SMALL ADJUSTMENTS • by Rheea Mukherjee

My Aunt once told me that love comes uninvited. She offered no context, and because of my young age I did not demand one. She was a widow who fell in love at an inopportune time. My disapproving family called him Old Man. He was fifteen years older than she was, and lived in a small white house with a big garden, south of the city. Old Man had a brown three-legged mutt named Congo who sat under the guava tree, his mouth either hanging in surrender to the sun or chewing on a fallen white flower from the tree. I’m the only one who ever saw Old Man’s house.

I knew how much she loved him; I knew every trip to his house was a secret, hours that were never supposed to have existed, chunks of time that I would be left to recreate for my mother, when she asked me about my day. Aunt never told me not to tell; I just understood.

That year, during my summer vacation, I had begged to stay at Aunt’s place for a few days, so we could bake together and watch old Hindi films. Aunt had promised we would do all of those things, but at Old Man’s house instead. It was a small adjustment; pleasing Aunt was a task I craved. Old Man had opened the black gate, his face soured with concern when he saw me. He asked her if my being here was safe; she just smiled at him in response. Her curly hair dangled across her high cheek bones, she smelt of roses and musk — a smell she always wore to his house. Her smile immediately made Old Man relax. The change was physically visible, in the way he stood, the way his legs lay flatter on the ground with every reassuring tilt of her head, his wide hands hung more effortlessly from his shoulders, and finally, most apparent when his thin lips parted into a smile of his own. He lifted me to the air, kissed my cheek and pushed me into his chest as he hugged me.

“Little Mango, you are a special child, one with the maturity of a sixty-year-old, and here I am sixty-one, having the mind of a child.”

“You don’t look like a child. You look eighty-four!” And Old Man chased me until Congo barged out of the front door, and did his unique three-legged hopping in excitement, jumping, his only front paw on my chest, his mouth a wet mess on my face.

There was a surprise for me in the house. Old Man was taking care of his neighbor’s son while his family attended to a family problem in Chennai. The boy sat on the couch, a green tennis ball in his hands; his teeth were clenched, as if he were imitating a cartoon character.

“Can I play with the ball, too?” I asked. And the boy in reply threw the ball with all his strength at my face. I did not cry, even though Aunt almost started to. My upper cheek was bruised, and as Old Man and Aunt hovered around me, placing ice on my face, asking if I needed to go to the hospital, I didn’t reply. Instead, I turned my head towards the boy; his face had paled with fear, his eyes softened and his teeth no longer clenched. I called out to him with my hands, “Want to play now?”

The boy came running to my side and solemnly nodded his head. I got up, and took his hand, pulled him to the garden. I heard Old Man murmur after me, “The maturity of a sixty-year-old.”

His name was Amit and for three days we played in the shade of the guava tree, cutting guavas into varied shapes and allowing Congo to chase us around the house. In the evenings Aunt, Old Man, Amit and I would watch movies: Mother India, Chandani, and Sholay. During those three days my Aunt called my mother only once, and when I took the phone, I said we were doing fine, baking, watching movies, and going to the market.

I try not to, but I do remember the way Aunt’s face paled to the shade of cotton bed sheets as she saw my mother and father in front of her house as we arrived back in an auto. She had taken a deep breath in and had told them we had gone out for a day trip. But my parents knew better, they snatched me away by my arm, and then my mother noticed the bruise on my cheek and her voice echoed with a new ferocity.

“And that monster beats children too, is it?”

I didn’t see Aunt for years after that. I only heard of her in snippets: the catering business she started, how she didn’t take phone calls from my grandparents. Sometimes I would hear another family member talking to a friend about all the shame Aunt had brought on the family as they drank tea from flower-patterned porcelain cups.

I never saw Old Man again; I heard from family he died when I was seventeen. When I turned twenty-seven, I reconnected with my Aunt (in spite of my parents’ disapproval) and we started a new friendship, one where we never talked of the past but possessed the understanding that our bond was thick because of it. I never told her about the day I stood in line to buy tickets for a movie, and recognized him immediately, standing near the entrance, red cardboard box of popcorn in his hand. Even though he was two feet taller with facial hair, and a mole I didn’t remember him having on the left of his forehead, I knew it was Amit.  I did not tell her that, for entire moments, I inhaled roses and musk, and my tongue tasted the tangy-sweet of unripe guava.


Rheea Mukherjee received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ultra Violet, Southern Humanities Review, CHA : An Asian Literary Magazine, Bengal Lights, Foreign Flavors Anthology and JetWings Magazine. Her previous fiction has been a Top 25 finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. Her unpublished collection of stories, In These Cities We Dreamed, was a Semi-Finalist in the Black Lawrence Press, St Lawrence Book Award, 2011. She co-founded and facilitates Bangalore Writers Workshop. She lives and writes in Bangalore, India.


Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • I love the language in this. The absolute simplicity of it all. 5 stars

  • The overall feeling was that this piece needed another edit, and I found the long, block paragraphs were a bit uninviting.

    I would also have liked to have known why Amit was initially so violent.

  • Tee Ways

    I like this a lot. It’s a beautiful tale. It does look a bit long, but time flew by as I read. A lovely little vignette about life.

    My grandmother referred to her stepfather as the “Old Man,” and I kept expecting this Old Man to turn out awful. So it was a nice surprise, for me, that he was really a nice Old Man, after all. 🙂

  • Joanne

    Wonderful storytelling. I could read a whole book like this.

  • What Joanne said. Five stars.

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  • I love the sensual descriptions in this story. I’m craving guavas now, and their sweet perfume.

  • Abdullah

    Nice story telling…. So what happened to you and Amit? Is that Guava taste symbolic…??

  • JenM

    An amazing story, paked full of subtext, espically involving family politics. I’m sure everyone has some experience wit family politics, whether it’s your own or others. This is absolutly true to life. Five stars.

  • Rob

    A very good story. I enjoyed the way you just plunged us into the family politics, the way the MC was. So many things people get aggravated about are irritating ‘just because’. So many things unfair, so many things unsaid. Just life.

    Well done.

  • anonymous

    brilliant work..as always. the details made it feel like it was a movie condensed in an elegant short story.

  • Carol Folsom

    Beautiful. Touching. Loved it.

  • Chetan

    Very rarely we get to read such simple stories. Was a good read! Thank u!

  • I appreciate all the comments. Thank you very much for reading. Be well, everyone!

  • It’s a pleasantly fluidic read. Loved it. Thanks Rheea.

  • PM

    Smooth dive into a whirl wind called ” life”, subtle touches here and there like an impressionist painter; and leaving the reader with questions and assumptions in mind- perfect short story. Good job! 4.5 star !

  • Chennai looks wrong for a story not set in the present; it only got renamed fairly recently, from Madras I think.

  • Excellent story. Loved the main character’s maturity and the tangled mess of family issues explored. Awesome job.

  • P.M Lawrence, you’re right. Madras was renamed Chennai about 16 years ago, but somehow the city is so concretely Chennai in India now, I let it stick. Something to chew on, thanks for that observation. And thank you everyone else for your comments, I truly appreciate.

  • Gail V

    Great story. 5 stars from me.

  • Such a well done story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rheea:

    How beautifully you write. The charm and the depth of human emotions were brilliantly captured.

    Where can we find more of your works?

    Joy always,
    Susan

  • Simone

    Excellent! I enjoyed every morsel.

  • Thanks Everyone! Susan Deborah, thanks for your note. You can email me at rheeaakka@gmail.com, I’ll be happy to share more work with you. Be well!

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