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This year, the judges for Boston Review's annual short story contest faced a particular challenge: reading and sifting through more than 700 stories—an unprecedented number. Many thanks to Elizabeth Searle (Celebrities in Distress) and Jessica Treadway (And Give You Peace) for agreeing to judge the 2001 finalists. We were of one mind about the winner, "Home Fires," below, and also about the runner-up, "Wishes of the River," by Robin Bradford, to be published in our February/March 2002 issue. Watch our web site and newswire for information about the annual Boston Review story contest reading, to be held in a Boston-area bookstore soon.

We admire "Home Fires" for its edgy complexity and also for its imagery, which seems uncannily in keeping with our country's sense of horror and grief since the events of September 11.
                                                                                                                                    —J.D.

Home Fires

Manini Nayar

When Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Mr. Sharma was trying to lace up his boots. Good boots they were, too, from the Walmart in the plaza a few blocks away: brown, strong and stiff with a polyurethane finish that suggested these weren't boots at all, but luggage in disguise. Sharma didn't like his boots. He felt a stranger in them, an inhabiter of space designed for more purposeful insteps, those that trod the streets of Manhattan as if to say, "outta my way" or "giddadahere" or other confident assertions that remained the prerogative of real Americans. All Sharma could muster was a squeaky "excuse me" when women of formidable posteriors rested shopping bags against his ankles in the rush-hour subway, at which remonstrance they glared at him pitilessly.

Sharma did not think much about these things. He was a man given to simple attentions, immediate and in need of correction—a lock of hair against his brow, a slipcover on the sofa slightly askew, the toothpaste tube bereft of its toothpaste top, a pair of uncooperative boots.

On the television screen, images came and went. People sobbed. A lawyer in a wheelchair beamed, radiating success. Reporters spoke intensely, their hair at coifed attention. Then came an advertisement for Pepsi and children cavorted freely. Sharma's eyes misted, thinking how much he loved America. God Save the Queen, thought Sharma, substituting in his mind's eye the Statue of Liberty for any contending monarch. More queenly she, and silent, too. Much like Mataji, his mother, the matriarch back at home in India, wielding her rolling pin over chapathi dough, the fairy godmother of his gastronomic pleasures. Give her an eggplant and she could transform it into spicy bhurtha, pumpkin could metamorphose into sabzi, all with a wave, a stir of her magical kitchen ladle. An image of Disney World rolled into view, knocking aside the Statue of Liberty. Sharma shook himself gently. He was inhabiting too many realities, as usual.

"Excuse me!" said a voice, not like Sharma's "excuse me" at all, but a subway woman's "excuse me."

The voice ran like rolling trash cans across his vision of Disney World.

"Yes?" said Sharma doubtfully. He distrusted voices, especially if they were disembodied. Sometimes they spoke to him in his sleep at night and he would surface clutching a pillow as if it were a raft, riding the seas of his terror. These voices were deeper, though, calling the name of his dead wife, deep voices thinning as he came to consciousness, heavy ropes of sound shrinking to mice tails, to shoelaces, to slivers of sound. And then Sharma was alone in the silent apartment, the air still and clear as standing water, a comforting thought if he could swim. But he could not and, helplessly sinking, he felt the waters close over his head until he flung himself from bed to table lamp to open window to gulp down the indifferent air.

"I'm lacing up my boots," called Sharma defensively. He recognized the voice, having met it a day earlier rising up the stairs to him without remorse, the voice of Ms. Kaminsky ("Call me Ann") on the second floor, all the way from Nantucket to a tiny office on 43rd Street, where it existed with equally unapologetic voices in freeform cacophony. The voice of "You're-so-quiet" Ann, Ann of-the-thousand-jeers, who had scoffed him into a dinner invitation tonight. "Not a date," she had warned him, "just a food-thing. I like looking at a face while I'm eating—helps my digestion."

Sharma did not want to meet Ann.

He opened the door, his laces still at odds with each other. Sharma's feet were splayed, set apart from each other in disgrace, his work unfinished.

"Lacing up your boots?" inquired the rest of Ann as she entered the room.

Sharma searched for an airy repartee but found none.

He bent guiltily and began re-tying his boots, a hurricane of fingers at work. The hurricane grew agitated, a storm arose. It went all the way up to Sharma's head and whirled his thoughts around. Statue of Liberty. Mataji. Disney World. Is she laughing at me?

"Funny little guy," volunteered Ann, contemplating the geometric angles made by Sharma's skinny frame as it stooped forwards and tugged backwards. She watched his feet pull and protest. "You could tie those laces any which way. Do they have to be exactly the same length on each foot?"

Toothpaste tube bereft of toothpaste top. Slipcover askew.

"I'm a perfectionist," admitted Sharma. He said this in the bright-happy way he had heard television anchors address one another. He hoped he had made a little joke. Ann did not laugh. She was watching TV.

"How depressing," said Ann. "You know what the verdict is—he's guilty. Now switch it off already. Don't wallow."

McVeigh's sister sobbed in an unrestrained way. A lawyer raised an eyebrow, mentioned conspiracy. Words flew from his mouth like bats, dark, winged, secret.

Sharma found his voice. It had been lurking somewhere in his chest, slipping down into his feet, scurrying outwards onto the carpet. It came back squeaking but still there.

"No, no," he protested, "I just turned on the television to check on tomorrow's weather. It seemed like rain."

"Oh yeah?" said Ann. Not a question but a jeer.

Sharma and Ann walked down the winding staircase until they hit hard gravel. The earth beneath their feet was full of little stones, sharp and mean. Like your eyes, thought Sharma, smiling nervously at Ann.

"Wrong shoes," said Ann, grimacing. She had blue pumps with round vents at the sides. Portholes. She wobbled slightly, then righted herself. "Where to? Indian?"

"Why not?" said Sharma, feeling gallant for no reason. He was hungry. For breakfast he'd had a dispirited banana. No lunch. Sharma missed the smell of puris cooking in hot oil, of eggplants sizzling in masala. Here the smell of food was sanitized, banished into the recesses of microwave platters, arising, if at all, like old sponges filled with vegetable rot. He usually held his nose when he ate, a sign of respect for the rubbery thing on his plate and a tribute to the memory of evenings in Delhi under the jacaranda tree, its flowers casting a fragrance over the richness of the meal, in benediction.

"To eat well is to sense divinity," offered Sharma, still recollecting, hoping that his aphorism might suggest to Ann his hidden troves of wisdom.

Ann laughed though it was no joke.

"Funny man," she said, "though I guess a lot of you guys back in India are starving. So it makes sense—sort of."

"No, no," said Sharma, "Not what I meant at all. Besides, India now has a surplus grain production. We just don't distribute it evenly."

"What are you talking about?" said Ann. And Sharma wondered, too.

When Sharma killed his wife, he did it the same way he might brush his teeth, with familiarity and a sense of routine. He did it slowly, day by day, releasing from under her floating life the certainties of her existence, until she sank, imperceptibly, without struggle, into a stagnation without undertow, a complete stillness of the spirit. She had come to him, after all, an unfinished thing, a child bride, almost colorless except for her red bindi and her hennaed hands. He had accepted her into his life the way a dog might walk into his yard, a loping interruption to be chased away or fed, whatever his mood demanded. Marriage wasn't so much an intrusion as a letting out of his life, like the hem of old trousers, or a sneeze.

(And when the smoke was thick and the air so hot she couldn't breathe, that kind of ending was only the coda to a life already lost. Sharma was not responsible for the theater of her departure—of that he was sure—but only for the acts, the moments, that ascended like stairs toward the climax. The burning ghats. The funeral pyre. The kerosene stove. Variations on an old and sacred myth, mutable and appropriate for the times. Sharma despised melodrama. But he understood the scaffolding beneath it. All it took was his silence and contempt and from Mataji, the stray beating, outpourings of resentment, tirades on dowry-less women. Still. One did not die for words. And if one did, the fire was in your hands, the match self-struck. Mataji and he were bystanders, fanners of flames, perhaps, but empty-handed, palms held upwards for inspection. "No, Inspector Banerjee, I was out of the house at the time. My mother was rolling chapathis on the verandah. The servants were asleep.")

The one time Sharma felt a need for love in his marriage was on the day after the wedding when it was apparent that this union was a mistake. Here he was, an almost middle-aged computer programmer, scrawny, balding, so immersed in his work, so tended by a hovering mother, that nothing seemed lacking. The well-meaning aunts, whispering, rustling, "Forty-two years old and not married? No son to carry the family name?" Then Mataji's eyes red with sudden longing. "A grandson—my only wish, my desire for you, all I have ever asked...." So, before long, Aradhana, fatherless, step-mothered, the sort whose hair he might have tousled, whose cheek patted, had she been a few years younger. Now she was thrust upon him and he recoiled, not so much from her as from the demands of his existence. Husband. Father. Breadwinner. For a woman he had not chosen, nor ever would. He looked for a partner, an equal. Not a child seeking shelter. Yet he could not deny his mother her heart's desire, his own son a birth.

But one day, two years after his wedding, while lounging in a deckchair, shelling peanuts on an October afternoon, Sharma was startled by a premonition. He felt a need larger than his entire being loom before him. He couldn't tell what it was or where it had come from. He could not swat it away. It had no shape or form but simply loomed. One step forward and there it was, blocking his way. Two steps backwards and it followed him so that he could have tipped into the rose bushes (had he any) in the garden. The importance of putting the nebulous into words, Sharma knew, was to give it expression and therefore to reshape it, destroy the original, make it subject to his control. The use of language could make the djinns disappear. He attempted to phrase his fears to Mataji.

"There is something that bothers me," said Sharma to his mother. Mataji's eyebrows rose and fell, twin arcs of alarm.

"Is it Aradhana?" Surely it was Aradhana. Dowry-less daughter-in-law. Eater of our foods. Partaker of our lives. Wombless parasite. Mataji's sari—always white in deference to Ranmol, dear departed husband and father—was as crisply starched as her voice.

"It is not Aradhana," Sharma said carefully, "it is because of Aradhana."

Mataji pondered the distinction.

"Whore," she offered.

Sharma shifted with irritation. He could see the looming in front of him and realized with some fear that he had erred. The named thing can become the name. The word draws the image and the image threatens you, becomes the master. What should he do? The looming was gray, thick and advancing.

"I do not care for Aradhana," said Sharma, embarrassed to use a stronger word. "Marriage to her has shown me what my future lacks." Aradhana of the light complexion and brown eyes, button nose and long straight hair. The singer of classical songs and baker of English pound cakes. The thumper of Kuchipudi feet. Slim-hipped and childless Aradhana, her womb empty with the invasions of growths and tissues. Dowry-less but beautiful. And not loved. Not by Sharma. Not by Mataji. The dog yelping at the gate.

Mataji's eyes grew fond. Wives were not to be loved but endured like a menstrual headache. Her own husband had not loved her nor she him. But the Dear Departed had given her a son who was hers and hers only.

Sharma gazed at his mother, at her angularity in heart and bone, and understood that he was captive. He began to see that the gray mass was of his own making, the part of him that had struggled to leave years ago when he was a child, to shape a life of immense possibilities. And now it was back, looming, threatening, the epitaph of his desires. It moved toward him as Mataji smiled and smiled, eyebrows arched like the lifted folds of a vampire's cape.

"The trouble with you Indians," said Ann, poking a piece of chicken around her plate, "is that you don't know when to stop."

She meant the spices in her food, robust and dangerous, too consuming for a palate raised on meatloaf and boiled peas. Salt might be added; a flick of pepper. Not an avalanche of powders.

Sharma stared at her guiltily. What do you mean? We never touched her. Not a bit. Not-a-tall.

"What are you jumping at?" demanded Ann. "Are you paying attention? Don't be a bore—I can't sit here with someone who has nothing to say."

Her voice seemed serrated, as if she had done him a favor by inviting him to a corner restaurant, this little fellow with a hairline far from shore and outsized boots. If Kevin had still loved her, hadn't written "It's over" on the back of a grocery bill and slipped it under her door, if he hadn't answered her telephone calls with "Sorry. This is the laundromat," and slammed the receiver down as she in various tones and verbal arrangements pleaded for him to talk to her. If she hadn't realized that Kevin Jamison had four women, each in a different borough of New York City, two others called Ann, and one, mysteriously, Pompanola—then. Then she wouldn't be here with this idiot gnawing on chicken bones.

"I was merely allowing you to enjoy your dinner," said Sharma, looking into her pebble sharp eyes. "I thought conversation might distract you from savoring the subtleties of the spices."

Who talks like that? thought Ann. Savoring the subtleties of the spices. Talk English.

"What's in the spinach?" said Ann, "It's too stringy."

"Coriander," he said untruthfully.

"Well, it's just weird." said Ann. She seemed close to tears. Sharma roused himself in some surprise at this unexpected character reversal. He offered her the dal. He spoke at length about the wonders of New York City. The Brooklyn Bridge. The Statue of Liberty. A true monarch, who could never peddle helicopter books.

Ann allowed herself a mild jaw movement suggesting amusement. A joke! A joke! exulted Sharma, as if sighting an elephant on a bus. He leaned a little closer.

"All is good?" asked the waiter, hovering asp-like. He moved in coils, a sudden writhe, and he was gone; another, and there he was.

"Verygood, verygood," said Sharma, "Check please."

When the check came, Sharma waved away Ann's contribution. "No, no. Allow me. My pleasure."

"But I invited you," said Ann.

"Mypleasure, mypleasure," said Sharma, fumbling for his limp black money pouch, the weight and color of his fortunes.

"Better be getting back," remarked Ann, "My boyfriend Kevin might be waiting." Just in case Sharma had any ideas.

Sharma felt an immense relief; he was not to be appropriated. A cannonball hurtling toward him had turned to cotton-wool and could be blown away. Ann noticed his lack of disappointment. Kevin. Of the spiked blond hair. Versed in Keats and Kant. An architect with all the savvy of the professional class. She saw the holiday flat in Cape Cod slip away. The nights at Carnegie Hall. Pompanola. What kind of name was that? It brought to mind the bulls running in Spain. And this dried stalk of a man. No, he couldn't possibly not be disappointed.

"Your boots are hideous," she said furiously, fighting the bile that arose in her after the pinch of after-dinner somf stuck in her gullet like sand. Bitter that he relished his thumb-and-index finger portion. Always the one left out. "I'm saying this as a friend. Don't go to job interviews in those boots. Nobody buys this stuff except you immigrants" (who can't tell the good from bad. In shoes. In food. In women). "I might still have an old pair you could use—one of Kevin's. He has more than he knows what to do with."

Sharma thought how easy it would be to squeeze her throat. It would feel like a sack with the rice running out. The thought struck him effortlessly as a siren wailed down the sun-blushed night.

When Aradhana was nine years old, Mami, her mother, gave her an oblong box with chocolates of varying sizes and middles. The gift was a stretch because Aradhana's mother was a health fanatic who read health food journals with the kind of reverential humility reserved for audiences with the Pope and, without exception, considered chemical additives in food the act of Satan. Being used to an improving diet of cabbage and rice with dal, Aradhana was naturally suspicious. On the box were the words Black Magic printed in a script that Aradhana mistook for a code. Read between the ridges of the alphabet, whispered Aradhana's secret friend, Neema, who lived partly in her head and partly in the branches of the peepul tree outside Aradhana's bedroom window. The tree was Satan's hand rising out of the earth in a clutch of gnarled fingers ringed with leaves.

"Get there," Aradhana would say sternly to Neema, "and don't come back until you can behave!" And out crept Neema and shivered among the satanic leaves until Aradhana took pity and let her back in. Neema stole sugar from the pantry. She lied about brushing her teeth in the morning. She was the one who painted Meena Aunty's chair with chalk. Target practice, whispered Neema to Aradhana, who couldn't go that far. Not when Mami's eyebrows rushed together into a black arrow, thick and unforgiving. "Get there!" Mami would shout, pointing to Aradhana's bedroom, "and don't come out until you can behave!"

Aradhana feared the power of mothers, especially if, like hers, they were of the ersatz variety, her own having died of cancer seven years ago. A steppie. A fairy bad-mother. Eyebrowed and pointy-fingered. A fountain of black hair steeped on her head for a hat. When Aradhana married, it would be to a man who chased the witch away, banished her forever into the Tree of Satan where she could eat Black Magic chocolates until her eyes went bad and her teeth dropped out. Then the chastened leaves would fall from the tree like stars, cascades of triumphant light.

Aradhana scoured the surface of the chocolate box and the longer she looked the clearer it became to her. From between the spaces of the alphabets on the box arose another text: "Kill the Girl." ("That's what it says," agreed Neema, "she wants you dead.")

"Hates me, hates me, hates me," whispered Aradhana to Neema on nights when the wind barely turned and the moon's crescent swung insouciantly like banter. "But I'm going to marry a Prince and change her into horse dung." Overhead, the sky spun on spiderwebs of light.

Neema nodded sagely inside Aradhana's head. Up and down, up and down went her head and Aradhana counted the nods instead of sheep until she fell asleep, one hand outstretched, palm upwards, to trap the falling stars and leaves.

But in the morning, when she awoke, Aradhana was alone, because Mami smacked her ears if she caught the girl speaking aloud to herself. "Only lower class people do such stupid things," warned Mami, "Remember you are a Cariappa." Being a Cariappa also meant that you ate with a fork and knife, not your fingers. Even a chapathi had to be sliced into neat rectangles before being lifted mouth-wards. Being a Cariappa meant that you smiled at Mami's friends (including Meena Aunty, now impervious to smiles) and recited Wordsworth with Mami's distant notion of a British accent ("Ai wonded leunli ezzei klawd...."), after which performance the Aunties clapped without enthusiasm. Aradhana had to practice her diphthongs. Poorly enunciated diphthongs proved that you were only pretending to be upper class and that all the fork and knife chapathi-eating was a sham. So Aradhana practiced daily in front of her mirror. "Deah me! Doo ai see ei baicycle in the bau-gen-villa bush?" and other such diphthong-rich phrases Mami had jotted down on scraps of paper as self-improving exercises.

Daddy, mustachioed and portly, wasn't there to monitor Aradhana's improvements. Mostly, he was in Darjeeling on tea business. He was the best tea-taster in the world, thought Aradhana, and when she married her prince, Daddy would be Chief Horseman of the Stables and sweep away the night's refuse. Then he would burn the dung into ash which Aradhana would apply to her cheeks with fork and knife ("Animal manure, well incinerated, is effective in closing open pores," Aradhana had read in Mami's health journals). After which she and Daddy and the prince would drink tea, Mami now pressed into cosmetic service.

But Daddy had other ideas, and when Aradhana was fourteen, he ran away with the Goan music teacher in the elementary school, leaving Mami and Aradhana to stare at each other across the dinner table late one evening, wondering why they should live together any more since their only known connection was on a boat to Hong Kong, singing "Goodnight, Irene." Stay she did, with Neema-in-her-head for company; school until four in the evening, Kuchipudi class until six, after which it was dinner, homework, bed.

And at night when the moon's crescent lightened and swung, Aradhana would climb onto her windowsill and look through the peepul leaves into the black wash of sky to ponder the image of her life. The father who had left, serenading. The ear-smacking steppie now permanently shuttered behind a bedroom door; even the girl in her head who grew fainter with time. It struck Aradhana as she sat balanced on her windowsill between earth and sky that this moment of dormancy, the pause between things, the space between the Black Magic alphabets, was a good enough place. If this were a language, it was not of laughter or enlightenment, but a wordless language of absence, of silence and endurance. A language like no other, of her own encoding. If she held her breath, she would become that pause, that space, when life seemed suspended in its own longing, nothing existing, everything possible, like an imminent birth. And, flexing like a wing lifting and falling, she felt her heart flow into the waiting darkness. Released, she was comforted.

That is, until she married Krishna Sharma, lit a kerosene stove, and burned.

"So I guess we'll do this again," said Ann gaily, astonishing Sharma with yet another character cartwheel.

He looked at her, at her thin long face scarred with a patch of acne, her little eyes and absurdly genteel, slender neck. Her puffs of tobacco-brown hair billowing about her shoulders. All this time she had been the Voice, the Jeer. Now he saw legs, arms, an entire history waiting to well up and spill. In four short blocks he'd already been introduced to Ann's Aunt Marian with angina, Ann's bouts with asthma, her parents who summered in the Berkshires, and a dog called Fred who had, apparently, adopted the family during a camping trip to Yosemite when Ann was ten. Sharma had no wish to learn more, but he could sense the rumble beneath his feet, the earth trembling. His heart sank.

"Oh yes," said Sharma helplessly.

"Next time I'll treat," said Ann, "I only let guys I date pay for dinner." (Kevin. A grocery bill. He'd never paid. Lies. Lies.)

"A good strategy," agreed Sharma, wondering what that meant.

He and Ann stared at each other for a moment before she said, "I know an Italian place. It's a bit of a walk but worth the effort."

Sharma saw stories rushing at him, street by street, tooting their horns.

"Maybe next week," said Sharma, but they had already arrived at the lobby of their apartment building, a small checkerboard room with a hat stand and a curved front desk behind which sat, without specific purpose, dark men of indeterminate origin. They seemed required to be there, on call, rather like Sharma now with Ann. He began his good-byes by clearing his throat.

"I can come up for a moment," said Ann quickly, "in case you need to chat."

Sharma's room was the way he had left it except for a window that had mysteriously swung open (Sharma checked for burglars. One can never be too careful). He reached for his coffee pot, hoping Ann might be repelled by the stains necklaced around the bottom.

"My coffee pot's the same way," said Ann, "I don't always find the time to wash things up. Busy, busy, busy."

Ann and Sharma sat sipping coffee from mugs that said "CALIFORNIA! SURF'S UP, DUDE!" For a moment, Sharma considered Ann with a completely detached tenderness. Her bony hands, refugee-thin shoulder blades. Now she was the one who was all angles. Sad, geometric Ann.

The television was still on, framing a network anchor talking so earnestly he might have been sincere. Still Oklahoma City. Interviews again. Friends. Co-workers. Lawyers.

"Switch that off," said Ann. "Let's talk."

Sharma felt a mass barreling toward him, a crush of words. He could sense it the way a dog anticipates an eclipse, how it runs from room to room looking for the source of its unease, how it cowers as the sky clenches and implodes and darkness fills the room. At this moment he wearied, wishing for nothing but a pause released from time in which he might lie low until the world was righted. He wanted no explanations or evasions or slanted light in which the truth moved sinuously, jumping from shade to shade.

So he said to Ann very simply, as if a perfectly logical connection extended between this evening and his past, this moment and all moments: "I was once married. My wife burned to death. She died from flames from a kerosene stove." Said that way it sounded like a jingle ("And THAT'S the way to LAM-beth!").

At first it struck Sharma that Ann had nothing to say. Or that she hadn't heard. She seemed puzzled, then what may have been a confused recognition knitted her eyebrows. She began breathing harder, asthmatic in her fog. After a minute, while knowledge and disbelief crossed and re-crossed her face, her voice came out squeaky thin. "A kerosene stove? Is this a joke?" she demanded, and when Sharma simply gazed at her, she said, "OhmyGodOhmyGod." Then she stood up the way women with large shopping bags in the subway stand up, purposeful but in disarray. "I saw stuff like this on 60 Minutes," she said, "You people don't really do this, do you? You couldn't have done it."

She sat down heavily, a sack with the rice running out.

"She died a year ago," said Sharma politely, "Burnt over most of her body." Wombless Aradhana.

Sharma looked at the clock. 9:25. When he turned around, Ann was on her feet again.

"You make me sick," she said, and in fact, she did look sick. Her face seemed green, or perhaps it was the streetlight through the slats that refocused the room, gave it depth and character, dramatized corners, mellowed furniture, allowed the room its theater of subtlety and intrigue.

Sharma could see that there wouldn't be an Italian dinner. Or any more of Aunt Marian's angina and Fred. He felt unexpectedly cheated, as if the weight of an anticipated burden had been stolen from him. He wanted it all back. Disdain. Kevin's boots. Coriander in the spinach. The Voice in cacophony.

But Ann had left, slamming the door, the coffee pot gurgling in glee.

Sharma sat on the bed and considered his next move. "Joothe utharo," Mataji had always said when he entered the house. Remove your shoes. Show respect.

Sharma bent obediently and began the ritual wrestling with his boots. When he was done, he noticed that the television program had cut to a commercial and a small white dough-boy appeared, chortling when a huge finger pressed into his belly. Sharma smiled back, but the doughboy was gone, skipping, hopping, over cinnamon rolls.

Having changed into his pajamas, Sharma wandered into the bathroom for a tube of toothpaste. He found it, top askew, and frowned. As he brushed his teeth, it struck Sharma that the bathroom mirror was like a television set. He paused and postured in different network styles, then lifted up his toothbrush for a microphone. Behind him flames shot skyward as the Murrah Building crashed and fell. Sharma reported it all in a deep and somber voice, manly but sensitive. Heartened by his performance, he combed his hair, parting it neatly in the middle. But his hair stuck up like dry grass, scratching at the emptiness of air.

Some years later, clear across the country, when middle age sat squarely on his balding pate and spongy waistline, Sharma drove a blue Mustang down another street in another city—this time in a black suit and leather pumps, briefcase by his side. Shoes that were shoes. Luggage—luggage. A senior salesman for computer software, Sharma now had a mortgage and a pension plan, two televisions and a fridge with an icemaker. A golden-haired (with some chemical help) wife and a stepson who tossed baseballs at him and called him Dad. Sharma had an American accent, except for vowels that hiccoughed awkwardly in sudden words, so that his wife's Midwestern parents sometimes gazed at him as if deciphering a conundrum: What did he say? The calves are blue? The cars are blue?, their silver heads bent in confusion, Sharma hot with shame.

As he steered the car through the dimming suburban lawns and the hum of evening sprinklers, anticipating microwaved fish and tater tots for dinner, his stomach a-growl, Sharma heard over the radio a news flash that McVeigh had come to the end of his appeals. There was talk of the Murrah Building, its rubble and horror. More interviews. Tears. And the image of another burning came unbidden to mind, rising like a fuming harpy. For a moment, Sharma felt a kick in his heart that was almost love, but he saw it just in time as a trick in timing, a jolt so unseemly its rise and fall might someday be mistaken for grief.<



Manini Nayar teaches English and Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her articles and stories have appeared in The Malahat Review, Parnassus, and Stand.

Originally published in the December 2001 / January 2002 issue of Boston Review



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