I take no pride in the way I sleep. I’m a little too existential to be good at it—at least according to my definition of existential. When I wake to the still and quiet of my bedroom, even in the middle of the night, I don’t think of sleep. I contemplate my existence. I wonder if there isn’t something better for me to do—a task that will tie up the loose strings of yesterday or give me a head start on tomorrow—something better than to roll onto my other side and fall back to sleep.
My mind wakes in the dark, eager to fulfill its destiny.
Vidya rolls over without giving a damn if I’m awake in the apartment. She sleeps knowing she has to be at work in fifteen minutes. Vidya could sleep in a smoke filled room while I’m jumping up and down yelling fire.
I could be awake, knocking around in the kitchen, washing the dishes, sitting on the sofa reading or contemplating my existence, and Vidya could sleep right through it, like she’s going for the world record. If the roles were reversed, I would be wide awake. How could I sleep knowing that someone is awake in the house, examining her life and possibly fulfilling her destiny?
I wonder what she finds so compelling about sleep. Is it a need to retreat, to shut down, to turn off or is there something in her dreams that calls her?
I don’t dream. At least, I don’t remember much about my dreams. I wrote a paper about it in Freshman Psychology, not that I ever found it particularly interesting. Our professor offered us an ultimatum on the first day of class: either we volunteer as subjects for graduate student experiments or we write term papers. I chose the paper.
The theory I found suggested that a sleeper wakes without memory of his dream because, in his dreams, he commits such heinous acts he cannot reconcile his dream identity with his waking life. The mind dissociates—cleaves in two.
I don’t know how you would test such a theory, and I remain particularly not interested in being a subject in psychological experiments, but it makes me wish I could remember my dreams, if only for the entertainment value.
I had a clue once, in the form of a prank phone call. It was a late twentieth century phone call, when telephone calls came and went and telephones rang without a hint of who was on the other end of the line.
I picked up the receiver of a ringing phone and found nothing, not the dead nothing of a dropped call, but the suspense-filled nothing of someone on the other end of the line preparing to speak—a potential something.
“Hello?” I called into the coiled silence. “Hello, who is this, please?”
A woman’s voice broke the petrified hush, “You know who this is,” she said.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I do.”
“I’m your worst nightmare.”
I didn’t know what to say. I clung to the silence for a moment. “My worst nightmare?” I asked.
“That’s right,” she said and she hung up the phone.
She never called back and I had no way to reach her, which was a shame. There was so much I wanted to ask her.
There is one dream I remember. It reoccurs. I’ve had it since I was a child.
I’m in a car, something plain, boxy and old. I am always a passenger, sometimes in the front seat, sometimes in the back. There are two others in the car, people who are close to me—friends or family—no one in particular—always two, but not the same people every time. We begin on a straight, level road. It quickly changes to hilly then alpine. Suddenly the entire landscape falls away and our car climbs the tall incline of a roller coaster, ever threatening to derail as it hugs the tracks beneath. The drop wakes me with a start.
I don’t know where this dream comes from. I don’t know what it means. I’ve never found a correlation between the dream and events in my life. It doesn’t visit me during times of stress—that leads to head-to-toe hives like the ones that sent me to the emergency room for an injection the week before college graduation. It is not caused by fatigue—that leads to stroke-like migraines that distort my vision like woodland fairies pinching my corneas with tiny, invisible fingers.
If it were a stress dream, I would have had it last night. In fact, I would have had it every night since Tuesday, when Vidya said, “My father wants to meet you. We’re having dinner at my parent’s house on Saturday.”
This had been his first and only request after Vidya had told him she was pregnant. “Bring this man to me,” he said. “I want to look at him.”
I slept through the last four nights without having my reoccurring, car out of control, falling dream. Instead, I romped through my sleeping mind committing unspeakable acts, feats so unconscionable they defy description and flout memory. Evidently, it’s the way I let off steam.
Vidya’s alarm rang and she swung her leg over the side of the bed. I lay next to her, pretending to be asleep. Vidya has never spoken to me about her dreams—the sleeping kind. She never told me if she has a favorite dream or a worst nightmare.
In her waking dreams we have a house and she goes back to school for a doctorate. She would also like to replace the Toyota with something new.
Her dreams aren’t all that different from many of the people I know, and she is pretty flexible about most of it, except the house. That one is written in stone. That one isn’t a dream in the sense of a house symbolizing the hearth and family ideal. It is not a Jungian archetype. It is real estate—a tangible asset. The dream of the house doesn’t come to her through the free wandering of the id during REM sleep—it comes through the constant conditioning of her parents who came to the United States determined to own property. This, they were told, was success.
In my family we didn’t set the bar that high. In fact, I don’t remember anyone setting a bar at all. I think the loftiest goal I had ever heard spoken of in my home growing up was that we should all try hard to stay out or jail and to steer clear of religious cults. At thirty-nine years old, I held my head high as a complete success.
I was tying my shoes when Vidya got out of the shower.
“Oh, good,” she said. “You’re up. We’ve got to get going.”
We stepped out onto the curb and I quickly fell into step with Vidya’s power walk. There wasn’t a choice—it was either keep up or be left behind. As we cruised along the sidewalks of Fort Greene, Vidya voiced her last minute concerns.
“Do you think you’re ready?” Vidya said. “I mean, are you ready for their accents?”
“I think so,” I said. “I don’t know. How would I get ready for it? What is it like?”
Vidya flashed me a blank glance. “Well, I can’t do it for you,” she said. “I mean, I can. When I’m with them, like at a family party, I get swept up into it and I speak just like them, but I can’t just do it on demand. I can’t do it right here.”
I’m fluent in broken English, a proficiency I developed through twenty years of living and working in Brooklyn. I don’t speak any foreign languages, and I think that helps. I’m not distracted by guessing at the speaker’s native language and trying to decode the accent. Instead, I focus on the setting and context of our conversation—a situation gives rise to a fairly predictable set of topics one is eager to broach with a stranger and limited vocabulary. More often than not, I’ve found that the non-native English speaker is commenting on the weather, confirming subway directions or asking if I would like a slice of lemon in my Coke.
We walked through an empty lobby on Hanson Place adjoining the ticket office of the Long Island Railroad. We stepped out at the top of the stairway leading down to the train platforms.
“Oh, the gates,” she said. “I can’t believe I didn’t tell you about the gates.”
“What gates?” I asked.
“You’ll know you’re at the right house when you see the white gates,” she said. “There are gates everywhere, on the driveway, the windows, the front door… I don’t know why they’re there. My aunts have them on their houses too. The whole family just loves gates.”
“OK,” I said. “Should I call ahead?”
“What for?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “So you can open the gates for me.”
“Well, yeah, call ahead so I know when you’re coming,” she said, “but really, you just ring the doorbell. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. The gate just opens like a storm door.”
“Oh,” I said. “OK.”
Vidya stopped to kiss me before heading down the stairs to the train platform.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I said. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. My table manners are impeccable.”
“What do you mean by table manners,” she asked, “soup spoon and salad fork, that type of thing?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.”
“Well,” she said. “Table manners are not going to win you any points. We’re Guyanese—we eat with our hands.”
Vidya disappeared down into the tunnel for the Long Island Railroad. I pushed open the glass door on to Fourth Avenue and headed home to prepare for the day.
I don’t understand clothing. I mean if you give me a few items from a wardrobe, I could tell you what role they played—that’s a shirt—a pair of pants—socks. I can even tie a neck tie in two or three acceptable ways. I function in clothing just fine, and when I say function I mean that after working for years as a restaurant manager, there isn’t an activity I can think of that I haven’t done while dressed well, in a tailored suit or tuxedo. I have plunged clogged toilets and I have changed a car’s flat tire, all without taking off my jacket.
I function pretty well in jeans too with a tee-shirt or flannel or a ragg wool sweater. It is the in between where I have trouble—the business casual, the everyday neat. It is the worst of both worlds—slacks without jackets, collars without ties—leaving grown men to look like Catholic school boys cutting class for the day. But this has become the norm—the universal compromise. You want to look sincere—that you had the forethought to press a shirt, but at the same time you are fully aware you’re not attending the Academy Awards. Business casual offers a disarming humility. It says, “I know nobody’s looking at me.” Why would they want to?
I pressed a pair of khaki slacks and a blue button-down shirt and suited up to meet Vidya’s parents.
I walked a few blocks, flipping a set of borrowed car keys on my finger. Friends of mine had lent me their new Audi for the day.
“This will do nicely,” I thought as I unlocked the car door. The car was an important element in the picture I was trying to present. I wanted Vidya’s parents to see that I was the kind of guy who had friends who could afford to lease a new Audi.
I drove to the end of Atlantic Avenue and climbed the entrance ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
I knew where I was going without being told. I remembered how smart I felt when Vidya told me the name of the little Long Island town she had grown up in. “You’ve probably never heard of it,” she said.
“Never heard of it?” I smirked. “The high school’s across the street from the town pool, just a down the road from the duck pond.” I had grown up one town over.
The next night, on our first official date, I asked Vidya where her family was from. That hadn’t struck the same chord of recognition.
“My parents are from Guyana,” she said.
I had heard of it. But I had heard about a lot of things and still knew nothing about most of them. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so smart.
The last time I picked up a World Almanac, there were something like one hundred and eighty-eight nations. Whatever the number, there is always an asterisk next to it, leading to a foot note at the bottom of the page. The footnote says something like, “194 countries recognized by the United States of America” or “192 countries recognized by the United Nations.” It always sounds to me like a country just got a haircut, shaved his mustache or started wearing different glasses. Why would they be so hard to recognize?
What number would lead the asterisk if the list were made up of the countries I could recognize?
If I were shown a silhouette of each country, I imagine I’d recognize about twenty. If I saw the perimeter of the country traced upon its continent, giving me its shape, scale and position, I bet I’d guess fifty on the first try, but I might get up to a hundred if I was given a few guesses. I think my score would climb and fall in relation to the time elapsed since the most recent Olympic Games, when I sit in front of my TV for two weeks with flags and IOC abbreviations streaming by like study flash cards.
A game show contestant can expect a hint of some kind—a physical feature, a river, a mountain chain or ocean, the name of a leader or a prominent personality to help identify a country, but that’s not how countries present themselves in real life. They are more confrontational. They get in your face. They walk up to you at cocktail parties or sit across from you on first dates and ask you to recognize them with very little to go on, maybe a handshake and a smile.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to recognize a country, it remains a mystery. This is how I found Guyana—unrecognizable.
Information gets rusty in my possession. Ideas fall out of mind for lack of use. A country that doesn’t stay in the headlines may slide out of memory entirely. A few countries are unable to hold a place in my mind at all. For example, I couldn’t tell you where the nation of Senegal is. It could be in Africa, South America or Central America. It could be an island country for all I know. It may share a border with Suriname, because I don’t know where that one is either.
That’s not all that bad, though, is it? Out of close to two hundred countries, I couldn’t place two. I could still boast something close to ninety-nine percent accuracy in nation recognition. That was up until Vidya mentioned Guyana and I drew a blank. My stats were slipping.
If you want to know where Guyana is, go to an almanac, go to an atlas, stick your nose in a book; seek out responsible reference materials. If you ask a Guyanese about Guyana, you may be lost forever.
One after another, the books will tell you that Guyana sits on the eastern shoulder of the South American mainland. A former Dutch and then British Colony, Guyana is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the south and southwest, and Suriname to the east—there you are Suriname. A Guyanese will tell you differently.
“I’m having a hard time placing Guyana,” I said to Vidya. “Where is it?”
“It’s in the West Indies,” she said.
That didn’t help me. When I think of the West Indies, I think of islands, like Jamaica and the Bahamas, I don’t think of a mainland country, but plate tectonics have little influence on the Guyanese national identity. However ensconced on the South American continent it is, in many ways, Guyana is an island nation, separate from its neighbors by the English language and the influence of the former Empire’s planetary domination.
Culturally and historically, Guyana has more in common with the islands of the West Indies, many of them former British colonies, than the nations it stands shoulder to shoulder with on the continent, even the often forgotten Suriname.
In the days of the European empires, Guyana was a sugar colony. Its major export was sugar, its minor export was sugar, and every export in between was sugar. In many ways, the entire country operated as a single giant sugar plantation. The sugar was controlled to a great extent by Booker Brothers, McConnell & Company, and the company was owned almost entirely by the Booker family.
The sugar was refined from sugar cane, a type of tall grass, like bamboo that grows fast and thick. It’s sown by planting a sprouting cutting. It’s reaped by gangs of men swinging machetes through fields of the tall, dense cane. It is a labor intensive crop whose cultivation demands little skill and is prone to the accidents that befall unskilled hands wielding machetes.
That the names of Guyana’s indigenous tribes have been all but lost to history attests to the wisdom and intelligence of the people. When they saw the white men arriving on their shores they tip-toed into the country’s dense interior, avoiding the smallpox and slaughter European settlers offered to those who welcomed them. Five hundred years later, the Japanese novelty company Nintendo began the legend of Pikachu and the Pokémon, saying the creatures came from the robust jungles of Guyana, but the native peoples were never heard from again.
The Dutch settlers probably didn’t even notice, busy as they were, constructing intricate irrigation systems to dry out the coastal marsh lands.
After turning the swamp into viable land, and finding themselves lacking a local population to whom they could offer no-paying plantation jobs, the Dutch solved their labor problems the same way all of the European sugar colonies did, by trading sugar, rum and molasses for African slaves. When the British invaded the late eighteenth century, they muscled the Dutch out, taking over their sugar plantations and their corner of the African Triangle trade.
Stirring their tea with West Indian sugar, the British fell into a crisis of national identity—how could an enlightened, civilized nation progress on the suffering of slaves? In 1807, during the reign of George III—the villain of the American Revolution—the Slave Trade Act was passed. With few exceptions, the trafficking of African slaves was made illegal for British subjects, territories and colonies.
Plantation owners scratched their heads. They would soon be in the same labor fix that the original settlers found themselves in. The owners continued to scratch their heads for forty-one years when in 1838, under Queen Victoria, Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act reached completion and emancipated all of the bonded African slaves.
I like to imagine a befuddled agent of the British West India Company, so concerned with the labor problem developing on the Empire’s far off sugar plantations that, as he mumbled to himself, he walked into the wrong office, finding himself mumbling in the lobby of the British East India Company.
What the functionaries of the British West India Company were soon to realize was that elsewhere in the Empire, wretched poverty produced another cash crop—the indigent families of British East India.
I picture tables at Indian bazaars in places like Madras, Dhaka and Chittagong, like the ill-fitting tables you see at a street fairs in New York City, standing out from the other vendors. Instead of selling funnel cakes, T-shirts or bonsai junipers, they offer something corporate—a subscription to cable television or life insurance.
The Indian bazaar version in 1838 offered a way out of debt for poor families—cash on the spot for anyone willing to sign. Your son or your daughter would be taken to a foreign land for a term of unpaid labor, but in return, you could climb out of debt—your accounts would be brought up to date. It was packaged and sold like a financial service, but what was being sold was the sequel to slavery—indentured servitude.
For seventy-nine years, between 1838 and 1917, the poor families of India sold, or should we say leased their children off to swing machetes in the far off plantations of Her Majesty’s Empire. East Indians became West Indians and Guyana became a difficult country to recognize at dinner parties.
I drove past the high school and the town pool. I bore left at the duck pond and made a right where the fancy, table-clothed Chinese restaurant used to be. A few minutes later I pulled in front of Vidya’s parent’s ranch style house. I stepped out of the car to a neatly trimmed lawn and a concrete driveway. Looking up the block I recognized the familiar layout of a Long Island suburban neighborhood like the one I had grown up in—property lines marked by chain-link fences, white pickets or simple hedges served as both obstacles and hiding places for games of kick-the-can, man-hunt and ringalevio. Panning back, I focused on the white aluminum fence enveloping Vidya’s parents’ yard. It was the type of fence you would lose a ball over—the type of fence you would scale only on a dare. The yard within wasn’t a part of the neighborhood. It was something separate—a modest suburban compound.
The idea of a Guyanese compound flitted through my mind, waking a childhood memory—Guyana on the six o’clock news—Guyana on the front page of the newspaper. At the time, it was all people could talk about, but it wasn’t a Guyanese story at all. It was an American story, a story of excess, a cautionary tale about the abuses of freedom and influence, a story that played itself out in a fenced-in compound in Guyana, when the American cult leader, Jim Jones, poisoned his followers with a recipe of cyanide and Kool-Aid drink mix in his self-named Jonestown Guyana.
Vidya smiled at me through the bars of the storm door as I walked up the path. Decorative white security bars striped the windows, but I hardly would have noticed had Vidya not mentioned them that morning.
That was how Vidya had grown up, not gated and locked away, but conscious of what made her house different from the neighbors’ houses—what made her family different from her friends’ families. She didn’t see her experience on TV—she wasn’t a Keaton, a Brady, a Walton or a Huxtable. Everything her family did differently from other families stuck out in her head.
Satellite dishes dotted the crest of the roof haphazardly like cherries on the top of a banana split.
“Is your father monitoring shuttle missions?” I asked as Vidya opened the door.
“No,” Vidya groaned. “That’s for cricket. My father would lose his mind if he couldn’t keep track of every cricket match on the planet.”
I smiled and Vidya kissed me hello.
“You can kick your shoes off here,” Vidya pointed to a neat collection of shoes beneath a full length mirror in the foyer.
I looked down at the shoes I had polished that morning.
I don’t spit shine or toil in deference to abstruse boot camp rituals. I’ve never served in the military. The highest rank I’ve achieved in uniformed service was Cub Scout. I didn’t earn any badges. I never made Webelo. I read the handbook like an issue of Reader’s Digest—thumbing through and stopping on interesting illustrations—a hole in ice to fish through, a box kite, a knife cutting vegetables. No one suggested I should work through the book, chapter by chapter—a series of lessons to focus on. It remained a volume of curiosity, a book of potentially useful information—a curriculum that began with kerchief folding and continued through wilderness survival. I might have learned to shine shoes then, but I didn’t. Instead, I learned to shine my shoes in a moment of lonesome necessity, the way I learned about shaving and romance and other manly essentials.
I had always been a favorite of my girlfriends’ parents—mothers in particular. I knew that the good impression I made relied on the little things, the niceties—decent grooming and an ease in polite conversation. A tucked-in shirt and a pair of shined shoes put a fine point on my general clean-cut altar boy appearance—the way to a perspective mother-in-law’s heart. Now I was asked to abandon my shoes at the front door—I may as well have thrown them out the window.
I looked around for something to ground me—something familiar—something to tell me that all was OK—that the value of well-kept shoes was respected throughout the world. I looked into the face of God in a devotional print framed on the wall. As welcoming as I found the image, with his four arms open as if awaiting an embrace, the calm smile on his blue face and the faces of his companions, an elephant headed god and monkey faced god, the sight of Rama told me that, not only did Vidya’s mother not care about shined shoes, she probably never laid eyes on an altar boy either.
God is the Father. God is the Son. God is the Holy Spirit. God is a burning bush, a tongue of flame. God is a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. God is a loaf of bread. God is a fish. God is two fishes and five loaves of bread. A dove. A shepherd. A lion. A lamb. God is all things, so surely, He is these things too.
Still, I would have found it comforting to see a statuette of a man stripped to the waist, tortured and crucified. Is that too much to ask?
I looked down at the shoes I had cleaned, brushed and buffed that morning.
Like any good mother, mine counseled her children on the importance of clean underwear and the mortification she would experience if, through some accident, the state of our underwear were found to be otherwise. She never said anything about socks.
I knew my socks were clean. I had pulled them from the dresser, not the hamper. They matched too. They didn’t have a choice. I have two kinds of socks, white socks and black socks. When I buy new socks, I throw all the old ones away, so my socks always match. The problem was that all of my socks were always in the same state of disrepair. Depending on where I was in the buying-replacing cycle, I either had all new socks or all old socks. At the moment, I couldn’t remember the last time I had bought socks. That wasn’t a good sign.
“Doesn’t it make you wonder?”
I dated a girl who studied shiatsu and wondered about things—odd things—the holes in my socks.
“I mean, it’s always the same place. I think it has something to do with the way energy flows through your body. I’m going to have to find out what it means when energy escapes your body so precisely from the tip of your toe.”
She was squeezing my shoulders or pressing the heels of her hands on the small of my back at the time, so I didn’t interrupt her. If she wanted to believe that a focused beam of radiation coursed through my big toe, I didn’t need to argue with her, though I thought it had more to do with my toenail—my big toe’s vestigial claw. It was the closest thing on my body to a razor blade and a likely culprit for the holes in my socks.
I looked at the shiny, rounded point of my shoe. How much of my big toe, I wondered, was I going to expose to Vidya’s parents at our first meeting? How much toe was appropriate? My guess was zero.
But who could say? Certainly not I—I came from a shoes-on family. We wore our shoes almost every waking minute. Vidya didn’t just come from a shoes-off family—the pathologically clean and tidy household where counter-top appliances retreated into custom-made form-fitting cloaks when not in use, she came from a shoes-off culture—millennia of shoes, boots and sandals abandoned at the threshold of homes and the sacred enclosures of mosques and temples. Surely, the shoes-off cultures look at feet differently. Maybe the sight of my big toe would portend great omens. Maybe it spoke of my vigor. Maybe the measure of a man was assessed by the kilojoules of power surging through his big toe chakra.
I slipped my feet out of my shoes to find my socks intact. I looked up slowly, tracing my reflection in the full length mirror—black socks, khaki pants and a blue oxford shirt. What I thought a safe bet in casual-but-neat attire when I got dressed that morning, struck me now as the assistant manager uniform for Blockbuster Video. All I needed was a nametag.
Vidya led me into the living room. She sat me on a white couch. She kissed me then leaned back a little to look at me, like I was a bouquet of flowers settling in a vase. Standing upright, she tip-toed away, disappearing around a wall. Unfamiliar with the layout of the house, I didn’t know where she had gone—it could have been the kitchen or the garage.
I was ready to be cordial; I was ready to be engaging. I wasn’t ready to be left alone in stocking feet, but that’s how it turned out.
I tapped my foot to the scratchy strum of a reggae guitar carrying with it aromas from the kitchen—hints of a stockpot simmering with healthy dashes of cardamom and cumin—so different in smells and sounds from the home I had grown up in, yet strikingly similar to sophomore bong parties I had attended in state university dorm rooms.
Vidya came back into the room with her mother. I stood to greet her.
“Mom, this is Paul,” Vidya said. “Paul, this is my mother. You can call her Dora.”
Dora came across timid. I adjusted my posture the way I might if I were trying to capture a cat. Slowly, softly, “Hello,” I said, putting my hand out. I wasn’t sure about my hand. I wasn’t sure what I should do—shake her hand, kiss her hand, hold her hand and kiss her cheek? I felt that some physical contact was in order, though I could imagine it a breach of etiquette to touch Dora—even to greet Dora without her husband being present.
But let’s face it, the south shore of Long Island isn’t known for standing on ceremony. Besides, I had gotten her daughter pregnant, so I supposed we could overlook the finer points of etiquette. I took Dora’s hand and kissed her cheek.
“I want to thank you,” I said. “Vidya told me that you helped her shop for the shirt and pants—the kurta she gave me as a gift.”
Dora smiled, “Oh, you’re welcome,“ she said. “The one you will wear for your wedding will be much nicer.”
I smiled, thinking my new suit of clothes was hanging in the next room and that wedding guests were quietly filing into the backyard for the afternoon nuptials.
A shadow moved in the hallway off to the right.
“Dad!?” Vidya called.
I heard the shuffle of footsteps and a door open and close. Vidya walked to the opening of the hallway and tried to draw her father out.
“Dad?” she spoke softly through the closed door, “will you come out please? I want you to meet Paul?”
I heard the door open again and when Vidya walked out of the hall her father followed.
“Hello… Hello,” he smiled and waved a stiff hand as he entered the room. “Hello Paul, I am Ragoo.” He offered me his hand. “I am very happy to meet you.”
“This is my father,” Vidya said. “You can call him Bob or Rudy.”
“Welcome, welcome,” Rudy turned back toward the hallway. “I have business in the other room.”
Rudy began to disappear deep into the hallway from where he had come. As he shuffled away, it didn’t dawn on me that he was leaving. I thought he was just pacing about or maybe ducking into the bathroom to freshen up.
“Dad,” Vidya said. “You have to stay out here.”
“There is business in the next room I must attend to,” Rudy said.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Isn’t the Kentucky Derby running today?”
It rang through the hallway like something ancient and magical—a password—open sesame. Rudy stopped where he stood. Slowly, he turned. It was like the old gag from Abbot and Costello, as if I had just said something about the Susquehanna Hat Company.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes, this is the business I would like to attend to. This is what needs my attention.” He brushed past me on a beeline from the hallway to the sofa. He reached for the remote control on the coffee table.
My tension slipped away in the crisp instant the room’s magnetism changed. Errant specks of dust discovered a new bearing. Something large and electronic had been turned on and I could feel it in the fundamental particles of my being. I turned to watch the screen’s initial glow—my first and always love—television.
“Dad…” Vidya protested. “You can’t just sit here and watch TV.”
“Shush… Hush…” Rudy brushed the fingers of both hands toward Vidya. “She always gives me a hard time, Paul,” he said. “Always. Never Easy. Never nice to her father.”
I had a feeling that the horses would be lucky for me today. I don’t know where the feeling had come from. They’d never been lucky for me before. I have reaped greater reward from the coin return on broken pay phones than I have from bets I have placed on horses. I have never picked a winner, not even when I’ve picked an even-money favorite for the thrill of returning my ticket to the betting clerk for the same two dollars I paid for it.
But I wasn’t betting today. I didn’t have to win. I just had to endure. I just had to get through the race without saying something stupid. Compared to other sports we could have been watching, I liked the odds horse racing offered.
Had we been watching baseball, I might be expected to recognize the names of players and know where they stood on the field. In the flow of conversation, I might be called upon to recite a player’s batting average from memory to an accuracy of three decimal places. But more than anything, it would ask me to be emotionally involved, if not with one of the teams playing, then with some other absent team, with knowledge and concern of how the outcome of the game we were watching would affect the standing of my beloved team within the league and in the sight of God.
Vidya sat next to me and put her hand on my head, “Are you OK?” she said.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m great. The Derby is good. It’s a spectacle, like the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve. I can’t imagine where we would be if we had to watch baseball instead.”
“You should be doubly grateful then,” Vidya said, “because if the Derby wasn’t on, you wouldn’t be watching baseball. It would be cricket.”
Vidya glanced over at her father. She rolled her eyes before walking back into the other room.
“Vidya tells me you like cricket,” I ventured into the dark.
“Yes,” Rudy said. “Cricket! The favorite game!”
“I haven’t had the opportunity to see a match,” I explained. “Maybe one weekend we can come for dinner and you can introduce me to it.”
“Yes, good,” Rudy said. “We will watch cricket. You come and I will teach it to you. I have tapes we can watch so you can learn. It will only take eight hours. Then you will be ready to watch a match.”
During a lull in Kentucky Derby coverage, Rudy looked away from the television. “OK,” he said. “They can come now.” He tilted his head up and cleared his throat. “You can come now,” he called into the air. “We talk like you want.”
Vidya and Dora walked in from the other room. Vidya took one look at the TV and her eyes darted to her father. Rudy rolled his eyes picking up the remote control.
“Alright, alright,” he sighed, turning the TV off.
We rearranged our seats like we were picking teams to play a board game. Dora perched on the end of a couch, a table and lamp separating her from Rudy who sat like Lincoln in his monumental armchair. Vidya and I squeezed together in the loveseat opposite them.
“Welcome to our home,” Rudy began. “I wanted to meet you and I am glad that you have come for dinner. But there are things to say, so now I will say some things.”
“Some people like a pool,” he said. “I like a lake. I like to go into the woods. When they were young, I would take my children to Bear Mountain—Seven Lakes.”
“Dad,” Vidya interrupted. “What are you talking about?”
“I am talking to Paul,” He said. “You see Paul? Always gives her father a hard time. Is never easy.” Rudy took a breath and started from the beginning. It was clear that he had given the idea some thought—he had rehearsed it. There was something he wanted to say and he wanted it to come out right.
“Like I said, I don’t like a pool. Some people like a pool. I like a lake. I like to go into the woods, Bear Mountain—Seven Lakes.”
I didn’t know my way around the story he was telling or the imagery he presented, but there we were again, back in the mountains, back at the shore of a lake in the woods—the perfect place for Rudy to ambush me with his machete and demonstrate the skills he mastered as a young man in the cane fields of Guyana.
“I enjoyed taking my children to the lake,” Rudy looked to Vidya. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” Rudy continued. “Twenty dollars in my pocket, I come here. Twenty dollars when I come to this country. So I say, if you ask me to say something, don’t worry. If you want to have baby, have baby. There, that is what I say.”
I stood up and shook Rudy’s hand. “Thank you,” I said. I kissed Dora on the cheek again. I sat back down next to Vidya, taking her hand in mine. I relaxed into my seat, knowing I wouldn’t face the machete today and that with $36.78 and the keys to a borrowed car in my pocket, I was a catch.
After a while, Dora and Vidya left the room and Rudy and I rearranged ourselves in front of the TV. I tried to tune in to the pre-race broadcast, but with my anxiety eased and my adrenaline crashing, tangential thoughts bounced through my mind.
“My grandfather won the Kentucky Derby in 1923,” I blurted out.
“A lucky man, your grandfather,” Rudy saluted.
“No,” I explained. “He didn’t win a bet on the Derby. He won the race.”
“Was your grandfather a tiny man, a jockey?” he asked.
“Oh, I can see why you’d think so,” I said, “but no, he wasn’t the jockey. He was the horse. His name was Zev. He took the Belmont too—he was the horse of the year in ’23.”
I could tell by his expression that I had confused him, but I could also tell that I had him hooked.
My grandfather’s name was Earl Graham, not the type of name you’d associate with a race horse—“And coming up on the outside is the eleven horse, Earl Graham.” No, a race horse named Earl Graham would soon be forgotten, even in 1923, when people had a memory for things like horses. But on May 19, 1923 at the forty-ninth running of the Kentucky Derby, a brown colt took the lead early and dominated the field for the entire race. His name was Zev.
Zev had shown poorly, coming in twelfth at the Preakness, which ran before the Derby in ’23. So, at the gate at Churchill Downs, Zev went off at over twenty to one—paying $40.40 on a two dollar bet. The brown colt went on to win the Belmont Stakes and to record breaking earnings in 1923.
In the fall of 1923, my grandfather, Earl Graham, donned a leather helmet and football sweater and took the field. The F on his chest stood for Fordham. In 1923, college football was about as high on the football ladder as a player could climb. The NFL was formed only a few years earlier, and as a career choice, it remained untested. Almost everything about football remained untested—one of its great new innovations was the forward pass, and as far as safety equipment went, if you didn’t have a leather helmet, a thick head of hair would do.
It’s hard to say where the ball was—the dark helmets, maroon jerseys and field mud served as camouflage for the oblong pigskin. And though I could imagine a play where the ball was snapped and, after a series of handoffs and flea flicking lateral passes, landed in the arms Earl Graham, I had to think of my audience. To Rudy, American Football offered another few channels to flip past on a Sunday afternoon as he searched for the crack of a cricket bat. I put in enough detail to get the excitement across, enough to make him feel like I had been there.
So, my grandfather, a small man for a football player, though he would have been a giant of a jockey, ends up with the ball. I like to tell the story as an interception, or a recovered fumble. It sounds so much better than the story of a hand-off or a short forward pass—everyone loves a recovery story—the impossibility of it, like going off at twenty to one and winning the Derby. But it wasn’t the underdog aspect of the story that made that day at the Polo Grounds comparable to the Kentucky Derby, it was the run. However the ball landed in my grandfather’s arms that day, he pulled the ball to his chest, hugged it with both arms and ran like hell.
An improbable run—men sprinting behind him, throwing themselves at his feet. It was the type of run where you begin to feel embarrassed for the players in pursuit. It is the type of run that seems to last forever. Maybe it did. Eighty-four years later, as my first child’s grandfather listened to the story, my grandfather had yet to be knocked down. He was still the one to catch.
I don’t know what happened next. It may have taken days for the newspaper account of the game to be printed and a nick-name offered. I like to think it happened in the moment—that an announcer in a fedora sat before a stainless steel microphone in a booth above the grandstand. “Graham is unstoppable—look at him go… I don’t believe what I’m seeing. There goes ‘Zev.’”
Rudy nodded and blinked thoughtfully a few times. He returned his gaze to the TV.
“SKI-NECK-TAH-DEE,” He bellowed. “Do you know this, SKI-NECK-TAH-DEE?” he said it again the same way, with clear, almost clapping syncopation—each syllable treated to a full exaggerated accent, as if it were written with hyphens in capital letters.
I didn’t know if he had said one word or four or some number in between. I wriggled in my seat, remembering Vidya’s warning from earlier in the day, that I might have difficulty with her parents’ accents. Up until then I hadn’t had a problem, but up until then our interaction had followed well-worn customs of welcome greetings and Rudy’s carefully rehearsed speech. We could have breezed through the evening stretching cues from the television into snippets of conversation. I broke protocol with a freestyle riff on football and my half-horse grandfather. In that moment I glimpsed my future in—family gatherings of impenetrable dialects and frozen smiles.
I replayed the sound bite in my head over and over, concentrating on each syllable. It got me nowhere. I had to relax and listen the way I did on the streets of New York. Was he talking about the weather? Was he looking for subway directions? Surely, he wasn’t offering me a wedge of lemon.
Why had my ability to listen through an accent escaped me? I believed that within any context, if someone were trying to speak English to me, I could understand them. I considered our surroundings for a moment, reviewing in my head what had been said on TV just before Rudy had spoken. It had all been racetrack talk—Pimlico, Belmont, Saratoga.
Then it struck me. I couldn’t understand what Rudy was saying because he wasn’t speaking English. He wasn’t trying to speak English. He wasn’t even speaking the half-English of Guyanese Creole. The phrase he repeated was Indian, and when I say Indian, I don’t mean Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu. I mean good old American Indian—Native American—Mohawk or Mohican—words left to us only as the names of shopping malls, casinos and interstate exit ramps.
“Ski-neck-tah-dee,” I nodded with reserved enthusiasm. It wasn’t a local word. The native tongues of Long Island spoke in cloudy, yawning vowels — Wantaugh, Hopaugue, Montauk and Patchougue. This word had something clicky and fun about it—like a sound you would make trying to imitate a tap dancer. “You’re talking about Schenectady, New York?”
“Yes, yes,” Rudy pounced. “Schenectady, New York. You know it.”
I had heard of the city in upstate New York called Schenectady, but it ended there—a name and a vague idea of a spot on the map of where it might be. I knew this much about a number of places—Schenectady, Poughkeepsie, Rochester—at most, I thought of them as towns with old vaudeville theaters where a travelling act might stop to perform two evenings and a matinee before it shuffled off to Buffalo.
I had never heard of it the way Bob spoke about it now, in a voice of reverence—a voice at once soft, as if humbled in the presence of something Holy and at the same time steady and bold as if he is about to offer testimony, to bear witness to a miracle. I still couldn’t be sure we were talking about the same place.
“A Guyanese man he talk to the mayor of Schenectady. He say he want to build a Hindu temple. He need something. He need a building permit. He have zoning problem… something. He talk to the mayor.
“The mayor he think, why this man he want build a temple in Schenectady? Schenectady it no good. Business it leave Schenectady. People they go, they move away Schenectady. He want to meet this man. He want to know this man.
“The mayor he go to he house for dinner. He meet the family—he mother, he wife. The mayor he say, I like the Guyanese people. They good people. Don’t cause no trouble. They nice family. They close community. He say yes, you get permit. You build temple.
“Then the mayor he think my city, not so good. Houses empty. Big, beautiful houses, whole neighborhoods falling apart because no one they want to live there. Maybe Schenectady it need more Guyanese family to live there.”
Rudy’s voice transfixed me. It rang with a clanging pitch and rhythm, like a steel drum. I lost myself in the music of it. I wanted to listen from a distance so that I could hear the patterns of speech, wishing that I had the gift to repeat them, to adopt them and at some level make them my own. But I had no gift for the music of it and the homage I hoped to pay would come off as mocking imitation.
“So, what he do?” Rudy leaned to the edge of his seat. “The mayor he go to the Guyanese people. He go to Queens. He go to Jackson Heights. On the Saturday and Sunday he go, he say come, get on this bus with me. We go to Schenectady. He show them houses. He say, ‘Look here, these houses on a list to tear them down. Why the city want to pay to tear them down?’ He say. ‘You buy the house. You pay a couple hundred, a couple thousand dollars for a house.’”
I thought I had heard of Schenectady before, but I guess I never had. I had never heard anything like it. I’ve heard of a people searching for its promise land, but Schenectady was the only promise land I had heard of that sought out its people. This was the America everyone hoped to find, one that was welcoming and loving, one that encouraged family and community. For over two hundred years, tides of diaporic peoples crossed oceans and borders. Every one of them thought they were looking for America. As it turns out, they may have been looking for Schenectady.
Dora passed in front of me to whisper into Rudy’s ear.
“We are still waiting,” Rudy waved her away. “We will eat when it is over.”
Dora dropped her eyes and shuffled over to where I sat. “Paul,” she said. “Will you come inside for dinner?”
I shrugged and gestured my surrender toward the TV. There was nothing to say. We would be in to eat dinner shortly. The horse race wasn’t all important, but it was a good enough reason to stall. Rudy and I had covered a lot of ground in the hour’s time since I entered his home as a stranger. It helped us to sit quietly in the dark for a moment.
I leaned forward in my seat as they brought the horses to the gate. I stared at the TV intently, wishing I knew more about horse racing, that I was more familiar with it. I wished I had picked a mount, placed a bet. I might have been able to focus on something, some little detail to remember.
The horses exploded from the gate and moved in a swarm together to the fence. The announcer called out names—names I had heard in the background while Rudy and I spoke—now spit out in a panic, one after another. The number eight horse in the front—that would be a name to know. I’d listen for it when the announcer returned to the top of the pack. “Do you remember the name I told you?” I’d say. “Do you remember the horse I told you about, who won the Kentucky Derby the day I met your grandfather?” It would be a nice detail to hold onto.
I got the name. He said it again—clear by a length and a half. I repeated it to myself until the words lost their meaning. I held onto the goofy hollow sounds as the horses galloped into the straightaway.
In the final furlong a horse came out of nowhere. I hadn’t even heard its name before. The announcer knew its name. He even knew the jockey’s name. He said the names twice, horse and rider, and it was over.
“Do you remember the name of the horse that came in second in the Kentucky Derby the day I met your grandfather?” It didn’t have the same ring to it. I forgot it on my walk to the dinner table.
I took a seat at the table next to Vidya and kissed her on the cheek. The table was set for dinner with a plate of flat bread, a bowl of white rice and a casserole of stewed meat.
“How was the race?” Vidya asked, running her hand along my arm.
“Good,” I smiled. “It was a good race.”
Vidya squeezed my hand. “Who won?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea.”
Dora shuffled between the kitchen and the table, bringing beverage options from the refrigerator—a ginger ale, a Coke, a diet soda. She set a pitcher down on the table in front of Rudy as he took his seat. “You help Paul now,” she said to Vidya. “You make him a plate.”
Vidya spooned rice on to my plate. She then picked up the bread plate and offered it to me. “This is naan,” she said. “We have rice and naan with everything.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, pointing at the casserole. “What’s for dinner?”
“That’s not for you,” Vidya whispered. She moved in close. “My mother’s worried her curry will be too hot for you. She made you something else.”
Dora appeared at my left shoulder with a large serving dish that matched the casserole on the table. “This is for you.” She placed a whole roast chicken on the table.
“OK,” Rudy said. “Everyone have a full glass?”
I filled my glass from the pitcher and raised it for Rudy’s toast.
“Paul,” he said. “Welcome to our home and welcome to our family.”
We all clinked glasses and I took a quick sip.
“What’s wrong?” Vidya asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I just thought that was cranberry juice.”
“No,” Dora said. “It’s fruit drink mix.”
“Do we have cranberry?” Rudy asked. “Give him cranberry.”
“No, no,” I said. “This is great.” I raised my glass again to Rudy’s toast. “Thank you for such a warm and generous welcome,” I said, and then I drank the Kool-Aid.