Vicky Victoria had met her husband at her birth father’s funeral. After five years of marriage, they would finally take a trip to India together. Suresh Viswanatha Venkataraman went back every year for Divali, but this time his wife would be by his side. They would wander the city streets, surrounded by old cows, eating pomegranates and mangoes. She would meet her mother in-law and wear the crisply starched, goldenrod sari she’d sent over, the one she’d never gotten around to trying on. Vicky’s reservation had her returning to Minneapolis two weeks later. Suresh had a one-way ticket.
Suresh had become a citizen of the New World and thought he could leave the life of his youth behind. The heat, the smells, the people. So many people. But Mumbai was calling him back as surely as Vicky was pushing him away. They were perfect together, except that they weren’t. His parents had probably been right, that he should have married another Manglik. He hadn’t wanted Chandra Kundali to rule his life, but he could feel Mars smirking as he lurked in the 8th house of his horoscope chart.
Dr Venkataraman’s parents had found a Manglik bride for him before he slunk out like a coward on a red-eye to New York. He’d been applying for positions in the US for a year unbeknownst to his family, who loved him so much they wanted to script his life. Suresh never even met Dhanya, his perfect match, who woke up the morning of her wedding to find that her fiancé had left the country. Their disastrous energies associated with the Mangal Dosha were supposed to have cancelled each other out. Dhanya’s family had been thrilled to find not only another Manglik, but a fellow doctor who spelled success and happy marriage for their daughter.
Since the food had already been ordered, Dhanya’s family swallowed their pride and dramatically married her off to a tree, with all the guests to watch. She divorced the tree the same day, with her parents’ blessing, and Suresh’s brother sent a photo of the ceremony to Dr. Vicky, care of the St Tabitha clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This was the only photo Suresh had of his past life and it was displayed awkwardly by his front door: beautiful, round-faced young Indian dressed in red and gold, her sorrow masked by bright layers of makeup, standing next to a tree. Apparently the short arborious union cancelled Dhanya’s bad energy and she was able to marry her secret boyfriend, who was neither doctor, nor manglik, nor literate, but who made her smile with her eyes crinkled up.
Vicky knew the story, but didn’t mind the woman who stared back at her just to the left of the door each morning, with her pile of gold chain necklaces glistening bright in the sun. She liked to think that Suresh had left India for her, even though they hadn’t met until Suresh had already been in the country for several months on his study visit. She continually batted away the idea that her husband had felt more for her late birth father than herself. Although she’d never remembered seeing Carl Enders in person, she looked into his grey eyes each day in the mirror and wondered if that was what Suresh loved about her. And now he was leaving her, just like he’d let that woman to marry a tree, without ever really knowing her.
When Suresh had decided to open a clinic with a childhood friend back in India, Vicky refused to leave her sister, Ping, and held her up as a shield from the truth: that she was no longer needed by her better half. The trip to Mumbai was to be a goodbye journey, one they had agreed would help them transition from one back to two. They would go for two weeks, visiting the haunts of Suresh’s late night stories and gradually letting go. They had cried together after booking the tickets, until Vicky wiped the tears off Suresh’s face and said, “I suppose you’ll meet someone new there, my big, darling Manglik. I was just your tree.” He laughed deep down, with a rumbling joy in Suresh’s broad chest that hadn’t fully escaped in five years.
“You are my twin star, Vicky, not my tree. It’s in moving away from you and coming back that we will both gain understanding.”
“Does that mean you’ll be back?” she asked, doubtfully. She knew her question would launch Suresh into one of his Hindu-inspired musings on the way the world worked, but she was grateful for any of his sing-song chatter, which would soon be absent from her life.
“Time and its cycles are much longer than you’d expect, Vicky. Billions of years from now, Shiva will still be dancing. Brahma is dreaming of us, and you will dream many dreams within his. We’ll meet again many times.”
Vicky had been sleeping on the couch for three months, but the night they clicked to confirm the trip to India, she crawled in next to her grand husband as he slept. She wasn’t sure if he was awake, but he put his heavy arm over her and she instantly fell asleep. By morning, his side of the bed was already cold. Vicky could smell tea brewing as she stood and walked to her husband, bathed in morning sun with a phone in hand. He looked up at Vicky as if he were looking right through her.
“Yes, I’ll look at it right now. Did you send it to Vicky or to me? She’s just awoken; I’ll bring it to her attention immediately. Thank you, Mike. And thank you for your discretion.” He put the phone down, but still didn’t reach to her, instead opening his laptop and scrolling as he spoke to the screen.
“That was Mike Vickie. He received an email this morning, one that Victoria had advised him to discard. He’s taken the liberty to forward it. You need to read this. It’s about your father,” Suresh said flatly as he turned the screen toward Vicky.
Vicky couldn’t imagine any aspects of her life that were worthy of intervention by the US Senate so she gathered the forwarded email must have alluded to the delicate nature of her relationship with Victoria Vickie. They had been sisters for four years and then had their father ripped from their lives, not once, but twice. They’d come together for the funeral, but like two magnets turned the wrong way, they were constantly repelling.
Before reading the message, Vicky put her hand on her husband’s forearm. “Suresh, Carl Enders is not my father. You’ve met my dad; he loves you. His name is Lothaire.”
“I know, Vicky, but…” His face turned to the screen again. The couple continued to the message, forwarded despite matrimonial objection from Mike Vickie:
Dear Senator Vickie,
We briefly met at the funeral of my colleague and friend, Carl Enders: I’m not sure what your relation is to him, but at the very least as one of your constituents, I thought you should be concerned on both a personal and professional level by the information I received from an acquaintance in Europe.
The Miscellaneous Society, of which I’ve just joined on the Board of Directors; appears to have been defrauded by someone claiming to be Carl. Our records indicate that he received a research grant in 1980 and traveled to Paris for follow-up work on color theory. His grant has been reviewed every four years since then and the address from his most recent application shows an address at a prison in eastern France.
I dug around the local sources, but I’m not the best in French and have found virtually no trace of this impostor nor the reason for his imprisonment. However, my colleague at the Assembly of Europe’s Ethics Committee was able to provide the translation of an announcement in his committee’s newsletter archives:
The European Court of Human Rights threw out the case of Carl Enders, an American physicist based in Paris, claiming that security concerns justified his living conditions in an underground cell at St. Kell Prison in a suburb of Strasbourg, France. Dr. Enders published on behalf of Upper Mississippi University and, most recently, the Miscellaneous Society. His work on color perception theory was the basis for the Goethe Institute’s traveling exhibition, Frontiers of Chaos. Dr. Enders continues to be held at St. Kell for the remainder of his sentence.
I thought you should know that the Society has suspended funding pending an investigation, but the matter has not yet been pursued due to our own lack of personnel. The matter only came to my attention at a board meeting this week and I found the situation presented a rather alarming upset to our normally mundane meeting minutes.
On a personal note, Mr. Enders’ wife, Claire Méndez, contacted me several years ago to inquire about his whereabouts. That was before his death, but I never managed to locate her when the Star Tribune published the notice of his burial. I hope to bring peace to Carl’s upended family and hope your office can provide some insight into this matter.
Vicky looked up to Suresh. “This is not the Carl Enders you knew. It’s certainly not anyone I know. Who cares?”
“I watched him die, Vicky; I saw the life drain out all at once. Your birth father is dead, I’m sure of it. I just wonder why someone would find it appealing to walk in his shoes. It certainly hasn’t gained him any favor.”
Vicky smiled. She loved the way Suresh, her broad and brilliant husband, wove words around, making all his statements sound both musical and slightly awkward.
“Well, I for one, don’t want to know,” said Vicky with minimal conviction. Except that she did.
Vicky and Suresh were checked into a cramped hotel on a pedestrian street that angled down from the Strasbourg cathedral. They’d arrived in the afternoon with little experience in jet lag and were feeling the walls start to curve with fatigue. Suresh muttered about the impact of light exposure on melatonin as Vicky’s eyes gave up resistance and began to blur.
Suresh put a heavy, but tender, hand on Vicky’s back, shepherding her from side to side. “We just need to stay up another three hours and tomorrow we’ll be fine.” He dragged her into her second wind by securing a small glass in her floppy hand. Vicky looked down at the kir, white wine tinged lavender by currant syrup, in a glass ringed by tiny painted-on children holding hands. Somehow they’d made it across the street to a restaurant.
They were in a warm dining hall overdecorated with Alsatian folklore —the same laboriously cheery children half-grinned back at them from several corners of the great room. Storks, tall almond cakes, round red hearts and cartoonish pretzels left little room for conversation, not that Vicky had much left to say.
A waiter came after several hollow and humid minutes, insisting that the bacon in the vegetarian plate was just for flavor and could by no means be removed. And so Vicky and Suresh embarked on another journey within their own—a tour of France in cheeses. The waiter brought himself to the brink of tears talking about the summer grass that only 4 authorized cows could graze on a particular patch of heaven in Limousin, resulting in the fluffy white disk before them. Vicky’s eyes were losing the power to focus again as she ascertained that the server loved these distant cows even more than her husband had loved her or her dead father.
The jealousy that Vicky suddenly felt toward a nameless bovine drove her to call back the circle of children that encased liquid respite. By glass four she was unexpectedly awake and eager to grab familiar hands across the table. “Don’t go to Mumbai, Suresh. I’m not ready to lose you yet.”
“You lost me before you found me, Vicky. In there,” he said, dragging her hands in his so he could point to the ring of children on the wineglass. “And there.” He didn’t point this time, but only looked to Vicky’s face. They both knew he was referring to her side relationship with pharmaceuticals, the lover who never left. Vicky knew Suresh could pity her, but could never understand. It didn’t seem fair that he could be so good. That he could revel in baklava, honey dripping from his smile, without that voice that whispered one more. Suresh never required a second hit.
Changing the topic to her sister, Suresh asked, “Do you want to call Ping? See if she made it there?” A friend at a travel agency had agreed last minute to change the Mumbai reservation from Vicky Victoria to Ping Victoria, so that the ticket wouldn’t be wasted. Ping had always wanted to travel and Suresh’s parents were more than happy to host their son’s soon to be estranged sister in-law, if for no better reason than to highlight their unwavering commitment to family, feeling that it would offset Suresh’s habit of leaving women behind. Ping would weave baskets with Suresh’s cousin for two weeks.
“No, I’ll see her when she gets back. I’ll probably just start blubbering if I talk to her.” Suresh had never quite appreciated Vicky’s inconvenient attachment to Ping since normally a day didn’t go by without a quick visit or a lengthy phone call to pull her out of whatever funk she had sunken into.
“I never told you this before, Vicky, but, you know how you think you saved her? With the yin and yang and everything? I did believe you. I’m sorry I laughed about it when you told me back then. I do think it’s possible. So much is possible that we don’t understand yet. I know that you carry the pain of two souls, day and night, and it has made you so tired. I love my sister too and I would take all the dark from her if I had to. But I don’t think it was Ping that you helped. She’s fine, Vicky; she’s always been fine.” Half glaring and half adoring, Vicky gazed back over the table and didn’t speak. “I believe you saved Victoria. She is still your sister after all. You’re the reason she survived. You’re the reason she kept smiling as family after family passed her by at the orphanage. That’s why she’s the superman, sweet one.” They progressed to a pitcher of Sylvaner as Suresh’s final term of endearment dispersed in the ether. “You’re like Asha and Lata, you two,” he added, but Vicky missed, as often, the obscure Indian reference. The waiter equipped Suresh with a glass to help the effort before tomorrow’s visit to St. Kell Prison.
A determined pink glow the color of the previous night’s aperitif seeped up from the horizon. “Is that sunrise or sunset, Suresh?” Vicky’s head pounded as she realized she had no comprehension of the time or space she was in.
Suresh groaned, “Well, is it getting lighter or darker?”
“I can’t tell,” said Vicky as she got up and walked barefoot down an uneven hallway and out the door of the hotel. There was neither the bustle of morning nor the chatter of evening. Just pink light and emptiness on the cobblestone street. But a low clunking tone that she swore was a cowbell could be heard and she half expected an animal to appear, one of the glowing night friends that had visited her as a child, a cow walking around the cobblestones that should have been Mumbai. She turned back to the hotel and ran down the hall to curl up next to Suresh, pondering his well-built leg that stuck out of the sheets. It had been wrapped around her a few hours ago, but she couldn’t remember how he’d pushed into her a final time, shoveling dirt over their matrimony.
Vicky looked to the hotel dresser and saw a collection of the folk-child wineglasses, two nearly full, on top. Apparently Suresh was more kleptophilic in his rare moments of inebriation and had stuffed several empty glasses in to Vicky’s purse too. Now with clear eyes and thumping head she could read the melancholy on the Alsatian children’s faces that she’d overlooked the night before, the survival-mode gaze of creatures born into a violent and seemingly-endless tug-of-war between France and Germany. These weren’t kids who screamed with glee in hide-a-beds and begged for more rainbow sherbet. These were children she could relate to. She moved her gaze up to the window and the miniscule balcony beyond. What she’d heard as a cowbell was a rusty set of windchimes, hanging from an iron stork that looked like it was flying in the morning air.
Vicky held Suresh’s hand loosely in the tram from downtown to St. Kell, a neighborhood to the south of Strasbourg. As they left the city center, the buildings gradually showed more sign of wear. Chocolate boutiques gave way to hair extension salons, then televised horse-racing bars with shredded awnings. Just before arriving, there was a stretch of boarded up homes along the tram line in what looked like no-man’s land. Finally, they passed under a bridge and rounded a corner until the tram came to a stop. A scratchy voice came out of an unseen speaker. “Kellersdorff-Saint-Charles-sur-Argent-le-Neuf. Terminus.”
Suresh reclaimed his sweaty hand and stepped out with Vicky. The tram pulled away to reveal a boarded-up supermarket and little else. A sign indicating the Saint Kell Prison led them a mere block over to the barbed-wire wall. A uniformed man in a booth sat expressionless as Vicky tried to explain the reason of their visit. She repeated, “Carl Enders” and “I’m his daughter,” three times before the man slid a small paper form under a plexiglass barrier.
“Oh, Vicky, remember you have this,” came the reassuring tone of Suresh’s voice from behind. He pulled open his travel file and amazed Vicky with his organizational skills for the umpteenth time. “Here,” he said as he handed her the letter that Senator Vickie’s office had painstakingly prepared in English and French on her behalf, unbeknownst to the Senator’s wife. Vicky slid it to the mum guard, who looked it over briefly and shook his head.
“Non,” he said authoritatively, but without expounding. He clearly was not in the mood to speak, much less explain in English, and he must have assumed that by fixing his stare at a spot on the counter in front of him that the couple they would eventually leave.
“Um, s’il vous plait, visite? Monsieur Enders?” she tried once more. The man looked up at her and sighed, then tapped his meaty finger where ‘Carl Enders’ was written on the page.
“No visit. No visit for Enders. No.”
“Pourquoi pas?” demanded Vicky, although she was certain her one semester of French would not provide understanding in the event that the guard became more loquacious. The sausage finger moved from Carl’s name to a square button on the side of the desk. Almost immediately, two officers appeared in tight, cable knit police sweaters. They each took an elbow of the pair and firmly marched them away from the booth. The man inside yelled something at the officers and they turned around. The one holding Vicky’s elbow let go and bounded back to the booth as the man inside shoved a paper back through. The officer delivered the senator’s letter back to Vicky’s hand and performed a very slight bow with his head.
“Au revoir,” the two officers said together when they had sufficiently distanced the pair from the prison then turned around and disappeared behind a concrete wall.
Vicky and Suresh looked around, not sure what to do, when they noticed a man holding a cardboard box on the doorstep of an old house that looked like an appendage of the prison. A tiny plume of smoke wafted from the man. They couldn’t tell how long he’d been there, but he smiled when they looked his way. He’d been waiting to be noticed, with a hand-rolled cigarette dangling out of his mouth and dropping bits of ash on the box. He put the box down and walked a few steps over to the couple, transferring the cigarette to his left hand. Suresh asked the man if he lived there.
“No, this my grandmother house. She die last year and we need to empty it. They will knock it down, build apartments. Very nice. Prison-view apartments. Almost as good as being on other side,” he said with a smirk. His English was lightly accented, but didn’t sound very French.
“I am Nicolas Arbogast” he continued. “So, you look for Dr. Enders? He is not a prisoner. He’s here all day, sometimes all night, but he gets paid to be here, see the difference?”
“He works here?” Vicky and Suresh said in unison. The couple who had never completed one another’s sentences had accomplished their first jinx.
“If you help me to carry some boxes, I show you how to find him.”
Suresh and Vicky looked at each other in tacit agreement. After all, they didn’t have many options at this point. Suresh stuck out his hand for the strange gentleman in the powder blue track suit. “I’m Viswanatha Venkataraman and this is my wife, Vicky.” Nicolas Arbogast eyed the woman in front of him, sizing her up in the most obvious way as he shook Suresh’s hand, but she didn’t notice as she was still reeling from being called a wife this late in the game.
“Vicky, you say? And this Doctor is your father.” He looked like he was trying to keep a eureka moment under wraps, his dark eyes just slightly widening then shrinking again. “I have maybe someone else to introduce you to. I think you will like her; she live underground. Want to meet her?” Vicky looked at the man as he unrolled the one pushed-up cuff of his pastel pant leg. She picked up a cardboard box from the stoop as her answer, surprised by its weight. A ceramic Jesus figurine peeked through the gap in the cardboard, his face painted slightly off-center.
Nicolas disappeared into the old house and returned to the door with two larger boxes that blocked his face from view. Suresh hurried to grab one as the man started to teeter. It was obviously the dimensions of the boxes that were problematic and not their heft. Vicky could make out an astounding array of muscles under the baby-blue top. She walked directly behind Nicolas so she could watch the changing shape of them with each movement.
They carried the boxes just a few meters before turning down the street. The wide pavement was empty and a bus shelter on the left was surrounded by shards of broken glass. After two minutes they reached a river. There was a children’s playground, tagged with spray paint that lacked any artistic flair and looked more like black territorial piss.
But the river reclaimed everything that was wrong with the strange prison quarter. The million flecks of light bouncing off the surface looked like living silver. It was so bright, but Vicky didn’t want to look away, so she continued in a straight line with her heavy box, her eyes closed, but aimed at the river. The flashes from the surface of the water were only slightly dimmed by her eyelids. Suresh looked around at the houses that had somehow escaped most of the desolation found just one street over. Immaculate gardens were still in full bloom well into autumn.
After five minutes, they arrived at a big, white house with a round tower on the left side. “Bienvenue chez moi,” said Nicolas as Suresh took in the height of the tower. Its stature did not seem to correlate to the young man’s economic status. “Yeah, it’s big,” said Nicolas to the question no one had asked. “But it belongs to no one, or no one I know. No one tell me to move out.” Suresh gathered that the squatter must have lived in his grandmother’s house until some point before installing himself in the abandoned 70s mansion down the street.
The house was unsettlingly empty. The huge, round room that was visible from the outside as the tower had wooden slats covering the windows so that only fine lines of daylight came through. A mattress lay in the center of the room, its blankets drawn flat and folded back at the top. Nicolas had no furniture, but he made his bed. Built-in wooden bookshelves were full with books going the wrong direction, stacked in heaps with horizontal spines. The trio put their boxes down and Nicolas offered up some warm orange soda, which was refused by both and accepted enthusiastically by Nicolas himself. With orange lips, he led them towards a stairway flanked by two metal statues of young boys. “Who’s the welcome committee?” asked Vicky.
“This Nico and Mo. See?” he said as he posed next to one with a scraped metal cheek. Vicky noticed the scrape just as she noticed a long, light scar in the same place on Nicolas’ face. “It’s me. And this is my…how do call it? A step brother? He’s the guy who marry my sister.”
“Your brother in-law.”
“Yeah, so say hi to my brother in-law and we continue.” Vicky looked at the other metal boy, taking in the metal stump that was his sawed-off appendage.
“Hi Mo, what happened to your hand?” said Suresh, but neither Nicolas nor the metal Mo answered so he continued down the stairs.
He brought them through a type of dark that inspired clinging-on and, although her kindhearted defector was close behind, it was Nico that Vicky was drawn to. She held back and kept her hands running along the wall, feeling her way along and willing herself to accept being alone. At least for this instant, at least for this life. Making it through this tunnel would prove she’d make it through others. It felt like she’d taken this journey in the dark a thousand times, each turn equally familiar. Left, left, now right and left again. Going above ground and back under openly disoriented Suresh, but Vicky was a giant finger retracing age-old paths on a map in her mind. Left, left. Right. Left.
A blue light this far underground startled Suresh and he held back as Vicky walked up to a great machine, placing her hands on it to feel its warmth. “What is it?” she asked over her shoulder to Nicolas.
“You really don’t know? Your father make her.”
Vicky first though he was getting his pronouns wrong until he continued, “looks like he name her after you.” Nicolas pointed to something and Vicky brought her face closer to read it:
Her heart thumped past the beat it was meant to hit and sped up. She suddenly felt trapped, deep underground with a stranger who was looking for explanations she couldn’t provide. Thankfully, Suresh stepped closer and spoke. “We’d like to talk to Dr. Enders now, please. In fact, he’s the only reason we came.” Vicky rummaged through his statement, dissecting the meaning. The only reason.
“Okay, okay,” said Nicolas, “but I visit Vicki at night, see? The doctor doesn’t know I’m here. I show you where he works and he comes a bit later. You don’t tell him I bring you here. Good?”
“Good,” the husband and wife replied together; they were getting better at this.
Nicolas had deposited them, via a small elevator, directly into Carl Enders’ office, which was contained inside the walls of St. Kell Prison. They were to leave the prison the conventional way and come back to Nicolas’ place once they were done. He instructed them to bar any mention of how they had arrived via tunnel, stressing that breaking into jail could get them in more trouble than breaking out.
Carl Enders was nearly startled out of his suit as he walked into his office an hour later to the sight of two strangers. It looked like the three-piece corduroy number had been squeezed too hard, squirting a frantic, jowled head up through its starched collar. He jumped to the desk phone, but before he could dial, Suresh laid a massive hand on his shoulder and said, “Carl, this is one of the daughters you left behind in America. Her name is Vicky.”
A look of panic came over the man’s dark and pudgy, lined face as he looked back and forth from Vicky to Suresh. He stood frozen with the phone still in his hand. Suresh took his own hand off the doctor and continued, “It’s alright, Carl, we’re just looking for an explanation. You don’t appear to be who you think you are.”
Carl Enders sunk down to sitting position on the edge of his desk, putting the phone back down. His eyes darted quickly back and forth as the floodgate opened and a tale unfolded from its own type of prison:
“Okay, okay. Carlos Michel Chazal. My grandparents were from Paris, my whole family actually, but I was born in Argentina. I was born Carlos.” Vicky looked from Suresh and back to the imposter again, who was already continuing while simultaneously examining his ripped cuticles.
“Where my parents tried to assimilate, my grandfather and grandmother lived with a foot in the life they left behind. When I was growing up, I thought I was French. That’s what Mami and Papi always told me. All their bedtime stories were about the city of lights. All their lullabies, all their food. I’m not even sure why they left if they loved it so much. It was the tale of a film house in Paris that made me come here. I felt like I was just coming back to somewhere I always was.”
Vicky was still standing awkwardly in the middle of the office with Suresh, the only furniture being the desk, which was partially covered in the Argentinian’s left buttock. She longed to tell Carl that she didn’t care why he came here, that she just wanted enough of an explanation to satisfy Suresh’s curiosity and close the case. But Carl’s shabby hands started to pick at themselves and the speech continued.
“I was different from other kids, not just because of my clothes or the Sunday dinners we had. I was profoundly different and I didn’t know why, but Papi and Mami said I had un atout. They acted like everything weird about me was a good thing, a gift. I could hear colors, already back then even, and sometimes, sometimes they were screaming. Papi told me someone just needed to understand the colors, to teach them how to sing. He told me about the most fantastic colors he had ever seen, in a Paris film house before they’d left for Argentina. There was a film called Voyage dans la Lune and the colors were something he couldn’t even describe for their beauty. I kept that tucked in the back of my mind for decades, always wondering what those colors in the film would sound like, whether they would blend together or churn around each other like all the rest.”
Carl’s monologue seemed far from closing, so Vicky pulled herself down to a comfortable squat, hovering inches above a Persian carpet in the otherwise bereft office. She tugged Suresh down with her and he crossed his legs like a schoolboy at her side as Carl’s story continued.
“Well I didn’t make it to Paris straight away. I got there slowly, not that I’m complaining about the journey. I went to Minnesota, where you were born, Vicky, to work in a lab with Dr. Marka Swandish. She sponsored me for an internship and she was everything I could ever hope to be. She was inquisitive and rational at the same time. I wanted to work like her, to be like her, as she unraveled the fabric of the universe. Marka was a sorcerer to me, but not an evil one. She was so strong and determined that she made us all forget what a joke we were working on. Marka held us up; she stayed up two nights in a row writing a grant application for me to build my first machine. But I didn’t build it for her. I built it for your father, Carl Enders.
“We were both fairly anonymous in Marka’s shadow back then. We were both named Carlos so most people thought of us as the same anyway. To the outside world, it wasn’t a leap to become him. But, my god, how we were different. Carl Enders was born Carlos, just like me. I thought of it as just changing a name to fit the geography. If I had been born in France, I’d be Charles, in Argentina I was Carlos and in America I became Carl. But for Carl Enders, changing his name from Carlos Mendez was a step away from something he was, a way to forget where he came from, a way to hide in plain sight.
“I knew in 1958, on a vacation in Montevideo, what Carl pushed back for a lifetime. Now that was a beautiful film house. Montevideo! I went to see the topless Isabel Sarli in El trueno entre las hojas. It was meant to be scandalous, sneaking into the theater to ogle her in the swimming hole, but all I found myself staring at were the shirtless Indians. I didn’t waste my time with Catholic guilt like he did. I knew what I knew and embraced it. Carl was so young, married to your mother and living with a particular kind of woe that couldn’t be shared. But he loved me. He loved me in the way you can’t speak about because it just cheapens it, makes it play movies in your mind. But Carl loved the whole of me, even all the voices that wailed at me from the dark. But to really know me, I wanted to make him hear them too. I had to.”
Vicky could see drops of blood forming on Carl’s hands as he tugged his cuticles and refused to look up. His voice continued steadily and he started to rub the blood around his fingertips, as if even distribution meant removal.
“What I built is based on the Victrola my Papi brought from Paris. He and Mami had sacrificed nearly their entire wardrobe for a chance to load that machine on the steamer and bring it to Argentina. I imagined myself like the little stylus, riding the waves of the music that the patterns made on the record, amplifying them, translating them to human ears. Carl’s the one who named the Vicki, before I even started building it. Before Nils inspired me to re-build her on the Old Continent as Vicki 2.0. You and your sister were the only thing Carl talked about besides work; he thought you were magical. You were always pulling him back, pulling him away from me. Looking back, I think he named it after you more than my phonograph. He was thinking of you all the time. Every waking moment. Except-” Carl made a theatrical pause and turned his hand over as though offering something to Vicky, finally looking down to where she sat on the rug.
“Except that I’m not her. How did you know?”
Carl smiled in contempt with puffy lips. “Vicky is the Superman. She can see more colors than most people. You’re clearly that grumpy imp Laney, all grown up, but still a lump of darkness. You’re just like a little black hole. No light could escape-“ Carl was cut off by Suresh in a rare angry voice reserved for broken dish quarrels in the wee hours. He had somehow pulled himself to standing in a split second.
“What do you mean, she can see more colors?” he asked, now peering down at Carl, who had moved on to picking at the other hand.
“She sees more because Carl Enders sees less. Always a martyr, that dear man. See, Carl Enders, the real one, is colorblind. Not completely, but he has what’s called a deuteranomaly. He can’t see green. And not only does he want to see green, he wants to see all the impossible colors, the supergreens and the bluish yellows. It’s not even fair to be handicapped by one’s own eyes. Part of his world is missing. But he knows there is more to see, even more than Vicky can see. As his daughter, she’s a carrier for deuteranomaly, but it gave her an extra cone in her eye, which makes her a tetrachromat. She has four cones instead of three and she can pick up millions of colors that the rest of us can’t see. But I can hear them, I know they’re there. That’s what I’m working on, that’s what carries me forward. I’m going to show Carl what the universe is made of, show him all the colors.”
An awkward silence passed through as Vicky and Suresh realized the weight of this man’s present tense speech. He was obviously unaware of Carl’s high-speed collision with a rock and his current location below the Mexican soil.
“And where do you think you’ll find him, Carl?” came Suresh’s voice, lower and saturated with compassion this time. He had only felt the early pangs of adoration for Dr. Enders, but the man before him had become fully absorbed.
“If you must know, I find him every time I light a candle for him, in Notre Dame. We used to light a candle for Carl’s mother back in the Cathedral of Saint Paul once in awhile. Now I light them for Carl, in Paris. I imagine he’d like the symbolism. So I wait in line with all those Chinese tourists toting Vuitton bags so I can keep the light glowing for him. Well, I did, anyway, until I got to Strasbourg.” Something told Vicky the doctor was every bit a prisoner here as the inmates, but she didn’t know if he was being held by Nils or had imposed the confinement on himself. “Maybe you could do that for me if you ever make it Paris. Now that I’m down here, I mean. Maybe you could light a candle for your father.” Vicky felt that she owed nothing to this underground stranger, but merely nodded her head at his suggestion as he continued.
“The real Carl Enders, if you’re looking for him, is in Minneapolis. They’re taking care of him well, the best they can anyway. They have awfully boring films there, but he’s safe. I went to see him before I left. He didn’t know I was there. I pretended to be visiting his roommate, an immobile fellow who liked soup. I just kept spooning it in, spooning it in as I peeked at Carl across the table. That hole in his head was no third eye, if you catch my drift. I don’t think it worked out quite how he’d planned. Anyway, I think I could have gone right up to him and sat in his lap and he wouldn’t have noticed. But he’ll wake up when he hears what’s humming around him. When he finally understands.”
Suresh finally stepped in. “How could you leave him there? At Saint Tabitha’s? That place nearly killed him. If you loved him so much, how could you run off to Paris without him? Calling yourself a doctor is a disgrace to the profession.”
“So you do know St. Tab?” replied Carl. He paused to consider either the question or the answer. “I left him there to be him. To live for him. I’m bringing his work forward. Our work. And it’s not that I loved him. I love him now, still. I’m coming back for him. You look at me like I’m an old, fat man. Pathetic. But there are still projects up here.” He tapped the side of his head for effect. “I’ll return his passport, his identity, anything he wants. I’ll be anyone he wants, but not for a vegetable. I need the music to wake him up. And the Vicki, the first one, it’s not strong enough. It would never do for this task, so we’re making it more capable, more like your Superman. We’re almost ready.”
Suresh looked at the engineer gone awry and put his mitt on Vicky’s thigh. “I think we have heard enough, Carl. But, tell me one last thing, did you ever see that film in Paris? Did you take your trip to the moon?”
Carl’s eyes narrowed, creasing his whole flabby face. “I went to see it, yes. They play it at the same film house from time to time, even still today. But there were no colors; I don’t know what my grandparents meant by that. It was a silent film in every way imaginable. A silent film in black and white.”
Something about the second Carl Enders making his way into Vicky’s life disturbed her. He reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t place who it was. Or maybe it was the way he cared so deeply for her birth father, loved him in a way she’d never experience. “Did you love Carl too, Suresh? Like the Argentinian loved him? Why else would you come all this way?”
“I loved something about him, Vicky, but no, I’m not completely won over by the affections of men. It’s just…Carl Enders woke me up somehow, not the other way around. He reminded me of someone dear to me as a child, a kind of spiritual guide. He made me question every moment, doubt every truth.”
“I guess he taught you to question me. He’s not my father, Suresh.”
“Yes, Vicky. Laney. He was. He is your father. He tried so hard to get you back. He didn’t choose his path.”
“You mean a power drill with a one-inch bore disk isn’t choosing a path? Forgive me if I fail to understand. All any of you are good for is leaving. That’s all you know how to do. When the ride was rough, he let go and you admire him for that. And now you’re letting go of me.”
Suresh’s tight hug was his answer. But every embrace has a release and before Vicky could register the loud click of the hotel clock, he was packing his bag for a life without her.
“Has it been 4 days already?”
Suresh stopped neatly folding his clothes to look at Vicky. “Yesterday was not a good day, my lamb. You let it pass too fast.” This was his gentle way of saying she’d stumbled through the most important day of Divali in a chemical cloud. Suresh picked up a book from beside a tiny statue of Ganesha on the table. His fingers were yellow with spices and the smell of long-burning candles hung in the air from an annual ceremony Vicky had never cared to understand, performed the night before. “You are caught up in the Maya, my love, hiding in the dark. I let some light in for you last night, my dear wanderer,” he said as he came closer with the book.
“The day after Lakshmi Puja a husband gives his wife a gift. I’m sorry I put if off so many times.” He handed her the book, a thin, worn Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “Your father spoke of this in his sleep. I think his curiosity, his comprehension of the universe was the albatross that hung from his neck.”
“Thank you for the book, but you don’t have to add any more meaning to this, Suresh. Just get going if you’re going. Call me when you get to Mumbai.”
“Shall I call you shouting from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus?” Vicky sensed this was a well-worn joke between them from a hazier moment, but she couldn’t quite piece it together.
“Call me when you’re with Ping. I miss her.”
Suresh’s terms of endearment increased as he got closer to the door. “Okay, mon chou. That’s what I would have called you if we had both been born here. It means cabbage,” he said with a smile.
“It sounds like a shoe, Suresh. You can just call me my name.”
“Oh, but Vicky, you have so many names. Be sure to read the part I marked, Chérie.” He bent slightly to kiss her forehead, but low, almost between the eyes. His lips were red in the center as he parted them in a final genuine smile and turned away, floating out door.
Vicky looked into the tiny bathroom mirror and saw that Suresh had marked her with a Bindi, now slightly smeared by his mouth. She sat down on the bed and read the passage over and over, until the words looked foreign and danced across the page:
Around, around flew each sweet sound,
Then drifted to the sun,
Slowly the sounds came back again
Now mixed, now one by one.
Suresh had been gone for only a month, but Vicky had already forgotten his face somehow. Ping had called with a story about giving her prosthetic leg to a beggar down the road from Suresh’s parents. She was staying, she’d said, at least for awhile. With no Ping to go home to, no great Manglik arms to hold her steady, Vicky extended her stay in St Kell. More precisely, she stayed in a neatly made bed in the middle of a round room next to ropy-muscled man that persistently smelled like gasoline. Vicky liked to think that her reinvention as a French squatter brought her closer to Ping, who by now was off the radar and happily sleeping on the hood of a car in Mumbai, her one leg blissfully dangling over the fender.
Nico, with no discernible employment, somehow kept cheese in the fridge and hash in a hollow book on the shelf. Without a bit of smoke, his speech became curt and cryptic. “I sell things,” was his answer for the steady supply of dairy.
“My sister,” was his brief explanation for his knowledge of English.
“I’m Arbogast,” for why he didn’t get kicked out of the abandoned house or get comments about the extension cord running from a neighbor’s house in through the dog door to power Nico’s cell phone.
“No,” with a laugh when asked if he spoke Turkish.
Replies continued, succinct and lacking, unless the book/storage unit had been recently opened, like it had at dusk as they were sitting once again at sunset on a bench by the river. The bench was intended for banned products, like the red wine that never seemed to run out of supply in the cellar of the house, interspersed on dusty shelves with animal craniums from the previous homeowner. Her drinks were haram and could be imbibed on the bench, but not in the big white house. Finding no applicable words of wisdom from Muhammad on the subject of pills, Fentanyl and Demerol were always welcome dinner guests. And although Nico had confirmed that what he called du shit would technically be permitted inside, he didn’t want the walls to go beige and sticky from the resin so he took his shit, which sounded more like ‘sheet,’ outside. In these instances, a little glob of hash was rolled on his thigh into a tiny worm, then sprinkled with loose tobacco for his unfiltered pleasure. Nico’s stained fingers briefly reminded her of Suresh, but their hue was browner than turmeric or saffron. Anticipating the explosion of vocabulary that would accompany the joint, Vicky decided sunsets were the time to make more complex inquiries, and asked why he identified more with Islam than the Catholicism he’d been born into. The words floated out with the smoke that passed from his mouth to Vicky’s.
“My God supposed to walk on water. And look.” He gestured with an open hand at the glowing orange-pink orb of the sun and the rippling path it left on the surface of the water as it set, long and straight. “There he is, taking walk across the Argent. My sister, Marianne, she say our god – the church, the pottery Jesus in Mamama’s room—all of it just to worship the sun. God of the Jews is a big ball of gas.”
“So, you think your God is more real, Nico?” she asked. The hash from the good book tended to make her more alert than her pills did. They were becoming fast friends.
“Allah? I think they all the same guy, all the way back to Mithras, Buddah, all the old greats. They hum the same tune. Muhammad has some lyrics, just newer. I think that mean he have more backsight? Hindsight? And he’s clear when he tell me what to do.”
“What do you mean, Nico? What are you supposed to do?”
The joint burnt out along with Nico’s ability to utter more than three consecutive words. “Save the world,” he replied before the two returned to the great white house for an extended trial of sexual positions neither had yet endeavored.
Vicky woke in the middle of the night to find the bed empty. A familiar feeling of abandonment pulsed through her until she heard Nico tiptoeing through the round room and crawling next to her as she pretended to sleep. He put an arm around her, his hand smelling even stronger of solvent than usual.
“What are you doing walking around in the dark, Nico?” she said, sitting up.
“Working,” said Nico as he pulled her warm body down to his cold one. “Go to sleep.”
The connection to the burnt-out neighbor’s car parked in the street was not immediately made. Doubts about the strange man by the river were pushed away by Vicky’s fascination with Nico. She welcomed his rough hands and compact frame, if for nothing more than the contrast to the gentle giant who had discarded her. He cooked meals with a tiny hotplate, unplugging his sole source of electricity that powered his lamp and telephone to cook before it was too dark. They ate pretty much any produce they could salvage from the rejects of the Turkish market on the north side of the square, a business run entirely from the rejected products of the Turkish market on the south side of the square. But even moldy fruit and rock-hard bread tasted good next to Nico.
He would leave for hours at a time, sometimes overnight. They hadn’t been underground since that first time he’d delivered her to the Argentinian, but she was sure that was where he went at least some of the time. They didn’t speak much, but sometimes they would stare at each other in the low light just long enough to make perceptible changes to each other’s irises. They reflected each other like enhanced mirrors and Vicky could almost feel his scar cut into her own cheek.