Let Your Mind Be by ROSALIA SCALIA
Amritpreet Singh quit yet another job.
Having fled the bank building where he worked until five minutes ago, he inhaled crisp November air to calm himself, but the coolness jabbed his damaged lungs. He coughed into a rumpled tissue, checking it, relieved to see no pink froth. Damned super suits - half his age - looking like toddlers in pin stripes, French cuffs, and Italian loafers - wanted to pin a costly payroll error on him, an error that he didn’t make, as if he were brain dead.
He regretted storming out. He clenched his jaws, his stomach twisted into a knot. He wanted to show his bride and her family that he could hold a job, excel, advance, do all those things good husbands do.
He wondered if his druggie past destroyed his ability to tolerate bullshit. Coughing again, Amrit rechecked the tissue; it
remained clean, blood free.
Still clean. Three years, 122 days, 2 hours, 25 minutes since he went cold turkey, he missed being high, craved the rush, the elation, a feeling he’d chased since he was 15. He’d been visiting his Biji, grandmother, in India, going with her to Tilak Vihar, where she’d brought bags of fabric and supplies, groceries and other necessities to widows there, and he’d play cricket outside in the lanes with the boys.
The younger boys didn’t remember what had happened, but Amrit couldn’t forget.
He was 10 years old when mobs attacked everyone he knew, burned houses and stores, and he’d hid with his family at the gurdwara. His Papaji, grandfather, believing he could reason with the mob, had gone outside never to return, even after Taya ji, uncle, had run outside after him.
Older boys like him, who couldn’t forget what they had seen or smelled or felt, whispered to him about a way he could forget, saying some men had showed them how. Curious but not pressed, Amrit had shrugged away the suggestions.
On a later visit to the Tilak Vihar with Biji, the older boys had convinced him to at least hear what the men had to say. Through the maze of lanes, he followed them to a concrete building with a white door. Inside, two men had asked if he wanted to forget, and he shook his head. When one pulled a needle from a bag, Amrit had balked. He’d feared needles even at the doctor’s.
He’d changed his mind, he’d said. backing away, hoping he’d know how to return to where Biji was visiting. Everyone had laughed.
The men - goons really - had held him down, tied something tight around his left arm, and injected him. Within minutes, he’d felt the rush, the ecstasy, the joy. The men had spoken the truth: it had helped him forget what happened at the gurdwara when he was 10; he’d wanted to stay in this happy place, not knowing that the drug would also help him forget about everything else, too, except shame, regret, and guilt, as it transformed him into a functional - albeit barely - addict.
Overcome by a sudden weariness, by a daunting job search now facing him, burdened by his spotty employment record, worrying about how to tell Pinkie he quit yet another job, Amrit sighed. Stepping into the crosswalk, he focused on the forward motion of his feet on the pavement; halfway across the street, he was knocked off his feet, propelled into the intersection. A car swerved to avoid hitting him and crashed into an oncoming vehicle, which then hit a fire hydrant. A water spray spouted upward, raining cool drops, soaking his now dirty suit.
A sharp pain shot through his torso and his leg when he tried to stand. Amrit sucked his breath through his teeth before falling forward. Breathing hurt, and his sides felt tender. His brief case lay out of reach, and loud calliope music tortured him, exacerbating his headache. Music from a large ice cream truck parked at an odd angle in the crosswalk reverberated and clashed with screaming sirens and a continuous blare of a car horn, and he held his head between his hands, fearing it would rocket off his neck.
The cacophony defeated him, nauseated him. A goddamn speeding ice cream truck ran him down.
When Amrit coughed now, unbearable pain wracked his chest, robbed him of breath.
“Are you okay?” a man asked. A growing crowd gathered, rubbernecking.
Straining to breathe, Amrit reached for his inhaler.
“Ambo’s on the way, sir,” the man said, his voice measured.
An old man emerged from the crowd and bent over him with great effort. A wisp of white hair hung over the man’s forehead, his blue eyes wore the same panicked expression as the junkies he’d known before he quit using smack, and the toddlers in super suits at the meeting he left.
“Lew Harris.” The man held a card that said, “Lew Harris, your friendly neighborhood Good Humor Man.”
The “I” in Harris looked like a vanilla ice cream cone, the white letters of his name popping against the blue and red background. “I didn’t mean to hit you, son. I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “Not my lucky day.”
Despite the pain, Amrit scoffed. Did the old man think it was his lucky day? Dropping the card in his jacket pocket, Amrit blinked back the moisture collecting in his eyes. Three years clean, now this? Darkness enveloping him, he surrendered to it and heard a voice - a dreamy yet familiar voice, his grandfather’s, Papaji’s - praying aloud the Mool Mantar, “Sing, and listen, and let your mind be filled with love. Your pain shall be sent far away, and peace shall come to your home. Hoon teesri vaari teri jaan bachee hai, three times now your life is spared.”
Was this what dying felt like?
Later, Pinkie’s sultry voice stirred him. “Oh, FuzzyBear,” she said, singsong. Her fingertips stroked his arm. Was he dead? Dreaming? Was he home? He felt high, but euphoria gave way to a throbbing leg and chest. Then he was a terrified child, clinging to his mother’s neck, huddling with everyone they knew, hiding from monsters that already ate Papaji and Taya ji. Biji’s sobs crescendoed to screaming.
“My poor FuzzyBear,” Pinkie’s voice overpowered the sound of Biji’s screams, then Pinkie’s spicy perfume filled his nostrils; her lips brushed his forehead, too real for a dream.
“Don’t worry, Noor. He’s going to be okay. They’ll probably keep him for observation,” Qurban said, using his doctor’s voice on Pinkie, the same tone he’d used on Amrit when he was withdrawing from heroin, vomiting into one pan, soiling another, shivering from chills in one moment and sweating the next.
Qurban’s voice had anchored him, his brother having attended him through every unpleasant cold turkey moment, and now his voice comforted and calmed him.
“Stupid truck. Stupid old man,” Pinkie said. Her finger traced Amrit’s lips, eyes, and temples. “Fuuuzzy,” she called in a soft singsong. “Wake up, wake up, Fuzzy.”
Amrit opened his eyes to a dimly lit hospital room, and he realized the combined sounds of the hospital machinery sounded like Biji’s screams. An IV line was attached to his left hand, his karra, bandaged in place on his right arm. Pinkie stroked his arm, and Qurban slumped in a chair at the foot of the bed, his hand holding up his bent head, covered by his neatly tied navy blue turban, the triangle filled by a white fifty with navy blue polka dots. Qurban wore blue suede shoes, and Amrit admired Qurban’s effortless flair for the unusual.
Amrit coughed, his chest pain radiating, intensifying with each hack, and he groaned.
“Thank God you’re awake!” Pinkie said. She squeezed his hand, the IV line moving with it. “Police came to my office and
said there’d been an accident. That you’d been hit by a truck! I had visions of you half dead!” Her almond eyes black as tourmaline appeared glassy and moist. She must have been crying. Strands of hair, held by clip in the back of her head, fell around her face as she planted a string of kisses all over his face. “I almost lost you because of some stupid accident,” she said, wiping her cheeks.
When they’d first met at the gurdwara, he’d called her “Pinkie” because of the blizzard of pink she’d worn, and he didn’t know her name. She didn’t care about his doper past, just his present and his future, and he longed to become the man she saw in him. He squeezed her hand in return.
“You’re thinking you are Superman? Stopping a truck with a single hand?” Qurban said, raising his right eyebrow, his right arm extended and his hand signaling stop. “Bhaa ji, there are other ways - more efficient - to obtain ice cream.” Qurban moved to the side of the bed, patted Amrit’s arm, and Amrit could tell that Qurban furtively examined him.
"Painkillers?” he asked his brother.
Qurban nodded. “Don’t worry. Protocol for a recovering addict is in place.”
“Don’t want a relapse,” he said, grabbing Qurban’s arm.
“You won’t.” Qurban set Amritp’s hand gently on the bed.
“It happened right in front of your office. Your boss already knew,” Pinkie said.
"Fuzz, what’s wrong?” Pinkie peered at him, her eyes filled with concern.
He studied her before answering. “I quit.” Their eyes met, and he didn’t flinch. Relief flooded him. He told her the truth.
Pinkie looked puzzled. “You submitted a resignation letter?”
Amritpreet shook his head no. “Left a meeting, then this.”
Pinkie exhaled. “People walk out of meetings. It happens.”
“I’m not going back.” he said, inhaling and wincing from the pain.
“Why not continue there until you find something else?” Qurban asked, picking imaginary lint from his sleeves, something he does when he’s upset.
Amrit shut his eyes. “I can’t go back there.”
Pinkie brought his hand to her lips, the IV line moving up with it, and she kissed his knuckles. “Who sells ice cream in mid-November? I’m suing,” she said. “Negligence, attempted murder. Bad driving record, no doubt.” Pinkie the lawyer would flatten the ice cream man in court.
“Just an accident,” he said in a quiet voice.
“An avoidable one,” she said. “Don’t you go soft on me. What if he’d hit a child, a pregnant woman? another old person? What if he killed you? What then?”
Qurban agreed. “Thanks to God we’re not making funeral arrangements. That would have destroyed Mum-ji and Daddy-ji.”
Amrit ran his fingers through his hair. “Not likely.”
Qurban frowned, leaned forward. “It’s not like you think, Bhraa."
“May I come in?” a man called, knocking on the door. Carrying an ivy planter Lew Harris stepped into the room. “Mr. Singh?”
Amrit and Qurban nodded. “Came to see if you’re okay. I didn’t see you in the cross walk until it was too late. I’m sorry,”
he said, removing his cap, his face, haggard. His arms trembling, Harris extended the plant toward Amritpreet, which Pinkie grabbed and set on the table near the bed.
“You could have killed my husband,” she said, her voice sharp. “Then what?”
“Well aware of that ma’am. I’m relieved it wasn’t worse,” he said. He turned to Amrit. “If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, please call me.”
Amrit saw himself in Lew Harris, old but still struggling to make a buck and remembered hearing Papaji’s voice. “I’m still
alive,” he said. “Thanks for checking in,” he said, meaning it.
Harris shook Amrit’s hand, a gentle but firm grip. "Obliged,” he said, flashing a sad smile before shuffling out of the room.
“He didn’t come here out of the goodness of his heart,” Pinkie said, tossing the plant into the trash can where it landed
with a thud.
“Don’t,” said Amrit. “He came. That means something,” he said. His chest throbbed, and he grew sleepy.
“Means he’s covering his ass. We don’t need his lame peace offering,” she said.
Qurban retrieved the planter from the trash can. “Why not give him the benefit of the doubt?” he asked.
“I don’t want a court case,” Amrit said, afraid because of his junkie past.
"On principle,” Pinkie said.
Two days later, Amrit returned home with a broken leg, several broken ribs, bruises covering much of his body, and prescription strength ibuprophen for his aching body.
Pinkie remained home for a week and afterward, her mother visited regularly, prattling about how “her beautiful Noor” could have done far better in the husband department, her vitriol competing with the TV volume, which he increased to block her grating voice.
As the weeks unfolded, he grew stronger but fidgety, irritable and moody. He didn’t want his wife to support him. He wanted to provide for her, but how could he look for a job now? Frustrated, he hobbled around the apartment looking for things to do, but fatigue forced him to nap on the couch. He uploaded resumes to two job sites then quit. The wasteland of daytime TV sucked his brain dry. His leg throbbed and itched under his cast where he couldn’t reach it, and his chest hurt, despite a brace. Small things annoyed him: Pinkie’s damp hair dripping water in the hallway rug; his parent’s solemn silence around him; Qurban’s dastaar, turban, sitting on the kitchen table and his brother combing and re-coiling his butt-length hair into a neater topknot in the kitchen where hair can get into food, rather than the bedroom or bathroom; but his mother-in-law’s endless insults vexed him most.
“Tell her not to come,” he told Pinkie one Sunday.
“It’s better if she comes. I’ll know for sure you’ve eaten.”
Surrounded by containers of smooth, sandy colored stones and stained glass, concentrating on her mosaic project, Pinkie sat at the dining room table and spoke without looking at him.
“She can come when you’re here.”
“She does the laundry,” Pinkie said, intent on her project.
“I’ll do the fucking laundry,” he yelled, unable to contain his anger.
“Whatever. She’s my mom,” Pinkie said, staring at him. She held a piece of red glass, and Amrit wanted to smack her hand, imagined the glass sailing across the room and shattering.
He shuddered, retreated to the bedroom, fearful of doing something regrettable. In his idleness, his addiction did pushups. Nightmares stole his sleep, and his libido receded, even for the most tender and least physically demanding intimacies. Craving the ecstatic inertia of being high, which he imagined to be better than this current torpor, Amritpreet found himself toying with the idea of just one hit.
After Pinkie left for work one morning, he cabbed it to Lexington Market where he could score for twenty bucks. He told the cabbie to wait, slipped inside, spotting the junkies scratching themselves due to the drug’s itch.
“Hey man, you got 50 cent for the bus,” said a man with dirty clothes, untied sneakers without socks, unwashed sandy hair framed a sunken, almost skeletal face with blue eyes the color of dirty water. Amrit had used the same tactic at this market,
and waved the guy away.
The man stared at him. “APS?” he said.
A star quarterback of the high school football team, and a kick ass trumpeter, Rod looked like a sixty-year-old in grunge
“Didn’t recognize you, man,” Amrit said, careful to keep his voice neutral.
“You look great, man!” Rod’s expression turned wistful, forlorn for a second before reverting to its previous mask. “You here to boom bang?” Buy and get high.
Vowing he’d get only one hit, Amritpreet hesitated before blurting, “Twenty.”
In an alley behind the market’s rear parking lot, Amrit boomed, exchanging a $20 bill for the small bright blue heroin packet he dropped into his pocket before hurrying to the waiting cab. He directed the cab to stop at a Walmart where he grabbed a box of diabetes needles from the pharmacy, a lighter, and some antibacterial wipes.
At home, he locked the deadbolt, snagged a pair of Pinkie’s pantyhose, and locked himself in the windowless bathroom. The pantyhose tourniquet tight his thin thigh until a vein bulged, he ran the antibacterial pad all over his skin, cooked the smack with the lighter, watching it liquefy as he’d done so many times, pulling it into the syringe and injecting it, the blood wash back tingeing the liquid, and he sank to the floor, waiting for his troubles to evaporate.
The 15-second rush superseded the one from the first time back in India, enabling him to endure the 10- hour long trip that followed, the conscious, but surreal waking visions, the buzz equivalent to the pleasure of having sex and eating a bowl of ice cream simultaneously. Oh how he missed this feeling! When the kick evaporated, Amrit wrapped a wad of toilet paper around the used needle, stuffed it into the WalMart bag and hid it under the rubbish in the bathroom’s trash can along with Pinkie’s pantyhose. He hid the needle box in the back of his closet behind shoe boxes, knowing he’d return to Lexington Market for one more hit tomorrow.
He avoided Pinkie after she came home late by staying in bed, feigning sickness.
CONTINUED TOMORROW ...
June 5, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 05, 2012, 11:27 AM.
Ms Scalia obviously knows something about the breakdown of society post-1984 ... looking forward to Part Two!
2: Amandeep Singh Sandhu (Delhi, India), June 12, 2012, 11:40 PM.
I am so proud of you, Rosalia! The way you have traversed cultural boundaries and plunged into the Sikh psyche and emerged with stories that resonate. Kudos! Keep up the good work!
3: Sudhanshu (Delhi, India), June 16, 2012, 9:37 AM.
Amazing stuff, Rosalia ... Simply amazing. I agree with Aman ... very proud of you!