Fiction Fiction 2008

Amritsar

Tom wanted him to be prepared, to know what he was up against. But Gurukha didn’t want a pistol in his house. He wanted to move on, to be done with India, and with Amritsar.

There’s an art to it, Ajay says.

He crooks back the wire that holds the line in place with his index finger, and flicks the rod so that the hook, with its weights and bobs attached—the tackle, it’s called, a word I never knew before today—arcs across the water and drops 50 feet away with hardly a splash. He hands the rod to me. Now hold it gently, he says, and pay attention with your hands. Any slight vibration could be a hit. Just the smallest tug. Use the reel sparingly, don’t get all excited. It’s not Jaws, you know. You have to play the fish. You have to make it think it isn’t caught.

Like marketing, I say.

I should learn to be more philosophical. Clinical practice is a fool’s gamble these days. And Ajay wants to start a family; he wants Christine to drive a Land Rover and not work. So instead of being a proper doctor and seeing patients, he flies around the country conducting seminars for Pfizer, and pretends that no one knows the difference, especially me. He thinks that calling it practitioner education makes it just another teaching job. And when I make my sniping comments, he never responds, never reacts, just looks in the other direction and waits for the moment to pass. As if I’ve farted.

It’s good that you have hobbies, I say. I never did.

He laughs. No one uses that word anymore. When I think of hobby I think of someone in his basement using a wood-burning set or painting watercolors.

Then what would you call it?

I don’t know. Something more serious. A passion.

This? My voice sounds unpleasant and shrill, like a woman on television. I don’t believe it. Your children are your passion. Your wife. Your career. Maybe your political views could be a passion. Not fishing.

Well, I think that’s a narrow way of looking at the world.

I hope not. I hope it’s a matter of changing vocabulary.

What do you mean?

Nothing, I say, wishing he were a little quicker on the uptake. Look. You’re feeling sensitive. Your mother and I both know it. You imagine us saying terrible, censorious things behind your back. You think we’re angry because you never even discussed an arrangement with us.

I know you better than that.

Cut the crap, I say, which startles him so much he nearly drops his rod. Let’s be honest. How could you not be a little scared? It’s easy for you now. But it won’t always be easy. Your children—what will they be, exactly? Are we to call them half-Sikhs?

Why not? Would you mind?

It isn’t just what I think but what the world thinks that matters. Some things can’t be so easily combined.

People of my generation don’t look at it that way, he says. That’s what you’re missing. That’s the least important thing about her, in my eyes. Look, it’s a different world now. Everyone’s mixing it up. In 20 years nobody will be anything anymore.

I don’t know which makes me angrier: the poverty of the sentiment, or the vacuous way Ajay has with words, the way he slops them around like a child carrying water in a pail. It’s enough to make one wish for an older, stricter, cheaper kind of education, rather than the one we paid so many tens of thousands of dollars for.

It must be pleasant for you, I say. I feel my tongue loosening in my throat, coming free of its moorings. Now that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be called a sand nigger.

His eyelids draw back like a frog’s, or a fish’s, some unblinking reptilian thing. Dad, he says, what the fuck has gotten into you?

Don’t talk to me that way.

He’s reeling in his line with quick, jabbing motions, his lower lip jutting out uncontrollably, like a child’s. The trip is ruined, the day is ruined, and now my throat is full of bile, thinking of what he’ll say to Teja, what he’ll tell Christine, my God.

No, no, no, I say. Look, I was being provocative. I don’t want you to be naive.

He throws the rod down at his feet, heedless of the barb quivering at its end.

I was the one who got handcuffed and stuffed in the police car, he says, with the guys on the radio talking about the towel­head who went psycho at the middle school. I was the one who heard the jokes about Indiana Jones and how I wanted to tie girls up and tear their hearts out. You chose to move to this fucking hick town. And now you’re stuck, and you’re jealous.

Of course, I say. They would never arrest a Sikh in Hunt Valley.

I don’t have time for this, he says, his eyes skittering impatiently over the river behind me. I played lacrosse at Hopkins, for God’s sake. My friends are lawyers, prosecutors, ADAs. Nobody could ever touch me. Anyway, I’m not the one with the stack of Playboys filed away behind the old bills in the garage. Not a lot of Indian larkis in Playboy, are there? I wonder why, then.

My eyes are beginning to water.

Oh, come on, he says. Not now, Dad. Don’t turn it around on me.

We weren’t disagreeing.

Whatever it was, then. And by the disgusted look on his face, I can see that he still has no idea what we’ve been fighting about. How hard it is for the lucky, the young, the successful, to consider the alternative, to imagine what might bring them and their theories and their elaborate defenses, like Icarus, to Earth!

Just be safe. And make Christine safe. That’s your first priority. Don’t forget it.

Whatever you say, Dad.

Not for the first time in my life, I feel like an actor in a commercial. Promise me, I say, knowing he won’t, knowing I wouldn’t accept it if he did.

Having found it only late in my lifetime, you could say I believe strongly in harmony. An outdated concept, you might say. It carries with it a strong whiff of the Beatles and that terrible Coca-Cola commercial I watched with the children when they were young. But, of course, a marriage relies on harmony, a family is composed of nothing but it, and perhaps, if I may speechify for a moment, this is why I never bought the children separate TVs, though we could afford them, and most of their friends had them—separate TVs in every room, facing the bed. I wanted them to fight over what to watch.

I am learning to fish because the components of a harmony change over time. Because the song changes, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy. Not because of what happened three years ago last November, when we were over at the Farrells’ for dinner, when Teja and Melinda were frying chicken in the kitchen, and Tom stood up from the couch, apropos of nothing, and said, Come into the garage, I’ve got something I want to show you. I followed him down the steps into the damp, gas-smelling darkness, him pulling the cord on one dim bulb after another, until he stopped at his workbench. There, lying atop a green chamois cloth, was a pistol, an enormous black automatic pistol, shiny with fresh oil.

It isn’t loaded, he said. Pick it up.

It was heavier than I thought it would be, of course, having only seen criminals waving the plastic ones on TV. I have long fingers, and it fit into my hand surprisingly well. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I gripped the handle with all four fingers and lifted it a few inches, not wanting to touch the trigger.

This is how you see if it’s loaded, he said. This is where the clip goes in. Always point it away from yourself and away from the floor.

I touched the trigger gently with my fingertip and straightened my arm.

If you want, I can take you to a shooting range next Sunday. Say we’re going to Home Depot. Teja doesn’t have to know. Though she ought to, sure. She just doesn’t have to.

Tom, I said, I can’t have a firearm in my house. I’m a doctor.

He looked as if I had told him that no, I can’t drive a car, because my feet are size 11 and my name starts with G.

Listen, he said, we all know what happened back in September.

We’re very grateful.

I don’t want you to be grateful. I want you to be prepared. There’ll be a next time, and a next time. Maybe when you’re out seeing a movie. Maybe when you stop to get gas. You people ought to know what you’re up against.

You may be right. And then having a pistol seems even more useless, doesn’t it?

He stared at me so intently that I thought I could see his eyeballs protruding, like the women with goiters you see in any alleyway in India.

Man, he said, you’re missing something. This isn’t a joke.

And then, without knowing why, I began to laugh.

It was horribly embarrassing. I clutched at my sweatered stomach, not knowing how to stop. Tom looked genuinely alarmed. After all, a weapon was there, between us—unloaded, but it makes no difference, really. A weapon is a symbol. Its power is not diminished by its practical uselessness.

In fact, of course, a weapon is always useless.

That was part of why I was laughing. We men inhabit this world with such solemnity! Such ominous forecasts! Such elaborate mechanisms of defense and safety! And then go on smoking and eating cheeseburgers and driving 80 miles per hour and waving firearms around like toys.

I think you should leave, Tom said. In a hurry now, folding the cloth over the gun like a shroud. Turning his back to me, but not so quickly that I couldn’t see his mouth knitted in boyish disappointment. I thought you might be one of us, he was thinking; I knew it as plainly as if he’d said the words aloud. Aren’t you one of us?

And who am I, after all, I was thinking, to put on airs, to refuse to join this fellowship of wishful criminals?

Tom, I sputtered, I can’t leave. We have to go upstairs and eat your fried chicken.

That earned me a sidelong glance, a pursed, sour-lemon smile.

You’ll think about it, then.

I promise I’ll think about it.

And we went up the stairs, turning out one light after another, into the bright rooms and the sound of our wives’ voices, the smell of frying things, which to all human beings is the smell of happiness. We have never discussed it since.

Jess Row’s story collection The Train to Lo Wu was shortlisted for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award. His work has appeared in Witness, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, and Granta, which named him a “Best Young American Novelist” in 2007. He is a professor and Buddhist chaplain at the College of New Jersey.
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