The first time I met Papa was when he came to live with us in the spring, when things were growing. In an uncharacteristic mood of celebration, Mom planted a row of colorful flowers in the front yard along both sides of the driveway. Daisies and buttercups and even a rose bush. A week later, I was the one who found Papa peeing on the flowers. His ancient penis was gripped between his fingers, his lower lip curled over his upper. He looked like a garden gnome, except that he was out-sized and he had, strangely, a working dick.
“The bastard,” Mom said, shooing him back into the house. “I’ll never do another thing for him.”
I clipped two roses for Papa and left them on his pillow. I was on his side, I decided.
Papa was Dad’s father, a man in his seventies who had spent his life in the military in India. I asked Dad how many wars he’d fought in and Dad said, “Don’t be an idiot. Girls don’t need to know about things like that.”
I’d heard stories, mostly in whispers, of my soldier grandfather, faraway in India. The few photographs of him hanging in the house fascinated me. There he was, stern and handsome in his turban and his neat beard and proper military moustache and decked out in his crisp uniform. I dreamt of his adventures on the front lines of wars I knew nothing about, and in my mind all his battles took place on the slopes of high, snow-covered mountains. He would struggle for hours through the mist, carrying an enormous pack, only to suddenly confront the enemy directly in the zero-visibility of a blizzard. He always won these hand-to-hand fights, and he always slit the throat of his enemy with his bayonet so that blood splattered gregarious and red across the white snow.
It was a shock to meet him finally, bent, his eyes filmy with age, his figure straining against collapse.
“The old fool has come here to die,” Dad mused when he arrived. It was Papa’s first time in the U.S. Dad invited him every year and every year Papa refused. Dad said Papa was stubborn, that he never liked the idea of his children moving away. Now he came because there was nowhere else for him to go. The old man had lost his strength, while his mind, Dad said, was going. He’d also lost the power of speech. When he tried to talk, he moved his jaw up and down and a painful rattle emerged. Dad refused to tell me what happened. I searched Papa’s old neck for a gunshot wound but found only a thin, inconclusive scar. At night I’d lie awake thinking of him, this one-time hero of our nation, reduced to wordless sorrow and a life little better than an animal chained and dying in its pen.
My brother Johnny said they cut your tongue out when you retired from the army, that way you couldn’t reveal state secrets. I knew that’s not what happened, for there was Papa’s tongue, a curled sentry greeting all when he opened and shut his great mouth. Johnny had another name, an Indian name, but no one used it. I hated mine, Ruby, short for Rupinder. Every week I secretly changed it. One week it was Gloriana, the next it was Xerxes. I’d exhausted the standards: Ashley, Heather, Mary, Juliet. I was worried one day I’d run out and have to become a boy to find one that suited me.
A month after Papa arrived I learned why he couldn’t speak. He was a lifelong smoker, contracted throat cancer, and the operation which saved his life cost him the power of speech. I learned this by listening in on a phone conversation Dad was having with his sister in Phoenix.
“Papa used to smoke,” I said to Dad that evening.
Mom looked at me across the dinner table. “Don’t talk like that in front of your father.”
Papa was sitting to one side of the dinner table, in his own special chair, a big baby chair, with a bib printed with pastel-colored unicorns around his neck and a small table at his elbow.
“What did I say?”
“You know exactly what you said,” Mom said.
I did know. Sikhs don’t smoke. It’s one of the rules. Like Sikhs don’t cut their hair and Sikhs don’t drink. Smoking one cigarette is almost as bad as killing someone.
“Who told you he smoked?” Dad said.
“No one. I thought that was why he couldn’t speak.”
Papa grinned at me each time I spoke.
“He was in the army,” Dad said. “Things happen in the army.”
I nodded, “Oh,” and went on eating.
Johnny jabbed me in the ribs. “Shit for brains,” he whispered.
Suddenly Mom made a face.
“Oh God,” she said.
A thin stream of urine was dripping from along the edge of Papa’s chair and he grinned broadly at all of us now.
“He’s your father,” Mom said to Dad. “You clean it up.”
The next day, Mom bought twelve boxes of Depends undergarments. I watched as she stacked one after the other in the cupboard under the stairs. I could tell she was angry. She punched each one into the wall, like she was shoring it up against a flood.
“Can I try one on?” I said.
She ignored me and punched the last box into place, slapped her hands together, and turned and bumped straight into me as she was walking out.
“You,” she said.
“Can I try one on?” I said again.
“They’re not for you.” She slammed the cupboard door.
“How many people did Papa kill?” I said.
“Papa? How many did he kill?”
Mom considered me with distaste. “You and your questions. Is that all they teach you at that school?”
She turned away and walked into the kitchen. It was time for Papa’s lunch.
That school was a special needs school. I had started there two years ago. I talked too much, asked too many questions, couldn’t concentrate; the doctors said one thing, gave me pills; Mom said I needed discipline; Dad looked around for the right kind of school. We were all girls. Half the universe was erased the moment we walked through the gates. It didn’t bother me, I liked the school well enough, except we learned little and were left mostly to ourselves, to taunt and tease and make up stories as we liked, and during recess we would wander in circles through the courtyard and pretend we all had futures which the bright ones amongst us knew we didn’t.
When Mom was gone, I climbed into the cupboard, switched the light on, a dim, bare bulb, and closed the door behind me. I opened the first box, pulled out one of the adult diapers and held it in my fingers to the light. It looked exactly like a baby’s disposable diaper, only larger, as though it was made for a mutant, the kind they used to make bad movies about in the fifties. Two blue buttons were sewn to the front to hook it up with. I pressed it to my face. It smelled of plastic and cardboard and glue.
I pulled my jeans off and my panties down and slipped into the diaper and buttoned it up. I felt anxious and excited as I stood there, hunched over because of the low ceiling. The plastic felt warm against my skin. I dug in my jeans on the floor, produced a pack of cigarettes, Kools, and a book of matches. I tapped one out against my wrist, placed it in my mouth, and lit it. I stood there for a minute smoking, thinking something should happen, something magical and strange. I should instantly be transported into another dimension where the rules of the universe were reversed, where black was white, where up was down, where the world I knew had never so much as been imagined.
Because there I was, standing in the closet, smoking, wearing an adult diaper.
But nothing, so what could I do but stub the cigarette out, pull the diaper off, and replace it in the box?
Johnny was in the backyard, playing on the swing. Papa sat in the shade in a deck chair watching, his pink turban lopsided on his head. I could tell he was watching Johnny from the way his head moved back and forth with the motion of the swing.
I found Mom in the kitchen. She was chopping chicken with a cleaver.
“Can I put the diaper on Papa now?” I said.
“Don’t be silly.”
“It’s for training.”
“I’m planning to be a nurse.”
Mom looked at me with concern. She always did when I voiced any ambition.
She shook her head. “I want your father to do it.”
I was leaving when Mom said, “What’s that smell?”
She pushed her nose into my hair. My heart began to explode in my chest.
“New shampoo?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Peppermint. Like gum.”
Dad appeared late at dinner that night, one arm around Papa whom he helped down the stairs. When Papa was settled in his special chair, Dad poured himself a large whiskey, no ice, and drank it in a single toss. He poured himself a second before joining us at the table.
No one spoke out loud. Only Johnny and me whispered almost silently to each other.
“Fuckwad,” Johnny said.
“Butt plug,” I said.
My name that night was Cassiopeia.
Later that night, I heard Dad on the phone.
“I hate him,” he said.
I was listening in on the extension downstairs as he talked to his sister. “If I could…”
“Yes?” she said.
“I don’t have the guts.”
“He’s an old man,” she said. “He’s our father.”
“I hate him as much as you do,” she said. “More.”
“I couldn’t. Not ever.”
“You won’t do anything?”
“I’m a coward,” Dad said.
I stopped listening when he said that. I hate cowards. I returned the phone loudly into the cradle and walked up the stairs to my room and banged my door shut.
Soon after, I heard footsteps outside my door. I knew it was Dad, I recognized the way he walked. I could sense him standing there, holding a hand up as if to knock. He stood there for about a minute before I heard the steps move away.
From that day on, when Dad called his sister, he used a cell phone.
I cut school at lunch and returned home to an empty house. I thought I’d watch the afternoon movie. I shouted up and down the stairs. “Mom, Papa.” No one. Maybe Mom had taken Papa out. I walked upstairs, excited by the freedom. I could hardly remember a time when I had the house entirely to myself. I stripped down to my underwear, slipped the pack of Kools into the elastic of my panties, lit a smoke, and began dancing along the hall.
First into Johnny’s room, then Mom and Dad’s, finally into the spare bedroom, where Papa slept.
I waltzed into Papa’s bathroom. “My name is Andromeda,” I sang.
He was lying on his back on the floor, pants down around his ankles, arms waving weakly. His turban was knocked off his head and the room smelled foul, of old man urine and feces.
“Papa?” I said. “What happened?”
His eyes widened at my nudity and he threw a hand forward, attempting and failing, with an unsteady gesture, to block his view.
“It’s okay, Papa,” I said. “It’s only me.”
I felt oddly brave standing there, like a soldier marching into battle. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone. Crouching on the tiles and over his knees, I reached forward across his body and took hold of his turban. My plan was to replace it on his head, but the moment I lifted it, I pulled back. I watched his mouth tense and his eyes open wide with longing as he followed the passage of the cigarette, and then, for a second, his skin brushed mine. It felt dry and cold and cracked. A rattle emerged and I sensed him convulse.
I raised the pink turban, settled back on my haunches, and instead of replacing it on his head, fitted it onto mine.
It was large for me and slipped down over one ear and partially covered my right eye. I tapped a second cigarette out against my wrist, lit it and took several puffs, then leaned forward and slipped the cigarette between his lips. This was what he wanted, what he had wanted all along. His face transformed. The sternness disappeared, replaced by a giddy look of surprise, and there he was, a child again.
He lay there, trembling and eyes closed, the cigarette in his mouth, and I watched as his hand found his penis and grabbed hold of it roughly. It only took him a second to come. A tiny stream of ejaculate spread from the tip of his penis down its length. His hand once again drifted to his side and his body flagged. Within a minute, he was asleep.
“Send him to your sister,” Mom said. “You can’t be expected to take all the responsibility for this— for this—!”
We were gathered at the dinner table, all of us in our regular chairs, even Papa was there, the unicorn bib, now covered in turmeric-colored stains, tied inexpertly by Dad around his neck.
After Papa had fallen asleep that afternoon, I eased the cigarette out if his mouth and left him there, alone on the bathroom floor, hoping he would sleep until Mom returned. I spent the afternoon walking along the edge of the highway, where the roar of tires on blacktop drowned my thoughts. Mom did find him. His hand was resting where he’d left it. I could hear her from my room shouting at Dad when she told him. “He was doing that— in his own shit!” I took up a position at the railing where I could listen more easily. “He always hated you,” Mom shouted, “and now he’s come here so he can hate you properly.” Dad was silent for a long minute and I crept down along the stairway, hoping to catch his words.
“I know,” he said finally in a soft, defeated voice.
“So—?” Mom said.
Dad walked to the sideboard and poured himself a drink.
“He can’t hurt anyone now. He’s an old man and he was never much of anything, even when he was young. He’s come here to die. We should let him.”
I stole back up the stairs, full of remorse, for Dad, for Papa, for all of us, for our sad, cowardly family. I’d be the one with courage, I decided, I wouldn’t flinch. My name that night was Hecate, three-headed goddess. Dog, snake, and horse.
“I can’t send him to my sister,” Dad said, responding to Mom’s demand, as we sat there at dinner. “She has a family.” Around us, at the table, we were surrounded on all sides by the great empty cavern of the house.
Johnny whispered as they talked. “Douche bag,” he said.
“And you don’t?” Mom said. “You don’t have a family?”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Dad said.
“What did he do?” I asked. Even though I knew what had happened, I wanted to hear the version they’d give me.
“Nothing,” Dad said.
“Asscrack,” Johnny whispered.
“Then what way did you mean it?” Mom said.
“You’re twisting my words.”
“What did he do?” I said, louder this time.
“Shit licker,” Johnny whispered.
“Nothing!” Dad said, suddenly very loud. “The old bastard never did a thing in his life!”
We all fell into a momentary silence. Even Johnny stopped whispering.
Papa raised his head and held Dad in a hostile stare. Dad trembled under the weight of it. Then the old man took his plate in one hand and picked it up with a wild grip and held it there, staring violently at Dad the whole time. Dad did nothing. Finally, the old man let it fall and the plate crashed with a loud thud to the floor. It shattered and warm dal spilled out across the carpet.
Dad closed his eyes.
“I’ll clean it up,” I offered.
Mom threw an arm out and gripped my wrist to stop me from jumping. “No. I want your father to. This is his problem.”
“I’ll do it after we eat,” Dad said.
“I just meant today, Dad,” I explained. “Not before.”
“Oh—,” Dad stood and poured himself another drink and returned to the table.
“But he was a soldier,” I said. “That’s something.”
“He wasn’t even in the army. Not the real army. He was a mechanic. Or something. I don’t know. He never told me.”
“That’s still something,” I said.
Dad groaned. “He never killed anyone. Not on the battlefield. He doesn’t even know how to fire a gun.”
I watched Papa silently. His lower lip was curled in anger and now he looked at me, eyes filled with accusation.
“It’s very simple,” Mom said. “You pick up the telephone and you call your sister.”
“And say what?”
“He’s your father too. That’s what you say.”
“Cocksucker,” Johnny whispered.
“Nothing?” I said.
“What?” Dad said.
“He did nothing?”
“Yes. Except he got a medal once. I think. By accident. He saved someone by accident. He was very proud of it.”
“You tell her that he’s her father too,” Mom said. “You insist.”
“How?” I said.
“By accident,” Dad repeated.
“What kind of accident?”
“She won’t go for it,” Dad said, responding to Mom. “You know it and I know it. She won’t go for it.”
“Then make her,” Mom said.
“Cunt rag,” Johnny whispered.
“She’s a bitch,” Dad said. “There’s no way to make her do anything.”
“Bitch,” Johnny said, out loud this time.
“Johnny—!” Mom scolded.
“What—?” Johnny said.
“What kind of accident?” I said.
Dad turned to me. “Does it matter?”
“He was fixing a Jeep. Someone was under it. The Jeep fell and crushed the guy. He held the Jeep up while someone pulled him out.”
“With his own hands?”
“Yes. He was that strong once. I remember.”
“Are you going to call her or not?” Mom said.
“No,” Dad said.
“What kind of man are you?” Mom said.
Without warning, Papa formed a fist and began pounding the small table at his elbow. He raised his fist and brought it down and raised it and brought it down. All the while he stared at me.
Mom shook her head. “I hate him,” she cried. “I hate all of you!”
She jumped up and raced out of the room.
Dad waited a minute before he stood, finished his drink, and approached Papa from behind. The old man was pounding the table. Dad took hold of the fist and held it, suspended in midair. I could see Dad struggling under Papa’s dying strength. The old man’s muscles strained through his shirt, dense and round, and the veins on his knuckles were thick and discolored. Dad held fiercely on, his eyes shut, his mouth tight. When he released Papa’s hand, there were tears in his eyes.
Everyone was asleep when I emerged that night and padded silently along the upstairs carpet. The warm summer night echoed with the din of crickets in the yard and once in Papa’s room, I switched the bathroom light on and left the door ajar so that his body was illuminated by an elongated rectangle spreading toward him. Standing at the end of the bed, I pulled the blanket down and off him. He was wearing a pajama suit, a red checked flannel. It was one of Dad’s.
“Papa...” I said. “Papa?”
He didn’t move. His breath came in short, staggered bursts, catching in his throat. Without his turban, thick strands of unruly hair spread across the pillow in a withered delta of white. He looked like an ancient, an old god finally at rest.
“I am Hecate,” I said. “I am the three-headed one.”
I lit a cigarette and dropped the match onto the carpet and stood there, smoking. He stirred at that. His chest heaved into gradual life, his arms and legs, and his old eyes opened nervously, and finally his mouth, cracking apart like a rock roasted in the desert sun, searching for words he would never be able to utter.
I climbed onto the bed, moving slowly, and advanced gingerly along his legs until I was straddling his crotch. I leaned forward and began to unbutton his pajama top. His whole body tensed and he attempted to sit up. I pushed him back with a forceful nudge of my palm. His chest was a mass of hairs, a white forest, the skin veined and old and troubled. It moved up and down, not with any regular motion, but with a sort of stop-and-start, as though at every moment his body was making the decision between life and death.
“Don’t worry, Papa,” I said. “I’m here to help you.”
He was trying to say something, to move, to rise. I placed a finger over his mouth, then I brought my hand down to his chest, splaying it out across his sternum. I took the cigarette from my mouth and slipped it between his lips.
“Is this what you want?”
He puffed, coughed, puffed again, and for a moment he looked serene.
I could feel his penis through the pajamas pushing against my thigh. It was small and hard, like a boy’s. His old, startled eyes gave me a look of fear.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Papa,” I said.
Confusion widened across his face, as if he was beginning to understand. Were we communicating, I wondered, in realms beyond the seen? I inched forward, sliding myself onto his belly, then his chest. He raised his hands to stop me. His mouth was open, the cigarette burning, drooping over his chin. I reached for it, took a puff, and returned it. He produced a gurgling cry and then his hands dropped once again.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Everything is going to be okay now.”
The smoke curled up my belly and hung in the air in thin, dissipated strands.
He grinned suddenly, like a retarded dog, his eyes sparkled, and I could see the stubs of yellowed teeth and the wet, diseased gums wrapping his skull and jaw, and under it, under all of that, the skin, the muscle, the straining ligaments, the now almost useless organs, I caught a glimpse of myself in his expression, as if lurking deep inside, we understood each other, beyond blood, religion, heritage, we were each one of us a failed warrior.
That was the moment.
I took hold of his pillow and brought it down, suddenly and violently, onto his face. His body gave a start and I could feel the features of his face, angry and terrified, struggling through the heavy fabric. His hands flew up and crashed against my chest and almost knocked me flying. Mustering my strength, I held his head locked in place while a faint choking scream emerged, and once again he bucked, his whole body rocking now. My eyes were shut, determined, while under me it was as if I had stuck a harpoon into a sea monster and was tumbling, lost, through the waves. He roiled under my arms, brought his hands to my thighs and dug his nails into my flesh. I choked back a scream. It was a long minute before I felt his hands slacken, the nails pull out, and his arms subside and eventually collapse. His strength deserted him and his chest sagged and the hard, maddening force of his neck finally relented and died.
I waited before I raised the pillow and climbed free and looked down at him. The cigarette was crushed, lying against his cheek. His eyes were shut and it was impossible to tell if he was breathing. A film of sweat covered his face. Leaning forward, I thought I could smell myself on him. I gave him a soft kiss on the lips, then I lay down, exhausted, pressed my body into his and draped an arm across his chest.
“Papa...” I whispered. “Papa...”
Without warning, he gave a sharp mechanical start and stirred brusquely. He opened his eyes wide and jerked upright until he sat over me, gasping for breath. His body was violent and strange, a sudden colossus in shadow. He stared down for a long moment, breathing painfully, then formed his hands into a fist. I watched as he raised it shakily over his head. He opened his mouth wide and produced a long choking rattle. His old teeth emerged, and along with them that ancient sentry, his great tongue, sitting silently in his mouth. Our eyes locked in the dim light, and perhaps for the first time, he saw something of himself in me. His hands began to tremble and his arms flinched, high over his head.
I hesitated before reaching up and swaddling his doubled fist in my fingers. The struggle continued, brief, flagging, until I felt his muscles slacken and, finally, the old man surrendered. A tear formed on his cheek. He lowered his hands until they rested on my belly where I held them, warm, the knuckles pressing into my flesh. He sat like this, immobile, staring at me, his body shuddering. Tears were running down his cheeks and his chest heaved from the exertion. His silent sobs shook his figure and, brilliant against the light shining in from the bathroom, the ridgeline of white hairs along his arm and shoulder stood erect and fierce.
© Ranbir Sidhu 2010
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Ranbir Sidhu is a winner of the Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. His stories appear in Fence, The Georgia Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. He is the author of the plays Conquistadors, True East, and Sangeet, and the recipient of a 2010/11 new theater commission from the New York State Council for the Arts. Learn more at www.ranbirsidhu.com
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