The Red Apple Man / Jeff Burt

The Vegas strip had a thin silk tie of courtesy, about four blocks wide, and then a wider belt of ten blocks with hookers, meth heads, and gamblers eternally ready to make it big.  Beyond that lurked civilization, the kind of urban and suburban boredom that drove some to hooking, some to meth, and some to gambling, and almost everyone to wishing that someday he or she would leave Las Vegas.  Only in the gated communities–filled with well-known valets, top dog waiters and waitresses, masseurs and masseuses to the stars, real estate moguls—did the citizens yearn for more hype, citizens, in Las Vegas, a charitable meaning.  None of the citizens had any civic sense except for the appreciation of out-of-town gamblers and trade show profligates who kept the income tax off the ballot.

Rajpal had fallen asleep just after his taxi shift was over, pulled over to a side street frequented by cops.  He had noticed, lately, that after his ten hours in the cab that he almost instantly required a nap, and felt sure that his heart was getting weaker.  His father had died in India at fifty-four of an enlarged heart, and his older brother, swarthy and muscular, had died at fifty-eight, just two years older than he was now.   He could not tell his wife about the naps.  She had endocrine problems and had dropped from one hundred forty pounds to an even one hundred in the last year.   So Rajpal kept up the impression that he was healthy.

He looked out on the flowering jacaranda lining the street.

If only his younger brother, Sarabjeet, lived in a different city, he would sigh.  If only Sarabjeet drove for a different taxi company, he would sigh.  If only Sarabjeet worked different hours, he would sigh, and then life would be beautiful.

However, Sarabjeet lived in Las Vegas, worked for Union Cab, and worked four PM to 2 AM, exactly the same shift as Rajpal.

Sarabjeet had his own problems, fortunately, so could not focus on Rajpal’s growing weakness.   Sarabjeet had kept the customs of India in Vegas, wearing the turban, never cutting his hair, a sword in his home and in his taxi at the ready, registered as a lethal weapon with the Las Vegas Police Department.   He was a warrior in all but profession.   Sarabjeet’s son, Paramjit, however, was bent on being as Las Vegas as Frank Sinatra.  He hung out at clubs, gambled, shaved, never wore a head covering, and owned a 9mm Gloc.    All those, Sarabjeet might have tolerated, but Paramjit loved a South Korean woman.  Paramjit said she was American, and that he was American, but custom required Paramjit to marry a woman from his hometown, and by his, that meant Sarabjeet’s hometown in India.  She also smoked cigarettes and weed, made jokes about Sarabjeet’s ashy odor, and frequently ate fish, which Sarabjeet had forbidden in his house.

Rajpal, being the eldest, often had counseling sessions with Sarabjeet, which lasted over an hour, frequently with Sarabjeet ranting and raving and not listening to Rajpal’s counsel.  For good reason, according to Sarabjeet.  Rajpal had committed, and kept committing, four sins, four denials of his faith, his family, and his culture.

One:  Rajpal shaved.  He shaved every day.  He shaved close, smooth, and he liked to rub his face when he was done, and could be caught touching his smooth face many times during the day.  He enjoyed his aftershave, the sudden piercing chill it brought to his neck and cheeks, the lingering alarm to his nose as if he were constantly being revived from fainting.

Two:  Rajpal never wore a head cover of any kind.  In the rare rain in Las Vegas, Rajpal refused to wear a hat.  In the cold, he refused to wear a hat.  Rajpal liked the splatter of rain on his skull and his face.  The sound itself was refreshing.

Three:  Rajpal had let his daughter marry an American of the British persuasion, at least the persuasion that still existed after four generations had lived in the United States.  The son-in-law was a Christian, too, and even though very nice, and not specifically from a religion the Sikhs disliked, he was simply not a Sikh.

Four:  Rajpal had also told his son and daughter-in-law, though they were Sikh and went to temple twice a week, that they did not have to care for him and his wife when he retired.  They were off the hook.  Sacrilege, expressed Sarabjeet.  Common sense, expressed Rajpal.  His son and daughter-in-law were poor.  He was an artist, a sculptor, a very good one, and had sold several pieces to museums and the City of Las Vegas, but his income was sporadic at best.  She worked for a school that cared for and taught autistic children.  And Rajpal had given them his blessing.  No, not just a blessing, according to Sarabjeet.  He had given them THE BLESSING, the blessing of supreme peace in this lifetime, while his parents suffered in old age, a blessing that was only permitted for great teachers of the temple.

Which is why when Paramjit, son of Sarabjeet, came knocking on his taxi window at two-thirty in the morning, telling him he needed to talk, Rajpal woke in a fury of fear, fear of his brother’s anger and rejection.  He would have preferred a day in jail to giving advice to his brother’s son.

“Mind if I smoke?” Paramjit asked.

“Yes, I do.  I do not like it.  It makes my head ache,” Rajpal said quietly, staring straight forward, as if by not looking at his nephew he could make him go away, a phantasm in the night.  “Also, it is not allowed in a cab.”

Paramjit laughed.  “Then why does the back seat smell like cigarettes all the time?”

Rajpal chuckled.  “Because in the back I cannot express my displeasure above the sound of the credit card being swiped.”

Paramjit put his cigarette out the window.  He was wearing black jeans that were very tight, and his gray shirt had three buttons undone, and his red tie hung more like a ready noose that an object of adornment.  He sat and smoked his cigarette, and when finished flicked it out the window onto the sidewalk, looked at Rajpal, then got out, retrieved the butt, stripped it, and put the filter in his shirt pocket.

“My Susie, we want to get married now, today, but my father won’t allow it.  Says she is bi-polar, which she’s not.  Says all Koreans are bi-polar because of the Chinese part and the Japanese part of their genes.”

Rajpal chuckled again.  “Sarabjeet knows nothing of genetics.  Koreans are not bi-polar by nature any more than any other nation.  But Susie, Susie is crackers.”

“As in crazy?”

“As in erratic, not stable, as like an ion that attaches itself to something stable but could break the bond very quickly.  Explode.”

“Who’s not like that?” Paramjit countered.  “All of us have that tendency.”

Rajpal shook his head side to side.  “No, not all of us.  I think that tendency is more your generation.  Your generation does not value steadfastness, loyalty, only the next surprise, the adventure.  All this talk now of the journey, we are all on a journey, that is crackers as well.  At some point you have to accept that you have put your feet at rest, you have stopped, and you are, after all, happy about it.  That is what marriage is.  That is what faith is.  That is what beauty is.”

Paramjit squirmed on the bench seat, no longer looking at Rajpal, but straight out the window, as if they were in private monologues, detached from each other.

“Uncle, I need you to vouch for me.  I need you to say I am a man after my own thoughts, my own destiny, not the destiny my father has set out for me.”

“And how do I do that?”  Rajpal tittered.  “You come here to ask me to say that for you, when if you were a man you would say it yourself, with conviction that he could not deny.  What has my brother set out for you?  Clothes?  No.  A career?  No.  Even faith?  No.  No, all he has asked is that you will honor the culture of the family.”

“And marry a Sikh.”

“Yes, and marry a Sikh.”

“Your son didn’t.”

“Yet my son honors me.  As does my daughter-in-law.”

“That’s because you give them room.  You’re modernized.  My father is ancient.”

Rajpal laughed aloud and kept laughing until he had to blow his nose.  “My brother is indeed ancient.  Bearing a sword most of all.  Crackers.”

Paramjit’s agitation grew.  Rajpal could see him fidgeting more, and Paramjit’s legs alternated bouncing up and down from the flexing of his arches.  He reached out his hand and placed it on Paramjit’s left forearm.  “What exactly do you want me to say?”

Paramjit stuttered, sighed, and stuttered again.  “I just want, I just want, just, maybe we should just elope, leave Vegas, live in LA or something.”

“Is that what will make you plant your feet, and not come running home?”

“Yeah, totally.”  Paramjit got out another cigarette, which Rajpal quickly snapped out of his fingers and flicked it out the window.

“Quit smoking.  It is a very bad habit.  You will not be a good husband if you smoke.”

Paramjit nodded in assent.

“You know, nephew, that running away from Sarabjeet will make for an ocean between you, between you and your mother as well, an ocean that he will never cross.”

“I know.  Shit, even if I were dying he wouldn’t come.  But I would come home to him.”

Rajpal nodded.  They did not speak for five or six minutes.  Rajpal wished the window fogged, so that no one passing by could look in on them.  He felt that if he closed his eyes, his shoulders would be heavy, his heart heavy, but most, his eyelids would be heavy, and he would fall asleep in one quick flutter.

“I will talk to Sarabjeet.  I am the oldest.  It is my place.  It will not be a new conversation, I must tell you.  Your father is stubborn, in all the ways that stubbornness makes one great and also makes one just a mule.  An ancient mule.”

Paramjit pressed Rajpal’s hand, and withdrew his arm, got out of the cab, and quickly lit a cigarette, smiling back at Rajpal.

“Quit smoking, and I will talk to him.”

“But I am always quitting.”

“Yes, always on a journey.  Always quitting is never quitting,” Rajpal sighed.  “You must stop taking steps and stand.”

Paramjit laughed, waved, walked to the end of the block and turned right, and quickly was lost behind the darkened houses.

Rajpal slept for thirty minutes, shut off his cell alarm, and then began the ritual of waking.  He first stared out at the street, lifeless, except for the pulsing purple of the jacaranda.  Nothing stirred.  The waves of light had been stilled.  Nothing twinkled.  Nothing glared.  The paint looked flat, the road had not been repaved for at least a decade.  The drooping willow obscured the Children at Play sign, as if the natural aging of the neighborhood had removed the necessity of the sign.

Then Rajpal rubbed his cheeks and his chin, thought about shaving when he got home.  Then he admonished himself for thinking of his small comfort before the comfort of his wife, who liked to feel the weight of his body slumping the mattress.  It was the only time she could sleep comfortably, quell the worry she had when he was driving cab.

The last thing in the ritual involved an apple.  Rajpal would check one more time to make sure the streets were empty.  Then he would open the door and put his left foot down onto the pavement, take the apple, and begin peeling the skin, dropping it hopefully in one tight climbing slope of red that the dawn robins and jays would peck at, that a squirrel might find.  Rajpal would eat the apple and toss the core with his left hand over the hood to the gutter grate just in front of the cab.  It delighted him.  The slight tang with the sweetness seemed a daily reminder of life, and that the sweetness prevailed in his mouth seemed to mirror his good will and positive attitude.  He was not Sikh in that way, not Indian, perhaps not even American.  A red apple man.  Unique.

He drove the four miles to his home without thinking of directions.  It was as if the zig and zag of right and left had been imprinted into the steering wheel, and the steering wheel knew the grid to follow to get him safely home.  He turned at the door and looked at his neighborhood, and even though nothing moved, it all was alive.  Kids’ bikes, wagons, and garish plastic toys populated driveways.  Shovels, rakes, and unplanted tubs of flowers with fresh dirt met a color and beauty working their way into the soil.  An SUV had Happy Birthday traced into the dirt on the rear windshield.  The Bermuda grass curled a healthy green under the pale green tips baked by the sun.  The sunflowers withered in the afternoon and recouped at night, standing tall and full to the west waiting for the sun to rise in the east.  His neighbor’s sprinkler had already started, retrieving the “freshest” water his neighbor said, or, as Rajpal thought, so that he could say he watered his lawn first.  He would check the water of the dish he set outside the front plate glass window for the wandering cats that he liked to watch lapping in the morning before the heat drove them indoors.  All of these made him ache, ache in a manner so similar to the heart attack, a tightening, but beauty he knew he could not hold any more than life, and a slow exhale released his grip and he relaxed in all he saw.

His wife was two years younger, yet her body was dissolving before him.  She was more frail than he, even with his weakened heart.  When he would slip into the bedroom already wearing his pajamas, she would be asleep though she would always swear she was only half-asleep.  He would slip under the covers, remove all but the sheet over his body, and stick his feet out from under the sheet to keep them cool.  He hated warm, sweaty feet.  Then he would notice how thin and insubstantial she had become, barely denting the mattress, a mere wrinkle under the covers.  He would smile to think about her telling anyone she met that she had become nothing more than a hanger for clothes, her bony shoulders supporting the clothes and her bony neck good for carrying the clothes from place to place.

I am not dulled by routine, he thought.  I am sharpened by it.

He woke to the aromas of breakfast, which were not the aromas of his childhood or of most of his adulthood, but of a heart patient.  He could tell the difference between a real egg splattered in a pan versus egg whites—the substance, he liked to say, had been taken out of them, and all of the garlic powder and onion and sprinkles of curry could not replace it, like a suit on a robot.  The puris baking in the oven had been replaced by low-fat, no-salt bread with no-sugar jam, which he had to admit, with a cup of tea, had some sense of taste to it, but no cholay, no aloo with the salt lighting up the tongue like a lamp in a dark room, the frying pan alive with the little cubes being coated with peppers and salt and oil.  Now the potato was softened in the microwave and served with pico de gallo, without salt, but at least with the tang of habanero.  He sighed, smiled.  It was a good lesson, deprivation.  It made America all the better place.  It was the land of hope, but not the large materialistically weighty heaven, the obese bulging tummy of a place, but one with things taken away so that he could appreciate the freedom of breaking his chains to the past, to being bound in his culture in Punjab and never being able to take a clean breath of air.

He opened his book and continued reading about the Swedish immigrants who had settled in northern Wisconsin.  They spoke no English when they arrived, and settled among Germans and a few English who did not speak each other’s language.  But the farms spoke in universal words.  The fields needed rocks moved, trees felled, and stumps pulled.  A Swede could see his German neighbor needed help and gave it without sharing a word, just a pantomime and a few grunts.  They did not share each other’s manner of baking, yet would draw together and try each other’s foods, which in Europe they never would have done.  The English, bold and full of zest for improvement, had not run from Britain like the Swedes and Germans had from their home countries, bleeding still for the lands of their birth.  The English had eyes as wide as the plains, the horizon long and unsettled, and that vision infected their neighbors no less than a virus in the winter.  The culture of the Swedes lasted many generations, from the late 1800s until the 1960s, three to four generations.  The New World had the Old World in it.  He liked that he drove a cab, that he could share a few words even if not in the same language, that he could show happiness, that he could care for another who needed a lift, physical or spiritual.

Now, in one generation, the New World expunged the Old, the manners he still carried and practiced, attending the gurdwara, the colors of the wedding, the honor between spouses, no alcohol, no smoking.  He wondered if giving up the five Ks—the ceremonial dagger, the bracelet, the pants, the comb with the untrimmed hair and the turban to cover, perhaps that mere denial had meant it had freed his son from all things Sikh, perhaps that is why his wedding seemed so stiff and ordinary, so quick, so colorless.  He thought now of his own wedding, meeting his bride that very week, the yellows and oranges, the seven circles, the girls giggling, all the make-up that would need rinsing, the full fellowship and good wishes of the village.  Not romantic love, that would come later, he reminded his son, who said that was the cart before the horse.  Nevertheless, Rajpal thought, I have had the whole horse and cart.

Sexuality had been replaced by sensuality, the physical by a twinning emotional bond between the two that encompassed sex but without power, without dominance, without self-satisfaction, without sin and temptation.  Even now, with his heart dying and her body winnowing, a kiss, a passionate touch, brought the bond between them.

He thought of Paramjit again, almost an outcast from his own family, and thought of his son-in-law Mark, a Christian spurned by Christians for marrying a Sikh.  He thought of Jesus, how, when he went to enter a new world, gave his mother to his friend, and his friend to his mother, so they would have each other when they were spurned.  A new family for a new world.

Rajpal called Sarabjeet when the shift was nearly over, and called Paramjit to meet them on the same block as Rajpal parked when his shift was over.  He had planned to tell Sarabjeet that his love for Paramjit could not be cast as old world versus new world, Sikh versus non-Sikh.  Paramjit needed a new family for a new world.

“Sarabjeet,” Rajpal imagined saying, “we came to the U.S. to escape, not just to leave and plant the old world, but also to be new ourselves, to renew ourselves.  That is what I know.  I was not born to wear a beard.  My Yonni, she liked to put her hands all over me, she liked me smooth, she would have liked me to be a swimmer and shave my hair all off, you know.  Still, today, she runs her hands all over.  I know her time comes close.  I will be a widower.  My house will be empty, and I will be fine.  I will drive my cab and be polite with my customers.  I will keep my cab clean.   I will visit my son-in-law where he works and one day perhaps I will get a better glimpse of his passion.  I will visit my daughter and the children she works with where a day comes, a day goes, and she knows she has never taught them anything, as if they were old men already and knew everything, Sarabjeet, like you and I.  I will sit here in this cab and wait for you to come and boil over like a teapot left too long on the stove and it will make me happy.  Just these things and I will be happy.

And you?  You are like a spinning top, all pumped up, rolling around and bumping into furniture and walls and moving on to another collision.  And when you stop, you do not rest.  You wait until you are pumped up again and then you roll.  I understand it, the need for motion, I too left my country, my life, my home.  But I had a Yonni.  I think now, for your generation, more than ever, you need a Yonni.  If Susie is his Yonni, then you should bless Paramjit, bless them both, Sarabjeet.”

No, he thought, he would need to be forceful, direct, like Sarabjeet was direct.

Paramjit stood near the gutter grate where three apple cores lay sideways and wizened.  Rajpal pulled the cab to the curb, shut off the engine, beckoned for Paramjit to come, but Paramjit motioned that he had a cigarette to finish, and then proceeded to smoke another.  About ten minutes later Sarabjeet arrived, pulling across the street to park his cab grill to grill with Rajpal, leaving the engine running and lights on.

Rajpal took a deep breath, and imagined when he let it go that it stirred a few blossoms on the jacaranda, and the blossoms falling slowly to the roof of Sarabjeet’s taxi, a feminine purple smudge on the bleached yellow.

Sarabjeet pounced from his cab and gave Paramjit a jolting pat and an aggressive side hug, making the slim Paramjit fold up like an accordion in his arm.  Then they stopped.  They looked down the street.  Rajpal looked in his rear view mirror, then his side mirror, and saw three men with hoods pulled over approaching, with one waving a pistol side to side.  He thought about locking his cab, but with his brother and nephew standing isolated, thought better of it.

“Assholes,” the young man said.  “Give me your wallet, you frickin’ Muslim.”

The other two stayed back.  Their sweatshirts seemed incredibly bulky and the pants hung on them like giant flags.  They were meth heads, and meth heads with a weapon were always dangerous.

Being called a Muslim riled Sarabjeet, so much so that he spit but could not speak.  He coughed, he sputtered.  He reached for the young man in front and the pistol cracked against the side of his head, he went down to the pavement on one knee, he wrestled with the young man’s left leg but was kicked by the right many times until he gave up.

Rajpal got out of his cab waving the money from a few tips.  He opened his wallet to show he had no more.  He offered his credit cards, which were quickly snatched.

Paramjit said he didn’t carry a wallet, so the young man told him to pull down his pants, to lie down, which he did, and the man with the gun directed the other two to go through the pockets.  A small wad of cash came out; they smiled, rose, kicked Paramjit a few times, and then ran quickly into the night.

Rajpal took out his cell phone to call the police, but Sarabjeet halted him, grunting from a sitting position on the sidewalk.

“We will lose our taxis over this,” Sarabjeet moaned.  “The manager will never give us hours anymore.”

“But we have done nothing.”

“We didn’t stay in our cabs.  I fought.  You turned over the money” Sarabjeet said, each sentence punctuated by a wheezing sigh.  “We are doomed.  And what do you tell our wife?  Why were you here, on this block, at this hour?’

“I was here to meet you and Paramjit.  I will not hide that from her,”  Rajpal argued.

“And will you hide that you sleep here night after night, that your heart is so feeble after your shift you must rest before go home to rest?”

Rajpal shook his head like a shamed boy.  “No, I will not tell her that.”

“So no police.  No managers.”

“But you are hurt.”

“Only my pride.”

“Your pride?” Paramjit said.  “What about my pride?  They made me pull down my pants.”

Rajpal giggled.  “We all looked helpless, stupid.”

Sarabjeet rose.  “At least I fought.”

“If fighting is watching a foot hit your ribs, then you fought.  Now we know what the long beard and the knife mean for a man over fifty.  Not much more than no beard and no knife,” Rajpal said, checking his brother’s chest with fingers pushing.  “And the insult.  Imagine how a Muslim must feel tonight being confused with a Sikh.  Very degrading for a Muslim.”

Sarabjeet laughed, Rajpal giggled, and Paramjit stood with a blank slate on his face that nothing seemed capable of writing on.

“So we will keep this our secret? Sarabjeet asked.

“Yes,” Paramjit said.  “Susie can never hear about this.  I will seem like a boy.”

Rajpal nodded in assent, and giggled.

“Sarabjeet, you know why Paramjit has met us here?  To have me, as older brother, tell you to offer a blessing to Paramjit and Susie.  They wish to live near you, to stay close to you, to love you as you grow old rather than elope and maybe never see you again.  You have always shown great honor to our family.  You have shown great honor to our culture.  Now show great honor to our son.”

Sarabjeet dusted his clothes, and then cupped his chin in his right hand as his left arm bent to support it.  “This will be on your conscience, older brother.  This will be your history, not mine.”

“I can live with that,” Rajpal said.  He extended his hand to Sarabjeet, who shook it vigorously.  Then Sarabjeet held his hand out for Paramjit, but Paramjit hugged his father.

Sarabjeet came to Rajpal’s house to clean his clothes before going home.

They stood in the bathroom inspecting the small cuts and forming bruises on Sarabjeet’s chest and the aching bump on the side of his head.

Rajpal took out his soap and razor.  He lathered the soap, and began to stroke slowly and smoothly from his Adam’s apple up over the chin, and then reversing to each side like a man might mow a field in rows.

“How can you look at yourself in the mirror?” Sarabjeet asked.  “When I look, I see our father in my beard, our people in the comb and cover.”

“Oh, it is very easy,” Rajpal said.  “I always clean my heart first before I look, and then I shave, and then I can see more of myself.  I’m happy with that.  We have been mugged, but it has not caused me to struggle.”

He rubbed his chin and then up the cheek to the short sideburn and back down again.  He splashed the aftershave into his palms and rubbed it against his skin.  He closed his eyes and sniffed until he heard Sarabjeet leave the room.  His wife waited for deep sleep, for the comfort the small pounding of his heart gave to quiet her.  He looked at himself in the mirror.  All he could think about was the apple in the cab he had not been able to peel and eat.  Tonight, he whispered, I will eat two.