“Skinny Patel!” shouted Bhanerjee, from across the office. Ramesh groaned inside. It was much too late in the day for that gimpy Napoleon and his manipulative bullshit.
Samir Bhanerjee was the shift manager in charge of the sales floor. He was a small, unimpressive man who walked with a hitch in his step, smelled of onions, and liked to paste his hair to his head with some sort of grease. And like most such inconsequential men, very mean. He enjoyed having two Patel’s on his telephone sales team, although unrelated to each other, and both good salesmen. His two fighting cubicle-dogs.
“Skinny Patel,” he yelled from his office door, “take line 7! They’re asking for Fat Patel, but he’s tied up on line 12. Go on, do it! Now! Answer 7 as Fat Patel.”
What an insufferable tick of a man. If there were any justice in the universe, he would be crushed beneath a shifting mountain of karma before day’s end. And perhaps, if it was a truly just universe, part of the mountain would break off and take out Fat Patel too, that opinionated Pakistani, just as he rode his new red bicycle home.
Ramesh punched line 7. “Hello, this is RODAN Patel speaking (too much emphasis! he thought as he said it), this call will be monitored for quality assurance. How may I assist you today in finding the perfect home monitoring device to fit your needs and budget?” These words were written on the script pinned to the cubicle wall next to him, but he never needed to refer to it. He had memorized all ten Probable Sales Scenario scripts months ago.
Silence for a moment.
“Turn off the recording” said a female voice. Her accent sounded familiar to him. Arabic perhaps? Afghani?
“Excuse me?” said Ramesh.
“Please turn off the recording.”
This was strange indeed, but he had been trained for such a possibility. Probable Sales Scenario Nine, The Mistrusting Customer.
“I understand. I am turning off the recording at the customer’s request.” Ramesh had always thought it ironic, the need to record the customer’s preference for non-recording, but such things mattered to the lawyers. He feared lawyers, so he always recorded. Ramesh punched the red button, and the line clicked once. He pressed it again, another click. “The recording function has been turned off. How may I help you?”
“Mr. Rodan Patel,” said the woman’s voice, “this is the offense calling. The playoff game is under way.”
A wrong number? thought Ramesh. But no, impossible. Only serious customers were given the backdoor number to call incoming. And this caller had asked for Fat Patel by name. He would follow her lead. If he was able to close a sale with her on this call, Sales Team rules would allow him to steal the points from Rodan. It was near the end of the month, and Ramesh had a fair shot at beating Fat Patel’s numbers. There’s the karma train coming now, though Ramesh. Prepare to be flattened, Fat Patel.
“And how may assist you this evening, Ms. Offense?”
“It is third and short. You are the Coach,” said the woman. “Please call the play.”
Ramesh hesitated. “I am not sure I understand you, ma’am.” It made him smile to be called Coach, though. It must be friendly American slang: What’s up, Coach? Nothing much, Player, how you doing?
“Please select the play” she insisted.
Ramesh knew little about American plays. He had been made to read one the previous year, as part of his American sales training. He’d have to use that.
“Ms. Offense?” said Ramesh, “I select Death of a Salesman. It is very well written, and quite tragic. As I recall, Mr. Arthur Miller uses the character of Willie Loman to explore the true meaning of success in life.”
The woman’s voice grew impatient. “Run or pass? Which one?”
Ramesh was lost, and tired of this caller’s rambling. He could already tell there was no chance of a sale here. It was Saturday morning on the east coast of the United States; this woman was either groggy or hung over. She was most likely a divorced, mentally ill American woman with a breakfast martini in hand, a foreign student who married into money, her purse now full, but her days vacant and her bed cold. They’re all the same, he thought. The loneliness and the vodka addle their brains. Who else would call a telemarketer?
“Run!” said Ramesh, and disconnected the line.
Mama stood at the stove cooking curried-something when Ramesh arrived home, an hour after darkness had fallen. This would not be good. Mama’s eyesight had been failing steadily, so much so that she could no longer tell what she was buying at the marketplace: goat or dog, fresh or rancid. Much of what she cooked was thrown away in secret. All three of them were losing weight. Ramesh did not have the heart, however, to make her stop. If she stopped her cooking, her daily purpose, her death would surely follow.
Ramesh turned off the stove and took his mother by the hand. “Mother,” he said, “I am not hungry now, and the curry tastes better when it rests overnight. Time for bed.”
Mama did not object. Ramesh led her to her cot, in the next room.
Anjat was already asleep in her sewing chair, surrounded by piles of blouses and bowls of sequins. Anjat was two years older than Ramesh and feeble-minded, as the doctors termed it. The doctors also described her cancer cells as insects, invaders that had spread throughout her blood like an army of poisonous ants, planting their decay wherever they could take root. Anjat did not complain about the discomfort. She sewed instead, earning several dozen rupees a month attaching sequins onto women’s clothing for the garment factory on the next block. Her biggest smiles were saved for month’s end, when she would come home to Ramesh, a few coins in her hand. “For food, Rami” she would say.
Ramesh gently took the needle from his sister’s limp fingers and set it aside. With her eyes closed, in the dim light, she appeared so normal. Stay asleep, Anjat, and be happy! Ramesh wished she could sleep for a year, dream for two---dream right through the small allotment of cruelty that still remained for her.
He decided he was tired himself, too tired to watch television, so he never saw the broadcast interruptions, never heard the breaking news coming from America, from Boston. He would have his own nightmares, filled as well with buses and victims.
Before dawn, there was a crash at the door that startled Ramesh. Several hands grabbed him. A light shoved into his face, blinding him.
“Rodan Patel?” said a man. It sounded more statement than question.
“No, I, no, I am Ramesh, Ramesh Patel!”
“You work at the ElderGuard Services call center? You spoke with a woman yesterday about American football?”
“Yes,” stuttered Ramesh, “Yes, I work there, a woman? Yes, I spoke to a woman yesterday, she was drunk and insane, I think, she spoke nonsense to me. What is this, who are you?”
There were at least three men in the apartment. Two were white-skinned, one black. They wore business shirts. On their faces, mirrored sunglasses, though the sun was barely above the horizon. All of them had extremely short hair, hard muscles. They seemed prone to violence. One of the men wore an earplug with a wire that disappeared under the collar of his shirt.
Americans, by their voices.
“What did you say to her? To the woman?”
“Nothing! A few words I say to her, maybe. More nonsense.”
“Do you need help remembering, Mr. Patel?” said the leader. He motioned. Another man appeared with Anjat, behind her, holding her in a headlock. He dragged her to the table. “Do we need to hurt her? Would that help you?”
“No, please!” cried Ramesh.
“Did you help plan the tunnel bombing? What is the woman’s name? Your sleeper in Boston, we want her name. And who do you report to?”
“What are you talking about sir? I don’t know what you want!”
The leader swung his arm and hit Anjat in the head with the butt of his pistol. Anjat’s legs buckled and she sank to the floor, blood blooming from a gash on her temple.
“Please, please leave her alone! That phone woman did not say her name. She thought I was Rodan, Rodan Patel. Fat Patel. But I’m not him, I am Skinny Patel! You must believe me!”
The leader took off his sunglasses and rubbed his forehead. His blue eyes oozed acid. “I’m going to ask you one more time, you piece of shit, who was the woman on the phone?”
Ramesh looked down, shook his head. The leader grabbed Ramesh’s right wrist and pinned it to the table, palm down. With the other hand, he jerked Ramesh’s smallest finger backwards until the joint snapped. Ramesh screamed, his finger bent upward at an unnatural angle.
The leader sat and watched Ramesh weather the waves of pain. “Mr. Patel,” he said, “will you help us now?”
Ramesh whispered, “Yes, yes, I will tell you where to find him. Rodan Patel. Fat Patel. He will be at work soon. One hour. At the call center. I’m not lying. Ask the boss, Bhanerjee! He will tell you who Rodan Patel is.”
The men hustled Ramesh out of the apartment into the cool air of morning. Anjat was left unconscious on the floor, where her nearly-blind mother would trip over her.
When he first started his job at the call center, Ramesh worked the night shift, as all new recruits did. Day shift was claimed by the veterans.
He rode the crowded bus home across Kolkata in the early morning darkness, as many of his co-workers did, sleeping through the jostles, or else staring downward, their clay faces ghost-lit by the pale blue glow of cell phone screens.
One night, Ramesh awakened from his dozing to muffled screams. He stood and turned in the aisle, but his way was blocked by two young men, both larger than him.
There is nothing going on back there, Brother, said one of them. Sit back down.
Ramesh knew what that meant. Street talk. Go to sleep, Brother, or else pretend to. All is well.
A woman was being gang-raped in the back of the bus.
Ramesh sat down. He could do nothing, and since he could do nothing, he did not want to know who the woman was. There was no point. Whoever the woman was, whatever she looked like, it would not matter anyway---inside his nightmares, her face would always be Anjat’s; her attackers, blurred demons. The remaining bus-full of faces would be his. All the cowards. All the sleepers.
Someone pulled the hood off. The light hurt his eyes. His broken finger throbbed. Ramesh was sitting in a room, in a home, a home he did not know. There were others in the room. He recognized two of the armed men, the leader and the black man, but not the rest. They held guns to the heads of a veiled woman and two small children. The woman held onto the boy and girl, both crying. Ramesh did not know them either.
Bhanerjee sat to his right, whimpering, his arms tied behind his back. Their captors had also pulled the hood from his head, causing his pasted hair to stick upward like it held voltage. One of his eyes had been blackened.
Fat Patel sat facing them both. His lower lip was split. A thin line of crimson dripped from it onto his white shirt. There was another stain, dark, in the crotch of his pants.
The leader spoke. “So now we’re all here. Great. We’re gonna play a game. It’s called ‘Who is the real Rodan Patel?’ It’s easy. I’m going to start shooting off toes until everyone agrees on who he is. But all three of you must agree. Understand?”
“Please, let my family go. They have nothing to do with this,” pleaded Fat Patel.
“No, I’m not going to do that,” said the leader. “You’re our Number One contestant. They’re your cheering section, so they need to stay. In fact, we are going to start with you, Number One. Who is Rodan Patel?”
“I am,” said Fat Patel. The stain between his legs grew.
“Very good. Okay, you, Boss Man” said the leader, turning and pointing at Bhanerjee. “Is he correct? Is he Rodan Patel?”
Bhanerjee nodded, his eyes to the floor.
“So that leaves you, Brother” the leader said, looking at Ramesh. “Is that guy over there Rodan Patel? If you say yes, game’s over. Number One wins.”
The little girl was crying hysterically. The woman tried to cover her mouth and failed. The boy looked terrified, powerless. Here, to witness his end, was everyone Fat Patel cherished.
Ramesh thought of his own mother. Was she screaming for the police at that very moment, wondering where he could be? How much longer she would live? Without him there, her heart would surely shred itself. He thought of Anjat, of her wasting body, and he hated himself for feeling relief that she would die soon too, but she’d had enough pain, a full life’s share collected and compressed into her youth, much of it into one terrible night.
Weeks after Ramesh had started his job, Anjat had asked her supervisor for permission to work late, to earn more money. The first time Anjat collected her extra wages, she’d acted impulsively. She couldn’t wait to show Ramesh. She would surprise him at the call center. (Why couldn’t you have waited, Anjat?!) She went there, looked, but could not find him. Saddened, she boarded a crowded, rickety bus in the darkness, headed home, back across the frantic squalor of Kolkata.
Poor Anjat, she didn’t know so many things. She didn’t know how to interpret the leers of young men. She didn’t understand why there were no other women were sitting near her in the back of that bus.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” shouted the leader, kicking Ramesh in the kneecap. “Is that guy across from you Rodan Patel?”
Ramesh took a breath. “No, he’s not. I am Rodan Patel.”
The leader grabbed a chair and positioned it in front of Ramesh. He sat and leaned forward so that his face was mere inches away.
“Well, now, we have a little problem here, don’t we? We’ve got us some liars. Liars always lose at this game. Back at the house, I thought you swore to me that you were NOT Rodan Patel, right? You were some other Patel, you said. And now you change your story. I don’t like changing stories. Dishonest people change their stories.”
The leader aimed his pistol and fired one shot. Ramesh jerked and screamed. The bullet tore through Ramesh’s left foot, leaving a hole where his two smallest toes should have been. A pool of blood spread under his shoe, across the tile. The woman was screaming too, clutching both children tighter to her.
The leader stood and faced the other two. “But if by chance the lying guy is correct, then both of you just lied to me! See what I mean about all this dishonesty? It gets me all confused and angry inside. I can’t think straight when I’m angry. All I can think about are penalties.”
He fired two more shots, into the left feet of Fat Patel and Bhanerjee. More screaming.
“So that’s the end of Round One. Everyone is losing. Now, my lying friend, I will give you one more chance. Tell me the truth. What is your name?”
Ramesh fought past the pain for air. “I am Rodan Patel. I swear it. I can prove it! Get the tape. At the call center. Listen to the tape. Extension 238. I recorded her. The woman. I wasn’t supposed to, but I did anyway. You will hear her voice. You will hear me say my name. Rodan Patel. I tell her what to do on the tape.”
The leader motioned to the black man, who held a radio. “Tell Lawrence to hurry up and run the tapes.” The black man nodded and radioed.
“So now we wait and see. Intermission” said the leader, leaving the room. The other men forced the woman and her children to sit on the floor. The room stank of copper and gunpowder, and small rivers of blood ran out from beneath feet at right angles, following the grout joints in the tile, inching toward the children.
The shadows in the room had rearranged by the time the leader returned. He looked at Ramesh.
“Are you still Rodan Patel, Lying Man?”
The leader turned and stood in front of Fat Patel.
“Is that man, the one I call Lying Man, is he Rodan Patel?”
Fat Patel nodded.
“Is that a yes?”
The leader walked over to Bhanerjee. “Boss Man, do you agree that the Lying Man is Rodan Patel?”
“Yes, I do,” said Bhanerjee.
The leader clapped his hands together. “Congratulations! Early Round Two, and we have our winner. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
The other security men freed Bhanerjee and Fat Patel, helping them to their feet, supporting their arms. The woman and children were led out, followed by the limping victims, until Ramesh remained in the room with the leader.
The leader grabbed Ramesh by the chin and lifted his head. “I’m still not sure you’re telling me the truth, you squirrely bastard, but I’ve got a tape that says my ass is covered with you, and that’s all I really need.”
The leader let go of Ramesh and holstered his pistol. He paused and stood in the doorway. “I hope you’re not claustrophobic,” he said.
They (there were others, he could hear them) received one meal a day, and water twice. They were allowed to pray; the cell just large enough for a prayer mat, for a man to prostrate himself. He had been given a Koran. They assumed he was a Muslim. They were being held near an ocean---he could smell the salt on the air in the morning, and sometimes there were seagull cries, rising above the human cries. There was nothing else.
Ramesh filled years with his thoughts. Anjat was long dead, he knew, and Mama as well---if not before Anjat, then certainly afterward. These were the sad thoughts of sustenance. They had become part of him, and he swallowed them like a medicine, early in the day, waiting for the better ones to arrive with the small patches of daylight, the thoughts of Fat Patel and his family.
Fat Patel was smart, not one to waste a chance. He would cease his dealings with the jihadis in Karachi. He would work harder, replacing Bhanerjee as manager of the sales floor. He would tell his children the story of the night they all escaped harm, and of the unexpected courage of another. His children would not remember much---loud sounds, blood on tile, but nothing more, the trauma locked away by the conscious mind. It might happen during sleep, though, thought Ramesh, when the inner sentinels rest. Memories unfold, things appear. Faces appear. His own face, bloomed across the hero’s.
Joe Kapitan is an emerging writer from Cleveland. He has been published online and in print, and has a chapbook from Eastern Point Press.