UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

RAJAT CHAUDHURI

Bukowski, Black

         That man, with the leather sling bag, pretending to read the menu -- he is waiting for me. He peers through the soda-lime glass of the Smoking Dragon, scans the printed words, moves slowly down the list and shuffles away. There is a clip-joint

down the road. He goes up to that joint, puffs on a cigarette, adjusts his red fishing cap and comes back. He cannot see me.

         I am in shit-heaven, crowded with bliss. A twinkling, starry, naked joy rearing its head. Growing in my heart, raising itself like a chemical-aided erection, sure of itself. Half of it is fear - black ants crawling under my skin. Not even that man with the bag, could do it this time.

         Now as he lights up, near the bar, the halogen picks up the glint in his eyes. Yellow old eyes – has lived a lot of life. He reminds me of a dick in an old movie poster. The private-eye kind. But he is no private-eye; he is just a twisted old buddy. And I know he is waiting for me to turn up.

         But what use is he to me now? I have sorted it out myself. There is no one -- not anymore, in that flat, no soul in need of rest at nightfall. Empty as the old warehouses on the river bank, breathing their last in summer darkness.

         A blue police van barrels along the blacktop with its load of sleepy pick-pockets and cops. A lipstick-red Honda, and a grey Indica at its tail – not much traffic on a Sunday night. A warm breeze rises from the river and finding the road, explores it. The painted lady on the flex billboard trembles in the breeze, a gust catching the giant LCD screen that is throwing dappled images inside the smoky halls of the Dragon.

         I shiver in secret glee. A gas-cutter hissing at the pit of my stomach, sending a searing volley of sparks down my coccyx, poking at the drugged serpent of the kundalini. The brilliant flame licking my thighs, I can't handle it anymore. I thrust both hands into my pockets. I rub my fingers over the seam lines. I pinch and twist the lining of the panties through my pocket liner. I pull hard and it begins to eat me. It's now sheer joy. The joy of falling from a great height. Getting smashed on concrete to a million juicy pieces.

         Concrete, ha! It was all boulders and gravel there. Rough and hard with clumps of bushes all over ... There he is, again at the menu now. I begin to cross as the lights change. The soft cotton on my crotch teases me. It could not have been better than this. No, not even if I lived with her all my breathless life. I slip my hands out of my pockets and ignoring him walk into the Smoking Dragon.

         The Royal Stag whisky arrives before he can. They know me here, I hate that.

         `You are bloody late, man,’ he says. Then he notices something in my face and his yellow eyes are suddenly a different colour. Hard to tell, which one. Smoke swirls all around, the great noisy fans chatter like old hags, the electric bulbs are coated with red dust that dead drunks blew out of their noses before they passed out. I bend closer and whisper teasingly, `Got anything fresh?’

         He doesn’t sense the mockery in my voice. He is losing his touch, The Hyena, they call him in this line. Not an easy job, I grant him that. After today, who could know it better than me? He raises his voice to answer, while putting the bag between us. The band is playing Metallica covers. Their sound bites my eardrums. I lick my lips as the pain in my ear gives me a high-definition high.

         `What the fuck do you mean? Did I ever sell you a stale piece?’

         I pour the grain whisky down my gullet and clear my throat, `So you could pinch it from her. Congratulations!’

         `Uh! You have to wait a bit for that, but here.’ He begins to open his bag. `I have this, from the camera-shop girl.’

         I pretend to ignore him, `Hope it is the white one with the blue fish on them.’ He opens his bag a bit wider.

         `This, this one,’ grabbing a brilliant red bikini in a ziplock envelope, `she was wearing it this morning,’ and begins to slide the zipper with his teeth. `Here, just have a sniff, it’s on the house. Guaranteed to send you back to Cleopatra.’

         I gestured him to stop. `Now what’s the deal with Cleo-fucking-patra, did she smell like lightning?’

         `Lightning! I thought you were one of those punters who cracked a book once in a while,’ a pause, `the great Homer had written about how she smelt between her legs and how poor Julius was blown by her flavours,’

         `Homer! I thought he was dust by time those two met.’

         `Anyway, but just try this beauty, it’s yours for two grand.’

         His drink had been slammed down on his table a while ago and now he began to mix Coca Cola with the rum. He watched me, his eyes the colour of dead leaves behind black shell glass. He thought he had had me, with the camera-shop girl.

         `Now show me the blue fish.’

         `The blue fish?’

         `You said you will get it this week.’

         `Ah! Your neighbour. Girl with dark eyes …’

         `Yes! Have you got her knickers in your bloody bag?’ I was getting pissed. Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was the other thing - because of him I had to take so much trouble today. Of course it paid off but … I pretended to forget it, but it knocked inside my skull, knocked harder. The band had now moved on to AC/DC and Thunderstruck. The searing lead guitar browned the intoxication and more whiskies were ordered. More squat bottles appeared on the zinc bar counter.

         I always had one steaming hot gallon of the red blood racing through my veins, I did. I had threesomes with discount-price whores, on most nights. A junkie or two whenever in luck. They were the ones, knew the best tricks. That was a long time ago. That was the good time. The time when I popped out the main door singing to myself, `Aha, there is a fuck in the air,’ and sure there was one. Life was simple. It went on like that many, many months.

         One day, I got bored and slept with a man. Made me sick and I crept into depression. Tore my diary, with the numbers of the girls. The dolls on smack would still drop in for their fix and after a boring screw, would throw them out the next afternoon. My fuck-buddies slowly evaporated.

         Round this time, I met him. They said he was a regular at the Smoking Dragon and so was I. And it was nothing wrong in God’s great enterprise that we met. Face to face we sat, like today. House was full and rocking. We exchanged stares. He said he had a flower shop uptown. What did I do? I ran a crèche with my step-mom. What bull! He liked that.

         Fact of the matter – never seen my parents. They never wanted to see me. I was brought up a man, by some good people, those in that habit of helping others. And this rich old man, he took me in. I kept his accounts and he left me the flat when he died.

         So the Hyena had twisted his red cap, looked at me hard the next evening and said, `I never see you bring a girl, don’t you get a girl?’

         I hadn’t replied. He too had kept his trap shut. He took me to his lair next and showed me his flowers. `I have the best collection in this country,’ he said. They were all neatly stored in zip-lock bags like the one he displayed a while ago. Lace and silk and latex, cotton and nylon. Bikinis and thongs, hipsters and sexy high-cuts – all the colours of the blooming rainbow! A fancy oak-wood catalogue box with title cards:

         #CB.123 Cotton bikini panties, Donor: Vivi Cardoso, Age: 22, Skin: White, Eye: Grey, hair: Coffee, Collected: July, Renewal: September #CB.124 Cotton bikini panties, Donor: Ratri Banerjee, Age: 27, Skin: Wheat, Eye: Brown, hair: Black, Collected: April, Renewal: May He gave me a free sample. `Take it home, it will give you hours of quality time.’ Soon I had become a regular client.

         He took pride in his line. `This Cardoso girl, she used to be hot, but then the veggie bug bit her,’ he said pointing out the polka dotted bikini panties. `I tell the girls to eat rich, without the mutton and the garlic and the kokum juice, you won’t get the top notes right.’

         `The top what?'

         `The first whiff that you get when you smell her.'

         `Uh-huh'

         `Vivi's top note was vampire squid but her heart was first flush Darjeeling which segued into a base note of shark meat, that could drive you crazy.'

         `Ah! That sounded like a seafood place that served tea in small cups.'

         `Absolutely. We marketed her as Tsukiji - you know that big-deal Tokyo fish market?'

         I nodded, `so they happily give their undies to you?’ I asked.

         `Why not? Who would give them the dough, I do.’

         He had showed me the way. I would sell him my soul. Before this, my days had shriveled and stood still. Balancing ledgers with some grave faced men from other worlds, was making me go nuts. They kept away from me and me from them. Real crappy, nerdy lot they were, talking of school fees and vacations. The creeps on the floor above, chanted Oracle and H1-B visas. The whole bally crowd had switched to an argot that was going miles over my head. I was screwed. I didn’t speak this queer lingo. It made sense to try out the blue thongs that the Hyena had given me.

         I pulled it up my legs and faced the mirror. The silky-softness made me feel naked. Pulled up my battered Levis pair and teamed with a round neck top.

         Like an analgesic shot after a fever. Lights glowed bright. I went smiling through that cheerful day. And always, the girl was with me there. Her silk thongs were like the slow lick of love. That night at the Dragon, I was with her. Next to my skin, tickling my flesh, as I tried hard to cover a prize-winning hard-on. Every week I bought a new pair. I made wedgies with super-size panties, I played with their waistbands, I arranged them in flower bowls, I hung them up like prize paintings – this one a bold Manet, that, a moody El Greco and there, Breugel’s, Triumph of Death.

         The man in the red fishing cap was staring at me through the smoke that now hung low, like a bank of rain clouds. Thunder came from the electric guitar. `I’m on the highway to hell’ it was AC/DC’s sound. Did he look like he was judging me? Perhaps, perhaps he had had, one too many. `Are you OK?’ I shouted.

         `So, you don’t need anything tonight,’ he said.

         I looked at him. Stony jawed. I thought about my neighbour. The dark eyes, they had been trailing me from the day she moved into the next flat. When I was out on the streets, the eyes followed. I turned round and they took cover behind a shop sign and spied on me from there. Like a small knife that kids used to sharpen pencils with, they stabbed, but not to kill. A trickle of blood, a wicked smile on the hunter's face. The black eyes of that woman would stare at me through windows, would watch me through brick walls and ceilings, wink at me and vanish in the midst of utter darkness. I cannot say what shade of black they were, but I needed her more for those eyes. What prey does not love the hunter a bit, does not want to lick the sweat on the hands that hold the slug-loaded shotgun. I was getting crazy to smell her skin, stick my tongue into her sweat pores and get stoned by the scent. But who would get what was killing me? I needed her things for my flower bowls. But I didn’t know how. So I went to my master.

         `So they fall in love, do they?’ he said.

         I kept quiet. `OK I will get it for you. Do you know what you want?’ he said.

         `A little white one, with blue fish swimming all over. I have seen it once. She had hung out her washing in the front verandah and it was bang at my end of the line. Tried to reach it but it was way too far.’

         `Don’t you worry partner, leave the trouble to me.’ But then weeks had gone and he did nothing to keep me alive. Someone had been sucking out the good air from my room. Breathless. I took the rotten stuff he sold, pressed them against my nose trying to choke myself. Slashed them to pieces with a switchblade and scattered them all over. Pink bikinis, peacock blue panties, milk white thongs. It was getting desperate.

         He was eyeing me even more carefully now as he mixed Coke with his Old Monk. My glass was almost empty. What did he know? It had hardly been a few hours. But I couldn’t look into his eyes.

         `I will take off tonight. Maybe tomorrow …’ I was fumbling for words.

         Her soft cotton bikini panties were sitting like a feather on my skin. The little blue fish swimming all over my crotch. As I fidgeted in my seat, the fabric caressed my flesh, switching on the gas-cutter.. But a chill, a cold crappy chill had begun to freeze the back of my ears. My hands became unsteady and I slid them under the table. His eyes followed.

         `So, you didn’t wait for me?’

         `I got nothing. You were supposed to get it for me, you ditched.’

         `I tried, she would not sell.’

         `As if you have never heard that before.’ I stiffened my toes inside my sneakers.

         `You did not give me time.’

         My back was touching the chair, the palm of my hands was ice and I felt I would choke. Then I noticed I had jerked away and begun to float unsteadily over the chair. My mouth was a dry brick sewer.

         `He kept down his glass on the table and patted me on my shoulder. I didn’t feel his hands, still hanging somewhere between him and my chair not seeing, not hearing, in a strange, terrifying limbo. I had never been so scared all my life.

         `How did it go?’ he asked.

         A harsh voice came from the brick sewer, `The door was unlatched. It was there on the clothesline. I made a dash for it.’

         `Goofed up?’

         `She came up right behind me,’

         `How did you get out of there?’

         A second's pause, then the voice said, `I wouldn’t have, she lunged at me with a meat fork. I hit her. She fell five floors down.’

         `Dead?’

         `You bet,’

         `You killed her for kicks. I don’t deal with creeps,’ the Hyena rose from his chair.

         I sat firm and sure on mine. A wall of frothing bliss, tore through the sandbanks and beaver dams, bursting like juicy karma, coming in endless spurts, dissolving her little white knickers, down my weather-beaten Levis, washing away the little blue fish with it, to the four corners of the Smoking Dragon and out onto the kerb and the empty blacktop, where they were all found battered and dead, the next morning. In death, they all look pretty.

Rajat Chaudhuri’s first novel, Amber Dusk was welcomed by critics as `another type of writing emerging within Indian English writing.’ His short stories and other writing have appeared in popular Indian dailies like The Statesman, The Telegraph and The Times of India and he has reviewed fiction for Indian Literature journal, published by Sahitya Akademi -- India’s national academy for letters. His sci-fi short, Watersmoke, won an honour in the Scientific Indian (Scian) short story contest, 2006 and another appeared recently in The Legendary. An excerpt from his next novel is forthcoming in Eclectica. He lives in eastern India and on the web here www.rajatchaudhuri.net







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