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Newfound Grace

Newfound Grace

Kirby Johnson

NewfoundGrace.jpg

Raj stood in the entryway of his cubicle, staring out of the office window, watching one of his coworkers try to back his car into a too-tight parking spot. The mid-sized SUV lurched forward and backward until its broad ass fell center within the two white lines and two much larger SUVs next to it. The rain had started with a sort of clatter—a large rumble, really—that had brought everyone out of his or her cubicle for a moment. They all watched as their coworker squeezed from behind his car door and ran to the building’s lobby.

Even after the excitement of watching people run from the parking lot into the building had passed, Raj stood there watching the cars in the lot below get their first wash of the summer. He could hear everyone saying things about the rain. There were the Thank God’s, the Well, now traffic is going to be horribles, and other low, distant grunts. Raj continued to stand at his window and watch the rain as he imagined his wife sitting in their shared apartment with his mother, bored and watching TV, then went to sit at his desk.

It rained the rest of the night and through the next morning. When Raj got to work the next day, he drank his coffee, a sweet milky mixture made from dark roast beans and chicory, as he watched the rain fall on the cars again. His coworkers came in one by one, wet from the showers. No one owned raincoats in a place like this. They didn’t have monsoons or pleasant summer downpours. All they had was wet hair and soggy shoes. He watched them dry during the hours of morning as they moved from the copier to the break room then back to the copier. He had always thought his coworkers looked like the dull cows that were allowed to tramp around back home. They were so dumb and slow, and he took a gentle pleasure in imagining that one day a man would come and herd them all to Kerala or one of those other places where they took the poor, unknowing creatures for slaughter.

Back home, he had still lived with his mother and wife but their apartment had been smaller. The space wasn’t a concern to him, though, as they had a patio with French doors that allowed in a breeze. His apartment in the states didn’t have a patio or even windows that could open. It had a large AC unit that hummed all day and vents in the walls to pump in cold air. On the weekends when he would wake from his midday nap for tea, it wasn’t like home. Even though his wife, Darti, a gentle woman with delicate hands and long hair, would serve him the same tea and vadas she would in India, it wasn’t the same. There was no breeze to wake him with the smell of the crispy treats coming from the kitchen and no sounds of vendors singing their wares outside before the afternoon storm. His home in America was a series of white rooms in an apartment building that was sealed as tight as a plastic box.

His home in America was a series of white rooms in an apartment building that was sealed as tight as a plastic box.

The rain continued over several more days. The newsmen reported no end in sight. Yet when Raj pulled up to work during a particularly heavy downpour, he noticed that the office building had somehow been transformed. It no longer looked like a wet cement block but had become a beacon. From the car, the gray walls took on an iridescence and the florescent lights of his office glowed warm through the windows. The light was no longer the typical greenish-blue hue, but instead was warm like the sun. He was early to work, but there were people already inside, dark silhouettes moving with papers and thick books in their hands. He left his vehicle with reluctance and noticed a dull ache in his step as he walked, shielding his head from the downpour with a newspaper, to the bright, glowing building.

Within hours, Raj’s whole body began to ache--first the large joints in his arms and legs, and then the flesh that wrapped around the small bones of his fingers and ankles. He went home that evening to soak in a bath, but it didn’t help. Darti worried over his newly aching joints. She rubbed them with oil before bed, but as the rain kept pouring, Raj’s joint’s kept aching. And although he thought he should be used to the downpours, Raj felt his body saying No, not this rain. Not this place.

That night, Raj dreamed of his first monsoons with Darti. She would come home to their flat from the market just has the rains began, her hair and sari wet. He was not working yet after college; his parents supported him during his first year of marriage. He had always been a modernist and insisted on living outside of his parents’ home with his new wife. His father obliged despite Raj’s mother’s protests. Americans didn’t live with their parents after college, and Raj believed that there was no reason why he and his wife should either. Raj had always wanted to be as American as possible. He studied computer engineering exactly for this reason. His dream was to get a job in America and after his father’s passing, he did just that.

In the mornings during the new rain, Raj could hardly move to get out of bed and into the office. At work, everyone went about his or her day more gracefully than ever before. The newfound grace was subtle at first. The receptionist stopped using her headset and began to answer the phone with her hands. I’ve never felt better! she said. It’s amazing. I’m not even using those sticky things on my back anymore. Smell that? It ain’t menthol; it’s roses! Raj looked at her with the large, painful eyes of a cow traveling to the end of his life in misery. He knew this rain wasn’t the same as home. It was something new, something indigenous to this place filled with office parks and fast-food chains. It was like how the milk was sweeter at home but was toxic to tourists. The rain was like milk to these people: a sweet syrup of nourishment but painful for one whose stomach wasn’t accustomed to it.

Raj looked at her with the large, painful eyes of a cow traveling to the end of his life in misery.

The office was a shelter from the storms, but it was more of a circus to Raj. One morning, Raj turned from his desk to see Laura, the girl who had the cubical across the hall, lift her leg above the copier to rest it on the wall as the machine collated and stapled. Once he realized what she was doing, he turned quickly away but not in time for him to avoid her eye contact completely. Raj couldn’t help but blush when Laura turned from the wall and smiled. How could people act like that?What are these Americans thinking? Raj later asked Darti and his mother over dinner. It had been raining for what felt like weeks and he could barely stand upright. Even taking the recycling out to the curb at home was a chore. His wrists had turned inward and his ankles had swollen to grapefruits. By the following week, the rain had slowed but the weather forecast predicted two more weeks of showers.

Darti cared for Raj with the patience of a nurse while his mother made herbal pastes and teas for him in the kitchen, all while bickering about going back home. Their efforts didn’t help. Adding to the swelling joints and cracking skin, Raj began to crave things he had never wanted before. He would let the lunch his wife prepared for him sit in the fridge at work while he drove to Taco Bell to order three chalupas and a Choco Taco, devouring them secretly in his car. He began to drink Mountain Dew. Somehow, he thought, if I just give into these cravings, I will be just like them and the rain will make me feel better. He ate everything that he could, anything he saw on the TV, andhe drank the electric green soda while sitting swollen and hunched over at his desk. Raj believed at times that he was feeling better, but then he would move and joints and ligaments would pop or tear.

His body wasn’t returning to normal, no matter what paste his wife massaged into his joints or tea his mother made while cursing America in whispered breaths, but the office was increasingly more animated. People came to work wearing athletic gear. Some would lift weights at their desks, and after several weeks, the auditing department moved their offices from the basement to start to audit people instead of the books. Women in the office would giggle as The Auditors came into cubicles and lifted them above their heads. The Auditors left no stone unturned, no body left sitting. Raj began to fear them, and would crouch behind the water cooler or walk as fast as he could to the bathroom when they came toward his desk, his bones creaking and popping as he moved.

By the third month of rain, a trapeze was erected in the lobby. Sandwich trays were ordered during every lunch, and the staff would circle around the safety netting and yell things like, Swing higher! and, Triple flip, triple flip! Eventually, the smell of sandwiches and sweat would draw Raj, now bloated and hunchbacked, from his cubicle. He would stand in the back, a small glass of Mountain Dew in his cracked, arthritic hands, watching as the director organized everyone, making sure each person had his or her turn to do flips and other tricks. The director or receptionist would yell for Raj to join in, but he would choose to sit off to the side, watching the bodies fly through the air while he dreamed about the sweet smell of rain back home.


Kirby Johnson is the founding editor of NANO Fiction and the editor of Black Warrior Review. She just started a blog about never leaving her apartment, manichouse.net

Illustrated by Meher Khan.

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