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Alex Papp


Alex Papp

Sathya was sitting high in the branches of the guava tree. He called to the other boys when he saw the car approach. Mercy Auntie had told them that the American would arrive today. She had also told them that when he arrived, they were not to bother him.

The car came to a stop outside the gate to the home. The man stepped out of the car and took a look around. The driver opened the trunk then set the bags at the man’s side. The driver spoke some words, but the man didn’t understand. He hesitated then fumbled for money. From the tree, Sathya thought the man looked fragile, like he might shatter under the weight of the heat and the dirt and the humidity. The man stepped through the gate and wiped his brow. He’d spoken to Mercy Auntie, once on the phone. She told him that forty boys were living here. He glanced again at the building, finding that number—forty—hard to believe. If he hadn’t been so overwhelmed by his circumstances, he would have noticed thirty-nine heads peering at him from behind windows and around doorframes.

As he walked toward the gate, the other children followed the command of Mercy Auntie. She was known as the warden and few dared to challenge her authority. Sathya, though, from his perch in the tree couldn’t help himself. The man was standing just beneath him, and from this perspective he could see that it was not fragility, but loneliness that was weighing on the American.

Sathya understood loneliness. He saw the man standing there, and he remembered the first time he had stepped through the gate. He was only six years old then. He had waited outside while his mother and father went with Mercy Auntie to fill out the forms. He stood under the guava tree as they hugged him goodbye. Three years had passed since he had arrived. Sometimes, he would receive letters from his parents. When they had enough money, they would pay the village munshi to scribe their words, to tell Sathya that it wouldn’t be long before he could come home again. He was still here; he understood loneliness. Mercy Auntie may have told them not to bother the American, but he couldn’t let the man just stand there, alone. He began to lower himself through the branches.

The man paused under the guava tree, wondering if someone would come to greet him. Four days as a foreigner had exhausted him; no one came, and he wished he knew how to ask the taxi driver to take him home. Only a few days had passed since he had hugged his mother goodbye in an airport far, far away from this place. He boarded the plane, not knowing what to expect upon his arrival. When he had spoken to Mercy Auntie, the connection was bad and so was her English. “We are happy for you to come, but we don’t have much,” she had warned. As the plane took off, he had been feeling excited. After only four days, the enthusiasm was waning. On his layover in Mumbai, he listened to the horror stories of a German couple who eagerly awaited their departure from the country. When he boarded the small plane that would take him to his final destination, he noticed there were no other foreigners on the flight, noticed that no one was speaking English. There was no jetway at that final airport, no carousel delivering the luggage. The American didn’t know where to find his bags, didn’t know who to ask for help. Four taxi drivers stopped then left him standing on the road, unable to understand where he wanted to go. He ate dinner alone that first night. He sat in front of his plate, and shoveled handfuls of rice into his mouth. He didn’t know if it was the chili powder or the tears that made his nose run. He didn’t know if he would last in this place, alone.

The man noticed a terracotta shingle on the roof rise with the wind, then shatter as it hit the ground. And then, a boy was standing in front of him. Sathya extended his hand, a guava resting in his palm. A little bare-footed boy with a bright green guava. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, just shorts, the waistband cinched with a shoelace. There was a moment of silence then Sathya said “Perrika,” raising the fruit toward the man. “Perrika,” the American repeated, taking the guava from the boy’s hand. Sathya gestured for him to follow and together they walked to his new room. At the door, Sathya took another guava from his pocket, rubbed it on his shorts then took a bite. He reached out for the man’s hand, the hand holding the guava, and moved it toward the man’s mouth. The American understood, rubbed the fruit on his pants and took a bite. The sour taste of the unripened fruit surprised him, and he pursed his lips. Sathya laughed, and so did the man. Sathya reached through the door and turned a switch before running off. The cool breeze of the fan hit the man and with the relief came a bit of hope.