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Short story

Excuses

An immigrant with an apparently perfect life and unlimited empathy is driven by a guilty secret.

This magic realist/horror short story was published in Scarlet Leaf Review in September 2020. On that site, the story has no formatting and is hard to read. A properly-formatted version is below.

***

EXCUSES

“…So we can expect this steady growth to continue into the next quarter.”

The conference-room erupted into applause.  Across the room, at the top of the table, the CEO rose, and, ostentatiously applauding, walked down to hold his shoulder and shake his hand.  Blushing, nodding, Vijay Gupta accepted Ron Oldman’s praises. 

“You’re an asset to Oasis, Vijay.  Splendid work… R&D is where the big growth’s been coming from.  What did you say?  ‘Steady growth?’  Master of under-statement, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Really, I can’t take the credit.  The young” –

“Modest as always!” Oldman reproached.

Vijay escaped Oldman’s congratulations, and, safe again in his chair, transitioned inconspicuously from star to spectator.  All morning he’d watched interns present the other departments’ quarterly reviews.  At Oasis, an unwieldy hybrid of private company and public, it was common, after a bad quarter, for department heads to delegate presentations to interns.  Oldman could chastise the interns more thoroughly than he could the department-heads: who had permanent jobs, and who were Oldman’s age.  Good training for the interns, too: to learn to answer for their superiors’ errors.  Now a plump, pimpled 19-year-old from Sales, tugging at her jacket-hem, trotted to the projector-screen.  From up the table, Oldman rolled his eyes at Vijay.  Vijay smiled discreetly at Oldman.  Then pleasantly at Josh Ginsburg, head of Sales: haggard-eyed, already morose across the table from Vijay.  Last year had been bad: Oasis had fired its first ‘permanent’ employees.

No, really, Josh.  It wasn’t just me.  My team’s the best.  Students from basic science.  They’re new to industry.  They have wild ideas.  Awful, many of them.  But that’s what I do: weed out the really awful ideas.  Really, that’s all I do: sitting on my arse fourteen hours a day.  The rest is them.  Running around.  I’m just lucky.  You run an old department, staffed by fogies.  You trundle along, doing the same things, the same way.  It’s not you.  And this good quarter at R&D wasn’t just me.

And whatever I’ve done, it’s not been easy.  You saw me up there: freshly-laundered, Gucci-scented.  But d’you know how many baseball-games I’ve missed?  I’m determined Sohan will learn the national sport: but I’ve been here, missing qualifiers.  You don’t know how guilty I feel.  Pa worked hard to send me abroad.  Now I’m working hard to raise competent Americans.  And missing it.  Sometimes I feel so guilty –

I long to tell you.  Now you’re envying me, Josh: but, if I told you, your look of horror would satisfy, perhaps, at last, the guilt slow-roasting my stomach.

Don’t look at me like that!  You know your job’s safe.  I had the flu, last week, did I tell you?  I was here, downing pills.  Yeah, it’s been hard for me, too.  I’d never take your job, Josh.  It wasn’t me!  I had to do it!

Well, that’s not true.  I’ve never missed baseball-games.  But I’ve sat there, thinking of work.  Your look of condemnation: that’d be true.

The intern presented the Sales figures.  Oldman shredded her presentation.  Annoyed that it wasn’t Josh up there; that Josh was avoiding the line-of-fire; that he, Oldman, couldn’t force his department-heads to present their own fiascos – annoyed, Oldman shredded the intern. 

Next, the Legal presentation.  The Legal head made it herself.  Legal never had trouble with presentations.  Sheila barraged the conference-room with tables (the rightmost column bolded: highlighting the gain over last quarter) and figures (trendlines shooting skywards, axis labels in font just big enough so that you thought you could squint and read it yourself – just before the graph vanished).  Oldman made notes: he’d have to do some studying to work out what exactly Legal had lost or gained Oasis last quarter.

Then: out to lunch.  The old custom of department-heads lunching out every day had died with the rise of the 24/7 workday.  Still, after quarterly presentations: out to lunch.

“Good work,” Vijay congratulated Sheila.

“You’re not the only department hiring science kids!” laughed Sheila.  “We’re recruiting Stats grads.  They can make anything look good.”

As they waited to cross the street, Vijay, glancing back, saw the old man crouching.

Outside the closed shop-door.  Level with the street.  The old man sat, butt balanced on narrow threshold, legs drawn up tight.  Long silver hair and beard flowed under shabby gray hat and over shabby gray overcoat.  Every morning, as Vijay walked from the metro-station to work, he saw the old man.  Standing, stretching his legs before the street got crowded: his hat reserving his seat.  Combing, with a fine-toothed ivory comb, the handle broken and fixed, his long silver hair and beard.  His shabby gray hat and coat he never dusted.  Watching him settle on his threshold, rehatted, Vijay had surmised that the contrast between well-kempt hair and ill-kempt clothing – the contrast that drew, involuntarily, the eyes of every passerby skilled in notseeing other homeless persons – was what the old man was aiming for.  Never turning on passersby his clear gray eyes, never holding out his hat – he got more change in a day than many beggars did in a week.  Vijay knew.

Vijay had stopped, one morning, to speak to him.  German accent.  Refined British vocabulary.  Ernst Schwimmer.  Schwimmer thought before he spoke, and didn’t steer the conversation to money.  He’d been a professor.  His wife had divorced him.  Taking his house, half his money, and all his will.  Schwimmer’s friends had told him: Time heals all wounds.  So he’d stuck it out.  Five years, while the divorce dragged on.  Then he’d packed a rucksack and left.  Hitchhiked around the world.  When his money ran out, he’d settled outside this closed-up shop.

Every morning, Vijay stopped to chat with Schwimmer.  And give him $50.  Then fled, before Schwimmer could say Thanks or anyone could see.  Now, as Vijay waited with his colleagues to cross the road, Schwimmer nodded at Vijay.  Smiled dignified gratitude.

Don’t thank me!  It’s not just me.  It’s what everyone in my position should be doing.  If they could only see.  We look at hobos and we never think it could be us.  That saves us the pain.  Of seeing a fellow-creature.  I was almost where you were.  I see you.

It could’ve been me.  When Juhi found out, she was going to divorce me.  All those years, I didn’t tell Juhi.  Why should I?  It hadn’t been about her: but she’d never understand.  But what if someone else told her?  So, finally, I told her.  And she wanted to go, and take everything.  I begged her to stay.  She relented.  We’ve moved on.  We’re fine, now. 

But it could’ve been me.  Here I am, strolling to lunch: but you don’t see how hard I’ve worked to keep it all together.

India swarms with beggars, the displaced, lepers, slum-dwellers.  My/ parents grew up poor.  At our dinner-parties, I joke about it: but I’ve never dared tell anyone how poor.  They wouldn’t believe me.  Six children to a room!  One omelette between six!

I long to tell someone.  Oldman?  Josh?  Sheila?  I fantasise their look of horror.  I escaped.  The fate that was mine, too – I escaped.  Now, perhaps, a single look of horror would give me the punishment I crave.

It’s not true.  My parents didn’t grow up that poor.  But people do.  India swarms with beggars like you.  I could’ve been one of them.  Worse.

It could’ve been me.

Yes: Vijay still took the metro.  He didn’t want to forget.  He could never afford to let down his guard.  Sheila’s voice startled him.  It was like hers.

“Sorry!” laughed Sheila, as they crossed the road together.  “Were you meditating?  You know, I’ve been thinking of telling you… I owe you.  D’you remember, in April, when you chaperoned the school-trip to Vermont?  Tim was there.  You all went on a walk, after the farm-tour… Tim picked up a leaf, and was tearing it into strips, along the veins – I’m guessing that’s how he did it, I’ve often watched him do it… You fell behind the rest, and talked to him, and showed him the parts of a leaf.  He says he was embarrassed, because you’d seen him shredding leaves.  And he’s always admired you, because of George… But then you kept picking up leaves, stopping at trees, showing Tim their parts and arrangements, the colours of leaves at various stages… Remember?”

“Yeah, the Vermont trip… Yeah, I can never pass up the chance at a Botany lesson.”

“You’re too modest!  I know you knew Tim had been struggling, since his father died… Tim never forgave me for divorcing George, but I guess he thought he’d have the chance to catch up with, afterwards… I really was afraid for Tim.  He’d stopped talking to me, just thrown his grades away.  I was afraid to ask him where he went after school.  He’d lost his motivation, like he was determined never to care about anything again.  Well, I don’t know if it was you, or the botany, or what, but – Tim’s back.”  Sheila’s eyes shone moist.  “He began collecting leaves, drying them and labelling them, borrowing books… Now he’s discovered some fossil branch of botany.  Like palaeontology, I guess…”

“Palynology?”

“Yes!  Something like that!  Anyway, he’s going to take the A.P. Biology class next year.  His grades are looking up, too.  He’s had hobbies before this, but never the same for eight months, and none since George died… So I want to thank you, finally, for that weekend.”

“Oh, no!  Please!  It was my pleasure!”

“You Indians are so modest,” said Sheila, as they entered the restaurant.  “You don’t understand.  I guess you never have trouble with your kids?  They just do what you tell them?  And you guys avoid divorce, at all costs, right?  Well, like it or not, you saved Tim, and I’m in your debt.”  Sheila squeezed Vijay’s hand, then hurried him on to join their colleagues.

I do understand.  This bittersweet love for your children.  When I get home, I take a peek at dinner – mine’s waiting under the cloche on the kitchen-table – and sneak into their rooms.  Just my head.  Just to hear them breathe.  Afraid to open the door wider, lest the hall-lights awaken them.  Always afraid.  I wait, till I can imagine what dinner was like today.  Rita hates fish, but Juhi makes the kids eat it.  With what words did Juhi persuade Rita to swallow tonight’s tuna?  Is Sohan still setting aside his cauliflower, to sweep it into the rubbish-bin?  Softly I close the door.  Downstairs, I check the rubbish for tuna and cauliflower.  Forensic investigations of all the dinners I’ve missed.  A solitary investigation, while Juhi sleeps upstairs.  Did you know Juhi almost took the kids away, when I told her?  But she stayed.  And nobody knows.

Sheila: I went to Vermont for myself.  I was feeling more panicked than usual.  That was just after the crash.  CEOs dragged out into the street, their financials splashed across the headlines… I went to distract myself.  Please don’t thank me!  I’ve always given back.  Please, before you thank me – investigate me.  I don’t dare feel safe.

She wanted me to stay and look after her child.  My child, she claimed.  How could I?  I’d just got my Visa.  She wanted to come along.  How could I have brought her here, as a dependant, on a graduate student’s budget?

Sheila: I understand.  But I had to help Tim.  I have to help everyone.  Every lost child.  Every motherless infant.  If you could see the guilt gripping, in a vise that Juhi’s psychiatrist calls panic-attacks, bruising purple-fingered my trachaea –

My guilt is true.  My children sweep food into rubbish-bins.  Back home, how many people would throw away their half-dead infants for a scavenge in a rubbish-bin?

Carefully, at lunch, Vijay avoided Sheila’s eyes.  Sheila – happy again now that her son had rediscovered life – kept inviting Vijay into the conversation.

Back at work that afternoon, Maria handed in her resignation.  “I’ve got into Johns Hopkins,” she announced, muting her joy.

“Maria!  That’s wonderful!  Finally you can run away back to academia, as you’ve always wanted!”

“No, no!  I’ve learned so much here…”  She hesitated, and Vijay foresaw a last-day confession.  When someone knows they won’t see you again, the impulse to be honest beats, without warning, the urge to seem sophisticated.  “I was in love with this boy, back in school.  He was going straight on to grad school: that was the only reason I was in a rush.  I mean, the main reason; I did always plan to do grad-school.  We’d been together all of undergrad, but he was an addiction, you know?”  A couple of interns passed Vijay’s office.  Maria dropped her voice.  “He just took, and took.  And I kept giving.  I kept thinking that someday he’d start to give me something back.  It was like a slot-machine.  Like, you keep playing, not because you like it, but because you just have to see.  When does it start paying off?  Like there’s this immense curiosity, and you keep getting angrier.  But you stay, because you’re determined to see that day…”  She paused, and sighed.  Sighed herself out of her old rage at her old folly.  Then pursed her lips into a grownup smile.  “Anyway… looking back, I’m really glad I didn’t make the selection that year.  He’s gone, now.  He’s dropped out and joined some punk-rock band.  I never saw how pathetic he was, then.”

“We were glad to have you!” said Vijay brightly.

“Yeah, and I didn’t realise that I needed this.  I was way too ambitious, in my undergrad dissertation, and that ended up going nowhere… Here, you know working on these projects, in different teams, and knowing you’ve got to deliver a solution by this deadline, you get your head out of your own arse.  I mean, without deadlines, or if it’s just some abstruse theoretical point you’re researching, then you can lose yourself in some tiny problem forever.  Trying to get something perfect, some tiny thing that doesn’t even matter… I know I’ve learned skills here, that I absolutely had to have, to succeed in academia, but didn’t learn there…”

“You’ve grown enormously these three years, Maria.  I only regret you didn’t ask me for a letter of recommendation.”

“Oh, they wanted recs from my professors…”  Maria blushed, and hesitated, and Vijay foresaw Confession part#2.  “Mr. Gupta, you’ve got to know how much we all admire you.  The way you manage the team, and encourage us and just nudge us in the right direction, especially when we swap notes with the other departments’ interns, after work… I mean they’re all bitching about their bosses, and sometimes we join in just so they won’t feel bad… And my friends from school, who’ve gone into research, they all bitch too, and I just listen, and I keep thinking how lucky we are” –

“Academia’s famous for bad bosses,” Vijay laughed.

“But not just there, right?  Anyway, I just wanted to say… Everyone says you’re modest.”

I’m not, really!  I kept waiting for her to tell me how wonderful I was.  Well: she let me do things for her, and buy her things, and tell her how wonderful she was.  I tried to feel that was enough.  But I kept waiting for her to give something back. 

Yes, Maria: I know your rage.  What if I told you that, when Sohan gets sent to detention, when Rita calls home at 11:30pm to tell me she’s spending the night with a friend – what if I told you I long to knock their heads together?  You’d be horrified: it’s forbidden, here, to beat your children.  The admiration would flee your face: you’d look at me with the horror that I long for.

It’s not true.  Sohan and Rita are model children.  But it could be true.  Your look of condemnation: that’d be true.  They have thoughts of testing my love, and I have thoughts of terrible vengeance.  That is true.

Back home – early, that night – Vijay sat at the dinner-table.  Taking in, with slow relish, the unfamiliar prospect of the dinner-table on a weekday, set for all four. 

“How was your presentation, Dad?” said Rita.

“It went well, thanks,” said Vijay, startled that she remembered.  Grateful that she remembered, he was on the verge of a profuse apology.  Forgive me, daughter: I’d never really hurt you.  Over the roast venison he caught Juhi’s eye.  He smiled.  Yes: the children are eating venison, now.  They had their vegan phase: but, like good immigrant children, they’ve kept their priorities straight.  Help yourself first, then the world.

“Dad,” began Sohan, looking down at his plate, “I kind of bumped the Mercedes.  I was trying to reverse-park, I mean I really am getting better at that, and you keep saying I can do it.”  Sohan met Vijay’s eyes, then: and Vijay’s heart soared with pride.  My clever son: the picture of innocence.  “Anyway, there was a rubbish-bin, and behind that a light-post, and just then some dude comes ripping around the corner, and I guess I backed up too fast.  So the fender’s dented.  Just, like you can only see it if you really look… I thought I should tell you.”

You mean your mother told me to tell you.  To confess.  Confess, before they find out: and you’ll be let off easy.

“Okay, son.  Thanks for telling me.  I’ll take care of it.  Be more careful next time.  Were you wearing your seat-belt?”

“Yeah, dad.  Always.”  And before Vijay knew what was happening Sohan had got up, pulled Vijay in an awkward hug against his chair-back, and dashed back to his seat.  “Thanks, dad.  You’re the best.”

Vijay knew, then, that he wouldn’t have to look for the dent to see it.

No: I’m not the best.  I miss your baseball-games.  I miss your sister’s basketball-game.  I’m there, but not really.  I keep promising your mother that, at the next house-party, I’ll help her cook.  I do the cleaning afterwards: but that doesn’t make up for it.  Juhi always says it’s okay.  Juhi rushes to forgive me.  As if I could hurt her.  At work, the young people do all the work, and I get the credit.  I asked Maria to make today’s presentation.  She said, ‘It should be you.’  I tried to tell Sheila that my taking an interest in Tim had nothing to do with Tim.  Sheila didn’t understand.

Don’t idolise me, son!  I know what happens to idolised fathers.  One day their past comes out.  Then their sons cut them from their lives.  If Sheila had told Tim what George did – but Juhi would never tell you, son.  For Juhi knows: she’d be complicit.

I loved her.  For years she took and she took.  Testing my love.  My father had raised himself in the world.  What he had, he gave me.  What I had, I gave her.  I knew I was never the only one: but when she heard I was coming abroad, and she had her baby – she said it was mine, and she wanted to come with me here.  To spoil this life, too.  Already, in fantasy, night after night, my terrible vengeance had settled the details.

Fortunately, the infant died.  She kept begging.  That’s when I made up my mind.

But about her nobody knew.  Her he had buried well.  The week after he’d got his Visa.  The week before he’d caught his flight from Mumbai to Newark.  Her death he never felt compelled to confess.  Not since he’d told Juhi. 

Juhi had agreed.  Some confessions nobody should hear.

END


By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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