Long Distance Death
by Brinda Banerjee
Andre Zachalenko, the apartment complex super, stomped in the front door at number 102, determined to project displeasure at being dragged out on that rainy morning to do his job. He inhaled the aroma of cinnamon, cloves and fried onions in the air. His native Russian cooking smells were vastly different. He pretended not to notice the tenant bite her lip, chagrined at the traces of mud he left on the floor. Shutting the door behind him, she followed him into the kitchen. The linoleum floor shone, the nondescript oak cabinet doors gleamed as though polished. The only incongruous item in the neat kitchen was the sink. Bubbling with foul brown fluid, the sink was overflowing. The superintendent grimaced and sighed. “You people, with the rice – you use sink trap?”
“Yes, I do use the trap and I never let rice go down the drain. This keeps happening to this sink – can you please fix it properly this time?” her voice was sharp, Andre wondered if his condescending attitude was irritating her. “I have complained before – this sink on top of the noisy neighbors next door – we are so harassed – we should move!”
He shrugged and setting his box by the sink, kneeled with a grunt to start the messy job that lay ahead of him. She was right about her neighbor being a nuisance – they got the most complaints about number 103’s parties. She let him get on with it, quietly moving around the small apartment. He watched out of the corner of his eye, the thick swathe of wavy black hair that fell to her shoulders. She wore worn rubber flip flops, white with blue straps. Her skin was dusky; when she was in a better mood, her smile was breathtaking. Twisting his pliers onto the sink pipes, he told himself he had no time to be thinking of her smile or frown. All he knew was, these tenants were not Grace’s favorites. When his wife Grace, who was also the apartment complex manager, had tried to coerce these two into paying some extra under the table cash in return for letting them the apartment; they’d been incredulous and had refused to pay. Grace had dropped hints in her heavy Ukrainian accent saying she’d worked hard to ensure that they got this apartment. The woman had widened her eyes and asked, “So is the apartment available or not?” shaming Grace into handing over the keys.
They’d been there for about three months now and were quiet renters who gave no trouble at all unlike their immediate neighbor at number 103, Tom Harris. Andre knew the pipes in the old buildings were rotten and the sink blocking itself repeatedly was a sure sign of deeper internal issues, but even if Grace agreed to apply for the additional repair budget, it would probably not be approved. He had to put up the brash façade and keep implying it was the renter’s fault. He could hear her in the adjoining living room, humming under her breath. He frowned, straining to hear the unfamiliar arrangement of notes, he and Grace both enjoyed classical music, they were Wagner fans. Her music sounded strange, yet hauntingly beautiful. He knew she sang and played a string instrument, from India presumably. He did not know what it was called or what it sounded like. It was long like a guitar, with four strings and a spherical bulbous bottom. It sat on a low table in the corner of the living room.
The phone rang, startling him, the clamp almost slipped from his hands, he heard a murmur of voices as she answered. He could not discern when the tempo of the rain outside changed; it was now battering down mercilessly on the kitchen window panes and he felt his arthritic knees seize up in response to the moisture in the air. Grimacing, he pushed himself up, and wiped his hands on the greasy rag in his pocket. He registered the sounds of weeping from the front room above the pattering rain; and his stomach constricted with fear at the threat of emotions on display. He shoved his implements into his bag and shuffled toward the door, keeping his head down.
As he passed, he saw that the phone had slid down and was lying at her feet. Her head was in her hands and she was sobbing with abandon, unaware of the animal sounds she was making. Unable to help himself, like a rubber necking driver passing a wreck on the road, he stared. He started forward, compelled by an urge to comfort her and make the sadness go away. “Miss, what happened?”
She looked up and seemed to realize he was there. Wiping her face with the back of her hands, she stood and swayed. “What happened? Can I help?” His words died in his throat, as her face turned ash grey and she sank back onto the sofa. Galvanized to action, he got a cup of water from the kitchen and sprinkled some on her face. She reacted immediately, her thick black eyebrows meeting in a frown over her nose. Alarm sparked on her face, when she opened her eyes and met his bright blue eyes set in his craggy face. “You sit, lady, I get tea.” He stomped back to the kitchen and set the blue kettle on the stove. He brought over the sugary strong hot tea over to her and sat in front of her. She cupped her hands around the mug and held it close to her chest looking frail like a sparrow.
“She loved me the most in this world.” Her words were a jolt, just as he bent to pick the phone up. He looked up at her, questioning.
“My grandmother.” she said.
“How old?” he responded, understanding in a flash, her keen grief.
“Eighty five, she died in a nursing home five hours ago,” Her voice was dull. “They cannot wait for me for the cremation services – it is too hot in India. It will take me at least twenty four hours to get to Madurai.” He cleared his throat. She looked up. She looked stronger now. She set the mug down and said, “Thank you, Super. Thank you for the sink and the tea.”
He recognized his dismissal and stepped toward the door. She had turned back to the phone and he guessed she would call her husband, Aniketh. She gripped the phone as it rang, her eyes shut tight. When his harried voice came on she let the tears fall, and she told him “Appa called, my Ayya passed away this morning.” The husband probably stumbled, saying he was sorry. “Maya..Kanna..” his whispered term of endearment, sounding tinny and faint to Andre, brought fresh tears to the fore. She sobbed, unable to speak while Andre and her husband listened, helpless. Andre watched her shaking shoulders for a moment, and then left gently shutting the door of the garden style apartment behind him.
Andre recalled the feelings of complete infirmity when a loved one passes away - no amount of will power could change the inevitable, yet the grief was always forceful. As he trudged up the road past the nondescript blocks of apartments, his first wife’s accidental death in St Petersburg riots in 1991, blazed back to him in a painful torrent of memories, untarnished by the years of being deliberately tamped down at the back of his mind.
Grace did not understand. He sometimes thought she had a deformity, a metal heart. “Number 102 in bad shape, Grace,” he remarked, still immersed in the scene he’d witnessed. Grace shrugged, raised a sardonic eyebrow and blew out cigarette smoke, and remarked in her nasal voice, “Andrushka, high time you got back to work.” Their life together was a second chance for him. He’d met her in New York, when he had first come to the US from Russia, broke and lonely, at thirty five. She’d found herself this job first, as manager of the apartment complex and then she’d got him his job as superintendent. He was handy with tools and had sometimes worked as a plumber in Russia. That had been fifteen years ago.
The next day Andre hesitated, his hand poised over the doorbell, thinking she had probably left for the grandmother’s funeral, in India. He pulled his keys out and looked over his shoulder, furtive in his movements. He wanted, more than anything in that moment, the luxury of being able to explore Maya’s home. He could not stop himself thinking about the brief interlude when he’d witnessed her private moment of intense grief. He pressed the door bell, just to be sure. He started, when she opened the door looking wan and withdrawn, wearing a white cotton tunic over white pajamas, her eyes still, filled with sadness. “Is the sink, is fine?” he stammered.
Over the next couple of days, Andre found himself making excuses to knock on her door. He knew she caught a bus to a medical school, for classes in the morning, so he made sure he made his rounds in the afternoon in her area of the sprawling apartment complex,.
“I have to check your sink,” he said when he knocked again the day after. “I have to check the water line for few days to be sure.” She still wore white cotton pajamas. He had heard someone mention it was customary for Hindus to wear plain white clothes during the mourning period. “You are going, funeral?” he ventured that day, gesturing toward the clothes.
She looked up, faint surprise in her inky eyes. “No,” she said after a stark pause, during which Andre cleared his throat and pretended to tighten the sink pipes. “We cannot afford it.” Her short laugh sounded jagged: had he skirted too close to some private contention? “Three months working, living in this dump, saving, scrimping and we have nothing to show for it.” Andre gathered his implements, keeping his head down, embarrassed by the information. She swung around, making Andre jump. “Even if I made the trip, what is there in the end? She is gone. It is pointless.”
On the fourth day she told him, that for thirteen days after the day her grandmother died, she would perform the customary prayers and they, she and her husband, would eat only boiled rice and boiled vegetables cooked in one pot, with no salt or any other condiments. She did not have to observe these rites. In Madurai, her father would shave his head. There, the customs would be observed with elaborate rituals and daily prayers. Several people, relations and acquaintances would visit, bringing the grieving family fruit and sweets. In the one bedroom apartment in Yonkers, New York, she mourned alone with only Andre as a visitor. Andre understood her aloneness in her grief in a way that even that husband of hers did not.
Maya had not practiced her singing at all in these last couple of days. Now, she reached for her tanpura and stroked it lovingly; she leaned her head on the smooth wood of the instrument and closed her eyes, strumming the thread and relishing the twang that helped her ground the notes. Andre, passing by the ground floor apartment heard the clear voice singing and stopped to listen. It was a pure voice and though he did not understand the words, he could appreciate the music.
It had been Grace’s idea to ask applicants for cash to help the rental process along. Usually it worked very well. People understood Grace’s convoluted remarks immediately. Andre always grinned to himself, when he recalled the day this young Indian couple had walked into the rental office. Grace could not get the two to slip any money across the table. The woman had acted as though she did not understand; and didn’t expect such petty corruption in this country. In fact, Andre overheard her remark to her husband something to that effect as they left. “Could she really have meant that? In India you’d expect this, but here in the US?” Andre could not rationalize the spark of jubilance he’d felt at their minor victory over Grace, who had hated them ever since. He did recall clearly the woman smiling at him as they left the rental office: a smile so full of pure triumph and hope for the future, it had left him breathless.
Grace had exacted her revenge on the unsuspecting couple by assigning them the one bedroom flat adjacent to the studio rented by Tom Harris. Tom was twenty three, from Alabama and worked in retail - sporadically. The super looked at Tom’s flat next door to Maya’s, distaste curling his lips. Nearby residents always called to complain about number 103 and the loud parties that disrupted the peace. He’d threatened Tom with the police countless times to calm him. Today, the fifth day after Maya’s grandmother died, he’d decided to call in person and let Tom know that he might be evicted - not only was he late with rent, but the neighbors’ complaints had got the attention of the board.
He rang the bell. No answer. He rang again, leaning longer on the bell this time. Out of the corner of his eye he noted a movement in the next door window – Maya was watching him. At last, the door opened a crack he pushed it and slipped his foot in. “Listen here, Tom,” he began and then stopped, startled. It was not Tom but a woman with huge eyes that stared, insolent and sullen. “Who..who are you?“ he stuttered.
“Tom’s not here. Come back later,” the woman’s lips curled in response to his eyes wandering over her body. He could not help himself; she was wearing a thin cotton short shift and with an effort, he met her eyes. It was an interesting face, emaciated collar bones and cheek bones jutting out, pale blue shadows beneath her eyes. “Tell Tom he owes rent,” Andre said. ”He turned out in week..if he can’t pay up.”
She laughed aloud, a rich deep sound, briefly energizing that dingy apartment. “He’s gonna love that,” she smirked. ”He’s working today and maybe he keeps the job this whole week - then he pays you rent.” She’d wandered off toward the window and he watched fascinated, as she bent and lit a cigarette.
“Who are you?” He was curious in spite of himself.
“His sister.” She looked defiant, challenging him to dispute her claim.
The super suddenly noticed a small boy standing by the studio’s bed behind a ragged curtain. “Who’s that?” He felt foolish, as he pointed at the boy, whose light hair glinted golden in a passing ray of the sun. The woman’s voice was soft as she said, ”That’s Joshua, my son.” He took in that information, his nose wrinkling at the smells in the studio apartment. There was a blackened pot on the stove, the walls behind it stained. He frowned. “You tell Tom to clean up - he’s gonna lose deposit if he can’t keep clean!” The boy looked up at Andre. Andre turned away, unexpected guilt curdling his stomach, somehow brought on by the small boy’s innocent eyes. Maya was standing at her window as he left, staring searchingly at him as though she expected him to say or do something. He spat on the sidewalk, irritated again, not knowing why; and stared at the bare tree branches stark against the pewter skies.
“Tom had kid in apartment,” he told Grace.
“Rubbish, Andrushka,” she responded, laconic. He watched her jaws rhythmically crush the minty gum, and the blood rushed in his ears, as he felt his anger push against the stony façade of his face.
“You see child everywhere. How Tom can have kid in the apartment? He has no family, I’ve seen his records, no next of kin or contacts listed.” She dismissed him, returning to her nail filing.
On the sixth day after her grandmother died, Andre found Maya outside her apartment door, listening with a troubled expression on her face. He stopped beside her and was just going to ask her how she was, when the next door apartment door opened and the boy ran out. “Go to hell! You stupid fucking woman!” Tom’s voice bellowed, as the boy ran into Andre’s legs. Andre put his hand on the boy’s shoulders to steady him and knelt down to face him. The child was trembling, reed thin, he felt delicate as spun sugar, to Andre.
Maya stepped forward, “What happened?” she said.
Mute in his fright, the child only shook his head. Maya straightened up and announced, “I am calling social services. This child is being abused in this place.”
“Where is your mom?” asked Andre.
Now the child looked up and whispered, “Inside, fighting with Tom. Can you make them stop?”
The woman came out then, and circled the boy’s shoulders. Defiance hardened every bone in her body as she said to Andre and Maya, “What are you standing around for? Ain’t no circus here. We’re fine, go away!”
Andre said, turning to Maya, “Don’t call social service – boy has mother.”
On the seventh afternoon, Andre stopped short in surprise as he saw Maya sitting on her front stoop with the boy by her side. The boy was busy stuffing some food into his face. “He was hungry. The one pot khichdi I made in my grandmother’s honor, drew him out here!” Maya said, shielding her eyes with her hand as she looked up into Andre’s face. “Though, if she knew what kind of high school drop-out neighbor I have, she’d be shocked.” He thought he heard some laughter in her voice, he could not be sure.
On the tenth night after Maya’s grandmother died, when the hysterical call came, Andre could not make out for a moment that it was Maya’s husband Aniketh on the phone. He stumbled out of his bed, pulled on his sneakers and grabbing his flashlight, ran towards Maya’s unit, yelling at Grace to call the police.
The glass in the front window of Tom’s apartment had cracked, the inside walls looked black and evil with wisps of smoke drifting out. He grimaced, as his nose detected the miasma that hung around the building. The panicked neighbors milling around added to the chaos. Apart from the acrid smoke, there did not seem to be an actual fire, which was lucky. The building with all the adjacent apartments would have burnt down, if the fire had caught. The explosion had woken them, Maya’s husband was saying. Andre, asleep in the apartment manager’s unit on the opposite end of the complex three quarters of a mile away, had not heard a thing until the phone rang. They’d already called the police but there was no sign of Tom. The police cars drove up, the flashing lights casting their eerie neon brilliance on the stunned faces gathered. The officers said the fire brigade was following. Then they began their proceedings, taping off the area, entering the studio, beginning to question some of the gathered crowd, including Maya’s husband. “We were woken by a banging sound at around 1 am,” Maya’s husband said. “I looked out the window to see two men staggering on the sidewalk. They were laughing hysterically. One of them was Tom from number 103.”
“The explosion was not loud – I wasn’t asleep. Apartment 103’s music and maniacal laughter had me awake anyway. The bang came just as I reached the end of my tether..” an older woman offered. “He was a drug addict..”
“..Stark lunatic..”, said someone in the crowd.
“Meth junkie!” said another.
The first policeman stepped out from the studio carrying something in his arms. Andre watched Maya start forward. The policeman held out a peremptory arm to hold her back, “Only medical professionals allowed, Miss.”
Maya shouted, ”I am studying medicine!” stressing each syllable, as the accent of her childhood surfaced, triggered by her shock. She dropped to her knees, by the child that the policeman laid out on a blanket. Maya bent over him, expert fingers running over the tiny still body as she examined him. “He’s burnt! He needs help!” Andre exchanged a glance with Maya, his own horror mirrored in her eyes. He stumbled up and told the policeman about the mother he had seen earlier. She seemed to have disappeared as well. The ambulance arrived and carried the child away, Andre watched the vehicle with the wailing siren leave, was he imagining it, or was there an accusation in her gaze– maybe she should have called social service that other day.
Andre did not see Maya over the next few days, as he and Grace were kept busy with the investigation on the explosion. Andre worked tirelessly, stepping through the charred and burnt rubbish in the studio apartment with the police and the investigators. Whenever he remembered the small boy with his large staring eyes, he’d feel depressed anew. He’d then force himself to conjure up the image of Maya fragile in her white cotton clothes, shielding her face from the pale winter sun.
It was the thirteenth day after Maya’s grandmother died and Andre knew the day was significant. What had she said - was the funeral held then or was it that she gave up wearing those white mourning clothes? He tried to remember what she’d told him as he walked toward Tom’s apartment. Their car, a dark blue used Toyota pulled into the designated spot as he approached. He watched Aniketh open the door and help Maya out. She leaned into him, a small figure in white cotton, like a dandelion about to blow away in the breeze. Andre nodded at them. Aniketh barely saw him, Maya’s eyes met his. He started. Her head. It was shaved. The perfectly formed scalp denuded of hair. She was so beautiful in this shorn state. He looked away and quickly went into Tom’s empty apartment.
Later he hunted the huge garbage bins outside Maya’s building. Hair, black and long. It must be there still. She’d shaved it that day. Garbage pickup was not till the next day. Fifteen minutes later Andre stepped back empty handed, breathing hard. He looked around, self-conscious, and strode away.
Perhaps on the twentieth day after her grandmother’s passing, he saw Maya in the small neighborhood park shoulders hunched, in her olive green parka and jeans, sitting on the bench. He smoked his cigarette as he watched Maya for a few minutes. He grimaced, feeling the magnetic pull toward her. What could he say to her, without bringing on that look of alarm that always bloomed on her face? He threw the cigarette away and squaring his shoulders, approached. She looked up; recognition glinted for a split second before she looked back to the horizon. “How are you? Not seen since big explosion.” His broken sentences sounded inadequate, even to him. A silk scarf covered her head and ears, knotted at her throat, the old fashioned look reminding him of home. She nodded politely still silent.
“You know,” he began. Her glance, aloof and intimidating was knife sharp in his chest. ”I been wondering..about boy.”
Her eyes shot to his face suddenly chary. “You mean the boy in the apartment that burnt?”
“Yes, yes the little boy.”
The chill melted in her expressive face and he felt rewarded, like a child. “What happen to him?” he stammered on.
“I found the boy.
“He’s ok. He will be going to a foster home this weekend. I found him in the hospital where I go for my classes. I looked for him in couple different hospitals. I had to pretend to be a relative. Why?”
“No reason. Just curious. Usually Indians ..mind their own business.”
Her face flushed at his words, and then cleared. Andre hoped she’d decided he did not mean to offend.
“Aniketh and I were first on the scene that night. He is a child neglected by some drugged adults. Burnt, injured. We could not get him out of our minds. You have to wonder what kind of people does the company let apartments to, huh?”
“Yes, you right. Grace reviews applicants. More careful now. Tom looks good on paper...” he responded. He cleared his throat again, and then said, “I..could not stop thinking, about child. You, you did something about it.”
She looked away.
“No trouble later? Explaining?” he asked.
“Some – there was confusion. I’ve learnt a lot about American social services in these last few days! But it was worth it to be able to visit and help him. I never imagined such a man would be living next door to us,” she said her voice still fluctuating with fury. The child’s guileless eyes flashed across Andre’s mind - eyes that seemed to exculpate everyone, unaware yet of the injustice of his sufferings.
“I went to the apartment couple days before ..for rent. Saw boy and the mom. You saw her too next day? She disappear – said she was Tom’s sister.
“I..I thought she take care of boy. But..” Andre’s felt his throat constrict.
”Oh yes. I should have called social services that same day,” A brief moment of silence ensued, and then she rose to leave.
The super turned too, thinking the drama next door had distracted her from her dead grandmother. “You did thirteenth day ceremony?” he asked, again driven by that inexplicable force, desperate to pull her back to him. She turned back, surprise sparkling in obsidian colored eyes. “Yes, I did. We went to the temple on the thirteenth day and completed the rituals, I shaved my head..for my grandmother. I donated it in the temple.”
“Is that custom? To shave head?” he asked.
She looked at him for a moment before shaking her head. “No. Not usually, for women. I felt like doing it.”
At last the investigation muddled through and the apartment company was given the clearance to begin repairs. All Andre could glean from officials was that Tom and the sister were still missing, and both were wanted for charges of possession of illegal substances and child abuse. The repair team got busy fixing the walls of the burnt apartment over the next few days, overseen by Andre.
A few days later, Andre watched as Maya unlocked the door of their overheated apartment and let herself in. He thought of the way the ice from her rubber boots would fall on the oak floors, melting instantly. She’d unwind the itchy woolen scarf from her neck and hang it up with her parka in the narrow hall cupboard. Perhaps she’d put on the blue kettle on the stove for tea and come to the window humming; maybe she would practice her singing. As he watched, the workers began digging up the water lines. Miraculously, Grace had not reacted, when she’d glanced over the requisition for repairs that Andre had prepared. He had slipped in the water pipes to Maya’s apartment as well.
He looked up and saw she had indeed come to the window. Andre waved, eager as a boy, admitting to himself his need for her attention, and his dogged waiting around for those few seconds of contact with her. Opening the window, Maya leaned out.
“We fix the water pipes in your unit. No more clogged sink.” He saw Maya’s stiff face relax and her dry lips curve into a smile, the reaction unfamiliar now from all those days of mourning. In a rare flash of intuition Andre knew with certainty that Maya grieved still, and moreover she never would ever think of him. The frigid air forced her to withdraw and she pulled the window close.