[The story was first published in Cafe Dissensus Blog, a part of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]
These last few steep steps always exhausted him most. The swiping in and out of the grad space, walking into the newly cleaned washrooms for one last time before heading out, stepping out of the library that opens on to the massive park, flipping out a cigarette that will last him all the way to the subway station, puffing the dregs watching the crazy fantasy shop across the street, and stubbing the butt in the garbage bin before taking the steps down to the swiping entry – Amaan had done all that everyday this past year. He feels reassured every time he swipes his monthly card in the turnstiles. The strange odor of a mélange of human excrement, sweat, and unpicked trash hung in the passageway that connects the entry to the platform. He had been always curious to track down the source of the odor but his attention was diverted by those pictures of unusual architectural achievements on the wall of the passageway. He was surprised to see the picture of a new structure in Cochin that had been built by one of the New York architects. There were pictures from all across the globe – a convention center in Barcelona; the places of worship in JFK airport; the ambitious palm resorts in Dubai; an all-glass community centre in Lisbon; the high-rise in Cochin. For some strange reason, he always felt happy seeing the picture of an Indian city among such global hotspots.
The station is near-empty at this time of the night. He had learned over the past few months the exact location for boarding the train so that he could get off right at the landing of the steps leading to Fulton Park. A goods train filled with trash-bags momentarily halted at the station. There was nothing unusual in that. As the frequency of trains reduced at this hour, goods trains were allowed a free passage for carrying garbage to be deposited on the outskirts of the city. He once saw a picture of empty beer bottles choking the mouth of the East River. The professor doing the presentation had drawn the attention of her audience of the hazards of unmindful waste disposal. She had asked her audience to appreciate the efforts put in by the waste management workers who tirelessly work to keep the city clean. Amaan saw the driver peering out from the cabin of the static train; the bored workers sat on the pile of sack full of garbage and gave out vacant looks. They seemed to be sleepy, he thought. May be, he was feeling sleepy. His mother would always ask the woman working in the house to deposit the garbage at an empty space next to their house. These small Indian hamlets that had not yet been upgraded to municipalities did not have a garbage disposal system. People threw their trash wherever they found vacant space. The A train trundled down the track and came to a screeching halt. He recognized the faces of some of his co-travelers. They never spoke but often saw each other traveling late into the night. This city barely encouraged intimacy.
The compartment stank of stale booze and urine. He saw the bundled figure in the corner seat. The patched rug, the crumpled clothes, a pair of torn shoes, a crooked bottle of water, and a pile of old newspapers heaped in the cart. He felt repulsed when he first encountered these people in train. He no longer felt the same nauseating feeling as the stench became bearable in a few minutes. He came to accept the subway as more than a mere means of transportation. The men and women sang to the accompaniment of drums begging for money; the jobless youth boarded the trains during daytime hawking Oreo cookies, cheap perfumes, and stuffed toys; the teenage kids came after the school armed with music system to dance and ask for money; at night, the train gave shelter to the homeless who carried all their possessions in small carts.
He had grown up seeing beggars and hawkers in trains back home. It was, however, quite a shock to see people begging on train in this mighty megalopolis. He has grown used to all that now. He dozed off before arriving at Utica Avenue. He walked past the subway workers spray-cleaning the platform and dragged himself up the steep flight of steps opening on to the park. He often sat on a bench before heading toward his apartment which was a seven-minute walk. Coming out of the grimy subway station, he liked the greenery and openness of the park. He could let his mind at rest for a brief while before his thoughts strayed to piles of reading, writing, and assignments. Tonight he decided not to laze in the park as the air was chilly. He walked to the corner of the park from where he would take a right turn and another left before reaching his apartment. He knew this like the back of his hand. He missed seeing that guy who usually slept on the corner bench in the park. Once he saw him fighting with another man for the bench. The cold must have driven him away tonight.
Amaan was shivering when he reached his studio. It was a daily ritual to check the mailbox before putting his key into the door-lock. He couldn’t keep the letters piling up as the mailbox was leaking from the top. The metal cover at the top of the back hung loose making it easy for the snow or water to seep in. He was often annoyed with the carelessness of the mailman who either deposited his letters into someone else’s box or dumped others’ into his. Sometimes he found his letters on the small shelf at the entrance. The old wooden staircase creaked as he squeezed through. The vinyl flooring was worn off exposing old wooden floor; the edges of the steps had chipped off in places.
He was excited to start his graduate studies in New York City. He was familiar with the main attractions of the city much before he arrived. Once in NYC, he found it remarkably similar to many of the cities in the sub-continent. The crowd, the innumerable traffic lights, the old dilapidated buildings, people selling wares on the sidewalks reminded him of Calcutta. Only people seemed to be much busier, more impersonal, and avoided eye-contact. It was difficult to land an apartment at a reasonable price. He couldn’t afford to pay exorbitant fees for a Manhattan apartment. The real-estate brokers showed him apartments in Brooklyn. He chose this apartment in a poor locality of Bed-Sty. The blind-alley in front of the house kept the place silent. But then occasionally that balding guy who rides his bike on Sunday mornings shattered the quietness of the street.
He switched on the laptop after settling in. It was part of his daily ritual of catching up with news back home. He decided not to buy a television set because he had never been a fan of soap operas. The things that he liked most watching were sports and news. He gradually lost interest in sports and mostly watched news now. The newscaster read: “57.5 percent of Swiss residents voted to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland.” Propping up two pillows against the wall, he reclined on the bed. It hurt his back but he couldn’t forego his favorite posture for relaxing. On most days, he dozed off as he listened to news. His laptop slid off to one side of the bed.
The fatigue soon took over. He was floating in and out of sleep. In his half-awake state, he could feel something darting from under the bookshelf and over the carpet. He ignored it the first time and went back to watching news. In a few minutes, he felt a strange sensation as he saw a dark object moving from under the bed and heading to the kitchen. This time he could spot the tail, absurdly long for a tiny mouse. He always had an aversion for mouse as he thought of them to be slimy. For the rest of the night, he could hardly sleep. The thought of large mice walking over the blanket came back to haunt him. In the house he rented while working at a hill-station, the mouse invasion mostly started at night. He felt strange sensations as they ran over him at the dead of night. All he could do was to wrap the blanket around him tight, leaving not an inch for them to slide in.
Over the next few days, Amaan launched a massive mouse-hunt. He tried the glue-trap from the local convenience store. The mouse was smarter than he thought and carefully avoided the trap. He ordered a mousetrap online. He had no idea before that amazon sold such insignificant household items. After about a week, he woke up in the morning and went straight to the tiny, airless kitchen. He peered into the small holes of the trap and found a furry gray ball. Its shining eyes made his heart melt. Back home, the trapped mouse is almost always drowned in water. He thought how to dispose of it. It has been snowing for almost a week and the temperature dipped below the freezing point. He decided to place the mouse trap near a pile of snow. He went to bring the trap back after about an hour. The moisture from snow made the fur crumple together in knots. The wide-open eyes looked shinier and soft, as if begging for mercy.
When he returned to the studio, he washed his hands a few times. There was a sense of elation mixed with a tinge of sadness. He hurried to the morning lecture. The walk across the park was always pleasant. The flight of stairs did not seem all that steep now. Swiping in the turnstile, he ran down the last few steps before rushing into the train. He settled down to the normal rhythm of his life and forgot all about the mouse.
It was after about a month, he woke up early with the sound of rustling plastic. He knew it was coming from the kitchen. Half-awake, he dragged himself to the kitchen, almost stumbling against the cheap Ikea center-table. He looked into the garbage bin and found two furry balls happily chewing the leftover food and vegetable peels. Their long tails hitting against the plastic of the garbage can.
[I started writing the story more than a year back. There might be some stylistic unevenness.]
I loved the flow and mood setting in the story. Nice. Can I get your e-mail, need to ask you something about the doc. program.
Thanks, Bina! Yes, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org