Reckoner

A story that I had written months ago, inspired by stories from New Yorker fiction archives.

 

He could have chosen one of the three roads, but he turned around and started to walk back. It was the uncertainty that stopped him from taking off. Not the uncertainty about where each of them led to – he’d lived in the town for years now and only knew the place too well – but that about how many more such junctions he might have to encounter.

A small part of his mind was disappointed at his own indecision. He knew that going back was not a solution – he was merely postponing his exile to another day, a day when he perhaps will be more confident about it.

As he walked down the road in the hilly suburbs, he looked past the houses that he’d seen a million times before: similar box-like structures with little or no difference, except for the cars that stood outside them. Even the people that lived in the houses were not very different from each other. Most of them had the man of the family working at the nearby Special Economic Zone, going through the excruciating hours of managing the accounts of a petroleum company in the Europe, or perhaps Canada. Some of them had to manage accounts of industries that made cement, or mobile phones, or steel. Each had its own way of encroaching in man’s set of needs. But the job was the same – to manage accounts.

At the end of the road lay a railway line that he had to cross, and then turn right to reach the building in which his home was. It was a building made of bricks made from ash. It wasn’t painted because, for some reason, leaving buildings naked and un-painted had become some sort of a fashion. Once upon a time, he remembered, covering buildings up with reflective glass was a thing. He liked it. A number of firms in the Special Economic Zone still had such buildings. During the day, they were sophisticated and classy, reflecting the clear skies of summer, forming an opaque wall that no one could look through. During the night, however, they were more or less invisible except for little squares of light in the offices that still had people working in them – transparent. From afar, it looked like these people were trapped in that space, with no way to get out. He liked the two- faced nature of these structures; something that he believed to aptly portray the ways of the world.

He walked into the complex and checked which floor the elevator was on, just out of curiosity. His house was on the third floor, but he avoided using the elevator. He preferred the winding stairs that went around it – an excellent way to utilize space, he thought – which were adorned with a number of little messages on the wall, etched with keys, or written with ballpoint pens. The most prominent among them was the symbol of a heart in the landing just before the second floor. It was drawn using red ink – lipstick perhaps, and had two names written on either side of it. While marks of this kind were not uncommon throughout the stairway, he always felt that the handwriting was rather beautiful. It had such elegance that somehow seemed to bring meaning to its existence on that wall.

He had his own set of keys, so he did not ring the doorbell and disturb his mother. She had been back from the hospital just four days ago and wasn’t exactly achieving what he considered speedy convalescence, which meant it would take her a while to get up and walk all the way to the door. Until two days ago, his father had stayed back at home to take care of things while it was made sure that he didn’t miss school. But the company wouldn’t let an employee stay on leave for more than a week, and hence his father had to go back to work.

“Vlad, is that you?” his mother’s weak voice came from the far side of the house.

“Yes,” Vlad replied as he closed the door behind him. It creaked. The summer had made all the wood to expand, hampering the door’s shape to some extent. But it worked fine.

It would be a while before Vlad would go up the road again, certain about which of those three route to take, and confident that he’d face all the forks and junctions that lay ahead with the same amount of conviction that he would have when he walks out that door that day, only to never come back.

But first, he had to make sure things went fine until then. He still had to finish homework, and manage to stay at the top of his class in school; because that was the only way he knew to be a loveable person. He was human and he needed to be loved, just like everybody else does.

Vlad was fourteen years old, left handed and was told he was attractive. He found it believable when he often spotted girls in school smiling at him. Vlad liked reading. For as long as he could remember, he had preferred writing over any other medium of expression. He believed it gave a greater freedom of expression, simply because there were so many ways to interpret what was written. Often he observed people in his class as they reacted to an utterly harmless text message merely because they had associated their own emotions and state of mind while reading it. It filled him with ripples of laughter when, the same people texted back without realizing that just as much open to interpretation their message was as the one that they had just read and made a fuss over.

But for the same reason he also hated the written form of expression – it had so many ways of interpreting. It hurt him to realize that his was not the right explanation to a cryptic prose from the previous century. It always made him sad when the teacher said that there was more to it. At times, he believed, the openness of writing was taken for granted. It saddened him that there was no end to it.

“Anka called a while ago.” his mother spoke from the other room, as Vlad walked to the kitchen to have some water. “She asked if you could go over and teach today.”

Vlad thought for a moment, and then replied, “Yeah, I think I will. I might not go tomorrow.”

“Can you come back here a minute?”

Vlad walked to the bedroom at the far end of the house. His mother lay there in a bed that was made inclined with a number of pillows behind her back. She still seemed frail and weak, but was far better compared to what she was a week ago. Besides, Vlad was only glad that he did not have to go to the hospital every day with his father to see her. It was a long boring drive when his father – a quaint man – was mostly on phone giving directions to people at work while he took some time off the day to visit the hospital. This meant that not only could Vlad not speak to him, but he couldn’t turn the radio on either.

On most occasions, he would just gaze out the window at the cars and the gradual change in landscapes as they travelled from a hillside suburb to another that was more on flat lands and hence more densely populated with those naked paint-less buildings. Sometimes it would rain, and Vlad would have fun looking through the wet glass at the blur of headlights from approaching cars as well as the red ones from those ahead of the car he was in. Other times he tried to simulate the effect by straining his own eyes to a blur that everything seemed to blind. He would do that for minutes together without blinking until his eyes began to water profusely. And then he would pull his eyes shut, and draw a paper towel from the dashboard.

“Could you pass me those pills?” his mother asked him back, when he asked if she needed anything.

He took a pill out of the tiny orange jar in a little shelf by the bed and handed it to his mother. He then walked back and got her some water.

“Dad will be late. He just called. Why don’t you finish dinner on your way back from Anka’s?”

Vlad nodded and left the room and entered the adjacent one, which was his.

Vlad’s parents had given him the bigger room in the house while they settled for a smaller one. Living up to their foresight, he grew up to fill it with books and paintings. His love for art was something he had gotten from his mother, his grandfather had once said. He had come to learn that she used to love the ambiguity in paintings, and felt that all of them tried to tell absolutely the same story, albeit in their own way – for they were all made by human beings, and hence were a reflection of their own fear of mortality. However, most of the artwork that Vlad had in his room were not paintings, but doodles and scribbles by mathematicians, physicists, writers and musicians – they were artwork that were not results of imagination, but one among interpretations of what was already such an outcome; they were mere renditions.

He walked across the room and picked up his guitar that leaned on the wall by the window. It was a Spanish acoustic guitar that had been gifted to Vlad on his tenth birthday by his grandfather. It had nylon strings on it, some of them wound with metal, while some not.

As a little kid, Vlad had already been interested in music and recognized similar sounding tunes without too much effort, often at times those that even grown up people happened to ignore. Although he had never learnt to play an instrument until he got the guitar, he had often used his computer to cut out pieces of existing songs and put the similar sounding bits one after the other to make a collage of his own. After he had learnt to play the guitar, he went back to trying those new tunes that had formed out of those collages, on the guitar.

A year ago, he was selected to play in a musical at school, and was particularly lauded for the embellishments that he had made despite strict orders from his master against doing so. That was around the time when he met Anka.

Anka was a year elder to Vlad. She was in the same group as him during the musical, and played the glockenspiel. She knew about music better than he did, but asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Though he had instantly agreed to it, neither of them ever came to have a formal session until not more than two months ago.

Wearing the bag on his back, Vlad left the house, walked down the staircase and out the door, into the pleasant evening. He walked further down the road that had led to his building thus far, until he entered another block of box like houses. These houses, however, were more richly adorned and were of a number of shapes and sizes. Some of them had more than a car parked outside the house.

Anka’s house was in a building at the far end of the township, well after the brief expanse of large, independent houses owned by industrialists of a bygone era. Unlike the post-modern and minimalist design of his house, the building that Anka lived in was conventional, covered with white paint and red stream-lines over the exposed columns. She lived on the first floor, so he took the stairs anyway. This building had its stairs opposite to the elevator and took a zig-zag path with a landing between two floors. These landings were usually adorned with plants. While they were meant to beautify the place, they often served as restrooms for dogs living in the premises.

The door was open but Vlad knocked it anyway. Anka walked into the living room from inside the house and greeted him.

“I saw you from the window, so I left the door open. I was making some tea. You want some?” “Thanks,” Vlad said, while taking the bag off his back.
“I spoke to your mother today. How is she?”
“She is much better. I think it helps that my home doesn’t stink as much as the hospital.”

Anka smiled, “That’s good. Let me get my guitar.” She walked back into the hallway.

Vlad sat down on the sofa took his own guitar out. He then took his phone out and placed it on his lap, then played notes out of his guitar to see if the strings were tuned right. It took him a few more minutes to get things sorted before he put his phone back into his pocket.

Anka entered the living room once again with the guitar attached to a strap hanging from her shoulder and a mug of tea – which was in fact poorly done, given her age and consequent lack of expertise – in either hand. She was not in the clothes that he had seen her back in school that morning and seemed a little thin than usual, but she looked only prettier, he thought. She handed one to Vlad and then settled onto the sofa to sip her tea, after manoeuvring the guitar strap off her and setting it on the floor.

Because both her parents worked, Anka lived in quite an affluent household. But that also meant that she was mostly raised by a variety of babysitters amongst others, leading to a sense of emotional absence at home. Vlad had no idea what she studied in school, except that he would meet her during music rehearsals. After the musical the year before, they had been on the same team one other occasion. Like his own mother, Vlad had learnt that she too was largely interested in abstract art and believed that they were all different versions of the same story. However, in her case, she believed that the story they all wanted to tell was one that marked their need to be loved, an unrealistic need.

Vlad never really argued about it because it was not very different from what drove him. It was pretty much why he took all the efforts to do well in school. Though he was undoubtedly the best in his class, he was never ridiculed for being a nerd or an introvert. He felt that he had gotten all the attention and respect he deserved.

But he wanted something more, and had begun to think he would never get it. This was mostly because of his own shattered ego that made him subconsciously assume that anything he achieved was in fact not valuable at all.

He looked at Anka and wondered what she would become in the years to come. He wondered if she would stop taking these guitar lessons from him. It was only a matter of time before she would finish school and move out. She wanted to study psychology, she had once told him, and travel around the world treating prisoners. It struck to him as a great idea.

Both of them finished their poorly made tea after which Vlad went on teach an old method of playing called Travis picking, a method where one had to keep playing a specific set of notes in succession to fill the gaps between notes in the main melody. It made songs sound wholesome and gave an impression of more than one person playing at a time. Vlad had learnt it two years ago, at a time when he was obsessed with attempting to play symphonies with nothing more than one guitar.

“You know, we should start a music project sometime.” Anka said an hour later. She had already developed calluses on the little finger of her right hand. It was the first time she used all her fingers to pluck the strings.

Vlad looked up in question. He noticed that she seemed paler than usual, as if something was troubling her. But he had no inclination to ask.

“You know, like the electronic duos that came up a few years back. We could be an electronic revival band, with people making computer music again. I actually read up on musicians who composed operas with computers. We should try something like that sometime. You’re better at making music on a computer, anyway. I’ll probably study music from home until you graduate from school.”

“What about Psychology at the University?”

“I don’t think I’d leave this place.”

Vlad’s was confused, but the feeling of his heart sinking was dominant. “Why? The last time I asked, you said you didn’t want to stay here. Anyway, this place isn’t good at all! It’s full of transactional people and mundane activities. We have cribbed about this place more than anything else. I would give anything to leave this place right now.”

Anka seemed at loss of words. She paused, and then replied, “Yes. Of course, we did, Vlad. But I don’t think I’d ever leave this place. Maybe I will, but not anytime soon. I think I need to stay at home when my parents come back from work. It’s all that they work for, I guess. Me. I can’t imagine them living without me. I don’t want to take such a step consciously.”

Vlad thought about the hundreds of books back in his room – all those little stories and explanations that he had immersed himself in, to keep himself from being overwhelmed by the world full of people he wished to understand. All those little beacons that served as an escape into a world of reason and logic, where feelings and emotions ceased to exist, eclipsed by equations and doctrines. But all the books came to an end. A hundred pages – two hundred, maybe. But they all came to an end. And he despised them for it.

Vlad also thought about his parents, who had turned into strangers ever since they had moved into this new city. It was ages since he had had a proper conversation with his father. He could live with that, but his mother could not. He thought back on how his mother had begun shutting herself back

in her room, from the rest of the world from around the time his dad was appointed on eighteen hour shifts.

But Vlad still stuck to them, just like he stuck to those books. He stuck to them because loved them for the same reason that he hated – they all had an end in sight. He waited for it because he knew where the routes led to, and that they all stopped somewhere. Physics always stopped with a question at God. Math stopped either at zero, or infinity. Music stopped after a crescendo, or simply when it was overpowered by silence. Logic stopped where there was a paradox. Avarice, hedonism, and other worldly desires stopped at death. But they all stopped somewhere. There was an end somewhere.

Perhaps it was the same reason that he liked Anka’s company so much, and never missed a chance to meet her – he was sure she would leave someday. Her absence was something that he had imagined a million times, almost as often as he had dreamt of her pretty face and her long hair glistening in half light.

Vlad had spent most of his life waiting for things to end, for only then would he acknowledge their presence all along. Sometimes, when things went out of hand, he would take long walks around the township – walking in circles, effectively. Eventually he had to return back home, and face the world that he tried to run away from, if only momentarily.

It was for the second time that day that he didn’t dare look ahead at his own life. Somehow, the possibility of Anka not leaving shattered the entire framework of his mind. It was a future full of possibilities once again, with choices to make out of so many options. With so many junctions to choose a route from and with so many little things that branched out to so many other little things.

From the following day, Vlad did not see Anka in school anymore. He hadn’t visited her home for a number of weeks after that, owing to his own work from school and tending to his mother. But all the while, despite the new formed uncertainty, he waited for a call for him to come teach her to play the guitar.

A month later, by when his mother had recovered completely and was in charge of things at home once again, she once called him after school and made him sit on the big couch in the living room. It was so soft that Vlad had a sense of drowning when he sat on it.

“Vlad, I got a call from Anka’s today.” She said.

Vlad did not reply. He was happy that he hadn’t taken his coat off yet. When his mother continued, “It was her mother, in fact. They are moving out of this place today. Anka is now in a hospital.”

Vlad was almost fifteen by then, and was at the top of his class. He was a left hander and was lauded by most in school. He’d won a number of contests in mathematics and physical sciences, but he was still too young to really understand what acute myelogenous leukemia meant.

– Sumanth

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