The meeting had been short, a lot shorter than Ashok had assumed it would be. He sat in a plush leather chair, his jittering hands clasped together under the glass table, as if he could have hid them. It struck him that the office, and conference room, was mostly empty, clean and pristine. Large foot-to-ceiling windows looked down over downtown Washington. The capital’s infamous traffic slugged down K Street, anonymous civil suits working extended lunch hours to transfer reports from one government office to another. He tried to keep his attention on his interlocutors, rather than the miniature taxis and buses, but as the minutes passed on, it was getting tiresome.
The table was bare, save for a disc-shaped telephone speaker and the file folder Ashok had brought with him, containing his work particulars. They’d flipped through it, the resumes, the degrees, the certificates, the letters, all in seconds, almost as a polite gesture, and pushed it aside. Again, the efficiency of such an exalted job struck him with curiosity.
For such a high-powered job, with responsibilities and guidelines, where he would have his own desk with a nameplate, where he would wear a suit and attend development meetings, Brian and Chris had only mimicked the routine from the day before, a sort of tag-team question and answer where it felt they were only talking to each other, and not to him.
Why had he come down? He hadn’t told anyone about the meeting. When he emerged from the trailer, the crew had assumed, as he had, that it was his effective termination. He told them it wasn’t, just a heavy reprimand about his disobedience. Strike one of the customary three, in American terms. He went on to tell them that in India, as a child in school, any infractions were met with the sharp end of a ruler, on the butt cheeks or even worse, between the knuckles. And then the issue was forgotten almost immediately. It was almost disturbing to Ashok how easily his exotic Easterness distracted his coworkers for more distressing matters.
“Now, how are you with administration?” Brian asked.
“You know,” Chris said. “Making sure the project grows and develops properly. Knowing how to handle people, tell them what to do, then fix it when they fuck-up.”
“Kind of like looking after a bunch of children,” Brian said. “Wouldn’t you say, Chris?”
“Yeah, sure, why not? What experience do you have there, Ash?”
Ashok remained silent for a moment. Then he spoke. “In…raising children?”
“No, no. Administration.”
Ashok sighed, and gave them an answer. He talked about the light fixtures that fell through, the track work that fell behind, the workers who arrived late and were cut loose. He told each of these as a functionary, machine like process he executed as easily as chewing and swallowing food. The problem was reported and he came on-site to see it through. The curious efficiency Brian and Chris and their office projected to him.
“Okay, sounds good,” Brian said. He took the file and tamped it down, then handed it back. “We’ll be in touch.”
“You have any questions,” Chris said, “Let us know.”
“I do have one now,” Ashok said.
“Oh. Okay, shoot.”
“How much faith do you have in this project succeeding?”
“Yes, faith. Hope? Confidence?”
“Bottomless,” said Chris, teeth beaming.
“Immeasurable,” said Brian. “With what we saw at the site and what you’ve told us Ash, we feel so strong about it.”
Ashok shook their hands and took the elevator down to the parking garage. As he hunted down his car, lost in the stacks of concrete pillars and ramps, he considered what he didn’t mention to them. That how in reality, those days where something went awry, which was most days of the week, involved only he and Chuck or Reggie, standing at the edge of the site with cups of stale coffee, watching a maintenance man languidly try tool after tool until one worked and the light, track, or whichever started operating again. And invariably, it would break once more and they would return. This was the job, no more, no less.
He found his car and drove out to the pay toll. The attendant rattled off the fee, twenty-five dollars.
“That much?” Ashok said, aghast.
“It’s normal around here,” he said, shrugging. “You didn’t get it validated?”
“Some of the offices will validate your ticket, so you don’t have to pay.”
Ashok sighed. He could have asked, if he’d known about such things. He could go back now and see, but then how would that look? As he pulled out the last bits of cash from his wallet, he suddenly realized how much he needed this job to come through.
The bed was cold beside him when Ashok got up that morning. His wife had already risen. Downstairs, he could hear the pressure cooker making it’s searing whistle noise, and the faint smell of turmeric popping in oil. He looked at the clock, saw that it was ten minutes past the time he’d intended on waking, and pulled the covers closer over his body, luxuriating in a sensation he hadn’t experienced in many years. After a few more minutes, he got up and went into the shower. With the warm water running over his back, he thought of the many mornings when he would walk through the front door, the chilly dew hitting his face as he walked to the car and started it, then let it warm as he went back inside for a quick cup of tea. Upstairs he would hear his wife wake their son, and he would be gone before she’d properly gotten him out of bed.
When he came out of the bathroom, he saw his suit laid out on the bed. It was as if some heavenly being had whisked its way through the house, rearranging things bit by bit as if to send him through a time portal and live a life that had left him so long ago.
He dressed as quick as he could, but as he struggled to put on the tie, a task that had always frustrated him so much, his wife walked in, as if on command, and clawed at the twisted knot that chocked him. Without a word, she undid the entire thing, and refastened the loop. She always knew somehow, despite never having worn one herself, the right ratio of thin end to thick, the exact taut to wrap around. Silently, he watched her in the mirror, the back of her head staring back at his face. He saw wrinkles he hadn’t known before across his temples and forehead, and made himself believe that on the other side of that greying scalp, his wife was still as young and fair as the day they’d circled the sacred fire.
Only once the tie tightened against his neck did she speak.
“When will you be back home?”
“Well, it goes late into the night, I think.”
“I will wait for you,” she said.
“Don’t worry yourself,” he said, looking still at the scalp in the mirror
“Who said anything about worrying? It’s nothing for me to wait a few hours to eat. Look at me, I don’t need too much food anyway.”
She still held onto the tie, fiddling with the knot, as if it was a work of art still incomplete.
“The tie is good,” he said.
“It needs to be perfect.”
He dared to look down at her. It was not the vision he expected; there were no tears, no somber trembles in her lip. She looks only at his neckline, discerningly, meticulously. It was here he realized, in these simple adornments, that her life lay. It was in the right amount of spice in the dinner, the creaseless shirts stacked in the closet, the ice-temperate attitude when he walked through the door, despite what kind of day he had had.
“If tonight goes well,” Ashok said. “We will be set for the rest of our lives.”
“Don’t talk like a big shot. Just do your job.”
“That’s all I’ve been doing, all of these years. Can’t you see where it’s gotten us?”
“We are still alive, aren’t we? Isn’t that good enough?” Her hands shrunk away from him. He looked back in the mirror, at the head that dipped slightly, and at his own face, questioning whether this was the image that would lead the city to new prosperous heights. The face that looked back at him was worried, unsure, and perhaps not even fully understanding of what was ahead. The body before it, shrunk before him.
He felt her warmth collapse against his chest. He put an arm around her, perfunctorily, and waited as the sobs ensued. They had not come for a long time. They had built up, and now they flowed like levees undone. He closed his arm tighter, and as he did she clutched his back. A wail muffled against his body, and he felt it absorb into him. It was a shared pain, he knew. Not because they felt it at the same time, but because just as one managed to break the surface, the other would succumb to its depth.
His put his other arm around her and closed his eyes, so as not to see her heaving back in the mirror. It made his stomach wither to see her in pain. When it happened, and it had not for some time, he never knew how to react. For him, the pain was cast out into a dark pit that he’d refilled with dirt and left unmarked. He knew only how to shrug it away and move on. But she reveled in it, accentuating the hurt and soreness, like some inverted massage.
When she was finished, he let go. She folded the rest of the clothes she had sitting on the bed, and told him tea was waiting on the kitchen table. “Get it now before it cools off.”