Two on the Floor
by Ashwin Parulkar
We had a balcony that overlooked the city and a cook from the building who lived in a little room inside the gate. She woke us each morning for breakfast and would send her 9-year-old son to get us vegetables. He looked just like her and he would sit with us while we ate and play the ukulele that we kept on a couch pillow on a chair next to the screen door. We were five men and she was a small woman. She had a good heart, and that’s what her name meant too. She named each of us because she didn’t like our names and the names she gave us stuck.
One day her boy came knocking at the screen door while we ate.
He said, “Our whole family’s here.”
She didn’t hear him over the frying pan, so I said, “Come in, just open it.”
He didn’t head for the ukulele like usual but into the kitchen to tell his mother that family had come from the village. Her aunts, sister, and nieces were standing in front of the cook’s little room inside the gate.
“My mother, my father,” she said coming out the kitchen.
“Someone’s dead,” she said.
She tried to explain, but we just said, “Go, go!”
That evening we saw her in front of their room wringing a handkerchief out into a wash bucket. I think we had each planned out what we were going to say to her, so when the five of us stood before her it was only natural that we froze.
“It was all a misunderstanding,” she said. She said her entire family was on their way to Ajmer and they decided to stop here to visit her and her son.
“No one died. My mother, my father, everyone’s all right, but God I was scared,” she said, showing us with her hands what her heart had felt that morning.
We had been assaulted by terrible thoughts that day and didn’t know how to say what we wanted to say to each other and to her.
“Same time for dinner,” she asked.
“Same time,” we said.
Her son was sitting on a box crate under the clothesline chewing a pen and he rose smiling and walked with us upstairs. She didn’t come to cook us dinner. So we made it ourselves while her son went looking for her.
She came in dragging her feet while we were eating.
“You know what happened,” she said. “You know that girl next door who’s always yelling for me, the girl in the next building.”
There was a young woman our age, or a little younger, who was always yelling for our cook from a small room on the roof of the next building where she lived. She would yell for our cook to come to the balcony. She would yell for her to walk with her to the store. About her boss lady, money, and other maids in the neighborhood. You could hear her in your sleep. These two women were always cracking jokes, which weren’t that bad. They made fun of us because we walked around the house with our shirts off.
“That woman, that girl?” we asked.
“Her husband died today,” she said. “Someone slipped a pill in his whisky, his whole body turned red, she found him on the roof next to the bird cage, not breathing. You can’t trust anyone.”
“How old was her husband?” we asked.
“Young,” she said.
All we could say was, “Man,” as she picked up our plates and rinsed them in the kitchen.
“Breakfast same time tomorrow?” she said over the sink.
“Same time,” we said.
I slept on the couch that night. I slept well for some hours but it was that time of year when that’s all you can ask for, when you wake up during the night, panting, blinking. I went out to the balcony with my jug of water and drank from it, poured the excess on my chest and my neck and looked out over the railing and except for that same light in the old fort on the hill everything was dark and the young widow’s wailing drowned out the barking dogs that always started up that time of night because her door must have been open and I spread out on the balcony floor pouring water over my chest and eyes, into my mouth, listening to her until she fell asleep.
Ashwin Parulkar is from East Liverpool, Ohio, and now lives in New Delhi, India.