To look at Kartar Jain, you would not know that he was born of rape. His face is like a melon, his lips protrusions of wet fruit, and if there is a pit inside him, it is as soft and pliable as his little limbs and the palette of loose skin that is his belly. When he has his diaper changed, he tends to smile and eject the contents of his innards onto the unwary hands of whoever is tending him. But when he is turned over after these incidents, he is always very serious, reveling in the initial moment of being clean again, but in a private way. For the rest of his life, Kartar Jain will laugh the most heartily inside, but it would be a mistake to think that this is due to the circumstances of his birth.
Paul stares at job listings and scans the QR codes for the ones he likes. He could be a janitor with ease, he realizes. He has wielded a broom before, but only as a type of sword in a battle against a mango tree. The door to the job centre opens, letting in cold air.
He has been told by people that success is a matter of volume. In this respect, his phone is very clear about the matter: there are over ninety jobs listed. Paul’s attitude towards volume revolves around access to time. If he spends enough of it, he will succeed. This keeps him coming back every morning, a coffee in hand as though to tell everyone that he has the resources to rely on something other than the dirty vending machine in the corner.
“May I ask a question?” says an old woman in a lengha. She is here every day as well. At lunch time, she is known for the stainless steel container that lets out a cloud of cumin, a personal zone of influence that she wears as though it is a coat. Her teeth are yellow, her nose pierced in two places.
“Yes, aunty. Please.”
“We are here a lot. Why can’t we just have a job screening all these positions for other people so they don’t have to do the work? We could charge a success fee for each confirmed placement.”
Paul looks at the wall of jobs. They are listed on-line anyway, and he does not need to be here. But he wants to see the opportunities for himself. He wants to touch paper with his fingers. One day, he will have a house with a tremendous basement, and on the wall next to his gargantuan flat screen, he will arrange glass tiles in a loose replication of the job centre corkboards. He will sit in his recliner and aim Nerf bullets at the tiles, turning back to the television every time one of the suction cups sticks, as though the shot had been nothing, the outcome expected.
“We could charge admission,” he says to the aunty. “Ask for a percentage of the first-year’s salary.”
“Or make them post advertisements on-line for our business. Maybe do this tattoo thing on their foreheads so they carry our corporate name onto the streets.”
They continue the conversation. At lunch, the aunty opens her stainless steel container. Paul breathes deeply. He learns over food that she has been in the country for half a year, and that she wears three pairs of socks under her long-johns.
By 2 pm, they have a name for their company. The aunty pulls out cookies near the end of the day.
They go for a beer. Paul looks about the bar, wondering what people will think to see this older Indian woman drinking with him. She sucks back the first beer, bangles jangling on the wooden bar, snow boots perched on the stool as they grind chunks of salt. They talk about where they are from in India, and once it’s clear that they aren’t related or know anyone in common, they order a second beer.
“What is your name, aunty? It would be good to know what I should call my partner.” He tries not to see his mother in this woman. She has already told him that she is unmarried, that she has no children, that she came here because a cousin sponsored her and swore that it was not nearly as cold a country as she had heard. “I have one boy. He is two years old. He runs around the apartment and can reach the door handles. Once, we found him outside in the hallway. He was only wearing a diaper and had locked himself out. I thought he would be crying. You should have heard him, aunty. He was singing a children’s song from television, every word correct.” Paul takes a long, deep drink as he remembers the moment when his wife had come in with the little boy, unwilling to let him pick the child up until much later. He sighs, the moment so unhappy at the time but so much a part of history now that he knows he will tell this story forever.
Asha ate from a jar of almonds. If the skins were too thick, she spat them into the ditch, where she imagined that they would grow into trees shortly. Every second step, Asha danced. Her hips jutted, and feet ground into the dust as her heels pivoted. In her head, the movie that was playing showed men and women embracing in the depths of every song, but the last one ended with the unthinkable taste of lips upon lips. She wondered what the man would do when he had lipstick on him, but that, she thought, was a matter for another movie, some comedy starring a clown who would become serious for a while but end off going back to his real nature. His true humour.
In the field, men were bathing in a nalka. It had been a hot day, and they had no doubt been working since sunrise, but she questioned the wisdom of cleaning human bodies in irrigation systems, especially when she had heard that sometimes, the groundwater wells captured snakes and delivered them through the piping into the concrete tubs, where the creatures churned and swam, desperate to be free. She shuddered. Out went another almond skin.
It was later, near the little temple to the side of the road – the one large enough for a single person to enter and pray – that she heard footsteps behind her. They couldn’t have been anything else. She increased her pace. In the distance, the men were still in the nalka, splashing water at each other, their hair unbound and glorious. She thought about their lips.
She also thought about the temple and the little door. Inside, she could huddle in the shadows. She could even say prayers, had she ever bothered to learn any.
Paul turns the ratchet on the wrench. “This is a stepping stone-occupation, Aunty Chandra,” he tells her. His voice echoes in the warehouse. He has to wear gloves against the cold roughness of the steel structure they are dismantling.
“Stop calling me aunty,” she returns.
“You are as old as my mother.”
Chandra is undoing bolts faster than he is. Though he hesitates to wonder what lurks beneath the lengha she is wearing today, he has a feeling that this woman is not really the same as his mother. This woman, he thinks, is taut and firm, and is not these things because she needs to please a man. Two weeks into a five-week job, she has shown him that she works relentlessly, throwing shelves and supports into well-mannered piles the entire day through.
“Tomorrow, partner, I’ll bring some music. Good North American pop, none of this sissy Indian stuff. Okay?” He laughs. “You tell your mother about it when you talk to her. I hope you call her often, Paul, and that you think about bringing her over someday.”
“Maybe after our business is a success,” he says. “Tell me, why did you never get married?”
“Hey! You are saying that as though it is too late!”
Paul undoes a bolt and an entire section of shelving collapses. He has figured out the structural mechanics of these units that someone put up long ago and that the new owners of the warehouse simply don’t want because they are the wrong size for the products they want to store. As the piles grow, he wonders what they will do with all this metal.
“By the way,” she continues, “you’re right. It is too late.”
“Really? But you can cook!”
She tosses a bolt in his direction. It clatters on the concrete floor. “There are other things that men and women can do together than have one prepare the food so that the other can eat it. You should meet my cousin. She is the breadwinner of the family, an auto mechanic. No, don’t laugh, this is true. Her husband stays at home and raises the kids.
“Don’t misunderstand, aunty,” Paul replies. “I would be okay with that arrangement, too.”
At lunch, they swap sandwiches. Hers is filled with egg and sprinkled with so much turmeric that the white bread looks like a pakora; his is roast beef, and she winks at him as he chews on something that used to be a cow. Sprawled over the floor before them is a metal monster of bare shelves.
“Why only one child so far?” asks Chandra, sipping tea from her traveler mug.
Paul finishes his sandwich. The last bite tastes like metal dust. “Children are expensive, aunty. When one does not have a job, one has to be careful about breeding too much.”
“Or maybe you have forgotten how the breeding is done?” she asks, smiling.
They talk about sex the entire afternoon. It is a clinical discussion about what men and women desire of each other. Eventually, Chandra stops asking about children, and Paul is fine with that. He is in a chute of shelving, on his back. He imagines that if he undoes the wrong bolt, the shelves above will collapse, crushing him. Then policemen will go to his apartment to tell his wife what happened. Kartar, of course, will be too young to understand, but one day it will be explained to him, perhaps when he is old enough to realize that children are supposed to have a father.
Asha could taste the remains of almonds. Pieces were lodged in her teeth.
She had expected that she could run fast enough to get away. All that dancing, she had thought, would have made her strong. But instead she had fallen, the dust of the road in her eyes.
He had dragged her into the temple and closed the door. In the distance, men were bathing.
There had always been a possibility of this happening, but she had pictured it differently: it had been dark, and she had been late coming home from school, and had decided to take a shortcut through a parking lot behind the gurudwara. And in addition to the alcohol on his breath, there had been a dirty cigarette smell.
But most of all – even more than that it was the middle of the day amongst the open fields – she had expected anything other than it to happen in a temple. Dried incense lay in a copper pot. Flowers and reeds hung from the walls. There was not enough room to stand, and barely enough space for one person, let alone two.
He was clean, as though he had just washed himself, as though he had intended to be pristine for this thing he was doing. She asked him to stop, even said please. But he didn’t look at her. The only thing he could see, the only direction in which he could avert his eyes, led him to the figurines at the back of the temple, the little passive gods that stood in a row as though about to hold hands and kick their feet into the air.
And she had expected it to take longer. But when he was done, he knocked the temple door open with his foot and slid out. Asha lay in the shadows.
On the way home, she unbound her hair and took off her bangles. She spit over and over again, trying to empty herself of the taste of almonds. Her father would be at home, wondering why she had been delayed. He would point at his watch and ask many questions. She would go to her room and open the shutters. She would stare at the gardens as children played in the school next door.
Later, she sat in front of a movie. A villain was trapped in a shopping mall, and an old grandfather was giving advice to the hero. Asha put a blanket over her body until it covered her completely. She watched the television through the spaces between the threads. She had not bathed yet. She had not touched a drop of water.
The next part of this story will be next Sunday, the final bit the Sunday after that. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone. Some of the themes are difficult. It was hard to write. The rest of the story was harder still. I was going to add a warning, but I just don’t think I can do that.