Jegadeesh Kumar is a student of Eastern Philosophy, Mathematics teacher, writer, and translator, raised in Southern India, now living in South Carolina, USA. He writes, both in English and Tamil, short stories, poems, and Eastern Philosophy. His work has appeared in The Prometheus Dreaming, Indian Periodical, The Academy of Heart and Mind, Spillwords, Vallinam magazine, The Piker Press, Impspired, the Defunct magazine and elsewhere.
Peter felt that there was something amiss in his lawnmower. Initially, it kept struggling for every ten feet and now it was difficult even to push the machine. He turned it upside down and thoroughly inspected the bottom but couldn’t find anything fishy. The clippings stuck on the bottom effused a sweet, sharp smell. He especially liked the fragrance of the fresh-cut grass, one of the reasons for his being perfectly regular at this task. But at that moment, lawn mowing was proving to be highly arduous.
Peter labored to drag the machine to the garage and set it under the shade. He did not wish to go back inside his house. Earlier, he’d seen Mr. and Mrs. Robertson going in while he was in the backyard, preparing to mow the lawn. He would have to converse with them in English if he did choose to go in. With some amount of confidence, he could manage to talk to his wife in English. At times, he used to marvel at his own English speaking skills but they failed him miserably when it came to conversing with Americans. He decided to let Sara handle the visitors. He’d water the plants and pull the weeds off the yard and wait. They’d be out soon. He could simply wave and smile at them as they left. That’d do.
Mr. and Mrs. Robertson sat perched on the shiny brown leather couch, holding their coffee in porcelain mugs.
“How do you like Indian coffee? We Indians like our coffee rich in milk. American coffee is too watery for me. I can’t stand it.”
Mrs. Robertson looked up at Sara, her eyes widening, her thin lips frozen in a smile. “Oh, yeah! The coffee is amazing! I particularly like the body, I mean the dense feel it gives in your mouth. It’s wonderful!” she said.
“Isn’t that right! And the bitter taste! Do you know my dad used to travel an hour by train just to have coffee at his favorite coffee shop every day? The craze for coffee runs in the family, you know,” said Sara, giggling.
Mr. Robertson was peering into his coffee mug, as though trying to check if there was some bug floating in it. Turning his bald head toward Sara, he said, “The coffee is good,” not smiling, the bristles of his blond whiskers dripping.
Sara’s cellular phone rang. She picked it up and muted it. “It’s from India,” she said. “My daughter-in-law is calling. She and my son got married just last year. Oh, how I wish you to have witnessed my son’s marriage! It was a grand spectacle! The ceremony went on for ten days. Peter said four thousand people attended the marriage. Here…” she went and sat next to Mrs. Robertson. On her cellphone, she showed them pictures of her son, daughter-in-law, and her people who lived in India.
“Oh, she is pretty!” said Mrs.Robertson, looking at Sara’s Daughter-in-law in the picture. In a purple churidar, the girl smiled at the camera, supporting a large bump in her stomach.
“Oh, is she pregnant?” Mrs. Robertson asked hesitantly. She wasn’t sure if it was crossing boundaries to ask such personal questions. What if by asking this Mrs. Robertson had cast an evil spell on the oncoming child?
Sara beamed with pride. “Yes, she is. Nine months. You know, I can’t wait to see my grandchild. When she delivers, I’m going to take a few weeks off and visit them. Mrs. Robertson, this is my tiny little world, my lifeline. I’m just praying every moment that everything should go well with her delivery. Christy’s struggling with a little bit of high blood pressure these days,” she said.
“Don’t worry. Keep praying. All will be well,” said Mr. Robertson dryly. Sara looked at him for a few seconds, perhaps trying to see if there was any real concern shown on his face. But his face was expressionless.
Peter quickly found out the reason for his lawnmower’s malfunctioning. After setting the machine near the garage, he watered the curry plants, the Gongura plants, the calabash plants, and the lone papaya tree in their backyard and went to prune his favorite trees. When he was checking if there were any new fruits in the cranberry tree near the fence, he found a few of its branches broken and scattered behind it. He was astonished. He went back and checked his lawnmower again. He found one of the cranberry branches wound around the front wheel.
“What do you think of our neighbors, Mr. Robertson?” said Sara.
“Your neighbors? Why, what about them? Are they giving you any trouble?”
“Last week I got a flock of little chicks from Charleston. They are the most amazing creatures. You know, they really are my stress busters. They’d just wait at the gate, greeting you when you return from work. But it seems Mrs. Brody doesn’t like them. Three days ago, she peeped over the fence and complained of chicken noise.”
“Sounds like the woman,” said Mr. Robertson.
“Mind if I ask if you had similar problems when you guys lived here?”
“Oh, plenty,” began Mr. Robertson. His wife gave him a blank smile as if to suggest that it might not be a good idea to share the personal problems they had with their former neighbors. After all, they currently had a court case running against them. But her husband continued. “That couple is probably the only reason why we sold this house and moved out. Do you know that man shot our dog, Mrs. Selvanayakam? I’d say they are the most unfriendly people in the community. For years, we dodged them somehow. We just minded our business. The man is henpecked. The woman held a grudge over whatever happened in our yard. Didn’t like us making noise when we dug our yard; didn’t like our Friday evening parties; on top of all that, absolutely abhorred our Charlie. What did he do, apart from occasionally barking at them? Though we lived next to each other for nearly seven years, our Charlie never developed a liking toward them. Whenever the woman came out of her house, Charlie would bark at her non-stop. Perhaps he knew her inherent qualities.”
Sara thought she was listening to dialogue from some soap opera. “Did he really shoot your dog? How horrible! Is he okay?”
“He survived, though he has a permanent wound now in his right forelimb. I took the man to court. The court case is still on. I hope he is put behind bars for this. This is a malicious and intentional attempt at killing! A felony, punishable by imprisonment. I won’t leave him until he gets what he deserves, if not from the court, at least from me. He’s getting it from me if the court rules in favor of him. But, Mrs. Selvanayakam, I suggest that you please be extra careful with these people.”
For a moment Sara, with a slight tremor in her stomach, visualized Mr. Brody looming over their fence with his pump shotgun to shoot at her chickens. So far the man had behaved with them cordially. He used to wave at her from his front yard when Sara returned from work. He was self-employed as a handyman and took orders from locals. His hours were unpredictable. So, he stayed home at unusual hours. It was Mrs. Brody whose patience was measured to be a tea-spoonful. She worked at the local high school where Sara served as a special education teacher. Mrs. Stephany Brody presented her oval-shaped stony face to whoever tried to smile at her. When Peter and Sara moved in, she did not even congratulate Sara on their acquisition, let alone visit them with goodies.
“Just avoid their company, okay? Do not cross their boundary line, literally,” said Mr. Robertson, trying to respond to Sara’s baffled look.
Peter collected all the broken limbs from under the cranberry tree and kept looking at them when the guests came out of his house, followed by his wife. He smiled and waved at the guests. They reciprocated and bid their hosts adieu. Sara saw the bewildered look on her husband’s face and went up to him. He raised his right hand that held the bunch of broken limbs as if it were a bouquet of flowers.
“What are these?”
“From our cranberry tree. I saw these lying under.”
“What? How?” Sara instantly knew who could be the reason for this scandal. “Peter, it’s them, our neighbors.”
When Sara was entertaining the idea of elaborately telling him about the cruel nature of their neighbors, she heard someone call her name. The unmistakable contralto of Mrs.Brody.
Sara fumbled and looked up nervously. “Yes, sir!” she said.
“It’s yes ma’am.” The auburn bundle of Mrs. Brody’s coiled hair emerged from across their fence, from her front yard. Though from the entrance of their garage, the fences that separated their yard from their neighbors’ (not one but two, one each for each house) were a good ten feet away, Sara could clearly see Mrs. Brody’s face with her glaring, dilating eyes and flaring, aquiline nose. She must have been standing on a stool from beyond the fence, for it would’ve been impossible for her head that perched on her five feet two inches tall body to come above if she hadn’t.
“Hey, Mrs. Brody, how are you?”
“Mrs. Selvanayakam, you need to make sure your plants don’t intrude on my property. I don’t like someone else’s tree peeping into my yard. First the damn chicken noise, now this…”
Her right hand came up in the air holding another broken limb of the cranberry tree. She threw it into Sara’s yard, with a spiteful vehemence that jolted the couple.
“My God! Was it you Mrs. Brody? Did you break the branches of our tree?”
“Yes, I did. Y’all be thankful I didn’t destroy your tree.”
“You didn’t have to do that, Mrs. Brody. You could’ve told us that the branches growing into your yard are a nuisance. We would’ve seen to it that it won’t be a bother to you.”
“What’d you have done? Uproot the tree and plant it someplace else? You should’ve thought about it when you first planted it over here. Lady, I don’t have time for all this. We’ve suffered long enough with horrible neighbors. You guys haven’t been here for even three months, and I’ve already lost my peace of mind. First the chickens and then this.”
“Won’t happen again, Mrs. Brody. My apologies. We’ll see to it that our branches won’t peep into your yard,” said Sara, through gritted teeth.
Without a response, Mrs. Brody angrily turned her back and walked toward her house.
“Prachani edhukku? Pesama maratha thookkidalame!” said Peter.
“Why should we? We didn’t do anything wrong! No question of taking down the tree. This is our house. We can do whatever we want with it.”
Their neighbor’s hostility continued to grow in the coming weeks. In addition to presenting her rocky face, Mrs. Brody had begun to pass authoritative, accusatory comments on Sara at school whenever a conducive situation presented itself. She complained, in the loudest voice possible, of Sara’s nonadherence of social distancing at the fee window, even though they were the only two people standing, at least six feet apart. She scheduled parent-teacher conferences during Sara’s lunchtime, making her miss her lunch three days in a row. Sara was a resource teacher for five of Mrs.Brody’s Biology students, which made it mandatory for Sara to attend these conferences. During these meetings, it seemed to Sara, that Mrs. Brody accused her, though indirectly, of being inept at helping her students, a pertinent reason why her children were failing. The past few weeks had been utterly stressful for Sara, with deadlines to complete her IEPs threatening her, and news of her daughter-in-law’s worsening health condition constantly coming in from India. The doctor had foreseen a complication during the delivery which was due this current week in the form of a mild placental abruption. Mrs.Brody’s behavior towards Sara added up to her restlessness. At home, Sara was fuming, telling her husband that they needed to teach the Brodys a lesson.
“What are you saying, Sara? Do you want me to go beat up that man? You want me to be sent to jail?”
“Don’t talk rubbish! I’m so mad at her that I need to do something to calm my mind. Let me add some sugar into her gas tank at school. Let her suffer. She owns a Cadillac, right?”
“Now, who is talking rubbish? Just calm down. We don’t want any trouble,” said Peter.
“She’s getting on my nerves every day. I can’t focus on my work. I’m extremely depressed and panic-stricken already when my phone displays an Indian number. This lady’s been adding fuel to my anxiety. If she makes any trouble again, I’m going to confront her at school or I’ll report to the cops.”
“Sara, just leave it. Let’s mind our business. Hopefully, she will too,” said Peter. He worked part-time in a gas station that allowed immigrants to work illegally without a work visa. He didn’t want his neighbors to poke their ugly noses into his business. “We’re awaiting the happiest news from India. We don’t want to be spending our precious time crying over the ill will of some rowdy couple,” he added, wearing his Osito fleece jacket.
“Where’re you going? You’ve just come home from work.”
“The owner has asked me to buy some stuff for him from Walmart. I’ll be back soon.”
That night, Sara rolled in her bed, tried various positions, and counted to a hundred, but the sleep did not come. She left their master bedroom at eleven to escape her husband’s snoring and now lay in their guest bedroom. She’d been trying to get some sleep for the past hour, but the incorrigible mind kept bringing one picture after another from its storage, while she helplessly followed its trail. For some time now, she did not hear the snoring from the master bedroom. Perhaps Peter was using the restroom. She waited to hear the flushing sound. But no sound came. She got up and went to the master bedroom. Peter was not there. The restroom was unlocked. She turned around and scanned the entire house. He was nowhere to be seen.
Her cellphone rang. The display showed her son’s name. With her heart thumping against her ribs, she picked the phone up and attended the call.
“Hi, ma. Sorry, I woke you up.”
“What’s the matter? Why are you calling now?”
“We’re in the hospital now. The doctor has asked us to admit Christy today. She isn’t getting labor pain. The doctor has given her an oxytocin injection. He says we need to wait at least twelve hours before he would do a Cesarean. I’m scared, ma.”
“Hey, Selvin, don’t worry. All will be well. We are praying here. Soon we’ll have good news.”
“Okay. You go to sleep. I just wanted to inform you that we are at the hospital. I know you’d get mad if I didn’t. I’ll call you in the morning. Tell dad I called.”
“I don’t think I can go to sleep now. Call me anytime when she delivers,” said Sara.
After her son hung up, Sara called Peter on her cellphone. It sang from their bedroom. She went up to the window and checked if his car was still there. Both their cars were drenched in the moonlight. He did not take his car. Where did he go? Sara’s thumping of her heart resumed with a higher intensity as she sat on the couch waiting for her vanished husband.
A few minutes later Peter returned, through the back door, carrying a large polypropylene bottle. He had a sheepish smile on his face.
Sara looked at him with perplexed eyes. “What were you doing outside at this time, in this weather?” she asked.
“You can be peaceful now. Your friend Brody will have a headache for the next two days,” said Peter, grinning.
“Just sit down. And tell me what you were up to. And stop smiling!”
“Okay. Here’s the thing. There’s a hole on the ground near our fence that I think leads to their sewage pipe. I’ve just poured half a liter of high molarity HCL into that hole. It’ll slowly erode the tank. Might take a day or two before sewage water covers their yard. They wouldn’t be able to find out the source from which a nasty smell comes for at least two days. Serves them well.”
“Peter! Why are you so cruel? What if you are caught in their CCTV camera?”
“We got cameras all over our house. Do we run them all the time? Moreover, my work was done in our yard. I can do whatever I want with my yard.”
“Ever thought that we would also get our share of the stinking?”
Peter looked bewildered. “You wanted to do something about them. So I did,” he said.
“Just forget about it. Selvin called me just now. They’ve admitted her to the hospital. We might hear from them any moment.”
But no news came from India until late morning the next day. Sitting on the couch in their den, Sara kept anxiously fumbling with her cellphone, as though the very act of fumbling with it would help quicken the arrival of the most awaited message from India. In the kitchen, Peter was trying unsuccessfully to make a masala omelet. Sara lurched forward when her cell phone buzzed announcing a text message. No, it was not from India. It was from Mr. Robertson. It said: ‘you guys home? I’m close by. Thought I’d drop in and say hello.’
“You wouldn’t believe it If I told you what happened today,” said Mr. Robertson, as he seated himself on the couch. He looked tired and excited. There were muddy spots on his pants. On the right sleeve of his white shirt was a streak of red-colored marks. Was it…blood or lipstick?
“Did you win your case? Are my neighbors in trouble?” asked Sara, and then bit her lip. The words came out of her mouth without her volition. Both men looked up at her, surprised.
“No, it’s not that. Now that when I think of what happened today, I don’t think the outcome of the case means anything anymore to me. Everything’s taken care of. All you got to do is to go with the flow.”
“What really happened?”
“Early this morning I met Neil right next to the strawberry fields. The man was sitting on the road, his leg bleeding. It seems some stray dog had bitten him. The man was in sheer pain and nobody came around for thirty minutes. He couldn’t call anyone because he didn’t get service for his phone. He had tears when I spotted him. I took him to the hospital in my truck. Just now brought him to his home. Man! It was a horrible sight! Seeing him bleeding and in tears!”
“Oh, that’s awful!” said Sara. Her cell phone rang at that time. She excused herself and went into the bedroom to take the call. After a good five minutes of hushed talk over her phone, she came back with a gloomy face. Mr. Robertson watched her saying something in her native language to her husband that made his face gloomy too. The couple did not care to explain to him what made their faces dark. He decided to let the couple brood over whatever they received through the phone call, got up, and excused himself.
“While in the truck, en route to the hospital, the man said, ‘Hey Tim, I’m sorry for what I did to your dog. I mean it. Look what happened to me now. I think it’s all karma, man…’ He kept repeating the word karma until we reached the hospital. Poor fellow. I feel for him,” said Mr. Robertson, as he was leaving.
The couple sat frozen after Mr. Robertson left. Sara was on the verge of tears. Apparently, the news Sara received from India was not totally a happy one. Their granddaughter had finally arrived. But they were not able to celebrate her arrival yet. After waiting for almost thirteen hours, with the injection failing to produce the desired pain, the doctors had gone on to perform a C-section on Christy, their daughter-in-law. Sara called her son again to learn the details of the operation. Unfortunately, the doctor’s prediction came true and Christy did have a mild placental abruption that led to significant blood loss during the surgery. This had led to more complications. The newborn is struggling to breathe properly and at the moment was breathing with the help of a mechanical breathing machine. The doctor had said it could take at least two days for the baby to recover. Selvin was scared that this might lead to issues like asthma for the baby. To make matters more horrifying, Christy was having baby blues after the surgery. Her incessant cry was filling the entire ward. She kept saying she was going to die.
“Do you smell it?” asked Sara.
“Do you smell sewage?”
Peter sniffed around for any dirty smell. He could not find any. “I don’t smell anything,” he said.
“I don’t either. But I hope nothing happens to their sewage tank. I hope Christy and baby will be alright soon.”
Peter thought it was a shame not to be able to celebrate the arrival of the newcomer into their family. He too hoped that nothing bad should happen to the baby and their daughter-in-law.
Sara said this was a good opportunity for them to mend the broken relationship with their neighbors. She suggested they visit their neighbors with some of the gulab jamuns she made last week. She believed that by visiting them, not only would they be able to renew their friendship but this act might well serve as an atonement for the allegedly committed wrong to their neighbors.
Mr. Brody kept nodding his head while his wife was trying to conjure up a faint smile on her stony face as a sign of truce toward Sara and Peter who sat with silly smiles on their faces. The Brodys had gleefully accepted their wishes for the man’s speedy recovery and the syrup-soaked Gulab jamuns. The meeting lasted exactly fifteen minutes during which Peter kept squirming uncomfortably in his seat.
On their way back, Sara stopped suddenly at the edge of the Brodys’ front yard.
“What?” asked Peter.
“Did you smell anything?”
“Do you smell anything now?” she asked.