We Were Children Then
I was the only drummer in a town called Drums. Flouting small town conventions proved difficult enough if you were born there, a place with the population of most inner city high schools. But we were new to Drums, my father and Sonny and I, new to a town cuddled beneath perpetually clouded skies, but also new to grief. The brown boxes stacked in the driveway of the twin-pillared colonial were still sealed with packing tape when I vanished on moving day.
I am thirty-two now, an optometrist—a discipline of precision. My instruments adjudicate verdicts. One can argue for the death of God, the state of the republic, but not the ruling of a phoropter. Astigmatism, amblyopia, myopia and presbyopia are my antagonists. A stuffed monkey on a Slingerland three piece sits on a shelf in my office as a talisman. I find the occult quality of the light here in San Francisco lends itself to a distorted view of reality. Every day I battle for clarity.
My wife Veronika and I are pregnant. Our first. A child on the way changes things; it settles things. Born in Fremont, Veronika has lived in Northern California her entire life, having lived in Daly City for most of it. She works as a bio-scientist at Genentech, in their South San Francisco division. We live a decent life, free from harm and blame. My name is Dr. Ricky Virk.
Last year I began my practice in South of Market, on Brannon Street, a block from AT&T Field. I find my patients, on the whole, are decent people. Once a month I volunteer at a clinic in the Mission district. I peer into the goggle eyes of old men with my penlight, their breaths acidic from alcohol, and they will look into my light and offer me wan smiles. I treat septaugenarians with glaucoma, their faces battered by time and memory, their hair reeking of nights spent foraging in dumpsters. A child with strabismus can break your heart.
In my shop, I sell frames and offer solutions. People flicker their eyes at the shelves and scrutinize prices. They slip on designer spectacles as if slipping on personalities. I am happy to oblige them, flatter them, send a joke or an anecdote their way, and sometimes they confess without meaning to. Suddenly unguarded, they spill secrets. I will nod, the arm of my eyeglass tapping my teeth, listen as if my constituent role is therapy. I offer no advice.
Veronika and I live on the top floor of a three-floor townhouse in Russian Hill, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge and our rent looks like a mortgage. A month ago Veronika asked me where I wanted to live if I could live anywhere in the world. Expecting an exotic answer—Bombay, Bangkok, Buenos Aires—I told her Drums, Pennsylvania. Because despite its defects—those perpetually gray skies, blistering winters, enough small-minded Conservative blindness to last a lifetime—I left something behind in Drums, a part of myself that disappeared on moving day. When Veronika dreams of home, I think she dreams of a European bungalow with wrap around balconies overlooking the Baltic. She dreams of an upsloping driveway guarded by willows, their boughs shivering in the mist and cold sunshine. She’s a true northern girl, loves windy evenings that take off the top of your head. I cannot persuade her to leave the Bay.
Veronika’s eyes peer into the depths, and I love that about her, her ability to see into the soul of a situation. Her research specialty is cancer, diseases of the bone and blood, and she marvels at the resilience of those clustered black cells, replicating themselves. One must have respect for the enemy to understand it, she has said.
Our marriage though far from perfect is a decent one. I like to think we share a relationship built on trust and kindness and acceptance. I am certain there have been no transgressions on her part and none on mine. We live clearly, in encouragement of each others’ interests, hers being classical music and mine writing stories modeled after John Cheever (stories I share with no one, not even Veronika). Our tastes in cuisine are modern, our décor sparse, and at the end of long evenings, listening to Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, we fall in step with a comforting rhythm. Veronika is of Ukranian and Polish descent and I am not. I am east-Indian, by way of New Delhi, by way of Phoenixville, then Drums, Pennsylvania, population (when I lived there) under a thousand.
Before moving to Drums, for five years my parents and brother and I lived in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. We rented a two-bedroom apartment at Avalon Apartments. Phoenixville is another small town, known as much for its “Blobfest” as for its reputation as a nail manufacturer. It has its share of failures and successes and enough eccentrics to people a John Waters film. The Phoenix Steel Foundry still looms large over the town, standing as a discarded relic to a time when American manufacturing was king.
Back then, Mom took the commuter bus in the evenings to Wells Fargo where she worked as a cleaning lady and Dad worked as a service technician for an appliance store called Lastfogel’s. Hard work and sacrifice would pay dividends, we were assured; because if fortune would smile on anyone like us, it was only if diligence and persistence and self-sacrifice proved us worthy of owning a home. This was one of two faiths that sustained us; this, and our devotion to family.
Upward mobility meant being afflicted with retinitis, tunneling one’s vision. Looking forward was our immigrants’ creed. Looking backwards meant turning to salt. Sometimes, just before I close my shop for the evening, I’ll regard my store, regard the tableau of designer frames artfully arranged behind their locked cases, and realize the depth of my assimilation. I don’t eat Indian food. I don’t speak the language. I dress like a Brooks Brother’s model. Americana.
Half an hour’s drive from Avalon Apartments stretched Valley Forge Park. In the late summers, you might find its fields clogged with middle-aged men dressed in The Revolution War era costumes, firing blanks from toy muskets and clacking plastic bayonets on the same slopes where Washingon held his campaigns against the Redcoats. Having survived two centuries of storms and progress, the two log cabins—dating back Jefferson and Franklin—seemed more like two tuned-up clocks than buildings. Before everything changed for us, Sonny and I would play war games in the same maple and pine woods where the Senecas terrorized the Patriots, he and I firing pebbles at ravens from homemade slingshots, or torturing the catfish with branch ends in the silty pond behind the Luzier’s house. We were stupid and dangerous, afflicted with a wildness that came from having survived those hellish Indian monsoons. Engaging in petty thievery, games of truth and dare, of endurance and courage, we tested one another’s limits. We held arm wrestling matches and tree climbing contests and staring contests to see who blinked first. Because he was older and stroner and better, Sonny usually won. Though I would like to say he played no part in our family’s undoing, I am certain he was the catalyst. But if blame can be assigned to anyone then I assign it to myself.
Roy Luzier’s twins, Roy Jr. and Travis, wore blonde mullets. Roy Jr. played a Fender Telecaster and Travis banged aan amber lucite four-piece Ludwig with just two cymbals, a cracked Zildjian crash and a set of hi-hats. On the outer head of his bass drum Travis had scrawled Blynd Justyce in red magic marker. Every Saturday night, with permission from the parents, Sonny and I would leave apartment 2B after dinner, walk the quarter mile to the Luzier’s house and watch Blynd Justyce practice. Even from a quarter mile away you could hear them. Travis bashed his instrument as if waging war against society, and Roy Jr.’s guitar screeched, barked, dive-bombed and trilled. Maybe it was then we had dreams of being musicians, because not long after watching the Luziers, Sonny announced he would play the guitar and ordered me to play the drums. He said we would start our own hard rock band, picking the name Hellion, or Hellfire, or Hellbound, something like that.
Our dreams back then, both specific and vague, blurred at the edges, would need constant breath for them to live. They would also need money. But Dad was a service technician and Mom a cleaning lady, and being immigrants meant our “lavish” dreams would remain out of reach. Practicality in our household always trumped theory: We were expected to study our math and science, study to reach the top of our class, study and win scholarships to college and make something of ourselves—doctors, businessmen, lawyers—because that is part of the creed. Weaned on my mother’s mandate for simplicity, as much as my father’s demand for truth, we guided our lives by the light of their collective conscience, never allowing our dreams to soar too high to hurt us. We were children then, still innocent and blind to loss.
Before everything changed that summer of ‘82, when I was twelve going on thirteen, we took our last trip together as a family. Dad drove us to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Crossing the Chesapeake Bridge in the hunter green Buick with the dented wood paneling, Dad teased Mom, swerving the car left or right, saying, I’m so tired. He feigned yawns, blinked and unblinked his watery eyes, and my mother playfully slapped his bony shoulders with a twinge of panic registering on her face. Eventually Mom sang classical Indian songs on the way there, twisting her thin wrists so her tin bangles jangled, and Sonny and Dad harmonized to the ghazals. The poetry was ancient, Mom assured me, written in a time when contemplation of God was not known as prayer, but just as a way of being in the world. I nodded, locked in silence, and stared at the interminable wall of spruce trees and birches and ancient oaks. Occasionally I would glimpse a small memorial composed of flowers and cards and candles, a cross bearing a name and wonder which celebrity had died there?
Sing with us, chotah, Mom would say, beaming an impossibly bright smile. Except for a few choice curse words, I had no feel for the old language: Punjabi had already withered on my tongue.
Salted air and sunshine had baked the asphalt white by the time we arrived at Harborplace, and we spent the afternoon stone-blind from the light. We roamed the boardwalk like drunks, tossed oyster crackers to the yellow-eyed blackbirds collected on the quay. Dad had no real plans for us, except to roam, and I hated looking like a tourist. Sonny wanted to peruse the historic shipyards. Mom was content finding a shady spot to sit in, away from the scorching sun.
We browsed the souvenir shops where pinstriped beach towels hung from the rafters like colored pelts, and the cool fans billowed the shirts slung from the ceiling like sails. We fingered trinkets—cartoony crab magnets, crabby swim trunks, crab-shaped keychains. We shook up snow globes, pretended to extract our eye-teeth with bottle openers. Sonny, his chocolatey eyes smiling, said something to me and I twisted away from his taunts and clutches and roamed alone. I touched things I wasn’t supposed to touch, wiped my nose on a towel, spun the rotating sunglasses display. I lifted a magnifying glass from a table and clouded it with my breath.
Someone said Hey, and without thinking I slipped out of the store. Hidden in a bush overrun with bees, I watched Dad and Mom’s frantically calling my name, Rikvir! Rikvir! I hid because Sonny had wanted to play Truth or Dare. I hid because having dared to take that magnifying glass—its carved handle depicting a smiling crab painted blue and red and white—I became a thief.
An hour later, Sonny found me sitting on an iron bench opposite a cart selling hot dogs, the magnifying glass balanced between my fingers, the lens refracting light into a pinpoint beam. And because he was older and stronger and better, he dragged me back to accept Dad’s admonishment and Mom’s suffocating hugs. Looking into my parents’ faces, diminishing under the glare of my father’s stern authority, his knotty arms akimbo, my eyes welled up. I glanced sheepishly at my mother’s concern, her left eye squinched from an accident she had suffered as a child (something to do with a scooter), I promised I would never disappoint them again.
With the daylight dawdling, Sonny and I sat on matching pier posts and ate grouper and chips out of newspaper while I wiped tears from my cheeks and contemplated the seagulls spiraling above us. A ship’s horn bellowed in the distance, deep as a forgotten memory. With Dad gorging on steamed crab legs doused with hot sauce, his cheeks wet with heat, and Mom snacking on the hard dry methi biscuits she carried in her purse, we faded under the sunset.
I can still picture Mom on that wrought iron bench, her simple face turned towards the water’s white capped waves while the soft rinse of water lapped the shoreline. Her lazy eye is locked on the distant skiffs, where young men in shirtsleeves propeller the oars. Dad, broad shouldered but thin as a scarecrow, inches towards her, so close their silhouettes merge. It is Mom’s calm reciprocation that surprises me, for she doesn’t believe in public affection. Watching her plant her head against his shoulder, it feels like witnessing the birth of a new emotion. How I want to enter their peace, stir it up like Travis’ inarticulate beats. How, even now, when I remember her, I wonder what comprised her dreams. The past had not yet died for her that day, not yet receded, and her memories of India had not yet formed tracers that floated into view on waves of pinpricked light.
It was Sonny who leaned in close to me and whispered something, and I said, What? and he said, not much louder than a whisper, I love you. If clarity had any meaning it was this: a ship’s horn, the truth of a sunset, the love of parents for each other and for us, their undeserving children.
That night, Sonny and I, safe in our bunk beds in the room we shared with each other, slipped beneath the covers and shut our eyes. Our hair briny from the Atlantic breezes, our skin ruddy from the blistering summer sun, we lay in our beds, content. The crickets that pulsed in the bushes sentenced us to the feeling that all was right with the world so long as our parents breathed the air we breathed. So, as the midsummer fireflies lifted from the row houses across Spyglass Street like sparks from burned cinders, and with our hearts lulled by the single maple outside our window that swished in the late summer air, we drifted towards sleep and I hoped things would never change.
But things always change. That July, a few weeks shy of my twelfth birthday, our parents gathered us in the family room—Dad, flanked by the cathode ray Zenith and the glass shelf that held the used beta tapes of old B-horror films like The Blob and The Crawling Eye, stood wringing his hands. Mom sat poised like an exiled queen on a second hand accent chair with a paisley pattern in purple and gold. Lightning flashed outside from a midsummer storm. Leggy beads of water streaked the window. Thunder shook the blades of the ceiling fan and Mom and Dad’s blotched faces danced.
I’ve bought a house, Dad said, out of the blue. In Drums. You’ll love it there.
Would we? We looked to Mom for her approval, but her little round face conveyed no emotion. The steel bangles that never left her wrists jangled as she palmed her forehead, reaffirming her bindi. Her lazy eye looked a little swollen, I thought, her razorlike mouth downturned. She had, earlier in the day, collapsed on her bed in tears for some reason we couldn’t fathom, thinking it had something to do with her learning how to drive. Every weekend Dad took Mom out in the screechy junk-pile his boss Manny Lastfogel gifted him in lieu of a Chrismas bonus. Dad had fixed the transmission, repaired the brakes, then attempted to teach Mom the rules of Maryland’s public roads. Their route had them circling the neighborhood, passing the near identical frame houses on Spyglass at a speed of ten miles an hour. But that day, they had ventured out onto the avenues choked with the late afternoon traffic, and they returned about an hour afterwards, Mom on the verge of convulsions. Mom flew into the room as if being chased by criminals, slammed the door shut, snapped the lock, this while Dad, calmly rapped his knuckles on the door. Bhavna, please. I’m sorry.
Years earlier, despite Mom’s objections, Rikvir became “Ricky” and Sundeep became “Sonny” and even Dad, Harjit, renamed himself “Harry.” Mom remained Bhavna. We learned our adopted customs and appropriated western traditions. During Christmas, Sonny and I would help Dad decorate the apartment with cherry cheeked Santas and nutcrackers, helped him set up a nativity scene beneath a tree clogged with flashing lights, red and gold orbs, ornaments, tinsel. Sonny even climbed a step ladder to affix The Star of David to the tree’s top, while Mom and I stood by, not understanding what such symbolism meant.
During Easter, while Mom poured sweet lassi into tumblers with silkscreens of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote wrapped around the glass, Sonny and I hunted for colored eggs hidden in the bushes. We wore allegiance to sports teams we did not follows, like the Eagles or Flyers. Add to these Memorial Day and Independence Day BBQ’s, add to that wearing green T-shirts with four leaf clovers on St. Patrick’s Day, or offering each other sentimental greeting cards and chocolate kisses and carnations on Valentine’s Day, and except for our skin tone and our surname, you wouldn’t think we were foreigners.
Ma, I started to say, then stopped. Sonny shot me a scolding look. Mom tipped her head to the ceiling and exhaled. She looked resigned, as if Dad had convinced her of something she hadn’t wanted.
Incurious, what we never asked was why we had left our hot dusty homeland. We accepted our intercontinental drift as another fact of progress (Uncle Ranjit had come to America and settled in Philadelphia to become a handyman; Aunt Sukhi and Uncle Jas owned an Indian grocery store in Pottstown), accepting also that migration from one continent to another was as natural a law as sunshine; because half a decade ago, what seemed like a lifetime ago, we had said goodbye to New Delhi’s interminable heat and incessant rain, said goodbye to the Tempo cars that banked the gold roads choked with syncopation and color. Bitu, the half-naked man in his dhoti, his left eye white as a marble, would no longer sell us mango kulfi from his ice cream cart that Sonny and I consumed by the boatload, spiking our blood sugar and ruining our teeth.
Would she love it too? Would she love this home Dad had bought without her consent in a town that sounded fictitious? Because if I knew anything about Mom, she pushed against change that came too quick. With her corded brown hands folded across her stomach and a frown edged across her hard lips, she nodded at the floor once while the steady rain dazzled the glass. She didn’t have to tell us she regretted leaving India, a place receding daily into the background, where memories of heat and rain mixed with the clay smell of hot, wet dirt. She had no Indian friends in Phoenixville and her sisters lived in Canda or England. This Amreekan language, these Amreekan rules and laws of this new country, and all the new customs forced upon her, confused her. She didn’t have to tell us she pined for home, we who had hopefully left streets clogged with cow dung, naked mendicants, vultures and heat and rain, for cartoons, sugary cereal, loud music, because her every gesture screamed exile.
I narrowed my eyebrows and glanced at Sonny for his interpretation of Mom’s silence. He just shrugged, this while Dad smiled, proud of having secured for us a dignity we had been refused.
This our dream, he said. This our future.
Was it? Did it? I turned to Mom again—her palm pressed against her eyes, her head nodding as if to say, This is my duty, as if to say, I am lost inside this world of cars and cartoons and progress.
Now that I think of it, I never truly knew my parents (what child ever does?), what they dreamt of, what they desired, except indirectly. Privation, our normative condition, meant we either did without, or did with less. Gifts were earned after well-meaning sacrifice. So, good grades yielded a matinee at The Colonial; completed chores, a quarter for a Spiderman or Superman or Batman comic book. A family vacation felt like an answered prayer. And now this gift: A white house with twin aluminum pillars, located at the end of a horseshoe shaped street, some two hours north of Phoenixville.
The house would become the repository of all our hopes, a place to manufacture our dreams (in principle.) What did that house mean except our arrival in a country where hard work, self-sacrifice, and luck meant one could become something more than what karma dictated? Dad reasoned that we should be thankful to live in a country where a bootback or a field hand, even a lowly appliance technician, could rise like cream to the top.
By late summer, and in time for the new school year, we would leave Apartment 2B. I would enter seventh-grade as a Rocket at Rock Glen Elementary and Sonny would become a junior Wildcat at West Hazleton High. Dad would have a position of responsibility (service manager) at a new appliance store in downtown Hazleton, and soon he would discover a deeper loneliness that would drift him to the periphery of sanity. But that would be later.
Our arrival on the next rung of the success ladder meant we would view the world from a different height. We would no longer shop at Goodwill for musty clothes and chipped dinnerware, creaky furniture and beta video tapes and eight track cassettes, and no longer wear Dad’s hand-me-downs that made us look like smaller versions of him—Dad’s sweat-stained shirts, gloves and socks, Dad’s worn brown leather loafers—and we would accept this fact as one of many facts of life, like the temperature of the sun or the fact of X-rays.
By the end of that summer our light was refracted into varying hues. We would say goodbye to Mrs. Baum with her oystery eyes, a centenarian who lived in 2A downstairs with Mr. Biggins, her deaf tabby cat; say goodbye to the smell of burnt toast and sausage fat that wafted up like heat from beneath her door; say goodbye to myopic Danny Stinson and his self-proclaimed “world’s greatest comic book collection” (a heap which numbered into the thousands); say goodbye to the algae pool behind its locked iron gate; goodbye to Mr. Bobby Jackson, the maintenance man, his purple-tinted sunglasses glistening as if coated in oil. We would say goodbye to thick-hipped Mrs. Sabatini whose cigarette soaked voice sounded like a scratchy war cry, and whose daughter Wendy, a freckled blonde with a bra stuffed with tissues, Sonny and I had taken turns kissing behind the community center. We would say goodbye to the Luziers, Roy Jr. and Travis and Blynd Justyce.
In Drums, that town of new beginnings, we would have our own rooms and plaster the walls with posters of The Rolling Stones and AC/DC, red Ferraris, The Fall Guy’s Heather Thomas seducing us with a predacious wink in her stars and stripes bikini. We would mow a wide green lawn in the summer and rake amber and purple leaves in the fall and salt a driveway in the winter. Sonny would try out for the Wildcats’ baseball team and I would play the drumset like Travis, whose heavy-handed rhythms lay down the foundation for Blynd Justyce, “the baddest band in rock and roll.”
Leaving the present behind also meant leaving familiar stores, roads, landmarks, turnpikes, so we could plant roots on the point of a map whose name sounded like an imaginary place: Drums, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the heart of Butler Township, where you could walk for miles in any direction and disappear.
We would stalk deer during hunting season, Dad assured us. Though we were not Hindu, by then no longer even Sikh (for religion requires practice), Devali, the festival of lights, would go unacknowledged, as would Holi, the festival of color, and Rakhi, a holiday I never quite understood. With evergreen woods to play in, Dad assured us, and silvery creeks and silvery ponds to fish in, we would blend in. Reflecting our faces in the cool still waters of Four Seasons Lake, our assimilation would become absolute.
I didn’t realize then what we would lose—our contact with Mother India for one. Our complete assimilation would mean annihilation. I didn’t realize that we had to lose one life to gain another. It was like shedding skin. Dad’s declaration of our independence amounted to a choice foisted upon us, his choice, because it amounted to no choice at all. Rejection of what made us authentic meant losing Mom’s vantage; it meant losing a true sense of home.
In March the nine planets aligned themselves in a single row on the same side of the sun, and in April a severe cold front swept down from Canada’s eastern provinces, producing the worst blizzard in thirty years, and in May a swarm of dragonflies, like a gray cloud, descended on Avalon Apartments for three whole days, and then vanished as if it was the product of a child’s nightmares. In July we observed the longest lunar eclipse in a century, lasting nearly two hours. Then in early August, a week shy of moving day, Mom died on an ordinary Wednesday, suffering a heart-attack at the age of thirty-one. She crashed the screechy green Buick into a log cabin on the road back from White Marsh Mall. Except for a mark on her forehead, smearing her red bindi, she looked as if asleep. We cremated her after a small religious ceremony at the Gurdwara in Nazareth. The day after we sprinkled her ashes into the Chesapeake Bay, we disassembled apartment 2B and loaded the moving truck, still stunned, still unbelieving she was gone.
When I think of that year and what we suffered, I think of that white house, its front gabled roof, its decorative roof beams and trellised front porch supported by two white aluminum columns Dad had the realtors install before the escrow closed. Located at the end Argo Road, the house, stylistically, looked like every other house on that street, a sort of mid-century colonial aesthetic modernized by aluminum shingles. The single feature that distinguished it from the others, beside those two columns, was its condition. I could see why Mom had shown no interest in it and the life Dad promised: The house was a wreck; the property a dump.
Its shuttered windows looked like drowsy eyes. A bay window bowed out above an overgrown privet hedge. The clapboards looked distressed, patched white and gray where the paint had peeled off. Inside, the tan wall to wall carpeting lay beneath a layer of ash and every room smelled like smoky cheese. In the family room the ceiling plaster rippled like blackened fish scales. A section of the lower wall had burned, exposing oily black waves of rippled wood. The double doors beside the galley kitchen, with its pink tiled top, led out to a brick colored deck that offered a view of the backyard—an acre and a half of patchy lawn, wind crippled Christmas pines, spindly bushes like crowns of thorns and skeleton hedgerows. An unpainted shed, its weathered wood a cadaverous gray, flanked a weed strangled strawberry garden and a vegetable patch of crumpled grass. I would spend hours alone in that shed, tearing off the wings of houseflies, or the legs of spiders, even imprisoning a garden snake in a shoebox one summer. No fences separated our property from the next: All borders were permeable.
I have stepped into that house again-and-again in my mind, stroked my fingers over the white walls, turned its faucets on and off to hear the pipes groan. I have kicked its wooden doors and broken its windows and swore I would burn it to the ground (as perhaps the previous owners had intended). Even now, I am at a loss to reconcile my feelings towards the hope Dad promised us. A coldness to that house, a hardness about it, an unsmiling angularity, it would never feel like home. Its bare white walls would not hold family pictures, its counters would not carry flowerpots, bookcase shelves would display no mementos of our accomplishments (Sonny’s pitching trophies and my bronze medals for composition, spelling, or math). Even our bedroom walls, which we decorated in our imaginations with depictions of upward mobility, would remain bare. No, memories would not find a place there amidst Dad’s drawn out silences, or the clatter of his empty bourbon bottle rolling across the carpet, because the house would exist for me as a reminding machine—a factory that churned out the memory of what I had done,. It was a mindless golum, a machine without heart. Even in the humid heat of those balmy summer days, the white walls with its white plaster ceilings, the white doors with their dull brass knobs, the drone of the air conditioning wedged in the white window sashes and white window sills, and the tundra of steel gray wall-to-wall carpeting, made me feel as if I lived in a grotto of ice.
Memory was like the last dying warmth in an autumn leaf, a leaf still maroon and fleshy but not yet crisp: The sight of Mom leaning her head against Dad’s shoulder, of her brown eyes peeping across the Chesapeake Bay, these I would abandon to memory, and it took me decades to realize that a home was something you couldn’t create by buying a house, by adopting new customs, by embracing new traditions and discarding the old. In that cold, cold house, even the fire crackling in the hearth would feel bereft of heat. I believe absence of love, absent of a mother’s heart, absent of a woman’s touch, makes the concept of home an aberration.
Sometimes, with the crush of the future weighing me down, I will turn to Veronika in the middle of the night, place my palm over her stomach and attempt to feel our child’s heart. Sometimes I will kiss her forehead and whisper, I love you. I will stroke her voluptuousness, her body a system of rhomboids and curves and delicious angles, and she will edge herself inside my own curve, our bodies sharing the peace we have earned by self-sacrifice and diligence. But then a siren will wail from down the block and shatter the calm, and I will turn over, shut and roll my eyes backwards and watch the stars explode inside my skull.
On moving day that day, twenty-three years ago, my eyes bleary from the long drive, while Sonny in pure acceptance of our situation helped Dad unload the rental truck, I wandered off, slipped inside the house beneath the aluminum columns. Roaming the house, deciding with Mom’s eyes what she might accept or reject (the dusty doors, the spidery crack in the upstairs hall, a window that didn’t shut properly, leaving a gap of half an inch), I found a door ajar in the hallway leading to the basement. The steps flexed and creaked like old, dry bones, and the landing creaked, and down in the darkness a single filament bulb fell from a wire from the rafter beams, suspended in the dark like a paper moon. I imagined my new life in this new town, surrounded by an outsized geography of farms, fields, forests, hills, skies interminably white or gray, but mostly starless (as if God had decided that a view into the heavens would distract people from their life’s work) and I reasoned with my father’s voice, that I could become what I wanted. Pining for a home that had no form, what shape would this new becoming take?
Footsteps upstairs, heavy footsteps, keys jangled, a heavy box scraped across the floor, the floorboards crackled and doors opened and closed and my father said, Rikvir? Ricky?
I have never been a successful rebel, but at that moment I felt something in me uncoil and release. Dad’s voice sounded strange and suddenly my name sounded strange, more than strange, like that of a stranger—unknown, unknowable. Why did I want to tear out my eyes at that moment and curse my father for this new life he’d made for us? A life without my mother’s consent. He had taken her away from India and brought her here. He had charged full speed ahead. Ricky? Ricky? Why did I suddenly hate the sound of my own name?
Earlier that month, in August, on that ordinary Wednesday, Mom and I drove to Safeway. At least she didn’t show how nervous she was when she folded the keys into her beaded hand purse, having resolved to prove to Dad her independence. Safeway was five miles from our apartment complex, a trip that comprised no less than six traffic lights, intersections, a stop sign. There were no roundabouts, no blind intersections. Driving there meant testing herself against her fears. I know she wanted to impress Dad. She might even have wanted to teach him a lesson.
We left Apartment 2B to buy, among other things, eye drops for her grainy eye and antacid for Sonny’s food poisoning (bad Philly cheese steaks from a roadside diner Dad took us to earlier that day). She had her permit by then and although she drove slowly and thoughtfully, her hands always at ten and two, she seldom wore her seatbelt.
We made it into the parking lot without even bumping the curb, and I would remember this fact, so I could tell Dad what a great driver she was and what a great teacher he was and how Mom had become independent, just like he wanted. We roamed the store looking for pain killers and she went left and I went right, then I joined her again down the center aisle. I asked her if I could look at magazines and she said, Find me Good Housekeeping.
I left her in the eye care aisle, puzzling over the drops, and I found the magazine rack, because before we had left the apartment Sonny had said, Truth or Dare, and I had said, Dare, when I should have said, Truth.
I dare you to steal something.
Like a dirty magazine, and if you show me, then I’ll show you what I took from Danny Stinson.
I know already.
No you don’t.
The bright fluorescents cut across each magazine cover like fingers of electricity: Vogue, Cosmo, Glamour. On the top shelf, behind the guns and ammo magazines, unreachable to my puny arms, stood Playboy and Hustler and Penthouse, the pouty saccharine lips and heavily made up eyes of women who looked like candy. On the lower shelf stood the motorcycle and car magazines. Beside the home and garden magazines, leaned the entertainment magazines: Guitar Player, Hit Parader, Heavy Metal. Plucking the latest issue of Modern Drummer, I stared at the cover. The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts sat on his throne in a tan two-piece suit, his mouse eyes and pugilist’s nose set in a frowzy face that seemed posed for a portrait of kings. Pages of drummers performing or posed as if in performance, blasted by colored can lights and spotlights burning white, red and blue. Their names sounded like institutions—Bonham, Moon, Baker—folding muscular arms or holding them high in victory. Their gestures communicated a creed I wanted desperately to adopt, an angle of repose I needed to exude, because they were visible, yet invisible behind their forest of cymbals and tom-toms.
I silently added my own name to theirs: Virk. I rolled the “R” in a quick staccato as cutting as any short press roll. I imagined myself blasting away on a gold sparkle Ludwig, like Bonham, performing feats of speed and endurance like Buddy Rich. My traps were gilded, dressed in flashing lights and scarves of black lace. The pull to join that private club arose in me like a dream whose time had come. Sure as I was of anything in life, I wanted to be a drummer.
But I knew Mom wouldn’t buy me the magazine, because it represented an extravagance we could not afford. Remembering Sonny’s dare, I looked left, then right, then impervious to the security cameras, I stuffed the magazine up my shirt.
A moment descends upon us by which you define an entire life. I would like to say that the security guard, a tall, thin man wearing coke bottle glasses and a blue windbreaker and a plastic badge, and that the store manager in brown pants and a blue checkered shirt, didn’t enter the aisle to frisk me, and that I didn’t twist away from them and run, then run from the store and dart across the parking lot, passing Dad’s green Buick in its stall. I did not run like a thief on fire across the roadway and into the woods. I would like to say I did not hide in the spiked bushes and remain there, cowering, even as the mosquitoes whizzed by my ear like bullets, bit into my brown skin as if it were chocolate. I would like to say that I did not gape at the Buick screeching slowly past me and down the street towards Avalon, its red brake lights flashing now and again. I could have run towards the car. I could have owned my responsibility.
I took the long way back to Apartment 2B, crossing dewy yards, climbing postern fences, the magazine abandoned in those spiky bushes a mile back. My face sizzled with the heat of shame, my cheeks pimpled with bites. I arrived to a locked apartment. Silent and dark. Mrs. Baum, in her frosty wig, appeared from below the stairs and said that there had been an accident and that Dad had borrowed her Chevette and he and Sonny had left for the hospital. Mrs. Baum led me into her apartment and gave me a tumbler of milk and bone dry chocolate chip cookies while I sat on her plastic sheeted sofa, stunned, the lump in my throat choking my breath. Mr. Biggins glowered at me from the hutch. I didn’t even have a chance to say, Sorry, Mom. I’m a liar and a thief and I don’t deserve good things.
Down in that cool dark basement, I swung the light bulb. It pendulumed like the arm of a metronome. Tick tock, tick tock, it seemed to say, and in its sway I saw time, both as a quantity and a quality. If I were to make something of myself, I thought, then I had to change.
Ricky? You there? Come help with the boxes.
In a minute.
Bracing my hand against the wall of cold brick, I climbed the staircase. Each step flexed and creaked. I passed Dad in the upstairs hall and without saying a word, crossed the foyer reeking of burnt wood. I ran past Sonny, unloading the moving truck, and he said, Hey, and I said nothing, and he said Hey, again, much louder. Then I ran faster. I crossed Kisenwether Road, pulled down a vine that offered entry into the woods.
The cool shadows. The stippled light. Air thick and still and clogged with the shattering noise of birds and crickets. I roamed for hours. My eyes fell upon the hard bark of trees whose names I did not know, whose roots reached down and spread across hundreds of generations. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I understood something about endings. We had lost our heritage. What we had gained, a new house in a new town and a new independence, perhaps wasn’t worth keeping. Not that kind anyway. Not without Mom.
Veronika calls me from downstairs. It is Sunday and armed with a list of open houses in Half Moon Bay, we’re going house hunting again. What I wanted to say I have not said. I wanted to say that I was the only drummer in a town called Drums and it’s a tragedy that I never amounted to much more than an optometrist. Veronika still has her culture. She speaks Ukranian and cooks the old world recipes, like rohalyky, borscht, halupki and Lithuanian ceppelinai, which she calls zeppelins. She never asks me to embrace my Indian roots. The problem is I wouldn’t feel authentic if I did.
Sonny never became a guitarist, and except for a year in the Rock Glen Rockets’ school band (where I played the triangle), I quit the drums. Lugging the snare in its case, the snare stand and sheet music stand, back and forth—from school to home to school again—proved too much for my puny arms. Besides, I had no talent. But when I hear The Rolling Stones on the radio, my fingers will feel an itch and automatically tap rhythms on the steering wheel and I will remember angry Travis and Blynd Justyce and I will remember Drums, PA as an idea, and remember my sweet mother and my regret at abandoning my heritage and destroying my family.
It’s too late to go back and to make amends, I will tell my child when he or she asks me about my heritage. It’s too late to water those old roots. Too much time has passed and I am a different person. What I will tell my child is that I was the only drummer in a town called Drums and we’ll marvel at our hard won providence.
What I won’t tell anyone is this: I feel adrift, frowzy, bobbing along like those skiffs Mom stared out over the Chesapeake that last summer we spent as a family. Her eyes gaze lovingly at the schooners with their sails billowing in the warm breeze, and my heart tattoos with the rhythm of white capped waves. We are together, Dad and Mom and Sonny and I, blinded by the sunset, deaf to the noises falling behind us, like the screech of the seagulls searching for scraps and the distant horn, plangent as a bell, bellowing in a diminishing arc of noise like the past, dying.