you all right?”
She looked up at him and shook her head.
Harit wanted to ask her if she needed another cup of chai, but for some reason he felt that the room had become menacing, that another word would make his mother crumble or disappear. He heard a car whiz past outside, then another car’s engine start. He heard the drip of the kitchen faucet, which never stopped making noise however hard he twisted its knobs shut. And there was the swish of his mother’s breath as it exited and entered her nostrils. He could not remember the last time that he had looked at his mother like this, without speaking. Perhaps more notable, he could not remember the last time that his mother had observed him. Despite her failing vision and her oppressive eyewear, she seemed to be seeing right into him.
Now was the moment when he should come clean. He could stop this charade and tell his mother the truth. No more nights twisted into a sari, no more makeup, no more tiptoeing.
As he looked at her, he thought of a story that his mother had told him when he was a child: a crow, weary from flying, chanced upon a jug of water in the forest. He perched on the rim of the jug, his ribbed black claws clutching the clay, and put his head down to drink. However, his beak was far too small to reach the water. He tried several times, and every time, he found himself even wearier than when he had begun. Eventually, he had no choice but to fly away, cursing the fact that he had ever stopped.
“But you see,” his mother said those many years ago, “another crow came along, and after seeing that his beak was far too short to reach the water, he thought of a plan.”
Harit could see his childhood bedroom now—its yellowed walls veined with cracks, the blue stripes of his bedsheet, the honey-like spill of a lamp lighting his mother’s lively eyes, and Swati’s hair, spread like a dark wooden fan on her bed, which sat opposite his.
“This clever crow grabbed a nearby pebble in his claws and plopped it into the jug. He found another pebble, and another, and another, until the level of the water came to the rim of the jug. He then dipped his beak in and drank to his heart’s delight.”
Harit remembered how joyous the story had made him. Like every child, he thought his mother had made the story up herself—a sentiment echoed by the look in Swati’s own eyes and, of course, in the grin that bloomed on her face.
It was not until a few years later that he heard from a schoolyard acquaintance, Ranga, that not only was the story an Aesop’s fable, but that his mother also had changed it in an odd way.
“There are not two crows in the story,” Ranga said, raising his hands in the air, palms up, as if each one were a crow. “There is only one crow, and he figures out the puzzle for himself.” He brought his palms together, bowed as if he were a servant, then erupted in laughter.
Harit was hurt that his mother had changed the story, especially because he couldn’t understand why she had made the change at all. Why put another crow in the tale, especially when its story was so tragic?
* * *
By the time Harit got to work that morning, it was ten o’clock. He had never been late to work before, and he didn’t know what to do. Most mornings, he arrived at five minutes before eight, clocked in at his register, then waited in the break room for his coworkers to show up. It was a drab space, with a quartet of buzzing appliances—a vending machine of candy bars, a watercooler, an off-white refrigerator, and a tea-and-coffee machine that spat liquid into fragile paper cups. A collection of plastic chairs and round tables, scattered by day’s end, was always set right by the janitor come morning, and Harit loved having this order to himself. (Having once been a janitor, he appreciated this dearly.) Since he hated the tea that the machine in the break room made, he brought Taj Mahal tea bags and simply pressed the HOT WATER button to make his own brew. He toasted Mr. Harriman’s portrait—his sole companion—and drank up the tea and silence.
By eight-thirty, the fifteen or so salespeople of the morning shift would gather and loiter with their coffees, bagels, stinky fast-food breakfasts, and gossip. Since the store was such a beloved establishment, the majority of the employees had been working there for years. Most of them were women who smelled sweet and wore dresses as puffy as their hair. It wasn’t that they were mean to Harit, but except for a smile in passing or an odd question about his ethnicity (“When do you plan to move back?” “In India, do you drink eight glasses of tea a day instead of water?”), they rarely engaged him directly in conversation. One of them, Ruby, was in her seventies, and Harit originally attributed her reticence to old age; but one afternoon, when he asked her if the store was closed on New Year’s Day, she looked up from folding a blouse and said, “I’m busy.” Her voice, which had always been warbly, was resolute in its judgment of foreign people.
For the most part, they left the socializing to Teddy. His status as Harit’s companion in Men’s Furnishings made him the obvious stand-in for a conversation partner, and there was an unspoken relief that no one else had to handle Harit. With Teddy around, a greeting, a question, a discussion involving Harit was replaced with a head nod. That was good enough for his coworkers, and truthfully, that was good enough for Harit.
On Monday mornings, Mr. Harriman came into the break room and gave them a short speech—which things on sale were particularly desirable, or whose morale was highest and therefore most exemplary. Then he would say good-bye and give the floor to Stella, who would read off a list of employees who had sold “instant credit cards”—Harriman’s charge cards that gave preferred customers discounts on merchandise. Every time you rang someone up, you had to ask the customer if he or she wanted to “open an instant credit”—a carefully monitored Harriman stipulation. People had been fired for failing to pop the question within earshot of Mr. Harriman—or so the word went. Marla Palmer, a woman in her fifties who was the acknowledged star of cosmetics, held the record for the most instant credits ever opened—well over a hundred—and hers was always the first name called. Every week—every single week—she turned on one heel when her name rang out, then bent in a curtsy and screwed her heavily rouged face into a “surprised” grin. Harit rarely hated people, but he absolutely loathed her. He preferred Ruby’s type of obvious dislike to this put-on humility.
Or maybe it was the fact that he had never opened an instant credit. Not one. After two months at the store, Mr. Harriman pulled him aside and said that he no longer had to ask people to open them. “Teddy has done such a stand-up job opening ICs”—a handy store abbreviation—“that it would be overkill to have both of you asking.” Harit wanted to point out how only one of them ever helped a customer at a time, so how could Teddy ask one of Harit’s customers to open an IC? But Harit picked up on the motive behind Mr. Harriman’s leniency and knew that he was being given a break.
Today was a Friday, though, and there was no meeting on Fridays. These mornings were usually boisterous, since everyone had to discuss their plans for the weekend, and Teddy often brought in doughnuts for everyone. This morning, by habit, Harit went to the register to clock in, then realized that he probably should not be seen until he knew how upset Mr. Harriman was at his tardiness. He took a look around to see if he could spot Teddy. Sure enough, he was busy helping a woman pull a red canvas suitcase from a high shelf. In the midst of tilting the suitcase to show the customer an extra pocket, Teddy caught Harit’s eye and nodded, as if to say, “I’ll be right there.” Harit went into the storeroom to flick through stacks of shirts and shake shiny boxes of dress shoes. Even though he and Teddy didn’t get to sell these objects—seeing as shirts and shoes belonged to Men’s and not Men’s Furnishings—they were still tasked with taking inventory of them.
“Well, well, if it ain’t Mr. Fashionably Late—literally!” Teddy said.
“I am so sorry, Teddy. I have never been late before. Is Mr. Harriman angry?”
“Dear, calm down. Calm down. Harriman is just fine. I told him that your power was out this morning and that you were waiting for the electric company. I could have also told him that you don’t have a cell phone, but I figured that he could do without that piece of information, honey.” Teddy called Harit “honey” so much that Harit had started to wonder if Teddy simply couldn’t pronounce his name. “He just said that he would dock you one emergency day.”
They had five emergency days in a year without monetary punishment. After five days, you had to pay fifty dollars for each day missed. Harit was not particularly happy to have lost one of his days, but he had taken only two days off work since beginning at Harriman’s, and those had been because of Swati.
“Why the sad face, honey? You’re totally fine. I’m going to go man the station. Go ahead and just do inventory today. I’ll take care of the register.”
Harit was relieved to have an easy task. His headache had subsided even though he had drunk only one cup of tea this morning and not his usual second cup in the break room. In fact, he felt strangely peaceful amidst the nice-smelling leather of the shoes. Instead of bending over with his clipboard and examining the shelves and stacks, he decided to plop the boxes on the floor, lie down with his back against the wall, and comfortably take notes about how many pairs of each design remained in stock. It felt comfortable because it felt like something he would have done as a child. He was one step away from emptying the contents of these boxes on the floor and lying in a bed of shoes just to be wrapped in their leathery smell while he dozed off.
He couldn’t remember the last time that he had thought of something so frivolous. And why was he, a Hindu, enjoying the smell of leather? That was blasphemy. His body felt braided with energy. He could feel himself shaking.
Then Harit wondered how Mr. Harriman had believed Teddy’s story. If Harit’s power had been out and he had no cell phone, how would Harit have called Teddy to let him know this in the first place? It didn’t make sense.
Perhaps Teddy was right and Harit was paranoid. Mr. Harriman had better things to do than worry about him.
Copyright © 2017 by Rakesh Satyal