Posts tagged ‘southampton college’

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.

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.

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.

August 11, 2008

Philippe Petit Walks

[Published in Proteus in Winter, 2002]

Philippe Petit still walks,
You can see him there, I swear,
But don’t look down!
(You always look down)
Look up! Look up!
Can’t you see him there?

Dancing,
Balancing on the World,
Sitting on a wire,
He’s a free bird, a loose canary,
With human compunction
(The good kind).

Philippe Petit still walks,
I’m telling you, it’s true,
Look hard enough,
He’s there:
In ’74,
With the towers under his knee.

August 11, 2008

Baltimore

[Published in Proteus, Spring 2003]

We ordered Maryland Blue Crabs in the Inner Harbor,
And tried to eat them as the water taxis sped by,
A man next to us said we didn’t have a clue,
He picked up a crab and opened it as if it were a knot
We said, Now we see, and continued to stare
The man showed us again and said, Welcome, come again
We ruminated on the sky with our Blue Crabs,
And the new trick to open them in our minds
Later, you said it was the best vacation you ever had

We went to Fells Point and strolled down Shakespeare Street
We bought a newspaper and studied the real estate ads
We visited Edgar Allan Poe place and you said
What a great place for a writer to be
I said, Yeah, or to be your husband in
Years later, when we were richer and more well fed,
We ate Maryland Blue Crabs again,
You said you didn’t have the patience for it,
You preferred picked-apart King Crab instead.