“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.”
“The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
When Joe landed a solid right on Vic Singh’s nose, nearly the entire student body of Cobalt High heard the crack. The sound echoed in Vic’s ears as his face went hot, stomach dropped, tears gushed, and copious amounts of blood splattered the front of his t-shirt as well as his assailant’s. Vic’s first reaction was worry as he gingerly put his hand in the pocket of his corduroy jacket and felt for something as though it were precious. He seemed relieved. His second reaction was to balance himself against the lockers so he wouldn’t faint. The blow had loosened the patka that enclosed his unshorn hair; it fell like an autumn leaf to the linoleum floor among blackened splotches of gum. His braid tumbled halfway down his back, a precursor to an immanent turban wearing future. The length of his hair shocked even Vic as he stood with it naked to the world. He could have dodged the punch and prevented a broken nose; he actually thought of this option as he watched Joe’s fist in slow motion like a heat seeking missile follow the trajectory to his face. But Vic was more concerned with what was in his pocket than with Joe’s primatial fist.
Vic spit blood and the crowd of rubbernecking students ooh’d and ahh’d then moved closer. The pain from his septum sped through his nerves and reached his toes. This had been the worst day of his life, and at that precise moment, he wondered why he’d gotten out of bed at all. It began with a freak rainstorm that drenched him on his walk through the abandoned industrial park on his way to school. He took refuge under a clump of trees.
“Jerk.” Vic said under his breath. He looked at Joe and imagined what it would be like to grow four inches and be able to stare him down in his soulless eyes. It wasn’t fair. He was just trying to get by like everyone else, but Joe had singled him out long ago with tired teasing and insults like “Ali Baba” and “Babu” though this was the first time he’d physically assaulted him. Joe was Goliath, and he had to have a weakness. Today Vic’s “eye for an eye and the whole world’s blind” t-shirt had ironically attracted Joe to him like a huffer to an open jar of glue.
“You need glasses or something?” Vic said.
Joe laughed, though he took a few steps back.
Vic would get his revenge. He wouldn’t react carelessly. He’d craft a plan that would show up Joe in the end. If he couldn’t best him with strength, he’d take him down with his brains. Like Batman who went full-throttle against any and all evil in Gotham, Vic would have his day. He vowed to himself.
He adjusted his nose and realized that this already large feature on his face was now even larger from the swelling. Vic had his father’s nose. It was a sometimes trunk-like proboscis depending on the time of day and allotment of shadow. His mother told him his profile illustrated his relation to great rulers across oceans and time. These rulers, she’d told him, were conquerors that led their people to victory. He’d never learned more about these rulers, their names or their empires, so in his mind he’d constructed disembodied kingly faces with enormous noses, lips with wide moustaches, and heads with heavy crowns. Vic’s eyebrows, soft as tufts of rabbit pelts, bushy like the wool behind the ear of a yak, were also the exact ones that framed Sardar Harbans Singh’s moon-shaped face. This Sardar and this American boy had no idea of their similarity but being grandfather and grandson it may have come as no genuine surprise. But here, now on this North American continent in the tenth month of this year, the vessels that kept Vic’s beak alive burst and brought forth a torrent of blood. This surprised Joe enough to give him pause.
“Oh my god.” Katie, a freckled faced object of Vic’s affection put her hands over her mouth.
“I’m okay.” Vic said through the blood and tried to smile which made Katie cringe again.
The posse scattered, though Joe stood frozen in disbelief.
For once Vic was thankful for the robust size of his nose. To him, it seemed, his dissimilarity was the cause of his bully magnetism. He’d never cut his hair, because kesh was one of the five ks of Sikhism, and wore a patka to keep his hair neat and clean. Or perhaps it was the language Vic spoke when he first entered school, something he called ‘Engjabi’ that was halfway between English and Punjabi. He uttered words that no teacher could translate when he was in first grade and just beginning to learn that the first letter of the alphabet looked like an apple and the second letter could be turned into a bumblebee if doubled on its side. Or perhaps it was the fact that his father made him follow the traditions of Sikhism when most kids were taking their fashion tips from MTV, not Guru Gobind Singh of the sixteenth century. Even though every time his parents, Maija and Ikpaul, were called into the school to discuss matters pertaining to Vic, they defended their son passionately with more foreign words like and ēzelis and bewaquf, Vic thought they’d set him up for the worst thing any teen could endure—difference.
All of these thoughts flooded his mind as the blood poured out. One of Joe’s friends pulled him away from the sight of Vic’s gore.
“Stupid camel jockey can’t even bleed right.” The brilliant Joe Balestrieri had to say something. He didn’t know that Vic wasn’t even one hundred percent Indian.
Joe’s racial slur didn’t make Vic’s face burn with an unearthly desire to defend his culture, his father’s religion, his mother’s heritage, or his grandparents’ existence. He would not throw a punch. He imagined what his father would want him to do. Vic would let out a war cry, “Jo Bole So Nihal!” and with juggernaut speed he would charge Joe and hit him, dead on. Then he’d unsheathe his knife and stab Joe in the gut. But in this reality, Vic simply smiled at Joe with fire in his eyes, and stuffed that burning anger down deep in his belly.
“See ya round,” Joe said.
Joe walked away with a sneer, and Vic stared at his back; he hoped his eyes would begin a fire that would lead everyone to believe that Balestrieri spontaneously combusted. His sneakers would be his only remnant. Paranormal scientists would use Joe’s remains for proof of the phenomenon and add Joe Balestrieri as a footnote to a contemporary version of the De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis. He imagined them standing over a glass table that was lit from beneath, each holding a different scalpel or knife while they pieced together what little was left of Joe’s adolescent combustion. Vic laughed because he imagined that would be all Joe would amount to one day—a pile of volatile organic garbage.
“Come on, let’s get some ice.” Mrs. Stein, the English teacher took Vic by the arm. The gym coach, Mr. Smith, grabbed Joe and dragged him forcefully down the hall without saying a word.
When they arrived in the nurse’s office, Mrs. Stein let him go into the bathroom to clean up. After he closed the door behind him, he opened his jacket once more and retrieved a very small blue butterfly from his pocket. It was a no larger than a nickel. Its light blue luminescent scales sparkled. He puzzled over the markings and the difference between the left and right forewings and hindwings. This inconsistency made Vic uneasy. He analyzed its antennae that were intact. He looked closer at it, and realized that it was not moving as much as it was when he’d first found it in the gutter outside of Cobalt High on a pile of dead leaves at lunch. It had appeared injured then, but he assumed if he got it home he could give it some rotten fruit or salt water to revive it. But now it he noticed its broken antennae and felt the need to rush home and get it under his microscope. The previous year Vic had identified a Red-spotted Purple and it had been, up until this moment, the most amazing butterfly he’d seen. Its wings were akin to majestic glass windows with shades of burnt orange, sky blue and eggplant where the two colors met all framed in black. It was so enthralled in drinking juices from a sap flow on a deciduous tree that it barely moved while Vic observed it. This one, though, was different than anything he’d ever seen. The left and right wings were slightly dissimilar in shape. It was so very fragile. Science offered Vic comfort because it explained the world. But this—this was unexpected and the sight of it made him anxious.
He sighed, folded a large piece of paper towel into an envelope and slipped the butterfly inside. He changed into his PE shirt and threw his favorite one, now bloodied beyond repair, in the waste paper basket. He then twisted his long braid on top of his head and wrapped the dusty patka around his hair before exiting.
Ms. McClasky, the nurse, handed him an ice pack and said, “Sit down, and let me take a look.” She lifted his face into the light and looked into his nostrils. After she packed his nose with gauze and she said, “Put pressure on your nose with the ice.”
Vic’s wandering eyes landed on a poster on the corkboard to the right of the door. The flier read: Yearbook contest. Art, photos, all submissions considered. Win $20 and your art on this year’s inside cover! He thought of the possibilities, that maybe he could finally speak with Katie properly and well, bask in her honey colored aura.
“Stay still, head back, Mr. Singh.” The nurse said just as the principal, Mrs. Cohen, whose disapproving look spoke volumes, entered the room.
“At least school is nearly over for the day. Here,” Mrs. Cohen handed him a letter, “Give this to your parents when you get home. I will call this evening to make certain they received it.”
Vic’s thoughts turned to his father, who, in his mind, was going to kill him, not because he was in a fight, but because he was injured which very specifically meant that he didn’t break his opponent’s nose.
Ikpaul Singh looked out the window of his Kwicki Fill gas station. His eyes traveled down Sycamore Road, across the graying asphalt, and beyond the line of cars that had been rerouted around the massive hole in the road. He noticed the frost had arrived early this year and he tried to rub the serpentine ice patterns from the double-paned windows with his shirt’s cuff. The ice wouldn’t budge; after all, he realized, he was rubbing from the wrong side of the glass. He looked above the trees that grew precariously close to the power lines and frowned at the bruise of clouds gathering. As his longing for a glimpse of the sun grew, he wondered how long it would take to walk to the Punjab if, of course, he could walk on water. He imagined walking with extraordinarily large feet the length of battleships. He would cross seas, continents, and mountains. In the old oak he saw a pippal tree with a trunk the size of an elephant’s waist and bark the texture of a riverbed in drought. Paul saw beyond concrete; he saw the suffocated earth under the palimpsest layers of asphalt and gravel.
The construction on Sycamore was as constant as the cloud coverage. And now the prehistoric machines were at it again with their shovel-toothed mouths and their smoke-puffing blowholes right outside his gas station. This time the traffic wasn’t caused by the new construction in the Heights. The title of the article on page A9 in the Daily Mirror in Paul’s hands said the hole was the beginnings of a sinkhole. He couldn’t believe it. A sinkhole in Cobalt, New York? What next, he thought, an earthquake? The mess would prevent drivers from entering his station from Sycamore. It would cause business to decline, as it usually did every time they ripped up the road, even though he’d climbed up the ladder at five in the morning to lower his gas prices below the Stop and Go station by nine tenths of a cent. Those stupid-bastard-city- councilmen were just wasting money lifting and repaving roads every year, he thought. The title of the article was, “Sinkholes, Man vs. Nature: Who’s to Blame?”
“It’d better be nature,” Paul grumbled, “or else I’ll chase down the idiot who started this mess! Pothole, sinkhole, asshole, same difference!” He decided to write a letter to the Daily Mirror; his wife, Maija, had a friend who worked there. She’d be obligated to rescue his letter from the slush pile.
He glared at the expanding pile of debris and soil alongside the gaping hole. What they were digging up, he had no idea. What he did know was that he would send another email to the city complaining of his loss of business since the construction began. His station’s peripheral location, like a useless appendix to Main Street, already had poor traffic. It now suffered aesthetically from the dust and debris, and he feared the Kwicki Fill was beginning to look like a halfway house for construction workers and their temporary defecation rooms. He would have to do something clever to draw the customer inside the convenience store, and quick. Winter would cut their project short, as it usually did, and when the snow melted in the spring he’d see the gash in the road once more. Where were the moderate seasons, the autumn? Seems we have only two seasons in this town, Paul thought, sticky-hot summer and freeze-your-tatte-off winter.
He shrugged, used a pencil to scratch his scalp under his turban, and flattened his blue dress shirt down his stomach that was just beginning to show the roundness of middle age. Then he stuffed the newspaper in the drawer under the counter and turned his attention to the boxes of windshield fluid that needed unpacking. Today he would make a pyramid from the blue bottles that would entice everyone to make an impulse purchase in his c-store. Perhaps he could sell the whole lot of them in one day. He smiled. Goals made his day speed by. His knife was in his back pocket, as always. He took it out gingerly, weightlessly holding it like a child, and unfolded the blade from the handle. He bought this knife with his own money when he was a young man. He ran his thumb along the blade. It was getting dull; he would sharpen it soon. On the silver handle was a poorly sketched chain of elephants carrying a man and woman atop their backs. The vendor had said it had special powers, but Paul just liked the handle. He dug the blade into the flesh of the cardboard then moved it down and away from himself until the box surrendered its contents. He would usually display the first case of windshield fluid at the earliest sign of winter, but today he knew that the debris from the construction would stick to motorists’ windshields when they passed by, which would in turn remind them to check their fluid levels. He would be ready. They would buy his windshield fluid. Maybe, if he were really lucky, they’d get flat tires and have to purchase new ones from Paul’s inventory.
When he bent toward the first group of blue bottles, something crunched in his back pocket. He pulled out the nuisance, an envelope. One quarter of its face was covered in stamps and the rest displayed the gaudy handwriting of someone who had recently learned English. It was another letter from his father. “Please respond” was written in bold on the back of the envelope near the adhesive lip. His heart sank. Even from across the world, Papaji could make him feel inadequate. Paul had yet to open any of the letters, and they were beginning to pile up. He wondered what Mr. Sardar Harbans Singh wanted so desperately that he felt the need to mail one letter per week for the past two months. He wanted to leave India and his father behind him—that’s why he’d come to America years earlier. The letter rustled when he shoved it back into his pocket. The sound was familiar, like wind rushing through wheat.
At least there aren’t any snakes like those here in this village, he thought. This barely comforted him. He looked at the sinkhole and imagined a monstrous basilisk jutting through the surface and swallowing the construction workers. The bell on the convenience store door jingled him back to the present, and he returned to his position behind the counter.
“Marlboro Mediums.” A gruff teenager stared at Paul’s crimson turban like it was a second head and handed him a wad of crumpled dollars.
Paul sized up his customer with a pointedly critical squint and ran his fingers through his beard in contemplation. He saw his torn jeans and stringy blonde hair; he saw his blue jacket had a patch on the lapel shaped like a license plate that said Joe. He saw his buddies waiting for him in the old Mazda outside. He smelled like his backpack was filled with garbage. Who would let their child leave the house looking like this? No shower? No clean clothes? He couldn’t understand, even after twenty years of living in this little town, what went on if anything in their parents’ heads to just give up on their offspring. He told his wife Maija the other day that, ‘these kids smoke like it is some sort of privilege. And their parents think they can blame our little stores for selling to minors? Their precious children dress like no-good beggars on the street. And here they have been given so much.’ Paul lifted a pack of cigarettes from the display and slid them across the counter without taking an eye off of the grungy kid.
“I’m eighteen, man.”
“And I’m not your father, samajhna?” Paul turned his back to his customer and mumbled, “And don’t read the warning label.”
“What did you say?”
“Have a nice day.” Paul reread the form that the corporate Kwicki Fill office sent last month which stated the four k’s of customer service: kindness, konsideration, kalm and kare. Paul didn’t find the misuse of the letter k particularly funny but since his station was just a drop in the Kwicki Fill bucket he had to post the list where he could see it at all times. His religion’s use of the letter ‘k’ was meaningful not vulgar (kaccha, kesh, kangha, and the other two). By the time he finished reading the list, Joe had already disappeared into a sedan. The car coughed black smoke out of its tailpipe as it cut off an old lady turning into the gas station.
The green Salem Lights clock read two thirty. Paul looked outside and saw his fifteen-year-old son walking past on his way home from school. He decided Vic looked more like a twelve year old but his growth spurt would surely be on its way. This was going to be his big year. Today, Paul decided, Vic would stand up to those who had been teasing him for years. He looked at Vic. He had his backpack on his back and his tidy jacket zipped up all the way. Now that’s how children should look. They should be proud to be seen, not filthy and smelly, he thought. But today there was something different: his patka was filthy and his nose was obviously broken.
Vic waved and kept walking. “Oi, puttar, where are you going? Come here!” Vic stopped before crossing the road construction, turned toward his father.
“What happened? Come inside!”
“I tripped and fell at lunch.” He moved slowly toward his father.
Unlikely, Paul thought. “Who did this?”
Vic’s lips tightened until they turned white.
Paul put the “back in a minute” sign on the door then inspected his son’s face, bruised an and broken as it was, just like his own after a fight. “Assholes are a dime a handful.”
Paul took him quickly into the unisex bathroom inside the station and locked the door. After washing his hands, Paul straightened his son’s back and brought him closer to eyelevel. He placed his large hand flush against Vic’s nose.
“Brace yourself. This will hurt, but only for a second, puttar.”
Vic leaned against the tiled wall.
“Don’t worry; I’ve done this to myself twice.” Paul rested his large hand across Vic’s nose and in one quick movement he thrust it back to center of his face.
Vic screamed. Tears poured. Paul handed his son a towel for the tears and blood. Paul removed the stained patka and took out a white handkerchief from the back pocket of his brown slacks.
“Puttar, you need to cover your hair and keep it clean otherwise you’re going to have to wash it like the Americans, okay? There are ten gurus, Vic, the first one brought us peace and education, but Gobind, the tenth, brought the Khalsa.”
His speech detailed the sacrifices the gurus had made to better their lives, and how this unshorn hair, this kesh, was a symbol of his connection to their martyrdom and willingness to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. He tucked the handkerchief around the braid that was wound into a bun at the very top of his head, took a pin from his own turban and bisected the small yet adequate pile of hair and fabric.
“Puttar, you will stand up to the pagals that have been tormenting you. Yes, you will fight back.” Paul’s hands dug into Vic’s shoulders a little too deeply.
Paul took out his knife and held it to his son. “Sometimes the only way to protect yourself is to make others fear you first.”
Vic put his hands in his pockets. The ancient looking blade glimmered dangerously.
“No.” Vic’s voice cracked.
“Look,” he put the knife on the counter and sucked in his stomach, “I want you to remember that running only makes them chase you faster. They are like hyenas. Stand your ground. Aim for their weaknesses: their knees, their necks, and their feet. It’s not the biggest one that you should attack first, but the smallest. Once they see you defeat one of their own, they will back off.”
“Dad?” Vic motioned to the door.
“Um, nothing.” Vic took off his glasses and cleaned them with the edge of his shirt.
“Okay then, now go home, your mother is waiting. Where’s your sister? You’re supposed to walk with her.”
“She has play practice.” They reentered the store.
“Oh, achchha. She’s your responsibility, you know.”
“I have to study, Papa. I have an exam tomorrow.”
Paul held Vic’s face in his hands. He looked forward to the day when his son would become a man. It was difficult for Paul. How could his son, the son of an ex-boxer, an ex-farmer and an ex-warrior allow someone to break his nose? This was not possible. He thought of his Papaji with the shotgun slung over his shoulder and his knife at the ready to cut whatever needed cutting. Vic’s snake was this bully, and he was going to help him stand up to him regardless of the consequence. They would both have their day, and the other kids would fear his name: Varunesh Dzintar Singh. Paul’s eyes glowed, his large nose tingled, and his un-calloused hands pressed the cheeks of his son just a little too firmly.
“I will make you stronger, puttar. Tonight I will show you how to fight.” Paul was beaming; Vic looked terrified. “Okay then, chalia. Go home and see your mother. I will be home later.”
He watched Vic maneuver across the construction and turn onto their street, a cul-de-sac. Vic bounced on his toes just a little bit. That would not do. Not for his son. He would teach him how to walk, talk, punch, and box. He would show him how to have honor. Paul opened the cabinet under the cash register and caressed his cricket bat; he’d never used it, not once since they’d moved here. He had wanted to whack many of his customers on the noggin several times over the past week, but it wouldn’t have been right. But defending oneself, yes, that would be acceptable. The bell on the door jingled and an old lady entered.
“Hi, Paul. How’s life treating ya?”
“Living the dream, Ms. Carmichael, as always.” He gave her his million-dollar smile.
Mrs. Carmichael, an octogenarian, walked around the convenience store as usual, checking the expiration dates on each bottle of milk, before pouring a small cup of coffee and topping it off with the freshest milk that she then returned to the refrigerated section.
“That racket outside is going to raise the dead!”
“You’re telling me.” Paul stretched his arm out and looked at the foreman through the inch of space between his pointer finger and thumb. Then he squished the man in the distance.
“One day they’re going to dig too deep and find what they’re looking for.”
“Eh, what do you mean?”
“Oh, you know,” she slurped her hot coffee, “every town keeps their secrets in the ground. You’ve heard the rumors about PMI, right?”
Paul’s blank look said it all.
“Eh, never mind. Hey, am I going to win that trip to Mexico this week?”
“Guaranteed—I see it in your future.”
“Did your wife tell you that? Then it’d mean something. Otherwise, I’d think you just want a cut of my winnings!”
Mrs. Carmichael placed the correct change on the counter, took a sip of her scalding hot coffee and tucked the scratchers in her purse. “Keep the change.”
“Have a nice day.”
“Alrighty, see you next week, Mr. Singh.”
Paul Singh knew two things: One, he would train his son to defend himself; and, two, he would find out if his psychic wife could see what was written on lottery tickets.
“Chadha’s absorbing first novel depicts a family of first-generation immigrants in upstate New York encountering the difficulties of survival, assimilation and longing for home…It’s a delightful intrigue, with strong characters who develop and grow throughout the book as they face frightening turns.” –Publisher’s Weekly
“Chadha picks, with the calculated tenacity of an archaeologist, at the social, economic, religious and geographical components of modern-day American life in her well-constructed debut novel, Balance of Fragile Things. By setting the events in an imagined upstate New York village, she allows her story to pay homage to the writers of the earliest American narratives that reflected the birth of the nation–Hawthorne, Thoreau, Hutchinson–yet her perspicacity reveals an America which would at present be unrecognizable by those pioneers.” –The Los Angeles Review