Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Sanskrit

BY RANBIR SIDHU

It is past seven when Anu hears the key in the door and a moment later, Hari’s voice calling from the hall.

“Don’t move,” she shouts. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“I need to piss. I’m desperate.”

She appears, holding a camera in one hand and a silver cone party hat in the other. The camera is disposable. She picked it up in the city, when she left work early, afraid she wouldn’t find their camera at home. It makes no difference that she is the one who puts everything away, she can never find anything.

“Put this on,” she says.

Hari waves the hat away by an arm draped with a black overcoat. He drops his briefcase against the wall.

“I need to piss.”

“Please, darling.”

“Make it quick.”

She straps the hat onto Hari’s head and kisses him on the cheek.

“Happy birthday.”

She steps back and snaps a photo.

“Did the flash go?”

“Yes,” Hari says, “Now…”

“It didn’t.”

“Fine, it didn’t. You had your chance.”

Hari walks past her, leaving the coat in her arms.

“What happened?” she calls after him.

“Bomb at Grand Central.”

“An explosion?”

“No, just a scare. A bomb scare. The place was evacuated.”

The downstairs bathroom door opens but doesn’t close. Hari enjoys taking a piss with the door open. It’s more intimate, more married somehow. Anu thinks it gross. She can hear him pissing.

“Whiskey and soda?” she asks.

“Sure.”

He is leaning against the doorjamb leading to the kitchen, his fly undone, the party hat still on his head.

“I needed that.”

“Here,” handing him the whiskey.

“Kiss me,” he says.

“I have to change.”

“Change?”

“You didn’t think I’d dress like this.”

“How do you dress?”

“You’ll see.”

Hari takes a long drink and nods to the bottle. Anu refills his glass.

“And?” he asks.

“I’m not telling. It’s a surprise.”

He winks. “I picked up something too. Something special.”

“What?”

Hari reaches into his inside jacket pocket and produces a rolled-up Ziploc bag. Raising this over his head, he unfurls it with a snap of his wrist.

“Pot,” Anu says, bringing her face up to the bag. “That’s so cool.”

“Bolinas razorback. This is serious shit. Organic, hydroponic, the works.”

“Roll one, will you? I’m going to change. There’s a couple burgers in the bag.”

Hari spots the Wendy’s bag on the counter.

“Birthday dinner?”

“Go ahead, stuff your face. I’ll be in the bedroom. No peeking.”

He takes a framed photograph down from the wall, an enlarged black & white showing his father as a young man standing in a lush Ludhiana garden, wearing a suit and tie and holding an umbrella, both hands on the handle, tip pressed into the ground, the way Steed would in The Avengers. He sets the photograph on the coffee table, taps out a portion of pot onto the glass, and begins to press it through his fingers, sorting out the stems. He pulls a packet of papers from his pocket, Big Bambi, purchased at the corner store on West 40th, where he picks up his coffee mornings.

The phone rings as he finishes rolling the joint. He checks the caller ID before answering.

“Jack,” he says.

“I don’t feel motion, Harry, I don’t feel anything moving. Are things in motion? Are we moving?”

“There is motion, Jack. There is motion on several fronts.”

“I am walking inside a miasma. I am walking around and around in a vast circle. I’m going to walk and discover my own footprints one day. That’s how I feel.”

“It’s going around.”

“You’re a funny man. You should do stand-up.”

“We’re making an assault, Jack. Planning stages, there are ground forces, there are recon teams. We have radar up and active, we have infiltration. We are on the verge of initiating first contact. Penetration is imminent.”

“Henderson?”

“Hawthorne.”

“What are you doing right now?”

“I rolled a joint. I hope that’s not against company policy?”

Hari lights the joint and takes a puff.

“Tell me, Harry. You don’t have kids?”

“You don’t know?”

“I know. I want to hear it from you.”

“No, Jack, no kids.”

“What does that mean?”

“Jack?”

“What does it mean not to have kids?”

“It’s quiet. That’s what it means. It’s quiet and I get to fuck my wife on my birthday.”

“That’s why I was calling. I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. I almost forgot. It’s amazing. I think I am losing my way.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you have a copy of Cosmo? If not, then Marie Claire. One of those.”

“The magazines?”

“Wives subscribe. It’s a basic principle.”

Anu does, he knows, and as he turns to search the shelf below the side table he is stopped by what he sees resting before the framed photograph of Anu’s mother. It is a penis. Nothing more and nothing less. It is dark, flaccid, sitting atop a pair of balls. He reaches out a finger and pokes it. It feels soft, just like his.

He pulls the stack of magazines out from the lower shelf and sorts through them on his lap.

“Harry? Do you have the magazine?”

“Hold on, I’ve got a situation.”

“What kind of situation are we talking?”

“Nothing for you to worry about. I have Cosmo here.”

“Good. Page 158. I need you to turn to page 158.”

As he turns the pages, he lays the rubber penis on his knee and stares at it, the dark, ribbed flesh, the curl of the shaft, the uncircumcised foreskin. It’s not hard like a dildo. It’s soft and it looks like the real thing, except the base is cleanly sliced and MADE IN INDIA stamped into it. It shivers when he moves his knee, it rocks back and forth when he raises and lowers it. It is almost alive and he has to fight an impulse to reach out and stroke it.

“There’s an ad,” Hari says, “And an article about that actress from Idaho.”

“Put your face in the ad.”

“The perfume ad.”

“Yes. Put your face in it. Close your eyes. Then open the flap and breathe in. Inhale. I want you to inhale deeply before you open your eyes.”

The perfume is called Homicide.

“I smell it.”

“Good. Now open your eyes.”

Hari sees a naked woman, maybe sixteen, full, long blond hair, eyes shut, a look of ecstasy on her face. He takes another toke on the joint.

“She’s fuckable,” Hari says. “Uber fuckable.”

“She is Willomena von Stettin-Coburg, original euro-trash royalty.”

“Nice. What are we talking about, Jack?”

“Your birthday present. We have a company discount. One grand. For one grand she will give you a blow job. She doesn’t fuck. No one. I’ve looked into it.”

“Jesus.”

“It’s one hell of a blowjob. Top-notch production values, five-piece band, singer, professional lighting. The full-on razzmatazz. You’ll never look back. She’ll change your life, you’ll be a spoiled man.”

“She is good?”

“Better. Have Peggy set you up. I’ll call you later.”

She lies snaking across the perfumed fold, on her side, head thrown back, breasts vivid, even a shadow of pubic hair visible. Hari thinks about her mouth, her mouth around his dick.

He hears Anu let out a cry.

“Honey?”

There is a long silence and he returns his attention to the woman in the magazine.

“Honey?” he calls again.

“Nothing,” she says from somewhere in the house. “I hate India.”

“What is it?” He lifts the penis to his face. He holds it in the palm of his hand, level with his eyes, and shakes it, watching it wobble. A molded jelly dessert, he thinks.

“They don’t teach you how to wear one!”

“Wear what?” He brings the penis to his mouth, holds it up against his lips, slides his tongue along the rubber foreskin. How do women do it?

“Hold on.”

He stands and fits the rubber penis into his open fly and walks to the bedroom door. With every step it shivers like the real thing.

“Honey?” he knocks.

“Soon.”

He waits, a hand idly playing with his second cock.

Anu appears in the halflight of the hall.

“Get on your knees,” he orders softly.

“What?”

“Get on your knees and suck my dick.”

She is dressed in a silver and blue sari, awkwardly, nothing right about it but he can’t say what fails, what is wrong. Before he can look closely, she is on her knees, her mouth around the rubber cock.

She pulls back, the penis in her mouth, and lets it fall. “Oh god,” she cries, drops with her back against the wall. “Oh god” She looks up, laughing, at Hari. “I hate you. I thought it was…”

“Yes,” he says, getting down on his knees. She is beautiful in the half-light of the hall, in the disordered sari, the surprised grin on her face.

“Kiss me,” he says.

“Later.”

“What’s going on?”

“I had to staple it. Staple it everywhere.” She is almost in tears. “Look at me. I’m a disaster. I don’t know how, I don’t know anything. I’m supposed to be an Indian woman. This is what I’m going to teach my daughter. God, I hate myself. I can’t do anything. Not anything.”

“Here,” handing her the joint.

She takes a long toke, hands it back, and picks up the rubber penis. “I couldn’t resist. I saw it there today and I had to. You understand?”

“I’m flying,” Hari says. “That’s all. I’m flying.”

“You are. I want to know. Tell me everything.”

“I don’t know what it means. I can’t feel my arms.”

“Yes?”

“No, I mean I feel my arms. It’s like.”

“Yes?”

“I feel my arms for the first time. It’s like I never felt my arms before. These are my arms. I feel them.”

“That’s wild.”

“They’re so there. On my body. Like they’re real. Like they’re real and they’re real at the same time. Like I think they’re there and they are there. There they are.”

“You have arms.”

“I have arms.”

The telephone rings. The landline. He jumps but she stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll get it,” Anu says, taking short, unsteady steps, her legs caught in the tightly wound sari. She looks Japanese, a geisha in a kimono, gingerly carrying the rubber penis.

“Hello, Mom,” she says.

“What time is it over there?”

“What?”

“The time. What time where you are?”

“The same time as you.”

“Oh.” Her mother lets out a laugh. “I was talking to India. I got confused.”

“I’m busy, Mom. Is there something?”

“Nothing. Well, yes, something.”

“What?”

“Oh nothing. Maybe another time.”

“Okay. It’s Hari’s birthday. Do you want to say hello?”

“No, you tell him happy birthday.”

“I will.”

“Wait. Just one thing. Where does he carry his cell phone?”

“What?”

“Where does he keep it? In his jacket pocket or his trouser pocket?”

“I don’t know. Why do you want to know?”

“I’m worried. You’ve been married for four years and nothing. No baby.”

“Yes, Mom, we’re waiting. We’re taking precautions. When the time’s right. We’ve talked, I’ve told you this.”

“Tell him to be careful. Not to keep his phone in his pants. I read today it damages the male sperm. The radioactivity. It makes monster children.”

“Mom? Hold on.”

“What?”

“Another call.” She clicks on the other line. “Hello?”

“Anu? Is that you, Anu?”

“Mom? Hold on, I’m on the other line.” She clicks back. “Mom?”

“The sperm, Anu, Hari’s sperm.”

“I’ve got to go. It’s Hari’s mother.”

“But I’m your mother.”

“She’s Hari’s mother.”

“I’m Hari’s mother.”

“She’s my mother.”

“I’ll call you later. Don’t forget, Hari’s sperm.”

“Hello? Hold on, I’ll get Hari.”

She lowers the phone and places a hand over the mouthpiece. “Your mom,” she calls. He appears from the kitchen, holding a whiskey, and makes a puking motion, then strangles himself with one hand and feints a fall to the floor.

“I think he must be in the bathroom. I’ll tell him to call you.”

“What time is it there?”

“Oh, just past eight.”

“It’s five o’clock here. The sun is out. It’s raining.”

“It’s setting here.”

“Nothing like California. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Maybe one day.”

“What are you doing? A party?”

“No, nothing special. Dinner, maybe a movie later. We’re boring people these days.”

“No, not yet. You don’t have children yet. Then you’ll be boring.”

“I know.”

“Well…?”

“What?” She looks across at Hari and rolls her eyes. He is standing in the kitchen doorway, grinning, places the drink on the counter, and mimes a full blast from a machine gun, mouth silently screaming, “Rat-a-tat-a-tat-tat!”

“What is it you two get up to? Just dinner, just a movie? Hari’s father is waiting, I am waiting. We’re in California and we’re waiting. Everyone is waiting.”

“Yes, yes. The whole world is waiting. Look, Mom, I’ll have Hari call you when he’s down.”

“Oh no, don’t trouble him, not on his birthday. Tell him I telephoned. He’ll be happy to hear his mother telephoned.”

“Homicide?” she says after she places the phone down, the magazine open on the table before her.

He sings. “Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?”

“Bedroom,” she says. “Now.”

Hari’s cell phone rings.

“Leave it,” she says.

“I can’t,” he says. “It’s Jack.”

“Just one thing,” Jack says. “A word of advice.”

Anu walks into the kitchen and finds the joint. She climbs up onto the counter, still holding the rubber penis, and places it in her mouth. He can see the staples, they are everywhere, lines of them along each fold, each twist of the sari. The whole thing is a mess, nothing like how a sari should look. Each time she moves, a new line of staples catches the light. There must be hundreds of them.

“Sure,” Hari says.

“Change your name. Shorten it.”

“This is about Hawthorne?”

“This is personal. Think of it as a birthday bonus.”

“What do you mean?”

“My name is Jack. Understand? One word, one syllable. That’s American. Your name is Harry. Two syllables. Good men died to be free of that second syllable.”

“I’m Indian, Jack. Hari is an Indian name.”

“Chinese, European, same difference. We’re talking American. We’re speaking to each other in a country where no one gives a damn about that second syllable. Bob, Bill, Mike, John, Fred, Art, Jake, Zack. These are American names. I want you to choose one.”

“Now?”

“When you feel like it. There’s no pressure. Myself, I see you as Dick. Jack and Dick. Dick and Jack. With a name like that, we might be partners one day.”

“Are you making an offer?”

“This is an opening. This is a potential first step. I like what you’re doing with Hawthorne.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll call you later.”

“Dick,” Hari says. “What do you think of Dick?”

“I love it,” Anu says, pulling the rubber penis out of her mouth.

“I’m flying,” Hari says. “I’m on the moon.”

His shirt is off and both his wrists are handcuffed to the bed frame. The handcuffs are padded with felt. Anu is working on tying his legs when the doorbell rings.

“Fuck,” she says.

“Ignore it.”

“No. I’ll see. It might be someone.”

She rises, confused. He watches her disappear in a constricted rustle of silk and staple.

“Mrs. Kastenbaum,” she says, realizing she is talking loud, trying to hide how stoned she is.

Mrs. Kastenbaum stands in the doorway, a short, plump woman with white hair, holding a potted plant.

“It’s a money plant,” she says. “I thought. It brings you money.”

“That’s kind, that’s very kind. Thank you. How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“Hari’s birthday.”

“Oh my goodness, no. What a coincidence. Is he okay? Did he make it home without a problem? I’m terrified just thinking about it. I’m still shaking.”

“Did something happen?”

“Nerve gas. They released nerve gas, I’m sure of it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“At Grand Central Station, underground. People are dying, they will die.  They will choke on their bathroom floors. I know it.”

“It was a bomb scare.”

Mrs. Kastenbaum blinks, looks at Anu closely, as if her eyes have been closed this whole time, as if suddenly, after many decades of being blind, she is miraculously given sight again.

“It’s a sari.”

“You stapled it.”

“I know… I just—”

“I’ve never seen anything so… so…”

“Yes?”

“You dress like this every night?”

“Well, not…”

“You Indians are deeply rooted people. I’m impressed.”

“It’s just…”

“I thought of you two as a modern couple, you know, drugs, parties, electrical devices, that sort of thing. Who knows? Adultery.”

“Yes.”

“It is so rare, people who take the past seriously, people who respect their parents, their mothers. No one respects their mothers anymore.”

“Yes.”

“Will you say something for me?”

“I don’t understand you.”

“In your language.”

“In English?”

“English?”

“I’m speaking it now.”

“No. In Sanskrit.”

“Sanskrit?”

“I’ve always wanted someone to say something to me in Sanskrit. I’ve never had the courage to ask.”

“No one speaks it.”

“No one?”

“It’s for the gods.”

“Oh—.”

Mrs. Kastenbaum turns to leave and stops. “People are dying,” she says.

Hari’s cell starts to ring the moment Anu enters the bedroom.

“Quick,” he says. “See if it’s Jack.”

“It’s Jack.”

“Hold it to my face.”

She answers the phone. “Here he is, Jack,” she says.

“Jack?”

“I’ll make this quick,” Jack says. “This is about Hawthorne.”

“Go ahead.”

Anu hovers over him, lit by candles on all sides, her hair falling down about his eyes. He is watching her the whole time he talks to Jack, her eyes, mouth, lips. Who is she? How did they marry? How did they meet? The past is oblivion.

“Stick him like a pig,” Jack says. “Stick him and stick him hard. Up the ass. Do you hear me?”

“I hear you.”

“You’ll get one chance with Hawthorne, maybe not even that. He has his mouth wrapped around Keppenmeyer’s dick. He’s sucking hard. You need to be aware of this. I want you to stick him in the ass and make the shit scream. I want to see shit flying out his mouth. Is your dick big enough for that?”

“My dick’s big enough.”

There is a long silence.

“I am in the abyss, Harry. I am staring into the abyss. I am falling. It’s a very long way down.”

“You’ll be fine, Jack. We all will.”

“I like your attitude. It’s a great reassurance. I don’t know if it’s enough. There are things you don’t know.”

“Yes, Jack.”

“Remember. Hawthorne takes it in the ass. I’ll call you later.”

Anu shuts the phone and drops it on the bed.

She says, “One of these days, you’re going to have to tell me what you do for that man.”

She is watching, she is looking at his face, at the shadows, the play of light caused by the candles.

“My feet,” he says. “Tie my feet.”

“Wait. I want to say something, I want…”

She loses the thread. For a moment she saw something, something vital and deep in his eyes, about herself, about him, about the two of them together. In a flash it is gone.

“I’m losing my mind,” she says.

“Not you too.”

“No, just…”

“Yes?”

“Mrs. Kastenbaum thinks we speak Sanskrit.”

“We don’t?”

“No one does, darling.”

“Not even when we were little?”

“Don’t ask me, I’m flying.”

“Tie my legs.”

“Which ones are your legs.” She falls forward onto his chest. “Did you eat both the burgers?”

She licks his neck, up, across, to his ear.

“Tie me till it hurts,” he says.

She raises herself on her elbows and looks at him hard.

“Pig,” she says.

His cell phone rings.

“Hey Jack,” Anu says. “Long time, no speakee.”

“Annie,” Jack says. “I need Harry.”

“He’s all tied up.”

“Darling,” Hari says. “Hold it to my face.”

She shakes her head. “Fuck you.”

“Jack,” he shouts. “Ignore her. She’s talking to me.”

She shuts the phone and drops it on the floor.

“Cunt,” he says.

“Prick,” she says.

“Fuck me,” he says.

“No,” she says.

The phone rings again.

“Hold it this time.”

She sticks her tongue out and holds the phone to his ear.

“Harry, that you?”

“I’m right here, Jack.”

“I’m having a crisis, Harry. You’re the only man I can talk to about these things. The two of us share a natural affinity for order and a well-regulated life. We are blood brothers, we are kin of a higher order. I look upon you as my spiritual body double. I’ll hire you to impersonate me in heaven one day.”

Anu bites his nipple and he stops himself from letting out a cry.

“Do you mind if I call you Dick?”

“Go ahead.”

“Okay, Dick. Don’t you like the sound of that?”

“Sure. What’s on your mind?”

“Could it be that I am not who I am?”

“What are you getting at?”

“Those movies, you must have seen them when you were a kid. Body snatchers, aliens with the power of mind control, top secret government experiments. Maybe I am an alien in my own body, maybe I am someone else entirely. I might be sitting right now in a room in Arlington, Virginia, and here is my body, walking around an office in midtown.”

“That’s the movies. In the movies, no one’s who he is.”

Anu is running her tongue along his throat, his chin, a foot playing over his crotch.

“That’s an interesting idea, Dick. I’m impressed. But what about the one where Heston plays Van Gogh? Is he Heston? Is he the painter? Who is he, if he’s not one or the other?”

“Jack?”

“Yes, Dick?”

“What are we talking about?”

“I’ll tell you a story, Dick. I once put a loaded pistol up my first wife’s cunt. It was my grandfather’s gun. He carried it in the Great War. Then it was my father’s. He carried in the Second World War. Then it was mine. I pushed it up my wife’s cunt one night and I told her I was going to kill her if she refused to give me a divorce.”

“What happened?”

“She said no. I pulled the trigger. I’m not kidding. The gun was loaded and I pulled the trigger. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, Dick. I’ve never told anyone, not even my lawyer.”

“Did she die, Jack? Did you kill her?”

Jack says nothing.

“Jack?”

Anu releases one of Hari’s wrists and brings his hand to the phone. She raises herself, first on all fours, straddling his body like a cat, the sari falling from her figure and across his chest, then is free of him.

“That’s the beautiful thing,” Jack says finally. “In all those years, that gun never once misfired. That was the one time it did. I tell you, Dick, I had the best sex of my life that night, the very best. It remains unequaled.”

Hari shoots her a look of alarm and she puts a finger to her lips and tiptoes out.

In the kitchen, all the way at the back of the cupboard over the microwave, she finds her stash of Dunhill’s. Not even Hari knows about them. She pulls out a pack and matches and takes them outside, onto the concrete porch, and sits down in the cool night air. She can hear Hari calling after her.

She lights a cigarette, inhales deeply. It has been six months since she last smoked. The tobacco tastes stale, glorious, despite the high, it goes straight to her head.

Across the street she sees Mrs. Kastenbaum at her kitchen window, face framed by bright yellow ruffled curtains. Her face is deformed and ugly and frightening. Her eyes are enormous insect eyes, staring through the window glass. It takes Anu a moment to realize Mrs. Kastenbaum is holding a pair of binoculars to her face. The old woman lowers them and raises an arm and waves. She is wearing a gas mask, large and dark, the filter hanging from her face like a freakish nose.

The Bolinas razorback kicks in. It is sudden, like the drug has been puttering her along in second gear for miles and with one punch of the pedal shoots her up to fifth.

Everything transforms.

She looks up at the few stars, the sky is burning, it is on fire, stars are falling from the heavens. She is melting into the concrete. Everything is molten, the street, the houses, the whole city is a river of flames. She can see Mrs. Kastenbaum. The two large insect eyes are at her face again, hovering in the kitchen.

Anu wants to say something. She wants to tell Mrs. Kastenbaum something desperately important. She tries. She opens her mouth. She forms the words. Nothing comes out. The words are stuck in her throat. They are not even words, they are sounds, the sounds people made before they could say anything.

She stubs out the cigarette, lights another. Inhales. The world is fire, she thinks, and tries to make a sound and fails. When she looks up, Mrs. Kastenbaum is gone.



Ranbir Sidhu is a winner of the Pushcart Prize in fiction and a 2008 recipient of a NYFA Fellowship in fiction. His stories appear in Fence, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, Zyzzyva and other journals. He is also a playwright and is the author of three full-length plays. One of these, Conquistadors, is an adaptation of the story “Sanskrit,” published here. He is a 2009/10 recipient of a theater commission by the New York State Council for the Arts for a work on the Partition of India and Pakistan and has recently completed a novel.