Plain China

The Delicate Root

by Sameet Dhillon · Boston College
The Depression, Ann Mangano · University of Notre Dame

In the kitchen, Manprit chopped a yellow onion into long, thin strands. She pushed the pile off the cutting board and into a bowl with her knife, and started on the next one. She felt the tears slide down her cheeks and settle beneath her chin. The onions, somehow, after all these years, still caught her by surprise.

She ran the sink water until it was warm, rinsed the previous night’s hardened dishes. Harjit had been coming home late, four or five in the morning. He got into bed quietly—without shifting the sheets, without saying a word.

She left his fleece-lined slippers by the door, a plate of food in the fridge. At first, she stuck a note on top of the saran wrap: “Goodnight, Harry”. But she found herself feeling silly the next morning when he sat there, staring into a textbook, while she prepared his breakfast. She stopped, immediately.

Sometimes, lying in bed, waiting for the sound of his car exhaling on the driveway, she felt overwhelmed by her loneliness. She felt it in no one place; it strangled all of her muscles simultaneously so that she didn’t know where to start, how to mend her own tired body. It kept her in their bed, in their home, day after day. There was no satisfying way to release it. She dreamt that an act of violence, an external equivalent to the churning within her, would free her. Allow her to start anew.

One evening, she’d taken a pile of letters from her sister to the bathroom, sat on the floor and reread them. The paper smelled like the market near their home, where Uncle gave them a discounted price on cotton stationary. She knew the ink, thick and sloppy, came from one of the pens in her father’s office. As a little girl, she

 

sat in her father’s chair and composed nonsensical restaurant menus, invitations to grand events she herself would host.

She cried for many hours, sliding the letters across the floor. A few of the pages, picking up spare droplets of water from the tiles, she found smudged later on.

And what could Manprit tell her mother during their weekly phone calls? That her body ached for home? That it had rejected 45 Liberty Road with its ever- expanding circle of children and pleasant housewives? No, this wasn’t an option. She simply told her they were trying, on the nights when Harjit arrived home early, to create intimacy. He didn’t eat his dinner until she sat down at the table across from him. In bed he reached for her, sliding his hand up and down her thigh. On his days off, he drove her to the Market Basket and stood there as she examined the produce. He didn’t get frustrated like some of the other husbands.

She told her mother that she’d been right; the first year of marriage was difficult. Even so, Manprit said, she felt optimistic. Her life of marital bliss would, soon enough, begin.

 

 

 

She was examining Harjit’s schedule, stuck on the fridge with a Rutgers magnet, when there was a knock on the door. Three steady thuds. It couldn’t be him—surgical rotations had begun. She wiped her eyes with the bottom of her t- shirt, briefly exposing the soft heat of her stomach, and hurried through the living room.

She felt anxious about visitors. The only furniture they had was a bed and a small wooden desk with mug stains—both items relics of Harjit’s bachelor days. Boxes lined the walls; she hadn’t had the heart to unpack them alone.

 

It was too early in the morning for it to be the elderly postman, the one who called her “honey” and lingered in the doorframe. And Simi usually came after lunch, imploring Manprit to join her for a walk through the neighborhood. Her knocks

were far less patient.

 

The woman stood, on the other side of the door, with a leather satchel hanging from her left shoulder and a glossy flyer in her right hand. On the flier Manprit saw an upside down man, with a thick beard. He looked up at them—“One Man Died

for All”. She peered into the woman’s face. There was silence in it. The silence of a mind that was set.

“Do you want to know the truth?” she asked through the screen door. The folds in her face quivered with the movement of her lips.

“Pardon me?” Manprit said.

 

She crossed her arms, instinctively.

 

“You look upset, are you okay?” The stranger reached into her bag and took out another flyer. This time, she faced the paper towards Manprit, held it in the space between them. It was a vibrant image of a garden, with animals and a smiling black family. “Please, ma’am, let me help you find the truth. I can help you, even if you’ve been mislead, I can help you. ”

“The truth? I’m not upset, I was just cutting onions.”

 

Manprit took the flyer from her hand. How odd she found it, when her own life aligned with the universe, pulled it in closer and whispered into its infinite ear. Like most sentimental people, she believed in the absence of coincidence. The truth. She thought of the condoms and the pack of cigarettes she’d found, a week ago, in the outer pocket of her husband’s briefcase; beneath a pile of used tissues and

 

crumpled receipts.

 

She’d hoped to never be the sort of woman who sifted through her husband’s mundane possessions. When, all those years ago, she saw her mother sniffing at the collar of her father’s shirt before handing it to the laundress, Manprit made her own quiet judgments. She kept her father innocent. Harjit hummed in the shower while she’d held the items up to her face, unsure of what she hoped to find. Both items were sealed in a layer of plastic. His skin, his mouth, never smelled of smoke.

“I’m making my husband’s favorite dish tonight,” Manprit said. “It requires a lot of onions.”

“Light a candle, that’s what my mother always did,” the woman said. She pulled a small black book out of her bag and held it to her chest.

“A candle?” Manprit said.

 

She couldn’t get a hold on the woman; she seemed to respond only to her own inner tranquility. She made no ungainly motions, nothing to allude to a conversation between strangers.

“The gases from the onion, they’re drawn to the flame instead of your eyes. Light a candle next time,” the woman said.

It occurred to Manprit that this woman, with her grey hair and tender blue eyes, was the materialization of the grandmother she’d seen many times in magazine pages and glimpses of TV shows about America. She was supposed to feel comforted in her presence. But instead her position at the other side of the door

implied a tragedy to Manprit. Each one of the woman’s words was some sort of plea. “I’ve never heard that before,” Manprit said.

She was suddenly aware of her appearance—the  haldi stains, loose strands of

 

her hair all around her face. She held herself tighter.

 

“Do you believe in God? Satan? Eternal paradise?” The woman scanned the pages of the black book like it was the palm of her hand. “Do you know that the world is in the hands of Satan?”

Manrpit opened the screen door and held it in place with her right arm. The woman, unperturbed, smiled at her pages.

“I believe in God,” Manprit said, looking down at her bare feet. Her mother taught them to do a certain prayer before bed. It created a shield around the worshipper, protecting him or her from the evil that came with sleep. During the many nights she slept alone, this made her feel safe. “I pray, you know, for my husband and my family— and for myself.”

“Well, that’s just wonderful. God loves you and appreciates your faith,” the woman said. She repositioned  the book so that Manprit could look down at its mildewed pages. “I’d love to talk to you some more, point out some passages. You can still be saved, Jehovah can save you. If you could just spare a few moments…”

She took a small step forward.

 

Manprit saw that the skin her face was soft and exceedingly thin; underneath the woman’s eyes she followed an arrangement of veins. She wondered about the her private humanity. There had to be something behind this rigid fragment of a person. Were there people whom she’d lost? Did she have a son or a daughter who called

her once a day? Maybe she had a husband, a touching marriage. “I can’t today, I’m cooking,” Manprit said. “I can’t.”

She looked down at her chipped fingernails like a little girl. The woman looked at her with the same still eyes.

 

“Well, that’s okay. That’s not a problem,” the woman said. “I’m sorry,” Manprit said.

“Oh, that’s okay, that’s okay. I’ll leave these with you in case you change your mind. Remember, only Jehovah can save you. Together, we can find the truth,” the woman said, taking out a stack of papers from her purse.

From behind the screen door, Manrpit watched the woman walk down the front path. Before she entered her car she smiled and waved, from across the narrow patch of grass.

“Be sure to light that candle,” she said.

 

Manprit watched the woman’s car disappear down the street—imagined the dozens of places it might go and then, when she returned to the kitchen, forgot it altogether. She retrieved her phonebook from its place in the drawer, found Simi’s number, and decided it would be more comfortable to knock on her door. She

folded up the flyers and slipped them behind the front cover of the phonebook. She placed a bowl of chopped onions in the fridge, put on her clean New Balance sneakers and thick black coat and walked two houses down to Simi’s house.

 

 

 

“I knew you’d come,” Simi said. She wore sweatpants with a salwaar top and the smell that blew out her house was exactly what Manprit expected. “Alizah said you wouldn’t, she said you were snobbish. But she’s a Pakistani, you know? I knew you’d come.”

The two women walked through the neighborhood and along the main road. It was obvious to Manprit, along their short journey, that the air was harsh and the town without any discernible beauty. Still, she enjoyed the determined sound of

 

Simi’s voice and she made a point of looking into the faces of the people they passed, clinging to each one for no more than a second. She returned home an hour later, after making plans to walk the same route the next day.

She finished cooking with the pleasant headache that follows long, unexpected conversations. She showered, washing the wind out of her hair. Before going to bed, Manprit unwrapped a cutlery set gifted to them by one of her aunts and placed it on the kitchen table—a reminder to herself to unpack and wash the elegant utensils.

After checking the front lock three times and turning on the entryway lights, she lay down on her own side of the bed. She thought of the stranger who knocked on her door, the stranger who reminded her that she, too, was entitled to her own impenetrable existence. Manprit would be the one to answer the front door, vacuum on Sundays, place ornaments in the empty corners of their new home. But, all the while, she’d hold on to a place of her own. As un-seeable as the strange woman’s life; the places she drove to in that car. The persons who may or may not have been waiting for her.

At 2:30 a.m., Harjit called. He wanted to let her know he’d be home late or, quite possibly, not at all. She slept through the rings, and didn’t hear his voicemail until after eating her breakfast.

***

 

On their wedding day, Manrpit turned in her seat and watched her parents, her whole life grow small. It was a scene she’d watched in movies and at every wedding she’d attended. She cried, unselfconsciously, next to a man she barely knew. Harjit slid his hand over the small stitches of the leather seat, placing it over her own, hennaed, fingers. There was no force in the action, no active comfort. And yet she

 

felt held, entirely, by him. Her husband. She turned to him, found him looking out the window, watching the landscape slide by. She was grateful for this. He kept his hand there the whole ride to the airport—firm along the bumpy road, the ceaseless halts. She chose that moment, often, to lie with her late into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

About the Author

Sameet Dhillon · Boston College

Sameet Dhillon currently lives in Ningbo, China, having graduated from Boston College in May, 2015 with a BA in English. He hopes to earn his MFA in fiction writing when he returns to the U.S. "The Delicate Root" first appeared in Stylus
About the Artist

Ann Mangano · University of Notre Dame

Ann Mangano graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May of 2016 with a BA in Economics and Sociology and a minor in Studio Art. She currently works for the Department of Defense in Maryland. She completed "The Depression" in 2012 as a piece for my concentration in AP Studio Art. It is done in compressed charcoal on cardboard. It first appeared in Re:Visions.