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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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She looked at him.

“Please,” she said in a voice that she did not recognize as her own. “Would you please? My husband's dead. It's not a school picnic.”

“Sorry,” Goldstein said. “I didn't mean to be disrespectful. I've only just started here, Mrs. Morgan. I know the language, but I don't really know my way around yet.”

She might have said something then, but chose instead to pick up the papers and hand them to him.

“I'm ready.”

But she wasn't. Something strange and awful happened to her when they left the hotel. Outside the air was warm. The cold wave had passed almost as if it had never been. But five minutes into their ride, her body began to clench up, and she was sure that her impromptu method for stanching her new flow wasn't going to be sufficient—who could have predicted? Although Dr. Betsy Cohen had said she couldn't call it menopause until twelve months without a flow. And this was only five months. Or was it six? And it was one day with Paul dead. She began to cry.

Bruce Goldstein slowed the car down and pulled over to the curb.

“Are you all right?”

Men in robes walked past, stared at them. Veiled women carrying small children like packages at their hips followed along behind the men.

“No,” she said. “Would you be all right?”

“No,” he said.

“Where are you from?” she said, trying to calm herself.
In-take, ex-hale. In-take, ex-hale…

“New Jersey,” he said.

“Paul was from Rhode Island,” she said.

“Yes, I know,” he said.

Gina said nothing.

“I'm not a spy,” Goldstein said. “I looked him up in
Who's Who.”

“He was well-known in his field,” she said, recalling the entry.
Paul Morgan, born…
She started crying again.

“Mrs. Morgan?”

“Drive,” she said through her tears. “Just drive.”

Block after block of new apartments gone to seed. It was growing hot in the car and Gina rolled her window down, enjoying the odors of the streets. Diesel fuel. Sweet rotting garbage, even that. And then they crossed into a more modern part of the town, and arrived at a drab grey building, clearly official in some way.

“This could be difficult, Mrs. Morgan,” Goldstein said as he led her inside.

“It's all difficult from now on,” Gina said. “Since yesterday. Or whenever it was that man called me.”

“Kirov? Mohammed Kirov?”

“Yes, Paul's company man out here. He met my plane. I'll see him for dinner tonight. If I'm up to it.” She shook her head, shivering again.

“He explained to you how it happened?”

They were walking down a long corridor that smelled of chemicals and cleaning fluid. Gina found the astringent odors rather pleasant, considering the circumstances.

“He told me,” she said. “It wasn't much different from the way I imagined it. Paul was exhausted. He fell asleep behind the wheel.”

“There was a driver,” Goldstein said.

“Paul took the wheel. He liked to take charge. They were going to some desert town.”

Goldstein said the name.

“That's the one,” Gina said. “It was late. He was tired. He shouldn't have been driving at night. He was on medication. But he liked to take charge.”

They had kept on walking and now they stopped in front of a set of doors.

“Here?” she said.

“Yes,” Goldstein said.

“I don't know if I can,” she said.

“I'll be here with you,” Goldstein said, but he didn't sound very sure of himself.

Gina shook her head.

“Is this a hospital?”

“It's the city morgue,” Goldstein said.

“Do they have a pharmacy here?”

“It's just the morgue, as far as I know. As I told you, Mrs. Morgan, I haven't been here long.”

“But you speak the language?”

“I speak Russian, and I speak Uzbeki.”

“When we're through here, can you find me a pharmacy?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she said.

“I'm not,” Goldstein said. “I'm trying to help, Mrs. Morgan.”

“Then let's go in,” she said, pushing against the door.

There's no even rhythm to life after something like this, Gina decided. Not after she walked in, saw the morgue workers in their white coats, went directly over to the table where several of them were standing. Goldstein, coming up behind her, said something to the people in white. They said something back to
him. They rolled up a table on wheels. One of them said something to Gina, the man pulled back the sheet, and she fainted.

 

If he hadn't made that flight to Alma Ata and back. If he hadn't been so tired because of that. If he hadn't been taking that stuff for his hip. If the driver had not been drinking. What if the driver had still been drinking but Paul had not been so tired? What if the driver had still been drunk but Paul had not been taking his medication for the pain in his hip? What if the truck driver roaring out of the desert had not been roaring? All these
ifs
…and even now, as she was opening her eyes, feeling Goldstein's hands helping her to her feet, she was living through a dozen new
ifs,
a thousand of them, a million, ten million, each one of her cells an
if
in itself. And what
if?
What
if?

 

“I hope you're feeling better,” Goldstein said.

“Let's just get it over with,” Gina said.

They were driving through the city, followed by a van carrying the body.

(The body! Gina said the word over and over to herself. The body, the body, the body, the body. Paul's body, Paul? Not Paul. Paul was gone. Paul lived only in her memory and in her heart. So he was alive for her, but to himself, gone, no longer here, dead, his body, body, body, body. The body.)

A haze hung lightly over this part of the city as Goldstein drove them past cement block buildings, brown trees, pavements occupied by groups of families, mothers swathed in wraps, body-gowns, hoods, veils, the men in shirts untucked into their trouser waists, jackets, male children in sweatshirts—
Harvard,
she noticed on one,
Santa Cruz
on another,
Nike
on another. She pointed these out to Goldstein.

“If they have such a love for the West, why can't they understand cremation?”

“Muslims don't cremate, remember?” he said.

She didn't like this manner of his, or his voice, a mix of guttural New Jersey and whatever fancy private university he had attended.

“Just as bad as the Christians,” Gina said.

“And the Jews, too,” Goldstein added. “They—we—don't cremate either.”

“Well, I guess I know where my new allegiance lies,” Gina said. “Did it take a lot of doing?”

“Like I told you, I'm fairly new here, Mrs. Morgan. But I've developed a few contacts.”

“Next time it will be easier,” Gina said.

“What do you mean?”

“Next time you have to arrange a cremation.”

“It's not something you want to be ready for,” he said. “Mr. Morgan—”

He didn't actually pause, but whatever he said as he went on speaking, it made Gina's heart feel as though it stopped, and everything seemed to spin around her, the inside of the car, the light outside, the streets.

She lost control.

“You creep! Don't talk about Paul that way, do you hear? Don't talk about him as if you knew him!” Deep, awful sobs rasped out of her, and she rocked back and forth in the passenger seat.

“Forgive me,” Goldstein was saying while this was happening to her. “Please, Mrs. Morgan, I know you're upset, I'm doing my best for you, I'm doing all I can…”

After a while her sobbing ceased, and she began to feel sorry for him. Not such a callow fellow. Forgive him? At least
he knew what to ask for. But he must be cold-blooded by nature, which is what this kind of job he did—was it a profession? —seemed to require. She could picture him at Princeton, or wherever it was that he went to school, smug, superior, expecting that people would come to him. She wondered if by now, after only a short time in the world, he had begun to understand how often he would have to go to people for help.

She watched his face as he drove, so impassive, his eyes studying the street.

“Do you know what to expect?” she said.

“I've never seen this ceremony,” he said. “When I was in India—”

“You've been to India?”

“Not to work. I was still at Princeton—”

“Ah,” she said.

“What?”

“Nothing. Go on.”

“You're feeling a little better?”

“As well as can be expected,” Gina said. “Go on. Tell me what you know about it.”

“Well, it's a purifier, fire is for them. I've sat through six-hour food purification ceremonies, where they bless the food stuff to be eaten in a new dwelling.”

“A dwelling.”

“You understand what I'm talking about. It's an old way of life. They don't have houses, they have dwellings.”

He looked over at her, almost as if he expected her to smile at his wit.

But she refused him the smile, although, if she were being truthful with herself, she did feel a slight urge to smile.

“Tell me more,” she said.

And so he told her the rest of what he knew and by that time she had grown calm, resigned, and they had reached their destination, somewhere on the eastern edge of the city, on streets hedged in by mountains behind them. It rather amazed her how quickly her emotions changed. From low to high, high to low. She wanted to talk to Dr. Betsy Cohen about this. She wanted to talk to someone who might be able to explain.

So here they were, driving up in front of a compound of several low white buildings set around a large courtyard, one of which appeared to be a temple of some sort. The young black-bearded men in robes who met them at the entrance reminded her of people she had seen in photographs in books about India. But books are one thing, reality is another. She wasn't prepared for the sound of their sweet, low baritone voices. For the lucent rich darkness of their beards. Or for the powerful scent of incense that surrounded them wherever they walked.

“Sorry, madam,” one of them said.

“Thank you,” Gina said.

The van had pulled up behind their car and the other two men were helping the driver and his assistant lift the body out of the back.

The body. Swathed in white.

The men struggled with their burden, carrying it into the compound.

“Come,” said the man who had spoken to her. “You will sit with us while they prepare the body.”

Gina, feeling as though she were in some sort of dream, followed along, bathed in the stream of incense he left behind. She had once been to Mass with a boyfriend at college. She had
been to a Jewish wedding. She had been to a Greek wedding. But Gina was a woman raised in perfectly plain Protestant earnestness by parents who believed in nothing except heaven and all these events, even the Mass, seemed much too festive for her to count them as religion.

“What have I gotten myself into?” she said to Goldstein as they walked through the courtyard to the temple building.

A low monotonous chanting had begun inside.

“This is what he wanted, isn't it?”

“He wasn't a Hindu, he wasn't anything,” Gina said, shocked at the coldness in her voice. Was she so exhausted now that her spirit had gone flat? Maybe this was the way Paul had felt, worn out, washed out, when he climbed behind the wheel of the car and headed into the desert after dark.

Inside, a half dozen more bearded men, some with hair as white as pure silk. And women swathed in colorful cloths of red and gold and white and blue. Everyone sat on the floor, gazing up at a low platform where a young man with smooth dark skin and a long black beard chanted before a small flame, every now and then looking up and out over the crowd. There was something about his eyes.

The monotonous chanting continued, a constant whirring now in her head.

A young boy came up to her and said, “Shoes, please, madam.”

Gina looked down at his bare brown toes and immediately slipped out of her shoes. She noticed only then that Goldstein had removed his shoes before they stepped inside.

The chanting rumbled on.

Gina looked around, noticed a beautiful gold and red mandala just above the place where the young man chanted above
the flame. And a statue of a man with four arms and the head of an elephant off to one side in a niche above the front of the room.

“An elephant god,” she said.

“Ganesh,” Goldstein said, as though he had grown up in the religion.

“They're praying to an elephant god,” Gina said.

The chanting increased in volume, though the rhythm remained steady, the noise all vowels almost, a pleasing sound, noise she could live with. The rhythm, the rhythm:
I said you could have some food, today…I said you could have some food, today…I said you could have some food, today…
Over and over and over. Gina eventually settled onto a cushion on the floor, Goldstein sinking down alongside her.

“My…people,” he said, “they prayed something like this…back in ancient Jersey…”

She found herself smiling at his joke, and then losing herself once again in the vowels of the chant.

I said you could have some food, today…I said you could have some food, today….

Odors arose from the bowls of smoky incense at the feet of the man on the altar. Gina fixed her eyes on the elephant god, the snaky trunk, the headdress. The smoke wound its way toward a mandala carved into the ceiling. Sound swelled, vowels increased, smoke bent in the light. What must have been an hour went by, and then, as if on signal, the man at the altar turned to look at her with eyes that seemed to whirl in his head.

BOOK: The Fires
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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