Introduction to November 2016 Issue
Clarice Ramkissoon’s bedroom was a crime scene and her granddaughter Savita now stood in the middle of it, guilty as sin and six days sober. The body had been removed, the evidence hidden. An hour ago, the walls had been wiped down with vinegar and the floors scrubbed clean with rose water. All that remained of Clarice’s death was a missing vial of Roxanol. A tight knot of guilt grew roots inside of Savita’s stomach as she tried not to think about downing her grandfather’s last bottle of Johnnie Walker. He had taught her never to chase her whiskey with regret.
“You don’t have to drink like it’s your inheritance,” Akash had teased her on their third date, back when her decisions weren’t about heeding her grandmother’s last wishes, but about how to stay sober for her meetings. Savita could almost feel his finger tracing the oblong purple birthmark on her hip. She forced backwaas Akash to the corners of her mind. Losing him was trivial compared to the loss of both her grandfather and grandmother in the same year. Cheddi to prostate cancer and her sweet Clarice to lung disease.
“Ready to come out of hiding?” Malia asked, throwing a set of car keys to her cousin from the doorway. The word hiding snapped at Savita’s face like a taut rubber band. She inquired about the whereabouts of the missing whiskey bottle. Malia gently reminded her about the missing vial, about the importance of remaining sober at least until Clarice was cremated.
“A nip of scotch for breakfast never hurt anyone, doc,” Savita said once they were downstairs in the living room. Malia quickly put her finger to her lips, but not before Lynette’s ears perked up. The bags hanging underneath her eyes were tinged purple from lack of sleep. A gray size two blouse hung on her skeletal frame, revealing a body now reduced to sharp angles.
“Wha’ you business wit’ liqua at a time like dis?” she asked and snatched the car keys from her daughter.
“Relapsing is a natural part of the process, aunty,” Malia tried to intervene.
“DUI don’ seem like it should be a natural part of anyt’ing,” Lynette retorted.
“We can just take the bus if you don’t trust me,” Savita cut in, exhausted with the burden she could not share with her mother. Malia shot her a look. She was always the better liar growing up. It was Savita who confessed to Clarice when they accidentally killed and replaced her neighbor’s pet fish in elementary school.
They took the Q37 bus in silence to Smith-O’Sullivan Funeral Home on the corner of Liberty Avenue and Atlantic. Savita thought of her grandmother’s stiff body on the embalming table and felt the urge to vomit. She swallowed the bile. Every day the 37 stopped directly in front of Smith-O’Sullivan’s, its commuters oblivious to the dead bodies inside. Next door was the liquor shop Savita bought her first fifth of whiskey. Her wallet was empty and what little was in her savings dwindling.
“Yuh foot cyan’ move?” Lynette asked once they were off the bus. “You and yuh grandmother use to walk the whole Avenue.”
Savita walked up and rang the bell. Owned by four generations of an Irish-American family, the establishment had adapted to the changing demographics of the neighborhood and even offered accommodations for Hindu funeral rites. Even though the walls were lined with clocks, time came to a halt inside the funeral home. Even air seemed to come to standstill. The smell—stale, but slightly acidic—sent Savita’s memory reeling back to her grandfather’s funeral.
Mr. O’Brien, a pleasantly plump man in a starched suit, greeted them at the door. “I’m assuming burial like we did for your father?” he asked Lynette when they were all seated at the long conference table in the basement. Savita sat as far away from her mother as the table allowed. “Ask she,” Lynette replied, pointing her chin at her daughter. Savita glared. It was no secret that Clarice, although a Christian, wished to be cremated. Mr. O’Brien extended his condolences once more.
“Didn’t expect to see you folks again for at least another year,” he commented. Savita and Malia shifted in their seats. Clarice’s illness had been terminal, but even the doctors thought she had another year left in her.
“We mus’ be grateful. Both of them die a natural death, with people around them,” Lynette said wiping her eyes.
Savita carefully orchestrated her sniffles while Lynette signed the paper work for her mother’s final rites. When Mr. O’Brien plopped a huge binder of laminated prayer cards down onto the table, Savita already knew which one to choose, but Lynette had other ideas.
“Psalm 23 on the back with a picture of the meadow on the front would be nice,” she suggested.
“Grandma wanted her face on the front, not grass,” Savita replied.
“Like only you know wha’ she been want, na?” Lynette fired back.
Mr. O’Brien tried to guide the conversation to more peaceful waters. “We did something like that for your father in February, right?” Savita pulled out Cheddi’s prayer card with the generic waterfall on the front.
“Did you forget the fit Clarice threw when she saw Cheddi’s prayer card?” Malia asked.
“Look like she keep a lot of t’ing from me, her only daughter.” Lynette said ripping through the laminated pages.
After the card was chosen and the cremation papers signed, everyone took the same lap around the same overpriced wooden coffins, debating the merits of what would just burn to ashes anyway. Savita handed over a small plastic bag with clothes and makeup for the body. Mr. O’Brien asked if she wished to dress her grandmother. She politely declined. I can’t wait for this body to burn, she thought to herself.
Back home, the faint smell of Old Spice lurked about the three-story house on 126th Street and 109th Avenue, greeting Savita like an old acquaintance. The first floor stretched uninterrupted from the front door to the back of the house. A small crowd of mourners sat spread out on the floor admiring old photo albums and gaudy artificial flowers in ceramic swan vases. Savita bought the silk flowers by the bagful from shops on Jamaica Avenue when the palliative care nurse relieved her for an hour twice a week. Even she would find it difficult to kill fake flowers. Clarice was a natural at growing things in dirt littered with cigarette butts. Lately, everything Savita touched seemed to wither. She looked around the living room, realizing with a pang that she was unsure of where to sit in the large gathering. Normally she would have squeezed in next to her grandmother, not so much participating in the grown folks’ conversations as listening. With Clarice gone, Savita no longer knew where she fit in the Ramkissoon family, no longer knew whether she even deserved a place in the family. She chose a spot on the floor near Malia and took a sip from the thermos she filled with whiskey and ginger ale.
Uncle John greeted everyone like the older folks from his mother’s generation. “What the ‘tory say?”
Savita was in no mood to gyaff. All around her were the lives her grandmother touched: the men and women who went to her (“back home” in Guyana and “over here” in Richmond Hill) for food, comfort, advice, gossip and even a good talkin’ to when they needed to be pulled up. Acid crept up her esophagus and she swallowed back a bit of spit. The room was still full with too many competing voices, including the voices of the ones who had recently crossed over. She had first started drinking to turn down the noise in her head, to drown the voices that swam around.
“Who’s the badass next to Clarice?” Malia asked, handing a photograph to John.
He examined the black and white photograph from 1954 of Clarice in full bridal attire. Next to her was an old woman with a nose ring brighter than a full moon and a tobacco pipe hanging from the corner of her lips.
Savita was familiar with her great-great grandmother Tatpati, a cane cutter. She was known around the village as Lady Mar because of the long scar that crept up her back and around her neck. A souvenir from an overseer’s horsewhip. Or, some said, a parting gift from a man she was rumored to have killed in self-defense. Savita could almost see the purple tinged edges of the scar. The stories we give to the scars we collect over a lifetime grow more robust and take on the form of legend as time passes. Would her decision too, Savita wondered, be praised in time? She thought of Tatpati’s sharp cutlass strung across her back, the way it must have become a natural extension of herself.
“Long ago, people didn’t die from sickness, yuh know,” said an uncle Savita did not recognize.
“Well it must have been lung cancer then,” Malia said pointing to the pipe. Savita could already feel where the gyaffin’ was heading. She wiped the sweat gathering at her temples. The hot flashes had become routine ever since she and Clarice made their final decision. Malia passed her a napkin and squeezed her hand.
The room agreed that Tatpati had a blessed death. A natural death. None of this medication madness or life support or morphine. Savita tried to defend the merits of modern medicine, citing that almost every uncle in the room had a stent in them. Malia, who was completing her residency at Mount Sinai, tried to explain the importance of comfort care, but was interrupted.
“These doctors over here does kill yuh out more fast,” someone added.
Everybody started to talk at once. It took Malia twenty minutes to organize everyone into a circle and dam up the side conversations that ran like rivers around the room. That didn’t last long once the men had more liquor in their heads than sense of time.
Savita activated the voice recorder on her phone. She needed to type up Clarice’s eulogy that night. Then, she would quietly make her way to Penn Station and head upstate on Monday morning. No one needed to know that she wouldn’t be around for the remaining week of wake nights and the cremation. She already said her goodbyes to her grandmother and she knew Malia would try to convince her to stay.
John got up and raised the Coors Light can in his hand dangerously close to the spinning ceiling fan. He looked at his niece with all love and pride. “This girl drop everyt’ing at school to take care of mommy—”
It had become legend overnight. Savita, on leave of absence from university, made the sacrifice to take care of her ailing granny like a propa Indian girl. It wasn’t the wrong story, but it wasn’t the entire story either. The more words of gratitude well-wishers threw at her feet like marigolds, the more the acid burned in her chest. They might feel differently if they knew what had happened fuh troot.
Savita looked at her uncle with weary eyes wanting to find refuge in his unwavering belief in her. It was John who helped her decipher the medical language used in Clarice’s bronchoscopy report a year ago in September, who supported her leave of absence from university when Clarice’s condition worsened.
“I did what was natural, Uncle John,” she said, unsure of the conviction in her voice. Her mouth was dryer than sandpaper and the words tumbled out like weeds. “And what you need to do is stop the drinking.” Savita tried to take the beer can from him, but he gently pushed her arm away. Lynette warned her brother. “Watch yuh hand! 1 o’clock in dee afternoon and you already high up?” she clucked. Old Aunty Zabina sucked her teeth impatiently and took the photo from John.
“It was a firs’ class weddin’,” Zabina said as she ran her fingers over the dog-eared photograph.
“They were a natural fit,” someone else said.
Savita looked at him with incredulous eyes and said it wasn’t natural for Clarice to be married to a first-class alcoholic.
Lynette chided her daughter. “You don’ fall far from da tree. Don’ badda tek yuh eyes an’ pass yuh grandfather.” She added that at least he didn’t need professional help to deal with his drinking.
The family remembered Cheddi as a jolly drunk, but his love for liquor had hurt Clarice in more ways than one. Despite the closeness she felt to her grandfather, Savita could not forgive him for being unable to hold a steady job when they migrated, for forcing Clarice to take on two nanny jobs in addition to running the household. But if she was being honest with herself, she could not forgive him for being the architect of his own premature death, for leaving Clarice first. It was his death that had triggered Clarice’s grand plan.
Zabina tried to calm the air. “Still, Clarice propa enjoy she life,” Zabina said to Savita. “Don’ fuhget to mention that in the eulogy.”
The Ramkissoons echoed their eh hehs and mm hmms in agreement. But Savita knew that Clarice had little fight left in her with no Cheddi by her side. The doctors couldn’t trace her hacking cough to a known cause, claiming it was only “plausible” that the toxic 9/11 dust she breathed in for months after the attacks caused the scarring. By the end, Clarice was extremely short of breath even at rest. She couldn’t lie down flat on her back without struggling and the coughing fits triggered anxiety attacks. Savita would sap her head with Limacol while Clarice rasped “I en’ able with dis life no more,” until she fell asleep out of exhaustion.
“Children over here don’ have to bear burden,” Lynette said. “Too much time to waste,” she continued, recounting the night she received a call from the police about Savita driving under the influence.
“You act like you haven’t made mistakes. Like you’re the only one who can do things the propa way,” Savita said hotly.
She was often teased in the family as the propa smart Yankee girl who couldn’t speak patwa and this occasion was no different. “Eh eh, Savo, is where yuh learn fuh speak like we?” Zabina chimed in.
Savita rolled her eyes. “It’s how I talked to grandma every day. And she never gave me grief for it.”
Lynette walked toward Savita armed with a pot spoon.
“Yuh mouth too full ah peppa,” she said, pointing the repurposed utensil squarely at her daughter’s cheek. Lynette had whacked many a person with that spoon and she would not hesitate to discipline her back-talking daughter with it too.
With Clarice gone, every question and statement thrown at Savita’s direction bruised her the wrong way. She couldn’t properly grieve in such a full house.
“Leave the child alone. She don’ have time to worry about boys, na Sav?” John said trying to steer the conversation away from potential suitors for his niece. Savita’s uncle was proud of his niece for many things and fiercely protective over her and her dreams, even if those dreams seemed impractical. John arrived in New York on a scholarship to Queens College in 1983 with a PanAm duffel bag, his mother’s medical dictionary and a fifth of whiskey. He was on track to become a doctor, but when money ran out for tuition he was forced to drop out. Without his scholarship, John couldn’t renew his student visa. He’d been living undocumented in New York ever since. Lynette and the rest of the family followed soon after, backtrack, without papers. The Guyana they knew was unrecognizable under the heavy thumb of Forbes Burnham.
Savita went over to sit next to her uncle on the plastic covered sofa. He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. Out of everyone in the family, he resembled Clarice the most. His round clean shaven face gave him a youthful appearance and he had inherited his mother’s expressive doe-like eyes. Sadly, his cheeks were always red and puffy from the number of beers he consumed round the clock while Clarice’s cheeks were puffy from the forty milligrams of prednisone she took daily.
“But everybody deserves a companion. Someone to confide in,” Malia said glancing over at Savita. Confide in. The words set off another round of Savita’s hot flashes. Who could share her burden?
Malia had used her connections to get Clarice transferred to better hospitals until Savita realized none of it made a difference. To the nurses, PCAs and doctors, Clarice was another withering brown body who may or may not speak English, whose veins collapsed too easily when they administered her IV, whose granddaughter was a little too pushy when it came to advocating for her care.
The doorbell threw a full stop in the gyaff session. Savita paused the recorder and got up expecting it to be someone from CenterLight, Clarice’s insurance company, to pick up the remaining oxygen tanks. “I should have given you a heads-up,” Malia whispered before her cousin opened the door and looked sharply from her to Akash in disbelief. She shoved them all out onto the stoop, slamming the door behind her.
“I love you, didi,” Malia said quickly, invoking the Hindi word for sister. She confessed about calling Akash with the news of Clarice’s death. Savita was ready to ‘buse she down. Akash too. She stared at his crooked nose, an oddity in his otherwise symmetrical face. Both students at Syracuse University, they had dated for nine months, reading passages from The God of Small Things aloud to each other in bed while it snowed outside and smoking cigarettes after sex. Then he turned into one of those confused backwaas boys overnight, afraid of love.
“You have absolutely no right to be here,” Savita said.
Before Akash could answer, John poked his head out the door. “Y’all can either come back in or wait for Clarice to haul allyuh backside inside,” he said.
The mere presence of Akash suspended the gyaffin’. Each aunty sized him up in less than a minute and the uncles studied his body language in relation to the two gyirl children standing next to him. Everyone turned to Malia, expecting him to be yet another one of her conquests. She rolled her eyes and sat down on the floor scrolling through her texts.
“This is my friend Akash from school,” Savita said to the floor.
“What kind of friend?” Lynette asked, spinning the pot spoon like a baton.
“I’m just a classmate, Aunty,” Akash said quickly. He extended his hand and offered his condolences to everyone.
“Come give we a hug and kiss, chap,” John said. “Wha’ kind of coolie bai are you?”
Akash looked at Savita.
“He’s not Guyanese, Uncle John,” Savita said. “He’s Indian-Indian.”
Lynette shook her head. Zabina reminded Savita to start the recording again and the gyaffin’ rolled back into session with John’s memories of Queens College. Akash’s father also studied there and he asked if maybe they were classmates. John said the possibility was slim and recounted the time he tried to join the Indian Student Cultural Group. They informed him he wasn’t allowed to join their club.
“They said I wasn’t really Indian.” John laughed as he reached for another beer can. Savita grabbed it and threw its contents into one of the potted plants on the windowsill.
“We’re going for a walk on the Avenue,” Savita announced. She tugged Akash’s sweatshirt and motioned for Malia to come with them. She was fast asleep on the floor, her phone lighting up with Tinder messages. The sharp ‘pings’ were barely audible over the chatter.
Outside, Akash looked around at Clarice’s backyard. His eyes rested on the sizeable fig tree at the corner of the yard. He tapped Savita on the tip of her nose. “Why’d we leave? I was enjoying that.”
Savita flung his arm away. “Enjoying drunk stories you know nothing about?”
“Isn’t that how you mourn a life? Booze and good stories?” he asked.
“I don’t know how to mourn her,” said Savita. Clarice taught her many things, but how to mourn with a guilty heart was not one of them. A month before she died, when time grew a pair of runner’s legs and began to move full throttle, she’d say “Savita, yuh mus’ always have faith in the decisions yuh make.” As far as Savita knew, her grandmother harbored few regrets.
“My meeting is in an hour,” she told Akash. After Savita’s license was revoked the previous summer, the judge allowed her this compromise in lieu of spending time behind bars.
Akash followed Savita down the driveway and out the gate onto 109th Avenue. They made a right on Lefferts Boulevard. Colorful flags affixed to bamboo sticks in the front yards came into view. Bright saffron and crimson garlands hung from many of the houses, remnants of a summer of weddings. Thumping tassa drums and conch shells pierced the air that entire summer. Savita always thought Clarice would be around when it was her turn. How long would she have lasted, Savita thought, if they hadn’t gone through with the plan?
At the intersection of Lefferts Boulevard and Liberty Avenue divas and their squads rolled down the sidewalk in style and ignored catcalls from boys in BMWs. All Savita could hear was Clarice’s hacking cough, her wheezing. The streets were drenched in Clarice’s memory. Savita had experienced Guyana on every walk out on the Avenue with her grandmother, though she never physically visited the place her grandmother called home. Richmond Hill was Savita’s New York and Clarice’s Guyana. It was the giant whale that hovered above the fish market she could smell a full two blocks away, where Clarice taught her the names of fish that swam Guyana’s rivers. Bangamary. Badsha. Gailbacka.
Savita wished Clarice could have taken one last walk with her before she died. She took all of it in, inhaled every scent and sight, knowing full well she could never come back. She mourned the loss of her New York, her home. Her exile would be her punishment, she decided. She thought of how to confess to her mother, to her uncle. Whether or not Malia’s role should be left out.
They continued on. An older gentleman sat outside a popular puja shop selling cricket balls. He recognized Clarice’s granddaughter and offered his condolences. “She been propa like to walk and gyaff,” he said.
Savita admired the strange syntax of the sentence. Walk meant something different in the patwa. To walk was to explore, to travel great distances, to suffer from chronic restlessness. “Come leh abee tek a walk,” Clarice would call out to Savita until she stopped walking completely five months before she passed.
And then came the inevitable question. “How she die?”
Savita had the who, the what, the where, the when. She even had the why. But she could not bear to disclose the how.
The question grew roots inside of her, sprouted lies like Clarice’s fig tree. For each shop owner who considered Clarice family, Savita picked a different story. A different way it should have happened. Where she was not responsible for her grandmother’s death. She died in her sleep. She had a heart attack. No pain. We’re not sure what the cause was. But isn’t that the propa way to die? A natural death?
“Why do you keep changing the story?” Akash asked when they continued walking.
“You never have answers to my questions,” Savita reminded him.
Akash tried to put his arm around her shoulders. The other boys Savita dated lacked Akash’s sensitivity and forced her to constantly translate herself, her body, her “Indianness” or lack thereof. She was sick of the geography lessons and questions asked in pursuit of categorizing her. Akash was curious about her roots, but never invasive. But that didn’t mean she should trust him with her secret. She shook him off.
The AA meeting was held in a former beauty salon tucked between a sari shop and Payless Shoe Store. It was a small space, the width of two lovers lying down side by side. An active one-legged pigeon, christened Snowy by Clarice, took up residence inside. What kind of life can a one-legged bird have, unable to fly? Wouldn’t it be better to put it out of its misery? Savita caught a glimpse of the persevering bird’s reflection, but it was her grandmother who stared back when she gazed at the wall of mirrors.
After her meeting, Akash took her hand and led her to a roti shop across the street. They shared two doubles and a mauby. Savita sat with her hands off the table, away from him. On the rare nights Clarice slept through the night, Savita would steal a bit of time to ponder just how this backwaas boy would have reacted if she told him about Clarice’s plan. And though she deleted his number from her phone when she left Syracuse, Savita reflexively dialed Akash right after Clarice died, eager for someone, anyone, to tell her she made the right decision. She hung up after the first ring and read her favorite line in The God of Small Things until she fell asleep. And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.
Akash asked why she didn’t call him for support. She nearly faltered, but then remembered what she had done was illegal in the state of New York.
“The last thing I wanted was to be on the phone,” Savita said. “If it wasn’t someone from the hospital, it was an insurance rep or the CenterLight aids or the palliative care people.” Savita’s anxiety levels still spiked when her cell phone rang. She still had nightmares about mispronouncing “Medicare” and “Medicaid,” a high-risk mistake that could have altered Clarice’s care for the worst. She told Akash she arranged to spend a week at home when her mother’s weight dropped twenty pounds in two weeks after Cheddi’s funeral. When she dropped to ninety, there was no question about taking a leave of absence, though it was her junior year.
“God don’t sleep,” Lynette said one night over stale coffee in Jamaica Hospital’s cafeteria. Still, she admitted to her daughter, sometimes she felt God needed a lunch break. Savita envisioned a reluctant god taking her hour, carefully opening the lid of a Tupperware bowl so as not to let its divine contents spill out.
“Clarice became your responsibility,” said Akash.
Savita thought of the missing glass vial. “I was responsible for more than you know.” She told him about how she became a fierce advocate for her grandmother during the repeated hospitalizations, the doctor appointments; how she befriended the transport guys, janitors and receptionists who never forgot Clarice; how enraged she became when the phlebotomists and PCAs stuck her grandmother over and over again with needles trying to find an opening in her small veins. She told him about the time the Senior Care EMS got stuck in a bank of snow en route to the emergency room and the Sikh neighbors who shoveled them out. She described the plastic DNR wristband that lived on Clarice’s hand and the red paper visitor cards Savita amassed with time stamps indicating the rooms and floors her grandmother occupied over the course of her illness. But she didn’t tell him about her final act of love.
“You did alright by her,” he told Savita.
Savita closed her eyes and allowed herself to fall for a moment, to let the guilt pass from her hands to his hands and back again. But only for a moment. She pushed his hands back to the edge of the table. Akash’s love was like the A train. It could carry them far, but on most nights, it never came. And without that love, there was no way he could share the burden she would have to live with until she too died. They sat in silence until the dimming sky turned into a purple bruise and the owner of the roti shop kicked them out.
Everyone was happily high up and slapping dominoes onto the table by the time Savita and Akash got back to the house at around nine that evening. Clarice was a master at the game of strategy, matching tiles quicker than it took a calculator to add a sum.
Savita sought refuge in Clarice’s room upstairs and Akash joined her. Together, they took in the final remains of her life: one portable oxygen tank, the fingertip pulse oximeter she checked obsessively and the battered copy of The New Modern Medical Counselor—the information was still accurate seventy odd years later. Savita told him about how she, Lynette and John were instructed to leave the room before the body was removed. Afterwards, everyone pitched in to haul out the 5LPM oxygen concentrator, the soft-tipped oxygen cannulas, the Medline2000 wheelchair (which was never used), seven packages of Depend adult diapers and the hospital linens Clarice insisted on bringing home, much to Savita’s fury.
“Mom wouldn’t let me touch her things,” Savita mused. She remembered the way Lynette claimed Clarice’s side of the bed as territory only she could tidy up. Savita was instead put on phone duty, made to repeat the white lie she wished to scrub away from memory.
“Is that Clarice?” Akash asked pointing to a framed photo of Clarice on the vanity.
“When she was 21. I admired her nails so much growing up,” she said picking it up.
“You have your grandmother’s hands,” Akash said pulling Savita’s wrist towards him and running his thumb over her slender fingers and smooth nails.
Clarice’s nails were like gently sloping hills. Movie star nails. Nails that elicited an “Oh, look at those bad boys,” from the pulmonary specialist who interpreted her bronchoscopy and diagnosed her with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Scarred lungs. Cause: unknown. Damage: irreversible. Savita learned to read the failure of Clarice’s body in the gently sloping hills of her lovely fingernails. Each bedsore and purple bruise justified her decision to properly respect Clarice’s final request. She had done right by her grandmother. She needed to have faith in that.
“You’re lucky you can lean on your mom for support,” Akash said.
“Yes,” Savita replied. She had learned to lie with such conviction.
Clarice had instructed Savita not to share their plan with Lynette, despite her initial protests. Her instructions were clear. She was to be a proper granddaughter and keep the details of her death between the two of them.
When Lynette walked into the room, Akash immediately dropped Savita’s hand and stepped back.
Lynette studied the boy. “I hope yuh know y’all two are sleeping in separate bedrooms?” she declared, giving Savita a heavy dose of cut-eye. She walked over to the closet and gave Akash a blanket to sleep with on one of the basement sofas before leaving the room.
Savita pulled a cigarette out of her bra and asked Akash for a lighter. He smirked and dug a dime bag of pot out of his pocket. “Akash. Who is going to take care of our funeral arrangements if Lynette catches us smoking?” “I don’t mind a death by Lynette.” He expertly slit the cigarette down the middle and emptied the tobacco onto the floor before refilling it with pot. They headed outside to the fig tree. It was far enough from the back of the house that the smell could have come from anywhere. The white picket fence that separated the yard from their neighbor was shedding its skin and glowing fireflies buzzed about.
“How did Clarice manage to grow a fig tree in the middle of Queens?” Akash asked sitting on the grass.
Savita always thought the family inherited the common fig tree from whoever owned the house previously. When she asked, Clarice sucked her teeth. “Yuh mad? Is I plant it.” The former owners gifted the Ramkissoons with a one-foot long fig cutting. They encouraged Clarice to wrap the tree in a carpet during the winter. “Madhead people,” she said. In her country trees sprang up without being coddled.
“This is the propa way to mourn a life,” Savita told Akash as they smoked underneath the fig tree.
“Do you mean proper? Where’d the ‘r’ disappear to?” he teased.
“Be quiet. You’ve got to drop the ‘r’ and say it like the Queen. Propa.”
“Shh,” he said. “I’m hunting for that ‘r’.” He ran his hand along her collarbone, “Here?” he asked.
“I’m giving you a lesson in linguistics. We’re trying to speak the outside child of the Queen’s English--”
He ran his hand underneath her T-shirt and over the downy hair lining her stomach. “Here?”
“The plantation Bhojpuri and Creoles held hostage on slave ships speeding away from Africa, on ships ferrying the indentured away from India to the Caribbean country you’ve never heard of, will never hear of—” she continued before Akash tickled her into silence.
“You can’t go back Monday,” he told her after they were sufficiently stoned.
Clarice’s spirit waltzed around the old house that night, pulling everyone’s toes while they slept and knocking food off tables for her and Cheddi to snack on. She ran a ghostly finger over Akash’s nose, noting its crookedness. But she did not pull at Savita’s feet.
The next night, everyone sang “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” and other hymns while aunties prepared pots of tea and coffee. The first night of viewing had gone smoothly and now mourners were back at the house for refreshments. The house buzzed with howyuhdos, wagwans, whatthestorysaychaps, with lookhowdisgyirlgetbig and shelookin’fuhmarryanybody? A buffet of food was laid out: fried rice, chow mein, cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cheese rolls, pine tarts, chicken patties, Keebler biscuits slathered with butter and a tray of Lynette’s custard.
Savita had zero appetite to eat. She rehearsed her monologue that morning in front of the mirror, the white lie carefully nestled in between the proper sentences. The questions from the mourners were unoriginal. “How did it happen? Where were you? She die in yuh arm? Fuh troot? Was what-o’clock?”
Clarice did die in Savita’s arms. That much was true, that much was fuh troot. The rest was hers to carry.
There were still a few stragglers hanging on when Savita walked to the stairwell in the living room and watched John pass a bottle of Patrón to Malia. “Found it in daddy closet,” he said matter-of-factly. They fit snuggly on the steps leading upstairs. The passing of matriarchs like Clarice continued to bring gigantic tides of stories from the past, of unfinished business between friends, enemies, former forbidden lovers and she wanted a front-row seat. HGTV droned on in the background. Savita was fascinated by its curious mix of television shows that desperately tried to make the American Dream a relevant one. Never much interested in the renovated homes with white subway tiles and kitchen islands, or the weird hipster couples who sought out tiny homes, Savita was still utterly fascinated with the multiple cookie-cutter versions of family. By the end of the hour, every problem was solved. People moved into their new homes and moved on, happy with their decisions.
Start with the beers, end with the blackout, Savita thought as she lined up four disposable medicine cups on the carpeted stairs. That’s the propa Guyanese way to mourn. The flimsy, transparent miniature cups were hidden everywhere. In the five months Clarice was bedridden, the normally jovial house had become a one-stop spot for all medical supplies. The 24-hour hum of her oxygen machine and coughing fits rattled the walls instead of her glassy laughter and commanding voice. Savita heard her last words again as Malia poured the shots. “Sometimes I think god like he hard ears. I wan’ fly again.”
What do you say to your dying grandmother when she tells you there’s a god up there ignoring her plight? You lie. You lie about a god who sleeps, a god who dreams, a god who will eventually wake up tomorrow morning and hear her. Savita knew it was more difficult for her grandmother to come to terms with losing the ability to walk than with her actual diagnosis. Her movement was restricted by the three-foot line to her oxygen tank.
A life reduced to three feet was its own death sentence. Clarice’s world had shrunk to the four walls of her tiny bedroom. Everything she needed was stacked neatly next to her, took up the entire half of the bed where Cheddi had slept. A sizeable army of remote controls, as well as a white basket filled with tiny address books, a pocket flashlight, a plastic medicine dose cup and other knick knacks kept Clarice company in the room. There were three different humidifiers and a fan, in addition to the AC. The noise was unbearable. Every sound was manufactured. Her altar remained unaltered: portraits of Jesus, Mary, Hanuman, Lakshmi and Ram stared benignly over her each day. The television was always tuned in to Joel Osteen or some other celebrity preacher.
Now, even amidst all the noise, it was unbearably quiet without Clarice. Savita swiftly threw a shot of tequila into her coffee and took a gulp, feeling her chest warm as the concoction sighed its way down her esophagus. Sobriety be damned. Electric surges of guilt ran up and down her spine. Clarice had not visited her that night. She needed confirmation that she was doing a proper job handling everything.
Lynette took the cup from Savita and swiftly dumped its contents in the trashed. “This pickney of mine t’ink she propa smart,” she said.
The backhanded compliment, a favorite of Clarice’s to throw at her granddaughter, ran marathons around Savita’s head. It was a warning for her—a precocious Yankee child who kept questions instead of friends for company—to know she was treading in dangerous waters, Pomeroon River waters, mermaid and Dutch jumbi-infested waters. Propa. Savita was propa smart, forever too smart for her own good. Questions were always her favorite company. She preferred questions to actual people, to the small talk she was forced to become fluent in at university, outside the confines of her neighborhood and the roti shops and bodegas with bulletproof glass lined with lottery tickets that fluttered about like prayer flags.
Rounds of laughter made its way around the house that night. It was all Savita’s family knew how to do. A Guyanese wake house is not a silent one. It is rattled to its foundation by the sad laughter of men and women and the children who inherit both sadness and joy in the stories that are passed down. Savita realized that laughing was also the proper Guyanese way to mourn. She looked around the room and saw herself in her alcoholic uncle. In stern Lynette. In Malia and her habit of collecting men the way she collected bottle caps as a child. In domineering Clarice. The flaws and traumas of generations stick around for the long haul, and are born again and resurrected. Savita had memories of pain that did not belong to her. She had birthmarks that echoed a previous life of labor, of hardship. A pandit once looked at the mauve birthmark that branded her hip and quickly declared it a wound from a previous life, a life cutting cane she bore no memory of, but felt in her limbs. Savita inherited the stories Clarice kept about the indentured mothers who toiled before them, women with migration in their blood, women who voyaged overseas alone to El Dorado’s cane fields, women whose blood fertilized the soil that fed the Queen’s sweet tooth, women who had faith in the decisions they made.
A photo of Cheddi and Clarice in the Republic Park house slipped out of one of the albums Akash was perusing. Lynette remembered taking it an hour before they fled. By boarding time, Cheddi was already high up.
Savita looked up at her mother. “Couldn’t he at least stay sober that day?” she asked.
“It wasn’t a joke for daddy to uproot all of we,” Lynette said.
Uncle John made it plain. “Politics pushed him out,” John said. He described the way Cheddi took a drink for each friend he lost to the violence. He toasted the irony of fleeing home in yet another forced migration. The wounded just have to keep on walking.
“Every man has a cross to carry,” Lynette added.
It was Clarice’s favorite line and it was enough to silence Savita.
“Faith. Faith that we plan is as good as God plan,” Clarice told her granddaughter back in July when their plans were firm. Malia would provide the bottle of Roxanol. Savita would administer it. The idea to fly away came to Clarice in a dream. The farther she walked, the longer her oxygen cannula grew. One night she followed the trail back to Savita. They agreed that Savita would “help put she to rest.” Twenty grams of Roxanol was enough to euthanize Clarice.
Malia whispered to Savita. “Vial?” Savita shook her head. They needed to find it before someone else did. Savita hadn’t told Malia about confessing, but she was having second thoughts. Her mother wouldn’t throw a scene; she’d put on an opera.
“Y’all two. Come upstairs and help me strip the bed. Is time we take off the sheets and turn ova the mattress,” Lynette told the girls. Savita asked John to grab clean sheets from the basement when she knew they were in the hallway closet.
As Savita held on to the banister for support, she prayed to every god she had since lost faith in. She heard Clarice cough with each step she took.
Once in the room, they hoisted the purple sheet in the air to shake off the dust, pulling it away from each other with a force Savita thought would tear it in two. When the glass vial and dropper rolled out from between the folds, their eyes made four, John announced the sheets missing from the bottom of the stairs and Lynette read the label that Savita would forever be able to recite with her eyes closed.
She looked from her daughter to Malia. There was no Roxanol left over from Cheddi’s in-hospice care. The nurse specifically checked every corner of the room for extra vials when he passed. So why was this here?
John and Akash ran upstairs when they heard the commotion. Lynette hurled insults at her daughter: liar, merciless, murderer. Malia tried to restrain her from grabbing Savita, while John unscrewed the Limacol bottle and held it up to her nose. Lynette flung it away and it shattered on the wall. She threw the vial at her brother. Asked him to read the label.
“You tink you is God?” Lynette bellowed.
“Where is God?” Savita screamed. “Show me where he is. Because for two years your God has been on a joy ride.”
Relatives and neighbors would talk about Lynette’s accusations for years to come, about the slap heard ‘round Richmond Hill, but no one would ever really know the hard truths surrounding Clarice’s death. Clarice and Savita had determined the exact date of death over a blue tin of Royal Dansk Danish butter cookies and tea. The prednisone had given her diabetes, but Savita snuck a cookie or two for her on some nights.
“What about a Friday evening? So everybody have enough time to sport?” Clarice asked Savita. She eyed an outdated calendar from 2015 with Cheddi’s spectacles. Savita told her grandmother she was in the wrong year and pulled up a calendar on her phone.
She remembered the moment she removed the oxygen cannula from her grandmother’s nose for the last time and the vaguely purple indents the tubes left on Clarice’s cheekbones.
“Play some Jim Reeves for me, na,” Clarice wheezed.
Savita hummed the tune to “This World Is Not My Home” while the Roxanol ran its course. Clarice’s breathing grew labored before slowing and her eyes held her granddaughter in a child-like gaze before her head drooped slightly. Savita held onto her grandmother’s hand long after she died. She counted the bruises from a year’s worth of needles, heparin shots and IV lines. She examined the bedsores and shingle marks. Purple like her figs. The biggest scar was the one she could not see, but could hear in the coughs that marked each minute. Savita remembered that the hospital nurses changed shift at seven o’clock in the evening. She traced her grandmother’s pain in the blueprint of purple bruises splattered across Clarice’s skin. She imagined draining the color from the scars and gifting them to the angels in the sky so that they could paint the clouds the same color as the figs from her tree.
Before they took her body away, Savita curled beside her grandmother in bed begging every god to take her too.
Later that night, when the Ramkissoon clan retreated to their bedrooms and to the floors, and Akash was sound asleep in the basement, Savita lay awake. She retrieved her Amtrak ticket from Clarice’s medical dictionary and zipped it up into her duffel bag. The eulogy, written in her neat script on a page from Cheddi’s yellow legal pad, fell out. Clarice carried herself with pride, but she was never too proud to forgive the wounded. It was a testament to her and Cheddi’s love and it was what Savita used to frame the eulogy. Cheddi willed to his granddaughter the strength to forgive: to forgive others, to forgive herself, to forgive the world and its demons.
Savita did not have answers to the new questions that kept her company at night. She did not know if her mother and uncle would forgive her. She did not know where she stood with Akash. She did not know whether life would have been different if Cheddi did not abuse alcohol. John had convinced Lynette to refrain from calling the police, but he had not spoken a word to his niece since. Savita knew she could not stay here.
She heard Clarice whisper to her. “Come tek a walk.”
Savita sang softly to herself. This world is not my home/I’m just a-passing through/My treasures are laid up/Somewhere beyond the blue. She folded up the eulogy and slipped it underneath John’s bedroom door before walking downstairs. Outside, she watered the fig tree with the remains of the Patrón bottle. She poured for Clarice, for Cheddi, for all the departed souls passing through under the full moon before taking a few swigs herself. She drank the way Cheddi did. One swig for each loss, for each forgiven soul. She touched the tough bark of the fig tree. Propa tough. “Everybody has a cross to carry. And this one is mine,” she said to the ghosts gathered about before blacking out.
NOTE: The original version of this story has been revised.
Nadia Misir grew up near the elevated train tracks of the A train in Richmond Hill, Queens. She is an alumni of Kweli’s Art of the Short Story workshop and a former Asian American Writers’ Workshop Open City fellow. She received her B.A. in English from SUNY Oswego and an M.A. in American studies from Columbia University. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.