A Room With No Door


 Megan Corazza, Fiction

 

I remember my father's face getting blacker, and how his weak coughing would fleck the bedcovers with blood. My older sister Anju and I were secretly happy that he was never hungry. When he only took a few handfuls of the rice and turned away, my mother always tried to make him eat more. He would make angry noises through his coughing, and then she would push the plate towards our eager hands with her trembling ones.

I realize now that, as an eight-year-old boy, I had spent my entire life watching my father die. I couldn't remember it's ever having been different, but Anju could, and she told me the story of the first doctors and hospitals in Kathmandu. She said that the outside of his eyes had gone from being white to looking like the yolk of an egg. Anju said that one woman, who always brought her saris and blouses to my father for stitching, told my mother about medicines that would make his eyes clear again. The lady gave us some money to take him to a hospital. Even now, using the urinal in the morning makes me think of Anju and the games she would play with us during the long, hot days of the monsoon season in Nepal. "Let's think of things that are yellow like baa's eyes," she would say to our three year-old sister, Chandra, and me. Possibilities were everywhere. Bananas, pee, the huge letters I couldn't yet read on roadside billboards, the sun, bolts of cloth lined up neatly behind my father's sewing machine, and the packages of Coconut Crunchies at BishnuAuntie's store. Chandra would just point to the four glass jars of spices on a high shelf against the gray concrete wall.

They kept our father at the hospital until his eyes were white again, and then he came home. But people stopped bringing their saris to him anyway because he was staining the cloth when he coughed. Mother told Anju to watch me and Chandra while they went to a different hospital. When they came back they had a small picture that showed his ribs and heart. His lungs were two dark empty spaces that looked as if they had spiderwebs strung in them. They also brought back shiny packets of medicines, and Anju used to push pills through the thin silver skin and let Chandra and me play with them on the floor.

For eight years he took the medicines. When I was eight years old and big enough to roll an old bike tire through the streets with a stick, the picture of the spiderwebs in my father hung next to a picture of Ganesh, the man with an elephant's head. When I was ten years old and came in sticky from games of cricket with some other boys, my father's scratched, blue and white picture hung next to a crooked painting of Jesus, naked and stretched on a wooden beam. "Without the church ladies," my mother told us sternly, "your father would not have any medicine." Anju and I begrudged him this; he had medicine but we lost most of our friends. It was bad enough to have a sick father; nobody would sit where he used to sit at the tea shop, and when we played in the street, mothers with thin, tinkling glass bracelets on their arms would grab our friends, dragging them away. When the women from church would come over to pray in our room, their foreheads scrubbed free of the traditional red powder, even our few remaining friends would shout and point from a distance, kicking loose rocks at them.

Sometimes my father would get better, but then one of us would get sick, and he would start to cough all over again. When Chandra was four, she started coughing at night. This time, she was sick at the same time as my father, and mother said they couldn't both get medicines, or there would be no rice or lentils for the rest of us. While my father and I pushed Chandra's ashes and the unburnt wood into the river, my mother looked away, smoothed her hair, re-tucked her sari, and avoided the burning eyes of Anju and me.

A visit from the doctor always began with my mother's voice, raspy but loud, coming from the single window in our room.

"Prakash!"

I would hand the bat to my friend, Pramod, and let my sandals flap loudly as I trudged up to the third story of our apartment building, dragging my hand along the crumbling walls in the dim hallway. My fingertips would bounce from the gritty concrete of the walls to the rough wood of each of our neighbors' doors. After my hands had gone across seven doors, I knew that our room was next. Where there should have been a door there was nothing but a six inch-high scrap of tin that Anju had put on the ground to keep the mice out.

"Prakash, put on your long pants and your green shirt! The doctor is coming soon, hurry! Anju, hold the baby!" I knelt down to pull my box out from under the bed we all shared. Anju sat down on the edge of the bed, bouncing our new baby sister, Jhoti. My mother put on her necklace, straightened her sweater near her wrists, and pushed the stove as far as possible into the corner. She wiped the spit from my father's face, which was as black as the bottom of a pot, and pulled the covers up to his chin. He shook his head and coughed, trying to tell her that he was too hot already, but she'd already turned away and was unwrapping the dirty shawl around Jhoti. There was no pee, so she wrapped the baby up again and handed her back to Anju. Taking a step to the doorway, she bent down to arrange all of our chupples in pairs.

"Namaste, didi!" My mother straightened quickly, surprised by the doctor's quiet approach and deep voice. She smiled and folded her hands together. She stepped to the side and told us to stand up so that the good doctor could look at father. He looked at Anju and me, touched the bottom of the baby's foot, and then sat down on the bed. He held my father's wrists and asked him questions while my mother pulled the stove from the corner and began to heat up some milk. She unwrapped the edge of her sari, untied one corner, and, with a sharp look, handed me four rupees.

I ran to BishnuAuntie's store on the corner, feeling as rich as the doctor. I didn't look at my friend Pramod when he shouted at me from the alley. I remember stopping a little way from the store, to practice reading the numbers on the coins. I didn't know the words, but they looked like the inside of Pramod's school books. I could have walked up to the counter and asked for an egg. I could have pointed at the candy jar and gotten eight White Rabbits. A whole package of Coconut Crunchies. But at the counter, I just stood and looked up at BishnuAuntie. She didn't even turn to me.

"Prakash, stop staring," she said. "Leave me alone; I'm busy!" When she did finally look at me, she saw the rupees I was holding out.

"One packet of tea, please."

She laughed like the first water out of the pump, and reached towards the back shelf. "The doctor again? I don't know how your mother can afford him."

I didn't answer. Taking the small plastic packet and leaving the shiny coins, I ran back home.

I handed the packet to my mother and stepped back over the tin in the empty doorway to watch the doctor from a distance. He didn't look the same as us; he was tall and his skin was light brown, instead of looking like us—like burnt chapatis. He told us he was from India, and I used to imagine how the streets of India must be full of tall, calm, quiet men with friendly eyes, instead of the dirty, crowded streets of Nepal filled with shouting men and dogs with bleeding sores.

My father was lying on his stomach, hanging his head over the edge of the bed, and coughing. Coughing is hard to do for eight years, so by the end the doctor had to help him. My father made small sounds like a cat, and the doctor hit his back, up and down and up and down. Green spit with bloody bubbles dripped slowly out of my father's mouth, and the doctor collected it in the bowl that he brought every time. The doctor always put a lid on the bowl and took it away with him, telling us that it would help other people not to get sick. After a while, the doctor helped my father roll back over onto the far side of the bed. Mother turned away from the wall with a steaming cup of tea. He handed me the silver tubes he used for listening to father's heart, and motioned for my mother to follow him outside to the roof, which was through the empty doorway at the end of the hall.

This was our favorite part. I stepped back over the scrap of tin in the doorway and stood next to Anju. She held the silver disk below her throat, and I carefully put the long tubes up next to my ears. The sound was like the big trucks starting up in the mornings, slow and throbbing. Anju said mine sounded like water being poured into a bowl. Mother and the doctor were gone for a long time, so we listened to Jhoti's heart, too, but all we could hear through the tubes was her breathing, which was as loud as our father's as we'd try to sleep at night. Suddenly they reappeared from the roof.

"Prakash, Anju, say goodbye to the doctor. Jhoti, can you say goodbye?"

"Bye bye," said Anju, waving Jhoti's tiny hand.

I handed the tubes back to the doctor, watching his smooth, long fingers curl around the dirty fingerprints we had left on the silver. He looked sad and walked slowly away, looking back once more at my mother from the end of the dark hallway. "What did he say, aamaa?" I asked. Mother dipped her hand in a bowl of water and began to scrub the milk that had burned to the side of the pan. Her cracked lips opened and closed with no words, and then she started to clean the doctor's cup.

"Anju." Mother's voice was quiet, but it was a choking kind of quiet that made Anju stop playing with the baby and listen. "Prakash, Anju, the doctor said that your father's sickness

has gotten very strong. No one can visit him anymore, and it is better if we are not in the house. You have to sleep outside for a while."

Two months after my father died, the landlord became bolder. Before, he used to just peek in at our room and tell my father that his coughing was making the neighbors angry. Now, he told my mother she couldn't hang up clothes to dry on the roof because the sickness was still in our room. He kicked the chupples that were lined up outside the doorway, and threatened not to rent the room to us. He burned the bench that my father used to sit on outside.

My father died in the rainy season, and by the time the fields were full of dry, hard clods, fourteen year-old Anju had left, and there was more room on the bed. A man from India named Kanchha, with shiny hair and nice shoes, had started coming to visit her. He never talked to Jhoti or me; he only spoke a few words with my mother and always handed her something before holding Anju by the shoulder and taking her outside. They talked on the roof while mother sat inside looking at the picture of the spiderwebs that were under my father's ribs. Right before my father died, we could see the bones underneath his skin, and his heart beating in the middle, and he looked like that picture.

I was playing one day between the houses stacked high and close, like the bowls of curd that men sell in the morning, and I heard the neighbors say my mother let Anju go with Kanchha because then we could eat twice a day. They said that my mother must know that India was not very nice, and my sister would probably get sick from all the men, the kind of sickness doctors couldn't heal you from, and wasn't it sad that a girl as sweet as Anju was tricked into thinking she would be a bride. One of them rubbed at the clothes she was washing with blue soap, scrubbed them furiously against a stone, and said that she hoped Kanchha didn't think he could come back for their daughters, too. I got angry and went over to them. I told them what my mother told me, about Kanchha asking her if he could marry Anju, and how excited Anju was, and how we would go down to visit them in India someday.

When I went home, I asked my mother why we didn't use the money that Kanchha gave her to go down to the wedding. She said that she got sick on buses, and that I probably would, too. Wasn't I happy, she asked, that I had my own schoolbooks and a uniform now?

When I was eleven, baby Jhoti started to breathe like an old man, so I told my mother to take her to the hospital. She dug out her nicest sari from the bottom of the wooden cupboard, put on sandals with high heels and wrapped the baby tight around her back. I went with them to keep my mother from being scared of the doctors. The doctor listened to the baby's heart, and then asked if there was anybody in the house with the coughing sickness. My mother said no. I said there used to be. I said my father and my sister both died after getting sick. The doctor's face turned the color of BishnuAuntie's eggplants, and he looked at my mother. Don't you know, he said, that this sickness is passed from person to person? You should not be sleeping in the same room, you should not share the same food. You should keep all your windows open and make sure the sun dries your clothes. He looked at me. If you do not do these things, Prakash will be the next. He is already skinny and his eyes are not clear.

My mother wiped her eyes and said she had heard these things, but didn't know if they were true or not. I just played with the silver band around Jhoti's ankle.

I told my mother that I would quit school so that we could pay for the baby's medicine, but she started crying. She said that the women who came to church in silk saris were helping. I saw them give her a plastic bag every week, full of milk powder and rice. And she told me that Mitudidi from the church invited her over every morning while I was gone at school and they would have a big meal. I was happy. Before, I never knew why she didn't eat with me.

I came home from school, and my mother was sitting alone on the bed. There were rocks holding down the edge of her sari as it hung out the window, drying. She was coughing. I put my uniform in the box under the bed, and she held out a manna of peanuts, wrapped in newspaper.

"Aamaa! Thank you," I said. "Here, share with me."

She waved her hand and turned away coughing. "Eat, Prakash. I have something to tell you."

"Did you hear from Anju?" I asked through a mouthful, shells piling up on the straw mat.

"I am getting sick, Prakash. I have been thinking about what the doctor says, and your eyes, and your father... you need to tell Mitudidi and the other church ladies not to come over. Pramod can't visit either. And... you need to sleep outside again."

From the roof, I heard a cup smash on the floor. My eyes opened and I was awake, staring into the darkness.

"No," a man's voice hissed in an angry whisper. "No! Your face is getting black, like the bottom of my foot. You offer yourself to me?! You neck is thin, your children spit green all around my building, and your clothes smell like piss. You've already made your husband and children rot! You have no pleasure to give; you are not worth money."

There was a scuffling and a clatter as someone tripped over the tin at the bottom of the doorway. Quick, heavy footsteps faded down the hallway. The baby started crying. Then there was only the sound of the faraway truck horns and my own heart, like I was listening to it with the doctor's silver tubes.

That night I lay quietly on my grass mat on the roof, looking up at the sky and wondering how the moon felt when it was full. The barking of dogs and the hiss of pressure cookers and the sharp voices of women filled the small spaces between buildings, and I pulled the blanket tight around my neck. Doors shut, taxis stuttered to a stop, and mice ran across the sagging line where the corn hung drying. I wondered about Anju and Kanchha's life in India. In school we saw pictures of huge white temples in India, camels in the street, elephants, and the ocean. I would love to see the ocean.