The office smelled of cigarettes. On the walls were photos of the machines that the factory made, machines that made other machines. There were also framed certificates of congratulations from government officials, praising the business for what it had accomplished.
The door opened. A man in a suit sat down in a tall wooden chair. It looked like a throne, and he a king.
“It’s good that you don’t talk,” said the king-man. “What could you say? What could you ask? I wondered that on the way up here. I thought of each thing that you might utter. I thought it would be better, however, for you to stay silent. In that I’m pleased.”
He tapped a long fingernail on the desk. “Yes, the business is failing. It is not enough now that we are simply cheaper than anyone else. Other countries are cheap too. Chinese, as always. But Mexicans? I didn’t expect that. Or Malaysians and Vietnamese. The industry in India is simply not as vigorous as it was. And to cap my luck, no one is knocking on my door to buy this place from me. There are no offers.”
The other person looked at the photo above the king-man’s head. It was of a country estate on a farm. Black and white, it showed people working in the fields, an ancient car moving up the driveway, and little figures playing on the front lawn. There was a flag pole too, but the photo only showed the stem – nothing of the flag at all.
“I should leave,” said the king-man. “Test myself in a different country, start again. See if my skills are really only born of cheap labour. It could be. Might be that this is true, I’m afraid to say. How would I know until I tried?” He looked at the other. “You should leave too. You have to leave now.”
“Arrangements are made. Say your farewells. Don’t come back, even for a vacation. This is not a place for holidays.”
The other nodded. The king-man turned and put his elbows on the desk as he stared out the window. “You are going to take my daughter with you, Paul. You are going to marry her. The celebration will be vast. I will spend more on it than I have for any of my other children. I will invite more people. I will have better food. And then I will send her further away. Much further.”
Paul said nothing. In his stomach, a pain was growing. He had drunk too much whiskey the night before, hoping that it would dull him for the days ahead. Instead, the crunching of machinery on the factory floor punched through him, until he felt that he might himself be turning into one of the mechanical beasts.
The king-man shrugged. “You should be grateful. In North America, there are many opportunities. You will have an easy time of it. I know you had some thoughts of competition – what was it, mixed martial arts? That’s right, you wanted to be a champion.” He made a sound. “Paul, I envy you that you are going away. For me, it is much harder to leave. So when I tell you that you must not return, I think it an easy request to fulfil. And it is not like I am sending you alone.” He waited for Paul to nod. “And in case you are wondering, no, it’s fine. I do not need to see the child. You may send photographs if you like. You may put him or her on the phone if that is required. But I do not need to lay eyes on it. I do not need to see the thing for myself.” He stopped. Tapped the desk as the machines vibrated. Waited for Paul to nod.
Chandra read Rushdie. The library gloom was exceptional, the dust in the air profound. She had gone to the toilet three times already, gatherings her things in a big cloth shopping bag for each event. There was a bathroom near the rear stairwell that no one seemed to use, and unfortunately, that no one ever seemed to clean.
On a notepad, she wrote titles for novels she didn’t intend to create. She had heard that some writers had problems with titles, but for her they came easily. The notepad was full of titles, some suitable for the front cover, others for chapter headings. One day, she imagined that her notebook would be useful to someone that had the talent to build stories, a person nevertheless wracked with the inability to lay down those few titular words. For Chandra, it was not a problem that she herself did not have the skill to complete the story. She only thought of the beginning, and that was where she always stopped.
Red, and Black. The Porcupine Times. Dreams of a Girl.
“Are you a student?” asked a boy in glasses and a hoodie. He sat across from her.
“I am in two classes.” Chandra stared at him. He was as tall as her, but thin. Red hair crept out from under the black hoodie. She explained which classes she was taking. He told her his name was Charlie, but it didn’t seem like his real name. She imagined herself punching him in the nose, then twisting his arms until he started crying.
Ginger Snapping. The White Child Cracks. Revolution Rose.
“Why are you smiling?” he said.
But she couldn’t stop the smile or the laughter that came after. She was bending him as though he were a twist-tie, into any shape she wished, and would continue to do so until he told her his real name. She teased him, but he didn’t leave. They talked for an hour, Rushdie forgotten, the pressure in her bowels inspired by the library’s legendary white noise generator mounting. His name, it turned out, really was Charlie. He pushed a driver’s license in front of her to prove it.
I am a Real Charlie, she wrote in her notepad.
“Do you want to get dinner?” he asked.
“I don’t eat food at restaurants.”
“But that’s what restaurants are for…”
“If you say so, it must be.” She put her bag together and ignored the fact that her bowels were telling her she badly needed to go for another shit. She stood up. “If you want dinner, I can make it for you.”
Chandra motioned to the door, “You can pay for a part of the groceries. I hope you like Indian food.”
At her apartment, she watched him to see if he would be dangerous – not because she didn’t think she could beat him senseless, but to see his intentions. He was clumsy in cutting vegetables, so she skinned the chicken herself. An old bottle of white wine served to fill the time as the food cooked.
Charlie took off his hoodie to eat, and praised her with every bite. Chandra ate little, for her intestines were bulging with the need for relief. Still, she sat with him the whole time, enjoying his enjoyment and the flavor of the wine.
“Can you put an eyebrow up?” he asked her. “Just one while the other stays in place? Indian people can do that, right?”
“That is a very stupid thing to say.”
“I heard a Pakistani family curried a goose they caught and got arrested for it, but not before they ate the whole thing. Bones and all.”
“Also a very stupid thing to say. And rude.” Days of the Curried Goose. Revenge of the Canadian-Made Paki. The Raised Eyebrow. Chandra stood. “Would you mind doing some wash up? I need to use the bathroom.”
Charlie nodded enthusiastically. From the bathroom, Chandra could hear water running and the clink of dishes. She forced herself to hold in the contents of her bowels until she found a magazine article she hadn’t read before. Then she let it all go, confident that the sound of the kitchen sink running would obscure any objectionable noises she might make.
When Chandra came out of the bathroom, Charlie was not in the kitchen. Half the dishes had been cleaned, the rest soaking. There was still a quarter bottle of wine left. Charlie’s shoes were by the front door, his jacket hanging in the closet. She went to the porch to see if he was there, but it was empty. The hallway was empty too.
She found him in the bedroom. It was dark, but brightened as she opened the door. He was in her bed, naked. Somehow, he forced himself to look at the ceiling, as though he was intent on being surprised by whatever happened next. Chandra studied his body. It was thinner than she had expected. Younger, too.
The wedding ended in fireworks. The guests cheered, and a techno song blared on the speakers. People gathered around the new couple as they were ushered to the front of the house, where a limousine was waiting.
Paul took blessings through the open window. When the car came to life, he put up the glass. The reception had finished early, as planned. His parents would still be at the party, hoping for a few moments with the rich family of their daughter-in-law. It was an opportunity they would not be given.
On the way to the airport, he took off his turban and replaced his slippers with running shoes. In an airport bathroom, he changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. Standing in line waiting to drop off luggage, he removed his jewelry and tucked it into his carry-on bag. Once past security, he visited the bathroom again, and shaved.
He was sitting on a plastic chair, watching airplanes taxi. A television was muttering to him about the weather. He chewed on a piece of pizza topped with lamb and spinach.
The airplane was on time. He found his seat. Leaned into the headrest.
When the airplane started to move, he looked through the window at the lights of the airport. Asha was looking out too. She was pressed against the bulk of the aircraft, fingers tangled in the net of the magazine holder. For whatever reason, despite all the chances she’d had to change, she was still wearing her wedding gown.