We Were Children Then by SK Kalsi

Back then I was the only drummer in a town called Drums. Flouting small town conventions proved difficult enough if you were born in 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 while I crouched in the basement, looking for ways to escape the prison of family, house, home.

 

We lived in Phoenixville before moving to Drums. I was eleven going on twelve and Sonny was fourteen. Mom worked as a commercial cleaning lady and Dad worked as a service technician for an appliance store. Hard work, we were assured, would pay dividends, because we were told fortune was directly related to persistence. That was one of two faiths that sustained us, persistence, the other being devotion to family; both were like a dim wash of noise in the background. Upward mobility meant being afflicted with retinitis, tunneling one’s vision. Looking forward, despite the fog of uncertainty, was the immigrant’s creed. Though I could not articulate it then, what I most wanted was to operate at the edges of those beliefs. Maybe what still hurts after twenty plus years is that for a while I did.

Sonny often said he was going to be a movie star someday and I might have snickered. Practicality in our household trumped vision. We were expected to study our math and science, study to reach the top of our class, win scholarships to college and make something of ourselves—doctors, businessmen, engineers—because that was also part of the creed. When he asked me what I wanted to be, the word “being” had a finality to it I couldn’t embrace. I might’ve said I wanted to be a gangster, because hard-boiled gangster movies we rented from the library held sway over my imagination. Sonny might’ve laughed and I might’ve laughed. Even then we knew that our dreams, both specific and vague, blurred at the edges, would need constant breath for them to live.

They would also need money. Weaned on my mother’s mandate for honesty, as much as my father’s demand for sacrifice, we were expected to guide our lives by the light of their collective conscience, never allowing our dreams to soar too high to hurt us. We were still children then, still innocent and blind to loss.

 

Valley Forge Park was half an hour’s drive from our apartment complex. In August, you might find it clogged with middle-aged men dressed revolutionaries, firing blanks from toy muskets and clacking plastic bayonets on the same slopes where Washington held his campaigns against the Redcoats. Having survived two centuries of storms and progress, the two log cabins—dating back to Jefferson and Franklin—seemed more like two ravaged clocks than buildings. Sonny and I would play games in those maple woods where the Senecas terrorized the Patriots. Afflicted with a restlessness borne from having migrated to a foreign land, our wildness manifested itself in cruelty, he and I firing pebbles at ravens from homemade slingshots, or torturing stray cats with branch ends by the silty pond behind the old grist mill. In the winter we built igloos in the snow, small caves we climbed into. Petty thievery, games of truth and dare, games of endurance and courage. We tested one another’s limits. We raced up trees, raced to the creek and back, raced one another around the apartment buildings. We stared into one another’s eyes to see who blinked first. Our arm wrestling matches were epic battles. Because he was older and stronger and better, Sonny usually won. Sonny had hair beneath his armpits, cheek acne, fuzz above his upper lip. I once caught him masturbating to the underwear models in the Sears catalogue. Though I would like to say he played no part in our family’s undoing, I am certain he was the catalyst. Nevertheless if blame can be assigned to anyone then I assign it to myself.

 

Sonny turned fifteen the summer of ‘81. August. No cake. No candles. We sang him a birthday song at the breakfast table. No presents. For his birthday, Dad drove us to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Crossing the Chesapeake Bridge in that green Buick with the dented wood paneling, Dad took to teasing Mom, swerving the car left or right, palming his forehead. Mera sir dhukreh, he said, feigning dizziness, blinking and unblinking his watery eyes, and my mother playfully slapping his shoulders, panic registering on her dark face. Chup, she said.

Sitting beside me on the back seat, Sonny took to punching my arm and I punched him back, until that game grew old and we sat silently watching the countryside, thickly walled tress, inteminmable forests. We settled into a slow rhythmn as we headed towards a new adventure. In lieu of the radio, Mom began singing classical Indian songs, twisting her wrists. Sonny and Dad harmonized to her ghazals. The poetry was ancient, Mom once assured me, written when contemplation of God was not known as prayer, but a way of being in the world. Except for a few choice curse words Sonny had taught me, 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. We spent the afternoon stone-blind from the light, roaming the boardwalk like drunks. We tossed oyster crackers to the yellow-eyed blackbirds collected on the quay. Threw pebbles at gulls. Sonny wanted to peruse the historic shipyards. Mom was content to sit in shady spot, away from the scorching sun. Like tourists we browsed the souvenir shops, where pinstriped beach towels hung from the rafters like colored pelts. Cool fans billowed the shirts slung from the ceiling like sails. Sonny and I fingered trinkets—cartoony crab magnets, crabby swim trunks, crab-shaped keychains. We shook snow globes, pretended to extract our eye-teeth with bottle openers.

Sonny, smiling, said something to me and I twisted away from his taunts. I touched things I wasn’t supposed to touch, wiped my nose on a towel, 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 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 kettle corn cart, the magnifying glass lens balanced between my fingers, refracting light into a pinpoint beam. Because he was older and stronger and better, Sonny dragged me back to accept Dad’s admonishment and Mom’s suffocating hugs. Looking into my parents’ faces, by turns stern and loving, 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), and 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. As a ship’s horn bellowed in the distance, deep as a forgotten memory, 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, the soft rinse of water lapping the shoreline. Her lazy eye, locked on the distant skiffs where young men in shirtsleeves propellered oars, seems to me an absolute mystery. Dad, broad shouldered, svelte as a scarecrow, inches towards her, inches so close their silhouettes merge. It is Mom’s calm reciprocation that surprises me. Watching her plant her head against his shoulder, I feel as if witnessing the birth of a new emotion. How I want to enter their peace, stir it up, destroy it just to see it resurrected. Our future hadn’t died for us that day, not yet receded. The future had not yet formed tracers in our vision, specks that floated into view on waves of pinpricked light.

I recall wind, salty and hot. I recall Sonny 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, seagulls, a sunset, the love of parents for each other and for us, their undeserving children.

On the ride home, our hair briny from the Atlantic breezes and skin ruddy from the blistering summer sun, I felt content. That night, back in our apartment, the crickets pulsing in the brambles outside sentenced me to the feeling that all was right with the world so long as my parents breathed the air I breathed. As the midsummer fireflies lifted from the row houses across Spyglass Street like sparks from cinders, and with my mind lulled by the single maple outside our window swishing in the late summer air, I hurtled towards sleep, hoping things would never change.

 

But things always change. That July, a few weeks shy of my twelfth birthday, and during a freak summer storm, Dad gathered us in the family room. The power was out. Mom lit candles and in that dim, flickering glow, our parents’ blotched faces danced.

I bought us a house, Dad said, clearing his throat. It is not very far, but not close. There are farms like in Lucknow. Hills. You will love it there.

Would we? I looked to Mom for her approval. Her eyes looked swollen. She had, the day before, 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, because every weekend Dad took Mom out in the green Buick Manny Lastfogel gifted him in lieu of a Christmas bonus. Dad had attempted to teach Mom the rules of the public roads. Ordinarily, their route had them circling the apartment complex 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 returned about a half an hour, Mom on the verge of convulsions. As if being chased by thieves, Mom ran into the apartment, slammed hard her bedroom door, while Dad, gritting his teeth in a forced smile, rapped his knuckles on the door. Bhavna, please. I’m sorry.

Is there a bus I can take for shopping?

You will drive the car.            

Mama, you will be great at driving, I started to say, assuming Dad’s enthusiasm, but then stopped, because Sonny punched my arm and shot me a scalding look. Mom’s hands trembled. She looked resigned, as if Dad had convinced her of something she hadn’t wanted. Owning a house was a symbol of progress. Wasn’t it? We had come far in five years, farther than Uncle Jas, Dad’s cousin, who still worked as a janitor and had to shop at Goodwill and spent every second dollar on whiskey.

Being Indian meant we were taught not to ask too many questions. So one thing we never asked our parents was why we left India. We had accepted our intercontinental drift as another fact of the immigrant’s progress, 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 Lucknow’s interminable heat and incessant rain, said goodbye to the Tempo cars that banked the dusty roads choked with syncopation and gold brightness. Bitu, his left eye white as a marble, would no longer sell us kulfi from his ice cream cart that Sonny and I consumed by the boatload, spiking our blood sugar and ruining our teeth.

With a frown edged across her lips, she nodded at the floor once while the rain dazzled the glass. She didn’t have to tell us she regretted leaving India, a place already receding into imagination, where memories of heat and rain mixed with the clay smell of hot, wet dirt. This Amreekan language, these Amreekan rules and laws, and all the Amreekanized customs confused her. Dad forced Christmas on us and Easter, Indpendence Day and Halloween. We had, by then, already stopped celebrating Holi, the festival of color, and Devali, the festival of lights. Mom didn’t have to tell us she pined for home, even for its heat and dirt, because her every gesture screamed exile.

 

By late summer, and in time for the new school year, we would leave apartment 2B and 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 as service manager for an appliance store in downtown Hazleton, Drums’s clostest city. Our arrival on the next rung of success meant we would view the world from a different height. No, Dad assured us, we would no longer eat from chipped dinnerware, no longer wear Dad’s hand-me-downs that made us look like smaller versions of him. We would accept the fact of our upwards mobility as one of many facts of life, like the temperature of the sun, the diameter of the moon, the waxing and waning of the tides.

Now that I think of it, I never truly knew my parents (what child ever does?), what they dreamt of, what they desired. Privation, our normative condition, meant we either did without, or did with less. Gifts were earned after well-meaning sacrifice. Good grades yielded a matinee at The Colonial; completed chores, a quarter for a comic book or a packet of trading cards. A family vacation felt like an answered prayer. And now this: a house in a town whose named sounded like an invocation of primitive music. What did that house really 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 even a man who checked for clogged manifolds, rusted pipe fittings, and cracked flues could rise like cream.

 

In March of that year, the nine planets aligned themselves in a single row on the same side of the sun. In April a severe cold front swept down from Canada’s eastern provinces, producing the worst blizzard in thirty years, then receded as if the product of a child’s nightmares. In May the Faulkland’s War broke out and in June Dad and Mom took us to see E.T. at The Colonial. 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 Wednesday. She crashed the Buick into a log cabin on the road back from White Marsh Mall. Except for a mark on her forehead, smearing her bhindi, she looked as if asleep. I didn’t speak of what happened that day, even when pressed by Sonny, whose indicting glances were enough. 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 dismantled apartment 2B, loaded the moving truck, still stunned, still unbelieving she was gone.

When I think of that year and what we suffered, I remember that 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 looked like every other house on that street—mid-century colonial “modernized” by its aluminum shingles. The single feature that distinguished it from the others, beside those two columns, was its condition. The house was a wreck; the property on which it sat a dump. There was a coldness to that house, a hardness about it, an unsmiling angularity; it would never feel like home. Its shuttered windows looked like drowsy eyes. The paint peeled clapboards, white and brown, suffered stubbornly on walls where a bay window bowed above an overgrown privet hedge. Inside the gray 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 dark 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, bushes like crowns of thorns and skeleton hedgerows. In the corner, 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 and felt the pipes groan. I have kicked its wooden doors and broken its windows with rocks and swore I would burn it to the ground. Its bare white walls would not hold family pictures and its counters would not carry flowerpots and bookcase shelves would not display chachkeys. Memories would find no place there amidst Dad’s drawn out silences, or the clatter of his empty bourbon bottle rolling across the kitchen floor. Even in the humid heat of those summer days, the white walls with its white popcorn 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. It took me decades to realize that a home was something you couldn’t just create by buying a house, by adopting new customs, by embracing new traditions and discarding old. In that cold, cold house, even the fire crackling in the hearth would feel bereft of heat.

 

On moving day that day, almost twenty-five years ago, my eyes bleary from the long drive, while Sonny in pure acceptance of our situation helped Dad unload the U-haul truck, I wandered off, slipped 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. 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. 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 and I reasoned with Dad’s voice, that surely I could become what I wanted, a villain or a hero, but what shape would my becoming take?

Footsteps upstairs. A heavy box scraped across the floor. The floorboards crackled and doors opened and closed and my father’s voice, Ricky? Come help your brother.

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 had made for us. Ricky? Ricky? Why did I suddenly hate the sound of my own name?

***
That awful Wednesday she crashed the Buick, Mom and I drove to Safeway. At least she didn’t show how nervous she was when she folded the keys into her beaded purse. The grocery store was five miles from our apartment complex, a trip that comprised no less than six traffic lights. There was one roundabout, two blind intersections. I know she wanted to prove to Dad she was capable of driving that car.

We left apartment 2B to buy, among other things, eye drops for her grainy eye and antacid for Sonny’s food poisoning (bad roast beef sandwiches from a roadside stand 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. We roamed the store looking for painkillers 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. She said nodded yes.

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?

Candy, and if you give it to me, 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 Cheri and Hustler and Penthouse. On the lower shelf stood the motorcycle and car magazines, beside the home and garden magazines. I slid out House Beautiful and behind it, as I planted there by Sonny to tempt me, sat a Playboy, the cover depicting a close up of a beautiful face sipping from a straw. Perusing its glossy pages of women whose saccharine lips and heavily made up eyes of made them look like candy, I felt my groin twitch.

I knew Mom wouldn’t buy me the magazine, not just because it was illegal, but 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. I would like to say that the security guard in his brown windbreaker and a plastic badge, and that the store manager in his chessboard 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 the green Buick in its stall and into the woods. 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 caramel. I would like to say that I did not gape at the Buick screeching slowly past, its red brake lights flashing like distant semaphores. I could have run towards the car, begged Mom for forgiveness, accepted my responsibility. But I took the long way back to apartment 2B, the magazine abandoned in those spiked bushes a mile back. My face sizzled with the heat of shame when I arrived to a locked apartment.

Mrs. Baum, in her frosty wig, appeared from below 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 stale oatmeal cookies while I sat on her plastic sheeted sofa, stunned, the lump in my throat choking my breath. Mr. Biggins swished his tail satanically, glowered at me from his hutch and purred. Sorry, Mama, I recited saying. I’m liar and thief and I don’t deserve nice 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 as both quantity and quality. If I were to make something of myself, then I had to change. But how? By losing Mom we had lost our heritage. We had lost our final tie to India. What we had gained, a new house, in a new town, a new indpendence, were values that in retrospect weren’t worth keeping. Not without Mom’s values to balance Dad’s.

Come help with the boxes, Ricky!

Bracing my hand against the wall of cold brick, I climbed the staircase. I passed Dad in the upstairs hall and without saying a word, exited the front door, my hand slapping hard on of those aluminum columns so that it rang. I ran past Sonny, unloading the moving truck, and he said, Hey, and I said nothing, and he said Hey again, but much louder. Then I ran faster. I crossed Kisenwether Road, pulled down a vine that offered entry into the woods. I roamed for hours alone till it got dark. Then I went back to help Dad and Sonny with the boxes.

 

It is Sunday and armed with a list of open houses, my wife Sara and I are going house hunting. Again. I must tell her to take it easy, for our daughter stirring inside her doesn’t like long drives, makes it known by several articulated punches to Sara’s bladder. 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 shame I never amounted to much more than an optometrist, a peddler of designer frames. Sonny inherited the old house after Dad passed away half a decade ago. He’s married, has kids, but we haven’t spoken in years. Sara still has her culture. God bless her. She knows her Lithuanian and cooks the old world recipes, like halupki. She says that her language and my discarded one share a common root: Sanskrit. She seldom asks about my “culture” and if she were to ask I would say I am American, through-and-through.

Maybe it’s too late to go back and make amends with what I left behind, I will tell my daughter when she asks me about my heritage. It’s too late to water those old roots, I will say and it will sound like a reason. Too much time has passed and I am a different person now. What I will tell her is that I was the only drummer in a town called Drums and we’ll laugh at how funny that sounds. I will tell her that except for a year in the Rock Glen Rockets’ school band (where I played the triangle), I quit drumming. 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.

What I won’t tell anyone is this: I killed my mother.

I still feel adrift, frowzy, bobbing along like those skiffs Mom stared out over the Chesapeake that last summer we spent as a family. At night, just before tumbling to sleep, I will picture her, her eyes gazing lovingly at the schooners with their sails billowing in the warm breeze, and how my heart tattooed to the rhythm of those white-capped waves. We are together again, Dad and Mom and Sonny and I, blinded by the sunset, deaf to the noises falling around us–the screech of the seagulls searching for scraps and the distant ship’s horn, plangent as a bell, bellowing in a diminishing arc of noise–like the past, dying.

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