Saturday 15 August 2020

Sudha Vishwanathan, Short Story 2020 Longlist

An Ethereal Deed

Chicago was experiencing one of the worst winters in February. Everyone preferred the coziness of home, and only those who had the genuine need to get out for some vital errand, ventured for the shortest while possible.

I was probably the odd one ambling in the deserted lanes. Home, for me, wasn't the place to snuggle now. Even the fierce winter seemed much better than the solitude at home.

If Kate hadn't left me for good, we would have been cuddling together in front of the fireplace. Under the deluge of her warm breath, the cold wouldn't have felt so severe.

"I cannot stay here anymore, Edward. Well, I agree that life is a roller coaster ride, and we had promised to walk along the path together, holding hands, but things don't seem to work well with you at all. You have been chasing a wild goose. You quit your well paying job six months ago to start this new endeavor, and now it is all over. Months will go in struggling to repay all the loans. Your callousness toward life has been repetitive."

She sounded exhausted. I had no valid points to pile up in my defense. She was right; I had been too wavering for the past four years since we were married. I had changed as many as five jobs and then started my garment exports, which failed miserably due to my lethargy.

It was today morning, after a week of Kate's departure, I learned that she had moved with her colleague, Harry, to start life anew.

Any remote possibility of getting her back erased all together with this revelation, and here I was walking all alone on the snow-clad path in Armitage Avenue.

Caffe Umbria seemed to be a welcome place in this chilling cold. I got inside and found that other than the employees, there were hardly five customers. They were in a cluster and seemed to be some IT professionals working together on project submission.

"What would you like to have, sir?" The boy behind the service counter sounded monotonous.

"A Cappuccino for him and a Latte for me," Someone placed an order on my behalf with a warm touch on my shoulders. I turned in awe and was surprised to see my old buddy George standing right behind me.

"Look, I still remember your favorite, Cappuccino. Would you like to have something to eat too?" he asked, nudging me.

"Hey, buddy, what's up?" He shook me to reality, as I stood motionless, my mind not initiating basic etiquette of responding to pleasantries.

It was ages since I had last met him; it must be a decade and a half. He was my college mate. I vividly remembered that adversities at home had almost driven him to give up studies in the last semester, but I had coaxed him to get somehow done with his graduation. I helped him with the much-needed finance.

His father passed away during our exams, and he had to leave suddenly. I had never heard from him since.

Astounded by his sudden appearance, I smiled for the first time since Kate had left.

Placing the order, George firmly held my hands, indicating that he would pay the money. I was too numb even to protest.

During our university days, he was a student hailing from an impoverished family while I was a rich brat.

I doted on my friends, and George was a special one as he helped me with all my assignments. He was a brilliant student. Unlike others who only flitted around me for fulfilling their own needs, he was selfless.

Though he would vehemently deny, I would often stuff money into his pocket, for I knew he was in bad need of them. Not only that, but I also offered him delicacies at regular intervals knowing well that he could not afford to eat as much as the rumbling stomach at this growing age demanded. He often fumbled for words to express his gratitude that he invariably conveyed through his eyes.

"How am I ever going to repay your kindness?" He often criticized his penury. I would pat his shoulder, assuring him that it was a small help that I was rendering, and he shouldn't worry about returning it.

Fifteen long years had lapsed after that, and here he was sitting in front of me with the same charm in his face and brilliance in his sparkling eyes. I was sure he had done well in life. I caught an aura of prosperity around him, and this made me very happy. I had seen him struggling through hardships.

"So, buddy, what have you been up to?" He asked and not waiting for a reply he continued, "I cannot ever forget your kind-heartedness." I noticed his eyes had turned misty.

"I am not so ok," I said, grinning sheepishly. "My only wife left me because I have been a thorough failure in life. I changed as many as five jobs and then started something of my own, investing all the money I had and also lifting some loans. But then it boomeranged. Now I owe a hefty sum to the bank."

He looked at me with skepticism. "You did not take things seriously, I suppose, like you university assignments," he laughed, creating a light atmosphere, and then we went on a flashback and spoke about how we had lived our college days.

"How much do you owe the bank, exactly?" he asked suddenly. Without as much as an intimation, he began removing a checkbook from his pocket. I looked askance at him, making a wrong calculation that he would flee from there if he knew how much bad debt I had.

"Forget it," I said, "I am making arrangements to sell my house. It may not fetch a fortune, but I can make a part payment, something will come up soon. Don't worry about my predicament. It was brought upon by me, and I should learn to unwind the intertwined problems. If I had had the stubbornness to take life lightly and do things in my stride, I should also have the resilience to accept the outcome of my apathy."

"Don't be silly to sell your property. Just tell me how much it is?" He had already opened the cap of his pen.

'How was I going to tell him that I need $ 3, 00,000 urgently to call off my debts and another $3, 00,000 to start something again?

After much coaxing on his part, I meekly told him my predicament and mentioned the amount; my whole physique was squirming in humiliation. In a jiffy, he wrote down two checks for $3,00,000 each, without showing any signs of disturbance.

"Take this," he said. "And I will meet you at this very joint the day after tomorrow. By that time, clear all your debts and chart a new business plan. I want to see you as our same bubbly Edward of the university." He smiled.

I found myself nodding mechanically. Things that had just transpired seemed too good to be true. Someone, whom I had offered a few morsels of food and little money years ago, had found an amicable solution to all my tribulations with checks running into massive amounts.

We had our coffee amidst conversations about how life had shaped after college. George told me that he had to leave the university abruptly due to some problematic issues back home. Then he kept doing some odd jobs for survival, till he landed with a mediocre job that fetched him enough money to make both ends meet.

"Then how did you chance upon such a huge fortune?" I couldn't contain myself, and I asked, waving the checks that he had handed me.

"Well, you never know when destiny plans to smile on you radiantly," he smiled too. "One of my uncles who was issueless and a millionaire left his assets in my name though I had taken care of him in his old age, out of reverence for him and sheer humanity.

So here I am with a considerable property to my credit." He smiled again. The same smile that flashed in his face even while confronting acute adversities during college life.

Twitching his lips, he said, "You are such a kind hearted person, and it deeply saddens me to learn about your condition. Maybe people took over advantage of your generosity. I remember you for your bounteousness. I can't keep count of how many times you have paid for my examination fees and how many days I have eaten out of your money."

"Oh come one, George, take it easy. If money can't be utilized during the needs of near and dear ones, what am I going to do amassing it?" I looked into his tear-filled eyes. There was gratitude in them.

As long as I was concerned, it was just a small help that I might have done, but it looked like the act of benevolence, as he called it, got deeply embossed in his mind. Probably I had inadvertently acted as a benefactor in his life.

"Let us meet the day after tomorrow then," he said as we parted for the evening.

"It may take a while before I repay this," I said, waving the checks. "Please bear with me," I held George's hands.

"Let your business enterprise take off and scale heights; then we can discuss repayment." He brushed aside my apprehensions with a nonchalant shrug and left.

When we met the next time, he handed over a $20,000 check to me.

"Keep this," he said. "You will need it to tide over till your venture takes off."

I was worried that my brimming tears would flow anytime, and today there were enough people in the Caffe, as the weather had been conducive enough for people to step out of their houses. I would be the center of attraction if I cried at the age of 37.

We spoke for long, and this time I remembered to ask him where he stays and also about his family.

"I lost my parents and my only sibling," he expressed his desolation. "I am single," he said, grinning as always.

"I am on some work in Chicago and am put up at Fairmont."

"How long will you be here?" I asked, debating whether I should request him to move with me. But compared to Fairmont, my house was tiny and dingy. George seemed to be leading a sophisticated lifestyle, and it would be unethical to call him over to my place, I thought.

"I have three more months in this place, and I hope to see you well settled before I leave. I am sure you won't disappoint me." His voice sounded half severe and half jovial, so much so that I was not able to decipher if he was talking seriously or just kidding. Nevertheless, I forced a smile on my face, making up my mind that I should do something fast to prove my mettle before this benevolent guy departs.

And then began my hard work in full swing. Despite a tight schedule, I found time to meet George at the same Caffe almost four times a week and over a cup of coffee and some bites, I explained to him every move of mine and how my venture was shaping and assured him that soon I would be well established. He looked mighty pleased with my progress.

It was precisely 90 days after I met George that I was inaugurating my own office dealing with textiles, a field in which I was much adept.

I had invited him to cut the ribbon; it was after all he who had funded for the same. He had meekly nodded when I extended the invitation to him at Caffe Umbria two days before.

"I want you to be there by 5 pm. The guests would come by 7, but I need you by my side to help me make all arrangements. Your presence would be a morale booster, and remember you are cutting the ribbon for me," I had said.

It was 5.15 pm, and yet George had not arrived. I waited for a while and then called him. He wasn't responding to my call. I then decided to contact the Fairmont reception to find out if he had left the hotel. Probably he was stuck with some work halfway.

"Hello, can you put me to suite number 245, I need to contact Mr. George," I told the lady at the reception.

"Sir, Mr. George had already checked out yesterday. May I know your good name?"

I couldn't bring myself to speak for a few minutes, bewildered to learn that George had left the previous evening itself. Regaining my composure, I told her, "I am Edward, his friend."

"Oh, you are Mr. Edward. He has left a letter for you and asked us to hand it over to you. He was sure you would come looking out for him here."She informed me.

The mystery behind George leaving abruptly and also having deposited a letter in my name at the hotel triggered my inquisitiveness. However, expecting the guests to arrive now in an hour, driving to and back from Fairmont, was not possible. It would suck in almost two hours. I had to hold my anxiety until the function would culminate.

In a trance, I went through the whole inaugurating process, cutting the ribbon myself. I wasn't sure if I had been courteous enough to the guests. It was like I was in a stupor. My mind kept repeating the same question; 'Why did George leave without informing me?'

Eagerly waiting for the last of the guests to depart, I drove down to Fairmont.

The lady at the reception maintained a high level of professionalism. She requested to check my identity before handing over the letter to me.

With mixed feelings of apprehensions, betrayal, anger, I opened the envelope that was handed over to me and unfolded a white sheet of paper.

"Dear Edward,

I am aware that you would be upset while reading this letter, but you need to know certain facts. I have penned down everything in this letter. Please be patient enough to read till the last.

We met at Caffe Umbria on February 12th, and you said we have met after one decade and a half, but that was wrong on your part. I had already seen you one month before and had been meticulously following you.

Dear friend, you met only my soul and not me. I breathed my last on January 15th. It was a cold-blooded murder. As I told you, one of my uncles left me a vast fortune. Growing envious about my newly found opulence, my first cousin, who had miscalculated that he would bequeath all the property, planned to eradicate me from the scene. He had then decided to make fake documents with the help of a charlatan, who was going to do it for vested interest.

Under the pretext of celebrating my newly acquired richness, they invited me for a drink. My cousin had mixed the potion carefully with poison. I died with this sad feeling that I hadn't shared the happy news of my having inherited uncle's property, with my mother and brother. I had decided to give them a surprise, personally!!!

I do not know precisely what happened, but a divine hand touched me, and I felt like I was back to life. The holy soul, which was not visible, told me in a most magnificent voice that I was getting a chance to regain my lost property. However, the money would be of no use to me, since I was no longer a human being, but I would be free to give it to anyone I wished to. The Holy voice said that I could make use of the money for my own needs during the four months that was allocated to me to stay back in the world of human beings.

Today the 15th of May, I would cease to be a normal human being at 5 pm, and then I would be transformed into another world. That was the deal.

Before the charlatans could make fake documents and lay a hand on my property, I claimed it. But alas, when I went home, I saw that my mother and brother both had met with a tragic end in a fire accident.

Destiny brought me to Chicago, and while I was walking in a daze, looking out for some charitable trust where I could donate all the money, I happened to spot you inside a bank. I entered the bank in an attempt to meet you. Overhearing your conversation with the bank manager, I realized that you were in bad debt.

'Charity begins at home,' it is said. I decided to help a compassionate human like you. I was happy that I had got the opportunity to express my gratitude to you. Maybe this was all happening due to divine intervention.

I did give the charitable trust some money, but only after I paid you to start your venture. As I already pointed to you during our conversations at the Caffe, I always remember you as a kind friend in the university.

Now you know that you did not meet your friend, but a ghost and ghosts don't expect their friends to repay the money given.

Take care and work hard to enhance your establishment. Best wishes.

George Pereira."

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