“To the last bolt!” says Paul.
“The last bolt!” says Chandra.
With that, Paul turns the ratchet as Chandra holds the nut in place. The bolt comes out and the final shelf collapses to the ground. They stack it with the rest.
“This is honest work,” she says.
The warehouse feels empty, even though the mass of metal in it hasn’t been reduced. It’s a matter of volume, thinks Paul, as he surveys what they have done over the last five weeks. Soon, new people will come in to put up new shelves. “Did I tell you I used to fight? Mixed martial arts, really cool stuff. Never trained for it, but practiced a lot. Today I feel stronger, you know?”
“Strong enough for a beer?”
Despite the cold, they walk to the pub and sit at the bar. She takes off her bangles. He buys the first round.
“To the initial step in a business enterprise that we haven’t planned and has no serious chance of success,” she says. Chandra sips her beer and opens her notebook to write something down.
“What are you always writing, aunty?” he asks. “It’s always one or two words. Is it just reminders?”
“I am not old enough to need reminders.”
“My mother does that too…”
She takes a long drink. “Your turn for a toast, Paul.”
He lifts his beer, and before he can think otherwise, he says, “To the old country.”
“The old country? That place? If you want. I’d rather say a cheers to this land.”
“It’s so fucking cold here, though. And we’re out of a job again. Thank God for our new business.”
“Good honest work, Paul. Good and honest. So now tell me – are you going to invite me to your apartment so that I can cook for your family? We are friends now, surely. I want to meet your Kartar, and your wife.”
“As you’ve noted, I am possibly too old for marriage and certainly too old for children. The best I can do is have my fun, however possible. This may at times involve hearing the stories of other people and how they assembled into families.”
“You really are an old aunty…”
“If you still believe that, you have a big problem. Now come on. When will I come over? Let’s make the date.”
Paul orders the second round, too. He wants to tell Chandra about love-marriage and bringing families together. About long, drawn-out songs performed in meadows as a man and woman spy on each other from behind trees. He wants to recount a wedding he can’t remember, show her photographs that were never taken.
“It’s not the story you think,” he tells her.
His stomach hurts. It’s the beer and the hard work, he believes. But this knot has been with him a long time.
He wants to give her a reality that will fill whatever void an old Indian woman in an Ontario winter feels. He wants to be in a movie with her, where it eventually all works out. But all he can remember is the smell of incense in a road-side temple, figurines tumbling as two people struggled with each other. He remembers pushing himself into the sunshine, filled and emptied at the same time. He had taken something he had wanted, deep in a land that didn’t know cold wind, and he’d stumbled home a hero. A conqueror.
“Can I have your book?” he asks.
She slides it over. She is watching him very carefully. He writes it down, whatever he is feeling. All the things he has done. When he’s finished, he puts his beer aside and slides the notepad back to her.
Chandra heard every word of the play. Her body didn’t enjoy sitting still for so long, but she managed it. There were several lines that stuck with her, enough so that she wrote them down. When the play was over, she rose and clapped much harder than anyone else. She may even have whistled.
At the party afterwards, the performers were still in their costumes. She navigated her way through the people, her lengha not at all out of place in this company. The champagne in the long glasses tickled her nose.
Charlie was with a group of his friends. They were all his age, and greeted her as though he’d prepared them well for what to expect. They gave her hugs. She expected them to say how glad they were that Charlie finally had a girlfriend, but they didn’t. Instead, they treated him like a king, as though he had been the star of the show, even though his bit part as a dancing girl had given him maybe twenty minutes of stage time. She drank with them. Laughed at their stories and teasing. Picked at the appetizer trays as they made their way by.
“You’re wearing make-up,” Charlie said, later.
“Women are allowed this conceit,” she said. “You were wonderful up there.”
He laughed. “I was playing a woman…”
“I play one too at times,” she returned. “Are we going out for food?”
“You don’t do that. You don’t eat food prepared by other people.”
He was wearing a ridiculous yellow dress and black wig. When they got to the restaurant, she ordered wine and told him that she was embarrassed to be seen with him. They sat in the middle of the place, launching through the bottle and then a second one, his wig skewed to a side so that his red hair sprung out, her hiking the lengha up her legs until she felt like she was wearing the tablecloth.
Chandra ordered ice cream for dessert. “I enjoy thinking of you as a dancing woman slut.”
Charlie had an espresso. “It’s not that much of a stretch.”
“And dating an older Indian woman? What about that?”
He yawned. “Zero point nothing on the Richter scale.” With that, in the middle of the restaurant, he leaned over and kissed her. He was warm with coffee, and smelled of the oysters he’d eaten from the shell. Chandra had never tasted anything so perfect.
That night, she went to his place, a dorm room that he had taken pains to clean. They stayed up for hours, Charlie jumping on the bed and spinning around until his dress flew, Chandra sitting on the wooden desk chair, hollering applause at his performance. After the resident assistant came to the door informing them that there’d been a noise complaint, they lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling. The music played low as they each waited for the other to surprise them with whatever came next.
Paul stares at the job board. He scans positions that might interest him, and then erases them until he has a list of things that he may actually be able to do. He has been here three hours, and has twenty-eight jobs on the phone. It is a matter of volume, he says to himself, that determines success.
The coffee cup in his lap says ‘please try again’. He was sure that it was a winner. The quarter inch of liquid in the bottom of the cup is cold, but that doesn’t stop him from considering what it would taste like.
The door opens and a person sits next to him. She is dressed in jeans, very blue ones, and a hooded sweatshirt. She hands him a stack of papers, stapled three times along the long edge.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“Formalization of our business partnership,” says Chandra. “Or had you forgotten?”
“That was only a joke…”
“It used to be, yes. But not today. Sign yourself away, if you dare.”
Her hair is down. She has new boots. He takes the booklet and reads. “What is ‘The Migrant’s Ratchet’? It sounds like a pub…”
“My first name was ‘The Raised Eyebrow’, but it didn’t sound right. This is a proper business name. Does it not have a ring?”
“Yes, fine. But the idea can’t work.”
“You are about to sign papers saying that it will. Who is right? You or these words?”
Paul puts away his phone. “You must detest me by now.”
“For a few hours, I did. But then my cousin called me for dinner, and I ate rice pasta with a seven-year-old girl who sneezed on my food. She was wearing a gold necklace. And earrings. This reminded me of things I will now never do.” She waits for him to look up, and whispers, “I am more interested in seeing what you have done with your sins. I already know what I did with mine.”
“You, aunty? Mistakes? Never.” For a moment, she is his mother, or perhaps the sister his mother never produced, the one that keeps to herself when with family but that sings openly on the road to the hill station. Paul signs the papers on the hard plastic of his phone.
“There,” she says. “We are done. No possibility of success, and so no way to fail. We have arrived, Paul.”
“I never wanted to leave India,” he returns. “I hate the cold.”
She puts a hand on his. “Come, show me to your family. We are wrapped up in each other now, so you have to.”
The walk to the bus stop is frigid. Chandra has him hold a bag of groceries. The bus stumbles on potholes and hills of salt. At the apartment building, Paul pushes the button for his floor and says, “I never touched her again. I never will. There won’t be more children.”
“You made that path, Paul, and now you are on it. I will ask her tonight what path she sees for herself, in a marriage like this. Girls will talk to an aunty.”
“You will have to tell me what that path might be…”
“No,” she says, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You are not relieved of the difficult conversations. Love or not love, figure it out, Paul. Where do your affections go now? Who receives them, and how?”
In the apartment, she scoops Kartar into her arms and carries him about the little living room beneath the smell of boiling tea. A figure shuffles in the kitchen, putting away the groceries Chandra has brought.
“You are good with children,” says Paul, on the couch.
“I have both nephews and nieces,” she returns. “I hope you don’t mind, but I invited a friend for dinner.”He nods. When it comes out, the tea is hot. The sweets are fresh, and Kartar reaches for them at once. Paul picks him up and puts him on his lap, feeding him pieces of burfi in chunks. The little teeth barely chew the stuff. In the kitchen, the smell of spices is already strong, and voices are speaking, though he cannot hear the words. Now and then, the voices sing together, a sound he never expected to hear in this apartment. Paul looks at his son. He is still eating sweets, and inside he is surely smiling, but on the outside, he is very serious. There are many things that Paul wishes to tell him, and will when it is time. These are things about how hard life can be, what you have to do to persist, and how it’s not always possible to pick, in the end, what you love. Or who.