A Room For Rishi

Preetha sat across the living room from her flat mate
looking past the white orchid on the bay window sill
to the brown dog in a slow, angling trot
down Kimbark Avenue.

She had seen the nameless thing
dodge morning traffic on Lake Shore Drive.
Once fed it her half-eaten samosa from Rajun Cajun,
a cook shop American friends hailed for Indian cuisine.

“I see him everywhere,” said Shubha. “Where does he sleep?”
“He’s just a stray,” Preetha replied. “Once had a nice home,
still looking for another one.”
Shubha smiled, relieved that University classes were done for the year.

The apartment no longer felt like home with Meera gone:
three years belly dancing in Hyde Park without a sari.
Lost again in Mumbai, a sullen stranger in their parents’ land,
plotting her return to an American medical school.

The girls basked in the Sabbath sunlight baptizing the room,
eyeing the meandering mongrel,
awaiting Meera’s replacement: an unknown Savior
replying to a roommate ad on Marketplace.

Forty-five minutes late, he hadn’t called.
“It would be good,” said Preetha, “to have a man around.
And I’m pretty sure, he’s Indian.
Maybe it’s fate.”

The brown stray darted amid the upturned trash cans in the gangway,
shooed by an angry janitor, cursing the mother of the dog.
The distinctive color of a Harold’s Chicken
Bag triumphantly aloft in its mouth.

Both girls rose, cheering the mongrel’s victory as the doorbell sounded.
“This is Rishi,” intoned the voice, “about the room.”
Two minutes in frozen suspense at the open door.
Stunned by the stony steps of the stranger from the intercom.

He stood before them, either a prophet or a madman.
They couldn’t be sure. But they knew of him.
Spine curved under the weighty remnants of a lost world in his backpack.
Hitchhiking through life like a bipedal turtle.

Rishi had acquired a certain fame:
an Indian man wandering thirty days and thirty nights
in the tempting, unwelcoming wilderness
Hyde Park is for the homeless. Unable to turn stone into bread.

The din and dinge of the godless streets
slowly numbing him into a colorless stray: not quite dirty, not quite clean.
Shopkeepers on East 53 rd Street feeling their kindness abused,
posting angry signs in their doorways, shooing him away.

“It looked a little nicer in pictures,” he said
of the apartment, “but still comfortable.”
Walking down the hallway to the kitchen
without invitation. “Where’s the room for rent?”

A strange smile creeped across Preetha’s face.
She was moved by his uncommon boldness.
Asking for tea now. Brazen like someone and no one.
nothing and something; somebody and absolutely nobody.

“Oh God,” she thought, “what if he has fleas?”
No help from Shubha, carrying on about the central air
and free laundry in the basement.
Offering tea biscuits and cherry jam.

The dog again catching Preetha’s eye. Sniffing at the hands of a child.
The boy’s hysterical shriek shattering the street quiet.
His father moving quick to the front of the stroller.
And the yelp of the retreating animal.

Rishi’s eyes were closed in quiet satisfaction.
Resting comfortably for the first time all day:
The pleasure of warm tea and soft jam,
and the sweet perfume of two Indian maidens.

“I think I have found a home,” he said nodding.
No clear word about how he would pay for it.
His was the unreliable energy business. Not a utility like ComEd
or People’s Gas: energetic cleaning.

Dozens of business clients in the community.
Exhausting himself removing negative energy
clinging to the neglected buildings. Just a matter of time
before the owners paid up. Set him easy for life.

His replies to their inquiries spoken with the clarity of reason
that always accompanies madness.
And when he opened his eyes,
Preetha could see in them that he had been crazy for a long time.

Shubha’s gaze met hers in wordless conversation.
Wanting to show respect to a man their fathers’ age:
Two Indian girls from Catholic school
contemplating the Christian thing to do.

“We will get back to you,” they said in unison.
Suddenly joined in Girl wisdom, telepathic union.
Extending the remaining tea biscuits as a parting gift.
Talking of future visits with jasmine rice.

Rishi had heard this song before. Had been shown other doors.
“This country,” he huffed, “lost its sense of decency
a long time ago!”
He felt a season of welled up anger erupting from deep within.

The piercing squeal of brakes interrupted his outburst.
A sudden, loud collision down below.
Without looking out the window at the slowly gathering crowd,
the girls knew the wayward dog had been hit hard.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶


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