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Short Story: Is that you darling? Are you home?

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By Achyut Dutt

It’s five and already a chill is in the air. The multi-storied ANRAD building is still humming with activity, but, for you, there are not going to be any more late evening meetings. No one is going to be calling you up. You rise slowly, drape the Kanuk overcoat over your shoulders, and step outside, closing the door of your tiny office.

You walk slowly down the corridor, swarming with eager young faces rushing about, files and folders in hand, balancing cell phones with their chins. You walk to the bank of elevators and wait. Unlike the executive elevator which you once rode non-stop down to the reserved parking every day, this one stops at each floor before it opens up finally in the lobby, 60 floors down. That’s okay by you.

You step inside the elevator and as you shrink back into a corner your thoughts go to your house. It seems a bit too large now. Something smaller in Vaudrueuil-Dorion will do just fine. With enough room for Arnav and Tina and their families to come and stay in, when they visit. You’ll call your real estate agent, first thing tomorrow.

As the elevator stops at each floor and the crowd ebbs and flows, your gaze falls on the logo by the door. It says:  ‘Always building strength – in your defense’. The words are spread over a single jagged bolt of  lightning. You’re transported back to the first time you saw that logo. Your first day at work and how it had all begun, a long time ago.

First there is the adrenalin of the final interview and then the euphoria of the call from someone called Kristie ‘suggesting’ that the CEO would like you to join the team. That you have been shortlisted to spearhead a new initiative – to develop a game-changing new recoilless pulse rifle from greenfield to commercial production.

The screening process ended with lunch with the CEO, Patrick Hansen, in the exclusive Connecticut Golf Club. Hansen is a great one at massaging egos. He makes you feel like only you could have filled that position. Like as if they’d been searching all over for someone just like you and then you appeared and accepted the job through some divine intervention.

“You can call me Pat,” says Hansen, arms widespread and a broad smile as he guides you to a sofa and leans back into the cushions right opposite. He makes it sound like it’s a done deal. You feel like the keys to the kingdom have just been bestowed upon you. Patrick Hansen is a real smooth talker. Relocation expenses, no problem; the sky is too limiting.

“Kristie has briefed you on the joining bonus, yes? Let me know if it meets your expectations. We can always work around it, if necessary,” he’s patting down the icing now, “A suite is reserved for you and your family at the Queen Elizabeth. Till you find a home. I’d suggest Westmount. Bill and Doug have their cottages there. Peaceful and quiet but still a stone’s throw from downtown. The Sacred Heart Convent is practically next door. Our Annie goes there. I’ll get Kristie to have a word with the principal, Gwen Arnold, no problem.” He is referring to the exclusive $21000 tuition per year girls’ school for your daughter, Tina.

North American senior executives get personal real fast. They’ll open up their homes to you, have their kids play with yours, insist on driving you to Sunday golf. Insist that you address them by their first names. At the weekend charity gala, his wife will ensure your wife and she have matching outfits. You’ll be ‘family’.

Pat knows all about you, every wart, make no mistake  about it. And so do you, about him. You’ve taken the time to do some research of your own on your future boss. American, heavily built, ex-Navy aviator, he drove F4s for six years. Approximately 240 sorties from the 93000-ton Kitty Hawk, Carrier Task Force-3, 7th fleet, Gulf of Tonkin 1963-68. Legion of Merit and DFC, twice recommended for the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor recommendations were for conspicuous display of extraordinary bravery. A crippled A10 Warthog was making an attempt to touch down on the heaving carrier deck in pitch darkness and very choppy seas. The pilot tried his best but made a mess of it. The jet weaved in drunkenly at 150knots, hit something on the deck, turned turtle, hurtling and skidding to a halt, precariously close to the edge, 200ft above the churning waters. As the massive carrier pitched and yawed in the swells, the Warthog slowly slipped and slid toward the tipping point. Meanwhile, jet fuel gushed from the ruptured wing tanks and slowly spread over the tarmac as flames began to sizzle up from somewhere behind the cockpit. Lt Cdr Pat Hansen of the 25th Pathfinder Squadron, stepped out of the shelter of the rear 12inch gun turrets and walked briskly to the upturned jet. He had a crowbar in his hand. He smashed a hole in the already cracked canopy and yanked the pilot, a Capt Joe Schwartz, from the cockpit.

Capt Schwartz reported later that as he was being pulled out, Hansen looked at him and said in mock severity, “What the f—‘s takin’ you so long, Schwarz, there’s turkey for dinner, f’Christ’s sakes. Now go clean up and get yore ass to the mess hall on the double.” The A10 exploded as they reached the base of the flag bridge.

Retiring from the navy, Rear Admiral Pat Hansen joined the private sector and he’s been kicking asses since. A ruthless administrator, he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And right now, he isn’t done yet.

“We want you to be at home, feel comfortable, grow old with us. What’s your wife’s name again? Rani, what a charming name. And don’t forget to call Kristie, if you need anything at all”. The icing is a bit overdone but you’re not complaining. And he still isn’t done yet.

He leans back, his arms raised, elbows bent, hands joined, pudgy fingers locked behind, supporting the bullet head. “After you set this thing up and get it going, Arch (he’s already anglicized your name, from Arjun), I want you to go down and expand our Indian operations. India is where the future is. I believe it. The board believes it. We’ve got to get in there and now.” He settles back on the cushions. It looks like he’s finally done.

“Another brandy before we part? You must be tired”. You know a dismissal when you see one. You make polite noises and take your leave.

You catch a cab and come home in a daze. You’ve just signed up to join one of the world’s largest defense contractors. You look at the rusty  ten-year-old Mazda3 in your driveway. It has served you well but now it’ll have to go. ANRAD Vice Presidents are given fully loaded Cadillac Escalades by the company and you’ll have one too. Plus, a luxury sedan can be had for your wife, with a generous loan, advanced at zero percent payable over 15 years. You make a mental note to check out the Jaguar dealership sometime this week. It’s all unreal and suddenly happening very fast.

Soon as you are through the front door, Rani rushes up and springs into your arms. Like you, she’s besides herself. She keeps hugging and kissing you and cooing and gurgling, “I love you so, darling. Congratulations! I knew you’d make it!” she whispers.

You gaze down at Rani. She’s beautiful. Has been, ever since you first spotted her at a ‘bhaiphota’ at your friend, Shibu’s house in Sewri,  forty-six years back. When you married her, it had to be a simple registered marriage as you couldn’t afford a fancy ceremony. And besides, her prosperous parents had refused to attend since you were a Kayastha and she a Brahmin.

The first home you two moved into, with your worldly possessions inside a weather-beaten suitcase, had been a tiny one-room apartment that Rani had tastefully furnished, with the little things that you could manage to buy. And when you used to come home from work, you’d find Rani on her haunches, leaning over the coal burning chullah, flipping phulko rotis (Bengali nan bread) for dinner, her soft hands singed repeatedly by the flying embers. Hearing the front door open, she’d look up with unconcealed delight and call out, “Is that you, darling, are you home?”

You’d step forward and try to take her hands in yours but she’d hide them behind her back. You’d reach around her, puzzled, find them and lift them up to kiss them. It’s then that you’d notice the tiny burn marks from the stove.

The years have flown fairly quickly after that. After moving to the west, Rani and you had one more child, a son, Arnav. He is going to Stanford since last August. Tina lives with her husband Dieter in Schwedt. They have a cottage by the Elbe. And Rani. It’s now a year since the very light of your life, your Rani, passed away, consumed by the cancer which had galloped unchecked through her thyroids.

And back to you. The new product line was a huge success. It’s now one of the main revenue earners. The Indian stint saw ANRAD blossom into a major player in India, employing over 3000 engineers and staff. You’re still with ANRAD, though not in the ‘Penthouse’ any more.

A few months after Rani was gone, it began to show. You finally got gently eased out and moved into a tiny office four floors down. VP-Communications Strategy is what the plaque on your office reads. You have your own fresh-faced, temporary intern for an assistant. All your personal volumes and knick-knacks have had to be carted home as there’s no space inside your new office. You have only one photo standing on your desk. A tiny framed picture of Rani, a baby Arnav in her arms, with Tina standing by, clutching her sari and leaning against the Mazda3.

And Pat Hansen? The Rear Admiral had made landing on pitching carrier decks an art. But two years back, one balmy Sunday, his personal Embraer Phenom100 jet cartwheeled and blew up in the middle of the Teterboro strip as he was coming in to land. He was killed instantly. The accident is still being investigated.

The elevator sighs to a final stop in the lobby. You jerk back from your little reverie, straighten, and walk slowly out, buttoning your coat as you approach the plate glass doors leading to the sprawling basement parking lot.

It seems an effort today, you don’t know why. Home and a shower is what I need, you say to yourself. A ‘geeta path’ (group reading of holy Hindu scriptures) is organized at Shankar Mullicks’, later in the evening. Today is Janmashtami, the day Lord Krishna was born. And Shankar’s wife, Sumona, won’t let you leave without eating, afterwards.

The walk to your tidy little Mercedes B-series hatchback is an unusually long one today. You regret your habit of parking it way behind in that dark secluded corner next to the emergency exit. As you walk, the rows and rows of cars seem endless. You never realized how huge this place really is. You can see the car now. The silver grey seems to stand out, even in the gloom. You’re tired and you decide to rest for just a while on the bonnet of the Volvo standing a few cars away. The Volvo has been lying there for the past few days; its owner, Bill Mullholand, having gone on an overseas sales trip.

As you lean against the bonnet and try to turn your head, you keel over slowly and spill onto the garage floor, your head coming to rest next to the Volvo’s front tyre. You gaze up and through the mist, you hear it clearly. A voice you’ve heard a million times before. A voice you’d come to love more than yourself.

“Is that you, darling, are you home?”

Illustration: Achyut Dutt

Author:

Achyut Dutt, 59, builds jet engines at Pratt and Whitney Canada. To read more about his take on life, just google ‘spunkybong’.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

 

 

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2 Responses to “Short Story: Is that you darling? Are you home?”

  1. lopu123

    Dada, such a moving, poignant story blending the past and present within the narrative as a unique tapestry! The calling of memories are haunting, but at the same time, our pasts are what bind us in love, empathy and understanding. Your story connects us to the unforgettable ties of our yesteryears, as the present calls upon us, makes us revel in it and surrender to it. Simply loved the characterization and the flow of the entire story. The ending made me mist over, absolutely!

    Reply

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