Archive for ‘Short Stories’

October 3, 2012

Nothing to Be Afraid Of

[Short story won the Sarah Tucker Prize from “Confrontation” magazine in 2005 and the Whitman Award for Fiction from Southampton College in 2004, and was a finalist for a “Glimmer Train” fiction award]

When I met my son Alex it was three years ago, on a rainy spring Saturday morning, after I had walked four blocks to the Babylon community center—a place I never had been—and volunteered with a Long Island chapter of Big Brothers. A caseworker named Bryan asked about my interests and the amount of hours I had available. I said I was flexible and he was happy to hear it. The interview was brief, and he suggested I observe the children and their interaction with adults. I proceeded to watch the boys from a distance as they played tag with each other and shot baskets with the older men.

The Big Brothers were white and black men. Being an Indian man, and often the only Indian man in a place, I notice such things. That’s not to say I was uncomfortable. I did keep to a corner of the claustrophobic gym in my damp clothes with my arms crossed; I was a stranger and naturally felt out of place.

The fact the men were of similar age (I’m now thirty-six) and were smiling reassured me. If they attended to feel purposeful, and I suspected they did, then they must have found fulfillment in the process, a sequence of weekly visits with boys who needed every warm emotion and word of guidance Big Brothers could provide.
Unlike the men, the boys were an inconsistent group. They ranged from kindergarten age to teenagers taller than the volunteers who accompanied them. Many were relentlessly giddy, happy to just run around and be social. The time with their designated Big Brother, it was clear, ebbed whatever negativity was in their past or present home lives. For others, malaise could be shaken only for a few moments before they returned to a sulk or grave-faced stare, as if happiness was a boundary they did not want to approach, an untouchable treat they might be punished for indulging in.

Of those boys, Alex was the most fractured. In my eyes, he stood out among this gathering of males that seemed ritualistic in a way. Alex was small and round, and not at all good at the games. He heaved up shots that fell far short of the basket, eliciting snickers, even from the men who knew better. He ran out of breath easily while playing tag and always seemed to be “It”, causing him to be teased and to grow frustrated. At one point, he shoved another boy for an inexplicable reason and stomped away. A young counselor punished him for uncooperative behavior and removed him from the group, isolating him on a bench. I watched this ordeal without knowing how noticeable my vexation and concern was.

“Abusive father,” Bryan, the caseworker, said, “very abusive alcoholic mother. Both long gone, no one knows where.”

Bryan had come out of nowhere to tell me this. “I don’t know what foster care is doing for him. Sometimes kids just fall through the cracks.” He added that most social workers in New York foster care cope with more than forty cases a month, when they’re supposed to have seventeen. Reports are falsified, Bryan told me, because workers can’t handle all the cases. As a result, children such as Alex go unaccounted. He was eight then and had been bounced from home to home, and from Big Brother to Big Brother.

“He’s a loner.” Bryan watched with his arms crossed. “As you can see.”

We moved into a utilitarian cafeteria adjacent to the gym. Lunch was being served, and the situation grew worse for Alex. The Little Brothers made a game of avoiding sitting next to him, then chiding the boy who eventually had to, because he was too tardy or not forceful enough to get another spot. The boy relegated to being Alex’s neighbor shuffled his chair so its legs grated conspicuously on the concrete floor. He then made knowing eyes at his friends and held his nose and pointed until he was told to stop and be nice. Alex, in the mean time, furrowed his eyebrows, bent his head and pouted. He seethed while champing on his pizza, dribbling sauce and cheese onto his Jurassic Park T-shirt, and I turned away.

I pinched the bridge of my nose between my eyes and decided it was time to leave. I told Bryan I was glad I had come. We shook hands and he said he would tell me when the background check was clear, then I could join the group officially. He also informed me he was going to match me with Alex. “If that’s okay,” he said.

The thought had never occurred to me. Somehow I believed that Alex was for a more advanced Big Brother, someone with experience, and I was more suited to one of the well-adjusted kids with a semblance of a family. No such hierarchy existed among the volunteers, though, and when Bryan made that clear, my eyes widened as if I had just received an incomprehensibly large bill. I looked at Alex again. Behind him, a boy was holding two fingers above his head, a mocking gesture that was corrected by one of the men at the end of the table. Obliviously, Alex continued to frown and masticate in a solitude that was endearing in its sadness.

“Of course it’s okay,” I replied.

Bryan smiled and sighed, then went over to retrieve Alex, who came toward me with his chin touching his chest and a gait that resembled a waddle. “Alex, this is Sam,” Bryan said. “He’s going to be your Big Brother, starting next week.”

I grinned, bent down and took Alex’s tiny hand, which was warm and soft, like a freshly used sponge. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alex,” I said.

His response: “Yeah, whatever.”

A gloomy face and an enervating tone matched the words, which deflated me immediately. Later, after I left the community center, the thought of his voice angered me as an insult would. Later still, as I pondered Alex further, I found myself invigorated. Such hopelessness as I saw from Alex that day should not be known by any living, breathing thing, I determined, let alone a child not yet out of grade school. Alex was a boy with scars that needed to be healed and thick memories that had to be gradually reduced until they seemed as if they were of another life.

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May 24, 2011

Scream

[Short story was published in “The Southampton Review” in July, 2007, and was named a “Glimmer Train” award finalist in April, 2007 and a Pushcart Prize nominee]

Hot. Steam rises from their heads. This one in my hands squirms when I douse him with water. He sits in a steel basin the size of a large soup bowl and shrieks like the rest. The tent morphs into a cavern of yelps as we pour cupfuls over their burnt skulls then squeeze the dirty excess from washcloths. I wipe Chidi down, he cries louder. Every touch — the lifting of an arm to get underneath, the pulling back of an ear to wipe behind — is a pinch or the cause of an ache. Each movement demands energy his cells don’t have. Energy requires food, after all, and here there isn’t enough. The heat saps the body like a mosquito drinks blood.

A crooked rivulet of sweat itches my cheek, sinks and drizzles off my chin. I swipe at the trail with a shrug then finish bathing the boy. The children are washed inside the tent in the mornings, if their mothers let them be taken. Salaam comes to me next. I call him Sam and Chidi is his brother. They are the same height, roughly the same weight. Chidi is two years older, but was born premature: a cruel thing, to come into this life early. Then to suffer kwashiorkor: the further starvation an elder child endures when a new born arrives, demanding care.

Chidi’s disposition is rightly cantankerous. He wails when I dry his body and set him back down beside Jumilla. With the wet washcloth removed, he again sits bare beneath the glare of the sub-Saharan sun. Sam merely cringes when I gather him into my arms to carry him from his mother and their hut, a mound of straw draped in blue-and-white plastic sheeting to look sturdier than it is.

The Oxfam tent is green and full of tears. To bathe Sam in it, I must step over and through twigs called limbs. A crunch on an arm will break it, an inadvertent kick to a leg can cause a spasm, a seizure. I cradle Sam close so I can see my feet as I walk. His warm cheek braces against my shoulder, his eyes squint at the sun, which smolders us slow. Spittle forms about the corners of his mouth. Three years old and his stomach looks like it should belong to a boy of twelve, a menace from Louisiana with a passion for French fries.

Sam has suckled his mother, but hasn’t eaten since I last bathed him, three days. I place him on the edge of the wobbly table. His legs thin like stork limbs dangle off. He sits, quiet and hungry, while I dump out the water dirtied by Chidi’s grime into a basin. To bathe them, I have a jerry can of well water, washcloths, and a small ceramic cup decorated with roses. Sam is a good spirit. We’re not to get attached to them, of course. They don’t stand much chance of living past five. I lift him into the tub and give him a bit of soft rice, folding it into his mouth. His lips part quick, grazing over my callused hands like innocent kisses. Chewing is a chore for Sam, swallowing an exercise. I shake a rattle in front of his face. Gold tint covers the toy and Sam, as any child would do, follows its motion with his eyes. His ears, I hope, delight in the sound, making it easier for the rice to slide past his esophagus into his bloated, malnourished belly I smooth with a sponge.

The bellies: I’ve seen them all my life, clicking by on the TV. Bellies like this, fat, hard, ripe for sickness. Sam’s kidney fails him when he digests. A rock would serve as a better sieve than his liver. The boy has diarrhea. His body’s organs are so whittled they can’t absorb the nutrients of the bits of food he gets, such is the devilishness of famine.

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April 20, 2011

Sticky in August

sticky-in-august-adrian-brijbassi-short-storyThe time for the affair was now. Carol reaffirmed the fact in her mind as she drove to New York on an August weekend so hot and sticky that to breathe or concentrate became a chore. She wanted it before she turned forty and before she and Greg had kids, which, given that she was thirty-seven, would be soon. The affair, Carol hoped as she sat in midtown traffic congested by steam and bodies drizzled in sweat, would be like the ones she read about in books, with the women perching themselves in place to be approached. The seductions in paperback were quick, the affairs torrid and brief, the men discarded like old dolls, grins intact. Having gotten away with it — or not — the women returned to their sedate lives thrilled with the act. The rare regret had an existence as deep and long as a hangover.

Carol’s affair, were it to happen, would have to be fit in around the convention schedule, a busy one packed with seminars and lectures, beginning with the opening reception and four-course dinner. Twenty tables filled an ornate ballroom occupied by librarians, who, like the books and periodicals they file, were organized by commonality and last name. Carol was seated with seven others from the state’s capital region and, as she expected, the women outnumbered the men. The two males at the table, like most of the others in the room, looked plain and bookish, clearly embedded in mid-career goals for money and respect. Their lack of attractiveness, though disappointing in a basic aesthetic sense, didn’t bother Carol; she was almost certain the affair wouldn’t be with another librarian.

For one thing, she might see him again, at one of these conventions, or worse, one of her colleagues might run across him. He, this would-be lover, would say, “Oh, do you know Carol? Second to the chief librarian in Albany?” and they would make chit-chat and discuss how he knew her and if he were a gentleman he would lie. Librarians were good at spotting lies, though; novels are filled with them.

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October 1, 2009

Masquerade

She tied her hair into a ponytail, buttoned her leather coat, and thought of a polite way to put it. The issue was his friend’s Halloween party, an annual tradition, with a barbecue, joke prizes, and a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. He called it campy and she nodded, without adding the adjectives that came to her mind.

In past years he’d gone as athletes, either famous ones, like Babe Ruth, for which he strapped a pillow around his torso and carried a bat in one hand and a liquor bottle in the other, or generic models, such as the toothless hockey player last year. “I said ‘eh’ a lot.” He grinned and looked for a response. “Like, ‘You havin’ a good time, eh? Get you some dessert, eh?'”

With a polite smile, she said no thanks and they continued by the window of the pastry shop that was two doors from the restaurant they had just left. The night was cool and the wind blustered, stinging skin, and rustling up leaves and cloaks.

“So, will you come? It really is a lot of fun.” His grin remained, his voice was joyful.

She locked her arm around his elbow, forming a link that felt secure and necessary. A strong gust whistled and smacked the side of her face. The cold burned and caused her to sniffle. To shield herself, she ducked into his wall of a shoulder and waited for the warmth to return to her cheeks. They headed for the subway, passing familiar bars noisy with activity and full of women desperate to look sexy. His mouth scraped against the side of her head as he pressed himself against her earlobe.

“Did you hear me?” he whispered. The sharpness of his chin felt like a nudge.

“Yes, I did.” With a fluid motion, she unlooped her arm from his and placed her hands in her coat pockets.

She bunched her shoulders and turned away, thinking she was better off with the cold. This relationship of theirs teetered between commitment and division, a tenuous state that could tilt on one true act of love or the slightest betrayal.

Rock music played in a bar and she peered into the window as if the notes would sound clearer or more resonant if she could identify the musicians from whom they came. The bar was dark and any figures she could see were faceless, shapeless blobs. The starkest image, in fact, was a reflection of them. She frowned and the old, unfortunate trinity of wrinkles formed on her forehead above the bridge of her nose. His face was stern, his eyes hard and focused on her.

He spoke again, this time with a hint of disappointment, a childish whine. “I’d really like you to come and I thought we could dress up together.”

A laugh spurted from her throat and in the window she watched her mouth spread into a wide smile. “I’m sorry.” She put a hand over her lips to stifle the laughter.

He frowned and his jaw bones jutted out as the skin around them went taut. Even as she apologized again, snickers continued to escape from the sides of her mouth. Rejection — even the perception of it — will cause anger and fear to swell, and at that moment his urge was to shake her and command her not to laugh like that again. Instead, he turned his eyes to the headlights of oncoming cars. He aimed to name the makes and models of each when it drove by. The mind game was a distraction meant to invoke patience, but after only a few cars, almost all Japenese coupes, the exercise grew tedious and the expungent glare of a set of lights and another ripple of wind caused him to droop his head.

Although she had apologized twice, he could tell there was only a touch of remorse in her words, so he decided to test her sincerity. Speaking into the wind and staring at the gray sidewalk, he reiterated his hope for the party. “I thought we could go as like a team. I’d be a quarterback and you could be a cheerleader. A lot of my friends’ girlfriends go along with that kind of thing. Last year, someone went as a hot dog and his fiancee went as a bun.”

Her eyebrows raised and her head shook the way heads shake when people can’t believe someone is being serious.

“No, really, it was a good costume. You know, the innuendo.”

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September 13, 2009

A Scene from September 11

The Gazette’s main office was located on West Street, in a twenty-four-story building that had the Hudson to the west and the Twin Towers to the east. When the possibility of the towers collapsing entered the minds of the editors, support staff, and firefighters, it became clear evacuation was necessary, and publication of a September 12th edition was in serious jeopardy, along with mere existence. As my superiors scurried to find a way to get a paper out, and eventually succeeding, we reporters and photographers took to the streets on what, chillingly, was a perfect summer day, with the sky pristinely, ubiquitously blue except for where it was interrupted by the searing sun and the conflagration of man’s wrath.

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September 3, 2009

Repairs

repairs-adrian-brijbassi-short-story-prize-winner

[Short story won the 2003 Whitman Award for Fiction from Southampton College]

At first, the loud revving and squeaks were disturbances Sally hoped would go away. Thinking it possible that cars came with the ability to diagnose and repair themselves, she felt all she needed to do was avoid overstressing the vehicle, an old blue Taurus Marc had found in a used lot three years ago. The car didn’t cost much more than their monthly mortgage payment and Sally initially feared it would have constant problems, because of its age and cheap price. All it ever required, though, was regular maintenance and Sally gained faith in the Taurus as a strong car. Even when it began to exhibit signs of weariness, she had no doubts it could be fully revived with proper attention. So, she wasn’t surprised and was even a bit proud when some of her methods appeared to work.

If she let the car idle for three or four minutes, the engine would rev lower. A gas tank that was always at least half-full made for a smoother ride and a full, fresh tank prevented the loud coughs she often heard when the car was turned on or off. However, the squeaking persisted whenever she applied the brakes with any force beyond a tap and this caused her to drive slower and avoid the highways. She also stayed well behind any car in front of her, especially when her son was in the passenger seat. For a boy of sixteen, he frightened easily and Sally knew Peter wasn’t at all comfortable with his mother behind the wheel of any automobile, particular that one, with all its weird noises. On the days she met him at school, he would sit completely still in the passenger seat and hold his breath, never saying a word to Sally, not even on the day she figured out how to make the squeaks go away. She drove so slow through town and on the back roads that led to their home that a simple touch of the brake pedal would cause the car to roll to the speed of a wheelchair. At stops, Sally wouldn’t need to keep her foot on the brake at all, and when it was time to depress the accelerator, she did so gently and the car commenced with its Little Engine That Could routine.

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June 19, 2009

Protection From Friends

“My daughter-in-law believes it’s wrong. She says it would be taking blood money.”

“You don’t have to take it, Mrs. Levesque—”

“Call me Aline, s’il vous plait, please.”

adrian-brijbassi-short-stories-world-trade-center“Thank you. You can donate it, Aline. You can give it to whatever charity you want. Whatever charity your son would want it to go to—”

“The VSO?”

“Of course. He would love to support volunteers. He would also love for you to keep a little—”

“If Richard wasn’t a soldier, he would have been a peace worker. I know this.”

“What I’m saying Mrs., Aline, ma’am, is money isn’t the point. It’s not why you returned my call.”

“Excusez, pardon me, the phone.” Aline presses her palm on the sofa cushion and stands. As she shuffles away, her visibly exasperated guest closes his eyes and rubs his forehead.

The phone hangs on a wall in the kitchen. The kitchen is through a doorway and the wall is red brick and jaggedy. More than once, Aline has scraped her knuckles against it when rushing to answer the ring. She did no harm to her hand this time, because she didn’t rush. In fact, she hasn’t rushed for a very long time; months, if she will let herself count. Call it experience or just knowing better. Aline takes her time and no longer carries a watch, a fact that lately results in phone calls like this one, from her sister, who tells her she is late.

“Il est maintenant ici,” Aline says and tells her sister she will be even later for dinner, and no, she hasn’t decided if she will sign the papers, and no, Richard’s father hasn’t called. He’s on the other side of the country, what does he care?

She replaces the phone and spots a tray of cookies and biscuits. The silver plate is dented in the middle, causing the snacks to slide to one side or the other when she places it in front of her guest. He is a lawyer — an American named Charbonneau, a surname Aline finds both curious and displeasing for the same reason: he doesn’t speak a word of French. He says thank you and, to make room for the tray, bunches his documents together on the table, a utilitarian box with drawers and a wooden top with so many scratches and imperfections Aline is certain a bright man like Charbonneau will suspect it was bought used. She again asks if he would like coffee, tea, any beverage, and with a wave of his hand, he again refuses, and Aline retakes her seat.

He presents her with a form to sign and an outstretched pen held between his thumb and index finger to accomplish the task. Aline accepts neither. Rather, she chews a soft cookie while once more listening to his banter, his assertions that it’s the absolute right thing to do, for the simple reason no one else should ever have to endure what her son did, no parent should again have to suffer in the position she finds herself.

The form creeps toward Aline, pushed by digits that are long and smooth, without the calluses that marked her son’s hands. With a feeling of surrender, of acquiescing to stubbornness, Aline presses her palm on top of the document and pulls, easily freeing it from Charbonneau’s tenuous grip. She rebuffs his pen, which is closer to her chin than she would like. A ballpoint is next to the cookies and biscuits. With no other goal than to relieve herself of this episode, she uses it to scribble her name beside the red “X” that sits on the legal paper like a target. The page ruffles as she thrusts it back across the table to Charbonneau without looking up. Her eyes rest off to the side, to a spot on the floor where sunlight radiates through her fern and philodendron and other flowerless plants, and their leaves cast shadows on the floor, bare hardwood.

Sue them, she says to herself. Take their damn money.

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April 30, 2009

Canada Geese Mate for Life

[Published in “Confrontation”, 2003]

Men hit on me all the time. On the train, when I’m grocery shopping, out for a jog. The first time Paul hit on me was two years ago, on his first day at Mansfield, the ad agency I’ve worked at for three years without receiving a raise, promotion or any attention that doesn’t involve men watching me walk away. When we were introduced, Paul smiled too wide and shook my hand too long, rubbing his thumb over my fingers as if he had just met the office pet. I was told he was joining our team of graphic designers and was being stationed in the cubicle directly across from me. Upon that news, my stomach knotted as if it had been wrung.

cover_confrontation1Paul, on the other hand, seemed very satisfied with all aspects of his new job, with the exceptions of the tall, beige divider separating us and the picture of Matt on my desk. Unfortunately, neither was a deterrent for his nerve. As the morning continued, he kept needing help with his computer, asking me repeatedly if I could come over and take a look at his screen to make sure he had the correct page template or his color settings were calibrated with the printer or he was using the proper style sheet. The first few times were understandable; after that, I was simply being called upon for his enjoyment. He began to touch, putting a hand that resembled a kind of butcher’s cut on my elbow when he said thanks and squeezing my shoulder when I had to sit in his chair to fix whatever problem he couldn’t diagnose.

At lunch, he wanted to know if there was a good place to eat in the area. “There’s probably some spot hidden away you all go to, right?” He sounded as if he’d found himself stuck in a village of mosques on Ramadan, when we were in fact in the middle of SoHo.

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