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Short story

Rush

Black Fork Review Issue 5 published my 2400-word short story “Rush” in Issue #5.

I was born, I must’ve been, though who’s got time to be born anymore? My mother was a fast-food-counter clerk and daycare janitor, and a third job too, or maybe that was later, either way she wouldn’t’ve had time to give birth, must’ve had me out by C-section, though she wouldn’t’ve had money for that. Time or money, which were you less short on, Ma. I never asked her, kept meaning to but where’s the time. She barely had time to teach me my ABCs while spooning beige baby-paste between my overeager biting gums. Decades later I remembered the feel of gums biting down on a spoon not yet in mouth, no teeth already biting, when I glimpsed our own nanny feeding our own children—they bit the spoon too, and I felt the old shiver running down my spine, like nails on a blackboard. But I’m jumping ahead, I do that a lot, well they say time’s nonlinear. Rewind. First I knew anything, Ma was leaving me with a neighbour to rush to her daycare job, she’d climbed from janitor to attendant, I knew because she came home smelling of other babies’ baby-powder and flannel onesies and spit-up. Did she love them? I learned about competition early. I thought of asking how she’d climbed, but people who’re busy climbing have no time to explain how, no time to talk. Unlike the neighbour, who was a four-toothed but fleet-footed hag, she had plenty of time to talk, no offence, hag’s just a shortcut descriptor, who’s got time to be politically correct, anyway she’s dead, she was seventy then, retired, so all her neighbours—young working-class people—must’ve thought that she was bored dead, always asking her favours expecting she’d say yes, and she did say yes, so maybe she was, boredom is the leading cause of death. I remember her carrying me around her flat, me wiping snot from my mouth with my palm while a sudden scream pierced the air, but there were no other kids in her flat so maybe it’s school I’m remembering. After we moved away from the old woman, Ma put me in a decent kindergarten, cheaper than daycare, the scream was a four-year-old’s who’d tripped maybe, I didn’t’ve time to look, waiting for teacher to come spend her few minutes a day with me and my task, a Rubik’s cube maybe. So they give Rubik’s cubes to four-year-olds? Don’t know. I’ll ask my wife if she gave them to our kids, kids mature at different rates, let’s leave it there, it’s not like I’m doing a doctorate in child development. I did have a Rubik’s cube in high school, and that’s where I was, next thing I knew, a public high school for the gifted. I remember getting there, but not before or after, for before I was working my backside off to get there, and after I was working my backside off to get into a good college with scholarship, quickly, ’coz every year you’re competing with younger brighter kids. Graduation week, I remembered I’d planned to take a day to celebrate when I’d got in four years ago, so I ran around all graduation week crossing out escapees from last week’s to-do list and getting a headstart rounding up next week’s, ’coz once, just once, I’d like to have everything done, then take a day off to celebrate entering-cum-graduating high school. But then graduation week was gone. But well, I’d had a good time and I’d had friends—I skipped ahead again, forgot to tell you about my high school friends. They’d harangued about Kafka, climate change, Kim Jong Il and other things that’d nothing to do with me, but I was going to be a lawyer so I looked these things up, argued with them, began beating them, learned to keep my cool, they’d be near tears because I’d say Kafka was crap and they said was not, but couldn’t prove why not, all the while I’d never said one bad thing about them, or about Kafka, or even said crap. It distresses people to believe something but can’t prove why, at first I felt bad, but should you feel bad for proving crap crap, a philosophical quandary, but Ma had worked her backside off climbing for me and now I was busy climbing for her, get her out of that hovel, no time for quandaries, anyhow soon I stopped feeling bad, so that’s how I resolved that quandary. I had more serious problems, I thought I was bright till law school, now I realised both my hardware and software needed critical updates. I couldn’t think up rebuttals fast enough. Even when there’s no race, he who speaks first sways the listeners, it’s like what he said is the natural rebuttal to his honourable opponent’s aforesaid, whereas the guy who comes in late sounds uncertain, fabricating perfunctorily. So I learned to think fast. And these guys in law school, though I think there were some girls too, I didn’t have time now to notice, to be attracted, were wealthy – private school, home libraries, mentors. They’d read lots and now I began catching up, rung by rung climbed down to five hours of sleep, every night for three years, weekends too, my train had left the station later so I had to burn more coal, I had no choice, basic maths. I thought law school was hard but then in court I wondered what the heck I’d been doing all these years, I latched on to the brightest people who didn’t shake me off, watched how they talked, arranged their notes, used paperclips or pins, what shade of blue tie, what they ate, ate the closest thing I could afford. Everyone’s complaining too much about needing more sleep but d’you know how lucky we are to live here and now? Biohacks and nootropics at your fingertips, how to bulldoze through your day on four hours of sleep, maca vs. acai, the great superfood showdown no holds barred, torch 300 calories in 3 minutes, chainsaw through a new language in five minutes a day, five days—it was Ma discovering these hacks for me. Ma had moved in with me, all those years inhaling cleaning chemicals had left her as shot through with ailments as a crochet tablecloth, she was still sharp though, she got the crocheting bug, made tablecloth after tablecloth, for whom, God knows, not for us, they weren’t good enough for me she said. She couldn’t stand being retired, nagged me to marry so she could mind grandkids and give them a headstart on reading and walking and be useful that way. Who’s got time to walk anymore? So I began saving for the wedding and getting to know a few women so we could see if we were right for one another, or anyhow decide, for who’s got time to see, we’re not sightseers. Those were the fastest years. You’re running top-speed and you feel sure, sure in your soul, that if you go any faster your knees will come unhinged, you’ll leave your calves behind, but when you need to, voila, from a spare battery hidden somewhere you get another boost, you’re running, your toes barely touching the ground, you’re flying, drunk on speed, your legs whipping wind like a Concorde, so you learn not to trust your soul, your lazy soul which said slow down. Running, whipping, I made associate at my law firm, we had the wedding then the marriage, win-win, when my wife felt settled in her career we had kids. Cute kids I guess, I don’t remember, kids are supposed to be cute. She didn’t have time to notice either, we got the best nanny, to be honest all I remember of my kids is scrunched-up faces red with preparing to scream, privately I admitted I wouldn’t miss having an infant, which is good because I did miss it, running, whipping, springing up the ladder. I wasn’t that bright, or accurate in my work, not at first go, but I always went twice as fast as anyone else, so I’d draft a brief once, lots of errors, but came back and corrected them, and recorrected, and I was still fast enough, I kept telling myself I should slow down, then I could do it right the first time, and really take off into outer space, I kept thinking of putting put slow down on the to-do list, but the to-do lists kept being full, overflowing the bin. I made partner, was going to take a day off then, celebrate all the piled-up celebrations but really that weekend I was swamped, besides, it wouldn’t’ve looked good, would’ve looked like I’d been working hard in order to slack off, but I thought we could finally go on vacation this year, no sweetheart next year for sure, you don’t understand. My wife said therapy. The man in presumptuous glasses wanted me to sit, just sit, listen to my breath, look inside myself. I told him my breath sounded just fine and how did he know I wasn’t like that caterpillar who was dancing fine, a hundred legs, well-coordinated top-speed till the envious something-or-other came along, who’s got time to remember stories, asking how d’you dance so pretty, caterpillar, and then she couldn’t dance anymore. I asked the therapist, d’you want me to get like that, paralysed. He said the life unexamined wasn’t worth living, I said I was too busy living to navel-gaze, if I paused I’d lose momentum, don’t you see, I’m going, going, I can’t stop now. My wife said divorce. Maybe a day later, maybe a decade later, how d’you count time when every day’s the same, we were divorced, I had a toddler on my hands. You can’t lawfully confine toddlers to their cribs, so I got a new nanny for my wife kept our old one for our other toddler, I had to get a new house, new car, so more climbing up the ladder. Better keep looking ahead, better keep climbing because if you look down you’ll get dizzy, you’ve climbed into the clouds, the air’s getting thin the sun’s getting hot, but don’t take off your jacket it’ll drop down to earth, up here there’re no hangers there’s no room to pause, the next guy below you is clawing at your ankles, he knows on this road there’s no safe overtaking, no bypassing. It’s exhausting, it’s invigorating, it’s life itself and it’s everyone else who’s asleep, you’ve come so far nobody’d believe your mother worked three jobs and your father was a fast one too, one and gone, you’re doing the same things every day but you don’t mind, it’s new every day you’re going faster, you’re living in a limbo, you’re too sleepless, too sleepless-intoxicated, to tell one day from the next, so you’re free from the heaviness, the navel-gazing doubt of people who’re travelling regular-speed, turtle-speed, you have no time for doubt. I had friends, I knew exactly who my friends were, the people who’d kept up with me on the ladder, when you’re going that fast things get decided for you, who your friends are, your lunch, your bedspread, how to parent your kids. The kids turned out alright I think, now they’re faffing around strumming guitars, waving placards outside Congress, engaging in the other kind of congress on the beach in Bali, now I’m ready for a vacation. My daughter had a kid, I wanted to go, but never planned to, I try not to sound disappointed, that isn’t kind, they’re their own people – but I guess I feel ashamed I’ve raised hippies, wasn’t keen on taking time away to see my hippie grandkids. Time? What time? I was swamped, the company would’ve collapsed without me that weekend, I mean those weekends, for then my son had a kid and I went through the dilemma all over again, for I forgot the first time with my daughter, funny how you forget everything when you haven’t time to pay attention to anything, my mother fainted. I took Ma to hospital, and sat by her bed on my laptop, and walked around her room on my phone, they threatened to eject me but I paid them off, only the best for Ma, can’t you see if I hadn’t earned all this money we couldn’t’ve afforded the best, she died and I realised something sad had happened, but I was too spaced-out to feel sad, to feel anything, so I put feel sad on my to-do list. At the funeral they rang me, the senior partner had died of a stroke, the angiogram last year had found a blockage but he’d deferred treatment, no time, he’d come back later, well he did go back later, same morgue, so now I was senior partner. He and I had grown our business, yes mine, finally, at last I had something to call mine, now I could take a vacation anytime. I’d wanted to all this while, but when my kids rang, instead of Hello they always said Dad when are you taking a vacation, so that put me off the whole idea, but now I’ll get the tickets as soon as I’ve taken a nap. I’m suddenly sleepy. I’ve been getting myself down to three hours a night so that I can take that vacation, don’t you see. My chest hurts, oh it’s just this seatbelt let’s loosen it. There’s no seatbelt, I’m not in a car and yes, now I remember, Ma told me, she did have a C-section, that’s why she had to get a third job after I came. Well maybe I’m dying, but the good news is I won’t feel it, I’ve never had time to feel anything. I asked Ma what her third job was and she said I’ll tell you later you won’t understand now, maybe that’s what she was running from, yes, it’s happening now and I don’t feel anything, just sleepy. Finally I can sleep, I know what Ma’s third job was, she escaped it and I’ve escaped it too, almost escaped it, just a little further I know why she was rushing, finally it’s vacation time, I know why I’ve been

END

(This experimental story ends midsentence.)

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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