Siddharth Arora has no way of knowing it, but today is the last day he will ever see his mother. He is on the armchair in the family room, straining his ears so he can hear the television. His father and Barry Uncle have been making a racket all morning, and Siddharth has been trying to watch a game show. His mother thinks he is too young to watch game shows. Thinks he should spend time on better things. Going to friends’ houses, or having them over. He enjoys these things. But would trade them all in for the television. He could sit in front of the television every waking hour of the day. He wouldn’t mind sleeping in front of it.
His father hates the television. Thinks it is evil. A cancer that will ruin the greatest civilization on earth. His father thinks he should spend more time reading. Arjun reads a lot. Arjun studies and gets good grades. In two years, Arjun will be away at college. The thought of his impending departure sometimes keeps Siddharth awake at night.
Siddharth clicks his tongue. Says, You wanna keep it down?
Barry Uncle is perched on a ladder behind one of the sofas. White leather sofas that Siddharth’s mother has recently purchased against his father’s wishes. Barry Uncle says, in his raspy voice, Hah, boy? Speak up.
Siddharth scowls. Says, Keep it down!
Barry Uncle chuckles, then coughs. Says, Boy, you don’t need to hear that show. You don’t need to listen to those blondes. Just sit back and admire the beauty. Barry Uncle rests a knife on the leather sofa. Wipes his shiny brow. Says, Have a look at that redhead. I’d buy a washing machine from her any day. I’d buy ten. Reminds me of my ex. Before she blimped out, that is.
Gross, Siddharth says. But he is pleased that Barry Uncle has spoken to him about women. He turned ten five months ago, and thinks they should speak to him like a grown-up. They should speak to him the same way they speak to Arjun.
His father, Mohan Lal, is wearing shorts and a green collared shirt that is stained with paint. He says, Siddharth, didn’t you hear your mother? Get off your butt and go!
Two minutes, he says. The show’s gonna be over in two minutes.
Mohan Lal says, With you it’s always two minutes. He hands Barry Uncle some sort of tool. Says, Try this, it’s wider. It will give you more leverage.
Barry Uncle says, Gimme a dull rock for all I care. Says, Mind over matter. You hear that, boy? When it comes to the hard stuff, it’s always mind over matter.
Whatever, says Siddharth.
Mohan Lal and Barry Uncle are removing the old wallpaper from the family room. The wallpaper is a mural of trees and a river from some national park that Siddharth has never visited. He wants the family room to look sleek. Modern. Like a mansion in Beverly Hills or Fairfield County. He wants the family room to have a modern black lamp from Europe, a modern black lamp right beside the new leather sofas. When his mother bought the sofas, she told Mohan Lal to relax. That she knew how to care for their household. Mohan Lal exploded. Said, Yes, I’m an idiot! I know nothing about caring for my household.
Siddharth hates it when they fight. Each time they fight, he worries about divorce. He has learned at school that half of all marriages end in divorce. But his parents usually make up quickly. The night they fought about the sofas, Siddharth stayed up late with his ear pressed to their door. At first, his parents exchanged angry whispers. But then he heard rising laughter. His father’s laughter. His mother has a harder time laughing after fights.
The sound of footsteps. It distracts him from an advertisement for a toy he wishes he could own. His mother’s footsteps. Shit, he thinks. Shit is no longer a new word, but he still feels a small thrill upon uttering it. The Connor boys from next door started using it first. Eric and Timmy Connor have taught him many new words. Cunt. Dyke. Motherfucker. He feels older when he uses these words. Stronger.
He turns his head and glimpses his mother. Swallows. Knows he must accept that his time in front of the television is over.
His mother says, Siddharth?
What did I say? Go get ready.
But I am ready.
He watches his mother check herself in the hallway mirror. The mirror hangs beside the ugly Indian sculpture that her sister gave them on her first and only visit to America. His mother is parting her closely cropped hair down the middle, patting it down with her pudgy fingers. He misses her long black hair, which used to fall in a braid down her back. But Mohan Lal prefers this new manly style. He was the one who encouraged her to chop it all off. Mohan Lal said short hair is the mark of a modern woman. The mark of independence. Arjun said, Dad, this is a free country. Let her do what she wants.
Siddharth notices his mother is showered and ready, wearing pants and a tucked-in shirt. A silk shirt with a floral print. She is ready, in case the hospital calls her in. The VA hospital that she hates. The VA hospital where she has worked for the past twelve years. Today she is on call, and Siddharth hates it when she’s on call. For then he might have to be alone with his father. But today Barry Uncle is here, which means there will be laughter if she goes. There will be chatter, even if it is about Gandhi, Warren Hastings, or the Mughal Empire. Siddharth hates it when they talk about India.
His mother says, Don’t be smart. Go get the brushes, fill a cup with water. Use a paper cup. And put some newspaper down on the table.
It is Saturday, and his mother gives him art lessons on Saturdays. Together they make cubes, bowls, and cups. They shade them in with special pencils. Lately, his mother has been placing various objects on the table. A pear, a candle, a spoon. And he has had to draw these objects. After he sketches them in pencil, he and his mother mix watercolors on the back of plastic yogurt lids and paint them. She keeps all of their art supplies in a brown plastic tackle box. He wishes they would use the box for something important, like fishing. Mr. Connor is an expert fisherman.
He sighs. Says, Okay, in five minutes. I’ll do it in five minutes. He wonders if it won’t be so bad if his mother gets called into the hospital. Just for a few hours. Then he’d miss his art lesson. Then he’d get to stay on the armchair.
Barry Uncle whistles suddenly. Says, Looking sharp as usual. But I miss that long black hair of yours. That hair was something gorgeous. It was sexy.
Siddharth grimaces. Says, Gross.
Mohan Lal says, Chief, your problem is that you are always looking backward.
Barry Uncle says, Boss, I don’t know why you’ve always been so ashamed of tradition.
His mother clears her throat. Says, Barry, I’ll let you know when I need your opinion.
I love you too, sweetheart, says Barry Uncle.
Siddharth sits up, stretches his arms toward the ceiling. Heads toward the closet outside of the bathroom to get the brown tackle box with the art supplies. But on the way there the phone rings, and he turns to grab the yellow receiver. In case it’s the Connor boys. In case it’s his brother, checking in from Hartford. Something might be wrong in Hartford, where Arjun has been for the past two days at a youth-in-government conference. Something might have happened to Arjun.
His mother beats him to the phone. She says hello, then laughs. But it’s not a happy laugh. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Says into the receiver, What can I tell you? We could have avoided this. Says, I told him not to do it, but he’s always in a rush. He never listens. She puts the phone down, grabs her purse from the white leather sofa. Grabs her keys from the drawer under the phone that holds the yellow pages, the takeout menus, and the postage stamps. Kisses him on the head and walks out the door.
Many years from now, he will blame himself for wishing that call to come. He will wonder, as a rational, atheistic adult, if the universe was trying to teach him some sort of lesson. But in that moment, all he feels is relief. Contentment. In that moment, he feels powerful. Lucky. Wonders if he should wish for other things. For money. For his parents to buy a Japanese luxury sedan, or perhaps an Audi. For Barry Uncle and Mohan Lal to shut the hell up. For them to be called away too.
* * *
The rest of the day slips by in a blissful haze of game shows, cartoons, and reruns. His mother calls once to say that she will have dinner at the hospital. She’ll probably sleep there because they might have to operate on somebody in the middle of the night. He is disappointed, especially since Barry Uncle has gone, and his father has become grumpy. Mohan Lal has made him change the channel to public television, which is airing a program about the fall of the Berlin Wall and a new era of peace and prosperity. As Mohan Lal watches his program, Siddharth lies on the leather sofa with his feet on his father’s lap. He daydreams. About Chris Pizzolorusso’s birthday party next weekend. It will be at Skate World, and it will be his first boy-girl party since the first grade. He daydreams about their upcoming family vacation to Florida. Maybe Arjun and he will pick up girls. They have plans to go snorkeling, and he wonders if they might find a sunken treasure in the middle of the ocean. Then they’d be rich. Then his mother wouldn’t have to be on call an ...