Authors: Rakesh Satyal
, please stop, we have to talk.”
This is a first. My father never asks to talk to me. Sure, we have our brief, in-passing chats—he once stopped to tell me to make sure I use shampoo only three times a week or I’ll end up as bald as Gandhi—but he’s never asked me to sit down. Especially after lawn mowing, which he usually follows up with a hot cup of tea and the Indian news that comes to our TV courtesy of a dish satellite, an alien insect crawling up our house.
I cease posing and flick faux Richard off, stopping him in the middle of a “
” I walk over to the kitchen table, pull out a chair, and sit on it attentively, nervously, digging my toes into the ground and causing a muffled, tough sound of leather against linoleum.
, don’t do that,
! You’ll ruin the ground!” my father says. He takes off his baseball cap and reveals a mess of sweat-drenched hair that looks like a pile of steamed spinach.
“Sorry,” I say, and I resume my attempt at stock-still composure. I am certain he can see the buttery sheen on my lips again, and I lick them to remove it, feeling chapped crackles under the buds of my tongue.
, something has been bothering me.”
I almost pee myself. I mean that, literally, a drop or two of urine slithers out of me and into my shorts. It’s not the fact that my father has figured out that I’m eating butter—as terrifying a thought as that may be—it’s that he’s figured out I’ve been hiding something from him. I know from the way his mouth purses into a wrinkle when my mother shows up with a cluster of shopping bags—and the inevitable muffled “discussion” that ensues from the master bedroom—that hiding things from him is not the way to go.
“Now, vhere is your hiding place?” he says.
Oh, no—the Country Crock.
The strange thing is how calm his face seems but how tough the reprobation in his eyes is. I think back to two minutes ago—how happy I was dancing away without a care in the world, hearing the
of his lawn mower—and now I’m sitting at a table, terrified. This house is full of such surprises. No zone is safe—none—and no matter how secretive my binges have been in my bedroom all this time, he will find out what I’ve been up to. There is no getting anything past my father.
“Vhere is your hiding place?” he asks again, and I know he knows I’m scared. This is his technique, to question me until I crack. And why question such a technique when it makes me confess? A confession that goes something like this:
“In the refrigerator downstairs. And I know it’s wrong! I know I shouldn’t be eating it but it tastes really good and I’m in good shape—I’m doing really well in ballet class—and I’m not fat or anything so I think it’s fine! I mean you only started cutting butter out of your diet now and you’re so much older than I am. So I don’t understand why I can’t have some from time to time—”
“Vait a second, vait a second,” my father says, shaking his head from side to side and rubbing his forehead as if to rouse his mind to wake. “Vhat are you talking about? Vhat’s in the refrigerator downstairs?”
I don’t know how to respond. I am baffled. My father slides out from the table, opens the basement door that leads into our kitchen, and descends swiftly, his now-bare feet plopping with purpose, his fingers pulling on the string attached to a bulb that lights the cellar netherworld, his fingers now encircling the downstairs refrigerator’s door, the sound of the padded door unsmushing, and then the fumbling, fumbling, fumbling, opening the “Crisp” drawer, the tough exhalation of recognition. He emerges with a gaping mouth that mimics the black hole of the basement doorway. The tub of Country Crock sits on his palm like a caricature of itself, overly yellow and swollen.
“Is this vhat you’re talking about?” He seethes. He examines the surface of the margarine closer, then tilts it toward me so that I can see the deep grooves my fingers have cut into the goo.
I’ve lost so much at this point that I might as well just retort back. “Well, what were
talking about? Vhat am
talking about? I’m talking about vhat I found on the lawn!” And somehow, from his back pocket, even though the back pocket belongs to his pair of too-tight sky blue lawn-mowing shorts, he produces Blueberry Muffin—SS’s best friend and confidante. Her painted eyes seem to be pleading with me, and they are all the more affecting due to their smallness—tiny pinpoints of worry. Her blue rubber hat is askew, and on its summit are the initials KS, which I scrawled upon it with a black felt tip marker.
This is going to be so much worse than him finding out that I am eating butter. Why did I think that eating butter, of all my actions, would be the worst one for him to discover? I have been too, too frivolous. In my attempt to hide things from him, I’ve forgotten just how many deviant behaviors I’m engaged in. A pang hits me as I think of the makeup, the porn, the butter, the dolls. Which is the most incriminating? Which one would I want
for him to find?
, vhy vould you have a doll like this? I know that you are getting older and that you are getting interested in girls, but this is not the time for hanky-panky. You must focus on your studies and that is it. There vill be time for girls later.”
Somehow, it seems that my father has been able to pick up on my other closed-door behavior, too. I shudder thinking how he might have espied me taking off Blueberry’s clothing one day so that I could see what she looked like underneath—a shiny body of peach plastic, with a cinched chest and wider waist, the opposite of Barbie’s top-heavy physique. I would never have done such a thing to SS; I turned her away from us, hid her head in my comforter while I examined Blueberry. I even felt a blush of shame when I buttoned Blueberry’s clothes back on. Here, in the kitchen, I feel truly violated that my father has deduced this behavior, that he has breached the sacredness of the subtle furrow in Blueberry’s peach plastic back, the thin tenderness of her peach plastic legs, the vacant, smooth peach plastic nothing of her sex.
But I say nothing more. I look straight into my father’s angry eyes.
“Kiran.” He adopts an ever harsher tone of warning. “
, do you know vhen I vas growing up in India, my dad used to slap me if I looked right into his eyes? Here they tell you, ‘Look at me vhen I’m talking to you,’ but there you keep your eyes down.”
I obey, looking at the shiny wood of the kitchen table.
, you have to stop doing things like this. Do you know vhat people vill think? Vhy vould you ruin your life by doing all of this nonsense? You are a strange boy, Kiran, and you need to change your habits or you are going to be noplace.”
He walks out of the kitchen and into the laundry room with Blueberry and the Country Crock in his hands, and then I hear the door to the garage open. There is another series of sounds, and this time it is more tear-inducing than fear-inducing: the flapping of his bare soles against the smooth, oil-stained cement floor, the opening of the big black plastic trash can, and then the solid thud of Blueberry’s own plastic hitting the bottom. The solidness of the thud means there is no Glad bag, no other trash aside from the accumulated sludge at the bottom. Then there is a larger sound: the Country Crock, devastatingly heavy, hitting with a ferocious crush, a splash of butter escaping from its cracked-open lid. When my father comes back in, I avoid his eyes. I wait until he has gone upstairs before I walk over to the counter, shaking, and flick the portable stereo back on.
” faux Richard bellows, and I stand on tiptoe. It is when I think of Blueberry’s azure tresses stained through with greasy grime, her beautiful body slathered in butter, that I feel the heat inside of me, turn off the stereo, go to my room, and release another potential headache by way of tears. At one point, I think to hold SS near me but fear that I might see in her eyes what I have just seen in my father’s.
The talent show is a big deal. An enormous deal. And not just because it allows me the opportunity to show my worth to the rest of the school. It also allows me the opportunity to erase all of my past wrongs.
I am the reigning king of the fall talent show, having successfully executed three routines, in third, fourth, and fifth grades. None from kindergarten through second grade, because the teachers think those grades are too early to perform anything of real worth, although let me remind you of Kevin Bartlett’s Bon Jovi performance to underline that age is not an indication of having any artistic relevance. My past routines, in chronological order, were as follows:
—a rousing rendition of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?,” that old classic, which I sang in three variations: regular, staccato, and adagio.
—a rousing rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” a touching ballad;
You know, fifth grade is too epic for me to tack onto a numbered list. Fifth grade was monumental, a defining artistic experience, the moment I really came into myself as an artist and realized my true creative potential. I decided that I would present a rousing rendition of “Kiss the Girl” from
The Little Mermaid
. Unless you’re totally mental and don’t know, “Kiss the Girl” is a really pivotal scene in the movie, in which Ariel, the mermaid who has been transformed into a human by the evil sea witch Ursula, and who has only three days to get Prince Eric to smooch her, has seduced the prince into a boat ride through a blue lagoon. During this, she is serenaded by her trusty sidekick Sebastian the Crab. In his song, Sebastian urges Eric to kiss his red-haired boat companion, thereby breaking the sea witch’s spell and letting everyone live happily ever after.
For my theatrical rendering, I enlisted the help of two students in the class who shared my less-than-ideal oddball status. Despite all of my obvious social faults, I had one thing going for me: I was thin. My Eric and Ariel, on the other hand, were Eric Banner and Lindsay Bailey, the two fattest kids in our class. Round and bumbling, they were boobs in both senses of the word. Eric, a wisp of a mullet curling off the nape of his neck, was dressed in his cartoon namesake’s token white shirt, and he sweated so badly that twin circles of perspiration tainted the fabric under his arms. This sight was deflected somewhat by Lindsay’s getup: since she didn’t own a red wig, she took a fringed cheerleading skirt—an oddity, since I don’t think Lindsay ever cheerled in her life due to cellulite reasons—and put it on her nappy, dirty-blond tangles. Instead of Ariel’s stately navy blue dress, Lindsay put on what looked like a cassock, obviously a hand-me-down from her Frigidaire of a mother, who helped us out on classroom party days and whose actual gender was up for debate. Still, the way I placed Eric and Lindsay center stage, each perched on one knee, and told them to stare at each other unmoving and unflinching, was as masterly a situation as could be staged.
As for me, in order to look like the crab-crimson Sebastian, I donned the best and smoothest of my red sweatsuits. But the kicker was the enormous red beanbag I used for a crab shell. As Eric and Lindsay took their places centerstage, I set up shop upstage right, prostrating myself stomach-down on the dusty floor, flipping the beanbag onto my back, and then taking up the microphone. Unfortunately, the stage had no curtain, so we had to do all of this while completely visible to the audience. There was no accompaniment—how else could the audience really hear me?—but this made for a dramatic effect, and the stunned looks on the parents’ faces after I finished singing told me—at least at the time—that they had just witnessed a piece of theater better and more moving than anything they had ever seen.
Like all great artists, however, my genius was not justly greeted by my peers. The day after I urged Eric to kiss Lindsay, my classmates didn’t react with the adulation I had expected. John Griffin still sent spitballs my way when I walked down the hall, and just when I finished wiping them off my shiny black hair, Jeff Rollins and his goons crab-walked past me, then got up and started doing wayward arabesques, calling out, “I’m Key-ran!” I shrugged them off as best as I could and told myself that an even more rousing performance the next year—this year—would redeem me.
All the same, I took another step backward later that year, when, in March, my school had History Day. All of us were supposed to dress up as an important historical figure and give a presentation two minutes long—an eternity to a little child, or even an adult. For some reason, my father’s rabid Indian patriotism failed to penetrate my young mind, and so instead of going as Gandhi, donning fake wire spectacles and one of those bald head rubber caps and extolling the virtues of nonviolence, or going as Nehru, sporting a collarless suit, I aimed for that most Indian of historical figures, a true paragon of Hinduism:
Except I didn’t go as the Honest Abe you would naturally conjure up—tall stovetop hat, bushy muttonchops, long, black waistcoat. Instead, I chose to model myself after a picture of Abe I saw in a picture book in the school library, a slender little volume with crude illustrations that looked like paint-by-number drawings. In the picture I chose as my model, Abe was all of twelve years old, playing outside his family’s cabin in a yellow T-shirt and brown pants. And so that’s exactly what I wore—a yellow polo shirt and brown pants. I was a small Indian boy wearing a yellow shirt and brown pants and claiming to be Abraham Lincoln. It’s a miracle the teacher didn’t commit me to a loony bin on the spot.
For my presentation, I told people about how Abraham Lincoln was called Honest Abe and how he was shot, at a theater, by a man named
John Wilkes Booth
—a real tongue-twister for a second grader, and it took me about five whole seconds to pronounce the name, so intent was I on capturing every last melodramatic inflection and insisted that everyone repeat after me, even insisting they replicate the slippery sibilance at the end of my “Wilkes.” I really wanted them all to have that name in-grained in their minds and in their pronunciation, and I’m sure I made many a mother’s eyebrow rise that evening when she witnessed her son or daughter roaming the house reciting a presidential assassin’s name in trance-like concentration.
After making sure everyone knew that tidbit, I told a joke. A side-splitting joke, one that I hoped would make every kid in the class forget I had shown up for the first day of school with a bundle of pink things—a pink Trapper Keeper, a pink pencil, a pink ruler, a pink notebook, and pink sunglasses that I wore perched on top of my head like I was Poochie, that popular eighties cartoon dog who had hot-pink hair.
In this presentation joke, a teacher is telling her classroom of young children about Abraham Lincoln’s arduous journey to and from school as a child.
“Class,” she says, “Abraham Lincoln had to walk seven miles to and from school every day when he was little.”
To which everyone in the class responds with utter disbelief and a nonplussed silence. Everyone, that is, except tiny Timmy in the back, who raises his hand.
“Yes, Timmy?” says the teacher.
“Why couldn’t he catch the bus like everyone else?”
Ha ha, hee hee, it’s not like this joke is vintage Johnny Carson or David Letterman, it’s not like it’s so funny that people will die of laughter-induced convulsions. But to a roomful of elementary-schoolers, it was hysterical. It was so funny to Mrs. Nolan’s class that more than one classmate snarfed—that is, nose-vomited—the Mott’s Apple Juice that Joey Harmon had passed out as part of his Johnny Appleseed presentation. It was so funny that for a second, though dressed in my yellow and brown cryptic garments, I felt as important and righteous as the real, grave-faced Abe.
Everyone finished their presentations, the class full on Stephanie Ralston’s Clara Barton cupcakes (white frosting with a red cross squeezed on) and Steven Young’s Daniel Boone donuts (a cop-out, first, because they were just regular Dunkin’ Donuts and second, because Daniel Boone
never ate donuts in his life
)—and then a life-changing event occurred: The local news showed up.
The local news broadcasts reign supreme in Cincinnati, so much so that their set pieces seem to change every day. On Monday the whole color scheme might be blue and on Tuesday it could be red, a whole new lighting system rigged to better present the reporters, who sit behind their desks so uprightly that they are like gods pronouncing judgments from on high. More important than the regular reporters, though, are the weather people, for people in this town cannot live without knowing what the weather is going to be like this evening, in half an hour, or just seconds from now. Every week brings another satellite or radar, a different style to the weather graphics: sunglasses added to the orange-rimmed yellow suns or multicolored sparkling raindrops glowing underneath the storm clouds or a little booth set up for the weatherman away from all the other reporters, as if he is too gifted with foresight to be bothered by the physical proximity of anyone who might disrupt his prognostication. So focused are these Cincinnatians on the weather ahead that they never seem to notice that the weather at present is nothing like the noble weatherman predicted.
On History Day, the most important of Channel 7’s reporters came to our school—Melinda Maines. She was the ultimate combo: a weatherwoman who covered special interest stories, as well. She could be hiding under a tarp while tracking a tornado one day, then offering crap-colored food pellets to lambs at a petting zoo the next. Blond bouffant, power-suited, earrings complementing whatever bright color of suit she chose to wear, she had electric blue eyes, as if just by staring at someone she could cause them to make their stories more interesting. After all, her interviewees knew that Melinda could always be on the other side of town interviewing a war veteran or examining caterpillar fur to see how rough the winter would be.
The moment everyone heard Melinda Maines was in the building, we all went into a gleeful panic. Mrs. Nolan made us clean up the crumbs all over our desks and went hopping around the room fixing people’s costumes—Gretchen Lee’s Sacajawea feather headdress, Chris Henry’s pomegranate of a Pete Rose baseball helmet. Then she lined us all up like we were the von Trapp children, ready to serenade the news crew with “The Sound of Music.” I tried to stand confidently, as if unfazed by their arrival, but inside I was a human thunderstorm, raging more fervently than any monster nimbus that Melinda had confronted in the past. When you are young and you see that metal and plastic box come carried on a thick man’s shoulder, its lens shining like a deity, you feel a heightening of everything that is you, a literal exaltation that makes your eyebrows lift along with your rib cage.
When Melinda Maines and her chrome-wielding entourage entered our classroom, it seemed like a movie set. And the way Melinda’s hips swung into the room, swaddled in green polyester, the way her Wind Song perfume wafted through like an Ohio Valley cold front, stiffened my spine and made me beam on the classroom’s fraying red carpet.
Fate intervened in its most graceful, gracious way, and Mrs. Nolan, still playing Captain von Trapp, announced cheerfully, “I have just the person for your broadcast!” and was suddenly behind me, pushing me toward Melinda. Before I knew it, I was standing in the hallway, lit by more lights than Michelangelo’s David and telling my joke to the crew.
After I recited the joke with more enunciation than my John Wilkes Booth essay, Melinda leaned down to me and said, “Now, make sure you tell your mom and dad that you’re going to be on the six o’clock news tonight.” The time was very important; there was the four o’clock news, the five o’clock news, the six o’clock news, the seven o’clock news. It was like Cincinnati had set up its own CNN Headline News channel, made complete by a token measly interview with a brown person.
I ran the mile and a half home from school—Abe would’ve been proud—and gushed the news to my parents. We turned the TV on in anticipation. My dad set the VCR to recording, then set up his camcorder in front of the den’s TV to film the filming. When six o’clock finally rolled around, we all watched with bated breath, or breath occasionally interrupted by the dried masala peas my mom gave each of us in small stainless steel bowls. News story after news story—a fire in Hyde Park, triplets born in Bellevue, the unveiling of the fifth Doppler radar in Cincinnati—and then finally, there was Melinda, dressed in a new blue suit, her neon eyes sparkling.
“Today was History Day at Crestview’s Martin Van Buren Elementary School. Ellen Nolan’s fifth grade class dressed up as historical figures from all walks of life…”
That was a lie, actually. Even though there was no specification that History Day was American History Day, none of us dressed as anyone foreign—no Winston Churchills or Golda Meirs or, of course, Mahatma Gandhis.
Melinda’s crew did panoramic shots of the classroom, and then showed little novelties like the salt-and-peppered hair of David Brewer’s Ronald Reagan and the fishbowl of a helmet that Christa Monroe wore as Christa McAuliffe. Where was I? Where could I be? Where was the cheerful pejorative aura I exuded? We all sat, rolling peas in our hands, and then—