Shanti wound her window down and inhaled the fumes. She loved these late-night gas station runs with Appa. It was their time together. No Amma worrying over money, or which Aunty had insulted her this week. No Anna, pretending to be older than his years, trying to impress Appa by discussing politics like a good son, or whether the stock market was a pig or a cow; some animal Shanti couldn’t remember. It was just her and Appa, an exclusive event.
“Stop smelling the gas, Little One. It’ll make you sick.” Appa waved the attendant to Shanti’s side of the car to fill the tank.
She wouldn’t have this time with Appa for much longer. The hesitant splatters of her first period had made their appearance yesterday. Soon, Amma would organise a dinner with the women of the community. Only the women.
Amma always came home from those invitation-only events looking flushed and happy, and humming old Tamil movie songs. It was the only time Shanti ever saw Amma with her sari not perfectly pleated and draped, with errant hairs escaping the constriction of her tight bun, with her face softer, her cheeks fuller.
Last month it was her best friend Dharmala’s turn. Aunty Surija evicted Uncle Dipesh and readied their home. Shanti wasn’t invited. She stayed home with Appa, Anna, and Uncle Dipesh, watched reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, and sulkily imagined Dharmala, the jewel at the centre of a gaggle of singing, chattering women.
The following day, Shanti and Amma went to Dharmala’s house, their arms laden with enormous Tupperware containers full of laddus. Dharmala avoided her. Shanti tried to corner Dharmala, to share secrets and giggle like they’d always done, but Dharmala yanked her arm out of reach and turned her back. Shanti evaporated into a rain cloud that never fell.
“Hi!” The attendant intruded on Shanti’s thoughts.
Only a few years older than her, the boy had tightly cropped white-blonde hair and cold eyes the colour of quenched steel. “You go to Cullman High. Shanti, right?”
“Yeah.” Shanti wracked her brain. How did he know her?
“Yeah, you’re in Mrs. Bailey’s homeroom. My kid-brother Dale’s in the same class. He’s always talking about the pretty Indian girl. I guess that’s you, huh?” The boy leered, his grin a veiled threat.
Shanti was the only Indian girl in Mrs. Bailey’s class, but in the sea of boys she never paid attention to, she had no idea which one was Dale.
“How much?” Appa peered over the top of his glasses at the boy.
“Thirty dollars. You wan’ me to check the oil?” The boy’s eyes never wavered from Shanti.
Appa shook his head, and fished for his wallet. The boy reached his arm across Shanti, a hair’s breadth between them. A confederate flag tattoo on his forearm peeked from beneath his rolled-up sleeve. Appa counted crisp new five dollar notes into the open hand. The boy’s fingers closed into a tight fist around the notes and his arm bungeed out of the open window.
“Close the window, Shanti.” Appa started the car, his gaze steadfastly forward.
She wound the window up, an invisible shield between herself and the still leering boy. Shanti shuddered.
“Do you know him, Little One?” Appa’s voice was edged with weariness and wariness.
“No, Appa. He says his brother’s in Mrs. Bailey’s class. I don’t remember him.” A sour silence squeezed its way into the front seat of the car and sat mulishly between them.
Shanti stared out the window, every breath, every swallow sounding like a holler in the quiet.
“I think this will be the last of our night time adventures, Little One,” he said sadly, and rain cloud Shanti gained a little more precipitation.
Then, as quickly as it had darkened, Appa’s mood suddenly lifted.
“Your Amma forgot to get candles for tomorrow’s puja. She goes shopping every day, but something’s always missing,” he chuckled, his face full of mischief. “If we go past the Indian grocery we can get some gulab jamuns, too.”
He put his finger to his pursed lips to seal the shared secret, the gas station tension dissipating into hazy memory. Rain cloud Shanti released her load.
This was written for YeahWrite #353 Fiction|poetry challenge using the prompts a gas station attendant and the phrase something’s always missing. Click the badge to read other entries using these prompts, or erasure poems. Don’t forget to comment and vote while you’re there!
Growing up stinks. Such a bittersweet interlude with Appa, knowing that this time together is coming to an end.
I love the theme of rain-cloud-Shanti that you weave through this!
Thank you! I pulled that image unashamedly from a lyrical friend whose gift for wrangling words regularly leaves me speechless.
Oh, Asha, this was such great storytelling. I have such a clear mental picture of all the characters and the pacing is lovely too. ❤
Thank you so much, Lisa! This regular participation on the grids is forcing me to be less slap-dash in my storytelling 😅
The unfairness of the world we live in especially to little girls really struck me as I tell this story. Oh! What wonderful storytelling!
Thank you, Namratha! You’re right, the inequity rankles.
Ah, the perils of growing up! I loved the voice of the child, especially when she talks about the share market as a cow or pig. The gas attendant’s character added a different layer to the adolescent years. Loved the rain cloud metaphor too. A beautifully told story!
Thanks so much, Uma! I’m especially glad her voice worked for you.
I love Shanti’s appa. He’s so much like mine 🙂 I love how the boy’s tattoo says so much about him and yes, rain-cloud Shanti is simply brilliant. This is such lovely storytelling, Asha!
Thanks, Hema! I’m so happy that Shanti’s Appa rang true. There was certainly a lot of my father in him. Isn’t it interesting how laden with meaning tattoos are? They’re never innocuous.
How beautiful! I loved both Shanti and her Appa. Their dialogues made me feel like I knew them.
Thanks, Anusha! This is so good to hear.
Such a beautiful moment with her Appa! I like the descriptions of the womanhood ceremony. It’s a shame that’s not practiced more often, even though she’s feeling left out at this point. My favorite line was Shanti evaporated into a raincloud that never fell. The only recommendation I’d have is when you wrote “Rain cloud Shanti released her load”, that makes me think she’s crying. Is that what you were going for? Or should it have been the rain cloud disappeared and the sun peaked out? Beautiful story.
Thanks, Jolan! I’m so glad you picked that up about rain cloud Shanti. Yes, I had intended that she dissolved into tears, but was trying to find a way that wasn’t too cliched to say that. I’m really pleased you read it that way. It was a moment of release for her — after having stored away all her hurts and disappointments, she realises that Appa is just as sad about their time together ending.
I loved the first raincloud Shanti moment; but I liked its recurrence even more. It’s hard to know when writing which images are darlings to be killed and which to push forward again and again. You did it masterfully here.
Thank you so much, Nate! I’m such a fan of repetition, and it’s one of my big blind spots — when is enough? When is too much? I’m so very pleased this worked.
Since everyone else picked up on so many things I loved about this, I get to focus on Appa. His dialogue at the end was lovely. He doesn’t want to lose these moments any more than Shanti does, and I love him for it.
Oh, Michelle! I’m so happy you picked up on that. I wanted his sadness to be quieter, more subtle, but still present. I’m really glad that came through.